1970s nightmares part 1: seeing Sting & The Police unannounced at a punk gig

I knew 1979 was gonna be a bad year before it even started, although I didn’t see Thatcher’s election as a certainty until it happened. Much of my take on the world back then was filtered through the  music I loved.  On 29 December 1978 I headed up to Camden to catch a multi-band new wave gig at The Electric Ballroom headlined by The Brian James All Stars. This was the band that eventually became The Brains. Their performance that night was so-so and for me it didn’t compare with the excitement of seeing The Damned live when James was their guitarist (or even when they reformed without him).

I don’t remember who was bottom of the bill on 29 December 1978 at the Electric Ballroom. I hope it wasn’t 4th Reich, who used to do a lot of central London support slots at that time; they were one of the worst named punk bands of that era. As far as I could tell this group weren’t political, they had a female singer and their most memorable song was a cover of the early sixties hit Bobby’s Girl. But the name 4th Reich was so stupid that I never paid them much attention, although I saw them at least half-a-dozen times as support to other bands.  Billed immediately beneath Brian James was Squeeze. I was more interested in Squeeze then than I would be now, since I’d rather liked their Packet of Three EP (more to do with John Cale’s production than the band’s live sound); their subsequent chart hits failed to groove me. Anyway, at some point it was announced that the Squeeze van had broken down with them and their equipment in it, and since they couldn’t make the gig, the The Police would play instead.

I knew before I heard them that any band calling themselves The Police had to be terrible. The filth were scum and no one in their right mind would name their group after the old bill. Brian James hadn’t pulled much of a crowd, and there were only about 50 punks in the Electric Ballroom, which I guess had a capacity of something between one and two thousand. When The Police took to the stage everyone in the venue walked away from it and headed for the bar at the back of the room. Pretty much the entire audience had their backs turned on Sting and company for their entire set. Unfortunately this was the most memorable thing about the night… Not a good gig.

I don’t remember what I did that New Year, my recollection of the following one is much better since I was back at the Electric Ballroom to see in 1980 with a double-bill of The Lurkers and Adam & The Ants. Musically this was a much better night than Brian James and The Police a year and two days earlier. That said, while the Ants were playing a girl who was standing close to me tried to pull Adam off-stage, and rather than taking it out on her, the bouncers beat me up. Then, because I looked a mess with my bloodied face, I got pulled by the filth on my way home. I’d picked up one of the free clear vinyl flexi-singles The Lurkers used to give away at their gigs, and the old bill held me for ages while they tried to work out what this was. I told them it was a record but they didn’t believe me; apparently they’d never seen a flexi-disk before. Eventually, after a radio conversation with their controllers and a close inspection of the grooves, they concluded my Lurkers freebie was indeed a record and not some drug paraphernalia, so plod let me go with a warning that if I was caught fighting again, I’d be nicked. I headed off with their verdict on my flexi-single still ringing in my ears: “Very clever!” Little things impress little minds.

Three days later I made my way to Wardour Street in Soho to catch Eater who’d been advertised as playing at The Marquee. This schoolboy punk band were best known for bitching that The Sex Pistols were too old, and I really dug their super-dumb sleaze-bag thud. Unfortunately, being almost as young as me (I was sixteen at the time), they tended to bicker a lot. When I arrived at 90 Wardour Street  (now a swanky Terence Conran restaurant, but back then a rock and roll toilet) on 3 January 1979, there was a sign saying Eater had split up and Marseille would play instead. I’d heard the Marseille song Do It The French Way and seen pictures of this Liverpool based group, so I knew they weren’t for me. Back then people didn’t use the phrase New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but that’s what Marseille were subsequently tagged.

I was on my own and since Eater weren’t playing, I decided I’d only go inside if some of my mates were around. I couldn’t see anyone I knew but got talking to punkette in the queue and since she was going in, I decided to hang with her. I warned her that Marseille played heavy metal and we should go somewhere elsewhere. I wasn’t interested in Marseille but I was taken with the girl, so I parted with 50p to get in. Afterwards we both agreed that Marseille sucked and I walked the punkette down to Charing Cross station, where she caught a train to south east London. Unfortunately she didn’t invite me to go home with her but I did get her phone number. When I got around to calling the punkette a week later, she wouldn’t meet me coz I’d taken so long to bell her. I was playing cool, not hard to get.

So 1979 started badly and ended badly too with a beating at the Electric Ballroom.  There were some good gigs in-between, with The Specials just before they broke being particularly memorable. First time I caught them was bottom of the bill to the reformed Damned (without Brian James) and The UK Subs (I think), at The Lyceum Ballroom in The Strand. The Specials were even better when I saw them headlining at The Nashville in South Kensington – unfortunately they had the same support band both times, Madness, who were fucking awful. The best gig I saw at The Marquee that year was Slaughter and the Dogs on Monday 3 September. The most impressive act at The Lyceum in 1979 is hard to pin down, Pure Hell from Philadelphia were memorable – but I’m unsure whether I saw them there in 1979 or the year before. Ditto Destroy All Monsters, who I saw at The Lyceum, but this might have been in 1980 rather than 1979. Both Pure Hell and Destroy All Monsters were right up there with some of the class US acts I’d seen in 1977, such as The Dictators and The Dead Boys.  But even The Fall, who I’d hated when I’d seen them at The Marquee the year before, were excellent supporting Stiff Little Fingers at The Lyceum in 1979. The audience loathed them and Mark E. Smith did a perfect job of winding up the massed ranks of punk zealots. Smith is very entertaining when he has an audience that really hates him, but under all other circumstances I find him a bore.

I was also going to see a lot of the mod revival bands in 1979: Purple Hearts, The Mods, The Chords, Secret Affair, Back To Zero etc. But rather than the big events like Mod’s Mayday at the Music Machine, the best gigs were smaller ones at places like The Notre Dame Hall off Leicester Square and at The Global Village under the Charing Cross arches (then a straight disco, but later the gay nightclub Heaven). I liked catching bands from around London who you could see play every few weeks, and if they had a pop sensibility that made them even better. I saw both The Vapors and The Members repeatedly in 1979, as well as some of the more dire-hard acts like Chelsea and even Raped; the latter more after their name change to Cuddly Toys. So there was some good music, some bad music, but the winter of discontent was the real groove sensation – even if it was followed by the affront of Thatcherism. And since the current economic crisis is reopening the revolutionary possibilities that the ruling class wants us to believe were closed down back then, the seventies are on my mind a lot right now….

And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!

About mistertrippy

Stewart Home was born in south London in 1962. His mother Julia Callan-Thompson was a showgirl and club hostess. He has never held down a regular job for more than a few months at a time. On those rare occasions when he's been forced to work, Home has taken employment as a factory labourer, agricultural labourer, shop assistant, office clerk and art class model. Deciding he didn't like working in factories as a teenager, Home pursued cultural and political interests, writing many books and participating in even more gallery exhibitions.
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37 thoughts on “1970s nightmares part 1: seeing Sting & The Police unannounced at a punk gig

  1. Steve Finbow says:

    Jeez – that brings back memories… I think I was at the Electric Ballroom gig. Definitely saw The Police support Squeeze and somebody else at The Hope & Anchor around that time – walked out as well. And was definitely at the Slaughter & Dogs gig. Now I’m off to play Time for Action – haven’t heard that in a long time. Cheers for this, Stewart

  2. Martin C says:

    That bit about the cops and the flexi disc was hilarious

  3. Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad says:

    I also saw the reformed Damned in the late 70’s, and they were very good. A year or so later, when their pantomime Goth side took over, their appeal was over — but when The Saints’ Algy Ward first stepped in, they were incredible live. He had a very distinctive bass sound, which was obviously influenced by Lemmy but still his own thing.

    I thought “Machine Gun Ettiquette” was a fine record at the time, but it’s difficult to appreciate it much now I think.

    Some of the first album still sounds good though on occasion.

    Speaking of Algy Ward, here’s a Saints tune I dug in the 70’s —

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-GueNOKolo

    ( but…..errr…..Algy Ward isn’t playing here ! )

    The Saints foolishly signed to a prog rock label, Harvest, which was an incredibly silly move for a punk band in the late 70’s.

  4. Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad says:

    I never liked The Fall — except for “Totally Wired” — I liked the b line.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpWVk3h2SA8

  5. kperry says:

    Great , brings back memories of the scene over here never saw a couple of the bands listed but did see the Police when they played at the horseshoe tavern way back when just after the release of that horrific single roxanne came out. the band were not good which would explain why there were only around a dozen or so of use in the place.

    cheers kent-

  6. Marius says:

    i think the seventies is ficticious because nothing exsisted B.M. (Before Marius)

  7. Annouchka Sputnik says:

    The Damned and The Specials? i was born in the 80s so missed some veddy interesting gigs. Ever see the Stranglers?

  8. Will Self says:

    Punk rock was shit, will self is better.

  9. raymond anderson says:

    I saw the Stranglers in Dunfermline 1978. Disappointingly there were no strippers. We had gone to get all right on with the band over that. I tell people it was my first gig but I had rocked out with Rainbow and Tull in ’77.
    We did adore the Only Ones. It seems it was already quite arty pretentious in The Edinburgh scene.
    The only time I saw Squeeze they were supporting The Tubes. Weird night.
    The night Thatcher was elected, my mate was crying in a bar. I said, “Don’t Worry, The fight is now on”. He replied, ” You don’t understand. John Foxx has left Ultravox”.
    What do you think of The Members funk period?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5P9nhVQ5oDA

  10. Simon Evans says:

    AGGHH – ‘Secret Affair’ …?

    How could you spring that one on us innocent civilians.

    Stiff Little Fingers ? – anything but goddam Ian Page.

  11. Richard Cabut says:

    Brings back memories. I saw Pure Hell attacked onstage by the crowd at the Music Machine, 1979. Then again most everyone used to get attacked at the MM. Wonderful place.

  12. The ghost on the coast says:

    Will Self isn’t entirely shit – just preposterously verbose. Which is not an accusation you can honestly level against punk.
    My personal theory is that Self writes with one hand on his dick and the other on his dictionary. Voice recognition software is invaluable in such situations.

  13. mistertrippy says:

    The Music Machine was too much… You couldn’t use the Gents coz it was about 2 foot deep in dirty water… always… But it was a top night out, I’d often head up there after going to The Marquee or Hope & Anchor or 100 Club, coz they all closed at 11pm, and the main act at the Music Machine came on at midnight… Never went again after it became … Read Morethe Camden Palace or whatever it was circa 1980! Oh I just figured out I must have seen Pure Hell in 1978 as that was apparently when they were in the UK – I saw ’em with Vermillion & The Aces supporting… I used to have their single “I Like Motorcycles”….

    I saw The Stranglers a few times, the last time being in something like October 19777 when they had The Dictators as their support act. No one could follow The Dictators and sound good…. And I saw Ultravox too, but only when John Foxx was the lead singer!

  14. Richard Cabut says:

    And the bouncers! Was it 78? It all blurs these days. I bumped into them on the Kings Rd the day after – they were still in shock, poor sods.

  15. The ghost on the coast says:

    On the two feet deep toilet water motif….anyone else remember the George Robey? Sloping floor in the gents, by the end of their Club Dog nights the ensuing lake of piss would be seeping out onto the dancefloor.
    Ah, the young folk today just don’t appreciate what they’re missing.

  16. raymond anderson says:

    I seem to remember the punk trick of pissing in a pint glass and taking it into the middle of the throng and leaving it on the floor. Maybe I was hallucinating in a speed comedown. Some took Piss Factory literally.

  17. Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad says:

    4th Reich were Manufactured Romance, and can also be seen on the cover of the Clash City Rockers 45.

    http://manufacturedromance.com/bio.htm

  18. Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad says:

    Their drummer Benny Di Massa founded The Cocteau Twins.

  19. Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad says:

    John Foxx was ok, in a very dry, dour, droll way. Don’t know if I could listen to him now though — but who knows? ( He is an art lecturer now, in Preston I think).

    On another related tip connected to early synth music, I listened to The Normal the other day for the first time in I don’t know how long, and they have dated quite well. Sounded quite good. There are some white label drum and bass versions of their tunes doing the rounds,some of which are very good.

  20. mistertrippy says:

    Thanks Howling Wiz, I got 4th Reich placed now… I see from that link they played a lot as support to the UK Subs, and since I was seeing the Subs in London a lot at the time that’s no doubt why I saw 4th Reich/Manufactured Romance so often. I would have paid them no attention as Manufactured Romance coz I hadn’t liked them as 4th Reich… bog standard punk thud, not that the Subs were much different, but it was the scene as much as the music, had to keep going to see small bands.

    I still really like the first two Ultravox! albums but have no interest in anything John Foxx did after he left the band…. The opener on the first album is closer to Petty Things/Hot Rods/Stranglers than any kind of New Romantic schmaltz…

    That Members funk tune Radio is great, I stopped seeing them once they had hits, never followed bands out of clubs and into concert halls, so wasn’t so familiar with their later material and never heard this. It sounds like a smash to me… don’t know why it happened in Oz but not in the UK on this one! Their ‘reggae’ was okay but not great, this is much better! I liked stuff like their My Generation rip-off Chelsea Night Club best from seeing them live…. They used to pack out The Hope & Anchor and that was one unpleasant dive when it was full!

  21. Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad says:

    Agreed on all counts Mr Home — I saw lots of those “2nd wave” punk bands , but with a few rare exceptions and a good eccentric 45 here or there, never really liked them. Most of the bands were as you say, punk thud.

    As for the Subs, yeah, again as you say, it was the small gigs that still made some of the 2nd wave bands worth seeing. I dimly remember tracks like “I live in a Car”, “Stranglehold” and a few others , which were a weird mix of pub rock and hard rock sped up, and simultaneously totally stripped down to adrenaline essentials — which ain’t a bad thing.

    I think I could still listen to “She’s not There”…..

  22. Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad says:

    PS I think what really dates a lot of those “2nd wave” punk records is the vocals — too many of them now sound like third of fourth rate Jim Morrisons/Bowie/Lou Reed mixed with an edge of pub rock and cliched rotten sneer. It doesn’t stand the test of time in my opinion.

    In some cases, the often badly played, eccentric music makes it just fine — but the vocals let ’em down.

  23. Howling Wizard, Shrieking Toad says:

    The Members later used the Eddie and the Hot Rods and Damned bass player, Paul Gray, who started playing in pub rock bands when he was about 15.

    He later played for …ahem…UFO….

  24. raymond anderson says:

    That Members track is part of my punkphunk mixtape. One of the only things that revs up the darker aspects of the post80s hallucination..bring in the brass and nod to that “free jazz created punk” myth!
    Peter Perrett’s England’s Glory is one of the all time great Lou Reed impressions.
    Listening to Mark Perry again he has one of the best voices of that era…especially on Viva La Rock and Roll but lord there’s Jools again innit?
    At that apocryphal 79 moment I was more interested in Tony Benn than John Foxx but my mate was upset.

  25. mistertrippy says:

    Howling Wiz. Like you say, it was the vocals that really let most of those bands down…. Personally I’d rather listen to like The Hot Rods, The Radio Stars, The Hammersmith Gorillas etc. I always thought the first two Stranglers albums were packed with great tunes but again let down by the vocals and the stupid lyrics too in places… I still think the first Damned album is the best one too….

    Raymond. I think the Only Ones only had two good tunes – Another Girl Another Planet and City Of Fun – but as far as I’m concerned the earlier England’s Glory version shits all over the Only Ones doing it. I was talking to someone from Scotland about this the other day, and they said knowing the Only Ones version first they preferred it, but also claimed to be put off by the band name England’s Glory too. I explained that this was a brand of matches that they’d have grown up knowing as Scottish Bluebell but they were called England’s Glory in England – dunno what they’d have been called in Wales…. It was like a light bulb going on (or a match being struck); suddenly this acquaintance saw what the name was about…. Talk about strike a light!

  26. raymond anderson says:

    post 1980…
    its time to call time on time for action

  27. mistertrippy says:

    Oh those mod revival bands don’t sound so good now on record – although I still really like Your Side Of Heaven by Back To Zero and a few other tunes…. Back to the New Hearts! It was live those groups did more for me, and they dressed better than punks too….

  28. Some like it muthafuckin hotta

  29. Stewart Home posing nude with Michael K & Nicole Black says:

    Threesomes are a groove sensation!

  30. Dr Anton Phibes (Dec.) says:

    Worst performance I ever saw at the Music Machine was in the summer of 1977. Boomtown Rats. This dismal piece of panto was enlivened only by a girl rushing on stage from the wings and punching Bob Geldoff hard in the face. Geldoff was as big a tosser then as he is now. Wonder where she is now? About time she came back for another go.

    Best gig, the “Cognoscenti Orchestra”, also around the same time in 1977, perhaps earlier?. People turned up in their droves hoping it was a secret gig by the Sex Pistols. Turned out to be The Subway Sect, supported by The Slits. I was far happier with that outcome, having known the line-up in advance. The Sect played with a stage set up to feature a sofa and a standard lamp, like a suburban living room. Brilliant performance, Vic Godard was on fine form, and the guitarist (Robert Simmons?) was one of the best I’ve ever heard.

  31. mistertrippy says:

    Hey Dr Phibes, I remember that “Cognoscenti ” scam a little different from you, but since you went and I stayed away, I guess you are more likely to be right. However, my recollection is that Subway Sect and The Slits were advertised with “The Cognoscenti” listed at the bottom of the bill… So everyone thought The Clash were doing a secret gig (or at least my mates thought it was a secret Clash gig, others may have imagined they were going to see The Sex Pistols)… but I thought it was a Bernie Rhodes scam, so I didn’t go. At the end of the night Bernie Rhodes or whoever came on stage and announced to the audience: “You are the Cognoscenti!” But it sounds like I missed a good gig. I also managed to avoid the Boomtown Rats. I was on my way to see them once but I ran into a friend on the way and she suggested we go and see an act with more credibility (Rezillos I think) – I took her up on her very sensible suggestion and am grateful she saved me from a shit night out… I was easily swayed coz she was much better looking that any of the guys I was with, who stupidly went and saw Geldoff rather than follow the sage advice of a teenage punkette!

  32. Dr Anton Phibes (Dec.) says:

    I think your memory of the set up is probably more accurate than mine! Attendance at an event is obviously no advantage.

    The Bernie Rhodes incident sounds about right, and certainly true to form… but I have absolutely no memory of it happening at all. Your account also explains why I knew who’d be playing – hadn’t realised the answer was so simple. Still remember the muttering about a Sex Pistols secret gig though, but whether that is as dubious as my other recollections… who knows? I certainly wouldn’t have been at all keen on seeing The Clash, as I was finding them pretty dull fare by that point. Think the Rainbow gig had already taken place by that time, and I’d hated that.

    And while I’m travelling down my (unreliably sign-posted) memory lane, do you remember The Prefects and The Worst? Two apparently long forgotten support acts I loved.

    Geldof was always a creep. I remember a visit by the London Constabulary to a well-known Notting Hill punk record shop as the result, we were told, of fearless radical Bob contacting them to complain about the selling of a few copies his bloody awful debut album in advance of its release date. He should have been arrested himself for foisting that pile of ordure on the general public.

  33. raymond anderson says:

    Nothing against the Mod revival, I got a second hand Hardy Amis suit as soon as I could. It all merged with the schizo Northern Soul/Punk life I led. What can a poor boy do?
    Much of that scene was an extension of the powerpop that was all over the small record shops before punk broke. All those early 70s characters unleashed by the career opportunity of Punk. The Bam Balam period lets say.

    The England’s Glory confusion, its like when I went looking for those hippies Bulldog Breed who sang about Austin Spare and kept finding some skinhead band.

  34. mistertrippy says:

    Dr Phibes – I remember The Prefects and The Worst and Vincent Price too! Rob Lloyd of The Prefects was my postie for a while, he was doing the rounds in Bethnal Green in the late nineties, early part of this century. Seemed a nice chap, and Swells always said he said about me that I was a friendly face on the round… I always loved “Going Through The Motions”…. And of course I’ve run into most of The Nightingales on my travels to places like Wolverhampton to take part in punk conferences….

    My memories of The Worst are a little vague these days…. I can’t recall ever seeing The Worst, although I know they made it to London for a handful of gigs – I never went to any punk shows in Manchester… I saw a lot of Manchester bands in London from Buzzcocks, Magazine, Slaughter & The Dogs down through The Drones, V2, Passage, Fall, Joy Division, Manicured Noise etc. but if I saw The Worst it could only have been as a support act but I don’t know…. Probably I didn’t see them and they didn’t make records…

    Raymond, as you no doubt know, I love power pop and think mod clobber is so much better than punk threads… And life was just as confusing for me as a teenager, a schizo split between seeing punk bands live but liking old soul records and having a load of those with me at school really into the northern scene. They’d go to Wigan and would try to get me to go with them, but I didn’t understand why they’d go all that way to hear records, so I blew my chance to go the Casino and regret that now….

  35. Tony D says:

    The “Cognoscenti” thing at the Music Machine – wasn’t that the opening night? And wasn’t the place called Cognoscenti or something similar for the first few gigs, and had a really high stage?

  36. mistertrippy says:

    Hey Tony, the Music Machine did have a really high stage – it closed when they made that disco film around it also called Music Machine, which I should track down again, I used to have it on VHS. They got Patti Boulaye and it’s a really low rent Camden based Saturday Night Fever rip-off, which makes it better than that John Travolting any day! When it reopened it was the Camden Palace. Not sure about the other stuff…. Was the Slits/Subway Sect/Cognoscenti gig covered in the music press at the time? The Music Machine opened in 1977, so like you suggest it may well have been for the launch…..