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A Very British Coup

Revisiting the first wave of punk with the U.K. Subs


Band histories can make for some pretty prosaic reading. Almost everybody thinks the genesis of their band is an incredibly unique and pregnant event, deserving of a novella-length retelling for anyone who will listen, with the result that a lot of interviews and band-devoted websites are given over to needlessly fleshed-out inside jokes and irrelevant happenings blown up into huge historical milestones by minds eager to mythologize.

And dammit all anyway, I still love reading about them! I can’t get enough of casually exhaustive accounts of the first meetings of band members, first shows, first albums, and disastrous first tours. That is, if it’s an account of a band I like or at least find interesting, like British punk legends the U.K. Subs. Here’s one typically wry excerpt from the online Subs autobiography written by guitarist Nicky Garratt:

“I shared the new squat with a huge Irish guy named Joe and a transient anarchist called Stan who was in and out of jail. …We lived off a huge sack of potatoes and another one of onions and didn’t ask where they came from. French fries with fried onions were very popular, as were baked potatoes, potato and onion soup, potato patties with onion rings and the piece de resistance: roast potatoes lightly seasoned with onion.”

Fittingly inauspicious beginnings for a band that would eventually write many of the more ringing topical anthems of the first great punk explosion. They didn’t seize the media’s attention as early on as some of their contemporaries, but eventually came into their own as the first-wave bands gradually began to die off. Even the most fair-weather fan of vintage British punk today is practically obliged to own at least one beer-encrusted tape of Endangered Species or Brand New Age.

Garratt’s meticulous account of the Subs, from their early years in London spent cheek-and-jowl with a regular Who’s Who of ’70s British punk (including then-present/future members of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Chelsea, the Vibrators and the Stranglers), all the way through to the Subs’ last stateside visit (1999’s Social Chaos tour, with T.S.O.L, DOA, Vice Squad and One Way System, among others) manages to be mildly self-aggrandizing in spots, but as band histories go it’s actually quite understated, even touching in spots. Except where called upon to do so, Garratt’s account little acknowledges the incredible influence the band which singer Charlie Harper asked him to join in 1977 still exerts over young punks just starting out today—whether the kids know it or not.

Over 23 years and still going strong. Several dozen singles, albums, EPs and compilations. A groundbreaking 1983 tour of Poland with between 5,000 and 12,000 people in attendance at most of the arena-sized shows. Upon leaving Poland, the band members, burdened with non-convertible Polish zlotys, gave most of their money to a cleaning woman—roughly the equivalent of five years’ salary for her. According to Garrett, what little money he spent himself was mostly on crystal and glassware. Here in Missoula, they’re putting on a $5 show. Classy, eh?
UK Subs play their first-ever Montana show at the Ritz, Sunday, Oct. 8, with special guests the Everyday Sinners and Grand Theft Audio.

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