My Punk Rock Moment With X-Ray Specs

One of the killer lines in political debate these days is that the slightest wiff of socialism will drag us ‘back to the 1970’s’. Speaking as one who was there I can vouch for the fact that that is not necessarily a bad thing. By spring 1978 I was doing very nicely thank you. The state was willing to pay me for doing nothing for a while, it wasn’t great money but no one expected it to be, here was a phase I was going through not a design for life. Despite the prevailing punk ideology there was work around, you had to look a bit but zero contracts hours and minimum wages hadn’t been invented yet, if you had a job you had a job, at least for a while. The working-class aristocracy, the dockers and the miners actually earned decent wages and were keen to keep them. There were a lot of strikes and sometimes things didn’t run too well but if the trains were late it was probably because the drivers were on strike not because a millionaire owner was failing to provide a service and pocketing the difference. Sometimes rubbish would pile up on the streets and you had to walk round it but it was no worse than stepping over people sleeping on the street like you do today, I genuinely never saw anyone begging until I made a trip to Ireland in 1979.
For me personally I had time to read and hang out with the teenage hipsters from the college. I had all the benefits of a college lifestyle with none of the work. England was mine and it owed me living.
And due to the college connection I had my most punkest moment.
It wasn’t shooting up smack with Sid Vicious obviously. To put things in context my second most punk moment was later in the summer with my mate Steve, one-time sort of singer with the Rockwell Buzz Company. On an idyllic summers evening Steven and I infiltrated a posh girls party somewhere posh and lovely in Norwich. After gorging in the best free food the 70’s had to offer and availing ourselves of some alcohol we noticed that the DJ was looking all forlorn on his own, no one was responding to his gentle disco sounds. ‘Have you got any Punk?’ we asked. Mr DJ seemed to be happy to oblige, I don’t think he had a lot to lose after all and so he put on ‘no more heroes’ by the Stranglers. One day I will explain how much I dislke that band but NMH is a cracking tune by anyone’s standards. Steve and me took to the empty dance floor pogoing like our lives depended on it. Flares a flapping we gave it our all, so much so that the DJ found another punk single and another…and another. We were soon causing quite a stir but the problem was we didn’t know how to stop now. After what seemed like several hours the DJ decided to revert to ‘Disco Duck’ or something similar and Steve and me could retire several stone lighter. Worst of all it had been too much for my sensitive stomach but I did make it as far as the toilet before jettisoning the nights food and drink.
But my punkest moment was even punkier than that!
Being at a loose end musically I had been approached by a Bass player at the college called Simon. He kind of had a band that were kind of punk. This being Norwich and only 1978 meant that punk was a tentative term. At this point no one was going to commit to straight trousers and we all had long hair apart from Simon who sported a moustache. Along with Simon was Nick on guitar who, rather irritatingly, also played classical percussion so could play things on the drums that I couldn’t. Stevie was the singer, we needed another guitarist and actually put an advert in the NME ‘The Aerials need a guitarist’. No one had told me we were even called The Aerials but that’s showbiz. Our repertoire was firmly 60’s, the Velvet Underground and the Doors being our two main influences. The only thing I can really remember about the band is that Simon would explain how a song went by playing the bass line in real time assuming we actually listened to the bass (a common failing with bass players). And so we would stand or sit in disbelief as Simon demonstrated
Duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma duma
Da duma duma duma duma Da duma duma duma duma Da duma duma duma duma Da dumpty
Duma duma etc etc
I did discover that the Doors had some extremely repetitive bass lines.
I don’t think anyone responded to the NME ad but as spring turned to summer we had recruited a rhythm player through the college. We were also expanding out repertoire a little with a nod to contemporary music
‘Oh Bondage up Yours’ was, briefly, one of the best punk singles by, briefly, one of the best punk bands. The backing was pretty basic stuff, as we were to discover when we covered it. A mixture of the Pistols and the Ramones, pretty powerful and to the point. As was often the case with punk X-Ray Specs were significant for more than music. Firstly they had yet another of rock’s new breed of musician Lora Logic on saxophone. People often assume the sax is an easy instrument to play but like the violin it takes a lot to get the tone and pitching right. David Bowie always had a naive sound when he played the instrument which is one reason I live his playing. Similarly Lora was no John Coltrane but her playing lifted X-Ray Spex out of the musical gutter.
The jewel in the crown though was the singer Poly Styrene (surprisingly not her real name which was Marion). Her voice was enough to make you pay attention ‘powerful enough to drill holes in sheet metal’. Also striking was her appearance, dual heritage (almost certainly called half caste in the 70’s), Styrene wore braces and made no concessions to femininity. She also experienced mental health problems before it was accepted or understood which probably worked against her long-term career. Logic’s age worked against her’s and she was soon to leave the band to go back into education.
Back in Norwich on a lovely spring day the Aerials were doing their own version, not that good to be honest as we lacked the logic factor. We would rehearse in Simon’s flat and as it was warm the windows were open. The next thing we knew, in the street outside was a Green Goddess fire engine. Among the strikers that year had been the firefighters. Not having the rubbish taken away was one thing but having your house burn down was an altogether more serious matter. For this reason, the Labour Government had literally brought in the troops. The Green Goddess was a formidable vehicle and it was staffed by soldiers. The army was literally on the streets of Norwich, we showed our opposition to military rule by play ‘Oh Bondage’ as aggressively as we could. The army were no match, after checking there wasn’t actually a fire they left, no doubt quaking in their boots.
And so, ended my punkiest of punk moments.

The Aerials didn’t last long, I don’t know what happened, one moment we were a band then we were gone, it all seemed fairly amicable, I didn’t have a band, soon I wouldn’t have a girlfriend and school would be out for the summer, I decided I would  need to find a job.

Poly Styrene died of cancer seven years ago at the age of 53

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