U.K. Subs – Another Kind Of Blues?

U.K. Subs – Another Kind Of Blues?

The U.K.Subs are currently touring the country celebrating their 35th Anniversary, we reviewed the recent gig at The Tivoli, Buckley (LTW review) – now Robert Leith recounts his own meeting with Subs front man Charlie Harper, and how Rob has rejoined the Subs non stop tour.

I first met Charlie Harper up in Edinburgh around 1979. A bunch of us snotty young 17 year-old punk kids were hanging around mid-afternoon (probably enjoying a refreshing cider or two from what I can recollect…) prior to a UK Subs show at The Astoria.  Seems that Sir Charlie has just arrived up from the smoke on the train, and, unsure as to the precise location of the venue, he ambled over to ask us oiks how to get there. First impressions were that he was a really nice bloke – very down to earth and personable. As we strolled the mile of so to the Astoria, we chatted about all kinds of stuff, and Charlie seemed more interested in us, and what we were doing (yes, of course we had our own crappy derivative punk band*), rather than going on about himself and his own band (who, at that time were very much in the ascendancy and arguably one of the top-draw bands on the UK punk circuit).

Now, I had never met the Lydons’, Strummers, and Sensibles of this world, so to actually have met Charlie under such circumstances, was obviously simply thrilling to us spotty teenagers. This is what punk rock is all about! It also started and sealed my admiration and fascination of Charlie and the Subs, which continues to this day. These were heady days in punk world! Loads of new, exciting bands (inc the Subs) were releasing great records, which seemed to re-capture the manic rush of those first few punk records – noisy outfits like Discharge, Cockney Rejects, Anti-Pasti, Dead Kennedys, Crass, Crisis, Flux Of Pink Indians, Poison Girls and a thousand others.

At this time, their 1st EP single “CID” (1st heard on John Peel) and debut LP “Another Kind Of Blues” had just been released, and those records really grabbed my immediate attention. First of all, the LP title.  I didn’t know it then, but it was a very nice play on Miles Davis’ classic 1959 “Kind Of Blue” LP. Also (as Charlie already had, ahem, significant musical pedigree stretching back to the early 60’s when he was around and part of the Stones / R&B boom and had indeed played in quite a few R&B bands), in my mind at least, it could maybe be interpreted that Punk (or to be more specific the much more direct 2nd wave of Punk) was another kind of blues, a modern version of the original blues, where delta bluesmen would travel the southern US States, telling their stories and spreading the word (of good, evil, drink, women etc etc). As most of you will know, the LP also started the Subs alphabetical run of album titles (now up to “W”, fact fans!). Great idea. Lastly, the LP also had a nicely designed cover. Not a cheesy picture of the band (there were some terrible covers around that time – The Adverts, The Vapors etc etc), but a striking minimalist, post-modern package (love the spade on the back…), which was a bit different from a lot of the output at the time.

Looking back now, a lot of the early tunes are very much R&B driven  – “CID” is basically a twisted 12-bar chuggernaught, “I Couldn’t be You” features Charlie on harp, and could be an outtake from “Down By The Jetty” played at 45, and even “I Live In A Car” is also based around a turbo-charged 3-chord trick. Overall, the LP still sounds great – decent production, and quite minimalist in places (check out the drone on “TV Blues” and the proto-thrash of the angular “Disease”) and packed full of great tracks – and check those running times – 1:52, 1:46, 1:29 etc. What’s not to like!

As expected, the gig itself was excellent. The place was totally packed, and the Subs were on top form (as we knew we would miss our last train home, we had brought sleeping bags to sleep rough then catch the train home next morning. It was freezing!)

Astonishingly, the Subs continued to go from strength to strength, and released a decent follow-up LP, “Brand New Age” which featured their most iconic song – “Warhead” (bass part lifted by U2 for “With Or Without You” anyone?) which, lyrically and musically, really stands the test of time (it also highlighted Charlie’s vision of a kind of Orwellian future which pre-emptied the rise of the internet and a CCTV nation). Around the time of the “Crash Course” live LP, they were one of the biggest acts in the UK, and we managed to catch them live many times – always a great show! Young film director Julien Temple even directed a Subs mini movie, Punk Can Take It, which we went to see. It toured mainstream UK cinemas in 1979 as support film to Scum starring a young Ray Winstone (Ray’s head spins! – “I can offer special odds of 100/1 of the Subs still touring in 2012!”).

I kind of lost touch with going to see the Subs until the late 90’s. But, to my surprise, I found that they were now just as good (maybe even better!) live as they were back in the day. They would be playing local venues (to maybe between 100 and 400 punters, I guess), but had obviously developed into an efficient, tight touring unit, like some sort of break-even or just profitable cottage industry where Charlie’s wife Yuko (and sometimes Charlie) would be manning the T-Shirt / Merchandise stall, and everyone seemed to have time to chat and catch up on old times over a beer or 10. Having a natter with Charlie is always a highlight – not always on punk rock matters, but maybe talking travel, fishing or Captain Beefheart (last time, Charlie was enthusing about 60’s garage band The Sonics…also read recently that he is recording some Krautrock based material with Captain Sensible?). All good. I even got to see them play in Prague (feat Nicky Garrett)  a few years ago, where the crowd was much, much bigger than the UK.

Catching then live this month (Nov 23rd, Glasgow), this is a band, frankly, on fire. Charlie has a real top notch ensemble that has been gigging for ages – Jet on guitar, Jamie on drums and the ever dependable Mr Alvin Gibbs on bass. There is no fat in the set at all, and they, of course speed thru a raucous set of Subs classics: I Live In A Car, Warhead, Tomorrows Girls, Emotional Blackmail, Limo Life, Endangered Species and the proto thrash of Disease (from that 1st LP). Of course, they hold back the redoubtable “CID” for their last encore. Then they are gone. I purchased 2 t-shirts for the kids, and had a good chat with Jet, who kindly signed both of them – my kids were made up! In summary, fuck the Rolling Stones and their £400 ticket prices for their London gigs. Very soon, Charlie, Alvin, Jet & Jamie will be playing in some boozer near you, and they will tear the place apart. They always do. It’ll probably cost you about a tenner to get in, and for that sort of value for money, it simply cannot be bettered

Maybe it’s time for Julien to re-visit what he started with Punk Can Take It  (a la the excellent Feel good’s documentary movie Oil City Confidential)– in Charlie and The Subs, there is a huge meaningful, relevant and interesting story just waiting to be told : Another Kind Of Blues?

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3 comments on “U.K. Subs – Another Kind Of Blues?”

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  1. Great piece i enjoyed reading that, especially the bit at the end about Julien Temple making a new film of the band. I was also at the Glasgow gig with my mrs who after years of putting the Subs down as has beens was blown away and is proudly wearing the “Work in progress” t-shirt i bought her…..God Save the Uk Sub’s.!!!

  2. i agree, great piece, i think the Subs are very underrated as a band, people have always wrongly lumped them in with the likes of the Exploited etc which is nonsense as they are totally different to such bands. Listening now to AKOB you can easily detect the strong R’n B’ influences on the music which really set them apart from many of their contemporaries. As i’ve stated elsewhere, i personally, much prefer early punk ie 76-80 to what came later but regardless of that, you have to accept that punk carried on, changed and adapted and certainly the Subs went along with that process but have always maintained that traditional early punk/R’ n B’ sensibility. Charlie Harper is a fascinating individual with such a rich history and very definitely one of the most genuine people in rock n roll. I think its about time the UK Subs received the credit they so richly deserve, yes, they aren’t the Pistols or the Clash, but they are a massively important band who signposted the way for punk in that crucial turn of the decade time, 79 into the 80’s. A great rock n roll band.

  3. BRIAN HARKNESS FAE DUMFRIES

    I TOO SECOND WHAT WAS SAID IN THE ANOTHER KIND OF BLUES/UK SUBS ARTICLE.
    I WAS ALSO AT THE GLASGOW GIG ON THE 23RD NOV AND AS USUAL THE BAND WERE
    GREAT,EVEN THOUGH CHARLIE WAS IN PAIN FROM HIS SCIATICA AND A SORE NECK.
    I NEARLY MADE CHARLIE LATE ON STAGE AS WE WERE COMPARING PAINKILLERS AND CREAKING JOINTS.CHARLIE SAID HE WOULDN”T BE JUMPING ABOUT MUCH AND I SAID I WOULD DO IT FOR HIM,I MIGHT BE 5O IN DEC BUT THE UK SUBS JUST MAKE ME WANNA JUMP ABOUT AND LET MYSELF GO.
    I HAVE SEEN THE UK SUBS LOADS OF TIMES OVER THE YEARS IN AND CHARLIE AND OTHER BAND MEMBERS HAVE ALWAYS FOUND TIME TO CHAT.I EVEN REMEMBER ON THE BRAND NEW AGE TOUR AT THE STAGECOACH INN AT COLLIN NEAR DUMFRIES THAT THE BAND/ROADIES AND A BIG GROUP OF US LOCAL PUNKS PLAYING FOOTBALL TOGETHER IN THE PRIMARY SCHOOL CAR PARK ACROSS THE ROAD.
    CAN”T SEE MICK JAGGER OR BONO DOING THAT.
    I ALSO SAW THEM AT A PUNK FESTIVAL IN BIRMINGHAM IN THE LATE 1980″s AND GETTING CHAIRS THROWN AT ME FROM THE BALCONY BY A GROUP OF SKINHEADS WHO THEN GANGED UP ON ME-SO I MADE MYSELF SCARCE UPSTAIRS AND AS I WATCHED THE SUBS DOING WARHEAD CHARLIE GOT MOST OF THE AUDIENCE ONSTAGE FOR BACKING VOCALS AND THEIR WAS MY MATE BIG PUN ONSTAGE GIVING IT LALDY AS I SKULKED UPSTAIRS.
    WE ALSO SAW THEM IN LONDON AT THE FIRST XRAY SPEX REUNION AT THE BRIXTON ACADEMY AND I MISSED THE FIRST 6 SONGS OR SO AS I HAD TO WAIT AT THE BAR,IT BEING MY ROUND.
    I ALSO REMEMBER SEEING THE SUBS AT THE STARS AND STRIPES IN CARLISLE WHERE THEIR WAS A BIG RUCK BETWEEN CARLISLE/WORKINGTON AND WHITEHAVEN SKINHEADS.ANOTHER GIG IN THE LATE 1980″S AT MICKS CLUB IN CARLISLE DID NOT LAST LONG AS A SKINHEAD STOLE CHARLIE MIKE AND WOULDN”T GIVE IT BACK.
    I ALSO SAW THEM SUPPORTING SLF AT THE BARROWLANDS IN GLASGOW AND I WAS THE ONLY PERSON ON OUR HIRED BUS BACK TO DUMFRIES WITH A UK SUBS TOUR T/SHIRT.I HAVE SAW THEM IN MANCHESTER ETC AND NEVER REGRETTED A MINUTE OR A PENNY.
    I SAW THE IN NOV LAST YEAR ON THE MOTORHEAD TOUR AND BECAUSE I THOUGHT THEY WERE ON 2nd I WENT TO THE BOG AFTER GETTING INTO THE VENUE.
    THE OPENING CHORDS OF EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL SENT ME RUSHING AND DRIPPING TO THE FRONT OF THE STAGE.YUKO WAS KIND ENOUGHT TO BRING ME THE SET LIST FROM THE MOTORHEAD GIG DOWN FROM THE STAGE AS SHE DID IN GLASGOW LAST WEEK AS SHE KNOWS I PASS THEM ONTO ROB AND MARK AT T@M.
    YUKO IS ALSO A LOVELY PERSON WHO ALWAYS MAKES TIME TO CHAT-I EVEN BUMPED INTO HER ON GLASGOWS ARGYLE ST ON THE DAY OF THE MOTORHEAD GIG-SHE COULD HAVE BRUSHED ME OFF AND KEPT WALKING BUT SHE DIDN”T.
    I REMEMBER A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO AT THE SUBS GIG AT THE BRICKYARD IN CARLISLE (THIS JUST WOULD NOT HAPPEN AT MOST OTHER GIGS) BUT I HELPED CHARLIE SING C.I.D TO THE CROWD-WOW ONE OF MY BUCKET LIST WISHES COME TRUE
    (CHECK OUT MY MIDDLE AGED CRAP DANCING INBETWEEN VERSES ON YOU TUBE)
    THEIR IS NONE OF THIS WE ARE STARS AND BETTER THAN YOU ATTITUDE WITH THE BAND AND THAT IS WHAT SETS THEM APART.
    OH BY THE WAY GUYS IT WAS GOOD TO HEAR A COUPLE OF OLDER/DIFFERNT SONGS LAST WEEK IN THE SHAPE OF TIME AND MATTER AND FEAR OF GIRLS WHAT ABOUT CONFRONTATION ST OR POLICE STATE NEXT TIME.
    BRIAN FAE DUMFRIES

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