UK Subs as subversive as ever

March 17, 2013
Punk World Cup winners UK Subs.
Punk World Cup winners UK Subs. Photo: Tina Korhonen

UK Subs
Captain Oi
February 2013

Punk pioneers UK Subs released their 24th politically-charged album last month, to rave reviews. Appropriately titled XXIV, it nears the completion of their bid to release 26 albums whose titles begin with each letter of the alphabet, in order. Frontman Charlie Harper spoke to Green Left's Mat Ward.

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Tell us about your experiences of playing Australia - any memories that stick out?

Pies, pies and PIES. Nobody here knows of your great pies! On the other hand, your great and famous barbies were a big let-down. We do them with real wood (always reclaimed) and charcoal. Against this, your barbies have no flavour.

What about Australia's politics and history?

As shameful as it is, you just have to look at the US to see the genocide of whole nations there, but alas it is real today in Africa and South America - and the Middle East seems to be on track. Life will always be an "endless struggle" - also the name of a great unsung US band.

When your band started out it was called The Subversives. Your lyrics are very contemplative and you must spend a lot of time thinking about various issues. Please tell us what's been playing on your mind these past few days.

The pope. As a non-believing Roman Catholic and being brought up under this regime, I believe this pope looks all good on the surface, but will cause some trouble in the long run. It's funny how he is down on homosexuality, yet they try to sweep all the churches' paedophilia under the carpet. To dodge the issue, he will make trouble elsewhere - one guess where.

You tour extensively worldwide. What are your observations on the differences and similarities in the politics you encounter around the globe?

As you may guess, travelling bands live inside their own little bubble of radical thinkers and government haters (that can include cops, the army and even the odd politician). You kind of get to know that there are two kinds of people - the ones that will help and make life easier and the ones that will make life harder for you. These bigots unknowingly also make life harder for themselves and in these days of the web, word gets around.

What happened to your plan to get the ex-Subs to write a song for the X album?

It all went tits up. The band had a word with my wife - they thought it a bad idea. "What?! We, the UK Subs, aren't on the new LP?!" I had a mutiny on my hands. Don't get me wrong - I wear the pants, but she says what colour and style.

You address banks' corruption on XXIV. In his book Treasure Islands, Nicholas Shaxson calls the City Of London the world's biggest tax haven. He says the British Empire faked its own death - it left by the front door and came back in through a side window. What are your thoughts?

That's a very poetic way of putting it, but it's much worse than that, as no doubt you know. We can take some comfort in knowing we are not alone.

What have been some of your favourite reactions to your new song "Coalition Government Blues"?

It's strange, but it was well received here - another great song by [UK Subs bassist] Alvin Gibbs. It's the next song to be pulled from the album and played live.

You have said: "The industry is a moneymaking thing and the art goes out the window." Yet your record label, Captain Oi, seems to have brought innovation into your art through commercial necessity, making your latest release a double album with a bonus disc of acoustic songs. To what extent has that acoustic angle breathed a second life - or a 24th life! - into the band?

Again, the acoustic side has had a more favourable review from the fans at the shows, quoting their fave track and asking when we will do some live shows - we are working on it. Captain Oi are always looking for new ways to boost sales - it's their job - but they do put double the thought and effort into the artwork - and the album was six months late so we could get that right.

Has the acoustic angle brought back a passion for busking?

We had one negative write-up, saying the stuff sounded like a busker, but that was exactly what we were doing - he must have a thing against street singers. I always drop a bob or two in the hat. It's a good apprenticeship. You can see me singing a sea shanty or three at The Ark at Newhaven on any Wednesday we are not on the road. It's free entry and you don't have to put money in my hat, but wait till the weather improves, as I have flu right now.

You really engage with your fans and enjoy talking with them. How did it feel winning BBC 6 Music's Punk Rock World Cup, in which thousands of listeners voted you their all-time favourite punk band, way ahead of The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Ramones?

It was great! We printed postcards and T-shirts with a big "6" on the back, "UK Subs Punk Rock World Cup Winners 2010". The postcards had the England World Cup team of the '60s, but we transposed our own heads. All good, clean fun.

You're a big fan of legendary US folk singer Woody Guthrie. Tell us how you marked what would have been his 100th birthday.

My wife bought me Woody's book Bound for Glory. I strongly recommend it.

You have lost none of your fire. Research has shown people have their politics educated out of them as they turn into "professionals". You may have read about it in Jeff Schmidt's Disciplined Minds and Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. What are your thoughts?

I wouldn’t mind having these books. I love history and if you read about the Roman Empire, you will find that they, too, have been through every trick in the book. You will also find that a party leader or president will base his personality on a successful Roman as a guide. Likewise, many generals think they are Attila or Caesar.

I can think of a few, but are there any songs from XXIV that you think are particularly relevant to Australian readers?

Only a couple may apply, but I could never write a masterpiece like "Beds Are Burning".

Are you heading Down Under?

Hope to see you all in September - that is the plan. We hope there are not too many mice and men involved.

Thanks for talking to us. After 37 years in the business, you must get sick of interviews.

I don't get sick of this at all - only too pleased to answer. Sorry it's taken so long.

Video: UK Subs "Coalition Government Blues" [Promo Video] - METALHEADSINCE1968.

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