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U.K. Subs

+ {Charlie Harper} + {Urban Dogs}

Back in 1977, year zero for the safety-pin blank generation, punk rockers tended to be teenagers, but not U.K. SUBS skipper Charlie Harper (born David Charles Perez, 25 May 1944), who was well into his 30s when his motley crew from East London emerged. Where had he been? A hairdresser by trade, he’d previously sang in a few local R&B combos in 1975/76, and, in turn, The Marauders. They became The Subversives, then The Subs, while the U.K. prefix came as a result of listening to the SEX PISTOLS’ `Anarchy In The…’ single. A testament to the hardy U.K. SUBS, is that after nearly 40 years in the business they’re still going strong, never wavering to fashion trends, just churning out pure punk.
The addition of lead guitarist and co-songsmith Nicky Garratt in October 1977 was a pivotal turning point for the quartet – completed by bassist Paul Slack and drummer Pete Davies (who’d superseded Rory Lyons) – and it was not long before they made their vinyl debut in April 1978, as one of over a dozen second tier punk acts on the live various artists LP, Farewell To The Roxy; U.K. SUBS were the only combo here to be allocated two tracks, although both (`I Live In A Car’ and `Telephone Numbers’) stalled at a minute apiece; the former of these – the studio version – found its way on to the 2-song B-side of the band’s debut single, `C.I.D.’, released on their local indie outlet City at a time in September ’78 when punk-rock looked to be on its last legs.
U.K. SUBS were having none of it. Although the band arrived a bit late for the punk party (in much the same way as ANGELIC UPSTARTS, STIFF LITTLE FINGERS, The RUTS et al), their subsequent signing to R.C.A. subsidiary GEM resulted in a string of hits, kick-started by the frantic 2-minute, 3-chord stomp of `Stranglehold’, the following summer. Along with the SHAM 69-like Top 30 hit `Tomorrows Girls’ (the tale of a futuristic Venus), the single was featured on the 17-track debut album, ANOTHER KIND OF BLUES (1979) {*8}, an amphetamine-fuelled collection of simple but effective hook-lines and RAMONES-style motifs; check out the group’s longest track on board, `Rockers’, at 3:15 minutes!
A month on, the release of a 4-song EP headed by a unlikely cover of The ZOMBIIES’ `She’s Not There’ and their own `Kicks’, guaranteed the band further fruits, as did `Warhead’, a politically-motivated burst of energy that chalked up their fourth consecutive Top 40 entry. Their busy schedule continuing apace when BRAND NEW AGE (1980) {*7} hit the Top 20; extra weeks in the charts was helped by the anthemic fifth major hit, `Teenage’.
However, the album’s success was outstripped by the concert set, CRASH COURSE: LIVE (1980) {*6}, which documented a pinnacle gig on 30th May at London’s Rainbow Theatre. While U.K. SUBS were perhaps regarded a second division outfit in the shadow of The CLASH, The DAMNED, et al, there was no doubting their onstage power and the formidable aura of Harper in full flight. The record cracked the Top 10, an all-time best that the ‘Subs would struggle to emulate as their commercial fortunes began to wane. Oi! was all the rage by now, and for a time U.K. SUBS easily fitted into either category.
CHARLIE HARPER would side-line as a solo artist for a couple of years, `London Barmy Army’ becoming a minor hit, while a live mini-set of covers, STOLEN PROPERTY (1982) {*3} – coming after 1981’s `Freaked’ – didn’t exactly cover him in glory.
Subsequent personnel upheavals forever dogged U.K. SUBS; Davies and Slack moving over for Steve Roberts and Alvin Gibbs (ex-USERS) respectively, prior to the band’s final charting album DIMINISHED RESPONSIBILITY (1981) {*5}, which contained the hit `Party In Paris’, but not their chart au revoir `Keep On Runnin’ (Til You Burn)’.
1982’s ENDANGERED SPECIES {*6} had its moments (`Down On The Farm’, `Living Dead’ and `Ice Age’), but Harper and Co were yesterday’s men; their fate sealed when NEMS Records let them go; Kim Wylie duly replaced Roberts (who joined Cyanide, then LIGOTAGE) for the obligatory 3-track maxi-EP `Shake Up The City’, a one-off for Abstract Records.
The subsequent departure of Garratt (to Rebekka Frame) dealt a blow that the U.K. SUBS never really recovered from, although the evergreen Harper soldiered on with fresh employees Capt. Scarlet (born David Lloyd) on guitar, Steve Slack on bass and Steve J. Jones on drums. 1983’s government-baiting FLOOD OF LIES {*6} impressed little but their stalwart fanbase, while the songs were decidedly longer; the finale `Seas Of Mars’ clocked in at over 5 minutes!
The aforementioned glam-punks URBAN DOGS formed in ’82 and were an amalgamation of Harper and Gibbs, plus guitarist Knox (from The VIBRATORS) and drummer Turkey (aka Matthew Best). Following on from their `New Barbarians’ single late in ‘82, two LPs diverted traffic away from the ‘Subs for a few years; the eponymous URBAN DOGS (1983) {*6} and NO PEDIGREE (1985) {*5} – the latter without Gibbs – warranted a listen or two.
Meanwhile, Harper continued to release workmanlike albums such as the live GROSS OUT U.S.A. (1985) {*3}, featuring Tezz Roberts and a returning Pete Davies. Tezz swapped bass for guitar on `This Gun Says’, a single that also roped in bassist John Armitage and drummer Rab Fae Beith (ex-WALL, ex-PATRIK FITZGERALD). Annoyingly unsettling for everyone bar Harper, both Armitage and Roberts were shown the door prior to 1986’s HUNTINGTON BEACH {*4}, for Red Flame Records; John Fallon and James Moncur filled both berths respectively, but to an ever diminishing core of fans; bassist Plonker Magoo replaced Fallon on the forthcoming tours.
A live attraction for oi! punks on the continent, U.K. SUBS’ IN ACTION (TENTH ANNIVERSARY) (1986) {*4} kept the wolf from the door, while America gave it an edited release on cassette under the guise of “Left For Dead: Alive In Holland ’86”.
Once again Harper shook up the band; guitarist Alan Lee (Shaw) (ex-RINGS, ex-MANIACS), bassist Flea (aka Dave Farrelly) and drummer Steve Roberts wiped the slate clean, until The DAMNED-bound Lee was substituted by Darrel Barth. The band were becoming something of a joke and even FALL-like in their revolving-door personnel pattern, although Harper was no southern Mark E. Smith. Expanding further afield and balancing their R&B punk with hard-rock, JAPAN TODAY (1987) {*4} was a bit of a kamikaze LP, indiscriminately interspersing the odd TV puppet theme and Xmas/New Year buffers, `Captain Scarlet’, `Hey! Santa’ and `Auld Lang Syne’. Yes, it was the greatest Cockney rip-off… oi! oi! oi!
The briefest reunion of sorts for KILLING TIME (1989) {*3} featured Garratt and Gibbs back in action, but it couldn’t last. The sickly tribute to the recently deceased `Nico’ was maudlin and extremely embarrassing, while their throwback to goth by way of `Planet I’ could save it not from the indie bargain bins.
At the dawn of the 90s, Harper, Barth, Flea and drummer Matt McCoy comprised the latest incarnation of U.K. SUBS and, while GREATEST HITS – LIVE IN PARIS (1990) {*4} was wrongly filed under compilations in shops, there was no such excuse for the topical MAD COW FEVER (1991) {*5}. A hackneyed collection of pub-rock favourites and a far cry from the band’s late-70s heyday, a few good stunners like `Welfare Mother’ and `Mandarins Of Change’ were lost on staples `Route 66’, `Road Runner’, Baby Please Don’t Go’, NEW YORK DOLLS’ `Pills’ and 13th FLOOR ELEVATORS’ `I Walked With A Zombie’.
Continuing their alphabetically ordered run of sets (had anyone really noticed?) for NORMAL SERVICE RESUMED (1993) {*4}, Harper surprised no one by swapping old for new in the shape of line-up fodder Alan Campbell (guitar), Brian Barnes (bass) and a returning Pete Davies. Resurrecting golden nugget `Down On The Farm’ and borrowing `Here Comes Alex’ from DIE TOTEN HOSEN, there was little to mend their gaping wounds. Ditto 1996’s OCCUPIED {*5}, their 14th album, a crunching set of pure punk which at times embraced grindcore (`MPRI’ and `Nazi C***s’) and Cockney Oi! (`Let’s Get Drunk’ and `Shove It’).
To many pundits, the real UK SUBS stood up on QUINTESSENTIALS (1997) {*6}, an album that brought back Garratt and Gibbs, plus a new drummer David Ayer. Intense, raw and almost bouncing off walls, the Harper man burned like a modern-day HUSKER DU or BAD RELIGION on the likes of `War On The Pentagon, Pts.1 & 2’, `AK47’ and `Outside Society’; sentiments aside, it was probably too soon to write an anti-gun ode to `Dunblane’.
Released in the States around the same time, but kept back a few years in Britain while under contract, RIOT (1997) {*6} was another to enlighten purists that punk was not dead; `Cyberpunk’, `House Of Cards’ and `Human Rights’ (dismiss the cover of BACHARACH & DAVID’s `My Little Red Book’) were all fast and furious.
While punters pondered and scratch their heads to match the letter “S” for either compilations! SUB MISSION – THE BEST OF UK SUBS 1982-1998 (1999) {*6} or SELF DESTRUCT: PUNK CAN TAKE IT 2 (2001) {*5} – the latter consisting of 1988-94 material, the “T” box was ticked for the assembled re-worked set, TIME WARP – THE GREATEST HITS (2001) {*6}.
A biographer’s nightmare, Harper continued to roll with the changes, the changes this time arriving by way of Alan Campbell (guitar), Simon Rankin (bass) and Jason Dulldrums (drums) for the Captain Oi!-endorsed umpteenth set, UNIVERSAL (2002) {*5}. Just who were the UK SUBS was a question asked when Harper, Garratt, Gibbs and drummer Jason Willer offered up another “S”: STAFFORDSHIRE BULL (2004) {*4}, a live CD recorded at Lichfield Music Festival, 8th August 2002; VIOLENT STATE (2005) – a mock live set from a year earlier, reinstated the alphabetical sequence. Fast forward a few years, guitarist Jet 13 (aka Keita Taniguchi) deputised for Garratt until becoming a permanent fixture.
Retaining all but their drummer (replaced by Jamie Oliver – no, not that one!), UK SUBS served up their first studio album in 9 years, the Pat Collier-produced WORK IN PROGRESS (2011) {*6}. One could almost forgive the band for cliched songs and fist-pumping anthems, and pensioner Charlie boy was really too old to care. Underpinned by a SONICS cover (`Strychnine’) and a co-scribed dirge (`This Chaos’) with long-time fan Lars Frederiksen (of RANCID), one had to take a bow to these and other tracks `Creation’, `Tokyo Rose’ and `Blood’.
Like a fine vintage wine, 2013’s XXIV {*7} was again a group creation, all members taking turns to explore the need to headbang on `Implosion 77’, `Speed’, `Rabid’, et al, while the sardonic topical protest song `Coalition Government Blues’ rubbed salt into a gaping Great British wound, too long in the tooth to heal.
Now 70 years-old but hardly changing creed or colour, Harper and his hapless huntsmen raised the pulse again with YELLOW LEADER (2015) {*7}. Nearing a landmark 40 years in existence – and one thinks settled in personnel vibe – UK SUBS had extended their purple patch under their association with the aforesaid Collier. If Harper were ever to be given a knighthood for services to punk (unlikely as it seems), the good, the bad and the ugly were somewhere inside the likes of `Chemical’, `Sick Velveteen’, `Artificial’ and `Prime Evil’. And one thing was for sure, Harper couldn’t retire as there was still a “Z” to go – number 26 in all.
ZIEZO {*6} came about in spring 2016 as a result of a PledgeMusic campaign. Produced by old mucker Pat Collier and accompanied by a mini-book document authored by Alvin Gibbs, U.K. SUBS’ low-key swansong set was just as one expected – swathed with topical sonic punk (`Polarisation’, `Dope Fiend’, `Banksy’ etc.) or ska-beat reggae (`City Of The Dead’). As Jet was first to fly off (replaced on tour by Steve Straughan and, in turn, Finny McConnell), Harper and Co would bid farewell that winter – probably!
© MC Strong 1994-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Mar2015-Aug2016

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