Lights down…whistles…there's a gasp in the air, shouts…nervousness, a sway.
Lights up, one chord strummed, sustaining, a little bass lick.
-Good evening! 1, 2, 3, 4!
Drums blast in, tribal…rhythm grabs a hold, power…taking a grasp.
A force blasts up through the sprung floor.
Through my boots.
Energy from the stage into my soul makes my confined psyche come alive!
I take off. Lost in a pit of anger, elbows, spikes and leather.
A wake-up call!
I skive off work round mates’ houses, and listen to records bought by older brothers of the hard guys, guys who stand out, had stood out at school, who didn't go to school, who robbed and drugged. Guys who go to Brum and London, guys who dressed a little differently. They played us stuff. And it blew me away. The northern soul scene was always a bit elitist, all a bit too much gotta be a good dancer and have the right clothes and the right records kinda thing, and the cash to go to the clubs and buy the things. And those baggy trousers just never hung right on me. Eventually, I got myself some straight legged jeans. I went to the football and Paul Mason wore them when we got the train up Rolfe Street to go to the Albion. After running in the streets of Smethwick, we went home and waited for Millets to open on Monday so we could get some.
But the music…like a sledgehammer to my brain, man!
The initial giggling shock factor of fuck being used liberally fell away as the power and freshness of the words and the energy and anger of the music sprang through. Words about our lives, about council estates, shit work, the cops, lost love, the dole...the fucking factory floors. But what came through, after the energy, what grabbed my short attention was the new ideas, new politics. And I thought, yeah, everything is shit, all crap, all bullshit. And for the first time music meant something, had an energy that sparked something in me…
A big fuck off to it all. This is what I wanted to say.
Listen! This is how I feel!
White riot, I wanna riot.
You're in a rut, you've gotta get out of it.
Regulations…they want to regulate me!
We were all fucked from the start, to be honest.
Looking back what else was there for us all to do?
My dad left when I was five; moved to drink and skirt, and me and my mum moved into my grandparents’ in a tower block, a stiff walk to the city centre or a number 12 yellow double-decker down the Five Ways. I don't remember my dad; he tried to take me away so my mum cut him out.
I remember the crosses Granddad had made in the paint on the fourth floor, so I knew I had walked up the right number; I was too titchy to reach the lift.
I remember being taken into a corrugated kids’ den on the waste ground behind the shops, and having my trousers pulled down by some big girls, and not understanding what they were doing, and sobbing.
But, I remember Saturdays best of all.
Down to the city in the morning, me and Granddad buying cheap cuts off the rag market and a big bag of scratchings for munching on later in front of the TV.
Then, me messing and Granddad tinkering in his den, a scary place underneath a flyover.
A wondrous place where I could twist old radios, stick noses into pots of evil-smelling liquids, prod boxes of knick-knacks and wire, and melt odd bobs of metal nicked from the foundry.
There were boxes of old cine films, mostly of the various factory fortnight trips we had been on (in the parade of Cortinas to Wales and the countryside, with aunts and uncles and cousins; me collecting pennies from the cars as I held open gates to farmers’ fields full of bulls). We would drag the memories back to the tower sometimes to have an evening watching and laughing our heads off.
Memories of good days.
Then off to the game.
I remember the cauldron of colour hitting me as I walked up the concrete steps behind the stadium. The first time blew me away, but I had that same feeling every time after. The butterflies in my stomach never left.
The green of the pitch, the blue and white of the fans. The roar, the swearing, the Woodbines, the pies, the Bovril, the violence, the ska, the Vs, the chants…I fell in love for the first time.
The rush to the bus or after the second hand car he got, to get there in time for sports-report, and to sing along loudly to the theme tune together, waiting for the traffic to thin. Stopping to buy a pink paper at a late agent. Our lives, our history, already in print an hour after the game.
Back to Gran’s through the drizzle.
-What's for tea?
-Boiled spuds, lamb chops, peas and gravy.
Nan, Granddad and me were sat at the dinner table; some Dick Emery comedy was on the corner TV. My mum was sat on the settee feeding the baby sat in a plastic chair.
We all picked up the chops and gnawed on the bones. I leant back and rubbed the fat all over my face.
My mum looked up from the telly.
-What the bloody hell are you doing?
-Granddad said it was good for ya skin.
-You telling him bloody stupid tales again? Wipe that muck off your face, right now and don't let me catch you doing that again!
Gran sniggered a little.
-So, did I ever tell you about Mr Roberts’ chicken? Well your mum, us and Uncle Michael lived near the park in Handsworth, and we had a yard. Mr Roberts kept chickens next door. One day Henry came round shaking. ‘George, come quick and have a look there's something wrong with one of the chickens.’ So, I goes round and sure enough one of his chickens was running around screeching its bloody head off. Well, we tried to calm it down but nothing, so to put it out of its misery we wrung its neck. Couple days later, Mick was having a bath in front of the fire. ‘Dad, did you know chickens like bubbly gum.' I nearly choked on the leg!
I smirked, Gran tutted.
I tried to stay awake through Kojak, for the Match of the Day late at night.
Jim the chin with highlights of our days.
And my dad? My real one! I have no memories; you would expect me to recall the fights, the shouting, and the tears. But, I don't remember them. I know they went on, I know that he drank and hit, and fucked about, but I don't have anything, just the good memories to hold onto with my granddad as I walked into bad ones.
Julie was from the city too, another side from me. A side to side with back to backs. Her father remained but despite his intelligence and chances he drank, and abused their souls. Until, in the end, her mum left, dragging Julie and her brothers behind her to live in council houses on various estates. Boyfriends came for her mum, and went usually in a hail of blows and "Fuck yous.''
She showed me dull crumpled photographs; a fenced private garden, and bags of sweets. Times on a beach with a breaker and a ball and ice creams.
-This is us in Weston. That's me, and dad, and Andrew being a dick as usual.
She shows me and remembers, drifting off for a few seconds.
-Yeah, didn't happen often. He was buzzing, and happy, no drink in him that's why. He was telling us all these interesting things, wondrous facts about the world. And I loved him then, I think; looking at him through my glass of sunshine and lime. He was my prancing prince.
But she remembers visiting for the last weekend most.
Julie's older brother held her hand tight and crept up to the back door of the garage.
-Shut up, I'm scared too. He must be in there.
There was a deep chug-chug of a Rover engine and wisps of smoke came under through cracks.
Her brother opened the door.
Fighting back the tears and the coughs they followed the rubber pipe from the exhaust to the little gap in the window, peering inside to see their dad lay down in the wooden and leather interior amongst the fog.
They moved from the city to a town, onto the council estate, where there was a community but also crime and little regular work.
One brother was a burglar, though not that good, I always saw him at the courts when I was in trouble, every time. He always got sent down.
Her mum was always kind to us as kids, always a smile or a slice of toast or a drink when we got a bit older and needed cheering, or to celebrate a fairly happy day.
I think we went round there because she was like the mum we all really wanted to have. She spoke to us in our language, and she was a bit of a devil.
-It's the coal-man.
-Well. Tell him I'm not in.
-I've already told him you are.
-Well, go and tell him you made a mistake.
-What? He isn't gonna believe that.
-Sorry she's not here after all.
-Now come on, don't play bloody silly buggers with me.
He pushed past and walked into the living room.
Julie walked in too. You could spot her mum hiding behind the sofa, her hair sticking up on its red rollers.
The guy looked in Julie's eyes, and lowered his own.
-OK then, I'll be back next week. Make sure you have it then.
Always some kind of trouble or other. Always present, so she looked for non-trouble as a break, as a way out, but trouble is mostly what she got.
I was a bad kid, Julie was also bad.
Ben remembers his father not being around much. All his boasts about being a top safe-cracker in the Paddy pubs didn't keep him out of the nick, and when out, he couldn't keep out of those Paddy pubs.
He remembers the songs about the old country, songs of longing. The community stretching throughout the Black Country and into Worcestershire and deep into the brown-grey bricks of Needless Alley.
He remembers so many uncles and aunts and being welcomed in every back-street pub, with music and laughter and booze and blood.
He remembers feeling different, feeling out of sync. Not liking what others did. Not keeping in step. He was unable to put his finger on what it was he lacked or what he needed, or would love. But he waited for something, so, he just continued to sing the old songs in grotty bars with the community until something else came along.
The funny thing is though, when we moved back to the city we sought out those connections in the Paddy pubs, when we were skint, when we wanted to just get pissed. We could just walk into any old Irish bar in the city, and Ben would know someone, usually everyone, and we got hammered and usually left with fags, and a couple of quid each in our pockets off the IRA guys; and we staggered up the street home, pulling and pushing each other, laughing our heads off at the poor fucking saps, singing of loving the old country.
But for many he was always a weirdo. When we were punks Ben went the extra mile, he always tried to stand out, just that little bit more.
Nun’s habit, joker’s costume, make-up and weird space coats with huge shoulders.
He was weird before punk, with punk he blossomed, he was our weirdo.
Even as a kid he rebelled.
-Here have a sup of the good stuff.
-No thanks, I don't really like beer.
-Did you hear that, Michael, your son be going all soft on us.
-Yous leave him be now, he's a good kid, isn't that right there, Ben?
He ruffled Ben's hair.
Ben waited for the old bastard to turn away and talk shite to some biddy. And leant and spat in his pint, and swigged from a gin and tonic nearby.
His dad raised him, as his mother had walked out, to try and live a little.
-He was a good da, we didn't have much but we never wanted for anything.
He tells me about the illegal penny throws behind the pubs in the garages. Two heads, two tails or one of each.
-We always had to be the fucking look-outs, you know at the end of the alley, watching for the cops. Sometimes we would shout a warning just to relieve the boredom. Shit; you should have seen the fuckers scatter.
We both remember and snigger about the women of our neighbourhoods as kids; miles apart but yards next to poverty, waiting at the gates to collect money off the men for rent and food before they slammed them down, in defiance, on a risk or handed it over to tragic, funny blokes with lank hair and aprons who cleaned up greasy spittoons.
Ben was a mad, bad kid.
Jaz doesn't remember a father, his mother doesn't remember one either, or does but doesn't let on. His mother goes to church to sing loudly with the other Jamaican women. She takes him there but doesn't ram it down his throat, and he loves the rhythms and the sound, and sings out loud and swivels his hips like the big ladies.
He remembers people, always lots of people, chatting, and cooking fried chicken, and roaring laughter.
He doesn't miss a father, he loves his mother to death, loves her love of life. She cleans and sews; they don't have much, but enough for them both to smile widely most days.
Jaz is not bullied at the small school but he knows he is different. He knows he is a bit girly, but when he has to be tough he can be tough, his mother taught him how. And he is always smart and as shiny as the front step.
He didn't fit when he moved to the big school. The football fans, the Bruce Lee fans, all picked on him. He could no longer be as tough as he needed to. So, he skived off school and hung out with some tough girls, Julie was one of them, and they loved his beauty, and his tenderness, and they protected him, watched his back, and secretly longed for him. And they skipped school together and stole clothes and booze, and hung out, and got drunk and laughed a lot. And he got through school alright, in the end. And in the end we left him alone, well we called him names of course, just to show some front to mates, but we generally left him alone, cus the tough girls were also the most beautiful girls, and we all wanted to get into their pants, so we left him alone.
-You've such lovely skin.
-Yeah, I wish my skin was that soft.
-Wish I had a bit of black in me.
-You'll be getting a bit of black into yours soon enough like.
Julie and two friends giggled and Jaz flashed his pearly whites in a wide mischievous grin.
-Such a slut for the big black cock.
Jaz wasn't so bad, yet.
A new wave
Factory life, broken family life, booze, drugs, violence, divorce and the dole.
But, I think we all wanted something else. We just all never knew what the fuck it was.
And suddenly, suddenly, someone, well not someone, but something… was telling it like it was…
"Don't fucking wait around for something to turn up! It never will."
"But," and this I think is the key, right here. "But, just get up and do it yourself, ain't no-one gonna help you, mate, just get off your lazy arse and get busy!"
So, we did. Me. Julie, Jaz and Ben and other mates.
The clothes and hair stuff was interesting, it was important to us at the time; it was our way of showing the world who we were, what we were. And we copied the Clash and the Pistols, and threw in our own versions of stuff.
The thing was, that yeah, people now say well, you all looked the same at the end, and in some ways we did, but in others we looked different. There was always mad variations on the theme. And the point was that it was anti-fashion, even if we all looked a bit the same. The point was that up against the fashion of the times we were different.
The seventies were full of browns and greys, and forced blues; against a backdrop of fifties black and brown.
It was a big thing then. People spat at you on the street, people freaked out, people attacked you for having spiked hair. Spat at you for wearing an earring. Banned you from pubs just for having straight jeans.
And the girls! Wow the girls. Julie wore just a basque round town, with a whip in her suspender belt. I mean this was a time of flares and soul skirts; tank tops and flowery wide-collared shirts.
So we spiked, coloured, dangled and wrote fuck off on the tee shirt, just to stir shit up.
Before, the music was a background to other things going on. Northern soul was just a background to copping off with girls out the back of a social club on a council estate. Mark Bolan was just a background, on in a girl's bedroom as I tried to persuade her to let me go further than her tits. Bowie was for art students and hooligans. Rush and heavy metal was for seasoned rockers and spotty shoulder-length haired outcasts from six form.
Superstar millionaires playing twenty-minute drum solos in huge stadiums in America was never for me.
And I had got tired of listening to the sixties spangly pop, all the fucking time. Every fucking dinner dance in an upstairs room, every fucking working men's club on a Saturday night, listening to people singing along as if it meant something, as I blew my pop back into the bottle. It was almost the eighties, give it a rest!
So I listened to John Peel, at night on a little transistor; read Sounds, stole the singles, cut my hair and wore straight legs up the match; and hitched a ride on a new wave.
And there were a few of us, a few from school, a few who stood out, a few from the footy, and we kind of came together. We got the records from a couple of older guys, the local weirdoes, the three guys who stood out, and we heard they had a band, and were planning to open a club, a place to play, to watch.
My mate Steve from the footy had a labouring job, so had cash for albums, and a few choice punky items from a stall in Brum, he had cash so paid me in to a few gigs in the city and stood me a few pints in The Crown where there was a crowd, punks, a few skins, a few weirdoes and gay guys and thieves. We copied the older guys, their style, their look, their snares and snarls. Not copycat but kind of taking bits and bobs. We listened to their opinions, we wanted to be them. And we could be. We had the attitude already in us, we littered it with a bit of politics, and a fuck it attitude. We fitted right in. I got it, it got me.
And I loved the rawness, the power, the energy. And the words, not artistic, not romantic, not pop nonsense, not some dreaming fucking fantasy with dungeons and dragons, and star men up in the fucking sky, baby!
I wanna destroy passers-by…
Fuck yeah. I mean I did!
I did wanna shake up the man in the street, destroy it all. The whole meaningless fucked up shit.
And I wanted a riot of my own. I fucking did! I wanted to smash it all up, just not do any of that crap any-more. Time for change.
I got wrecked one time, and after picking up my wages on the Friday morning after grabbing a few hours’ kip after a week of nights, I took Bri Souly on the piss and ended up getting arrested for having a one-man riot around town, trying to smash the whole place up.
And I loved them, all the bands. The Slits to the Vibrators to the Damned to the Jam. No one sound, no one style but all styles, all sounds…sounds that said ‘Enough already'. No, more than that… a roar, a rhythm, a shout, a scream; an attitude, and music with bollocks to go with our sneers and flicked Vs and ripped jeans.
We went to see the chaos of the Damned, the sharpness of the Jam. We jumped to the energy of the Clash in a field, after stomping to Steel Pulse, in a carnival against Nazis. And I recall walking into a low-ceilinged pub’s back room, a dingy working men's club, an old theatre, old sex club, an old town hall; all relics that had seen better days. And walking in, smiling to be with others like me, others who were fed up and wanted more. We talked, we laughed, we fucked about, we fucked…the whole vibe was there. But on the stage, tiny or larger came an energy, a beat, a shout a scream…a primeval drumbeat for our tribe…and the rhythms transformed those shitholes, brought the walls crashing down of the grey, the old, the dead; and belched forth a new wave!
And those first gigs were, were…Liberating? Revolutionary? Moments of epiphany?
I would say release, a release of power and anger from the bands to us and back again.
Everyone met up in the bar in the hallways, on the dance floor. Pals meeting up, new friends made. Stories swapped. A buzz, an anticipated excitement, a waiting for an experience. Didn't matter if it was a dingy little club with a sticky floor or a big old civic hall; the atmosphere was the same. We were here to be ourselves to experience something.
Then the build-up. Larger everywhere, everyone wired on speed. The dance floor getting more and more crowded, it begins to sway…
Lights down then the stage lights up…then vroom. A sea of energy, lost in a collective joy of shared freedom. Everyone lets go, everyone moves as one but moves as themselves. No one can dance only jump and move with the waves. You jump up as best you can…with all your anger, energy and excitement. Everyone screams the words, but your voice is lost because your heart is beating so fast you can't speak. This is our time, our songs, our moment. Sweat drips and flicks onto the face of another; a stranger but now a friend, forever. Lost in energy. All the shite of life gone, all that is good with life, all the possibilities for the future there, right there, right there at that moment.
But the real essence of punk, was, us. We were Punk.
My high school was big, with all the kids from various estates around town coming together, the council ones and the new ones that housed the working class over-spill from Brum; the first generation with the chance to buy, the chance to own. The parents were happy to move out of the big city, we kids not.
Where once we had been tough council kids we were now the posh kids, we had to fight to be accepted.
My school was big on discipline and small on achievement. Caning was no deterrent but they used it anyway. The kids were tough but the sports teachers tougher. No one fucked with the sports teachers. Paul Heath, the hardest guy in 3rd year told Mr Higgins to go fuck himself, but Mr Higgins drank with the Harly brothers in the hard pub on the hill, so he picked him up by his throat and pinned him to the wall and drew back his fist.
-So, you're a big fucking man now eh? Paul Fucking Heath, the hardest boy this school has to offer.
Paul sank down the wall.
-When you're ready big man!
No-one fucked with the sports teachers.
The school football teams were expected to fight, on and off the pitch. If we lost on the pitch you were expected to make up for it in the dressing rooms after. And so the fires of local rivalries were stoked. Estate against estate, school against school. One small town against another. One area of the city against another side. One big football team against another.
As our grandfathers had hated the guy from up the road, from the factory next door; one slum area against another slum area, now we carried on the tradition.
And from those friendships made on football pitches and battles with house-bricks and sticks and detention classes, we came together in top rooms of empty pubs. To plot trips back the fifteen miles or so to the city to carry on the tradition. To fight.
And my mum's new husband was a mean fuck. He goaded me, put me down. And I was small, so when he thumped me I felt it. When he smashed my head against a light switch breaking it, my head broke.
And one time when I came into their bedroom, the fighting woke me; he grabbed me around the throat and lifted me up against the wall.
-So, you're a big fucking man now eh? When you're ready big man!
And that went on for years; a constant niggling away, a constant nagging away at myself. A constant need to stamp some misguided moral fucking code picked up from working-class traditions, the wrong fucking working-class traditions. Some kinda learnt Victorian values of respect for authority, and elders, some kind of code to live by that he had swallowed, whilst turning his back on working-class traditions of unity, community and solidarity and fighting for justice. A Victorian set of values handed down from the ruling class, wrapped up in a blanket of empty false working class etiquette; to be instilled in the young with a boot and a smack and a put-down.
And in those fading Victorian back-street pubs I got drunk for the first time, properly, on cider. And when I got home I would try and not seem drunk, hanging onto the sofa whilst being questioned by my stepfather, but after throwing-up I got whacked anyway.
But next week I got drunk again, and most weeks after; and the whacks were worth it. Fuck I had to live, and I got drunk again, and got smacked again, and fuck him anyway!
Julie's mum was too nice maybe, too relaxed about the whole being a parent thing. Julie was allowed to be wild. She stayed out later than other kids. She skipped off school, went to all-nighters on coaches to old bingo halls in northern towns; I was never allowed to go. Lost her virginity at fourteen to a nineteen-year-old black kid she met at Silver Blades skating rink, where all the white girls went to get chatted up by the black guys.
She hosted cider and Ouija board nights round her council estate house while her mother worked late at the hospital and her other brother ponced about at air cadets.
There were local discos too in old working men's clubs, social clubs, up-stair pub rooms, where the kids tried to recreate the real thing being played out in the cities they had been dragged away from.
And we met there, a northern soul night, and we snogged for the first time, down an alley. And then I went to one of her séances, and we fumbled for the first time, in the bottom of a bunk bed surrounded by Bowie posters, listening to Marc Bolan; Tampax strings poking from green school knickers, finger fucking, grey school trousers with premature stains, to guitar strains.
She lived on one of the roughest estates, with the roughest pub. I remember one time the family next door but one, on finding the house in between empty, knocked the wall through and moved in.
At school, she tried to study, but had to keep the appearance of nonchalance going whilst trying to learn.
It was easier for the girls; they were not mocked or picked on as much as us. If pushed she would skive off with the rest of them. And hang around with various gangs; the shelter, the chip shop, the Carlou café crowd.
She signed in, then sneaked out, and then hid out round big Melvin's house, a school outside school. The house was full of kids; making toast, making out, smoking drugs, drinking, watching TV, copying homework.
One day the police raided and Julie and me, along with a few other quick thinkers, hid in the loft, and tried to keep dead still as the police arrested the slow and the gigglers. When they had gone, the others went down, we stayed and fucked for the first time, it didn't last long, but it sure was passionate. We needed to do it. I fell in love for the second time.
Julie hated it all; the skiving, the seediness, the drunkenness, the violence, the crime. I didn't mind it.
And although she laughed, and stole and ducked and dived within that black world, I could see she wanted something more, something better.