AS PROMISED in my previous column about my introduction to live music, I was going to tell you how I “turned out a punk". I mentioned that my first punk gig featured The Police in the Eksit club in my hometown of Rotterdam in 1977. That’s not 100% correct. I had earlier seen a local punk outfit called Vissepunk (yes, Fish Punk, don’t ask me why, but I guess one of the members’ surnames may have been Vis). But they were so atrocious that even this little mention is too much of an honour. They seemed more like a Dadaist prank than a musical group (the guitarist forgot to smash a television on stage, which was part of the act, and the singer kept desperately shouting, “television, television", pointing at the poor old machine waiting at the side of the stage to have its head smashed in — it was truly pathetic).
I was an early punk convert, having read a big piece in de Volkskrant daily by its London correspondent about a new youth culture had started in the British capital in 1976. It sounded fantastic: these boys and girls were my age, they despised hippies, hated long hair, had developed their own dance (the pogo), looked as if they came from a different planet and played rock ’n’ roll in such a way that everyone else could get up and make some noise. This felt like a huge relief after years of jazz rock and prog rock, which had taken pop music to such incredible technical levels that we, my high school friends and I, could only dream of ever starting a band.
By the mid-Seventies, rock had reached its nadir, at least for me. I had seen a gig by 10cc, where people got up from their seats and politely shook their hips when the band played the slightly rocking song Rubber Bullets as an encore. I had also seen the Eagles, five guys in plaid shirts and jeans, tiny characters far away on a stage playing the songs that sounded exactly as they did on the records. That night, I made a vow never to see a band in a place where I couldn’t see their faces. I have largely stuck to it. No stadium gigs for me, except when it’s the Rolling Stones.
So, I was an early bird. I bought the debut albums by the Ramones, The Clash and The Damned. I particularly loved the Ramones LP. The black and white cover showed four guys wearing black leather jackets and torn jeans, leaning against a wall. They looked like juvenile delinquents. They had songs that lasted 1:34 minutes, with lyrics that consisted of two lines: “Now I wanna sniff some glue, now I wanna have something to do/ All the kids wanna sniff some glue, all the kids want something to do." The Clash album had good tunes about being bored with the US and white riots but it sounded a bit tinny compared to the wall of sound that the Ramones had laid down. The Damned record was totally fabulous, loud and in your face and carrying great tunes such as Neat Neat Neat and New Rose (the first British punk single). They also seemed totally irreverent, the cover showing the faces of four guys who had just had a cake fight. It was such a relief after the preposterous Tales From Topographic Oceans and the cocaine decadence of Hotel California.
But despite owning three punk albums, I had already missed seminal Rotterdam gigs by the Sex Pistols and the Ramones (I would make up for that within a year). Therefore, my first proper punk gig took place in Eksit on March 23, 1977. It was advertised as “Punk Package From New York’s Back Streets“, a triple bill that included New York acts Cherry Vanilla, Wayne County & the Electric Chairs and The Heartbreakers. Entry was a mere 5 guilders. I was particularly looking forward to The Heartbreakers, whose guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan had played in the outrageous glam band New York Dolls. When the Dolls broke up they formed a new band that they wanted to call The Junkies, an apt name given their chemical dependencies. But then, for marketing purposes, they settled on The Heartbreakers.
But when I arrived, I learnt that Johnny and his junkie mates wouldn’t be playing. Instead we would see an English band called The Police. I had never heard of them.
The sold-out gig (500 people) started with Cherry Vanilla, a red-haired Manhattan vamp who had acted in an Andy Warhol movie and now wanted to try her hand at rock ’n’ roll. She looked fabulous but the music was forgettable and it certainly didn’t sound very punk. Next up were Wayne County & the Electric Chairs. Wayne was a New York celebrity, a transvestite who dressed outrageously, with an enormous wig that would put Dolly Parton to shame. He would soon call himself Jayne, after a sex change. Wayne crawled onto the stage and did all kinds of naughty things with the microphone. The band finally got the crowd going when they played (If You Don't Wanna Fuck Me, Baby) Fuck Off!!
Then it was time for The Police. Three guys in grey overalls. The guitarist wore dark glasses, the blond singer, who also played bass, had a very high-pitched voice, slightly nasal. All I remember is that they made quite a racket, with lots of screeching from the singer. I wasn’t too impressed. But maybe I got it all wrong, because the other day I read in the handy Eksit book (Douane, 2015) how Peter Graute, one of the Rotterdam faces, who ran a truly magnificent record store, remembered the gig. “Their guitarist was still Henri Padovani. When they started to play, many people went to the bar because they had heard enough punk for one evening. I stood right in front, very close to Sting. He played fantastically, stars in his eyes. He had such charisma. He played as if he performed for a full stadium. I thought: this guy will be huge."
I wish it was me who'd said that. But all I could hear was that high-pitched voice and tunes that didn’t sound like real tunes. There was no So Lonely, no Roxanne. The band had released only one single, Fall Out b/w Nothing Achieving, on the obscure Illegal Records. This is now a collector’s item and for a copy with a picture sleeve (with the three members looking dumb and mean, acting like punks) you’ll have to fork out at least $70 (about R1,330).
I remember coming across it quite a few times when we went to London in the summer of 1977. My school friend Sven and I stayed on a campsite in Crystal Palace. Every day we took the bus into the city. We walked down King’s Road, where we saw gangs of punks and Teddy Boys (rockers) looking for opportunities to beat the shit out of each other. We bought punk badges and 7-inch singles. I still own beautiful early records by The Cortinas and Chelsea. And finally we saw our first proper punk gigs. First we checked out The Saints at The Marquee in Wardour Street. They were truly amazing, full of life, energy and noise, the Australian answer to the Ramones, maybe even better, more feedback, more snarly vocals, less cartoonish. Like the Ramones, they didn’t really look “punk" — no safety pins or coloured hair. But they did look like juvenile delinquents, the Brisbane version instead of Queens.
The real deal, however, was a gig in a new punk club called The Vortex, also on Wardour Street. It was packed, sweat dripping from the ceiling. There we saw the all-female band The Slits, as well as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Adam and the Ants before they became pop stars in pirate outfits. It was wild, truly wild, with lots of spitting and feral kids, dressed in rags, throwing beer at a French camera crew there to document the new youth culture. We stood at the back, slightly apprehensive; this was something totally new, it tasted of liberation. I was sold.
Initially, punk was an empty space where anything went. There were no rules, no uniforms and no fixed musical format. You had the fashion punks (bondage trousers, multi-coloured hair), music punks (fast and furious) and punks who embraced the idea of creating your own community, doing it yourself, away from the mainstream and big corporations. Punk promised freedom and creativity. It was a positive answer to the failed hippie dream. For a few years, punk felt like jumping into a well of the best energy drink you’re ever tasted.
The following year, 1978, Sven and I bought a railway ticket that allowed you to travel all over the UK. We spent a month crisscrossing Britain. And every Thursday we religiously bought New Musical Express to check out the gig section. Chelsea (the band, not the football club) in Liverpool? Let’s take the train to Liverpool! The Piranhas in Brighton? Let’s go to Brighton! The Valves in Edinburgh? Scotland, here we come!
Over the next couple of years I attended every punk(ish) gig I could find, be it in Rotterdam, Amsterdam or Utrecht where I studied. I saw The Boys, Gang of Four, Wire, The Only Ones, The Jam, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Subhumans, The Fall, Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Members, Stiff Little Fingers, U.K. Subs, Penetration, Echo and the Bunnymen, Iggy Pop, The Stranglers, Wasted Youth, Ultravox, The Undertones, 999, Millions of Dead Cops (MDC), The Passions, Au Pairs, Buzzcocks, Chron Gen, The Cure, The Birthday Party, Dead Kennedys, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Crass, Poison Girls, Einstürzende Neubauten, Angelic Upstarts, Nicky & The Dots, Johnny Moped, The Soft Boys, Tuxedomoon, D.O.A., Anti-Pasti, Chelsea, Peter and the Test Tube Babies, The Pretenders, The Valves, Another Pretty Face, Gloria Mundi, De Brassers, Theatre of Hate, Killing Joke, The Specials, Madness, Ramones, Hüsker Dü and tons of Dutch bands, because Holland had a vibrant punk scene.
In 1980, Sven and I formed our own punk band, Zero-Zero. He sang, I played guitar. Our first song — wow, the adrenaline rush of writing your own tune, using four chords — was Rotterdam, Rotterdam. It even had a middle eight that went “Though you got a cold heart, I love you." Three of our songs have survived and can be found on compilations. And perhaps our voices can be heard on the Crass album Stations of the Crass. The anarchist/feminist/pacifist collective played in the Pied Bull in Islington in the summer of 1979, and the recordings of this scary gig (they attracted extreme leftists and extreme rightists who were happy to beat the crap out of each other) appeared as side D of the double album.
Crass were equal parts frightening and exciting — after the gig, we had to run like mad to avoid being beaten up by skinheads. The weirdest memory, however, was my encounter with Sid Vicious. It was August 1978 and we had bought tickets to see Johnny Moped at the Music Machine, a Victorian theatre in Camden. When we went upstairs to get some drinks we saw him, Sid, having a drink at a low table with his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. The Sex Pistols had broken up and Sid had formed a new band called Vicious White Kids. But he was basically living it up as a celebrity junkie. He looked dishevelled and bored in his leather jacket, with his huge boots on the table. I wasn’t sure what to say but this was probably my only chance to exchange a few words with him. We had seen the Sex Pistols earlier that year in Eksit. It was a strange gig, with Johnny Rotten ending up humming along with a contingent of football hooligans who started a Feyenoord song. There had been no fighting and the kids were just happy to see the Pistols. But somewhere in the middle of the concert Sid found it necessary to bash someone on the head with his bass guitar.
Anyway, upstairs in the Music Machine we had the following conversation.
Me, sheepishly: “Eh, hi Sid."
Sid, looking up, practising his can’t-you-see-I-am-extremely-bored look: “Wot?"
Me, even more sheepishly: “Eh, why did you bash the guy with your bass in Rotterdam?"
Sid, looking up again, more bored than ever. “Coz I didn’t like the guy who was staring at me."
He grinned at Nancy, whose face remained emotionless. I nodded and walked back to Sven. “What did he say?" I shook my head, “Nothing."
Less than two months later, Nancy was dead, allegedly killed by Sid in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. We will never know exactly what happened because on February 2, 1979 Sid was found dead from an overdose in an apartment in Manhattan. I didn’t much care. Punk was always much more than sad Sid.
♦ VWB ♦
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