A Musical Initiation

Only one band ever visited the small, remote East Asian country I called home for the first fourteen years of my life. Why Boney M chose to play in Brunei I’ve never been able to discover. That summer Ma Baker, loosely based on the story of a legendary 1930s outlaw, drifted vaguely out of every shop front. We had really good seats for the concert, at the sides, not far back from the stage. There was some sort of a light show. I don’t really remember. Years later, someone told me that band member Bobby Farrell died in St. Petersburg, so in the same city and on the same day as Rasputin’s death. Boney M had a hit with a song called Ra-Ra-Rasputin-rhymed with love machine-about the friend and advisor of Tsar Nicholas II.

That was also the summer that Saturday Night Fever materialised. Birthday party games were set aside and, out of nowhere, all the other teenagers suddenly knew the moves to Night Fever. Awkward co-ordination and adolescent diffidence sidelined me to observing intently from the edges of the room. The strong beats and uncomplicated song structures had some charm, but what changed everything, looking out at that room full of dancing teenagers was spotting my first punk, not that it was called that at first. I don’t remember his name, or if I ever knew it. He wore a plain white cotton shirt customised with splashed paint, torn black jeans held together with safety pins and loosely spiked hair, dyed orange-blonde. I spent the rest of that summer annoying older boys with questions about this new wave.

Punk quickly became my playground, obsessive in the way things can only become when you live in a remote country, over seven thousand miles away from the heat of a phenomenon. For once going back to boarding school at the end of the summer felt like a release from flatness towards the furious energy of London. The NME became my sutra, reciting gig listings as though part of a solemn ceremony: Generation X at Brunel Rooms, The Adverts at the Nashville, Shame 69 and Menace at The Roxy Club. By the end of that year, school had effectively lost control as I repeatedly bunked out after lights-out to head up to The Nashville, West Kensington, the Electric Ballroom, The Greyhound at Croydon, and various student union gigs. On the nights when jailbreaking was impossible John Peel’s radio show was taped and listened to obsessively.

Punk ended for me as unremittingly as it began. I walked out of the Lyceum after a staggering night with Stiff Little Fingers, Gang Of Four, The Mekons, Human League and The Fall, and knew that, for me, something was over. I moved on. By the time I discovered punk, it was mostly over. I’m a child of post-punk: Joy Division, Two Tone and PiLThe Cure.

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