Joyriding in the Docklands

published in Red Mist, 8th May 2011

The Bermondsey Joyriders and John Sinclair live at London’s 100 Club

“Where are they now?”, asked a 1982 song by South-East London band Cock Sparrer, lamenting the faded and lapsed heroes of the British punk revolution. The answer was simple. Some of the addressees of the lyric, such as John Lydon and Joe Strummer, had moved on to create rather more interesting music (Public Image Ltd. and Sandinista! respectively). Lesser lights, such as Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey, had simply run out of ideas that might justify yet another album of two-chord terrace chantalongs, leaving the spotlight to a new breed of dole punks operating under the ‘Oi!’ umbrella.

The latter phenomenon, in turns, provided opportunity to namecheck the never-have-beens of gritty working class rock and roll; bands such as Heavy Metal Kids, formed years before the Sex Pistols, had seen punk come and go. Ditto Cock Sparrer, originally a Faces-cum-Slade pub rock combo and now reuniting to entertain a few thousand devoted skinheads. ‘This time it’s real’, went the motto of Oi!, and Cock Sparrer utilised their classic rock songwriting skills to craft some of the most street-smart, sincere, and anthemic material associated with the punk genre. You could almost smell the ale and fish ‘n’ chip shops.

So where are they now? While a new Cock Sparrer line-up is still doing the rounds on the punk nostalgia circuit, their former guitarist and main songwriter, Garry Lammin, assembled a new band named The Bermondsey Joyriders. Also on board are bassist Martin Stacey (ex-Chelsea of Right to Work fame – the song, not the SWP front) and, more recently, Rat Scabies of The Damned on drums. Performing at the famed 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street, the cockney super-group promoted their second album, Noise and Revolution. Now revolution is not an unheard of buzzword in casual rock parlance, but when a band invites the founder of the White Panther Party, John Sinclair, to accompany their performance with spoken word, you get the impression they intend to make a point.

Truth be told, this seemed to be a rather strange combination. 1960s relic John Sinclair, after all, had led the vanguard of American college drop-outs and would-be guerrillas to demand “dope, guns and fucking in the street” while dropping acid for breakfast and mismanaging the MC5. Cock-Sparrer, in contrast, were politically undaring even by Oi! standards. “We don’t want to fight because you tell us to”, they insisted on ‘Watch Your Back‘, a song that not only likened socialist revolution to the ‘Final Solution’ (see how it rhymes), but promised to turn on the far left and the far right equally in case either side ever decided to “attack”[i]. Add to this the flag-waving of ‘England Belongs To Me’ and various booze-fuelled football aggro songs, and you’ve got the kind of self-defeating conservatism that drives more sensitive socialists to despair.

The event at the 100 Club could have turned out to be just a nostalgic veteran meetup, further cementing punk’s acquired status as part of the classic rock canon – another reminder of the good old days when music was ‘real’. But it actually worked quite wonderfully on many levels, some of which were, one suspects, unintentional. Fittingly, the silver haired John Sinclair sat on a stool on the far left of the stage, looking on to the Bermondsey Joyriders, who had taken position on little Union Jack rugs, with a benevolent yet somewhat bittersweet expression.

The Joyriders sported massive sideburns, bowler hats, and other attire of days gone by, which resulted in a look somewhere between Slade, A Clockwork Orange, and Victorian England. Sinclair played the role of the narrator: “As the Bermondsey Joyriders were contemplating noise and revolution, the neighbourhoods were being torn apart by greedy property developers,” he read out in a quiet, raspy tone. Age had lent the man dignity, and his presentation was remarkably free of ‘far out’ freak politics.

“Things were disintegrating. Society was rapidly changing,” Sinclair finished his introduction ominously. These last words triggered the opening chords of what was an absolutely awesome culmination of middle age angst bottled in a raging three-minutes rock ‘n’ roll song. “Society! Is rapidly! Chan-ging!” chanted the gravelly-voiced Garry Lammin while bashing out Pete Townshend and Steve Jones-styled bar chords. There was a sense that the messenger wasn’t enthusiastic about the news.

The Bermondsey Joyriders carry their concept in the band name. As London’s Docklands are becoming a site for exclusive apartment blocks, local youths have found a new hobby: they joyride the flashy cars of the yuppie colonisers and then ceremonially torch them. What radical anti-gentrification activists would ‘theorise’ as a political action in Berlin is done spontaneously and unpretentiously in Blighty. “We don’t advocate it, but we can understand it,” commented Lammin in an interview with the American punk zine Sonic Lobotomy. When prompted whether this was an expression of the class struggle, he replied in the affirmative – however monosyllabically.

Back at the 100 Club, the rhythm section, made up of Martin Stacey (he self-describes as a royalist on Facebook, and I’m not sure he’s being ironic) and Rat Scabies (a self-described anarchist), hammered away at ‘Society’ as Lammin yelled: “Look at that place over there – used to be a library! They don’t do books in there now – all they do is computer games”. His over-the-top delivery accentuated the band’s theatrical tongue-in-cheek posture, quintessentially English in how he employed humour to feign distance from what he, in truth, meant very seriously.

This was not merely a song about gentrification. It was the desperate cries of a man who sees everything familiar evaporating before his eyes – rapidly. “All that is solid melts into thin air,” Marx wrote of the “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions” that characterises the bourgeois epoch; “all that is holy is profaned”. Lammin is on his way out, the world he calls home reduced to the idealised childhood memory of a full employment era East End swinging to the beat of the Small Faces. He is afraid. “Nothing works, nothing is true, there’s nothing special, not even me and you”, he protests.

What kind of revolution, then, are The Bermondsey Joyriders contemplating? If we are to go by their sonic and visual time machine approach, then they – like much of the British labour movement – would ideally just want to restore and preserve the certainties of the past, and I fear this just won’t happen. But what the Joyriders do, they do well: a bit of Johnny Thunders here, a bit of bottleneck blues there; from T. Rex through bar room punk and The Kinks, it’s all marvellously executed, energetic, angry and, er… I guess ‘solid’ is the appropriate word.

We cannot say with certainty what their upcoming concept album Noise and Revolution, again contextualised by John Sinclair’s narration, will bring to the table lyrically. For the time being, some song titles should serve as an indication: ‘Proper English’; ‘True Punk’; ’1977′. “Through all the changes, the Bermondsey Joyriders stand firm like London Bridge” is how Sinclair consequently announced a song named after the landmark that sees a daily storm of suits and boots rushing to the offices.

Foot soldiers in a war that turns more desperate as the decades pass, the suits and boots can do no more than postpone unconditional surrender. If the Bermondsey Joyriders and the rest of us, however, want to emerge triumphantly on the other side, it’s time we took off the nostalgia-tinted glasses and became more ambitious about the future; the future not just of England, our town or our neighbourhood, but that of the human race and the world at large.

[i] Howard Devoto penned a more paranoid variation of the theme with Magazine’s Shot By Both Sides three years earlier, while anarcho-pacifists Crass vented their counterrevolutionary sentiments in Bloody Revolutions (1980).

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