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A Strange Elevation

Gary Asquith interviewed by Richard Cabut.

[Gary Asquith shot by Nazrin Montag, 1986 – copyright Asquith archives]

Original punk rocker, singer, songwriter, Covent Garden porter, producer, beatnik world adventurer, Chelsea barrow boy, bon viveur, friend of the underground, street poet, artist, criminal underworld associate, aesthete and holy drinker, Gary Asquith is a central figure in both the punk and post-punk circles of the 70s and 80s as well as in the electronic music scene of the 90s and today.

After studying swagger, debauchery, iconoclasm, and elitism on London’s Kings Road and in the Roxy Club circa 1976 and 1977, Asquith formed Rema Rema, the psychopath’s Velvet Underground, with friends Marco Pirroni, Mick Allen and Dorothy Max Prior. Their Wheel in the Roses EP, released on the 4AD label in 1980, remains a dazzling and essential art-gone-afraid howl. The track “Rema-Rema” has been aptly described as ‘the post-punk “Louie Louie”.’

Asquith’s subsequent projects include Mass, Whip Sex Madonna Federation (with Blixa Bargeld) chart-topping dance-floor movers Renegade Soundwave and The Lavender Pill Mob (with fellow traveller Kevin Mooney). Asquith continues to release music under a variety of names, and last year won a Grammy in the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, the most recent issue of pure punk fanzine Defiant Pose featured a 7-inch single comprising two previously unreleased Rema Rema tracks. I met Asquith in a West End boozer to talk about Rema Rema, his formative years, and his punk/post-punk experiences. He wore a pair of Sex jodhpur boots, black suede with cream patent leather ankle straps, and carried a book of John Betjamin’s influential radio talks, in an ordinary plastic bag.

Metroland and the East End

Gary Asquith: ‘I grew up in Harrow on the Hill, and I love the place. Of course, it was suburbia, and it was safe and could be boring. People used to mow the lawn and prune the hedge, and it saddens me that that doesn’t happen any more — the gardens have all been concreted over to accommodate five cars per family. In my day, we’d walk around — and catch the train of course, the Metropolitan line: Baker Street here we come! My dad was from the East End. His family used to own a pub on the south side of Waterloo. The place was bombed in WW2 and is no longer there. But traditionally, they were dockers. They were also linked to Jack the Ripper. One of his victims was Polly Nichols, who was a member of my paternal grandmother’s side of the family. My dad moved to Harrow, became a Covent Garden porter, and also owned a couple of businesses. The money was good — a Covent Garden porter in the 60s earned the equivalent of a lawyer today.

But it was a tough place. My dad’s best mate at the market was a bloke called Johnny Moore, who had a very heavy reputation. He had a fight with the London gang leader Jack Spot and knocked him all over the road. My dad was always fighting guys, too. As a youngster I worked for him when I could. Every so often I’d see him chin someone. I’d ask: ‘What did you do that for?’ He explained that he wasn’t going to take any shit from anyone. He’d be kicking fruit all over the road: ‘Take it back to Lea Valley, I don’t want it,’ he’d shout — and it wasn’t even his company! There was scary stuff going on. There were always flash guys around who wanted to take advantage, and it was important not to show any sign of weakness. My dad had been in the army with a member of an East End family called the Wilshires, who were cousins of the Krays. Later, they worked in the market together. So my dad knew the twins, as well as the Richardsons, who all passed through Covent Garden, because there was money about.

When we released the first Renegade Soundwave single, the artwork I chose was a then unpublished photo of the Krays by Brian Duffy. I got the photo from the Wilshires, who had remained family friends. A little bit later, they were visited by Charlie Kray, accompanied by a minder, who asked them if they knew anything about this Renegade Soundwave. Apparently, the twins weren’t happy — they felt that they had been exploited, and if there was any exploiting to be done they were the ones who would do it. The Wilshires convinced Charlie Kray that I was alright and undeserving of a kicking, but I suppose it was a close call.

Pre-punk – Your motivation is so sweet your vibrations are burning up my feet

I grew up with a unique group of people at a unique time. My mates at school included Cliff Harris (aka Fox) and Mick Allen, who went on to play in The Models, as well as Terry Day (aka Terry Lee Miall) who drummed for Adam and the Ants. There were also others like Julian Kukowski, who would have been a great writer had he not died in a car crash, and Stephen ‘Dibbs’ Preston, who was in Levi and the Rockats. They used to play the Speakeasy in the punk years: same scene, different haircuts. We all hung out together. We liked Jobriath, Bowie, the glam rock thing. My first gig was Sparks at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1974.

I worked at a yacht chandler in Piccadilly with Cliff. He was a kleptomaniac, and his big ambition was to steal all the components needed to make a yacht and construct it in his garden. And he got pretty close. Thanks to Cliff, everyone had yachting shoes in school — it became a little fashion, like the plastic sandals. There were two different designs, the slip-on with the strap, and the lace-ups — the lace-ups were better. We had the plastic sandals, too. I also dipped into my brother’s wardrobe — at the time he shopped at Browns and St Laurent for Italian-made clothes.

But my abiding memory is working with my dad occasionally at Covent Garden on the evening shift. I was 12 or 13 and getting £40 a night. In the 70s there was a lot of loose money around, which there isn’t these days. Sometimes I had so much money it was unbelievable. But the best thing was the fact I could use the company phone, and I remember using dial-a-disc to listen to “Jeepster” for an entire evening. Making call after call. “Jeepster” all night long.

[Gary Asquith in Paris, 1977 – copyright Asquith archives]

Punk – strange elevation

I first got into punk in 1976. I used to see The Beastly Cads rehearse — when they started gigging they changed their name to The Models. They opened up some doors for me: Marco, Terry and Mick used to go to places like the Roxy, and I went with them. The band I really liked at the time was The Heartbreakers. The Models were staged; they were trying to be punk rock. But the Heartbreakers were so real. I met Thunders through a girl called Karine, who I’d met in Paris in 1977, and who used to score drugs for Thunders occasionally. He was an affable and accommodating guy, kind of like the guys you used to meet on the street who wanted to sell you drugs. I’d met Karine at the same party where I met Yves St Laurent, Bianca Jigger and Warhol — who really did only say ‘gee’. I’d gone with a guy called Bernard, who ran the Gibus Club, and a writer friend called Alain Pacadis — I stayed at his flat and was impressed with the fact that he had a little picture that Iggy had drawn for him. I’d met Pacadis in a café near the Gare du Nord in 1977, on the way back from a job I had in Switzerland. They were wearing leather trousers and were the closest thing you had to punks in Paris at the time. I got into a conversation with them, and we were off on a party that lasted for two weeks. A few years later there was a newspaper expose of a prostitution racket in Greece. It featured a picture of the woman running the whole thing — Karine! ‘Ere, isn’t his the girl who stayed with us?’ said my dad at the kitchen table. ‘It looks like her, dad!’ I replied. Unbelievable.

I saw the Heartbreakers at the Marquee and with The Models a couple of times. Maybe at the Roxy, too. But it’s hard to know for sure — I used to go to a lot of gigs, but hardly ever to watch the bands. I’m not very good at gigs — I fidget. I used to go to hang out, to meet women. At the Roxy I was always in and out, smoking, doing drugs. Do you remember the Wimpy Bar at the top? I was in there a lot. I remember the strange elevation on the Roxy staircase. And if you were always up and down it, as I was, it could get a bit tricky. It was deceptive and one night, while weaving down it, I stumbled onto Johnny Rotten’s foot. He was sitting on the bottom step; a stupid place to sit, but he didn’t think so, and we shared a bit of punk rock anger. Strangely, I did the same thing in 1986 at the Danceteria when I trod on Run from Run DMC’s foot. I left a big black shoe rim on his pristine trainer. Luckily, I’d been going in there every night for a couple of weeks and knew the bouncer, a huge black guy. Suddenly Run saw the humour in the situation, and I wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

My opinion of punk is, people like Cliff, who used to rip up their shirts and wear bin liners to make a personal statement were absurd. But people like Marco, who were into the tailored, high end of punk, were completely on it. Malcolm and Viv’s Sex clothes were incredible artistic creations and are capable of making you go ‘wow’ to this day. In 1976 I was wearing tweed jackets, Cuban heeled boots, leathers and motorbike boots. I used to borrow clothes from Marco occasionally, and I owned a pair of Sex leathers amongst other things. When I got divorced my ex-wife hung onto them. And then I found out how much they’re worth. I rang her to ask if I could have them back. She’s in fashion herself, and told me there was little chance of that happening.

I have a love/hate view of punk. There was a lot of anger around, but much of it wasn’t directed at the right places. Politically and personally. Sid Vicious, for instance, was a very hot and cold person and I had a couple of fall ins and fall outs with him. One day he’d be nice as pie and the next he’d want to rip my head off and spit in the hole.

I liked the Speakeasy – it had an intimate atmosphere and some interesting acts. I saw Sid apparently playing with the Heartbreakers, but really just stumbling across the stage. Standing at the bar, I could see the humour in that kind of situation. But did those people find any sort of humour in themselves? I don’t think they did. It was all pretense, without any self-belief — just a belief in what others said and wrote about them.

I was Cliff Harris’s best friend. He loved David Bowie; he was bright, he could play guitar and had a big personality. But he ruined it all by trying to be something and someone he wasn’t — his death in the 80s was drug-related. I felt that punk should be about self-discovery, not about putting on a bin liner and writing the word ‘cunt’ on it. Punk quickly became silly, detached from reality. It became meaningless and annoying.

[Gary with Steve Strange in Marco’s front garden, Harrow 1978 – copyright Asquith archives]

Rema-Rema – Perception of ideas leads to new ideas (Sol LeWitt)

Punk stopped for me when Rema-Rema started. The Models finished, and I teamed up with Mick Allen and Marco, and a drummer called Max (Dorothy Prior) to form Rema Rema. The idea was to move on, which seemed very important at the time. We all had to do something different. I suppose it was the art school influence. I didn’t go, but Marco and Max were students. Max was the Mo Tucker of punk. She lived on Exhibition Road at the time, and we’d drop her off and hang out. Max’s boyfriend, Andy Warren from the Ants, was around. We’d sit around and drink coffee — curiously, it was a very undruggy scene. Max is a remarkable person: articulate and intelligent, easy to get along with, and not at all pompous. She lives in Brighton and runs tea dances these days, I understand.

Rema Rema were overlooked at the time. I remember one gig with Manicured Noise. I’m not being too subjective when I say we were great. But the guy who came to review the gig concentrated on Manicured Noise who, it turned out, were mates of his. That kind of thing tended to happen. I was serving an apprenticeship in Rema-Rema, but I felt sorry for Marco, who was fantastic at that time. His controlled feedback, special effects and riff structures were brilliant. In terms of diversification, he showed a full palette of what he could do. Rema-Rema was his finest moment. Some people did get it: we almost signed to Virgin, but they took Magazine instead. And the demos we did for Charisma became the Wheel in the Roses EP. But that came out after we had split up. One remaining track from those Charisma sessions is possibly going to see the light via Defiant Pose fanzine. There’s also a potential deal with 4AD regarding some other unreleased material. And I’m compiling a selection of Rema Rema remixes by people like Fritz Catlin (23 Skidoo) and John Gosling.

[Copyright Asquith archives]

[Rema-Rema photo shoot with Paul Stahl at the back of the King’s Road, 1978 – copyright Asquith archives]

It seems that I’m coming round to where I started, but I hate nostalgia, and for me the Rema Rema story was an unfinished story — and the unheard material deserves to be archived. It’s nice to have lived through punk and post-punk, but a lot of people get stuck in a rut and never get out of it, doing the same things over again. I’ve never been stuck in that rut. I am a free spirit, and I will always experiment and explore.

[Copyright Asquith archives]

[Gary Asquith, 1979. Paul Hartnett photoshoot – copyright Asquith archives]

[Gary Asquith selfie, Lyme Regis, 2006]

Richard Cabut’s fiction and poetry has appeared in various magazines and books. In the past, he played bass and wrote the propaganda for the punk group Brigandage, and wrote for the NME under the pen name Richard North. He lives in south east London, and works as a writer.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 26th, 2014.