The Dangers of Going To Punk Gigs: Generation X and Sham 69 in Birmingham.
Above Photo: Generation X onstage in the late 1970s.
My Punk and New Wave memoir, Bombed Out! focuses on the music scene and unemployment from my perspective in Liverpool back then, but all around the country the same thing was happening as the lives of working class kids were ignited by Punk.
I noticed while doing some research recently that there seemed to be very little written about the Birmingham Punk scene on the internet. So when I had an opportunity of talking to a couple of Birmingham Punks recently, I asked them a few questions about their favourite early Punk gigs and venues in the city. Simon Lewis said:
“The first gig I ever went to was in Barbarella’s in Birmingham city centre. I went to see Generation X. I can’t remember much about Barbarella’s but the atmosphere inside the club was fantastic and more than made up for the knackered appearance of the place generally.
I was still at school when I went to see Generation X. I didn’t tell my parents I was going, and I really didn’t know what to expect.
Barbarella’s struck me as being incredibly small and I was surprised that it was more of a night club than a concert hall. In one corner was a tiny stage which had almost been added as an after-thought. I also remember that the floor was very sticky. Must have been spillage from the lager and blackcurrant that passed as the drink of choice in those days.
At the Generation X gig, I was surprised to see that the audience consisted mainly of skinheads rather than punks – I should have guessed that this didn’t bode well.
When eventually Generation X came on stage they were greeted with a torrent of gob (expected) and a load of abuse (less expected). Billy Idol was looking pretty as ever (which was the main reason for his receiving such abuse) and Tony James’s guitar was for some reason charred like it had been rescued from a garden bonfire.
The band launched into their recently released album “Valley of the Dolls” which didn’t go down at all well with the skinheads, although I thought it was great. I suppose the material suffered from the twin crimes of being too tuneful and featuring guitar solos, neither of which were expected of a punk band.
I was right in the thick of it, a couple of rows from the front, and found it a bit scary as well as exciting.
The band took the negative audience reaction quite well at first; just resentful in that lip-curling Billy Idol way.
I don’t recall when the first bottle was thrown but it can’t have been more than a couple of numbers into their set. Billy and the boys manfully bore the assault for a while, showering the audience with verbal abuse, before they decided enough was enough and left the stage.
The audience seemed to be entirely happy with what their work had produced, the lights went up and that was it.
I left the gig with mixed feelings. A slight sense of being short changed tempered with the excitement of a dramatic night.
My next Punk gig was Sham 69 at the Top Rank in Birmingham.
Rank was in Dale End, which was a shithole, and on Bristol Street, a main road. Before the Punk Revolution they hosted bands like Roxy Music and Wizzard. Now it was the Jam, Stranglers, Clash, Damned etc.
Once again, at the Sham gig, I should have guessed it wouldn’t be incident free when the bouncers required the (again) largely skinhead audience to remove their bootlaces before entering the club.
I couldn’t understand it until I was told that it was more difficult to kick wearing lace-free Doc Marten boots!
Unfortunately that Sham 69 gig was even shorter than my first Generation X one.
Despite the lack of laces and the pleas for peace from Jimmy Pursey, the audience seemed bent on having a ruck that seemed to be the main event, rather than listening to Pursey et al.
Mind you, opening with “Borstal Breakout” was always going to be a provocative way for the night’s entertainment to kick off (pun intended).
Back then, it was a while before I realised that you could go to a gig and not only reach the end of the set but even get an encore or two from the band without a massive fight starting, the lights going up and the gig being cancelled.”
Another Birmingham Punk and regular gig-goer I spoke to, Martin, explained why there may not be many photos around of Punk bands playing onstage at Barbarella’s – something I noticed when trying to source images of Punk bands playing at the club (or elsewhere in Birmingham) for this article.
”I remember there being no press photographer in Barbarella’s – they had a ‘no photos’ sign up – maybe the press had to pay some extortionate rate to the gangsters who ran the place.
I had one of those early slide micro cameras with cassette film, but didn’t dare take it to gigs there. One flash bulb going off and you would’ve been hauled out the back for a bashing by Big George and a gang of thug mutants in tuxedos.
Going into Barbs always felt like entering the lions den. Strangely enough, leaving the place felt even more dangerous – usually at 2-3 am there was a queue waiting for black cabs to turn up, skinheads and other assorted dickheads often hung around for a fight or turned up like a pack of hyaenas looking for a drunken carcass.
The option was walking into town through Brum’s labyrinth of dodgy piss-stinking subways, which was even more dangerous.
Buy a signed copy of Bombed Out! here: http://www.bombedoutpunk.com/buybook.php
NOTE: If anyone has decent photos of Punk and New Wave bands performing in Birmingham I would love to use them in future articles and to get them out there, with a copyright credit to the holder.
This is a superb piece of footage of Sham 69 performing Borstal Breakout live at the 1978 Reading Festival.