BORN A ROCKER, DIE A ROCKER
The undeniable godfather of British punk, Charlie Harper and his UK SUBS have set the benchmark for every home grown band that’s followed in their wake…
"We were playing the sold out Rainbow theatre, five thousand people there and we nicked this ladder and had it up to the dressing room, getting everyone in for free" says Charlie Harper, man of the people, punk rock legend and singer for the UK Subs for the last twenty nine years. We are in a Holloway Road pub talking to the man who is widely regarded as the grandfather of punk rock. A man who has played in nearly every country around the world, to literally hundreds of thousands of fans. He’s had his songs covered by Guns N’Roses and shortly after our interview will head off on tour to Russia to play a festival with Kiss! And the great fact about all this is that when I saw the band recently Charlie and the Subs played with more fire than most kids half his age (he’s sixty two!). From his early days in pub rock bands in London in the ’70s with people like Thin Lizzy’s Scott Gorham, Charlie has remained one of the most approachable, genuine and friendly guys on the scene. So just how did he get started?
"I wasn’t just playing what’s called punk rock, one year I was in five different bands. I was in a band with horns, I was also in a kind of Irish folk band. I love it all, there’s just good music and bad music, that’s all there is. I love ’50s stuff, there’s a great ’50s revival right now."
VLP: So how did you get into punk? The Subs were pretty much right there at the start.
CH: "It was a complete accident, really. My heroes at the time were people like Wilko Johnson and Doctor Feelgood, but no one really coined the word punk in those days. I was a big Wilko Johnson fan. He’d break a string and get a string pack out of his top pocket of his old mohair suit while he was still playing and singing and change the string while he was still playing and singing. And then there was the Kursaal Flyers and the bass player just kinda stood there staring at someone in the crowd like they were a real oddity. And then suddenly you’ve got the Sex Pistols and word went round ‘Have you seen this band?’ They kinda dressed really stupid, ’cause you know we used to go down to the Old Piccadilly Market and buy suits for fifty pence and put a couple of safety pins in the lapel, otherwise the suit was solid you know. And the Sex Pistols used to go for real sassy ten pence suits. They were the kind of characters which we don’t get now, there’s no real characters in bands."
UK Subs – classic second line-up
VLP: Today punk seems a bit faceless with kids doing it for a career almost…
CH: "I really try and encourage any kid I see with a bit of talent and say, ‘I’ve had a great life, I’ve toured just about every country in the world’, but to make a great band there’s got to be some great characteristics about the band and when The Clash came out for instance, they didn’t know a lot about politics, but the people around them were giving them all these ideas about the political situation and everything. So the young ‘uns have got to wake up – maybe they haven’t got it as hard as we had it.
When we played the Rainbow theatre, we had good line-up, and the place was full up, but in those days it was a strange kind of business music. We were pop stars, rock stars and we were poor as hell at the time. After that show I stayed at this party at a pub and next morning I had to get my ass up to Brent Cross and start hitching to Manchester while on a sold-out tour!"
VLP: You have had a lot of success, and music’s kind of taken you all over the world…
CH: "Yeah, there’s always ups and downs in every kind of career, life, whatever, but I wouldn’t change it for the world-it’s been brilliant. Yeah, we continue to go round the world and looking back it’s all worth it. We played a really big show in Poland, when no one had ever been there before. That’s when it was closed. I think we were invited because the government said if we didn’t go there’d be a revolution or a civil war! They listened to all our songs, but they didn’t really want us to play ‘Warhead’ -they thought that was too rebel rousing. We weren’t allowed to wear our solidarity shirts, but when we went on stage our drummer kind of snuck one on cause these were huge gigs with ten or twenty thousand people .It caused a few arguments because it was a kind of dangerous situation. Our drummer Kim Wylie insisted on wearing one. He lives in France now in a big farmhouse with a few acres and at the end of his drive he has a bit of old rotted bark nailed to a tree, and it’s got carved in it ‘Punk Cottage’. Born a rocker, die a rocker!"
VLP: So who is the most punk rock person you’ve ever met?
CH: "Well I’ve always said Wattie (singer from The Exploited) because they just took it a stage further than the Sex Pistols, the next batch was meaner and that’s what happened to punk. You’ve got bands like Discharge and Broken Bones with Terry Bones-far more dangerous people, and it went on and on from there."
VLP: Green Day, My Chemical Romance- its all termed punk but kind of different- what do you think of punk now?
CH: "I think it’s good you know ’cause you can’t go along the same old cranked up guitar level. I love it. I think punk is like a wild animal, you know stripped down-music stripped to the bone. I look at it like a tame domestic cat to a wild cat- and that’s punk rock. And the wild cat is far more beautiful cause it’s just stripped down, basic."
VLP: Have you ever played the Warped Tour in America?
CH: "Oh no, that’s commercial shit. Horrible commercial shit, probably sponsored by McDonalds and KFC. MTV for sure. That’s the music business that’s above us, and what we hate, but we are going on a big American tour with the Misfits and the Adicts soon. We’re very excited about it-this will be the biggest thing we’ve done since we went on tour in Europe with the Ramones."
VLP: So you’ve done thirty five US tours and this will be the last?
CH: "No, no. A couple of years ago I said that’s it, we’re finished, but then someone comes up with a good idea. We’ve been going over there every year since ’79 and we said we just wouldn’t go anymore. Then someone offered this Misfits, Adicts and Subs tour… It’s gonna be a great tour."
VLP: Any chance of you slowing down?
CH: "No not this year, and next year is the thirtieth anniversary of the UK Subs and we wanna do an album and a tour. If it all dies down after that we don’t care. You know I’ve gotta slow down a little bit."
VLP: How many gigs a year do you do?
CH: "I wear out a few wheelchairs, I’ll tell you that! We’re a band, we love gigging. It’s the most simple thing to us to be performing, whether its two to three hundred or a thousand. We’re always looking for ways to make our music more exciting. In our attitude towards music, it’s got to be exciting."
VLP: You’ve taken quite a few people under your wing in the band…
CH: "There’s a film coming out called ‘Punk’s Not Dead’-it’s about history through punk and there’s Alan and Ryan from the Subs in it and they’re counting who was in the UK Subs – ‘Oh after Nicky, Captain Scarlet, and that guy who died but he didn’t really die,’ and they come back and read off another ten people. It’s a really funny bit. Lars from Rancid is doing well and he was with us for a while too."
VLP: What does punk mean to you these days?
CH: "They always said if you want a job done proper do it yourself, and the whole DIY idea I love. We’re kind of doing our records ourselves now with Jett, our guitarist, and his tiny little record label-so it’s all gonna be like DIY-isn’t that what punk music’s all about. Forget the middle man, the middle man just runs off with all the money."
And with that Charlie is off down Holloway Road. There are more gigs to play and more fans to meet and you just know that as long as there’s a good band on he will be there, checking them out. Because punk’s in Charlie’s blood.
‘Warhead’ is out now on Jet13.
The UK Subs play this year’s Rebellion festival.
Eugene Big Cheese
UK SUBS FACTS
Formed 1977 in London.
‘Crash Course’ was their biggest selling album reaching No 8 in U.K charts.
Seven singles made the UK Charts, with ‘Stranglehold’ having the highest position at 26 (1979).
Charlie Harper was born David Charles Perez on April 25th 1944
Prior to forming the UK Subs, Harper was in five other bands, including R&B band The Marauders.
Two punk legends in their own right explain what Charlie’s contribution to punk means to them…
"The first record of an English punk band I ever heard was the UK Subs’
‘Another Kind Of Blues’. Little did I know that, at the age of nineteen, years later I would be playing guitar right beside one of my all time heroes Charlie Harper.
Charlie is one of the most humble people you can ever come across. He is the first guy at the party to greet you and normally the last one to leave. We have stumbled home many a late night together so I know this from my own experience. I’ve learned so much from him over the years and I hold him in high regard. I feel that he has helped me become the man that I am today – don’t know if that’s saying much! He is more of a father to me than anyone has been in my life, to the point where people have stopped us in the street and asked if he was me dad…Is there something I should know Charlie? You lived in Campbell in the early ’70s…
For that I will always love and respect him. His voice is unique and parallel to none. He has a style that has been often imitated, but never duplicated. In my opinion, his stage presence has made him the most exciting singer to watch in all of punk rock, much less in all of rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know anyone who can do it with such consistency and still keep the audience at the edge of their seats night after night after night. He’s the Dean Martin of punk, only better.
For those of us who have been graced by his presence, you will know they don’t make ’em like that anymore, but that’s fine. I’m sure we wouldn’t want it any other way. Because there’s only one Charlie Harper!"
RANCID’s Lars Frederiksen
"Charlie Harper is a living legend who defined the punk experience. He was one of the first guys to put the audience on an equal footing and reject the stardust approach of being aloft and removed. He gets down there in the mosh pit and shares in the blood, sweat and cheers of Joe Public. That is the way to do it. If there is anyone from the old school I’d model myself after, then it would be Charlie Harper."
THE MASONS’/Former BUSINESS guitarist Steve Whale