Punk attitude and its eternal flame
–a chat with John Robb
So, you think you know punk, do you? Well I know a man who knows it better, although he’ll probably argue that no one knows punk exactly – endless web of definitions that we probably don’t have time to go into. Nonetheless punk attitude and DIY is at the heart and soul of everything John Robb throws himself into like a missile with no way of curbing his set-track before exploding into pieces all with their own cultural destinations. As a writer, musician, producer, sometimes-tv-personality, and professional name-dropper, John is a jack-of-all-trades that many music frequenters can only dream of being, all wrapped up in a popped-collar-blazer.
With such a vast amount of knowledge in his mohicaned mind of music from the past, the present and ever-changing future, Underground were lucky enough to join him in Soho, what was once the hub for London punks, for a quick chat over tea – black no sugar of course. Sitting across from him, looking dapper in true punk aesthetic, we talk all things The Membranes, the north and how punk attitude still runs through the veins of our culture today – as well as catching his contagious laugh…
Underground: Let’s talk about your first band The Membranes a little, as pioneers of the Avant noise scene – that’s inspired so many artists even now – how did you guys come to dominate this genre?
John Robb: For us it was punk. Well I liked music that was before punk, I liked glam rock when I was growing up. But that music was on the TV like ‘Top of the Pops’ that was unattainable – it was what people from London did. It was out of space like David Bowie. We were growing up in Blackpool, miles away from this thing… then punk came along, and we realised you can do it yourself. It’s such a cliché but it’s true. We were so inspired by punk, the energy, the style, the politics, the culture, that we fell for it hook, line and sinker. Everything was high energy, everything was celebrated or obtuse. We didn’t want to make normal music and we thought punk was about making something different, something for the future.
One of your first tastes of this came when?
JR: It was a Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch EP, someone had bought that to school. It was so homemade looking, we thought that “it actually is homemade” and they had made it themselves. Someone from Manchester had made a record which meant we could make a record. If you want to make a piece of music now you can just record it on your iPhone, put it up on Soundcloud, put it on your Facebook page and 40 of your mates like it etc. Then to make a record was like a military operation. I had to phone up in a call box to call someone to find a person who knew how to go to a pressing plant to make a record!
Then the Membranes were in action?
JR: We released an EP of 4 local bands, and we put that out, and then we had to, almost like we must do to this day, ask everyone to buy it. In a weird way everything’s really changed but is also similar. Like there’s a new Membranes album out in June and we are preselling it, then somebody said, “Oh you’re such a good salesman!” And I said yeah, it’s because nothing’s fucking changed from ’78. You know, no one’s given me a million pounds to pot around making art, I had to sell these things to make more art. We looked at bands like the Sex Pistols because they were probably the best piece of showbiz of all time, but we thought they were just normal kids. We didn’t realise that they were performing in Denmark Street, they had a flat there too, that’s not Blackpool. They were surrounded by showbiz, we were surrounded by other 14,15, 16-year-old kids who’d never played guitars before. We couldn’t learn how to play these things because there was no one to ask, so we had to just hit the things until they made something that sounded like a piece of music. We wanted to make our own style of music up, so we did.
Do you think it was easier during the punk surge to get people listening to DIY music made by ordinary folk than it is now?
JR: In a sense it was because the media was smaller. There was John Peel, 4 music papers, and about 10 gate keepers. If John Peel played you, you got through to a lot of people all at once; because he was the only radio show that played that kind of music so everybody listened to it. But now there’s a million gate ways and I like that because I like the democratisation of art and media, but it makes very difficult for anyone to make an instant impact. Impact is slower now. A great example is Bauhaus and the record they made by 1980 called ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ which was amazing, 9 minutes long, dark incredible record. They wrote it in their first rehearsal, three weeks later they went to do a demo, went to London the first shop put them on a label – so 7 weeks after their first rehearsal they’ve got a single out, two days after that John Peel puts them on his show and BANG sells one hundred thousand. So, 7 weeks from first rehearsal and you’ve got a world-wide career, not for everybody but it happened. Whereas now a band like that to percolate to that level it would take them 2 years. So really it could be faster, but now its all microculture. I mean that’s not a problem, make music which ever way you want but for me the idea that one band can make the whole country lurch is amazing. We never made music for a group of 20 of our mates we wanted to have an impact on culture, that’s all I’ve ever been interested in really because I grew up in an area that was on the edges of culture.
Is there a memory that stands out most to you when it comes to your early years as The Membranes?
JR: Standing in a call box for hours and hours in the pouring rain, at the bottom of my road in Blackpool. With a bag of washers… my mate come drummer of the band used to work in an engineering plant in Preston and made washers that were the same size as 10p pieces. So, you could put them in a call box, we had bags of them ringing people all over the world. And then the call box would get so full of washers you couldn’t make calls anymore and you’d have to go to another one. It was so pathetically DIY, because my dad stopped me using the phone. That’s my abiding memory.
Who were/are some of your favourite artists from the punk explosion?
JR: My favourite band in the punk days was The Stranglers because they were so different. But they never get any credit.
I think they’re my favourites too…
JR: See my argument is they invented post-punk. If you look at the Black and White album it’s recorded in ’77, as the first post-punk album. It’s argument because loads of people will hate you. You’ll get into a massive argument over that, but they reconstructed music. By making the bass the lead, is based on post-punk and ran into extension what goth is as well. The bass became the key instrument during that period, and people will say it’s because of dub-reggae and that is important as well, but you can’t take The Stranglers out of that era. I know their jokes can be pretty ropey, but they’re not seen as a Harvey Weinstein figure, they’re seen as such an exaggeration of masculinity that it’s funny – almost a pastiche.
Where would you say were the most important destinations for musicians, of the time?
JR: Manchester and Liverpool – the scene was rocking those cities by then. By the time we got started in ’78 and ’79 and we felt closer to those places than we did London. There was great stuff going on in London, but Manchester and Liverpool were more our scene. There was a band in Blackpool called Section 25, who were already on Factory records, and Ian Curtis used to do acid with them every Sunday and they lived near us! At that time Joy Division despite only have 80 people at a gig seemed like a massive band to us, and they were from Manchester, so they were inspiring to us. We loved Liverpool but with Manchester there was always more of a kinship. There’s a band called The Sisters of Mercy from Leeds and they said they weren’t a goth band but the M62 sound – which was the motorway which joined the cities together. I love that term, that road that goes sideways across the north of England and the post-punk scene was all within 20 miles of M62. The sea was also very important to us, I always remember storms and the sounds it made – there was the clear line between being alive and being out to sea.
While London had an undisputable impact on the music scene over the last decades of the 20th Century, the North has always produced some of the finest musical luminaries, yourself included. Do you think there’s a particularly reason for this?
JR: We had nothing to lose in the north, you had to music because you were totally into doing music. I don’t think we had a higher genius quota, although Manchester’s very good at poets – but they’d never call themselves poets because Mancunians don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. But there’s no high-brow or low-brow art in Manchester, it debunks art but embraces it at the same time. I felt sorry for London because you played your first gig in London and you’d get reviewed, it’s not easy music – it’s a weird alchemy. So, the north had space for you to grow.
Nowadays when you read pieces about the places of the past that were inhabited by iconic punk figures and music that had a hard-to-replicate-rawness, there’s a common opinion now that would suggest modern gig goers don’t know how to do it properly – especially with the need to post on social media about events etc. Would agree with this?
JR: I think the generation now are probably more creative than ever. As I do my website [Louder than War] I think the hardest thing as music writer is keeping up with the amount of stuff. We used to think it was amazing that there were two great new bands in a week, now there’s like two every 10 minutes. Also, why should it be the same, why should it be a John Peel figure discovering all the bands. Plus, you can utilise the media in your own way.
With multi-faceted platforms, such as that of Louder than War and Underground England, and skilled musicians keeping the punk rock candle well oiled do you think that in 2019 punk is definitively dead, as the classic line denotes?
JR: It’s alive as an attitude to people who want it. If you want it and use the term to empower yourself then it has a purpose, if you want to make music that sounds like The Ramones and it makes you feel good then do it. It doesn’t really have a lot of purpose, but if it makes you feel excited and the audience is excited then it’s valid. But people don’t need to have the same label, no one needs to be judged by a 40 years old label. The only people you should answer to is yourself, people shouldn’t be expected to measure themselves on certain cultures. People my age have this parent culture when it comes to punk, saying “you shouldn’t do it like that” or “music nowadays you can’t hear the words” and I’m like fucking hell what happened to you. I mean how unpunk is that telling people what punk is or isn’t, or say it was better in my day. Just realise that at that moment at that gig when it’s transcendental, when you’re all in the room together and it all makes complete sense and it feels like you are going to be free forever is the most the powerful political statement that pop culture can ever make. Anarchy in the UK is about that, it’s not about anarchy, it’s not a political broadcast, it’s about the anarchy of that moment of time when you are totally free to dress how you want and do what you want. And that lives on, so no one should deny someone from having that.
Let’s talk about Punk attitude- Underground sees it as something ever present and morphing to the times. How do you see the Punk attitude prevailing in music, culture and politics in the current age?
JR: I think it was always there, I think punk was there before punk. It’s eternal. I always think that even in 13th century there would have been a jester in market singing about the king or something mad. Especially in this country, because we are so cynical we don’t believe in anything do we. So, when punk was cynical it was just an amplified version of what was already there; an electric version, an eternal spirit. Punk is a portal to a time when people believed a song is going to change the world, and that happens now. It never goes away that kind of thing. The spirit of punk, if you want to call it that, poses the question whether it’s manifested itself positively or negatively — because the right wing has as much claim as the left wing does over punk. The spirit of punk makes people believe that they can do things and that doesn’t always get you what you want. So, it’s not always good, but you also must embrace the dark side. It’s very romantic punk but you also have to look at it steely-eyed.
See how John’s keeping the flame alive:
Louder Than War: https://louderthanwar.com/
A selection of books are available from the Underground store and online
Words by Aimee Williams-Maynard