MENSFORTH SPEAKS FORTH
(STICKS DOESN'T DO MUCH)
"I love punk, it's still mint. Long may it reign."
Here's an interview I conducted with Mensi in mid-to-late 2005 for a book I was supposed to be writing with someone. The book didn't even begin to pan out, boo hoo. This little chat was conducted in the style an old "letter interview", where I'd send the subject a list of questions and he'd answer them. It's completely inadequate - you can't ask 'em to elaborate on anything or get them to answer a question properly - but all they'd agree to. Here, I sent them a Dictaphone tape and they did the interview at the pub, in broad Geordie accents. Mensi seemed animated, but Sticks clearly couldn't be arsed and seemed dead-bored by it all. Can't blame him. The guy asking the questions (directly from my letter) was really deadpan, which was either a quirk of his accent or a piss-takey comment on the banality of my questions. And banal they are, embarrassingly preoccupied with violence and controversy. I make no apologies. Sorry. I asked to "interview" the others in this way. They said if I sent 'em a tenner for beer they would, a not unreasonable request. I never did, and that was the end of that. Nevertheless, Mensi was a top interviewee: funny and honest, so I've decided to scribble out this transcription.
THE GIBBON: When were you first exposed to punk? Can you describe your reactions to any important singles/albums at the time? What did you listen to/do before punk?
Sticks: Before I was in the Upstarts I was in a band called the Rebels, and prior to that it was a band called The Wall – Jammy was the guitarist in that. The first exposure was rehearsing with the Rebels in my mum and dad's house and listening to The Vibrators and The Damned on John Peel. I used to listen to Alice Cooper, Queen, Led Zeppelin.
THE GIBBON: How did the Upstarts' original line-up - Mensi (vocals), Mond (guitar), Steve Forsten (bass) and Decca Wade (drums) – get together?
It was after the White Riot tour. We were basically all from the same council estate and basically it was me going around, knocking on the doors asking if anybody could play an instrument. They were the first ones I found who could play something, actually strum a note. I couldn't play fuck all, so I said, “Right, I'm the fucking singer, then.”
THE GIBBON: What was life like in Sunderland at the time, regarding quality of life, environment, youth culture, etc?
I was from South Shields. There was one other group who I'd seen at the Seaburn Hall, which was The Jam. They were fucking absolutely out of this world, for energy and everything. I just thought, fuck that, who wants to be working down the pit when you can be just jumping up and down like that, as much as beer as you can drink and as many women as you can…er…shake a stick at.
THE GIBBON: What was the band's first rehearsal/gig like? Can you describe the atmosphere at the early gigs?
First rehearsal we done one song. I wrote the song and banged the song down, it was ‘Fuck Off And Leave Me Alone'. Then after we played the song and the whole band stopped and were watching me and they thought I had fucking gone berserk. What they said was, “Save it for the stage and not the rehearsal”. The first ever gig was Pursey Hudson Youth Club, we played in front of about two hundred kids, and everybody just stood with their mouths open, they couldn't believe it. “Fuck me, what have we let ourselves into?”
Sticks: We started gigging more or less straight away, gigging locally around Sunderland. We were getting good audiences and every time we played it was brilliant.
THE GIBBON: How did the ' Liddle Towers' single come about (i.e. where was it pressed, sold)?
Liddle Towers was our protest single. It was the story of a boxing coach who was arrested for being drunk and disorderly. He was examined by a doctor and was perfectly healthy. Then in the morning was discovered dead and had injuries which the police surgeon described as being similar to that of a person who had been in a serious 70 miles-an-hour head-on collision. His injuries were absolutely horrific. He was basically kicked to death. We done a couple of shows and got the money together and we pressed 500 singles, and then Small Wonder/Rough Trade re-released it, and it got to number one in the indie charts. With no radio play. Apart from John Peel, nobody else played it, and it was actually banned off any sort of play list in the northeast. Fair play I say.
THE GIBBON: After Decca left in October '78, how did Sticks join?
Sticks: The Rebels consisted of Jammy on bass, Gaz playing guitar, Tony Van Frater from Red Alert on secondary guitar. The Upstarts walked in and said they needed a drummer, could the Rebels play some of the Upstarts songs? I drummed along with them, drummed them all right and that was it.
THE GIBBON: How did you hook up with Jimmy Pursey? How did your perception of Sham change over the years?
Pursey rang wor up and he had the Liddle Towers single and he says, “How would you like to release music on JP Productions?”, which was his, like, record company. Of course at the time Jimmy was, like, double mega, so we all just got in the car and scooted down there and started working with Jimmy. I thought Sham 69 were a very, very good band, what I'd class genuine working class roots things. I still like Jimmy to this day, it's just I thought he went off the rails a lot. He started believing his own hype. I don't knaa. His intention was to attack the music industry and I think the music industry sucked him in and spat him out in little bubbles. I think he lost it a bit. There's no getting away from it, Sham 69 did do some fantastic singles. ‘If The Kids Are United' is an anthem which still lives today. Fantastic, wish I'd wrote it, fucking mega.
Can you tell about the alleged doorman-punching incident?
What happened there was, Polydor's got an upstairs recording studio and we came out for an hour, and it was snowing outside so the lads thought we'd have a bit of a snowball fight. And then Sticks threw a snowball at some girls and it went nowhere near them – and this bloke turned around and says, “Did you throw that at me?” And Sticks went, “No, no I didn't”. So he started walking back to towards us. And he said, “Are you looking for trouble?” So he started picking on me, he said, “So you're the one with the mouth?” And I went, “Nah, mate, we don't want nae trouble.”
So he then took his coat off and took his rings off and took his watch off, so I just assumed he wasn't like getting undressed for the swimming pool, and I thought I was gonna get clumped, so I clumped him first. As luck would have it, I slipped on the snow and fell on me arse, and he got on top of wor and started knocking fucking seven bells out of me fucking head. He was a big hard fella, and when he was punching wor I thought me head was gonna come off.
So I was lying in the snow and getting me head punched in, and I thought, “You can stay here and your head'll come off, or you can do something about it". So I decided to bite his leg, which was the nearest thing. So I bit into his leg and tried to hold on as well as I could, which was pretty well. As I was getting punched me teeth were locking tighter and tighter into his leg, so he actually went into some sort of shock ‘cos he stopped hitting wor and then started screaming at us. I give him another couple of clumps, and then Jimmy Pursey sorta came in between wor and it calmed down. I think he'd bust me mouth up and both me hands were cut open. And I think I bust his nose and his mouth, and Pursey, says, “Shake hands.” I'm like an amiable sort of chap, so I put me hand out to shake his hand and he took a swing for wor again. So we started fighting again. And the police came. We went to Tony Gordon's office, who was our manager – it was about a ten minute walk - and by the time we walked in the door we got a ‘phone call from Polydor saying we were sacked for breach of contract.
And I actually thought we would end up being millionaires like the Six Pistols, but we got fuck all. We got sacked and didn't get a fucking shilling. Fucking great, eh?
THE GIBBON: How did the Warners deal come about, what were the terms and what did you think of the deal?
I think it was a two-album deal with them and I think we got a large amount of money at the time, which I seen fucking virtually nothing of. It just got swallowed up in everything. Warners, EMI, Polydor, I didn't see a lot of difference between any of them, ya knaa, they were just a way of promoting your material, that's all. They all had their own ideas. People say, “Do you sell out when you go to a major?” I go, “It's a case of, if you do what they tell you it's a case of selling out", but otherwise I don't there's any difference between any record companies apart from the marketing power, that's all.
THE GIBBON: Could you describe the recording of the ‘Teenage Warning' LP? What inspired the tracks ‘Teenage Warning', ‘We Are The People', ‘I'm An Upstart', ‘Leave Me Alone', ‘Youth Leader' and ‘Never Again'?
Fuck me, all in one breath? [laughs in disbelief] It was Jimmy's idea for ‘Teenage Warning', but I'm sure the original song was called ‘Football Hooligan' would you believe. And he changed ‘Football Hooligan' into ‘Teenage Warning'. So I suppose he should have some songwriting credit, but I suppose he was right. ‘We Are The People' was just a statement that we are the working class movement, we are the real deal. We're not fucking art students, which a lot of them were. I got slagged off for it but we were the real deal.
THE GIBBON: What was it like being on Top of the Pops?
It was fucking embarrassing. By the time we got to do Top of the Pops all these stories had gone around, exaggerating that I went around banging peoples' heads off and I was very similar to the Abominable Snowman. And when we walked in the birds who do your hair and all that, put your make up on, they refused to work with us. Not that I need makeup, ‘cos I'm a good looking bastard at the best of times. But anyway, when we walked in the actual studio it was like the fucking Red Sea, everybody just fucking parted and nobody fucking spoke to wor and I thought, fuck this! So we got on and done it as quick as we can, and then we went to the BBC bar and thought, well, ya knaa, these people don't really like us, so I thought I'd give ‘em something not to like wor for. So I like was me usual abysmal fucking behavioured [sic] self and I went ‘round grabbing Judy Tzuke's arse, threatened that fucking security guard, I was gonna fill Dr Who in. Fuck me, there was fucking beer fucking flying all awa. In the end we got fucking evicted from the BBC bar. No offence, I quite liked Dr Who. I was fucking chasing whatyacallhim, - “Power to the people!” – Citizen Smith. He ran off. Obviously we never, ever went back.
THE GIBBON: What did you make of Rock Against Racism, and the way punk tackled such issues as racism, sexism, and politics?
Fundamentally I believed in the principal, it was a fantastic idea. In reality I thought it was a load of fucking shit. I didn't understand, right. how the white middle class fucking lefties, SWP types, could justify having these massive events, right, and preaching to the converted, ya knaa? I think in principal, right, we should have been out on the corner of fucking Brick Lane, right, and kicking fuck out of the National Front. Basically, that's my fucking Rock Against Racism. The fundamental principals, yes, but I wish it was much more of a working class movement. In latter times, the likes of Anti-Fascist Action, which was a fantastic and working class movement, staffed, run and organised by working class people. If you could get that mass appeal I think it would have been a much better thing.
Punk music brung [sic] a lot of subjects to the fore, like racism, y'know. Punk music actually made me aware of me own racism within myself.
THE GIBBON: A lot gets made of the relationship between skins and punks, but what did you think about the anarcho-punk movement?
I didn't understand the anarchy movement, I didn't understand actual anarchy. How will we police ourselves, because in society you'll always have greed and you'll always have bullies? So how do you combat them if you police yourself? If somebody's stronger than you, right, or they've got a bigger gang – like the capitalists, whatever, or the nazis – how do you combat that if you're an anarchist? Also, we can't police ourselves. I do believe in having a police force, but a police force should be unquestionable, they should be staffed from the absolute cream of society and be the most well-equipped. But I must stress, also non-political, which in this country I don't think we've ever had a non-political police force. They've always been severely right wing – and fucking severely right wing – and we're only just starting to address the tip of the iceberg now. They run hand-in-hand, and have done, with the fascists. And if they're not fascists then they're certainly fucking Tories, which was proven in the miner's strike.
THE GIBBON: The Upstarts had a reputation for attracting trouble/media attention. Do any incidents in particular stand out? Any nice anecdotes about that time?
If somebody says they went to a fucking Upstarts gig and said a fucking fight broke out. that's what it was like most of the time. I don't think I understood it at the time but I think it was my first venture into politics because I didn't ever consider myself as being political, I honestly just wanted to go out, have a good time and a drink, and meet as many girls as I could. That was me life! It was only when right-wing elements got involved and wanted to spoil that I started to fight back. And then it got to the point where I became pro-active and I used to attack them before they started the trouble, which is where I got the bad name from. I didn't see the point in waiting for them to start the trouble, so I used to identify what I would consider the troublemakers and then we would attack them. In retrospect it was wrong, but you do what you think is right. But still, if I could go back in time I still think I'd do the fucking same.
THE GIBBON: Can you recall the recording of the second album, the ‘Never ‘Ad Nothin' single, and incidents that inspired ‘Shotgun Solution'?
‘Shotgun Solution' was a piece of piss because it was about an actual event. What are you gonna do with gangsters or bullies when your actual family are threatened? How you gonna police that? When someone's threatened to kill you what do you actually do? ‘Shotgun Solution' is what we done. It was a solution to a problem because at the time the police didn't want to be involved. Nobody else wanted to be involved, it was like family and friends against gangsters. I said, “Fuck the police, let's just do it worselves”, and we became judge, jury and executioner, all in one fucking night. “What do you think? Guilty! Sentence? Death! Right, let's get off and let's do it!” That was me: little bit wild, little bit bad-tempered, but just such a lover boy now it's unbelievable, it's actually quite shocking. People look at me now and go, “Ahh, he's so nice and effeminate.” I have been compared on numerous occasions to Ashley off Coronation Street because of me lovin' gentle nature, especially towards women, I just ooze romance.
THE GIBBON: Whose idea was it to kick around the pig head, and how on earth did you blag a prison gig?
That was wild. We had a lad who was already inside and he approached the prison authorities and he actually told ‘em we were a gospel band, because of our name ‘Angelic Upstarts', and they actually booked wor, and the vicar was over the moon. They met wor at the prison gates and told wor what the rules were: we had nae to give anybody any food, we had nae to accept any letters from anybody, and we had nae to give anybody letters, or take any messages, or carry messages.
And the vicar looked at me and he said, “It gives me so much hope when I see young men like you and you're so into Jesus and God. It gives me so much heart to carry on this job.” Then we started the first song and he fucking shit himself, ran out the place.
Because we'd done the ‘Liddle Towers' thing the police used to stop us in the street and abuse us. I did actually get assaulted on two occasions by the police, and they sort of upped the ante when they got attacked. Obviously I couldn't fight the whole police force so the pig's head was a symbol of my aggression towards them, of our resistance against the police.
THE GIBBON: What did you make of Oi!, the Southall riots, the Exploited, and punk in general in the early 80s?
I didn't understand the whole fucking thing about Oi! and I still don't today. What was the fucking supposed difference? When I started off I was in a punk band. I still am in a punk band. I didn't understand this tag of “Oi!” thing. The whole thing was just a sort of creation of Garry Bushell, and I thought it's slightly degrading, it's more like a comic book thing, ya knaa. The thing was about Southall, although I wasn't there, I found the whole situation to be quite understandable. You go into a predominately Asian area with big boots and Union Jacks plastered all over your fucking head – what do you expect? Could anybody point out to me a black Oi! band.
I liked Big John, he was one hell of a guitarist, he was one big fat fella like me. I think I like Wattie, he's a good lad, it's just that when he talks I can't fucking understand a word he says.
I love punk, it's still mint. Long may it reign.
THE GIBBON: What were the circumstances that led to recording with Jake Burns, and the whole 2,000,000 Voices LP?
You meet loads of bands when you live in London. I went for a drink with Boney M, I drank with Duran Duran and they were all good lads. The first one I met was the drummer out of SLF, Jimmy Reilly, and me and him just got on like a house on fire, and he introduced us to one of the roadies, Spud, and I immediately identified with them. To me it was like Angelic Upstarts from Northern Ireland. Jake came along and put some input into ‘I Understand'. I think he actually sorted out the harmonies. But we could identify with SLF. Jake to me was the absolute epitome of the working class punk movement – not fucking Oi! or bullshit bollocks – it was more that I could see myself in them. The stories they told us were absolutely horrific, like Jimmy Reilly's brother Thomas was murdered by the British army. He was shot in the back for fucking nothing, for absolutely nothing. Nobody was ever punished for it. How can fucking people live like this? How can they still just want to talk to me, as an English person. I thought, they must be on a higher level than me. They to me epitomised the whole punk movement.
How did the EMI deal evolve, and what do you now make of ‘Still From The Heart' – an LP which punks tend to hate but I reckon, au contraire, is actually one of the better UK punk LPs of the decade: at the least, it's got good songs!
A record company was a record company. But EMI did ask for us to do a different kind of album, to cross over to a different audience. I'm the only one who stood up and said that I believed it was wrong. The whole concept of that album was wrong. I think the songs were good songs. You see me, you can't turn me into Frank Sinatra, it just ain't gonna happen. It doesn't matter how you put it across, I'm never gonna change. The whole thing was just wrong, the whole concept. Although on the photograph I didn't half look good. You know with that beret I looked just the fucking double of Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter. I looked in the mirror and thought, “Fuck me, that's Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter.”
THE GIBBON: What was Anagram like?
Now, I say all record companies were the same but Anagram were actually quite different. You could actually go in and talk with the top boy. There was a couple of lads who actually owned the company, and they used to sit down and discuss with you. I've got nothing bad to say about them. They did try to get over what the band was trying to be about. There was more to Anagram than just selling records. I think they wanted to put something out that meant something, and they also wanted their bands to mean something.
THE GIBBON: How did ‘Sons of Spartacus' come about? And has the band really split up for good?
It was fucking Van Frater and fucking Gaz the twat twisting on about fucking doing fucking music. I was glad I done Sons Of Spartacus because it came out really well, and I think it was one of the best albums wor ever done: musically, lyrically. I cannae go on forever. I'm like Don Corleoni in Godfather III: “Every time I try to leave they pull me back in.” Actually, I look a bit like Al Pacino in his younger days.