Featuring: The start of the Football League season, former Chumbawamba singer Dunstan Bruce, more sunshine, Bar Stool Preachers, a spot of Oi!, Spizzenergi, Jilted John, Old Firm Casuals, Hard Skin, a pub singalong with Henry Cluney, The Damned, Jello Biafra, glam skeletons, Jaya the Cat and much more…
Having had just about enough sleep this time, I get up and leave the guest house. The weekend is now well and truly under way for all those seeking a holiday in the sun: the sky is as clear-blue as the sea, attractions such as Coral Island are as enticing as any slushpuppie-sloshed kid could hope and I gather from the many football shirts that Blackpool will soon be playing Exeter City to kick-off their campaign in League Two (League Fucking Two?!). Upon my daily traipse past all the arcades, newsagents and fish & chips shops, I see a freestanding sign in the middle of the path that unabashedly proclaims: ‘WE SELL FAGS!’. I pause to consider how many archly cool Americans this must have bewildered.
Moving on and not wishing to succumb to fatigue on what is going to be a rather long day (and which would be the final day at many other festivals), I once again approach the Winter Gardens expecting to take things easy to begin with. Within a minute of entering the venue at 1:20pm, battle plans are re-drawn.
I am lured into the Pavilion by what sounds like a swashbucklingly raucous diddly-dee time being presided over by a folk-punk band called The Hydropaths. It quickly becomes apparent that I am far from the only first-timer here. A mohawked middle-aged chap in a white t-shirt – who I have seen many times at this festival and in previous years – is the ringleader of the one-man pit; doubtless his presence from the beginning has encouraged others to stay. This man knows his punk and plenty are keen to be his mate. Midway through their set, the band single him out, find out his name (Bob) and he shakes hands with the lead singer who jokes ‘this gig was really just for you, but then this lot turned up…’.
Hydropaths themselves seem a bit taken aback at how many people they have managed to draw. Technically tight and providing a rollicking good social function in jolting everyone back into festival mode, this is nevertheless far from a well-oiled operation behind the scenes. The singer gives this away when he says, ‘Well, if you fancy seeing us some more, we’re playing Leeds, Liverpool….oh, not Liverpool? Alright, Liverpool’s not happening any more apparently. Forget that then…’. He later informs us that they only have six t-shirts to sell (which will surely all go quickly) and they’ve run out of beer, so every little helps etc. Just before they depart, the singer thanks the crowd and then announces, ‘We’re going in the sea in about two hours from now, if anyone fancies joining us…’.
A sensible strategy for a sweaty band already having to contend with the heat, no doubt, but then they’re probably going home later, aren’t they? Given the festival planner in my pocket and my foolhardy determination to squeeze as much out of this £160 wristband as I can handle, such relaxation just comes across to me as decadent luxury – almost offensively bourgeois. The spectre of Rebellion haunts my every thought, though, dispensing with theatrics, I concede that I don’t envisage the next few hours being too taxing.
At around 1:50pm, I shuffle into the Opera House about ten minutes late to see what I initially thought would be the first stop of the day. Foregoing the opportunity to follow the many eye-catching t-shirts to the car park to get a whiff of Spunk Volcano and the Eruptions, I instead sit down to watch an interview with Dunstan Bruce, former lead singer of Chumbawamba. He talks of his time with the versatile anarcho-punks, their foray into the mainstream with the smash-hit ‘Tubthumping‘ (plenty of Americans would come to live shows just to hear this song, apparently) and what he has been up to in more recent times. He recounts how he went on tour with Sham 69 to China and the Hersham Boys were irredeemably miserable, bickering amongst themselves; this was in stark contrast to the Chinese youth for whom punk and (partial) liberation were somewhat new concepts. Sham singer Jimmy Pursey is renowned for his ‘ways‘ and any mention of him always sends me back to the 2013 festival which they closed in the Ballroom. He did not seem particularly perky throughout their set and, upon finishing one of their ’70s hits, shouted with zero trace of humour, ’35 YEARS OF PLAYING THE SAME FUCKING SONG!’. Some tend to precede his name with the adjective ‘troubled’…
Mr. Bruce mentions that he has a new band called Interrobang‽, who are scheduled to play the Pavilion 45 minutes after this interview ends. This gives me an unwanted dilemma. I had already resolved to buy some food and drink in bulk from the Co-Op and drop some of it back off at the guest house before coming back, instead of spunking more money up the wall by buying individually and repeatedly throughout the day. In the end, the former wins out and on my way back to my room I manfully persevere to do wonders to further perpetuate certain ‘feckless punk’ stereotypes, by managing to get lost for the second time in three days. When I eventually arrive, there is no hope of seeing even a little of Interrobang‽ (or much of Skaciety, for that matter, who are due to do an acoustic set at 3:40pm), so I instead play a few songs by Interrobang‽ on my laptop. Blimey, they’re not bad. I can just imagine the live show they put on – am I ever likely to see them? The chances do not feel encouraging but who knows. Oh well, back to the fun complex.
I dash to the Opera House at 4pm in order to listen to another interview, this time with Graham Fellows. He is known by many as the man behind the comedy character John Shuttleworth, though most here – including yours truly – are excited about him reprising his first creation, Jilted John, later on tonight. He provides a potted history of his own personal background as well as how he developed the character, how he went about recording an album and finding a label, as well as his experiences of the music industry. He relates how refusing to mime when performing his No. 4 hit single, ‘Jilted John’ (known by many as ‘Gordon is a Moron’) on Top of the Pops in 1978 resulted in him struggling to remember the words towards the end. He also notes that quite a lot of men named Gordon have come up to him over the years exclaiming that his song made their childhoods hell, before shaking his hand and letting him off the hook entirely. Despite his early success though, he decided to go back to his studies, a decision he soon regretted: ‘I went from kissing Debbie Harry on Top of the Pops to going back to drama school’. Regarding his Jilted John set, he says that four days ago he did a warm-up gig in Brixton and, mercifully, will be performing the songs of 38 years ago with dignity and without pretending that a day has not since passed.
The interview finishes at 4:30pm and I wander outside. I am in two or three minds but, upon walking past the Winter Gardens entrance and hearing the sounds emanating from the Tower Street Arena, I decide to go check out Booze & Glory. The London street-punk/Oi! band have an almost full car park to amp up their fist-clenching choruses. I am towards the back of this gathering, which includes many skinheads and geezers donning merchandise of two of the doyens of this particular genre, Cockney Rejects and Cock Sparrer. Both of these bands are playing later on today and, *spoiler alert*, I do not plan on seeing either of them. No disrespect is intended there, they just happen to clash with other bands I quite like and I have actually seen both of them before at previous Rebellions. Nevertheless, it does reinforce the fact that there are at least several different factions of ‘punk’ fans at this festival who must be having markedly difference experiences over the four days. The organisers are well aware of this; not only do they take this into account when scheduling stage-times but, this year at least, they have also produced promotional posters that emphasise entirely different bands, according to each’s respective theme. These include: ‘First Wave of Punk’, ‘Second Wave of Punk’, ‘US Invasion’ and, most pertinently, ‘Oi! Worldwide Streetpunk’.
Booze & Glory are younger than their aforementioned forebears, but as seems to be a prerequisite for East End bands in this sub-genre, also have some West Ham fans in their ranks (as do The Business, whose name is on a fair few other shirts I can see). The lads on stage have quite a following and I am pleased to have seen them for the first time at long last. There is plenty of passion on display and, dare I say it, underpinning much of the chanting gang vocals often seem to be riffs from the more melodic, commercial end of punk. One song, in particular, ‘Swinging Hammers‘ (surprisingly nothing to do with West Ham), catches my ear and I resolve to check out their back catalogue when I get the chance. For now, however, I’m once again perhaps a little too far from the stage and too much of a newcomer to really get into things, so I opt to leave a bit early in order to be able to say that I went to Blackpool and actually did set foot on the beach.
After a ten minute walk there, I spend a whopping ten minutes on the sand taking my photographic evidence of the sea and a pier before I walk another ten minutes back to the Pavilion at 5:35pm. Here, I brace myself for what promises to be a guaranteed good time amongst a crowd of like-minds.
I first came across the Bar Stool Preachers just three weeks prior at London’s Kentish Town Forum where they played at the all-day send-off for Big Cheese magazine. They were on obscenely early but arguably put on the best live show of the bill (which included Sonic Boom Six, The King Blues and Lagwagon). The same natural chemistry and interplay among band members witnessed there is present in Blackpool as is, undoubtedly, the infectious whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm of lead singer Tom McFaull; it’s as difficult to ignore him as he evidently finds it impossible to stand still. The band burst into ‘One Fool Down‘ and instantly begin winning friends with their accessible blend of upbeat, bouncy punk and ska. As with the Bouncing Souls, their lyrics perhaps do not cause one to itch for them to be immediately inscribed across one’s forehead with dad’s rusty pen-knife and mum’s most in-favour ballpoint pen. Yet, in the right circumstances with the right delivery, they can leave an indelible impression. The opener has more than one such set of lines, particularly the gentler bit that precedes the – also memorable – chorus: ‘Never look down / on anyone / unless you’re giving ’em a hand up / ’cause it can happen / to anyone of us / we live in and out of luck’.
They only recorded their debut album in May and radiate the excitement and fresh optimism of a band who relish the pure rush of playing live and who are confident that their star is very much in the ascendancy. Songs such as ‘Clock Out, Tools Down‘ and ‘Trickledown‘ set the tone and there are no real lulls in their 35-minute set. Instead the Pavilion turns into a singalong skank-fest with new converts succumbing to the on-stage proselytising every ten seconds. Such is the heat generated from all these restless bodies that McFaull wipes the sweat dripping from his face to enquire, ‘Who holds a gig in a fucking greenhouse?’.
Soon afterwards he asks, apropos of nothing, ‘Who is going to see the mighty Cock Sparrer later?’ Cue many cheers, to which he coyly adds, ‘I have to say that otherwise I don’t get any pocket money’. The penny drops. His dad is a legend of the genre and thus punk and performing are in this boy’s blood. I bet he supports bloody West Ham as well.
One of the later highlights is their life-on-the-road anthem, ‘Ballad (of the M1)‘, which includes the 110% fit-for-purpose line about how they ‘partied hard with punks in Blackpool’. Soon after, their set ends with ‘Bar Stool Preacher‘, the chorus of which gives every member of the exuberant crowd the chance to both sing along with as well as give a raucous send-off to an emerging band that will surely be heading on to greater things.
Although the day can now officially be pronounced alive, I nevertheless stick to my script by exiting the Pavilion to make a brief walk up to the Opera House in order to see the remainder of an interview with Spizzenergi. I had seen him live on the stage four years ago despite, like many, previously only being aware of his 1979 UK hit single, ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?‘. I had been impressed by his ethereal act – lights, costumes and musically ripping pages out of the punk rulebook – and, though I now know he is very active on social media, am curious to hear from the man behind the alter-ego.
In his West Midlands accent, he effortlessly demystifies himself. He speaks of early experiences, how he was once touted in the music press as the next big thing (‘What went wrong, eh?!’) and how he frequently changed the act’s name in a bid to enter the Guinness Book of Records (Athletico Spizz 80 was his favourite moniker). Related to this last subject, a meander into his interest in numerology does at least offer some inkling of a more idiosyncratic mind at work. However, when the interviewer provokes him into a political discussion by bringing up his pet topic of state surveillance, he quickly gets animated, spluttering and flapping about, sounding like a textbook left-wing (mature) student unaccustomed to verbally stating his case. The bait that he took leads him from declaring that we’re heading towards totalitarianism to airing several of his gripes, including the alleged bias of TV news channels in favour of right-wing publications during newspaper round-ups; ‘Where’s the Morning Star?!’, he thunders. Though I have some sympathy with the broad point, I keep my crazy thoughts about circulation figures to myself.
Less contentiously, the chat is rounded off by his answer to the ‘favourite ever single?’ question. Though he concedes it was actually only an album track, he immediately opts for David Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream‘. Cue nostalgic caterwauling of the opening lyrics: ‘I’m an alligaaator! I’m a mama-papa coming for you!’. The influence of Ziggy and other Bowie creations on punk and its adherents are not hard to stumble upon at this festival, though one wonders just how many of the elder attendees initially denied their glam roots once the punk Year Zero hit.
It’s now 6:30pm. I have thus far taken things relatively easy but, knowing what lies ahead, feel an energy-boost at the Co-Op and a short break are in order. Sitting on a bench adjacent to a relatively big paved public space, two men about twice my age sit next to me and one offers a drink from his six-pack. Being on a mission to record the shenanigans with some degree of accuracy, I politely decline. Nevertheless, they are friendly Welshmen almost twice my age here just for the day who are keen on seeing The Damned, Angelic Upstarts as well as, somewhat surprisingly, Jaya the Cat. They also strongly recommend a new band called The Kut who were on earlier. This reminds me that, aside from a few brief tip-toes inside, I have largely ignored the Introducing stage so far and, with no disrespect intended, do not plan on rectifying this situation. There is just so much to see and unfortunately, as much as I am enjoying the company of my new-found chums, I must make my excuses and pirouette around the multitides of reclining mohawk-and-chain youths in order to dash to the Ballroom.
Thankfully, I am there comfortably in time to see my most anticipated act of the third day: Jilted John. This hapless creation of Graham Fellows released just the one album in 1978 (True Love Stories), a faux-naïve and highly evocative collection of episodes from his adolescent life, which largely revolves around love, heartbreak and chips. Earlier on, Fellows had admitted that he had been a ‘part-time punk’ with some rather un-hip tastes. He’s probably all the better for it as the album is full of wonderful musical variety, melodies and couplets. Not for nothing did Attila the Stockbroker yesterday call it ‘one of the greatest albums of the 1970s’, having already expressed his delight that John is being reprised after nearly four decades.
With all that in mind, I am a little – but only a little – surprised to have a fair bit of space around me as I stand two or three rows from the stage. It’s not a complete shock as he does have an unjust reputation for being a novelty one-hit wonder. He alludes to this when he comes out to his band playing the familiar riff from ‘Jilted John’, before cutting it off and declaring, ‘Later!’. Instead, they coolly segue into ‘Going Steady‘, the opening track from the album’s 1999 CD re-release (though it was not originally included on the 1978 vinyl), which is about John’s giddy thrill at finding his first love. I do not care how moronic it sounds and what a simpleton I look, I am singing along to as many words as I can and belting out the chorus with glee: ‘Yeah! Yeah! I love Sharon! Yeah! Yeah! She loves me! Yeah! Yeah! We love each other! And we’re so happy!’. While there must be fans dotted all around the Ballroom, from what I can see it does feel as if the gentleman to my left and I are getting more out of this than most. Ah well, their loss.
Other songs that get an airing from his sole album include ‘Baz’s Party‘, ‘I was a Pre-Pubescent‘ and ‘Shirley‘. Introducing this latter song, he provides a part-summary of the record’s storyline, breaking the fourth wall along the way: ‘Right, I met Karen, she ran away. I went to look for her and I met an older woman, but she’s…probably younger than me now’. It’s one of only a few times he verbally slips out of character, which admittedly consists of little more than a slightly dopey voice supplemented by some occasionally raised eyebrows and slack-jawed expressions. Fashion-wise, he retains self-respect by dressing smart-casual, with a t-shirt underneath his trousers-blazer combination; though he could pass for a lot younger than his 57 years, a few student/activist pin badges are the only real concessions to youth.
I suppose it would have been asking too much to hear the album in its entirety with a full band (keyboards and all); I should just be grateful that I am among a rather select group who got to hear these songs live. That said, plenty just wanted to hear one ditty in particular and, with the last song, John obliges. ‘I bet you thought it wasn’t coming!’ he says, as the band celebrate all the way to the chip shop with ‘Jilted John‘. Nostalgia for ’70s childhoods – yes, it is still possible – is suddenly rampant in this Lancashire town as many find their voices and the band indulge them, providing several bonus opportunities to shout ‘Gordon is a Moron’.
Afterwards, it seems John would actually like to play another song but is denied due to time constraints. Given he came on a few minutes late and, more than once appeared to be irritated by technical issues, one can only wonder what he makes of that. He had earlier said in his interview that he chose this festival after being pursued by the organisers; he eventually came to check it out last year with his family and was won over by the atmosphere. One hopes he feels giving such a rare performance here was worth it.
It’s now coming up to 8pm and the band whose prompt arrival could not be sabotaged by The Jilted One is TheOld Firm Casuals, also commonly referred to as ‘Lars Frederiksen’s skinhead mob’. I’ve heard a little of their material before and have never seen them live, so am here largely out of curiosity, as well as due to being a big Rancid fan. Plenty of people have long been sceptical of the latter band’s adoption of British working-class/street-punk imagery/fashion; judged on the name alone, the outfit that is about to take to the stage certainly play into the hands of such naysayers. For the unacquainted: ‘Old Firm’ is the name of the bitter Glasgow football rivalry between Rangers and Celtic which has religious/sectarian dimensions and ‘casuals’ are a subculture with close associations with football and certain clothing brands that was at its peak in the 1980s. I know Lars loves the beautiful game and his affinity for these cultures runs deep, so resolve to mentally shut up and give them a chance.
Bugger me, they’re good. I can hardly name any of these songs(except ‘Perry Boys‘), but I know I’ll be looking them up later. They forcefully blitz through their early set, lyrically picking off targets and sonically picking up more fans as things become increasingly crowded at the front. Like Rancid, they seem to attract an eclectic bunch, though I do seem to be near more This Is England extras than I have been at any other point at this festival. Many of these folk, in their impeccably ironed shirts, braces and boots, are so immersed in the moment that they crowdsurf for all of 5-10 seconds before being hauled over the barrier. At one point, Lars calls upon the assistance of one of his (presumably) British mates standing near me in the crowd (Louie, I believe his name is): ‘Come on, Lou, I know you’re here somewhere, you dress like you’re in Clockwork Orange every fucking day of your life’. This bowler hat-sporting middle-aged veteran of the scene is commanded to start a circle pit and, by indelicately flexing the forearms of experience, he reluctantly obliges. As soon as things get a little tasty, he sensibly slides back into his safe space.
Although I am probably doing his three fellow slapheads a disservice, my eyes are mostly on Lars as thoughts of Rancid’s 2012 set come back to me and I am in awe of his strengths as a performer. Side projects are often there to be indulged and slightly patronised, but I should never have doubted this lot; collectively, they are a formidable live act. At various points in their set, a cameraman’s footage of their performance projects onto the big screen behind the band. This is the first time I have seen this. Lars wrote of his great affection for this festival in the 20 Years of Rebellion book I bought on the first day, so could this be a recording for an official release? If so, they’ve certainly picked a fine show for posterity.
Undeniably, Lars occupies an interesting place in modern punk history, attracting admirers (and detractors) from several different scenes and generations. After all, on the one hand, having already played with the UK Subs, he then rose to prominence with Rancid soon after the likes of Green Day and The Offspring first enjoyed mainstream success. They successfully blended, amongst other things, elements of ’70s punk, ska, early ’80s hardcore, street-punk/Oi! to create a rather catchy, accessible and unifying style. Although, as well as having music videos played on MTV, he has also indulged his interest in the street-punk/Oi!/skinhead scenes, not only forming bands but also working with many of his idols. The Business are one such group, for whom Lars produced their 1997 album The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth. This gets a cheer when he references it during this set as he dedicates a song to their lead singer, Micky Fitz. He says, ‘I don’t know what’s happened since, but I just want you to know I love you, man’, suggesting some estrangement.
Some of this cross-generational appreciation is set to continue after the Casuals’ fearsome set is over as next up on the Ballroom stage will be Cockney Rejects, followed by none other than Cock Sparrer. Some skins, somewhere a bit too close to me, must be creaming themselves. Unfortunately, I am not able to join in with the spirit of things, as I am off to the Pavilion to see a band that rip the piss out of this rabble.
Well, Hard Skin can be considered as much a satire of late-’70s/early-’80s British Oi! as well as a tribute to it, as no band could mock its conventions, tropes and mannerisms as much as this, without also having enjoyed it at some point. They formed 20 years ago, when the two leading members would have been more identifiable figures in certain punk circles, owing to their work in other bands: Sean ‘Fat Bob’ Forbes with Wat Tyler and Ben ‘Johnny Takeaway’ Corrigan with Thatcher on Acid. However, with the passing of time, while they may be familiar faces at this festival, it seems there are still a fair few who either don’t see the joke and/or want to do them under the Trades Description Act. When I first came here in 2012, as well as witness him muse on whether all skinheads are closet homosexuals, I saw Fat Bob denounce patriotism before lobbing the British flag away. Given that I was at a punk festival – ‘God Save the Queen‘, 1977 et al. – it seemed fairly standard fare, hence the lack of rapturous applause. Yet when I got home, I read countless incandescent online comments from skins along the lines of, ‘Ooh I won’t have that! How dare he do that to our Queen?!’. The horror!
Fortunately, with some Oi! heroes playing elsewhere, it seems Hard Skin have largely attracted those in-the-know tonight. I join them around 15 minutes into their set and soon hear the affirmative ‘We Are the Wankers‘ and the unreconstructed ‘Make My Tea‘. At one point, Fat Bob enquires if anyone saw The Exploited the previous night. Cue some cheers but it’s the boos that win the day, quite possibly due to long-standing allegations surrounding the politics and social views of their iconic frontman Wattie. ‘Fuckin’ ‘ell…’, exclaims Bob, before ironically mocking Wattie’s size and for still singing about being a teenager ‘at his age’. ‘Punk’s embarrassing’, he adds, to knowing chuckles. Indeed, it’s impossible to be oblivious to all the contradictions, questionable nostalgia and levels of maturity sometimes on display at this festival – not to mention one’s own complicity with it all.
Still, Hard Skin give a good account of themselves, ending with ‘Beer and Fags‘, though I have to confess to leaving a little deflated, having been deprived of the chance of singing along to ‘Copper Cunt‘, ‘Two Bob Cunt‘ or ‘Council Estate‘. Perhaps they played them before I arrived, but I don’t wish to compound my misery by asking around.
Having a short gap before my next appointment, I traverse the hallway for a rare visit to the Arena, where I see the end of Newtown Neurotics. I’m aware they have a bit of a following, given their inception was over 35 years ago, though there’s only really two things I know about them and both are witnessed here. Firstly, they are men of the left, as is evidenced by some anti-Tory comments and secondly, they recorded a version of ‘Solitary Confinement‘ by The Members, which they end with here. The original was about the alienation felt by a young man scraping away in a job that he has landed after moving to the big city. Whereas this altered cover, titled ‘Living With Unemployment‘, keeps most of the original lyrics, but adds and prioritises the lack of available work – quite the youth issue in 1983, you may have heard.
I leave content that the Neurotics have done virtually all they could have for me in the five or so minutes I had with them. I head to the Opera House, where at 9:40 Spizzenergi takes to the stage. He’s in quite a different guise to earlier, looking like some kind of futuristic Sci-Fi character, with the dystopian connotations of his black outfit and guyliner somewhat tempered by all the flourescent LED lights emanating from him (these include some digital text that scrolls across his belt area). It’s hard not to see the Bowie influences in all this theatricality and roleplay; he even has some young topless men backing him up to add a layer of homoeroticism not entirely dissimilar to that displayed by Ziggy and Mick Ronson some 44 years ago.
Given the highly visual aspects of this performance, a song or two in, I decide to risk being the bane of many by getting up off my seat and heading towards the rail in front of the stage. He’s quite the showman, is Spizz, exuding plenty of his inner camp as he strides, straddles and shimmies around what was once apparently the largest stage in the country. He’s in his element. Gradually, he removes some of his apparel and plenty of middle-aged men clasp to catch one of the luminous objects he tosses to the crowd. Discarding these doesn’t stop him illuminating, however, just now it’s in a more verbal form with his diverse themes that colour his unique act. Some of his newer songs get an appreciative reception but, unsurprisingly, it’s the older ones that go down the best. ‘Soldier Soldier‘ and ‘Amnesia‘ are amongst the highlights but undoubtedly it is set-closer ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?‘ that receives the loudest response. This quirky, jerky single gets several extra bodies up to further infuriate the front few seated rows, concluding the 45-minute performance with the kind of lyrics that couldn’t be further from the popular perception of what this festival serves up. ‘As we went Warp Factor 2’, indeed…
Though I consider heading straight out to the car park to ensure a decent view of a certain band starting just under half an hour from now, I instead opt for a spell at the bar. On stage is Henry Cluney, a founding member of Stiff Little Fingers, who was kicked out of the Northern Irish band in 1993 but performs SLF songs acoustically. I am aware there is supposed to be some kind of controversy about this and have heard at least one rather woeful recording of his, but am nevertheless curious. What follows is a welcome surprise. While it is mildly irritating that he stops certain songs to correct people on the lyrics and then proceeds to forget them himself, there is a wonderful atmosphere, about as good as it can get for a punk rocker in a pub. There are clearly many die-hards here, passionately belting out all the lyrics to anthems such as ‘Nobody’s Heroes’, ‘Suspect Device’ and ‘At The Edge‘. During the latter, he corrects the line ‘It’s exams that count, not football teams’ by stating that ‘the only football team that matters is Arsenal’. He earns his boos.
Much as I’d love to stay, particularly to hear ‘Alternative Ulster’, I’ve nevertheless got a prior engagement planned and so scarper outside to the Tower Street Arena. My barroom bellowing has cost me a decent view of The Damned. Though I do gradually inch my way forward I am still a considerable way back. Nevertheless, no matter where you are, it’s hard to miss Captain Sensible, standing to the left on the stage with his iconic ’68 Paris beret, sunglasses-in-all-weather and Denace the Menace-esque stripey top. Now 62, Sensible – Ray, if you prefer – still maintains a sense of fun, at one point directing at the crowd the enquiry, ‘Can you fuckers sing?! …Oh, I know I can’t…’. Later on, following some more crowd-baiting, he leads the band into a brief impromptu rendition of ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’.
Lead singer and band-ever-present David Vanian is a similarly striking presence but my peripheral position alongside fellow neck-stretchers is making it a little difficult to be absorbed in the on-stage chops and capers. Still, it would be churlish to deny some good tunes, which the band certainly possess, such as: ‘Love Song‘, ‘Neat Neat Neat‘ and, in particular, ‘Anti-Pope‘. Personal favourite ‘New Rose‘ (‘first-ever British punk single’, as every book on early British punk ever written will tell you) is unleashed with that riff and those precise, machine gun drums. They end with ‘Smash It Up (Parts 1 & 2)‘, an anthem which nobody in the audience requires encouragement to join in with; its build-up somewhat misleadingly glides along with hints of prog before giving way to the gleeful chaos. It sounds far more powerful live than the somewhat dated recorded version (did it ever sound like it could inspire a bit of anti-social mischief?), something that could be said for quite a lot of punk classics. Indeed, with all the improvements in high-quality sonic production over the past four decades as well as access to it being more readily available, it’s little wonder that bands such as Buzzcocks have re-recorded much of their back catalogue (Qué? Dinero? Shhh).
It is now coming up to midnight and as soon as the last note sounds, I peg it over to the Opera House. I was fearful of missing the start, if not of getting turned away from the interview altogether, but I’m alright. I have a decent enough view and, 15 minutes later than billed, Jello Biafra enters a virtually packed room. Immediately, he sets about making some changes to the format, picking up the discussion sofa with interviewer John Robb and to-me-to-you-ing it from the back to the front of the stage, evoking his tendency to get amongst the fans during live performances.
To get the ball rolling, Robb just says two words to the former Dead Kennedys icon: ‘Donald Trump’. Amongst other colourful comments, he brands him a ‘borderline Neo-Nazi’ whose ‘expensive hair bills are necessary in order to hide the white hood’. To widespread cheers, he says that he would vote for Bernie Sanders, should the runner-up for the Democratic nomination choose to put his name forward on the Presidential ballot. A brief discussion on his political orientation ensues, which he concludes by stating that he is perhaps a ‘personal anarchist’ and a ‘political socialist’, but really has no hard-wired, rigid ideology. This segues into a discussion – some might say a ‘monologue’ – on the formative years of this distinguished left-wing activist/humorist/spoken-word artist. He tells of how his liberal parents helped inform his views from a young age, how the Vietnam war changed his life (‘the best reality show on TV’) and later, the shadow that was cast upon his teen years by Richard Nixon (‘worst guy ever – you think Trump’s bad?’).
Moving on to musical influences, rather than an exhaustive list of names, Jello provides a mixture of the expected and the unexpected. He says that at one point it was his ambition to own every ‘heavy rock’ record ever released. Those regularly out of their sleeves included, amongst others, Steppenwolf, Frank Zappa, MC5, The Stooges, The Animals, Sparks (‘big lyrical influence’). An early ’70s radical British band called Third World War are singled out for especially leaving their mark, yet he expresses his surprise that hardly anyone seems to be aware of them. Indeed, when the theatre is polled, blanks are again drawn. A significantly more familiar favourite are the Ramones, who Jello found hilarious on record and then ‘life-changing’ when he saw them live. Touching upon his theatrical inclinations, he was also a big fan of Batman and it strikes an appropriate chord when he states that he always wanted to play the Penguin or the Joker. With seemingly sincere praise, he comments that he would have portrayed them similar to Jim Carrey’s Riddler in the 1995 film Batman Forever. Ultimately, in the late ’70s when he was finally ready to go from obsessive consumer to untameable creator, Jello set out with the aim of ‘combining the horrors of Alice Cooper [another early influence] with actual horrors’, such as state terror and police brutality.
Jello famously ran to be Mayor of San Francisco in 1979 and soon after this his most revered band recorded their first album, with more than a bit of help coming from the British, to whom they owe some of their early success. Robb gets a rare word in, to ask why he believes early British punk was different to, and achieved more mainstream success than, its American counterpart. Firstly, Jello credits this to the unparalleled popularity of glam rock, in particular that of Slade (of course, he had their records and I’ve seen several people sporting shirts of Noddy Holder’s tribe at this festival). This, he asserts, laid some of the groundwork and there is undoubtedly some truth to this, with Slade, Bowie, T-Rex, early Roxy Music and more often being cited as influences by the class of ’76/77. Indeed, John Lydon has recounted that pre-Pistols, he took his mother to see Gary Glitter and as we sit here, just down the corridor and to the left, John Rossall, ‘founding member of The Glitter Band’, is playing to a presumably busy Empress Ballroom. While, in the light of later revelations, nobody should be considered guilty by association, I suspect some original punks see this as their dirty secret. It makes me reflect on the musical journey of many from my generation and how they can be sheepish about what opened the floodgates and led them towards what is somewhat snootily considered to be ‘the real stuff’. Ultimately, some may disagree but I’m sure most innocent bystanders would concede that it is easier to live with blink-182 than The Leader of the Gang in your audio closet.
Back to Biafra, who believes British bands were also able to attain more visibility and commercial success than Americans did in their respective homelands due to Blighty’s less disparate musical landscape. Indeed, as well as being smaller than nearly a dozen individual U.S. states, back in the late-’70s/early-’80s, the entire rock/alternative audience was well served by three leading nationwide magazines, NME, Sounds and Melody Maker (not that he needed to but Jello assures us that he also regularly got his hands on these). There were fewer regional hurdles to jump, thus facilitating the route to what was once the greatest level of exposure a new band could hope for: a performance on BBC’s Top of the Pops.
Somewhat abruptly, following a tap on the shoulder and a point to the wrist, the interview is wrapped up at 1:30am. Being accustomed to speaking for up to three times as long as he has tonight, Jello doubtless feels he was just warming up. Alas, the recounting of the subsequent 35-plus years of his life will have to wait another time. Afterwards, he ambles down to sit in the front row where dozens of fans crowd around him to take photographs, get things signed and/or to simply say ‘Hi’. The throngs greatly outnumber those who waited for any of the other interviewees I have seen, something that should come as no surprise to those who witnessed the rapturous applause during the talk that greeted a man shouting out ‘you’re a fookin’ legend, mate!’.
Most people now sensibly turn right out of the Opera House doors for the exit, but some of us instead opt left for the Pavilion. Though bed is calling, what difference will another 20 minutes here make? I join several hundred others to be helplessly entranced by the ska/reggae of Jaya the Cat, who are fronted by an amiable combination of a rastacap, some shades and a Brian Blessed bushy beard. Lips are moving, so a full-sized head must be in there as well. Upon recommendation, I had briefly seen them at the 2012 Rebellion Christmas Festival in Birmingham but was perhaps a bit hasty to dismiss them as a ‘bunch of stoners’. Back then, they were presiding over a rather chilled atmosphere that may well have been enhanced by certain narcotics – not always the easiest of moods to slip into off the back of several ear-splitting punk bands. Tonight’s different and the songs I witness are more energetic, more at the modern ska end of their musical palette. Many in the crowd have evidently seen the band before and they comprise quite a diverse bunch, even if younger faces are somewhat prevalent. I may be shattered but I am glad to find myself in such company. I may struggle to look up at the stage for more than a few seconds but I’m compelled to dispense with some self-consciousness and drift into what must look like some L-Plate-and-armbands skanking.
Set finale ‘Here Come the Drums‘ provides a festival moment that most crave yet fear is more of a marketing fantasy than a possible experience. No hand-held camera footage, let alone some mere words, could effectively capture it and bottle it for posterity. At the song’s climax, the refrain of ‘Na-na-naaaa, na-na-na, na-na-na, na-na-naaaa‘ is chanted by all those who are living very much in the moment. This communal hum continues long after the band put down their instruments, with more saturday soldiers outside the Pavilion joining in to spread its echo around the Winter Gardens, all the way towards the exit door and into the night.