Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Pub Rock and Punk

There are dead years in popular music. 1960-1962 is remembered, if at all, as the time rock and roll almost died. 1974-5 wasn't quite a crisis, more of a hiatus. By then the world had adjusted to what seemed like a permanent mode of cultural stasis, with popular music as the one of key indicators, above movies and literature but possibly below television.

The content of popular music, as we might refer to it as gamers, was moribund. Rock was overblown and bloated. The barriers to entry for new bands were incredibly high, with expectations of huge stage shows and massive operating costs. The charts were stuffed with bland MOR, weak teen fodder and novelty songs. Even soul and funk had mellowed into disco and the ubiquitous Philadelphia Sound. Not that I don't love both of those...

The times were ripe for revolution. Beneath the surface something was stirring. In New York the pot had been simmering for a couple of years but in Britain we had a false start to contend with before The Sex Pistols fired the starting gun: Pub Rock.

Pub rock was exactly as it sounds. Rock played in the back rooms of Public Houses or any other small club or venue where drink was sold and consumed in quantity. Pub rock bands didn't need big light shows or fancy clothes. They threw back to the sixties beat boom, when the whole band traveled the motorways in a transit van with a roadie and maybe the manager, too. Slade in Flame, one of the greatest rock movies ever made, gives you an impression of what that must have been like.

Pub rock was also largely a London phenomenon. In the West Country our experience was mostly when one of the upper echelon pub bands, Ducks Deluxe, Brinsley Schwartz, The Kursal Flyers, turned up second on the bill to some national touring act.

I saw two of those three and wasn't impressed. The band that did impress me hugely was the undisputed leader of the pub rock pack, the one band that finally broke out, Dr. Feelgood. I saw the Feelgoods four times and three times they were revelatory. Fast, angular, stripped down and angry. Wilko moving like a Westworld android, Brilleaux looking like like a forties gangster in his crumpled white suit, the Big Figure and Sparko his enforcers at the back. The other time Wilko had quit and John Mayo had replaced him. Inadequately.

For all their live brilliance, the Feelgoods never cut it on record for me. Even their famous Live album is flat compared the unrecorded experience. But they showed the way. And they were not alone.

Through 1975 going into 1976 there were harbingers everywhere. I saw The Doctors of Madness supporting the soporific Be Bop Deluxe and they were like nothing I'd ever seen, apart from the original John Foxx-led Ultravox, who I saw supporting someone I can't remember. Then there was Eddie and the Hot Rods, the fastest band I'd ever seen and Jet, who were a kind of glam throwback with a crazed singer, Andy Ellison, who climbed the PA and threw himself off, over and over again.

I saw Joe Strummer's pub rock precursors The 101ers at a free festival in the middle of the afternoon. In front of a crowd of hippies and bikers in bright sunlight they seemed out of place but the power was unmistakable. Something was happening.

The key finally turned for me and my friends Chris and Paul, and for Chris's younger brother Phil, at another free festival. The Ashton Court Festival in Bristol was for many years one of the finest annual free festivals in the land. It began as a very local affair and eventually grew so large, attracting national and international touring acts as headliners, that it collapsed under its own weight.

In 1976 it was still small and local. The weather was glorious and we were lounging on the grass drinking beer, chatting and half-watching various folk and hippy ensembles traipse on and off , when a transit van slewed across the grass and shuddered to a halt next to the stage. The doors opened and a squall of very young guys all dressed in black jeans, white shirts and skinny ties exploded from the inside of the van.

We watched in astonishment. I can remember saying to Chris, in disbelief, "This has got to be one of those punk bands". It was the summer of 1976 and we'd been reading about the infant punk scene in the music press for no more than a couple of months, I'd guess. We had yet to see an example in the wild.

The Cortinas were our first punk experience. We'd end up seeing them at least a dozen times as they became Bristol's spearhead of the movement, although they never made it out of second-tier nationally. That day, on a festival stage in front of a primarily hippie audience, larded with jazzers and the undifferentiated general public, The Cortinas put on a show like I'd never seen.

They played as if they were in a grimy club, underground in the dark,yet they worked the large stage as though born to it. They didn't play punk as we'd later come to understand it so much as very, very fast R&B. They did a lot of covers, most of which I knew, including one where I surprised lead singer Jerry Valentine by shouting "96 Tears!" when he introduced it with "This is one by Question Mark and the Mysterions, who I guess no-one's heard of". I used to shout at bands a lot back then.

We went home that day determined to start a band of our own. Punk really did have that effect. Not one of us could play an instrument properly - most of us not at all. It took us a few months but we did it. By 1977, I can't remember the exact timeline now and sadly I didn't diarize my life back then, we were playing catastrophic, chaotic, terrifying live gigs.

And in the roiling, boiling media frenzy of punk we found ourselves being reviewed and written about in the national music press. Every inkie had stringers all over the country reporting back on the growing "scene" and the least likely bands could find themselves if not in the limelight then in the dim candle-glow of the also-rans.

We were fortunate in that a couple of members of The Pop Group had a soft spot for us. We'd attended their first ever gig and we'd invited them to see us play at a party held in my house, where we'd built a stage in the garden, hired a PA and played a full set with support band, much to the consternation of the neighbours. I think the Pop Group thought we were insane.

We supported The Pop Group a couple of times. They wanted us (well, some of them did) to support them at the ICA in London, but it didn't happen. One of my few regrets from that time, the other being that we never made a record. Just one single on vinyl would have nailed us onto the history of the movement but we were too laid back and vague to care. As The Desperate Bicycles urged on Smokescreen, "It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it" but we didn't.

Those were the days when I'd go to see live music two or three times a week, every week. I've long lost track and count of the bands we saw. Stand-out memories never to be forgotten were every Pop Group gig, particularly the one at the Hope Center, where the entire stage front was walled off with heavy-duty plastic sheeting, there were flaming torches lighting it from behind and Mark Stewart spent the first song hacking the plastic into strips with a machete.

Then there was the White Riot tour, The Clash headlining, with Buzzcocks, The Slits and Subway Sect. All of them were just wonderful but the Clash were out of this world. Probably the best gig I ever saw. We saw all those bands again, some of them several times. None of them ever disappointed. The Jam were supposed to be there too but they'd quit the tour a couple of days earlier. We didn't miss them. We, like Joe Strummer, thought they didn't fit the scene, although I  saw them twice later on and they were great.

We saw Jonathan Richman, a lifelong favorite, first playing an almost-rock set as he transitioned into his "don't hurt the ears of tiny children" phase then several times in increasingly acoustic mode. At the first gig someone threw a meat pie at him and hit him in the face and it was as though a puppy had been kicked. Jonathan kept asking why anyone would do such a thing and the perpetrator scuttled out of the hall before he was lynched.

In those wild days throwing things at the stage was commonplace. How the band, particularly the singer, handled it made a huge impression on me. I saw Vic Godard, the supremely suave frontman of the wonderful Subway Sect, playing in front of crowd with a contingent of skinheads, simply lean his head to one side as beer bottles came flying at him, letting them pass harmlessly as he carried on singing without missing a beat. By the end the skins were cheering and the bottles stopped.

Adam Ant, however, playing in the same venue, ran off stage after the first couple of shies. He hid in the back room, where everyone could see him through a large window, as the crowd booed and shouted. After a few minutes Jordan, a fearsome presence on the scene who later played the lead in Derek Jarman's "Jubilee", stormed on to harangue the audience into quiescence.

I always liked Adam and his music even after that but as an S&M hard man, his image at the time, it was all over as far as I was concerned. It was as if he'd run home and got his mum to come out and tell the bullies off. Effective, yes, but not cool.

Punk didn't really last all that long. A couple of years, maybe. I bought a ton of singles and albums. The Patti Smith Group's Horses, pre-punk in 1975, was my favorite album for many years. Still in my top five today. The Ramones eponymous debut I bought on import and played incessantly, as I did Talking Heads' 1977. The first Clash album was never off the turntable.

We saw all the touring US punk bands, The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television (who literally sent me to sleep) and plenty more. We should have seen The Sex Pistols but the club they were going to play mysteriously burned down the week before so we never did.

I never much liked the Pistols anyway. Too slow and metallish for my tastes. Only record of theirs I ever bought was "Anarchy in The UK", which I got my mother to buy in Virgin Records on her way home from work on the day it was released. That must have amused the staff. I did eventually see Cooke and Jones when they toured as part of Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers and they were both incredibly tight and skilled, which surprised me a lot.

By 1978 it was all but over. We were well into post-punk, a completely different sound and one in which Bristol excelled. Not only The Pop Group but the exceptionally ahead-of-their time Glaxo Babies, sophisticated Gardez Darkz, theatrical Shoes For Industry...

And so begins the next phase...


  1. Wilko Johnson's technique on She Does It Right is sublime. Sounds like both lead and rhythm guitar. Feelgood's loss was The Blockheads gain.

    1. I was a rhythm guiatarist at the time and i could never figure out how he did it. It was like magic.


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