Alvin Gibbs has taken his career in new directions. In addition to playing with the band, and the Godfather of punk, Iggy Pop, among others, he became an author with the publication of ‘Destroy – The definitive history of Punk’ and ‘Neighbourhood Threat – On tour with Iggy Pop’. Both books have been published in English and French, and he has also written a screenplay, based on an unpublished novel. He is also currently publishing his autobiography on this website.
Band members come and go in the music industry, but within the UK Subs, member turnover has been phenomenal. Although Charlie remains the only constant, at one stage even he admitted to having two touring bands, a UK and USA version! Including current members, and at the last count (Sept 2011), the band have entertained 21 guitarists, 17 bass players and 32 drummers. Given their longevity (1977-2011), and including Charlie's harmonica and rhythm guitar contribution, that equates to 71 musicians in 35 years, with an average turnover of 2 musicians a year.
Charlie was born David Charles Perez on 25th May 1944, in the Elephant & Castle area of London. A musician of long standing, with a passion for R&B, Charlie’s daytime profession was that of hairdresser, operating a salon called ‘Daisies’, in the Tooting High Street. Prior to this, he had travelled and busked his way around Europe, and in particular France, singing and playing harmonica and acoustic guitar, he hung out with the Rolling Stones (earning the nickname ‘Charlie Stones’), and was taught by a young Rod Stewart how to play blues harmonica. As a musician, he played in several R&B outfits before moving to punk, including Charlie Harper’s Free Press, The Marauders, Fast Buck and Bandana.
Damned (The), not as in cursed, but in the band that inspired Charlie to adopt a punk guise and join the burgeoning scene of the time. Originally an R&B musician, Charlie changed his tune (no pun intended) after seeing the Damned, and attending the various clubs that were supporting the then embryonic and emerging punk scene. "I was going to the clubs in London, and saw the whole punk scene happening, and I wanted to be part of it. Me and Richard (Anderson) started writing numbers that would eventually be Subs numbers, and then I joined a band a friend of mine had. They had a great name, the Subversives, which got shortened down to the Subs. Then we heard about the Scottish band called the Subs, who had rescued old ladies from snowdrifts in Scotland, so we changed the name of the band."1 Charlie had been to the Roxy, and witnessed sets by the Damned and Sex Pistols. The Damned, in particular, were a strong influence. He said "I was in The Marauders at the time, so I said to my band ‘you’ve got to come down and see these bands, they’re really wild'. I got them down there one night when the Damned were on, and they were amazed. They came away saying ‘we want to be a punk band’. I said ‘hey, that’s great stuff, but I’m too old for that.’ "2 Yet 35 years later, he’s still performing as a punk rocker, with no sign of age slowing him down!
Endangered species they are not, having survived for 35 years as a recording and touring concern. Although fame and fortune may have eluded them at times, their musical achievements must place them among the greats of the punk rock scene:
- The UK Subs are the only British punk band to have continuously toured since formation (35 years without a break, and counting).
- They have released 23 official albums (excluding compilations and reissues), with titles running from the letters A to W (with X on the way).
- Achieved 7 consecutive British Top 50 single positions.
- And 4 consecutive British Top 30 albums positions.
- Enjoyed 8 appearances on Top of the Pops (7 of which were televised).
- Perform around 100 gigs a year, including many on international shores.
- Have played approx. 3,500 live gigs since 1977.
- Are one of the few bands to have appeared in their own documentary, and certainly one of the earliest to have enjoyed an official cinematic release, with the Julian Temple directed ‘Punk can take it’.
Famous people are not usually associated with the band. However, they can count, among their support base, film producer Julian Temple (‘Punk can take it’ documentary), BBC DJ John Peel (who wanted to finance their first single), Joey Ramone, Lemmy (Motorhead), Henry Rollins (Black Flag /Rollins Band), Izzy Stadlin (Guns N Roses) and Lars Frederickson (Rancid). There have also been a few detractors, the most notable one I can recall being John Lydon (nee Johnny Rotten).
Guns N Roses played a pivotal role in taking the UK Subs to the media and a new audience when they covered ‘Down on the Farm’ for their covers album ‘The Spaghetti Incident’. As track 3 on the album, after their cover of the Damned’s ‘New Rose’, Rolling Stone described both covers as ‘quick, goofy versions (of the Damned's "New Rose" and U.K. Subs' "Down on the Farm,") which Axl delivers with an English accent as contrived as that of any Orange County hard core singer.’ The Gunners only played the song live once, at ‘Farm Aid’ IV, the annual benefit for US farmers, on 7/4/1990. Charlie reminisced about the recording by saying Axl’s English accent was ‘too fake’ for the song, while the financial contribution was not as significant as it could have been. Charlie takes up the story, ‘the Guns N' Roses thing is a very sad thing because the NME wrote we were gonna get £100,000 from it. The initial money, our money from the song, was around £100,000, but by the time it got through our publisher, who was screwing us at the time, we had to have a court case against them. It came to about, taxed and through all these agencies, it was down to £30,000, and this was shared between three people . . . So we each stood to get ten grand. The thing is that our court case cost us 27 grand. So we had to pay that and we ended up getting a grand each. So it was a very sad affair but we did win the case and our money started coming through to us from way back, and then we did get a whole bunch of money, like five grand, in a lump sum. It put us on the road and we could buy lots of t-shirts and do all the things we wanted to do, like get a new van.’3
Hard core fans have sustained the band for 35 years, and their support shows no sign of abating. They were pivotal to the bands survival during the lean years (the mid-eighties through to the early nineties), when the band entertained a media blackout, declining crowds, lesser quality recordings and a revolving door of members. Fans have supported them across the globe, in remote locations and major festivals. They have provided shelter, food and beverages. They have sustained them financial through ticket, CD and t-shirt sales. They have built websites, funded visual and sound material, posted clips on YouTube, photos on Flickr (among other sites), written articles and paid homage to their heroes via personal gig reviews. The UK Subs live for their fans, and the fans live for the UK Subs, an enduring relationship that will also become their legacy. For many, that relationship was born in 1977, and is very much to the fore to the present (and beyond).
India and Indonesia are two countries the band has yet to tour. Others include South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Switzerland, Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Russia, Denmark, China and the entire African continent. Many countries may be considered ‘musical voids’ for punk, but all have underground scenes, and some are quite healthy (China, Russia and Malaysia have original and cover bands, and I’ve seen locals playing punk covers in Indonesia and Thailand). Thankfully, the band added Australia and New Zealand stamps into their passports when they toured in 2007 (with a return visit to Oz in 2009, hallelujah!).
Join the UK Subs fan club! It may seem strange by today’s standards, but the band did operate their own fan club. Run by fans (including Sindy Yob, Paul Slack's sister) from 1979 until 1982, the fanclub offered exclusive and discount merchandise direct to members, which at one stage numbered 1,800 (unless someone can provide a different figure). They also issued a newsletter, handwritten in true DIY punk style, which you can view on this website.
Killing Time was released in clear vinyl, continuing a long band association with 'coloured' vinyl. C.I.D. was released in 7 different colours, Teenage came in pink, Warhead brown, Crash Course purple and, more recently, Time & Matter released a single on white. Collecting all these different colours is one of the many joys of following the band.
Live recordings have been frequent releases for the band, often when studio output was restricted by line-up changes and financial challenges. The first live album was the ‘Live Kicks' LP, although the band discounted this album from their official discography. That honour falls to ‘Crash Course’, recorded at the London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1980, it charted on 27/9/1980, achieving 8th position, and remained in the charts for 6 weeks. Its debut was a week after another live album of note, SLF’s ‘Hanx’, which first charted in week 20/9/9180, lasting 5 weeks and reaching No 9. ‘Crash Course’ also came with a free 4 track 12 inch bonus single called ‘For Export Only’, featuring 4 live tracks recorded at London’s Lyceum. Next came 'Gross Out USA', 'In Action' (which was actually recorded live in the studio) and 'Live in Paris'. The recent live LP 'Violent State' also followed the format of 'In Action' and thus brings the count to 5 official releases within the A to Z countdown. Supporting these 5 releases have been 'Live in Croatia', a bonus radio broadcast CD released with 'Normal Service Resumed', 'Europe Calling' (which included 5 studio tracks), 'Live at the Borderline', a limited bonus CD with the 'Universal' album, 'Left for Dead', a ROIR label release from a gig in Holland, 'Live in Bristol', the second CD within a ‘best of’ release, 'Staffordshire Bull' and 'Live in a Warzone' / 'A Blast in Belfast'. Although the set lists may be similar between recordings, they showcase different versions of the band, at different stages of their career, and are well worth securing for your collection, if you can locate them.
Money, that’s what I want! Yet despite their longevity, I don’t believe the UK Subs have been prolific money makers. In most cases, the money they generate from touring and t-shirt sales simply sustains the band from year to year. They may generate the odd ‘cash cow’ from time to time, but it’s rare. So don’t expect any of the members to drive fancy cars, wear flash clothing, and reside in country mansions and suburban penthouses. It’s simply not their style, and arguably, not that affordable either. Even Charlie has indicated that, in most years, the band generate just enough to pay the bills and survive through to the next year. He estimates his income to be around £15,000 per annum (and often less than most working types earn in a year, but he does it for the love, not the money!)4 So what’s the opposite end of the financial spectrum when it comes to touring revenue? Well in 2006, The Rolling Stones had the top-grossing tour of the year, bringing in US$437 million, a number that was expect to top US$500 million once a series of ‘make-up’ shows were completed. Now imagine if the Subs made that kind of money!
New Red Archives was formed by Nicky Garratt (and N is also for Nicky!), and he ranks alongside Alvin as someone who has sustained a musical career aside from the band. Based in San Francisco, the label has released material by Anti-Flag, Reagan Youth, Social Unrest and the UK Subs. Their website is also home to Nicky’s excellent tour diaries and band history articles. An original member, Nicky left the band in 1982, but later re-joined to record the ‘Killing Time’ album. He continues to perform and record periodically with the band, primarily on US and European sojourns. Offstage, Nicky is an unassuming character, who neither drinks or smokes, and often keeps to himself at gigs. But on stage he is a different character. He is 100% punk. It’s almost like Nicky has two distinct personalities!
Of course they won’t break up. In fact, despite every challenge, disappointment and band member departure, the one constant has been Charlie’s desire to sustain the band through touring. Not once has he entertained the idea of breaking up the band, even though, at one stage, he thought he’d been sacked by Nicky and Alvin!5 Like the R&B artists he adores, Charlie sustains himself through touring, a trait evident within the North American R&B scene of the fifties and sixties. Since 1977, Charlie’s played alongside 70+ band members, endured numerous label changes, seen hard times (the mid to late eighties and early nineties) and good times (several reunion tours, 30th anniversary of punk, a return to musical form with Work in Progress). He’s stood on nearly 1,600 stages, from small pubs to sporting stadiums, across 21 countries (unless there are a few I’ve missed!) and approx. 3,500 gigs. He’s worked his way through a plethora of passports, t-shirts, hotel rooms, fan bedsits, vans, planes, cars, beers and support bands. And aside from the UK Subs, he’s also found time to play as a solo act, an Urban Dog and a Harbour Rat!
Poland propelled the band into new territory when, in July 1982, they became the first western band to tour there while under Communist rule. According to Alvin Gibbs, it was “the most decadent tour I ever played with the Subs. We spent two weeks performing to upwards of ten thousand people a night in large ice hockey stadiums across the nation. For 14 days we ate caviar and drank champagne for breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper, threw Zlotys around like confetti and played punk rock for an audience of thousands that had never heard it before. We were on the national news every night, and had an armed guard wherever we went. It was like being in the Goddamn Rolling Stones.’6 Support came from Republika, who were Poland’s largest band of the time, and the venues were mostly sports stadiums (capacity from 5,000 to 12,000). The final two shows, in Warsaw, attracted 10,000 people per show, making them the biggest shows the band had headlined. Charlie recalls the gig, “it was frightening. It was in the National Skating Arena, and it just went up and up and up, and we were about six floors up (from the crowd) and we could see the people coming in at the other side of the stadium, and they looked like ants.’7
Quintessential punk lists, whether they are media, fan or journalist compilations, consistently overlook the band’s contribution to the punk rock scene. For example, they failed to generate a listing in the Rolling Stones and Kerrang ‘Top 50 Punk bands of all time’ (despite Nirvana, being listed, were they not pioneers of grunge?) Another popular rock magazine poll even had the ‘Specials’ listed. Surely not punk, more Ska me thinks? In fact, while researching the article, the only poll I found with the band listed was ‘Top 100 Punk Bands, as voted by MusicianForums.com Punk Forum users’ list, which placed ‘Another Kind of Blues’ at 5 (The Clash’s’ London Calling’ was No 2, and the Dead Kennedys were at No 1). Even NME’s excellent ‘Uncut’ series on Punk 1975-1979 had a plethora of bands listed, but no mention of the Subs. Then there’s ‘Punk: The Whole Story’, the MOJO publication from 2006. Surely this would credit the band. Nope, not one mention in its 288 pages, although a Roy Harper was mentioned! In the index, under U, the only bands listed are Undertones and Unwanted. The Unwanted, who the hell are they? Check again under A, within the index for albums, and again nothing is listed. Meanwhile, The Damned generate 13 listings, Generation X 7 and lesser lights like The Waitresses (who?), Swell Maps, Stinky Toys and Vic Goddard one a piece. Total number of published media listings for the UK Subs? Zero. A band with the longevity and history of the UK Subs deserve better, don’t you agree?
Records, but not vinyl ones. I mean the ’Guinness Book’ variety. With the demise of the Ramones, I can’t think of any punk band, from any era, that tours as prolifically as the UK Subs. Assuming the band play 100 gigs a year (as an average), and commencing from 1977, as a full touring year, through to 31/12/2011, the band would have chalked up approx. 3,500 gigs. That’s some record when you consider The Ramones, who were also prolific tourers, achieved 2,263 gigs during their career. Assume the yearly figure amounts to 150 gigs, and the total increases to 5,250 live gigs. Put another way, and based on this latter figure, the band would have spent 41% of each year playing live, and given their tight touring schedules, up to 62% of their lives touring, including a time allowance for travelling to and from gigs.
Singles and albums were prolific charters in the band's early period, with 7 of the first 8 singles generating a Top 50 British chart place, resulting in 8 appearances on BBC 1’s ‘Top of the Pops’ (7 were broadcast). That’s quite a feat for any British punk band, wouldn’t you agree?
- "Stranglehold" - 1979 - No. 26
- "Tomorrow's Girls" - 1979 - No. 28
- "She's Not There" / "Kicks" (EP) - 1979 - No. 36
- "Warhead" - 1980 - No. 30
- "Teenage" - 1980 - No. 32
- "Party In Paris" - 1980 - No. 37
- "Keep On Runnin' (Till You Burn)" - 1981 - No. 41
Little was written about the taping that the BBC banned, but for this comment from Charlie. It transpires that the appearance was pulled from broadcast because the band allowed kids to dance with them, on stage, while their set was taped. Rumours then circulated that the UK Subs were officially banned from by the BBC from appearing on the show, although there was no official evidence to confirm this rumour. When asked about the incident, Charlie said "the biggest buzz I've got out of the Subs' career so far was being banned from Top of the Pops. When they said they wouldn't have us on Top of the Pops again, to me that was like a moral achievement.” A video for the single was also made, which Nicky once described as ‘based on Scanners (the movie)’, but there’s no evidence to confirm that the video was ever broadcast on TV upon completion.8
Teaching is a profession that musicians can undertake when their touring and recording days are over, and Pete Davis and Jamie Oliver are two such examples. Pete is quite active, teaching through local schools and his own studio, while Jamie offers his drumming services between touring, recording and supporting the various bands and acts he associates with.
UK Subs were initially called the Subversives, which was later trimmed to the Subs and finally the UK Subs, after a Scottish band called The Subs were found to have signed to Stiff Records. A Subversive is defined as:
- Noun 1. subversive - a radical supporter of political or social revolution revolutionary, revolutionist, subverter.
- Adj. 1. subversive - in opposition to a civil authority or government insurgent, seditious disloyal - deserting your allegiance or duty to leader or cause or principle; "disloyal aides revealed his indiscretions to the papers"
Vibrators (The) have long been a touring stalwart with the UK Subs, and Charlie and the ex-Vibrators singer remain good friends to this day, playing together as solo acoustic musicians and the Urban Dogs, when time allows Charlie (arguably one of the hardest working singers in music today).
Warped Tour, an event the band had once publically stated they would not perform at, and one concurrent with the organiser’s desire to exclude long standing British bands from their enormous punk rock bill. But that all changed in 2009, when the band performed on the ‘Old Skool Stage’ for 4 dates. I found this gig review via Crypt Magazine, ‘Next up was another British band, the UK Subs. Talk about old school! 65 year old front-man and UK Subs mainstay, Charlie Harper, are contemporaries of the Clash. That’s as old school as it gets. I must admit, I saw Charlie wandering around back stage earlier in the day and he looked, well … old. Backed by Cretin (sic) Kaos (vocals, Social Unrest) on bass and Nicky Garratt on guitar, it turns out that I had nothing to worry about. He might not look like it, but Nicky Garratt is the most energetic guitar player I’ve seen on both dates of the Old School performers and can execute a jump splits like nobody’s business. This is no nostalgia act, this is the real deal.’9 Nice. A review of the Carson CA, gig also comes via Big Wheel Magazine. ‘The Punk Rock Legends stage included the U.K Subs, and the band made their way to the stage shortly after 1:45pm. The U.K Subs had tremendous support from the crowd, and the area around the stage was filled with fans, both young and old. The circle pit saw its fair share of action, and it was pretty energetic for it only being a little after 12pm, which is probably around the time the crowd usually wakes up every morning. U.K Subs played well known songs such as, "I Live In A Car", "C.I.D", "Warhead", and "Tomorrow’s Girls". When the U.K Subs played their last song, a few audience members could be heard screaming for an encore. Though none was given, U.K Subs fans all agreed it was a set that did not disappoint, and even surpassed their expectations.’10
X is the next letter from which an album will be named, as they continue their quest to become the first band to release an album based on the 26 letters of the alphabet. When asked about this, Charlie said ‘for ‘X’ I was thinking I could get the ex-Subs to each write a song for it, everybody from Lars (Rancid) to Nicky, and call the album ‘X Subs’. I’ve got that one worked out, but it’s the ‘Y’ one I’m having difficulty with.” However, since the critical acclaim afforded the previous 'W' album, 'Work In Progress', Charlie's long-standing plan for an 'X-Subs' album is no more, as the plan is to do a follow up to the 'W' album with the current established line-up of Harper, Jet, Alvin and Jamie. In all likelihood, the 'X' album will be called 'XXX' (triple X) and consist of a new studio album, a live recording and possibly an acoustic recording. A treble album to tie-in with the proposed title...
Youth, or rather the injection thereof, has energised the latest incarnation of the band. Jet and Jamie provide youthful enthusiasm, and member stability, to compliment the experience of Alvin and Charlie. Jet hails from Hitachi, Japan, and runs Jet13 Records between touring and recording. Jamie has numerous projects on the go, including two other bands and offering his services as a ‘session drummer for hire’.
Zee end, or rather the final letter from which to name a UK Subs album. I thought Z would be a hard letter to name an album after, but I found 634 words listed when I checked the various dictionaries for words beginning with Z. So in keeping with previous titles, here are some titles for consideration: Zero tolerance; Zhou dynasty; Zionism; Zip fastener; Zombie spirit; Zoophobia; Zoo chemistry; Zulu punks and Zip gun. Or maybe, Zee end….
First published 14th July 2012
1 & 2. Charlie's quote taken from John Robb’s excellent book Punk Rock: An Oral History.
3 & 4. Taken from an interview published on www.diskant.net/nopics/red/uksubs.htm
5. Comment about Charlie being sacked was taken from the Pete Davies interview that appears on this website.
6. Alvin Gibbs comment taken from Alex Ogg’s Unedited history of the U.K. Subs, full history found here: uksubstimeandmatter.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=16903&Itemid=146
7. Charlie’s tour comments were taken from an interview by Carol Clerk in Melody Maker, March 1983. You can also read Nicki’s recollection of the Poland tour here: http://www.newredarchives.com/bands/uksubs/chapter08.html
8. Charlie quote on the missing BBC TV appearance was taken from the authors rambling notes on the band, the file for which failed to note the source of the comment. Sorry!
9. Tour review taken from Crypt Magazine, www.cryptmagazine.com/176224/311796.html
10. Tour review taken from Big Wheel Magazine, www.bigwheelmagazine.com