Punk Rock Ruined My Life
Updated: Aug 15
In a new coming of age memoir, Dan Synge recalls the excitement of starting a band aged 15
To most people, a six-stringed electric guitar is just one of those familiar musical instruments that you plug into an amplifier and make an ungodly racket with. For others, there are almost religious connotations to this mass-produced item which was developed back in 1950’s by both Les Paul and Leo Fender after some bright spark had previously come up with the idea of attaching an electric pick up to an acoustic guitar. From thereon it was possible for those workaday strummers of the band to move ever closer towards the spotlight.
“It was like something from space,” recalls Hank Marvin of The Shadows on seeing his first ever US-imported Fender Stratocaster, a sentiment that certainly chimed with my own teenage self as I marvelled at rows of unattainable Fenders, Gibsons and Rickenbackers propped up in the window of Macari’s music shop on the Charing Cross Road back in the late-1970’s. Even today, there is something quite magical about the effect of simple stage lighting on a cherry red or sunburst coloured hard bodied guitar.
My £30 Zenta, which I had to restring to make it left-handed, was a shameless copy of the Gibson SG without any of the quality or craftsmanship of the original. However, this was 1979 and cheap punk rock guitars, made largely in Japan and featuring in thousands of newly formed bands up and down the country, were de rigeur items.
Woolworths, the now defunct high street retailer, produced some very affordable electric guitars indeed including the Top Twenty by Teisco (Japan) which The Cure’s Robert Smith played while recording the band’s debut Three Imaginary Boys LP. Likewise, the late Pete Shelley, lead singer of Buzzcocks, started off with a Teisco Starway; a crude beginner’s model that helped define the band’s lo-fi sound on their seminal 1977 EP, Spiral Scratch. Hondo and Kay were other names in the mix for the more budget-minded player.
The attitude of the day was very much ‘who cares what brand of guitar/bass/drums you had?’ Expensive gear was the preserve of ageing prog rockers who could afford synthesizers and read Melody Maker, the music weekly dubbed ‘Monotony Maker’ for its in-depth exclusives on Yes and Genesis. The point was to make DIY music with the most basic tools available. Attitude before ability.
"Five channels would have been as incredible as the idea of being able to read a newspaper on a portable telephone"
In fact, being in a school punk or new wave band often had very little to do with playing your instrument skilfully or even attempting to write hit melodies and lyrics. Instead, there were droll or shocking band names to make up, line ups to finalise, home-made badges and fanzines to design and, for the genuine dreamers, an imaginary first album to write.
My first band BBC5, whose strapline ‘a different channel’ is explained by the fact there were only three television channels. Back then, five channels would have been as incredible as the idea of being able to read a newspaper on a portable telephone.
As it turned out, there were four of us, not five as we might have hoped; me on guitar, my classmate Chris on bass and his younger brother Guy on drums. Eddie, my bespectacled friend from the third form, who feigned hardness and wore a Harrington jacket, was on lead vocals – or at least he said he was.
The fact that none of us owned or could actually play any of these instruments – not to mention the fact that some of us were shortly to sit our O-Level exams – didn’t seem to deter us one bit in our desire to join our heroes The Stranglers, The Clash, Generation X and others on the London gig circuit.
As the band’s guitarist, I put away the old squash racket that I had used as a guitar substitute and earnestly began learning some chord shapes. In those days there was no amenable rock and roll guitar enthusiast on YouTube to talk you through Joy Division’s Transmission or Metal Postcard by Siouxsie and The Banshees and my school certainly didn’t have a tutor for this kind of thing. Rock schools and trendy music academies didn't exist.
Instead, I would leaf cheekily though song sheets in Chappell Music in Bond Street or a local music shop in Lewisham’s indoor shopping centre to make drawings of some basic chord patterns. Thanks to sheet music for Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols and The Jam I had D, A and G sorted then wrote my first song Grin and Bear It with the very same chords, about the boredom of being teenager and my desperate search for identity and acceptance by my peer group.
It went something like this:
I can’t always do what I want to do
But I don’t mind I’ve never wanted to
Tear apart and be a star
At that point things just go too far…
This wide-eyed, largely girl-less period in which school no longer mattered and when the band was almost entirely a fictional entity produced further songs; the Beatle-ish Fate, the Pete Shelley-esque Sightscreen and Tribal Warfare which could have been a Sham 69 B-side. I would earnestly sing these two-minute wonders into a portable cassette tape recorder and play them to other band members into a receiver via my parent’s landline, as if showcasing a future hit to a Tin Pan Alley huckster.
Having access to a landline, even if it was one by your parent’s bedside, was an essential tool in the teenager’s armoury and if used correctly would lead to much creative debate with fellow band members and even dates with girls, assuming the parent who picked up the receiver put you though. The Post Office, the telecommunications company who owned the line obviously knew this and came up with the service Dial-a-Disc so that, in a crude forerunner of today’s streaming services, teenagers would spend hours on the line listening to their favourite music.
I would dial 160 in the hope of hearing the new single by The Undertones or The Ruts but, more often than not, would be treated to a tinny-sounding loop of Lay Down Sally by Eric Clapton or Carol Bayer Sager’s You’re Moving Out Today. By the mid-1980’s the service was dealing with 200 million calls a year – many of them from public phone boxes – so that’s a tidy revenue stream indeed for the company that became British Telecom in 1980.
When the band finally did get to rehearse with our newly acquired instruments, the result was rather underwhelming to say the least. Musical deficiencies aside, the drums drowned out the feeble guitars and weedy unamplified vocals, while an elderly neighbour quickly alerted a council noise abatement officer to record volume levels my parent’s home where we had installed our musical hardware.
Image-wise we were sending out several mixed messages about our repertoire. Me with drainpipe black trousers (surprisingly hard to get hold of in 1979), borrowed Burton jacket from dad’s wardrobe and unruly hair which went over the ears, Chris with a pair of unfashionable Kickers boots and inside out school blazer with safety pins and home-made badges running down both lapels, his fourteen-year-old brother in flared jeans and a Lacoste tennis shirt. One guitarist, who was with the band only briefly, even had greasy shoulder length hair and professed to liking prog rock.
In an ideal world we would have looked like The Rolling Stones from the mid-1960’s or Blondie on the back of their Plastic Letters LP, but a rather less diverse Kids From Fame or Rik Mayall and his student pals in television’s The Young Ones was probably closer to the mark.
Undeterred, the band continued to commit to regular Sunday afternoon sessions up to the point where we could proficiently perform twelve of our own songs plus a few easy-to-play cover versions like Hot Love or the three-chord punk/new wave classic Is Vic There? by Department S.
With a new vocalist on board, my childhood friend and neighbour Michael, now calling himself Mick and wearing a sharp tonic suit with trilby hat and playing a mean blues harmonica, we showcased our material at a school ‘battle of the bands’ contest then a youth club near Bromley and later as part of a local fanzine’s party inside the Chislehurst Caves, the mysterious series of medieval chalk mines which were previously used as both as a World War Two air raid shelter and a venue for skiffle and rock bands in the 1960’s.
In terms of critical acclaim our performances were hardly going to trouble The Clash or even the Tom Robinson Band, but these gigs were relative triumphs compared to the times we spent waiting in vain backstage to get on a Rock Against Racism bill in a Beckenham park or at Brixton Town Hall for a reggae benefit headlined by Aswad and frequented by weed smoking Rastafarians gathered around a bone-shaking sound system. On that occasion, I was close to throwing in the towel on our increasingly frustrating musical journey but was persuaded by other band members that an appearance on stage by four white middle class schoolboys with their plodding rhythm and blues numbers would have gone down worse than a visit by the boys in blue.
Indeed just a few months later Brixton town centre would explode into violence and public disorder following the police’s continued use of ‘stop and search’ methods against members of the local community. ‘Bloody Saturday’ on 11th April 1981 left the so-called ‘front line’ a sorry scene with dozens of looted shops and rows of smouldering properties. Nearly 300 police officers were injured in the course of making 82 arrests. "Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened," said Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when asked whether unemployment and racism had played a part in the escalating violence.
On another occasion we secured a booking at a popular youth club in Feltham west London, only to be showered with lager by jostling, Nazi-saluting skinheads who must have mistakenly confused us for The Angelic Upstarts or The Cockney Rejects; two bands associated with the then prevalent Oi! scene. A reaction largely to the artier pretensions of punk, Oi! was championed by journalist Garry Bushell (later a columnist for The Sun newspaper) in the music weekly Sounds. The irony was that two of our number were passionate left-wingers, or activists as we would call them today, involved in the Labour Party Young Socialists and Socialist Workers Party respectively.
Even with a relatively cosseted south London upbringing as mine, violence was never far away from our everyday experience. Going to gigs, especially with floppy hair and dressed in a knee-length US army trench coat and pointy shoes would mean running the gauntlet of the local yobs’ network and walking home from school one afternoon a skinhead cracked me flush on the skull with a rock. Ouch! Partly scary and partly electrifying, I had witnessed fights on the football terraces but was never actually the victim until the day I was randomly set upon by Millwall fans while out browsing the record racks at HMV in Lewisham.
“Give us your scarf,” said the youngest of the ten-strong group pointing to my Manchester United souvenir given to me for Christmas as a joke by a friend.
“No, it’s mine.”
“Do you want aggro?”
Not even the tactic of retreating to the craft and hobbies magazine display at WH Smith could save me as the punches rained down and blood from my bruised gums stained the sorry white and red polyester that hung defiantly around my neck.
Tribes were in abundance on the streets of London in those days and, more often than not, you would run into the wrong crowd at the wrong time. The punks who had been in the ascendancy since 1977 were on the wane by the time I was old enough to go to gigs and would soon mutate into goths or those cartoon-ish, cider-swilling punks you would see on the Kings Road up until the 1990’s, and possibly even today, with their bright green Mohicans and studded leather biker jackets.
This left a void that was quickly filled by mod and rockabilly revivalists along with the dreaded skins and the soon-to-emerge New Romantics who were only seen after-dark. You could add Rastas, hippies (still going strong ten years after Woodstock), soul boys, metalheads and even Sloane Rangers into this colourful mix of subcultures, even though Ann Barr’s and Peter York’s definitive guide to upper middle class mores The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook didn’t appear until 1982.
Regional variants were available too. On a day trip to Manchester in 1978 I found football fans at Old Trafford wearing full Ziggy Stardust make up and bell-bottomed jeans worn with platform boots then, on the way home via Crewe railway station, a party of ageing teddy boys and girls who looked like they’d stepped out of 1958. The ones you really had to watch out for however were representatives of the very same generation known as ‘straights’. A harder group to define sartorially and culturally, but undoubtedly more numerous in the high street or in the workplace, especially north of Watford, this tribe would often sport shoulder length hair, sometimes permed, with a short, workmanlike moustache. Grey Farah slacks and a burgundy V-neck jumper completed the look. They probably didn’t like music at all.
"They would not have hesitated to beat to a pulp hapless posers like me"
Smoking John Player Specials and influenced by Harp and Skol lager as well as strong alpha male role models such as Tom Selleck, Kevin Keegan and Burt Reynolds they would not have hesitated to beat to a pulp hapless young posers like me and my friends should we have found ourselves in the wrong pub at closing time.
As the year 1980 approached, I wrote what in hindsight I thought was a quite prescient song called Wake Up, It’s The Eighties! And despite the economic gloom all around us (unemployment was to hit the three million mark by the end of the year), we soldiered on valiantly with a new name Small Print and a demo tape recorded on New Year’s Day at a cheap and cheerful basement studio around the back of the Mount Pleasant sorting office in Clerkenwell. Thinking of the bigger picture, we even tried to incorporate girl backing singers and two drummers as Adam and the Ants had done to great effect. One of these drummers went to have a top 10 hit in the early 1990’s with a dance record.
With our A-Level exams on the horizon and the real prospect that key band members would be embarking on more serious life journeys there seemed to be a real sense of urgency with our amateurish project.
Lord knows what our parents made of all this creative enterprise. In hindsight it would seem as if I was deliberately sabotaging any hope of getting good enough grades to enter university, which tragically turned out to be the case. The band had empowered me and had made me a more confident and outgoing personality for sure, but at what cost?
And tolerant and loving as they were, I’m sure my mum and dad were not remotely impressed by my increasingly worrying school reports or having to turn up to Bromley Police Station one Saturday afternoon to pick me up after three of us had been detained for alleged shoplifting at the Wing Music shop on the London Road.
“We’re not the mafia, you know!” I spat out insolently to the detective sergeant whose job it was to unravel the mystery behind why one of Wing Music’s bass cabinets had gone walkabouts as I bothered the assistant with inane questions about second hand microphones.
“Well, we’ve just rang your parents’ sonny and they’re now on their way to pick you up. If I was your father, you’d already be through that brick wall behind you instead of being such a smart arse.”
This shameful episode illustrates the downside of being a teenager in this era and explains why there remains a best-selling T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘Punk Rock Ruined My Life’. Never mind the tragedies of Sid and Nancy or the awful suicide of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, just how many other promising young careers were ruined by the turbulent jet stream of punk and new wave?
In hindsight, it was probably worth it for seeing Joy Division play Love Will Tear Us Apart at a small club in West Hampstead shortly before Curtis departed and it was exciting to discover so many new wave and post-punk bands at the legendary Marquee Club in Wardour Street or play the electric guitar myself in a real recording studio, but perhaps if this mercurial music movement of the late 1970’s had never existed, I would have negotiated more easily those challenging teenage years.
Maybe I would have dedicated my time and energy more enthusiastically to serious learning and other more collegiate activities such as drama, divinity or debating. Maybe my progression into the adult world would have been a smoother one. The new decade would reveal all.
You Really Got A Hold On Me is out soon.