Evoking instincts undead
The vibrant rebirth of UK Decay</strong>
”ËWe’re not here for a nostalgic reunion, we’re here because we’ve got something to say and an audience that want to hear it.’ The words of Abbo make clear that UK Decay are on nothing less than a mission to kick hard against inequality, injustice and the wrongs in our world and they are doing it with a power unleashed by the ”ËDark Lord’ himself, legendary British Producer, Chris Tsangarides.
They are also back to challenge the youth of today to think less about themselves, and their place in this consumer driven, fractured society, and more about how they can voice their dissent about things that actually matter. The as yet untitled new album is due for release in early autumn. Guitarist Steve Spon describes it as ”Ërelevant to the times, powerful, political and with a dark twist’. The ”Ëdark twist’ is so essential to the many lovers of the band; their music was described in Zig Zag magazine in1982 as ”Ëlying somewhere between the mental plains of reality and horrific imagination’. Having been fortunate enough to hear some of the new songs, it is safe to say that fans of UK Decay, old and new, will have their senses challenged and emotions disturbed by a powerful and utterly relevant new sound.
My love of Decay goes back to early teenage years listening to their classics like The Black Cat, Unexpected Guest, For My Country and, a personal favourite, Unwind. These singles were followed by the genre defining For Madmen Only and the Rising from the Dread EP. Who knows where the band could have gone had they not taken the admirably principled decision to split in late 1982. Founder members Abbo and Spon both continued to forge their careers in different areas of the music business. Sadly, original drummer Steve Harle, passed away in 1995 which would have seemed to rule out any possibility of the band working together again. However, in 2005, Spon, with the help of some others, began the UK Decay Communities website and Luton Reunion events. However the arrival of an ”Ëunexpected guest’ in the shape of Abbo at one such event in 2007 and For My Country being performed twice, led to a full reunion the following year. Bassist Ed Branch is back on board and Ray Philpott is on drums. As Spon explains, ”ËRay was a friend of Steve and learned to play drums listening to Decay. He owns Steve’s old drum kit so it’s like the spirit of Steve is still with us’.
Ray in the studio
Since reforming, the band have headlined festivals in Italy and Portugal and also completed tours of Germany and Italy. They are playing to a large, young and enthusiastic audience abroad, which is clearly invigorating them
In 2009 my friend Mark, wife Elaine and I saw them defy sound problems to produce a stunning performance at Rebellion. Afterwards we met them at the bar and found out that they were also the most approachable and friendly people you could meet. When I expressed an interest in writing an article on the band, Spon was kind enough to invite us down to a recording session. So, on a sunny April Sunday, Mark and I set out bright and early from North Wales to head to Dover and the studios of The Dark Lord (TDL). The welcome we received from Abbo, Spon, Ray, TDL and Jim the Pirate Hatter will live with us both forever.
The studio sits on top of the White Cliffs of Dover and we arrived to beautiful clear views of the French coastline. It also provides the ideal space and environment in which a band can create. One of the difficulties Decay face is that what was once a Luton band is now spread out across the Midlands and Southern England, so rehearsal time is rare and precious. Spending time living and working at TDL’s studio is invaluable and has proved most productive to the band.
Taking a break from laying down vocal tracks, Abbo, Ray and Spon along with TDL discussed the process of writing and recording the new album alongside topics that ranged from why they’re recording again, kicking against current conventions and
even breast implants.
Spon, Abbo, Chris Tsangarides (TDL), Ray outside the studio
So why a new record after 30 years?
Abbo ”â ”ËWhy the hell are we still doing this, being in a punk band as 50 year olds? Because we all feel we’ve got something we need to kick against. We’re still angry and there’s a world of apathy out there that no one else seems to want to take on. One of the new songs is called ”ËThe Next Generation’ ”â ”ËI’m still waiting for the next generation’ There’s been three or four generations of music since we split up but no one’s really taken up the mantle of kicking against a world of apathy discrimination and totalitarianism. ‘
Ray- I think we’re angrier than some of the younger generation. They’re mostly interested in consumerism and possessions it seems. Things like the problems in Bahrain with the Grand Prix, it all seems completely irrelevant to them.
Spon- It’s a new time but the same problems exist. We see the result of problems that were starting when we were first round. A lot of areas still need addressing. Punk is like just one of a number of genres of music that kids today can just slip in or out of. There are plenty of areas that still need addressing and attitudes towards the authorities that need to be expressed. We were told you shouldn’t mix music and politics, but music is about passion so why shouldn’t you, express how you feel in music? It’s all about feelings and passion, often unspoken, it’s such a deep language. Our generation has grown up with us so why can’t we say what we think?
Abbo ”â my favourite music’s blues ”â Groundhogs/Budgie ”â these old records still stir me up. One of the new records we just wrote this morning says ”Ëwhen they tell you what to be/tell them Abe Lincoln set you free’. I mean slavery was supposed to have ended two hundred years ago yet look at American jails, what is the percentage of population that is black?
Spon – Slavery still exists all round the world, even if it’s wage slavery. People are restricted by income ”ËWe’re all in this together’ we’re told, what are we all in together anyway, where is society supposed to be taking us? If we don’t sort out certain problems in the next few years, like global warming, it will be too late to sort them out. People still seem to be toeing the line to the economic capitalism tiger. The world’s not going the right way but there are simple things that can be done that will improve things. Our duty in an entertaining way is to make people think. Our challenge to the next generation is ”Ëget up of your arses and try to think and change things you don’t like in society for the better’.
You’re down here in Dover working with one of the world’s greatest producers. How did that come about and how is it working?
Abbo ”â I like a range of music, I love rap, early recordings of jazz, blues, African music anything that’s wound into a period. Jazz, I love that moment when it left New Orleans and went to Chicago with a migration of people, there was a dance that went with it, all the breakdown of discrimination that went with it. Early punk was a bit like that, a big part of that is the sonics of it, and you’re hearing a period in time.
I’m probably being a bit harsh on our early stuff but they sound like they’re from that time. There’s a few records I like from that time – The Modern World by The Jam, I wasn’t a huge Jam fan but ”ËI don’t give two fucks about your view’, which I really identified with as we were hated by the press. I remember hearing a Judas Priest record and it sounded great, but then, and I apologise for this TDL, but then the lyrics start and it was a million miles away from what we were doing. It was escapism, which is fine, but not what we’re about. I imagined if we could capture that sound with our message it would add more gravitas to it, I love the idea of marrying that sound with our songs. I love Sabbath, just listen to a lyric like ”ËGenerals gathered in their masses/ just like witches at black masses’. Sabbath are probably a bit like us, they visualise something and it just comes out as a description, ”ËWar Pigs’ what a great record. Look at what TDL has done, it’s got a real gravitas to it. It’s like that moment in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy leaves Kansas and goes to this multi-coloured world. We’re seeing everything in Technicolor when before it was all in black and white. That’s what we hope it’s going to be like; real impact. So I emailed TDL and he got back to me and just said ”Ëlet’s get it on’.
TDL- I remembered UK Decay as I’ve always been aware of what’s going on, and I thought ”ËGod, another one still alive’. All of my old buggers keep dying off on me. It’s always good to do something that’s got credibility to it, whether its reggae, blues, punk or whatever, it keeps me going. I need to do more than one type of music to keep me focused.
Abbo ”â If I can speak on the Dark Lord’s behalf, he’s a band person. Some people are management people and he’s definitely a band man. I saw him working on the Anvil documentary, which is probably the best music documentary ever. He was trying to keep the band together. But getting here, we didn’t know what to expect, but as soon as we heard the drum sound we thought ”Ëholy shit’.
Ray- Yes the drum sound. I remember thinking, ”Ëwow, that sounds amazing’.
Abbo- We’ve never had this opportunity before, working with a great producer, most of the new songs were worked up here, written at this table
Ray- Last time we were down here we’d come up with an idea and the next day it would be recorded; it’s a great way of working, really fresh.
Abbo-We haven’t fallen out yet and he’s very easy to work with. Musicians (which we’re not, well not trained musicians, apart from Spon), always love their new stuff, they’re always focused on that, but we can safely say this record is way better than anything we’ve done before. It’s very easy to work here.
TDL- It keeps changing and mutating and we won’t know until the final mix is done but it’s going to be very eclectic; hard, heavy and gentle ”â all the emotions really. The tune dictates what it sounds like. It’s amazing; I still to this day don’t understand how recording happens. I don’t know. I sometimes ask myself when we’re listening back to stuff ”Ëhow the fuck did we do that?’ It’s a great thing to do, there’s nothing better than being with a bunch of muso’s and you can go in the studio in the morning with nothing and by the end of the day there’s something there that wasn’t in existence before, a song. The power of that is brilliant; it’s a great medium we’re lucky buggers, very lucky.
UK Decay always had a dark image, with songs like Werewolf, Rising From the Dead and Black Cat. You always described yourselves as an optimistic band
Abbo”â People read too much into it. In those days there was no internet, not even the cassette Walkman and so you read more. We were reading books like Edgar Allen Poe’s, and when Spon would come up with a guitar riff and I’d come up with lyrics like The Black Cat.
Rising from the Dread was a piss take by us. Everyone thought we were po-faced and invented that word ”Ëgothic’, which stuck with us. It’s like having breast implants. Once you’ve had them done that’s all anyone remembers you for. With Jordan that’s all anyone ever thinks about, they don’t think of anything she’s ever done or said, just whacking great boobs. It was the same with the ”ËGothic’ thing with us. Rising From the Dread was just our joke really.
I’m quite friendly with Penny Rimbaud from Crass now, that Bloody Revolutions was a great record. It’s funny now we’re getting to know each other, then we saw them as a serious bunch of agit types, which was their image, and they probably saw us as being not quite as committed as we could have been. They had no idea we were going up and down the country fighting skinheads every night and we had no idea a lot of their stuff was quite ironic, but time is proving otherwise.
Now we’re very focused, we’ve all got day lives but we’ve got our head down to come here to do the record and we’re writing songs as we go. We write and record, whereas in the old days we’d tour them first for a couple of months.
You have used Band Pledge to get funding for the new album. Do you think this could be the future for many bands to finance recording?
Abbo- This has always been the way with us, we were well connected with our audience. We didn’t expect to be borrowing 10 bob off them, but we always shared everything with our audience anyway. It just brings you closer and it’s a great way to give your audience something extra.
Spon- Everyone that’s pledged is part of the community and it’s our responsibility to make sure we fulfil our side and produce something good.
Abbo- We’re putting everything into the record, which is why we’re using the Dark Lord, we wanted to make something worthwhile. We could easily have made this album in a bedroom, but we want people to think ”Ëthis is a decent bit of music’. I’ve always been disappointed by comeback records but this isn’t a comeback record anyway as we were never there in the first place.
I still like the early songs we did, but they do sound so out of date to me. The new one will be part of the zeitgeist now. You’ve got to realise your own place in the world. I work in music and one of the biggest problems I have is getting musicians to realise they’re not as important as they think they are and the big problems that will come when people are no longer interested in what colour they like, or they can’t keep everyone waiting for half an hour while they scratch their arse. We’ve always been of the opinion that you’re only as good as the people around you.
TDL –If you surround yourself with nice like-minded people, people will like you and support you. You’ve got a strong core of people who support you.
Ray-That’s how the band reformed, by chance really; it was from community events that were organised by Spon. They weren’t comeback gigs.
Abbo- I turned up by chance, I just happened to be in Luton and went along. I had tonsillitis and didn’t even know the words to For My Country. The audience helped me out. But it was so enjoyable playing again.
Spon- Yes, there were no plans for a reunion at all, we had a lot of other bands and DVD’s to show, it just sort of happened. I hadn’t played guitar for 25 years at that point.
Part of working with Pledge, is the opportunity to donate to a charity; why did you choose the Sophie Lancaster Foundation?
Ray- It seemed obvious really. She was kicked to death by a load of meatheads because she looked different. We can empathise with it, in the old days you may as well have put a target on your back, it was dangerous.
Spon- We really support it as it’s such an important cause ”â you used to get beaten up for dressing like a punk in 79-80, it was a really dangerous time.
Abbo- Some poor sod got beaten up because a gang mistook him for me. We were also targeted for our views as we didn’t share the right wing views of so many people at the time. Luton at the moment is a microcosm of all the problems that exist in Britain; it’s in trouble really. There’s a mix of races and real intolerance.
Spon- The whole idea of supporting the Sophie Lancaster Foundation is to help fight intolerance. We also gave a track for the album to raise money for the charity, and we’ll do more in the future I’m sure.
Ray- I’m younger than this lot, but when I was growing up in Luton it was still the same. If you looked different you were asking for trouble. I could have been in Sophie’s situation quite easily.
Abbo- It used to be every night; you’d come out of a gig and there’d be a crew waiting for you. It became too regular and it’s one of the reasons we split up. No one was listening to the music anymore, it was just ”Ëlet’s have a go at them’.
When the album is complete, how will you promote it?
Abbo ”â We’ll get it finished, get some artwork on it and do some gigs. But we’ve all got day lives, so it’s not as easy as putting a tour together. We’ll rely on word of mouth, but there’s so many artists out there now all making music, it’s hard for an artist to even get heard.
Ray ”âWe’ll do some gigs on the back of the album and there are niche websites and radio shows, which we can provide an MP3 to.
Abbo ”â What’s surprising is we’ve got such a young audience in Europe, aged 18-23. We played in Italy and the photos of the audience ended up in i-D magazine. The audience are really stylish.
Ray ”â It was the same in Leipzig, about 1200 people, all in their early twenties, who all put so much effort into their appearance. If this record sounds as good as I think it’s going to sound, I can see it getting out to more people beyond our normal fan base, if only by a process of osmosis.
Abbo ”â The reason we’ve made the record is for that group of people, I don’t think we’d make it for our own age group ”â they should be listening to something else, more current. There’s a young audience out there, Italians, Portuguese, Germans, and 80-90% of our audience in Europe are young.
Ray ”âThe whole message of the album is aimed at people who aren’t our generation anyway.
Abbo ”â True, but there’s a couple of songs on there that are aimed at our generation, like Drink. I’ve only been drinking about 14 years, and it’s quite a nice little aid to life so this is homage to drink. It’s a rant about all the things that frustrate in life like VAT, and baby on board signs and erectile dysfunction adverts that are obviously aimed at people our age.
There’s song another called Punk Rock Love Song. It’s like my generation were asking what did you dad do in the war, now our kids are asking what did you do in your teenage years ”â what drugs did you do? It’s personal to my son and his generation. 1977 was like a door opening, we realised it’s about more than just listening to a Lou Reed record, it’s about fighting the government.
We’re still the band we were, but what we’re doing now is totally different. There’s a tenuous link to the old times but that’s all. I can’t remember the lyrics for our early songs and I wonder about the person who wrote them sometimes. There was Spon with his five string guitars and Steve with his military drum beats, all the bass players we went through until we found Ed. Now we’re a lot more natural; if it needs ragged guitar, Spon just does it; if it needs a certain type of drums, Ray does it. We’ve got more life experience now.
I always found the artwork and packaging of UK Decay records a big attraction, any plans for the album yet?
Spon- Like everything else it was a DIY ethos for us and different people from our crowd were responsible for different covers. For Madmen Only was a real challenge and we ended up using ”ËThe Disintegration of Faith’ by Dutch artist Jan Toorop.
Abbo- We’ll wait until the album’s finished and see what feel there is and what the songs are saying, it certainly won’t be a picture of us. We’ve got no idea at all really.
Spon ”â We try to conjure images with our music so we’ll gain a picture from the music and go with that.
Abbo- The songs are still growing at the moment, you’ve heard some of them but they’re not finished, apart from the one you heard first (Revolution). I was a bit miffed having written that two years ago and then the riots all went off last summer. It’s almost word for word what I’d written. I got the idea from an old blues song, ”ËMr Crump don’t like it, it’s not going to happen here’, he was a guy in Memphis who ran the strip. I thought that’s exactly the situation we’re in at the moment, ”ËIf the police don’t like it, if the government don’t like it’ there’s no freedom for the individual and expression of thought. I nicked that line and put a new melody on it. I hold my hand up, it’s not my line, but it will be referenced on the album so people can listen to the original.
For Madmen Only is the same, it was written in 1981, but it’s really about the events of 9/11 with lines like ”Ëthe decline of civilisation’. I was living in New York at the time and watched the Twin Towers fall. I’d forgotten all about UK Decay, but Spon and Jim have both said how much those words are about that event. I’m not claiming to be Nostradamus but if you live with your eyes open you do get a feeling for things that may happen if issues aren’t resolved.
The City’s a Cage, off the new album is another one. I went to a town near Detroit once to see a band. There’s massive unemployment and social problems there, sex, violence and drugs. A gang surrounded me and things looked really scary until the driver of my car got out with a gun. But I thought, fuck this is crazy, it’s only 7.30 on a Tuesday evening. But you can feel the temperature sort of rise in those places and as times get more desperate, it gets worse. There’s nurses that can’t get a living wage so can’t keep their job. What sort of environment is that? People are getting huge, eating junk, and there’s no space for them, mentally or physically. Communities just don’t work in those places.
By contrast, there’s a song on the album called ”ËWonderful Town’, which is like a reaction to all the wealthy people who’s first instinct when they make money is to move into the country. I look at Luton with all the troubles but I still love it, it’s the people that make a place.
I grew up in an area with English, Welsh, Irish, and Jamaicans who now all hate Muslims. I was lucky to go to a Pakistani karate club for ten years so I know a lot of the people and their parents. I’ve eaten with them so I understand what being a Muslim in Britain is like. It was very frightening for them in the ”Ë70’s and ”Ë80’s. A small group of them have become empowered and it’s having a similar effect that the skinheads had in the ”Ë70’s for the white community, people are afraid of the whole community because of the actions of a few. I don’t understand it as I’ve never been racist. There are real problems in the town, but I still love it. I’ve never wanted to live in the countryside. When I lived in New York I used to fly back to Luton, but it could be about any town really. Having said that, I got out of Luton when I was 18 as soon as I could, but that’s the contradictions of life I suppose.
How would you describe your early days as an independent punk band?
Abbo – Independent was the word, you were free of any outside forces or influence. The word ”Ëindie’ didn’t exist then, it came in about 7 years later to describe a band that couldn’t get a major record deal.
Spon ”â it was a DIY ethos, UK Decay got money with another Luton punk band Pneumonia to release a split single together, then we gigged together and then we opened a shop together.
Abbo – we nicked Spon from Pneumonia basically.
Spon- A lot of what we did then can be done online now.
Ray ”â Indie now is a name for a genre really, I was shocked to read that number 1 in the indie chart is Adele. What is that saying really?
Abbo- In the old days and even today, we play in our own style, we’d never survive in a metal band or rock/pop band, but it was the power of articulation taking it straight from your mind into the music, not worrying about pleasing or upsetting somebody. Even though we’ve been round the block a few times the songs are still written spontaneously, we’re not sitting round thinking we need to write about certain issues. TDL is getting the sound for us, we’re just writing down here and it’s great.
Before we never really thought about our sound, but now, we realise that the impact sonically that the music has will make a big difference on how far it reaches out to the world. We won’t have hit records, but we’re trying to do the best we can. We were always quite a serious bunch of lads; we’ve lightened up a bit nowadays until we get talking about things that matter in the world.
Spon ”â There were many different kinds of punk, the first generation ”â Sex Pistols and The Clash, then a whole range of others, but the whole DIY ethos and protest aspect was an important part of what we were about. We also did fanzines and opened Luton’s first independent record shop.
Abbo ”â too independent, you just walked in and took what you wanted!
Spon- the High Street stores in town suddenly opened up an independent section and basically put us out of business. We did everything ourselves, but it got too much as we were away touring a lot and we had to license out record deals and get an agent to get gigs. We never moved far from that ethos and we’ve still got that attitude today, we’re an independent band. Punk diverted into several different strands like ”ËOi!’ and hardcore anarchistic, like Crass, Poison Girls and Discharge ”â we felt an empathy and had a similar message but totally different music. There’s more intelligent ways to put things across and we were always looking for that.
You toured Britain supporting The Dead Kennedys and then went over to the US. What was the impact of that on you at the time?
Abbo – Great experience playing with Black Flag, DOA, The Farts and the American Subhumans. We also played with Johnny Thunders, but he was too out of it to go on stage so we went back on and the audience hated us. Our type of music was totally incongruous with what was the norm in America. Some gigs were great, some we were literally canned off. But it was a great experience for us, seeing people in the streets that had come back from Vietnam, which had only finished five years earlier. It influenced the album, we wrote For Madmen Only when we returned. Going to America so young was huge, people our age just didn’t do it then unless you were in a band.
Jello Biafra liked what we did musically and independently so he pushed us, a really entertaining guy. I liked the American people I met, but hated being in the country as it was so opposite to every value I’d ever had. Punk didn’t do to America what it did to the UK, it turned into a fashion over there then went political. In UK, it was politics and fashion at the same time, helped by Thatcher and a right wing government.
On the whole we preferred Europe as that was more culturally where we were at.
You’ve said before that the Paris Rue de Cascades Squat gig was probably one of the best you’ve played?
Spon ”â It was an interesting gig really, a gunman came in and started shooting. We were just told ”Ëyou’re not allowed out’.
Abbo ”â It was a squat and we were aware of the issues they had going on so we did a benefit gig for them. It was a great crowd, great cause and great music. I didn’t drink in those days so I’ve got a really clear memory of it. I came off stage absolutely buggered and that’s as a fit 18 year old who didn’t drink smoke or do drugs. A lot went into that gig.
Spon ”â It was the end of a tour as well so we were really tight as a band. There was a radio show with a phone in that was supposed to last twenty minutes and went on for more than three hours; that many people wanted to speak to us.
Abbo – Pessimism Combatif , that was the name of the programme. The Clash and Banshees had gone out and done big gigs but we were one of the first of our kind of music to do small gigs where people could meet you, especially in America, there was no separation between the audience and band. We were sleeping on peoples’ couches. Our girlfriends were from the local punk scene rather than glamorous models. There was no hierarchy ”â the band crashed with everyone else.
Paris, Berlin and Hamburg are all great cities that we seemed to have a lot in common with. Now we’ve played Italy and Portugal, which we never went to before, we get a great reception abroad. We’ve always enjoyed playing abroad; people seem to come to gigs for the music not fashion. Leipzig and Bologna gigs are probably the best we’ve done since coming back. Things just came together there, great crowds and great reaction.
Ray ”â We’re looking at the possibility of playing in Finland and Estonia later in the year when the album comes out.
Abbo –We were such a tight band in those days and were great friends. That’s why it was such a blow when Steve died. We tended to crash in the same places. We had lots of fights. We were feared by some of the Right Wing people we took on. We had a hard core of 50-80 people coming to see us at all gigs and they were a lovely crowd. That’s what made the link between band and audience so special; there was never a line between us. There was no hierarchy for me as the singer; it was whoever got the couch first.
Spon ”â We would be driving along in some far-flung part of Europe and suddenly see someone we knew hitching a lift.
Abbo”â The same thing happened when we were in Milan a couple of years ago. I saw a Luton shirt walking past and it was him (points at Jim). I thought ”ËI recognise him’. A Luton shirt in Milan, I couldn’t believe it.
Abbo, Spon and Ray take a break from recordinga new record
With that thought, it was time for recording to resume. Jim told me later that Abbo’s mantra for the new album is ”Ëspace, minor chords and heavy’. Having been fortunate enough to hear some of the songs being recorded, I can say it sounds essential listening.
A final author’s note
It was an absolute pleasure to be welcomed by people who have been heroes for many years. Thanks very much to Abbo, Ray, Spon, Chris Tsangarides and Jim for looking after us and giving so freely of their time. Thanks also to Spon for setting up the interview and for his support and best wishes to Ed Branch who was unable to be there. Photographs are courtesy of Jim Pirate Hatter. Please visit http://www.ukdecay.co.uk/ for other images and further information about the band.