TO HELL WITH THE BOYS
It’s a lovely autumnal evening in London’s Oxford Street, and your correspondent is delighted to have the opportunity to renew acquaintances with some of his favourite foot soldiers of the punk wars. The last time I caught The Boys was at the Barfly a couple of years back, and I haven’t seen a better gig since. Of all the class of ’76, they remain, to me, the most under-rated of the lot. Effortlessly canny musicians, great entertainers without drowning in ego and ‘a nice bunch of lads’ (an expression heard more than once in the audience this evening) to boot. If only they’d taken on board a bit of rebel chic, dumbed down or stopped laughing at the absurdity of notions of ‘cool’, they might be better remembered still. For all that, they maintain a fervent fan base, affection for their tight, harmony-flecked pop-punk crossing several continents. At the Barfly show, fans flew in from Argentina, America and Spain (a lovely couple I met who planned their holiday around the event despite being unable to obtain tickets). And there’s a small foreign contingent here too, though this is in effect a private party, to celebrate the 50th birthday of long-standing fan Jim. So, happy birthday Jim.
Backstage in the 100 Club’s impossibly bijou dressing room, I have a full complement of Boys to interrogate. So which of your esteemed membership, after all these years, retains the biggest and best rock ‘n’ roll image? There is laughter before fingers point, inexorably, to guitarist/vocalist Honest John Plain. Well, he does have a bandana head start. “He’s just a love machine”, says drummer Vom, who also bashes skins for Die Toten Hosen and myriad others in his Boys’ downtime. “In all ways, the biggest,” notes bass player/singer Duncan ‘Kid’ Reid. “But he has small feet.” Read into that what you will. And how difficult is to get time off from wives, girlfriends, work and the other distractions of adulthood? “No problem for me,” says John, “she left me years ago!” “It’s moderately difficult,” confirms Duncan, “mainly for me, Matt and Vom, because we have a lot of time commitments elsewhere. But this year has been a busy year. We might even do five gigs. We've been working out little socks off!” Presumably though, such limitations keep it fresh and make it more fun? “I like it that way,” Duncan continues, “cos it’s bad enough seeing the rest of them anyway, so five times is plenty.”
Favourite Boys song to play live? “Any one of mine, really,” says Matt (Dangerfield, guitar/vocals), archly. “Whichever one is last,” decides Duncan, doubtless in reference to the creaking joints which must surely follow his gravity-defying stage antics. “That’s ‘Sick On You’, as it happens, which is not a bad one to close on.” The latter, a fabled punk rock document which came to the band via The Hollywood Brats (in which incarnation it was widely posited as ‘the first punk song’), has long been the final encore. “When we played it in Texas recently, it worked out really well,” Duncan continues. “They were asking for that all the way through, so if we’d played it any earlier, they would probably have buggered off.” The Austin gig turned out to be eventful for other reasons, as Duncan describes. “He (Casino ‘Cas’ Steel, former Hollywood Brat, keyboards, and, inevitably, vocals) got arrested in Chicago and sent back to Norway, so there was only four of us there.” Work permit or drugs? “None of us had a work permit,” says Matt. “He was the only one to apply for one – that was his mistake.” Cas’s response is drowned out in an orgy of sympathy. Not. “They came from all over America to see us,” continues Duncan, “so it was great. Brilliant crowds, and they knew every single song.” Ever wonder how those records crossed international borders so readily? “Yes,” says Cas. “That amazed us when we played in Bratislava. We never sold any albums in Bratislava! But they knew all the lyrics!”
And why the 100 Club tonight? “Jim is the vicar of Great Ormond Street hospital,” says Duncan, “a great lad, and it’s his 50th birthday, he asked us and we said yes. We decided to do a public gig as well (the following evening at ULU). But that was only because we were doing this one. It’s mainly Jim’s friends, so we’re expecting a bishop or two tonight.” Will he mind his language in front of a man of the cloth? “No! There’s a few hardcore Boys fans, too. The chat site, Backstage Passes, they all know about it.” Indeed, it’s like an all-in fan club gig this evening. They’re, well, worshipful.
This time last year was the 30th anniversary of punk hoopla (all right, I admit, some of us have been quietly trying to keep it going). Was that overblown? “I didn’t notice it!” says Duncan. “The Barfly gig was our 30th two years ago.” “It started in ’76, anyway, not 77,” offers Matt, who once ran the recording studio where Mick Jones, Tony James, Bryan James, Rat Scabies and Billy Idol made their first ‘moves’, while simultaneously chasing Sid and Nancy out of his toilet, so he should know. Cas: “I just got off the tube, and I saw this big fucking poster of Johnny Rotten advertising butter!” There’s a question, would you advertise domestic consumables for money? “Oh, we’d do anything for money,” says Cas, emphatically.
So what advice would you give to any young guns getting into the music industry. “Don’t,” says Cas, “work on the railways”. “Get a good job,” says John, “with a decent fucking pension and a missus.” Actually, that might have been ‘a pension and a decent fucking missus’, it isn’t entirely clear from the transcription. “Don’t apply for a visa if you’re going to America,” says Vom, to Cas’s evident embarrassment. And what plans have you from here? “We’re playing some German shows, and we have offers for Spain and Italy,” says Duncan. “We just get offers and do them.” Any chance of a new studio album? “Not a whole album, we’ve chatted about doing the odd track, but we’re spread all over Europe, which is the problem.” And do you all carry on writing songs when you’re apart? “John and Cas have the Last Rock ‘n’ Roll Band,” says Duncan. “And they write together for that. You’re on your 500th album, aren’t you?” Cas has obviously been counting. “72nd, actually.” “I’m on my 52nd,” interjects John, not to be outdone. “That’s 130 albums between us.” And not a hit single to be seen, it’s a doggone injustice.
Speaking of ‘product’, The Boys have recently released a new anthology on Anagram. Pleased with it? Matt: “I’m always pleased when things are properly digitally remastered. It’s really interesting listening to some of that stuff we did really early on.” Indeed, they’ve managed to pull a few unreleased gems out of dusty cupboards. But buy it anyway as it includes all their finest moments – ‘Soda Pressing’, ‘Terminal Love’, ‘First Time’, ‘Weekend’, ‘I Don’t Care’, ‘Brickfield Nights’; diamonds one and all.
And in conclusion, what has being a member of the Boys meant to you down the years?
“A lot of fucking grief” sayeth John.
Any advance on a lot of fucking grief?
“I think that says it all,” says Duncan.
“Seeing a lot of places and having a lot of fun”, states Cas, slightly more optimistically.
“Lending John a lot of money?” offers Matt.
“I’ve never paid it back, either” confirms John.
What about Vom, the baby of the band having served only a modest decade since replacing band card shark Jack Black as the stickster? “Flies by!” he confirms. Does he ever pull any of his high-profile, handsomely remunerated gigs to answer the call of The Boys? “He tries to,” says Duncan, “we won’t let him.” How do they manage that, skeletons in the closet? What have you got on him? “We’ve got photos of him in Japan, being chased naked around a restaurant by a bunch of waiters,” says Duncan. Aha! “With an olive in his knob,” qualifies John. “They don’t have olives in Japan,” says Vom, unconvincingly. “Sushi, then,” corrects John. “It’s probably still there.”
The Boys Anthology is out now on Anagram.
Words: Alex Ogg.