Northern Line part 3 Skinhead Moonstomp revisited

My years at medical school coincided with a hugely exciting period in the history of British popular music. I was living and studying around central London, which was exactly the right place to be. Almost without effort, I saw many of the best and most exciting young bands when they were still on their way up. Having been present at the start of the Sex Pistols brief career, I saw the Specials when they supported Rockpile at the Hammersmith Palais in June 1979. The Pistols and the Specials were the alpha and omega of the punk era and I caught them both in their glory days.

Rockpile gig poster in Hammersmith Palais from the 1970s. Part of popular music from 1970s

Quite a few of my schoolfriends were skinheads. Skinheads first appeared in 1968, but the style had all but disappeared by 1972, only to reappear in an updated form at the end of the decade. It grew out of Mod culture, fusing a certain sharp dress-sense and musical tastes with football hooliganism. Football grounds were hot beds of racism, and the emergence of skinheads coincided with Enoch Powell’s awful Rivers of Blood speech. Bigotry was not necessarily intrinsic to skinhead culture, but it certainly tainted significant parts of it. Steve Hammond and I considered ourselves boho musicians, counter-culture kids. We kept our distance from skinhead activity because of its associations with violence and racism, but the music was great. In our teens, we were as familiar with ska, Motown and early reggae as we were with Hendrix and Santana. Consequently, ten years later, we were completely blown away by the Specials when we saw them. They were multi-racial, anti-racist, high-energy, and they played covers of ska classics as well as their own songs. We shouted for Skinhead Moonstomp, and they promptly played it. We left the gig agreeing that this band was going to be massive, and, about three days later, they were. However, the Specials and the other Two-Tone bands marked the last great phase of the new wave. Thereafter, corporate interests regained control of popular music, gradually absorbing vibrant but badly-managed independent record labels and stifling them. Eventually, “Indie” came to mean nothing more than a style of guitar rock invented by Johnny Marr.

The historiography of the music of the late 1970s has been dominated by a myth of apostolic succession, whereby punk bands were supposedly started by people who attended early Sex Pistols gigs. Amongst the 50 or so people who saw them at Ravensbourne College of Art in 1975, a handful did start bands, although in most cases it was a full year later. It is commonly observed that only forty people saw them on 4th June 1976 at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, but a much larger number of bands claimed to have taken their inspiration from that night. Unlike the explosion of British music in the 1960s, punk and new wave were not led from the streets. They were led by the music press. The legendary Manchester gig only happened because Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, later of the Buzzcocks, read about the Pistols in the New Musical Express.

Until my last year at school, the NME was tired and somewhat lost, a tin pan alley music paper leftover from the 1960s, regurgitating record company PR material. It reinvented itself by radically improving its graphic design and employing some hip young journalists from the underground press, including Mick Farren and Charles Shaar Murray. It was essential reading every week for a decade. Sadly, in the 1980s it developed an obsession with Jacques Derrida and semiotics, and I could not be arsed to struggle through it. The NME of the mid-70s was keen to promote an exciting new musical movement before such a thing even existed. They had been touting “punk rock” as a cool label (rather than as a musical concept) for some time. I remember the NME applying it to Nils Lofgren, and even Bruce Springsteen, before it settled on Patti Smith when she released the seminal LP of 1975, Horses. By association, it was applied to new bands on the same New York scene as Smith, such as Television, the Talking Heads and the Ramones. Only the last of these had much in common with the emerging British punks.

Punk rock and the new wave were created by musicians of my generation, and many of us were moving in the same direction long before Malcolm McLaren made the Pistols his Situationist cash cow. For many of us, the Kinks, the Who and the Small Faces were the key points of reference amongst the previous generation of bands. David Bowie was the biggest contemporary influence, along with Robert Wyatt’s appearance on Top of the Pops in his wheelchair, singing I’m A Believer with an estuary accent. The new high-energy stance was pioneered on the London pub rock circuit by musicians who were later embraced as part of the new wave, including Dr Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe, Ian Dury’s band Kilburn and the High Roads, Joe Strummer’s band the 101ers, the Count Bishops and the Guildford Stranglers (who later shortened their name). A lot of young musicians listened to a programme on BBC Radio London called Breakthrough, fronted by a journalist called Steve Bradshaw. It was an unusual mixture of music and interviews. Bradshaw covered music that was rarely played on the radio. He introduced me to the Velvet Underground, Can, Iggy and the Stooges and John Prine. When John Lydon played his choice of music on Capital Radio in 1977, it included a lot of music that I had first heard on Breakthrough.

I still have a piece of paper with a list of rules that Steve Hammond and I drew up for our school band. These included “No songs longer than 3 minutes”, “No slow ones”, “No rhythm changes” and “No solos”. The latter is surprising, because Steve played a fine melodic guitar solo and still does. However, at the time, like the future Sex Pistols and many other 17 year olds in bands, we were looking back to the mid-sixties to create something raw and exciting. The NME spotted the hot new bands early and called them punks. Thousands of people in their late teens decided that this was going to be their music before they ever actually heard it.

 Photograph of the band Split ENZ band members. Part of popular music from the 1970s.

Change is rarely discontinuous, and the student union gigs at Kings College London elided the old and the new. This was typified by a Jack The Lad gig in the autumn of 1976. The band was a remnant of the original line-up of Lindisfarne, wildly successful five years earlier but by now deeply unfashionable. The fact that they could play muscular rhythm and blues alongside their melodic folk-rock did not protect them. The support band was Split Enz, an art-rock band from New Zealand who performed well-choreographed robotic mime, including a fantastical solo on spoons. None of us had ever seen anything like it before. Their costumes were bizarre and their whole shtick was surreal and distinctly unsettling. Standing in the crowd right in front of me was Jordan, accompanied a teenager who went on to become an acclaimed poet, Shane McGowan. Jordan was one of a group of women in punk who redefined what women and their sexuality could be in popular culture. This disturbed the tabloid newspapers, who featured her in mock-shock exposés of punk. She lived on the south coast, and I often saw her on my way home at Charing Cross station, where people tended to stare. Jordan and McGowan turned up that night to see Split Enz, not Jack the Lad. In due course, the band had hits with some fine pop songs and they eventually spawned Crowded House. Punk did not arrive with a sudden break from the past and in isolation from other genres, as the histories sometimes suggest. There was a great roar of energy and excitement in the press,  but in reality punk was a trajectory adjustment as younger musicians entered the mainstream of popular music.

While other musicians born during the Suez Crisis had their moment in the sun, I was missing in action. The demands of the medical course made it difficult to organise a regular band, and, unable to drive, I had no means of transporting heavy equipment. I did form occasional bands, but this ended with the theft of my guitar amplifier from a locked store room at the medical school club. The amp was the only item of musical equipment that I have ever had stolen in fifty years as a gigging musician. In this n=1 study, medical students appear to be less trust worthy than rock musicians by a factor of 100%.

Instead of joining a regular band, I played singers’ spots in folk clubs, particular Bunjie’s Folk Cellar. Bunjie’s was a tiny underground venue in Litchfield St, Soho, with an ancient Italian espresso machine and a low vaulted ceiling. A wide variety of musicians had played there, including Dylan, Paul Simon, Davy Graham and Bowie. It was a great place to play, because there was no amplification of any description, so everyone listened intently. You could catch performances by major musicians and by singing bag ladies. I went there periodically for years and usually performed a few of my own songs. I did one of my punk-inspired songs one night and got booed, not because of the musical style, but because the lyrics were somewhat robust. They were intended to be ironic, but I did not quite pull it off. It should have been a hard lesson, but it was an error that I have repeated over the years. Playing there kept me going while the new wave rushed in, broke and receded without my involvement as a performer.

I may have missed the opportunities if the punk era, but this was no so for the people that I had started out with, who during this period became names worth dropping. Bob Beckingham was a couple of years older than me, and we knew each other from school sailing holidays on the Norfolk Broads. Even as a schoolboy, he had a rich baritone voice and could do a convincing Bing Crosby croon. He was an excellent violinist and mandolin player. I saw him play at King’s as a member of the Fabulous Poodles, who enjoyed some success as a new wave band in the UK and the USA. Bob adopted the name Bobby Valentino, and he had a parallel career as a Clarke Gable look-alike. The Fabulous Poodles were great and his next band, the Electric Bluebirds, were even better. He played as a sideman for many major artists. He recorded a great solo album which got a lot of radio play but became bogged down in record label distribution problems. I occasionally played guitar with him at school, so he creates one degree of separation between me and some big names, including Tom Petty and Paul Weller. No credit to me there.

Similarly, the first time we saw Squeeze on the TV, my girlfriend immediately recognised Barry Bartlett’s mate Chris Difford, whom she had lent her copy of Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Beard of Stars many years before. About the same time, Richard Smith’s brother Brian unexpectedly turned up on a TV programme about the Edinburgh Fringe. Brian lived around the corner from me and we often walked to and from school together. As Arthur Smith, he had a prominent role when alternative comedy was said to be the new rock and roll, and he has been on the television and Radio 4 continuously ever since. I used to bump into him around London until I left in 1985. I resisted his invitations to join his rounders team. I was amazed and pleased to see people I knew on stage and on the TV, but I felt no regret that I was not amongst them. For all of my difficulties in adjusting to medicine, I remained driven and intensely focussed on becoming a doctor. For the time being, I was happy to be in the audience. I was aware of gigging London musicians who were practicing doctors, such the jazz saxophonist Art Themen and Hank Wangford, post-modern country singer, so I knew that such things were possible. I continued to write songs in the hope that I would eventually find a band that would play them.

The KCL students union over looked the Thames. On the winter evenings, we played pool looking across the river at the ever-changing neon installation on top of the Hayward Gallery. During the hot summer of 1976, I poured over the NME each week sitting on the student union terrace. To the West, I could see up the river towards the Houses of Parliament, to the East down to the city towards Tower Bridge. I may not have been involved in the punk revolution, but I certainly felt that I was at the centre of things.