‘Southall’s Burning!!’ Sounds 30th July 1977
Nick Cash, 999’s diminutive front man, had to resort to the old heave-ho last week at the Nashville. Quarter to ten on a Monday evening, with West London’s premier rock venue packed to the rafters, there were still a hundred odd kids queuing vainly outside. Cash had to push and shove his way through the unruly crowd before he could get in to play.
He fell through the swing doors and straight into the arms of the two part-time security men who were already so phased by the pandemonium they looked about ready to lay out the first thing that moved. Indeed had it not been for the timely intervention of the Nashville promoter, the shy, sensitive and decidedly non-violent Mr Cash might well have woken up in the hospital with two black eyes and a bent nose. A victim of his own success.
The word is out about 999, you see, and after a bare three months of turning the Hope and Anchor into a sauna bath and supporting such as The Saints and The Vibrators, 999 are proving the biggest draw at the Nashville since the Jam played there in the Spring.
And on the night when the above all took place 999 were half way through a four week residency and were coming on strong. Those locked outside missed a real cherry.
They missed: One of the best pop groups to emerge in years. One that is destined to take its place with the best like the Clash, the Damned and the Stranglers and every other ‘Now’ band that’s hit the charts. One that might, conceivably, be bigger than the Sex Pistols. A Pop group in that long tradition of great pop groups that include the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Thin Lizzy and more.
They missed: A band that turned in a tremendously rich ‘n’ raw performance. 999 came on in a blur of complete confidence as the black clad singer swept his telecaster round to his back and screamed ‘Emergency Emergency’ in a high falsetto. They were a tight skein of pure electricity as their peroxide blond guitarist bled raw power from his volume control and kicked high into the air. 999 became a tight rhythm machine driven by a bass and drummer who knew not just how to take the straights, but when and where to drift through the corners too.
And if that wasn’t galling enough for the kids in the queue, they missed a brace of good songs too. With good hooks. Good rhythms and good words.
Good hooks: Like ‘Nasty Nasty’ with its big shout chorus working against the beat of the bass to create more of that pure Pop tension, long the stock-in-trade of everybody from Gary US Bonds and the early Tamla crew to Gary Glitter and the Clash.
Good rhythms: Like the timeless, high energized Kinks riff which kicked ‘Emergency’ into panic or the Ramones roar that powered ‘My Street Stinks’.
Good words: In intelligent, free-thinking songs like ‘Chicane Direction’ (sic) and ‘I’m Alive’. Lyrics making keen and often witty observations upon the facts of life in the sweltering seventies.
And, probably worst of all, those still out in the street missed a real party too. Pogoers paradise as half the audience joined 999 on stage and sang along with the choruses.
Backstage at Dingwalls the following evening, eight thirty on the dial and still three hours before gig time, the atmosphere is a lot calmer. In fact the Sounds vibe counter registers only slightly more than zero.
Drummer Pablo Labritain is busy mending his stage jacket, a ragged khaki affair, set off with three brass front door numbers tacked on the chest. Stapling yellow paper triangles in a flash down the lapel he chatters away to a tall, lean heavy character named Foxy who has a face that matches his name and paper clips all over his bleached and battered denim coat. Lead guitarist Guy Daze snoozes in the corner. The air in here is mighty sleepy.
It’s a little better outside. Bass player Jon Watson sticks his grown-out skinhead around the door and complains that it’s all really quiet out at the bar.
‘Dingwalls is always like this’, mutters Cash, putting down the guitar he was tuning with a fork.
It’s too up-market for Foxy’s taste too. From Southall, a heavy area of west London, Foxy is one of 999’s hardcore fans. Like his mate Colin he goes to all the gigs and is readily accepted as a vital part of the whole 999 operation. Much like the Stranglers and their Finchley Boys, 999 are proud possessors of a bunch of fans who – like and American football team and their cheerleaders – can always be relied upon to roll out the red carpet and the good vibes and crank up the atmosphere.
Foxy is proud of his mates and proud of his fave band. Totally and innocently committed to both 999 and the Punk cause, he hints that he and the rest of the Southall boys needed to do…er… a little policing at the Nashville the night before. Just to keep things on the level.
‘With all that violent stuff you read about in the papers, people expect that kids like us are going to make trouble, y’know’ he says in a sharp Cockney drawl. ‘But what’s the point of that? We want to avoid all that, y’know. If there’s trouble it would only mean that 999 would get banned and we’re the last people that want that to happen. We want to be able to see ‘em everywhere.’
Nick cash holds these lads holds these lads in such high esteem he would willingly allow them to speak on his behalf.
‘I don’t really know what we are about,’ he tells me. ‘I think we’re just a modern dance band. You talk to someone like Foxy and he’ll be able to tell you much more than I can.’
‘Some guy from Time magazine asked the Southall boys why they liked 999 and the other New Wave bands and they said ‘Cos they’re just like us on stage’.
It’s a sentiment that Pablo Labritain savours with relish. One of the many drummers who passed through the Clash’s audition stables before he joined 999, Pablo is the street kid of the band, the most overtly political of the lot. He wrote the lyrics to ‘Chicane Destination’ a song that takes a long hard look at today’s society and is worried by what it sees. Nevertheless, he too insists that 999 get up on stage to entertain. They don’t preach. There’s no special message.
‘Mind you’ he adds after a little consideration, ‘It does depend on what you mean by message’. Everybody expresses some sort of message on stage just by being themselves.’
‘And you can’t tell anybody anything really’, Guy Daze chips in. ‘It’s much better to make people think about things than to tell ‘em’.
That’s 999’s plan of attack. Pablo reckons it’s more about observation than suggestion. And Nick Cash agrees.
‘One of the songs that’ll be on our first single (due out pop-pickers, next month on the Labritain label – C.de W.) is called ‘I’m Alive’. It’s just about our immediate situation and we’re just saying what we see. We’re not passing any comments or judgments on it.’
Cash played guitar for a short time with the founding father of safety pin rock Ian Drury (sic) in Kilburn and the High Roads. He admits some dissatisfaction with his past but he doesn’t seek to hide it.
‘I just had to unlearn a lot’ is his only comment.
Nevertheless the faintest of parallels is discernible between then and now, for 999 are fired by a Kilburn-like streak of dry, almost black wit in both their music and their lyrics. Sometimes you might just swear that their tongues were in their cheeks and a vague, but nonetheless amusing air of satire hangs around 999’s set. It adds depth and perspective to their already colourful musical character.
And it’s that character which is already pulling 999 through and will keep them at the top when many of the currently successful New Wave outfits have gone under. They’re still holding down day jobs. Cramming in rehearsals whenever they can. They all agree that they are yet only half as together as they should be and they look forward with barely concealed excitement to the day when they can afford a four hundred percent commitment and really achieve something.
Nick Cash reckons he’s done some good already though . He was interviewed by the London Evening News last week and asked how much he earned in his job as a postal clerk. ‘That caused quite a fuss ‘cos, apparently I’m being paid well below the average. The union picked up on it, so I reckon I’ve done something for all the other people doing the same job. I’ve brought their problems out into the light.’
Chas de Whalley.