|MARK READ - THE BRIDGE HOTEL AND PUNK ROCK IN NEWCASTLE 1977 - MFG - NOV 09 07|
"what was the descent into ecological oblivion like?" "well, the soundtrack was great"
|The upstairs room in the Bridge Hotel Newcastle has barely changed in the thirty years since a bunch of unsung punk bands hired it out to perpetrate a bit noise and chaos. The MP's, Speed, Murder the Disturbed, and various others were the bands. MARK READ was the man at the centre of it all. He was once the singer of the MP's, now he manages South Shields rapping crew DIALECT. On a saturday afternoon we spent an afternoon in the Bridge drinking pear cider listening to old soul and Iggy and talking to Mark about times gone by, the spirit of punk, and what he thinks about things today. This is a transcript to what was broadcast on Mining For Gold on 9th November|
Well the room is pretty much the same as it was thirty years ago. Nothing much has changed. When I first came back into here a couple of years ago I had a real momentary flash back, I could almost see some of the crowd that used to come here for our punk gigs in the 77/78 era, it was strange and difficult to describe, kind of that contrary range of happy sad, wistful sort of thing.
It was a typical upstairs function room above a typical Victorian pub, flock wallpaper, big old wooden bar along one end. It has a high ceiling and all the plaster work stuff you get in these sort of old buildings. When we first used it, it was the only place in the town that would let us put punk gigs on. I think the pistols had been banned from playing the city hall and all the tabloid shite about punk rock bringing the fall of the empire had kicked off so no one wanted to be associated with anything punk. The people who ran The Bridge were used to putting on folky type things, so we just said we wanted to put a couple of bands on and they were fine with that. Once we had done a couple of nights they realised we were young and punky but there was never any bother and they just let us get on with it. The room suited what we were doing really, it would have been crap in a shiny seventies club type venue. Back then there weren't any pubs that were done up for youngsters, even the pubs in the town centre were mainly old fashioned and tended to be full of older males wanting a drink. The way things are now with all the fun pubs and themed bars really never kicked off in Newcastle until the mid eighties. The management and staff in The Bridge were always great with us, they weren't punks or alternative they were just used to putting music gigs on and saw us as just another wave of live local bands.
The building is down next to the high level bridge, the one with the trains running on one level and cars and pedestrians on the lower level, you can see the trains running past from the upstairs windows. Although it is in the centre of the town it is just slightly off the beaten track and you wouldn't really walk past it unless you were going to cross the river. It is a detached building with a lot of ceramic tiling on the outside, looks to me like a classic Victorian building but I am no historian. It used to have two rooms downstairs, a bar and a lounge and a big function room that would hold around 100 people upstairs, I like the building, but i guess that is as much to do with my association with it than any aesthetic thing.
In the mid seventies Newcastle was still waiting for the sixties to hit. There was a small number of people who had picked up on the social changes going on but for most ordinary working class people, ( and most people were just that) it was no change since the fifties. You have to bear in the mind the industrial past of Newcastle. Heavy industry and mining didn't really mix well with "fancy notions" and I am not being patronising or generalising there. The generations that had grown up in the thirties had experienced some real grinding poverty and if you had a job, a home and a family you would count yourself lucky and get on with the daily tasks of surviving.
The city centre was mainly a shopping area. Streets rather than "malls". There were a few trendy shops and boutiques like Sgt.Peppers and Plus Four selling flared jeans and T-shirts and there were one or two clubs like Scamps and Julies but mostly it was pretty dour. There was always a kind of Barbie and Ken type circuit but you wouldn't get let in there unless you looked the part, smart jacket and shoes and all that. The new shopping centre, Eldon Square opened in about 1975 I think, full of chains like Boots and Clarks, it didn't hold much appeal for me although lots of people were excited and thought it was flash and modern. The pubs were still pretty basic and dominated by middle aged men, there were one or two gay bars where you could sneak in if you were a punk, seemed like they were used to moving on the fringes of things, we used to drink in the Eldon bar upstairs and the Cellar bar on St. Marys place.
The outlining areas were mainly estates for most people. Again, pretty much a fifties type look, there were a few sixties modern estates but by the mid seventies it had been realised that these were pretty flimsy and did not deliver the bright new future for the working classes that we had been promised. Lots of the kids on the punk circuit would tell tales of getting a slap from some poor mans John Travolta ( Saturday Night Fever version) type on the bus on the way into town, because if you were identified as anything other than mainstream that was justification for a kicking.
I had trained as a hairdresser in Manchester where I grew up, had moved to London and then turned up in Newcastle in '74. I managed to talk someone into putting up some cash and opened a shop in the town centre. We opened in December 76 and as we were all young and thought of ourselves as radical so we quickly got a reputation as "the punk salon". Work was getting me up in the morning and it was a buzz running a business that was not just based on turnover. It felt more like a mission than a job and I was just getting interested in politics so tried to include everyone and have a flat rather than a hierarchical structure. We made a decent living, kept the customers happy and had a laugh doing it. As for getting to sleep, there probably wasn't a lot of that. People were doing a lot of drugs, all sorts of things, the punk thing was a cross between, dope, speed and smack, I can't remember much coke, but that might just be me. Listening to Eno or Bowie in his Heroes/Low phase probably helped get me to sleep. There was quite a lot of drinking going on too. Bands used to rehearse in the salon basement on Sunday's so I was in that place pretty much seven days a week, it was quite a social centre in some ways and I met a lot of younger kids (I was 21 then) on the punk scene through that business.
I think the mainstay was the band that my brother had put together, initially called Raw but then renamed The MP's and your band Speed. We put the first gig on at the Bridge and gradually other bands turned up and we would put pretty much anyone on who wanted to play. There was a regular core of about 20 people who came along and then others who turned up now and again. There was a photographer, Bri Nylon who was always there and a kid who we called our number 1 fan, he was at every MP's gig but I can't remember his name. There was Colin the bowie fiend who always turned up with a couple of girls, Shan was around a fair bit as well. I think the hippie types from Chester Terrace turned up occasionally as well. Most of the people there were probably friends of the bands and we were quite a little crew for a while. As I was a bit older and working and living in a flat in Jesmond I didn't particularly hang out with them other than on the live gig circuit. I remember Nick Taylor and Helen, they always looked great, Helen was doing a fashion degree at the Poly and made clothes, she made some amazing things and had a few wacky haircuts from me too.
For me the spirit and attitude was based around creating a culture that we could feel part of. We took what is now called the DIY approach; we wanted something independent and something that we could manage ourselves so we made our own rules up as we went along. What was important was that people did things they believed in and did anything rather than doing nothing. I didn't care whether a band or a poet or a writer or a photographer was any good, I just liked the fact that they had a go at creating something. There were always people around who would take the piss and criticise, but for us the punk thing was about intent and heart rather than technique or skill. By encouraging a "have a go" attitude I think some real talent came through amidst all the noise and energy. The main thing was that we had a laugh and felt a sense of community.
At the time just before punk came along there was either a west coast American soft rock thing going on or a corny disco night club scene. I remember going to Julies on the quayside and the DJ's were shit, they were playing the odd good soul tune but they mainly played mainstream tack. In terms of live music I went to gigs at the City Hall, you had a seat and would get greif from the bouncers if you wanted to jump about. I saw people like Hall and Oates, Nils Lofgren and the odd British rock band there. It was all getting pretty stale. The general attitude at that time was getting a bit grim too. The labour party were fucking things up and between them and the unions it felt like things were grinding to a halt; it was almost as if you could feel the eighties and the whole Thatcher thing coming. Unemployment was rising in the region as the pits and the ship yards were closing down, if you were young it felt pretty dour really. We used to get a fair bit of hassle from the disco types; there was quite a lot of aggression between them and the kids who identified with punk. There was also a feeling that all the old British Empire bravado was well behind us but there were still a lot of that attitude in the ruling classes in the UK, so there definitely an need to puncture that old due deference type of thing.
God knows where we shackled the equipment together from. I remember an old amp we bought for a few quid, I think it was a valve amp with a couple of 15" Goodman speakers bodged into a homemade cab, it had a Watkins copy cat on the top and made an amazing noise. Our Tim had an old guitar he paid about a fiver for, I think it was originally from Woolworths. I remember Speed turning up to gigs with a guitar, a bass and a mic, no cases, no leads just the barest necessities. I think we may have hired a PA now and again and then gradually bodged one together between us. The whole point of punk for us at the time was that it wasn't about having flash kit, it was about using what you had. There were a couple of bands who had kit bought for them by their parents, one of them had a flash HH stack, we just used to take the piss I think.
There was an ethos for some. There was a realisation that music could be linked to politics and broader issues. We played a gig a the trade union centre on the quayside and an outdoor event in Leazes park arranged to highlight the unemployment problems. There was also a link with the whole anti racist movement. The National Front were using the new poverty and unemployment crisis to recruit disgruntled white youth and we played quite a few anti nazi league gigs. We were also listening to lot of reggae, this helped us identify with the sense that we were part of a folk culture that had been making an alternative culture for along time. Not everyone was bothered, some people just liked getting off their face and leaping about, we thought fair enough at the time, it was a broad collection I guess.
The anarchy ethic was being talked about as well, I think our Tim was reading things like The Slow Burning Fuse and bits of Proudhon and that. We had the attitude that the arguments between left and right excluded the possibility of independent action, we didn't want to be governed by anyone. I always think the Pauline Murray tune Don't Dictate pretty much summed it up along with Poly Styrenes Oh Bondage, up yours.
There was a broad approach, there was a camp version, a council estate version, a fashionista version, an arty version, as long as you made it up for yourself we didn't care. I remember our drummer, Ian getting told off by his Mam for ripping up and hand painting his t-shirts. There was also a kind of ironic approach, shirt and straight pants sort of thing, pretty much carried on by Ian Curtis later. The whole point really that was that it wasn't how you looked that counted, that was what we were against.
I tend to get my music second hand these days, via the lads in the hip hop crew Dialect. Currently quite like The Shins, Ida Maria is worth a listen. My kids play stuff that I like as well one of them is into some local hardcore stuff, there is a kid in Newcastle called DJ Phantom, his stuff is good. Quite like Thomas Truax as well, a cross between Harry Parch and Tom Waits. Noise wise I'm open to whatever grabs me at the moment I hear it and still find myself dipping back into stuff from all over the place and the past.
The Bridge is still pretty much the same upstairs. A local promoter has been doing lots of folk/blues gigs there over the last few years and he has put lots of photos of old heroes like Fats Domino, but other then the pics it is about the same. Downstairs is a bit different since the two rooms were knocked into 1 but still a basic boozer.
In some ways it has, it is still a room that is used for local music and when we went up to have a look earlier today there was the local poetry society sitting round a few pints and sharing their writings with each other. As far as The Bridge is concerned punk was just another lot of locals making their own noises for their own tribe.
On the outside I can't see any difference at all. I think they are putting an outdoor smoking section next to the fire escape, otherwise, no change.
Newcastle now is Post Thatcher European slicksville.
Well on the one hand we have all got cultured and hang out in modern art galleries and check out the avant garde in The Sage. On the other hand the town is really just full of a load of Barbie and Kens getting shitfaced on overpriced cocktails and losing their kebabs before they climb into their Ikea beds.
No dreams, no point really. I still see kids who are challenging things and making things up as they go rather than accept the mass fodder sold through HMV. I think it is impossible to kill the human spirit of curiosity and although those that challenge the status quo sometimes pay a price for that, the results are always worth it. I am not sure that the righteous will ever be in the driving seat but they are always welcome round mine for a cup of tea, a chat and a floor to crash on.
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