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When it comes to debates about going back to musical basics too many people assume that punk rock is the template on which all arguments are based. Pub rock is usually overlooked in favour of its more media savvy new wave offspring. Pub rock was a high-energy guitar dominated racket that predated punk by five years and launched the careers of stars as diverse as Joe Strummer, Ian Dury and Elvis Costello. Hacks wanting to sound hip claim that the musical roots of everyone from Ash to Green Day can be traced back to punk. It would be more accurate to say the current crop of guitar bands revitalising an insipid music scene owe their biggest debt to pub rock. There are two things that any power chord combo that wants to kick ass requires - rhythm and booze. Pub rock had both these vital ingredients oozing out of its ears, and its arse, and its nose, and its mouth (which may well explain why the toilet floors of pub rock venues were invariably flooded).

Pub rock began in a north London boozer called The Tally Ho when American exiles Eggs Over Easy landed themselves a residency. The Eggs became a cult due to their weird choice of live material. At a time when the success of stadium acts like Yes and The Nice induced financially ambitious “rockers” to play twenty minute pseudo-classical concept tracks, The Eggs would knock out covers of three chord hits by the likes of Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones. The Eggs fried up a storm in London for much of 1970 and '71, waiting for various contractual hassles to be sorted out in the States. When The Eggs pissed-off home, a slew of sleazy English bands wanted to jump into their shoes, and at the head of the queue was Brinsley Schwarz - who at that time were trying to live down their reputation as the most over-hyped band in the history of music.

Brinsley Schwarz's management company Famepushers had hit on the brilliant wheeze of filling a jumbo jet with journalists and taking them to New York to see the band's debut gig. This was in 1970 when budget flights didn't exist and the cost of getting to the States was way beyond what even an affluent journalist could afford. Although The Brinsleys were a fine band, first night nerves led to them playing badly in The Big Apple. Needless to say, the lure of a free transatlantic jaunt ensured the fiasco was covered in-depth by both the national and the music press in Britain. This timely tale of drug-fuelled debauchery and musical incompetence makes the furore surrounding the Sex Pistols look like a playground slanging match over a spilt can of pop. Given the acres of press coverage they'd received, there was plenty of curiosity about The Brinselys, and the group were able to make a good enough living on the college circuit. But what this ensemble - and in particular bassist Nick Lowe - really wanted to do was get away from show business and back to rock and roll. Pub gigs paid less than a student bash but they were more real. Lowe's furious pursuit of both artistic and financial credibility meant Brinsely Schwarz had to do both.

By 1973 the pub rock scene boasted bands like Kilburn & The High Roads (who were fronted by Ian Dury), Ducks Deluxe, Chilli Willi, Ace and Dr. Feelgood. These groups, their managers and friends soon hit on a sure-fire way of expanding the number of venues they were playing. There were jazz bands gigging in dozens of London boozers and the pub rockers simply took these showcases away from the trad dads. Publicans quickly discovered that rock enjoyed a wider following than jazz, and as a consequence they sold more beer when they presented three chord thud. Since breweries and their henchmen are in business to make money, economic self-interest dictated that ragtime was out and wailing guitars were in. The list of pub rock venues quickly expanded to include The Kensington, The Cock Tavern, The Lord Nelson, The Hope & Anchor, The Windsor Castle, The Torrington, Dingwalls, Newlands Tavern and The Nashville all in London, while outside the capital The Black Swan in Sheffield and JBs in Dudley were incorporated into the roster of rockin' road houses. Simultaneously, bands were springing up throughout merrie England. Among the more notable of these were The Guildford Stranglers from Surrey (who eventually found fame after shortening their name to The Stranglers) and Charlie & The Wide Boys from Cornwall (who built up team spirit by racing through the countryside in an uninsured hearse and doing the odd bit of salmon poaching together).

The driving covers of sixties mod anthems that were a staple part of pub rock provided a big clue about where the musicians had come from, and their dress sense often gave the game away too. While the dudes making prog rock were sporting loon pants and wide collars, the hippest of the pub rockers were opting for drainpipes, narrow lapels and skinny ties. The elder statesmen of pub rock were ex-mods getting back to their teenage roots. Among the more fabulous examples of this are Alan King of Ace and Jesse Hector who fronted The Hammersmith Gorillas. King was a former member of The Action, who in the mid-sixties had covered soul classics like Harlem Shuffle alongside original compositions about unlikely dance crazes such as  The Cissy. Hector had once been in a group called The Drifters (no, not the US band of the same name), but quit in the late fifties before they became The Shadows and started backing Cliff Richard. In the mid-sixties he played guitar for mod gods The Clique. Hector wasn't young during his pub rock heyday, but he looked incredible with his outrageously large side-burns and Rupert Bear check Oxford bags. As well as writing a pot pourri of classic songs like Gatecrasher and New York Groover, Hector could turn somersaults in the air while nonchalantly strumming his axe.

If the veterans of the pub rock scene were returning to their mod roots, the juvenile delinquents bashing out the chords in manky English taverns were bringing a street tough freshness to the movement. The frayed suits of Dr. Feelgood were as seedy and menacing as their home town of Canvey Island. In their wake came yet more young-fast-stupid talent from the Essex hinterlands. The Kursal Flyers are best known for their novelty pop hit Little Does She Know, but they also released killer singles like Television Generation. Better still were Eddie & The Hot Rods whose Teenage Depression was scorching the British charts when the Sex Pistols released Anarchy In The UK. The Pistols milked pub rock to the max by playing places like the Nashville and The Marquee (as support to The Hot Rods), while pretending they weren't part of the scene. Like the Canvey Island bands, The Pistols mixed original songs with rough and ready sixties covers. What enabled them to stand out were the threads their manager - the rag trade entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren - provided. Pub rock veterans like Joe Strummer could see the writing on the wall, and he ditched his bar band The 101ers to form The Clash - with image triumphing over musical ability. Other time serving pub rockers followed suit and reinvented themselves as new wave idols. Ian Dury abandoned Kilburn & The High Roads in favour of The Blockheads. Elvis Costello got a make-over which entailed trading in his NHS spectacles for a pair of horn rims, so that he could be craftily marketed with the slogan: “four eyes, one vision”.

Others who were less adept at costume changes and publicity stunts simply fell by the wayside and disappeared. This was a shame because great bands like Graham Parker & The Rumour and The Count Bishops lost ground to musically pedestrian but press friendly acts like Generation X and The Adverts. However, there are incipient signs of a pub rock revival. Luke Haines of Black Box Recorder has just done a version of pub rock alumni Nick Lowe’s hit I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass for the soundtrack of Paul Tickell’s film Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (the first great movie of the 21st century). Pub rock has an influence where it matters, among those who like creating uproar. Another fabulous thing about pub rock is that it has never become intellectually respectable. You either ride with the groove or you don't. There is no high-brow bullshit getting between you and that pounding swamp beat. Upcoming treats on the academic conference circuit include No Future? Punk 2001 this September at the University of Wolverhampton. Punk becoming a part of the cultural studies curriculum is a sign of its respectability. Indeed, these days punk is sometimes written about as if it had something to do with avant-garde art and radical politics. What is largely forgotten is that before the historical revisionists got hold of it, among fans of ear-piercing guitar-bass-drum spew, punk was widely understood to be a speeded-up and dumbed-down version of its alcohol and sex obsessed progenitor - pub rock. Punk rock is pub rock with the best bits taken out - the quickening influence of Motown and Stax. Forget punk, let’s dance, or at the very least get drunk!

Written circa 2001.

An essay on power pop


Stewart Home in Melbourne 2004

Stewart Home tells it like it is...