Release date: Thursday 21st September 2023 via Oldcastle Books – Order here
If you’ve heard of the Pub Rock genre at all, it’s most likely in unflattering terms from the snarled mouth of Johnny Rotten in a Sex Pistols documentary or tales of Joe Strummer’s improbable origins, pre The Clash; a musical movement to file alongside prog-rock and the overblown glam scene that Punk Rock came along and obliterated.
In ‘Before It Went Rotten’, music author Simon Matthews takes the much overlooked era to task and, through a tonne of research and interviews with the folk who lived through it, uncovers the whole vibrant story of what went on in 1970s London between the demise of the Swinging 60s and Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s black-eyed golden dawn, bringing to life an array of characters and venues that very nearly slipped out of the pages of the history books.
Through the stories of a bunch of bands like Brinsley Schwarz, Bees Make Honey and Brewers Droop, the humble histories of many of London’s much treasured venues past and present – Islington’s The Hope & Anchor, Camden’s Dingwalls Dance Hall and The Dublin Castle, Kentish Town’s The Tally Ho, Herne Hill’s The Half Moon, amongst others and recreations of the scene’s defining moments (like US band Eggs Over Easy’s first London show in the back room of The Tally Ho in April 1971), Matthews reanimates an indefinable scene that took in aspects of americana, surf rock, latin, funk and soul, largely performed by young men in their mid-20s, in Irish Pubs or venues looking for new ways to offset extortionate brewery rents.
The author rifles through connected scenes, such as the Southend scene that spawned Kursaal Flyers, proto-punks Eddie and the Hot Rods and Wilko Johnson’s own Dr Feelgood, the potentially lucrative but ultimately under performing record deals bagged by groups who would instead go on to build solid reputations through free performances across the small venue circuit, reluctantly eschewing the frivolity of copious record sales, supported by regular Radio One sessions for the legendary John Peel, beside coverage in the NME, Melody Maker and ZigZag music press, journalist Nick Kent regularly cropping up.
Many writers would have us think the punks created their scene from nothing but Matthews finds seeds sewn earlier on, with Brinsley Schwarz’s original version of ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding’ decrying mid-70s England and Chris Spedding decking himself out in leathers for his 50s throwback growl ‘Motorbikin’. Brian Eno steps out of the art school and shows his face fronting The Winkies, Elvis Costello watches on from the audience and Ian Dury begins his musical life in Kilburn and the High Roads.
In fact, with The 101ers ditching their old name and debut single ‘Keys To Your Heart’ before adopting new moniker The Clash along with new member Mick Jones, and pub rock regulars Brian James, Raymond Burns and Chris Miller taking on new alter-egos, plucking scary looking Dave Vanian from the crowd and naming themselves The Damned, it becomes clear that Punk Rock was just Pub Rock but a bit meaner… and with less chords.
This Wales-based blog would also like to give a special mention to the fact that many of the pub rock records were recorded at Monmouth’s remarkable, historic Rockfield Studios as well as noting that an early incarnation of The Damned, fronted by Nick Kent and his girlfriend Hermine Dermoriane played Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre under the title of The Subterraneans in May 1976 (we won’t focus on the mentions of Penarth’s own Shakin’ Stevens and The Sunsets).
Packing out the book with a host of interview transcriptions from faces who were there – from Horace Trubridge of Rocky Sharpe and The Razors to Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols, eight pages of photos documenting the scene’s evolution from woollen jackets, beards and long hair to Jordan onstage topless with Steve Jones sneering next to her and a Spotify playlist code to gather the many hard to come by singles together in one place, Before It Went Rotten successfully fills in the gaps of a lost, missing link decade of British Music, the decade-long ramble from Waterloo Sunset to Anarchy In The UK finally explained.
‘Before It Went Rotten’ is released through Oldcastle Books on 21st September 2023. You can order a copy directly from Oldcastle Books now.
If you’re looking for something to listen to as per usual at the end of our reviews, you can take a listen to Dr Feelgood’s ‘Down By The Jetty’ below: