1976: John Peel & the London Punk Scene
So there we were. About eight of us in halls of residence, sat on the floor sharing our thoughts about everything from prog rock and jazz rock to Neil Young and Frank Zappa. We talked endlessly about music and bands and who we had seen and when. We had two key things in common: none of us particularly liked ‘pop’ music and most of us were involved in university ents (entertainment). Whilst we had a dislike of pop in common we certainly did not have a great deal in common about what we did like – it seemed our musical tastes came in many flavours.
This was an exciting time: I was exposed to music I had never really listened to before. The others in the group were into Kevin Coyne, Captain Beefheart, Soft Machine, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. I threw Traffic, Gentle Giant and Wishbone Ash into the mix and then immediately thought to myself that these seemed a bit pedestrian compared to some of the others.
I learned a lot that night – and in subsequent years at university. But the real shock was yet to come. When it did it affected all of us – and in pretty much the same way. We were working up to 10pm and John Peel, with the assistance of herbal remedies, fermented vegetable products and conversation.
By midnight our various musical tastes were brought into question, and in some cases cast aside without a second thought. For some of us our first instinct was to ditch everything we knew because something jaw-dropingly new had happened. This was a genuine life-changing moment and we were dazed and confused, attempting desperately to make sense of what had just happened, how we were going to adjust and what it might mean for the future.
I am eternally grateful for being alive at this moment, and in the centre of London and on the fringes of the music scene. In my view there has not been a moment like it since. Nothing quite as revolutionary and life-changing as what was about to happen.
I grew up with John Peel so learned a great deal about a wide range of non-pop music. Everything was going pretty much as it normally did. Good music. Weird music. What the hell was that? music. But the real shock on this particular evening was the session – by The Damned. Neat Neat Neat. Stab Your Back. This was fast loud angry edgy and short. I think it took all of us by surprise and for us, this was the night that punk was born.
Now, I knew that punk had been around for a while in one form or another. But for most people that first Damned session on John Peel marked the beginning of punk – in Britain at least. And it changed everything. Out went Caravan, Genesis and Yes. In came The Damned, The Clash and The Buzzcocks (yes, that first Spiral Scratch EP was – and remains – a classic). My hair became short and red and I started going to every ‘punk’ gig I could find.
What is interesting for me looking back is just how short-lived punk actually was. Part of the problem was that a lot of the bands we saw in those early days were not punk at all, like The Jam and The Specials. But they were part of the scene, so not a problem at all. And of course they were bloody good.
I collected some bands and even some labels: I had every single Stiff record – If It Ain’t Stiff It Ain’t Worth A F**k as they used to say (and I had the t-shirt to prove it). I had every Clash, Buzzcocks, and Sex Pistols single, including duplicates if they were picture-disc coloured vinyl or 10/12″ versions. Yes; there were 12″ punk singles – with dub versions!
Being involved on the university ents committee helped enormously. I used to see at least one band most nights and was on the guest list for quite a few, which helped out with the student grant.
Post Punk & Our Price
When I left Uni I worked for Our Price Records in the West End and learned a great deal about the music industry, working with talent scouts and getting on to even more guest lists. I was responsible for buying from indie dealers at a time when the music scene was fracturing in the post-punk era – it was sometimes difficult to predict what people would want to buy. Was electronica going down the Gary Numan or the Cocteau Twins route? Were The Police going to make it? Would New Order be as big as Joy Division? What the hell was Duran Duran?!
I specialised in rarities like Joy Division 12” singles and bought from labels like 4AD, Stiff, Greensleeves, Rough Trade… and (strangely) started the first reggae chart in a mainstream West End store; I wish I’d kept some of those hand-written carefully crafted Reggae Top 20 posters!