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!