1976 and all that…..Punks in the Basement

I was listening recently to a recording of Dave Graney talking about how he conceived the song “Rock ‘n’ Roll is where I hide”  and it struck me that his vision of an East German Rock Band working it’s way covertly around the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union, or indeed his own career in the context of the extant Australian music scene, was also a metaphor for the current music scene here in the UK. At a time when talented, and I mean really talented, artists struggle to fill the “dusty pub back rooms” that try to present themselves as concert venues, whereas at the same time industry funded “stars” fill arenas, or vast swathes of tribute bands infest local festivals and pull huge crowds.

Where is the spirit of ’76 40 years on I ask myself?

Has Rock ‘n’ Roll itself had to take on its own shadowy persona in order to survive? How can it survive where nostalgia and tribute is more successful than innovation and art? Is Rock and Roll hiding?

All this got me thinking about where was I at in 1976.

The recent summer outpouring of nostalgia around the “Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall” is symptomatic of the internet age and its relationship to music. People want to relive those days vicariously through the memories of others. Men and women of a certain age are wheeled out by national broadcasters to recollect (or in some cases mis-remember, it was upstairs Hooky not in the basement!) what happened on June 4th 1976.

I remember it was a very hot summer. I had a holiday job in a venetian blind factory on an industrial estate on the north western outskirts of Northampton (yes you poke his eyes out was the common waggish comment at the time).  The weather was so warm that the Factory was opening at 5 a.m. so we could clock-off around 1 p.m. so as not have to work in excessive heat in the afternoon sun. There was plenty of time to laze around in the afternoon and listen to music.  University was over and I was pondering on the next “career move”, I knew I was going to be heading back to Salford, I was not sure when and where. I spent long afternoons listening to the sort of stuff I had been listening to for the last six years – Floyd, Genesis, and a particular obsession at the time Manfred Mann’s Earthband. Steely Dan had caught my attention via Katy Lied, and Springsteen had begun to worm his way into my psyche. Led Zeppelin moved sideways with Houses of the Holy. The Floyd had gone off somewhere I didn’t like. The problem was that generally it was all getting a bit stale. My university education had concluded but my musical education needed a serious kick up the backside. In any event I permanently headed back North away from the provincial East Midlands into what was a crucible of change, something I was completely unaware of.

There had been the glimmerings of change with the release of Hammill’s “Nadir’s Big Chance” in the February of the previous year. I’d been to see Van Der Graaf at UMIST and had been struck by how more extreme the music had become. I had been reasonably close to the local music scene in Northampton, having briefly flirted with it, but Manchester’s “local” scene was a mystery to me, other than the obvious success stories of 10cc and Barclay James Harvest for example. .June and the Pistols gig  had long gone when I eventually headed north in the late summer.

Moving north was a gamble, no job, no money, no obvious career path but I needed to get back there to be with the future wife. So cash was tight in the autumn of 1976, there wasn’t much spare change to buy a lot of new music, I couldn’t really afford to both go to gigs,  or build the record collection that much, but albums were more important than gigs so they took precedence.

The closest I got the emerging scene was that one of the guys who had made The Pistols gig happen lived below the flat I had moved into on Lower Broughton Road. The other guy lived a couple of doors down. I was there at the crucible of change and  indeed that change was coming but it would be a stuttering start to my new music education. I did eventually manage to get some gigs. Specifically the following January a saw a memorable Todd Rundgren show at Salford University. But the new “underground” music scene was not obvious or indeed on the radar. it was all going on I was missing it.

My friend Ian Moss, who was at the Free Trade Hall, recently described the Pistols gig as a  “phart in a cathedral”.  The impact was palpable, it just hadn’t made it out into the wider ether as yet. Slowly however things began to change. I got a job at the Town Hall, a chap called Rob Gretton was on my team for a while and gave me a badge for a band called “Slaughter & The Dogs” and told me about a new band he was managing called “Warsaw” and about gigs at the The Oaks. A husband and wife couple on the team told me about a place called The Electric Circus. However I was still pretty removed from it all.

I remained steadfastly aligned to the music of my teens for a while longer but there was a slight glimmer of change. The Damned seemed interesting, The Clash I didn’t really understand, The Stranglers sounded alright. The Pistols? I wasn’t sure, I knew it was exciting, but did I like it? The NME and Sounds were interesting reading in those days. Friends decried it as a gimmick, “they can’t play their instruments”, in hindsight the mutterings of provincial middle class music snobs who couldn’t discern the difference between technique, attitude, and art.

A band I had been a big follower of, welsh rockers Man, had sort of drifted after the excellent Whinos, Rhinos and Lunatics of a couple of years earlier. The band had appeared at the Free Trade Hall in the March of 1975 with John Cippolina in tow. It was all a little dull and the 1976 album featuring that line-up ,”The Welsh Connection”, hadn’t struck a chord.

The true overlord of the obtuse, Captain Beefheart, had disappeared after a couple of what you might call MOR albums, he wouldn’t be back in full effect for a couple of years. Zappa released an album which clumsily merged too many genres and dabbled in cock-rock humour.  I hadn’t found the Velvets or The Stooges by this stage and  in any event,  Jazz, and Coltrane specifically, were dragging me off in another direction, there was a huge back catalogue of Davis, Monk, Coleman, Mingus and Parker to wade through. I also flirted with funk via George Clinton and Bootsy Collins

Some of the albums acquired that year despite the impecunity….

  • Be-bop Deluxe – Sunburst Finish : prompted by a good gig at Salford University where I met the future wife, so a good place to start
  • Heart – Dreamboat Annie : still holds up reasonably well after all these years, although probably the last knockings of my dalliance with mainstream rock
  • Genesis – A Trick of the Tail : never quite the same after Gabriel left and the beginning of a slow demise into mediocrity
  • Van Der Graaf Generator – Still Life : remarkable then, equally remarkable now
  • Gentle Giant – Interview : I loved it at the time but it seems overly complex and too muso in hindsight. I saw them at the Free Trade Hall on the tour supporting this album. A good indication of the disparity between the mainstream and what the nascent punk scene was delivering
  • Steely Dan – The Royal Scam : I was beginning to lose interest by this time, they seemed to have gone a bit too AOR.
  • Brand X – Unorthodox Behaviour : an example of not how to merge jazz and rock
  • Spirit – Farther Along : It wasn’t 12 dreams but it was still a cut above the rest. More of a John Locke album than a Randy California influenced release.
  • Parliament – The Clones of Dr Funkenstien : barking mad and a great deal of fun
  • Manfred Manns Earthband – The Roaring Silence : seems a little weak in hindsight but the cover of Springsteens “Blinded By The Light” (see above) still holds out.
  • Van Der Graaf Generator – World Record : perhaps the weakest of the second phase albums but still head and shoulders above the rest. The band would split and then reform with a new line-up next year.
  • The Eagles – Hotel California : it all seemed to make sense at the time, bright Californian sunshine to brighten grey Salford days, now, not so much
  • Genesis – WInd and Wuthering : the last Genesis album I actually bought, it all went downhill after this, and this was pretty poor
  • City Boy – City Boy : I still have fond recollections of this pop-rock from Birmingham.
  • Steve Hillage – L : A huge disappointment after the cosmic highs of “Fish Rising”,  a rare occasion where Todd Rundgren’s hand did not have a positive effect.
  • Man – The Welsh Connection : dull and uninteresting in the context of previous releases.

Released that year but not acquired until much later:

  • The Residents – Third Reich & Roll
  • Soft Machine – Softs
  • The Stooges – Metallic KO
  • Miles Davis – Pangaea
  • Fela Kuti – Zombie
  • Jaco Pastorius – Jaco Pastorius
  • Herbie Hancock – Secrets
  • Tom Waits – Small Change
  • Frank Zappa – Zoot Allures
  • Can – Flow Motion
  • Miles Davis – Water Babies

So 1976 wasn’t a Damascene year for me despite Mr Shelley and Mr Devoto practising in the flat below.

But it all started to change when I walked into Virgin Records and asked for a copy of Spiral Scratch, and a couple of miles up the road Mark, Una, Martin and Tony would be getting together to discuss forming a band, and that’s when the fun really started.

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