November 22, 2011 by Dan Swinhoe
The seventies were explosive times. Music was beginning to mushroom and splinter into different directions. Rock had Zeppelin, Metal had Black Sabbath, Punk had Sex Pistols, and Prog had incredibly long songs. At the same time London pubs were full to the rafters with bands playing to drunken punters.
Pub rock never achieved the commercial or lasting success that its contemporary counterparts did, and even today the term carries an air of a put down, suggesting more a rabble of drunken amateurs than experienced professionals. Quite why this is no one is sure. One of the reasons maybe the most successful Pub rockers became leaders of the New Wave movement, artists like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury, while the also-rans and burn-outs were done before New Wave came along. Either way, it’s a story that’s rarely been told. With his new release from Soundcheck books, ‘Howlin’ Wind’, John Blaney gives an in-depth insight into the world of Pub rock and its eventual transformation into New Wave. His other musical writings include extensive examinations of the Beatles and he also writes for Shindig! Magazine.
‘Howlin’ Wind’ starts as the story of bands bored with the music industry and wanting to do their own thing. While it might not seem like it now, the idea of playing in a pub was a revolutionary concept, and started a snowball effect that would affect all of popular music. Some of the bands Blaney focuses on include; Eggs Over Easy, Brinsley Schwartz, Ducks Deluxe, Dr. Feelgood, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, Elvis Costello, and the late Ian Dury.
The first half of the book, the early Pub rock years, is the story of the scene finding its feet, the bands involved trying to find their sound, and generally conflicted about whether they’re ok with staying in the pubs, or breaking out into the mainstream that they’re trying to avoid. And a lot of the bands featured, even when they do decide on the success, don’t quite reach it. Burn out, creative differences, squabbles, and touring all take their toll on the majority of the bands in the book. For long passages, beside at times reading like a cautionary tale for upstart rockstars, it’s the story of a lot of also-rans and near misses (in commercial sense at least).
Even if you haven’t heard of many (if any) of the acts Blaney talks about, they’ve brushed the mainstream on more than one occasion. Aside from tours with the likes of The Who, Yes and Paul McCartney, some of the names in the book have gone on to play with acts such as Hawkwind, Johnny Cash, The Pogues and Roxy Music. Another landmark was Brinsley Schwartz’s performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Refusing to mime and bringing their own mixing desk to the BBC led to Whistle test becoming a show chock full of quality live music and miming on TV something to be embarrassed about.
The huge amount of research put into the book is clear to see, contemporary interviews from many now defunct magazines (Melody Maker, Sounds, Trouser Press) and more modern reflective pieces fill the pages. Blaney has talked to almost everybody who ever walked into a London pub in the seventies and provides first accounts of every major event in the book from the people who made them happen. It’s a nice touch for a group of people who might not have had their story told before, and they’re able to give up a good joke or two. Talk of music ‘Swinging like an elephant’s dick’ is bound to raise a few smiles. Though for all the book’s talk of the thriving Pub rock scene, the book never describes what it was like to be a part of the scene. We get plenty of insight in a select group of bands (essentially all of which are mentioned in the blurb), their breakups and reshuffles, but you rarely get the perspective of what it was like on the Pub Rock circuit. Most of the stories revolve around the bands trying to escape the Pubs for better things.
Blaney clearly has a lot of love and respect for the subject matter. But his writing sometimes lets the book down. He doesn’t have a strong voice in the book that guides you between the adventures of each band, and at times it feel like a list of events rather than the recounting of a story. But then there are flourishes of wit and animation, Blaney becoming excited enough to throw in a joke or point of the significance of the event.
The rise and fall of Punk catalogued in a few pages, which is a bit odd since the two are quite closely linked. Far more ink is dedicated to Joe Strummers’ less famous child, the 101-ers. Everyone knows about the Clash, but it’s nice change to read the details of how Strummer paid his dues in the Squats around London before becoming probably the most successful name in the book. And it seems the great John Peel influenced Pub rock and New Wave as much he did Punk. He’s mentioned with reverence and once again it shows that without him British music would still be stuck in the dark ages.
The story of Stiff is the main attraction of the book. Filling the final third of the book, it catalogues New Wave and the commercial breakthrough of Stiff onto the world stage. Label owners Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson were Pub rock’s answer to Malcolm Maclaren; their managerial style created a label as notorious as the bands it managed and without their influence it’s hard to see how New Wave would have made it out of the Tally-Ho pub, let alone break the US. Their success and drive creates a stark difference to the first half of the book, and makes a compelling read.
A label that wanted success but refused to toe the line, Stiff changed the rules of how labels operated. In a genius move, they created the collectible. Where today every band has a special edition, extra bonus tracks, artworks and whatever else they fancy throwing in, before Stiff vinyls came in any colour you wanted, as long as it was black. Clever adverts and package tours (including a touring train) added to the myth around the label and drew the crowds, even if no one had heard of the names on the roster. And finally we see some untroubled ambition from the bands as well. Costello and Dury were never shy of wanting to break into the big time, and with Riviera and Robinson behind them they achieved their ambitions, and refused to go back down to the pubs.
The ‘Where are they now’ section adds a really nice personal touch that few biographies offer. It sums up the big names briefly, leaving them to be explored in literature of their own, but gives you a concise yet comprehensive round up of most of the players in the book. The vinyl junkie discography gives you plenty to go on if you want to get into the scene, and the completists a chance to see what they’ve missed.
‘Howlin’ Wind’ is an insight into a niche scene, which for the most part few outside London will have heard much about. But it’s a niche scene which birthed a few legends, for a while at least played on the world stage, and left an impression on the world. One to read, then discuss down the pub.