Steve Strange & Friends Pic Lorraine Owen
‘Who were the first Welsh Punks?’
“So Merthyr, in a way, drove me to Punk Rock” Chris Sullivan.
The South Wales Gang
Back: Dave Lambert, Colin Fisher (with fag) Terry May (wearing wraparounds)
Centre: Keith Richards in middle
Front: Kelly, Graham Williams (beret), Bunty (centre), Mark Taylor, Steve Strange
‘Punk’ means many things to many people, a youth cult, a musical revolution, a fashion statement, an attitude – but it’s not that which concerns us here, neither is it the musicians or the bands. Our quest is to try and find out why some ‘characters’ from amongst the youth of Wales during 1976 specifically, should be turned on, by what was in essence, an urban phenomenon, arguably originating in the twin cities of New York and London? Sure, Punk was soon adopted by the provincial cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow etc and the history of British Punk is well documented in excellent books such as Jon Savage’s essential reading ‘England’s Dreaming’, and our very own Chris Sullivan’s simply titled, but just as essential, ‘Punk’.
The age of the characters in 1976 is critical to this story, too young and you could not have gone out to the clubs and gigs, too old and you simply would not have ‘got it’. The early Punks were old enough to go out to night clubs, and a common theme in pretty well every story, is a love of dancing, dressing up and for the music of David Bowie and Roxy Music. In effect, the characters were already primed in terms of music and fashion – they were ready for the next big thing.
The first Welsh punks were the south Wales gang, they were there in 1976 - right at the beginning. In fact they already ‘were’ ……. already dressing up, they just didn’t have a name for it yet. I have not encountered anything similar in north Wales this early on. So many who answered my calls got into it, like myself, from 1977-78 onwards, by then the first Punks had already moved on. The 1977, 1978, stuff and the fallout from punk is another story.
South Wales 1976.
Our starting point then, is how did these characters become so well informed, even before the Sex Pistols show at the Castle Cinema, Caerphilly, on the 14th December 1976? These characters were already tuned-in and turned-on to Punk, before the infamous Bill Grundy, Sex Pistols interview, which was probably one of the main factors in getting Punk out to the wider masses. Nicola Heywood Thomas’s HTV documentary fully covers the Caerphilly concert of December 1976 and is on YouTube.
The fact is, that the characters and individuals featured in this piece were already followers of fashion, Bowie heads, soul boys, frequenting Northern Soul nights in Wigan Casino. What’s amazing is that these ‘individuals’, these ‘characters’, became friends, became a gang. So why the transformation I ask, why ‘abandon’ Bowie for the Sex Pistols, or was it just a natural progression? And there it is, my first misconception, Bowie was not abandoned, as Chris Sullivan maintains it was all part of the same thing.
Chris Sullivan 2015
Chris Sullivan, from Merthyr Tydfil, “I used to go round to my mate’s house and get a flagon of cider and get absolutely hammered and lie on the floor listening to ‘Man Who Sold The World’ – I was young then, only thirteen or fourteen. We all loved Transformer – after that came Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, John Cale of course, this was before Punk was really happening – we were all listening to this really dark rock music”.
The characters were discovering music and fashion, often independently, like minded souls who had yet to meet as Lorraine Owen from the Rhondda Valley explains
Lorriane Owen “Roxy Music was the flowering of your interest in music that had a fashion extreme attached to it. It was Eno not Brian Ferry for me. Roxy was our lead in ….”
Dancing was also crucial part of the equation according to Keith Richards from Cardiff, and this happened in the night clubs of south Wales which acted as a focal point for gathering the gang.
Lorraine Owen 2015
Keith Richards “For me it was Roxy Music, we were going to a club called Drones where you had music you could dance to – it was all about the dancing and the fashion”
Mark Taylor, from Cardiff, “What you had in south Wales was a group of people, stretching from Newport, Cardiff, Bridgend, Swansea and up to Merthyr. These people would have been interested in Bowie and Roxy Music. We saw each other at clubs and we would introduce ourselves, you’d see someone in their ‘attire’ and think they’re pretty cool – you’d know where they were coming from’.
Mark Taylor 2015
Lorraine Owen “I met up with the south Wales and Merthyr boys at ‘Rudy’s in Newport”. Lorraine also adds “Meeting gay people was fantastic, I got to Newport and the gays shaped my existence”.
If it was a shared love of Bowie and Roxy, dressing up and dancing that got them out initially into the clubs of south Wales, they also frequented London, and Taylor cites the ease of travel on the 125 train to London. The London trips would appear to be twin missions – shopping and concerts.
Chris Sullivan “Coming from Merthyr Tydfil, where every single solitary time I left the house I’d have a fight, - well in the daytime maybe a fight once a week, but at night every single solitary time, me and my mates just got fed up with it. We’d catch the 7-20am bus from Merthyr which arrived in Victoria at midday. We’d hang out a’ ‘Sex’ (Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s shop on the King’s Road) and we’d find out where all the parties and gigs were, and that’s what we did – we got fed up of Merthyr”
The importance of fashion cannot be under-estimated, Taylor had also visited the King’s Road. I asked Taylor whether it was it the music or the fashion that came first?
Mark Taylor & Alison Lowndes 1976
Mark Taylor “They go hand in hand. My older brother had been a Mod.There had always been music in the family. You could pick up de-Mob suits and you could also pick up things like a Mary Quant dress and cut it in half. A lot of the girls were in Fashion College and you could pay them to make you clothes”
Keith Richards “We were all individuals – we were all different – we always stood out. It was our love of music and being different – we wanted to be different”
Something Chris Sullivan alludes to is that fashion was a like a ‘tradition’ in places like Merthyr Tydfil.
Chris Sullivan “In Merthyr Tydfil, fashion and music, and fighting and football were all interwoven, all the hardest skinheads were always the best dressed. Its different in Merthyr, clothing is something that people still do, even the football hooligans are well dressed – it’s like a tradition”
But the more I talk to these characters, the more I realise they were already dressing up - in almost a proto-punk fashion, as if occupying a parallel universe. There is undoubtedly a progression from Bowie and Lou Reed, but whatever influences came from London you suspect that the south Wales gang would have done something anyway. They are as much mavericks and trailblazers as they are followers of the ‘new’. Certainly characters such as Steve Strange were out there pushing the limits.
Mark Stephenson & Debbie(?) 1976
Lorraine Owen “It came in through Steve (Strange) more than anybody”
Chris Sullivan “They used to call us ‘sickies’ or ‘weirdo’s’ before there was a word for Punk. We got into this thing of outdoing each other in terms of weirdness, and we just got stranger and stranger with the clothes. My mother made me a leather T-shirt, this was in 1976 – with a zip. The London Punk thing at the time was all based on Vivienne’s stuff – we were more handmade.
People like Colin Fisher was the first person I saw wearing eyeliner and bin liners – and he was influenced by Lou Reed. Colin Fisher was certainly the first one who had a nose ring and chain. He was a hairdresser, a tough kid from some estate in Newport”
I pierced Taylor’s nose for him in December 1975 in the toilets at Stowaway’s. That’s why initially we had safety pins in our nose, you had to get leverage to get them in”
Mark Taylor & friend 1976
The role of the Sex Pistols and the punk bands in all this is quite interesting. It provides the backdrop and somewhere for like-minded souls to hang out but it is not really the spark that lights the fuse – the Welsh gang were already fired up and if anything were far more outrageous than the Pistols
Caerphilly audience Pic Dave Smitham
Chris Sullivan “My entre to all this came via Nils, (Nils Stevenson, Sex Pistols tour manager and manager of Siouxsie and the Banshees) he had a stall on Beaufort Market and we got talking when I was buying a pair of drainpipe trousers and he mentioned this band that I might want to see, and that was the Sex Pistols. If you look at the early Pistols photos they are pretty straight looking – compared to us”
Mark Taylor ‘We weren’t just from the sticks, we were well informed. I’d already seen the Pistols, Clash and the Buzzcocks at the Screen on the Green, so when the Pistols did come to Wales, there was a ready market for them’
Chris Sullivan “It was the only place where people of that ilk would get together – the band was almost secondary”
Lorraine Owen 1976
There is a distinct change after the Bill Grundy interview and the Media (Tabloid) hysteria that followed. Punk reaches the masses and from this point onwards the individuality becomes lost, Punk becomes a mass fashion and it is quite obvious that the individuals or what Mark Taylor calls the ‘movers and shakers’ were already moving on. Sullivan, Taylor and key players like Steve Strange had, by 1978, become club promoters and associated with yet another new movement, ‘the New Romantics’.
Mark Taylor “When it hit the Newspapers ‘Big Time’, a lot of people appreciated the DIY aspect of it. You could get hold of a leather jacket and ripped jeans and there you go”.
Chris Sullivan “By the time the Caerphilly one happened, it was a bit old hat for us, especially as teenagers in those days, in the 1970’s, trends came and went in the space of a few months”
Mark Taylor “Everybody talks about the Caerphilly gig, but what they forget about the other gigs”. The Sex Pistols had previously played at Stowaway’s Newport, the Top Rank, Cardiff and the Bubbles in Swansea during September 1976. These live dates by the Pistols are crucial to this story, as these dates occur before the Bill Grundy interview and the press furore that followed, which confirms that the real ‘pioneers’ were in on the scene well before the Grundy affair.
Mark Taylor “You couldn’t have asked for a better dynamic to occur in south Wales than the Pistols tour to bring everybody together. The timing was perfect”. I think they (Sex Pistols) were surprised at the response they had. People made a special effort – we were all pretty good at posing”
Chris Sullivan said something very interesting on the Heywood Thomas documentary where he suggested that getting laid was probably more of a concern than any ‘politics’ associated with Punk.
Chris Sullivan “I’ve always maintained that the politics thing in Punk Rock is complete and utter rubbish. It was a fashion and that’s it. The politics was laid on later by Malcolm (McLaren). He (McLaren) had his back against the wall and needed to find a way of justifying this behaviour, so he rammed a political agenda behind it”
Mark Taylor & Jonathan James 1976
Mark Taylor who worked at the time in the Dry Docks in Cardiff, “I was quite Leftwing. My grandfather had been down the Docks before me so it didn’t particularly scare me all this Anarchy in the UK stuff”
If this piece initially began it’s journey as a quest to find the first Welsh punks, it quickly became apparent from the interviews, that the individuals who made up the south Wales gang were already on the train before they had ever heard of punk. If anything the emphasis they have all placed on dressing up and dancing means, that punk provided another backdrop, a new focus. Yes, punk was great for dressing up and being outrageous and providing that backdrop but actually the music was not so good for dancing. Maybe Bill Grundy did them all a favour, they moved on to club culture soon after punk became ‘mainstream’ and to quote Bowie, put on their dancing shoes (again) not that they ever really took them off.
Mark Taylor “It all started from Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood – and it all blossomed. She deserves to be a Dame!”
Chris Sullivan “I’d say by 1977 we were completely done with Punk, it was to do with it going mainstream and we weren’t mainstream people”
Steve Strange pic Lorraine Owen 1976
Colegrave,S, Sullivan, C., 2001, ‘Punk’, (Cassell & Co)
Savage, J.’ 1991, ‘England’s Dreaming’ (Faber & Faber)
High Performance, 2014, HTV Documentary on Sex Pistols at Caerphili, presented by Nicola Heywood Thomas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tY5LIHFl8c0&feature=youtu.be
Lorraine Owen & Rhys Mwyn 2105 @ Merthyr Rising
Caerphilly audience Pic Dave Smitham (Chris Sullivan centre right)
Caerphilly audience Pic Dave Smitham
Rare pic of Billy Idol courtesy of Lorraine Owen