Upon the year of the 40th Anniverary of Punk, Nick Sheppard - he of The Cortinas and The Clash, and in more recent, local times The Domnicks, The New Pomeranians and The Blinders - looks back on four decades of England's Dreaming.
I’ve been thinking a fair bit about Punk Rock this year, which is not surprising really; 40 years ago, 1977, Punk Rock became a thing… a thing I was lucky enough to be right in the middle of.
To be fair, there was no start date. No year zero. There never is. Was it Elvis, 20 years earlier, curling his lip and shaking his hips? Memphis Flash before he was tamed by The Colonel? Bob Dylan turning electric and nihilist all at once? The Stones trying to get some Satisfaction? All of the above and more, of course - Iggy, The MC5, The Dolls, The Velvets and on and on…
The first time I heard the word ‘punk’ used to describe music was in the sleeve note to a compilation double LP called Nuggets, featuring slew of one hit wonder garage bands from America that were formed in answer to the all conquering ‘British Invasion’ of the early ‘60s. (The record was curated by Lenny Kaye, journalist and guitarist in The Patti Smith Group, in 1972.) I would have got hold of a copy in ’75, when I was 15, and I didn’t pay much attention to the sleeve notes to be honest: I was far too busy loving the music!
The band I was in, The Cortinas, couldn’t play Freebird and never wanted to. The year before, we’d seen the wonderful Dr Feelgood arc up the same Chicago Blues used by the Stones into a blowtorch from which I can honestly say I never recovered… so we took some Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry and did what we could. Some of the songs off Nuggets were added to our repertoire. So was Gloria by Them, 96 Tears by ? And The Mysterions, and our first, very derivative, originals.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that we were not connecting with the music being produced at the time. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Bowie, Mott The Hoople, and especially Roxy Music. I just couldn’t play any of it! And I wanted to play. So we searched for something else. And we obviously were not alone…
In The UK, Eddie And The Hot Rods, The Count Bishops, The 101ers, The Gorillas.
In Australia, The Saints, Radio Birdman.
In America, The Dictators, The Flaming Groovies, Television, The Modern Lovers…
And then, from New York City, The Ramones! Phil Spector! Surf! The Yardbirds! The leather jackets! The same haircut! The same surname!(!!) Here was the whole package served up as hip as you like, and that’s before you even got to the sound! It’s hard to describe what that record sounded like in 1976; how new! White hot nihilism covered in comic book humour and urban decay… and then we got to see them live! July 4, 1976 at the Roundhouse in London. The sound of the record x 10. Lightbulbs going off in the heads of everyone watching – ‘I could DO this…!” “I WANT to do this…!’
Of course by now The Sex Pistols and The Damned were up and running, and the Clash were playing their first gig that night in Sheffield, and we’d read about them all, but it was THE RAMONES that catapulted our little garage rock band into the future. We went home and started to WRITE! WE CAN DO THIS!
So we get to 1977, and by a strange twist of fate snag a gig at the new Punk Rock HQ; The Roxy Club, in London’s Covent Garden, on January 22. We were all 16, apart from Dan, our drummer. He was 15.
My mum said, as I left the house, ‘don’t be too upset if they don’t like you…’ We were asked to go back in a fortnight! Record deals, tours, success, disappointment and the eventual breakup/down all followed. We were gone by the Summer of ’78, and to be honest, so was the bulk of that initial scene.
1977 was when it all happened. You couldn’t move for brilliant records, amazing gigs, new bands, new ideas – don’t forget the ideas, and don’t forget the new. Again, 40 years later, it’s difficult to comprehend how shocking it was to hear people singing about IDEAS, as opposed to their girlfriends. Anarchy In The UK, God Save The Queen, Pretty Vacant, White Riot, Career Opportunities, New Rose…
And the sound and attitude that went with those ideas. It was special, and I feel very lucky indeed to have been caught up in it.
The momentum created by that year pushed through to help create an alternative; politically, culturally and musically - an alternative that gave all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds and new place to exist. To connect. To belong, even if just for a while. And the people it helped and informed are now older, and in a position to make a difference… and some of them do.
And yes – my favourite punk song, Know Your Rights!
So where does that leave us today? Where does that leave me? I’m 57. I’ve been playing the guitar in bands ever since. Sometimes I’ve made money; more often I haven’t! And I’m still doing it. How much of that initial spark do I carry today? How much of that spark does the rest of ‘The World’ recognise? I’ve met kids who tell me they’re punks that have never heard of The Sex Pistols, let alone The Stooges – does that matter? After all, it’s just pop(ular) music, right? Are Blink 182 punk?
What does matter is the state of the world we live in. Now, more than ever it seems, we need that voice that speaks from the street and for the people; an alternative to the perceived wisdom of the Corporate Military Industrial Political Offshore Banking Business Worldview. We have access to so much information now, and yet so many of us choose to worry about the Kardashians and listen to the hits of the ‘80s! The only way to fight back is with ideas and passion. Ideas and passion…
So, what I think I’ll do is make a list of things Punk Rock has taught me…
#1 – ‘No’ is a very important, and positive word. You do not have to accept anything you don’t agree with. You do not have to do anything you don’t want to.
#2 – And this obviously relates to #1 – Question Authority. Ignore Alien Orders.
#3 – “A good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected.” Thank you, Mr Don Letts.
#4 – And so it follows that Technical Ability is not important
#5 – And so it also follows that I CAN (STILL) DO THIS!
And I do – I still write songs, and play them in front of people. Some of them are about ideas, others are about girlfriends. I save up the money I make, and make records. I don’t ask record companies to pay me, and so they don’t get to tell me what to do. I’ll be honest; I’ve never done this for money. I do it because I have to…
Is it Punk?
Fucked if I know!
Come and have a listen…
Nick Sheppard’s band The Blinders play at Babushka on Friday, September 15, supported by The Killer Hipsters. Gig details at www.facebook.com/events/378843325864700/