THE SECRET LIFE OF A TEENAGE PUNK ROCKER: THE ANDY BLADE CHRONICLES - Andy Blade (214 pages, Cherry Red)
From the opening line, where Blade describes a typical night at The Roxy Club, it’s apparent that this is a man who has lived his life to the full and can write about it with incredible energy, wit and observation. If you didn’t know, Andy Blade was the singer in EATER - the youngest band on the London Punk scene in ‘77 but by no means a novelty act. Songs like ‘You’, ‘Thinking Of The USA’ and ‘Lock It Up’ stand up to anything of the era and in ‘Outside View’ the band had its own classic.
The book is split into three parts. The first part documents Blade’s life before and during EATER culminating in the band’s split. It’s an engrossing read and Blade has a vivid way with words that virtually places you in Neal Street outside the Roxy as Sid Vicious coerces Andy in attempting to get Billy Idol out of the club so Vicious could beat him up. We read of Blade’s life pre-EATER - sibling rivalry, his parents’ divorce, problems with school. Even here Blade has a verve about his writing and, when EATER forms, the book becomes irresistible. Blade doesn’t glamorise the band or the era. He writes from the heart and that’s what makes it alluring - there is no premeditated name-dropping. Blade was simply there, in person, during the most exciting era of British music. The fact he doesn’t hide his affair with Johnny Rotten’s wife-to-be, Nora, nor the assault he received from Rotten and Wobble when he was discovered in her bed reiterates the notion that Blade is just telling his story; it would be equally as engrossing were it Joe Bloggs instead of Rotten. One of the most telling insights is the exhilarating hope of revolutionary change that was in the air at the dawn of ‘77 compared with the sense of failure and betrayal that was felt as the band - and the original wave of Punk - died.
The second part of the book looks at Blade post-EATER. While not laden with ‘77 Punk icons, it reads with equal vibrancy and, in many ways, is a more intimate look at the man, Andy Blade, as opposed to the Punk Rocker. Blade became a self-confessed hippy, a drug addict (and substance abuse MUCH heavier than mere hash) and packed himself off to Egypt to detox.
Part Three sees Blade return to the UK only to become entrenched in alcoholism and philandering. This chapter culminates with the reformation of EATER and its abrupt termination as Blade discovers EATER guitarist, Brian Chevette, had been shagging his wife.
There is also a healthy smattering of photos from throughout Blade’s life and a foreword written by Henry Rollins.
This review only covers a minute portion of the incidents in this book. Blade recounts the ‘76-’77 Punk era with amazing clarity; it’s intelligent writing but not elitist and he is open about his thoughts and emotions of people and places. The trait that really makes this one of the best autobiographies you will read is the fact that Blade comes over as genuine. There is a sincerity about his words that make you TRUST what you are reading. Blade seems to have lived a sensational life - but he does not sensationalise it with added grime or polish it with a ‘cooler than thou’ veneer. Blade’s perception of what is interesting about life beyond EATER is insightful also and should not be dismissed.
This could be the best, first-hand account of London’s iconoclastic Punk scene of ‘76-’77 you’ll read.
SKA’D FOR LIFE: A PERSONAL JOURNEY WITH THE SPECIALS - Horace Panter (315 pages)
Before I start any analysis of this book, I’ll put things simply: this is probably one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read about a band that has been written by a member of the band in question.
As the title states, this looks at the life and times of THE SPECIALS, the energised Ska band that grew out of Punk, retained Punk’s energy and acerbic attitude but added a ska-beat groove. The book’s author, Horace Panter, was the band’s bass player and one of its founding members. Panter takes us right back to his formative school days, his pre-Specials bands and general adolescence. It forms a good platform for Panter, and the reader, to compare and relate future events of Special-dom with Panter’s own progression - both musical and social.
Once the text about THE SPECIALS arrives, it’s near impossible to put the book down. You learn of the personal perspectives and quibbles of each SPECIAL and how fame coupled with a certain rock ‘n’ roll attitude affected each member. There are many references to other bands of the time with several derogatory remarks aimed at the late 70s Punk bands (those that really stand out for slander are EATER, SAINTS, GENERATION X and the DAMNED) while THE CLASH, with whom THE SPECIALS toured early on, get a resounding vote of being the best band ever. Other bands mentioned with varying degrees of wit include KILLING JOKE, VAN HALEN, THE POLICE (the renaming of Sting as ‘String’ by Jerry Dammers is particularly amusing), BLACK FLAG, JOHN LYDON, THE GO-GOS, THE JAM and SHAM 69. The band’s eventual label mates MADNESS, SELECTOR, BODYSNATCHERS and THE BEAT all feature heavily too.
The book progresses through the skinhead violence, Two-Tone, drug and alcohol abuse, national and international stardom, inter-band friction, paranoia, ‘Ghost Town’ and Panter’s own personal life. One of the most intriguing parts of the book is the chapter about the band’s first visit to the USA which is lifted straight from Panter’s written-at-the-time diary. The chapter begins full of hope, expectation and promise and ends with the beginning of the band’s inner friction that lead to its eventual split. The diary is repeated in another chapter with equally insightful revelations. The band’s eventual split makes for very hard reading. Here is a band that, on forming, had a unity and a joy in the power of the band that was unmatched and untouchable - virtually a gang mentality. At the end, there appears to be a bitter sense of animosity and scathing silence between each member and every other member.
Panter doesn’t shy away from the bad parts - nor does he seem to eulogise the good parts. His writing comes over as sincere, accessible and, most importantly, honest while possessing an intuitive wit that raises his writing above those of most musos-turned-novelists. As he himself notes, when and if Jerry Dammers ever writes a book, it will no doubt be a very different book to Panter’s as this is HIS perspective and is not intended to be the authoritative overview of THE SPECIALS’ career.
There are also two photo sections in the book featuring never-before-seen snaps of the band around the world.
I grew up with THE SPECIALS. One of the first records I bought was ‘Too Much Too Young’ when I was 10 and avidly watched the band rise from there. I didn’t realise then what a musical revolution the band was, how political it was or of any affiliations with Punk - that all came as I grew older. I had suspicions that this book could be a big let down - I mean - Panter was only the bassist, but he was also the guy who did a lot of the band’s interviews and was there from day one. Maybe the very fact that this is not Dammers’ or Hall’s book makes it that much less sensational, that much more heartfelt and, ultimately, that much more enjoyable.
Whatever, it’s a totally recommended read that will have you in fits of laughter and, occasionally, tears.
SONICALLY SPEAKING MC5: A TALE OF REVOLUTION AND ROCK 'N' ROLL - Brett Callwood (224 pages)
It’s hard to believe that since the band’s third, final album it has taken over 35 years for someone to write the first in-depth biography of the legend that is the MC5. I would have thought the band would be an obvious choice for many music journalists, given the fact that the band only released three albums and has an already well-documented history; it appears to be a moderately easy task. But the MC5 was not ‘just another band’ - it was something special, revolutionary, iconic and volatile. It is a band with a history that is complex and intriguing and requires the telling by more than just a doing-it-for-the-bucks ‘rock journo’; thankfully Brett Callwood is an obsessive fan first, a rock journo second.
The book instantly sets the era and tone of the day by candidly placing four pivotal dates of the early 60s at the opening of the first chapter. No comments follow the statement of JFK beating Nixon for the Presidency in 1960, nor of his assassination in ‘63 or of his replacement, Lyndon Johnson, waging war in Vietnam in ‘64 - but they set the scene for what was going on in America for the fourth pivotal date: when the MC5 formed in 1964. It’s a simple but hugely effective placing of time and environment. The book continues with an analysis of each band member’s early days, the formation of the band, its involvement with manager John Sinclair and progresses through the recording of the three albums, various shows, record contracts and the peripheral information which was plentiful - the band’s involvement with the White Panther Party, drugs, violence, jail terms and its eventual demise.
The closing few chapters are equally informative and follow each band member through their post-MC5 projects (including Wayne Kramer’s involvement in GANG WAR with Johnny Thunders) and the deaths of Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith and Rob Tyner. It closes with the reformation tour of the band (renamed DKT/MC5) of 2004/05. The book is filled out with eight photo pages, a closing conclusion from Callwood and a comprehensive bibliography and discography.
The book pivots greatly around interviews with the three remaining band members - Wayne Kramer, Dennis Thompson and Michael Davis. All are interesting characters although Kramer occasionally comes over as slightly self-righteous and even arrogant. There are also interviews with other figures that featured heavily in the band’s history such as John Sinclair, ex-White Panther Pun Plamondon, Sonic Smith’s son Jackson and the owner of the Grande Ballroom where the classic ‘Kick Out The Jams’ was recorded. Other notables interviewed include MUDHONEY’s Mark Arm who was a part of the re-union tour and THE DAMNED’s Brian James (with whom Kramer recorded the MAD FOR THE RACKET album with).
Callwood’s narrative perfectly straddles the divide between incisive rock critic and knowledgeable fan. While he didn’t reveal a great deal of new information regarding the band’s already documented past, he did reveal a lot of specific points regarding almost every facet of the band’s history and the circumstances which lead to, or arose from, those instances. Some of Callwood’s use of quotes got a little confused at times (particularly that of Kramer’s on page 202 where, seemingly, Kramer starts talking about himself in the third party) which stifled the flow of the text in parts.
The book should appeal to those who only know of the furore around ‘Kick Out The Jams’ and of the band’s music via DAMNED covers as well as those who are already very familiar with the band’s history, music and politics. I’m delighted to see a band so important to the development of rock music - and Punk specifically - as a form of kicking up a stink AND rocking out bloody hard finally get its recognition in the form of a reliable book.
SO THIS IS READIN? LIFE ON THE ROAD WITH THE UNSEEN - Tripp Underwood (164 pages, Hopeless Records).
Tripp Underwood, like you couldn’t guess, is the bassist and one of the founding members of Boston Punks, THE UNSEEN. This book, while heavily focusing on the band in a touring capacity, is essentially a biography of the band right from forming in 1994, through to becoming a full-time job thanks to the Stern Brothers at BYO and up to the band signing to Hellcat and the release of the ‘State Of Discontent’ album.
Underwood’s style of writing is relaxed, affable and accessible. There’s never a sense - as can often be with autobiographical writing - of eulogising himself or his band. It reads like Underwood is relating tour stories down the pub to his mates, often making fun at THE UNSEEN’s ability to do the wrong thing or confront misfortune. But he also makes it abundantly clear that he and his band mates are committed and deadly serious about how THE UNSEEN is viewed and the desire for the band to be successful in all it does. Occasionally, Underwood’s desire for THE UNSEEN’s success and betterment comes over as being a little too desperate; that success is what it’s all about. Of course, if that WAS the case, Underwood would not toil away in a barbed, political Punk band full of mohawks and spikes for something approaching 15 years.
A great deal of the appeal of Underwood’s tales is in his humour. You get to hear crazed stories of a wild father returning home to find not just the UNSEEN but also THE CASUALTIES and VIOLENT SOCIETY having overtaken his palatial home; during the same tour breaking into the amusement park where the film, ‘The Lost Boys’ was filmed and this time getting chased by security guards and cops; recording deep in the forests of Maine and being party to the producer’s aunt having what seems to be the noisiest shag possible; getting drunk, stoned, lost and on the run in Amsterdam; and of course there are the obligatory tales of every band’s malfunctioning nemesis: the tour van!
There are also the more sobering stories, where the spirit of Punk provides common ground, such as sitting in the destroyed ruins of Nagasaki with a bunch of non-English speaking Japanese Punks and the band’s own joy at meeting Mick Jones of THE CLASH in MacDonald’s of all places.
There are a few pages of photos (including a couple of Tripp in the aforementioned amusement park hanging from a bridge that look scary as hell), some carefully chosen quotes regarding the book’s quality from Lars Frederiksen (RANCID), George Tabb and, most notably for me, Dick Lucas (SUBHUMANS/CITIZEN FISH).
I’m not exactly sure how often I’ll return to this as, once it has been read, a lot of the stories become a little redundant. As a one-off read it’s enjoyable and insightful - especially to those who have never jumped in a van to go on tour. If this stands as a recommendation, the book did make me more than itchy to dig out my UNSEEN records and listen to them with a new-found enthusiasm as I read about each one’s recording.