Monthly Archive: March, 2014

PUNK IS AN EARLY WARNING SYSTEM!

 

THE UK SUBS: INTERVIEW WITH CHARLIE HARPER

abraham rodriguez

 

[This interview appears in a condensed German version in OX FANZINE #113.  Here is the full ENGLISH version.  It’s probably more readable at www.abrahamrodriguez.net ]

 

1. PUNK IS AN EARLY WARNING SYSTEM.

He yelled it from the stage like a man who is constantly proven right. “The people who really need to listen, aren’t listening. But punks said it from the beginning. Now that things are getting worse, all we have to say is: “We told you so!” It was something that came up often that night, the fact that punks said from the beginning things were rotten and things would get worse. And after twenty-four albums there seems no end to the socio-political side of the UK SUBS. To this day, songs like “Worker’s Revolution”, “Black Power Salute” or “Stop Global War” are ample proof that this band has never lost its ability to be relevant, and to put those ugly truths and realities of present life to music. And what music! A lbums that show the diverse range of musical possibilities in punk, and unashamedly, the rich influences of rock’n’roll. You might hear traces sometimes of Mott The Hoople, even…CHARLIE HARPER springs from that first generation of punk rockers who are NOT ashamed to admit coming from the rock tree of life, not ashamed to be a rock dog. He’s been the blood and guts of the UK SUBS since 1976. CHARLIE HARPER gives of his time generously, sharing stories over a beer like a good mate in a pub would. He’s a great songwriter, pure and simple. There is not a band on this earth that could stand up against 24 solid albums, each one a unique moment in the development of a band that keeps growing musically, and a songwriter consistently finding new ways to express his feelings in a language that is undeniably punk but that brings with it the undeniable underpinning of rock’n’roll. It’s clear that music is his passion, but even more impressive is his concern over the shape of the world, the prophet in him that says even though UK SUBS have been saying it the people who need to hear it don’t listen, never listen, never will. But he who has ears, let him hear! The UK SUBS are presently on tour and continue to rock the universe their way. The present line up (JET on guitar, ALVIN GIBBS on bass, Jamie Oliver on drums) has been together nine years. The motto here must be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The UK SUBS show no signs of stopping, which is at least one real dependable thing on the planet to look forward to.

 

2. “WHAT IS PUNK TO YOU?”

This interview took place backstage at SO36 in Berlin, before their show on February 5th, 2014. I was accompanied by Michael Richter, ex-SEIZURE, who played drums for The Subs on their 1997 tour and plays drums for URGENT FURY. The two have known each other on and off for years and this was another litte reunion since Michael moved back to Berlin from England in 2000. A special thanks to Simone from MUTTI’S BOOKING, who fit us right in with the other interviews. There were a couple of interviews before us and it took a while before I was able to say hey, it’s an honor, I’m Abraham Rodriguez from OX…

 

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He dug the issue of OX I brought, thumbed through it with interest (“Ohh look, there’s a CD!”) and asked to keep it! Charlie greeted us both warmly. The minute he laid eyes on Michael again, he laughed and said “Ohh, I’ve got a great story about him,” to an outbreak of general laughter.

MICHAEL R: [laughs] Oh no not that story…

CHARLIE: Well we were doing this big festival, and it was probably the first time you played with us…?

MICHAEL R: You mean in France?

CHARLIE: I think you played before maybe, but this was a big old festival…you still hadn’t got quite used to the set, and I think we were doing LIMO LIFE [does some chords with his mouth]…and Michael was still choppin’ on, you know…and everyone stops and he’s just choppin’ on, and I said to the crowd, “Michael’s gonna do a drum solo…” [laughter]

MICHAEL R: Ohhh! I remember, you had to code it because the band kept playing…

CHARLIE: I said,”Michael’s gonna do a drum solo for ya!” because he kinda panics, and he starts doin’ the tom-toms and then I went “One Two Three! Four Five Six!” and the band came out with “Stranglehold” and the crowd just went mad…[laughs] it was like the best arrangement! and you know, spontaneous…

 

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Q: What kind of a tour is this?

CHARLIE: Well, this one is more ‘normal’…we’ve cut it down from about ten weeks, nine weeks, eight weeks…then six weeks, and then even by six weeks everyone is getting a little totalled out, just give us a month of good gigs…but I think they’ve given us five weeks! [laughs] But that’s good because after a month everyone gets a little ragged, you know, drinking every night, passing out every night, at least in in a month you can see the light at the end of the tunnel…it’s not that we don’t like what we do, we love what we do, but…you know, it’s only the drummer who’s a young guy…and he’ s real sick! [laughs]

Q: It’s dead serious when the young guy’s falling out! I only ask because I’ve heard you guys generally tour 140 or 150 days out of the year…

CHARLIE: Yeah, actually we’ve been trying to get it down a bit and choose our shows a bit more carefully. Someone told us we played 99 shows last year, which is for us somehwhat under. 150 was more normal, we’d be in the states for 8 or 9 weeks with maybe a holiday in between.

Q: You have an R&B background…

CHARLIE: Yeah, alot like the Vibrators, who are alot like our ‘brother’ band, they were already playing rock and roll or R&B rock’n’blues…I mean I did rock’n’roll because people danced rock’n’roll to it, they’d drive to it, it was the sound of life, of bikers…

Q: That’s what gets me about you…to me you represent best that first generation of punks which sprang mostly from the rock and roll tree. As opposed to the later generation of hardcore punks who hated rock’n’roll, whose tree was more metal…but you have no problems saying ‘rock’n’roll’…

CHARLIE: no…it’s rock’n’roll to me…

Q: What were you into, before that big ‘moment’ when punk hit you in the face? I mean that moment when you saw a band that changed everything?

CHARLIE: It was the RAMONES with me…but even before the RAMONES, it was the NEW YORK DOLLS…everyone who saw them was like, ‘I wanna do that.’ [laughs] I mean, they were just sort of from another planet…I was totally into that New York underground scene, you know…IGGY POP, PATTI SMITH, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND…that came just before the punk thing. I used to go down to this lesbian club, you know, because it opened late, and they were usually more permissive about the kind of people they let in, and they played outrageous music , they played a lot of VELVET UNDERGROUND and stuff like that…and is it Jack Brill? He was a belgian crooner who later wrote songs for Frank Sinatra…and Scott Walker, THE WALKER BROTHERS? Scott Walker, when he kind of gave up doing pop stuff, he started getting songs from the Jack Brill songbook, a lot of artists have, because he’s such an amazing songwriter! When I’m at home I play a song called “In the port of Amsterdam”, I don’t know if you know that, actually a German punk band covered it, they do a great version of it…a girl and boy on drums…no wait, they guy plays guitar and she sings…really good band, wish I could remember the name at the moment…it’s been covered by a thousand bands. if you haven’t heard the song you’ve gotta look it up…”In The Port Of Amsterdam.” One of the greatest songs ever written.

Q: That’s the thing that’s always struck me about your sonwriting in the UK SUBS from the beginning. This sense of freedom in the music, this rich blend of musical influences.

CHARLIE: I tell you what: lately, I’ve been looking at YOU TUBE, and when we’d done this new album, after a couple of months it bein’ out, I looked on YOU TUBE and was watching the comments on the album, ’cause it was like everyone was writting great things about it and I wanted to see, you know, what’s the public saying on it or what and, you know, mostly positive stuff…what I got out of it was about the ‘Monkeys’ song, which I suppose is one of the more catchy songs, got thousands of hits whereas the others only got hundreds, but there was some other song that didn’t relate to the album, this girl wrote about it and the part that got me was when she said that every album introduces you to another genre of music. So I got to thinking what can I do next! We’ll have to do a jazz recording on the next one…[laughs]

Q: But that’s not a conscious thing, is it?

CHARLIE: no, we don’t do it on purpose…

Q: Because you have these roots, man, like going through the albums and the thing I hear, sometimes with your vocal and the construction of the song is Ian Hunter.

CHARLIE: You’re talking about Mott The Hoople?

Q: Yeah! Especially on ‘Monkeys’, or ‘Las Vegas Wedding’…I don’t know why but I could imagine Ian Hunter singing that.

CHARLIE: Me and Alvin [Gibbs, bassist] are big Mott The Hoople fans. And Alvin even does, an acoustic one, the opening track “Angel Of Eighth Avenue.”

Q: Punk band, right? You cracked the top forty, you guys did it three or four times. Did that create any kind of a problem? Alot of bands that remotely scratched popularity or the mainstream that came from the punk scene many times suffered a backlash..

CHARLIE: We were lucky because we were on a little subsidiary record label, our management at the time got a deal with RCA distributors. If they sold one record in every record shop in England, which was about 30,000, we’d be selling pre-sales of about 30,000 and so…if we were selling that much now, we’d be number one!

Q: Was it kind of weird? To find that you were the focus of popular attention?

CHARLIE: Yeah, you get the thing like you’re indestructible, you can do no wrong, everything you touch is gold, it really is kind of weird, you know. But the thing is that we held on to our artistic license. We wouldn’t do such commercial stuff like the record company thought we should do…but we were lucky ’cause we’d be in the studio, and they would come down one day…see how we’re getting on…make sure we’re working! [laughs]

Q: Yeah! Keep them busy!

CHARLIE: And they’d be like…’sounds like a single to me.’ Couple of days later we’re working on another record and they’d be like ‘yeah, yeah, that’s the single.’ And this would go on every few days, they’d come by next week…that’s what it was like doing the second album…there was a lot of patchy stuff…we were in that position…

Q: As opposed to the Adverts, who were very popular after the first album and then the second album came out and got a lot of negative attention primarily from the punk scene.

CHARLIE: This is what we were trying to do, that happened to most of the [punk] bands, , the second album didn’t live up, so we were determined to do a second album that was even better than the first album. And we think a lot of people do say that now…

Q: I think the power behind your albums, for me from the very beginning with those first five albums and to this day, is the songwriting. There’s a classic song on every album…this freedom you have to go wherever you want musically within the confines of this punk language you speak so well..are there songs you write that you say, ‘no, that’s not for UK Subs.’?

CHARLIE: “Party In Paris” was one of them. And that’s one of our more popular songs and I said look, I’ve written a song but it’s very poppy, probably not for us! And I played it and they loved it, so…

Q: There seems a very wide lattitude with your music. How does that jibe with the punk ideology? Because sometimes I find punks can be quite close-minded musically…

CHARLIE: Well, that’s…I mean, we wrote a song called “No Rules”…the idea of punk “rules”, like regulations, it’s a joke, you know, you gotta have short hair, you gotta have spikes, you gotta you gotta…some bands…take Wire for instance. One of my favorite bands. But even now they don’t dress up for stage, they just wear their normal clothes…and that’s kind of like, “oh, you’re supposed to wear stage clothes,” or what. And they’ve been successful, I mean it doesn’t matter, all that stuff. What matters is the music.

 

Charlie Harper

Charlie Harper

Q: Checking out the songs on “XXIV”, it sort of led me back to 1983 and your song, “Flood Of Lies”: “All you political leaders/with your armies gone insane/your lust for guns and violence/while you never die in pain/and the churches stand behind you/with wealth and piety..”

CHARLIE: Sounds familiar…[laughs]

Q: It was a long time ago, 1983…what’s changed, between 1983, when you wrote a song like that, and now? For you, politically and how you see the world?

CHARLIE: It’s more of a struggle to write good songs now, I must admit that, because it’s like, we’ve done so much stuff, what can you do? But I don’t worry about that, because something will always hit me on the head. We used to have to do four singles and two albums a year, we were contracted to, and I never really worried about it, because everyday, if I’m at home, my telly is there, and my guitar is there on a stand on the floor, not in its case, and everyday I’m playing on it, just to keep my fingers hard…and I’ll play a little bit, and then ho! what was that? I’ll jot it down, just a piece of a song, and it’s like the lyrics…someone will say something, and…’that’s a good line for a song.’ You know, someone else will say something, and…’that’s a good title.’ And once I’ve got the title, that idea, and then the guys are out in the studio, and while they’re putting the backing tracks down I’m writing a line, or like, I cut this line or that, you know, shorten it, express it without too many words.

Q: Is it just lyrics first for you or do you get the tunes first?

CHARLIE: It can come every which way. I’ll tell you what I do alot now. I start with the bottom line, and work backwards. You know, the basic bottom, and then work my way up, like what would you say before that line? What comes before?

Q: Do you mean on guitar, like chords, riff first, or…?

CHARLIE: No, lyrics…then I mix and match them to, you know, if I haven’t got a song for it, I’m like ‘oh wow, that would fit in with that song,’ you know. Again, I have to whittel it down to fit it in.

Q: I think you’re more of a classic songwriter who’s lucky enough to have this kind of a set-up, you haven’t had to move around or change bands or go through a lot of break-ups…

CHARLIE: Ohhh but we have! We’ve been through so many break-ups…why this band is happening is because everyone contributes. Jamie, the drummer, writes great songs. Jet writes great stuff. And it’s diffuclt for me to keep up! And luckily, Alvin’s a really good songwriter. But he also writes the words as well, sometimes the majority though I chip in a chorus as well.

Q: So you have a good team around you.

CHARLIE: yeah yeah yeah…

Q: It’s not just all on your shoulders. You have a responsive team.

CHARLIE: I say to Jet and Jamie next time when I want 20 tracks we’re gonna write five songs, and I’d like you to try and write the whole song, you know, lyrics and melody and the whole thing because you know, they won’t know until they try and write a whole song, because writing music is something that comes easy to me more than the lyrics, the lyrics have to be quite profound, and say something , they’ve got to be something special. I could be walking down the street and a riff will come into my head and I’ll go home, and ‘yeah, that sounds allright.’ And this kind of thing I do natural.

Q: So is it like conditions haven’t really changed in the world? Because…

CHARLIE: Things’ve gotten worse!

Q: Yeah. I like what you said before about how you feel punk rock is a kind of early warning system.

CHARLIE: Yeah. It’s your alarm clock. And like on the ‘Monkeys’ song, it’s like the right people aren’t listening. What do you call it? ‘Paradox.’ The people who should be listening aren’t listening, and they’re the people who get killed and screwed up and they’re not listening. And that’s kind of a shame, but it’s the way of the world, isn’t it?

Q: Yeah, it kind of is. Do you see a difference between the younger generation of punks and the older generation of punks? Since the older generation played such an vital role in the beginning…

CHARLIE: Like in the begiining or right now?

Q: Yeah, right now, in this time—

CHARLIE: Well, right now, in this time, when there are alot of young…not always but maybe once a week we will get “oh we’ve got a mixed pack tonight,” which is general, but once a week, it’ll be overwhelming. Our first gig in Paris on the boat, there were such a lot of young people, and in Stockholm, and also young punks, and they were wild…we started off on that boat in paris and it was just wild…and it gives us such energy, they give us energy…

Q: I just ask because the last time I was in New York, alot of the bands calling themselves punk, alot of energy yes, but they seemed to shy away from the political aspect. And the ones that are political many times hear, ‘oh yeah, they’re really good…but they’re political.”

CHARLIE: That’s politically weak.

Q: I’m thinking in the real world, well whatever. But in the punk scene I’m really wondering about that. Of course, you guys have been going strong for a long time and I don’t see any flagging in your ability to express the political side of life.

CHARLIE: My grandkids are in a punk band. His real name is Marley, which is a great name to be in music…and…his band…they’re schoolkids, so their songs are about bullies and they’re called ‘Meathead, Inc’ and they’ve got a big anarchy sign [laughs] and they’re just great little punks, and their songs are about bullies and girls, and..

Q: More of a personal kind of punk rock. Punk seems to be a tree now with many branches.

CHARLIE: Yeah, and when they grow up, I’m sure they’ll be a bit harder…they do like all the right bands that say something…

Q: Punk can be a contradiction. I mean on the one hand the most intelligent people I’ve ever met are punks…

CHARLIE: Yeah, me too, me too…

Q: …but at the same time, there’s also that reckless, drunken mindless aggression thing…

CHARLIE: Yeah, that’s a question we get alot…what is punk to you? And my simple answer is ‘D.I.Y.’ You don’t need record companies, management, you’ve got to do it yourself, basically that. But everybody will have a different answer. You won’t get the same answer. I mean I’ve heard the D.I.Y., I mean even Johnny Rotten came out with it…

Q: Yeah, back then he…

CHARLIE: No, recently! [laughs] Don’t know how, but…

Q: You mean someone woke him up?

CHARLIE: [laughs] No, I mean, there’s a certain good…he has his clothes deisgned for him, and his haircut, you know, everything is his, he’s made that. But everyone will have a different answer, and it’s good really. In the punk world, and it is a whole world, I mean…last night, there was a crazy woman in the gig. Jet was playing his guitar and she had a beer bottle and was trying to drip the beer into his face and…[laughs, putting the beer bottle through a series of maneuvers mimicking her attempts to get her bottle into Jet’s mouth.]…okay, look—some people are a little bit crazy or a little bit thick—they think ‘that’s the way punks do that’ and well, you know, the bouncer saw her, I think there was only one bouncer…and he threw her out. And I said ‘aw look you know, she’s crazy, she can’t help it,’ I said ‘we love crazy people!’ [laughs] But they threw her out, poor thing.

Q: Thanks for the interview, Charlie.

 

abraham rodriguez