40 years ago, at the end of a red-hot English summer, a highly significant Festival took place at the 100 Club in Oxford Street. Although only several hundred people were in attendance, it was nevertheless a watershed moment in popular music and culture. The 100 Club Punk Festival was the moment when everything changed in Britain and a new era in popular culture was born. As my own small contribution to the 40th anniversary of 1976 (Year Zero), I have put together a few scraps and glimpses from memory of that momentous gig. Endlessly chronicled and dissected by writers and journalists over the years, this is my own personal view of the show and what was happening then. Being entirely subjective, I’m sure many of you who were around at that time may disagree entirely with the facts I present from memory.
I think what journalists and the media have failed to understand is the precarious state of the nascent punk rock scene back then. The Clash were a tiny troop – just Mick, Joe, Paul, and Terry (to some extent). Bernard Rhodes (the manager) and his ‘missus Sheila, Mickey Foote their sound man, and Sebastian Conran flitting in and out of Rehearsal Rehearsals on his Norton Commando. There was no-one printing t-shirts or making clothes, no record company to call on, no tour manager, no wages. The only person with a car was Bernie, so when I showed up with the Subway Sect having a functioning motor vehicle, I was very quickly co-opted to run errands, pick-up spares, and shuttle back and forth to Bernie’s. They were just an idea at the time, fermenting over six months and born from the frustration of the bloated, stagnant music scene. Their existence was balanced on a knife-edge, with success or failure at each show so crucial.
Contrast that with the Pistols who had been gigging for almost a year, had Malcolm and Vivian successful in their own right, the SEX shop supplying their clothes, Boogie, their soundman, Sophie in the office, and the whole Bromley contingent following them around, providing a supportive entourage. What the 100 Club Punk Festival did was to solidify the inner core of the top punk rock bands (Pistols, Clash, Damned, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect), and give the concept an identity and meaning. In the weeks following the show, bandwagon-jumpers like ‘The Stranglers’ and ‘Eddie And The Hotrods’ would push their hair behind their ears, place rubber bands around their flared jeans, and try to catch the wave that had been created. It was off to the races after the Festival.
Since arriving at ‘Rehearsal Rehearsals’ sometime in the first half of August as school friend and roadie with the Subway Sect, a daily schedule between us and The Clash had developed. Depending on how early I could get them to Rehearsals (and if The Clash were still rehearsing), we often strolled down to George’s cafe, just over the Camden Lock, for a cuppa’ and a sandwich. There was another closer greasy spoon cafe right opposite Rehearsals, but everyone used George’s, not just because it was more agreeable but because of the owner’s daughter, a doe-eyed teenager, Gabby, who we fantasized over constantly. She worked in the cafe and we would watch her out of the corner of our eye, trying not to make eye contact. A hush would come over the table as she approached and fetched our orders. Sometimes, if any of the Clash were still at Rehearsals, they would wander down for a cuppa’ and we would chat about various things that were going on. It was where we got most of our information back then. Occasionally, a journalist or photographer would accompany them and tea and sandwiches would be coaxed out of their expense budget. Even though The Clash were being written up in the music papers, they seemed to be poorer than we were! I occasionally had to stand for a cheese-and-tomato sandwich for Paul or egg-mayonnaise for Mick.
Then it would be the Subway Sect’s turn to rehearse in the evening until they’d had enough. Sometimes Sid Vicious, Glen Matlock, or Mad Jane would be hanging around and not much rehearsing would get done. Paul Simonon would often be amusing himself playing with toy guns, practicing his bass lines, or happily breaking something. I busied myself fixing equipment, picking up spares, or popping over to the pub for a pint and a packet of crisps.
As the day of the 100 Club Punk Festival drew closer, rehearsals for both bands noticeably intensified. The Clash had about a ten-song set by then although we only heard snatches of it as we came and went through the studio. Their rehearsals were conducted at a driving pace and there never seemed to be much in the way of inactivity. In contrast, The Subways had put together a short five-number set of manically fast, dissonant, jarring numbers. Being brought up on soul music, I had no ear for loud, inharmonious rock. The high pitched, cacophonous, jangly guitar and very basic drumming was an assault on my ears though I appreciated the creativity and motivation behind it. But all the photographers and journalists that saw and heard them loved it and seemed to construe their eccentric behaviour as a planned, staged anti-rock’n’roll stance, laying their own interpretations on the band’s meaning, many of which were maybe unjustified. Much of this was undoubtedly due to Vic Goddard’s own character and his pseudo-intellectual lyrics that purveyed this image – but to me personally at that time they were still just schoolmates, fucking around with guitars; our shyness and naivety was no act; our introverted nature was just us being ourselves.
The night before the show, Sid Vicious, Steve Havoc (Severin), and Marco Pirroni, the other members of the impromptu band The Flowers of Romance, showed up at Rehearsals for an unplanned rehearsal. Arranged at the last minute with Bernie, we had no idea they would be there and so moved our equipment out of the way while they messed around on the Clash’s equipment. Terry had said Sid could use his kit, thinking that Sid would have his own on the night. The rehearsal didn’t last very long as Sid just wasn’t interested in rehearsing and it soon dissolved into a mere fuck-around. Once they left, we moved the gear away, replacing it with our own and had a short last rehearsal before the Subway Sect’s debut gig.
Next day, I drove the Subways’ gear down to the 100 Club in my car as the Clash’s equipment was being transported along with the PA and the Pistol’s gear. We loaded through the back door and down the stairs of the familiar old club. Although I had been there many times as a punter, not so long ago back in our soul dancing days, it had always been dark and hot, throbbing with lights and music. To see it in the cold light of day was a shockingly rude awakening, its beer-soaked floors and filthy sweat-stained walls bore witness to decades of human emotion and exhilaration. The stench of the stinking toilets and the vomit-covered carpets was the first of hundreds of familiar depressive scenes that I would witness in the coming years all over England and Europe’s clubs and halls, but like most first experiences, it made a huge and lasting impression. I would never experience the atmosphere of a club in the same way again and the frisson of being a paying dance club customer was shattered forever.
After we had hauled our equipment in and stacked it in a corner of the room, we sat nervously huddled around a table as the PA and lights were setup. As time passed the club became a hive of activity, with gear being setup and lights pointed. Various band members and friends began arriving and milling around, many of whom we recognized. The Bromley Contingent was again in full force. A few came over and spoke to us, but for the most part we sat there by ourselves. I recall Sid shared a few jokes with us and Johnny Rotten gave a few words of encouragement, as did Steve Jones who Paul Smith seemed to connect with instantly. Mick Jones asked if we needed anything and Paul Simonon would occasionally shoot at us with a small pellet gun he had. We met Boogie, The Pistols’ sound man for the first time and he gave out encouraging words too. Malcolm and Bernie were running back and forth in the club, to busy too even look our way. We were so totally inexperienced we had no idea of what was really going on.
Each band had staked out a table for themselves in the club like small encampments, while we were sitting waiting for sound check. There were a couple of journalists from the music papers doing the rounds and interviewing the bands. One of them eventually came round to the Subway Sect’s table and asked, “Have any of you got any musical experience?” Paul Smith said he’d been in the boy scouts. “I’ve never heard of them,” the writer from the NME said, “Who else was in them?” Paul said incredulously, “What you’ve never heard of the boy scouts? They’ve been around for years!” The humour of the remark broke the ice for us and we laughed for the first time that day. I’m sure the journalist thought it was all part of their image but it was true, and ironically, it was that kind of comical immaturity that endeared the Subway Sect to mostly everyone.
As everything began running late with equipment and PA problems, the Pistols decided they wouldn’t bother sound checking and so it was decided that there was only time for the Clash to do a sound check. Their gear was setup. They strolled on stage, plugged in and immediately fired straight into ‘White Riot’ at top volume.
Well! I’d heard of the term ‘wall of sound,’ but this was like being hit by a sledgehammer over and over again! Played at breakneck speed and full volume it was as if an earthquake had erupted (the emptiness of the club probably contributed to the effect). We sat looking at each other, eyebrows raised, and without a word knew we were all thinking the same thing, “What the hell had we gotten ourselves into?” The number finished on a shout and the room was silent except for feedback and crackling, buzzing electrical connections. It was at if we had been confronted with a force of nature and everyone present seemed speechless by the explosion they had just witnessed, most of all us.
If we had been scared shitless beforehand, we were crapping our trousers now. The Subways’ gathered round and spoke in hushed voices at the dismay and embarrassment of being on the bill with such seemingly professional musicians (and this wasn’t even the Pistols!) There we were, with our tiny little amps, not even able to tune the instruments or have a sound check. Bob Simmons was overwhelmed at how proficient The Clash appeared and how bad the Subways’ were going to look. Paul Smith was convinced the audience was going to think it was a joke. Vic seemed to suddenly realise that he was going to be singing in public for the first time. The certainty that it was going to end in an embarrassing disaster raised the brief suggestion of pulling out, but was quickly dismissed. There was of course, no way out – they had been advertised on the bill and Vic had already signed the papers at Malcolm’s office behind the Edgware Road the week before.
We set up our equipment in front of the Clash’s backline as instructed by Mickey Foote and Boogie, then endured interminable hours waiting before going on, unable to eat or drink and scared stiff. The club slowly filled up with the cream of the London club scene, all decked out in their most outrageous outfits and anyone who was anyone, was there that night. We filled our time spotting various faces we recognised and hovering around the gear on the stage. With five minutes to go to show time, the Subways were petrified with fear and barely able to move. I helped out as best I could but having no real idea of what was expected of me, I was of little help.
Then that heart-stopping moment arrived and on they went. Once onstage they displayed such nervousness that the audience must have mistook it for their signature impassionate demeanor, and actually it ended up counting in their favour. Bob Simmons stood riveted to the spot, rigid and tense, Fender Mustang guitar slung high up his chest like a young Wilco Johnson. Paul Myers, curling his lip nervously, stood motionless staring blankly, focusing on his bass-lines. Paul Smith ploughed his way through the five numbers using snare and tom-toms, still unable to incorporate the hi-hat in his playing. Vic Goddard slouched, hanging on the mic, a tortured yet expressionless air, his face highlighted by the white makeup he had applied, ignoring the audience with complete indifference. They got through their set without mishap (much to my relief), and I wasn’t called upon to fix anything. The audience reaction was restrained but favorable, seemingly more intrigued than anything else, it not being the mayhem they were expecting. In a sense, the Subway Sect were the perfect warm-up act – just enough to wet an audience appetite, and more than enough to captivate it to want more. When the set finished, the gear was bundled off the stage by the PA crew and it was all I could do to keep it all together in one place by the side of the stage.
Having arranged to use some of the Clash’s equipment, The Flowers of Romance started to setup onstage but on seeing Sid wearing a swastika armband, Bernie Rhodes suddenly refused to let him use the Clash’s drum kit. Arguments rang out and accusations were made with Sid calling Bernie “a fucking old Jew!” Sid needed a kit to play and Paul Smith was more than happy to let his hero use the Subways’. So Terry Chime’s drum kit had to come off the stage and the Subways’ kit brought back on and setup again. It was an absolute shambles with cymbals and tom-toms going back and forth. I remember asking Sid how he wanted the kit setup – he just sneered and said, “However you normally set it.” I realised that he still he had no idea how to play the drums.
After The Flowers or Romance stumbled through their 20-minute version of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ with Siouxsie Sioux wailing and howling throughout, I was helped off with the Subway’s kit again by Mickey Foote, and the other roadcrew. We then brought the Clash’s kit back on to be re-miked a second time. By then I had forgotten the crowd with all the chaos ensuing. Suddenly, The Clash came out, plugged in, and launched into their first number at breakneck speed. Watching their set with neck hairs raised and mouth open from the side of the stage I couldn’t help being overwhelmed at the blinding, heart-racing spectacle they made. Guitars flashing, colours blurring, speed-crashing deafening punk rock – the Clash gave it to the audience in torrents, number after number. It was total mayhem onstage and chaos from the crowd with sound problems, broken strings, and equipment breakdowns.
The Clash finished their set, I helped move their gear off the stage and stored it close by the Subway’s backline. Standing on a chair watching the Pistols from out front, I was for the first time, able to detach myself from my previous ambivalence, and became mesmerized by their performance. I remember thinking at the time that this was what it was all about now – the soul scene was dead and gone and for the time being, this was the future. Although I didn’t quite comprehend or profess to enjoy the music, it was a turning point for me and I unfalteringly got the message – this was the NEXT BIG THING and more than just a flash in the pan.