Cult heroes: UK Subs' Charlie Harper is less a punk than a heroic old soldier
The UK Subs frontman, at 70, is still getting in the van and taking his message of frustration and anger out on the road, 200 nights a year. He deserves to be saluted
Tuesday 17 February 2015 11.45 GMT
Many people imagine their 70s will be a peaceful time: perhaps pottering around in the garden, going for country walks or taking a cruise round some historical sites in the Med. Not Charlie Harper.
This week – like most weeks – he’ll be hauling himself around an array of salubrious and not-so-salubrious venues, studded wristband in place, leaping around the stage and singing about his frustrations at the world and the crimes of the establishment with raw and unfettered venom. Since 1977, Harper has fronted UK Subs – whom he describes as “the hardest-gigging punk band of them all” – typically playing between 150 and 200 (usually very rowdy) shows each year. He will be 71 in May.
Perhaps because they formed after the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned, the Subs’ arrival with punk’s so-called “second wave” seems to have cost them the media recognition they deserve. The band hardly ever feature in the now-regular TV histories of punk. And yet they scored four top 20 albums and seven consecutive top 40 singles (Stranglehold, Tomorrows Girls, She’s Not There, Warhead, Teenage, Party in Paris and Keep on Running) between 1979 and 1981 and have long outlasted most of their punk peers. Equally, and due in no small measure to Harper’s indefatigability, they remain one of Britain’s best-loved punk bands among ordinary fans. In 2010, they won 6Music’s audience-voted “punk rock FA Cup”, comfortably seeing off the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, the Ramones and the Damned. They might not make the most cultured or sophisticated noise, but it’s raw, untamed and exciting, stuffed with Harper’s vim and vigour.
I first came across the Subs on the radio charts rundown in 1979 when Stranglehold had reached No 26, which saw Harper and pals make the first of several Top of the Pops appearances. That was their second single; C.I.D. on City Records, had already given them an indie No 1. Those early singles were everything a punk schoolboy wanted – vicious blasts at all forms of authority from the government to the police, replete with killer hooks, and available on blue vinyl. Their matinee show for children at Leeds Fan Club in 1980 was my third gig, and I vividly remember the room spinning with the volume, and the thrilling sound of Harper at full pelt.
A typical (and great) UK Subs song is Teenage, which reached No 32 in 1980. One of the many hits penned by the fearsome songwriting team of Harper and guitarist Nicky Garratt, it’s built around a mean riff and a clever lyric, in which Harper looks wryly at pop phenomena and fan hysteria, and has a guitar solo that is pure, primal rock’n’roll. There’s surely a hint of wry humour in the chorus, which finds our hero yelling “Teenage! I wanna be teenage! I wanna be teenage! I wanna be …” because even at the time he was first singing it, he was well into his 30s.
Harper – who was born David Charles Perez, a cockney with Mexican roots – was hardly the only ageing rocker to have found himself revitalised by punk’s Year Zero, but unlike some, his devotion to the cause seemed sincere, rather than a cynical, quick reinvention. “Blokes like me never had a chance before. When punk came along, I was accepted,” he once said. He first started making music in London’s R&B scene in the 60s: he chatted to the Stones at their gigs and was taught to play harmonica by Rod Stewart. Later, at the height of punk, Harper could be heard blowing the then-highly unfashionable instrument on the Subs’ 1979 debut, Another Kind of Blues.
One of his first bands, Charlie Harper’s Free Press, featured Scott Gorham, who went on to join Thin Lizzy. In the mid-1970s, Harper fronted the Marauders, who played alongside Ian Dury’s Kilburn and the High Roads and Ducks Deluxe in the burgeoning pub-rock scene. Everything changed when he saw the Damned, heard punk’s call of the wild and re-emerged with the Subversives, who shortened their name to UK Subs and made their recorded debut on the classic punk compilation, Farewell to the Roxy (the London venue often dubbed “the birthplace of punk”). In those early days, the band stored their equipment in Harper’s hairdressing salon; now they have released 25 albums, each release tracking the alphabet from Another Kind of Blues to this month’s Yellow Leader. The classic lineup was probably Harper, Garratt, bassist Paul Slack and drummer Pete Davies; while Harper has been through 20 or so Subs since, bassist Alvin Gibbs has performed with the band since 1980, and Slack, Davies and Garratt have been drawn back on several occasions. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea even plays on 1991’s Mad Cow Fever. The current lineup (Harper, Gibbs, Jet on guitar and Jamie Oliver – no, not that one – on drums) has been stable for a decade.
In recent years, with the Subs’ name continuing to crop up in gig guides, I’ve found myself drawn back to their music and when I finally got to interview the man in 2010, it was more like talking to a heroic old soldier than a punk. Harper talked fondly of how their fans seem to be getting younger (he’d recently been joined by an eight-year-old on stage), but wistfully noted that Warhead – the fantastic 1980 song he penned about “a little war in Afghanistan”, which was given a new audience via Shane Meadows’ film, This Is England – was “still current. It brings a tear to my eye.”
Garratt (now a vegetarian chef playing in Krautrock band Hedersleben) describes the mercurial frontman as “an enigmatic man, forgetful, artistic, barbaric, cultured, but always interesting. He does not drive, but he always seems to have a ride. Always ludicrously popular … ” In recent years, Harper has mentioned the difficulty of making ends meet, but while there are still evils to rail against and fans to thrill, he will surely carry on. “People don’t realise that playing fast punk music is the greatest thing to do and we’re just having so much fun doing it,” he said in 1979. He could have just as easily have said that yesterday. Hats off to Charlie Harper.