Stupid spots and dirty pebbles…
He was an unsure 16 and the troubled fire of punk rock in that summer of 1977 was his very life.
What was on his mind this Thursday afternoon as the train made its way from Newcastle City Centre down the County Durham coastline to Middlesbrough Station?
He was thinking of the jobs he had been offered upon leaving school, the three main contenders that had been thrust upon him, of coal mine, ship yard and factory, how he had rejected all three, how he didn’t know what he wanted to do with himself, just the pure certainty of what he did not want to do, the perpetual sense of otherness of never being able to fit in, of not wanting to fit in, and all this compounded by a lack of confidence and insecurity that nagged away under an adolescent disdain and recently acquired punk bravado.
He looked out at the blue skies and the bright blue of the North Sea then both winced and laughed as another thought impinged in on itself, the memory of the rage of his parents when he had popped up on the television’s tea-time news the day before.
He had been filmed for an expose item, a properly cynical provincial shock horror piece of outrage exploitation. And it had been filmed in a gay club in Whitley Bay, a place called Gatsby’s, the only establishment in the area that would host a punk night, whose Monday nights had become a shelter for this new punk movement, where they felt safe enough to flourish and enjoy themselves without getting a bottle over the head and there he was, the boy, in the early hours, slightly drunk, telling the world in all his young dumb foolishness what this punk rock business was all about.
The boy was a novice, but give the novice a beer or two and he could certainly talk.
He hadn’t done the cause any actual good if truth be told, so limited was his experience of real life and world view and social perception not that his dad cared for such subtlety of nuance, he had swiftly reached across the dinner table to clip him hard. The punk thing was bad enough; but going, ‘and being seen’ interjected his mother, to a bloody gay club. The boy just laughed at this, he laughed again when his dad told him he was ‘grounded’. What kind of word was that? And anyway he was sixteen now, he could do what he wanted.
His father retorted with plain common sense that until he was paying some rent and contributing to the household then he was still under his jurisdiction as far as he was concerned, and he wasn’t going anywhere until they’d all had a good think about this stupid punk thing. It was not as if the boy had the guts or even the nous to get up and go. Where would he go, where could he? He retreated to his room, playing his singles, The Saints, The Buzzcocks, The Adverts waiting for something, waiting for nothing, waiting for anything, waiting to make his move…
There was a phone call for him which his mother allowed him to take. It was a girl and the girl offered up some very interesting information. This ‘grounded’ thing wasn’t really going to work. He knew that he could jump from the bedroom window down on to the shed, from the shed he could drop down to the paving stones. He went back to his room and turned the Adverts single over, One Chord Wonders to Quickstep. He’d be quick alright.
That was yesterday though, today was already moving forward at an excitable pace. He also had the girl on his mind, he liked her a lot and he thought she might like him. She was better educated and better fed than him, from a very wealthy part of Newcastle, on the other hand though, he was the vocalist in a punk band, and this was punk, they were punks, their homemade dress styles were roughly equal, all normal barriers had been dissolved, they were punks together, they smiled at each other. There were four of them travelling down together. All afflicted by the punk virus. What the fuck would this day bring he wondered.
The train pulled into Middlesbrough Station.
If there is beauty in the desolation of the post-industrial Northern towns then Middlesbrough is surely an ultimate contender for the beautifully tarnished crown of home slumming queen.
There was enough industry belching filth into the sky to cast a sickly sheen to the blue skied summer day and the shabbiness of the buildings surrounding them fair took the breath away. They headed away from the station and walked past rows of boarded up shops, each block proving more desolate, more depressing, more decayed than the last. This was punk terrain for real, on they walked our four intrepid punks, one a Bowie clone who couldn’t quite kick his Ziggy addiction but liked the new pretty vacant vibe and another a fiercely perceptive six foot African queen of a young woman who was in the process of changing her name from Angie to Ngozi and thinking well beyond this mere punk game, the girl, the boy, our four heroes / non heroes, on they walked.
A white minibus pulled up in front of them and the back door opened. A corpulent beast of a man with long hair got out and approached them. The boys first instinct was, white van, grebo builder, customary punk beating! For a day did not go by in the north east when the cry of ‘Sheena is a Punk Rocker’ was followed by a fist to the face care of a straight beer monster and the boy felt a bit apprehensive as this guy approached. He got up real close and then he leaned forward, he whispered, actually whispered, in a kind of paranoid manner… ‘Oi mate, which way is the Rock Garden?’
Any apprehension vanished. The boy smiled and pointed down the road, ‘Down there, we’re headed there too’. The boy looked beyond the man and into the minibus, where he saw a fiery shock of dirty red hair, and an oily spurge of jet-black spikes bobbing up and down. A little gulp of excitement could not help but surge from his throat as he turned to his three friends. “Fuck, it’s the Pistols’. The large man now growled and said, ‘Hey, none of that, keep Schtum’.
The man threw a pretend fist towards the boy. The boy ducked and everyone laughed at this brief moment of pavement pantomime. The man put his fingers to his lips once more, thanked them for the directions and got back in the mini bus. The Rock Garden was just a bit more of a walk down the road, so they followed the van and the band and walked right behind them straight into the venue.
They could not believe their luck. The four of them sat on a bench that was placed on a raised seating area at the back with only the empty dance floor between them and the band as they soundchecked. They were loud, very loud, and played the soundcheck for real, as if they were playing an actual gig.
What was on the boy’s mind as the band soundchecked?
He was looking straight at Jones Fender amplifier with the legend ‘Sex Pistols, Guitar Hero’ scrawled across the front in a totally amateur non star manner and that started him thinking of his own band and the long winter nights through 75 and 76 rehearsing in Rob Grants freezing cold garage under the sickly light of a bare green lightbulb, throats nauseated by aerosol fumes. It had just been the two of them then, going over Bowie songs relentlessly on Woolworths guitars and amps, their only focus seemingly resentment of Rob’s posher schoolmates down the road who had better equipment and liked the music of Wings and Status Quo which they could play quite expertly. They really did resentfully hate these fellows. It had given them something to kick against right enough, but they were yet to find a guiding road that would let them kick on.
He knew he loved the Sex Pistols long before he had ever heard them, and when he did hear, and see, them, on a video of Anarchy in the UK playing in a record shop in the town one cold November truanting afternoon it felt like he’d known them all his young life, they felt like they were him. He quite simply fucking loved them to the dirty marrow and he was in on the action from that moment on. Rob and him soon found more members to make up their own band. They called the band Speed. He was designated the vocalist chore. He had been writing lyrics about the life around him for two years anyway so the vocal gig fitted, they had ten songs already and had played a fair few gigs. Penetration, Raw and themselves. The Newcastle punk scene. Speed.
Sex Pistols. The soundcheck finished and the band trooped off the stage towards the dressing room. Some over-sized, tired and bored bouncers had shown up by now and they made themselves busy, their first task being to eject the hangers on. The small group who had watched the soundcheck dutifully shambled out, not quite sure of what would happen next. The boy was last and as he was just about ushered out the venue, the door of the dressing room opened wide and he was grabbed by the roadie who had exchanged verbals with him out on the street. The boy was literally thrown in the dressing room and positioned in front of Steve Jones, the Sex Pistols guitarist. A stern request was made of him.
- Tell him the time…
The roadie had demanded this of the boy. Jones looked on expectantly.
- Erm, half past three…
- What, tell him the time, tell him proper
- Half past three
- Not good enough, tell him the time.
What was this about? The boy kind of gulped, it was a wind up obviously, the boy knew enough about the band already to know that Jones was the ruffian in the band, and one who had a background in boxing, but surely they hadn’t got him in here to engage in some violent pre gig sport? Bullying images flashed through his mind, school, the estate, different situations, the boy felt forced into a corner here, the whole room had gone quiet, the large roadie prodded the boy, repeated the request, the boy responded at volume.
- Hey man, it’s FUCKING HALF PAST THREE DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME THE FIRST FUCKING TIME!
He waited for a slap to come, instead he was met with mirthful laughter and the large roadie slapped Jones on the shoulder
- I told you Steve, told you they all talk fahking funny up here.
Jones was laughing hard, in a good way though, not at the boy, but with him, a kind of shared respectful appreciation of regional differences,
- Yeah, that’s some accent mate, where’s it from?
- North Shields
- North fucking what, where’s that?
- Newcastle, that’s up near fucking Scotland ain’t it?
He turned around to the rest of the room,
- This little cunt has come down all the way from Scotland to see us.
Everyone nodded with apparent respect, a can of warm malt Breaker was thrust into the boy’s hands, there was no time for thinking now, it was all about the moment. Jones was addressing him again.
- So that’s like a hundred miles or something, right?
The boy nodded. Give or take ninety miles but he wasn’t going to say that. Jones nodded back, he was impressed, and the boy could see, really stoked that this young lad had gone to the effort to come watch his band.
- Have you got a ticket?
- No, I think it’s sold out.
- But still, you’ve come all this way, down here, to see us?
- Fucking hell, go and get this young geezer sorted someone, get him on the guest list, whatever.
What was on the boy’s mind when all this was going on? He was thinking Jones would give him a pep talk, some words of encouragement. On the passion needed to succeed, the importance of punk, the sheer visceral will, that nothing else matters, that this is your one life and you look like you have that fire in your eyes, you are the one to take it, that this is a matter of life and death, that yes, we mean it maan, bleed for your craft. There was no pep talk though, to talk of passion and intent, of nobility and craft, well that was all just bollocks wasn’t it, that would not be punk, they were bored, they were just having a laugh. It was a great laugh though.
Jones thrust another can into his hand, a Colt 45 this time and they were joined by Cook whilst the large roadie left the room. They talked about their band, then his band, about music choices, about football teams, punk girls, teddy boys, violence from other cults, all kind of things, and the boy could not believe their interest in him, beyond this circle of conversation the boy was aware that Sid Vicious was comatose and Johnny Rotten seemed pre-occupied, but Jones and Cook were courtesy itself.
The boy felt himself tapping into another world, the other world, the not going to work down the mines world, an adventurers world, a scoundrels world, but also realised he was getting a proper working class lesson in humbleness and courtesy. Jones wasn’t just about good manners though, he could play himself up as demanding musician too.
- Where’s that cunt Boogie got to?
Boogie was the large roadie. Boogie soon returned with a ticket in his hand which he proffered to the boy. There you go son. A moment later and it was time for the band to go back to the hotel to change before the gig. Hands were shook and Jones exhorted him to enjoy the gig. Vicious snapped out of his coma and Rotten gave the boy a friendly grin as he passed. The boy felt twenty foot tall, he would never admit it though, it was just punk after all and here they were all together, like it should be. He held on to the ticket and followed the band out into the early evening sunlight.
When they had arrived the streets around the Rock Garden had been deserted: not any more, a huge queue snaked around the block, a thousand people without tickets had turned up hoping to get in, and as the boy went round cries of recognition arose, most people would have seen the news item the night before, this was some fucking gig already. Some mates from Newcastle greeted him. He showed them the ticket. Plans were instantly made; they would get him over the throng at the front door where all the bouncers were dealing with the crush and from there the boy would go straight over to the unguarded fire exit and open up to let the Newcastle mob in.
The boy got into the venue and giving his mates times to get back round went over and jammed his palm down on the steel bar of the door and pushed it open. Ten Newcastle mates rushed in and they all dispersed and lost themselves in the chaos of the venue. The place was heaving and the boy felt the electricity inside him. He had seen the Clash and the Damned already, and also The Adverts, Penetration and Warsaw on the one bill and all three gigs were really intense in their own way, but this was another level of expectation and excitement, and partisan too, it wasn’t like 20 punks and 800 rugby students in the same room, this was partisan, a tribal gathering of this new wave of feral stylish youth; here you could see punks had travelled all over the North for this, up from Yorkshire, across from Liverpool and Manchester, and great they looked too.
The boy found himself in the company of Nick and Helen two pals from Newcastle. The boy remarked on how good it was to be in a room full of pure punks, how safe it felt, that this was their moment. Nick who was older and a lot more considered said he wasn’t so sure that there would be no trouble; he had heard rumours that the Grebo’s, a biker gang who regarded the Rock Garden as their home were waiting outside for the gig to finish when they would descend and cause havoc. The boy visualised other tribes, the teddy boys, the beer boys, the soul boys all out there waiting in the industrial shadows, it was grief alright and he himself, the boy, the novice, had said on the television the night before that it wasn’t the Teddy Boys they hated, but the Soul Boys, opening up factions himself, widening the divide, hate and war, fear and tension, fuck this, fuck that… oh what great piss it is to be young right now.
He hooked up with the girl again and they found themselves pummelled to the front. A lad with a soul boy haircut with a blonde streak in it and a ripped and torn t-shirt smiled at him and introduced himself as Tony, from Whitley Bay, starting a friendship that would last for the rest of their lives, another pair of older punks from the nascent Newcastle scene Nick and Helen were on the other side of him, this felt so good. What was the boy now thinking of as the Pistols took to the stage? Nothing. Nothing at all, for the first time in an age, no preoccupations, no doubts, no mad dreams, and no recent past, no impending long term future, just the very moment of now as the band seared into Anarchy in the U.K the sheer explosion of Jones guitar riff and Cooks rolling drums with a hunched over Rotten careering over the top with a righteously sneered vocal. He lost himself inside a room of people who were lost inside themselves, not a thing else would he recall or could he tell about the gig, just that one incendiary song, everything after was just noise and fury, style and laughter, pogo and peril, piss and heaven. It was a moment alright.
And later the boy and the girl spent the night in the back of a Morris Minor car that had broke down in the town of Durham. The driver bailed out and left them there. They didn’t mind at all. He looked at the girl. Her pale face, the jet black hair with the pink streak that he loved, and there they were at last, after weeks of unsure hesitation, kissing and cuddling and all that, together, two young punks, wondering if Sid had actually played a note on his bass but agreeing that it didn’t really matter, that his style was more than on-point, wondering what that rascal Jones was up to, wondering what kind of performance from any other band could ever beat that, wondering what the boy was going to do and where he would live now that he had left home, and then not wondering about anything at all, just making themselves as closely comfortable as best they could in the back of the cramped old car.
The boy was such a novice, so fucking naïve, but he was learning. He stayed in a squat in the Jesmond area of Newcastle and loved it, but eventually he stunk and needed a bath and went home again and with his point kind of made got a job on a building site and earned and spent some money. The SPOTS tour rolled on to a few more dates and the boys television appearance sparked a predictable reaction. The presenter had asked him why punks hated Teddy Boys and without even thinking the boy had replied ‘oh no, the Teddy Boy’s aren’t our enemies, it the Soul Boys we hate’. Cue a legion of Northern Soulers turning up for blood and vengeance for this perceived insult the following Monday. Things evened themselves out, there was crossover on both sides and lots of youth knew each other, but in the toilets that night the boy was approached by the coolest looking kid he had seen yet. The young man was covered in bandages, bandages as bondage, as fashion statement, the bandages were held together by a badge that said Keep the Faith. The young cat pointed to it questioningly and the boy scratched his mop of spiky black hair… ‘Weren’t they our enemy?
‘You’re a fucking idiot Johny’ the lad said in a friendly non aggressive way. ‘Soul Boys, Teddy Boys, Punk Rockers… we’re all the same, different clothes, slightly different culture, but same passions, same intent, same working class background, all of us, and the enemy is not ourselves, the enemy is bigger than that, and we’re doing ourselves no favours fighting amongst ourselves, have a think who the enemy is son, my name is Manus by the way’. I shook Manus’s hand and stumbled out of the toilets, it is something I’ve thought about to this day, the first great lesson that I wasn’t taught in school. Cheers Manus.