Ah , what a lot of punk rock nostalgia is around us these days. Seems churlish not to add to the pile , a little nostalgia never did any harm……
It always struck me that whilst there was a lot of available press interviews etc from the 81/82 “Twiggy Era” , I really knew very little about the early part of the band’s career. Not a lot ever got written about the likes of Pneumania and the Resistors , so I was thinking this might be some good stuff to get “on the record”.
At the start of 1979 I was a spotty little 14 year old enjoying the delights of Dunstable , we were all into punk bands but it was the mainstream Pistols/Clash/Buzzcocks kind of thing. Gigs in Luton pubs were something you heard mentioned by older kids , but sadly not on the agenda due to lack of transport/cash/ability to get served. So I heard of all the Luton scene from afar , and it wasn’t for another year or so that I got to see any of these bands. By which time UK Decay were probably a lot better live , but I’d missed the formative years. Kindly Spon agreed to submit to an interrogation on the subject , where certain grisly details were dredged up to be preserved for posterity.
Spon, Steve Harle the ‘Captain’ and Martin Dill; a ‘Welly’ st. scene.
The Luton Punk Scene..an interview with Steve Spon by Paul Rab John
Ok , taking it right back , were you actually born in luton? where did you grow up?
Yes I was born at the L& D (Luton and Dunstable Hospital) I grew up in the Swifts Green area of Stopsley. Although I spent a year or so of my early childhood in Widnes, Merseyside.
Looking at pre-punk days , what were you listening to in 75-77?
I was into David Bowie, Roxy Music, Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and The Bonzo Dog band, amongst others. I went to lots of gigs at the California Ballroom and Queensway Hall in Dunstable , mainly Soul and Reggae bands at the ‘Cali’ such as KC and the Sunshine Band, Rufus Thomas and the Fatback Band as well as The Glitter Band and Steve Harley.. At the Queensway Hall the taste was a bit heavier I saw Hawkwind 3 times! And other bands ; Thin Lizzy, Curved Air and Judas Priest amongst others!
Was pneumania your first band or were there others before that? Were you playing guitar before punk , or did you pick it up then?
The first Luton Punk band was The Jets. They appeared on ‘Farewell To The Roxy’ which was recorded at the famous Covent Garden club in early 1978
I had previously to punk played keyboards in 3 bands, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Poser and K-OS. As punk kicked in eventually I found myself getting increasingly frustrated in getting my ideas across with keyboards so in late 1978 I picked up the guitar with the idea of forming a brand new band.
Toad the Wet Sprocket – good grief! these are the same guys who did the “Metal for Muthas” track i presume? i saw them live in 81 at the queensway , my memory is of a sort of bluesy rock band , not quite heavy enough to compete with iron maiden/def leppard type acts from that scene who “made it”. were they like that in your days? any of the stuff from your time in the band get recorded (with you or after you’d left)?
Well yes my very first band was called Dragonfly, later changing their name to Toad the Wet sprocket (From ‘Lord of the Rings’) Based in Studham , that was in 1975 I think. I was on keyboards, the band recruited a guitarist from Dunstable, ‘Curly’ Ridout and had a guy called Mick Mustafa on vocals. They were into the usual‘Dinosaur’ stuff, Led Zep, Deep Turtle etc at first. When the band wanted to get more into serious blues and things, I started losing touch, 1976 happened and I started opening my eyes and ears to Punk. They shunned Punk so a parting of ways was inevitable.
I was aware they moved on and released at least one record, I do know there was a Canadian Band of the same name however, early 90’s or so..
I know ‘TTWS’ became a very highly respected ‘Muso’ band in the Dunstable area during the 80’s developing a Bluesy, Jazzy style, I hear Curly teaches guitar now. There is nothing other than the odd faded C90 rehearsal tape left from the time I was in the band. A time that I guess was necessary for my development I suppose in retrospect.
Hey this makes the uk decay family tree a lot more fascinating now :-
‘Laughing out aloud’ Yes who knows where it could end!
Would you say you had “influences” as a guitarist ( i’d struggle to suggest one….)? who did you really admire when you started playing?
I liked the ragged ‘anti-guitar’ playing style of Gang of Four, the pure energy of the Sex Pistols sound. Around 1978 I started listening to the Velvet Underground and Ramones, Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu. As well as Magazine, XTC, Public Image and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Always in my life there was John Peel, who would continually play new and exciting music in fact I would go as far as saying that ‘Peely’ himself was probably single biggest influence on me for introducing me to a whole world of new music.
From Pneumania right through to Nostramus you’ve always bravely resisted “playing the blues” , or ever doing covers. Does “classic rock” interest you at all?
Yuk! I had dabbled with ‘the blues’ in ‘TTWS’ and ended up feeling there has got to be a better way! It’s why I got into Punk. To see grown men wetting themselves over yet another guitar solo from ‘sonny boy howling lone wolf rogers’ or come to that ‘cock rocking’ themselves to Queen or Status Quo, didn’t then and doesn’t now appeal to me in the slightest.
I have no problem with ‘covers’ providing they are done for the right reason and perhaps with some sense of artistic respectfulness to the original. It’s just not my general style to ‘cover’ other people’s songs.
Luton punk in 1979
So moving on to Luton in 77 , did you know the other guys in UK Decay / Pneumania before punk took off , or was it then that you met them all?
Not at that time apart from ‘Captain B’ who was playing with ‘The Jets’. They had played at ‘The Roxy’ in the previous year.
At the time I was in a band Called K-OS and we had a support slot in Bishops Stortford with Sham 69 and we had just lost our bass player so ‘Captain’ covered for us in what turned out a most memorable debacle! It was pure Chaos but that’s Punk!
After that I became good friends with ‘Captain’ and we started to get our heads around building a rehearsal room, by the end of 1978 it was finished. Around this time Captain and I had got involved in helping to get the new Art Centre together. It was an old abandoned Hat Factory and was full of crap, one day on arriving to clear one of the upstairs rooms out, we were astonished to find a right proper ‘din’ crescendoing around the old wooden staircases.
We attentively entered the room, which on first appearance seemed empty but on further investigation there was a cupboard door slightly ajar in the far corner. Opening the door there was two young punks; beating the living daylights out of a sprawl of Tupperware boxes with broken drumsticks we were all startled!
It was Steve Harle and Martyn (Segovia) Smith, after a few uncomfortable moments silence we all broke out laughing. We got chatting and learnt Steve and Martyn were forming a new band but money for drum kits amps guitars and rehearsal rooms etc was a bit thin on the ground!
Fanzines, Town Hall and the ’33’ art centre
Over the next few months moving into early 1979 we would meet up down the ‘Grapevine’ and met up with Abbo, Gaynor, Steve the voice and the rest of the Luton Punks who were around at the time.
The Jets are generally seen as the original luton punk band , which i guess you’d agree with? what did you make of them?
Undoubtedly they were! They were the role models for all the Luton Bands that followed! They had a background in Art, Jazz, Reggae and Rhythm and Blues. Despite this they had locally at first a huge amount of ‘street cred’ and respect and then they seemed to lose it. They should have gone a lot further!
After that followed a chunk of local punk acts like the Resistors , the Clips , the Friction , Pneumania etc etc. was it easy to get gigs and make things happen locally back then? there certainly seemed to have been a lot of bands in action……
Yes in those Halcyon days down the Grapevine it seemed the entire congregation of punks that drank there also had their own bands. I had been involved in promoting gigs before and so had a bit of experience approaching potential venues in view of promoting Punk Gigs, it was a matter of being ‘economical with the truth’ as far as the venue landlords were concerned and hoping for the best!
There were others too, Abbo was able to get gigs going at the Tech College (now the Uni.) Roger Holdstock ( The Friction) and the Jets/ Tee Vees also put on gigs. Fahim Qureshi out of ‘The Five Year Plan’ managed to sucker Barnfield College into putting on gigs. There was the Luton Carnival and the Marsh Farm Festival as well as the Grapevine and other odd public houses. There was potentially a big audience in town so the ‘carrot’ was the‘rentacrowd’ in the Landlords mind, we got away with it mainly.
Until much later, when we got banned from everywhere starting with the Town Hall!
Was there much rivalry or was it a big bunch of mates?
I think it would be fair to say there was a kind of ‘rivalry’ amongst the bands at the time, friendly but serious to the point of competitiveness, however we were one big community in the pubs and particularly the ‘awaydays’, we would ‘stick together’ as friends We needed to in those times
Very few of the luton punk bands made records , so a lot of people out there won’t have a clue what they sounded like. who do you think were “the ones that got away” who should have got big but never quite got it together?
It’s a real shame The Statics never recorded their music, they had some classic tunes such as ‘Life is like a Coke in a Mickey Mouse Glass’ and ‘Electric City’ that would I am sure have set the charts on fire had they have been released. They had a very colourful approach in their music and in their stage presence.
How did Pneumania evolve then?
Gaynor was the most outstanding figure in the Grapevine Which I guess could have been seen as being a bit of a callous way of choosing a vocalist for your band, but that was the plan! In true punk fashion we (me and the Captain) asked her if she would like to try singing in a band. She said she had never sung before but would love to give it a try. That’s where it started; we arranged a jam session in our new rehearsal room a few days later (this is late 78)
Gaynor at play
Gaynor was already a ‘veteran’ of the local Punk scene, she hadn spent the previous couple of years charging the tourists for photos in Kings Road, Chelsea and ‘liggin’ at Seditionaries.
She was awesome, a true London 1978 ‘Madonna Punkette’. She was ‘street-wise’ and had lots of experiences to sing about. Gaynor promptly showed up, bottle of cider in one hand and make up kit in another and a crew of her friends in tow, Tibor, Steve the Voice and Skinny Tony.
Captain was to play drums (he was playing Bass for the Jets at the time!), I was to play guitar (for the first time!) Gaynor of course on voice but there was no bass player!
Steve the Voice said he would give it a go, so we had a band!
After a couple more sessions, there was talk of a gig so we needed a name, as Gaynor had long ‘jack frost’ white style hair she kind of adopted the ‘Snow White’ name, so we used ‘Sno White and the sic Punks’ for that first show.
After a couple of months Captain decided Drums wasn’t his thing after all, so he made way for Nigel Dark. It was then that we changed our name to Pneumania that was just before we recorded the Split Single.
So roughly what was the timescale of Pneumania (with you in it) , when did it start and when did it finish?
In spring 1979 “Sno White and the Sic Punks” changed our name to Pneumania. In about September 1979, I had left Pneumania and joined UK Decay.
Pneumania floundered for a while then Steve the Voice picked up the pieces and formed the second line-up of Pneumania with Elaine O’Brien on voice. They flourished for a while ; they were quite good in their own right! But sadly finished after 18 months.
Did you play many gigs? what did you think of yourselves as a live act compared to others on the scene?
Faces of Pneumania
We probably played about a dozen or so gigs between March and September 1979.
Although I had gigged before it was like starting all over! I was now playing a guitar that missed its last string! This gave my guitar playing a darker sound and I adapted a technique for using this. We were quite ramshackle in our performance, Nigel played a
light energetic almost Jazzy style. Steve the Voice who’s real love was Reggae and Dub gave us a ‘Dubby’ feel. Gaynor would sing her heart out. In retrospect I guess we were living out a kind of Punk fantasy a synthetic dream or soap opera. Pneumania was always going to be a precarious entity.
We would never know until we actually got up on stage and started playing whether we had actually got a band! “Was Nigel going to actually turn up” or “Was Gaynor going to in the right frame of mind to be able to sing in front of a crowd”? such were the vagaries of a Pneumania gig! That did make the odd gig that we successfully completed an even more extra-special event!
The rare moment that everything was running on all four cylinders though seemed to make everything else worthwhile, we felt unbeatable!
I guess very few people ever heard the Resistors , i was a really big UK Decay fan and i’ve never heard a note. is the UK Decay side of the split single a fair indication of what the Resistors sounded like?
The short answer is yes it is! As is ‘Disco Romance’, ‘Rising from the Dead’ and ‘Middle of the Road Man’ from the ‘Black 45’ and the RFTD EP Abbo played the guitar in the Resistors as well as doing vocals, when I joined Abbo was free to concentrate on singing. I learnt the guitar parts formerly played by Abbo and for a long time on certain songs Abbo would continue to reach for his guitar. The Resistors were a really good band in their own right , they summed up and acted out the spirit and aspirations of the Luton Punk movement admirably.
They became the omnipotent voice of the people for the time, so it seemed to me.
UK Decay Flyer
Spon Joins UK Decay
I think i’m right in thinking the Resistors had various singers in , and then Abbo took over vocals too and it became a three piece. Did you see the much with all these line-ups? did they “have something” back then that made you think they’d be the ones to go far?
You are right in saying that. I think there was a guy called Simon from St. Albans who did vocals, he was around late 78 until early 79.
I don’t remember a lot about him. In early 1979 when I got closer to the band, Paul Wilson was on vocals with Abbo on guitar along of course with Steve and Martin.. Then they lost Paul and became a three piece. The Resistors definitely had a lot of promise back then, they were the champions of the rising Luton Punk scene.
At the time, I was in Pneumania and the 2 bands played many gigs together, we teamed up and by doing so found we could do so much more together, ‘Yin and Yang’! I guess we were a bit of a double act really; sometimes we literally ‘fused’ together to form the ‘Stevie Band’ with the 2 Steve’s from Pneumania and the 2 Steve’s from the Resistors. So there was a lot of fusing together of potential in the embryonic UK Decay days.
So Pneumania recorded 2 tracks for the split single. were these the best 2 songs ? did you have a lot of other material?
‘Exhibition’ and ‘Coming attack’ were written shortly before the recording of the Split Single. Exhibition grew out of an earlier ‘Snow White’ song; Gaynor parodying herself in the lyrics. After recording the ‘S.S’ (about May 1979-Nigel Dark joined just before) we started writing a new batch of songs.
These were unfortunately never properly recorded, although we played them at various gigs over the summer of 1979. Save one live recorded rehearsal using the new at the time, ‘binaural’ recording system they had just got in at the ‘33’ Arts Centre. Unfortunately we only have a very poor copy of this tape and its mostly way too ‘decayed’ to restore! There were some great moments in some of these‘prototype’ songs.
Incidental anecdote; On the day of the’33 Binaural session’’, we took a break midway and legged it up the Grapevine for a swift half; as you do! On the way back (at closing time) we got jumped I nearly had my arm broken by some nutter picking on the ‘Punks’ He jumped out of an alleyway with a baseball bat and started walloping us! I put up my arm to protect my face and took the blow on my elbow.
Somehow we got back and continued our session to the wee hours in extreme agony Ah those were the days!
More Split Single shenanigans
Were you happy with how the split single came out? how many did it sell in the end?
I think at the time we were over the moon! At least I was, it was ‘mission successful’, the culmination of a couple months of hard work. We had a launch gig and party to celebrate, we had the local press all over us and school kids wrote in asking if they could have a look round the (‘Plastic’) ‘record factory’! When the New Musical Express review came out, we were at first surprised then when we realised the implications. It was the best thing that could have happened, in true‘Punk’ style!
Rough Trade were on the phone that afternoon asking for more, because they had sold out of their stock. It took a couple of weeks for the pressing plant to do another re-pressing; we were still learning the ropes as far as supply and demand. Overall however when I think back on it the ‘S.S’ was a ‘triumph’ of ‘DIY’ and collaboration between not only the 2 bands but also the enlarged community of people who helped make it all possible.
I think, I am pretty sure that in the 2 presses of the ‘S.S’ we ended up selling something like 1500 at the end of the day.
Is it right that a couple of UK Decay songs were actually re-worked Pneumania numbers? Which ones were they?
Yes, Music-wise obviously, Abbo of course put some new lyrics to a couple of tunes that I had written. Previously they had been worked on with Pneumania.
The songs will be familiar to those who have heard ‘The Black 45’, they were ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘Message Distortion’
Anyway, it all ended when you left for UK Decay. Did they invite you or did you offer your services?
Aha! That’s a question. Pneumania were a ‘temperamental’, ‘finicky’ beast to say the least. There were several factors that lead to the situation of me leaving Pneumania and joining‘Decay’.
There was I suppose a frustration on my behalf with some of the other members lack of serious attitude when it came to things like rehearsals and eventually gigs. I would literally not know whether certain people were going to turn up or not.
The ‘S.S’ had given us a great opportunity to progress further, we were getting offers of gigs left right and centre and we were trying to write new material for the Pneumania follow up to the ‘S.S’ But unfortunately certain members didn’t seem to get it!
I think that Abbo and the boys could plainly see what was going on and saw how they could turn the situation to their advantage, so they asked me to join them on guitar.
I could see that they were dead keen to move on; I weighed everything up and took the offer.
Difficult decision or was it obvious UK Decay had more potential? How did the rest of Pneumania react?
No , at the time it seemed an easy decision for me although it wasn’t easy breaking the news to the other members of Pneumania. Steve the Voice (bless his heart) was the most disappointed. Nigel had already done a disappearing act and Gaynor was smitten with personal problems anyway. I think however that they all respected my decision to leave the band and join up with UK Decay.
Did you ever see “Pneumania mark 2” that Steve the Voice put together later? What did you think of it starting again without you or snow?
I think Steve the Voice did really well forming that new look Pneumania MK2.
I saw them at Barnfield College in 1980/81 I think with new drummer Dave Sidley new vocalist Elaine O’Brian and on guitar Pete Keady (I think!) Steve of course was on Bass.
It was something else witnessing a baby that I had helped to create, playing some of the tunes we used to play! They had a great sound and it’s a real shame they didn’t go any further and record some of their stuff.
I had no problem at all with it, I only wish that I had more time to help them somehow but we by that time were up to our necks in our own work. I have often wondered whether there were any half decent recordings of their music. I have absolutely no idea why or exactly when this line up finished though.
UK Decay late 1979
More Black 45 EP
So then you joined UK Decay and it was onwards and upwards. to an outsider the “black 45” is like a different band , it all seems to gel and there’s a real band sound which carried on developing over the next 3 years. Did it all come together quickly when you joined?
Yes it all happened very quick, I brought over a couple of songs from Pneumania and learnt the Resistors songs we had a short intense period of rehearsals to work out the new live set and bang! We were in the studio recording the ‘Black 45 EP’.
Next we were playing out of town Oxford, Northampton, London and that moved on to Berlin and Europe. I had worked with Steve and Abbo before in the ‘Stevie Band’ I really liked his powerful rolling style. Martin had a more driving Bass guitar style than Steve the Voice . We very soon were developing a sound, a very raw sound at first, Abbo was left a lot more freedom to concentrate on his vocals and I felt I had much more space to manoeuvre with my developing 5 string style. Steve and Martin had by now developed into a really tight rhythm section so the pieces were in place!
We felt we were on to something. The following period was a blur of activity with the production and release of ‘The Black 45’, more and more gigs, negotiations with ‘Fresh’ records, Fanzines, Indie Record and Punk clothes Shop and John Peel sessions. This lead on to more formalised tours, in Britain and Europe and then on to the Dead Kennedys first British tour in the Autumn of 1980. Then there was‘For My Country’, followed by ‘The Unexpected Guest’ singles! It seems incredible looking back how much shit we did back then in that short while.
Then Martin ‘segovia’ Smith, hit us with a bombshell!
So how many did the black 45 sell then?
That’s a good question Initially of course it came out on our own‘Plastic records’ label and I think we did about 2 or 3 thousand. We ran into supply and demand and cash flow problems pretty soon however as we were a small outfit I guess, some of the shops and distributors thought we could wait for our paychecks! So that’s where Fresh records stepped in with their licensing offer, which is what the relationship Fresh had with the ‘Black 45’ always was.
I don’t actually know exactly how many Fresh went on to sell but it sold consistently over the next couple years. As Fresh went down I don’t suppose anyone will ever know
Is it fair to say you started writing most of the music, or was much of it done collectively? What was the song writing process in the band?
UK Decay – Pneumania shots from the first couple singles.
When I first joined ‘Decay’ they already had a set. So I had to learn how to play the already established tracks such as ‘UK Decay’,‘Middle of the road Man’, ‘Disco Romance’, ‘Necrophilia’ etc, so that was the very first priority as there were gigs booked. We soon got established and now we had to get some new material together for the forthcoming studio sessions (Black 45) Gradually as time went by new songs replaced the earlier Resistors songs. As I had some sort of formal music training (keyboards) whenI was a kid I was able to work out and put together chord sequences and structure to the songs. I pieced together chords at first by looking at a keyboard and then transposing the notes into chords (very limited at first!) on the guitar. I had been in a couple of bands before so was a little older and wiser and probably more able to articulate composition to the others to begin with at least! Playing the guitar for me unleashed a lot of creative energy, I had got bored with playing keyboards or the sound of them and the guitar sounded fresh and exciting.
So this earlier period of ‘Decay’ for me personally, was a ‘peaking’ period where I felt a lot of energy and enthusiasm and new songs and ideas seemed to flow in abundance.
Steve, Martin and myself, used to jam a lot and in this we would get tighter together and of course songs or parts of songs would develop out of this.
However the vocal department was always well governed by Abbo,who would so often ‘knock us out’ with some of his twisted lyrics and performances.
But it is also fair to say that as time went by we did get more collective’ in our approach to writing music, especially when Eddie‘Twiggy’ joined the band.
Finally, UK Decay were the sum of its component parts. It was the combination of the individuals that made up the whole band. It simply wouldn’t have happened if there had been anything different in the line up, in my opinion.
Well, there you have it. Just think, in a parallel universe EMI heard “Metal for Muthas” and signed Toad the Wet Sprocket rather than Iron Maiden , and Spon ended up in spandex playing to thousands of hairy grebos all over the globe. Hmmmm , maybe we all had a lucky escape there………..
Maybe next issue we will get “The Fresh Years”…..time will tell.
Thanks a lot to Spon for delving deep into the memory banks for that lot.
Questions by Paul Rabjohn for UK Decay Today Two 2006