Like many youngsters at the time, I was pause button recording music on C-90s, from whatever radio was on. My musical background at the age 13 or 14 had only recently progressed from Michael Jackson and U2 into more leftfield stuff. The Cure, a great pop group themselves, quickly became a huge favourite, but it was punk that really took over for me in the mid-80s and provided the platform for the rap music that was to be my most defining love, as it led me into soul, jazz and lots more.
It is important to note that myself and my friends were no different to the many kids who are discovering Nirvana today, in that we got into punk second-hand. The Cure also left me with more than just great music, I lived by Robert Smith’s condemnation of conformity in ‘Jumping Someone Else’s Train’ and couldn’t understand why so many people wanted to dress like him.
It’s fair to say I had little time for traditional punk garb too and the fashion side of things only ever stretched to some Dead Kennedy’s T shirts. Nope, punk was about attitude and individuality and rebellion, and like much of the music I listened to, I treated the cartoon swastika-dumbed down stereotype element with indifference.
Like much great rock music, punk was a teenage thing and even though it was nearly 10 years on, by 1986 this music spoke to me as a 13 year-old like nothing had done before. That magical feeling of rebellion and of being part of something that older generations didn’t understand, has shaped everything from Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, to the Stones and the Who, and it was the same for me with punk.
Within a few years, bands like Stiff Little Fingers, the Clash, the Ramones, The Dead Kennedys and The Buzzcocks were my favourites, and I was buying everything they released on record.
Initial induction came via copied tapes and I still have a copy of the first three Ramones’ albums, with about 50 plus songs, all recorded onto one C90 by a pal from school. Stiff Little Fingers were an early stepping stone into punk for me and the first two albums came on each side of a cassette from someone’s big brother.
I bought the vinyl of Inflammable Material straight after and distinctly remember it was one of the loudest albums I had heard so far. The screeching sounds of ‘Suspect Device’ immediately led to screams from all over the house, but that’s what punk was about.
This was teenage music and it provided a bizarrely exotic pathway straight into the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ that were ongoing – a legacy of the history that I was studying in school. It was hard not be angry learning about this history and as with any injustice, it was fascinating getting insight into it from the people who, if not involved directly, certainly knew more than me.
Chuck D later called rap black people’s CNN, and years before I got to know Belfast through DJing there, the music of SLF seemed to bring the city to life in a similar way.
Like the Clash and Public Enemy and many other music artists that I came to love, there were often contradictions that I sometimes struggled with, but this was challenging, thought-provoking music that was anything but apathetic. From a musical standpoint the biggest thing about punk and rap for me was the energy and attitude of ‘forget the rules, we can do this’.
The noise, energy and immediacy of this album was intoxicating for me. Aside from the politics, the record also dealt with bored teenage angst.
Musically, SLF were pretty down the line until they stretched themselves on later (under-rated) albums, but they still had time for the doo-wop throwback breakdown of the epic ‘Barbed Wire Love’, the thrash-punk vibes of ‘Here We Are Nowhere’ and even the futuristic electronic experimentation of ‘Closed Groove’ (didn’t really work but…)
As with much punk, the reggae crossover helped get youngsters like myself into Studio One and the amazing reggae and ska sounds that I still love today. In SLF’s case, it was a fiery cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Johnny Was’ – a track every bit as stellar as the amazing ‘Ploice and Thieves’ (Lee Perry produced Junior Murvin cover from the Clash’s debut).
By the time hip hop and rap came into my life, I had a good reggae grounding, and around ‘87-88, I was more than ready enough for my next revolution through Public Enemy, NWA, Eric B and Rakim and BDP. I had always felt I was born too late and regretted missing punk when it first blew up, but I was right in the thick of it hip hop-wise and grew up with the music ever since, through its good times and bad.
Hip hop led to the logical progression of soul and jazz, and while the likes of Coltrane and Miles may seem a world away from punk, they too had the attitude that music is something for the current generation and rules were meant to be broken.
Punk came along and treated the indulgent treble album, 15-minute guitar solo vibe with disdain, and hip hop did the same for the MOR, more worthy-than-thou mainstream soul and rock of the 80s.
Years later my musical tastes have developed an awful lot, but when I hear the energy of these early punk records I still feel a little fire in the belly! As SLF developed like The Clash into a more rounded band, their fans dropped off, but they have a big core to this day.
I was almost worried when we hosted them in the venue I help run, The Pavilion, a few years ago, that it would ruin my memories seeing a bunch of old men playing music written when they were kids . . . but what else are they gonna do?
Music is in the blood, and they still had the passion, so it was impossible to be cynical. After all, what was I saying about rules?
Stevie G is a stalwart of the Cork hip hop and music scene. He can be found on Red FM daily and presents a cracking show titled Black on Red on Saturday nights. He also co-owns and runs one of Cork’s best venues, The Pavilion.