In which Alvin witnesses the early development of Punk, gets inspired by a Spanish conquistador, becomes an adverts addict leading to him becoming a User, before his ambition leaves us on the edge of a Clift...
as a movement of deconstruction, modernity, individual artistic and sartorial expression, and as a healthy provider of a new spectrum of revitalising music, was starting to claw a hole in the cultural fabric of our nation. Aged nineteen and propitiously living in London, I was perfectly situated to absorb and be galvanised by the raw excitement and the sense of insurrection generated by these times. Having harnessed myself to this evolving entity I felt I was part of something innovative and important, one of the shock troops of tomorrow, a witness to the changing of the guard.
But it also had become open season on anyone seemingly connected to our species. The tabloid press had started a hate campaign that was bearing violent fruit and merely wandering around the town or city centres of the UK had became a dangerous activity for Punk rockers.
Even a pair of the Sex Pistols had been cut up in the street by a gang of razor wielding, Punk hating morons and, every week, there was further news of various other acts of violence that had been inflicted on our kind. I took to wearing a studded leather belt which I could quickly unbuckle and wrap around my fist as a makeshift weapon when approached by anyone I suspected of having hostile intensions.
As well as these physical affronts, the BBC had reacted to the press onslaught during the silver Jubilee celebration week by rigging their charts so that Rod Stewart’s insipid offering ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About it’ took the number one spot over the true pole position single - the glorious anti-monarchy anthem that was the Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’.
Still, despite such shameless shenanigans, a number of the new bands were beginning to get TV exposure on mainstream shows such as Top of the Pops; and my Glam rock hero, Marc Bolan, demonstrated his enthusiasm for the new wave by inviting various Punk outfits to perform on his late afternoon music extravaganza entitled ‘Marc’.
I continued going to as many gigs and buying as many records as financially feasible and took trips up to the Kings Road and Kensington Market to supplement my expanding Punk wardrobe with various items of clothing. I used to visit charity shops a lot too. There among the racks of discarded stale-smelling garments I would occasionally find a cool beat-up leather jacket or a promising shirt or two that I could punkify with paint splatters and stencilled slogans. DIY was a major part of early Punk philosophy.
What also strikes me about ’77 Punk was how different all the bands were, both stylistically, and musically from each other. And yet despite these disparities there was none-the-less, a detectable connection born of each group’s native originality and their determination to diverge from the clichéd mainstream rock fashion and music tastes of that decade. The Sex Pistols were as different from the Banshees as the Banshees were from the Clash; the Buzzcocks were as notably different from the Damned as they were in comparison to the Stranglers, and so on. This variety and uniqueness was a great strength. It meant that there was no predetermined look or sound required to be included in the movement. All that was necessary was a fresh approach and attitude, and a healthy disdain for the turgid swill that still generally continued to pass for popular music on the radio.
By 1978 I was getting very frustrated that I had not yet succeeded in joining a Punk band and became deeply dissatisfied with the uncomfortable fact that I was still working at a residential home for the elderly. I started to take a lot of sick days off and my new Punk look had not exactly endeared me to the very straight and conservative Davidson Lodge management team. I was eventually reported to my official employer, Croydon town council, for these offences and formally asked to an interview at the head office with the big cheese of social services to discuss ‘any problems’ and to offer an explanation for my ‘untidiness and sickness record’. (Letter reproduced right)
In retrospect I guess they had every reason for being pissed off with my surly demeanour and for the evident lack of enthusiasm I exhibited for a job that they, after all, paid me a reasonable wage for. Back then though, aged nineteen, I thought the whole episode humiliating and unnecessary and acted as if I was the victim of some terrible conspiracy to oust anyone who didn’t fit in with their ideas of how a conventional employee should look and behave. It was, of course, a pretty immature point of view. The unprocessed truth was that I was simply not happy doing a regular job and working regular hours. I needed to do something quickly to extricate myself from what I believed was a dead-end occupation and achieve the goal I had set myself of playing bass guitar professionally, especially during this fertile time when so much was changing and happening in rock music.
The inspiration for my next and decisive move came from an unexpected source. I’ve always read a lot of history and one lunchtime I strolled into the town centre to visit the bookstores to check out the latest historical titles. I found a book on the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth century entitled ‘Conquistadors’. In regards to the subjugation and eventual destruction of the Aztec civilisation, I read that when the commander in charge of that nefarious expedition, Hernán Cortés, first arrived on the coast of Mexico his men were so fearful and reluctant to enter into the unknown jungle in search of the assured cities of gold that he feared an insurrection was imminent. Cortés immediately ordered all the ships that had conveyed them across the ocean burned. By this method, the general’s unwilling army was left with no other choice but to press on.
That afternoon I quit my job. I was obliged to work another two weeks in order to give them the requisite time to find a replacement, but after the fourteen days were up I was finally free of all work commitments and able to focus entirely on my need to find an operational Punk outfit. I had burned my ships - no guaranteed income, no regular work - but it had to be done. I couldn’t turn back now.
I had a little money in the bank, enough I figured to frugally live on and to cover my rent for about three months. As I had anticipated, my impulsive decision was not universally applauded. When I told my parents why I had quit they really couldn’t get their heads round the notion of leaving a decent paying job during a time of such high unemployment without having already having found something solid to replace it. Karen (pictured right), the girlfriend I had set up house with in Sydenham, also had some difficulty coming to terms with my plan of action. I explained that if I hadn’t resigned I would have eventually been sacked anyway, or drifted along and become more discouraged and frustrated at not accomplishing what I had managed to convince myself I was destined to achieve - it’s amazing how a false sense of destiny can sometimes provide positive consequences. So now I had to prove that abandoning my safe and conventional method of making a living was the right way to proceed.
I turned to the means I had utilised to get my audition with The Rage. I scoured the back pages of Melody Maker every week, selecting a couple of ads for working bands needing bassists. Having phoned and arranged auditions with the respective groups I would haul my instrument around London to the various rehearsal rooms and locations given. In certain cases I would go into a room, glimpse the Denim flared trousers and feather-cut hair, and walk straight back out again without even bothering to say ‘Hi’.
I knew what kind of band I wanted to be part of, but it took me some months of being disappointed and speculating on why I was wasting my time and depleting my savings on train and tube fares before I spotted an ad that struck me as having all the right ingredients for a worthy tryout.
As soon as I went into the rehearsal room located in Chelsea, SW London, I knew it was definitely going to be a worthwhile experience. James, Chris and Andrew looked and dressed pretty cool for starters, and having run through some of their high-energy Punk compositions together, I was convinced they were exactly what I’d been searching for since witnessing the Ramones and embracing the new music that Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy had helped originate. They told me stories about some of the hopeless bozos they had had to suffer over the last couple of months of auditions. Relieved to have finally discovered someone on their wave length they offered me the job, there and then. To celebrate we hooked up with Dave Goodman, their record producer, in a nearby pub who ’phoned ahead and got us all on the guest list to see a fine Reggae band, Tribesman, at the Nashville Rooms in West Kensington, that same evening. Finally, I had become a member of an authentic Punk rock band - The Users.
Above: Tribesman's 'Finsbury Park' 12" single from 1979 - co-produced by Dave Goodman.
The Users were from Cambridge, where the three remaining original members still lived despite having to spend a fair degree of time in the capital rehearsing and taking care of various other aspects of band business. I managed to convince them that if they relocated to London full time we’d make a lot more progress in getting new songs together and hashing out a set, and to this end offered up my house on Sydenham High Street as a place for them to live and rehearse. I’d figured the front room would be our rehearsal room as we had no neighbours and with it being windowless, the resulting noise would be almost undetectable to the exterior world. They would live and sleep in the two unoccupied bedrooms located on the second floor of the house.
Thing was… I hadn’t discussed this plan ahead of time with my girlfriend Karen before putting it into effect. She came home from work on the day they moved in to discover a large drum kit, amplifiers, speaker cabinets, a small but powerful PA system, a number of mics and microphone stands, and a collection of guitars and basses all set up in the living room instead of the comfy sofa, TV and dining table and chairs that had been in situ when she had set out for work that morning, each removed to other parts of the house in order to make room for the equipment; plus she suddenly had to deal with three complete strangers living in our house. I took her to the pub to calm her down. A series of double vodkas eventually soothed Karen’s nerves somewhat as I desperately set about trying to explain the practical benefits of this arrangement. It took awhile to get her to understand my point of view and required the calming effect of a number of further drinks but she agreed to give it a go and see how things transpired over the next couple of months. I really was an inconsiderate dickhead. She, in sharp contrast, was a very selfless and understanding woman.
A succinct history of my time with the Users goes as follows: We rehearsed up a set of strong material in the house and played some shows together. One week Dave Goodman (who, incidentally, had been the Sex Pistols’ live soundman and record producer) came down with some portable recording equipment. He set up his tape machines and other apparatus in my kitchen and by utilising the lounge as a live room we recorded a number of tracks (about ten, I think) for a potential album. I recall the titles of just two of the newer songs captured on tape during these sessions. One was called ‘Now That It’s Over’, the other ‘Fear and Loathing’… lead singer James Haight was a great fan of the American writer Hunter S. Thompson and had been inspired by this novelists seminal work, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’.
That novel featured a lot of drug taking and after living with James and the other two for a few months it became apparent why they were all so attached to this book. They constantly had a spliff on the go, which they would incessantly pass back and forth between them and sometimes offer to me. I always refused. Not on the grounds that I had anything against smoking marijuana or hash per se, but because I neither liked the taste nor the behavioural results inhaling exotic herbs had on my person after having already pursued that avenue of potential pleasure at a party some years earlier. If your thing is to incessantly smoke weed and you can handle it, then by all means have at it; but if it started to adversely influence your work commitments and your sense of purpose it would seem sensible to cut down or even curtail this behaviour.
They would take off for Cambridge, ostensibly to see friends or family, to attend a party or social event they had been invited to and having said they would return for some item of band business on the Monday - rehearsals, booking gigs, sending out press statements, working on the album with Dave - they increasingly would turn up two or three days late, leaving me to do what I could to keep the wheels turning on the band’s ailing chassis, on my own.
It began to feel like it was a case of them and me rather than a unified collection of people working towards the same objective. I guess I was hungrier for success, more ambitious and driven than the other three. Their blasé, capricious approach to the band’s career really got me down. The thing that really made me angry was that we sounded so good. Both James and guitarist Chris Free were excellent songwriters, and the tracks we had recorded for the album sounded killer; but by the early months of 1979 it became very apparent that as good as they were as players, performers and writers they simply didn’t possess the drive or discipline necessary to move the group forward.
I pushed them as best I could and we kind of coasted on for a few more months together. Things came to a dramatic head when they collectively took off for Cambridge midweek knowing full well that we had a gig booked to support Gene October’s Chelsea at the Marquee club in London that Friday. They turned up at the Sydenham house on the Sunday. I can’t remember exactly what excuse they had for missing such an important show but I certainly was in no mood for weak explanations or clemency. At my visceral insistence, they were obliged to get their gear out of my house the following morning and forcefully instructed to ‘do one’ back up the M11 to Cambridge. By the next day I’d calmed down somewhat and we had a friendly farewell drink in the local before they got around to taking my advice.
Below: Ephemera from a Users gig on 26 May 1979 - click images to enlarge.
T&M acknowledges the fabulous boredteenagers website for these images.
Later that year, following the Mod revival that had occurred in the wake of the release of the film Quadrophenia, I ran into James, Chris and Andrew in a club in London. They were wearing Fred Perry shirts, pork pie hats and suchlike, and had formed a mod band with a typically sixties retro name, either 'the Vespas' or 'the Selections', or something of that nature. This came as no surprise as I’d figured out early on they were very faddish. We shared a beer together, I wished them well, and then determinedly went about my business.
I didn’t dwell on the break-up of The Users. I got straight back into that old routine of buying Melody Maker each week to check out the ‘Musicians Wanted’ ads. I know I tried out for and failed an audition for Toyah Wilcox’s band during this period, which, quite honestly, I wasn’t too cut up about. It became a case of once again visiting various rehearsal rooms around London in search of something musically suitable. Despite the premature demise of my first genuine Punk band I maintained a pretty positive state of mind. This sense of well being was further enhanced when I took Karen to see Crystal Palace FC play their last game of the 1978/79 season at Selhurst Park against Burnley. We needed a win to clinch the Second Division championship and gain re-promotion to the top flight. After watching a glorious 2-0 Palace win, we celebrated with a meal out and stopped by our local pub on Sydenham High Street on the way home for a couple of drinks.
Above: Coverage of Crystal Palace gaining promotion in 1979. It's a Swindle-hurst!
As we sat drinking and talking I started to take notice of a man in a booth just to the right of us. He looked really dishevelled. His clothes were covered in beer stains and his receding curly hair had obviously not encountered the benefits of water or shampoo for some time. He was scribbling away with a biro in the printed pages of a paperback book and muttering to himself. Suddenly he screamed out “Montgomery Clift… Yes, Yes, Yes, Montgomery Clift!” We were both startled by this, but worse still, he had caught our gaze, emerged from the booth and was now heading our way.
‘Oh great’ I thought; ‘now we’ve got the local nutter coming to join us’. I was getting ready to impress on him in strong terms that we were not looking for company that evening (in his case, any evening) when he spiked my preloaded rejection by pointing a finger at me and asserted in a loud, persuasive voice:
“You’re a rock musician!”
“Er… yes, that’s true, I am a rock musician, of sorts”, I feebly replied.
“I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!”, he yelled, and without waiting for an invitation flopped himself down on one of the spare chairs at our table.
“What’s that you’re reading?” Karen gamely asked.
He held up the heavily punished paperback he had been scrawling in and proclaimed, “This, my dear, is the biography of one the greatest actors ever to grace the silver screen…” the volume of his voice then increased by fifty decibels (minimum), and he shrieked “Montgomery Clift, Montgomery Clift!” over and over for a good minute before the barman yelled out that he would eject him from the pub if he didn’t “bloody well shut up” immediately. This had the desired effect. Having calmed down, he drank a last mouthful from his beer glass and asked for our names. Having obliged him he then offered us his.
“My name is Guy Stevens”, and I know a bit about rock ‘n’ roll myself.”
Tune in next time...
In which our worldly-unwise but eager bass player discovers that friendship with the late, great Guy Stevens can be a very difficult proposition; joins Brian James' Brains, thus getting to perform in Europe with the ex-Damned guitarist before large numbers of people beyond his experience and expectation in support of the Police; samples the delights of sharing a bill with Irish rockers Thin Lizzy in venues conducive to his aspirations as one of Alan Lee-Shaw's Physicals; before, for reasons of professional expedience, metamorphosing into a Hellion...