Increasing the Tribe -Bristol 8 April 2011
In about 48 hours and 300 miles away the Mob will be taking to the stage at the Fleece in Bristol. Zounds, Rubella Ballet, Insurrection, Andy T and Steve Corr will be playing as well - altogether it will be quite an event for the 300 folk who will be there. It will be the first time the Mob have played in 28 years, even longer since Graham was the drummer.
Over the years I have had a few shots at trying to explain why the Mob were… I was going to say important, but that doesn’t sound right. Maybe interesting and significant is a better way of putting it. Ok then, lets try ‘Why were the Mob so interesting and significant?’.
First up- context. The immediate context was the sheer jolt of first hearing Witchhunt. I first heard the song at [Kill Your Pet] Puppy Mansions in 1981 although it came out in 1980. This was a few months before we (the Puppy Collective) saw the Mob play a free gig in an adventure playground on Parliament Hill Fields. In the midst of an economic crisis brought on by the Tories voodoo economics, the lines about the ‘idle rich knitting the economy without dropping a stitch, destroying anything that doesn’t quite fit’ hit the mark.
Then there was the wave of riots which hit the UK. I remember being round Puppy Mansions one night listening to the radio reporting as city after city went up in flames. KYPP 4 came out in September with a cover using a pic Tinsel had sent us, an editorial which started ‘Buy, buy, the damnation of your soul…’ (from a surrealist text) an interview with Charge, a piece on Gay Punx and a Mob page using cut-ups from Witchhunt… and then came the Wapping Autonomy Centre where the Mob played.
I know that ‘anarcho-punk’ has now become inextricably intertwined with Crass, but at the time it was more about the dozens of other bands that jumped up on the six inch high stage at the Metropolitian Warf in Wapping. Or, even before then, who played at the Parallel Universe (a squatted church, St. James) on Pentonville Road - where I first saw Rubella Ballet. Then after Wapping came the Centro Iberico on Harrow Road in west London where the punk part of the Autonomy Centre relocated in spring 1982. Which was just around the corner from Meanwhile Gardens where the Mob also played.
What also happened then was a blurring of boundaries between audience and performers, between organisers and organised, between bands and fanzines. The result was a colourful and creative chaos utterly at odds with the retrospective construction of anarcho-punk as a bunch of black clad Crass fans. We even have the photographs to prove it!
Out of this creative chaos emerged many things. One was a housing co-operative, the Black Sheep Co-op. The Co-op survived for many years. In 2007, the Islington Archaeology and History Society published a book ‘53 Cross Street Biography of a House’ by Mary Cosh and Martin King. In 1990, Martin King moved into 53 Cross Street and began documenting its history - including (page 34) a door painted by Todd Hanson, one of the original Black Sheep. 103 Grosvenor Avenue was another of the four Co-op houses. Mark and Joseph of the Mob lived there in 1983 and it was there that Tony Drayton wrote the last issue of Kill Your Pet Puppy.
The Mob’s album ‘Let the Tribe Increase’ was another product of the creative chaos, the possibility first floated by Mark Wilson in the kitchen of Puppy Mansions and made practical when Mick Queally offered to help finance the recording and Rough Trade the pressing costs. The unexpected success of the album provide the finance for All the Madmen records and releases by the Astronauts, Zos Kia and Flowers in the Dustbin.
Unexpected success? Yes, it was unexpected.. The exact figures are lost in the mists of time, but the idea was to sell enough copies to break even -say 10 000 copies. But then far more -say 20 000 - were sold creating an unexpected profit which was re-cycled into the other releases. If the Mob had continued rather than calling it a day in 1983, the next album might have sold even more…
But they did not carry on. Through the winter of 1983/4, Mark began making himself a tipi, sitting in the front room of Grosvenor Avenue with yards and yards of cloth and a sewing machine. He also had a truck which converted into a travelling home. The spring came and he was off on his travelling adventures which lasted for many years.
It wasn’t just Mark though. For a while it seemed like the whole tribe formerly known as anarcho-punk had gone on the road. The last issue (number six) of Kill Your Pet Puppy reflected and anticipated this mass migration. While previous issues had been a surrealist/ situationist collage of cut-ups laying out in an almost random confusion of events and musics from glam to goth via anarchy and punk, number six condensed the chaos into a narrative which resolved/ dissolved itself at Stonehenge festival.
Even with the benefit of thirty years worth of hindsight, the creative chaos is still hard to comprehend, yet in the still bright colours of Joly McPhie’s Better Badges printing Adam and the Ants rub shoulders with Crass, Bauhaus with Charge, anarchy centres with a Sid Vicious Memorial March, the Illuminatus trilogy with the Floodgates of Anarchy, gay punks with Donny Osmond…I loved every minute of it.
The Mob were just one colourful thread of the psychedelic tapestry, but they do help make some kind of sense of it all. Their movement through the chaos illustrates a dimension lacking from the big bang version of punk, that somehow the long hot summer of 1976 was a year zero out of which exploded a brand new subculture disconnected from all that had gone before. This version is punk as media spectacle of the filth and the fury as if no group of young people had ever outraged common decency and threatened civilisation before. The moment of shock and awe didn’t last long, but the front page headlines became the stuff of a thousand media studies textbooks and sociology lectures. Punk generated a minor academic industry endlessly repeating year zero, year zero, year zero…if punk hadn’t existed, Greil Marcus would have had to invent it.
But there was no year zero. As several of the first generation of punk bands mentioned to John Robb (in his Punk Rock an oral history), before punk they had already been influenced by groups like the Pink Fairies and events like the Windsor Free Festival (1972-74). Beneath the shimmering banalities of the spectacular society, the UK counterculture survived the Schoolkids OZ trial of 1971 and was still a dynamic and evolving entity before during and after the punk eruption.
Both the Stonehenge Free Festival and the related traveller/ free festival (counter) culture emerged simultaneously with punk. Since Stonehenge was almost on the doorstep (next county) of Somerset, youths like the future members of the Mob found their way there and one of the first Mob gigs was at the festival. Meanwhile, Mark Perry was struggling to prevent the ossification of punk. In 1978, his ATV joined Here and Now on a tour which took in Stonehenge festival. There is a classic photo of their combined forces (including Grant of Fuck-Off Records) posed in front of a traveller bus taken at Stonehenge in June 1978.
In 1979 (or was it 1980?), the Mob were part of a similar travelling (Weird Tales) tour with Here and Now and Zounds and the Androids of Mu. So even before Wapping in 1981/2, two of the bands at the heart of anarcho-punk had already connected punk with the existing UK counterculture. Hegel would have loved it. If punk was the negation of hippy, then anarcho-punk was the negation of the negation…
So what? It is all history now. Except it isn’t. If it was all history all this should be written down somewhere, should have been picked over an analysed and theorised into extinction. As Guy Debord said “what is really lived has no relation to the official irreversible time of society and is in direct opposition to the pseudo-cyclical rhythm of the consumable by-product of this time. This individual experience of separate daily life remains without language, without concept, without critical access to its own past which has been recorded nowhere. It is not communicated. It is not understood and is forgotten to the profit of the false spectacular memory of the unmemorable.”
But since what is really lived defies the manufacture of history, so what is really experienced ‘remains without language’, remains silent between the moments of excess aka the event which will kick off at 8 pm on Friday 8 April 2011 in the Fleece. Then, for the briefest of moments, the false spectacular memory of the unmemorable will be put on hold and life will be really lived -again.
But now is not then. Thirty years ago we were at the beginning of a rightward lurch which only now is ending as (today Portugal) a series of banking crises threaten to unravel a global economy which had seemed so well knitted. Beyond the banks, the consequences of Japan’s reliance on nuclear power are turning a natural disaster into a catastrophe. No-one yet knows when or how it will end. Even as Fukushima melts down we are told with out more nukes in the UK the lights will all go off. Even as the global temperature rises we are told we must keep burning more coal and pumping more petrol to keep the wheels of industry turning and hold back a new dark age/ stone age.
It is difficult not to hear lines from Mob songs echoing the headlines. It is also hard not to recall, as Protag told me did at Heathrow Climate Change Camp, Hawkwind’s song ‘We took the wrong step years ago…’ As the sixties counterculture’s psychedelic dreams crashed against the oil crisis of the seventies, a few of the more thoughtful hippies imagined a future full of windmills and solar power as an alternative to nuclear power and fossil fuels. But as they knew, such alternative technology on its own was not enough. What was needed was a cultural revolution which would make a break with consumer capitalism which needed more and more power to keep churning out the ‘new and improved’ stuff without which life was just not worth living.
The home-made windmills never quite worked, but the idea of a DIY culture did. By demystifying (thanks Zounds!) the means of production, the radical technologists/ alternative engineers started to undermine the fetishism of commodities. I had the theory from reading magazines like Undercurrents in the seventies (‘a journal of radical technology’) but didn’t get the practice until I went with Mark of the Mob down to a record pressing plant off Mare Street in Hackney (?) to collect a 1000 copies of Witchhunt and then spent an evening (2 September 1983 to be precise) with him and Min stuffing 500 of them into their sleeves in the front room at Grovesnor Avenue. That evening a circle was completed. From hearing Witchhunt two years before at Puppy Mansions to reproducing the record for others to hear and (hopefully) be inspired by.
Twenty eight years on and that revolutionary moment of insight still seems relevant.