Author Alex Ogg has penned what is no doubt the most information
crammed book on late 70s punk bands, "No More Heroes - A
Complete History Of UK Punk From 1976 To 1980", for Cherry Red
Books. To call this book densly packed and a labour of love would be
an understatement. I recently sat down with the mild spoken author to
find out what makes someone gather together so much info on
obscure punk. Is he a couple saucers short of a tea party? I kept the
inquiries as civil as possible for fear that the burly wordsmith might
suddenly snap and go all clockwork orange.
Interview by Brian "GTA" Sheklian
Brian: Why on earth would you spend so much time on a book about old punk when you
could have written about something a heap more current ? Give us the skinny, did you
do it for the "punker points" or all those lovely greenbacks ?
Alex: I certainly didn't do it for the greenbacks. I like the idea of punker points I could
exchange for fresh veg at the supermarket, but sadly, no. I did it because I wanted to,
because I'd left employment and had some money behind me, so thought I'd blow it on something reckless. I've been
involved in punk from fanzines as a teenager through to writing about it in adult life, and it was a big part of what formed
my attitudes. I've collected a lot of punk literature as well as records and CDs, and I found most of the reference books out
there were pretty confused or confusing (notable exception being the excellent Trouser Press, and more recently '1977').
Also, I'd get frustrated at the fact that the story of 77 UK punk was being related in terms of just two bands, the Pistols
and the Clash. I've always thought there was so much more than that. I also disliked the Stalinist slant on who was and
who wasn't 'authentic', so I embraced the idea of documenting some of the schoolboy and bedsit bands, the art mavericks,
the bandwagon jumpers and the also-rans. Because I think they had great stories to tell, and were as much a part of what
I understand to be punk as a few fashion casualties who hung around west London. Which is another point - with the
possible exception of Manchester, a lot of the histories are so centred on London that it appears as if nothing else was
happening, and that's simply not true. So I started digging and couldn't contain myself. As one of the contributors noted, it
got very 'wordsome'. But when you're documenting such a vivid and active period, I suppose that's inevitable. Finally, I
didn't want to theorise too much - there's been far, far too much of that malarkey going on all ready. I couldn't give a
monkey's if the UK punk scene was triggered by the New York CBGB's set or not - I obviously have an opinion on the
validity of such statements, but I really, really don't think it's important. I also thought it would be useful to have some kind
of informed discography because of the sheer number of reissues/repackaging going on.
Brian: So are you saying that the ultra serious exclusionary political punk
purists ruined punk more than the let's cash in and go punk crowd? Also
you mentioned some people having the attitude of London being the centre
of the musical universe, do you think this kept bands outside of London
from gaining as much attention or acceptance?
Alex: I wouldn't make any grand claims on that front - particularly as punk
ideology was being redefined all the time, and I think there's truth in saying
that, for a while, some equated political philosophy with hair and trouser
length. I just think focusing too keenly on the rhetoric of some interlopers
from previous generations (McLaren, Rhodes) instils a sense of
predetermination that was never there. Most of the bands I spoke with
simply felt that this was something they could buy into, in terms of its
scratch ethos and inclusivity of different ideas and demographics. It was a
space they could inhabit and have fun with. I don't discount that there were
some in there with considered political viewpoints (especially if they
happened to be on campus in Leeds, for some reason), and they were
part of it. But so were a variety of other people, some of whom absolutely
bridled at the contention that this was a movement with prescribed political
ambitions and an agreed agenda. For some punks the Clash, for instance,
were pretty much a religion, for some others they were fakers from the outset. I would say that the whole story has been
recounted in Londoncentric terms. What was interesting, however, was the 'gravity' of London,. I remember discussing this
with several bands, who either moved out of their homebase to 'take on' London, or chose not to. Mostly, those who did
move to London seem to view it as a mistake. And most who didn't, wished that they had. I live in London now and it's
undoubtedly 'spoiled' in terms of arts and culture compared to other regions in the UK. I think the effect of this is that, in
many cases, punk really was taken to heart more by the provinces. In London, something new would be happening in a
few months time, if you felt so inclined. In smalltown England, or nowheresville Wales, etc, I think it was definitely
something that people clung to as an idea with far greater fidelity.
Brian: You spoke of having some prior writing experiences under your belt,please explain this more in detail.
Alex: I've basically written about music from the age of 14 (I think) when I
did my own fanzine. After college I ended up editing Spiral Scratch, which
some people might remember, which was a collectors' based punk/new
wave title, and a magazine called Music Collector. Then I ended up writing
a lot of encyclopaedia entries for a few years, as well as the odd magazine
feature. I was quite excited by early hip hop and ended up writing a fair
amount on that subject, including the Hip Hop Years, with David Upshal,
which came out of the Channel 4 TV series. And books about rap lyrics
and Def Jam followed that. Throughout I kept writing sleevenotes for a
variety of labels, mainly punk bands - my first job was doing the first
Undertones CD reissues, which was a thrill - but also some mainstream
stuff. I did another Channel 4 book on pop trivia, and also started to work
as freelance project manager for record labels (arranging stuff like the
Ruefrex and Charge CDs, for example). I spent a lot of time on the book,
obviously, but have started doing some magazine features again, more
sleevenotes, more encyclopaedia entries, more project management
co-ordination etc. Being freelance can be a struggle, but I certainly
wouldn't want a day job again. Also, it's handy to be at home around our
two young boys, if that doesn't sound irredeemably dull and domesticated.
Brian: Exactly how much time did you spend on the book? Was it quite the
monumental task to track down all of those old band members and get
interviews out of them ? Were there any that you tracked down that held
no interest in dredging up their punk pasts and just wanted to be left alone?
Alex: About two years writing in full, but that was after I'd spent an enormous amount of time doing research, shuffling
paper, etc. The internet has made people-tracing so much easier these days. When I worked on Spiral Scratch, if I wanted
to do first-hand interviews, you had to know someone who knew someone who had a telephone number. Nowadays tracing
old bands is much easier, and MySpace has accelerated the number of old with a web presence. Then again, there are
always the stragglers who you never do track down, or the ones that emerge shortly after you've sent off the
final draft. I would have loved to have included, for example, Rev Volting And The Backstabbers, Bread Poultice, and
several others. But as it was, I had more bands than I could fit in, and sadly
had to drop a few. Some because I felt they didn't fit in, some due to space,
some due to the fact that I hadn't managed to speak to a member of the
band, which was kind of the whole thrust of the book (a reference book
where the bands could feed back and correct errors). So perhaps, if it's
successful enough, I might do either a revised edition or a second volume.
I don't know if anyone will be interested though, but there are definitely
more bands out there than I could possibly have imagined when I embarked
on this. There was one band in particular that I interviewed who
subsequently decided they didn't want to publicise their past. That's fair
enough, they had their reasons. There were also a couple of stroppy
bastards from the bigger bands, but generally, most everyone I talked to
was very helpful. Some were clearly delighted that they'd been
remembered. No death threats so far though.
Brian: Speaking of events people don't necessarily wish to be publicised,
are there any embarrassing things you have done in the name of punk
early on that you would rather have remain a secret ? Did you ever yell
obscenities whilst relieving yourself in a public coin fountain and then puke
on a meter maid ? Come on, spill the beans punky.
Alex: Well, that early fanzine was no great shakes. And no, I'm not telling
anyone the name of it. I do remember writing a poem - inspired by Angelic
Upstarts if I remember correctly - that was excruciating. The funny thing
was, I got it printed on a friend's dad's photocopier. Said dad actually
chaired the Conservative Party Conference a couple of years later, but bless him, he was fair minded enough to let me
use his office for the purposes of sedition... I remember reviewing a tape by a band called the Obscene Females. They
were local, they were punk rock, so they were in. The only problem was, they were far more awful than even their dreadful
name implied. I even overlooked the fact that they packaged their cassette in cigarette ash when they sent it to me, the
twats, so keen was I to serve the punk rock community. But beyond simpering, half-baked editorials and truly horrific
fashion sense that shamed even my peers, I don't think there's anything I regret too much. However, later on in life, I
turned down the chance to interview Nirvana because I was knackered and didn't fancy making the train journey to
London. Does that count?
Brian: Besides projects that you are currently working on what would be
some of your dream writing projects you would like to do if only you had the
time and or funding?
Alex: I'm doing something looking at independent labels, but I'm also trying to
get a project looking at one of THE great punk rock albums, in detail, together.
But that's just a pitch really. Given infinite resources and finance - hell, I'll tell
you what I'd like to do. I'd like to write about the people who put Romper
Stomper together. I'd like to interview cricket commentator Richie Benaud and
I'd like to have Chuck D round for tea so he can help me write a manual on
disciplining unruly children. I'd also like world peace, since you're offering.
Brian: World peace is not a writing project you turd. Getting back to the topic
of fanzines, it seems that more and more there is a lack of quality multiple
issue music fanzines and a rising number of more commercially based
advertisement driven magazines. Do you believe as a writer that too much
emphasis is being placed on appeasing the advertisers as opposed to
supplying quality music journalism?
Brian: Yes. You see, I can be succinct if really pushed. And keep your toilet
talk to yourself.
Alex: Oh, you want more? I think the one thing I find disappointing about modern music magazines is that they tend to
focus editorial on new releases. I can understand why, but I wish there was more access to people who were interesting
who didn't have something to flog. I think that debases the entirety of the subsequent exchange. Everything seems
predicated towards that - product. I understand the economics and how tight things can be for a magazine that doesn't
adopt those principles. But you can do it. I look at something like The Big Takeover, a truly inspirational enterprise, and
think that you can survive just on the basis of doing high quality work. I also admire writers who get off the corporate
drip-feed and find stories rather than being spoon-fed them. But then we've all got to eat, and I understand that concept
fairly acutely, so sometimes I work for people who I'd rather not, simply because I have to pay the bills. It doesn't stop me
admiring people who prize integrity over what they can 'get out of it'.
Brian: Do you think that online fanzines and blogs will take over from where print fanzines once
reigned as a source for non revenue based music journalism ? If so, being that you are trying to
earn a living as a writer do you view this as a plus or minus ? What are the main differences you
have observed in punk journalism now from what it was say ten years ago ?
Alex: I think there will always be a place for print journalism, both paid and unpaid. I hammer the
internet when I'm writing and researching, but then I also have a large library of books,
magazines and fanzines. Nowadays you can write a web-based magazine without having to cover
the printing and distribution costs. That of course means you're swamped with low-grade
copycat stuff, but then the best sites/journals/blogs will always develop a reputation and a
distinct readership. I prefer reading things on paper rather than a screen, personally. But yes,
specifically when you're talking about non-revenue based music journalist, the internet has so
many advantages in terms of immediacy, distribution and networking - not to mention the fact
that it can actually host some of the music that the writer is talking about - that I think the numbers of print fanzines will
Of course, the open access part of the internet equation could potentially signal a danger to freelance writers like myself,
because certain titles are now becoming aware of just how many people are willing to write about their pet subjects for
nothing or next to nothing. Then again, that to me reinforces the importance of genuine critical discussion. A band can
nowadays run a website, or even two three websites, full of fawning comments about their brilliance. And I think we're
slowly coming to distrust those kind of outlets, we know it's a new form of PR spin, albeit spun by the band's fans
themselves. Hopefully that reinforces the need for a genuinely critical voice. So in essence, it's not really any kind of
'minus' for me, you have to adapt or die, and the type of writing I do (which is very research-intensive) is much, much
easier since the advent of the internet.
The main differences in punk journalism. Hmm. I think there's been a welcome shift
towards diversity. I think some of the assumptions that were made
about the quality of the 'art' (Sex Pistols, Clash are great, everything
else is a waste of time - a generalisation but a viewpoint I encountered
time and again) came from a very specific period in British music
criticism when a series of complex factors were at work. There was
competition between three major titles, the NME, Melody Maker and
Sounds, we were still coming out of a place where 'popular music'
was fighting to establish its cultural worth, and a new generation of
writers were trying to forge their identity. And I think you can see a lot
of 'one-upmanship' at work. But one result was that there was a lot of
received wisdom, and you would be breaking ranks if you responded
favourably to certain bands or even labels - I'm thinking here of the
snobbery (occasionally inverted), too, which surrounded bands with
working class rather than art school roots. I grew up loving a lot of
the 'fag end of punk' groups, who never had any critical following,
and I think many were dismissed unduly. I think that has changed
now, and there's less emphasis on what's fashionable. Also, of
course, it's far more specialised. If you want to read about punk in
the present tense, rather than the retrospective features that the glossies
carry, you're dealing with magazines focused on that field, and even
specialisms within specialisms. While I think it's good that a writer can now
compare like with like on a very informed basis, of course the danger of that is
that mindsets and appetites narrow.
Brian: Anything else you wish to add, subtract or multiply in this interview before
the sound engineer shuts down this fancy recording rig ?
Alex: Just thanks for the interview, and also to Peter for hosting it and to all the bands who contributed to the book.
Brian: KISS ASS !
Alex: WANKER !!!
(From there the interview turned ugly and needless to say I was hit with a rather large
bill for one destroyed suite at the Dilsborough Inn in Brighton)
Cherry Red Books
Brian Sheklian is the owner of Grand Theft Audio, a California label releasing CD
retrospectives of early punk, post-punk, and hardcore bands. As a writer he has
contributed to Flipside and Maximum Rock N Roll, as well as several German music
publications. In his free time he interviews famous people no one has ever heard of
and runs a charity that distributes free doomsday literature out of an unregistered ice
2007 All copyrights to this article belong to its author.