Tuesday, 17 March 2009
A New Kind Of Kick
This was originally written by me for an American zine called "Left Of The Dial". I'm posting it here so that there is something to read until I decide what sort of thing I'm gonna post. I might never write anything else, might just upload pictures, who knows.
I’m twelve years old, summer 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year, big deal, all it means to most kids is a commemorative mug and coin and a street party if you‘re really lucky. I’m more interested in Charlie’s Angels, horror films, action figures, playing football, riding my customised bike and music. It’s Sunday evening, as usual I’m listening to the BBC Radio 1 Top 30 countdown in the back room with my brother Math who‘s nine. We’re taking it in turns to tape songs on a little tape recorder held next to the radio to cut down on background noise. Math gets “Way Down” by Elvis, I get “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer. Then on comes “Peaches” by The Stranglers and “Pretty Vacant” by the Pistols and I want them both on my tape. This is something new and exciting, I’m vaguely aware of “punk rock” from the news but this is my first time actually hearing it and instantly I’m hooked.
I wasn’t consciously looking for a new kind of kick but had lost interest in music a bit over the last couple of years since Glam had faded away. It had become dull and boring, I liked short snappy songs with loud drums and chanted choruses, T Rex, The Sweet, Slade and (say it very quietly) Gary Glitter. Punk was the perfect solution, it was fast, dangerous and Mum and Dad didn’t get it. Their poetic description of it was “someone hitting a suitcase with a piece of bread pudding”, to this day we still fondly call it “bread pudding bashing”. What did they know about music anyway?
Dad loved early Rod Stewart and The Faces, Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley and Kris Kristofferson, all of whom I now proudly own CDs by, but at the time they didn‘t mean a thing to me. It’s only later in life that we realise what we listen to as kids at home often informs our tastes without us really appreciating it or often acknowledging it. I’m as pleased as punch now to hear my eight year old daughter and three year old son sing along to The Undertones, Ramones, Buzzcocks etc and often in my daughters case know the lyrics better than I do. I know that their tastes will naturally change as they grow up but you can be guaranteed they will never forget these songs and will come back to them at some point as I did with my Dad’s records.
Taping punk songs from the radio became a regular Sunday night passion but I was only getting the tip of the iceberg. I was hearing the big bands that made the charts, Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Skids, Generation X. I had no idea there was a DIY musical revolution going on, pop music started and ended with the Top 30. I needed educating in the new style. That education came initially from a couple of girls at school, Scottish twins who obviously had “trendy” parents. They lent me albums by The Stranglers, Rezillos, X Ray Spex, Ian Dury and “Never Mind The Bollocks” in all its Day-Glo pink and yellow glory. They also told me to listen to John Peel and that was all I needed.
Apart from the twins who were in the know and a small section of my class who were being happily influenced by their sophisticated tastes, the girls in my class were into disco or the sort of slow smoochy numbers popular at the tail-end of school discos. The majority of the boys were into cars not music, the only time music was a priority seemed to be when they held bizarre bopping contests to Buddy Holly songs that were intended to impress the girls at the aforementioned school discos. To my great surprise the girls often found this tiresome display of prehistoric dancing more impressive than my enthusiastic pogoing.
Sunday evenings sitting silently in front of the radio, finger hovering over the play and pause buttons on our old tape recorder became a thing of the past. I could now do it late at night in the comfort of my bed. Over the next few months this process was improved greatly when Dad bought a tape recorder with built in radio, silence was no longer compulsory, songs were no longer interrupted by coughing, sneezing and creaking bed springs. I heard all sorts of brilliant new bands, the first time I heard “Blitzkrieg Bop” I thought I had discovered the perfect song (and I still think it is), the only problem was, I couldn’t’t understand a single word the singer was barking at me. I spent weeks raving about a song by a nameless band (I had missed the song’s introduction) called “Lipstick Pop”. Mum and Dad had by now also splashed out on a “music centre”, a record player with built in cassette deck and radio. This meant that when I borrowed albums from the twins at school, I could now make my own copies of them.
I was now building up a nice collection of tapes, however, these had none of the lurid glamour of the 7” single and LP sleeves with their Day-glo colours and obnoxious looking band photos. I realised that this was what my pocket money should now be spent on, comics, sweets and monster action figures had become childish and passé ( I wish I still had my Mego werewolf though, I loved that critter!) My best mate Dave, who was making me hand-made football fanzines long before Mark P dreamed up “Sniffin’ Glue”, had also discovered the joys of noise by this time. We started saving our meagre weekly pocket money to fund a record buying trip to London. I should explain that we lived in Romford which is a suburb about twenty miles to the East of London in Essex. Although we had record shops locally, the idea of going to the capital, where we might actually see some real punks was a far more exciting proposition.
So it was then, that two eager thirteen of fourteen year olds (my memory of when exactly our first trip was is a little hazy) boarded the first of two buses to the big smoke. I think £5.00 would have been enough for bus fares, lunch and two or three 7”singles. Our destination was the huge HMV in Oxford Street as it was the only record shop we knew we would be able to find. The bus ride in itself was quite an adventure, the sites and sounds appeared far more vibrant than when seen and heard from the back of our parents car, which was the only way we had travelled through London before.
When we found HMV, the choice of music was overwhelming, 7” singles covered the walls, displayed like works of anarchistic art. Having paid bus fares and buying crisps and chocolate for lunch I was only left with about £3.00 to actually spend on records. This gave me enough for three singles, but which three, there were literally hundreds to choose from. I knew that I had to have “God Save The Queen” ‘cos I loved the sleeve almost as much as the song, two more to choose then. After much deliberation, picking them up and then indecisively putting them back in the racks, I settled on “Holidays In The Sun” by the Sex Pistols and “Promises” by the Buzzcocks. I can’t recall now what Dave bought but I do remember spending the whole journey home reading the sleeves over and over again, taking the records out and reading the labels and the words etched into the run out grooves.
This first vinyl expedition was the first of many and sparked an obsession with collecting records and now CDs that shows no sign of slowing down to this day. Over the next few months Dave and I found more and more exciting places to satisfy our craving for vinyl, scattered all over London.
In Oxford Street the Virgin store was an underground cavern of delights, before the days of mega stores, you had to hand any bags in at the turnstile entrance to ensure you had nowhere to hide stolen goods. The walls were plastered with plastic sleeves each displaying tantalising records just begging to be bought. This original Virgin still had the feel of being an indie store and was an absolute joy compared with the sanitised banality of the Virgin stores of today.
Tucked round the back of Oxford Street in Hanway Street were dirty little record shops each full of posters, badges, magazines and shelves full of 7”s stored in wooden lemonade crates that you had to ask the staff to put on the counter so that you could flick through them. These were the places to go for the sort of rarities and deletions no longer available in HMV and Virgin.
A shorter bus ride away in Walthamstow, East London was the ultimate Mecca for punk worshippers; Small Wonder, which is where the record label sprang from. They put out some great material by The Carpettes, Patrik Fitzgerald, Menace, The Cure, Cockney Rejects, Crass and Bauhaus and the shop was fantastic - crammed full of records and fanzines…happy days indeed
My record box began filling pretty rapidly with the Undertones, Ramones, Sex Pistols, 999, Clash, Blondie, Ruts, Damned, Stiff Little Fingers, Skids, Adam and the Ants, Slaughter and the Dogs, Stranglers, Ian Dury, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Elvis Costello, Public Image, Cure, XTC, Generation X, UK Subs, Vibrators, Buzzcocks, X Ray Spex, Lurkers, Eater, Rezillos, Adverts, Penetration, Joy Division, Killing Joke and many others in a wide variety of different coloured wax. Take a second glance at that list, has there really ever been a better time to be young and into music?
Of all the places we went though, my favourite was Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove market under the Westway, spiritual home of The Clash and actual home to Rough Trade, the capitals best-loved independent record shop . This area had a far edgier and more dangerous feeling for a couple of young kids than the West End with it’s mix of punks and rastas. It was a great place to spend a Saturday, searching out obscurities and trawling the market stalls full of badges and t-shirts as colourful and beautifully designed as the record sleeves. Buying the music was no longer enough, looking the part was becoming equally important.
My school had a strict uniform policy so looking “punk” for school wasn’t really an option, I might get away with the occasional badge on my coat but that was about it. This meant that it was only after school and at weekends that I could dress like a mini Sid Vicious. There was nowhere in Romford to get the look, so initially my threads were all homemade, adapting what I had using marker pens, paint, zips and safety pins. Once I had exhausted all the DIY options I decided to buy some “real” clobber, again it meant getting the bus or tube to London.
Best places to get the look then, lemme see. A shop called Fans which was originally on Charing Cross Road and then moved round the corner to Old Compton Street in Soho was fantastic for band t-shirts. I got some great Clash and Dead Kennedys screen printed tees in there. Carnaby Street or Boy in Kings Road was the place to go for anything riddled with zips or bondage straps. I was too young for Seditionaries or Sex and could never have afforded their prices anyway. Carnaby Street was still an exciting place back then, small boutiques, fantastic selection of jackets, trousers and luminous t-shirts with leopard or tiger prints, also the best place for furry striped jumpers. Kensington market was good for t-shirts, studded belts and wristbands. I had this thing that t-shirts weren’t “punk” enough unless I hacked off all collars and sleeves which meant my arms always got a good tan in the summer apart from my wrists which were always wrapped with leather and studs.
This look never got a second glance in London, however wandering round the town centre or going to pubs in Romford you got many threatening looks and comments from soul boys and skinheads none of which ever developed into physical violence luckily enough. I was wise enough and too scared off getting a whack in the teeth to answer the morons back.
In late 1979 or more likely sometime in 1980 I went to my first gig with a couple of mates from school. I can’t remember now how much persuading I had to do with Mum and Dad to let me go but it was probably a fair amount. Punk gigs had a reputation for trouble and letting me go up to London in the evening on the tube at fourteen or fifteen probably didn’t seem like a sensible idea to them. Knowing I wasn’t a trouble maker and would avoid aggro at all costs may have swayed the decision in my favour, the only stipulation was that I couldn’t wear all my gear. The best I could manage was a leather jacket, jeans and a jumper which I could take off later to reveal a band t-shirt hidden underneath. Who was the first band I saw then? Support was from The Straps who were rowdy and had great sing along choruses (check out their CD on Captain Oi - you won’t be disappointed). Headliners - The Damned out on tour after the release of “Machine Gun Etiquette”. What a blinding first gig, the Hammersmith Odeon filled to the rafters with punks, pogoing frantically to every song, roaring the words back at the stage, Captain Sensible full of shit and loving it, Dave Vanian whirling like a vampiric dervish and Rat Scabies hitting his drums so hard I couldn’t believe he didn’t have to change skins after each song. We even got served at the bar. We left the gig dripping with sweat and on the ultimate adrenaline rush, what a night. I decided I would write my first fanzine the very next day, in reality I knocked up a very shoddy gig review and never took it any further.
My vinyl addiction began getting out of hand. I bought NME and Sounds avidly every week so that I knew exactly what records were being released, I would cut out any punk features, pictures and titbits and filled many scrapbooks. By now I had a Saturday job and as soon as I finished on a Saturday afternoon I rushed straight to Downtown Records in Romford and spent every penny. My school dinner money went the same way, rather than eat at lunch time I would buy another single each day after school. I got to know the blokes who worked in Downtown really well and up until about 1983 would buy more or less every punk record that was released, some of them superb, some of them absolute crud.
Come 1982 I was going to far more gigs, Dave’s mate Rich had recently converted to the Church Of Punk having become bored with the soul boy look and the curly perms that went with it. He started coming to see bands with us, we saw The Damned again at Hammersmith Odeon, this time we looked better and I didn’t feel like a kid, underdressed and sticking out like a sore thumb. Punk package tours became popular, the biggest gig we went to was the “So What” tour when it arrived at the Lyceum in London. The Anti Nowhere League headlined with the rest of the bill being Chelsea, Chron Gen and The Defects. The Anti Nowhere League’s punk/ biker hybrid look and sound was politically incorrect and all the better for it. Chelsea were back on fine form with their “Evacuate” album. Chron Gen were a particular favourite of mine at the time, their set was tight, melodic and full of energy. The Defects from Belfast opened the show and were label mates of the League, they had a good strong image and a raucous sound with strong catchy choruses. There was always a good sense of camaraderie after London gigs as venues emptied and punters streamed out to the tube stations.
A pub in Chadwell Heath, the next town up from Romford towards London, started putting shows on Sunday nights. It had hosted punk bands in ‘77 and was cramped, smoky and loud, exactly the right atmosphere, you always came away feeling like your eardrums had been attacked with a jackhammer. The Sunday night shows didn’t last long as the owners sold up and it became a family fun pub. During it’s short run though we saw some fine bands, The Wall, Erazerhead (East London’s own gonzoid Ramones), Manufactured Romance (who only ever released one single “Time Of My Life” - still one of my favourite songs) and the mighty Conflict.
Conflict and the Crass bands had a lasting influence on me, their anti-animal cruelty stance persuaded me to become a vegetarian and I still don’t eat meat to this day. It also influenced me to stop wearing leather for a while but to my shame I missed by leather jacket and Doc Martens too much and after a year or so of wearing kung fu slippers I slipped back into the old uniform. For all punks reckoned individuality, by the early ‘80s, there had become a uniform which was completely against the original aesthetic.
On Tuesday or Thursday nights, I can’t recall, we would go and see bands at the legendary 100 Club in Oxford Street. The Adicts and Toy Dolls were always the best nights, perhaps because they were fun bands they didn’t attract the skinhead element which had once again made its presence known at punk gigs. There were skins there but the atmosphere was usually pretty relaxed and light-hearted.
Our local band Vertical Hold would play occasionally in Romford, they were virtually unknown outside Essex and East London but released two really good singles “Rubber Cross” and “Angel Dust”. I can never understand why they haven’t been included on any compilations, they turn up on Ebay occasionally and are well worth the few quid they cost. I also Rubella Ballet a couple of times locally, although sounding like the Crass influenced bands, their image of fluorescent clothes and hairstyles, along with female vocals made a nice change.
In April of 1983 I was pursued by an ardent female admirer, Carol, best mate of Dave’s sister Sarah. We started going out together and 23 years later are still together, happily married with two fantastic kids, Jamie and Gram. Carol’s musical tastes were Soft Cell, Orange Juice, Siouxsie, The Cure and The Damned amongst others and she soon got into the more melodic punk bands and started coming to the 100 Club with us.
Carol and I went to plenty of gigs together too, Siouxsie and The Banshees at The Royal Albert Hall and Hammersmith Palais, The Cure at the Hammersmith Palais and many, many Marc Almond gigs all over London.
After 1983, the punk scene had more or less collapsed in Britain, several bands struggled on but unless they adapted and became more inventive, they were doomed to play to ever decreasing audiences. The records released became fewer and fewer until it became time to search out pastures new musically. I got into Marc Almond (thanks to Carol), The The, the various incarnations of Jim Foetus and whatever else sounded new and interesting. To my eternal regret, I even started selling off much of my punk collection whilst it was fetching top dollar on the second hand market. A situation I have now remedied by buying much of it back at car boot sales and on CD reissues from labels like Anagram and Captain Oi. Look in the magazines this year and it’s all 30 year punk anniversary features and new books seem to come out every month telling someone else’s version of events. Check out Andy Blade’s “The Secret Life Of A Teenage Punk Rocker” for a fresh and enjoyable spin on punk history seen through the eyes of Eater’s lead singer.
I’ve been listening to a lot of old punk stuff again recently and it strikes me how inventive the original bands were, there wasn’t one particular sound, each band had their own highly distinctive style. The second and third generation bands, exciting as they were to me, because they were my bands and I could go and see them live, lacked that vital spark of individuality in most cases. To me, the lasting personal legacy of punk is that my musical tastes are so varied now. I had to search out new bands and records because what I was listening to wasn’t mainstream and I still do that today.
There is so much music out there to consume and most people miss out on this because they only hear what they are spoon fed by the media.
I saw The Strokes first proper London gig in a small pub in Camden and to me it was like seeing The Damned again back in 1980, they were so full of swagger and the songs were full of self-belief and attitude. It is a thrill that music can still have that effect on me and I’m sure it always will do. Whether it’s seeing or hearing a new band like Arcade Fire or the Arctic Monkeys, or discovering something older like Gram Parsons or perhaps Ronnie Lane’s solo material, or artists who have been making passionate, under appreciated music like Jesse Malin or the Reigning Sound. It’s all out there just waiting to be discovered but if you’re bothering to read this it means you already know, ‘cos otherwise you wouldn’t be reading a zine, right?