The following news story appeared on the T&M homepage:
Brilliant Interview With Charlie In 'Fear & Loathing' Fanzine
Conducted by Andy P, editor and brains behind this ever brilliant fanzine, the interview took place after the soundcheck for the Subs' 100 Club gig on 21 May 2016, a few weeks after the release of the 'Ziezo' album.
Just as this fanzine's superb 2008 Subs interview was (issue 63), this is one of the most infomative and fascinating interviews with Charlie that you will read...
Covering Charlie's early life and musical journey through to the final Subs album and beyond, here are a few example quotes...
"But while we were there, a bomb landed right next to our house, almost a direct hit, and our house collapsed into the harbour..."
"Funnily enough, my Mum and my Aunt actually used to come to the 100 Club to dance to the Jazz bands..."
"...then the Rolling Stones came along. Once I saw them, I was hooked. I loved everything about them and I’d follow them everywhere. I mean, there were times when I’d get to see them three times in a week..."
"I only had a small room, but I painted this big Sixties-style mural on the wall, and added ‘November 17th, 1965’. That was the first time I played music onstage, although at the time I was playing folk music..."
T&M have archived the interview as well below...
Many detractors doubted that they would ever complete the challenge, but with the recent release of ‘Ziezo’, the U.K.Subs have completed their epic quest to release an album for every letter of the alphabet. That’s 26, in case you were wondering. Now, I’m not going to claim that every record has matched up to the standards set by the first four or five albums, and it’s also fair to say that not every line-up has maintained the original vitality of the band. But two things can be said ; Charlie Harper has always stayed true to his music, and the recent line-up featuring Charlie, Jet, Alvin and Jamie, has been the best, the most consistent and most productive that the band has had since the early days. To celebrate the end of their alphabetical journey, the band have released ‘Ziezo’ which captures their classic sound but brings it firmly into the present day. Additionally, the lyrics address the current social climate as sharply as they need to. After all, 2016 is now the Brand New Age…
On top of all this Charlie remains one of the most down to earth and friendly characters you could ever want to meet. He’s a music fan just as much as others are fans of the Subs, so he always makes time for anyone who wants to chat. And even at 72, he still has more energy and enthusiasm than most bands even a third of his age.
After the release of ‘Ziezo’, I realised it was time to set-up another interview and, as luck would have it, they were due to play at an already sold-out 100 Club, once again. So down I go to the soundcheck, wait a short while as Charlie completes an interview for European TV, and then we head into the dressing room with a couple of cold beers for the conversation…
You were born in 1944, so I guess that you don’t actually remember the War itself…
‘Well, I was almost blown-up ! At least, that’s what my mother and aunt told me later on. When I was a baby, a V2 rocket made a direct hit on the church at the bottom of our road. The debris from the blast went through the back of our house, where I was sleeping in a pram. It knocked the pram over, while my mother, my aunt and my grandmother were all in the front room… the men were all still away at War. They all went screaming into the back room but couldn’t see anything because of the dust cloud and apparently I wasn’t making a sound. They started to panic but all they could do was feel around to try to find me. After a few minutes, they started to hear me coughing and choking and what had happened was that, when the pram was knocked over, I had rolled out and under the sideboard, which was why they couldn’t find me straight away. Luckily, I was pretty much unharmed. Soon after that, the whole family moved down to Portsmouth, because my Grandfather was an explosives expert and he was instructing the Marines,but Portsmouth was being very badly bombed as well, so we moved down to Plymouth and eventually Falmouth. But while we were there, a bomb landed right next to our house, almost a direct hit, and our house collapsed into the harbour ! My aunt told me, years later, that it had been reported in the local newspaper about her and my mum, these two brave girls, who had swam out into the harbour to rescue their babies. But what the paper didn’t mention was that there were dozens of rats, from the bombsite, swimming alongside them ! So those are my War memoirs, even though I didn’t know anything about it at the time, as I was only six months old !’
I assume your family moved back to London after the War ?
‘Yeah, I grew up in Amhurst Road, right near Hackney Station. It was a rough old place when the War ended, but all the bomb sites were our playgrounds, so it was a wonderful and exciting childhood, really. The church that had been blown up was still a wreck and there were all these open tombs which we would use as our little dens ! We didn’t realise what was meant to be in there and I’m sure all the actual bodies and coffins had already been taken out, so it was just real good fun for us. After we were there for a while, we moved down to South London and lived in Brixton. It was the Sixties by then, so that’s where I grew up as a teenager. But my uncle started to get concerned because he reckoned I was just hanging around on street corners, causing trouble. It really wasn’t that bad, but we did have a little gang and sometimes we’d fight another gang from the next street or whatever. A few minor things happened, but my Uncle told me I should go up to the West End and listen to some music, particularly Jazz, as that’s what they were into. Funnily enough, my Mum and my Aunt actually used to come to the 100 Club to dance to the Jazz bands ! So I started going to clubs like this and the Marquee, and I got to see people like Muddy Waters, Long John Baldray, Little Walter, all those old Blues greats.’
So those would have been your first real interests in music.
‘Yeah… I was already playing a bit of guitar and harmonica. There were a few of us at the time and I suppose we thought we were Beatniks. We liked things like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan through to Howlin’ Wolf and Leadbelly. We were into all of that stuff, but then the Rolling Stones came along. Once I saw them, I was hooked. I loved everything about them and I’d follow them everywhere. I mean, there were times when I’d get to see them three times in a week ! I’d see them at the Ken Colyer Jazz Club, which became known as Studio 51, where they used to play every week. And then I’d go down to the Railway Hotel in Richmond, or go out to see them in some small hall in the outskirts of London. They were playing all the time so it wasn’t that difficult to see them three times in one week… They were all that I’d talk about and I became really crazy about them, so my friends started calling me Charlie Stones ! That became my nickname for quite a while during the Sixties…’
When did you actually start playing music in public ?
‘I remember this because I painted it on my bedroom wall at the time ! I only had a small room, but I painted this big Sixties-style mural on the wall, and added ‘November 17th, 1965’. That was the first time I played music onstage, although at the time I was playing folk music. People may laugh at that now, but at the time, there were folk singers who were singing things that were considered so subversive that the police would actually come in and arrest them on stage, or there'd be undercover cops in the audience ! Some of the things that Bob Dylan was singing about were very controversial and a lot of the folk singers at that time were pretty subversive. There were a lot of us who were just busking on the streets… that’s how I met Rod Stewart and he helped to teach me how to play harmonica ! So I was playing guitar and harmonica, but as the Sixties moved on, I started to become more interested in rock bands. The Kinks would be playing at the 100 Club every week, so I used to go and see them. But when they released ‘You Really Got Me’, the places would suddenly be packed with screaming girls ! That was when things really started to take off and bands like them had to start playing in theatres rather than clubs.’
Is that what lead on to you joining a band ?
‘Well, one of my friends, Robin, went hop-picking down in Kent during the Summer, probably around 1968 or ’69. He took a guitar with him and while he was down there, actually learned to play pretty well. By the time he came back, he could play lead guitar, so I decided to sell my lovely Fender Stratocaster and AC30 and I bought a bass and a bass-stack. We used to go busking around Leicester Square and when we’d made enough money we’d go to a pub near the station. At the weekends, the pub would have bands on, so we’d watch them while we spent our hard-earned cash and we started to think, we could do this ! So we put a band together called Beowulf, after the epic poem, and it was pretty good but nothing really came of it. We had a really good, young drummer and we found this really brilliant singer called Rider, who could also play harp, but then he was pinched by another band who were already professional, just as we had got our set together and were ready to start playing live. That fell apart, but me and Robin stuck together and found another singer and eventually started to play. We got a residency at a pub down in South Wimbledon… I think it may have been called The Crown and it was right opposite the station. Now, the reason why so many of the English Blues bands died out was because they were playing songs that were getting slower and slower and they were making everyone fall asleep. But I’d seen BB King at the Royal Albert Hall and he’d really rocked the place ! He played one or two slower songs, but he was really rocking the joint. So we tried to be more like that, even though we did play a few slower ones as well. Then, one night, while we were playing a long, slow song on stage, someone hung himself in the toilets ! As we were finishing the song, all these policemen were coming into the place… All we could think was that we really must have been playing the Blues for real, that night !’
It’s funny that most articles claim that The Marauders were your first band, but in actual fact, they weren’t by quite some time…
‘In fact, I was also playing in another band before The Marauders, called Formula One. They were more of a take on The Who and their ‘Maximum R’n’B’, really high energy. But then Robin got offered a job with another band, so things fell apart again. Not that I blamed him… we were getting paid a fiver each gig, which was quite a lot back then, enough to pay your rent for a week. But he got offered a job earning £30 per night, which was big money compared to us. So I started looking around and found this black guy called Richard Anderson who could play really great Chuck Berry and Keith Richards riffs, just really great stuff. So that’s how The Marauders developed. We started playing gigs and some of them were really great. We could really pack the pubs out, but the next thing that happened was we found out about punk at The Roxy, and we all wanted to play more like that…’
Despite its’ reputation now, The Roxy was only a very small club and only lasted for a very short time. How did you get to find out about it ?
‘I think a friend took me to a bar called Chagueramas, which was a lesbian club at the time, but if you looked different they’d let you in. But it wasn’t doing very well, so Andy Czezowski took it over and it became The Roxy. At the time, the rest of my band were younger than me, just college kids, so they couldn’t go out drinking at night. But one weekend, we’d played several gigs so we had a bit of extra cash and I suggested that I take them down to The Roxy to see The Damned. Word had been going around that they were a great new band to see, and when we all saw them, the others turned to me and said, this is what we want to do ! I’d already told them that I thought this was the future of rock’n’roll, so they were all sold on it. In fact, one of them, Barry Farmer, went on to join Adam & The Ants, as he had also played for a while in Bazooka Joe… all these musicians, they’re just like footballers – they always go where the money is, haha !’
But instead of continuing with The Marauders, you ended up putting an entirely new band together…
‘Well, the band split-up. After going to see gigs at The Roxy, I loved the music but I still wasn’t sure if I could do it myself, so I told the others that they should go ahead and do it without me. Anyway, I was sharing a flat with another friend at the time, Fred Brown, and he went to a party just after The Marauders split-up, where he met Nicky Garrett. They were both guitarists so they were chatting about music and Nicky told him that he wanted to play in a punk band. Fred told him about me and how I was looking for a new band, so the next week, Nicky came around to our flat. I played him some tapes of new songs that I already had, things like ‘CID’ and ‘I Live in a Car’, and he liked them so we started writing songs together. There were still some dates that had been booked for The Marauders, where we had been playing R’n’B, so we decided to put something together quickly and play at those gigs. But the landlords tended to love their R’n’B so when we turned up playing punk rock, we were quickly slung out ! Fortunately for us, this was just the time when punk rock suddenly exploded, so we were able to get work all over London. I think the thing was, the Sex Pistols couldn’t play anywhere and The Clash were touring in Europe, so when people came to London to see this new punk rock thing, the bands they could get to see were ones like us, Sham 69 or The Vibrators. We weren’t so well known, but a lot of people got to see us, more by luck than by judgement. It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time.’
Obviously, you and Nicky came from different musical backgrounds. Do you think that combination also helped the band to develop their own style ?
‘Yeah, he came from a more classical direction. That’s where he learned music and then got more into Deep Purple and Richie Blackmore, the more technical hard rock bands… I came from R’n’B which was more straightforward, you know, everything was just four bars, eight bars or twelve bars. I’d always be telling him to strip things down, like, if it sounds good, play that riff again, four times, and then it would give me some space to sing. If you listen to ‘CID’, it sorta sounds like ‘Walking The Dog’ by Rufus Thomas and it stays on the E chord for a long while. We always used to open the set with that song and it was guaranteed to get people bouncing. It’s just got that swagger to it and that’s what I liked. I wanted to keep it simple like that. In a lot of ways, I think Nicky really started the whole hardcore scene, with those faster numbers like ‘Telephone Numbers’, and even things like ‘Emotional Blackmail’… it’s really the timing that makes it effective, but it works. Nicky would write stuff and I’d arrange it, or I’d start off with an idea for something like ‘You Can’t Take It Anymore’, which was just a simple one-liner song, but then he’d build it up and make it sound really dramatic.’
The ‘CID’ single came out in 1978 on City Records. How did that come around ?
‘We’d already recorded the songs, at a studio up in Cambridge that John Peel had told us about. So the next thing we had to do was find a record company to release it and we didn’t really have a clue how to go about that. But we were given a list of record companies in London and, as City were pretty local, we gave them a call and they said, yeah, they’d like to release the single. That was it, basically. It ended-up selling really well, got to Number One in the Indie charts, and John Peel loved it so he kept on playing it. People seem to forget this now, but he was a big supporter of the band back then. If we owe our success to anyone, it has to be him. If he liked something, it wasn’t just getting played on his Radio One show, it was also getting played on the BBC World Service… Suddenly, people were coming to London from around the world and they’d already heard us and wanted to see us play ! I remember, once, even a guy from South Africa turned up at one of our gigs and already knew all about us… it was incredible.’
After the success you had with the ‘CID’ single, you switched over to GEM Records, a subsidiary of RCA. Were you not tempted to stay with the City label, as they were already doing pretty well for you ?
‘Well, actually, the bloke from City became our manager and it was him that got us the deal with GEM. I guess he just realised that it was the best way to keep things moving forward.’
It certainly worked… the next single, ‘Stranglehold’, went straight into the Charts and you even gave you your first appearance on Top of the Pops, something that seems almost bizarre when you consider it these days !
‘Yeah… I mean, even The Exploited made it onto Top of the Pops ! A punk band would never get on a programme like that nowadays. I mean, even the Jools Holland show… I used to go to see his bands and met him quite a few times. I always got on well with him, but they’d never have us on the show now, however popular we were. But the thing is, with all of these radio shows or TV shows, they’re only the presenters and they don’t really run it. There’s people behind the scenes that really run the show, and they’re very shrewd. One or two things might get sneaked in, but really it’s all about money, and that’s why most of the things on TV are completely predictable and total rubbish. Once in a while, you might be lucky enough to get to see something special, but you have to sit through all the rest of the rubbish just to catch that one gem. It’s like digging for diamonds.’
Going back to ‘Stranglehold’, you had to alter the lyrics slightly before you could perform it on Top of the Pops, didn’t you ?
‘Actually, I think this is the first time anyone has ever brought this up in an interview, and I have to admit, especially now, it does sound pretty weird, like, a 70 year old man singing about a 13 year old girl ! (cue mass laughter around the Dressing Room) The song was virtually the same as Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’, you could almost play the same chords for both, and from that, you could virtually go on to ‘His Latest Flame’ by Elvis Presley. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you add something of yourself to it…But the true story of the song is that I was friends with this woman, who had a 13 year old daughter, and the girl developed a crush on our drummer, Pete Davies. I mean, he had been in ‘Smash Hits’ or something like that, pictured as ‘Punk Pin-up of the Month’ or something equally as silly. He did used to look pretty cool, I have to admit, but as a result, she had a big crush on him and I was making fun of that. I don’t think Pete knew much about it, but because I knew her Mum I got to hear all about it and that was the idea behind the song. So now, I change the lyrics to ‘oh, Bonita, you’re just so sweet’… She was a lovely girl, I sometimes wonder if she’s ever going to turn up at one of our gigs…’
The irony is that, the BBC made you change the lyrics from ‘She’s only 13…’ to ‘She’s only 18…’ so you could play on a show that was regularly being introduced by Jimmy Savile…
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah ! I mean, when we were recording it, just out of habit, I kept singing ‘13’ and they would instantly stop the cameras and this real shit of a bloke would start shouting at me, telling me to do another take…’
As the band became more popular, you ended up making a short film, ‘Punk Can Take It’, with Julian Temple, which was almost a footnote to his work on ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’…
‘I hated that. I thought it was all very cornball. Things like tearing down the statue of Johnny Rotten and smashing it up. It was all very unnecessary, but that’s what people started to think. People thought that Punk was all over by that point, but in many ways, it was only just starting to spread out around the world. Now, you can look at it as a valid musical style, like Jazz or the Blues. I always thought it was the poor, white kids’ Blues. I always thought of it like that because, coming from the Sixties, I could see the parallel.’
Everybody knows that your album titles have gradually worked their way through the alphabet, from A to Z, but when did you actually decide on that approach ? Was it something you set out to do, or did it just start by coincidence with the first few albums and you decided to follow it through ?
‘Well, even though I was a Jazz fan, when we named our first album I wasn’t even thinking about the Miles Davis connection, with his album, ‘Kind of Blue’… I wasn’t aware of it at that time, although I had a few Jazz albums from that era. People will mention it now and I tell them, ‘Yeah, yeah’ because that sounds cool, but that wasn’t really the case… I think we just saw the artwork that had been put together for the album and the name came from that. So when we made the next album, as the first one had been ‘A’, we just thought, this one ought to be ‘B’. At the time, I wasn’t really thinking that we’d get past ‘C’ at the most, but it just carried on from there and somehow, now, we’ve finally completed the whole alphabet.’
I remember reading, quite early on in the bands’ career, that you had already suffered several heart attacks. They certainly don’t seem to have slowed you down over the years, but were they ever a serious hindrance to your work with the band ?
‘No, not really. In fact, when I found out the first time that I’d had a heart attack, I could’ve jumped for joy even though I was laying on my back. When I was a teenager, I’d had this thing called pneumothorax, which is where your lung collapses. It’s sorta related to pneumonia and it was one of these things that, if I ended up exerting myself too much, my lung could collapse again. So when the heart attack happened, I thought, Oh shit, I’m singing for a band and we’re starting to do pretty good but this has started happening again ! When they got me to hospital and told me it was a heart attack, I was actually quite relieved, because I knew that it had been my own fault. I’d taken a bit too much speed that weekend so I knew what it was and it was a relief that it wasn’t my lungs, which really could’ve stopped me singing at all. It’s funny to say something like that, but it was actually the better of the two and it definitely wasn’t the worst thing that had happened to me. I mean, when it happens, it’s not good because you can’t breath and you can die if it’s not treated properly, so I was lucky that I was with some people who got me hospital really quickly. So I was fine on that occasion. The second time it happened, our drummer at that point, Rab, drove me to the hospital and we just ended up sitting in the Accident & Emergency waiting room for ages ! I remember, Dave Allen did a comedy sketch where he arrived at a hospital as he was having a heart attack, but the attendant was demanding that he fill out the forms first, before he could see a doctor… and, of course, he died before the form was completed. On this occasion, it was almost exactly like that… The thing is, when something serious is happening, you can’t think straight and you can’t remember your address or anything. You’re almost on the verge of dying, so the last thing you’re thinking about is your telephone number ! It was almost exactly the same as that Dave Allen sketch.’
Every single and album you released with GEM reached the Charts, but the final single, ‘Keep On Running’ saw the band adopt a pretty different visual style, almost veering towards the New Romantic fad, even though the music certainly didn’t reflect that…
‘ Well, that was Bungle Records, they saw all this New Romantic stuff coming along in the early Eighties, so they thought it was a good idea to kit us out in this whole new wardrobe. We couldn’t figure it out, it was so weird for us. It was one of those songs that people either loved or hated, so to have us looking like that only added to the confusion. But some people still love that song and call out for it at gigs… Alvin actually wrote the music and in some ways it reminded me of a cross between ‘Message in a Bottle’ and ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ by Blue Oyster Cult, which was a band I used to love. So when we were recording it, I was even trying to get Nicky’s guitar to sound like the guy from Blue Oyster Cult. But most people still thought it sounded like ‘Message in a Bottle’… I suppose that was just Alvin’s idea of trying to make it sound a bit more Pop or something. As we were saying, there’s nothing wrong with taking something from another song, but sometimes it can be a bit too much. Someone in the band will come to me with a new tune but I’ll just think, that’s something Stiv Bators wrote 30 years ago… If I put my lyrics to it, it might still come out sounding like something different, but there are times when I don’t feel easy with it. It happens to everyone… you’ll be at home and you’ll pick up a guitar and play something and you’ll be thinking, this sounds good. Maybe nine times out of ten it’ll be something you’ve come up with, but the other time, it’ll be something by someone else that you’ve just started playing by coincidence. I remember once coming up with this great riff, only to realise that it was the same as ‘Teenage Kicks’ by the Undertones . It’s really annoying when you think you’ve got this great new song only to realise that someone else has beaten you to it !’
Around the same time, you were the first Western punk band to play in Poland…
‘We were brought over there by the government, who were trying to prevent a civil war. At the time, the country was really divided and Lech Walesa was actually in prison. The government were trying to appease the young people in the country, but considering the situation, we went over there wearing Solidarity t-shirts. As soon as we arrived, the officials told us, you can’t wear them, they’re too inflammatory. But our drummer kept hold of one and managed to slip it on every night ! The gigs were great, but I remember that it was all very regimented… We’d have these big dressing rooms, but after we’d played, they’d only let ten kids in at a time to meet us or take photographs. They really treated us like big, corporate rock, which wasn’t us at all. I didn’t like that… But it was good when some of these kids would come in to see us and they could speak good English, so they would be telling us what was really going on in Poland. The promoters were all on the Communist side, so we didn’t take much notice of what they were saying. We’d often turn up at venues during that tour and find out that the bouncers had been supplied by the army, so it was a very inflammatory situation from both sides…’
It was soon after that ‘Keep On Running’ single that Nicky Garrett left the band. You were still a very popular band, so why did that happened ?
‘Well, that was just the first time that he left, there’s been two or three more times since then ! But that first time, I think we were all just not getting along very well at the time. I remember there was one gig, in Sweden, and the club had made a barrier of benches, piled on top of each other, in front of the stage. Well, it was pretty wild in the pit that night and some guy got his legs caught in this barrier. I was trying to get the crowd to pull back so this guy could get himself out, but as I was doing this, bending down over the front of the stage to help this bloke, Nicky came up and gave me a kick up the arse and knocked me into the audience. Well… afterwards, I wasn’t having that, so the band sorta broke up. But, you know, when you’re in a band, it becomes very insular, like a family, and every little thing about each other becomes a big deal. But it never stays like that for long and you always realise that these people are your brothers.’
Nearly ten years ago, you did play a short tour with the ‘classic’ UK Subs line-up, featuring yourself, Nicky Garrett, Paul Slack and Pete Davies. Would you ever consider doing something like that again ?
‘Oh, yeah ! In fact, Darren who runs Rebellion, has been wanting us to do that again for ages. I’d like to do it just because I love playing with those guys, but at the moment, me and Nicky have had a bit of a falling-out. Jet was in the band full-time and was writing songs with us, but Nicky would kind of cherry-pick the gigs or tours that he would play with us. We said to Nicky that it was only fair that Jet had a fair deal as well, but from that he thought we’d thrown him out of the band. So he’s gone off and he’s doing his Prog-Rock band, which he’s really happy to be doing and we still wish him all the best. It’s really not such a big thing between us and if he gets over it, I hope we can still get it back together.’
Moving right up to date, you’ve already announced that ‘Ziezo’ is going to be the UK Subs final studio album. I know that previously you had said in interviews that if the band ever made it to the letter ‘Z’, you still intended to carry on. So, at what point did you decide that ‘Ziezo’ was going to be the last one ?
‘Oh, it was a long time ago. I think I used to say, if we ever got to the letter ‘Z’, we’d then just start making albums numerically, but I was only really joking. Once we got to the point that we realised that we might actually make it to ‘Z’, I pretty much decided that would be it. Although we’ve also said that we may well continue making singles and EP’s. We’ve actually been talking about making six-track, 10” EP’s, which I think would be interesting. But there are no definite plans for anything else, as yet. The only thing I’ve been working on since ‘Ziezo’ is the new Urban Dogs LP with Knox and that’s just about finished, but I think that this will be the last Urban Dogs album as well. Maybe in a few years time I’ll make a solo album where I’ll have complete control over it and I won’t have to argue with anyone in the studio about how things ought to be done. I’d like to be able to do something just on my own so I could really experiment with what I wanted to do... And I know I could call on Captain Sensible to play some amazing guitar for me. We recently made an EP together and I really enjoyed doing that. Every song had its’ own atmosphere. He’s such a great guitar player !’
From a lyrical point of view, you must feel that there’s still so much to write about…
‘Yes, that’s it ! The situation has never really improved so there are still so many things to protest about. And especially in Punk Rock, where there shouldn’t be any censorship, we can just write about what we want to say. You might get managers or agents who will tell you that you won’t make any money if you do that, but that’s not what you ought to care about. And I think you still get that from bands like Savages, who I love. I saw them being interviewed on the internet and they were talking about modern jazz from the Fifties and Sixties, and how they were trying to incorporate those ideas in their music. They were looking at it more as an Art-form rather than just Pop music, and for a young band I think that’s really healthy. I was really impressed with the range of stuff that they’re into… It was the same when Punk came out and everything was so fresh and open.’
Where did the albums’ title, ‘Ziezo’ come from ?
‘It means ‘job done’ ! That’s the beauty of it… we were over in Holland, a few years ago and this guy came up to me and said, ‘I’ve got the perfect name for your last album.’ I asked him what it was and he told me, ‘Ziezo’. Then he told me what it meant and I thought, Yeah, that is perfect ! So I went to the dressing room to tell the rest of the band and they all agreed that it was just what we wanted. The other thing that we’d thought about was ‘Zeitgeist’, because we’d already written a song with that title, but it’s already been used to death as an album title by other bands.’
‘Ziezo’ has really come together as a landmark UK Subs’ album, combining the bands classic sound with a set of contemporary lyrics. Was that a deliberate intention, because previous albums, like ‘Yellow Leader’, had actually featured a much more eclectic approach…
‘I think it was really Jamie’s idea that we make the last album in this way. He really wanted us to go back to the roots of the band and make one last, great, Punk album. But then Alvin said he couldn’t write songs to order like that, so we ended up with a good mix of songs between the more direct punky stuff and Alvin’s more wordy songs. I think it’s succeeded because so many people have come up to us at recent gigs and told us that they really love it. The last few albums have been received really well, but this one really seems to be very popular with the fans. I’m really glad with the way that it came out and that we’ve managed to make a great final album.’
I think the opening song, ‘Polarisation’, is particularly poignant at the moment, with the way that people seem be getting set-up against each other in so many different situations these days… I think that theme runs through the song ‘Evil Vs Evil’ as well…
‘Exactly… the media manipulates people so much these days. Like the way this whole EU situation initially started out as a kinda smokescreen to draw people’s attention away from the stupid things our government was doing. But it’s all blown out of proportion now and the political parties on both sides are breaking up because, after setting the whole thing in motion, they don’t really know what to do next.’
You’ve also got a song about Banksy…
‘Yeah, he’s one of my kind of heroes at the moment, although I very much doubt that it actually is just one guy. I think there’s a few of them. That actually makes sense, that there are four or five of them, because it allows them to maintain the anonymity so much more easily. And I think that, if you look at all the different pictures, there are different styles in there, even though one person could be capable of switching the styles of the stencils. But whatever the case, I love his work and I think he’s a great commentator on things that are really going on in this country.’
You also have the song ‘Maid of Orleans’, who also gets a mention in the song ‘Proto-Feminist’. Where did your interest in Joan of Arc come from ?
‘It’s just a great story. I’ve got several books about Joan of Arc and there’s so much background stuff about how she got to meet the King. She couldn’t read or write, but she was pretty well spoken and her family wasn’t exactly poor. They were farmers and they owned their own land, so they weren’t particularly rich, but they were comfortable. Anyway, the Queen had a belief in a particular prophecy, so she backed Joan. The Church tried to make out that it was a Holy Quest and that she was appointed by God, but in reality, it was a political intrigue and she was used by the powerful people in charge of France at the time. There were no miracles and there was no divine intervention… It was all about power and control, and even today, it boils down to the fact that whatever religion you are, you’re being had.’
The song ‘City of The Dead’ is Ska-based. Is that the first time you’ve played that style as a band ?
‘Well, if you think about it, ‘Warhead’ was almost along those lines and I think we’ve done a few bits like that. But this is more straight ahead Ska-style. I think it’s just the way that I play guitar when I’m writing songs. I kind of use that up-stroke style, so when we went in to the studio, the producer, Pat Collier, said to Jet that he should try to play the same way I had been playing it and that was how it came together. Jamie started to play it in the style of Rancid and Alvin followed on with a sorta Ska-style bass line… After all, Lars Frederiksen used to play in the Subs, so I think we have every right to borrow his style a little bit !’
I thought it appropriate that you have the song ‘Proto-feminist’ on this final album, as you did get some hassle about the song ‘All I Wanna Know’ on your first LP, for its’ supposedly misogynistic lyrics. I think this is a good way to take that whole thing full circle and put it in context…
‘Well, we only got criticism from a couple of the girls in Crass, who we played with and were friends with. But, you know, when Jello Biafra sang ‘Kill The Poor’, I don’t think anyone thought he actually meant that. It was irony and I was surprised that people didn’t get it. So that’s all I’ve really got to say about it…’
The other thing that seems to go full circle from the first to the last album is the artwork, which mimics the image on ‘Another Kind of Blues’ but adds a twist to it…
‘Yeah, that actually wasn’t my idea this time. The rest of the band came up with that concept and I went along with it because I’d come up with the artwork ideas for the last few albums and I was happy for the others to work on this one. But I certainly wasn’t critical of what they came up with, because it looks really good. It’s basically the original image but updated with those night-sight goggles and it really looks great alongside the first album cover. But I did choose the colours for it !’
You’ve already sorta mentioned this, but now that you’ve completed your final album, what are you planning to do next ?
‘Well, tonight’s gig is the end of this tour so I’m just intending to take a bit of a breather, really. Maybe next year, we’ll record a 10” EP if we have some new songs for it, but I feel that maybe I’m getting a bit old to keep doing new stuff at the same rate that we have been doing. Especially when we play live, I have to have the lyrics for the new songs written down on paper ! I mean, I’ll usually know all of the new songs but I like to have them written-out, just in case… That being said, I’ve already written another new song since we finished ‘Ziezo’ and since we’ve finished writing the Urban Dogs album and I think it’s better than anything on I wrote for those LP’s, so now I’m thinking that I’d really like to record it… But maybe I’ll keep that for my solo album !’
At a point where many would be considering a quieter life, Charlie just isn’t someone who can stop what he’s always been doing. Perhaps the release-schedule and the relentless touring are going to ease-up over the next few years but still leaves plenty of opportunity for Charlie and the Subs to continue at their own pace. Quite frankly, I just can’t imagine him being able to give it all up and I doubt that’d ever want to !
After meeting-up with various friends for a pre-gig scoff at our favourite pizza restaurant, we return to the 100 Club right on time for the gig. The place is packed but not uncomfortably, so we still have some room to breath despite the high temperatures outside. Not that it holds the band back at all. As soon as they reach the stage, they blast through the set with total commitment. Plenty of older material intertwined with older crowd favourites and all of it being as well-received as it ought to be. The songs from ‘Ziezo’ already seem well-known to many of the audience, even though the album has only just been released, and indeed they provide some of the stand-out moments of the set. I have to admit, there were times in the past that I thought I’d never get to see or hear the band playing as well as this again, but Charlie’s dedication has seen them through and ‘Zeizo’ has truly delivered one of their best albums. I know many are still going to doubt it, but just hear the album or see the band live. It’s not merely nostalgia, this is a band at the top of their game. In a lot of ways, I’m surprised to be saying that in 2016, but damn, am I glad to be able to do it !