Right now, somewhere in the world, the UK Subs are playing a gig. It could be in front of thousands of Mohawked, tattooed street rats in the barrios of Brazil, or a full house of adoring teenage punks in Japan. It could be in some beat-up squat bar in San Francisco where, like the rest of the USA, the band are treated as legends – as old punk rock bluesmen with a fistful of piratical tales dug from the seams of rock’n’roll – or in the back room of a UK or a medium-sized venue anywhere in Europe.
Charlie Harper, one of rock’n’roll’s unbreakables
Classic Rock meets the UK Subs' frontman, one of life's true indestructibles
Worldwide the Subs are seen as living proof of the power of punk rock as rabble-rousing street poetry. Remarkably, frontman Charlie Harper (born David Charles Perez in 1944) is in his mid- 60s and still performs with the gusto of a kid on his first stint on the gig circuit.
Harper doesn’t get the respect he deserves in the UK, but he doesn’t care what the media and music biz think – he doesn’t employ a PR, he just gets on with the business of playing great shows and flying the flag for punk rock. His life story should be celebrated as part of the great history of British rock’n’roll. Instead, like mod, 2 Tone, goth and a whole of host of British-invented street cultures, punk and key figures like Charlie are shunned and ignored in their home country.
That was until last month when BBC 6music conducted a Punk Rock World Cup, where thousands of listeners to Steve Lamacq’s radio show got to vote on their all-time favourite punk band. The Subs won by an impressive margin, beating off The Clash, Pistols and Ramones. It’s proof of just how much love there is out there for Charlie and his band.
With 23 albums released so far – in alphabetical order, from Another Kind Of Blues (‘A’) in 1979 to World War Live in 2008 (‘W’), with only X,Y and Z to follow – The UK Subs are punk rock’s great survivors.(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1AcyG6p4rw0
Harper’s music career mirrors all the ebbs and flows of British pop culture in the last five decades. To understand his roots you have to understand that The UK Subs are not just a second-wave punk band, but a group whose music is part and parcel of the long and winding road of British rock’n’roll; that, in many ways, the Subs are not just one of the last survivors of punk, but also the UK blues boom of the early 60s where Charlie’s roots are firmly embedded.
At 65 he is a contemporary of The Rolling Stones, and trailed the band in the early 60s in the smoky bars and clubs of London just when the British beat boom was finding its feet.
“I followed the Stones around from gig to gig when they started out,” he says, “like every Friday in Leicester Square at a place called The Porcupine – back when it was a pub where longhairs and bohemians could get in. Trad jazz was just beginning to fade out and R&B was starting to take over. There were loads of little clubs dotted around, run by fans – it was remarkably similar to the punk scene of now in terms of venues and the people that put gigs on.”
The British R&B scene was one of those unique moments when music- obsessed UK hipsters picked up on American music and became firebrand evangelists for it. In his late teens Charlie was one of the new longhairs hanging around these smoky bars digging the raw rhythm and blues on obscure 45s and checking out the upcoming generation of British bands who had painstakingly copied these crackling slices of vinyl whilst unintentionally adding a fish and chips British swagger to them that would soon, in turn, charm a whole generation of American kids.
“I saw the Stones really early on, playing these little cellar bars,” says Harper. “I knew Brian Jones the best. I remember that he liked my shoes, which I had dyed myself. I got them in a shop and died them green. I knew them to speak to so I’d talk to Brian and to Mick who was, like, the organiser who would know what time they were on and where they were playing next.
“I was into all that scene – The Yardbirds, Downliner Sect. I was a busker at the time and so was Rod Stewart and that’s how I got to know him. Rod taught me how to play the harmonica. You would hang around certain bars like the Prince Of Wales between Goodge Street and Charlotte Street: all the folkies used to go in there. Hanging around in bars – I suppose I’ve continued doing that forever! The trad jazz clubs were shutting down as everything became R&B with bands like The Kinks and The Pretty Things, who I was friendly with. All these bands would have residencies. Even The Rolling Stones would play residencies. They would be down in Richmond at the Railway Hotel and The Kinks would play every week at the 100 Club and then suddenly You Really Got Me came out and instead of 100 of us grooving along there would be all these chicks in there screaming!”
Despite being one of the faces on the burgeoning London R&B scene Charlie didn’t form his own band initially. Instead he opted to take the solo folkie route and ended up spending a lot of his time on the south coast of France, busking on the streets or playing in bars. The folk scene, which ran parallel with the R&B scene, had a whole host of cutting-edge singer songwriters and folkies updating traditional folk music with an exciting new edge.
“My folk set was kinda Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan kind of stuff,” says Harper. “There was a lot of good people around at the time like Don Partridge and Ralph McTell who got famous with Streets Of London a few years later – they were playing round the folk clubs. Even Bob Dylan and Paul Simon were around: they came over and played the little clubs in rooms above pubs. There was a circuit through all of Britain. There was a place in every town to play, and you could play all around the south of France: you could sleep on the beach down there. So I went down there busking, doing my Rambling Jack Elliot bit. That’s how I spent the 60s: learning new songs every day and busking all these Dylan and Tom Paxton songs. There was a very rich musical kind of thing going on, not just R&B.”
The busking scene was a rootless existence – moving from venue to venue and country to country and was a perfect practice ground for the endless touring that Charlie would eventually and famously spend his life doing.
In the early 70s Harper finally decided to form his own band. “A friend of mine came down [to London] and we were busking. In a pub in Leicester Square they had some live bands playing and we thought, ‘Hey! We can do that!’ So we saved up our money for equipment. He was kind of a classically trained musician who played piano so he could pick up music fast. We put a BB King record on and he listened to it and worked it all out really quickly so I let him play lead guitar and I played bass and that started me on the road to rock’n’roll, which led me to The Marauders in the mid-70s. They were a basic R&B band and we also had The Charlie Harper Band which was like a kind of pub band which would play on Sunday afternoons – sometimes I would be so drunk that I would forget to take my bass!”
The expanding pub rock scene of the early 70s saw a varied collection of bands vying to fill the vacuum left by the supergroups and bring the music back down to earth and into the taprooms of the UK.
“We were playing the pub rock circuit,” he says. “There were some great bands on it like Kilburn And The High Roads, Ducks Deluxe and Wilko Johnson with Dr Feelgood. It was a great scene: really back to the roots and we were happy to be playing to full houses every night and making good money.” The pub rock scene arguably laid the foundations for the soon-to-come punk scene. “Bands like The Vibrators, Kilburn And The High Roads, The Stranglers and The Clash all came from pub rock. Joe Strummer was the singer in The 101ers and a lot of the punk bands came from the pub rock scene.”
The Marauders couldn’t help but notice the punk scene arriving on their doorstep. “Paul Slack, who ended up in The UK Subs, went to see the Sex Pistols play their first gig supporting Bazooka Joe at St Martins Art College in 1975. I already knew Bazooka Joe’s bass player Stuart Goddard – who became Adam Ant later on – because he’d got his hair cut at the hairdressers I was working in. We got quite friendly and would go drinking together. Paul came back and told us about the Sex Pistols and we started consciously playing punk by playing loads of down-strokes on the guitar. When Nicky Garrett joined us a few months later I already had the sound I liked: certain guitars played in a certain way with heavy strings. I didn’t like bending notes or the old finger warble. So we got this edgy sound. On the first album (1979’s Another Kind of Blues) Nicky is still playing with a Fender and light strings: it’s kind of later on he came to my way of thinking with heavier strings and we got closer to the sound I wanted.”
In 1977 the band toughened up their already raucous sound, changed from The Marauders to The UK Subs and played at the tail end of the Roxy club in 1977. They were offered the Farewell To The Roxy punk package tour and Charlie packed in his job at the hairdressers and went full-time.
“I guess we were second-wave punk,” says Charlie. “We don’t mind that. We were nothing when the first wave came. We were the audience. When the Roxy club started in early 1977 I was still playing R&B. I was saying to my band: ‘You’ve got to come down and see these bands – it’s the future of rock’n’roll’ – and I was 30 then! But my band were 18, 19 and still at college. They didn’t have any money to go out and it was a few months before I got them to a punk gig. When they saw The Damned it blew their minds. More and more punks would come and see us play. At heart, though, we were always a rhythm and blues band – even Johnny Rotten said that about us.”
By 1978 The UK Subs were one of the biggest second-wave bands and, after a good 15 years of bouncing around the music scene, Charlie was fronting a band with hit records – Stranglehold, Teenage, Warhead. Their early albums became instruction manuals on how to play classic punk rock and their live work an inspiration to every band in the genre.
Charlie, Nicky Garratt and Paul Slack became the classic UK Subs, with their knack of writing a great pop song, inventive and economical playing, and commitment to the cause making them eternally popular with the hardcore. They appeared in Sounds regularly – where Harper was jokingly dubbed ‘Champagne Charlie’ – and there were even a few years when they were Top Of The Pops chart regulars.
“That was a strange period,” laughs Harper. “Your life wasn’t your own then. You belonged to the record company. Nicky ended up insulting a lot of bigwigs and they spread the word saying: ‘Don’t work with this band, they’re difficult.’ We sort of drifted away from the business and went into Europe touring all the time. We were in the back of a Transit van living out of supermarkets on cheese and salad rolls – and after two or three years we got a big following in Europe which we still benefit from now. They take you at face value outside the UK as we found out as we toured the world over and over.”
Charlie has become an elder statesman – a punk rock bluesman, eternally drifting from gig to gig, from tour to tour – the scene’s paternal godfather whose unbridled enthusiasm for the many permutations for punk are legendary. At any Subs gig or punk festival you’ll find him in the crowd or on his merchandise stall chatting away to an endless stream of people who know him or want their picture taken with him.
“There are many young bands that play with us and I try my best to watch them,” he says. “I rarely go back our hotel straight away unless my throat is really bad – talking is much harder on the throat than singing!”
Next, he’d like to record another album in the series that’s running in alphabetical order. “When we did that alphabetical thing we thought maybe we would have three albums from A to C, but now I’m nearly up to X!” he laughs. “For the ‘X’ one I was thinking I could get the ex-Subs to write a song for it: everybody from Lars [Fredriksen] from Rancid who played guitar for us for one tour when he was a kid to Nicky [Garratt], and call the album X Subs. I’ve got that one worked out, it’s the ‘Y’ one I’m having difficulty with.”
How about ‘Y Not’, suggests Classic Rock.