Punk and New Wave exploded onto the stage in 1976-77. It brought crashing
down the bloated rock scene that came before and shaped much of the music
that has come since.
In this occasional series, Hassan Mahamdallie, a bored teenager growing up in 1970s south west London, delves into his box of punk and New Wave singles and takes us on a personal, musical, cultural and political journey. Looking at one single at a time, Hassan recalls the band, the music and the cover art.
First up is The Damned and ‘Neat Neat Neat’.
In 1977 Croydon was the destination of choice for cut-price shoppers from across south London. They would get there either by public transport or in their clapped-out Ford or Vauxhall cars that chugged round the one way system, over the flyover and into the maw of the monstrous Whitgift Centre, a concrete wind-tunnel of stores that squatted the middle of town.
During the week and on Saturdays the Whitgift was engorged with bored and boring families looking for bargain clothes and electrical goods – fidgety men looking for the nearest pub or bookies, cajoled into shops by their wives, prams and pushchairs in front and screaming brats behind. When the shops shut at 5.30pm Croydon would empty completely of humans, who would be replaced by obese rats out to scavenge in the vast amounts of rubbish left swirling around.
But on a Sunday night Croydon drew a different species of mammal altogether – a stream of oddly-dressed anti-social misfit teenagers could be observed getting off buses and trains and making their way to a pub in the centre of town where they would spend the evening drinking weak beer out of plastic glasses, jumping up and down to weird tuneless bands before staggering out completely deafened and sweat-soaked to catch the last bus or train home. I was one of them.
The Greyhound pub on Park Lane, Croydon, billed itself as “Surrey’s Premier New Wave Venue”. It was an unpleasant dump, but it was the place to be if you were into punk. (In a previous incarnation it had been a rock venue). You flashed your members’ card, paid your two quid, made your way past the beer-bellied bouncers (in those days all bouncers were white, drunk and quick to violence), up some stairs and into what must have once been a ballroom. It reeked of stale beer, cigarettes and body odour even at the start of the night. There would be two or three bands on the bill, and between the sets the floor and chandeliers would vibrate with the heavy bass of a reggae sound-system.
Every punk, new wave and pub-rock band around at the time, except the Sex Pistols and maybe The Clash, squeezed onto the tiny stage at the Greyhound at some point to be spat on by the pogoing crowd. The Jam, the Buzzcocks, The Lurkers, The Adverts, X Ray Spex, Generation X, The Ramones, Tom Robinson, Motorhead, The Vibrators, Talking Heads, The Stranglers, Ian Dury, Lene Lovich, Penetration, The Fall, The Heartbreakers, Eddie and the Hot Rods and a long list of other bands now forgotten all played there.
Without doubt the best live band I saw at the Greyhound was local group The Damned. For me, they truly embodied the spirit of Punk (London version). Vampirish lead singer Dave Vanian would dart about the stage (his sallow undead persona only surpassed by pub-rocker Screaming Lord Sutch whose act started with him being carried onstage in a coffin). The Damned’s bass player was Captain Sensible, a cartoon character with peroxide hair, outsized plastic sunglasses, tutu and Doc Martins. Popeye-tempered Rat Scabies destroyed the drum-kit, contrasting with the only remotely ‘normal’ member, lead guitarist and songwriter Brian James (who had previously been in proto-punk band London SS with future members of The Clash and Generation X). The Damned were amphetamine-fuelled vaudeville, fun to watch and jump around to.
The songs were great as well. James was a talented writer. His tunes were well crafted and exquisitely short. The Damned were also quick off the mark – New Rose, just 2 minutes and 40 seconds of pop perfection, was the first proper punk single to be released. A dark love song, it starts with the classic line: “Is she really going out with him?” before pitching headlong into Scabies’s thumping beats, James’s sharp guitar riffs and Vanian’s vocals.
Produced by the very talented but grossly overlooked songwriter Nick Lowe, New Rose was the third 7” put out by Stiff Records, the radical independent London label. The single hit the record shops in October 1976, a month before the Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK (published by the multinational EMI label) was released. New Rose was unlike anything I had ever heard. The track was pleasingly miles shorter in length than a Deep Purple guitar-break and unlike Purple didn’t send you to sleep. The lyrics were brief and simple and free of references to hotels in California or elves and all that obscure hippy shit. The B-side was a madly speeded up, though recognisable, version of the Beatles Help.
The second single The Damned put out was the equally memorable Neat Neat Neat, again engineered by Nick Lowe, with its great cover of the band members with paper bags on their heads.
No crime if there ain’t no law
No more cops left to mess you around
No more dreams of mystery chords
No more sight to bring you down
I got a crazy, got a thought in my mind
My mind’s on when she falls asleep
Feelin’ fine in her restless time
Then these words upon me creep, I said
Neat neat neat
She can’t afford a cannon
Neat neat neat, she can’t afford a gun at all
Neat neat neat, she can’t afford a cannon
Neat neat neat, she can’t afford a gun at all
Neat neat neat
The B-side consisted of two tracks – Stab Yor Back and Singalongascabies – each 57 seconds long.
The Damned were also the first punk band to release an album: Damned Damned Damned (1977, Stiff). I must have seen The Damned live seven or eight times, mostly at the Greyhound entertaining their loyal home crowd. And a very eclectic, suburban crowd it was – mostly young men dressed in DIY punk gear – home-ripped and sloganned T-shirts, flares, Doc Martins, fake leather or denim jackets, longish hair gelled up. We working class discontents out for a high-energy anarchic evening looked askance at the lifeless Bromley crowd of middle-class posers with their expensive Vivienne Westwood and Boy outfits and swastika armbands.
It was a friendly crowd most times. I don’t recall many fights at the Greyhound, although the boozy bouncers, who clearly regarded the punters as some kind of two-legged disease, were fond of grabbing over-enthusiastic punters and giving them a punch or two before throwing them out onto the grimy Croydon concrete.