U.K. Subs â 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 recollectâ¦) prior to a UK Subs show at The Astoria.Â 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 â 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 â 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 âCIDâ (1st heard on John Peel) and debut LP âAnother Kind Of Bluesâ had just been released, and those records really grabbed my immediate attention. First of all, the LP title. Â I didnât know it then, but it was a very nice play on Miles Davisâ classic 1959 âKind Of Blueâ LP. Also (as Charlie already had, ahem, significant musical pedigree stretching back to the early 60âs 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 âWâ, 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 â The Adverts, The Vapors etc etc), but a striking minimalist, post-modern package (love the spade on the backâ¦), 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 Â â âCIDâ is basically a twisted 12-bar chuggernaught, âI Couldnât be Youâ features Charlie on harp, and could be an outtake from âDown By The Jettyâ played at 45, and even âI Live In A Carâ is also based around a turbo-charged 3-chord trick. Overall, the LP still sounds great â decent production, and quite minimalist in places (check out the drone on âTV Bluesâ and the proto-thrash of the angular âDiseaseâ) and packed full of great tracks â and check those running times – 1:52, 1:46, 1:29 etc. Whatâs 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, âBrand New Ageâ which featured their most iconic song â âWarheadâ (bass part lifted by U2 for âWith Or Without Youâ anyone?) which, lyrically and musically, really stands the test of time (it also highlighted Charlieâs vision of a kind of Orwellian future which pre-emptied the rise of the internet and a CCTV nation). Around the time of the âCrash Courseâ live LP, they were one of the biggest acts in the UK, and we managed to catch them live many times â 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 (Rayâs head spins! – âI can offer special odds of 100/1 of the Subs still touring in 2012!â).
I kind of lost touch with going to see the Subs until the late 90âs. 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 Charlieâs 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 â not always on punk rock matters, but maybe talking travel, fishing or Captain Beefheart (last time, Charlie was enthusing about 60âs 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) Â 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 â 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 âCIDâ 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 â my kids were made up! In summary, fuck the Rolling Stones and their Â£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. Itâll probably cost you about a tenner to get in, and for that sort of value for money, it simply cannot be bettered
Maybe itâs time for Julien to re-visit what he started with Punk Can Take ItÂ (a la the excellent Feel goodâs documentary movie Oil City Confidential)â in Charlie and The Subs, there is a huge meaningful, relevant and interesting story just waiting to be told : Another Kind Of Blues?