DICK LUCAS – SUBHUMANS: LIVING THE ANARCHIC DREAM
Dick Lucas is the larynx-ravaging vocals behind the epic Wessex anarcho-punk band Subhumans; est. 1980. Hoping to bask in some of his philosophical wit, I chatted to him backstage at The Luminaire about punk rock, white vans and anarchism before the band’s last show on their final UK tour of 2009. What say he?
How’s it going with everything at the moment?
Good. We are at the end of a short nightly tour; mostly around the Midlands and the north. It’s been totally freezing, but it’s gone really smoothly; people have turned out. Had a good laugh.
Briefly summarise how the band formed.
Me and Bruce [Treasure] the guitarist were in two separate bands, The Mental and The Stupid Humans – that was 1978/79. We both split up in the summer of 1980 and Bruce, Andy and Grant [Jackson] had a band without a singer, so I became their singer. They were subhuman because they were Stupid Humans; they were lacking one human (ie singer) so I joined and pluralised it to ‘Subhumans’, which was a really simplistic, non-deep way of forming a band name.
How long were you playing with The Mental before you joined Subhumans?
About a year and a half. We did 10 gigs based around Basingstoke. Really small gigs in pubs.
What were your influences in the ’80s when the band got going? What was the punk scene like at the time?
There were a lot of small bands around, mostly if not all influenced by the first rush of punk rock like The [Sex] Pistols and The Clash. And once we were all approaching the age of 19 or 20, Crass came along and put a whole lot of meaning behind words like ‘anarchy’ and ‘society’. We were based in the West Country in Bath or west Wiltshire, so we had our own little scene going on down there. There was the A-Heads, Organized Chaos and us. We practised once a week between all three bands in two rooms in a youth centre.
Did you always set out to be an anarcho band?
We didn’t think, “Oh let’s be an anarcho band”, we just ended up playing with anarcho bands – Flux Of Pink Indians etc – and our ideas were more or less the same. Some sort of leftist anarcho philosophy; but at the time, songs singing against war, society or the system are much more fun much more meaningful to do than just singing about beer and girlfriends.
Your first LP, ‘The Day The Country Died’, takes influence from the novel ‘1984’. I heard on the radio yesterday that most of us are now watching more than 4 hours of TV a day. Does this ring any bells with your song ‘Big Brother’ when you talk about TV/media influencing people in their houses?
Yeah, you’re right. We’re all watching too much TV and it’s all shit. It was a year away from 1984 and that whole Big Brother Orwellian thing was being asked about – who’s got control of the media? Who controls your house? Do they know about us? This is before the age of computers and databases, but that was still going on and there was a lot of interest in just how much of a Big Brother state we were living in.
Could you talk about the idea behind the song ‘Subvert City’?
[Laughs] That was an imaginary scenario where the future is run by anarchists or people who want to change things, and how much does the structure of society change once you’ve got the notion of leadership. And if you want people following the leadership then surely how much different is that from that which you were trying to overthrow in the first place? Challenging the conception that society can be changed at all if it’s going to stick with the structure of having leaders, followers and laws.
Did you always see yourself as a socially/politically focussed band? Not in that you were preaching as such, but what was the message you were trying to get across?
The basic message – rethink everything: think about what you’re doing, what you’re looking at, who you’re talking to, what people are saying to you. ‘Don’t take anything for granted’ was the bottom line. I was writing about what I thought about things; I didn’t want to write in a way that says, “You must do this; you must do that.” No one likes being told what to do – one of the basic punk premises is, “Don’t tell me what to do” [laughs].
You sound very much like other hardcore bands, such as the Dead Kennedys. Would you say you share more or less with Jello Biafra as a singer?
Probably more…he was doing much the same thing on the other side of the sea, inquiring stuff and political things getting mixed in with it. He was a bit more political than we were, but it’s the same sort of idea.
Did you ever come out controversial at all?
We weren’t really out there to shock people and the initial shock of punk rock had worn off years ago.
What was the reason for your break up at the end of 1985?
We couldn’t really decide what to do next and Trotsky, our drummer, was going to leave anyway ’cause he was getting fed up of it. We couldn’t decide whether to get a new drummer or not and we sort of fizzled out, then recorded the last album, ‘Split Vision’. For the week that followed I joined Culture Shock, so that more or less sealed it I suppose.
Now though you are touring with your original members. This sets you above many other bands which only have one or two original members left. How did you all find the time to carry on with things without other commitments coming up?
Yeah, it’s amazing how we are still together. We have other commitments as well – you get more and more as you get older; it gets more difficult. Some people got kids, some people got jobs, some got mortgages and houses to pay for, and others have got none of the above; it’s a right mixture. We had to squeeze space out of the year in which to do tours and plan it about a year or six months in advance.
How’s things with your other band, Citizen Fish? Are you dividing your priorities between both?
It depends which members can do what and what time. I try and do a 50/50.
Tell me about your work with Leftover Crack (‘Deadline’)?
Oh yeah! They basically asked us if we wanted to do a split record with them, and we ain’t done a record for about three years. It gave us a good kick up the arse and we wrote all the songs on that – our album – in about three days. It was like, “Right, we’ll just get down, write the lyrics [and] get the tunes sorted out” and it worked a treat.
When you started up your own label, Bluurg records, was that anything to do with feeling you weren’t really in control when you didn’t have your own record label?
That was inspired by Flux Of Pink Indians [who] put our first records out on their own Spiderleg records. Crass put out Flux Of Pink Indians first records on their own Crass records, so it was a trickle-down effect of Crass, Spiderleg, Bluurg…and then I was putting out bands like the Instigators. Andy started up his own label and [Paul] “Hammy” [Halmsaw] of the Instigators – he did Peaceville records. It’s just a good way of doing it – you get more control over the product and the price.
How would you establish a society based upon the anarchic dream?
[Laughs] That’s a tricky one. Christ. Total redistribution of all the wealth and the money; much more emphasis on people’s talents and abilities rather than everything being so money-based. This is probably going to sound like Communism, but without the mass slaughter of thousands of people. I haven’t studied any ‘isms’; I’m not a political theorist at all, but I do know that money is so entrenched and ruinous of people’s lives. Decisions have to be made but they need to be cooperated by agreement. You can’t expect everyone to be totally equal. Some people have got more ability to lead than others and if they can be thrown out of their powerful position as easily as they’re put into it, which doesn’t exist at the moment, that would help.
Has it ever been a challenge to keep producing new material?
Mostly ’cause physically, geographically, Phil lives in Spain and Trotsky lives in Germany. It’s hard to all be in the same place to have a practice. We haven’t practised for a year now; it’s crazy. It took us 9 years to get this recent album out, ‘Internal Riot’, from reform in ’98 to 2007. It took 9 years to get one record out – that’s how slow practising has become. With the lyric writing, there’s a few subjects left that I haven’t written about.
With all the songs you’ve done, how do you keep producing refreshing topics to sing about?
Just wait until the inspiration turns up and keep writing and changing it until it is fresh and not repeating itself.
What, in your opinion, was the best album you put out? Do you have a favourite song at all?
Well, they’re all good; some are better than others. Possibly ‘Worlds Apart’ – it’s got a big variety of styles of songs and the writing is more mature. There’s loads of favourite songs.
Do you see yourself producing another album in the near future?
Yeah, if we get the songs together – [it] could take 20 years [laughs]. I hope so; we need to get more songs together somehow.
Was there any weird or funny things that happened to you on tour?
Probably loads of them…when I get asked this question I just go blank. Most of the weird/funny stuff is just disasters relating to vans breaking down and being left in the wrong place, and being towed away. We once followed a van – we were going to somebody’s house after a gig who lives in California – and [the driver] said, “I’ll be in the white van – just follow me.” So I followed this white van for ages and ages and ages on very long straight roads – at night. This van seems to be going faster and faster and faster – [we were in] the van [which] has all the gear in it – [and] we can’t catch up. And we think, “Hang on a minute. Didn’t he live south of the gig and I’m going north?” And it dawned on us that we had been following the wrong white van for two hours. Not quite as crazy as you might be thinking [laughs].
Do you prefer to tour over in America or the UK? Is there a difference in the audiences?
We do get more people at gigs over there [America], ’cause there are more people; there’s more money about and they like it when a band from overseas comes and plays for those reasons. Gigging over here is good because there’s people we’ve known for decades who still turn up to gigs. So both good in different sorts of ways.
How would you sum up Subhumans?
Punk rock for the people who think punk rock is dead.
Photos (except main) © Ayisha Khan.
© Ayisha Khan.
Originally published in The 405.
JAKE BURNS – STIFF LITTLE FINGERS
Pub dwelling Irish punk rockers, Stiff Little Fingers, are back on tour next month. The band has also been preparing to release a long awaited new album. Curious to know the latest, I chat with Jake Burns, lead vocalist and guitarist. Have they been busy songwriting?
“A bit of that but mainly everyone has been involved in either side projects or just enjoying a bit of time away from each other! Ali [McMordie] is always busy tour managing (I have no idea who he’s been out with this time!). Steve [Grantley] has The Alarm when we’re not playing. I’ve been writing and having fun with the Nefarious Fat Cats (a cover band) and Ian [McCallum], er, has been playing golf!”
A punk rocker playing golf?! What is the world coming to? Then the imperative question – what do they feel like playing?
“We always try to strive for a mixture. Of course, this means that we get lambasted for playing a lot of the same songs, but realistically people want to hear the songs they know. Without turning us into a cabaret band, we have to find ways to satisfy those people and ourselves, who want to play newer material. It doesn’t always work, but once we toured and didn’t play ‘Suspect Device’. We got more complaints about that tour than any other we’ve undertaken in 32 years.”
Wow, the superficiality of the mob. I’m sure the old grannies can put away their machetes now: ‘Suspect Device’ will be on the setlist. I can’t get through this interview without asking them a begging question – when’s the new album out? Jake scrapped the original material, and with the last album, ‘Guitar And Drum’, being so successful, it was never going to be easy living up to expectations.
“The success of the last album has actually been a major problem, inasmuch as I’ve rejected so much stuff that I didn’t feel lived up to that benchmark. Obviously, if for every song you accept you throw out three, it’s going to take a while. So I’ve reached a stage where I’m just not willing to speculate when it will surface!”
Sounds a lot like my undergrad dissertation. I have to delve deeper into new album themes and the psyche of the songwriter. Should punk bands be screaming about politicians and melting ice caps?
“Every writer is entitled to write about whatever they want whether it’s a politically motivated track or just ‘more songs about chocolate and girls.’ Both are valid in my opinion. Again, I’m not in a position to discuss themes for songs yet, as we haven’t gotten anywhere near finishing the thing and I don’t want to tell you one thing only to have it turn out to be another.”
Hmmm, time to move on I think. Sorry folks – an unfinished masterpiece silences the lips of elaboration. Jake currently lives his days out in that jewel of American cities, Chicago, and with band members scattered here and there, how do those musical minds collaborate effectively?
“This is where the internet comes into play. If say, I have half an idea for a song, I can make a mp3 of that and have it with the others almost instantly. Then their feedback is also back with me in a flash. It’s not a system we need too often as I tend to write alone. Pretty much have done since Gordon [Ogilvie] and I stopped collaborating.”
Although all respectable bands should age delightfully like a good mature cheese, is all to continue unadulterated in the SLF crystal ball?
“I don’t see any reason to stop at the moment. We’re still having fun and that was always our bottom line. Regarding where we prefer to play, each option has a lot to recommend it. For example, going to a new territory is always exciting, even if you occasionally end up as more of a tourist than a performer. Yet playing the UK and Ireland is always great because we know we’ll get a warm reception and we all have so many friends and family there.”
I sure hope international crowds don’t throw bottles at them! Having read about Mr McMordie and his busy schedule, I wondered if the band membership was set in stone.
“Do you know something I don’t?? [Laughs] Yes, as far as I can tell everyone is happy to continue.”
I then flip over to the historical side of things and ask, “I’ve been doing some research on punk rock and wasn’t sure if it had just developed or died out? Do you think the ‘message’ has been lost in recent times? ‘Pop punk and its counterparts are ugly hybrids of the original thing.’ What’s your take on this, and please, please give reference to good old Green Day!” (who cite SLF as a main influence). That quote was mine by the way. It was critic Christine Di Bella who once said, “[Pop punk] is punk taken to its most accessible point, a point where it barely reflects its lineage at all, except in the three-chord song structures.” Understanding that SLF has become very pop punk, I was intrigued to know Jake’s view on this:
“Tricky one this, as it depends on your definition of ‘punk’. As I’ve said before, as far as I was concerned it was more a ‘freeing’ thing than a musical one. People who previously had been told they ‘weren’t good enough’ to be in a band, were suddenly being hailed because of their fresh approach and ‘devil may care’ spirit. And it’s the spirit that’s more important to me than anything else. Therefore you could argue that we started out as a fairly hard-nosed punk band, but by ‘Go For It’ had become a pop punk band. I see nothing wrong with bands developing and everything wrong with people not ‘allowing’ them to. As with most other bands, I don’t really have an opinion on Green Day one way or the other. I’ve heard some of their stuff and thought it was hugely derivative. (‘Basket Case’ could easily have been on an early album by The Jam, for example). Then their later stuff, in particular ‘American Idiot’, I found to be so much more powerful because they were singing from the heart. They’d found their voice, which is always vital.”
As Jake said, the free spirit of the punk era must have been liberating under the locks and chains of a very unfree society. Having most unfortunately been born in the late ’80s, I feel completely certain that I do not know what this means. So I ask what circa 1977 was like as a punk.
“Exciting. It seemed like everyone in the country suddenly had a guitar and something to say. And boy did they make some great records! It’s an old expression that everyone has one book inside them. Well back in 1977 it seemed like every band had at least one great song inside them.”
I then move on to the ’80s and relate to an ’80s band that I had seen over the summer, whose name rhymed with an aromatic wine. At their gig, drugs were openly promoted to fans, the health benefactors being outlined as: “I like feeling high because I don’t like feeling low.” I initially thought it was ironic, until they asked us to go and snort crystals. What does Jake think about this behaviour?
“Hmmm…as I don’t know the band you’re referring to, I can hardly comment.” (Never mind Jake, it’s beside the point, and they will likely sue the shit out of me!) “Regarding drugs, I certainly wouldn’t want to lecture anyone apart from urging you to be safe. The problem is where do you draw the line? More people die from nicotine and alcohol abuse than marijuana, yet the first two are legal. Having said that, to quote New Model Army, ‘Only stupid bastards use heroin.'”
NMA seem to have a song for everything. Winding down, I can’t help but ask about life in Chicago. Having recently been there and not yet been back, I needed to get my fix. Baseball and politics – the two bastions of American civilisation. I also ask about non-American attitudes to the USA, having been showered with abuse for liking the place.
“Chicago is fine. Summer arrived at last a week or so ago! Both [Chicago] baseball teams are crap (I’m used to my team the Cubs being useless as I’ve spent years of training supporting Newcastle United!). I know exactly the attitude towards America that you mention. In fact, even though I live here, I’m still guilty of it myself on occasion. This recent healthcare debate, for example, makes my blood boil. The Republican party have managed to corral a load of support against a bill which will, in effect, help the majority of people protesting against it. They’ve done this by the simple use of the word ‘socialist’, which in a lot of American minds translates as ‘communist’, and that, as we all know, has been their bogeyman under the bed for years. Pathetic really.”
That’s Republican pathology for you. If you’re a SLF fan and reading this (both of which you should be), here’s a final message from Jake:
“Just to say that, as always, we are looking forward immensely to being together again and playing. It’s always a huge amount of fun. And, after all this time, it’s always hugely flattering to see so many of you turn up to listen. Hope we don’t let you down.”
© Ayisha Khan.
Originally published in Noize Makes Enemies.