Brand New Age
In which Alvin starts recording with his new band mates, raising praise from one Gary Glitter, before playing abroad, encountering forest peace and near biker death, learning about Harper-radar in the process, as well as the ongoing public perception of Punk.
Our hero also meets a fledgling U2, hears the original 'Crash Course' in all its un-glory and considers the opinions of Bruce Dickinson (...yes, the Bruce Dickinson...!), of Iron Maiden fame, then and now!
‘Party in Paris’ was one of the first songs recorded for the ‘Diminished Responsibility’ album sessions. This had been loosely written by Charlie. I’ve chosen to utilise the word ‘loosely’ here because he tentatively played us the notes for its verse and chorus on my bass in our pre-production rehearsal room with a brief explanation that the formative lyrics concerned his frustration at not being able to attend a Blondie concert he’d been invited to in the French capital a couple of weeks past due to lack of funds - Charlie had a real talent for getting through his wages more rapidly than anyone else in the band.
Nicky Garratt, being an instinctive arranger of the barebones music that was the mark of Charlie’s offerings, immediately started shaping these notes up into meaty chords and suggested a transposition of the verse sequence from the key of C to D in order to manufacture a middle-eight. It was this finalised arrangement, along with Charlie’s completed lyrics and vocal melody, that we offered Mike Leander in Alvic Studios on the 2nd of September, 1980.
Aged about forty at the time, sporting flawlessly cut mid-length salt-and-pepper hair, smart-casual clothing and with a somewhat polished voice and bearing, up close and personal Leander seemed to me to be an even more unlikely candidate to be chosen for UK Subs production duties than I’d anticipated. Of all the pre-written songs though, ‘Party in Paris’, was by far the most Leander-friendly tune, and our improbable producer set to work capturing its backing track of drums, bass and rhythm guitar, after which he suggested the song would benefit from the addition of a Hammond organ to fill out the overall sound. Damned guitarist, Captain Sensible, being a friend, and a fellow Croydonian and Crystal Palace Football Club supporter, was contacted and agreed to provide the keyboard parts on a hired instrument. Incrementally the song solidified and after Charlie had completed his lead vocal, Leander asked me to do a “Bowie-ish” (his words) backing vocal on the choruses.
I was about midway through this demanding task when Gary Glitter appeared in the control room and sat next to Leander at the mixing desk. Glitter was still a big star in 1980 and delivering a good performance while one of the most recognised vocalists from my Glam rock youth, observed and listened, added some sweat to my skin. I was much relieved when Leander, upon completion of double tracking my vocals for the middle-eight section, called me into the control room and warmly praised my efforts. Glitter was also gracious about my Thin White Duke impression: “Nice one chief (he called everyone chief), that really lifts the chorus”.
Gary doesn’t glitter anymore, but at that time, unaware of the darker side of the man as so many were, we collectively appreciated his gesture of support by turning up for the first day of recording and the many encouraging comments he proffered regarding our shared and individual contributions to the new album.
From the 2nd to the 26th of September the recording process continued without cession apart from time out for food and sleep, and the occasional evening when Charlie and I managed to steal away together on some iffy pretext to either the Marquee or the Music Machine to see a band and drink some beer.
Although Steve Roberts had not actually written any music for the album he was awarded a co-writing credit by Nicky and Charlie for ‘Confrontation’and ‘Too Tired’ in righteous recognition of his apposite muscular drumming on both tracks. Charlie penned lyrics for my trio of ‘Face the Machine’, ‘Gangster’ and ‘Time and Matter’, after which all three songs were recorded to both Leander’s and our own satisfaction in their basic formats within a couple of takes. Likewise, the Harper/Garratt compositions ‘You Don’t Belong’, ‘So What’, ‘Collision Cult’ and ‘Fatal’. There were other writing collaborations too: ‘Just Another Jungle’ was a left-over item from the former Subs line-up. Paul Slack had composed the chord progression of the verse, Nicky the chorus, and Charlie the words. ‘New Order’ saw Harper, Garratt, myself and my 1970’s Glam band keyboard player Mel Wesson - then playing with TV Smith’s Explorers - share the writing acknowledgments. And ‘Fall of the Empire’, which would emerge as the B-side to the ‘Party in Paris’ single, bears Kevin Nixon’s surname in the credits along with those of Charlie and Nicky.
After all lead guitar solos, primary and secondary vocal tracks and other necessary overdubs were completed the recording stage of the venture was terminated and the tapes handed over to Mike Leander for mixing at a later date.
Working together in the studio on a daily basis had given me an opportunity to draw some instructive conclusions about the abilities of my new band mates. It was obvious that Steve was an exceptional drummer. His talent had helped raise the quality of what I believed to be the less compositionally interesting tracks such as ‘So What’, ‘New Order’ and ‘Collision Cult’, while significantly embellishing those with greater creative merit. Nicky’s abilities as a guitar player were manifestly superior to many axe-men working both inside and outside the Punk genre; but it was his aptitude for meticulously assembling the songs in order to squeeze the most listenable juice from each that made such a vital contribution. That, and his capacity to translate some of Harper’s more obscure ideas into feasible musical narratives. For his part, Charlie was a wordsmith of ingenuity. I loved his suitably sleazy lines for the track ‘Fatal’: ‘Suicide victims, cranks and queens/A trail of destruction like a cyclone brings’; and the abstract chorus of ‘Just Another Jungle’: ‘Concrete trees/Neon Leaves/Auto Creatures/Micro Feed’. He could conjure up a memorable melody line in moments and, even if some of his musical offerings were somewhat underdeveloped, the potential for a worthy song was always present.
There are some good and not so good aspects when you get into a ready-made bed. Certainly Roberts and I had joined a band that had already achieved a healthy UK following, obtained a record company, management and agents, and had become a viable headlining outfit, all of which was very nice indeed. But this success also meant that there was a lot of pressure on us to match the achievements of the former line-up both in terms of audience attendance and, especially, in regard to chart positioning for the soon to be released single and album. Which bring us to the somewhat controversial but necessary question of why Harper and Garratt decided they wanted to change their previous rhythm section when things were seemingly going well?
What was divulged to me by Nicky and Charlie was that they had found Paul and Pete increasingly difficult to work with and that as the band had got more successful both men, according to them, had become somewhat arrogant in their conduct. These perceptions added another level of tension between what had slowly become two distinctive camps - Harper/Garratt, and, Slack/Davies. Of course, Paul Slack and Pete Davies may well have recollections at variance with those reported to me, and whatever differing points of view they may hold are just as valid as those alleged by Nicky and Charlie. Decisively though, during their last UK Tour together in May 1980, two separate physical confrontations between band members occurred that led to an irreconcilable split. I don’t wish to go into the specifics of these unpleasant incidents as, yet again, I would only be giving voice to information passed on to me by the Harper/Garratt camp; which, as well as being unfair, would throw some doubt on my impartiality as a memoirist. I will only add that these episodes were serious enough for both Paul and Pete to quit the band, or for them to be asked to leave, depending on who you speak to. Whatever the truth though, this is all toxic water that has long ago flowed beneath the bridge of history. Indeed, the four men got back together to do a couple reunion shows in the UK a few years back.
For my part, on joining the Subs, I got on extremely well with both Paul and Pete. It was Paul in fact who sold to me my first Gibson Thunderbird - a bass that would eventually become my signature instrument - and I even attended a few Allies rehearsals with him, his brother Steve Slack and drummer Steve Jones to jam up some tunes and socialise. Pete, who was dating our fan club secretary Joanne, would occasionally stop by the Ramkup offices to meet her after work. If I was around we would often take off to share a beer and amiably chat about music and other topics of interest at a Blackfriars’ drinking establishment. Another person who I would frequently see and engage in conversation at these offices was Bruce Dickinson – ‘Yes, the Bruce Dickinson’.
…if you’ve not seen the classic Saturday Night Live ‘More Cowbell’ sketch from which that quote is taken you must watch it forthwith below. Featuring Will Ferrell, it’s one of the funniest comedy sketches ever broadcast…
Bruce was hanging around this den of iniquity because the hard rock outfit he was fronting at that time, Samson, was also unfortunately (for them) managed by Primrose, et al. Now, I’ve read a recent interview in which Dickinson rages that Punk rock musicians are all unable to play their instruments, are all secretly desirous of being in stadium rock bands such as Iron Maiden, are all clandestinely wanting to hang out with ‘porn stars’and to fly in private jets from gig to gig like himself and his wealthy chums, etc, etc. His bizarre attack on Punk music and musicians surprised me because A). there obviously are so many accomplished players, vocalists and songwriters who have emerged both past and present from the Punk rock genre that it would take far too much word space to list them all here; B). actually Bruce, as hard as this might be for you to understand, not everybody aspires to have such a highly cosseted, secluded and indulged road lifestyle as yours; and C). I have to report that Bruce, strangely, never once divulged any of these anti-Punk views to me nor anybody else in the Subs when amiably chatting to us face-to-face back then. He was always talkative and personable and I’ve still got the Samson single ‘Vice Versa’ that he kindly gave me in 1980.
But I guess us Punk rock types are just not smart or skilful enough to compose such a clever, profoundly musical and deeply intellectual song along the lines of, for instance, Iron Maiden’s ‘Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter’… cue video of ridiculous figures in hooded habits leering over a physically constrained female on a sacrificial alter in the manner of a cluster of gothic Jimmy Saviles as arbitrary film footage of Bruce in spandex tights with his showboating, poodle-haired band mates gets randomly inter-cut into the adolescent swill-fest.
Samson, on the other hand, were actually a good band.
Before embarking on a planned tour to introduce the fresh line-up to audiences in major and not-so-major locations around the British Isles, it was sensibly agreed that we should head over to mainland Europe to hone the new set, which now included more material from the ‘Diminished Responsibility’album. On the morning of the 1st of October 1980, the band and our crew of Shaun Bradley (backline and guitar tech), Chutch (driver, band humourist, fixer and gofer extraordinaire) and Mike Staplehurst (soundman and tour manager) arrived to pick me up in the tour bus in Croydon, from whence we drove to Dover in order to take a ferry to the port of Zeebrugge on the Belgium coast. Having spent the night in Antwerp, we played in that city the following evening. Our venue consisted of a large ballroom in the Billard Palace Hotel, and the place was rammed and expectant when we launched into ‘You Don‘t Belong’ at the top of our set.
It was a superb gig. Afterwards a bunch of fans filtered backstage to collect autographs and to have their photos taken with band members. Among them was a cute Belgique woman who sort of attached herself to me and suggested we should go for post-show drinks in a bar that she recommended called ‘Skipper’. Charlie, being the only other member of the Subs interested in a late night excursion, asked if he could join us and we three headed out the back door of the venue and into the streets of Antwerp to walk to her suggested location. As soon as we stepped into the bar I knew a monumental mistake had been made. It was full of the tallest, fiercest, looking Bikers I’ve ever encountered, and they were evidently extremely unhappy with the sudden appearance of a pair of Punk rockers in their midst.
I believe in a former chapter I revealed the extent to which our kind were reviled by just about everybody on planet Earth back then, which, naturally, also included the international Biker community; but although we had unintentionally stepped into the belly of the beast it would have been bad form to immediately make our exit without at least attempting one drink, so I asked Charlie and my female companion what liquid refreshment they required and made my way to the bar. The barman - around six-foot-five inches tall, heavily tattooed, surly as fuck - reluctantly handed over three beers, snatched the money out of my hands and grunted something clearly unpleasant in Flemish. I quickly made for Charlie and the girl, now seated on bar stools. Having been in desperate need of urinating for some time, I left them guarding my beer and headed for the toilet. On the way to the urinals I passed a table that sat four patched club members who had previously been drinking and chatting but were now more interested in scowling at me as a function of intimidation. One of them stood up and approached me. ‘Fucking hell’, I thought, ‘this guy is even bigger than the barman’. He grabbed my arm, snarled and started yelling Flemish words at me, all evidently of a very uncomplimentary nature. I looked up at him and said “Sorry, no idea what you’re talking about, I don’t speak yourlanguage”. This threw him for a second or two before he pressed on with his verbal assault in that guttural dialect mainly derived from the Dutch idiom. “Look”, I told him, “I haven’t a clue what you’re going on about. I’m English, do you understand? ENGLISH!”. He let go of my arm, looked confused and agitated, and headed back to his club colleagues to report this unforeseen development.
This provided me with a fortuitous opportunity to get back to Charlie and our Belgium hostess and alert them to the fact that we were seconds away from a severe beating at the hands of these hirsute, motorbike-riding Goliaths. But Charlie wasn’t having any of it: “No, no, no, they’re alright” he insisted. “They’re not gonna start any trouble…besides, I haven’t finished my beer yet”. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the news that not only were we Punk rockers but ‘English Punk rockers’ had not gone down well with the congregation. Several gang members were now heading our way, two of them clutching baseball bats. “Charlie this is no time to argue” I insisted, and utilising the lapels of his leather jacket yanked him off the bar stool and propelled him towards the door. We managed to get out of there with seconds to spare, but the woman who had led us to the bar seemed perplexed. “Why are we leaving?”, she asked, “I brought you there because I thought you would like to have a fight with those people.”
“What! Are you crazy?”, I screamed back. “Why would we want to get beaten to a pulp by a bar full of giant Bikers?”
“Oh!” she replied, “I thought that’s what you Punk rockers liked to do to relax”.
I’ve shared this story with you because it serves a trio of purposes. It reiterates the universal nature of loathing directed towards anyone who could be remotely construed as associating with Punk, the terrible scourge of youth, even with the change of decade. That the woman who took us to this venue actually believed we wanted to experience some violence as a means of relaxation illustrates just how warped people’s perceptions remained about the genre, though understandably so due to the popular press having consistently portrayed Punk as a violent, perverse and nihilistic cult. And lastly, to exemplify how naïve Charlie could be in such situations during this period. Being a naturally easygoing, non-violent person, Chas tended to believe everybody else was hotwired that way and this could distort his judgement and leave him oblivious to some potentially dangerous circumstances. All the years since spent on the road have helped sharpened his sense of risk, but even now Charlie can still occasionally be susceptible to the assumption that all people are as physically un-aggressive and benign as himself.
Our second gig was at Amsterdam’s legendary venue, the Paradiso. It was filled to its capacity of 1,500 concert goers, and band and crowd played their parts to perfection to make it one of the best of the tour. My diary of that year informs me that we were called upon to play no less than four encores, and it was only the intervention of the houselights that prevented us from doing a fifth. Afterwards we visited various clubs to drink and socialise, finally getting back to the hotel at 6 am to sleep off our immoderation, Nicky excluded. Next day Appeldoorn, a town in the centre of the Netherlands. Instead of arriving though at a hotel prior to our sound check, we were instead driven to the middle of a dense forest where we discovered four holiday chalets had been rented for the band’s use. It was October and we were the only people staying at this site. This meant with the two days off to follow, a three day stay in the middle of nowhere with only ourselves, squirrels, badgers, deer, foxes, and a variety of other species of wildlife for company. I guess the promoter thought this way we wouldn’t be able to frighten the locals and get into trouble back in the town.
Four other Dutch dates followed, all good, before we crossed the border into Germany to perform in Herford at The New Wave Scala. Half the audience was made up of British soldiers who were based there. Many came up after the show to thank us for coming to play and to gift us regimental cap badges and other military mementos. Nicky was given a pair of camouflage trousers by one squaddie from the Royal Irish Regiment. Such is the nature of his frugality, that Nicky would still be wearing these same fatigues on stage more than thirty years later.
On our return to the UK we discovered GEM Records had whittled down the candidates for a single taken from the album to two prospective tracks: ‘Party in Paris’ and ‘Time and Matter’. I was a little disappointed then, having been co-writer with Charlie of ‘Time and Matter’, that Paris was eventually selected to be the first record available from the new Subs.
But I also recognised it was by far the most commercial song for radio/television play and, consequently, the right option. Choice made, we headed off to a central London film studio to record a video for this elected song as a promotional tool.
Just finishing up as we arrived was a band I’d only just started to hear about from live reviews in the music press. They were called U2. They had just completed filming a video for their single ‘I Will Follow’ and seemed, for some reason, kind of nervous when we approached them. I walked over to the guitar player, shook his hand and had a brief chat. I wished them well and we then headed off to another large sound stage where we discovered our backline set up and adorned with balloons and streamers and other items designed to indicate that a party was in progress. Also, much to our delight, three very good looking blonde female models had been hired to dance around in French maid costumes while we mimed to the music. Charlie wanted these women all to wear Doc Martin boots, which I thought was a genius idea, but this was overruled by the director on aesthetic grounds…plus the models weren’t too keen. After an hour or so of filming the director declared ‘job done’, and we had a photo shoot with the models. We then headed, en mass, to a conveniently situated pub adjacent to the studio where the beginnings of a real party ensued.
After our successful visit to Holland and Germany we were musically sharp and ready for the fast approaching thirty-two date UK sojourn that would officially be designated: The 1980 Party in Paris Tour. First though there was one more item of business that needed rectifying.
- Above: Promo video for Party In Paris. Please contact T&M if you have a better copy!
Now you may think that when you listen to an official live recording release that what you are receiving is the pure, unmodified sound as captured at the performance, on tape, as was. Wrong. In most cases live albums are doctored and embellished to greater and lesser extents, and the U.K. Subs record ‘Crash Course’ is no different in that regard. Recorded at the Rainbow Theatre in North London on the 30th of May, 1980, it was the final show featuring the Harper / Garratt / Slack / Davies line-up prior to the schism and Steve and I being asked to join the band. Having got the raw recording down via a mobile studio it was still necessary to mix the various individual elements before the cut and release of the album. To this end Matrix Studios was booked and Nicky, who would be overseeing the mixing process, invited me along to offer my opinion even though I had nothing to do with the album as such. After he had played back the recording it was obvious that there was a key problem that needed sorting out before the live record could be considered releasable.
The origins of this problem are as follows: Charlie hadn’t wanted to play the Rainbow in the first place. In those days Chas was always very uncomfortable playing anywhere grander than a club, bar or pub, and this was a theatre where the likes of established rock royalty such as Eric Clapton, Elton John and Yes would perform. For him, playing there was a terrible betrayal of fundamental Punk values. Therefore, in the hours leading up to his taking to the stage, Charlie drank a lot of beer to assuage his guilt and anger…an awful lot, in fact, much more than was conducive to a reasonable performance. Thus, on the recording, on just about every song, he was late coming in with his vocals, slurred and forgot his words, screamed obscenities in random places and generally did his best to subvert the proceedings.
Having listened to the tapes together I told Nicky what he already knew: “You’re gonna have to pretty much wipe all of Charlie’s original vocals and have him re-record them. It’s the only way to salvage this record”. Chas turned up sometime in the late afternoon. Nicky gently explained what had to be done. “No problem” replied Harper, “set it up and let’s get going”.
And there, in the proverbial nutshell, we have a classic example of the duality of Charlie Harper: one minute acting like a rogue agent provocateur, the next, being the consummate professional.Two days later fix and mix were completed. Shortly thereafter the live album was released.
Having disposed of the past we could now move into the future.
First published 21 July 2014.
TUNE IN NEXT TIME FOR...
>>> The new Subs offer their musical wares to the Punk rock peoples of the British Isles, gratifyingly receive an enthusiastic acceptance from concert attendees North, South, East and West, and much emboldened, return to sister Europe to broaden their still fledgling continental following. Having narrowly escaped death in Munich, they cross the Irish sea where in the city of Belfast, Alvin discovers his lead singer has disappeared mid-show, and that, as a special birthday treat, he's been awarded a room in the most bombed hotel in the World!... <<<