The British music business has started the year by trying to come to terms with the growing wave of brash, sometimes exciting and sometimes atrocious, new and very young bands who call themselves “punk” or “new wave.” EMI were first to wade in, and came badly unstuck on finding that the Sex Pistols were more than they could handle.
United Artists (with The Stranglers) and Rak (with The Vibrators) are likely to have more happy relations, while Island, the one-time progressive music leaders, are playing safe with a more mainstream, but excellent, young R & B band, Eddie and the Hot Rods. Other companies, I suspect, are looking at the still-growing number of do-it-yourself new young bands (who now have a new punk club to play in, the Roxy in Covent Garden) with confusion and some horror.
I sympathise, for I admit that I was a slow convert (partly because I was so bored with the first batch of Sex Pistol scandals), and I find a lot of the new bands very bad and very hard going. The fact that they are there, that they are beginning to create their own music on a substantial scale, and are doing so on their own, without (so far) being dictated to or created by the big record companies, is very encouraging news. Whatever you think of the music, the principle behind it is excellent.
In the past, the different waves of new music in England tended to have a particular record company identified with them. First Island, then Virgin, started almost at street level, before growing. Despite the alleged ideology of one or two of them, many of the punk bands will doubtless aim (like the Sex Pistols) for the big corporations and the big advances. Those who reject all that will gravitate to the new, still tiny companies like Chiswick and Stiff Records who are trying to deal as fast and simply as possible with the new bands, on their own level.
Stiff operate from a shop-front in Bayswater, and at the end of last year had the remarkable distinction of getting into the lower reaches of the charts (and selling 14,000 copies) with a record that was recorded in two hours and mixed in another two, for a cost of around £46. It’s called New Rose, by a band called The Damned, who are teenagers, have a drummer called Rat Scabies, and claim to have had jobs as janitors and gravediggers.
The sound is atrociously raw, but the song almost falls over itself in the energy and excitement. The flip side, an even greater Max Jaffa. I’m not recommending it to the over-twenties, but it’s a fine example of its genre.
Stiff is run by Dave Robinson, veteran of the pub-rock era, and producer Jake Riviera. They were helped by the band Dr Feelgood and photographer Keith Morris, and started it for £400. Robinson says: “We’re interested in the folk music aspect of it - I’m a bit of an idealist, and I want to document the music that is happening now.” He is not interested in signing bands for long-term recording contracts, but is happy for them just to come in to make one single.
He sees the “new wave” as partly resulting from his pub-rock expertments. “That provided venues, and showed that bands could play even without backing from record companies. The new bands took the idea forward, though some of them are too young for pubs.” As for the punk style, he again sees a tie-in with the veterans of the older pub-rock circuit. “Ian Drury of Kilburn and the High Roads started wearing razor-blades and safety-pins, and if bands like Ducks De Luxe were younger they’d have been punks.”
Looking round the London clubs last week, and watching the “punk tour” over in Holland, it was encouraging to see how different the “new wave” bands already are, though the one thing they have in common is simplicity and energy. The most accessible, for those who are not members of the “oh my God I’m so spotty, I’ve just been chucked out of the comprehensive and now I’m on the dole” generation, are The Stranglers and The Vibrators, both of whom mix a degree of melody with the aggression and calculated outrage.
The Stranglers tend to imitate Lou Reed (as do most punks) but also have an organist (a punk rarity) which allows them to sound at times not unlike the late-lamented Doors. Their single will be released in a few weeks, but they have such a variety of songs (by punk standards) that they should be a good album band. A sample of their lyrics: “I guess I shouldn’t have strangled her to death, but she had acne... it’s only the children of the wealthy that are good-looking.”
The Vibrators are also from London, and somehow include a 31-year-old guitarist, the son of a university lecturer whose earlier career included Irish Show Bands and “a Nazi transvestite pianist in a Park Lane club.” They were touring with the Sex Pistols last week (“ordinary people, nicer than we are”); but made it clear that their views are very different - “punk has no philosophy, except telling the Press that it has. All punk has given is a style of playing, and contact with the audience. You’re either good at it or you’re not.”
The hard-core punk heroes are the Pistols, Clash and The Damned. I saw the latter in a basement in Islington last week where the sound was horrific and not one word was intelligible. They have style, certainly in an anarchic fashion, but hurl themselves too fast, too madly and too identically into every single song. They are completing the first punk album (on Stiff) which should clarify their potential.
Before it even comes out, the way things are going, a new set of bands may have emerged. Most of them may be dreadful, but as with the skiffle movement - in the Fifties - at least the emphasis will shift slightly from watching to participating. Whatever you think of Mr Rotten and the Sex Pistols, they helped start all that.
This article was written by Robin Denselow, for theguardian.com on Saturday 10th January 2015 05.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010