U.K. Subs frontman Charlie Harper looks back on four decades at punk's frontline
With U.K. Subs, frontman Charlie Harper has spent four decades manning punk’s front line. Now 72, the one-time bluesman and hairdresser talks about a long life less ordinary
By the time that dyed-in-the-wool bluesman Charlie Harper first witnessed punk rock in the flesh he was 32. Immediately moved to embrace the scene, he initially reinvented his R&B combo The Marauders as The Subversives before finally settling on the appropriately short and sharp epithet U.K. Subs.
Having made their vinyl debut (caught live at Covent Garden Brit-punk crucible The Roxy on New Year’s Eve 1977) the quartet enjoyed a rapid ascent. Though largely dismissed by the music press, they found an early champion in Radio 1’s John Peel, and widespread grass-roots support as they surfed punk’s second wave. A flurry of hits (Stranglehold, Tomorrow’s Girls, She’s Not There, Warhead) repeatedly took them to Top Of The Pops and mainstream infamy, before they dipped back beneath the radar to become international cult heroes. Latterly embraced (alongside Sham 69 and Cock Sparrer) as pioneers of street-punk, the U.K. Subs – in a number of incarnations, but always fronted by Charlie Harper – have never ceased gigging, racking up more than 200 shows a year for as close to four decades as doesn’t matter.
At 72, Harper has just delivered Ziezo, the 26th and final, alphabetically titled studio album from a very much in-form U.K. Subs.
So who exactly is Charlie Harper, and how did he come to be globally revered as the godfather of street-punk? His real name is David Perez, he comes from Hackney, and this is his story…
Where were you born and brought up, and when did you first engage with music?
I was born in London but moved to the Sussex countryside when I was eight years old. This was in the early fifties, when rock’n’roll had just started. I was a mad Elvis Presley fan, but I loved everyone from that rock’n’roll era: Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly.
What kind of formal education did you receive?
When I was in London I played truant a lot. Everyone worked but my grandma, so I’d go home, hang around the kitchen and taste her food. I was a bit anti-school, so I didn’t volunteer to do the exams to go to grammar school. I went to a radical secondary school where the pupils had school meetings and made their own rules. You were pretty much left to your own devices, but I got a great education. I was Chairman of the Young Farmers’ Club, so when it came to livestock, soil, trees, or any kind of agriculture my education was good. I worked on a combine harvester, stacking hay bales. It was a very different education to how it would have been if I’d continued living in London.
What did your family consider to be your prospects?
They wanted me to be a hairdresser, so I could do their hair for free. And that happened. I left school when I was fifteen and went straight into a hairdressing apprenticeship.
You would have been in your late teens at the time of the R&B boom in London. What effect did it have on you?
I immediately loved the Rolling Stones. Followed them everywhere, sometimes saw them three times a week. They’d be playing a residency at Ken Colyer’s Jazz Club in Leicester Square or R&B night at The 51 Club, then they’d be at Klook’s Kleek in West Hampstead or the Station Hotel, Richmond and little clubs around the outskirts of London. The 100 Club had R&B nights twice a week; The Kinks and the Pretty Things played every week, The Yardbirds normally warmed up for the Rolling Stones so I always used to get there early. All the bluesmen came over to the first Marquee Club, under a jeweller’s in Oxford Street, where Manfred Mann’s band would back them. This was when R&B took over. All the jazz clubs started to have more R&B nights.
Were you still an apprentice hairdresser at that point?
I’d left by then. I was a street singer, a busker. Rod Stewart was a busker at the same time, and Al Stewart – he shared the same patch as me, on Tottenham Court Road, and sometimes the same songs. Dylan was the new thing then, and we both used to do It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). The money was good. I remember getting a fiver off of someone once, and a fiver back then would pay your week’s rent.
Why did you take the solo route rather than form a band?
Early on I fell in with a bunch of beatniks. We were playing the Woody Guthrie and Jack Elliott songbooks. Those guys taught me to play guitar and harmonica, so that’s what I did. When I was fourteen I got a guitar that cost eight quid which I paid off by instalments. It had Bert Weedon’s Play In A Day guitar book with it, so I learnt to play my three chords in twenty minutes and was off.
When did you first recognise popular music as a vehicle for protest, a catalyst of change?
That’s what it was, what we were about. Street singers took over from the cinema queue entertainers, the old guard who’d tap-dance, sing and play, then with Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan came the protest songs that we were into. The beatnik guys were slightly older than me, but the kids my age got into modern revolutionary jazz – Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus – so revolutionary ideas were everywhere. Then, when Dylan came along, we all got busking. Afterwards we’d end up in the pub above Leicester Square station. One night there was a band playing upstairs. I looked at another busker I was with and said: “We can do this electric stuff.” So we did. And never looked back, really.
When did you first start writing your own songs?
I wrote my first at the end of sixty-nine. The chords weren’t hard but it was difficult to play and sing. I never quite caught it, my band didn’t like it, but another band took it. It went ‘Help me set the people free, You have the key to open the door.’ Very hippie.
Were you dressing mod sharp, or taking the beatnik route?
Our hair was a little bit longer than normal, just over our ears, but that was considered very long in those days. We didn’t purposefully go out to be scruffy, but when I came into the house my father wouldn’t let me sit in the armchair in my jeans. He thought they were filthy things.