UK Subs, Malfunction & Bin Laden’s Daughter – Cafe Drummonds – 10/07/10
“I’ll still be playing down the local pub once or twice a week in 20 years time if I’m still here. And that’ll be good enough for me.”
So said the U.K. Subs frontman, Charlie Harper way back in the midst of the punk wars of the late 1970s. Back in the days before the Subs had dropped their first splash of brightly coloured, 45rpm vinyl on an unsuspecting public. Back in the days before they had signed to major label subsidiary Gem records and had their brief flirtation with Top Of The Pops and the UK singles charts. Back before they had released the first of their myriad alphabetically ordered long players (currently sitting at the letter W fact fans). Well, we’re now 30 odd years on and the U.K. Subs are doing much more than a couple of nights down the local.
“On Tour Forever” – the t-shirts at the merch stall defiantly proclaim and it’s true. Despite having had a couple of heart attacks, at the age of 66, Charlie continues to tour the world relentlessly with his sidekicks preaching the punk gospel in fine style. If he can do that, then the least I can do at twenty years his junior is get my lazy arse off my comfy sofa and go along to give my support.
When I arrive at Drummonds, the upper area is packed with all seats taken. There’s a few familiar faces and I exchange a few pleasantries on my way down to the bar. The first band is already onstage so, when I get my shandy (yes, driving again), I go and check them out. They’re called Bin Laden’s Daughter. The shaven headed singer is prowling the dancefloor bellowing out his lyrics with a voice that could strip paint, while his bandmates thrash away at their instruments on the stage behind him, seemingly with complete disinterest. Song titles like Saddam’s Hole, Terry Wogan’s Cock and Up Your Ronson Boris Johnson give an indication that these guys don’t take themselves too seriously. Tongue in cheek, crude humour at its lowest level and none the worse for that. When it works, it works well – and they do have a handful of cracking tunes – but in the main, the music is pretty formulaic 3 chord punk thrash and I lose interest before the end of their set so go back upstairs to have a chat with some friends and to try and escape the heat.
Even stood right by the open door, Drummonds is a sweatbox tonight, that sticky, humid heat that makes your t-shirt and jeans cling to your body giving maximum discomfort. Horrible.
Anyway, after a short break, the three guys from Malfunction are in place and ready to go. These guys did the rounds in Aberdeen in the early 80’s then took a 20 year sabbatical before getting back together again a couple of years back. I’d seen them earlier in the year with 999 when they played a handful of tunes by the likes of The Clash, Sex Pistols and the Ruts but there was to be no cover versions aired tonight. They’ve written a bunch of new songs in the intervening months which sit comfortably beside their older material. In fact, I’d be hard pushed to guess which was which, it’s that seamless. The opener and the second song, Confusion, we are told were written in 1981 although you wouldn’t know it. They’re well constructed tunes and prove that you don’t necessarily need velocity to create a powerful punk song. Sometimes, just having the right pacing, with the emphasis in the right spots can make a song more dynamic, more effective than a full-on assault. The Malfunction guys seem to understand this logic very well and, maybe it’s because of this that their tunes, to my mind anyway, have aged pretty well.
“It’s good to see some of the old faces in here tonight.” Says singer Rod. “You’ve nae got any better looking though!”
They seem happy to be back doing their thing, with Rod and Dek moving casually around the stage making it look all so effortless. Scott at the back is a powerful drummer. His tight rolls and tribal sounding tom work gives the band a sound much different to the standard 1-2-3-4 punk fare, something altogether darker. Hints of The Mob, Zounds, Killing Joke flit through my head as I’m watching them but is only hints, no more than that. New song Change (?) has a more upbeat, poppier feel to it and stands out from the rest of the set because of that. All too soon, Rod announces it’s their last song and they kick into Pressure. This is the only time their influence is apparent and yet, despite borrowing heavily from Joy Division’s Transmission, when they launch into the extended instrumental wig-out near the end, the song takes on a life and an identity all of it’s own. Great stuff and good to see they’ve taken things up a notch from last time.
With the U.K. Subs, you’re usually more likely to get a change in the line up than a change in the set-list. Tonight however, we got both. The unfeasibly young and healthy looking Alvin Gibbs has relieved Paul Slack of bass duties for this leg of the tour. He joins Jet (guitar) and Jamie (drums) who appear to have become the “core” Subs members in recent years. There’s a quick tune up when they come onstage and then they launch into Kicks at breakneck speed generating an instant moshpit in front of the stage. They’re really tearing into the song and Charlie is really giving it laldy on the mic. Without pausing for breath it’s straight into a supercharged Squat 96 that keeps the blistering pace up. Out of the dozen or so times I’ve seen the Subs, I don’t think I’ve seen them more energised. Once again, at the end of the song, there’s no let up. With the feedback still ringing, the machine-gun snare rolls signal the intro to Emotional Blackmail and the pogoing at the front gets ever-wilder as more people join in the fun.
“What would you like to hear us play?” asks Charlie. “Oh, we’ve had a request for New York State Police” and they launch into it, once again, at full tilt. The band is really going for it tonight. Jet, with his gravity defying quiff, holds his guitar aloft while wringing out the police siren refrain from it. Alvin slings his bass around and hams it up for the front row while Charlie pogos and punches his fist in the air as he belts out the lyrics. There’s a slight let up in pace as they play Organised Crime. It’s very welcome if the red, sweating faces streaming towards the bar are anything to go by. It’s only temporary though as a white-hot Left For Dead and a 100mph tear through Rockers up the ante once again.
“Tell them about the new album, Charlie” says Alvin.
“Oh yeah.” says Charlie absent mindedly.
It seems that letter W is nearing completion with 16 backing tracks completed, appropriately titled Work In Progress. They proceed to play a tune off it which I don’t catch the name of. It’s a goody though. It’s got a kinda rock ‘n’ rolly feel to it, a bit like their last single 666 Yeah. From the new to the old as they then pile into Lady Esquire off the very first album. Charlie tells us that, as he’s playing with them just now, they’re now going to do some “Alvin songs”. Of course, we then get a cracking Endangered Species before, much to my delight, we get a double barrelled treat. Bitter & Twisted off of the Quintessentials album gets a rare outing before they play a terrific Keep On Running (Till You Burn). With a guitar riff almost identical to The Police’s Message In A Bottle, it seemed a bit poppy to me at the time of the singles release. However, tonight in the live setting, it sounds really fantastic.
They keep up the intensity with a powerful Down On The Farm before the familiar chugging intro ushers in Tomorrows Girls for the first real singalong of the night. The rest of the set then flashes past in a blur as one Subs classic after another is despatched with vigour. Teenage gets everyone jumping again before Charlie leads the crowd though Warhead, everyone clapping and singing acapella for the coda at the end before the band crash in again to bring the song to a powerful conclusion. The main set concludes with a grin-inducing romp though Stranglehold, surely one of the most infectious songs to come out of punk rock. It’s impossible not to dance like a fool while it’s playing.
After an extremely short break, the return to the stage for a five song encore that kicks off with Limo Life. And of course, no U.K. Subs set could be complete without the “holy trinity” of C.I.D., Live In A Car and Party In Paris which just about bring the crowd to its knees. Meanwhile, Charlie is still pogoing away on stage. The set ends as frantically as it began. It takes me to the second verse before I recognise the last song to be Disease, it’s being played at such a rate of knots. It still sounds great though, really powerful, and tight as anything with no-one missing a cue. It’s a great end to a great set.
Based on tonight’s showing (and the promise of the new album) it seems like the U.K. Subs have enough energy to keep the show on the road for a while yet and if they’re “still playing down the local pub once or twice a week in 20 years time” then I guess I’ll still be there watching them.
New York Johnny
N.Y. State Police
Left For Dead
Bitter & Twisted
Keep On Running
Down On The Farm
I Live In A Car
Party In Paris
Bin Laden’s Daughter MySpace
UK Subs Website