Cash Box, November 12, 1977
Punk rock in England: There's more to it
LOS ANGELES — Before Hugh Cornwell joined new wave group the Stranglers as a guitarist, he was a research biochemist. Elvis Costello, one of Britain's hottest new singer-songwriters, was a computer programmer before turning to music less than a year ago.
These two examples point up how Britain's punk rock movement has had a much greater effect on the music industry there than just giving rise to a new sound and style of music, according to Dai Davies.
Davies, whose three British clubs have been played by such top new acts in England as the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers, whom he manages and are with ABM Records here, and Costello, said this will be regarded as one of the most important contributions of the punk movement.
"Four years ago, everybody in the business was looking for a lead guitarist who could play like Eric Clapton to play in their band. So a computer programmer or a research biochemist wouldn't have any encouragement to leave his well-paid job to take the risk and possibly lose it," Davies said.
"What pub-rock and punk rock have done is liberated those people. They feel, 'It's not going to cost me much money to play in pubs. It's not going to make me much, but it's not going to cost me much. The Sex Pistols made it and they can hardly play, so why don't I have a go.'
"So everybody is having a go these days. That's good for the business. Of those people who are having a go, only about 5 or 10 percent are destined to even land recording contracts, much less be big successes. But it's a healthy thing."
He also said this tendency for more people to try their hands at recording has made the British record buyers, on the whole, more open to different types of music.
Even those who are classified as hardcore punks are able to listen to and enjoy music by non-punk acts. This effect of broadening listeners' musical tastes, Davies said, will also be recognized in the future as one of the main contributions of punk.
"For instance, Elvis Costello is really a country act, or country-rock," Davies said. "Now Elvis is drawing a lot of the same people (to his concerts) I see at the Stranglers' gigs.
"So via the Pistols, they come to the Stranglers, who are more musical, and from there, it opens their minds to things like Elvis Costello.
"The punk thing was like a stepping stone, which will burn itself out. But what it will leave us with is a new broadminded market, in that people will dig Elvis Costello as much as they dig the Stranglers."
The much publicized aspects of punk — safety pins through cheeks, orange and blue hair and leather outfits — are on the decline in Britain, Davies said, just as the initial fascination with the whole punk image is toning down.
"The punk fashions have gone out now and people are wearing (sports) jackets with narrow lapels that you find in Jumbo sales. The Elvis Costello way of dressing is the way a lot of kids dress now."
Industry reaction in England to the punk phenomena has gone from one extreme to the other within the last year or so, Davies said.
"It's really hilarious to watch what has been happening in England. A year ago, you couldn't get an A&R man near a punk gig if you paid him a million pounds. I couldn't get anyone to see the Stranglers for a year.
"The music business just did not want to know. They hoped by ignoring it for six months it would go away. But the Sex Pistols and the Stranglers managed to get records out and they were big business overnight.
"The first Stranglers single went into the charts and got up to about number 40. When the album came out it went to number 50 its first week, then shot up to number four and nobody could believe what had happened. The Pistols' God Save The Queen' was number one, yet nobody was allowed to play it on the radio." (It was banned by the BBC.)
When the record companies finally acknowledged what was happening, "they thought, 'We've missed it,' and panicked. They began — and they are still doing it going out and signing anybody with short hair who vaguely looks like he can play a guitar."
The problem, Davies said, is not that a large number of punk bands are getting record contracts, but that the companies "are applying no taste or discretion with whom they sign. The Sex Pistols is a good band. But, at the same time, there are about 90 punk bands around that are dreadful. Most of them I can't watch for more than five minutes.
"A few bands transcend that. The Pistols do, because they have quite a lot to offer. The Stranglers do because they are more musical. What's amusing about it is the way record companies have been ignoring it for six months and now are giving lots of money to very young boys who don't know what they are doing."
The record companies have not developed the same open-minded attitude for other forms of music that much of the public has as a result of punk, Davies said.
"It should have had the effect of broadening the record companies' minds and making them less formula-ridden than they were before. But I'm already disappointed in that one because it hasn't. They are just applying punk formulas now. There are exceptions, of course, like A&M," he said, smiling at the A&M publicist seated next to him.
"What should have happened was they should have said, 'The Sex Pistols and the Stranglers came from nowhere and they are both huge, so let's have an open mind now. If the next guy comes along and his songs are great, even though he is one-legged and plays the trumpet, let's sign him up and not dismiss him because he has one leg missing.' But it hasn't done that," Davies said.
What the punk movement has accomplished is proving that such record companies do not have to spend a great deal of money to achieve a hit record. The Stranglers' first album, which resided in Britain's top five for several weeks, cost 6,000 pounds (about $10,000) to make, while the group's second album, which reached the number two spot, cost 5,000 pounds ($9,000).
"People were going mad in the studios, but now even the big acts are costing less because they have seen it can be done successfully. We are doing cheaper promotions too. We put up posters in the underground (subway) stations.
"We are renting ballrooms instead of concert halls. They cost half what the halls do, we get more people in and the people have more fun.
"On the Rolling Stones' next tour, they will be playing a lot of venues that the Stranglers opened up. We are one of the few groups that makes money on the road. We don't use limousines, and we hire road managers to move equipment, not to bolster egos."
Davies also said the Stranglers, and other new wave groups, are very conservative when it comes to money matters, simply because they know they can't afford to be extravagant and, perhaps. because they know many people in their audiences are turned off by that extravagance.
"Kids got really tired of watching groups like Yes and all those groups who are so remote from them. They would sit in their seats and watch a multi-millionaire play, carrying two million pounds worth of equipment."
Related to this alienation from wealthy rock performers, Davies said, "there is also a great resentment of tax exiles, in English people generally. The kids particularly resent the fact that their heroes of a few years ago have become tax exiles. Elton John is very popular because he hasn't become one. It has made him popular with a lot of people who wouldn't necessarily like his music."
Will punk rock catch on in America as successfully as it has in Great Britain?
"The best of that broad market which grows out of punk is also going to make it in America," Davies said.
"People in America say, 'It's not going to make it here because we don't have your economic problems.' Although it is commonly used, it's a ridiculous argument.
"The kids are bored with the music they've got. That's the main thing they are angry about."
He said part of the reason he thinks many people are against punk music is that it is being produced by a new, younger generation than most of what has been popular in England and America, by such groups as the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.
"I'm 27," Davies said, "and I feel a bit —not threatened by it — but early on you think, 'My movement's had it. I'm not part of the younger generation any more.' And you feel something against it for that reason.
"Three or four years ago, all the musicians I knew were the same age as me or older. Now all the ones I know are five or six years younger. Not the Stranglers, because they didn't start playing until quite late.
"But '999' or the Pistols, they look at me like an old businessman, whereas bands three or four years ago regarded me as a person their own age. That is a bit scary in a way.
"The movement you are part of is being superseded by something else, so naturally you feel a bit of resentment toward it. You are not the tastemaker any more; there's a generation underneath you that are the tastemakers."
Although bands such as T. Rex, Slade, Sweet and others have had huge successes in England that have not translated to the United States, Davies is confident that the Stranglers and the best of the other punk bands will be successful here because the music scene here is overdue for something new.
"I guess the question people in America are asking is, 'Will it be punk?'"
"I think the Eagles, for instance, are very good, but I think people are bound to get bored with the Eagles. That sweet music is doomed to peter out as a form. Angry music like that of the Doors has always been successfull."
The Stranglers currently are on tour in Great Britain and are scheduled to tour the United States next March, at which time Davies will have the chance to see whether his predictions about the Stranglers, in particular, and punk, in general, prove to be correct.
"I think it's just a matter of time," he said "The worst that could happen to us is that it might take two or three years for us to happen here. We'd like to do it next year."
Cash Box, November 12, 1977
Elvis Costello is mentioned in Randy Lewis's interview with Stranglers' manager Dai Davies.