For the second instalment of our Backstory series we take a deep dive into two epic moments in the illustrious career of Neil Smith. Find out more about the process behind a trick which etched his name into Livingston history, and one of the craziest tricks ever done at a now defunct landmark London spot…
words and interviews by Jacob Sawyer. Screengrabs of Neil Smith’s boardslide and nollie heelflip
When Blueprint Skateboards began to usher in the next generation Neil Smith played a pivotal role, his gnarly approach opened up new possibilities, as he began stepping to spots in a way no-one before him had. His trail of destruction is full of shocking moments, and this feature opens up the story behind two of the most memorable. Neil has before mentioned the impact that people like Frank Stephens had on his young mind, an influence that is palpable looking back at his early footage or photos. It’s fitting that one of the tricks we spoke about is an evolution of Frank’s legacy.
Discover some behind-the-scenes details about Neil’s police-evading boardslide which closed out Document‘s first Big Push back in 2005, and the powerful nollie heelflip down Liverpool St double set which marked his return to professional status in 2011. Read Neil’s insights on both of these milestone tricks, and gain the firsthand perspective of being behind the lens at the time from Sam Ashley, and Jacob Harris, who were there to capture these two wild additions to UK skateboarding history…
Neil Smith – Boardslide (2005)
This was on the Big Push in 2005. Lost and Found premiered in March that year so there was still a lot of hype around that video, and meant we had a busy summer. We had the premiere tour which also involved trips to Europe to show the video. This was also the first Big Push that Document did, so that was fresh and exciting too, like a continuation of Thrasher’s King Of The Road which was also relatively new at that point. I thought it was a great idea and was extremely excited to be a part of the same kind of competition. I was psyched to go on the first Big Push.
The trip itself was pretty chilled, we had a small crew. [Danny] Brady was on it, [Nick] Jensen, myself, Vaughan Baker, and Tuukka [Korhonen]. Ches [Neil Chester] was filming and Sam [Ashley] was shooting photos. We did the first two days of it in London, so everyone got to stay at home after filming. Then we worked our way north through various cities. Every Big Push involved a meet up on the last day, the final day for this one was a meet up at Livingston. It was scheduled to coincide with the Livi Fun Day which they’ve been putting on for years. So loads of people and different crews were skating the park but we were kind of doing our own thing. That’s not the kind of park you can imagine any of us skating, especially not on a busy day like that, Vaughan may have been in the mix a little bit. We were hanging out on the sidelines drinking and chilling. I can’t speak for anyone else but I had definitely had a few beers. I walked around the skatepark with Jensen and Brady taking it all in, then we came across the rail, and were just looking at it.
“Thanks to the few beers I had there was no fear involved, I just rolled up to it and popped straight on to the rail”
Thanks to the few beers I had there was no fear involved, I just rolled up to it and popped straight on to the rail. No-one was watching, I was just having a bit of fun, so I got on it once and ran it out. There was no issue, I didn’t really think anything of it. Then I popped onto it again and within a couple of minutes, what felt like hundreds of people had gathered around it. By that point I knew I was stuck in this battle and there was no out, I realised I now had to do it. That’s how I remember it, I probably wouldn’t have tried it if I didn’t have that Dutch courage from the beers, that’s for sure. Also back then, with the crowd, that probably helped me get through it. If there wasn’t a crowd of people there I may not have continued. The first couple of attempts were just me messing around with no intention of ever landing it, I would have probably just gone back to watching the fun day if the crowd hadn’t gathered, that turned it into something else.
It took me quite a while to do it actually if I remember, it wasn’t within five or anything, I probably popped onto it about thirty times. Some attempts were sketchy, one side is obviously steps, the other side was jagged rocks. There were a few times where I would get halfway down the rail and I’d stick. So I either had to jump off down the stairs, or jump onto the jagged rocks and try to run it out. That happened a few times, and I got so lucky not breaking myself, using them like stepping stones basically. It wasn’t scary at all to be honest, the beers had taken care of that but there were issues. There was no roll out, it was just dirt, and there was no run up, it was one push. I read a comment online somewhere saying it was the equivalent of rollerblading because rollerbladers can just jump up onto a handrail off the spot, and need no run up. I was kind of gutted at the time with that comparison. There was no speed though, I’d get as much speed as possible from my one push. Then when I ollie onto the rail there’s no movement to send me flying. So that initial contact with the rail almost involves a split-second of standstill before I let the momentum take me gradually down the rail. By the end I’m going fast enough to see it through.
Originally I didn’t want any run out, I thought it would be sick to just ride out through the mud. I hadn’t got to the mud at any point though so I didn’t know if it would work. I thought the only time I got to the end of the rail was the one I did but Sam Ashley has a still of me hitting the mud and sticking. I remember being determined to try and ride out through the mud. Dan Cates offered to go and get me some wood but I said I wanted to do it without it. He still went off and got me some wood, and thank god he did because I wouldn’t have rolled away without it. He came back carrying it high above his head and put it in position for me, and I can’t thank him enough for it because I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
“I saw that policeman approaching, I don’t think he was even planning to bust us or anything, but him coming around the corner made me want it”
The one time I got to the bottom I landed perfectly on the wood Dan had put down, and dodged the police officer. You know when you’ve been trying something at a spot for ages and you’re nearly there but you just need that extra push? It’s usually a security guard, or a police officer coming around the corner that lets you know you have to do it that go. I saw that policeman approaching, I don’t think he was even planning to bust us or anything, but him coming around the corner made me want it. That’s the one where I stuck it, and land on the wood just right. It’s lucky he jumped out of the way, he could have been one of those people who decide to stand their ground and not move. I would have crashed into him and he would have been arresting me for assault for sure because I would have clattered him. He jumped out of the way, I rolled away on what wood was there and jumped into the bush, the bush caught me. Apparently, I heard from someone, that beneath that is a big drop into a stream. Luckily enough I was saved from dropping into the stream by the bush. I don’t know if that’s true or not because I don’t remember a drop, or a stream.
I don’t think the policeman even said anything, he just kept walking. Everyone was cheering at that point, him and his colleagues just made their way past the crowd. I remember Chet Childress was there too, it was so sick that I got to do that in front of him and you can see he is super psyched in the video as well so that was special. With all the tricks I’ve done in my skateboard career, this was one thing people always wanted to talk about. I’ve done so many better things, and back in the day I wanted it to stop coming up. It was just a boardslide down a handrail. I’m happy to talk about it nowadays though. It’s cool that we were all there together, a big portion of the UK skate scene. On top of the Livi locals there was us, the Death team, A Third Foot, and the East team. It’s sick they were all there to hype me up to continue on with it basically.
Neil Smith turning “what if?” into “remember when” at Livi Fun Day 2005. PH: Sam Ashley
What follows is Sam Ashley’s recollection of shooting the photo above…
I came to this quite late, I was shooting something else when he started trying it. People used to do tricks over a shopping trolley at the end of the halfpipe. I remember being posted down there and seeing a crowd gathering over my shoulder. People were lined up where the wall is, the wall Jimmy Boyes used to always skate. I wondered what everyone was looking at and my first thought was that someone was skating the wall and had fallen over the back of it. I thought there had been a gnarly slam and everyone had gathered around. I carried on shooting what was going down out of that kicker for a bit. Then I saw more and more people going over there, there were a hundred people looking at whatever was happening so I wandered over there to take a look. Then I saw another hundred people down at the bottom too, and saw Neil slide down the rail. I just walked down the stairs, ducked under the other rail, and wedged myself in there.
I got the spot I wanted, exactly where I wanted to be. It was quite hectic and I couldn’t really see him and gauge when he was going to go because there were so many people, and a lot of noise. There was a slight worry I’d miss one of his goes, and I was conscious of not chopping his head off but it wasn’t too challenging to shoot. What was happening was completely mental, and everyone there knew that, which kind of ups the stakes a little as far as pressure, you know you can’t mess it up. I had no time to set up lights or anything, he was doing it so I just got in there to shoot a sequence of it.
“What was happening was completely mental, and everyone there knew that, which kind of ups the stakes a little as far as pressure”
This was scary because there’s nowhere to bail to, there were rocks on one side and stairs on the other. There were a couple of attempts where he jumped onto the rocks which was pretty hectic. For the most part he was in control and making it down the rail. He did actually land off the rail into the mud before they put the wood down, he landed in the mud and just stopped, but he put the wheels down. I wasn’t thinking at the time about how everything was going to look together but when [Dan] Magee ended the edit with this trick that he filmed, it was just perfect. I think we ran the sequence of this in the magazine before the Big Push edition. I feel like a lot of people had seen it, knew he had done it, and then got to see it in the video afterwards. The video really added to it, all of the reaction once he lands it.
You can see the copper in the sequence but the video is different, you really get to see how crazy that situation with the policeman was. You don’t really see just how close a call that was in the sequence. We saw the copper appear and thought instantly that this was the last go, people were shouting “last try” and letting Neil know the police were there. I don’t think I even clocked when I shot the sequence that he had run in front of him like that, I was just worried about getting the landing. It’s so weird, he was obviously looking up at him sliding down the rail then mades the call to go for it and make that move. I have no idea why he decided to cross his path, he must have misunderstood where he was going. It could have been gnarly, they both could have got really hurt.
It’s amazing that this is part of Livi history, even now when people go there for the first time, everyone goes over there to look at it. Take a look at it “Are you kidding me?”, it’s still fucking crazy man. For years afterwards we would go there with people from other countries and show them, this is it. It’s hard to believe, they’d always ask if the run-up was different and struggle to believe it was possible. I have shot a big pile of photos of Smithy doing crazy stuff from the first day I met him, but this is still top of the pile. For me this boardslide is the craziest thing, I just don’t think anyone else could do it. The moment made it, I’m sure if he went there on another day he wouldn’t be able to do it either. It was the perfect moment, the end of the Big Push week, and everyone from the UK was there which obviously hyped him up. It was a cool way to end it.
Neil Smith – Nollie Heelflip (2011)
This was the last trick in a part for Blueprint that re-announced me as pro, I didn’t originally know that was what the part was going to be. We had just finished Make Friends With The Colour Blue. At the time I didn’t like my part in that, I think [Dan] Magee had gaslighted me into thinking my part was shit. I look back on that part now and it’s pretty good, I think I had a strong part in that video. He made me feel at the time that I hadn’t done enough and that the reason he had put Tom Knox in my part was to strengthen it. So straight after Make Friends With The Colour Blue came out I decided to start work on another part. There was no plan for a full video from Blueprint, I just wanted to go off and do another project on my own. So I started filming with Jake Harris and we got a bunch of footage together. Chewy [Cannon] and I no longer had pro boards at this point. Towards the end Jake let slip that this was going to be my pro part, he assumed I knew but I had no idea. It was still a surprise when they gave me my pro board, because I didn’t see it coming even though I knew it was on the cards. So this wasn’t me consciously putting together a part to try and go pro again, it was motivated by me thinking my last part wasn’t good enough. It’s quite funny because I feel like I worked better as an amateur anyway.
This nollie heelflip was the ender of the edit, it was the last thing I filmed for it. The first time I tried it, I tried it multiple times. It’s by Liverpool Street station so it’s the heart of the city, there are security guards everywhere, and tourists all over the shop. It’s hard work to get anything there, you’re lucky to leave with an ollie. I think the first time I tried it was the same week they surprised my by giving my pro board back. [Paul] Shier was in town, and a few other team riders were around too. I remember those guys being there when I tried to do this for the first time, and also when they surprised me with my pro board. I had destroyed my board doing something and they came with me to set up another. I walked into Slam and said hello, then went straight up to the board wall to pick a board and saw a row of boards with my name on, then looked round and everyone was cheering. That was quite special. Anyway, I think the first attempt was that same week because all of those guys were in town.
“this wasn’t me consciously putting together a part to try and go pro again, it was motivated by me thinking my last part wasn’t good enough”
That first trip there I must have landed on it a couple of times. I didn’t do it that day, but had a good few goes at it before we got busted. I knew I could do it from that first visit, I knew it was possible. Henry Kingsford had shot the photo, and I think it ran as an ad when my pro board was announced again. This ran before the edit, and I hadn’t done the nollie heelflip yet so I definitely had to go back and get it.
I feel like Jake Harris and I had a week to get it, and the edit was due to come out at the end of the week. In my memory we went there again on a Monday evening at peak rush hour. There were hundreds of people about, I tried it a couple of times, and then we got booted. We specifically met at Liverpool Street to get the trick, no warm up nothing, we didn’t get it, Jake went his way, and I went mine. The same thing happened what felt like the next day, we met at Liverpool Street during rush hour. I had another couple of goes, like the time before, and got busted once again. It’s strange thinking back, neither of us had proper jobs so we could have met there at any time of day but it was 5pm again. The final time we returned was the same scenario, I met Jake at Liverpool Street during rush hour. I would have definitely ollied them first, I always like to jump down stairs with an ollie first. Then I had one attempt at the nollie heelflip and bailed. On the next attempt I just stuck it and rolled away. That was it, job done, “nice one Jake, see you later”. He went one way, and I went the other, it was a five minute job. It’s so weird that we didn’t go for a beer to celebrate or something. Jake said that I turned up and was kind of blazed but I don’t remember that to be honest. Whatever the case, he went home to finish the edit, and I went home to chill.
The process to get the trick was me pushing to get speed and coming around the corner. I remember there being security cameras on the run up but you could kind of hide behind the pillars. If a security guard saw Jake with his camera he just looks like a tourist, a random kid filming, and it doesn’t really attract any attention, but if they clock me on the run up that’s it. So I would be hiding to stay out of view before throwing my board down. The amount of times we went there was enough to figure out that routine. I think we chose rush hour because the security guards would be too busy to worry about us, we’d attract less attention basically. It worked out in the end.
“When I was a kid we would always take the train into Liverpool Street to skate the city and look at those stairs. They looked so big…it seemed impossible to us that someone could backside flip them”
If you look at the edit there are two angles, the first angle is from the first attempt where I didn’t roll away. I think the one I made was a little bit sketchy, not the cleanest, but I was happy to take it. I’m not sure if this is a favourite as far as things I’ve filmed, I like the process that went into it, and I like that it was at Liverpool Street double set. When I was a kid we would always take the train into Liverpool Street to skate the city and look at those stairs. They looked so big, and we knew the stories of what Frank Stephens did there, it seemed impossible to us that someone could backside flip them. At the time it felt there would be no way to do that, but as you become older and more of a powerful skateboarder that changes.
One thing about those stairs is that the run up, and the roll out, is super smooth. You’re not worried about cracks, and when you don’t land your trick you just collapse, put your butt on the ground and slide out. The floor isn’t gripping you when you bail, so there’s no pain factor. They are quite long, and that’s daunting, but once you get your head around that it was a really good double set. It’s not there anymore, I feel like if that double set were there now it would have seen some action. Stefan Janoski’s and skinny trousers were the order of the day. Those shoes had just come out at that point, people would say my back foot was like a monkey grab, wrapping my toes around the board for some extra flick, it might have looked like that because them shoes were so thin. Nollie heelfips are like riding a bike for me, I still don’t need to warm up to do a nollie heelflip. I can’t leave the house and do a kickflip straight away, I need to warm my ankles up but I can do a nollie heelflip straight out the door, hahaha.
Neil Smith nollie heelflipping the stairs he would look at as a child. PH: Henry Kingsford
What follows is Jacob Harris’ account about embarking on this mission with Neil and filming the ender …
I can’t remember the first session very clearly, we were filming for the part that announced him as pro for the second time. The photo Henry shot from that first session was earmarked to run as an advert. Our agreement was that we would go back there until we got it the week before the part was due to come out. There was a dramatic build-up about it in both of our heads, it was exciting. You had to sneak around security though, that spot was not ideal in a lot of ways. It was on our third visit in a row that he just did it the second time he tried it and we just went our separate ways after he landed it.
This spot makes for a really weird unsocial session if it’s just you filming somebody skate there, you’re standing there with a fisheye and then Neil is shot out of a cannon from a dark alley and just flies by. Then you don’t communicate with each other for another 10 minutes until he manages to get another try. I think that contributed to how anticlimactic it was at the time when he landed it. I don’t think I even filmed it well, I was stood further back than I normally would be for the one he landed. He made it second go and I was still framing it up. I would have liked to have filmed it from a lot closer. The first clip, from the first attempt, is filmed from there because I was getting out of the way of Henry Kingsford’s angle.
This was before I made any money at all so we didn’t even go for a pint afterwards. We were good friends at that point but there was no social element to that session at all, it’s quite bizarre thinking back on it, it was like a numb shock that it had happened. I have really fond memories of working with him on this project though. He was always one of the most welcoming people on Blueprint when Tom [Knox] and I got involved. The three of us would meet up often. This is when I was an absolute pile of a human being, I would be an hour-and-a-half late sometimes and not even think anything of it. That time period is when we became good friends. He was always one of my favourite people from the Blueprint team to hang out with.
“There was a dramatic build-up about it in both of our heads, it was exciting. You had to sneak around security though, that spot was not ideal in a lot of ways”
I think at this point he felt like the skating he had done in Lost and Found, and Make Friends With the Colour Blue was not that sustainable for him physically. This part showed him transitioning a little into a different type of skating that was slightly lower impact. Switch noseblunt slides, he’s skating banks a little more, and I feel his style comes through in that part more than others. He was skating a bit more like everyone else at this point but with his edge on it.
This spot always had a lot of rumours around it. Josh Cox almost put down a switch front shuv there which is completely insane when you think about Josh as a skater, and that trick. I would ollie most things back then but I never ollied those stairs, they always seemed too big. When I was really young I had a little Handycam digital camera. I didn’t even know who [Nick] Jensen was at the time but I passed by when he was filming the switch ollie that was in Static II. I’m not sure if it was Josh Stewart filming or [Dan] Magee but I had this little camera and asked if they minded if I filmed the trick as well. It must have been [Dan] Magee who was there, I could be entirely wrong but I got a pretty rude response. There’s a nice circularity to have filmed Nick switch flip them for Vase ten years later.
This isn’t even something that still exists for kids to look at so they’ll have no idea, which is a bit sad really. Neil is such a legend and he has done so many insane things but I would wager that most of the spots he skated are gone, most of the monumental ones. He would always joke about hosting his hammer tour of the UK, but he did do an awful lot in reality. One thing that goes past really quickly in Make Friends With the Colour Blue is on the stairs on the way up to Waterloo Bridge from Southbank. He dropped in on that hubba with a kink, and ollied the gap at the bottom which was completely insane. He is definitely one of the most legendary UK skaters.
We would like to thank Neil Smith for spending the time talking to us for this feature, and we are glad that those nollie heelflips are still firing on all cylinders straight out the door. We also want to thank Sam Ashley and Jacob Harris for giving us their side of events from behind the lens, and to Dan Magee for filming the boardslide almost twenty years ago. Thanks again to Sam Ashley at Free Skate Mag and Henry Kingsford at Grey Skate Mag for digging in the archives for the photos featured above.
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