Not put off by my guest appearance on 21st February 2018, Andy Aliffe invited me back on to his ‘Emperor’s Bits’ show on Wycombe Sound on 4th April 2018 – this time talking about the early days of the ‘punk’ scene in High Wycombe.
This was another hugely enjoyable hour were I was joined and helped out by friend and Wycombe Sound’s Punkarolla host, Andy Chalk.
Highlight of the show for me was hearing former Bucks Free Press junior reporter Janice Raycroft talking about the iconic Sex Pistols at High Wycombe college in February 1976. Janice, now editor of Buckinghamshire Life magazine, recalled in vivid detail her interview with Johnny Rotten, seeing Sid Viscous wielding a knife and the mixed reaction of the audience.
London pub rockers, The 101’ers, led by a 23 year old Joe Strummer played The Nag’s Head in what would turn out to be one of their final live outings before Strummer ‘saw the light’ and joined The Clash.
Formed in May 1974, The 101’ers progressed to be one of the top London ‘Pub Rock’ bands of the time, along with Dr Feelgood and Kiburn & The High Roads.
The trip to High Wycombe appears to be a rare venture outside of the capital – with their regular jaunts usually taking place in West London pubs.
Their recorded output was limited too. A few days after their Nag’s Head appearance they put the final touches on their debut single – ‘Keys to Your Heart’. By the time the single was released a couple of months later, The 101’ers had split.
It was at a 101’ers gig a couple of weeks after their Nag’s Head appearance that Strummer saw the band that changed his life. The support band for their appearance at The Nashville on 3rd April 1976 were The Sex Pistols. When the audience didn’t respond to the output from The Sex Pistols, the Pistols’ followers in the audience, including Sid Viscious, started a fight. Strummer was suitably impressed with both their attitude and their music. The 101’ers would see The Sex Pistols support them again at The Nashville on 23rd April 1976.
Commenting later, Strummer said:
“When I saw [The Sex Pistols] I realised you couldn’t compare them to any other group on the island, they were so far ahead. And I knew we were finished. Five seconds into the first song, I knew we were like yesterday’s papers. I mean we were over!”.
In the audience the night Strummer first saw The Sex Pistols were Mick Jones and Paul Simonon (both 20 years old). A few weeks later Strummer was invited to join The Clash. Strummer would replace High Wycombe’s Billy Watts in a pre-gigging version of the band. The Clash would make their live debut in July 1976 and Strummer would return to High Wycombe to play with his fast rising new band in November 1976. Exactly one year after The 101’ers appearance at The Nag’s Head, The Clash would release their first single, ‘White Riot’.
High Wycombe Rag Week 1976 kicks off on Friday morning with a Conga through the town. What follows is the now almost traditional week of pub crawls, races and dances in aid of charity.
The event is run by students at the Buckinghamshire College of Further Education – the former College of Technology and Art – and follows much the same line as in previous years.
Friday 13th February 1976 -Kilburn and The High Roads –Main College Hall
“Pre-Rag Ball where the Rag Queen will be chosen”
You can’t mention Kilburn & The High Roads on a High Wycombe related publication without recalling the fact that lead singer Ian Dury was a former pupil at Wycombe Grammar School. The then 33 year old Dury had formed K&TH back in 1971. There line-up included guitarist Keith Lucas (later to become Nick Cash, lead signer for punk band 999). Dury would go on to form Ian Dury & The Blockheads in 1977.
Monday 16th February 1976 – Kokomo – Town Hall
“A popular funky soul band led by the three Arrival vocalists will appear with supporting groups”
A quick internet search reveals Kokomo released their debut album in 1976. At the time of this post, they were about to embark on a March 2017 tour.
Wednesday 18th February 1976 – Brewer’s Droop – Student Union Bar
“Local and favourite band, Brewers Droop are performing at the Student Union bar”
Ron Watts’ band make an appearance two days before Watts return to bump into The Sex Pistols.
Friday 20th February 1976 – Screaming Lord Sutch and Kites – Main College Hall
“The Rag Week climaxes in The Rag Ball at the college main hall.”
This gig infamously including an early appearance for The Sex Pistols. It is often referred to as being the ‘Valentine Ball’ and in some cases a ‘Ron Watts promotion’. Neither is true. By Watts’ own admission, he was there to book a stripper. Valentine’s Day was the previous Saturday.
Another myth is that the Sex Pistols turned up announced; gate crashed and pretended to be the support act. In fact, The Sex Pistols were a late addition to the line-up – arranged with full knowledge of the Student Union Social team who had agreed a half crate of Carlsberg as the payment for their appearance.
Punk originals The Clash play The Nag’s Head for the only time. ‘Punk’ was still waiting to happen in High Wycombe, so it was a half-full venue who were lucky enough to witness a 30 minute electrify set, filled with anger and hate. But for some who stood among the A&R men that night in The Nag’s Head loft, it would prove another milestone in the catalyst for a change in the local music scene.
Eight months before this gig Clash lead singer Joe Strummer had played The Nag’s Head with pub rockers The 101’ers. A month later in April 1976 The 101’ers had played The Nashville, London with The Sex Pistols and Strummer realised there and then that his band were old hat, or ‘crud’ in Strummer’s words.
Shortly afterwards, a then 23 year old Strummer was recruited as guitarist and singer for The Clash – a band consisting of 20 year olds, Mick Jones (guitar), Paul Simonon (bass) and Topper Headon (drums). An early (pre-gigging) version of the band included High Wycombe based Billy Watts.
The Clash played their first gig on 4th July 1976 supporting The Sex Pistols at a pub in Sheffield.
By the time The Clash appeared at The Nag’s Head on Thursday 18th November 1976 (their 16th proper gig) they had become the most talked about punk band behind The Sex Pistols. The Wycombe appearance, arranged by Ron Watts, was still fairly low key and a chance to see the West London based boys away from their familiar London territory. The gig, on the same night as The Miss World competition broadcast live on BBC from the Albert Hall, has such little interest that Watt’s took the unusual step to advertise the gig in the local press – 50p gaining you entry (or 70p for non-members).
In the audience that night was Zig-Zag editor Kris Needs. He wrote a review of the gig for Sounds that said: ‘The Clash are now firing with more compressed energy than a flamethrower at full blast. They play with almost frightening conviction and intensity, each number a rapid-fire statement delivered like a knockout blow’. Needs had first seen The Clash on 9 October 1976 in his home town of Leighton Buzzard. They had blown him away. His description of Strummer at the High Wycombe gig said he was ‘a paint spattered Greek god’.
The Clash entered the stage that evening with Strummer sporting freshly dyed blonde hair and a bolier suit with the words ‘Hate and War’ daubed on the back with a paint brush. The set included ‘White Riot’, ‘London’s Burning’, ’48 Hours’, ‘Janie Jones’, ‘I’m So Bored With You [The USA]’, ‘Protex Blue’, ‘Hate And War’, ‘Career Opportunities’, ‘What’s My Name’, ‘Deny’ and ‘1-2 Crush on You’.
Needs’ review also touched on the subject of why The Clash had yet to be signed. They were definitely hot property and the gig is recalled by Ron Watt’s as one where much of the half-full venue was made up of record company A&R men. The Clash would eventually get their deal in January 1977 – signing for CBS for a reported £100,000.
Support for The Clash that night are Clayson & The Argonauts.
Less than three months after attracting virtually no publicity for their gig at The Nag’s Head, The Sex Pistols went the 1976 equivalent of ‘viral’ when they said f**k and s**t on early evening TV in the UK.
Those in the High Wycombe area at the time would have been able to tune into Thames TV ‘Today‘ programme, hosted by Bill ‘drunk as I am’ Grundy. Broadcast at 6pm, by the time the programme had closed 30 minutes later, Grundy’s now infamous run in with The Sex Pistols and their entourage had shot the punk rockers to the front pages of the tabloids.
Wycombe would take a little more waking up though. Later on in the evening of 1st December 1976, the lovely Anita Harris would perform at Desborough Road’s Chiltern Rooms.
£2 would have gained you entry, including a buffet supper. Or you could have pushed the boat out and spent £5.50 to include a ‘Four Course Dinner’.
A few days later at the close by Desborough Hall, it would be a different story, as Wycombe’s Deathwish took to the stage.
Thursday 23rd September 1976 – Vibrators and Damned – Nag’s Head
This ‘punk’ double header came just two days after the infamous 100 Club Punk Festival in London and was arranged by Ron Watts who was now back as the main promoter at The Nag’s Head.
Vibrators had been formed earlier in 1976 by 31 year Ian ‘Knox’ Carnochan. They had converted to ‘punks’ (essentially cutting their hair) on the lead up to the 100 Club Punk Festival where they also backed guitarist and producer Chris Spedding. It’s unclear if Spedding also took the stage for their appearance at The Nag’s Head. Spedding had produced the first ever Sex Pistols demos (recorded in May 1976) and had a playing career that included playing with The Wombles. The Vibrators were signed to RCA records on Spedding’s recommendation and released their first ever single ‘We Vibrate’ in November 1976.
Support band The Damned were playing what is believed to be their 8th ever gig. They had debuted at The 100 Club on 6 July 1976 as support to The Sex Pistols. There are unconfirmed stories that they also played at The Nag’s Head a few days later but this either didn’t take place or could have been a practice session/gig arranged with the help of Ron Watts who had taken on the brave decision to manage the band during the summer heatwave of 1976 as a replacement for Andrew Czezowski.
The line-up of The Damned that took the stage at The Nag’s Head for their September 1976 appearance was Dave Vanian (19 years old, vocals), Brian James (26, guitar), Captain Sensible (22, bass) and Rat Scabies (21, drums). They rip through a set that was likely to have included ‘1 of the 2, New Rose, Comfort, Help, Fan Club, I Feel Alright and So Messed Up.
The performance of The Damned that evening would help inspire a few in the audience to form their own ‘punk’ bands.
Friday 20th February 1976 – Sex Pistols support Lord Sutch at Wycombe College
My research for this infamous gig provided much of the inspiration for this website. An article published on chairboys.co.uk to mark the 40th anniversary included my findings from this chaotic evening.
More to follow on the myths surrounding this gig – in the meantime, you can read my original article published in February 2016.