Cold London Blues (CLB) is a blackly comic slice of pulp fiction (or Punk Fiction, if you fancy!) published by indie publisher Caffeine Nights Publishing. CLB is a follow up to my book Guns Of Brixton (GOB) – a violent gangster romp, a sweary Ealing Comedy. With GOB, I used the titles of Clash songs to – loosely!- frame the book.
Whereas GOB was a tad Mockney music hall in its approach, with CLB I wanted something more noir, more torch song, and so I used Vic Godard and Subway Sect songs in the same way. (I’d previously named a couple of characters after Vic. In my story The Last Laugh there’s a hit man known only as Godard and a bent copper called Vic Napper.)
The following scene features the murderous priest Father Tim Cook, who is going through a delayed mid-life crisis. He and his friend Gregor are on a pub crawl which takes them to a smokey, pokey bar full of sinners known as Noola’s Saloon.
Noola’s Saloon was even more crowded than the pub they’d just left but that certainly didn’t deter Father Tim and Gregor, who had decided they were on a drinking mission. As they shuffled through the door, the Wurlitzer jukebox burst to life and Howling Wolf snarled out ‘I Ain’t Superstitious.’
The pub was dimly lit and smoky, despite the fact that no one was smoking. Gregor found a small table near a disused cigarette machine and Tim went to the bar. A dishevelled and unshaven old soak, who seemed to be dressed like a private eye from some old black and white film, nestled on a bar stool, calmly contemplating the glass of whisky that was in front of him. The ice cubes seemed to shimmer, glimmer and glow in the wan light.
He looked up at Tim.
‘Twilight time,’ he said, his hangdog expression never changing.
‘Isn’t it always,’ said Tim.
The old soak nodded and went back to staring at his drink.
Tim briefly turned his gaze outside. The wet pavement reflected Noola’s Saloon’s flickering neon sign. Headlights cut through the heavy rain. He unsteadily shuffled up and leaned on the bar, plonking the sleeve of his jacket in a puddle of spilt lager.
After a while, he caught the eye of the barman , a grumpy-looking bloke with a pock-marked face and inky black quiff. He slowly put down his copy of National Geographic and Tim made the two finger gesture for two pints, making sure his hand was facing the right way.
The antique Wurlitzer Jukebox was playing Mel Torme’s version of ‘Gloomy Sunday’. Tim had always been a big fan of The Velvet Fog but the cacophonous voice of a fat bald bloke in a corduroy jacket boomed over the lush sounds.
‘Well, I’m certainly not a fan of the popcorn trash that the multiplex inflict upon us but at least Christopher Nolan treats Batman with the gravitas he deserves,’ said the bald, fat man.
A tall, twitchy man who was looming over him, almost spat his half pint of Guinness over his Armani shirt.
‘Gravitas!? It’s about a bloke who dresses up in a rubber bat suit to fight a baddy who dresses up like a clown. It’s not exactly Marcel bloody Proust, is it?’
‘Well some critics would argue that it’s a metaphor for …’
‘Critics! Jeez! Film critics! Have you ever been to the BFI?’
‘Of course. The recent Alain Resnais retrospective was …’
‘The British Film Institute is a very creepy place indeed, my friend. Creepy people, too. And the shite they spout. Like that crap about Dawn of The Dead being a satire of consumerism because the zombies go to a shopping centre. I mean, that’s one gag in the whole film! There’s also a scene where one of them gets decapitated by a helicopter blade. Is it a satire of air traffic control? Eh? I ask you?’
The bald man shuffled in his seat and wiped cappuccino froth from his top lip.
Father Tim, picked up two pints of Kronenburg from the bar and resisted the temptation to give both of the blokes a slap.
‘Wankers like that are what put me off going out for a drink in the West End these days,’ he said as he put the drinks on the table.
‘The city is riddled with them these days,’ said Gregor. ‘They’re like the clap. Even worse than northerners.’
‘I was in that poncy over-priced sandwich shop before I came here,’ said Tim, unsteadily sitting down. ‘Away in a Manger or whatever it’s called. Anyway, they were playing Nick Drake. ‘Fruit Tree’ to be precise.’
‘I like Nick Drake,’ said Gregor.
‘Now, don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of Nick myself but there were a couple of media wankers in there talking about his mum’s LP’
‘Nick Drake’s. Some sad bastard has put out a few songs she record in the olden days.’
‘Dunno. Never heard it. Anyway, these twats in the sandwich shop started prattling on about how Drake and his mother’s music was ‘quintessentially English’. I mean what the fuck’s that all about? Quintessentially posh sissy boy with a quintessentially stuck-up mother, I’ll give you that. Quintessentially poncy. It’s all that John Betjeman, cricket on the village green, Downtown Abbey, Latin quoting detective cobblers that they punt to the Septics because, well, Yanks are thick. And it has nothing to do with the life of a hairdresser from Wolverhampton or a bingo caller from Hull or the vast majority of English people. You know what I’m saying?’
‘Poshness. Poshnessabounds,’ slurred Gregor, sinking even lower in his seat. ‘This country is crippled by its class system.’
‘Exactly. Switch on the telly and it’s all Sherlock poncy Holmes or Dr poncy Who. This is the bullshit we have to put up with. Oxbridge twots and Oxbridge wannabees.’
‘We need another class war, that is what we need,’ said Gregor. He spilt a splash of lager on his shirt as he slurped it.
‘I blame America for it … well, I blame America for everything …The United States Of America is a cancer. A poisonous virus that has fatally infected its host,’ said Tim, reclining in the leather chair and waggling his outstretched fingers, trying to get the circulation back in them. He checked his reflection in the mirror. He wasn’t looking so good.
‘It’s like in those horror films, eh?’ he said. ‘They say you shouldn’t make your home on an Indian burial ground but when you think about it, the whole of the United States is a bleedin Indian burial ground. Think about it.’
As much as I liked The Clash and the Pistols, they were never one of MY bands. The Adverts, however, were very much my band. They were a great live band who released some great punk singles and a great debut LP. My Place was a change of pace, though. Moody and stripped down, it was pretty much ignored, unfortunately. The B-side – Back From The Dead– was co-written with The Doctors Of Madness’ Richard ‘Kid’ Strange and is also a lost gem.
The impact of the first couple of Subway Sect singles is well documented. The band’s move into swing also. The transition record is the classic ‘Stop That Girl’. But before that was Split Up the Money, a smart and catchy slice of kitchen sink crime fiction that acted as a taster for the forthcoming What’s The Matter Boy? LP.
Spizzoil were a glorious racket- all screeching, discordant guitar and,er, kazoo- I saw them live twice!- and Spizz’s second musical turn is well known due to the justly celebrated ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’ but before that was an electro punk version of Roxy Music’s ‘Virginia Plain’. The song is actually the B-side of the infectious punk disco anthem Soldier, Soldier: ‘What’s Your Price?’
After Howard Devoto quit Buzzcocks he returned with a barnstorming single in Shot By Both Sides and Magazine’s debut LP is a classic. But Rhythm Of Cruelty – a sinister, sleazy slice of noir – crept out with little impact. Which is a pity, as it’s a belter.
Buzzcocks released a bunch of singles in 1978 and seemingly lost among them was this short, sharp slice of punk-pop. One minute and fifty seconds long. Until the razor cuts.
EJ: The dumbing down of America leads to the end of days. Something about tiny fingers and a well-regulated militia.
PDB: Which music, books, films, songs or television shows do you wish you had written?
EJ: 4’33”. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The Social Network. Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. Veronica Mars. And far too many others for a short sharp interview. But if I’d written Lost, it wouldn’t have ended up shite.
PDB: Which of your books do you think would make good films or TV series?
EJ: Much of my crime fiction would make for decent movies. Burning Down the House is so episodic it could only ever work on TV.
PDB: Who are your favourite writers?
EJ: PG Wodehouse. Terry Pratchett. Iain (M) Banks. Martin Millar. Andrew Vachss. Lawrence Block. Donald Westlake. Nick Tosches. Agatha Christie. Me.
PDB: What’s your favourite joke?
EJ: Guns don’t kill people.
PDB: What’s your favourite song?
EJ: “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers
PDB: What’s on the cards?
EJ: The American electorate will save mankind, or not. Liverpool FC will fail heroically again. I will write some stupid good shit.
PDB: Anything else?
EJ: My partner in crime, Lucy Middlemass and I are launching a new publisher-y thing shortly. It will be called Furious. And we will do such things—what they are yet I know not—but they shall be the terrors of the earth.
Bio: I’ve done nothing. I’ve achieved nothing. I work for a firm but I want to burn it down.
Amazing what you think is a break when you are young. Getting a support slot to The Damned was a big scoop in my mind. But I wasn’t in awe of them. After all, they had not at this point had a decent sized hit record. Support them we did: twice. This is an account of those two gigs.
Middlesbrough Rock Garden – perhaps a more geeky ex-band member of Basczax can supply the date – was the venue that we were supporting them at. The Rock Garden was, of course, one of those venues that a lot of punk bands visited (heavy metal ones too) in the late 70s up to the very early 80s. It was small, rather squalid and suited the spit and snot ethos of punk perfectly. It was a great night out and I looked forward to going there most weekends as I did, between late ’78 and up to mid-1980.
So, there we were, all eager but trying to look nonchalant: too cool to boogie, punk was one big sulk for a lot of bands. Not that Basczax were a glum bunch. We had our stupid goofy moments too. Like the time we exited a stage, ran back on for an encore and Laurel and Hardy-like, I banged heads with bassist Mick Todd. Basczax: we fancied ourselves as Roxy Music if they had met in a British Steel work hut. We were pretty good, had a strong local following and we may or may not have had that whiff of ‘going places’ about us. I was having the time of my life, not realising it at the time of course.
So, The Damned were late. We of course, got there unfashionably early, bag of chips in hand and ready, oh so ready, for the gig. When they finally did arrive they were mostly in a bad mood. Their bass player, a grumpy git in a leather jacket called Algy Ward (had to look it up actually) had no bass amp. It had been broken/ stolen/whatever. We of course, being benevolent spirits said he could use ours. He looked at Mick Todd’s Carlsboro Bass Combo like it was a piece of shit. In fact, he might have even said ‘what’s this facking piece of shit?’ (note the southern pretend cockney vowel)
Singer Dave Vanian actually seemed an ok chap. He kept himself pretty much to himself but remember boys and girls, vampire lead singers need to be enigmatic. However, he was quite nice. I seem to remember him asking about us and being at least half interested in what we had to say.
Captain Sensible. CU next Tuesday is a word that springs to mind. He was carefully cultivating his cuntiness for all to be appalled at. A professional nasty, a bit of a punk clown of the unfunny kind. He picked up my cheap Kay Strat copy, pulled on the strings and nearly broke them and then contemptuously almost threw the guitar back at me. I might have said something like ‘there’s no need for that’. Rat Scabies, scurrying around, bumming cigarettes from Mick Todd (or was it John Hodgson? Certainly not me or sax player Jeff Fogarty – he was as skint as a rent boy, like me. Drummer Alan Cornforth didn’t smoke if my memory serves me well) intervened: ‘come on captain, less of that, leave the lads alone’…Shock horror! He was that anti-punk word: NICE. But of course, the next minute, he was back to being a professional nasty, like his punk chums.
We soundchecked. Or rather, sat around for ages while the Damned arsed around, deliberately taking as much time as they could. Regular ‘that sounds facking shit! ‘Turn up the monitor!’ (screeeech!) no! You facking moron…sort it out’..and all manner of bad boy language spewed from the stage. Vanian was quiet. Very quiet. Like the eye of the punk rock hurricane, he was a persona of calm in the riot of nastiness around him. Professional nastiness of course.
When we did soundcheck, we did a song we used to open with: ‘Success’. It sounded crap onstage, but sheer excitement for the gig made me overlook this small detail. I felt a surge of adrenaline as the indescribable buzz of playing a ‘proper gig’ always gave me.
One song. That was all we had time to do. As we got off the stage, Rat Scabies said to me ‘good one mate, like that, catchy stuff’..or something similar. I noticed he did not use the ‘fack’ word, which made a change. He must have been going soft on me.
The gig itself? To be honest, it is a blur. I was half drunk as always and our set whizzed by. The place was packed. The punks down front jumped up and down, heaved about, we got spat on. They liked us then.
What I do remember was sharing the toilet sized dressing room with The Damned. ‘What are you facking doing in here?’ snapped Captain Nasty. ‘We’re in the dressing room with you’ I answered dead pan. ‘no room to strangle a facking cat and we have to share this?’. I think someone might have said something like ‘now…now…don’t act like a pop star’…We were not fazed by the Damned. I thought they were fun, but shit actually. Yes, ‘New Rose’, ‘Neat Neat Neat’ were classic punk singles but live, they were a punk panto-act – all of them ugly sisters in a parade of panto-hate. (actually, my revisionist self now likes them for this very reason)
By now, I had decided that Captain Sensible was a tiresome bore and avoided trying to talk to him. A punk lass and friends came into the dressing room. I was astonished how Middlesbrough hard lasses acted like fawning groupies. Well, not fawning…but something like a ‘I’m not interested but yes I will sleep with you’ way. Captain Sensible wasted no time in living up to his professional nasty status ‘what do you facking slags want?’….Rat Scabies ‘a good knobbing…fnaaar fnaar’. Such backstage exchanges were not uncommon dear appalled reader. The girls, to give them credit, gave back as good as they got as all good punks should. None of this sissy fluttering eyelashes stuff…
The Rock Garden gig had been a triumph on an obscure local flapping fish in the pond sense. The night faded into the drunken blur of being young and not giving a toss about the future. The Damned, horrible lot that they were, provided us with at least the memorable spectacle of a naked Captain Sensible pissing on the front row of the audience. Punk gigs were not the Carpenters, that’s for sure
Now forgive me if I got this the wrong way around, but we also supported the Damned at a place called Cleethorpes Winter Gardens. This was the gig where Captain Sensible stole my blue teddy bear jumper (actually Mick Todd’s, I borrowed it for the gig) and then wore it on the cover of the ‘Love Song’ single.
Anyhow, this gig was another punk nastiness packed event. I had a pint of lager thrown on me while on stage. Except a salty taste in my mouth betrayed the fact that it was not lager: it was human piss. Well, I hope it was human – if it had been dog piss that would have been going too far.
At this gig the dressing room was bigger and we could mercifully almost avoid each other. I remember however, walking in on Captain Sensible while he was groping a punk girl’s tits. He didn’t flinch when I walked in: in fact, he nibbled on her nubile nipple, her punky baggy jumper hoisted over the top of them. She looked to me to be about fifteen. Sorry parents, but sometimes your naughty daughters go to gigs where they really should not. She might have been sixteen. Oh well, that makes it all right then (!)
This was the night that Captain Sensible surprised me. He gave me a glimpse of the ‘nice bloke’ he could be underneath the punk panto facade. He sat at a piano backstage and played a Barry White song. ‘I love Barry White’ he said as I stood there, admiring his musical prowess, obviously well hidden in the Damned. Of course, I expected him to revert back to the ‘fack this, fack that’ persona as soon as a fan appeared. But this time he shocked me again by ticking off a part time punk (probably dressing up for the weekend) that there was a lot of good music before punk. It turned out that he was quite a fan of Gong and all that weirdo jammed out hippy stuff. I think Grateful Dead might have been mentioned too.
Of course, I suspected this. Not everyone was into the Stooges and other pre-punk bands before punk. In fact, the blackmail pictures of long, lank hair and flares, Yes albums under the trench-coated arm, were hidden in the attic, that’s all.
Professional nasties, then. That was a side of punk that nobody ever talks about, because there was a music hall/vaudeville element to it that has been bricked over by retro-intellectual sociologist takes on Punk rock and how it blew all the dinosaurs away. (It didn’t: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, ELP all sold truck loads of records in this period) And Boney M and Abba were massive during the brief summers of hate that was Punk.
What I am saying is: don’t believe a word of it: punk was about being young, reckless, feckless and having a good time all the time – just like any other musical movement that catches you at a certain age.
Bio: Alan Savage is a Middlesbrough, U.K, born singer and songwriter. He releases music under his own name and other guises such as Dada Guitars and The Crystaleens. His previous bands include Basczax and The Flaming Mussolinis.
I’m flashing at OUT OF THE GUTTER‘s FLASH FICTION OFFENSIVE again.
‘She’s lost the plot again. It’s the third time this week. Sheila should never have come off her meds in the first place and now she’s just bounced straight back onto the cider. In fact, she’s bouncing around my front room at the moment, smashing into the telly, and knocking over the ornaments. As she waves a bottle of White Lightning cider around, I fear for the glass coffee table. I really do.’