I’ve just watched Basically, Johnny Moped on Netflix. It’s about the early years of the punk movement in the UK, focusing upon one of the forgotten groups of the era, Johnny Moped. It’s a touching, slightly sad reflection on those times. Members of the group included Chrissie Hynde, later of Pretenders fame, and Captain Sensible of the Damned, both of whom appear in the film. Other members of the group included (at different times) Paul Halford (aka Johnny Moped), Slimey Toad, Jacko Pistorious, Robert Brook, Martin Parrott, Dave Berk, Fred Berk, Xerxes and Edward Turtle.
There were a number of singles and an LP, Cycledelic, on the Chiswick label. The standout song is Darling, Let’s Have Another Baby. There’s a cover version by Kirsty MacColl and Billy Bragg which ends the movie which really brings out its lyrical qualities.
Darling, let's have another baby
Let's make one soon on our second honeymoon
Darling, I need you to be near me
To kiss and to touch, I love you very much
The song was written by Colin Mills (aka Fred Berk). There’s a touch of Buddy Holly and some interesting rhythmical lurches, but it’s the lyrics that make it. No professional songwriter would have come up with these words:
Darling, if you ever leave me
I'll cry a million tears
I'll go to the nearest boozer
And drink ten pints of beer
Darling, when we have our baby
I’ll be quite happy to wash and change its nappy
As a song it shows what British punk was all about. It’s down-to-earth and real, unsophisticated, funny and original. The same could be said about the band. The lead singer, Paul Halford, was married to a woman 20 years his senior. He was still with her at the time the movie came out in 2013, acting as her caregiver. The band had problems making their first LP as Halford was unavailable much of the time, due to work pressures and nagging from his mother-in-law. One day they had to kidnap him from work to get him to the studio. It’s no wonder they never became a big-name act. The interviews with Halford show him toothless and surrounded by cans of strong cider, but obviously still in love with his wife. A duet between them is one of the touching moments in the movie.
The band came out of Croydon, a district of Greater London, 10 or so miles out of the city. The film opens with shots of Croydon in the 1960s. It’s a soulless place, devoid of mystery or meaning. The one or two trees tucked away amidst the post-war architecture, multi-story car parks and one-way road systems look bedraggled. It was this that punk was reacting against, this lifelessness and sterility. Kids growing up in environments like this had plenty to protest against.
The name “Johnny Moped” arose out of the fact that Halford fancied himself as a biker, except that he didn’t have a motorbike. A moped is a low-capacity two-wheeled vehicle, halfway between a motorbike and a bicycle. He rode one in lieu of a Harley Davidson. He had a Hell’s Angels tattoo on his arm, though he was never a member. The tattoo shows up on the cover of their LP, which led to a genuine Angel turning up to one of their gigs threatening to take his arm off if the tattoo wasn’t removed. Lemmy from Motörhead had to intervene. In the end the classic image of a winged skull was covered over by a parakeet.
Watching the movie reminded me of that era and how much it meant to us at the time. I was on my way to India in 1975, heading out on the hippie trail. I stopped off in London briefly to stay with a friend. “Why are you going to India?” he said. “London is the place to be. It’s all happening here.”
He was talking about the London pub rock scene out of which punk arose. Rising stars of the era included Dr Feelgood and Kilburn and the High Roads, featuring Ian Dury. All of the elements that went on to define punk rock are evidenced in these two bands. Johnny Rotten’s stage act is lifted directly from Ian Dury, while the Clash’s aggressive posturing is in emulation of Dr Feelgood. Johnny Moped, too, came out of this scene. They were a pub rock band before they became punk icons.
Before I went to India people were dressing in army great coats and flared jeans. By the time I got back wearing flares in public was seen as the height of indiscretion. You could get thrown off the top of a bus for such displays of sartorial inelegance. We started to hear about all these new bands that were just emerging, and the new attitude that went with them.
The three great London punk bands were the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned. Although the Sex Pistols led the scene, it was the Damned who made the first punk single. This was New Rose, released on October 22, 1976 on the Stiff Label. I was living in Hull at the time, working on an archaeology site. It had been one of the hottest summers on record and there was a plague of Ladybirds.
“New Rose” was like nothing anyone had ever heard before. It was fast-paced and energetic, pared back and rough-hewn, with a catchy riff and interesting and ambiguous lyrics. Music critic Dave Thompson called it “primeval” while Ned Raggett described it as a "deathless anthem of nuclear-strength romantic angst."
On first hearing it sounds like a love song. The new rose of the title suggests a new girlfriend. This is emphasized by the opening words, “Is she really going out with him?” a quote from the Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las. But there’s another meaning. Maybe the song isn’t about romantic love at all, but about this new scene happening all over the UK. Maybe it’s this that the Damned are celebrating. The hippies had had their Summer of Love back in 1967. It was time for a new generation to have their moment too.
Here’s the first verse:
I got a feeling inside of me
It's kind of strange like a stormy sea
I don't know why I don't know why
I guess these things have got to be
I know that “strange like a stormy sea” feeling. I’ve had it a few times in my life, usually when something big is about to happen: a sort of stirring in the heart, like a presence, like something wild and alien is blowing in on the clouds. It’s the feeling of the spirit passing through you, when you’re connected to something greater than yourself. That’s what punk was like. It wasn’t Johnny Rotten or his nihilistic posturing. It wasn’t Malcolm McLaren and his snide manipulations. It wasn’t the Clash. It wasn’t the Damned. It wasn’t any of the groups on their own: it was the spirit passing through them, the spirit of change. It was felt by all of us at the time. More than any other song of the era, “New Rose” captures that mood, of being in love, while holding your ground in the storm of change, as if love and change are part of the same thing.
Brian James, the writer of the song: “Everyone thinks that New Rose is about a girl or a new relationship, but it’s not. It was about this emerging scene, this lovely buzz that you’d never dreamed could possibly happen. It was like, ‘I’d got my own Swinging ‘60s,’ that sort of vibe.”
Marc Bolan of T. Rex reviewed the record for Melody Maker. “The energy level is dynamite,” he wrote. “The attitude is positive rather than moody-positive. It has the same feel as the Stones’ I Wanna Be Your Man. You have to sit up and take notice.”
It didn’t last. The managers of the bands were all vying for leadership of the movement. It was the managers rather than the bands themselves who were fighting amongst themselves.
Captain Sensible: “The bands got on, but the mangers were all sneering at each other.”
The Anarchy in the UK tour of December 1976 featured the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash and Johnny Thunder and The Heartbreakers out of New York. It was preceded by the Sex Pistols appearing live on Today, an early-evening, prime time TV program, hosted by Bill Grundy. Grundy didn’t like these snarling youngsters sitting in his studio and you can see him actively encouraging them to swear in front of the camera. The nation was shocked. There were news reports, newspaper headlines and many of the gigs were cancelled. One newspaper famously described the event in a front page headline as “The Filth And The Fury.”
The Sex Pistols became infamous overnight. They divided the nation. The adults hated them, the youth loved them. McLaren was riding high, his band now the clear leader of the pack.
Brian James: “We’d turn up somewhere like Manchester to find the gig’s cancelled, but they still want us. ‘Fuck it, we’ll do it.’ What are we meant to do: say, ‘oh no, we’re not doing it, not if our mate Malcolm’s not doing it,’ know what I mean? I could’ve killed that bastard.”
For this lack of solidarity with their fellow punks the Damned were kicked off the tour. McLaren called them “punk traitors” and “sell outs.”
I’m not sure when I saw them: a year or two later, at the college of education in Hull. All the punks were in the front, spitting at the band (which was the thing to do) and pogoing up and down. I was in the rear doing a spinning dance instead, like a Whirling Dervish airlifted out of Istanbul. Prior to the Damned coming on the DJ played the whole of Never Mind The Bollocks, the Sex Pistols’ LP; no doubt to the annoyance of the band, who had LPs of their own out by then.
I was never a punk myself. I fell between the two camps: too young to be a hippie, too old to be a punk. But the winds of change were blowing through me too. I’d gone to India on a spiritual quest. I came back angry. Whatever it was I was looking for out there, I hadn’t found it. Punk rock filled the void.