Photo: Tony Bock
Now that it’s been almost forty years since the beginning of the British punk movement (the Sex Pistols played their first gig on November 6, 1975), the era has settled into the status of a “Great Moment in 20th Century British History,” to be summed up in a few stock images and anecdotes before moving on to Princess Diana’s wedding and Boy George.
One of the angles that is usually used to present punk was that it was the first time that the working class and their concerns were represented in British popular music. Punk was said to be music for “the kids,” usually meaning someone from a council estate and on the dole. Punk was supposed to be the first chance for working class kids to sing songs for their peers unabashedly, without having themselves filtered through a show business prism. As Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols said in the 2012 BBC special Punk Britannia, “I guess we were looking for something kids like us could and go see, ’cause there was nothing like that.”
And it’s true that before punk, British rock singers mostly sang in a mid-Atlantic accent and affected Americanisms. If one heard a working class London accent on a record, it was usually done in a broad, music hall manner (like Max Bygraves), or simply fake (like Mick Jagger’s Mockney accent). Punk changed that, making the (wide) boy on the corner one of the default voices in British pop music.
Oddly enough, show business was traditionally regarded as being one of the few paths to success for working class youth (the others of course being crime, boxing, and football). Pop musicians were expected to be from a working class background, but they were also expected to abandon their rough origins and present themselves in a more class neutral “show biz” look. The Beatles transformation from leather-clad greasers into off-duty Parisian hotel concierges is a perfect example:
However, from the early 70’s onwards, there were many bands from London, that while lacking the nihilism of punk, were intent on providing music for “the kids” and also representing their working class origins proudly.
In many ways, bands like Hustler and the Heavy Metal Kids were more similar to early Oi! bands like Cocksparrer and the Cockney Rejects than they were to the Sex Pistols. They weren’t trying to shock anyone’s mum, they were making catchy music for the lads to drink beer to. Which is to say they acted and sounded like the Sex Pistols did before Johnny Rotten joined, when they’d play Bad Company covers like “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love.” (It’s hard to convey how shocking the general negativity of Johnny Rotten was in 1976. In the earth-toned, “Have a Nice Day”, soft-focus Seventies, Rotten’s pointed nastiness and contrarian attitude must have made him seem like a visitor from another planet. Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones says as much when recalling his first impressions of Rotten to author Jon Savage: “I really didn’t like him at all, because of his attitude: he seemed like a real prick.”)
Considering the narrative that punk is usually framed with (dinosaur bands, Led Zeppelin, boring stadium shows, nothing is going on, what does Keith Emerson’s 20 minute synthesizer solo say to a young kid with no money), it’s interesting to note that these hard rock pre-punk bands are guilty of none of these accusations. None of them were vacationing in the South of France and they played bare bones rock and roll. In retrospect, their only crimes were not being forward thinking enough: being complacent with the general shittiness of things, and not having some smart ass manager like Malcolm McLaren or Bernard Rhodes around to contextualize everything.
Bands like Hustler, The Hammersmith Gorillas, Dr. Feelgood, Jook, and the Heavy Metal Kids played mostly small clubs and performed short punchy songs that were perfect for a pub singalong. They were mostly from London, had songs that addressed the concerns of working class London youth, they dressed no different from the kids on the terraces (something that disqualifies many glam rock bands from being included in this conversation), and they weren’t weirdo squatter hippies like the Pink Fairies or Hawkwind.
As the announcer in a 1974 BBC Panorama report about youth crime (!) that featured the Heavy Metal Kids comments, “In the 60’s (Kids singer Gary Bolton) points out, it was all beads and peace and pot, now (Bolton) believes it’s boots, bovver, and booze, and his songs reflect that.” It sounds more or less like Garry Johnson’s 1981 description of Oi! as being “about real life, the concrete jungle, (hating) the Old Bill, being on the dole, and about fighting back and having pride in your class and background.” And sure enough, “The Cops Are Coming” by the Heavy Metal Kids sounds like it could have been a first draft for “A.C.A.B” by the 4 Skins. “Get Outa Me`Ouse” by Hustler is such a perfect Oi! song that it was covered by The Business.
Punk required a Khmer Rouge styled Year Zero reset of pop culture. Playing blues based guitar solos, or ballads, having a keyboard player, or aspiring to be the Rolling Stones were now all crimes. The punishment was irrelevance. Unfortunately bands like the Heavy Metal Kids were collateral damage in punk’s effort to get rid of the excess of the sixties and the dullness of the seventies.
Up until a few years ago, when talking about the history of British music, there was not much focus on any of these London bands that predated punk. Recently, there has been some focus on the pub rock scene and bands like Ducks Deluxe, Roogalater, and Eddie and the Hot Rods. Like the aforementioned bloke rock bands, the pub rock bands played short songs with a high level of energy. The main difference was the pub rock bands were unabashedly retro, playing sets composed of 50’s and 60’s R&B covers, whereas bands like Hustler, the Heavy Metal Kids, and Jook played very few covers and were very much of their time musically, being hard rock bands.
I love Dr. Feelgood, and their original material is amazing, but they wasted too much time and energy doing half-assed versions of John Lee Hooker and Chuck Berry songs. Also, with the exception of Ian Dury, no one in the pub rock scene seemed like much of a London geezer or even a typical “kid” on street. Generally, the pub rock musicians were slightly older and from somewhere other than London proper.
By 1978, punk had blasted through the British music business with the expected results. Novelty songs were recorded. Lots of hippie musicians cut their hair. And bands like Hustler, the Heavy Metal Kids, and Ian Dury’s Kilburn and the High Roads all broke up. Some of these pre-punk musicians like Ian Dury or the Hammersmith Gorillas (and Motorhead, for that matter) saw that the punk movement gave them an opportunity for exposure and managed to latch on in some way, playing on bills with punk bands or releasing records on punk-centric labels. To be fair, in most cases, this required very little modification on the part of the older musicians, it was just that the zeitgeist had finally caught up to them.