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Psychobilly, qu’est-ce que c’est?

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

Paul Hallam is the co-proprietor (or Publishing Director) of Old Dog Books, a pulp imprint with the mission to “make Joe Hawkins proud”. What’s all the more notable is that he also published Odds and Sods last year, his book photographing the early 80s London mod scene. And used to own Filthy MacNasty’s, 3:AM’s events base for a number of years. I met up with Paul (a BBC Radio London ‘Listed Londoner’, no less) recently, on the 40th floor of London’s ‘gherkin’ tower (above), to go over it all.

3:AM: So, it’s all about post-war imperial decline?

PH: Someone said to me recently that Thatcher’s third period in ’87 to the day we left Europe in 2016 is a golden period we will probably never ever know again. Whether rightly or wrongly, whether it’s a case that the bankers made more money than they ever will again, whether I made more money…

3:AM: This is ‘87 to Brexit?

PH: 30 years. The British Empire reaches its peak in 1900, 1901, it descended after that with the First World War, then we have the Second World War and Britain gives up India as we can’t afford to keep an army there etc. And then we have the Swinging Sixties, but the Swinging Sixties aren’t really that ‘swinging’, it’s swinging for a hundred people, that’s it. The Beatles and two of the Rolling Stones and that guy who killed himself, the Guinness heir. That’s it really. Generally Swinging London, if you lived in Dagenham in 1965, it wasn’t swinging – you were taking a lot of speed and that’s it. So the 1987 to 2016 period is kind of a golden period, maybe most people didn’t know it or realise it, but back then I woke up every day and had a letter coming through my letterbox saying “Here’s a £5,000 loan, all you’ve got to do is ring up this number and get £5,000” – and I did! Which is why I’ve got so much debt now, but it enabled me to buy bars and clubs and things, things that I couldn’t really afford, but I could do it because I was allowed to. And now obviously I can’t and no one can unless you’re the Duke of Westminster or something, but it did give us a Narnia-like freedom that meant that I could borrow money to live out my dreams and fantasies, that I couldn’t have done in the 70s and I can’t do now.

3:AM: No one can?

PH: No. But getting back to Blair in 1997, with ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, which was by then a four-year-old terrible record with Brian Cox on keyboards, I remember the day that Labour got into power that year, I was driving to work and Robert Elms was playing ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’ on Radio London. Fi Glover, who was his sidekick at the time, went down to Downing Street to record it and she was like going “Yeah!”, but you couldn’t do that now, I mean you’d be sacked from the BBC and probably quite rightly so. No pop group, and we’re talking Noel Gallagher at the Brits in ’96 going “There’s six people changin’ this fuckin’ world, it’s me, Bonehead, me brother and Tony fuckin’ Blair!” – nobody is going to the Brits now and go “Theresa May is changing the world!” Not even Adele’s gonna do that, no one’s gonna do that. Even if Jeremy Corbyn got in, I mean he’s probably not going to, are people going to align themselves with him? You know, Weller did… but at a distance? That kind of euphoria, you know Blair got in with a majority of 190, the biggest majority since Churchill or something…

3:AM: 179.

PH: 179? OK, but when was the last majority that big?

3:AM: Gladstone or something.

PH: Since Gladstone then. Thatcher got in with a majority of 100 or so in 83, but Britain never felt better, from everything, from music, with Oasis and Blur leading the world, Muse and Coldplay coming up, everything, Radiohead. I mean you had Buffy the Vampire Slayer name-checking Radiohead! OK, I didn’t agree with ‘Cool Britannia’, but Britain seemed cool, across Europe, across the world.

3:AM: In step?

PH: Yeah. We felt as cool as we have been since ‘66 and even then it wasn’t that cool. It felt great, it felt great to be British. So that period, after the whole of Thatcherism and the eighties, which benefited 10 per cent of the population, but in the Old Dog Books pantheon wasn’t really representational of everyone, it was kind of like the whole country was on ecstasy!

3:AM: But with the Steve Piper book, which is ‘81, ‘Ghost Town’, Brixton riots etc. it’s not really like that?

PH: If you look at British history, the 80s are generally seen as an era of prosperity. So if you look at the 80s, you see Duran Duran, Wham! VW Golfs…

3:AM: The Cabriolet.

PH: Of course. Loadsamoney, Harry Enfield and that. And if you look at any film from the eighties, as they’re made in Hollywood, it’s always sunny. So if you look at any of those Bratpack films, everything’s sunny. But if reality the eighties didn’t really start until 1984. If you look at Only Fools and Horses, the first two or three series look like the seventies, as the seventies carried on for most people, as most decades do. Nobody woke up in 1970 and bought an orange TV and one of those chairs that hung off the ceiling. So the eighties until 1984, it was pretty shit, the Miners’ Strike, Brixton riots, it was probably the most polarised Britain’s been since the thirties, well until today maybe. I mean, you grew up in Hartlepool, I’m sure up there you didn’t have many people driving around in open-top Volkswagens…

3:AM: We had an open air unemployment benefit concert by Madness in 1985.

PH: Unemployment was huge, CND was huge… if you organised a CND march in 1984, you’d get a million people on it and we talk about this in the Weekend Dancer book. You do that now, no one would bother.

3:AM: What about the 2003 Iraq one?

PH: OK, but that was against a Labour Prime Minister. If Trump comes over, maybe a million people will go on the streets, but that’s against a foreign leader who has polarised the world…

3:AM: He’s a rallying point?

PH: Yeah, I’ll go on that, it’ll probably be fun and a bit of a row. I think I’d be up for that. But in the 1980s, the country was polarised, the lines were clear, black and white, Tories are Tories and Labour are Labour. That doesn’t really happen now, if you were working class in the 1970s, you were Labour, until Thatcher came along and promised that you could buy your council house and you’ll have a Volkswagen cabriolet on the drive. So that period we talk about in Old Dog Books was a strange period, I mean I grew up in it, but I probably didn’t even know what was going on. It was a very bleak, black period, I remember seeing an interview with Depeche Mode and they went “The Clash in ‘78 were talking about unemployment and misery when there wasn’t any. In 1981 there is but we don’t want to talk about it!” So the New Romantics got around it by wearing makeup and dressing like Berlin 1933, not in a Nazi way, but just pretending that the world wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Which is fair enough, it’s probably what we were doing as mods back then too.

3:AM: They were New Town lads from Basildon. Is that where Psychobilly comes in?

PH: I love Craig’s writing and this was a New Town dream. These people grew up in the East End and the East End’s always glorified as people living in slums, but people lives in slums in Acton, in Neasden, in Peckham or Deptford or whatever. So New Towns were their nirvana. I used to go to Millwall in the eighties and there’d always be a banner saying ‘Crawley Millwall’ or ‘Basingstoke Millwall’, as the people who grew up in these places got shipped out to the new towns. They’d all grown up in South London and they had their community, but they were given this dream where they could move out to a bright new shiny town where you’ve got a parking space. Craig says that in his book, the promise of a new semi-detached house with a parking space, but no one had a fucking car! Why would you even need a parking space? Yeah, it was semi-detached, but the walls were so thin that you can hear next-door shagging or burping. These new towns were generally filled with the worst parts of those communities, so instead of having… look, when I ran pubs and bars, my philosophy was that if you have five horrible people in a pub, the best way to deal with it was to fill it with 100 people so that the five people feel embarrassed and out of their depth. So if you move those five people to a new town, and then another five people and another five people and you put them all together, they’re all troublesome and the ones who aren’t become troublesome. It breeds and that’s not a judgement on the working class, it’s one on social behaviour and what people think is and isn’t acceptable. If you put all the worst people together then there’s no one to pull them up and say ‘Can you stop?’

3:AM: Not just in Psychobilly but also Too Much Too Young, from what I’ve read?

PH: Steve talks about that. He moved into a new estate and OK, his estate in the book isn’t that bad, but I’d not seen him for 20 years and Steve became a mod when I was getting out of mod. So I sort of knew of him, but all I ever knew was he loved a scrap. But I invited him to my 50th birthday and he handed me a manuscript of the book and said ‘Ello, can you publish this?’ So I said I’d have a look…

3:AM: He knew you were a publisher?

PH: He knew I’d done Countdown Books. I’d sat in a pub with Craig and Garry Bushell in 2014 and Craig had this idea that I should do pulp fiction, based on those books from the 1970s.

3:AM: The New English Library?

PH: Yeah, but we talk about the New English Library, and I’m not knocking it as Skinhead probably sold a million books, but when you read those, they are the most homophobic, racist, you know, any ‘ist’ you can think of is in those books. I don’t think they’re particularly well written, I know you’ve had some involvement in them being republished, but they’re of their time and I can’t comment as I wasn’t around, but they inspired people. I was too young and my parents too conservative and my sister was already married by that time, but I had friends at school who lived on the local estate whose sister or whatever got them into it and they became a sort of bible. We didn’t even know what a ‘skinhead’ was, but those books glorify racial violence, yet they’re written by a middle-class, middle-aged bloke from Canada.

3:AM: But those books are quite visceral. I’m not sure yours are.

PH: No, but the book we probably look back at the most is Paint House Gang, which has racist slogans on the front cover. It’s all about going to Tottenham, racism, a bunch of teenage kids from Bethnal Green in 1971 or whatever.

3:AM: As a mod of your generation, are you not more inspired by Absolute Beginners and Colin MacInnes?

PH: I am, yes. But I think Absolute Beginners is hard work and City of Spades is probably better. Certainly got more humour in it. But, as a publisher, I’m probably more inspired by the Skinhead books. So, three years ago, I was sat in a pub with Garry Bushell, I didn’t know Craig but he introduced us. He’d already written Psychobilly and he’s probably the world’s leading authority on psychobilly, he’s written a number of books on it. He said he thought there was now some kind of movement or genre to get behind though, so I went away and thought about it. A guy called Matteo runs a fanzine, webzine type thing and I thought he was some kind of middle-aged Italian guy, I didn’t realise he lived in Walton on Thames. We met up and worked out we’d gone to rival local schools. After a few drinks I told him that I didn’t want to do Countdown anymore, I’d done 10 books on there, some of these had been quite successful like the Quadrophenia book and the one on the Medway scene, the one on Ocean Colour Scene probably less so. So by this time I thought, let’s do this pulp fiction thing. But I wasn’t really focused on it, more focused on paying the mortgage.

I mentioned it to Matteo and six months later he rings me up and says ‘I’ve written the book!’ I said ‘What are you on about?’ ‘The book you asked me to write’ and it went from there. He’d written the book A Crafty Cigarette about a 12-year-old living in suburbia who discovers The Jam and it changes his life, so that was our first book on Old Dog. We did that, then straight after Steve Piper’s Too Much Too Young and that has a scene in it with two lads sat on top of a block of flats, like us in the Gherkin right now on the 38th floor, which they’d climbed up and at that height I’ve only done it once, but they look down and spit, which I’ve done and I’m sure you also. But the wind up there! When I read that, I got a tingle as it took me back to being 14 and sitting on top of a tower block in Sunbury, but he describes it so well that I felt quite sick, remembering the sensation of that. So I did Matteo’s book, Steve’s book and then Craig’s book – Steve’s book sold over a thousand copies, which doesn’t sound like much but in this day and age is. It’s up to the fifth edition, it’s got Neville Staple writing the introduction. That took us on to the next book, which as I’m a mod I wanted to be a mod one. Roger Marriott, who’s a friend of mine from the eighties, he got in touch again after seeing something I’d wrote. But it’s a very, very dark book – I mean, I tease Roger saying ‘There’s not many laughs in it!’ But growing up on a council estate in Acton, and Roger would probably pull me up on this, why should there be laughs? The world was particularly bleak back then, like I say, if you look at any film from the eighties, you’re looking at Beverley Hills Cop, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s sun and Ferraris. But in the world I and the authors grew up in, it wasn’t, it was nitty gritty, unemployment, riots, just very grey in those days. OK, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were singing about a different world, but that wasn’t the world we were living in. How many people would go to Club Tropicana? Most people would just end up in Clacton. As I said earlier, no one wanted to talk about unemployment in ’81, just makeup and having fun.

3:AM: Escapism?

PH: Yeah, which is what Weekend Dancer, our most recent book is about. That’s what mod did for me and Talcott, the author. Mod was escapism from all of that. I was semi-political in those days, as is the hero of the book, but he wants the girl who’s into CND and anti-apartheid rallies, but deep down he’s more interested in being a mod than he is in those, so he tries to fit in being working class, being Jewish and chasing a girl into it. I loved all that, UB40 and The Specials…

3:AM: Red Wedge?

PH: In 1992 I was very political, I went to Labour Party Conference and was introduced on stage by a young Shadow Home Secretary called Tony Blair, bizarrely enough. While I was up there for the week I went to a fringe meeting hosted by Margaret Beckett and I said about Red Wedge that the problem is it only appealed to left-wing people. So, you’ve got Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Paul Heaton out of The Housemartins, but no one else had their opinions challenged, as the only people who are going are left-wing anyway. I’m not saying it’s a waste of time, because it raised funds, but no one went along and said ‘Oh my word, you’re right! Thatcher is bad!’ And that’s kind of a weird thing, you have The Specials, one of the most left-wing bands of the last 40 years, but their gigs were populated by right-wing Nazis a lot of the time! These NF people, they didn’t listen to lyrics… Sham 69, a prime example, Jimmy Pursey’s a confused guy. I don’t know him, met him on a couple of occasions, but he wasn’t reading the NF manual on stage, he was reading his own version of white working-class kids, but that was misinterpreted by the far right thinking ‘They’re our band!’ And it pretty much destroyed his career.

Funnily enough, being a Millwall supporter, and we’ve got Tottenham in the next round of the FA Cup, it triggered my memory to go back and watch the Panorama documentary from ‘77, which was my first exposure to Millwall and a reason I started supporting them in some respects. They were the most leftfield team you could support and at the end of that Panorama documentary, Martin Webster, who was the leader of the National Front at the time, was on. One of the points the documentary makes, in that BBC clipped English, is ‘We go down to the Millwall, where they have a ruck with the Old Bill’ and one of the supporters says ‘I didn’t grow up with you, I didn’t go to university’, the world was very different then, but it made the very good point that if Martin Webster is calling for ‘more robust youths who like fighting’ to defend their policies, the BBC point out that if football kicks out these people they’ll just fall into the arms of right-wing extremists. It didn’t really happen at the time as casuals came along and then whatever you say about ecstasy, it changed the world. Not as much as I thought it would – I was a mod 1980-1986, I then got into Acid Jazz, I took my first E in ‘88, 89 and I kind of thought, as I’d always been interested in mods in the sixties getting into acid, that mods had gone two ways, they’d either become skinheads or took acid. And I thought that in the eighties that was our acid period, that was our Haight-Ashbury, our summer of love and I was a year or so late to it, but I remember thinking that ‘This is it! Ecstasy will unite the world!’, it’ll whatever. Then on a cold wet windy Tuesday, I went down a petrol garage in Surbiton, I was working late and all these acid house kids turn up, all on E and start shouting ‘Oi, paki! Serve us! Serve us!’ And then I realised it wasn’t changing the world, it was just the same people hugging their mates. Did it stop football violence? No one can deny that.

3:AM: It was a brake on it.

PH: And so was CCTV. I knew Millwall fans who’d go down to Portsmouth the next day and by five o’clock they’d come down off the E and still wanted to have a row. It took the edge off it a little bit, but so did heavy-handed policing, so did CCTV and the thing that probably killed football hooliganism more than anything else was Hillsborough. So when we came up with the idea for Old Dog…

3:AM: Where did the name come from?

Stewart Home, 3:AM bash, Filthy MacNasty’s (2004)

PH: Danny Decourtelle, who I’ve done bars with like Filthy McNasty’s, and that was a literary place. But from my point of view, the greatest literary night we ever put on there was John Sinclair, the founder of the White Panthers and the only person I’ve ever met who John Lennon wrote a song about. John Sinclair, at the time, was this 60-year-old hippy, still an activist, and he played with Gary Lammin and Charles Shaar Murray. And he just ranted and raved and sung poetry, but bless him, one of the conditions of his gig was a room to have a joint in before he went on stage. So we did all that literary stuff, which was great while it lasted. Maybe in hindsight we partied more than we should have done, which is why we don’t own it anymore and Danny is a dog trainer…

3:AM: But where did the publishers come from?

PH: Eddie Piller. I come from a print background, Eddie Piller from Acid Jazz, he had a publishing company in the nineties which published Paolo Hewitt’s Small Faces book and in 2011, Eddie was curating the Wayne Hemingway festival of something or other at Goodwood. Wayne Hemingway kindly put me on as a DJ, most I’ve ever been paid for a DJ gig in my life, and the Faces were headlining. Ed says to me ‘The Faces are headlining, let’s release Paolo Hewitt’s book on The Small Faces and the one on Ronnie Wood and sell them at Goodwood.’ We did those two books there on the Acid Jazz imprint and I’m a very, very good friend of Garry Bushell, who for an amazing chap gets a lot of bad press but I’ll defend him to the hilt, as people like to mention he wrote for The Sun, which apart from that…

3:AM: And Brexit?

PH: OK, apart from that and Brexit, I won’t have a word said against him. He had his own reasons, same as John King in some respects. I said to him that he’d written for Sounds in 81, 82, 83, 84, he was a celebrity when I was a kid, when I was a teenager. He’d written the first review of The Specials, all the early 2-Tone stuff, so I said to him ‘Why don’t we bring out a book of your articles on 2-Tone?’ And one thing I don’t like is revisionism, I hate it when people reinvent themselves. I said to Garry ‘You wrote these articles at the time. If you thought The Specials were average, let’s not change it, keep it as it was.’ So we dug out his articles and we came into some great pictures of the 2-Tone bands in LA when they did a residency at the Whisky a Go Go, taken by my friend ex-XFM DJ and amazing chap David Arnoff, there was a great picture of some guy head-butting Chas Smash on stage, pictures of The Specials sound-checking, pictures of Dave Wakeling and The Beat rehearsing.  So we used these pictures, Garry’s words and we brought out the book Dance Craze. We did that and I said “Garry, look, when you did 2-Tone stuff you also did the mod stuff. Again, you can’t tamper with it.” He interviewed The Jolt, which anyone who’s a ’79 mod aficionado would know were possibly the first mod band. They didn’t sound very, they looked like The Pleasers in some respects. Garry then goes and sees some band at Barking Carnival, the Purple Hearts before the Purple Hearts, Jack Plug and The Sockets or something and this was ’78, they said there’s a Mod Revival coming. He then goes to the Great British Musical Festival at Wembley in ’78 and it’s Showaddywaddy, David Essex and The Jam, I was 12 or something so I wasn’t there. People all go along because The Jam are playing, but it’s not a Jam gig so only maybe 15 of them turn up, but there’s these guys who are listening to The Jam all stood around going ‘You alright?’, because they’re not dressed like Showaddywaddy or David Essex. So that’s kind of the birth of the Mod Revival.

3:AM: Mutual recognition?

PH: Yeah, ‘Where you from?’ kind of thing and because I published the book and did the research, I can name the people who were there, a couple of The Chords, Purple Hearts, Grant Fleming, Tony Perfect etc. They didn’t necessarily know they were mods maybe, they like The Jam and have heard The Who and are wearing desert boots. So we did this book called Time for Action, which is Garry’s mod stories from ’78 through to ’81 and we put that out on Countdown. It sold thousands and we had a brilliant deal with HMV, but they then went bankrupt and knocked us for £10,000. 

But in between that, very bizarrely, as a Millwall supporter I teamed up with Cass Pennant, who’s a lifelong West Ham supporter. Cass had released and sold a lot of books about football hooligans on his imprint Pennant Publishing, I’d met Cass at Garry Bushell’s parties in the nineties, he used to call me ‘Millwall Commie’ but we became friends. Cass then decided he needed to focus on his film Beverley, which if it comes out will be a brilliant film, but while that was the end of Countdown, I dusted myself down and felt I quite enjoyed being a publisher. We then proceeded to bring out other books, like the one on the Medway scene, The Kids Are All Square, Billy Childish, The Prisoners and all that, I’m really proud of that book. We did a book with Dexys, which didn’t do so well, Pete McKenna’s Nightshift, which was brilliant. The one that I’m really proud of, which should have done better, was Simon Wells’ book on Quadrophenia. It was a bizarre thing, as I’m quite a gregarious, loud person and I contacted Bill Curbishley and said ‘Mr Curbishley, will you write the foreword?’ And when you meet Mr Curbishley in his office, I go from being loud and gregarious Hallam to a 14-year-old ‘Err, hello, Mr Curbishley’. For a 70-year-old, I mean he’s been to the gym more times this week than I’ve been in my life, he’s managed The Who for nearly 45 years or something, before that he was in prison, before that he was a mod from Canning Town, his brother’s Alan Curbishley who managed that team we won’t mention. I remember sitting in his office going ‘Can you write the foreword to the book?’ And he was like ‘Yeah, whatever’, a year went past and he didn’t come back, again he didn’t come back, so I contacted his secretary and she said ‘Mr Curbishley is going to write the foreword’. And he sent me through the foreword and I was like this is fantastic, but then Mr Curbishley says ‘Don’t print that! I’m rewriting it’ and I think he rewrote it five times, but that meant a lot as it wasn’t something he was doing when he was on a train, it was something that he did and said ‘No, it’s not right.’ We did the launch at Weekend Offender in Soho and had quite a few of the cast come along, with Mr Curbishley and Franc Roddam, they both signed books and it was brilliant. Countdown was great but we fell into a myth, that deal with HMV who went bankrupt. I then met Craig, he’d written Psychobilly and I thought, I’d grown up with these books, so let’s do this again. We did Psychobilly, East of Acton, Rave On Scooterboy, Weekend Dancer, Too Much Too Young and Frank Wilson… all in under 12 months – not bad when you think about it.

Andrew Stevens is senior editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 27th, 2017.