In which Alvin falls in love... with the Ramones and moves in with his like-minded first serious girlfriend, sees first hand the burgeoning punk rock explosion of '77, swaps his Man in the Street job to try to take on the Rage, but is knocked back by a future cool 'Youth' as well as some not so pleasant moronic youths, who are being wound up and led by the punk punishing press...
ALVANISED by witnessing the mighty Ramones in the flesh I sacrificed the subsequent day’s intake of food and drink during my work lunch-break to seek out their debut self-titled album from my customary record store. I became a passionate admirer of choice songs like ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, ‘Beat on the Brat’, ‘Judy is a Punk’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You’, and loved (still love) that iconic cover photo (pictured right): a stark, monochromic study of the band, hands shoved deep into the pockets of threadbare Levis, torsos and feet sheltered by leather jackets and tattered converse sneakers, collectively looking like one of the more menacing New York gangs that would later feature in that most excellent 1979 cult movie, ‘The Warriors’.
Concurrent with this new musical infatuation I began seeing woman on a regular basis for the first time. I’d previously indulged in a couple of one night stands and even dated a duo of girls for a few weeks apiece before deliberately sabotaging these liaisons by becoming exceptionally unreliable and distant. Karen was different. Having met at a party I quickly discovered she possessed an intelligence and an ironic sense of humour that had been sorely lacking in those other women. I was eighteen at the time; she had just turned seventeen and was studying for her A-level exams at a Catholic girl’s school called Coloma, which is situated in a leafy, fairly affluent part of South Croydon.
We began our association by going to see a lot of movies together. For our initial date the film we mutually selected was Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’, during the year of its cinematic release in 1976. Now this tale of alienation and obsession with its child prostitution sub-plot, graphic violence and underlying darkness was not exactly the archetypal first-date movie, but the fact she was curious enough to want to see it indicates why I liked her enough to pursue an exclusive relationship. After each movie shared we would kind of verbally dissect the films for hours over cups of coffee in some low rent café in town and often got so immersed in conversation that she’d frequently end up missing her last bus home and would have to stay overnight with me at my parents’ place. Her folks were pretty unimpressed about this at first but we unashamedly fabricated the lie that she slept on her own on the living room couch and they sweetly believed us.
As well as being very informed about film, Karen was also far more knowledgeable about other subjects I held a keen interest in such as literature, science and art. She could easily demolish some of my more uninformed opinions on these matters in debate, but I managed to turn her on to some new music, took her to some of my favourite medieval castles in Kent and Surrey, imbued in her my love of history (the one topic that I seemed to possess more knowledge about than she), and kept her amused with my fantasies about one day becoming a professional musician and all those other seemingly impossible pieces of wishful thinking that I obsessed about at that age.
It was a companionable and well-matched teenage relationship.
She wasn’t so impressed by what she had seen and heard about the emerging musical/cultural movement called Punk Rock though. Initially her musical tastes erred towards Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell and other related bands and artists with parallel passive melodic approaches rather than the intimidating attitudes and noise of the Sex Pistols, and the new breed that were following in their provocative footsteps. So as the year that two sevens clashed began in earnest I set off alone to witness whatever fresh Punk bands were playing in London and slowly began to get the measure of these new sounds and postures that were beginning to flourish in our disunited kingdom.
During 1977 I caught up with the Stranglers again, this time getting it, especially that snarling bass sound emanating from Jean-Jacques Burnel’s amplifier and Hugh Cornwell’s insistent misanthropic vocal style. I saw the Damned, Chelsea, the Saints, X-Ray Spex, the Jam, and one evening travelled by train and tube to the Covent Garden district of London’s West End to check out a recently formed group called Generation X (pictured right) at the Roxy club in Neal Street. This venue may now have been awarded some kind of legendary status but in truth it was a small, fetid shithole of a place. The PA system was pretty rank too, although not dire enough to prevent me from enjoying the musical approach Mr. Idol and his band had adopted. I could detect snatches of Bowie, New York Dolls, Iggy and T. Rex in the songs that each performed with an infectious youthful enthusiasm and a progressive sense of style… I really liked their stencilled Pop Art T-shirts and the way that they had successfully blended elements of Glam Rock into what was never-the-less, a resolutely contemporary look and sound.
I won’t bore you with a comprehensive list of first wave Punk bands I saw that year for reasons related to tedium and repetition, but as well as catching as many Punk Rock shows as were financially and geographically possible I also pretty much purchased every record from these new bands as they quickly acquired record companies (there was suddenly a competitive frenzy amongst the music industry to sign themselves up a Punk outfit in 1977), and subsequently released a debut single or album. Out of all those ’77 Punk records the one piece of vinyl that had the most impact on me at the time was the primary album from the Clash. What a fucking record! Every track on that album is a killer cut. With its stripped-down rudimentary production and performance approach it was a master class in how to deconstruct classic rock ‘n’ roll and rejuvenate it with some contemporary relevance and excitement. The cover was also the antithesis of the asinine Sci-Fi fantasy concepts that had adorned records by the likes of Yes and ELP. As with the music that it enclosed, the sleeve for ‘The Clash’ was stylistically utilitarian, politically aware and decisively modern - a fine merger of the essential elements that would come to define the Punk genre.
Buying and hearing that record for the first time really marked my acceleration of interest in that still embryonic but palpably growing musical singularity which the British media had taken to calling Punk Rock. For me it was, and still is, not only the finest Punk rock record from that first wave period but also one the finest records ever made per se, up there with ‘Exile on Main Street’, or ‘Are You Experienced’, or any other certified classic from the rock music canon that you might care to consider.
I desperately wanted to get on and start playing this kind of music and tried pushing the group I was working with, Man in the Street (pictured right), to move away from their fundamentally standard format R & B based original material to a more faster, more current Clash/Ramones influenced set of songs. The only member who showed any enthusiasm for this proposed change was the lead guitarist, Peter Learmouth. Pete was about the same age as me and likewise an early convert to Punk. The other guys were older and opposed to what one of them claimed would be a case of ‘jumping on a passing bandwagon’. Like many others, they believed Punk was a transitory fad and judged any attempt to modernise our sound as a pointless, short-term move. Frustrated by their resistance Pete and I quit the band and made plans to get our own group together. We became good friends but never actually got our projected Punk band out of the starting blocks. He had written a six episode script in his spare time about a group of dubious, exceptionally incompetent builders which he’d entitled ‘Cowboys’. A commissioning editor at ITV television had read and liked this work and with a lucrative contract in the offing Pete hung up his Telecaster guitar to pursue the life of a successful TV script writer. His writing credits would go on to include the popular 1980s comedy series ‘Surgical Spirit’, and the French and Saunders farce ‘Let Them Eat Cake’.
Although band-less again I put the career advancement temporarily on hold to attend to other issues, such as moving away from the family home. Karen’s father was an optician with premises on the high street of Sydenham, SE London. He owned the entire property which also consisted of three bedrooms, lounge, kitchen, toilet and bathroom situated over three floors, both behind and above his place of business. Having already moved the entire family out to a new home in the nearby town of Beckenham he suggested that Karen and I might rent this property as she was spending more and more time staying over at my parents’ place with me and he thought this would be a practical way for both his wife and himself to occasionally see their daughter.
Karen had by this point turned eighteen and taken an administrative job working for New Scotland Yard in the Victoria area of London. I was still serving and clearing away meals, emptying commodes and assisting the elderly inmates of Davidson Lodge. We were therefore both earning and her father kindly offered us the entire house for a mere £5 a week apiece. At that price it seemed positively churlish not to agree to his proposal. So in mid-1977 I packed up my bass gear, my records and clothes, left the Monk’s Hill council estate and started playing house in earnest with my girlfriend.
Pictured right: At the Sydenham house circa 1978. Note the classic 1970s wallpaper and Art Nouveau posters from Athena - a very popular supplier of such items during that decade.
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With the digs out of the way I refocused on getting back in a band. There didn’t seem to be any appropriate outfits looking for a bass guitarist locally, so I took the route that many musicians at this time resorted to in order to get themselves into a suitable playing situation. I scoured the back pages of Melody Maker to see if there was anything worth trying out for in the ‘Musicians Wanted’ section.
There I discovered an intriguing ‘bassist urgently needed’ advertisement that had been placed by a new band formed by ‘a name Punk musician’. I duly contacted the given telephone number and a matter-of-fact voice instructed me to get myself to a long forgotten rehearsal studio that following evening.
Having caught the train to central London clutching my dependable Hayman bass I eventually found the location using an A-to-Z of the city and was quickly ushered into a small room by someone who exhibited all the telling hallmarks of being a management figure (suit, condescending manner, gratuitous air of superiority). There, awaiting the next name on an extensive list of those to be auditioned, stood a guitarist with short spiky jet black dyed hair and correspondingly dyed thick eyebrows, a-la Groucho Marx, who proffered me a weak smile and said his name was Riff. To Riff’s left, sat behind a drum kit, was someone I instantly recognised from photos I’d seen in the innovative and increasingly popular Xeroxed Punk fanzine called Sniffin’ Glue and from going to the Roxy for the aforementioned gig as John Towe, drummer to Generation X. I figured he must be the ‘name’ Punk musician referred to in the Melody Maker advert.
Pictured right and below: Messing around on the coolest looking instrument I've ever owned - my silver and black Burn's Concorde bass. At the Sydenham House circa 1978. My then girlfriend Karen took these pictures.
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He insisted he’d quit Gen X (I later discovered he’d been fired) in order to put together his own band, which with an admirable degree of fashionable primal angst he’d entitled, the Rage. There was a UK tour pending supporting the Adverts and a record deal in the pipeline for the successful applicant. With these attractive propositions in mind I carefully listened to the chord sequence Riff said constituted the spine of the first song and on John Towe’s four-count on his high-hat I unleashed the Hayman through an Acoustic brand amp and speaker hired especially for these audio interviews.
By the time I’d jammed my way through the fourth song of the evening (being invited to play more than one composition at an audition is always good news) I was pretty confident I’d made a worthy impression. John took me aside for a chat after the musical part of the try-out and opened up with “well you certainly can play, which is more than can be said for the majority of the idiots we’ve had turning up here these last couple of days”. He then asked me if there was any impediment to my taking off to do a tour in a couple of weeks. I firmly replied “none what so ever”. We shook hands and I headed back to Sydenham convinced that I was about to join my first Punk Rock band.
It didn’t happen. I found out some years later that it came down to me and one other contender. John had wanted me in but Riff thought the other guy was worth a shot. The manager had the deciding vote. Based on the fact that my rival bassist wore his T-shirt inside-out (an early and thankfully brief Punk fashion affectation) he argued that, Martin ‘Youth’ Glover (my rival candidate), had the trendy edge over me and had cast his vote accordingly. The Rage went on to do that support tour with the Adverts and then abruptly imploded when John Towe jumped ship to join the headline band after TV Smith found himself drummer-less following Laurie Driver‘s departure. Youth, as he came to be more commonly known, went on to play bass for Killing Joke before becoming a very successful record producer with credits that include The Verve, U2 and Marilyn Manson. No idea what happened to Riff.
John Towe, as with Stray soundman Dave Flockton, whose name you may recall cropped up in an earlier episode of these memoirs, is also going to be one of those people who will make a significant re-appearance in my life. This will be a re-occurring feature of these chronicles, a succession of particular characters drifting in and out of my career path to enhance or impair, challenge or support. Now if I was someone even vaguely interested in mystical explanations I would suppose there must be some kind of Karmic influence at work here, a cosmically predestined set of circumstances allowing for specific persons to turn up, depart, then re-appear during opportune times in my life; but being an innate existentialist I know that these connections are simply nothing more than that benevolent trio of children: opportunity, chance, and providential error.
It was during that summer of 1977, or more specifically after the release of the Sex Pistols’ scathing study of the obsolete role that our reigning monarch was engaged in during that jubilee year (and, judging by the lyrical content, every other year), that things became considerably more unpleasant for Punk rockers. The prior winter had set in motion a general revulsion towards the increasing numbers of people attracted to the banner of Punk Rock via a foul mouthed, very entertaining appearance by the Pistols and their entourage on a live early evening TV entertainment show called Today. This mildly insubordinate piece of theatre provoked a gathering wave of fear and loathing in the land that was wholly disproportionate to the event that had been its catalyst. Initially no more than a small swell of public disapproval, its eventual inflation to national hate and revulsion was deliberately finessed by the British tabloid press using ‘The Filth and the Fury’ style identikit headlines and the uniformed scrawl of journalists whose careers depended on finding sensationalism and vice in just about every story they were obliged to cover. The Daily Mirror asked the rhetorical question ‘Who are These Punks?’ having already decided we were each participants in a violent, anarchic faction dedicated to the destruction of western civilisation and the casual murder of middle-class, middle-aged folk in their beds.
This farcical reputation brought with it a fair degree of friction with the non-Punk world. But the hatred index really skyrocketed when the single ‘God Save the Queen’ was unleashed and a popular consensus developed that all Punk rockers were collectively accountable for mocking and disrespecting her majesty at a time when deference and enforced gratitude towards a fundamentally medieval institution was the mandatory position.
Encouraged by these crude perceptions espoused by the popular press, it seemed that the entire country suddenly had a beef with anybody who seemed even vaguely visually connected to this ‘bizarre youth cult’, as that bastion of disinformation, the Sun newspaper, had demeaned the emerging look and stance. Soul boys, bikers, skins, longhaired denim-wearing heavy metal types, labourers, most of the constabulary and a substantial segment of the population that we liked to call ‘straights’ - those who lived traditional nine-to-five existences, drove Ford Cortina’s, thought Jim Davidson funny and distained anything dissident that didn’t conform to their acceptable norms - reviled Punk; and consequentially a significant number actively took it upon themselves to inflict physical damage upon or verbally assault anyone associated with it. How that strange Edwardian throwback subculture, the Teddy Boys, came to be at the forefront of this violence I’m still somewhat confused about.
There is a theory that this was due to Johnny Rotten having worn a drape jacket and brothel creeper shoes in an early promotional photo of the Pistols. The theory continues that certain influential elements in this distinctive social group had become enraged that this cocky, anti-authoritarian weirdo had adopted these items from the classic Teddy Boy livery and had therefore decided to reek revenge on Mr. Rotten, and, by extension, anyone like him. Possibly, but back then a fair number of these people were by disposition very conservative white working class men who endorsed the right-wing political opinions of the likes of Enoch Powell and despised anything that seemingly challenged the British establishment.
Having recently invested in some new clothes (a red shirt hosting a series of grey and black stencilled political slogans, some black plastic strides, a pair of suede Chelsea boots and an old pinstriped suit jacket that someone had artistically flecked with white paint, a-la Jackson Pollock) acquired from a stall in the Antiquaries market on Chelsea’s King’s Road one Saturday afternoon, I directly became a conspicuous target for one of these anti-Punk factions.
It was the Teddy Boys who got to me first.
It happened very quickly. I was casually making my way through Surrey Street fruit and vegetable market towards Beanos record store in central Croydon when I vaguely became aware of a group of men who were hanging around smoking cigarettes behind one of the trader’s stalls to my left. The next thing I recall is a sharp blow to the back of my head followed by a series of kicks and punches that grounded me. I covered my vulnerable skull and groin as best I could with my forearms and by the adoption of the foetal position as the blows continued the rain down for what seemed like an infinity. The only thing I remember hearing as they pounded away at my body was one of these fuckers yelling “Punk scum!” repeatedly, just in case I’d any doubts about why this assault was taking place.
Two market stallholders then intervened on my behalf brandishing brooms as makeshift weapons and my five assailants took off in the direction of the high street. I caught a brief glimpse of them as they gleefully fled into a side alley, evidently high on the violence and very satisfied that they had managed to ruin my day. Each had matching Brylcreemed DA haircuts and wore the type of clothing particularly associated with the Teddy Boy movement. Apart from a series of minor bruises I was fine, but other victims would not be so lucky. I heard of at least three fatal knifings inflicted on Punks that same summer in South London alone.
Punk has now been so comprehensively absorbed into our modern twenty-first century culture that the unprovoked violence it once engendered may seem to the many too young to have experienced those times wholly surreal and unduly exaggerated; but I can testify to the unalloyed fact that in that wondrous and terrible year of 1977 you could literally be murdered in this nation for the offence of being a Punk Rocker.
Tune in next time as...
...our hero finally joins his first punk band but quickly discovers why the Users are so named; becomes a friend to an eccentric, sometimes difficult borderline genius who will soon produce a landmark album from the mighty Clash; again utilises the invaluable services of Melody Maker in his quest to find the perfect Punk outfit, and upon setting up home with his girlfriend begins to suspect that he's impervious to house-training and unfit for domestic life...