Cover Story April 2012

Oldest Rocker in Town

U.K. Subs’ founding frontman Charlie Harper brings his Sendai guitarist on punk band’s biggest-ever Japan tour

As they stomp noisily into their fifth decade of making punk rock music, the U.K. Subs are also doing their part to assist the people of north-east Japan affected by last year’s disasters with the first date of their nationwide tour being staged in Sendai.

Guitarist Jet is from Sendai

This year, the band has already played in Germany and the Netherlands, and opened the Japan leg of the tour on 7 April at Birdland in Sendai, before playing other venues in Tokyo, Hakata, Hiroshima, Osaka and Nagoya. The last performance was scheduled for Shinjuku Loft on 15 April. They then return home to play at the Great British Alternative Music Festival in Minehead.

But Charlie Harper, the veteran frontman of the group, told ACUMEN from London that it was important the U.K. Subs were back in Japan.

“We have never really toured Japan before, although we have played Nagoya and a few clubs around Tokyo and Osaka. We mainly play the thriving underground scene in Tokyo, at clubs like Earth Dome”, he explained.

“We have seven dates lined up and Sendai will be the first”, he said, adding that the band’s Japanese guitarist, Jet, is from that city and was in the region when the earthquake and tsunami struck.

The hope is to bring back some sort of normality for the people worst affected by the disasters, Harper said.

“On a brighter note, we would like to feel your energy, so make a lot of noise for us, clap, whistle and scream!”

Alvin Gibbs on guitar

The track New Barbarians has always been a favourite among Japanese fans and will be back on the set list for the tour, but there are many other tracks that Harper says simply cannot be left out. Some new material from the most recent album, Work in Progress, will also be on the list.

“It seems that our Japanese fans are strong on anthems—and we have plenty of those”, said Harper.

Inspired by the Ramones at the birth of British punk, in 1976 Harper formed the U.K. Subs out of the R&B outfit that he then fronted, The Marauders. Starting out as The Subversives, the name was shortened to The Subs, before adding the definite article in honour of the first Sex Pistols single, Anarchy In The UK.

Throughout the rest of the 1970s, Harper and guitarist Nicky Garratt collaborated on tracks that earned the U.K. Subs a strong—and enduring—following. The band played venues all over London, including at the infamous Roxy punk club, and came to the attention of the late DJ John Peel, who was sufficiently impressed by what he heard to offer to cover the costs of their initial single.

But City Records released that first single, C.I.D., in September 1978, and it quickly became a huge indie number-one hit. Between 1979 and 1981, the U.K. Subs had no fewer than seven consecutive UK Top 30 hits and two UK Top 10 albums, Brand New Age and Crash Course.

Harper busking in Brighton (1966)

From its earliest days, the band set out with the ambitious target of producing albums with titles that start with consecutive letters of the alphabet. Thirty-six years after the U.K. Subs were founded, they’re up to the letter W, for Work in Progress, but Harper says Zeizo, meaning “job done” in Dutch, will be their last.

“A successful band will have a number of things that they are doing right”, said Harper when asked the secret of the band’s longevity. “The first thing for us is that we are very close to our fans, we go to the same clubs, we drink with them and love the same bands—just good, honest punk or rock ’n’ roll.

“We all tapped into that perfect fifth a long time ago”, he added, referring to the ideal musical interval. “And we have sold our souls to the proverbial devil. It’s the only way for us.

“The other way is to sign up to the music business and sell yourself to the dollar god”.

The U.K. Subs won the 2010 Punk World Cup and were elected the most respected of Punk icons by listeners to Steve Lamacq’s BBC 6 music show. And Harper, the sole constant in a band that has been through an incredible 70 musicians, has no intention of hanging up his microphone just yet.

Asked how long he intends to continue to tour and record, he shrugged the question off.

“That is an unknown to myself, but I shall die with my boots on”.