Were you a big music fan before punk?

Well not one specific thing, I just used to buy a lot of singles. Things like Cindy Incidentally, that was one of my favourites and I was mad about What Does It Take to Win Your Love by Junior Walker.

So when punk happened, did you feel that it was something you'd been waiting for?

Well that's how you put it when you're looking back on it but then I suppose it was something that had never entered my mind, that anyone could do that sort of thing.

Had you been playing music at all before that?

No, no! You couldn't really call it music as such...Rob [Symmons] was the only one who had a real instrument, the only other instruments were wastepaper baskets and I think I had a harmonica so we made a noise together really. It started in the lunchbreaks at school in the music room and then we got kicked out one day so we just started doing it with whatever we could get hold of.

Was this before punk?

Well before - I suppose, about the time of Doctor Feelgood and all that lot. If we'd had technique, that would've been what we would've done if we could've done but that was way beyond what we could do. So we did stuff like the Velvet Underground - we had one of those early tape recorders with a mic where you could get good feedback noises out of. That was the way we approached it because we couldn't play at all. The only one who had a guitar was Rob and he only knew about three chords and even then he had trouble playing them.

So were you more interested in writing than music in those days?

No! I hadn't done anything creative at all, the nearest I got to it was doodling in the classroom.

Is the name Subway Sect an allusion to the Downliners Sect?

Yeah, well not an allusion to them exactly but Rob Simmons was heavily into that sort of music so he came up with the "Sect" bit from that.

How exactly did you come to play at the 100 Club Punk Festival?

In those days there weren't really that many people in the audience at first, so it was a case of Malcolm McLaren seeing us there regularly and I suppose he had nothing to lose suggesting people try and start groups because if it all went wrong it wasn't going to be down to him anyway.
He was the one who made it happen for us - we couldn't even afford to rehearse because we were all on the dole and the rehearsal fees were beyond us, so him paying for that allowed us to jump in at the deep end and go off and buy a drum kit on HP.

Is it true he made you rehearse 8 hours before your first gig?

Yeah! We needed to really........... to just get together.

Were you writing songs for the first time then?

Yeah! We were literally struggling to get 4 numbers written just for that.

Was the actual performance quite nerve-racking?

The worst bit was the sound check - after that the gig seemed alright.

Were the songs you performed ones that you continued playing or were they immediately dropped?

The only one we didn't continue with was No Love Now, that was the only time we did that - we dropped that immediately. The other ones were Nobody's Scared, Don't Split It, Parallel Lines and Out of Touch.

Did they bear much resemblance to the later recorded versions?

No, nothing like them! They were like the first Peel session but that was obviously smoothed out a lot by the BBC engineers so it was like a rougher version of that.

Do tapes of it exist?

I have heard a tape but the quality was absolutely awful. I've got loads of tapes but they're not that early, they're from the era when we started being able to play so I haven't got anything from the era when we were totally incapable.

How soon after that did Bernard Rhodes latch onto you?

We actually met him for the first time at that gig. He said he wanted to manage us and take us on tour with the Clash.

Was that quite flattering?

Well we said yes! Straightaway!

Do you think in retrospect that hooking up with him was beneficial or do you think it was a mistake in the long run?

Rob Simmons definitely doesn't think so, he reckons we shouldn't have worked with him because he just couldn't handle us and the Clash at the same time. He's probably right but it doesn't really bother me that much - that's the way it happened and you can't really change that.

Are you in touch with him at all now?

I was a couple of years ago because I was trying to put some old stuff out but I just gave up on it in the end and went through other means because I wasn't getting anywhere with him.

Has he actually got tapes of that unreleased first album?

Well he never showed them to me. I always assumed he had them but I just had to go on his word. I'd like to see the evidence of it. You never know with him. He's such a double-dealer you could never really know what was going on.
Bernie always used to give us big lectures about all the people he worked with in the 60s. Rob Simmons might've been impressed because he was into all that but it never really did anything for me. I never liked any of those people but obviously there was some truth in it all. I've never been interested in rock biographies - it bores me rigid.
He always claimed he was involved with Hendrix and the Who. I don't know in what capacity because he never really went any deeper than that he used to share a flat with Donovan. Donovan's his son's godfather.

Didn't he claim that he was knocking around with Marc Bolan in 1973?

Well I don't know anything about rock so don't take what I say seriously but I think he might've worked for the boss of Track Records. He also knew Peter Grant from that era.
I found him an infuriating bloke. I really would've liked to work with him, I still would even, but it's all one-way traffic with him. His ego is just so big that someone like that can't work with anybody else because they want to be 100% in control of everything. I like not being in control.

Weren't you under contract to him to write a set number of songs per week?

That was after that the group split up and he kept me on as a songwriter. I had to write 10 songs a week for 100.

Irrespective of the quality?!

Yeah, they were crap! (laughs)

So you haven't got a massive backlog of songs from that era then?

I have, I've got a tape from that era, I mean they're not really crap, they could be made into decent songs but they were just done quickly to get the wages.

Did you just have to do rough recordings of them?

That's right. I used to do demos of 50s type numbers for groups around in those days that did rockabilly stuff, like the Polecats. I liked some of them but it's not stuff I would've recorded myself.

Was that good discipline, making you do that?

Yeah, I didn't mind it. I wasn't only doing that, at the same time I was recording that T.R.O.U.B.L.E. album which he didn't know about. Mike Allway got the money from Warner Brothers to pay for it but I wasn't actually on a wage , I was getting my wages by writing songs for Bernie while I was doing that album.

The tapes from the legendary unreleased debut album which have appeared over the years sound like they're 3rd generation copies...

They are but they're so good I just had to get them out. With a bit of luck the fact that they're already out might mean that better sources come forward. I've found that once one version comes out other people decide not to hold onto them any longer so hopefully better versions might appear. Mike who does all my audio mastering didn't want to use it because he didn't think the quality was good enough so it was a bit of a battle but I think it's much better quality than anything I've heard before. I'm really pleased - Parallel Lines on that album is my favourite track on it, I was totally amazed.

Do you look back on that period more fondly now because I used to have the impression that you'd disowned it...

Definitely ... That was because I'd never really re-heard all that stuff and I was just embarrassed by it but when I listened to it again I realised it was really good. I was embarrassed by it because I thought it was direct copies of other things but when I met Richard Hell on GLR recently, I went for a cup of tea with him afterwards and played him Chain Smoking and then played him Love Comes in Spurts and said that Chain Smoking was meant to be our version of it. And he said "yeah but that's the whole point of music, you do what you think is trying to be like me but because you're not from New York it comes out as something totally different and someone from Paris will try to be like you and it'll come out differently again, that's the way music works" and it made me feel really good when he said that.

Do you still like Richard Hell and Television as much as you ever did?

Oh yeah, I still listen to them now - and Talking Heads - but of all the English punk groups there's nothing you can still play now. I don't like anything from the punk era. Even the Buzzcocks, who I liked then, if you play their stuff now it gets a bit irritating, I find. I hated the Jam, they ranked alongside the Beatles! I was never a great Peel listener really. I did like I Blood Brother Be but that was a few years later.

Do you wish now that original band had stayed together?

At least for a couple of years, to do a proper album, especially when Bob Ward joined. Up until then we wouldn't have been worth recording. It was only him who made us accessible enough to listen to, it was too disjointed before. He was the only proper musician in the group, he provided the steady beat which enabled Paul the bass player who didn't really know what he was doing to put simple basslines in synch with him and it just sort of gelled from there.

Do you find it frustrating that people harp on so much about your early stuff as if the later stuff was an aberration?

Yeah ... but I've never really taken much notice of people, to tell you the truth. I tend to do the opposite of what people want me to do, I'm just an awkward sod in that way.

Well I was going to ask you whether you think you're a bit perverse..

Yeah! But that was always from the start, we always wanted to be different. We never even started off doing music, we started taping plays and comedy. When we first started Paul Packham the drummer was the singer and our first rehearsal with a proper mic and all that was more like a comedy show, with him singing Boy Like Sue and doing Elvis impersonations. I suppose it was quite a surreal situation to be in because the Sex Pistols represented what could be done but they had really been practising since 1974 so they really could play quite well while we literally not only couldn't play, we weren't even the sort of people who would be in a group in the first place and still aren't! I wouldn't look twice at an amplifier!

So the Sex Pistols gave you the freedom to try yourselves?

That's right. In that way we were like the Banshees although the Banshees were like a bunch of hairdressers but at least they weren't musicians. We weren't the hairdresser types but in the same way that they were totally alien to amplifiers and guitars, we were as well so we tended to try and do everything in a different way just because we couldn't do it in a proper way.

Did you feel any affinity with any bands at the time?

Yeah, at the time. We had a big thing with the Buzzcocks, we were totally on the same wavelength and the Prefects as well. We came out of the same mould. They were Birmingham, we were London and the Buzzcocks were Manchester but we were very similar, we'd all started from scratch just at the time, and the Slits and the Banshees as well and Eater maybe but they were the only ones I'd say really couldn't play.

Who exactly is on that live version of Sister Ray?

Us, the Slits and the Prefects. That's from the last night of the White Riot tour - you can't hear any of them but they're there! There's a video of that somewhere - I've seen the footage that Don Letts filmed of the entire gig.

How did you go from that to playing in Paris at an Yves Saint Laurent party?

One of the Clash's hangers-on was Sebastian Conran. He had all the connections with the fashion people and they were looking for bands to play at his party and he just put us forward for it. The billing just said "Subway Sect. Caribbean Band. Brazilian Band".

Was the audience rather bemused when you played?

I don't remember very much about it, to tell you the truth but they were, yeah, we didn't go down very well at all. In fact they tried to get us off but I was told afterwards that Johnny Green (Clash roadie) rugby-tackled somebody just before they unplugged the amps.
It was a fancy dress thing, Elton John was there in one of those gorilla suits, a real jetsetters scene. Strange event, that was!

What's that bubbling sound in the background on Ambition?

Just one of those early computer machines - it's not even in time! Bernie put that on there, it was a good idea, made it a lot better but he sped it up too much. That's where he went wrong with that, really dramatically sped that up. It's alright speeding the music up but it puts the singing too high. Whereas nowadays you can do it with a computer and speed it up as much as you like and keep it in the same pitch but in those days you just had varispeed which makes everything sound really thin and weedy the faster it goes. In those days the engineers just thought punk meant "fast". It's also a well-known way in the studio of getting people who can't play to sound like they can by getting them to sound right at a slower tempo and then just speeding it up afterwards.

On your sleevenotes to What's the Matter Boy, you refer to your "reluctant co-operation"...

I wasn't really into it - we'd already done those songs once and now we were having to do them all over again, just messing about with the arrangements. I never really liked the way that album came out. The tracks that appear on 20 Odd Years definitely sound a lot better - there's been a lot of tampering to make them sound like that.|
It was recorded in a brand new studio and it sounded a bit horrific, like a skiffle album! Such a limited range of sound on it... I mean there's loads of instruments on there but you can hardly hear them, they're all buried but having said that when you hear them on the CD they sound really good compared to what they did sound like.

What was it like working with the Black Arabs on that album?

Fantastic! Never mind working with them, just watching them was unbelievable. I've never seen anyone that could play like that.

It seems a real shame they never released anything in their own right.

It definitely is - they had a great recording of the Devil's in League With You that they were going to put out as their first single. Bernie had the acetate of it and I thought it was going to be a big hit but he just never did it. I actually wrote that song for them - and Stop That Girl as well.

Looking back on your swing period in the 80s, do you still stand by that?

Yeah. We're re-releasing Songs For Sale, I still really like those songs. It sounded awful but that's why we need to get hold of the mastertapes if we can.

When you were on tour during that era supporting Bauhaus & Birthday Party, did you get a terrible reception every night?

Not every night. It varied because it was such a bizarre thing to do. The reception was either really good or really bad - it was quite a punk thing to do. The reaction was totally for or totally against, it was really enjoyable!

Was Club Left set up specifically for you?

Sean McLuskey set it up because basically Bernie wouldn't pay us any wages and he just told Sean to use his own initiative if he wanted any wages so Sean went into this club and said "you're not using it Thursday nights, can we use it if we give you a percentage of the money" and that's how he sorted it out.

He runs all sorts of clubs nowadays, doesn't he?

Yeah, I played at the Scala the other night in fact. I just did a few Cole Porter numbers and 20th Century Blues with Pete Saunders, who plays piano for me on most of my stuff now. In fact I'm trying to get a cabaret band started with him, doing stuff live from the 30s and 40s, as a money-making exercise, basically.

When you dropped out of sight after T.R.O.U.B.L.E., had you decided to jack it in?

No, I jacked it in before then really, when I split up with Bernie in about 1983. T.R.O.U.B.L.E. didn't actually come out until 1985, it was lying around for years without anybody being interested in releasing it at all.

Was the split at your instigation?

No, it was more Bernie really, he'd had enough. I wasn't getting on with the way that music was developing because drum machines were taking over and I just didn't like it.

During that quiet period were you still planning to make records again?

Well the thing is Bernie was building a studio but it was only for demos. It never became a proper recording studio because he didn't own the land - it was British Rail property on Chalk Farm Road so it was a bit useless really. I could record just as well doing it straight onto a tape and I was being restricted at the time. I was doing jazzy stuff and the drum machine wasn't being jazzy.

The Johnny Thunders single in 1994 was radically different to anything you'd done for a long time....

It was a weird period, I didn't know quite what to do. It was kind of a tribute record trying to sound like him, but I hadn't done anything for so long I kind of forgot everything and just did what I wanted to.

Did you get any money for singing on A Girl Like You?

Yeah I did! That was quite handy!

One of the most striking things about the early Subway Sect songs was your use of language and the way you used words like enclave, concatenation, derailed which were hardly typical parts of rock vocabulary whereas nowadays your lyrics seem far more straightforward. Was that a conscious shift?

Not at all - I had such a long gap when I wasn't writing that when I started again it was really like a different person. And also it's different starting again when you're that old as opposed to when you're 18. That's what I put that down to really, being a lot older and being clearer about what I'm trying to do.

What is the actual End of the Surrey People song about?

That came from a bizarre dream I had at the time the trouble in Yugoslavia started off with Slovenia and Croatia breaking away and somehow I was thinking what it would be like if that kind of thing happened in Surrey.

Is that album unavailable at the moment?

Well he only did about 2000 so it's probably sold out. Even I can't get copies now! Alan Horne might have a spare box set aside somewhere. My manager says the only way things like that might get reissued is if something I did now became really big, then people might start reissuing things but the other one, Long Term Side Effect, they only did 1500 of that so that'll probably become even scarcer.
The thing with CDs is if you pay for a thousand, that's the dearest way of doing it whereas the recent compilation we did 3000 straight away because then you're paying a lot less for each one.

That compilation's incredibly cheap isn't it?!

Well that's what we wanted to do: sell a lot and keep the price down.

Are there any plans to release any of your old live tapes?

The quality's just too bad, I would love to get hold of a good quality one but I've never actually as yet heard anything good enough.

What made you go back to No Love Now all these years later?

Pat Gilbert interviewed me and he'd just started his own label to put out vinyl singles just for fun and he was telling me about how difficult it was doing a single and so I said I'll do one for you. It was about the time of the 20 Year anniversary of the Punk Festival and he was asking me what became of the songs we played then and I said that they'd all surfaced apart from the very first one we did so I thought it was a good idea to do it so we tried to do it as close as we could to the original.

Have you ever considered re-recording old songs like Eastern Europe etc?

Yeah I probably will - not all of them, though. I've done that before. The only reason I did Imbalance on End of the Surrey People was that I didn't have a version of it and it was an old Subway Sect thing we always did so in principle, yeah, but it's a matter of getting enough of the original to remember a lot of it. There were two versions of Eastern Europe versions, both totally different - they both had the same words but one melody was a fast punk thrashy type version, the other was more mid-tempo like Gloria but I haven't got tapes of either version.
I had a tape of No Love Now at the 100 Club and from that I was able to get the tempo because it was real breakneck speed. We even kept all the chord changes!

Do you read a lot now?

I don't really get time, just the odd short story. I used to read French and Russian writers a lot, I was never much into English stuff. I like Shakespeare but I couldn't read it - I like Lamb's Tales of Shakespeare which is an easily digestible version.

I might be remembering this completely wrongly but I'm sure I once saw an interview where you mentioned Le Grand Meaulnes....

Oh yeah! That's my favourite book of all time.

I loved that. We studied it at school...

Have you ever seen the film of that?

Yeah, I'd love to see it again. I was so young..

So would I! The sequence where they go into the chateau was great. It's one of those films that you only see it once as a kid but it imprints such a memory on you. Where did you see it?

At the local Film Theatre.

Oh right. Because I was wondering if there was a video of that around because you never see it on TV. He (Alain Fournier) actually lived in Chiswick for a while, just over the river from me, at a place called Strand-on-the-Green. I think he came over here as a teacher to teach at a school in Chiswick.

That was the only novel he wrote, wasn't it?

Yeah... That novel to me was the best thing ever! I couldn't believe it when I read it. There's something about it and that area of France.. I've never been there but it paints an amazing picture of this really mysterious area. Sylvie by Nerval has the same sort of feel about it as well.

What sort of music do you listen to nowadays?

Mainly modern American Urban R & B type stuff. That's what I spend my money on, people like Keith Murray. I still listen to all the old Velvet Underground, Jimmy Reed and Frank Sinatra stuff.

What are your future plans?

I'm working on new stuff with the Bitter Springs. I'm halfway through doing the lyrics at the moment but I've got tons of tunes. . Also recording with Nick Brown - beats and things. I'm hoping to do something small first, like an EP or something. Putting 20 odd tracks together takes so long and then you have to wait forever for it to come out.

Do you plan to play live a lot more?

With these rock gigs we're just not getting paid. There were 318 people at the last one at Dingwalls but we didn't get paid a penny because we had to get 350 minimum to get paid - but you still have to pay the band so you can't really afford to play those sort of gigs. Whereas me and Pete Saunders on our own can earn about 100 each, just for singing Frank Sinatra numbers. It's a lot easier, there's no gear to lug around but on the other hand if you've got an album out you've got to do promotion so then you have got to do gigs and just lose money on them to try and sell the albums.
And if you've got an album out people won't put you in magazines unless you've got gigs happening so that's why you have to do it.
Still, hopefully if the Internet keeps growing we'll be able to bypass all these other things...

Are you into the Internet yourself then?

Nah, I'm not! I'm lucky because the Motion people are- they run the Website. I haven't got a computer or anything. I'm a very Dark Ages sort of bloke, I still haven't worked out how to set the video.

 

Copyright Steve Beeho, 2000.
From The Biggest Library Yet #19 (The Fall Fanzine).