London punks GUITAR GANGSTERS just played a special livestream show for the 30th Anniversary of the debut album. They've also just released a new live album. Vive Le Rock! caught up with singer/guitarist Pete Ley to find out where the last thirty years went....
The Guitar Gangsters recently celebrated a big birthday. When and where did you get together?
Well it was a belated birthday due to viruses beyond our control but 2020 would have been 30 years since the release of our debut album Prohibition. Guitar Gangsters became a real thing, a London thing, in about 1988 – Phil and I were looking for a back to basics approach to punk after our previous band and its valiant attempt to progress the punk medium, had come to an end. (Phil and I are brothers and we went to the same guitar lessons together in 1975 so you could say the GG master plan began there and then.) The creative process got a kick start when Mark Brennan (then of Link Records, later Captain Oi!) asked us to contribute songs to the first Underground Rockers compilation of likeminded post-punk guitar bands. Mark gave us the name and we were off and running.
What was the punk and rock'n'roll scene like in London back then and what sort of gigs were you doing?
There was no punk scene in London in 1987/88. Forming a punk band then was sheer madness! Join a soul band, an indie band or stay in your bedroom until Britpop is invented were probably the sensible options. Punk was still in its 'has been' phase in a music world where styles came and went and once it was gone, it was gone. So gigs were hard to come by in London. We took any show with any promoter that would have us. We played pubs all over London, the Thomas A Becket and The Blue Coat Boy come to mind as regular gigs then even the bright lights of The George Robey. We got around the UK playing small shows promoted by punk fans who I think just wanted to see us play live - many forgot to invite an audience. Just as we were getting comfortable playing to 25 people on the sticky carpet circuit, Stiff Little Fingers invited us to open for them on the 1990 UK 'comeback' tour (I should add an emoticon here of a terrified face). What a great opportunity! But all SLF support bands get bottled off stage don’t they? (Another terrified face). That’s a story for another time.
You've played all over Europe. Where do you like to play the most in the E.U and why?
We first toured in Europe, or rather Germany, in 1995 as 'special guests' of 999 to whom we will always be grateful for the opportunity. This opened our eyes to what was then a thriving alternative music scene operating completely outside the mainstream rock media. Punks, skinheads, psychobillies and your average joes all mixed happily in this alternative existence and we discovered that we were known. We played songs for the first time in Germany and the crowd sang the choruses right back at us. Mind blown. That started our love affair with playing in Europe – we started gigging in Poland, Czech, Switzerland, Italy, Sweden Slovakia and Serbia. It’s so difficult to say where we prefer – unexpected successes always stay in your mind, like the Exit Festival in Novi Sad Serbia - an empty arena one minute, “Oh we’re gonna die…” and then one song in and there’s 2,000 people singing along! Or a festival in Poland where the promoter thinks it’s a good idea for us to headline, “Oh, we’re gonna die…” and it turns out to be a stormer. And everywhere is different, Italians won’t jump around cos they are just too cool while the Czechs just can’t stop bouncing (sorry). But Germany will be always be special.
You've seen a few trends and punk scenes come and go but you seem to fit into them all. What’s the secret?
That’s kind of you to say. If Guitar Gangsters have managed to navigate this scene we call punk for so long, then it’s probably a result of us never having been at the extreme end of any of punk’s outer reaches – and this is probably as much our curse as our strength. We will often find ourselves in a show line-up with Oi!, streetpunk, ska, and hardcore as well as the more obvious melodic punk bands – I guess we have a wide appeal. We don’t have a particularly angry agenda and there’s probably nothing radical enough punk terms to alienate an audience - if we’re gonna change the world, it’s gonna be just one bit at a time. I can hear accusations of "middle of the road punk” coming my way now but our road knows where it’s going and it’s a road we can tread with confidence. We are close to finishing our new album which is due out in the summer; no two songs sound the same and while they cover a range of punk styles, they are all very much, Guitar Gangsters.
You've just released a cracking Live At The 100 Club album on Wanda records. Is it special playing at the 100 Club? And the album was recorded by the Vibrators' Pat Collier which must have been special...
It’s a risky business recording a live album – the sound, the vibe, the crowd and performance has all gotta come together and thankfully, by happy accident, it all seemed to work on the night. There are not many venues where we would consider recording a live album and yes The 100 Club was, and is, special – not just because of its history but it’s a London club that crowds actually like going to and those are becoming scarce! Pat has worked with us for some time now and does a brilliant job – he just gets guitar bands and worked miracles with the live tracks from the show. There was just no sound separation and so the post production/mixing becomes a bit of a compromise but I think the result is pretty damn powerful! We’re back in the studio in a few weeks with Pat to complete the new album.
Finally, tell us a bit of the streamed gig here for your 1989 album Prohibition...
The original idea was simply a livestreamed Guitar Gangsters set but livestreamed gigs seem to be increasingly common – we thought we needed a good reason to hang a bunch of songs together and why not to give a respectful nod to our first album? This is the album that set us on our path and probably most people know, (which is weird as only 500 copies were pressed!) - it’s the band’s first album and has that first album naïveté that often occurs when a band starts out but that’s why it’s special I think. Playing an entire album is not something we would generally do live but with fourth Gangster, Ed Roolette on guitar we were able to do all the songs justice – Even 'Endless Saturday Night' had its first ever outing. In the streaming show for Prohibition we now have a great sounding live performance of all the songs from start to finish in the order they appear on the album – and a performance we’re very proud of. I hope Vive le Rock! readers agree.
Live At The 100 Club is available here.