Werewolves of London
In which Alvin tastes first-hand the beauty of Italy and Spain, is kissed and hugged before a Subs soundcheck mini-riot, breaks a bass-string, the first of five! Laments the nous of big selling shoe manufacturers, is further driven to distraction by Ramkup's 'management', experiences a happier 'Pops', gets into the Nolans (nearly!), and finishes by meeting up with the real McCoy!
The latter part of our 1981 Spring Euro Tour took me to two countries that I’d never encountered before.
I’d been raised on a boyhood filmic diet of ‘Spartacus’, ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire', ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘Quo Vadis’, and subsequently, in my late teens, developed a taste for the Italian neorealism of the Fellini movies ‘Satyricon’, ‘La Dolce Vita’; and my favourite offering from this maestro of Italian cinema, ‘Roma’.
Italy, as a result of these associations, had always been a coveted destination for me, and Italy in the flesh did not disappoint.
Travelling through the Republic was an epic cultural undertaking.
As we devoured up the kilometres on our way to Milan I saw fortified medieval towns situated on tall, precarious pedestals of stone and soil; the remains of classical period buildings; beautiful Renaissance churches; expansive olive groves and vineyards – views so intriguing and picturesque they seemed almost illusory.
Milan itself contrasted somewhat with the territory we had travelled to attain it. Our venue was situated in an unglamorous industrial part of the city, and as we embarked on our late afternoon soundcheck we received an educational glimpse into the impulsive, anarchic spirit of the Italian Punk scene.
We were aware that a couple of hundred Punk’s Italiani were already milling about outside, although what we couldn’t have anticipated was how they would react to hearing ‘Warhead’ and the other songs we’d selected to accomplish a good sound balance for that evening’s show. As we approached the end sequence of ‘Time and Matter’ the large doors at the entrance of the hall abruptly flew open and we were joined by this mad multitude who, in their advanced state of excitement and enthusiasm, had decided to vandalise all barriers in order to observe us at work. They cheered and clapped, climbed up onto the stage to hug and kiss us - men included, much to our mortification - and this mass invasion was only halted and dispersed after twenty or so burly security people turned up and some sporadic fist fights had occurred between various maniacal Punks and their eventual evictors.
Not surprisingly, with an audience that hyped-up and expectant before the venue had even opened for business, the show that night turned out to be one of finest of the tour. The next day we drove to Florence.
At that point of my life this capital conurbation of Tuscany was without doubt the most beautiful place I’d ever beheld. I threw my suitcase into my room in our hotel, which, with its diminished grandeur - cracked marbled floors, fissured Corinthian columns, corroded antique chandeliers - enhanced its attractiveness, and took to the streets alone to experience the place on foot. Florence was as dissimilar from my birthplace of Croydon as technicolour is to toneless monochrome, and as I progressed through the city the astounding art and architecture I encountered roused me to the notion that I should educate myself to understand more about what I was seeing and enjoying. This, of course, is the true value of travel: the resulting inspiration and imaginary stirrings derived from being exposed to cultural artefacts and ways of living that are engagingly alien.
That evening’s gig was another satisfying, sold-out event. I remember we were obliged to do four encores - a Florentine Punk rock riot would have ensued if we hadn’t - and at some stage during the show I broke a bass string. I break strings so rarely that I can recall when and where each incident has occurred over the last thirty-five years: Florence in 1981, Los Angeles at the Whisky a-go-go in 1997 and Berlin, SO 36, in 2000, all with the UK Subs; in Liverpool with Iggy Pop at the Royal Court Theatre, 1988; and, with Cheap and Nasty in Osaka, Japan, 1995.
I calculate that to be only one busted bass string every seven years, must try harder!
The other country I’d not visited before followed on from our Italian excursion. Spain delivered to me another city of beauty and splendour in that Catalonian jewel, Barcelona; I met a very fine young woman for a brief but torrid affair while in the city of Zaragoza; and we finished the tour with a storming show in Madrid.
On the drive to France to catch the ferry homewards we stopped off in the attractive coastal town of San Sebastian situated in the Basque region of Spain. We had some lunch there and afterwards made our way to the beach to mess around for the benefit of the camera Chutch carried with him at all times. It was sunny, the sky was cloudless and blue, and although the weather looks invitingly warm in the pictures I’ve provided, in actuality it was a cold afternoon. To create the illusion we were basking in hot sunlight we took off our jackets and shirts, and acted like we were trying to get some tanning in, which, by the looks of my skinny vampire-white torso, might have been a good thing.
After a couple of days rest back in the UK we received the news via our management people that Gem Records wanted a single forthwith to capitalise on the success of ‘Diminished Responsibility’. We immediately convened at BAN rehearsal rooms to see what material each of us could offer for this purpose. Charlie didn’t have anything and it came down to two pieces of music that Nicky and I had separately written during the European tour.
Harper got out pen and paper, completed the lyrics, and awarded the title ‘Perfect Girl’ to Garratt’s offering, which would soon appear as the B-side for the impending single. My contribution was, believe it or not, originally a very raunchy Johnny Thunder’s sounding affair with a simple three chord E-C-D verse structure and what I thought was a reasonably catchy chorus and a breakdown middle-eight sequence for some dynamic flavouring.
Despite my voiced scepticism, Nicky insisted on adding archetypal Police ‘Message in a Bottle’-type picking to the choruses, having insisted it would give the composition a more commercial edge. Charlie then worked on some words. The end result was ‘Keep on Running (Til You Burn)’.
Yes, I’m still waiting for Adidas or Nike, or another immense, swinging dick running shoe company to wise up and utilise this song for a TV advert so Chas and I can trouser ourselves some decent corporate money. Maybe it’s just too obvious a choice you obdurate fuckers!
Having decided to go with ‘Running’ as the A-side, Gem booked us straight away into a London recording studio where we discovered they’d pre-awarded the production duties to Peter Collins, who actually turned out to be a solid choice: industrious, musically knowledgeable and easy to work with. Having completed our recording session for the single and passed the tapes on to Gem for transmutation to glorious coloured vinyl, our management company, Ramkup, booked us an extra studio day to record something specifically for them.
Alistair Primrose and his immensely uncool posse of fellow accountants had decided it would be a hoot to record Charlie singing his lyrics in the French tongue over the original backing track for ‘Party in Paris’. When he turned up to convey this proposal I took the opportunity to ask him some basic questions:
“Was it planned for release in France and other countries where French serves as the primary language?”
Primrose’s vague reply was “…perhaps.”
I continued: “Who’s actually paying for the recording and the pressing of this record?”
I don’t recall his exact answer to this vital question, but it was definitely even more elusive than his last.
“Will Gem be releasing it?” I asked.
“No”, he asserted, “it will be on our new Ramkup Records label.”
I didn’t even bother to get into our cut of the sales or the proposed methods by which this Gallicsation of the single was going to be promoted and distributed as both band and management were now starting to consider me a nuisance - a literal ‘Party’ pooper. But I did mention one last pertinent fact: “You are aware that Charlie does not speak any French?”
Alistair was fully prepared for this oversight.
“I’ve hired a professional translator to convert the words from English to French. She will teach Charlie the French version, line by line, and will make sure he gets the pronunciation and accent spot on.”
An hour later a striking looking, manicured and well-dressed Parisian woman of about thirty years of age turned up to coach Chas through the verses. It became a protracted, laborious process due to our singer being unable to deliver an entire line in one go in the French idiom. Instead it necessitated the recording of virtually every word individually after his female decoder had repeated it to him several times. Charlie then started to complain that he needed some inspiration for this long-winded procedure, which led to Primrose going out to purchase a case of Beaujolais wine.
This form of inspiration didn’t really work, but it certainly made the methodology less painful. We all, including our French translator, although not Nicky of course, downed many glasses of the Burgundian fruit of the vine, so that by the time the recording had finally been completed each of us was fairly inebriated and in a somewhat playful mood; a duo of conditions which led to the idea of having our Parisian visitor make some kind of anti-entente cordiale type speech over the outro sequence. She had imbibed enough wine to agree to this suggestion and Steve Roberts, who made a point of refilling her glass every time it approached empty to make sure she got very drunk, kept inciting her to issue more pro-French, anti-English sentiments which, if you own a copy of this recording, you can hear drunkenly enunciated in her French accent as it reaches its conclusion.
Ramkup then manufactured up a couple of hundred singles and basically did nothing with them. It was a vanity project, a cheap way for Primrose and co to brag that they were not only in the business of band management but that they had also started up their own record company. I turned up at the Blackfriars’ offices shortly after they’d taken possession of these singles to witness them all sporting horrific silk bomber jackets with RAMKUP RECORDS embroidered on the back, worn, ludicrously, in combination with their customary uniform of pinstripe trousers, shirts and ties. I know this record has subsequently become a highly sought after collectable, but for me the whole episode was an egotistic waste of time as well as being almost certainly funded by the band’s own money.
I don’t even own a copy, although I’m still in possession of a single by Paul Slack’s post U.K. Subs band, Allies - the next record manufactured for the Ramkup label.
We probably paid for that too.
‘Keep on Running
’ was rushed out to record stores nationwide in April and entered the singles charts at number twenty-five.
I recall at the Gem offices being informed gleefully by one of the executives that it had sold 30,000 copies in the first week of its release. In the hope of sustaining these excellent sales figures, Gem hastily arranged for us make a promotional video.
The setting for this filmic fun (I’m being sarcastic here) was a long, claustrophobic, extremely damp tunnel situated some twenty feet below ground near London Bridge tube station. Upon arrival, the video production people had already illuminated this dank tubular space with some powerful lighting and increased its already stellar natural clamminess by hosing the floor down with gallons of water.
The choreography for the shoot was simplistic. Having been handed a pair of white rubber boots each to prevent the two-inch high level of water from soaking into our shoes and socks to give us Trench Foot, we were instructed to either gesture together in mock fury as a hand-held camera swooped by or run as a foursome from one end of the tunnel to the other while another fixed camera captured our footrace through the artificial subterranean lagoon.
There were minor variations to these activities. At one point they inexplicably suspended Charlie upside down from the ceiling to mime the verses with wires and electrodes attached to his head; and, for a thankfully brief shot, imported in some women dressed as Punk rockers to pout and appear alluring while we took a deserved break in a nearby pub.
I guess the end results weren’t that bad. It served its purpose well enough, although we received some news directly after the video’s completion that would end up surpassing it in large measure as a promotional tool for the single. In light of the chart success of ‘Keep on Running
’ and the corporation’s willingness to pardon us for misdemeanours that we weren’t even responsible for, the BBC decided to invite us back to appear on Top of the Pops.
Below: Promo video for Keep On Running
This time both the actual experience and its aftermath proved far more agreeable than the last.
After some liquid lubrication courtesy of the BBC’s subsidised Shepherds Bush Studio bar, Radio One DJ Peter Powell - who turned out to be a friendly, pleasant sort of bloke and not the insipid tosser that I assumed him to be from his on screen and radio personas - introduced the band directly to camera and initiated our moving and miming to a backing track of ‘Running’ before an enthusiastic studio audience. There was no stage invasion, no dramas, no fallout. Satisfied with our televisual work we revisited the bar for some celebratory beers before going back down to the studio floor to watch Bad Manners, The Beat, Department S (remember their solitary hit ‘Is Vic There?’), The Nolan Sisters and the other artists/bands who were involved in the filming of this episode of the Pops, which was due to be aired on national television that following evening.
Below: Top of the Pops performance footage (apologies for the poor quality picture)
Inspired by the beer and my then deluded sense of infallibility when it came to my abilities to seduce coveted members of the female gender, I gate-crashed the dressing room of the Irish/English girl group The Nolan Sisters and set about trying to pull a Nolan. Coleen, who was a shapely and pretty nineteen or twenty year old woman in 1981, became my immediate object of desire. After introducing myself to her I unleashed all my shallow reserves of charm and after some effort realised things were, shockingly, going very well. She started to flirt back and didn’t even protest when I slipped my arm around her waist, which was a pretty bold move on my part. I was just about to suggest we go off for a quiet drink together when her boyfriend rudely turned up.
He looked just like David Van Day, a popular singer at the time with gruesome disco duo, Dollar. Blonde, tanned, trendily dressed and evidently a ruthless control freak, he was my complete antithesis, and having quickly identified me as an enemy that must be swiftly dealt with, he shattered all my romantic plans by forcibly inserting himself between Coleen and I to whisper something, no doubt poisonous, into her ear. He then grabbed her by the arm and basically dragged her from the room. She managed to transmit a half smile and a brief wave with her free hand before leaving my life for good.
Coleen eventually discarded the overbearing control freak to marry, for a while, song and dance man Shane Ritchie; went on to host menopausal TV chat show Loose Women; made some banal adverts for the Iceland frozen food chain (I use the word ‘food’ advisedly), and managed to attain second place in an edition of that wretched pony show for plummeted showbiz personalities anxiously trying to reboot their careers: Celebrity Big Brother.
Our performance, and that of Coleen and her sisters, was watched by millions of television viewers on the evening of the 16 th of April, 1981.
Right, let’s get to it: I’ve been informed that the cover for ‘Keep on Running
’ had engendered a few unenthusiastic mutterings in some quarters. The band photo that appears on the front of the sleeve seems to have been the key catalyst for this marginal discontent. Let me deal directly with this issue so that those who may have joined in the carping over a simple photographic image can get my take on it.
Firstly though, some contextual information: the photo in question was one of a series taken by acclaimed photographer Sheila Rock in two separate sessions in January, ‘81. Before attending the first of these photographic rendezvous, GEM Records had handed over to us £200 each to buy some clothes specifically for these shoots.
Together we went on a shopping expedition to Chelsea’s King Road. My particular purchases are not so dissimilar to what I was wearing on a regular basis anyway: black leather strides, black shirt, but with white thin-lapel leather jacket as opposed to the motorbike style black leather that I habitually sported. Charlie picked out for himself a fancy shirt worn with a smart La Rocka Johnson’s suit, while Nicky and Steve Roberts
went for frilly shirts and swankier trousers than you would customarily see them in. The waist sashes were my idea. During the English Civil War officers of both the parliamentary and royalist armies wore coloured sashes at the hip to denote their rank. Though certainly obscure, I thought it was an interesting affectation.
All of these garments were a reflection of what was becoming fashionable at that specific period of time. The shirts, especially, were inspired by the New Romantic/Pirate look that Vivien Westwood was then designing and selling at the Westwood/McLaren’s World’s End store in Chelsea, and notably being worn by Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow.
We dressed in these new clothes for a small portion of one of the Sheila Rock sessions, but also had hundreds of photos taken wearing what some would consider more ‘traditional’ Punk clothing, acquired on a regular basis from another King Road emporium, BOY (I refer you to the photos I’ve supplied from both shoots).
Our record company did not consult with us regarding the cover photo to be used. It was a unilateral decision. They went with what they thought would be the more contemporary image for the band.
The thing with the Subs was that every record release would achieve good sales for the first two weeks of issue before inexorably slipping down the charts. This was because the band had a substantial, dedicated Punk rock following that would, en mass, purchase whatever we released whenever we released it. Thereafter though we were unable to sustain or improve on these figures because we couldn’t attract the non-Punk genre buyer to also procure our records, unlike the more commercially successful New Wave bands such as The Boomtown Rats, Blondie, The Police and The Undertones. I guess GEM saw ‘Running’ as a potential cross-over single and chose the photographic image that they believed would help rather than hinder in this endeavour.
That’s the context, now for my view. Ultimately, despite healthy sales of ‘Running’, the record company’s cross-over attempt didn’t work. But so what? What’s wrong with Punk bands breaking free of assumptions and clichés and trying something different? Since when has Punk been a strait-jacket of imposed guises and ideas? It certainly wasn’t at its inception; I should know, I was there, attending Punk rocks gigs in 1976 and 1977, an eyewitness to the multiplicity of looks and the diversity of music of those early years.
You had the Damned with a Nosferatu wanna-be on lead vocals, a tutu wearing bassist, Brian James with his Stones/Stooges looks and guitar sound, and a drummer who played like Keith Moon of the Who. Meanwhile, Siouxsie and the Banshees had fashioned a dark dissonant sound wholly unlike that of The Damned and other contemporary Punk outfits, and initiated an innovative look that would eventually mutate into what is now known as Goth; and how about my unsurpassed favourite Punk band, The Clash?
They started off with Jackson Pollock style paint splattered clothes and short spiky hair, before Mick Jones let his mane grow to shoulder length and Simonon traded in his spikes for a slick quiff to compliment the new duds and demeanour that were decidedly Rockabilly influenced; during their ‘London Calling’ era we had the suits and fedora hats and by ‘Combat Rock’, they had shifted their image again to a more military chic type look. I even remember seeing a series of Clash photos, c. 1979, where they’re wearing fancy dress: Mick Jones posed as a Regency cavalry officer, complete with sword and gold braided jacket with epaulets, Topper Headon as Bruce Lee, clutching a pair of nunchucks, and Simonon dubiously outfitted as a German Second World War tank commander. Can’t remember Strummer’s guise, but these unusual images didn’t result in any censure for the band nor dent their credibility in Punk rock circles.
As for the music, The Clash’s recorded output has been shaped by Dub, traditional rock, Garage and Glam rock, Rockabilly, Reggae, Funk and Rap. Yet, despite their varying looks and the wide variety of musical influences employed in their song writing The Clash were, unquestionably, always a Punk rock band.
I could extend this line of reasoning to include image and musical differences between The Subway Sect, The Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, The Ramones, Blondie and a host of other first wave Punk groups, but I think the three examples I’ve already cited are proof enough of my contention that Punk at its inauguration was not the narrow, constricted genre that some people would have liked it to be, or would have you believe.
What happened was that at some point around 1979-1980 the accepted idea of what Punk constituted had started to contract to a standardised look and some equally predictable platitudes. Here is a recollection that elucidates what I mean: I went to see the Anti-Nowhere League at the Marquee Club in 1982. After watching yet another excellent performance from Animal and the boys, I went into the bar area to drink a beer. Two young men with Mohawks (I never saw a Mohawk haircut at a Punk show until 1979) came up to me, and one of them somewhat nervously asked “are you Alvin Gibbs of the UK Subs?”
“That’s me”, I replied.
“Well, me and my friend don’t think you and the Subs are very Punk rock now.”
“What do you mean by not very Punk rock?”
“Well, you know, your music and the way you dress.”
“Yeah” he persisted, “I mean look, for instance, you’re wearing a digital watch (it was £5 Casio) and everyone knows digital watches are not Punk.”
“What should I be wearing on my wrist to notify me of the time, a fucking sundial?”, I countered, and continued “where exactly do you keep this book of Punk rock rules and regulations that proscribe what a genuine Punk should wear, look like, listen to, think and act… under your fucking bed with the rest of your wank stash!”
You can probably sense I was starting to get a bit irritated at this point.
“No, no” he uneasily answered, “I’m just saying we don’t think you and the Subs are very Punk now, that’s all. ‘Sensitive Boys’ and ‘Ice Age’ off the last album don’t sound Punk to us.”
I took a deep inhale, cast aside my testiness and evenly as possible shared my sentiments on the subject with them. Firstly I clarified what I thought Punk wasn’t. I told them I believed that it had nothing to do with haircuts or what kind of trousers you wore, or if you had a safety pin through your snotter or an anarchy symbol tattooed on your arse. It was certainly not about being a conformist and a follower, which, to me, contravenes the very spirit of Punk rock.
There was a very important word connected to Punk at its commencement, I divulged, and that word is ‘attitude’ - I wasn’t being condescending here, merely informative: one of these self-appointed arbiters of Punk was eighteen years old, the other nineteen, they had only been twelve and thirteen years old respectively when I’d attended my first Punk rock gig.
This meant, I persevered, that Punk was not a question of what you played or what you wore or what you did, but how you played it, how you wore it and how you did it. A song such as ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ by the Buzzcocks is ostensibly lyrically and musically at odds with the fierce words and music deployed on ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols, but they are still both categorically Punk rock records because of their correspondingly dissident viewpoints and atypical performance approaches. They are both creations of the outsider.
For me, Punk is about that outsider attitude and how you adapt it to inform your own life. I have spent mine resisting the nine-to-five, conventional, common-place world. Despite a couple of necessary deviations, I have been successful in that aim for almost the entirety of my adult existence. My steely determination to make this so was settled when I witnessed the Ramones for the first time in 1977, and it’s because my philosophical mind-set was essentially forged and finalised in those gloriously innovative and mutinous times that it remains as meaningful and as dominant an impulse now as then. Punk rock is in my DNA, my very blood.
I’ve prolonged this theme because although a trivial issue in the vast order of things, there is still a Punk rock Taliban out there that occasionally likes to assert themselves on social media and other forums passing judgement on what constitutes Punk and what doesn’t. But this is just a sectional faction.
I will this year, as in former years, attend and perform at that annual four day coming together of the Punk rock tribes: the Rebellion Festival. There you and I will discover a multiplicity of bands playing varying types of music under the banner of Punk and Punk related music. You will also see thousands of people of contrasting ages all with a range of clothing styles and personal semblances, each maintaining a differing relationship with the genre, each possessing a divergent idea of what Punk rock means to them.
We are a broad church with an individualistic congregation. We choose to worship in contrasting ways. This is how it should be.
Now if you want to discover a really iffy U.K. Subs single sleeve just check out the prospective Tory candidate doppelganger wearing the spotless jumpsuit and the three-piece office ensemble on the front and rear covers of ‘Teenage’. What was that all about, pray tell?
I love airports.
They are the gateways to the wider world, the primary facilitators of new adventures, sights, sounds, tastes and romances in distant places. And it was in one of the largest and active of these temples of possibilities, Heathrow in London, that the U.K. Subs in the company of Mike Phillips, Mick Staplehurst and Chutch, boarded a flight on the 29th of April 1981, destination Helsinki.
There, that same evening, we played a fine show in what has become over the years one of the most famous rock venues in the Finnish capital, if not the entire country, the Tavastia Club.
The next day we drove to a town called Heinola. Keenly awaiting our arrival was the support band that would be opening up for the Subs for the remaining three gigs in Finland. Hanoi Rocks had just released their debut album ‘Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks’, and at first glimpse they were not the species of outfit that people generally envisioned as a Punk rock band. I was soon drinking a beer and chatting with them, and when they took to the stage I watched with interest from the wings.
I immediately liked them. Hanoi were an interesting musical and visually stylistic amalgam of the Stones, the Stooges and New York Dolls, of Glam and Punk rock. They performed with youthful vitality and despite having a few missiles aimed at them from some disgruntled uber Punks (I distinctly recall a couple of spark plugs just narrowly missing Mike Monroe’s skull) they didn’t let this sadistic negativity intimidate them and gained for themselves the respect of the greater share of the audience.
Below: 'Tomorrows Girls' Live in Finland 1981 from Finnish TV
During the post gig, alcohol-fuelled revelries back at the hotel I got into a long conversation with guitarist Andy McCoy, during which, we discovered we had very similar tastes in music. This marked the beginning of a professionally productive friendship; an association that would eventually see us playing together in the company of a mutually admired singer/performer commonly acknowledged as being one of the original savage messiahs of Punk rock.
First published 3 April 2015.
TUNE IN NEXT TIME FOR...
>>> ...our bass playing memoirist returns to a snowbound Finland where he manages to convince a notable rock outfit of those regions to consider swapping Helsinki for a Tooting Bec wreck; exchanges GEM for NEMS, with whom the U.K. Subs start a Countdown and formulate a Plan of Action; finally meets a woman who merits the consideration of a sober and genuine marriage proposal; and completes the year 1981 AD by attending a Last Christmas on Earth celebration with other notable personages from the sphere of Punk rock...<<<