Chris Packham is instantly recognizable as the face of Spring Watch and much of the BBC’s nature output in the past twenty plus years.
His deep knowledge and his combustible enthusiasm for all things wild and wonderful have made him so much the anchor man of the national nature agenda that it’s, initially, a surprise to find out that he is equally enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the equally wild and wonderful punk rock.
So it made perfect sense for him to speak to LTW boss and Membranes frontman John Robb about all things punk…
(More information on Chris Packham’s new book from here)
Chris Packham has just released a wonderful autobiography called Fingers In The Sparkle Jar – a brilliantly written book that is a vivid and intense account of growing up surrounded by nature and then punk rock in the seventies. It’s one part a microscopic account of the decade and another part Wasp Factory come to life.
Chris himself is great company and a real professor of punk rock – one of the massed army of 16 year olds, who in 1977 were empowered and changed by the music and surrounding culture and retain a deep love for the form. He still collects the records and went to many of the gigs at the time and even had his own band, the Titanic Survivors.
We meet at Salford Quays just before Chris delivers a fascinating in conversation hooked around his book and quickly discover a punk rock rapport. Both born on the 4th May 1961 we really are children of the revolution.
Chris : Yes. And we got into punk rock at exactly the same time. In a way I always thought I was 2/3 years too young and if I had been a little bit older…
JR : We would all have been punk rock stars!
Chris : Yes. For the first time round…but at least you were one the second time round…
JR : Well in a very micro way…!
Chris : We were 16 when it was breaking. I remember reading about the Damned, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols when they were starting to get coverage in the NME. That was about xmas 76 and Jan 1977 and I remember seeing all that stuff as I was doing my O levels at the time.
JR : Were you the right kind of person for punk rock?
Chris : Yes. I was very much the right kind of person for punk rock. I have to say and I say it in the book that punk rock saved me. The thing is I didn’t really fit in at that point and punk rock was a great way of saying that you didn’t fit in because again I remember walking down the street with a pair of bright blue trousers on and some pink brothel creepers on and my bikers jacket and people would cross over the street! Women and kids would cross over the street and that’s what it was like and that was good because I didn’t want to fit in anyway. I wasn’t part of their world.
JR : Is it weird to be respectable now!
Chris : Yeah it is… semi respectable maybe! I still upset quite a lot of people who want to kill animals for no reason which I will never be able to deal with. So I will fight them until my dying day. At the time there was not many of us into wildlife and punk rock. In the punk rock days it was weird to find someone else that was into wildlife which was probably unique at that point of time – there was a guy called Dominic who did a fanzine in Southampton, I can never remember his surname but he did a fanzine – I got the fanzines at home still – and he was quite into wildlife as well!
JR : Weirdly, punk seems to attract trainspotters and sometimes bird spotters…
Chris : I would dig out my birding book and if we were hitching to gigs – which I did all the time in those days – I would go and look at birds as well. I wouldn’t go as far to see birds as I would to see bands but if there was something on the south coast or particularly around south London – where there are loads of reservoirs where in the winter time they get smart birds. That was easy to get to for us. It was straight up the A3. I would be hitching in my leather jacket with my punk gear on because I would be going on to some gig and then bird spot on the way. I remember once I went to a Clash gig with my binoculars. I must have been the only birdspotter there! They were under my jacket like this and the other thing was that I had got these two pieces of hardboard and I would stick them together and I would take the single covers to get signed by bands. I would take the record out and keep the cardboard bit square and put that between the hardboard and I would have a strap on it so I could carry it. So I would have my binoculars on one side and the single in this case to get signed on the other side of my leather jacket – which I didn’t get signed anyway! I remember standing in the audience at this gig thinking I must be the only one here with binoculars. I should have got them out but I would have probably got my head kicked in if I had got them out and started looking!
JR : Did punk rock have something that appealed to you and several other people who had Asbergers
Chris : I think it did in a way. I have massive collection of punk stuff. I have a an even bigger collection of punk memorabilia which I started collecting at the time. It’s too expensive to collect any more because they are asking too much money for it now. Immediately in the aftermath of punk and in the mid eighties it was far cheaper and I started to collect all that stuff. I would buy up people’s record collections at record fairs and I kept one of each record so I have about two and half thousand records now, although I have not counted them for years.
It’s mainly singles and not albums because I never had space so I would keep the singles. In fact I got rid of a load of my albums which I really regret now. I had all the singles and then I started to collect the flyers, posters and things like that. Now you can’t afford to buy them they have just gone stupid, some go for lots of money and there is loads of fake stuff on eBay.
My collection is catalogued and numbered and there are either ones I got for myself in the 80s or bought more recently and a few into the nineties but pretty much by then I had got everything I wanted. I got a few things after that like autographs and things like that but now it’s silly money. I kept all my clothes as well. I remember going to Seditionaries for the first time. That would have been early ’78 and I couldn’t find it at first. It was a tiny little shop with a little brass plate on the front and I remember walking up and down on my own the Kings Ed and eventually I got to the other end and I had to ask someone where it was and I felt so uncool! I went in there and bought a couple of t shirts and they were ludicrously expensive. It was insane! I think I spent all my Christmas money on them on – an anarchy t shirt which has been washed to death so not worth the money now and I also got my mohair jumpers and all that stuff and I’ve still got it all.
JR : It was an interesting and empowering period
Chris : It was a remarkable time when you think about it. When we left school the careers interview was basically that if you don’t go into further education they would ask ‘have you considered the army?’ It was the three day week, strikes, the IRA blowing things up everywhere and it was really crap and music was totally septic – bands like ELO. I don’t want to say how bad it was and then all of a sudden it was like someone had switched a light on in the dark. I didn’t fit in and I wanted to show people I didn’t fit in just by having a different hair cut and clothes. Everything about punk was about energy and do it yourself and that was the other great thing for me – the do it yourself thing – the idea that I couldn’t get a job so I would make a job …
JR : If you couldn’t hear a song you liked you would make it yourself
Chris : Exactly and look at it we are here still talking about it. It has changed out lives.
JR : You never trained to be a presenter. You just went and did it.
Chris : I turned up at the BBC and watched these other people to see how they did it and then I did it a bit different and that’s it.
JR : Punk is about empowerment!
Chris : Massively…
Chris : People say to me ‘you speak your mind- do you care if you upset people?’ and I say no I don’t. If I think that I’m right about something and have evidence that I am right about something then why would I not say it and if I’m trying to achieve something why would I let someone say that I can’t. It still doesn’t equate in my mind. It goes back to those days when we were 16 when all of a sudden there was a means of us doing something what we wanted to do without question. All we had to do was stand up and get on with it. And again it sounds patronizing and terrible but I feel sorry for so many generations since then because they haven’t been in that unique position that we found ourselves in that we did at that time.
Music has been great since then but not the ethos. There are great musical things that have happened but it’s not the same as that first two years. The turnover of bands was amazing, the amount of singles, what bands do that now ? and they were good singles! Buzzcocks released a single every 6 weeks and the b sides were also amazing and it was so constant. You could not go to town on the Saturday and not buy another single because something else had come out
JR : What music where you into before punk?
Chris : I was into glam rock to be honest. Bowie and Trex but it was more about the stuff I wasn’t into. I think what happened was that glam rock was ok when you were 11 or 12 and then it became uncool at school and everyone I knew started getting into the Eagles for some reason and then everyone in my year was massively into ELO but I couldn’t listen to them. I seriously can’t do it to this day! I mean, Mr, Blue Sky come on! At the time, and I cannot tell you of course, how bad it had got. Trex were beginning to fizzle out and they had just done that tour with the Damned. That was the Dandy In The Underworld album tour and the hig hits had fizzled out for them and the Sweet – I don’t know what happened to them but they had lost that glam edge and it was Fox On The Run, Oxygen and all that stuff which was alright, but…
The first album I had bought was actually a cassette of Pin Ups. We all used to buy singles – like all the Trex singles, Rebel Rebel, the Sweet but the first album I bought was Pin Ups as a cassette and although I don’t have a cassette player I still have that cassette. What happened after that was that everything got swamped with the crap like ELO, Rubettes, Bay City Rollers and the good stuff seemed to go, you know.
It was dire but then all of a sudden I started reading about these bands in the NME and they sounded really cool. Band like the Stranglers, the Damned, Sex Pistols – they were great names and that was enough to get you looking at the page for me and that was it. I then bought Damned Damned Damned and then I bought White Riot and that was that and everything changed immediately. That Damned first album – it was so good. There was not a bad track on it.
The trouble is now, like with my stepdaughter who is 20, and she has always heard these records but they lack the context of the moment when they were released. At that time nothing else was like it. When you dyed your hair or had your brothel creepers on (and I still wear them!) no one else looked like that! People would really stare. The downside was getting beaten up and we had some unfortunate beatings. But punk It was like a light going on in the dark. It was amazing. The energy was so profound.