A perfect punk hit-and-run on a totalitarian state…
I first encountered punk rock (unless you count Iggy and the Stooges or Dr Feelgood) at a gig in 1976/77 at the University of Warwick. I don’t recall the headline act – presumably the usual tired prog-rock fare the Students’ Union served up – but I certainly remember the support act. It was Ultravox! in its early incarnation, when the band still sported an exclamation mark, and when John Foxx (not Midge Ure) did the singing. They were sharp, aggressive, fresh and thrilling, everything the headline act was not.
The effect on the audience was startling. Three quarters of the crowd responded with boos or stony silence. The rest of us were on our feet, cheering and dancing. There couldn’t have been a clearer demonstration of the schism about to hit pop and rock music.
I first encountered The Boys one evening in 1977. I was probably working on an essay due the following morning, when I heard them, I guess, on John Peel’s show, which went out between 10 and 12 each weekday night – where else could it have been? No-one else was flying the flag for punk on national radio. It was 1 minute and 53 seconds which burned into my consciousness and has not departed since. Sick on You was vulgar, noisy and completely captivating.
I ain’t sadistic, masochistic
You and me are through
I`m sick to death of everything you do
And if I’m gonna have a puke you bet yer life I’ll puke on you
I’m gonna be, gonna be sick on you
I’m gonna be, gonna be sick on you
I’m gonna be, gonna be sick on you
All down your face, your dress, your legs and your shoes…
Sick on you
Not exactly Baudelaire is it? Or perhaps it is, I wouldn’t know. Nor did I know at the time that it was a faster and shorter revamp of a 1973 recording by the Hollywood Brats, the Stones-styled glam-rock band in which Boys keyboard player Casino Steel had previously played. In keeping with rock songs of the time the Hollywood Brats version ran for over five minutes.
I met Jana in 1995, when she was recruited to the stockbroking firm I worked for. Bright, efficient, sparky and fun, it was easy to see the spirit of adventure which had led her to leave East Berlin for London in the years after the Wall came down. I was starstruck when she told me that her boyfriend (now her husband) was none other than Matt Dangerfield, who had sung, played guitar and written songs for The Boys. Jana was probably surprised to discover that her rather awkward and sedate colleague remembered the band with such affection, and, of all their records, was especially fixated on Sick on You.
She told a wonderful tale about growing up in East Berlin, concerning the David Bowie song The Bewlay Brothers from Hunky Dory. She and her friends, being Bowie fans, wanted to play his music to the class. The teachers were wary of exposing their pupils to western culture, and like most behind the Iron Curtain were especially suspicious of western pop music. But she was able to get The Bewlay Brothers under the wire because the lines
Lay me place and bake me pie
I'm starving for me gravy
enabled her teachers to use the song as evidence that people in the capitalist West didn’t have enough to eat.
My connections to celebrity are few and far between, so please excuse me making the most of this tenuous connection to punk royalty. I met Matt Dangerfield at a work event a few months later. I don’t imagine that’s his true surname – other band members had adopted fanciful sounding names like Jack Black(!), Kid Reid, Casino Steel and Honest John Plain. I found Matt thoughtful, articulate and charismatic, like many other punk figureheads. Less typically he was also friendly and approachable.
He had been one of the godfathers of punk. In the mid 1970s he had converted his rented basement flat in Maida Vale into a home recording studio. 47A Warrington Crescent became pivotal in the development of the UK punk scene. Mick Jones, Brian James, Rat Scabies, Sid Vicious and Billy Idol were regular visitors. Amongst others, the Sex Pistols, The Damned, London SS, The Clash, Chelsea, Generation X and of course, The Boys, made their first recordings there.
In September 1975 Dangerfield left Mick Jones and Tony James’s fledgling punk band London SS to form The Boys with ex-Hollywood Brats songwriter and keyboard player Casino Steel. Dangerfield’s art college friend, guitarist Honest John Plain, soon joined. The following year they held auditions for the bass and drum roles with Kid Reid and Jack Black completing the line-up.
The Boys made their debut at London’s Hope and Anchor Pub in September 1976. Mick Jones, Billy Idol, Joe Strummer and Tony James were all present in the packed venue. They became the first punk band to sign an album deal when they were signed by NEMS in January 1977.
Despite an outstanding live reputation, the Boys never breached the UK singles charts, although The Boys was a Top 50 album, just. In a revealing 2019 interview with Brighton and Hove News, Matt offers an explanation for their lack of chart success:
“It was great (being the only UK band at the time with an LP record deal), but in a way we signed too early. We signed to NEMS because they were a very good live agency…The problem was that (they) weren’t a very good record company. After we’d signed for them we were approached by lots of major record labels, and we’d have to tell them that we were already signed.”
In the same interview, Matt explains the band’s breakup in 1982:
“I think that by that time we’d realised that things had moved on in the music business. The days of the Specials, Madness, were upon us, and punk was no longer the leading light that it had been. Punk never died out, it went out of fashion and went underground to an extent. At the same time it was being picked up on all around the world. Internationally, the punk scene now is bigger than it was in the 1970s.”
The band reformed in 1999 to play gigs in Japan. Despite their modest record sales, they have a decent worldwide following and an impressive legacy, and have established themselves as global ambassadors for punk. Die Toten Hosen, a German punk band whose name translates literally as “The Dead Trousers” (but actually means more like “The Deadbeats”) transformed The Boys’ reputation in Germany by championing the band and regularly covering their songs.
In 2015 The Boys embarked on an ambitious trip to China. They arrived in Shanghai for a nine-date national tour to promote their new album Punk Rock Menopause only to find that the tour had been cancelled by the Chinese Ministry of Culture due to “crowd control and security issues” – a few weeks earlier 36 people had died in a stampede at a New Year celebration in Shanghai. The Ministry had contacted each venue on the tour and told them they would be closed if they went ahead with the gigs.
Nevertheless Chinese TV station LETV invited the band to come to the TV studios and record two songs live. The Boys accepted but replied that they would like to play a full 70-minute Boys set to a small live audience. Although The Boys had been banned from playing any live gigs in China by the Ministry of Culture, LETV had the cojones to agree to this. During the TV special, one of Matt’s interview responses seems quite bold, and could easily have been seen as subversive by the Chinese authorities:
” It’s music. It’s just kids having fun. It’s not dangerous, you know, it never was dangerous. There’s no way that Johnny Rotten was going to overthrow the British government. Or change anything really. It was just kids expressing themselves and being rebellious. That’s what kids should do. And there’s not enough of that in this…”
Here he pauses and it seems for one delicious moment that he might say “this country” i.e. China. If so, he thought better of it.
“…modern world…kids rebelling, rebelling against their parents…what older people say how they should behave…every generation is a new generation, they have different things to rebel against.”
At any rate, even the mild suggestion that kids should rebel against their parents was risky enough in view of the hypersensitive Chinese government.
The band set off on a cultural tour of China and managed to play three secret underground gigs promoted entirely by word of mouth, carefully avoiding official Chinese chat rooms and social networks like Weibo. They also recorded a live album, which was released in July 2015. The 55-minute TV special was subsequently aired after the band had safely left the country. A perfect punk hit-and-run on a totalitarian state. I wonder if they’ll ever go back there.
So, during Saturday lunchtime I realised that The Boys were playing a gig at the 100 Club in central London that evening. The 100 Club – so called because its address is 100 Oxford Street – is a historic venue established in 1942 as the Feldman Jazz Club, which over the years has hosted performances by Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, The Who, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and in the heyday of punk, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Siouxsie & The Banshees.
The Boys’ appearance was part of a ten day punk festival called Resolution ‘23 which offered the chance to see some lesser known but fondly remembered bands, also including The Members, The UK Subs and 999. I’d never seen The Boys, so I seized the opportunity.
I hadn’t been to the 100 Club since I saw Q-Tips and the V.I.P.s there in 1980. It’s a buzzing basement venue with the stage in the middle of a long space, with a bar at each end. It wasn’t full, but there was a good crowd – as you would expect, mostly of a certain age (plenty of bald heads in evidence) but there were also plenty of people young enough to know better.
As I listened to (or at least heard) the support bands, (Continental Lovers and The Vulz) I was reminded that the artists who transcended the first wave of punk were those who had actual talent for composition or melody besides merely energy and attitude – Elvis Costello, The Police/Sting and The Jam/Paul Weller spring to mind. The Vulz played an energetic but for me, uninspiring set. When they kicked into what sounded like the intro to 20th Century Boy and then went into their own song, I was disappointed…a bit of T Rex would have been very welcome.
The Boys came on stage, and the difference in class was immediately apparent. Real songs, pacing, precision and bite. Of course by now they’re Men rather than Boys, and a couple of strategic caps were in evidence, but the original, older band members looked in good nick, hopefully having avoided the worst punk rock excesses in their youth. They were enthusiastically received, although mercifully I didn’t see any gobbing or any ill-advised pogoing.
Their set included all their best known songs: Weekend, Living in the City, their 1977 debut single I Don’t Care followed by the anthemic Brickfield Nights, First Time, and of course Sick on You. I’ve noticed with other punk bands I’ve seen in recent years that decades of gigging since the seventies have made them better, tighter musicians. Naturally today’s gigs lack the edge of danger present in 1976/77, but in compensation the quality of playing has increased hugely, And we lapped it up, of course we did. You don’t get to hear authentic punk rock like that too often these days. You can also find a high quality video of their gig at the same venue, recorded in 2017.
Jana couldn’t be there, as she had just started a new job, and was looking after their young family at home in Berlin. She told me to say Hi to Matt. I didn’t, of course. Gods and mortals should never mix at these occasions – it would spoil the magic.