Seems to be a little problem with the monitor.....
Oh, they're not fucking bugging us.....
The periodic summer heatwaves we suffer are nothing in comparative terms to that of London in 1976. The heat traditionally drives people into losing it and doing crazy things. That summer of punk now looks inevitable.
As it grew in the later seventies, I consistently found the punk scene exuberant but not particularly violent. To pogo needs a lot of energy. And there are occasional fights at any club, even the louchest of lounges. The newspapers, as was in their sensationalist interest, found, invented and provoked so much trouble that by the end of the year none of the traditional club venues would book punk acts. The Marquee Club and the Nashville Rooms went retro and the club scene became pastiche. The hottest unsigned acts in early 1976 London included a country rock band, which provoked a bidding war, and the truly embarrassing retro-hippies, Clover (released on Stiff Records, the home of the Damned and their first punk single release six months later), who would later reinvent themselves with similar cynical plasticity as Huey Lewis and the News.
Three partners: Andrew Czezowski (ran Brixton's Ram Jam club specializing in what was then 'soul music', and now runs the successful Fridge, also in Brixton High Street), Ralf Jedraszczyk (addressed as Jedetcetera, since non-one, not even the unsung heroes who assemble album credits, could spell his name correctly, inscrutable and formidable in a middle-European trench coat), and Barry Jones (a very sharp, idealistic rock+roll dreamer blessed with a very perceptive musical ear) realized there was nowhere for anyone fresh to play. The Roxy opened in a space on Neal Street in London's Covent Garden, which had previously been occupied by a gay gangster club and was rumored to have hosted a fatal stabbing. The ghosts turned out to be perfectly friendly, and the lager still warm.
Very quickly, the club became the focus of London's punk scene and, on the back of that, the haunt of night trendies and colorful misfits. Since the breakthrough commercial success of the Damned and the Sex Pistols in mid-1976, considerably more A&R personnel started showing up. What had started as an esoteric, small social corner was approaching the point where earnest Sunday magazine articles would analyze the 'punk phenomenon', and an intense, focused scene would broaden to be the style setter for the wider public, from shirts to sounds, earrings and tattoos.
Although they were stylistically in their debt, the London punks affected to despise the parallel New Yorkers as retro, sometimes suspiciously close to 'heavy metal'. So the Live At CBGB's album which appeared in 1976 was contemptuously dismissed as a little too mellow, with too many players on it deemed more competent in music than attitude (compared with their English equivalents, the Americans were alarmingly in tune). Through the grapevine, I heard that the Roxy owners were planning a four-track recording to be done at the back of the club. That sounded like an album to catch. And, hopefully, to improve.
The Virgin Studios mobile was reserved, making the club management a little nervous, especially Barry, about the growing scale of the undertaking. The strange record company bemused him, too. ('So this is the company that fired the Sex Pistols,' he later confessed to thinking as we helped ourselves to tea and sandwiches from the EMI afternoon trolley during our first formal meeting.) We focused on two weekends for recording, which would stop just short of when their lease ran out (their four-month presence had multiplied its rental value and they couldn't continue).
It didn't take much to convince my boss at EMI Records (Nick Mobbs, who would later sign the Shirts out of the CBGB's milieu) particularly with a budget which eventually came in at £4500 for an album which made the Top 20 (the first live album to do so since the star charity collection on Concert For Bangladesh). There were, however, several conversations with the legal department and a memorable phone conversation with the amiably bemused Managing Director, Leslie Hill, after an over-excitable manager had called him with an over-ambitious proposal. For a few in the punk business department, the glint of gold at EMI-who-fired-the-Sex-Pistols was intoxicating.
We set up the truck around the corner, out of view of the arriving clubbers, smashed a discreet hole for cables in the marquee above the front door and wired the place. The stage was easy to set up. To the club veterans, it must have felt like the Palladium compared with its initial state. To help acoustics and to reduce the chance of musician injury, we imported sheets of plywood to make the milk crates a little more stable, nailing and screwing them ourselves (EMI petty cash provided for the hammer which I bought in the hardware store down the road in what was then a basic, artisan neighborhood). There were still some weak spots, and a nightly Roxy experience often included someone falling off the back. In those days, one didn't dive off the stage into the audience, since milk crates plus plywood were only about two feet higher than the main floor.
I didn't think much of the CBGB's live album either, except to respect it as the first and for its considerable documentary value. A live club album without the audience seemed to miss the point, particularly for the punks for whom performers and audience were sometimes indistinguishable hey, it might as well be me up there, was an underlying punk thought. The do-it yourself mentality meant that audience and act were peers, communicating as such. The punks had reacted against the priestly keepers of musical knowledge in their white lab coats, and weren't about to let their mates go down the same bad road without raucous, correctional commentary. Those mates in the audience were part of the show. I persuaded the mobile crew to put mikes in reception, the bar, and the two toilets, the feeds from which we recorded separately. The music itself went to state-of-the-art 24-track recorders. Some bands' equipment probably cost less than two reels of tape.
At the start of the recording, we had no fancy contracts and just a little personal contact with most of the bands. It might have been easier to get up on stage and shout than talk about 20 bands through the principle of what we were doing and yes it is EMI-who-fired-the-Sex-Pistols, but we rolled the tape on anyone who didn't expressly forbid us, relying on calmer appreciation of the situation once the weekend had died down. The resulting record would represent the cream of the second wave of English punk just behind the big three of the Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Clash (who, on tour together with Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers, had been shut out of most of their booked venues the previous summer). Eventually, Siouxsie and the Banshees said no. The Slits also declined to include their chaotic first performance (even Johnny Thunders thought them 'a bit weird'). Curiously, Ari Up's (lead singer's) mother, always around at the club, is now married to John Lydon, then Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols).
It was also Wire's first try as a four-piece. They had appeared as a five-piece at the club before, with a wild front man, invariably drunk and out-of-control even by Roxy standards. Barry had told them to go away and practice if they wanted to be booked again. They did, at their rehearsal studio on Thorne Road (the only street in London with my name on it) near where I lived in Brixton. The stars were obviously predicting a shared future. But they were stuck with playing the first show on two consecutive nights. Their recording debut was in front of maybe 20 people including one wag who keep yelling 'that's better, now louder and faster', as if his was the first lager-addled mind to wrap itself around the concept, and another punter on a higher plane who tried to make off with the stage monitor and wound up wrestling with management at the front of the stage. (Colin: 'Seem to be having a little problem with the monitah.')
No matter the audience size, Wire's set had an instant, authoritative and imposing mood, and their sound was as good as anyone who played over those two weekends, so good that rumors persist that I re-recorded them later because they were signing to EMI. They created a vibe, and it persisted. On one Saturday night, mood and ghosts played together. Eater had topped the bill, and I'd enjoyed their set from the floor. They had used a severed pig's head, hacking away at it during the set, which had startled the audience thoroughly, the stage detritus giving the band following them some pause for thought. These were possibly the last times when an audience could still be genuinely shocked. At the end of the night one of the punters, in another interesting altered state, was holding it in front of him in the middle of the floor, dancing round slowly, a five-yard radius buffer zone moving around with him. Heading for the truck, I walked out of the club on to Neal Street where, unusually, many people where hanging tensely around. Strange atmosphere. The door of the mobile recording studio was locked. I banged on it, but there was no response.
The first bottle hit the wall just as I was turning back into the club from Neal Street. It seems that two rival gangs had decided to take exception to us in general and to one of the group's managers in particular. Conveniently, the milk company had left many crates of empty bottles stacked up in the street for morning pickup. Along with a few other loiterers, I dived through the front door. Andy locked it and immediately called the police (who never showed up). There were so many breaking bottles that you couldn't hear the individual sound of each smash. It sounded like a glass waterfall might, and was probably quickly over but seemed to go on for ever. The funniest experience (in undamaged retrospect) was of Slimy Toad, the bass player for Johnny Moped, and a few friends. They had seen the trouble coming, so jumped into their car. They turned on the ignition as the first bottle hit it, the passengers putting their backs against the windows, trying to prevent them from breaking. As in a classic comedy movie, the car wouldn't start, and the sound of the starter motor was drowned out by the waterfall. Oh yes, they got through OK, of course.
The audience certainly didn't suffer stage fright from our recording them. We had blocked off a stall each in the ladies' and the gents', and hung a microphone from the ceiling. It did transmit a very nice social toilet ambiance. As we had expected, all the real action was in the ladies'. A couple had set themselves up as haircutters-in-residence, upturned garbage pail and all. Like all truly great salons, it had become an important cultural scene. Andy the boss was in the truck with us as, between sets, we were monitoring the Roxy's new epicenter on two sets of headphones. 'Do this one, do this one!' she shouted. Crash. 'How about this one higher up?' Crash. An improvised competition for kicking the tiles off the wall was drawing a growing crowd. We sniggered for a few minutes then decided it was time to tell Andy about his facility's destruction. He swept off, looking large. We recorded him, too. His words of wisdom: 'Hey, it's your toilet, you can smash it up if you want to. But you'll have nowhere to piss next weekend.'
The last sound on the album was worth the cost, about $80 then. One of the punters, Shane, was a prominent clubber, noisy, and cheerful, and mentioned in dispatches. The quote about the Slits on one of the Roxy posters ('Makes you think' Shane) was a massive tribute to the enormous mind-stimulating power of the group: get to Shane and you're clearly effective. Shane was in a hurry, and someone was using the stall. BangBangBang, hurry up in there. BangBangBang, fucking hurry up. Sounds of climbing. 'Oo is it?' 'O they're not fucking bugging us·..' Silence. The perfect audience participation in the ending of the album.
I had to walk home that night, five miles, no taxis on the street, shouting receding into the distance. EMI company cars were not readily available to oiks like me. 'Where have you been?' asked Jo when I woke her up. 'A long story,' I said. I would hear the roughs on Monday.
Sorting through the results was also a long story. Each set, around 40 minutes, took a reel of tape. Each group would be carefully inspected by security (mostly Second World War veterans) at EMI-who-fired-the-Sex-Pistols in Manchester Square, who started to enjoy the show. One bright-haired group had changed their name from Smak. They presented themselves at reception. 'Hello, we're the Unwanted.' 'I'm terribly sorry to hear that.' Having made it past the military, they would land in my corner office, and loosen up sufficiently to sit through the rough tapes. There was a lot of wincing when hearing the euphoria of a Friday night replayed on an objective Tuesday afternoon, but overall we thought we had enough good tracks for a charming album.
To mix the album, I decided to return to the studio where I had started learning my craft. For slightly colorful reasons, among others, I had been fired by the larger studio organization, which had subsequently sold off the scruffy rock+roll basement studio in Holborn where I had worked happily on Fleetwood Mac and Deep Purple sessions. Ian Gillan, formerly (at that time) of Deep Purple, bought into the studio where he had done some of his best work. Unfortunately, they could only function after 6pm because someone upstairs in the British Airports Authority offices had been able to make a simultaneous recording of some guitar overdub. Such outlaw existence seemed perfectly in sync with the project, so I asked Louie Austin, who had been an engineer when I was the tea boy, to work with me.
The recordings were surprisingly clear, although to play safe I had also recorded the direct electrical feed from guitars and basses as well as recording the amps themselves. This way, I could reconstitute a more useable sound if, as I expected, many were in the 'you had to have been there' class. However, I only needed to remake sounds for the Unwanted, as most groups had a surprisingly clear character and style to their heavily distorted sound. The Buzzcocks sounded like the pros they were. X-Ray Spex' O Bondage! Up Yours! was utterly and ingenuously compulsive, featuring Laura Logic on the only saxophone ever to grace the Roxy stage. Wire still sounded startlingly powerful and competent. The Adverts' drummer kicked over his drums and microphones with a confusing clatter at the end of their set:: the perfect end for Side One.
We spent hours listening to the toilet tapes, and selected many overheards to go between the tracks, placing three at a time (left, center and right). This, I'm afraid in retrospect, makes understanding words fairly difficult although you can pick them out if you stick your ear in one speaker or focus with headphones. General audience noise was plentiful and vibrant. To convey the spirit of place, I mastered the LP so that there was audience racket on the run-in groove, so that as soon as you dropped the needle on the LP, you heard sound and were taken right there: no waiting for the show to start. After the Adverts' upturning set end, I confess that I did lay in guitar mains hum as if some technical catastrophe had just taken place. But that and the Unwanted's slight guitar/bass polishing were the only non-documentary sonics embellishing those loud weekend nights.
My strongest memory of the mixing is of the energy that working with such musical intensity drained out of you. I would go home after six hours of mixing as exhausted as after maybe twelve on routine recordings I had worked on before. The musical weather had really changed. Reflecting solidly the views of the quality-conscious musical establishment that the punks were attacking, the studio requested that they did not receive credit on the album sleeve for the mixing.
The album came out, beautifully packaged (the punks were nothing if not visually aware, and Barry Jones' graphics talents were truly original). It startled everyone with its chart success, and launched solid careers for several bands.
The original collection with its audience and part of the audience activity is now available again, on CD. Nicely repackaged, it comes as a double CD. The original recordings are on the first, in sequence. The opening has a couple of minutes of audience scene, more than could be heard on the original vinyl, but the Adverts' drums being kicked over and the microphone being liberated from the men's toilets are cut. (Nothing to do with me.)
The second CD contains a mixture of out takes from the original and tracks which may have been recorded for a follow-up by the club (Farewell To The Roxy) after the three original managers were long gone, together with some live recordings from elsewhere (including two by the Damned).
There are also several CDs issued apparently from the first Roxy sessions, all of which use the original cover photograph. Of these, only the sets by the Boys (who were left off the original for reasons I can't remember but probably because they had been signed by another record company), X-Ray Spex and the Buzzcocks are completely from the April 1977 nights. The Adverts' set contains a mixture of live and studio tracks. The UK Subs were not recorded during those days, although the CD is a good representation. Likewise Sham 69, although they were Roxy stalwarts, are represented by recordings from other sessions. Just to confuse matters further, there is also a series of live recordings from the Roxy Club in Los Angeles (which predates the London Roxy and is still going). Its easy enough to distinguish them, though. As far as I remember, neither Al Stewart nor Gladys Knight and the Pips ever stood on milk crates to play a basement in Covent Garden.
The whole collection sounds as if from another age, and might even have been transcribed from 78s. As one writer described it, the 'unashamed awfulness' of it all shines through. For me, these are special memories of a unique scene where most of the participants were less than half the age they are now. And the world is different, now.
- MT March 2002 (revised December 2002)
Amazon stocks the whole series. Click on the thumbnail to bounce over to their store page for that specific CD.
The Roxy Club
history at the Stereo Society (selected
The Sex Pistols at the Stereo Society (selected links):
To Sex Pistols Central (all links)
To the Sex Pistols' Bravo music magazine folded poster insert (1976, Germany)
To the front page of the Daily Mirror 1976
To Mike Thorne's Anarchy In the UK commentary
To Thorne's commentary and review of the Jubilee boxed set
To the 1976 letter to EMI from a disgruntled artist
To the 1976 EMI press release in response to the shock and the horror
To Mike Thorne's interview 2002 for God Save The Sex Pistols
at the Stereo Society (selected
Wire discography (to 1991)
to download Wire historical memorabilia, text or hi-res graphic.
Thorne production commentaries
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