The interview is archived below for T&M purposes!
With a padlock chain about his neck, flannel shirt and regulation U.K. Subs t-shirt, the legendary Charlie Harper is everything you would expect the lead singer of such a long standing and influential punk rock band to be, Seated in the back room of the Prince Albert in Brighton with his wife, the vibrant and dedicated Yuko, Japan Update had the good fortune to ask him some questions about the differences between Japanese and English punk culture and the future of punk in general.
JU: First off, the U.K. Subs have been going for a very long time with a lot of line-up changes.Can you set the scene for us a little and tell us what the atmosphere was like when the band first formed?
CH: We were a band called the Subs back then, and the scene was just happening. I was all about being there. We used to rehearse in this place in Chelsea called the Furniture Caves and that’s where all the bands—Chelsea, Gen X, all the middle wave punk bands played—and it kind of rubbed off. Although we were playing kind of rock ‘n’ roll, that kind of rang a bell, and we started to play with a lot more attack, less rhythm and blues and a bit more rock, and it kind of slowly developed.
I used to go down a club for lesbians called Chaguaramas, and that became the Roxy club. One day we turned up and there were all these punks outside. We used to go down there and see these weird bands and there weird bands every night, and then it became the Roxy. I was 30 years old and my band wasn’t even 20 years old, they were still teenagers, 17- 19 year olds, and I used to tell them,’ you’ve got to come down, this is the future of rock ‘n’ roll.’ Being school kids they didn’t have any money to go drinking all night, like me, but eventually they came down on a Damned night and they were just blown away by it, so we turned into a punk rock band. It was the band’s decision, not mine.
JU: And now we’re in 2014. What’s the current line-up of the band and how do you think the sound of the band has matured?
CH: Alvin Gibbs, who wrote Down on the Farm, he was with us in 1980, and whenever he wasn’t with the Iggy Pop band, he came back to us. He’s one of the world’s greatest writers. The stuff he’s done on the new album is absolutely amazing. He’s just a great writer, both music and lyrics.
Then there’s Jaime Oliver on drums, not the cook obviously, who was a great find. We got him when he was about 21 and we’ve had him nearly 10 years now, really brilliant drummer.
Then Jet, who’s Japanese, what can you say about Jet? He’s a little bit crazy, a little bit unusual. Jet is a rocker, and he’s just getting to kind of know the styles, getting more punk now.
Because everyone comes from a slightly different background, it adds to the diversity of the music. No song sounds the same. Every album that we’ve done, there’s more and more difference in the songs, there are inputs from every corner of rock, it makes it so much more interesting. If you’re doing albums, you don’t want to record the same album every time. One of our fans once said that every album she buys, she’s introduced to a new genre. That was the best compliment ever.
JU: Do you listen to many Japanese bands, as there are some amazing garage bands like Guitar Wolf and ELLEGARDEN?
CH: 188.8.131.52’s. are our friend, also Izumi from the Slowmotions. Plays drums with uk Subs Japan and Forward are our fav punk band but there are many hardcore bands we like, too many to mension.
JU: Thurston Moore, formerly of Sonic Youth, once stated that 1991 was the year that punk ‘broke,’ in that it became mainstream. We’re now more than 20 years on since then. How do you feel about punk rock in 2014, in terms of both the music and the culture?
CH: There was a lot going on then, and there’s a lot going on now. That’s just one point of view. Sonic Youth are mainstream now, dose that mean, they are not a great band, I don’t think so.
JU: That’s when Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, and it was perceived as a second coming of punk.
CH: Later on, I’m going down the road to see my grandkid’s band, they’re called A.M.I. and they’re the coolest little punk band ever. So we’re breeding the new era of punk, it’s very hardcore. There are a lot great bands out. Cyanide Pills are great, their song I Lost My Love to a Suicide Bomber. Puts the newer bands in the now. They sing all through the summer with their leather jackets on like the Ramones did, even after the gig they won’t take them off. I tried it but I give up after the first few songs, I must try harder.
JU: Being a very recognisably English band, what do you feel is the difference in terms of the atmosphere and culture at Japanese and gigs over here and in America?
CH: The real punk rock in Japan is far more underground and it’s really exciting. It was born out of a Japanese thing where they don’t applaud, they don’t clap, so the bands just ignore the audience, and they make a lot of feedback noise, and everything’s turned full up. I get lots of ideas from Japanese bands. It’s a whole fresh way of looking at the music. It is so different. A lot of American bands try and be like English bands, or they try and copy Discharge or band like that, but Japan is fresh and inspiring.
JU: Personally coming from a background of fanzine writing and recording songs on tape in my parents’ garage, I’m interested in whether you’ve seen any examples of the DIY side of punk rock in Japan?
CH: Yeah but I can’t read them! The whole scene is DIY.
JU: Because Japan has quite a fanzine culture, with places like Comiket and so forth.
CH: We’ve always been kind of do-it-yourself. you'll find out our new album sleeve is going be really plush, really glossy. You know the artist Roy Lichtenstein? Well, it’s that kind of art, but it’s done by punk rockers, not by people in the industry or professionals, because I believe punks are capable of doing better work. Professional music done by professional musicians who are kind of session musicians, it’s uninteresting. All the good music is done by amateurs who do it for the love of music.
JU: Speaking of Lichtenstein, I love pop culture. I mean, I’m a big AKB48 fan. It’s a bit of a contrast—I’ve got AKB48 right next to the Manic Street Preachers in my record collection —but I do think you really do need to do these things yourself.
CH: Yeah, they’re huge. I find it very cute.
JU: They’re quite subversive.
CH: I don’t really know what they’re saying but you can see why the kids love them. You mentioned the Manic Street Preachers.
JU: Yeah, the first gig I saw was the Holy Bible tour in 1994, and it changed my life.
CH: They’re U.K. Subs fans, right? I love them. That first album, Generation Terrorists, that whole album is absolutely amazing. I went to see them at the Marquee in London, which is kind of a 300 person capacity, and they were so loud, and I just loved it. I love loud bands. I love Motörhead, you know, even Oasis at times, and it’s not an easy thing being loud, there’s a real art in playing loud, Sometimes you get an engineer who doesn’t understand how to do it but I’m always saying ‘Loud, louder ’turn that fucking guitar up.
To me, music is a underrated culture, and rock music is even more underrated. Like you said, music changes people life and most times for the better. I remember someone came up to me and said, ‘Charlie, you wrecked my life, all I do now is go out, drinking beer and watch bands,’ what could be better? It’s great for your sanity; it’s great for your physical being with all that dancing around will keep the doctor away.
JU: Can I ask a little about your birthday gig at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, how did that come about and how did the gig go?
CH: It was good fun. We’ve been playing there for a couple of years. It was my 70th birthday gig. Jamie got me a zimmer frame with a mic stand and a beer holder so I want to take that on tour with me this year. So when the curtain gos up, they’ll see this great zimmer frame with a chain holding the mike.
JU: How did it feel to be up on stage with your grandsons singing Warhead?
CH: The whole band came up. AMI got caught on stage in Vive La Rock!, you’ll see them up on the stand. It’s quite embarrassing really, because they’re all young, they’re like 16 years old, and the drummer and the bass player are 13 years old, and they look great, makes us look our age.
JU: What are you goals for the future of the band and where do you see punk heading over the next five years or so?
CH: Bands will continue to bubble up. I was reading recently that Broken Bones are almost back to their original line up, finally getting the recognition they deserve. There’s always exciting things happening. You’re a Oi Boy, you may know the band, Bishop’s Green, they’re a great band, great songs. I find the scene still as exciting as ever and there are some very good solo artists out there too.
Born in Hackney in 1944 and now living in quiet majesty in Brighton, Charlie Harper has fronted the U.K. Subs since 1976, guiding the band through confrontation and fame. He is recognised by many as an influence, not least of all by his grandson, Marley Perez, who fronts Brighton hardcore band, AMI. Having released albums with the Subs consistently since their early days, Harper also released a solo album in 1982 and has played with the Urban Dogs.
U.K. Subs Show
27: Karns Bar, Hinckley
28: Think Tank, Newcastle
29: TheTrades, Rotherham
30: New Cross Inn, Sutton in Ashfield
04: The Exchange, Bristol
05: Frog and Fiddle, Cheltenham
06: Hairy Dog, Derby
07: Star and Garter, Manchester
11: Institute, Library Room, Birmingham
12: The Garage, London
13: Waterfront, Norwich