The U.K. Subs’ Polish tour of ’83 was, without doubt, one of the most remarkable and strangest of my entire career. We were zloty rich, but it was quickly apparent that there wasn’t an awful lot to spend our money on.
We visited a so called supermarket in Warsaw on a mid-tour day off to see what commodities were available. There we discovered layers of predominantly empty shelving with just a lone jar of pickles here, a solitary can of soup perched over there and, most memorably, a disintegrating cardboard box containing a mass of rotting vegetables which had been placed on a concrete floor wet from the snow brought in on the boots of overly-optimistic wannabe shoppers – a truly dismal demonstration of the Polish State’s inability to provide even an elementary choice of provisions for its citizenry, and in its capital city no less.
Below: Gravity be damned! Warsaw, 1983 - click to enlarge
There were long queues all over Poland at the doors of those rare vendors who actually had goods for purchase: at bakeries, for a simple loaf of bread; at clothing stores and hardware stores; and, as witnessed on one occasion, a vast line of people that snaked around the corner of a shoe retailer for some distance, composed of people patiently waiting in the cold in the hope of attaining an inexpensive pair from a batch that had just arrived from the People’s Republic of China. An English speaking local told me that prior to the arrival of this fresh footwear the shoe shop’s display window had remained empty for weeks.
What was cheaply and freely available in most of the hotels we stayed in though, was Russian beluga caviar and champagne. How decadent was that? The other constant was Polish Zubrowa Bison Brand vodka. Imbued with bisongrass herbs, this particular spirit had a distinctly vanilla flavour that meant it was easy to drink without a mixer and that, unfortunately, made it very, very moreish. Charlie, Kim and I drank bottles of the stuff over that Polish fortnight and I’m now positive that the consequences of overconsumption was partly why things turned a bit disagreeable between us – or rather, between Charlie and the rest of us – during the latter part of the tour.
The second extraordinary aspect of the Polish experience was the sheer size of the venues we got to play in and the astonishing attendance levels for each show. The gig locations were usually either an indoor sports arena or an ice hockey stadium and I kept a record of the amount of people the Subs and Republika drew to each performance in my diary. It’s from this primary source that I now quote dates, cities and audience figures...
Having achieved a four-thousand capacity attendance in Krakow, we drew another four-thousand on the 22nd of February in Jastrzębia Góra, which was a mere village situated on the south coast of the Baltic Sea; on the 23rd, in Poland’s third largest city, Lódź, we entertained over ten-thousand; Gdansk on the 24th saw us playing two shows that attained no less than nine-thousand punters per show, eighteen-thousand in total that evening…
I’m going to briefly digress here to relate to you a significant incident that occurred in Gdansk. As anticipated, this being the location where the Solidarity movement was born, our two shows in the city became a public platform for protest and open sedition that lapsed into a near riot during the latter of our two performances. I distinctly remember it all kicked off as I muscularly laid into to my Thunderbird bass to generate the intro to the song, Countdown.
Below: Photo of Polish Punk rockers sent to me post tour, 1983 - click to enlarge
As the riff rumbled and reverberated out of the PA, a section of the crowd started to vigorously chant ‘Solidarność’ in time to the sequence, which in turn, became the catalyst for a number of glass bottles being thrown at a line of police officers who were positioned at the front of the stage. The police then retaliated by baton charging those people they suspected of being missile throwers. These protesters resisted the assault and bravely fought back with fists and empty vodka bottles adapted as cudgels. More of the audience subsequently got involved as did some additional police who had rushed in from the rear of the venue.
This melee quickly escalated into a fairly serious battle between a large group of politically motivated local menfolk and the attendant forces of the State while we provided the appropriate soundtrack for the escalating violence – give the song Countdown a listen if you’ve never heard it before and you’ll understand what I mean by ‘appropriate’.
Due to this disturbance our set ended up being cut short and we were escorted from the stage by uniformed officers to our dressing room. There, Charlie, Kim and I set about ingesting glasses of Bison vodka and contemplated going back on stage to throw out some of those controversial T-shirts to these Solidarity supporters engaged in battling the police. Gregsky rightly scuppered that idea by explaining the possible consequence of this alcohol-inspired scheme – arrest, a cold sparse prison cell, rapidly followed by deportation. Despite the liquor and our instinctive desire to get involved, we heeded the wisdom of his advice, boarded the boneshaker bus and unloaded some more zlotys on numerous rounds of drinks for ourselves, the Republika band members, our travelling crew and anybody else who just happened to be in the bar back at the hotel…
Following that incident packed show in Gdansk, we travelled to Olsztyn in North-East Poland where two performances were witnessed by a combined audience of close on ten-thousand. The city of Radom was next up, with two-thousand in attendance; Lublin, three-thousand. On the 1st of March we arrived in Bialystok. There, in a venue adjacent to the Biala River, we played two evening shows drawing in, give or take a couple of hundred, four-thousand people per show. Next day we journeyed on to Wloclawek in central Poland for a gig that drew five-thousand. Our penultimate performance in Kalisz had a mere two-thousand punters – we were getting quite blasé about numbers by then and considered this reduced attendance a puny gathering. On Saturday the 5th we returned to Warsaw (see above photo) for our final appearances – two shows, one in the late afternoon the other in the early evening.
Above: Backstage sampling the Bison brand vodka, Polish tour 1983 - click to enlarge
During this extensive excursion around Poland we became very friendly with the members of the band that travelled on the bus with us and opened up the show each gig night. Formed in the city of Torun in 1978, Republika consisted of singer and pianist Grezegorz Ciechowski, who sadly died of a cardiac arrest in 2001; guitarist Zbigniew Krzywanski, renamed ‘Spaceship’, as that is how his forename sounded to us Brits when uttered in Polish; drummer Slawomir Ciesielski and bassist Pawel Kucznski. They each spoke some English, were fine musicians and individually all very likeable people. Their main topic of conversation was based around what life was like in England and the West in general. We regaled them with stories of touring the USA and Europe; and although they were definitely not a Punk group – their music was far too measured and multifaceted to be considered part of our genre – it was certainly interesting and inventive enough to acquire our admiration.
Above & Below: Republika on stage in Poland, supporting the U.K. Subs - click to enlarge
Below: Snowball fight, U.K. Subs v Republika, Poland '83 - click to enlarge
Although we had all grown close to our Polish travelling companions the opposite seemed to be happening within the U.K. Subs. Charlie was evidently dissatisfied with the vast audiences and large venues, whereas Nicky Garratt, Kim Wylie and I were enjoying being able to play our music to so many people in one hit. Nicky and I also loved the fact we were working on stages large enough for us to really put on a show and move about without fear of colliding with each other, with Charlie, or the equipment – which was something that sometimes frustratingly occurred when playing some of the small club and bar venues back in the UK, wider Europe and the USA. Yeah, admittedly, the food was poor – breakfast in the hotels, for instance, generally consisted of raw beef minced meat with an uncooked egg on top, strong black coffee, white bread, butter and jam – the transport was a bit rough too, but we were playing to the biggest audiences of our careers. We just couldn’t understand why Harper was so down on the tour.
Above: Waiting for the raw beef mince and raw eggs.
Breakfast at a hotel, Poland '83 - click to enlarge
Conversely, he couldn’t understand why we were so happy to embrace the grandness of these shows and consequently picked arguments, accused us of wanting to be rock stars and generally got unpleasant with us, this being all exacerbated of course by the easy availability of large quantities of Polish vodka.
Below: Soundcheck, Polish tour '83 - click to enlarge
Garratt and I tried to counter this negative tetchiness by trying to convince Charlie we could use this remarkable experience to get the band to a higher level of popularity. Our strategy for achieving this was as follows: upon our return to the UK - play fewer gigs. Instead of doing so many shows, some being random and unconnected, we argued that cutting down would make them more of an event and as a consequence, we would be booked into larger venues, still make the same money, but also have the space and the superior lighting and PAs these roomier places had to offer in order to give the audience a better-quality visual and musical performance. Cutting out all arbitrary gigs and embarking on one sensibly routed and concise tour of the UK, the USA and Europe per year would also free up time for touring those countries we’d not visited yet, such as Australia and New Zealand, Japan and South American nations such as Brazil and Argentina. But most importantly, we reasoned that our immediate focus once back in London should be on writing and recording a really good new album along the lines of Endangered Species, with a similar contrasting A-side of incendiary Punk rock and a B-side of more atmospheric sounding material along the lines of Flesh Wound, Ice Age and Sensitive Boys.
There was not much of a response to our proposal from Charlie, just some negative noises about being unhappy with anything resembling a strategy instead of the usual disorganised way of doing business he favoured. I guess I instinctively knew then that Chas had an incompatible attitude to our long-term vision of the Subs and that a parting of the ways would likely be the consequence of that divide, although I still hoped a compromise might be possible in the short run and we could go on to record another album together at least. This was an aspiration that was soon to be shattered in the most derisive way.
Those final two shows in the main national ice hockey stadium in Warsaw were a triumph. Twenty-thousand people attended each performance and we gave them the full animated Punk rock experience with leaps off the drum riser and Nicky throwing about his guitar and Charlie being his singing, frontman best and an intense, powerful sound that had a bunch of brave Polish Punks pogoing around and leaping about in defiant abandon at both concerts – the security people had a heavy-handed propensity at this venue and were seemly resolute in stopping any physical responses to our music by force.
Above: One of our concluding shows to 20,000 people in Warsaw, '83 - click to enlarge
Below: Me, attempting to avoid a barrage of snowballs. Poland '83 - click to enlarge
After the final show we took a short ride to our hotel for a concluding dinner with the Republika guys, Gregsky, Dave Leaper, Laura, Chris Johnston, Robert the interpreter, our bus driver and all the crew members who had assisted us throughout the tour. We, the Subs, insisted on paying for everybody to eat and drink, and together we set about consuming large quantities of Russian champagne and vodka while devouring the best cuisine the hotel could provide in celebration of this extraordinary tour.
At some point Kim and I left the table to use the toilet facilities which were located in the basement beneath the hotel restaurant. There, in the gents, we discovered a diminutive elderly woman sat behind a desk on which was placed a tobacco tin containing a couple of small coins that customers had tipped her with for keeping the urinals and stalls in good order. Now, despite the Subs pretty much picking up the tab for lunch, dinners and drinks for everyone throughout the tour, including this final occasion, individually we still had a considerable amount of zoltys left at our disposal. And so, as I started pissing into my urinal, I came up with an idea which I shared with Kim who was relieving himself in an adjacent one.
‘Listen, Kim, how many zlotys do you still have?’
‘About seventy-five thousand’ he replied.
‘And I’ve still got about one-hundred thousand’ I told him; then got to the caper in hand, ‘why don’t we give all the zlotys we have left to that poor old girl who’s sitting over there hoping to get a coin or two for cleaning up these toilets? She’s got to be in her late-seventies, far too old to be scrubbing urinals and toilet bowls for a few coins and anyway, when we fly home tomorrow they’re gonna be just worthless pieces of paper. What do you think?’
‘Yeah, alright,’ he agreed.
And so we each pulled out a thick stack of notes from our jacket pockets and on the way out piled both bundles, one-atop-the other, next to her tin.
Her reaction to the sight of this abundance of money was an amalgam of shock and panic. She started shouting something in her language that indicated extreme anxiety about the large amount of cash we had placed there, while we did our best to reassure her it was indeed for her and we would very much like her to accept our donation. In the end I asked Kim to fetch down Robert the interpreter to explain in Polish that this was no mistake but a genuine gift that we hoped would be useful to her and her family. I think Robert was annoyed that some of this money wasn’t going his way, but he did as asked and we left her in possession of this mountain of banknotes to return to the food and drink in the restaurant.
About five minutes later the elderly lady appeared at our table in her hat and coat bearing a joyful smile. Via Robert, she profusely thanked Kim and I for our generous endowment and told us that this amount of money meant she could now retire – as I wrote earlier, the average monthly wage in Poland at that time was six-thousand zlotys per month, and this lady would have been making substantially less than that medium wage, so our bestowed one-hundred and seventy-five thousand zlotys was an amount she could comfortably live on for some considerable time.
The Republika guys burst into spontaneous applause on hearing what Kim and I had done, patted us on our backs, told us what a wonderful thing it was to have helped a poor, aged woman like that. But I hadn’t given her the money for accolades or acclaim. I’d merely concluded it was better these remaining zlotys went to a good cause than have them sitting idly in a drawer back in my flat in London. If the Polish zloty had been a viable currency outside of the Soviet Union I wouldn’t have even suggested this charitable act in the first place; after all, we were all hand-to-mouth financially struggling musicians with bills and rent to pay back home, so giving such a large amount of currency away was entirely down to the unique circumstance of this tour and the worthlessness of the zloty to the bureau de change’s and banks of London.
In a similarly modest way, that Polish tour of 1983 changed other people’s lives too. Rather than placate the youth of that nation it seemingly galvanised them to intensify their challenge of the State and put an end to Soviet domination. I’ve included a letter at the end of this episode (one of many) that I received from Poland in the weeks following our visit which articulates the frustrations and bleakness experienced by young men and women during that dark era when the Kremlin essentially ruled this now revitalised and modernised European Union country. The fall of Soviet communism would not occur for another six years, and it wouldn’t be until 1990 that the leader of Solidarity, Lech Walesa, was duly elected and replaced General Jaruzelski as the new president of a free and truly democratic Polish state.
Above: The entire touring party, just prior to the last two Warsaw shows - click to enlarge
Having flown back to Heathrow, the band’s equipment was loaded into a van and together with Chris, Laura and Dave Leaper we set off for our lock-up space at a rehearsal complex in central London. During the drive Charlie tersely revealed to us he’d booked a Subs gig at the Castle pub in Tooting for two weeks hence. He hadn’t mentioned this engagement before and it was, of course, contrary to what we had discussed regarding concentrating on writing and recording a follow up to Endangered Species and ending the random show syndrome by undertaking proper, considered tours instead. This was pointed out to him by Nicky Garratt, but Charlie wasn’t interested in anything other than what he wanted to do.
‘Well, if you lot don’t want to do this gig I’ll do it with some other musicians,’ he countered.
‘That’s fine,’ I said, ‘but not as the U.K. Subs, being as we are collectively the U.K. Subs – you, me, Nicky and Kim. By all means play there as Charlie Harper and friends or even the Urban Dogs; but you can’t do it as the Subs as that would be false advertising.’
Harper disagreed: ‘I’m gonna play it as the U.K. Subs whether you lot do it or not.’
Garratt was incensed: ‘What! Do you really think so little about our contributions to this band that you believe you can just replace us with other people and call it the U.K. Subs?’
‘As long as I’m there it’s the U.K. Subs’ was Charlie’s reply.
‘Well fuck you,’ raged Nicky, ‘I quit!’
Properly disgusted by Chas’ lack of regard for our worth, Kim and I instantly resigned from the band too. No other conversation took place between us for the rest of the journey.
I’ve subsequently seen video footage of interviews with Charlie from shortly after the break-up where he tell interviewers that he sacked us because we wanted to sound like A Flock of Seagulls or because we aspired to be rock stars, and other such nonsense. So, for the record, Nicky, Kim and I were not sacked but simultaneously left Charlie to his own devises for the reason stated above; and that’s a truth that can be easily verified by Garratt and Wylie, and the other passengers present who witnessed what went down on that acrimonious ride back to London.
I wasn’t happy, putting it extremely mildly, with Charlie’s absence of loyalty – the dismissive way he had considered me merely another bassist who could be casually replaced after I had toured, recorded, contributed songs and put my heart and soul into the band for going on three years. But the person I felt had been most wronged was Nicky Garratt. It was Garratt that had been there since the Subs’ inception six years before; who had finally convinced Charlie to drop his favoured songs like Wooly Bully and other R & B standards in favour of purely writing and playing Punk rock music; who had cleverly arranged Harper’s simplistic compositions into proper songs with middle-eights and key changes; and, whose dynamic riffs, superb guitar playing and athletic live performances had been a major factor in the rise and the subsequent success of the U.K. Subs.
Now, with the passing of time and the altered consideration of things that it bestows, I understand why Charlie put us in a position where he knew we would have to quit or be humiliated. His aspirations for the band had become very different from ours. Whereas Nicky, Kim and I wanted to recover the level of success we’d previously achieved, Charlie had decided he wanted complete control to just gig on without a strategy, playing whatever shows were offered for whatever money proffered, with whatever musicians were available at any given time. It was the right thing for him to do at that juncture; and quitting was certainly the correct response for the rest of us. Before the decade was through though; Charlie, Nicky and I did get to make another album together… but that’s a story for a future occasion.
Below: Letter from Poland just after our tour there in 1983 - click to enlarge
Below: Part 2 of letter from Poland - click to enlarge