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1979: The Fag End of Punk

Bob Short of Blood & Roses infamy reminisces about the fag end of punk.

Was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? Maybe it was a bit of both. No. Surely, it was just the worst of times. It was 1979, a year that never could have imagined itself eulogised by the Smashing Pumpkins fifteen years on. Punk maybe wasn’t so much dead as starting to smell decidedly iffy. Maybe one could be charitable and say it was merely sleeping. New blooms were preparing to germinate. They were just taking their sweet time about it.

London was a turd placed strategically on the rim of a cesspit and lurking on the horizon, like some horsewoman of the apocalypse, was one Margaret Thatcher. Slaughter and the Dogs had wondered where all the boot boys had gone but we didn’t have to look far to answer their query. They’re in your bloody audience you myopic, bald headed gits. Gary Bushell sung their praises from the Sounds office in Long Acre. It was perched above the Underground and I could see him through my window. I very much wanted a sniper rifle for my birthday.

Covent Garden Station has something ridiculous like two hundred and eighty odd steps. I knew them well because you had to climb them in order to bunk the fifteen pee fare. Across James Street, behind a façade of plywood and corrugated iron, was a huddle of old shops and offices awaiting demolition. The last eviction notices had been served and the wrecking ball was booked. All that remained was a motley crew of squatters awaiting the sheriff’s men.

There was a carpet on the floor somewhere. A thick layer of dust had begun to accumulate long before the corporate world had deserted the building. The dead skin of long departed clerks laid strata upon strata; a terrible geology of grey lives lost to hand written black and red columns. The squatters who had rushed to fill the void had done their best not to disturb this grimy shroud. These were punk rockers. Their reticence to disturb the debris was not political. It was not born of respect for historical ruins — nor were these kids afraid of what lurked beneath. The truth was that these street urchins were too lazy to swing a broom and had no knowledge of such latter day inventions as the vacuum cleaner. They were likely lads who would, in future years, look at the Young Ones on television and bemoan the lack of authentic squalor.

I should know. I was one of them.

I had spent a week huddled in the detritus on the floor. Consuming nothing but orange juice, I hoped I would somehow recover from what was surely the longest lasting and most severe speed comedown in all of human history. In retrospect, I’d probably contracted some virulent viral infection along the way but — you know how it is — we all like to blame the drugs. It is — quite perversely — more socially acceptable. After all, a speed comedown is not infectious.

In the next room, all hell was breaking loose. Dave (one day to be re-surnamed Sex Gang) was in a heated discussion with some guy from Brixton whose name I never quite caught. They had spilt their fresh purchase of heroin all over the floor. Dave dived down and begun snorting up the carpet. After all, when you think about how many people’s arseholes that stuff had been through just to get it into the country, a little thing like two hundred years’ worth of carpet dust was not going to make that much difference.

I had been aware of heroin before — but at a distance. I’d been in a band called Filth and our drummer, Noel, had a peculiar habit of falling asleep in chairs and vomiting with no apparent concern or discomfort. Once, mid way through an unrecognisable cover of Iggy’s ‘I’ve Got a Right’, he had regurgitated on his snare drum just in time for the next drop of the stick. The rest of the band and the front row of the audience copped an unhealthy coating of badly chewed vegetables. I’d told him that he should see a doctor about that shit but later someone pointed out to me that he was on the gear. D’oh.

It was a couple of years later and I was a little less naive. Still, the sight of two guys running their noses through a half inch of dust in the hope of getting stoned was an eye opener. In fact, I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to visit the public wash house and soap the filth from my body. Yes, children. There was a time when there was so little plumbing in London that the poor had to bathe in specially constructed council facilities. Lines of cubicles filled with the drunk, the insane and the great unwashed. Even as the nineteen eighties drew near, they were still there.

“Can you spare ten pence so I can have a bath.” It was, perhaps, the most effective poncing line ever devised.

Later that night, after a variety of substances had been abused, we all walked the dark streets of London’s West End. There was Tony, Dave, Brett and me. Brett liked to finish any visit to a café by filling his teacup with loudly snorted mucus. Unsurprisingly, we were rapidly running out of establishments that would admit us through their doors. We were just lucky that the late night places were used to far darker beings than us. This was, after all, the big city.

A taxi pulled over and who should emerge but one Pete Townshend and associated minders. Here was a man failing dismally in his attempts to die before he got old. He had that unhealthy pallor derived from years of chemical abuse made only that much worse by the orange street lighting. We claimed that there was no Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones but the life style we aspired to was there all along; sex, drugs and rock and roll. We could see it climbing unsteadily out of a black London cab.

Seeing our approach, the legend’s eyes filled with fear. He retreated back into the cab at an unholy speed. These kids were definitely not all right. The vehicle roared off into the night. We hadn’t even had the chance to ask him for a spare ten pence.

We were simple folk. Our needs were few. We subsisted on a diet consisting mainly of tea, chips and the bread rolls that could be stolen by the bag full from outside the cafés of Covent Garden. The Hare Krishna’s were good for handouts but that meant having to chant. Worse still, they might send Poly Styrene out in a bid to convert you. Seeing the woman who once screamed “O Bondage, up yours” now dead eyed and smiling like an American chat show host made it difficult to keep the food down. This was definitely not what we sought from our rock and roll heroes.

All extra cash seemed to gravitate towards gigs and the speckled blues bought three for a quid. Speckled blues were a cheap kind of speed but no one knew what was really in them. Some people said they were chicken hormones, whilst others talked of strychnine. The one thing I know for sure is, even to this day, I can’t enter a freshly bleached toilet without that smell opening a portal to the guilty pang of memory. That should provide you with a worrying footnote on chemical composition.

Booze was pricey. It was something that needed to be scrounged, borrowed or stolen. In those days, there were always plenty of men who wanted to buy you drinks. How times have changed. These things just don’t seem to happen to me any more. I (ahem) can’t imagine why. Harder drugs existed only in the realms of imagination and treasured Velvet Underground vinyl. It still cost a couple of quid to go to the Marquee and the Lyceum was never more than three sobs. The idea of spending twenty quid on an illicit substance was impossible! Especially when the social only paid you thirteen pounds ninety. Heroin and cocaine only existed in the world of Pete Townshend’s taxi and even now that was retreating in the direction of Piccadilly and beyond.

“Excuse us, Pete. Can you spare us a line?”

We proceeded into that hamburger bar on the corner of Neal Street and Shaftsbury Avenue. No sooner had the nosh been served up than Dave promptly collapsed face first into a plate of chips and tomato sauce. He must have sucked some of that gear up with the house dust. As we pulled his head out of his meal, there was literally a single scarlet dipped chip wedged firmly up his left nostril. None of the drugs we had been taking up to that point could make you do that. We took the piss but I know that — deep down — I, for one, was secretly impressed.

Some people will tell you that Charlie Parker couldn’t play anything worth shit when he wasn’t on the gear. Others will tell you that the glory of the Pogues springs solely from Shane MacGowan’s raging alcoholism. At the very least, we can all agree that Nick Cave hasn’t made a decent album since he straightened himself out. These three statements are both gospel truths and utter fallacies. It’s all in your interpretation. Drugs are neither good nor bad. They, like the continents floating upon the Earth’s mantle, merely are.

That metaphor is not randomly chosen. So much of our popular culture rides on the back of trends in abuse. We make the music that the chemicals tell us to.

The seasons changed. The speckled blues dealers vanished overnight in one quick bust. The dexys and purple hearts that briefly came to fill the void were poor substitutes that lacked sufficient kick. The black bombers and the sulphate were more expensive and more difficult to procure. It didn’t matter. The world was changing on its axis, anyway.

Already, we had been learning to lessen the severity of our comedowns with valium, mogodon and, ultimately, tuinol. Several years of speed psychosis had left us paranoid and wretched. We were always watched. Conspiracies abounded. Philosophies rose and fell in the course of an evening. I would dedicate myself to writing songs that, in the cold light of the morning, looked like the work of a psychopath. I would pull out notepads filled with lyrics that looked disturbingly similar to Jack Nicholson’s writing in The Shining.

I was not alone in my psychosis. I remember being trapped at the Music Machine in the thin gap between two pinball machines by the Dave who would be Sex Gang. Downstairs, the Tourists were playing. I suppose there were worse places to be at that moment. Like downstairs for one.

Dave seemed to have consumed nearly his own body weight in stimulants and wanted to reveal his theory of the divine beauty of performing “whore’s versions” of popular songs of the fifties and sixties. For three hours, I was caught, unable to get a word in edgeways. I didn’t know what he wanted or what he meant.

Meanwhile, my own speed intake manifested as terrified claustrophobia. I felt like the cat in the Pepe Le Pew cartoons. My god. Was I ever pleased to put a couple of F66s between me and that particular memory.

Now, just because you are paranoid, it does not mean that they are not out to get you. The boot boys of legend, now also fuelled up on a cocktail of glue and barbiturates, made nightly raids on the punk squats of London. Their peculiar visions of swastikas and sodomy led them to stake out new Polands to rape and pillage. In such difficult times, it is not surprising that so many sought refuge in tranquillisers.

I remember days where I don’t remember anything. I can remember walking out the door with a hand full of pills and suddenly I’m in a fight with an American tourist in Sloane Square. It happens with the quick snip of a Hollywood edit. The lights go off and when they come back on it’s three days and I’m in some godforsaken underground station at the top of the Northern Line. Kids, let me tell you something. Don’t try that at home. I was a dedicated professional who had, by this stage, trained extensively to reach this level of degradation. What happened in those three days? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I was having the time of my life and I was wasting my life. Both concepts seemed equally valid.

Unsurprisingly, few great symphonies have been written under the influence of valium. Fewer great novels have been born of barbiturate overdose. There are no great paintings born of these drugs and, with the possible exception of the Pogues’ ‘Old Main Drag’, no great songs. Life on downers quickly turned into a numb routine of begging, petty shoplifting and half-hearted sex. One might start off wild, willing and wanton but, as the drugs kicked in, you would pretty much become soft, soggy and sleeping. You could walk into a room and look down at a cast that would not seem out of place in a George Romero movie. Instead of running in fear of your life, you would simply pull up a blanket and join them. It got cold in the winter and even colder when the tablets slowed your heartbeat to a dull thud.

Down near Campbell Buildings, in the depths of SE1, the ambulances queued behind the dealers and that was even before people started grinding up pills and capsules and injecting them. The chalk lumps turned to abscesses and sometimes gangrene. I remember a beautiful woman with plastic tubes in every limb inserted by doctors in a bid to drain the poison. Even if the antibiotics kicked in, they weren’t sure if they could save her foot. Sickness was upon the land but — luckily — no one had invented HIV back then.

Then the tuinol vanished. It didn’t take much; a parade of overdoses, a couple of murders and a bent doctor or three knocked off of the register. One day, you had people knocking on your door with carrier bags full of pills and the next, nothing. Was a golden age about to bloom? Not with the price of heroin falling through the floor.

But then it was 1980.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bob Short claims he has not only heard the chimes at midnight, he has stayed up past dawn to hear them again the next time around. Before being old enough to drink, he haunted Sydney’s beer barns with proto punk band Filth. Later on, he gained some notoriety in the UK with the band Blood and Roses when he was described as everything from a “shambolic messiah” to a “long, tall streak of piss”. He has been a DJ and worked in a sex shop, the civil service and as Musical Director for a theatre company. He claims the only thing ever to surprise him was seeing his thirtieth birthday. Currently, he lives in exile in the penal colonies of New South Wales with his son, Billy. There he has makes low-budget films such as Makers of the Dead, Kings’ Cross Vampires, Lone Gunman Theory and Bad Animals. He is also working on a novel entitled “Red”.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 11th, 2005.