Perfect Sound Forever

UK Subs

Photograph copyright Carl Batson

Charlie Harper interview
by Sarah Corbett-Batson
(December 2014)

London vocalist Charlie Harper formed punk legends UK Subs in 1976 and hasn't stopped gigging since. Having survived numerous line-up changes, the band is about to release their new album Yellow Leader. I caught up with him at a punk night in Watford.

PSF: So after all these years, why do you still love punk music?

CH: It's just stripped down to the bone. In the beginning, we thought we wouldn't use any effects. Gibson is a beautiful guitar, Fender is a beautiful guitar, Gretsch is a beautiful guitar, you know. You really hear the guitar if you don't use effects. As soon as you use effects, you become a bit engineering. So that was our thing, we just wanted the power of a Marshall. You whack up the Marshall and get a bit of cut on it and the sound is amazing. You don't need effects. A lot of bands don't like to play too loud but we do. Our sound is on the edge of distortion and we play with a lot of attack so it's quite a powerful, full sound. It's full blooded!

PSF: You've had a number of line-up changes over the years. What is the essence that makes the band UK Subs?

CH: Well I'll tell you about a real down day we had. Two people came into the band who didn't know the songs that well. We were playing with The Lurkers and they'd been together all this time and were so on it. They were on first and we were headlining so everyone was very nervous. I said, "Let's start with three songs that are lager proof – you get drunk, you can do them backwards. Then everyone will start rocking and then if you make a mistake after that, it doesn't really matter because we've got the audience rocking." It worked – we came on and jumped up all over the place and the audience started jumping up all over the place and going wild. From then the new guys forgot their nerves and played great. Arturo Lurker came up to me and said, "Why do they dance to you?" and I said, "Well we have to dance first. We go mental first and they want to be a mirror image".

PSF: You were a hairdresser before you were a singer. Is punk just a hairstyle these days?

CH: I think that having the look is important. The Ramones all had the same kind of hair, the Beatles, Rolling Stones. Because I'm a '60's kind of person and I go back to rock 'n' roll in the '50's, to me it is important. The Ramones had matching blue jeans and leather jackets and striped T-shirts, you know. I've heard stories of when people have gone down to a café and seen all four of them in there at once and it's like, wow!

PSF: Do you think music still has its subversive power?

CH: Yeah, look at Pussy Riot. And there are countries where they could kill you for playing music. South America's dangerous, Mexico. Lots of places where it's really dangerous just to be doing rock, let alone punk rock.

PSF: Where is your favourite place to play?

CH: Germany. Everything's there. The halls are built for rock 'n' roll, the sound is good, everyone takes great care and pride in what they're doing. Because it really comes from America and England, they really want to prove that they've got the gear. When we got to Germany, every night we get a lovely dinner and they treat you so well. The Germans have got it going.

PSF: What are your views on the current political situation in the UK?

CH: Don't vote – riot! That's it. I'm an anarchist. If people aren't doing things fairly, you riot, you tell them. Things are going very right wing, look at France and Japan. My wife is Japanese and the president of Japan is very right wing. We were on a protest in Japan against the new government. They're stopping people protesting. So we were protesting against them stopping protesting.

I can see a lot of rioting if things become more right wing. What right wing means to me is more money for the rich.

I think it's kind of an extreme view that I have – that we're still ruled by the Normans. They're still in power, they still own the lands, they're all descended from the Norman Earls and the power is in Norman hands and us English are still slaves to the Normans. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it!

PSF: Are there any particular campaign groups that you would align yourself with?

CH: Greenpeace and the Green Party.

(At this point his wife asks him whether he'd like a steak or a burger from the pub menu)

I'll have a burger, no cheese. I'm not a vegetarian but I have been. I was living with these people who were vegetarian but they smoked. I said, that's daft, you're vegetarian and trying to be healthy but you're smoking. We made a pact that they'd give up smoking and I'd stop eating meat. I outlasted them by miles. I was a vegetarian when I was about 11 for a while mainly because I liked nut rissoles. But it wasn't that serious back in those days.

PSF: So what do you about John Lydon doing butter adverts – has he lost all credibility now? CH: It's so ironic, isn't it? John Lydon was always, "I can't do this, I need to keep my integrity," and then he's running across a field being chased by a cow in a butter advert. By the way, we used to get that butter, not because of him, we used to get it before he was advertising it because we are butter people, we don't like margarine.

I'm not jealous of people who are making it really rich like John Lydon. Down where I live on the South coast, he's playing the De La Warr Pavillion. I think he's just talking to people and they're paying about £28 to get in to see him. I think it's great if people want to do that.

I don't take a lot of notice of what other people are doing. I'm always kicking myself and going, "Concentrate of what you're doing, get your fucking world right and do what you're doing," It's a bit of a joke, a bit of a laugh. I don't take it seriously. Everyone's different and I really believe in individuality. Our band is four very different individuals although Alvin the bass player being the older one, we like the same bands from the '70's. The drummer's very young and he likes all this nu-metal and death metal and all that kind of stuff. I don't know about the guitarist, he's a bit away with the fairies, but then a lot of guitarists are.

PSF: Your album titles start with the letters of the alphabet in order and you only have Y and Z left. Will you carry on making albums after that? CH: That will be it. There are a couple of people already making documentaries so there will be new music in the documentaries. Then we'll probably make some EPs and try to make some nice singles. We're not going to stop, it's just that'll be the albums done. That will be the end of the albums.

We've recorded "Yellow Leader" and that should be out at the beginning of November. It's a reference to friendly fire and shooting your own man down. The artwork was finished the other day - it's got a Roy Lichtenstein jet coming down. It's come out better than I imagined. The last one will be called "Ze zo" which means "job done" in Dutch I think.

PSF: Where do you get the energy from after all these years? CH: You go on and you've got adrenaline going. I always say get involved – take photos, write a fanzine, play an instrument, sing, whatever you can do, but don't just be a member of the audience - get involved and try to do something. Even if it's just your hobby, do it.

Our drummer unkindly for my birthday bought me a Zimmerframe and they've welded this chain mic stand on it and a beer bottle holder. So maybe I'll go on stage with that and throw it into the crowd. I'll never retire - they'll cart me out feet first one day.

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