In respect of finding six original black and white ‘Walkerprint’ larged sized photographs stuffed into the UK Sub’s second LP ‘Brand New Age’ the other week, I have great pleasure in showing them off on this post uploaded tonight. The photographs were sent to me originally by whoever was running the UK Subs fan club way back in 1980/1981 when I was a short staying member! Getting these photographs at the time was certainly not a bad investment. One years subscription payment, slipping a grubby postal order written out to the fan club and then sending the envelope to some long forgotten P.O. Box number all those years ago…Result! I am sure everyone in the fan club would have got the same or similar great photographs but as I had forgotten all about them it was a very pleasant surprise to have them all fall into my lap pulling out the ‘Brand New Age’ LP to give my favorite UK Sub’s track ‘Warhead’ a spin. Most of my records are in storage at the moment so I could not play the 7″ single format of this track!
Anyway I felt like uploading the debut LP by the UK Subs tonight, ‘Another Kind Of Blues’ which was released in a blue sleeve, along with a blue inner sleeve, pressed on lovely blue vinyl and even had two tracks held within the grooves with the word ‘blue’ attached in the title!
A class LP in any case, although I personally prefer the ‘Brand New Age’ LP…
Text below lifted from the book by Alex Ogg entitled ‘No More Heroes – A complete history of UK Punk from 1976 to 1980’ – go get the book. Photographs from my collection…of course.
It’s easy to berate the Subs. After all, they’ve given their critics plenty of ammunition. If you lie down with dogs, you get fleas. And if you lie down in fleapits, where many of the Subs’ endless latter day gigs took place, and you’ve got a singer who was born sometime during the Norman conquests, you’re gonna get hammered by the music press. Especially when you veer into karaoke punk rock albums, when it seemed Charlie Harper was seeking to redefine pointlessness as an art form, and swap drummers and bass players like schoolkids exchange Pokemon cards.
But for all that . . . the early UK Subs albums especially, despite what the punk fashion police would have you believe, are engaging, entertaining, and musically literate. Few who do not know these records would associate the UK Subs with the level of finesse and aural bite they often displayed. It didn’t exactly help that they got caught up in the second wave of punk and were bracketed alongside one-trick ponies like the Exploited. But their first four studio albums contain some of the most searing musicianship of the punk era. And the band that produced them was smart, funny and personable. There are also a few treasures to be found on their later output, particularly anything that their genuinely innovative guitarist Nicky Garratt was associated with, but the gems are spread a good deal thinner.
Charlie Harper, as everyone knows, was knocking on a bit when punk kicked in. In fact, he was old enough to be a part of London’s last big generational upheaval, the swinging sixties. He’d busked around Europe with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, hung out with the Rolling Stones (he was at one time nicknamed ‘Charlie Stones’) and taught Rod Stewart how to play blues harp. Thereafter he set up several pay-the-bills R&B ventures, the first being Charlie Harper’s Free Press Band, titled in tribute to Muddy Waters’ song ‘Albert Harper’s Free Press’. They split when his fellow band members showed no interest in turning professional, so instead he led the Charlie Harper band and also moonlighted with a group called Bandana. By the mid-70s he was playing countless pub and club engagements alongside Scott Gorham, before he joined Thin Lizzy, as Fast Buck (later Gorham would also record with the Pistols’ Cook and Jones as part of the Greedy Bastards). These nocturnal activities were largely subsidised by his hairdressing business in Tooting.
The fourth or fifth incarnation of his various R&B combos were the Marauders. He decided to switch tack after a few nights at the Roxy watching bands like the Damned. “To me,” reckoned Harper, “punk was an excuse for fanatics to have their say, people like me who never had a chance before, people who have just been laughed at. Blokes like me who’ve just been through life being sneered at, fingers pointing, saying, ‘That’s the local nutcase’. When punk came along it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was accepted.” The Damned would remain a particular influence, as he recalled to Phaze One fanzine. “The Damned are one of the bands that actually changed my whole life. I was going to Damned gigs, jumping around and then playing completely different music the next day.” A new name was evidently required so he opted for the Subversives, later trimmed to the Subs, and finally the UK Subs when he learned of the presence of a Scottish band of that name on Stiff Records.
Of course, Harper was in a unique position to compare the impact of the swinging 60s with the somnambulant seventies, as he confirmed to me in 2005. “The punk explosion was almost an exact parallel to the 60s R&B scene. In fact, early punks adopted all the 60s style, buying up all the old clobber. ‘My suit only cost a quid,” someone would say. Then someone would announce, ‘Mine was 50p!’. ‘Yeah, but it’s held together with safety pins.’ Every band played a cover version like ‘Wooly Bully’, a big hit in the 60s, every band has a sixties song on plastic, so the similarities were there.”
The line-up quoted at the start of this entry, essentially the Marauders in punk garb, was soon shuffled, shortly after Harper suffered his ‘first’ heart attack, largely as a result of prolonged sulphate use. Rehearsals at the Furniture Cave on the King’s Road saw Harper’s flatmate Greg Brown replace Anderson, who joined the Pentecostal Church, while Steve Jones took over on drums and a saxophone player, Dave Collins, was added. Of much greater import was the recruitment of guitarist Nicky Garratt, Harper’s soon to be longstanding co-writer. Classically trained but principally self-taught, he moved to London from Leicestershire on 1 January 1977. Previously he’s enjoyed a minor career in a local blues band with Honey Boy Hickling and Big Al Taylor, then a band with Geoff ‘J.B.’ Blythe, later of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
In London he formed the Specimens, a short-lived punk band, though their song ‘Ronnie Biggs’ did transfer to the Subs’ set, where it became ‘B.I.C.’. He’d been advised to check out Harper’s group, who had “loads of gigs booked”, but had mistakenly presumed they were called the US Jets. “I first met Charlie at his apartment, where I was waiting for him to return from his salon,” Garratt told me in a letter in 1991. “Charlie was a hairdresser with a small business at the rear of a clothes store where the band would meet before gigs to load the ancient Marshall PA into the van. The UK Subs, as they turned out to be called, had been playing since the end of 1976 with a variety of personnel fronted by Charlie. They played a mix of punk and R&B with, at that point, a temporary guitarist and even a sax player filled in on covers like ‘Wolly Bully’ and ‘Talking Book’.”
Nicky Garratt made his debut at the Western Counties pub on 15 October 1977, three days after that first meeting, and without an audition. “He was dressed in black and looked like a young Wilko Johnson,” Harper later recalled. “I played the early demos that we did and he liked them and that was it.” “Although we kept the extra guitarist and sax player for another week,” Garratt told me, “Charlie and I put together a core of punk songs for the set in those two days before the first show. The songs included some that Charlie had written like ‘I Couldn’t Be You’ that Charlie had reworked while in the Marauders and ‘Stranglehold’, along with new (more punk style) songs we wrote together like ‘Telephone Numbers’ and ‘Illegal 15’. Suddenly the Subs were a 100% punk band.” Albeit one with a musical pedigree, as Garratt notes. “Charlie had a ‘street’ background as far as live performances, while I had five years’ training on classical guitar, as well as earlier bands. Charlie’s ‘get up and play’ spirit certainly taught me a great deal, but I think our musical DNA was fully loaded before that.”
With the line-up now settling down to Harper, Garratt, Slack returning on bass and Jones on drums, they secured residencies at the Western Counties and Tooting’s Castle pub. Jones was replaced by Rory Lyons in November 1977 as the group, whose HQ remained Harper’s Totting salon, where he coiffeured punk hairstyles for the likes of Adam Ant, further honed the new material. A show at Brighton’s Buccaneer venue on the 18th was filmed by Southern TV and transmitted in January 1978 – a photograph from the same show later appeared on the cover of the American release A.W.O.L.
On 21 November they cut their first demo as the UK Subs, featuring ‘Stranglehold’, ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’ and ‘Disease’, at YMC studios. “Our first attempts at recording were not good,” Harper told me. “We all recorded together in the studio to get a more ‘live’ sound, but it was hard to capture the live energy and attack”. Two days later they played Croydon Scamps to a crowd of absolutely no-one – the manager being required by his licence to put music on, receiving £35 for their efforts before the doors were even opened. Later that month they made their debuts at London’s most prominent punk venues, the Roxy and Marquee.
Steve Slack was losing interest, but agreed to remain while the band made their recorded debut as part of the Farewell to the Roxy compilation album (the UK Subs’ set, recorded on 28 December 1977, was later released as Live Kicks). His elder brother Paul took over immediately this was completed, and was given three days to prepare for his debut show at Liverpool’s Eric’s. In attendance that night were representatives from Stiff and Chiswick, both of whom passed on the group, though Stiff would later issue Live Kicks, much to the band’s consternation, shortly after debut album Another Kind Of Blues had charted. But then Charlie had sold off the publishing rights to the Roxy set in exchange for a crate of beer while down the Vortex one night.
The group, with Robbie Bardock stepping in for Lyons, who later moved on to King Kurt, continued to gig extensively throughout London, at the Vortex, Bridge House, Music Machine and 100 Club. Their 10th January show at the latter saw Paul Weller and Joe Strummer number among the audience. “We were supporting a reggae band,” Lyons recalled, “We’d finish a song and Charlie would say, ‘We’re just waiting for the drummer to catch up.’ I ended up tying him to a table in the bar by the end of his scarf after the gig. He didn’t even notice and the table and drinks toppled over when he got up to walk away.” At the end of January they’d secured a five-week residency at the Mitre in Tooting, which unfortunately fell through when the landlord was hit on the head with a pool ball.
On 3 February 1978 they entered the studio for the second time to record ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’ at Barry studios in London, but were unable to get the right drum sound. Despite the failure of these sessions, they continued to pull good audiences at venues including the Mitre and Forrester’s Arms in Tooting, Battersea Arts Centre, Putney’s White Lion, the Moonlight Club, Music Machine and Canning Town Bridge. In so doing they established a reputation as the hardest gigging band of their generation and Harper as the James Brown, or indeed, Peter Pan, of punk music. However, getting gigs was becoming increasingly difficult as the group faced bans from at least five pubs, as their volatile audience swelled and proved a little boisterous. At one point Wayne County accused them of having a ‘fascist’ following, which was unequivocally denied by the band, who also played a couple of Rock Against Racism shows to emphasise the point.
They picked up yet another new drummer, Pete Davies, in April. He was aboard for the group’s debut John Peel session, recorded on 23 May. Such was Peel’s enthusiasm for the band that he offered to finance their debut single, after sympathising over the lack of record company interest. (Two further Peel sessions followed, on 6 September 1978 and 17 June 1979). Their first national tour came as a support to the Farewell To The Roxy album, an ill-fated Scottish haul alongside Blitz, Acme Sewage Co and the Jets. Funding was non-existent and the group subsisted by undertaking washing up duties. They were forced to hire a car, on Nicky Garratt’s girlfriend’s credit card, in order to get back to London. Garratt: “By the time the tour happened, the UK Subs were by far the biggest band on it. Really, the attempt to do the tour was puzzling, as none of the other bands were really doing much. It was like the UK Subs and a ton of opening bands. I think the organisers were trying in vain to promote a couple of bands they were managing.” A series of supports to Sham 69, Girlschool, Tubeway Army and the Ramones, who would later cancel, at the Plymouth Metro, on 6 September, lifted their spirits somewhat.
Prior to that, on 11 July 1978, the UK Subs entered Spaceward Studios in Cambridge and cut three tracks; ‘C.I.D’, ‘I Live In A Car’ and ‘B.I.C.’.
These would comprise their debut single, released as part of a one-off deal with City Records, the only label thus far to express any interest. Garratt: “We most likely met Phil Scott of City through Girlschool, who were close friends of the Subs at the time. He was a good guy and did his best for us, as far as I can remember.” The single was released in eight different colours, establishing the Subs’ reputation for rainbow vinyl. The a-side was informed by the old bill constantly sniffing around their shows at the Castle in Tooting. ‘I Live In A Car’, always one of the band’s most enduring tunes, was “just about living in a tour van and not seeing much of anything else. The basic idea was that when the taxman or anyone’s after you you’re never there, you’re in the van, you’re away somewhere else. That’s the kind of basic message, whenever anyone’s trying to get money off you, you’re not in. Which was very, very convenient. Most of the time.” A second TV appearance followed as part of a BBC2 Omnibus documentary on independent record labels.
Following the single’s release the Subs signed to Alistair Primrose’s Ramkup management team, including manager Mike Phillips, on 16 May, over a couple of beers at the Prince William Henry in Blackfriars. He negotiated a deal with RCA subsidiary Gem later that month. The group were now ‘proper’ punk recording artists, though, interviewed by Garry Bushell for Sounds in August, Pete Davies insisted: “I don’t consider us to be a punk band, because punk when it started was young kids who didn’t really know how to play. We’ve all been playing for years apart from Paul, the bassist, who started from scratch. He learnt the bass in about one week before we played Eric’s.” In the same interview, Harper pointed out how the band had changed. “When UK Subs started we were really political. We did a couple of numbers like ‘No Rules’ and ‘World War,’ which was about the Baader-Meinhoff gang, and was about 24 seconds long. We had to slow it down to 30 seconds so you could hear the words. We’ve dropped the heavy political angle now because when we get on stage we just wanna forget reality and create our own escapism.”
Sessions for the band’s debut album began on 29 May 1979 at Kingsway Studios in London’s Strand, owned by ex-Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, whose bass player John McCoy would serve as producer, mainly because he’d previously worked with Samson, who shared the Subs’ management. Sessions were preceded two days earlier by an appearance at the Loch Lomond festival alongside the Buzzcocks, Stranglers and Skids. They also became tabloid fodder on the intervening day when they ran a story about fan Phil Sick bumping into Prince Charles in Windsor and inviting him to a subsequent Subs’ show at the Music Machine. Other versions of this story have Subs’ fans writing to old jug ears and receiving a personal reply stating he had a prior engagement. Either way, it sounds like a record company scam to me. “Actually the original incident was purely a fluke,” Nicky Garratt told me in 2005, “as some of our fans walked across the side of a polo field where Prince Charles was playing. The press actually brought them together – it made the front page of the Daily Express and the Sun. It was our management who tried to make a meal of it by inviting the prince to the Music Machine.”
The sessions were interrupted by another ‘toff’ related incident, an appearance on June 11 at the Cambridge Trinity May Ball. This was filmed for the recently re-released Julien Temple documentary, Punk Can Take It. The film originally ran as a support feature to Breaking Glass, Scum and Quadrophenia, ostensibly because Gem also ran GTO films and thus had some clout in that area. It was notable for the pitched battle that took place between around 200 local punks who were unable to get into the venue. Some of the footage was actually taken from the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, which Temple had recently been working on, as he indulged in a little celluloid cut and pasting.
The UK Subs’ first release for Gem, ‘Stranglehold’, gave them their strongest ever chart showing in June, peaking at number 26, selling 75,000 copies and bringing an appearance on Top Of The Pops. The ‘Stranglehold’ tour began soon thereafter, though the group decided to pull out of a planned appearance at the Glastonbury festival (which brought them a front cover story for Sounds). However, their final show at the Lyceum was also filmed for Punk Can Take It, and four of the tracks were recorded and issued as the ‘For Export Only’ 12-inch, later given away free with copies of the Crash Course album. They actually had more punch than the parent album, too. A third single, ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’, was readied, the cover featuring Joanne Slack, Paul’s sister, who also briefly ran the group’s fan club. It sold almost as well as its predecessor and brought another Top Of The Pops appearance.
Riding the momentum, Another Kind Of Blues, initially released in blue vinyl, reached number 21 in the national album charts on release in September, as Pinnacle re-released ‘C.I.D.’. Garry Bushell gave the album a five-star review in Sounds, noting the songs were “Short, sharp, fast with great hooks, nifty, simple guitar” and that the album was a “near perfect slice of good time high energy punk.” Certainly, none of the songs outstay their welcome. ‘Young Criminals’ was originally written to be played as the fadeout to the film Scum. ‘Rockers’ was not, according to Charlie, a challenge to the new mod movement, but an adaptation of an old song called ‘Totters’ – totters being gypsies, and the name of a pub the group used to play. A strong blues influence, courtesy of Harper and Garratt’s previous bands, could be detected, alluded to in the album title. Producer John McCoy actually co-wrote and played on a rough version of ‘Crash Course’ with Nicky Garratt while the rest of the band were on a lunch break. Another Kind Of Blues also started the tradition of Subs’ albums being issued in alphabetical order (apparently, long-time Subs fan Tim Burgess of the Charlatans can name them all – how very fascinating).
A 35-date national tour, including three successive nights at the Marquee, also began in September. By this time ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’ was resident in the Top 30. Booked to appear on Top Of The Pops, the band refused to pull at show at Exeter and insisted their record company fly them down after they’d recorded their clip. And to make sure the fridge was full. For their next single they elected to record their cover of the Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’, which again hit the top 40 and brought them to Top Of The Pops. Because Harper couldn’t hit the right range, Paul Slack handled the vocals after they’d toyed around with it during sound checks. Later Charlie would slate it as “awful”, though its rama-lama haste is actually quite endearing. The year was rounded out by their first, 12-date tour of America and Canada, beginning on 20 November 1979, and including two shows as support to the Police.
Brand New Age, this time produced by Harper and Garratt at Underhill Studios with engineer Laurie Dipple, was released in January 1980, and reached 18 in the charts. Many of the lyrics were written in the studio by Harper at the mixing stage, while the more esoteric musical inspirations included Syd Barrett’s ‘No Man’s Land’ (on ‘Rat Race’). Once again Garry Bushell gave it five stars in Sounds, though the band might as well have not existed for all the attention trendier publications like the NME would afford them. The highlights included the nugget-tough ‘Emotional Blackmail’ as well as opener ‘You Don’t Belong’ and a brace of fine singles. These comprised ‘Warhead’, soon to become the Subs’ signature tune, constructed over a thumping bassline Paul Slack used to play at sound checks, which Charlie wrote the words to one day in a chip shop, and ‘Teenage’. The latter was a bit of rabble-rousing aimed at the mod revival scene (and a song Mr Harper routinely dedicates to himself on set, despite now being well past 60). While ‘Warhead’ was probably Harper’s finest lyric, the sort of prophetic Nostradamus text that Jaz Coleman would later make Killing Joke’s speciality, the b-side was also worth checking out for Harper’s harmonica-driven instrumental ‘The Harper’ and a cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Waiting For The Man’. ‘Teenage’ was also backed by two of the band’s strongest songs of the period, ‘Left For Dead’, which could have been Motorhead, and the sterling ‘New York State Police’ (‘Keep your mouth shut or we’ll break your nose’)
In February they embarked on a major European tour as support to the Ramones (a bootleg from this period, Dance And Travel in The Robot Age, recorded at the Palilido in Milan, offers an effective souvenir of these happy times). On their return they were back to Top Of The Pops to perform ‘Warhead’, which had reached number 29 in the charts, and they returned again for ‘Teenage’. We’re at a crossroads now,” Charlie confessed to Garry Bushell, “the temptations are coming up, the big houses, the holidays abroad, and we’ll either split through it, or see it through to a real brand new age.”
Shows in Scotland followed, though Paul Slack had to be temporarily replaced by brother Steve when he caught pneumonia. At the same time Charlie recorded his solo single ‘Barmy London Army’, rejected by the rest of the band, with Chelsea’s guitarist, dedicated to Jimmy Pursey, whom he felt was getting a hard time. “One of those drunken nights down the Marquee, there was a R&B band on and the record company were down there. They suggested I should find a band like this for their label. And I replied that I’d do their single for ’em, me being the R&B man, and it all stemmed from there and demos we did . . . I thought ‘Talk Is Cheap’ should have been the a-side but the record company thought otherwise.” Blow me if Pursey’s legal representatives didn’t then pursue him for half the royalties for using the ‘Kids Are United’ chant – which must have amounted to about 30p when all’s said and done. Charlie went on to record another solo single, ‘Freaked’, most notable for its excellent b-side, ‘Jo’. There was also an album of covers, Stolen Property, on which he was joined by a cast of thousands including Rachel Dolly Mixture, Paul Davies and Steve Slack of the Subs and Mood Six’s Tony Conway. It’s not unlistenable, surprisingly.
A 21-date full UK tour to promote Brand New Age culminated in a May 30th show at the Rainbow, but inter-band tensions had begun to surface. According to Harper’s comments at the time, Slack and Davies had become a little star-struck with the group’s new found popularity. It ended in a fist-fight one night after a Dutch TV show, and the two factions parted company after their management’s attempts at mediation failed. Slack and Davies briefly formed the reggae-influenced Allies to pursue a direction they’d forlornly attempted to push on the Subs. “I think the pressure within the band was quite high at that time,” Garratt told Ian Glasper. “Pete and Paul seemed to be unhappy, and as I recall, complained quite a lot. We were doing an awful lot of shows. Charlie and I felt the Subs were our baby, I suppose. We were working on stuff all the time and a natural crack formed between us.”