London, The Boston Arms
3rd March 2013
Pop historians decided long ago that punk rock exists only in the past, as part of a thread that runs from progressive rock, lasting for a couple of years until it’s neatly replaced by glossy Eighties pop. It’s a version of music history that has punk mouldering in the present only as a parody of itself on London tourist postcards and compilation CDs for the nostalgic dad market; a blink-of-an-eye fad for social commentators to discuss in five-yearly arts retrospectives, represented almost exclusively by The Clash and the Sex Pistols, and deemed to have run out of steam by 1979.
But this tidy revisionism ignores what actually happened next. In the early Eighties, punk was freshly energised by a second wave of new bands and slipped its fashion moorings, becoming a scene with real political power, turning the mostly empty anarchy slogans of the original punks into radical statements of intent and inspiring a generation of activists in the process.
Bands like Crass and Flux Of Pink Indians sold thousands of records independently at ultra-cheap prices, providing a vital outlet for a boiling discontent with politicians, the widening gap between rich and poor, an increasingly politicised and militarised police force and Britain’s role in a controversial overseas war.
Not far behind Crass and Flux in terms of influence and popularity were Wiltshire-based punks Subhumans who, here in 2013, continue to play and still have plenty to say; indeed, what is most impressive about tonight’s gig (part of the excellent Another Winter Of Discontent festival) is the way in which apparently ageless singer Dick’s rapid-fire lyrics – which often work equally well, perhaps uniquely, as stand-alone poetry – are as relevant now as they’ve always been. Similarly, it’s hard not to be struck by the band’s desire and ability to play with more energy than most new bands half their age.
In some ways tonight feels like turning back the clock, but as the always amiable Dick walks onstage and cues in an explosive It’s Gonna Get Worse, you realise that this gathering includes fans of all ages; teenage punks slam-dance alongside revellers old enough to be their parents, and one Subhumans T-shirt-wearing lad down the front looks barely a day over 12.
There’s an unlikely and thrilling vitality here, a sense of timelessness as songs like Reason For Existence (‘Are you happy as you vote, To keep the parasites alive? You don’t want to vote but you think you should, They said it was right and you never asked why’), and No (‘The system thrives on ignorance, What the public don’t know, they can’t reject’) engage both musically and lyrically, as if they were written with today’s interchangeable mainstream political parties and the Iraq War in mind. And tonight the infectious, sometimes folk-tinged tunes pack an extra punch, because after all these years, Subhumans are now awe-inspiringly tight.
Formerly ‘controversially’ Led Zep-patched and long-haired drummer Trotsky hammers out the beat with Bonham-esque precision, and guitarist Bruce’s soaring solos, along with Phil’s colourful bass runs, all add to the feeling that you’re witnessing one of the most exciting loud/fast British guitar bands of this or any era, or any musical category. At the end the whole room is singing along to 1982’s classic Religious Wars (‘The ultimate excuse is here, Die for a cause, religion is fear’), which must be the catchiest song ever written about mindless mass slaughter.
Subhumans always stood out both visually and musically from the black-clad crowd, their lyrics were as questioning and angry as anything screamed by their anarcho-punk contemporaries, but their intelligent rants were delivered with wit and an emphasis on melody over aggression. Perhaps this is why their music remains so powerful now.
Tonight is proof that pop’s historians have got it wrong. Subhumans and the defiant punk spirit they represent exist very much in the present, and probably always will.