HWS conversation with James Gemmell
Going with or music and Subculture section. HWS would like to converse with James Gemmell on all things punk with a political mix. We have been eager to cover the punk scene and get hold of James for a while. We met up with him outside McChuills Bar in Glasgow on a Saturday prior to the Celtic vs. Ross County match.
Welcome along James, good to see you.
This is an interview thang but I wouldn’t get it as I kick with the wrong foot [laughs]
You’re the first St Johnstone fan then [laughs]
So where does it start for you mate. Early punks from the ‘70s?
Funnily enough we mentioned David Bowie earlier on and my uncle always stayed in the same house and was a bit older and he was into David Bowie and it was the Diamond Dogs album he was always playing. That album I always remember the cover the one with the dodgy cover and all that one of them. I was only about six that just seemed to lead me onto to later on punk. I was 10-year-old then so I suppose David Bowie Diamond Dogs was to blame. The Low album was after that in the ’70s, great album made in Glasgow I believe. Glam rock was there.
For myself, I thought I was a kind of punk at around 10-years-old. A few punks lived in my street and I liked that rebellious vibe. I reminisce of that time and the second generation mods were also on the go. They would have gang wars with each other. I didn’t take to that second generation mod look, it seemed very much one dimensional with parkas, targets and union flags. I preferred the Punk look if I’m honest.
What does Punk mean to you?
It was my uncle in Blackpool funnily enough picking up his mother in law it was 1977 there was all these folk going about with God Save the Queen t-shirts and the Sex Pistols and I mind of looking up and thinking they guys look great and I wanted to be kind of like that; after a couple of years I started to show an interest in the music …. I did like David Soul only because I loved Starsky and Hutch. The time I went to the Isle of Man in 1980 we played the Jam; the Skids; Generation X. X-ray specs and all that plus some of the moderate Bible as well.
Then when I went to Quinn some boys Tony Airs and all that a year older they had the Exploited stuff going on. Tam Leccie and all that had all these good things on their jackets. Somebody gave me a load of Sounds magazines for nowt; and that’s when I discovered ….. it was great for a 10 year old.
Mental but I stuck with it as Jamie will tell you I liked dance stuff as well like the Shamen, KLF and Weatherall all that stuff, the Orb. These bands carried it on for me they weren’t just bashing out a different kind of sound.
Che Guevara T-shirts were typical and that wasn’t copyrighted, they should have; you get folk going about with Che Guevara t-shirts shouting racist comments, that’s what he was against surely. Do these people really believe that …
The Damned for music though apart from CS was into to animal rights. The Clash right wing left wing there was a lots of … types. I did wear a swastika briefly in 1985 it was in Tesco’s in Irvine and this wummin I near seen her had a peace badge on and was staring at me. I’m thinking she thinks I’m a Nazi … Can’t do that now. The Swastika and the hammer and sickle. That’s what led us to anti-fascist.
Is there one important band for you during the whole punk scene?
The Damned for me was always my favourite; they just smashed it up, the album ….. that is my favourite of all time.
Jamie – I remember meeting you in the town dressed as the main man Captain Sensible. I was just back from a Celtic game and they were playing at the Barrowland’s. I was like is that you behind that van.
How important were and are the Clash to you?
It’s strange or not that these bands et al and punks are all linked from punk. Fancied the Clash as well GBH.
I must touch on politics, did you see punk as political? It certainly was anti-establishment in my view?
I’ve always thought there was Punk and Punk Rock… 1- Musically the term Punk was used in the 60s to group together the mainly American garage bands…. Sonics… The Troggs, Chocolate Watch Band… The Seers… Standells, Electric Prunes… and son on …. then the likes of the Proto Punk bands like the 13th Floor Elevators, Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, Death, The Deviants then the CBGBs club who put on Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith, Television, Ramones, Wayne County etc also there was a magazine called
PUNK that did cater for that listener as a good alternative to the mainstream. 2- Punk Rock in 75/76 was what came out of mainly British youths listening to those bands plus the Pub Rock acts like Dr Feelgood, Eddie and The Hot Rods, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker etc but with more added aggression and a reaction to the boring Progressive Rock and poxy stadium rock bands and 30 minute guitar solos etc , they decided they could do it themselves and not just forming bands but starting their own Fanzines…. Sniffing Glue…. Bondage… London’s Burning…. and so on!
I think also The Pistols and Sid wearing the swastika was for a reaction, a typical punk shock factor, would you agree? As well as visiting Ronnie Biggs and doing a song with him it was all very anti Establishment.
I don’t think the Pistols and Damned were political as far as changing things in wider society but the likes of Sids swastika was more to wind up the older generation and shock the general public. The Clash did make more of a political impact with the Brigade Rosse tee shirts and chats about White Riots and solidarity with Black people who were targets of the cops esp the Met in London , the unity between Don Letts playing Dub and Reggae in the Roxy opened the ears and minds of Punks who were unofficially Non Racist but the likes of Eric Clapton and his racist rant at a gig alongside the nazi salute of David Bowie in London brought about the Anti Nazi League and led others on to further political direc action. When the first wave started to fade i feel Crass took up the fight in an Anarchist / Animal Rights direction, which for me was when the divisions started to show, a good thing in my view. As for being Anti Establishment , it’s never been a term i was comfortable with, Hells Angels seen themselves as being Anti Establishment with their self proclaimed Outlaw status and one percenter image and of course Swastikas , but seen fit to assist cops in beating up Anti War protestors during the Vietnam War. Sid Vicious liked upsetting Joe Public but was happy to be on a major label like Virgin, but that’s probably revisionist on my part looking back. As for the Ronnie Biggs scenario, even though i did enjoy the single he made with the remaining Pistols members for me it was nothing more than a cheap stunt to provoke a reaction, which ties in with what the band were about in my opinion.
Have you read Bobby Gillespie’s book Tenement Kid? I felt that was a kind of punk education.
I’ve never read Bobby Gillespies book , i aim to buy a copy, he was certainly into bands like the aforementioned Garage bands from the 60s plus the likes of The Stooges and MC5 etc and the influence can be seen and heard in his general stance politically and musically, he’s someone who’s sussed and clued up unlike some of the idiots who shout abuse at anyone they see as being in authority.
Punk was anti fashion but becomes a style that seems mental. I’ve heard it quoted in the past that perhaps a lot of punks were middle class dressing down, whereas the mods of ‘79 were working class dressing up? I never bought into that.
To me, loads of the original Punks were from middle class backgrounds, the biggest bandwagon jumper was indeed Joe Strummer , he was in the pub rock band the 101ers and when Punk reared its ugly head he suddenly became a well known face, which was good for him as he was able to convey his left wing message in a better more progressive way, especially with certain songs like Spanish Bombs, Tommy Gun and even at the end of The Clash career with This Is England, about the Mods in 1979 I think most of those bands were inspired by the energy of not just The Jam but also bands like Johnny Moped, Eater, The Drones, Slaughter and The Dogs, Exile, Wire, Neon Hearts, The Wasps, Radiators From Space who all played with such a ferocious tenacity they stood out from the others. They didn’t bother with the anti fashion statements of the poser types in the Kings Road they preferred to make an unholy racket in any shithouse that let them through their doors. Another point about the Mod Revival was a few of them had been in Punk bands before , they learned they could do things on their own terms, not just music but fanzines which was and still is such an important part of any decent musical or political movement still on the go today.
This interview is dedicated to Menzi and Jordan legends of the Punk scene