I knew there was a major problem when the drinks trolley, from which the air stewardess had moments ago served us our preferred beverages, careered down the central aisle of the aircraft on its wheels, unattended. I turned about in my seat to discover the woman - who had been formerly dispensing the beers and liquor - tumbling to the floor in a tangle of limbs, after which she released a chilling scream.
‘Hell,’ I thought, ‘these people are trained to remain calm and professional at all times’. That was the moment I grasped we were in a potentially hazardous situation.
When she was finally able to scramble to her feet our previously composed, now evidently agitated, flight attendant set off with some difficulty in the balance and footing departments in pursuit of the runaway cabinet while our Douglas DC-9 airliner pitched, rolled and shook with such violence that I managed to distribute half of my Jack Daniels and Coke into Nicky Garratt’s right ear. Although I hated wasting good liquor I resisted the temptation to lick back out the whisky I’d decanted into his auditory canal (he might have got the wrong idea) and instead glanced directly across the aisle to my right to see how our nearest travelling companions were doing.
Animal and Winston - singer and bassist of Punk band the Anti Nowhere League - exhibited matching expressions of pure terror on blood-drained faces and gripped the armrests of their seats with such vigour that the now protruding knuckles of their hands had turned the colour of alabaster. These were authentically tough men, members of the Chosen Few MC, veterans of bar fights and street brawls; but this was one event where their physical prowess would prove incapable of influencing a desired outcome.
For some reason their perfectly understandable manifestations of anxiety struck me as hugely comical and I began to nervously laugh at them while trying to prevent the remainder of my drink from anointing Nicky’s ear for a second time. They acknowledged the Tyburn humour in my counter intuitive reaction by offering me a pair of anaemic smiles while continuing to seize on to their arm supports like two very large carrion birds who had buried their claws into some prized road-kill.
We had just completed thirty-two shows of a thirty-four date North American tour. With just two more New York appearances to go we were flying on route to Newark’s Liberty International Airport, situated in the state of New Jersey. It should have been an entirely enjoyable celebratory ride, but as we approached the NYC area we had flown into a severe nocturnal electrical storm. From then on its fierce elements gravely assaulted our plane causing the craft to pitch and sway in a most alarming manner. Then, as we got closer to our airport destination, things started to go from merely grim to critical.
I noticed all the cabin crew had disappeared , this being another indicator of the seriousness of our predicament, and during another nerve-wracking abrupt drop in altitude managed to transfer the last of my Jack Daniels on to my own lap and cursed the fact there was nobody around to give me a refill. The aircraft then plunged forward into a distressingly steep nose dive while its engines discharged a sickening high-pitched whine as they struggled to find the power to keep us airborne. Garratt, sitting to my immediate left in the window seat, gestured for me to look out of the glass aperture.
“Holy shit!” I exclaimed, whilst trying to keep the evident alarm in my voice to a minimum.
It was just a matter of moments before we plunged cockpit first into Newark Bay. Everybody aboard Republican Airlines flight 849 was now in imminent danger of serious injury or death as the aircraft continued its unrestricted free-fall towards the dark waters below. Someone from our touring party who possessed as morbid a sense of comedic absurdity as my own started singing ‘Peggy Sue’...
THREE MONTHS BEFORE…
The onset of 1982 heralded a time of considerable modification for the U.K. Subs. Firstly, and most significantly, there was a change of band personnel.
Instead of modifying his behaviour and focussing on what he excelled at, namely drumming, Steve Roberts seemed to be increasingly fixated with his own delusional sense of personal stardom and in hoodwinking others into believing that the level of success he’d suddenly attained was far in advance of the reality: something more akin to playing for the Rolling Stones than the moderately popular work-a-day Punk band that was the U.K. Subs.
He had some photos taken of himself cradling the gold disk that Charlie had been awarded for the ‘Crash Course’ album and then dispatched these snaps to a contact at the York Press (a parochial newspaper that publishes ‘stories’ about him to this day) for a ‘local boy makes good’ variety of article in which Roberts claimed he was the true recipient of the gilded accolade.
These gold disks conferred on Harper, Garratt, Slack and Davies by Gem, were already of a dubious official validity. Even though they were ostensibly presented for sales of the live LP, the required level of transactions needed to obtain legitimate gold status was reached only after Gem surreptitiously added the sales figures for all three initial Subs albums to the tally!
Some days later, during the course of a photo session at the Ramkup offices, Steve then attempted to convince Charlie, Nicky and I that we should use band money to buy a Rolls Royce so we could be conveyed to gigs “in style”, as he put it. Apparently his (then) brother-in-law, who owed a second-hand car dealership in York, had a somewhat old but serviceable Roller that he could let us have for £5000. Harper and Garratt were utterly bewildered why he would even propose such an absurd idea.
“Are you mad?” Charlie challenged him, “Don’t you know that we’re a Punk band, not a bunch of rich pop stars with money to waste on a useless status symbol that would make us look like idiots?”
Nicky and I had equally harsh words to add; but, knowing Steve as I did, I had quickly figured out his thinking behind this farcical suggestion. Basically, Roberts wanted the band to acquire this prestige vehicle so he could drive it around, presumably with the borrowed gold disk propped up on display in the passenger seat, in order to fool people that he was some kind of wealthy rock star in the mould of his drumming hero Keith Moon - who, incidentally, was famed for driving a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool.
He also started to spend a lot of time hanging out with our management people, getting Alastair Primrose to buy him meals and drinks at the band’s expense and generally trying to prise any financial advantage he could from this sudden, calculated bonding with the Ramkup fraternity. Things came to a head when I turned up at Subs HQ one afternoon to find it abandoned apart for recently hired secretary Katie, a very pleasant American woman who was dating drummer Mal Asling (aka Sol Mintz), a member of the Gene October fronted Punk band, Chelsea.
“Where is everybody?” I asked.
“Alastair, Peter and Steve Roberts are down in the private members club having another session” she informed me; then added, “that’s the fourth time this week those three have been down there during the day drinking until the office closes.”
I was unimpressed by this news, to put it leniently, and decided to go downstairs to confront them about their serious lack of productivity when it came to the band’s business affairs – these people were, after all, being paid to advance our careers on a full-time basis.
I walked into the club’s bar and immediately clocked that the trio were in a high state of inebriation. Alastair approached and set about telling me about another ridiculous stunt which had yet again been funded by Subs money. Seems Steve had convinced him, after an extended bout of boozing that had taken place on the previous afternoon, to hire a professional photographer and a chauffeur driven Limousine for the purposes of transporting Roberts around London to various swish locations - including, bizarrely, a visit to a private doctor in Harley Street - where numerous photos were taken of him emerging from the Limo with bottle of vodka in hand and thereafter posing in front of these strange locales.
He handed me a folder with these images within and asked me what I thought of them. I can’t be entirely sure of the exact wording of my response having perused these ludicrous snaps but I’m fairly certain it was something along the lines of: ‘Are you lot out of your drunken fucking minds’.
Alastair seemed taken aback by my reaction.
“We are going to use these for a story we’re concocting to send out to the music press. What’s your problem with that?”
“What kind of story about the U.K. Subs would require pictures of Steve Roberts emerging from a Limo, of all things, and entering the surgery of a Harley Street doctor?” I demanded.
“Well… erm… we’ve not quite sorted that out yet, but how about: ‘Steve Roberts in mystery illness situation seeks top Harley Street doctor’s help’, for instance?”
“You what!” I spat out in disbelief, “You’ve spent our money and wasted time that should have been expended on advancing the band as a unit for this load of shit?” At which point I was so incensed at the ripe stupidity of his response that I scattered all the photos across the room and then threw the empty folder at him.
Alastair angrily lunged at me, which I was grateful for, seeing as I was well up for any excuse to at least attempt some physical retribution on all three of them no matter how unsuccessful the outcome might be. As he came at me I seized his arms and pushed him in the direction of a table, where I intended to upend him and get in a couple of blows. Peter Jefferies interceded, grabbed me from behind and pleaded with me to stop. I acquiesced, released my hands from Primrose and glanced up at Steve who was still perched on a bar stool. He remained there, immobile and wordless, turned his eyes away from me not wanting to meet my gaze.
As I made to leave the club Alastair shouted after me: “You’re fired Gibbs! You will not play for this band again, your career is over, I’ll make sure of that. Do you hear me? You’re fired!”
When I got back to the Chelsea house I ’phoned Nicky Garratt and told him what had occurred and why. He was dismayed by the Roberts Limo caper and assured me that Primrose hadn’t the authority to fire anyone.
“That” he added, in an unknowing act of predestination, “can only be decided by a majority vote of band members, not management”.
Nicky and I turned up together at the Blackfriars’ offices the next day to tackle Alastair who, upon noting we were both in a confrontational mood , was immediately conciliatory and said he realised things had got a bit out of hand due to his alcohol consumption. He apologised for aggressively lunging at me, and with an appeasing smile offered me his hand to shake. I did so, but reiterated what a waste of time and money I thought the whole Limousine enterprise had been.
“Maybe”, he defensively mused, “but I’m sure we will get some publicity traction from it at some point”.
They didn’t. Those photos and whatever promotional story they were formulating remained idle in a desk drawer and in their heads. Later that afternoon, Nicky and I learned of a more serious financial irregularity involving Steve from Mike Phillips.
Mike revealed to us that he had just learned that Roberts had some weeks ago talked Primrose into advancing him £3000 from our account in lieu of the next publishing advance from Sparta Florida. Steve claimed he wanted this as a down payment for a flat he was planning to buy, and Alastair had gone ahead and written him a cheque without obtaining either the rest of the band’s permission or even bothering to disclose this loan had been bestowed. Roberts had yet to compose a single song for the group and, anyhow, we had no way of knowing if Sparta Florida would even offer another publishing advance in the future.
Which, as it turned out, they didn’t: after advancing for ‘Endangered Species’ the publishing company dropped the Subs and we received no more money from them, even for prior recorded works, until Charlie, Nicky and I hired a legal firm to take them to court in the mid-1990s; after which, its former owner swiftly sold on the company to a reputable business group who bi-annually provide us with royalties and statements to this day.
Incensed, Garratt and I directly sought out Alastair to challenge him with this new revelation, but he had conveniently disappeared for the day.
As underhand as all this was, Steve might have yet still been absolved and secure within the band if he hadn’t also started to lose it in other ways. The core of the drumming, depending on his pre-show alcohol intake, was still pretty solid; but on the UK Autumn tour of 1981 he began to implement a regular series of attention seeking activities during shows that the rest of us found, bluntly, embarrassing. These included abruptly getting up from his kit, mid-song, to put the floor tom over his head and then running around the stage like a madcap; abandoning drumming to climb up onto his drum stool in order to conduct the audience with his sticks in the manner of a demented classical conductor; and regularly kicking over his drum kit and cymbals, a la Moon the loon, at inappropriate junctures during a show.
It became evident Roberts wasn’t content to just be a drummer. He wanted the limelight and renown associated with famous lead singers or celebrated guitar heroes; he desperately wanted to be a ‘star’, in the broad and cliché meaning of that term.
During the month of January, 1982, he was invited by upcoming Scottish punk band, the Exploited, to session drum on what would be their second LP, ‘Troops of Tomorrow’. Whilst he was still recording with them we played a late evening show at a favoured Soho nightclub, Gossips.
Having finished laying down tracks with the Exploited for the day, Steve turned up for our sound check the worse for drink. He was of a belligerent, slightly aggressive disposition from the off and when we started playing he tore through the set at a speed that was unsuitable for a large proportion of the songs. Afterwards, I spoke to him about it. He snarled back:
“If you can’t keep up with my playing then don’t fucking play with me.”
“It’s not about you” I countered, “it’s about what is suitable for the songs. ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’ has its own essential bounce and groove, but you were playing it like it was some kind of hardcore track”.
Roberts then deployed the mantra that he’d recently started to utilise whenever I tried to reason with him while he was being possessed by the various demons he now encountered all too often when consuming alcohol:
“You’ve never really liked me, have you Gibbs? You’ve always looked down on me and thought yourself better. I know you want to get rid of me, but you can’t, can yah? ”
These pathetic accusations could not have been further from the truth. I considered Steve to be a very good friend and I’d always stuck up for him, even when I knew he’d been out of order and deserved whatever criticisms were being levelled at him. But it was getting ever more difficult to make the man understand that he was in a precarious position and to have him heed advice that was genuinely given to assist his cause.
In tandem with these accelerating Roberts tribulations our - ‘our’ being Charlie’s, Nicky’s and my own - dissatisfaction with Ramkup reached its apex when we discovered a letter that had been sent to Alastair by a management figure looking after the Exploited. It didn’t make for pleasant reading. Mike Phillips, who was likewise disgruntled with the organisation and on the point of resigning, made some photocopies of this document for distribution, a copy of which I kept and rediscovered while researching this chapter. It can be seen in all its pitiful splendour below:
Above: The letter that finally conviced Chas, Nicky & I
to ditch our management people. 1982. Click image to enlarge.
This, remember, was somebody who was supposed to be lucidly representing us in the music business world, looking after our finances and theoretically undertaking important deals on the Subs’ behalf. Our management were now acting like arrogant, drunken rock stars, and that dear reader, is nothing less than an unconscionable reversal of the natural order of things.
While hanging around the Blackfriars’ office one January lunchtime, Nicky Garratt had an interesting conversation with Katie. She was aware of our management unhappiness and despite working for Ramkup in a secretarial capacity advised Garratt to call an old friend of hers in New York, Jane Friedman.
Friedman had a management company, the Wartoke Concern Inc., which was sited at West 57th Street, on New York’s famed Broadway. From this base of operations she had mentored the career of Patti Smith and now acted as personal publicist to Frank Zappa; and although this in no way reflected on Jane’s managerial capacities, Katie also revealed that she had once been the live-in lover of John Cale of the Velvet Underground, which I deemed a pretty cool recommendation in itself.
“I’m positive she would be very interested in taking the Subs on”, Katie assured Nicky.
It turned out she was right. Garratt employed the offered ’phone number to call Friedman, who, during a long and fruitful conversation with our guitarist, suggested organising a North American Tour for the band. She also proposed once we’d met, discussing career strategy together, and concluded we were suitably compatible, that the group should sign to her management company and initiate a permanent business relationship.
Nicky, Charlie and I only disclosed the tour part of Jane’s proposal to Alastair. We also kept the full story from Roberts, which indicates just how marginalised he’d become. Then, some days later, during a meeting of the three of us in a Soho pub safely away from the eyes and ears of Alastair and co, Charlie offered the view that Steve could end up being a serious liability in the USA.
“If he carries on behaving like he’s been doing over here he’s going to get himself shot, and most likely get one or two of us shot along with him. I mean, can you imagine what would happen if he pulled that naked, cigarette-up-the-arse stunt in a bar in Texas? There would be murders”, he warned.
It was a fair point.
Later that afternoon, having reconvened at the Ramkup offices to excitedly check on the multiplicity of North American tour dates that Wartoke had started to fax in, Nicky proposed we three have a formal vote to decide whether or not to keep Steve Roberts in the band. We went into a small sub office from which our fan club was administered by Jo Slack, who was fortuitously absent that day. Having closed the door to maintain some privacy we sat down and one-by-one affirmed our voting preference.
Charlie voted for Steve to be immediately ousted from the group. Then it was my turn.
I voted to keep him in.
Rationally, I knew it was the right time to let Steve go for all the reasons Charlie had identified and more, but I voted that way both out of some enigmatic sense of loyalty and as a final gesture of friendship. I also recognised that much of Steve’s behaviour was triggered by his own surreptitious feelings of inadequacy and inferiority; that deep down there was probably a good and reasonable person who was being thwarted by these corrosive, concealed sentiments. These negative motivators are fairly common in our business, but some people learn to deal with them better than others. When alcohol was involved, Steve just couldn’t stop the adverse behavioural effects they provoked. It was a sad state of affairs.
His exploitative and underhand financial capers though were quite another matter.
Nicky declared that as much as he respected Roberts as a musician he had become too behaviourally unbalanced and mercurial to carry on with, especially as we were shortly to embark on a long and gruelling overseas tour and about to commence a fresh business relationship with a serious management company. Steve Roberts was out by a vote of two-to-one.
We directly informed Alastair Primrose of what had just occurred. He didn’t seem at all surprised by the ousting of Roberts and matter-of-factly told us he would arrange to meet up with Steve that evening to pass on the news that he’d been sacked from the U.K. Subs. We now had to consider who was going to replace him.
My first instinct was to try to get John Towe the gig, seeing as he had recommended me to Charlie and Nicky in the first place and I’d also promised I would look out for a good band for him to join after he had been discharged from the Hellions by Brian James. But having learned of Roberts’ dismissal, Katie told us that her boyfriend, Mal Asling, would be up for quitting Chelsea to acquire the job, and Harper and Garratt thought this would be a very neat solution seeing as it was Katie, after all, who had provided the contact that was now offering us a major USA/Canadian tour and new management.
We began rehearsing with Mal at BAN in late January. He was a good, solid drummer, not as percussively dynamic or technically talented as Roberts, but more than adequately musically endowed to take over as skin hitter for the Subs. Over a week spent at BAN we put together a set of material that included five songs from the forthcoming ‘Endangered Species’ album, and debuted these along with Mal as our new drummer at a gig at the 100 Club on February 2nd. The show went without a hitch and we were left in full expectation that come the North American venture this latest version of the band would be as tight as a Tory budget and as punchy as Mel Gibson in a domestic dispute.
During these halcyon days the wealthy and the financially humble bohemian lived side-by-side on the same Chelsea streets, drank and socialised together in the Kings Road and Fulham Palace Road hostelries, and jointly shopped in the local stores. This vibrant social mix of the affluent and the monetarily modest ended with the property booms of the latter-1980s and the 1990s. These areas of London have now regrettably become the singular playgrounds of the super-rich.
Despite my affection for the Oakley Street set-up, when Steve was released from the band I always found it slightly awkward when Mary and I would encounter him and his wife on the stairway or the entrance hall of the house. To be fair to the man he never showed any resentment towards me at that time, most likely because Primrose had disclosed to him that I was the only Subs member who voted to keep him in, although I don’t know that for sure. We would even occasionally go to the Potter pub together with Chutch to drink beer and chat. Even so, it seemed the correct time for my latest paramour and me to move on and get a place of our own.
Above: Mary Jordan and I make it onto the cover of an advice book
intended for parents of troubled American teenagers! 1982. Click image to enlarge.
We didn’t go far. Mary discovered a very small but perfectly located apartment just a mere fifteen minute walk down the Kings Road from Oakley Street in an elegant Edwardian house on Draycott Place, off Sloane Square. There, in a state of co-habituation, we began living the life of a young couple who relished taking full advantage of the multiplicity of clubs, restaurants, gigs, galleries and other delights that London had to offer. Things were good, and my life was just about to improve some more.
All the dates for the tour were in. I glanced at the sheet and felt my pulse sprint at just some of the names of cities we were going to be playing in shortly: New York City; Washington DC; Toronto; Boston; Chicago; Houston; Dallas; San Francisco; Los Angeles: these were fabled places from books, songs, movies and TV series. This increasing awareness that I was finally about to encounter all of them for real triggered my imaginary forces and increased my eagerness to finish our UK commitments to make that Atlantic crossing.
Above: Mary and I sitting on the doorstep outside the Dracott Place
house, Sloane Square, London, 1982. Click image to enlarge.
Just after these finalised dates came through, Jane ’phoned us to divulge she had been in contact with John Curd, who, as well as being a major promoter of Punk rock shows had begun managing the Anti Nowhere League. He had proposed the League as our support band for the entire tour and she believed this package would make the whole enterprise even more commercially viable. We were perfectly happy to receive this news.
Above: The Subs a few days before the 1982 tour with the Anti-Nowhere League
with new drummer Mal Asling (AKA Sol Mintz). Click to enlarge. (Nicky Garratt collection.)
I’d seen ANL perform at the Leeds Christmas on Earth festival the year before and considered them to have been one of the highlights of that event. Lead singer Animal had prowled about the stage bare-chested, a choker of thick metal chains around his neck, carrying an axe. He looked every inch the menacing biker as he growled out a lyric about how he hated people (‘and they hate me!’), and berating some imagined saddo for being a ‘boring little cunt’ during their anthemic single b-side ‘So What’.
Friedman added that this match-up was now being advertised continent-wide under the hard-hitting designation: Hardcore Storms America.
We played the Marquee, the Greyhound on Fulham Palace Road, the Angel in Lambeth; and, on my twenty-fourth birthday, February 18th, 1982, the Chelmsford YMCA, during which Charlie and the crowd sang happy birthday to me, and Chutch appeared on stage carrying a large cake that Mr. Harper took great delight in playfully and predictably shoving into my face. I completed the rest of the show licking off the chocolate icing and fresh cream from my cheeks and chin which, weirdly, tasted infinitely more delicious than if a slice had been formally served to me on a plate with a napkin.
Having accomplished the last of our pre-booked UK shows prior to the North American tour at a now forgotten venue in Hailsham, East Sussex, we returned to BAN to work up some new material for a Jane Friedman proposed EP. I provided music and lyrics for a song entitled ‘Shipwrecked’, this superficially being about imbibing too many beers at one of mine and Chas’ favourite public houses, the Ship, on Wardour Street.
Above: Playing the chords to 'Shipwrecked' at Jacobs Studios for the rest
of the band. Here I'm using one of Nicky's Strats and doing a bad job of not
looking like Johnny Thunders. 1982. Click image to enlarge.
Nicky supplied a tune for which he had also surprisingly written the words for, ‘Enemy Awaits’, as well as some fast and fierce music that with the aid of Harper’s lyrical involvement became ‘Police State’. Then, via use of my bass guitar, Chas taught us his mid-paced, twelve-bar-ish ‘New Barbarians’, and having rehearsed up these tracks to our satisfaction - with Charlie yet again insisting that I should provide the lead vocal for my contribution - we descended on Jacobs Studios to record and mix this selection of songs over a three day period.
Above: Mal, Katie and Chas, listening to the mixes of the track we recorded
at Jacobs Studios in February, 1982. Click image to enlarge.
‘Police State’ would be the only composition to make it onto that planned Subs EP, although in a re-recorded form. A new version of ‘New Barbarians’ would become the A-side of a single for a future band that Charlie and I had yet to launch, with the Jacobs’ original appearing on the U.K. Subs’ ‘A.W.O.L.’ album (released on Garratt’s own New Red Archives record label in the late 1980s) along with ‘Shipwrecked’, ‘Enemy Awaits’, and selection of other Subs material written and recorded in 1982.
The day before we flew to America I ran into Steve Roberts on the Kings Road. I offered to buy him a couple of beers at the Chelsea Potter and he cheerfully accepted my invitation. We drank and talked about his options and the various bands he might join now he’d become a free agent. I deliberately stayed away from the subject of the Hardcore Storms America tour as I appreciated just how disappointed he must be at having now lost the opportunity to participate in this imminent adventure.
I finished my final beer and told him I needed to get on as I’d arranged to meet Mary after she got out of work to get some dinner together in the West End. Steve said he would stay put a little longer. Someone he was acquainted with had just walked into the bar and he figured he would hook up with them for a while to share some conversation and a couple more drinks.
When I got up from my chair to depart I told him I would on my way out put another fifty pence into the jukebox to provide them with some tunes to savour whilst they socialised. That amount of coin purchased five plays. Not wanting to waste time in making individual song selections, I pressed the random play button and initiated a chance assortment of titles instead. In an embarrassingly uncomfortable moment of synchronicity, the words and music to a familiar standard from the American canon tumbled out of the speakers and pervaded the room:
‘Start spreading the news/I’m leaving today/I want to be a part of it/New York, New York’
I couldn’t believe it. I had deliberately forgone any mention of the USA for reasons of consideration and sensitivity only to have unintentionally let Frank Sinatra go and ruin my efforts with his rousing rendition of ‘New York, New York’, which was seemingly powering out of the jukebox at twice the volume of any earlier plays. As I reached the pub’s exit I gingerly looked back at Steve and directed an apologetic shrug and a self-conscious smile his way.
With the song about the city I was just about to experience still functioning as an unsolicited soundtrack, Roberts perceived my discomfiture and yelled out:
“You’ve never really liked me, have you Gibbs?”
Only this time he was smiling too.