People from the era tell their stories.
» Tim Williams
FUNK TO PUNK
How exactly did a group of cutting edge American urban funk aficionados throw it all away for the three chord thrashings of Hoxton, Brixton and Ladbroke Grove? It had something to do with music but a lot more to do with clothes.
Why break up the Guildhall brother and sisterhood to ape the tabloid tracked burgeoning punk scene like every city with a cathedral, an underpass and a Sunday market? The Guildhall was something special wasn't it?
Without doubt. Loose tribes had stumbled around the Bristol club scene, indistinguishable from one and other but fiercely loyal to their team or postcode. The big halls like the Top Rank offered room for everyone and we all crowded in, a mass of crushed velvet and the great smell of Eau Sauvage. Hey Girl don't bother me sang The Tams until one of them side shuffled off the stage, denting only his pride unlike poor Neil Winstone who bounced down most of the stairs because bouncers bounced in those days. But the Top Rank was too inclusive and too spacious and people huddled with their homies in their favoured corner or with their racial group. And the other above ground clubs were too interchangeable. If it's Tuesday it's The Blue Lagoon. Or is it The Top Cat? Either way Seymour or Superfly or someone will be there playing James Brown or Rufus Thomas and a few slow ones at the end. Time to blag of.
People ventured out of Bristol whenever a bank holiday came along, seeking the crack and the next big thing. Newquay was good but Bournemouth was better. Equal distance between Bristol and London we encountered temporary escapees from the smoke in all their finery. Mohair, plastic sunglasses, upside down trousers and the old Puerta Rican fence climbers. We skulked in the shadows, ashamed of our cap sleeve tee shirts and wedge cuts. That was Bank Holiday Monday, by Tuesday we were desperately trying to find pants that narrowed at the bottom. In those days the world wore flares. Your Dad, your history teacher. Prince Philip, Bob Monkhouse and The Pope. Lionel Blair wore flares. London already had Acme Attractions and Johnson & Johnson. We had Millets and a second hand clothes shop in Park Row that smelt bad.
Eventually we found our way to SW whatever and got kitted out and returned home where we sat upstairs at the back of the bus into town and The Guildhall. It was our own private world below a spiral staircase beneath which you could watch the plastic sandals and winkle pickers come into view descending daintily before the bulk of Bobby Iles or Wendy Clutterbuck. We had our pegs and our latest imports listed from 1 to 50 on a photocopied ASA sheet. Are you ready? Do the bus stop and get off at the one near Bristol Bridge and walk through St. Nicholas market.
You knew everyone there but occasionally a stranger put in an appearance. Mark Stewart came once or twice in pink pegs and wrap around sunglasses. He punk smirked above the older/smaller dancers. He couldn't/wouldn't dance. Did he know something we didn't?
Trousers have a lot to answer for, pink or otherwise. The pegs went from cotton to something shiny and then further out to plastic, borderline fetish.
Alan Jones, ex sax player with South Wales pop soul combo The Amen Corner managed Clobber on Park Street and also in The Haymarket for another Welsh guy called Gerald, until he bought the branch beneath the bus station and called it Paradise Garage after the legendary New York nightclub. He had his contacts and soon some of the clothes we had to go inter city 125 for started appearing on some very appealing pinch faced mannequins on loan from Lloyd Johnson in the Kensington Market. Alan also had a part share in a club in Newport called Rudies and the invite went out to the Guildhall faithful to pay it a visit. It was said to be worth the bridge fee.
Vernon Josafyitch piled half a dozen of us into his Pontiac, longer than the other vehicles used that night but slower and smokier too. Ten years minimum without an air filter.
A mirror reflection of the Guildhall, Rudies was upstairs and that first visit was akin to hitting the Chelsea Village in Bournemouth a couple of summers before. Our kit was wicked, their kit was ...well, wicked plus. With knobs on and knobs out. Their trousers had already passed through plastic and landed on tightened up leather. Even (whisper it) rubber.
Steve Harrington we had met a few years before at Wigan Casino but the beret and the adidas bag were gone and the Blackwood accent was soon to follow as he morphed into Steve Strange. Mark Taylor was there and Chris Sullivan, later to front up Blue Rondo a la Turk before running the Wag Club in Wardour Street with Rusty Egan. But the limelight belonged to a guy called Colin Fisher, as did the chain that danced on his cheek linking his earlobe to his nostril. My god they were, they were...well there was no name for what they were except valley boys who had got a march on the Bristol brethren. We had been below our spiral staircase for too long. Something was afoot and it had shed its plastic sandal.
I sniffed the air. I smelt cult. Too young to be a mod, too weak to be a skinhead, I was open to suggestion. But why were they dancing to Donna Summer?
As the leaves started to turn brown the tabloids began to see red. Punk was a New York magazine as well as a ripped up look personified by Richard Hell, bass player with art rock CBGB dwelling, guitar duelling combo Television. Malcolm McLaren, ex Ted co-owner of Sex, way down in World's End was no stranger to this scene. He had been part of it stylising the New York Dolls through their death throes. Not only could he import the look he could sell the clothes and so punk got wheeled into the west end in a wardrobe on casters, direct from the garment district.
As the red tops cranked up the indignation, the photographs that appeared alongside the rant featured a London face or two but Fisher, Sullivan and Harrington were at the fore. And, surprise surprise, there was a soundtrack to this scene after all. Punks did not do the hustle, the bump or the bus stop (or dance to Donna Summer). They went to see bands. White, British bands who dressed like them. The Sex Pistols were one, The Psycle Sluts another. The former swore their way to notoriety, the latter disappeared somewhere between rumour and myth.
The Guildhall was still stretchin' out and hangin' loose in a rubber band with Bootsy but who wants a rubber band when Sex are selling rubber tee shirts for £15? All of a summer sudden the scene below Broad Street seemed tired, repetitive and as conservative as Breezin' by George Benson, the last album I bought before the debut LP by four Brooklyn would be brothers, The Ramones. You could get punk of the US variety but it was the chill of winter 76 before the UK's sound was captured on vinyl.
How many of the Guildhall faithful cashed in their funk chips for Soho nights at the Roxy? Hard to say but the vanguard barely looked back once it realised that Bristol, yes Bristol, had a punk band of it's own.
The Cortinas had played the Ashton Court Festival before the nights started drawing in. They were kids from north of the river and fee paying schools. The drummer was 14. But with shades, skinny ties and part time attitude they ripped it up for the bikers, hippies and more bikers who enjoyed a free festival almost as much as a run down to Cheddar for an ice cream and a punnet of strawberries.
The road to punk was a much more direct one for the band and their followers than it was for those of us who could glare a DJ down for having the audacity to play a funk tune that you could actually buy easily in the UK. They were already listening to white British bands like The Kursaal Flyers, Kilburn and the High Roads, Eddie and the Hot Rods. Pub Rock took a step back and a line of speed, a sideways glance at Patti Smith and the rest of New York loft life and the die was cast.
The Cortinas welcomed the patronage of the former funksters with open arms. Though we had not learned to play guitar like them through terms of private tuition, we were streetwise and more than willing to scare off the beastly boys from school who had taken it upon themselves to quell the birth of punk, as they saw it, in Sneyd Park. We promoted gigs, started record labels and wrote fanzines while our new guitar toting friends flashed for a good while and almost made it. If nothing else they paved the way for a bigger post punk push, led by the ironically named The Pop Group, school friends of The Cortinas but better dressed, Grey shirts done up to the neck one week, cricket whites the next. Where was this sartorial elegance coming from? Singer Mark Stewart? For the real lowdown you would have to ask their first up manager, Paradise Garage owner Alan Jones. He was our Malcolm McLaren, but without the cynicism and with a much prettier wife.
In 2008, Mark Stewart is booked to play the prestigious Meltdown Festival on London's Southbank with his band Maffia. His many fans from across the new Europe will go to any lengths for a ticket. And if they get the chance to talk with him after the gig and ask how it all got started his response will be the same as it always is. 'Well, there was this basement pub in Broad Street, Bristol called The Guildhall. It was the wildest scene, the clothes, the dancing. Kit kids. Full on.'
Mark loved funk.
Tim Williams 13th April 2009