1. YOUTH AND HOW TO LIVE IT 1976 – 1979
Britain in the mid-seventies was a vicious, ugly place to be. The towns were ugly, the streets were ugly, the politics were ugly, the morals were ugly, the music was ugly, the fashions were ugly and the people were ugly. It was all fucking ugly. If you were thirteen, fourteen, fifteen or sixteen life was full of dread and boredom, great gaping gulfs of time inducing a sensation of lethargy so intense it was almost spiritual.
Perhaps my memory has been tainted by the fact that the few photos I have are mainly black and white, but everyday really was like Sunday, more specifically every drizzly, mid-November, Sunday afternoon between the hours of three and five. In an era of flared fashion, long hair, school caps, corporal punishment, trolley buses, industrial estates, camping holidays, Sunday School, roast beef, pink blancmange, Green Shield Stamps, Spot The Ball, Till Death Us Do Part, The Black and White Minstrels, my Auntie Joan’s council flat and Saturday afternoon wrestling by fat blokes in pants, glam, pop, reggae and soul provided the only splash of colour, sex and rebellion amongst such monochrome mundanity. So I spent every penny I had on a feast of singles and albums, a necessary rite of passage where records were holy relics and dropping the needle in the groove was the holy sacrament. Not that I was any different to any other seventies teenager trapped in the wasteland between adolescence and adulthood.
My parents were a part of that blurry region in British society that encompassed the grammar school educated working class, the socially precarious, petit bourgeoisie and what could be called the uncomfortably well off lower middle class; the professional person or small businessmen and women whose income never quite matched their aspirations. Consequently, I wasn’t dragged up in poverty in a two up, two down terrace with an outside toilet in the yard and a tin bath in front of the fire as they had been. I was born in the last week of the fifties in the rather more salubrious surroundings of a brand new, three bed semi in Avalon Road, Earley, a suburb of Reading built on the mansions and ghosts of old Albion.
It should have been everything my mother wanted, except as Peter Laurie found when he contrasted three generations of teenagers for his book The Teenage Revolution, like most of her generation born between 1931 and 1936 she chose a life of greedy, resentful conformity. A hugely controlling, cold hearted, infant school teacher adored by her pupils yet incapable of showing her own children love and affection, she raised my brother Joe and me to observe a God fearing way of life and to blindly obey our elders and betters (with herself at the top of the list) and any other self-righteous cunt holding the metaphorical stick of authority over our heads.
My music loving, seriously laid back father was easy to love. I adored him always but found it impossible to love my mother. I blamed her crippling obsession with what others might think, her snobbishness and her expectation that we should submit to her will at all times. We were to be seen and not heard, any attempt at independent thought forbidden. From a very young age we learnt to keep out of her way, amusing ourselves from dawn to dusk on the tree covered circle outside our house, or adventuring further afield in the woods, meadows, rivers and lakes of a bucolic Berkshire, an unspoiled area of countryside that by the mid-eighties had become the largest private housing estate in Europe.
Surprisingly, despite the complete lack of maternal love and a near pathological hatred of being told what to do, my early exploits made for a fairly idyllic if somewhat self-sufficient, latchkey childhood. However, by the time I was fifteen I had no relationship with my mother to speak of other than our mutual antipathy. We could barely stand to be in the same room as each other, much less have anything like a proper conversation, and yet incredibly she still expected me to obey her every whim. So when I boldly and very loudly denounced her strict dogmas of religion, class and respect for authority one evening, her reaction was swift and decisive. Co-opting the family doctor into her devious plan, I was coerced into attending weekly sessions at a mental health day care facility based in Bucknell House, Coley for six months with a psychiatrist whose opening sentence really was: ‘Tell me about your relationship with your mother’.
Lost in the anonymity of suburbia and haunted by her own lovelessness, my mother never wanted to understand. I didn’t understand myself but knew that to impale myself on her burden of expectation and become just another insignificant cog in the machine wasn’t how it should be. Possessed by burning youth, I was enthused by my own sense of alienation, of being different and a little off the straight and narrow. Politely asked to leave school the week before my sixteenth birthday for persistent absenteeism, I signed on the dole for the first time a couple of weeks later on 2nd January 1976 for £9 a week. I’d never had it so good.
As the proverbial lazy sod, I spent my time listening to records, devouring my weekly editions of the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker cover to cover, writing angst ridden poetry and dreaming of my brilliant life to come. When whispers of the Sex Pistols filtered through I made it my mission to find out more, the stars of fate finally aligning on Tuesday 29th June 1976 when five of us scraped the cash together for a trip to The 100 Club. In my youthful mind London was still Dickensian and mythical so that was excitement enough, but when the Pistols hit the low stage, in one breathless moment my life changed forever.
What changed me wasn’t their squalling racket, each song seeming to disintegrate the moment it started, it was Johnny Rotten. Instantly mesmerising, he taunted us with a non-stop stream of squeals, sarcasm and abuse and clearly didn’t give a fuck. Anti-showbiz, anti-musical with an undertone of violence, it oozed out of him like pus from a boil he couldn’t help but squeeze. Rotten was freedom incarnate, an angry, frustrated, skinny, twisted kid from Finsbury Park pissing in the face of society by daring to say what we all felt. I‘d never seen or heard anything like it, but from that very first second I knew instinctively that I could do whatever I wanted to do and be whatever I wanted to be. Spellbound, I returned home, cut my hair, ripped my flares into drainpipes, snorted my first line of amphetamine sulphate and speeded into an uncertain future. It really was as simple and as quick as that.
Punk meant a thousand different things to a thousand different people but to me, a sixteen year old boy kicking against the oppressive, colourless shades of 1976 Britain, it represented absolute freedom. Punk said: ‘Believe in your- self and if others don’t like it they can fuck off’. In fact, the sound I remember most from punk is not The Pistols or The Clash or the everlasting thrash of buzzsaw guitars, but the everlasting fuck off-ness of it all. An explosion of negatives and the rejection of old values, punk was the outsider aesthetic writ large; dark, tribal, alien and full of humour. It attracted those who felt cast out, who felt useless, un- worthy and ashamed, bringing together Bowie victims, teenage misfits, gays, artists, disco slaves, junkies, football hooligans, intellectuals and outcasts from every class.
I lived each day with no thought of the next, my huge leap into the everlasting present of the teenage an incredibly intense rite of passage that became almost messianic. Punk was a secret society with the most glorious sound- track, the coolest clothes, the fiercest debates and the most idealistic politics. My life was full of incident and adventure lived at a million miles an hour and fuelled by a manic, chemically induced energy, flat lager, crap sex, seven inch singles and riotous live shows. I saw all the main players and a hundred more besides at The Marquee, The Music Machine, The Nashville, The Speakeasy, The Rainbow, The Roundhouse, The Red Cow, The Target, The Nags Head, High Wycombe various poly’s and colleges, but most of all at The Roxy, the crucible for the whole punk movement. Stuck in the middle of Covent Garden, back then a derelict, weed strewn wasteland populated solely by opera goers, it was a pilgrimage we just had to make.
Squeezing a couple of hundred into a stinking, sticky shitpit designed for half that number, The Roxy was a seething mass of fucked off, newly energised youth radiating a unique, unforgettable sense of togetherness; a place where you could rub shoulders with the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, Johnny Thunders, Billy Idol and Adam Ant on an equal footing, heckle pain in the arse punter Shane MacGowan jumping around like a nut, or take the piss out of Paul Weller tuning up in his cheap Burtons suit. Emerging in the early hours soaked in cold sweat and gob, stranded until the milk train home, we’d sit it out in an all-night café off Leicester Square or on a hard bench in the deepest, darkest corner of a deserted Paddington Station or Waterloo to avoid the police patrols. If we were lucky we’d find a spare floor in some rancid West London squat or get an invite back to a friendly local punk’s home with the proviso that we were gone before their parents woke.
But punk was never about being a passive consumer or a part of the audience. We all got involved, doing it, living it. For my part I followed the punk maxim ‘Here’s three chords, now form a band’ so with our cheap Woolworths guitars and a borrowed drum kit the self-taught, fuzz driven Kaotix were born, destined to tour the youth clubs and church halls in the villages surrounding our hometown and feature bottom of the bill at Bones, Reading’s brief punk club. Little kids loved our noisy racket, but we weren’t very good and we knew it, a ten minute version of ‘Not Fade Away’ to pack out our twenty minute set being the height of our ineptitude. Enthusiasm definitely ruled over content and yet we still played those three chords for all they were worth.
One of the many myths perpetrated in punks twisted history is that it was an entirely London based revolution centred on the Kings Road and the Bromley contingent, hanging on the every word of McLaren and wearing every costly stitch of Westwood. It’s true that with London just a twenty minute interCity train ride away Reading itself never had much of a scene. In fact, until the filth and fury of the Pistols truly hit the headlines on the 1st December 1976 after their appearance with Bill Grundy on the Today show, there were never more than twenty of us and that included some of the hipper Chelsea boot boys latching on to scare the proles in punk disguise. It’s impossible to imagine now but we were treated like alien invaders, fearful shoppers grabbing hold of their kids and parting like the Red Sea as we passed through. Punk struggled to breathe in towns like ours because to be a punk, walk the streets, go to a club and get the bus in a provincial town was to run the eternal gauntlet of bigots wishing to destroy those daring to be different.
The occasional brave soul would shout abuse but with vengeful youth tribes lurking around every corner, they were the least of our worries. Soul boys, smoothies, skinheads, greasers and football gangs were mostly all mouth and flared trousers and nothing we couldn’t handle, but the Teds were a different proposition entirely. A decade or more older and meaner than your average teenage scrap- per, they were the worst of the lot, the sight of a gang of Teds running towards you brandishing knives and razors absolutely shit yourself terrifying. We learnt to scarper fast, but sometimes there was no escape.
In an unforgettable post Jubilee July alone I felt my nose squelch and my hair drop out in chunks as a pack of mutant Gene Vincent’s blue suede shoes kicked my head in; I had knives waved in my face and jabbed in my chest by a scabby, thirty something and his unhinged, beehive haired girlfriend; I had hells angels unzip my girls homemade top and head butt me as her tits fell out after a show at The Vortex; we had a gang of gobby greaser’s attack us wielding their crash helmets as weapons until our girlfriends jumped on their backs and ripped their skull’n’crossbones earrings out through their fleshy lobes; we were forced to run for cover when a hail of rocks thrown by a gang of local soul boys from a footbridge over Bracknell railway station bounced off our heads, the injured lying prostrate and bleeding on the ground while the police sniggered from the platform opposite. Violence was always just around the corner!
Like any youth movement punk carried with it the seeds of its own destruction but it was only when it descended into a miserable, violent caricature of its once glorious self that it stopped being fun and became kind of tiresome. While I had fully immersed myself in the punk maelstrom, life was lived so fast and so close to the edge that there was no chance to stop, take stock and move forward with renewed vigour. What’s more, the movement itself had dumbed down to become just another tribal option populated by a new breed in their identikit, High Street uniforms. Contrary to popular belief no-one had looked like that in 1976. Ugly, desperate and without purpose, they were a betrayal of punks original manifesto of individuality; the idea of not being the same as everybody else; of asking questions and making your own statement. I wanted no part in their meaningless pantomime.
At no point did I take the conscious decision to stop being a punk, I simply replaced my ripped and torn threads with third hand overcoats and dark, ill fitting ‘dead man’ suits and moved on determined to explore my own creativity in as many ways as possible. Initially that meant spending more time trying to get The Kaotix going properly. Yet within a matter of months I had ditched them to form the noisesome and loathsome Jesus Fucks. Pushing our irregular commitment beyond the occasional get together in the drummer’s garage, we found a cheap room for hire in a disused factory at the bottom of Sidmouth Street and began to rehearse three or four times a week before my co-collaborator and guitarist extraordinaire Joseph King departed to form his own group and I realised that without him it was never going to amount to much.
After ‘having a go’ in a conventional group set up for a good eighteen months, I suddenly found myself alone on the outer fringes of the post punk universe. Inspired and informed by Cabaret Voltaire, Alternative TV, This Heat and the ubiquitous Throbbing Gristle, it began to feel like aural terrorism was the only logical next step for punk’s Do It Yourself ideal. Why bother with three chords when none at all would do? Ditching regular time signatures, song structures and conventional instrumentation for a cheap catalogue synthesiser and a double cassette recorder the size of a suitcase, I became an active participant in the cassette underground recording cacophonous, avant-garde soundscapes for tape compilations with a primitive drum machine and any other bits of electronic circuitry I could get my hands on.
The future felt full of possibility but remained restricted by my woeful domestic situation, my relationship with my mother having deteriorated to such an extent that I started to view her as a kind of ‘anti-mother’ who delighted in antagonising her children still further by doing things like bolting the front door at 11pm no matter whether we were in or not. I desperately needed to find a place of my own, a feeling exacerbated by my parent’s decision to up sticks and leave the home we’d lived in my entire life for a large, 1920’s house in urgent need of repair on the Shinfield Road opposite the entrance to Leighton Park School. It was their golden prize after a lifetime of suburban dreaming, but I found it cold, creepy and alien. With the emotional tie to my childhood broken, I spent as little time there as possible, my salvation finally arriving in the unlikely frame of a girl who had once been nothing more than a bit of a pest but ultimately would end up as my first wife.
One of the original five who had attended the Pistols 100 Club show and instantly converted to punk, with her short, spiky, bright green hair, faux leather jeans, six inch stilettoes and an aptitude for violence verging on the certifiable, she caused quite a stir. Part of the tight knit tribe I knocked around with, she’d pursued me from the start, showering me with clothes, records, drink, drugs and the odd sexual favour while going out with a succession of other lads. With girlfriends of my own I managed to resist her advances until the summer of 1978 when her father kicked her out and she moved into a tiny Christchurch Road bedsit within walking distance of my parents new place.
I guessed immediately that her choice of location was more by design than accident, but when she added on tap sex to her list of enticements, like most horny eighteen year old’s I struggled to say no, especially on those dreary, weekday nights when I had nothing better to do than listen to John Peel. Sick of living with my parent’s, three months later she moved into a bigger, two room basement and offered me the chance to share her sofa bed with no romantic strings attached. Without pausing to consider the consequences, and still under the naïve, misguided belief that we weren’t in a relationship, I gathered up the few possessions I had and moved in before the day was out.
Throughout this long running game of charades, I was still signing on at South Street Labour Exchange every fortnight until it suddenly dawned on me that in order to pay my share of the £20 a week rent I had no option but to start applying for jobs. At first it was for lofty positions with lofty salaries I had no qualifications for, until the tide of rejections made me lower my sights and I accepted a succession of part time jobs jet washing lorries, cleaning out ovens at Parslows Bakery and working as a mailboy at the Car Tax Office until a permanent position became available as an Invoice Clerk at the Atomic Weapons Establishment near Aldermaston. As boring, futile and soul destroying as its title and location in the middle of nowhere suggested, I lasted four months before accepting a position as a Junior Engineer for Berkshire County Council which was only a little more engaging but paid a handy £200 a month.
Then, in the spring of 1979, my world came crashing down when I began to suffer constant, crippling stomach pains. A hardcore lifestyle of self-neglect, abuse and a move into the squalor of bedsit land had inevitably taken its toll. A skeletal, jabbering, burnt out wreck of an ex-punk, fucked on too many cheap drugs, not enough cheap food and an imagination conjuring up nightmare after terrifying nightmare, I retreated from real life into my head. Stuck in a paranoid, schizophrenic state, I began to experience a horrifying sensation that caused my surroundings to flash by like a surreal, speeded up, Charlie Chaplin film, my mind rushing towards what I calmly assumed would be my inevitable demise and oblivion.
When I eventually crept back into the world cautious and not a little scared, much had changed. Still only nineteen, I had once believed that anything was possible, but as a new decade beckoned I could almost touch the dread and paranoia creeping through the land, the loneliness and despair there for all to hear on records like Joy Divisions Unknown Pleasures and Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box. The Slits and a resurgent Clash countered with magnificent hope and optimism, but while they helped me forget momentarily, the election of Thatcher, the rise of the Tory Reich and the resulting gloom were overwhelming.
THE RAMONES ‘Judy Is A Punk’ (The Ramones LP June 1976)
The Sex Pistols and punk had nothing to do with the hundred or so longhairs hanging around CBGB’s in downtown New York listening to groups like The Ramones who were already in their mid to late twenties. In the dreary satellite towns of the leafy southern shires and industrial northern wastelands, punk required total commitment and unmatched perseverance to a distinctly British cause in order to find your own voice and create your own possibilities. The Ramones had nothing to do with it, but it did start in June 1976.
In the chaos of the 100 Club, I chose to speed into an uncertain future and ignore the absurdity and misery of the present. I would never be the same again! And Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy? I got their debut on import expecting more Rottenesque anarchy only to find a tuneful, ultrafast, garage band setting the template for young punks like me who had no discernible musical ability but were determined to form a group and make their mark anyway they could.
U-ROY ‘Natty Rebel’ (The Front Line Compilation LP August 1976)
The Front Line was a ridiculously cheap, 69p sampler from Virgins new reggae label with an evocative, fist of defiance cover. As an interested musical tourist in my early teens I had bought The Wailers Catch A Fire and owned a box of prized roots singles, but by the summer of 1976 Bob Marley was not cool. Conversely, U-Roy absolutely was. Tougher than tough, there’s no denying the blood and fire in his remarkable ‘Natty Rebel’ (using The Gladiators uncompro- mising version of Marley’s ‘Soul Rebel’ as its source), The Mighty Diamonds ‘Right Time’, I-Roy’s ‘Don’t Touch I Man Locks’ or The Gladiators ‘Know Yourself Mankind’.
TAPPA ZUKIE ‘MPLA Version’ (Single B Side August 1976)
I knew little about roots and dub until Quicksilver Records opened at the top of the escalator in The Butts Centre. Every week a delivery of records arrived direct from the Jamaican source, a network of vans and drivers with a selection of imports. The artwork on these records was rudimentary, the cover designs featuring drawings, paintings or an unsophisticated photo accompanied by hand drawn lettering. The single labels were always slightly off centre with a few globs of solidified plastic near the centre hole but once the bass line was established, a strong, gut rumbling tremor would emerge from the shops enormous speakers. Sonically they were an education in themselves, the eeriness and dread of dub representing an ineffable truth, but if any one record conjured up the revolutionary spirit of the times it was the spaced out and freaky ‘version’ of Tappa Zukie’s invincible 'MPLA'.
THE MODERN LOVERS ‘Roadrunner’ (Modern Lovers LP October 1976)
‘Roadrunner’ was everything rock was not, innocent but anthemic, a song about nothing more than driving around listening to urgent, lovelorn rock’n’roll. Best of all, any fool could learn to play a song that hardly bothered with the third chord. Seventies rocks subliminal message was ‘You’ll never be able to do this’. ‘Roadrunner’ shouted, ‘Anyone can do this!’ So we did.
THE DAMNED ‘New Rose’ (Single A Side October 1976)
Bad speed was the stimulant of choice for suburban punk youth, specifically amphetamine sulphate, a white powder that burnt nasal membranes, destroyed brain cells, promoted paranoia and aggression and transformed participants into emaciated bug eyed nut jobs while accurately mirroring punks 100mph thrash. My girlfriend thoroughly disapproved of my drug taking. I thought my consumption modest and reasonable. She thought it excessive and disgusting. I didn’t care. I was having the time of my life, taking drugs to enhance the day, not to retreat into dreamy isolation but to smack the world full in the face. In the beginning The Damned were an essential accompaniment to all that, their breakneck energy and two minute tunes an excitable speed freaks dream.
RICHARD HELL ‘Blank Generation’ (Another World EP November 1976)
The story goes that Richard Hell’s ripped and torn T-shirt’s, spiky hair and elegantly wasted chic got ripped off wholesale by Malcolm McLaren to invent British punk fashion. Of course, what poor old Richard never grasped was that in the end what mattered most was not who did it first but who did it best. ‘Blank Generation’ was his finest, arguably his only, moment.
THE CONGOS ‘Children Crying’ (Heart Of The Congos LP January 1977)
The worst thing about speed was witnessing another dawn with your bones shivering, your skin prickling and your teeth itching. After a lengthy night out, The Congos sweet and soulful songs playing on a tiny portable cassette recorder would help keep us afloat through the long, early morning hours stuck on Waterloo Station, Paddington or God knows where when the drugs and adrenaline had worn off and the comedown and cold, cold night made sleep impossible.
THE BUZZCOCKS ‘Breakdown’ (Spiral Scratch EP January 1977)
The first essential punk record made by four Pistols inspired, Manchester misfits whose four short, sharp, lo-fi fits of hysteria were so revolutionary that even today they could spark a riot. Packed with the barbed wit of singer Howard Devoto, in true punk fashion he quit on the eve of the records release, bored with the unrelenting nature of punk music, including his own.
TELEVISION ‘Marquee Moon’ (Marquee Moon LP February 1977)
The arty New York punk impulse was entirely different to the brutalist British one and Tom Verlaine’s Television were more different than most. With its duelling guitars and the poetry of ‘I remember how the darkness doubled / I recall that lightning struck itself / I was listening, listening to the rain / I was hearing, hearing something else’ 'Marquee Moon' introduced the possibility of beauty to a punk world clogged with nihilism, decay and sloganeering. Full of youthful concerns and immature wonder, at seventeen years old it made me think of music in an entirely different way and confront feelings I didn’t even know I had.
CULTURE ‘Two Sevens Clash’ (Two Sevens Clash LP March 1977)
Reggae was an integral part of punk, not because of Rotten and Strummers love for it, the rebel music, mutual outcast’s theory or Don Letts spinning dub plates in the early days of The Roxy, but because most of us had a long standing affinity with reggae stretching back to the chart hits of the early seventies. Roots was the natural progression of all that, Culture’s prophecy toting, anthemic album built on a genius title track that made even The Clash seem weedy in comparison.
ELVIS COSTELLO ‘Less Than Zero’ (Single A Side March 1977)
My girlfriend gave me this single. She wasn’t a punk but then neither was Elvis Costello, a nerdy, mutant hybrid of Buddy Holly and Joe Strummer putting the world to rights with an old fashioned, melodic sensibility that in 1977 was practically non-existent.
IGGY POP ‘Funtime’ (The Idiot LP March 1977)
Until Bowie came a calling and took him to Berlin, Iggy Pop was a no good, drugged up loser carrying the heavy legacy of The Stooges on his skinny shoulders. I hadn’t given him a second thought since Raw Power in 1973, but Bowie’s continued endorsement and their mutual interest in European electronica and funk transformed The Idiot into a cult classic, so returning The Igg to his rightful place as Defiant Punk Rocker Number One!
ULTRAVOX! ‘My Sex’ (Ultravox! LP March 1977)
Arriving fully formed on the wrong side of the punk party line only to be ridiculed for everything from their Neu! style exclamation mark to their PVC jackets, no-one cared to borrow my Ultravox! record’s. But no matter because I loved them regardless, John Foxx’s impossibly futuristic imagery capturing the alienation and post-industrial wasteland of the Capital and my hometown perfectly, while the cold, slightly disturbing ‘My Sex’ was so far ahead of its time it was positively scary.
KRAFTWERK ‘Europe Endless’ (Trans Europe Express LP April 1977)
Bowie, Iggy and Eno’s jolly japes in Berlin led direct to Kraftwerk, an ice cool anomaly amongst 1977’s 1-2-3-4 black and white monotone and trails of phlegm. Being so young and so very, very English, as a kind of Teutonic, electro Ramones they broadened our minds, opened our ears and fast forwarded us into a future we knew absolutely nothing about.
PRINCE FAR I ‘Heavy Manners’ (Single A Side April 1977)
‘Heavy Manners’ wasn’t just a handy slogan for The Clash to stencil on their clothing, it was an essential, hard hitting, righteous roots single broadcasting Prince Far I’s socio-political message from a seriously troubled and violent Trenchtown.
THE ADVERTS ‘One Chord Wonders’ (Single A Side April 1977)
TV Smith had a knack of being able to put into words exactly what we were all thinking, the DIY ethic of ‘One Chord Wonders’, the self-explanatory ‘Bored Teenagers’ and the questioning ‘Safety In Numbers’ documenting the start, middle and end of 1977 punk. In reality we didn’t need TV to tell us that there was another, far more important version of punk that had nothing to do with mohair jumpers, tartan bondage trousers, the King’s Road or an easily mimicked music or fashion style, and everything to do with not waiting for permission but doing it and doing it now, even though we had no idea how or even what ‘it’ was.
THE HEARTBREAKERS ‘Born To Lose’ (Single B Side May 1977)
Sulphate, Tuinal capsules at two for a quid, Black Bombers, quadruple Durophet spansules when we could get them and Moroccan dope were our drugs of choice before brown heroin started doing the rounds. Smack was very rock ’n’roll, very glamorous. Even at the height of punk there was a sneaky regard for Keith Richards and easy to spot, down at heel, punk versions Johnny Thunders and Peter Perret of The Only Ones. Inevitably, a few of our tight knit bunch began to dabble but I wanted no part in it, bothered by where it might lead. And when in later years I witnessed first-hand how it consumed my friends, and how the grim reality of heroin addiction was not in the least bit glamorous, I knew I’d been right to be fearful.
SEX PISTOLS ‘No Fun’ (Single B Side July 1977)
The Pistols dirty, ragged crawl through The Stooges ‘No Fun’ was an early live favourite, Rotten’s nasty, malevolent sociology, psychology, neurology, fuckology intro still more proof of his genius. But it was also a reminder of how ‘God Save The Queen’ awakened the slumbering beasts of old England wishing nothing but death and destruction on the punk upstarts walking the streets of their towns, and why the summer of 1977 really was no fun at all.
HORACE ANDY ‘Government Dub’ (In The Light Dub LP August 1977)
Prince Jammy’s hard edged, dubwise versions of Horace Andy’s sweet tunes were an unexpected treat completely at odds with the original album. Explosive, full of dread and unrecognisable, I remember it being played in Quicksilver and Rough Trade and not having the faintest idea who or even what it was, and when I did it was available in such ludicrously small quantities that I had to make do with a hissy, second generation cassette copy.
IAN DURY ‘Wake Up And Make Love With Me’ (New Boots And Panties LP September 1977)
Ian Dury was just what the country needed, a nice little sideshow, much older, therefore perceived as much safer than punks teenage devil children. Coming on like Johnny Rotten’s sinister Uncle, he was a master of glamorising ordinary everyday lives, championing the urchin loser, refuting standard seventies cock rock and closing the gap between performer and listener while letting you know in no uncertain terms that he was in no way ordinary, but then possibly neither were you.
DAVID BOWIE ‘Heroes’ (Heroes LP October 1977)
Punk was already smashing against its own Berlin wall when Bowie, Iggy and Eno provided the records that would help its best protagonists pole vault right over. Low was the first shot and one that initially came as quite a shock. But Heroes was different. How could it not be, dominated as it was by the desperate romance and us against the world defiance of its gloriously tuneful title track, made all the stronger by Bowie’s increasingly desperate vocal. It is his most genius moment, at once direct, mythic and totally unforgettable.
SUICIDE ‘Ghostrider’ (Suicide LP November 1977)
There were a host of revolutionary records in the late seventies, the sound of which had never been heard before. Most sold next to nothing and yet they would become the building blocks for most of what we hear today. Suicide was one of those records, Alan Vega and Martin Rev’s distilled essence of rock’n’roll and pop, retooled for drum machine, synth and spooky vocals.
BRIAN ENO ‘Kings Lead Hat’ (Before And After Science LP December 1977)
By the autumn of 1977 a palpable exhaustion had set in, most of us recognising that musically at least we needed a respite from the mayhem. Despite being an unlikely pre-punk figure and resolute non-musician, I decided to stick with Eno because of his involvement with Bowie’s Berlin albums. Of course Eno being Eno, a middle class, English, pop boffin with a pretty nice life and a fruity singing voice bereft of Bowie’s sickness, addiction and depression, Before And After Science sounded nothing like Low, Heroes or Lodger. And yet, by offering a compelling argument for the idea that music made by intelligent, white, English men and women didn’t need to and probably shouldn’t have any connection to the blues, it highlighted a place that new music could travel to.
XTC ‘New Town Animal In A Furnished Cage’ (White Music LP February 1978)
XTC were four nondescript, early twenty somethings from Swindon who played our local Target pub beneath the Butts Centre so often they were the nearest thing we had to a group we could call our own. Ridiculed by the Kings Road hipsters as country bumpkins, knowing exactly where they came from and that their teen life vignettes were speaking directly to me just made me love them more, itchy little songs like ‘New Town Animal In A Furnished Cage’ the first to acknowledge that bored provincial kids were the ones who really needed punk and its reason to believe.
WIRE ‘I Am The Fly’ (Single A Side February 1978)
Trying to work out exactly when punk became post punk is impossible, not least because post punk was never known as such and is merely the invention of journalists too young to have been there. Nonetheless, Wire were the first group most obviously swimming against the tide, even though it was equally obvious they were absolute beginners. Like a home demo of amazing ideas when there’s no point bothering with three minutes if a brilliant thirty seconds will do, it was entirely unexpected, wilfully experimental and surprisingly poppy, opening the door to a new type of rock intellectualism at a time when that kind of thing was considered heresy.
BUZZCOCKS ‘Fiction Romance’ (Another Music In A Different Kitchen LP March 1978)
The Buzzcocks debut LP came wrapped in a silver plastic bag stamped ‘PRODUCT’ which told me exactly how far they’d moved on from the confines of punk. With Howard Devoto long gone, Pete Shelley became the movements self-appointed love poet, although Another Music In A Different Kitchen drew from a far broader palette with his questioning of rock’n’roll and the symbols of seventies consumerism in his typically English way.
THE ONLY ONES ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ (Single A Side April 1978)
Peter Perrett’s songs spoke of drugs, nihilistic decadence, suicide and an altogether darker psyche, but they were also touched by a brilliant beauty. Loved and adored by the switched on minority, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’ sold poorly on release but has since featured on countless commercials and soundtracks which hopefully continues to keep the miraculously still alive Perrett in some comfort.
POET & THE ROOTS ‘It Dread Inna Inglan (For George Lindo)’ (Dread, Beat An’ Blood LP April 1978)
At first Linton Kwesi Johnson appealed to me more for his performance poetry than his music. And yet crackling and burning with a barely suppressed anger in the street patois of his Brixton dialect, within the rhythmic dread of roots, the gravitas and power of his words increased beyond recognition.
THE NORMAL ‘Warm Leatherette’ (Single AA Side May 1978)
The Normal’s one and only single sparked the real musical revolution. Unlike the movement itself, punk groups were never very revolutionary, the novelty of their raw ramalama soon wearing off. ‘Here’s three chords, now form a band’ may have been the first commandment but Daniel Miller didn’t bother to learn any at all, and by so doing allowed those with zero musical ability but plenty of ideas to hang out at the post punk party.
ALTERNATIVE TV ‘Nasty Little Lonely’ (The Image Has Cracked LP May 1978)
Whereas the likes of Steve Jones, Mick Jones and Billy Idol were in love with the idea of the rock star lifestyle they’d been dreaming about since they were kids, Mark Perry seized on the promise of punk as a means of creativity, The Image Has Cracked his uncompromising vision of the avant-garde and the anthemic. As an expression of going down defiantly while punk continued to flog the same old dead horse, it was fearless and brilliant if a little confused and confusing.
MAGAZINE ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’ (Real Life LP June 1978)
Howard Devoto abandoned the ship of punk long before it started to sink and formed Magazine. Enigmatic, intelligent and oblique, they were the connoisseur's choice, not that I cared too much for some of their more po-faced nonsense. Far more enjoyable was ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’, a thundering, glitter stomp of a tune that somehow managed to sound like 1973 and the future.
STEEL PULSE ‘Ku Klux Klan’ (Single A Side August 1978)
Completely different in message and tone to its Jamaican counterparts, ‘Ku Klux Klan’ was the first significant British reggae record of the punk era. Creating an atmosphere of dankness and terror that was almost overwhelming, its vision of an England drowning in a gradual tide of racist sewage was a powerful pointer for a country in desperate need of positive change.
PUBLIC IMAGE LTD ‘Public Image’ (Single A Side October 1978)
In 1978 John Lydon could have shit in a paper bag and released it and still been adored by the punk masses but ‘Public Image’ was still extraordinary. His first act of revenge and the exorcism of his inner demons of Johnny Rotten, the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, sad Sid and his audience, musically it was just the start. A year later on Metal Box he would dismiss rock completely, deconstructing it piece by piece to arrive at something experimental, revolutionary and long lasting that would prove even more influential than the legacy of the Pistols.
GANG OF FOUR ‘Love Like Anthrax’ (Damaged Goods EP October 1978)
Where the fuck did this come from? Once I’d picked my jaw up off the floor and completed some digging the answer turned out to be Leeds although on first listen it could just as easily have been from Mars, ‘Love Like Anthrax’s opening salvo of feedback, robotic drum beat, looped bassline and stereophonic duet rewriting punks sonic architecture in an instant. ‘Public Image’ may have signalled a new beginning, but the Gang Of Four and their Damaged Goods EP signposted the new direction.
SUBWAY SECT ‘A Different Story’ (Single B Side October 1978)
Of all the groups to emerge from punk, in their old school jumpers and Oxfam clothes the Subway Sect looked the most ordinary yet strangely out of time, punk but not punk! Their best song was ‘We Oppose All Rock’n’Roll’, a blistering, scornful critique of rock’n’roll as the opiate of youth. Ironically, by the time it reached the flipside of the classic ‘Ambition’ it had been renamed ‘A Different Story’ and had become their most rock’n’roll song, a bit of a pub singalong in fact.
JOE GIBBS & THE PROFESSIONALS ‘Jubilation Dub’ (African Dub Almighty Chapter 3 LP October 1978)
In 1975 Joe Gibbs and engineer Errol Thompson began a series of increasingly inventive dub LP’s that were seriously underrated on release but have gone on to become classics of the genre. Dismantling a series of commercial Jamaican singles before reintroducing the bare essentials with the minimum of effects, they used their skill and magic to transform them into avant-garde masterpieces. In the 21st century no-one cares about roots reggae or the revolutionary nature of dub. If they did I would tell them to seek out African Dub Almighty Chapter 3.
CABARET VOLTAIRE ‘Do The Mussolini / Headkick’ (Extended Play EP November 1978)
While old hippies Throbbing Gristle and shameless narcissist Genesis P Orridge gather all the plaudits, it was Cabaret Voltaire who finally convinced my generation of sonic terrorists they could create their own music. Caricatured as dark, shadowy, Sheffield, doom mongers with a liking for Letraset artwork and shortwave interference, Richard H. Kirk, Stephen Mallinder and Chris Watson’s first EP of snotty garage electronica for dummies provided all the inspiration we needed to create something strange and wonderful, maybe even danceable, out of the disease and decay.
THE FALL ‘Frightened’ (Live At The Witch Trials LP January 1979)
GLAXO BABIES ‘Who Killed Bruce Lee?’ (This Is Your Life EP March 1979)
In the final year of the seventies I listened religiously to John Peel, 10pm till midnight, Monday to Thursday. Lost in the squalor of bedsit land with no cash for records, I would sit night after night, my finger poised over the pause button of my cassette player recording C90 after C90; a post punk education on ferric oxide. As Peel favourites The Fall featured heavily. Try as I might I just couldn’t escape them, as if Mark Smith was hunting me down for being the soft, middle class, southern wanker he undoubtedly would have thought I was. Bristol’s Glaxo Babies one decent moment also came from those Peel tapes, a cracking, forgotten record now erased from history.
THE POP GROUP ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil’ (Single A Side March 1979)
The moment post punk got the funk, The Pop Group came from Bristol like the Glaxo Babies but Mark Stewart and his cohorts were far more radical, intent on melding punk, funk, free jazz and Marxism. It’s extraordinary now to think that records like this ever got made in the first place, never mind that they became so enormously influential and critically acclaimed.
WILLIE WILLIAMS ‘Armagideon Time’ (Single A Side March 1979)
According to the Rasta’s Armageddon was just around the corner, Willie Williams brilliant underground anthem just one in a series of musical prophecies predicting Babylon’s Judgement Day, when only the righteous would be spared. Of course Joe Strummer would rewrite ‘Armagideon Time’ without the religion for the B Side of ‘London Calling’ a few months later, but even The Clash couldn’t match the fire and brimstone of the original.
THE MONOCHROME SET ‘Eine Symphonie Des Grauens’ (Single A Side April 1979)
‘Eine Symphonie Des Grauens’ was my idea of pop in 1979. The Set were a funny band with a funny singer called Bid and a funny guitarist called Lester Square. I loved them but no-one else did.
THE CURE ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ (Three Imaginary Boys LP May 1979)
1979 didn’t start well. After three years of powders, pills and potions I was a mess. Trapped in my own head, I would sit motionless for hours with the curtain drawn and cigarette smoke choking the room as a terrifying feeling of desolation took hold. Convinced my world was about to end, if I stared in a mirror I’d watch as my eyes gradually burnt gaping black holes in my face. Six foot two inches and ten stone of nothingness, I sought solace in the handful of records I’d managed to hang onto, Three Imaginary Boys and Robert Smith's own tales of misery keeping me company through the long, lonely days as the bells of Christ Church ticked off every passing hour.
FATAL MICROBES ‘Violence Grows’ (Single A Side May 1979)
In spirit a punk record pure and proper but one which chose to slither along at a malevolent half-speed in an obviously post punky manner, ‘Violence Grows’ was a song indelibly linked to its time that was not so much angry as resigned to a smalltown, late seventies existence of footie aggro, razor gangs, stabbings, council estate no go zones, NF skinheads, the SUS laws, lowest common denominator TV, cheap smack and glue sniffing.
TUBEWAY ARMY ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ (Single A Side May 1979)
‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ sent the reviled Gary Numan super nova, famously adored by a legion of teens identifying with his images of dehumanisation and despair. In the early eighties I took up with one of them, a lonely, messed up, looking for love kind of girl who swore her two year old son was his. Laughable I know but the weird thing was, as the boy grew older he did have an undeniable, slightly scary resemblance to our favourite Cyber-God.
TALKING HEADS ‘Heaven’ (Fear Of Music LP August 1979)
Talking Heads were too American, too arty and too clever by half but my brother played them all the time so Fear Of Music was an album I knew well, ‘Heaven’ a song I heard a lot.
THIS HEAT ’24 Track Loop’ (This Heat LP September 1979)
Spare cash for records was always in short supply, the only way to buy new stuff being to sell off the old first. Luckily my local second hand record dealer Barry Wall not only gave me a good price, he also happened to be a part time Lemon Kitten, the most well-known, unknown group in my hometown. Plied with tea and cake by his lovely Mum, once the bartering had been done I spent many an hour being educated in the relative merits of the Kittens, Karl Blake’s Daark Inc tapes, the European avant-garde and experimental, ground breaking outfits like This Heat, with Baz only too happy to supply cassette copies of the records I couldn’t afford to buy.
THE SLITS ‘Newtown’ (Cut LP September 1979)
The Slits were a feral girl gang, amateur urchin beauties scratching their way through a fucking horrible, squalling racket. I adored them yet prayed to God that they would never release a record because I knew it would be crap. Then over two years later came the miraculous transformation of Cut and its songs about marriage, sexism, possessive love, heroin, consumerism, TV and radio, suburbia and all the familiar enemies of the post punk world. The Slits point blank refusal to believe in that grim reality allowed them to imagine a future of infinite possibilities and create a record that is still the greatest denial of an oppressive and repressive Britain ever, ironically just at the point when the eighties hammer came crashing down. It lifts my heart every time I hear it.
JOY DIVISION ‘Transmission’ (Single A Side October 1979)
If punk was the ultimate ‘fuck off’, sooner or later someone was going to say 'I'm fucked' and that was Joy Division. Being fucked myself I wasn’t interested, but as the months rolled by I became quite taken with ‘Transmission’. With everything already in place by the time of their second record, Joy Division reshaped rock’n’roll more than any other group here but what really caught my attention was mad, junkie producer Martin Hannett’s brittle, spacious sound, sculpted to go hand in glove with Ian Curtis’s ancient, otherworldly voice implying that dancing to the radio was going to be the last thing he would ever do.
THE CLASH ‘Guns Of Brixton’ (London Calling LP December 1979)
Back in 1976 the impact of the Sex Pistols had been a shock, like electric paddles on a dying heart. But they didn’t know, and more to the point didn’t care, about the road to recovery. Luckily, with their natural sincerity and desire for truth The Clash stepped into the breach and threw us a lifeline. They were an obvious rallying point and by creating a feeling of ‘We can do anything’ provided a tangible sense of belonging. And yet by the tail end of the decade, as we all awaited Thatcher’s gleeful destruction of community and consensus, that feeling was long gone.
Then, just when we needed it most, London Calling came along to inject some good old fashioned, idealistic, romantic hope into our lives. Easily escaping punk’s rigid constraints, it introduced a whole new world in which the traumas of the past, present and future were dismissed by simply rocking out. Of course, we all knew that the righteousness and naivety were ridiculous but that’s what The Clash were all about; an absolutely unshakeable faith in the redemptive power of rock’n’roll at a time when it still seemed perfectly reasonable for representatives of a youth culture to change the world.