The UK Subs Are Punk Rock Legends
Kevin Blake | Surrey, England | 11/13/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It's amazing to see that the UK Subs are still going after all these years, since frontman Charlie Harper was the old man of the original punk scene when the band first formed in '77, which somehow seemed suspicious in a scene that was so youth-oriented and dedicated to overthrowing the old farts. He's now pushing 60 and still touring and belting out the punk rock, which is either desperately sad and pathetic or rather inspiring as the rest of us reach middle age, depending on how you look at it.Harper was a legend on the early punk scene and could frequently be seen propping up the bar at 100 Club punk gigs in varying states of inebriation throughout the late `70s and early `80s. Throw in the fact that virtually every offstage picture of him includes the mandatory glass or can of beer and it adds to the amazement that he's still alive, let alone that he's continued touring with the Subs all these years later!I loved the Subs. From the first time I heard the single "Tomorrow's Girls" to the release of their first album "Another Kind of Blues" in '79, I was hooked. I still have both, and they continue to occupy pride of place in my old record collection. The Subs had catchy tunes, great trademark chugging riffs from Nicky Garrett (one of the best guitarists in punk, bar none), Charlie's pub blues with attitude vocals, and a dynamic live delivery. In my very first band when I was 16, we did covers of early Subs classics "CID," "Lady Esquire," and "Warhead."After the release of their excellent second album "Brand New Age" and a live album "Crash Course," the Subs improved themselves by replacing bassist Paul Slack and drummer Pete Davies with the best rhythm section in the genre, bassist extraordinaire Alvin Gibbs (he of the ultra cool, impossibly low-slung bass) and drummer Steve Roberts. I saw this lineup steal the show as co-headliner with the Damned at `81's Christmas On Earth punk festival in Leeds; Garrett, Gibbs, and to a lesser extent (well, he was an old man even back then!) Harper a blur of nonstop energy up front and Roberts pummeling the hell out of his kit at the back and none of them missing a note.After the disappointing "Diminished Responsibility" album, which suffered from a muddy production by apparently AWOL Gary Glitter producer Mike Leander which Garratt tried to rescue without much success, the Subs put out arguably their best ever album with `82's "Endangered Species," which featured a slick, clear, full production courtesy of Garrett and musically bordered on metal years before the punk-metal crossover officially took place. Indeed, the likes of the title track, "Living Dead," "Countdown," and the awesome "Lie Down and Die" could be full-on metal songs but for Harper's snotty Cockney punk vocals.These sessions also produced "Plan of Action," which sadly didn't make it onto the album (though it is on the CD reissue) but was the B-side of the "Countdown" single and is perhaps my favorite ever Subs song, another absolutely blinding up-tempo rocker. The Subs deserve a lot of credit for effectively presaging the punk-metal crossover trend by several years with "Endangered Species."This album also included "Down On The Farm," which would be covered years later by Guns `n' Roses on their "The Spaghetti Incident" album and happily provide a source of supplemental royalties income for songwriters Harper, Gibbs, and Garrett in perpetuity (or at least as long as people keep buying Guns `n' Roses albums). There were a few experimental post-punk numbers on "Endangered Species" as well, like "Sensitive Boys," "Ice Age," and "Flesh Wound," which don't really work but show that there was more to the Subs than just bashing out three chords.Sadly, despite hitting their artistic peak, this was to prove the swansong for the best version of the Subs and they split the following year. With Garrett in particular replaced by a series of no-hopers, I quickly lost interest in what had been one of my favorite bands.The recent resurgence of punk, including the Sex Pistols reunion tours, has led me to rediscover how great these early punk pioneers were. So when I saw the Subs were still going, I did some investigating and discovered not only that Charlie has been touring with constantly rotating lineups ever since I stopped following them, but that -- praise be! -- Garrett and Gibbs rejoined the fold in '96 and they released two very good 20th Anniversary albums in '97, "Quintessentials" and "Riot."Though separate releases, these are essentially a single double album and were recorded simultaneously in Garrett's new hometown of San Francisco where he runs the New Red Archives label. They pick up where "Endangered Species" left off and feature a crisp, clean production and suitably fierce guitar sound (Garrett has lost none of his chuggability and knack for a tasty lead over the years). Drummer du jour Dave Ayer does a decent job thumping the tubs (though without the distinctive hard-hitting flair of the great Steve Roberts, Alvin nails the bass like he always does, and Charlie sounds like the same old (and I do mean old!) Cockney wise guy we know and love -- no mean feat for a man reaching pensioner age who's lived the kind of lifestyle he's lived all these years. If you love the Subs or old school punk or just straight up power rock, you should pick up "Quintessentials" and "Riot."What's more, I did a little more digging and discovered that this wasn't the first Subs reunion effort -- Harper, Garrett, and Gibbs got together back in '88 to release a one-off album, "Killing Time," which I also picked up cheap and second hand off the internet. It's very good too, alternating a more metallic, polished sound a la "Endangered Species" with some lighter, more experimental post-punk moments.Vive les Subs!"