In early 1976 commentators were starting to use the term ‘Punk’ in relation to music being played with a certain amount of energy by men who were younger than we were accustomed to. Age was a critical factor, the ‘old guard’ were reaching their 30’s and no one had really anticipated playing rock music past the age of 40. The new wave were only 10 years younger but it was a different generation. So at first any pub rock band with a bit of attitude might be called punks and so Eddie and the Hot Rods were, for a while ‘punk,’ as were The Stranglers (don’t get me started on that one) or the Feelgoods or the 101ers or whatever.
The emergence of the Sex Pistols, still playing the same pub circuit as the other bands, started a new definition of punk, one that was defined as much by style as music. The Hot Rods with their baggy jeans and love of 60’s bands started to slide down the punk scale and other new bands were starting to make an impact. Buzzcocks were starting to make an impression after their July gig and all over the country new bands were forming almost by the minute. For the rest of the year however the scene remained pretty much London based (with Manchester in second place) and the race was on between the big three London bands.
The Damned were initially the big contenders to the Pistols and although they started later they were catching up fast, mainly due to the fact that they were good musicians (but not so good to arouse suspicion). The main man in the Damned initially was Brian James, essentially a professional musician who had been running a band in Belgium before returning to England where he was to be involved in London SS and the unfortunate Masters of the Backside. James was probably the best punk guitarist on the block and had already written a more than adequate bunch of songs with which to start a new band. He was soon joined by Chris Millar on drums who had an adequate but exciting Keith Moon impersonation going on. Millar brought his mate Ray Burns, a fan of Soft Machine and a more than adequate guitarist who was willing to switch to bass for the purposes of escaping his job in Croydon cleaning toilets. On vocals was a guy from Hemel Hempstead called Dave. The band soon had a good set of energetic guitar based songs heavily influenced by the MC5. James had actually been born in 1955 although the rest of the band were younger, just being a kick ass guitar band who weren’t copying the blues was going to get them some punk credibility however they also did a very punk thing and changed their names. James had actually been born Robertson but that doesn’t count as a punk name change, the others were more imaginative. Millar became Rat Scabies and Burns called himself Captain Sensible, Dave from Hemel Hempstead became Dave Vanian and had already started to adopt some early Goth stylings. This has, of course, already been worked to death by Screaming Lord Sutch and prior to that by Screaming Jay Hawkins but this was new schlock for a new generation and Vanian’s love of dressing up raised the band’s punk kudos. To be honest they needed it as the rest of them looked like fairly normal street kids who were savvy enough not to wear flares.
The Damned were, of course the first British Punk band to release a recording any shape or form. They had played their first gig as support to the Sex Pistols in July and on the 22nd October released their first single ‘New Rose’. As far as I am concerned this is one of the great rock singles no matter what the genre, James demonstrated why having practiced the guitar for a few years might actually be a good thing and scabies’ drums pummelled the song into submission. There’s also a sense of humour happening there, the first punk most of us heard was Vanian uttering
‘Is she really going out with him?’
The reason that the Damned had moved so fast, apart from their musical ability and the fact they were in the right place at the right time was that they had signed to Stiff records. Stiff being an independent were free to act quickly. The producer if the single was no less than pub rock hero Nick Lowe who had a fairly straightforward approach to the job in hand which had led to his nickname of ‘Basher’. The lo-fi product just added to a sense of excitement and urgency.
The Damned however had now aligned themselves with the spirit of pub rock and when the history books were re written they would prove too uncool, basically being 4 guys who liked to get drunk, get on stage and play music fast, for the moment however they were the number two band in Punk.
In the meantime the Clash were everything that the Damned were not. Mick Jones had a fraction of the ability of Brian James and so they had recruited a third guitarist Keith Levene who allegedly had taken lessons from Steve Howe guitarist with Yes. On bass Paul Simonon looked great but was having to be taught the bass line to each song by Jones. Meanwhile Terry Chimes on drums was sound enough but it was clear that he had other ambitions and was not going to be willing to toe any party line for long.
The party line was, of course, being draw by Bernie Rhodes the manager who was keen to stamp his own ideas on the band. As a consequence The Clash were developing a year zero mentality and they were creating an ideological cell as much as a musical entity, rules were being rewritten as was history. The band actually managed to squeeze in their first gig a couple of days before the Dammed supporting the Sex Pistols at The Black Swan in Chesterfield of all places. Presumably they were not that tight as the band retreated into rehearsals for the next few weeks.
On the 29th August the Clash and Buzzcocks appeared in support to the Sex Pistols as the Screen on the Green London where Charles Shaar Murray from the NME wrote, “The Clash are the sort of garage band that should be speedily returned to the garage, preferably with the motor still running”
Shortly afterwards Levene was fired from the group after failing to turn up to rehearsals and the band felt they sounded better without him. Although one of the more talented musicians of the punk era Levene appears to have a personality that people find hard to get along with, without him the band had to try harder and this appeared to pay off. The success of the Clash had a lot to do with the fact that they had two singer/songwriters in the group and ultimately great songs would prove more important than musicianship in the long run. Terry Chimes would leave before the year was finished but by this time Clash were three individuals with a common cause who liked and trusted each other and as a band were getting tighter by the day.
The other thing the band had was a sense of style. They had started to purchase cheap clothes from second hand shops and decorate them with sprayed stencils. This looked great, it was cheap and street cred and it created the gang mentality look that had previously been the trademark of the Sex Pistols.
And so, as the year was drawing to a close, there were three decent bands in London and another in Manchester. In addition to this The Heartbreakers had arrived from the USA like a bunch of GIs turning up just as the war was about to be won (instead of nylons and chewing gum the band brought heroin). The Heartbreakers were a bunch of New York punks who featured Johnny Thunders (and Jerry Nolan) from the New York Dolls who arrived ready formed and ready to play-no Black Swan in Chesterfield for them. A couple of months down the line there would be twice as many bands but for the moment five seemed a lot, it was time to put on a tour