UK Subs: 'Glastonbury was full of hippies. Just irrelevant' – a classic feature from the vaults

UK Subs … Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns The old ones are the best. And ol' Charlie's one of the best. In an unchara...

UK Subs … Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns
The old ones are the best. And ol' Charlie's one of the best. In an uncharacteristically strident outburst at the UK Subs' Hammersmith Odeon support gig with Iggy Pop, he just about summed up his band's position with something like: "Some people say we live back in 1977. But we ain't going to change our attitudes just because of fashion. It took them 10 years to pick up on Iggy Pop, didn't it?"
I used ol' Charlie's words against him then and make no apologies for repeating them now; it illustrates the band's belief in old values.
Ol' Charlie hadn't forgotten the first time, either: "Someone wrote that there's not enough humour in the UK Subs –someone in Melody Maker – was it you?"
'Fraid so, Charlie.
"It's funny, because exactly at the same time we thought that we were getting too serious. We agreed with you. You felt the unhappiness at that gig, especially when the kids start getting flung back in their seats. We've got to get lighter things; have a good time rather than just push out our grievances on the crowd. It gets a bit too political and we don't want to be another Sham [69]."
Boy! Got out of that lightly.
But then Charlie Harper, the UK Subs' lead singer and front man, is a conciliatory sort of chap, aiming for understanding rather than antagonism. He's been around awhile, with roots in the R&B band the Marauders, which probably has some bearing on his pragmatic approach. Guitarist Nick Garrett, however, is a bit younger ... and more dogmatic.
The three of us are enjoying an early evening drink before their recent headlining Lyceum gig. Bassist Paul Slack and drummer Pete Davies – the one with the crimson eraserhead shock of hair – are eating out somewhere.
The fans are a hardy breed. Go to any punk gig and the most extravagant and rigorous of them will probably have some reference to the Subs scrawled across their person. They're a faithful lot, too. In three years' gigging, the band only recently spent their first night in a hotel. Previously they stayed with friends/fans, wherever they played.
Their insistence on deja-entendu punk values obviously goes down well with the general public, if not with critics, who find them an easily dismissable target. Having been around in 1977 hasn't helped much, either. Tracks appeared on the Farewell to the Roxy album, which in itself is an indictment in certain "I was a punk before you were a punk" circles.
Other than that, they were ignored by record companies. So the Subs tapped their vast resources of energy to trek around the country playing up to 300 gigs a year, amassing their now fanatical following.
Charlie and Nick aren't bitter about the time they spent on the road. They have since had after all, a charted single – Stranglehold – and brisk elevation from bottom of the bill at the Lyceum four months ago to the top, now drawing 2,000 kids.
Though to outsiders their rise might seem sudden or opportunist, they resent being tagged as bandwagon jumpers – they are quick to point out their long, hard graft. Charlie gets philosophical about other bands getting there first.
Says Charlie: "What happened to us was that everyone started writing really amazing numbers – the Buzzcocks really made it big, and all the bands on that level. The second wave of that second year became really commercial; [Jimmy] Pursey was coming out with all sorts of amazing gems like Borstal Breakout. Punk was really going strong, getting to be popular music.
"And we didn't have any popular singles. We were trying to get a major company interested, but they said we were not commercial. See, we wouldn't write songs purposely to get into the charts, even though we wrote Stranglehold three years ago. But it was just like a number we wrote."
Nevertheless, after three years the Subs are still playing short, thrashing songs redolent of a bygone era.
Nick defensively jumps in: "How can we change when we haven't even recorded our first album? OK, let's pretend for a minute that we agreed with you that we are old-fashioned. So what?
"The impression I get from the press is that, for instance, we just went into a shop and bought straight-leg jeans and wore plimsolls, trendy shirts and changed a few lines in our songs, dropped those mentioning the police. If the press didn't know who we were and we did exactly the same set they wouldn't say it's old fashioned because, you know, I think it's just these zips and things. People say it's a bit 77, you know?"
Charlie: "We don't take any notice of trends. We're more an anti-trend."
Nick says: "I'll tell you one type of music I really don't like and that's the new wave arty-farty con people. I don't want to slag anybody off because I hate to see anybody get slagged anyway, but I think they pull lines out of thin air so that people start thinking about them when there's nothing there really. And put on a droning guitar and a slow moody bass. It's just a con, you know? What are you supposed to do? Sit on a table and go wow, pass us a joint and all that sort of thing? What's more old-fashioned than that?"
Well, people have heard what you are doing before, a few years ago.
"What's the alternative?" asks Nick. "Why pick on us? Why not pick on a mod group, which is even more old-fashioned than us? Or pick on the heavy metal rebirth, which is even more old-fashioned. Or the Robert Rental type of thing which is even … a Syd Barrett sort of reincarnation!"
In concert, a gun signals the start and the Subs are off as if on a 100-yard sprint, spurting for the finish through 19 songs. They don't know what pacing means, but their fans don't care.
Charlie is as cumbersomely amiable onstage as he is off. He awkwardly, self-consciously steps from brief Lydon-like drop-kicking to guitar mimicry, occasionally passing the mike to punks at the front for choruses. Nick slithers his guitar across the mic stand, falling to his knees, awkwardly throwing himself around.
As always, a UK Subs' gig is more of a ritual than a music event. The band and audience share a passionate devotion to each other. But that commitment to their followers is getting harder to keep up.
Nick: "There's been a coupla gigs lately where it's just been physically exhausting. We're doing the same size venues as we were doing two years ago, only we've got twice as much lighting and 10 times as many people. But we're trying to do the same thing as two years ago in terms of commitment and we're finding that we are collapsing. I think we are going to need slightly bigger halls or clubs."
Yet that's no excuse for not giving everything. Nick insisted: "If somebody doesn't move onstage, if anybody is slacking, getting a bit lethargic, everybody takes the mickey out of him, so they just feel out of it. Whatever the excuse, even if they're ill, they'll get the mickey taken out of them."
Shoulda told Trotsky that one. Permanence of revolution maintained through fear of urine extraction. Whatever, along with bands like the Angelic Upstarts, the Subs are one of the few (new) name bands remaining true to the spirit of '76, for what that's worth.
"It's not that we are the only ones sticking to the cause," says Nick. "It's that we are the only ones gigging. As far as I know Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wire, the Clash are still supposedly around, but none of them are gigging."
Charlie: "They've developed into a cog of the machine where their manager tells them it's time to lay off the road. I mean this tour bit, a tour when you put out the album. It's the old rock industry."
Nick: "We've decided to take a holiday – a period when we are not going to do any gigs. We're discussing now whether it'll be a week or two weeks. What's the difference? What do people mean, they've just finished a tour? We don't finish a tour. Our tours are exactly a year long, every year."
They claim to have only ever blown out one gig – Glastonbury Fayre.
"It was so little to do with us," says Charlie. "It was like going to a Butlins Holiday Camp full of hippies – just irrelevant. We wanted to get out of the place.
"We have always said that we don't refuse anything, which almost contradicts ourselves. Like, we said we would never do Top Of The Pops, but they blackmailed us by saying we wouldn't be able to do theOld Grey Whistle Test, like we wanted to."
Maybe if they took more time off the music would get a chance to grow?
Says Nick: "By the time we've got enough material for a second album, then we'll be picking our set from numbers that don't seem dated from the first album and the best from the second – and therefore we'll have an up-to-date set."
Don't they ever get the urge to expand a little as they become more proficient?
Nick: "It's took me about seven years in the music business playing in different bands to realise that this is my type of music. It's got to be exciting, live music. I could never play stuff that's laid back, like the Banshees – it's just not me. I find the Banshees a bit on the late-night listening pessimistic side, whereas I find people like Crass and Wire on the optimistic side.
"People don't realise that playing just fast punk music is the greatest thing to do and we're just having so much fun doing it. We could slow down. We've got slow numbers, like Tomorrow's Girls – well, slow by our standards – but we couldn't go any slower than that. We don't feel comfortable doing it.
"When Wire came onto the scene, the trend moved slowly towards short sharp songs. The type of bands we were seeing were doing short songs and they influenced us, you know. But we won't do that now – we write songs of about one and a half minutes. Some are even two minutes long!"


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