An EXCLUSIVE interview with U.K. SUBS’ Charlie Harper
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee …
The seeds of the Punk movement were planted in the late ‘60s and took root in New York in the mid-‘70s. But Punk didn’t really blossom until it hit the UK in ’76. By breaking Rock ‘n’ Roll down to its raw and raucous foundation, Punk brought life to the spirit of Rock. Just like Frankenstein’s monster, this new, energetic and youthful musical movement wreaked havoc everywhere it went. Nearly 40 years on, it can still be seen, felt and heard on the radio, internet and TV. Alongside Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam, Buzzcocks, The Damned and The Stranglers, U.K. Subs were one of the original British Punk bands to emerge on the scene. Fronted by Charlie Harper – already a veteran of the U.K. music scene for a decade before the band formed in ’76 – the Subs toured and released singles before finally releasing their debut album in 1979. For four decades, Harper has flown the Punk flag with pride, never catering to record label and music business politics. While Joe Strummer, Johnny Rotten, Paul Weller and other Punk vets have become Punk idols, Charlie has become an icon – he is just as hard-working, determined and approachable today as he ever was. U.K. Subs remain a band and not a brand. Though they’ve gone through many line-up changes over the years, Charlie has kept the music focused and passionate – when you hear the Subs, you know it’s the Subs.
With 2015’s Yellow Leader, Harper and his Sub-mates (Japanese guitarist Jet, bassist Alvin Gibbs and drummer Jamie Oliver) have released a full-length album that is as modern and powerful as it is classic. Produced by Pat Collier, the album features some of the best material they’ve ever written. Thankfully, the quartet varies the tempos, arrangements and song structures so they don’t end up sounding like the same backing tracks with different lyrics shouted over the top. However, the pure electric energy of the album does come with a twinge of sadness – back in ’79, Harper had a goal to release albums that had titles beginning with every letter of the alphabet (Another Kind Of Blues, Brand New Age, Crash Course, etc.) but after Yellow Leader, only one letter remains: Z. On the other hand, with this fantastic release already receiving well-justified praise, it’s quite exciting to see where they might go with their next and possibly final full-length studio album!
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to chat with Charlie Harper to discuss the past, the present and the future of U.K. Subs….
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Yellow Leader features your best set of songs in years. How are you feeling about the album?
CHARLIE HARPER: Oh, thank you. It’s probably the best album we’ve ever done actually. I still think Endangered Species is quite a good album. That was our peak I think.
SPAZ: Well I think you’ve hit quite a few peaks throughout your career. At various times, you’ve hit a certain peak, and then when I think it can’t get any better, you hit another peak… and then another one. How are you feeling about the reaction to the album so far?
CHARLIE: Really pleased – it’s all been very positive. People say they can’t stop playing it. I say, “Oh, you’ll get sick of it soon!” (laughs)
SPAZ: Most albums stick to a formula and end up sounding very same-y in the long run but this record is so varied. It’s still a U.K. Subs album, but it’s not formulaic.
CHARLIE: That’s probably the main difference on this album, which is great. But there’s something on this album that no one has picked out yet – we had this little theme going for this album. We thought, “Let’s do narration on this album” – like a little talk before the tracks came in. We’d throw it in when we could and it’s gone into the tracks so smoothly that no one’s really said anything. There are probably five or six little narrations all over the place. So, there are all kinds of funny little things like that going on.
SPAZ: Pat Collier did a great production job on the album. Do you feel this album captures the power of your live set? Or is that even possible?
CHARLIE: I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but that is what we do strive for and I think this is the closest we’ve come. Every time you go into the studio, you don’t forget what you learn so we’re always trying to do something different and new. Our Japanese guitarist, Jet – he is good with English, but sometimes he doesn’t understand certain phrase. So when you say things like “push the envelope,” or “think outside the box,” and stuff like that, you have to explain to him what you mean. And then he isn’t one for doing that. We really got him because of his Johnny Thunders-style guitar playing, which we love, so we can’t expect him to think of other kinds of genres that we may want to do. But I write so much that I can pick the punky ones and leave the softer or the more artsy ones out of it. But I think it’s good to have it like this on the album. It has some songs which are kind of surprising for a Punk band to do. The last album, XXIV, had a whole half album of acoustic stuff.
SPAZ: There’s so much going on during the album, stylistically – even tempo changes mid-song. Do you approach each song with a different frame of mind?
CHARLIE: Now we’ve got four writers. So, I could say to them, “Look let’s write four songs each and we’ll pick out the three best ones out of those.” It kind of works like that.
SPAZ: You’ve been making records and you’ve been in the business a long time. How easy is it to consistently come up with the goods?
CHARLIE: I think it’s because we’re on the road and we live in this kind of Punk bubble, where people are complaining about systems, the country’s leaders, the wars going on in the world and the plight of the people. We meet these people first hand and it’s a constant source of inspiration. Whenever we go to Australia, the punks are quite radical there. They’ve got their own Punk pubs where nothing else goes on but Punk rock. In Australia, specifically Melbourne, they come up to us and tell us their stories. I write a song almost every day, but sometimes I get a hold of a good one and then it won’t come out for a few days. So, before we record the albums, I’ve got three books of the songs to choose from and the funny thing is I generally choose the ones I’ve done recently and the ones I know, rather than some very good ones I’ve forgotten. So, there’s a lot of good stuff to come.
SPAZ: When you go in the studio, do you ever question whether or not the fans will accept something like “Archeology” or “Rebellion Song”? Or do you essentially just do what you feel is right for the Subs?
CHARLIE: That’s a great question. Being around for like 36 years, there’s not many questions that I don’t get asked and that’s a good one! To tell you the truth, we really play to ourselves. The big thing for us is that WE love the song.
SPAZ: How long has this particular Subs lineup been together?
CHARLIE: Well, it’s Jamie’s and Jet’s 10th year. So, it’s the longest surviving UK Subs lineup. Normally, someone’s with us for a year and then they have a girl in California or something – all sorts of reasons. (laughs)
SPAZ: Do you pretty much have full control in the studio, or do you let the other three guys inject their personalities into the songs and recordings?
CHARLIE: I encourage that. Alvin, for instance, he comes up with just super stuff and it’s like everything he does is great. Jamie needs censoring sometimes because sometimes he’ll have five songs in one that go on for five minutes, so I’ll have to just censor him a little bit or just do a bit of rearranging. Funny, we were talking about Jet last night and we were saying that his view on music arrangement is very naïve, but it’s fresh and different – that’s good really. My kind of thing is to keep the music changing. You know, you have an intro and verse and then you get a chorus and a middle eight and then a guitar break and three minutes is gone and there’s not the same bit of music on. So, you’ll have six different sounds in the one song, and I tend to work like that… but it can sound like all my songs are the same sometimes.
SPAZ: You had been involved in the music scene for a decade before the band formed. Do you think that that experience prepared you for the longevity of your UK Subs career?
CHARLIE: Well, it did in a way because I was exposed to all those old Blues guys. You know, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf… I saw ‘em all live and they were just amazing gentlemen and to me, that was the thing – to dedicate your whole life to play music. The pop thing wasn’t really my thing and I always stayed away from that. I started off playing Folk music, like Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan stuff, Rambling Jack Elliot… I even like old Country – I suppose you could call them classics. I still play a lot of that at home. I was banging out “Working On The Railroad” a few hours ago. (laughs)
SPAZ: Now you’re on the letter “Y.” Does that mean there’s only one Subs album left in you, or are you going to go to like bra sizes? Like AA, BB…
CHARLIE: We’ve done a great album and it was quite difficult to do this one. I can’t wait to get to “Z” and finish. And that’s it. I’m 70 years old, and by the time we do “Z” – I think they want to release it at the end of next year – we can just gig and write the odd EP or single. We want to write a few great singles. We haven’t done that. That’s a different market.
SPAZ: What’s next for Charlie Harper?
CHARLIE: We are writing while we have a chance between tours. We’ve been writing the album and they want us to start thinking of the artwork, which we’ve kind of thought of and everything’s in place. My writing is well on the way and coming on good. And it will merge into kind of what I’ve been doing. It t will be a little bit folky Punk.
Thanks to Charlie Harper
Special thanks to Mark Brennan, Daryl Smith, Dana House and Nick Kominitsky