I have long had a soft spot for Sham 69. They were a great singles band and as a result clocked up more Top of the Pops appearances than most of their punk and new wave contemporaries. Their songs, whilst rabble rousing, spanned a variety of themes from social commentary (‘Angels With Dirty Faces’), jack the lad humour (‘Hurry Up Harry’ and ‘Hersham Boys’), almost through to self help! (‘Questions and Answers’ and ‘If The Kids Are United’). Put ‘Hersham Boys’ on the turntable and you could be listening to a rough around the edges Madness (another troupe of lovable rouges, especially in their early years).
Originally championed by Mark P of Sniffin’ Glue/Alternative TV, Sham were sold as the band taking punk back to its grass roots, the punk band for young working class kids who couldn’t afford the look and style of the Kings Road from ‘Seditionaries’ or ‘Acme Clothing’ and instead made do with a torn school shirt and customised blazer. Sham 69’s songs spelled out a message of unity and the need to question and challenge authority, delivered through the lyrics and on-stage rants of front man Jimmy Pursey. Jimmy was something of a paradox. Did he and his band bring young people together or rather inadvertently open the door to elements of the far right and in doing so give the National Front and British Movement easy access to large numbers of disaffected working class youth looking for a purpose, at a time when their prospects for extremely limited by the economic and political climate that then existed in the UK?
The band tried to address the unwanted reputation they gained by virtue of the right wing skinhead elements of their audience, but often with limited success. Sham gave their support to the Rock Against Racism (RAR) cause, with Jimmy most notably performing ‘White Riot’ with The Clash in Hackney’s Victoria Park on 30th April 1978. Announcements of the band’s intention to play RAR promoted gigs were sometimes followed up with more announcements that they had pulled out gigs due to concerns over threats of violence that would ensue were they to play.
In 1979, some of the most exiting bands that the UK had to offer were on the rise, the likes of Adam and the Ants, The Angelic Upstarts, The Ruts, Sham 69, The Specials and The Beat. As great as the music was many of these bands gigs were regularly marred by politically motivated violence, with the 2 Tone bands being particularly easy targets. And for Sham that trouble seemed to follow in their wake.
Prominance of the far right in the Top Ranks and Odeons of the land was reflected in the polling stations. Such was the new found confidence of the National Front in the 1979 General Election that they fielded candidates in nearly half of all British constituencies, polling 191,719 votes. This represented only 0.6% of the total vote and all deposits were lost but doubtless, their performance would have been stronger had the ultimately successful Conservative Party not played to the fears of would be NF voters to increase their vote.
As mentioned earlier, the band’s music did not warrant such a dubious reputation. When I listen to an early Sham 69 album, I cannot but smile. Think of ‘That’s Life’ punk’s own vinyl kitchen sink drama, a concept album no less documenting the drab 9 to 5 existence of a central character who lives for the horses and a fumble in the darkness of a nightclub on a Saturday night….. ‘Me brother thinks he’s John Travolta and me sister thinks she’s Olivia Nooooton Jo-o-ohn!’ (‘Grease’ was the runaway box office hit of 1978, songs from the soundtrack of which infected the UK charts for weeks on end!). ‘Everybody’s Right, Everybody’s Wrong’ sees our Jim in a reflective mood when he delivers the following lyrics, which are often quoted in our house:
Just great, Keats could top that!!
The classic line up of Sham 69 disbanded in 1980 after the release of their fourth album ‘The Game’. Jimmy Pursey persued other artistic avenues including new fangled video and performance dance, remember the footage of Jimmy cavorting to ‘Meninblack’? No….
I first Sham 69 at The Marquee in 1992…. with keyboards! It was a tame affair. The only skinheads in evidence were very young and at one point Pursey leant over the stage and patted one of them on the head and told him to grow his hair. Given the fact that he was wearing a modern Skrewdriver T-shirt I would have favoured the more robust Mensi approach in the same circumstances!
In 2006, after a fall out, Sham 69 mainstays, Jimmy Pursey and Dave Parsons, parted company with the guitarist continuing with the band with Tim V on vocals. In more recent years three quarters of the classic line up of Pursey, Parsons and Treganna reformed and they still cut it although the former motor mouth stage proclamations have disappeared and that’s a shame.