My father, who emigrated to Britain from colonial Trinidad in the early 1950s, was – among other things – a compulsive gambler. He was also a charmer, with a slight hint of Clarke Gable about him, I always thought.
Even after the family bank account was made out in my mother’s name to stop him cleaning out his wages on payday to hit the bookies, he managed to cash checks at the bank by sweet-talking the cashier.
Eventually, during my teenager years, my mother was forced to hide the cheque-book in the one place in the family home he would never dare look – under a vivarium in my room that housed my corn snake. He had a complete phobia of snakes, ever since his youth when he badly broke his wrist falling out of a palm tree after being surprised by a snake hiding among the coconuts. (At least that’s the story he told me).
You would have thought he would have taught his kids to steer away from gambling, but when I left school he got me a job in Mecca Bookmakers – a firm in which he had over the years “invested” a substantial portion of the family budget. I guessed he thought they owed him something.
I went to work in a bookies in the horse-racing town of Epsom and fed back to my father the tips the stable-lads brought into the shop. The betting-shop manager was a lovable rogue called Bob who became my early mentor in life. He owned a couple of greyhounds and every Tuesday morning he would send me off to Wimbledon dogs to clock the trials before the Thursday evening race meeting.
There I rubbed shoulders with the urchins, chancers and mouthy fly-boys who worked in the kennels for thirty quid a week. So when Jimmy Pursey, the lead singer of punk band Sham 69, burst on the music scene with the band’s first single “I Don’t Wanna” in 1977, I clocked him immediately. Pursey and his mates from Hersham, Surrey, (a couple of miles from Epsom) had formed Sham 69 the year before, while he was working at Wimbledon dogs.
Although most people think of Surrey as posh stockbroker-belt territory, it was (and is) a patchwork of towns and villages divided between the haves and have-nots. In the 1970s the have-nots, like Pursey and his crew (and me) lived on mainly white working-class areas and scratched around to make a living.
So although Julie Birchall in typically sniffy fashion wrote, “It must have been a bloody strong wind the day the sound of Bow Bells reached Hersham,” Sham 69 might not have been cockneys, but they were certainly working class. They didn’t come out of the art school scene that created the London punk bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols and The Slits. Crudely speaking Sham’s reference points (as were mine in those days) were more likely to be Wimbledon dogs, the bookies, the pub and family life than the ICA, the student union bar and cultural networks.
Rather Pursey and his Hersham Boys than Siouxsie Sue and her swastika-vogue Bromley contingent. As Pursey put it in a 1977 interview in Sniffin’ Glue:
Do you know what a real punk is? A real punk today is the bloke with a belt joining the legs of his trousers together, or a girl in fishnet stockings. And they’re the first people to shout wanker at my band. Cos they’re in their little smug groups of fashion. My attitude might seem thick to you cos I was brought up to be thick to keep rich cunts in money…Sham 69 speak exactly what loads of geezers think.
Coming from south of the river, Surrey “geezers” would likely be Chelsea or Fulham supporters, in the days when the fascist National Front had a strong grip on the terraces. I do remember going to the Shed – the noisy end of Chelsea’s ground – in the late 1970s: it was stuffed full of racist skinheads and NFers, the only exception being a mixed race hooligan – the infamous “One-Armed Babs” – who was deemed “alright” because he was a psychopath, and despite his physical impairment had a fearsome reputation for wanton violence.
So when Sham 69 emerged, it was inevitable that they would attract a racist fan-base as well as young pissed-off kids like me. Of course, it tore them apart in the end, as punk became a battleground between its antiracist element organised around Rock Against Racism (RAR), and the racist skinhead element, who confusingly would dance to Jamaican ska before going out for a spot of Paki-bashing. I know people will say there were “redskins” as well, but it took me a very long time – decades in fact – before I supressed my learned instinct to expect imminent danger when confronted with a group of white men with cropped hair.
Despite all this, I was very fond of Sham 69 and their music. I bought their first single “I Don’t Wanna”. For me it was what a punk single should be – under two minutes long, guitar intro, then drums, then vocals. Simple rebellious lyrics with a bit of “fuck you all” nihilism thrown in.
I don’t wanna work in no factory
And I don’t want no strike
And I don’t want no dole queue
No I don’t wanna
No I don’t wanna
No I don’t wanna be
I don’t wanna work to sixty five
And I don’t want no gold watch
And I don’t want no pension book
“I Don’t Wanna” was produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale and put out on the punk purists’ label Step-Forward Records, founded by Mark Perry who ran Sniffin’ Glue – the original punk fanzine. (I intend to write about Sniffin’ Glue and Perry’s sole venture into music-making, the give-away single “Love Lies Limp” at a later date).
Step-Forward, later swallowed up by Miles Copeland (the brother of Stewart Copeland of The Police), put out little gems from bands like Chelsea, The Cortinas and the first single by Manchester’s finest, The Fall – ‘Bingo-Masters Breakout!’
Sham 69 were then signed to Polydor, and produced a slew of top-selling top-of-the-pops singles: “There’s Gonna be a Borstal Breakout”, “Angels With Dirty Faces”, “If The Kids Are United”, “Hurry Up Harry” and “Hersham Boys”. The cover of Borstal Breakout was a photograph of the band members “breaking out” of the prison gates in what must have been a deliberate echo of Thin Lizzy’s brilliant inside cover for their 1976 album “Jailbreak”.
Sham 69 were continually touring throughout 1977-79, but their gigs were increasingly dogged by violence as their racist NF and British Movement skinhead following literally fought a rearguard action to claim the band as “their own”. They eventually failed and had to go off and invent the stupid talentless Oi! movement instead – left-wing turned right-wing journalist Gary Bushell’s very own musical goldfish bowl.
The violence and Nazi politics obviously repelled Jimmy Pursey, and forced him to come out on the side of the anti-fascists – his big public stand being his brief stage appearance at the RAR Carnival in Victoria Park in April 1978 (a life-changing event for me personally). Dave Widgery in his account of RAR, Beating Time, recalls the scene:
It was the arrival at the microphone of a haggard-looking Jimmy Pursey that brought the crowd of 150,000 to their toes. In a voice hoarse with emotion he bellowed, ‘All this week you’ve probably read a lot of things about me and Sham 69. We’ve been dictated to. Last night I wasn’t going to come. Then this little kid said to me, “You’re not doing it because all your fans are NF”. They said I ain’t got no bottle. But I’m here. Nobody’s going to tell me what I should or should not do. I’m here because I support Rock Against Racism.
It was actually a very brave and principled thing to do. Standing in Victoria Park that day I remember being very surprised by Pursey’s appearance and what he said. By “coming out” at the carnival Pursey was signing Sham’s death warrant and an end to what had been up to that point a very successful few years.
The band’s gigs were already being disrupted by massive fights, and they intensified through 1978 as their NF followers realised that they had lost the war and would rather see Sham 69 destroyed than see them go over to the anti-fascist camp. Later that year Sham 69 went on tour with seminal UK reggae band The Cimarrons, who were RAR stalwarts – that must have really pissed off the NFers.
I had my own little taste of the battleground Sham concerts had become when, later in 1978 I went to see them at Kingston’s Coronation Halls in south west London, a 213 bus-ride away from my family house.
I must have been mad – when I got to Kingston the town centre was crawling with NF skins getting pissed and aggressive, and of course all of them, plus me, then made our way to the venue. So there I was, waiting for the band to come on, trying to will myself into invisibility, surrounded by hundreds of half-pissed Sieg-Heiling skins, all of whom seemed, in my mind at least, twice my size. Many of them didn’t have tickets and had barged their way in past the bouncers the venue had hired, supposedly “to keep order”.
Eventually the band leapt on stage, the Nazi salutes reached a frenzy, completely drowning out the opening song. Then behind me there was an almighty crash, as the thuggish bouncers threw a skin through the entrance-hall’s plate glass doors. And then all hell broke loose.
I remember looking towards the stage at Jimmy Pursey, who was pleading and weeping, attempting in vain to get the fighting stopped. But it was too late – the entire hall seemed to be one mass brawl, which soon spilled out into Kingston town centre. The final image I have in my mind is of Pursey leaping off the stage and running through the hall and out the (broken) front doors. The gig had lasted maybe ten minutes.
I followed the crowd out onto the street, where gangs of skins were now busy throwing bins and bricks through the windows of Bentalls, the town’s main department store and taking advantage of the chaos to do a spot of vandalism and looting. After watching them for a while enjoying themselves I made my way to the bus station, got on the top deck of the 213, and watched as the police cars arrived and the skins melted away.
Within a year Sham 69 had split up.