Working Class Heroes: Sham 69

❉ Paul Matts on the punk rock anthems of Jimmy Pursey and Dave Parsons.

After the initial whirlwind of the first wave on punk rock there was one question. What would happen next?

Musically punk rock should have been be anything anyone wanted it to be. That was its spirit. However, punk’s early pioneers operated with basic chord structures and arrangements. The Stooges led the way out of garage rock with distortion and Iggy, The Ramones played rock n roll at breakneck speed, The Clash, The Damned and the Sex Pistols played muscular Faces-style stuff sprayed with swagger, anger and tons of in yer face attitude.

However, when the landscape settled after punk’s opening salvo, what was left? The Slits produced the most free-spirited of punk of albums in Cut. In so far as it really was anything the band wanted to do. The Pistols inevitably imploded and Lydon went straight into Public Image Ltd; the result was undefinable – and was therefore exactly the essence what punk should be. The Clash only really made one punk album and by Give ‘em Enough Rope were already moving into new territories.

It was as if the new punk rock music was no longer enough anymore for some of the first wave of punk bands. However, what about the fans? Many didn’t want their bands to ‘evolve’. They were entirely happy with loud, brash music with shedloads of energy, attitude and identity. And why not? It was brilliant. These fans still wanted to jump around, singalong and spend their hard-earnt cash on punk rock bands who gave them what they wanted.

Thankfully, a good number of acts were ready, willing and able to do exactly that.

Buzzcocks injected a more personal flavour to the music. UK Subs introduced the warrior spirit epitomised by Charlie Harper, joined by a band of soldiers ready to wave the punk flag for many years to come. The Ruts produced a line of classic singles until Malcom Owen’s untimely death. The Vibrators were ripping it up also. There were others, too.

SHAM 69 (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

However, one band, more than anyone else, connected with me and my young gang of schoolmates. And with our older brothers. And with our Uncles who spent Saturday afternoons on the football terraces.

Sham 69 had songs the public loved. They had songs the public could relate to. Written in a language the public could understand. In fact, Sham 69 came from the same place as their public. The streets, the housing estates. And during 1977-1979 three albums were released loaded up with punk rock anthems, including five top twenty hits.

And then … they split. Frustrating or what?

By then they had left a legacy of working-class anthems so loved that no punk band has come close to equalling them. Jimmy Pursey and Dave Parsons, the song-writing partnership behind these gems, deserve far more credit as tunesmiths than they have received over the years.

James Timothy (Jimmy) Pursey was born in Hersham in 1955. His formative years in the locality included work as a barrow boy at an East End market and at Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium. A Ramones fan, in 1975 he formed a band, called Jimmy and the Ferrets, with local lads Neil Harris, John Goodfornothing (AKA John Goode), both on guitar, Albie Slider on bass and Andy Nightingale (AKA Billy Bostick) on drums. His view of his hometown was not always reverent – “Unless you wanna fight there’s nothing to do.”

Dave Parsons had first picked up guitar aged twelve, having got a grounding in music by playing the violin a couple of years before. There was a musical element in his family, as his father had played in orchestras. He joined his first band aged fourteen and quickly became used to rehearsing and on occasion, gigging. By the mid-seventies, Parsons, still at school, formed his own band who, in his own words, “fell into being kind of a mod band.”

They became regulars on the South London gig circuit, around the same time as The Jam, another Surrey band with similar influences.

Following a show at a local venue, the Walton Hop, Dave Parsons met Jimmy Pursey for the first time. Both Jimmy and the Ferrets and Dave’s band were on the bill, and punk was beginning to come out its closet. The Sex Pistols had outraged a nation on Bill Grundy’s Today show and Pursey and Parsons wanted in: “Jimmy didn’t have a lot in common with the rest of his band and the rest of my band weren’t my kind of people either. It was very soon after we decided to get a band together” Dave Parsons would tell Hastings magazine The Stinger in 2014. “It was never ‘let’s sit down and form a punk band’ kind of thing. It was almost as if we felt part of that, it was just natural to do that stuff. We were playing the faster end of rock songs and when Jimmy and I started to sit down and write songs, that’s just where it went.”

Both felt an obvious draw towards the new music revolution.

The didn’t mess about. Both ditched their previous bands and a writing partnership was formed. Mark Cain replaced Billy Bostick on drums. New songs began to appear and in no time at all they had a new name, Sham 69, and a twenty-minute set. Jimmy Pursey’s self-confidence (“everything in the music business” – Parsons) knocked down doors, got the bands shows and gained an introduction to Miles Copeland at Step Forward Records.

An early support show at Acklam Hall resulted, and saw them playing with The Lurkers and Chelsea: “(Pursey) said ‘we’re the best punk band in the country, give us a gig!’……. We came out on stage, first band on stage, and there was nobody there. Most bands would have started playing, but Jimmy started shouted down the mic ‘we’re not going to start until you come out.’ Suddenly, we had an audience!’” Dave Parsons (The Stinger). The gig went well. Mike P from Sniffin’ Glue, John Cale (Velvet Underground) and Copeland were all impressed. A manager, Tony Gordon was appointed, and the band began turning down record deals as the band’s reputation grew. In the meantime, Pursey and Parsons became increasingly prolific as song-writers.

Step Forward released the band’s debut maxi-single consisting of early Pursey/Parsons collaborations, I Don’t Wanna, Red London and Ulster. It was well-received and NME’s Danny Baker declared Sham 60 his “favourite band”. The band’s following grew.

At this point Dave Tregunna came in for Albie Slider on bass, and the classic Pursey/Parsons/Tregunna/ Cain was now in place.

Punk’s pioneers had kicked open the door, letting in a series of bands following in their wake. The public were up for it. Sham 69, along with several others, were now in the right place at the right time.

Sham 69, and particularly Pursey and Parsons as songwriters, became unstoppable. Their version of punk music was accessible and, to an extent, populist. They spoke the same language as their fans. They were one and the same. And they had CHORUSES. Fists in the air, singalong, choruses.

Polydor Records spotted this, and after a bidding war, snapped up Sham 69. A debut album, Tell Us The Truth, was released in 1978. Comprising entirely of Pursey/Parsons tunes, it was an urgent shot of punk energy to put flesh on the skeleton built by Damned, Damned, Damned, Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols and The Clash. The immediacy was in the songs. In Borstal Breakout (“an escapist anthem in more ways than one.” – Mick St Michael, ‘Sham 69 – The Very Best Of The Hersham Boys’ (1998)) they penned a monster that, to this day, fans adore.

Side one showcases the band live. Side two is made up of studio cuts. A simple, yet fantastic framework for a record.

Jimmy’s vocals were passionate and audible. The lyrics were ones the band’s working class following could easily relate to. Family Life, I’m A Man, I’m A Boy. Straight-forward genius; it’s punk rock, not the University Challenge music round. In Ulster and George Davis Is Innocent, Sham tackled current issues directly and succinctly. Dave Parsons’ fast-paced riffs were constant, and the tracks were arranged in such a way that they seemed to have several hooks per song. His signature punk rock guitar sound was there from day one.

Inevitably, Tell Us The Truth was a success. Sales were good, even if some critics found Sham 69’s no-nonsense approach not to their taste; if there is one thing critics are full of, it’s nonsense. So, Sham needn’t have worried.

By the end of 1978 Pursey and Parsons had got enough material, nay anthems, for the band’s follow up album. That’s Life was released, and the band found themselves on Top of the Pops. Jimmy Pursey leered into the television screens of the nation, asking “Who’s on Top of the Pops, then, eh?” before the band performed Angels With Dirty Faces. A top twenty hit single.

It was no longer just the cult punk following buying the band’s records. Populism and accessibility, see. Pursey and Parsons’ rugged song-writing reached out to the masses. Sunday Morning Nightmare and Hurry Up Harry ensured this chart success was no flash in the pan.

Even nearly thirty years later, my young son loved and almost understood Hurry Up Harry. Our Luke used to sing “we’re going down the park” rather than “we’re going down the pub”. Almost, as I say. Yet, the song had something even a five-year old working-class lad in the noughties could latch on to. Furthermore, it was used, with revised lyrics, to promote England’s World Cup campaign of 2006.

That’s Life had a wonderful soap opera feel to it, enhanced by the dialogue before some of the tunes. Leave Me Alone, Win or Lose are songs that struck a chord immediately with frustrated youths nationwide. Less is generally more in punk. Keep it sharp, keep it direct. Pursey and Parsons understood this and wrote songs accordingly: “we had a platform to vent about how we felt about things and a lot of kids our were able to relate to us and what we were saying when perhaps there was no-one else that fitted that criteria” Dave Parsons told Gonzo Today in November 2015.

And nowhere, nowhere in the annals of punk rock music is this on show on the awesome If The Kids Are United. Come to think of it, has any popular song ever represented a youth movement quite so convincingly, whatever its genre? Three minutes and eight seconds of a band giving absolutely everything, spurred on by a song written for everyone.

Its football terrace chorus, its sprawling guitar riff, its pounding drums. And Jimmy Pursey’s positive words put over as only he can. Never have the hairs on the back of many a punk’s neck stood so far on end; never has the blood ran around a punk’s veins so quickly. Never have arms been raised and fists clenched tighter.

It’s not hard to figure out why the public adored them.

“They’d never be a critic’s band, that much was apparent from the start: Sham’s upfront, instantly memorable choruses reminiscent of football chants weren’t going to win them prizes for subtlety. By the same token, punk fans fell in love with ‘em at first sight.” – Mick St Michael, ‘Sham 69 – The Very Best Of The Hersham Boys’ (Castle Select, 1998)

And we haven’t even reached their most popular work. In 1979, The Adventures of the Hersham Boys was released.

The album itself was a stylistic step forward. Still plenty of trademark choruses, but with increased use of keyboards and a nice variation in style and arrangement. It was also a top ten record. The decision to cover The Yardbirds’ classic Mister You’re a Better Man Than I is an interesting one, providing a new, slightly revised blueprint for the band to gravitate towards. The songs had influences from The Kinks and the Small Faces at times. Not too surprising given Dave Parsons’ very early musical experiences. Fly Dark Angel is a good case in point. Tasteful, upfront keys, a swooping cascade accompanying Jimmy Pursey’s passionate delivery. A great tune and, again, believable.

Pursey and Parsons were proving themselves as genuine songwriters. These were not just violent, angry punk rock tunes anymore. There was more soul, even more personality and a healthy taste of what else Sham 69 could do. Whilst still very much up-tempo and undeniably punk rock. More punk rock (as in what was proving to be the loud, basic musical formula) than London Calling, for example. Lost on Highway 46 is a fantastic example of this, whilst still having a delicious keyboard solo, radio dialogue and a nod to the romance of the rebel without a cause.

This rebellious swagger, alluded to in the album’s title, is apparent throughout, especially on Joey’s On the Street Again and Hersham Boys. The latter was a huge top twenty hit of course, propelling Sham’s popularity further. Playgrounds, terraces and bars were all the better for the sound of “Hersham Boys, Hersham Boys, laced up boots and corduroys.”

The lyrics still related to everyday people. Sham knew their audience; they were basically their audience, with the same insecurities and frustrations: “A punk is a kid in Glasgow, Liverpool, London, Southampton, who lives on a grimy estate, wears an old anorak and dirty jeans, goes out at night, has a game of football on the green, throws a couple of bricks for a bit of cheek, they’re the kids my music’s supposed to get over to”, Jimmy Pursey was quoted as saying.

Money, Voices and the classic Questions and Answers went straight to a punk fan’s heart. And it’s convincing to have the lyrics sung passionately and audibly. It helps, see.

And that word sums up Sham 69’s three albums releases up to 1979; convincing. The songs were always convincing, believable and genuine. The people loved these working class heroes. They represented everyone who had ever grown up on an estate up and down the country.

Unfortunately for Sham 69, their popularity brought along an undesirable element. Their gigs, always sweaty, packed-out affairs, began to attract the unwelcome attention of the far right. The National Front, already infiltrating football matches, began attending Sham’s shows. Jimmy Pursey had been part of the Rock Against Racism show in London alongside the Clash in 1978 and the band’s anti-racist stance was quite clear. Yet the NF effectively sabotaged the shows and violence broke out regularly. Gigs had to be stopped, and this affected the band.

They decided not to continue. There was also a reported rift within the band over going to the States: “The other people in the band wanted to go to America and I didn’t”, Jimmy Pursey later admitted.

A heart-breaking decision, and their fans were stunned. The people’s band were no more in its classic form, and the exciting song-writing partnership of Jimmy Pursey and Dave Parsons ground to a halt. An album was still released in 1980, The Game. It still had its moments, especially Lord of the Flies. But Pursey called it “a pile of shit.” At the time, it was the band’s swan song.

After The Game, there was a constant flow of comings and goings, fall-outs and re-unions, sackings, badmouthing and general chaos. This did little to preserve the reputation of Sham 69 and rumbled on for thirty years.

However, in 2011 Pursey, Parsons and Tregunna reunited once again as Sham 69. With the addition of Robin Guy on drums, they started gigging again.

And furthermore, Pursey and Parsons reunited their song-writing partnership for 2019’s thirty-eight track (yes, that’s 38!) Soapy Water and Mister Marmalade, The A Files, Direct Action Day 21. Traces of classic Sham are contained, from rabble rousing opener Listen Up, through the seedy The Doctor’s Song to the That’s Life-esque dialogue before certain tracks. Jimmy’s voice has matured nicely too, whilst still retaining plenty of bite. Live shows are still a sweaty, passionate and energetic experience. There are gigs in place for 2020. Go see.

It is tempting to ponder on what may have happened had the song-writing partnership of Pursey and Parsons, together with the classic line up, remained intact for a longer, fully sustained period. Given what was served up on their 2019 album, the magic is still there in places. Instantly memorable songs remain their calling card. Given the development from That’s Life to The Adventures of the Hersham Boys, it is not implausible to think a continued evolution, lacing punk passion with classic mod and maybe even northern soul touches, could have taken place.

The swagger and honesty in early Oasis recordings always remind me of Sham. Not in musical style, but in the writing and where its heart originates: A working class estate. Not an art college, or courtesy of a manager looking to put together the next big thing. From, literally, the streets.

It isn’t easy to give the public what it wants. Often acts start out that way, before disappearing up their own arse. Possibly Sham benefited from having a brief golden spell? It helped secure their legacy, as working class heroes.


❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.

 

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