From Son of a Bitch to Wheels of Steel- the origins of Saxon 

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New Wave of British Heavy Metal pioneers Saxon are currently reaching the end of their fortieth birthday world tour.  Coming from the same South Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley, I here reflect further upon the band’s roots.

From the 1960s into the 70s there was a thriving music scene in the South Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley.  A variety of venues, from council premises through to pubs and working men’s clubs, put on national, and even international, acts from a range of genres.  These included names like Brian Eno, Mud, Alex Harvey, The Real Thing, Nazareth, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.  This is an impressive roster of names for a moderate sized town sitting between the major concert venues of Sheffield and Leeds and with many other smaller venues in between.

Not only did Barnsley residents listen to music, they responded with their own and the many clubs and pubs were always on the lookout for acts to fill their schedules.  Bands could get plenty of live experience, then, and, as a result, Barnsley produced a wealth of live acts and two groups who went on to gain national and international status of their own: Son of a Bitch (who subsequently became Saxon) and goth band Danse Society.

Formation

Son of a Bitch, as is often the case, went through several configurations and name changes before they came together in late 1975 in the first line-up that would be recognised by later Saxon fans.  Members had been playing together or in other local bands since about 1970, performing as Coast, The Iron Mad Wilkinson Band, Son of a Bitch, Pagan Chorus and Blue Condition.

Peter ‘Biff’ Byford was originally from Honley, West Yorkshire.  After a spell down the pit at Flockton, he started playing in rock bands as a hobby, first as guitarist, later as bassist and then vocalist.  He met guitarist Paul Quinn after the latter’s band, Pagan Chorus, had played Club Baba in Barnsley (the town’s premier night spot). Chorus billed themselves as ‘cabaret style pop’ (whatever that genre entailed) and having heard them Byford suggested to Quinn that they could both do better.  They formed Coast.

Coast were ambitious.  In February 1975 the Barnsley Chronicle reported that they had been recording a new cassette of songs at Holy Ground studio in Wakefield (owned by Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe).   To promote this they were issuing badges, t-shirts and posters bearing the logo ‘Bap shoo ap’, the title of one of their most popular songs. Things did not work out as hoped, however.  By April the newspaper was announcing that a new band called Blenheim had been formed, featuring a former Coast member and three ex-members of Trace.  The result was that Biff and Paul had to spend the next few months auditioning new members.  However by early August they announced the new line up and its first gig at the Victoria Hotel, Cudworth.  They promised new songs and revamped oldies.  A further gig at the Centenary Rooms took place on October 3rd.

Finally, late in 1975, Byford and Quinn teamed up with Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson from local rivals Son of a Bitch.  The previous line-up of Bitch appears to have gigged very regularly in Barnsley.  The pub Changes, situated on the edge of the town centre, offered live bands at least once a week and “SOB” played the venue eleven times during 1975.  I assume that the capitalised SOB was a discrete abbreviation of the band’s name (certainly the local paper preferred to avoid giving offence by using it).

In January 1976 Metro Management advertised that “out of the ashes” of the previous bands had come a new Son of a Bitch, who were booked to play their first gig at a small civic venue, the Centenary Rooms, on February 6th 1976.  The choice of venue indicates that they were still unsure of their audience, but the band members all had solid live experience and they were confident enough to return within a month (with Fix as support), albeit for only 50p (now about £3.80) on the door.   Aged 15, I first saw the band playing at one of these two gigs- I have forgotten which, but it was my first experience of live rock and I remember it as being packed with grown-ups and being smoky, beery and very loud!  It felt like my first taste of an exciting, adult world.

The band played their home town regularly after that, although they graduated to the main auditorium of the Civic Hall from June 1976, playing a gig that promised to “make your feet steam” for a mere 65p.

The band appeared in Barnsley nine times over the next thirty nine months.   This averages one appearance every three months or so, but in fact five of those gigs were during the first year.  It seems apparent that the strategy was to establish a core local audience and to hone the group’s live skills and set at minimal expense, before gambling time and resources on unknown audiences further afield.

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Chasing a deal

Bitch were hungry for public exposure as well as live experience and accordingly they agreed some odd appearances and pairings.  Usually the band were supported by other local rock outfits- for example, in November 1976 support was provided by Heaven’s Above from Cudworth and Weasel from Mexborough.  This was not always the case, however.  In July 1976 Bitch again played Barnsley’s Civic Hall, this time (bizarrely) as part of the borough’s ‘Youth Dance Week’.  Support surprisingly came from Manchester’s Afro-Caribbean soul band Masterpiece; on another occasion Bitch were supported by a white soul outfit, Kokomo, and at another gig films were shown instead of a live guest act, one being of a live performance by avant garde experimentalist Eno.

The local paper, the Barnsley Chronicle, announced that the July gig proved that “rock lives” (in the face of the birth of punk, presumably).  Bitch, “arguably Barnsley’s foremost rock band,” had played to an audience of 300 and had provoked “wild scenes, pandemonium, chaos and cheers.” The report listed the set- it included Freeway, Lift up your eyes, Envy, Taking in the dollar and longstanding favourite Bap shoo ap.  The favourite that night, though, was a ballad called Anne Marie.  I recall this song, even today.  It was a certainly a fave of me and my friends who were in attendance that evening and- at a push- I think I could still play the opening riff, even after four decades.

When the band returned again in November that year the paper declared them to be “possibly the town’s leading band at the moment” and “well on their way to ‘making it’” as they had just distributed demo tapes to record labels.  It was, however, to be another two years before Bitch finally found a recording contract.

You can trace the band’s steadily rising profile directly through the pages of the Chronicle.  SoB (as the reporters discretely liked to call them) were a local success story the paper was happy to feature, whilst the band plainly recognised the benefits of guaranteed press coverage.  Today, acts can promote themselves directly to fans through Facebook, Bandcamp and the like.  During the seventies you had to work harder for publicity, but the local paper was very willing to fill column inches with praise.

Another route to recognition, now as then, was through competitions.  In late September 1977 Bitch won a local ‘battle of the bands’ heat in Sheffield and were headed for the semi-finals of the US Sound Spectacular in Manchester in October.  Perhaps to capitalise on this success, another Barnsley gig was announced and the band set about recording further demo tapes.  Nonetheless, it must have been galling and dispiriting for them to see brand new punk outfits getting signed within months of forming whilst SoB– despite their considerable musical and live experience- were still gigging around the working men’s clubs and hunting for a deal.

The November 1977 booking was put in doubt by an event at the same venue in late October.   Barnsley’s one and only punk gig ended in an alleged riot and a police raid.  In response, a review of the council’s bookings policy was initiated and SoB were caught by this over-reaction.  As vocalist Pete Byford told the Chronicle, the “antics of the punk rockers” had threatened all live performances in the town and, before the concert could proceed, the band had been obliged to provide legal undertakings to pay compensation for any damage wrought by the audience.  As it was, the gig passed off peacefully, perhaps because the heavy metal fans restricted themselves to drinking Barnsley Bitter and head-banging rather than pogoing…

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Recognition

In mid-1978 the Chronicle announced that SoB had finally secured a recording contract.  They had been flown over to Paris to sign a five figure deal with Carrere Records and were to begin recording their first album in the near future.  Everything seemed promising: in mid-September the local paper reported that the album would be released by Christmas.  That said, it had no title, as yet, and there was also talk of the band changing its name too.

A triumphal return to Barnsley Civic Hall took place in December 1978.  This gig is memorable for two reasons: firstly, we learned that, like Tony Iommi, the lead guitarist had nearly severed the tip of his left index finger, imperilling his ability to play; thankfully he was still able to riff and solo as well as he had ever done.

Secondly, and most significantly, Biff, the vocalist, told us that the band had signed a record contract (roar of approval) BUT that the record company had insisted that they change their name (boos- but perhaps not altogether surprising in the circumstances).  From thenceforth they were to be known as Saxon, but (Biff assured us) to the loyal fans of Barnsley they would always be Son of a Bitch.  For many of us in the audience, there was a sense that this success was cursed.  It had been endangered by the guitarist’s injury whilst it had been bought (it seemed) at the price of their true identity.

In fact, (with shades of Spinal Tap) the appearance of the new album was further delayed- doubtless in part because of the name issue.  Recording took place at in Barnet, between January and March 1979, and the album ‘Saxon’ was eventually released on May 21st of that year.

The advent of Saxon

In that same month the band returned home for a special thank you concert for local fans (support was provided by another local band, The Diks).  Pete Byford told the Chronicle:

“A lot of people criticised us, but a lot of people stuck by us and gave us their support.  They believed in us and helped us to believe in ourselves.”

The gig was preceded by an album signing in the local record shop, Scene and Heard.  Thereafter, though, hometown gigs ceased to count.  The album release was backed up by a twenty date German tour, followed by appearances in Holland.

It seemed that at last everything had fallen into place for Son of a Bitch/ Saxon, except- they had secured their record deal just as the hard rock of the late 1960s and early 70s was becoming outmoded.  This change in tastes had a demonstrable impact upon their early career: there was the near cancellation of a gig after the punk ‘riot’ whilst it seems highly probable that the long slog to finding a contract – and then with an obscure French label- was a direct consequence of the shifting market.

Son of a Bitch had no inclination to reinvent themselves as a punk band (as some on the pub rock scene did).  They were a good ten years older than most of the emerging punk acts and they had grown up with a different set of musical role models.  To their credit, they remained true to these roots, and they were able cannily to position themselves on the crest of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, thereby launching a very successful career spanning four decades and over thirty albums.  Biff Byford and Paul Quinn are still members.

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The other original members, Graham Oliver, Steve Dawson and Peter Gill left the band in the mid-90s.  They reformed as Son of a Bitch and released an album, Victim You, in 1996.  Their debut gig was headlining the Isle of Man TT Festival.

 

 

Scared to dance? marking The Skids’ fortieth birthday

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Amongst the new wave bands celebrating their fortieth birthday this year is Scottish band The Skids.  They are releasing their first new album in 35 years and are embarking on a four month nationwide tour, including several dates in Dunfermline, where they got started.  I’ve taken this opportunity to revise and reissue my novel, Feeling called love.  The story is set partly in Dunfermline just at the time that The Skids started their career and punk rock is a major theme in the book.  

Here I pick out a few themes in the career of The Skids which were significant to the development of many other bands too.

Marking four decades

A range of events took place in London during 2016 celebrating four decades of punk rock.  These concerts and exhibitions have now all closed, but in 1976 punk was still very much a metropolitan fashion, limited to London, Manchester and a few other cities.  It was in the following year that it reached all the smaller towns and cities.  It might be said that this year began on December 3rd 1976 when the Sex Pistols appeared on Bill Grundy’s teatime television show and gained publicity and notoriety in an instant.  After that interview, and the hysterical reaction of the media to it, everyone knew what punk was (or though that they did) and lots of teens wanted to join in.  For most of the UK, then, 1977 was in fact the year of punk and 2017 is the true fortieth anniversary.

One of the teens converted to punk in 1977 was Stuart Adamson, born in Manchester but brought up in Fife.  He got his first guitar aged eleven and, by the time he was fourteen, he had formed a band with Bill Simpson, a bass player attending the same school in Cowdenbeath.  By 1975 this band, Tattoo, had established a reputation as a rock covers outfit and  had regular work, playing songs by Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Status Quo, the Rolling Stones and Bowie.  Their career was curtailed following O-grades by one member leaving to join the police.  Briefly, Adamson and Simpson went to Amsterdam to live and work, but this ‘Beatles in Hamburg’ venture was neither happy nor a success and within two weeks they were back home and resigned to returning to school to study Highers.

Punk iconoclasm

1977 was a musical watershed when rock went out of fashion, sometimes overnight.  In March Adamson saw the Damned play in Edinburgh.  Like many of the same age, he was instantly converted by the new music’s energy and feeling. Tattoo quickly rejected their previous heavy rock allegiances and were reconstituted as a punk band (a transformation that again affected many bands that year).  All the same, the two friends were still in full time education and not yet fully committed to a musical career.

It was not until after their exam in summer 1977 that the pair found a suitable vocalist.  Their choice was Richard Jobson, who was neither a singer nor a musician; he has variously been described as being, at the time, a chancer, a drunk and violent.  The last is certainly true: he had been in a notorious local gang and was well known as a ‘tough wee guy’ who enjoyed a fight.  This was part of the reason Jobson was recruited as the front man: he was ‘cocky’, ‘confident’ and ‘arrogant’ and he looked the part.  By early July 1977 an advert in the Dunfermline Press had a secured a drummer, Tom Kellichan, and The Skids had formed.  With a core of songs by Adamson and Simpson already in place, events moved quickly from that point (as was the case for many new bands at that time).

Gigs came thick and fast, a tribute to The Skids’ ability and confidence.  Their first public performance was at Dunfermline’s Belleville Hotel on Friday August 19th 1977.  The band was well received and a succession of small local gigs followed.  Of these the most significant were the string of dates during late-1977 at Dunfermline’s Kinema, where they consistently attracted substantial crowdsThey supported The Clash and Richard Hell and the Voidoids there and finally, on December 25th, headlined an unsuccessful Christmas Ball before an audience who wanted to hear covers of Wizzard and Slade and who reacted badly to a set comprised of challenging new wave originals.  It was all excellent experience, nonetheless, enabling the band to hone their set and their stage craft.

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Entrepreneurial pioneers

With the start of 1978, it was time for The Skids’ next career step.  The band had recorded a demo back in the autumn, and now Adamson and Jobson approached Bruce Findlay, owner of Bruce’s Records in Edinburgh, with a view to him releasing a single on his new Zoom label.  He liked their tapes but didn’t feel that he had the capacity to handle another release just then; instead he suggested they contact Sandie Muir back in Dunfermline.  Sandie ran Muir’s Music, an independent store in the town that stocked punk releases.  He had seen The Skids at the Belleville Hotel and he knew there was money to be made from the new genre.  With a promise from Findlay that he would take five hundred copies of any release, Muir funded a new PA for the band and set up a company, AIM Music Ltd, to run a new label, No Bad RecordsThe Skids’ first single, ‘Charles’ b/w ‘Reason’ and ‘Test Tube Babies’, was released on February 24th 1978.  It sold ten thousand copies, easily recouping Muir’s investment.

Despite its anarchic associations, the spread of punk depended considerably upon individuals like Muir and Findlay speculating upon success by investing in the movement.  Bands funded their own labels and releases, as did their managers and as too did some independent record shops: Small Wonder Records of Walthamstow, E17 is another example, issuing singles by Crass and Bauhaus amongst others, and the Manchester branch of Virgin Records was instrumental in launching Buzzcocks’ first ever release.

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The patronage of Peel

As with so many bands, endorsement from John Peel was crucial.  Further gigs in mid-Scotland followed for The Skids, but what finally lifted them out of mere local success was their visit to London in April 1978.  They met John Peel, who had loved the first single, and agreed to record a prestigious session for his Radio One programme; secondly, they played several famed punk venues in the capital.  The Peel session was broadcast in mid-May and major record label interest became intense.  In June The Skids signed to Virgin Records.  More gigs in London, a nine date UK tour and two singles followed during 1978.  The classic single ‘Into the valley’ was released on February 16th 1979, in advance of the band’s first album, Scared to Dance. The Skids were now firmly established as a band with a national reputation, based in London and touring extensively.  Three more albums were released before they split in 1982.

Adamson quit The Skids in 1980 and went on to form Big Country.  Sadly, he took his own life in 2001, but Jobson and Simpson have reunited for the fortieth birthday concerts.  Jobson and Adamson both feature in Feeling called love and I have added a new preface to the book examining the band’s formation and influences in more detail.

 

 

Soundtrack to revised edition of ‘Feeling called love’ released

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I have just published, on Kindle and Amazon paperback, a second, revised edition of my story Feeling called love.  The novel is set partly in my hometown of Barnsley and partly in Dunfermline during the peak years of punk, 1976 and 1977.  As I was writing the book I discovered that Dunfermline was hometown of Scottish punk pioneers The Skids and it made sense to incorporate them into the story.

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2017 is the fortieth anniversary year of the formation of The Skids.  I have marked that by issuing a revised edition of the novel, including a preface describing the early years of the band.  The band themselves are staging a tour of Scotland, including several dates in Dunfermline, to celebrate this significant birthday.

I have published on WordPress a new soundtrack page to mark the second edition of the book and to act as an aural guide to the story.  Just click here and enjoy the sounds that John and Shona, the young lovers of the story, are so excited about.

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From SoB to Saxon- from coal-pits to ‘Wheels of Steel’

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SoB/ Saxon as I remember them.

I am pleased to announce the publication of the latest edition of Memories of Barnsley magazine, which contains an article I have written on the early career of Barnsley heavy rockers Son of a Bitch/ Saxon.  This piece is an elaboration upon earlier postings I have made on this blog discussing the band‘s career and its place in the cultural life of Barnsley during the 1970s.

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Band members Byford and Quinn next to a quintessentially South Yorkshire bit of stone wall

The new article is based upon my further researches at the British Library and gives a brief account of the band’s emergence and development through the 1970s, culminating in their record deal and their transformation into Saxon, changes which set the stage for their international success.  The story is told through the perspective of the local newspaper, the Barnsley Chroniclewhich was happy to fill column inches with reportage on the band’s progress through increasingly large gigs, a battle of the bands and the elusive hunt for a deal.

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Saxon at Donnington festival, 1980. To quote Nigel Tufnel: “[Female fans] are really quite fearful, that’s my theory. They see us on stage with tight trousers and we’ve got, you know, armadillos in our trousers…”

For me, the band were a formative influence upon my musical tastes and aspirations (and to some degree upon my dress sense- photo above excepted) so that I am pleased to offer a small tribute to them, not least because they are still active after all these decades.

‘The secret science of pop’- hit or miss?

 

alThe secret science of pop, presented by Professor Armand Leroi, was broadcast by BBC4 on Tuesday February 28th 2017.  In the programme the evolutionary biologist tried to statistically and digitally analyse the last fifty years of pop music so as to see what common elements characterise a hit song.  He found a number of factors that appeared regularly in chart toppers and was able to postulate what makes up the ‘average’ number one.

Far more interesting, though, was his analysis of how popular music has evolved over five decades.  It is always evolving, but sometimes more quickly than at others.  In the mid-1960s there was a surge in development; another peak of accelerated change was in the mid to late 1970s, before a long period of only steady evolution during the 1980s.   The 70s peak was characterised by ‘rhythmic intensity’ as Leroi termed it: he argued that, in fact, it was the emergence of disco that was more significant than punk for the rate of change in popular music- contrary to many people’s instincts.

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Was this the experience of those who were young at the time and lived through this evolution?  From a narrow British rock perspective- the answer must be no.  We were aware of the rise of disco, but at the time the successive upheavals in the British music scene seemed much more rapid and violent.  Punk was followed by new wave; then New Romantic and synthesised music (like Human LeagueHeaven 17, Soft Cell and Depeche Mode) appeared in the early 1980s, along with Goth, Rockabilly, indie and music inspired by reggae and Latin beats.  Eventually disco’s inheritance reasserted itself through rave and acid house in 1988, but grunge and Britpop were dominant soon after.  Perhaps the influence of dance music upon other genres is best shown through bands like New Order, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and the ‘Madchester’ scene, and prove that ‘rhythmic intensity’ was a far more important evolutionary trait than aggressive guitars and that Leroi’s analysis is correct.

Nevertheless, being involved in the music scene at the time, it was the frenetic emergence of successive homegrown trends that felt more influential and impressive.  As I suggested in my last post, the British rock scene was extraordinarily fertile in the late 1970s and 1980s.

You can still watch The secret science of pop on BBC i-player: have a look and see what you reckon.  Does Professor Leroi have a point about disco, or does he down play the creatvitiy of indie music?

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‘Sophisticated Boom Boom’- post-punk sonic explorations

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In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, It’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie, writer David Keenan discussed the alternative music scene in the small Scottish town of Airdrie in the early 1980s.  He recalled how “There was a time … when it felt as if anything could happen- though in the end, to the world at large, there isn’t a single speck of evidence remaining that it did.”  This sense prevailed in small towns up and down the UK,  Keenan believes.  “Punk rock had failed in its promise to deliver music from musicians but, from 1978 to 1986, something much more electric had risen in its wake.  People never used the term post-punk at the time, at least as far as I can remember, but there was a feeling that the entire culture was up for grabs.”   He explained that “Punk had levelled everything and now post-punk was doing the remaking.  It was no longer about London or even Manchester or any of the metropolitan centres.  It was about covert DIY activity in small towns.  It was about extreme musical experimentation drawn from a range of very alternative influences.”  Keenan traces the sources of post-punk to “that feeling of pointlessness and despair, that sense that real life was always happening somewhere else…” But this pessimism  “changed into a brief celebration of the moment and its potential.  Post-punk spoke to us in Airdrie in a way that made us believe that the centre of the world was exactly where we were standing- and we had better do something about it.  It was a catalyst for a mass flowering of the arts, an existentialist revolution that turned Britain’s working-class towns and villages on their heads.”  Keenan has dramatised his teen experiences in suburban Scotland in the story of a fictional band, This is Memorial Device.

Keenan’s article makes a thrilling case for the cultural vibrancy of humble Airdrie in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Does his thesis apply elsewhere?  My personal perspective is limited to Barnsley and Southampton, but as I have previously posted, the South Yorkshire mining town certainly had its ‘post-punk’ pioneers in the form of Danse Society.  They too have made a point (recently at least) of labelling themselves post-punk, although (like Keenan) I rather doubt they used such a term back in 1980…

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Keenan’s article also set me thinking about my own musical experimentation at this very same time, both in my home town and in Southampton, where I attended university.  Amongst the ideas I tried out were the following:

  • a new wave band comprising me on acoustic guitar and vocals, an electric bass player and a female vocalist who also played a single bass drum.  We called ourselves Hari Dog Dom (I saw it sprayed on a wall) and briefly tried out a saxophonist too, but he was so loud you couldn’t hear anyone else- even with the amp turned up.  Our first and only gig was hampered by the fact that (because I had started drinking early in the evening on an empty stomach) I was almost too drunk to stand up, let alone play in time with the bassist, and that we performed in a crowded front room so packed that the vocalist couldn’t reach us.  For our second gig I wanted Charlotte to cycle around the venue reading poetry whilst we played on stage.  This proved too avant garde for her and the experiment failed;
  • in the summer of 1980 my dad gave me an old reel to reel tape recorder to mess around with.  Besides just recording my compositions, I experimented with recording backing tracks at normal speed and then replaying them at half speed whilst playing and singing over the top.  What it lacked in tunefulness, it made up for in radical novelty.  Sadly, the fruits of my ground breaking efforts are lost along with the outdated technology used to capture them;
  • about the same time I tried doggedly to adapt my father’s swing records, Glen Miller and such like, to a rock format.  If you could hijack salsa into the pop charts (Kid Creole, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Modern Romance etc), why not 1940s swing?  My efforts failed, which probably says more about my (want of) musical skills than the impossibility or inadvisability of the task I had set myself;
  • an anarchist punk band who comprised two acoustic guitars and a flautist; folk-punk is perhaps the best term to describe us.  We were called Success through dress- the name came from a 1920s book and we used 1920s graphics for our posters.  The songs focussed upon a doomed, interwar theme, drawing parallels between the twenties and thirties and our present, during the Cold War and under the shadow of nuclear annihilation (Greenham Common being just up the road).  Despite my pretensions to revolutionary fervour, we played our protest songs in a theatre bar in return for food… there’s probably a good moral about the enslaving power of capital and the opium of mass entertainment here should you wish to formulate it…
  • lastly, I settled on a solo acoustic act: my angry songs performed alone- protest unplugged or some such.  One witness described it as an anarchist garden party, which I have always chosen to regard as a compliment.

I have mentioned several of these projects in Rewind and editmy first novel, a story set in Southampton and Barnsley during the early years of the 1980s.  I have treated them as comedy, but Keenan’s article reminds me that there was a wider and more serious context, a preparedness in the early part of the decade to try out new genres and new forms. Friends of mine in Southampton, for example, were inspired by the size of the early Thompson Twins and the Latin rhythms of Pigbag to form a mass membership ensemble called Brouhaha.  They were so numerous there were almost too many to fit on the student union stage and their percussion was improvised from such items as the ice tray from someone’s freezer.  The same university scene generated My Mum, a four piece featuring proto-rap from two vocalists; one song reworked the poetry of Sylvia Plath into a chanted round that interwove and clashed over the backing track.  They were genius: I offered the homage of covering one of their songs in my solo act because I was so awed and impressed.

As Keenan rightly records, it was a rich and exciting time.

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Extreme noise terror- formed in Ipswich, 1986…

‘History is made by those who turn up’- Buzzcocks and the birth of punk

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The single Spiral scratch by Manchester band Buzzcocks was released on January 29th 1977, meaning that the fortieth anniversary of this significant event is imminent.   In fact, ‘released’ is possibly an inappropriate word, given that it implies a nationwide publicity process on the part of the music industry.  In this case, it was four Bolton students lugging boxes of singles around the record shops of central Manchester.  I say that the release was important, even historic; I probably need to explain and justify such grand terms.

Firstly, and possibly least importantly, Spiral Scratch was the third recognised ‘punk‘ release.  It had been preceded by The Damned’s ‘New Rose’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by The Sex Pistols in October and November of the previous year, but it still represented a very rare manifestation of the new musical movement.  For that reason alone it was bound to attract attention at the time and to still be a subject of note (and blogs!) decades later.

Secondly, the single was self produced– it was the first ‘independent’ punk release- and its appearance established a self-sufficient, anti-establishment element in the ethos of punk which was to prove defining.  The reasons for this were simple.  There were no record labels based in Manchester at that time and few A&R men bothered to come up to the city to see new bands playing.  That meant that the only way a new band at the time could normally get attention  was to play at certain pubs and clubs in the capital.  Four lads from Bolton Institute of Technology did not have the funds for such a venture.  Out of desperation, as much as from any revolutionary spirit, they investigated the idea of cutting a 45 rpm disk from a demo tape.  It turned out to be less daunting than they had imagined: there were the printing and pressing facilities in Manchester and, provided they were prepared to put the vinyl in the sleeves themselves, they could produce 1000 singles for a fairly modest cost.  The band established their own label, New Hormones, as the vehicle for this venture and went into a local studio in late December 1976.  The band also provided the art work and design themselves, so that nearly the entire production and distribution process stood outside conventional channels.

Although Buzzcocks were hawking the records around themselves, their initial gamble paid off and they quickly sold the first batch.  This was, of course, in large part testament to the quality of the record, but it indicated too that the independent route could succeed.  This realisation had important consequences. The London record shop, Rough Trade, saw the scope for setting up a distribution network outside the major labels and thereby provided a conduit for distributing the new music.  Many bands imitated Buzzcocks’ pioneering initiative, setting up their own labels and issuing their own singles.  Examples include The Prefects, a Birmingham band who set up Vindaloo Records to release their first single, ‘Going through the motions’;  Illegal Records was founded by Stewart Copeland, the drummer in The Police, along with his brother Miles, in order to issue ‘Fall Out’, the band’s  1977 debut.

A large number of small, independent labels were also established in response to punk, often in the British regions where there had not previously been a recording industry presence.  In Manchester there appeared Valer Records and the Rabid label, which appropriately released the work of Slaughter and the Dogs; Braik Records  was set up by Bernie Rhodes, manager of the Subway Sect, as a way of releasing their recordings and the aforementioned Illegal Records had two sub-labels, Deptford Fun City (ATV and Squeeze) and Step Forward (The Cortinas and Chelsea).

It would be possible to overemphasise the anti-capitalist, anti-establishment aspect of these initiatives.  Despite the anarchist associations of the punk movement, these new labels were not (other than Crass Records, of course) some gesture against commercialism; they were just a way of small, new bands getting themselves heard and, once the independently released single had attracted the desired attention, many of them (for example The Police, Buzzcocks and The Skids) quickly signed to major labels.   Nonetheless, as I have suggested, the ‘DIY’ ethos was quickly internalised into punk: homemade clothing, badges, jewellery, hair styles and fanzines rapidly became markers for the new genre (see too the quotes from the Museum of London punk exhibition in my previous post).

It is instructive to contrast the experience of Buzzcocks and others with the more traditional approaches to finding record deals.  I have discussed Barnsley heavy rockers Son of a Bitch/ Saxon elsewhere on this blog.  The band was formed in 1970 and they followed the established process of producing demos and circulating those to record labels over the next few years.  It was not until summer 1978, after many refusals, that they finally signed a deal with French label Carrere (as I describe in a forthcoming article in Barnsley Memories magazine).  Their first album did not appear until May 1979.  The trajectory for many punk bands was very different and very much faster: Buzzcocks had only formed in February 1977; The Damned formed in April 1976 and released their first single within six months.  Doubtless part of this acceleration was the response to the new fashion- labels and audiences wanted new bands and they wanted records urgently. Nonetheless, the new bands’ control over their own careers and the confidence, inspired by Buzzcocks’ example, that they could go it alone, was unquestionably a major factor.

The indie approach persisted throughout punk and new wave and far beyond into present day music.  I have posted elsewhere about Barnsley band Danse Society;  they released their first single, Clock, themselves on their own Society label in 1981.  My university friends The Anal Fleas recorded and released their own four track single in 1982, as much as a memento as a saleable product.  Coming right up to date,  My Space  and more recently Band Camp have enabled artists to release digital material direct to the public.  My Walthamstow friend Kate Evans records as Velodrome music and my ex-band mate in Damascus, lead guitarist Alan Singleton, does the same under the name of Half A Dozen Bandits.

Having emphasised the differences between punk and rock, I should note the similarities too.  Battles of the bands were still a way to get yourself noticed: Son of a Bitch/ Saxon helped build momentum through doing well in the US Sound Spectacular competition in autumn 1977 whilst independent labels Stiff and Chiswick organised their own Stiffwick contest around the UK about the same time, providing an early platform at the Edinburgh leg for young hopefuls The Skids.  Another constant was the drudgery of being on the road and touring from minor venue to minor venue.  John Lydon described his experience touring England in a decrepit van with Sex Pistols thus: “vile, horrible, a nightmare.”  It was a dispiriting induction to “the utter, total boredom of being in a band.”

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Returning to the release of Spiral Scratch, the third notable aspect of the event was the role played in it by a record shop.  The branch of Virgin Records in Manchester took 50 copies of the release and sold them within two days, immediately ordering 200 more.  When the initial pressing sold out, the band could not afford to pay for more copies.  The manager of the shop, Jon Webster, decided to assist them by taking money from another budget (the ticket receipts for a Status Quo gig) so that he could loan them £600 for another production run.

Music seller as music creator was not entirely new- Brian Epstein’s family owned North End Music Stores in Liverpool, which set up its own label, NEMS.  Nevertheless, in the early days of punk, record shops proved to be highly influential.  Bruce Findlay, owner of Edinburgh’s Bruce’s Records and later manager of Simple Minds, set up his own label to release local bands.  His first single was ‘Robot love’ / ‘For Adolfs only’ by The Valves, released by Zoom Records on August 30th 1977.  Amongst his other releases was a debut by PVC2, featuring the young Midge Ure.  However, Findlay passed on the chance to release the first single by The Skids and instead referred them back to Sandie Muir, owner of Muir’s Music in their hometown of Dunfermline.  Muir established No Bad Records to release their debut Charles in February 1978.  (I describe this in detail in the foreword to the second edition of my novel, Feeling Called Lovewhich is partly set in Dunfermline.)  We may note again that The Skids only got together in June of 1977 and were recording their first single within six months.  The last example of the influential role in punk’s growth of the music vendor is Small Wonder Records of Walthamstow.  Spotting a gap in the market, they too provided recording opportunities for, amongst others, The Cravats, Crass and Bauhaus.

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Lastly, I should comment upon the mythic role played by the iconic gig in the whole Buzzcocks story.  Up there in the rock annals with Hendrix at Woodstock festival or Bob Dylan’s first electrified appearances has to be the evening of June 4th 1976, when the Sex Pistols played Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.  The gig was organised by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, guitarist and vocalist of Buzzcocks, as a result of the impression made upon them by seeing the Pistols playing in High Wycombe in February of that year.  The pilgrimage to the gig provoked the formation of their band and the offer to Malcolm McClaren to find a venue in the northern city.  The gig was attended by only seventy or so people, but it has gained mythic status, as amongst the sparse audience were Tony Wilson (Factory Records), future members of Joy Division, Mick Hucknall (Simply Red) and Martin Hannett (subsequently producer of Spiral Scratch and thereafter Joy Division, U2, New Order, Magazine, Happy Mondays and many others).  The legendary aura of this summer evening is underlined by David Nolan’s book, I swear I was thereand by the dramatic portrayal of the gig in Michael Winterbottom’s excellent film from 2002, Twenty Four Hour Party People.

To conclude with the words of Pete Shelley: “It shows what you can do if you’re stupid enough to believe that you can do something.  History is made by those who turn up.”

The Free Trade Hall gig is a classic example of what ‘those who turn up’ can achieve: the late John The Postman excepted, that is…