Avery, Thwaite, Red Helmet, Liquid Les and Malacabala all signed up to an adventure with Newcastle based post punk band, Punishment of Luxury and from 1979-83 the line-up settled into a very creative recording and live unit signed to United Artists. (Brian Bond, keyboard/vocals, Jimi Giro, bass, Steve Sekrit, drums and Nev, guitar/vocals).
I got in touch with Nev to find out exactly who were Punishment of Luxury and where did the name come from ? A friend, Rob Meek visited Liverpool and sent me a postcard from the Walker gallery. It was a picture of Giovanni Segantini’s ‘Punishment of Luxury’. I thought this was a perfect title for a wonderful adventure.
First gig at The Blue Bell, Gateshead.
Early Punishment of Luxury poster.
How did the band first get together ? It all began in Walker Terrace, Gateshead. I’d just returned from studying music in India and Afghanistan and was sharing a house with Rob Meek. Rob created the first independent Gateshead street press, and the radical theatre company ‘Hour Glass’, which we performed with in local pubs.
This was 1975 when I met Brian Rapkin, an actor, singer and songwriter who was working with the Mad Bongo Theatre group. I had previously formed a band called Kitch 22 who experimented in a combination of theatre and music and Brian said he saw me play at the Newcastle Guildhall and liked the rendition of Wild Thing and Little Red Rooster delivered up from my tuned Hofner Galaxie and kitchen quilted Vox AC30.
One night Rob and I had a party and invited the Mad Bongo Theatre group where we offered them Garibaldi biscuits, Old Jamaica chocolate curious wine and Alien cake. We played and shared songs with electric exhilaration, the seed was planted for future ventures. We were visionary collisionaries occurring in the same space.
We rehearsed in a basement in Gateshead at Rawling Road, where our songs Jellyfish and Blood of Love were created. Eventually we rehearsed in a church hall in Tynemouth which I believe was also used by Lindisfarne.
Live at Newcastle City Hall 1979.
Red Helmet and Jimi Giro on stage.
What was the process for writing songs ? The writing was both a collision and collaboration of different musical styles and approaches which were amalgamated with some visual and dramatic opinions.
For example I would offer a song such as Puppet Life, All White Jack, and Brian would embellish keyboard and add lyrics. Alternatively Brian would write the main body of a song such as Obsession and we would combine musical structures and lyrics.
But commonly we would come together from two very different views and styles. This is evident in writing Brain Bomb which developed from a ballad Brian had written where I proposed the musical opposite and the idea worked, so some strange and interesting combinations were successfully created.
Jellyfish was another example of the unity of opposites whereas I would suggest a structure and some lyric or theme and Brian would apply some great lyrics, musical variations and ideas to make them unique. I think humour somehow connected us along with our range of various theatrical and visual ideas.
The Message and Laughing Academy are other examples of creative unions. I think we had a very open approach which worked so well.
I remember in Tynemouth, writing the riff for Radar Bug and Jimi applied a great rhythmic phrase which lifted the idea into what it is. His bass playing offers excellent precision and very creative phrasing with invention. Stephen created some brilliant percussive pieces to compliment songs such as Secrets, he also offered massive drive and energy. While I offered many structures and concepts.
Brian also created words, images and imaginings, Jimi laid ululating foundations then Stephen wove it together. It was of course more than this and everyone was essential in creating the sound and spirit of that time.
It is worth mentioning that a great friend called Vicki who was a wonderful support to us from the Laughing Academy period, always offered us space to rehearse and develop ideas when writing new songs.
Punishment of Luxury played their first gig at the Blue Bell in Gateshead in 1978, not long afterwards the band went to Impulse recording studio, Wallsend. How did you fund your early recordings ?
We funded initial demos from our own back pockets. We recorded, Blood of Love, Let’s Get Married and Puppet Life. Rob Meek also enabled us to record and rehearse at Spectro Arts centre in Newcastle.
Signing a record deal – how did that come about, and was it successful ? After a long and tiring tour of record companies who displayed a range of disinterest, curiosity and admiration we decided in the end that we had to find a label who had some idea of what we were trying to do.
We therefore embarked on our excursion to Walthamstow in London and a meeting with the owner of Small Wonder Records, Pete Stennett. Immediately after he played the tape of our first demo recording of Puppet Life, he offered us a deal.
He was certainly a visionary person who signed other bands and performers from that post punk period and gave them that all important first break to express their music. The label was small but created wonders for us in as much as our first single Puppet Life/Demon (1978) was recorded in London’s Berry Street Studio and our recording journey began.
We were pursued by a few larger record companies who after they had heard our first single, came to our gigs. Charisma and Virgin were certainly of interest to us but we thought United Artists were the best company as they offered much more artistic freedom.
We all warmed to their very sincere and talented A&R scout, Tim Chacksfield. In the end we signed to them and went on to record the Laughing Academy album (1979) and several singles.
Tim could see what we were trying to do and helped us be free in our musical expression and eventually introduced us to Mike Howlett. Mike was former bassist and writer with Gong and Strontium 90 (a forerunner to The Police).
Mike helped us capture all the energy of our live set with his approach of recording many straight live takes, which embellished with the required overdubs, helped create a wonderful recording experience.
Did the band have a manager ? In the beginning a friend from Newcastle called Frank helped get us gigs and open the door to various management companies such as Quarry management and well known management such as John Arnison. Frank eventually connected us to the Asgard Agency in London who enabled us to put together UK tours. This is where we met Richard Hermitage who eventually became our manager.
Richard was a very positive, honest and fair person who managed to get us considered by several record companies and was instrumental in getting us introduced to United Artists.
Richard decided to stop managing the band and return to Agency work. We were introduced to Tony Fraser who tried to help develop the band’s vision and came on tour for some of the gigs, especially in Germany and Holland.
Did the band record any TV or radio sessions ? Soon after the release of Puppet Life (1978) we discovered that John Peel was interested in our music and we were invited to perform our first live session at the BBC in Maida Vale where we played Funk Me, Let’s Get Married, You’re So Beautiful and Babalon.
We played on Tyne Tees show Alright Now, hosted by Darts singer Den Hegerty. Also on were Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Goldie and Geordie with Brian Johnson who joined AC/DC. We also played a live version of Puppett Life for a Belgian/German TV show. Laughing Academy I believe, was doing really well in their charts.
Were there any stand out gigs ? We played several Rock Against Racism gigs at Newcastle Guildhall and other local gigs in the area. We also enjoyed gigs at Newcastle City Hall with the Skids, then with Penetration. The Marquee in Wardour Street, London was another gig we played several times, it was such a great venue.
In the early period of our gigging we played the London Hope and Anchor, and on one occasion we remember a huge back line, approx. 15+ AC 30’s courtesy of Status Quo (we reckon), provided by their management company who were pursuing our scribbles at that time. It was a very full house so the crowd absorbed all the delivered frequencies. This is where we played early versions of ‘Funk Me’ and ‘Babalon’.
The following day we were driving through London and noticed these colourful headpieces being sold by a man on a corner with a cardboard box in Oxford Street. We grabbed several of these Peruvian ski masks and ended up subverting their use with fun, menace and madness in our live performances.
Advert for Newcastle Guildhall 1977.
I recall the London Nashville gigs being excellent sharing the tiniest of dressing rooms with bands such as the Adverts, 999, Toyah and Siouxie and the Banshees.
On one occasion the National Front turned up and the lyrics at the end of ‘Puppet Life’ rang out, they started to climb onto the stage and attempt to destroy the show and muffle the message, but the band along with our tour manager, Sista Suzie and the Nashville staff, kicked them off stage which must have reinforced the song’s affirming lyric, ‘The Fascist always ends up on the floor’.
We toured the UK extensively then eventually travelled to Europe. Our first journey involved sharing a plane journey with Wishbone Ash and a brilliant band called Home, famous for their album The Alchemist, and apparently a favourite of the late John Lennon. It followed that we played our first gig together in Belgium with these bands which was quite a mysterious and unusual musical mix.
Do you have any road stories or magic moments when touring ? When our Laughing Academy album was being released endless gigging ensued and part of our excursion took us to The Milky Way and Paradiso venues in Amsterdam, and eventually via Cologne and Dusseldorf to the great city of Berlin.
The Wall was still stood and divided East and West Germany, so great things could happen here! Although our Berlin Wall encounter at Checkpoint Charlie was a bit scary.
Steve Sekrit now had long hair and a strange beard, which didn’t balance with his passport photo and only after a long exchange with an authoritarian, now in possession of a copy of our album Laughing Academy, were we able to pass across the border. Thankfully he looked at the images on the outer sleeve cover as the inner gate fold sleeve would have offered no means of verification.
Our gig in Berlin that evening was at the Kant Kino and access to the famous venue was a long walk across a suspended structure overlooking parts of the bustling street below. It was a brilliant, receptive, bouncing crowd, full of anticipation – it was a very memorable gig.
We played the 19th Reading Festival on 24th August 1979 and John Peel introduced the band to what was a raucous gig. We were one of the first wave of bands to play an alternative style of music and many in the rock crowd were bemused at our musical approach, but they soon mutated and amalgamated to engage with this new expression.
Did the band run out of steam or money ? The lack of record company support to develop our musical vision punctuated by them dropping the band from their label, led us speedily to impecunity. We were rejected and bemused. United Artists had died and EMI were the new victors.
This was the period when we were recording Gigantic Days and for a moment, that awful feeling of rejection descended, but our spirits were alive, and we fought on for what we believed in. Perhaps it was because of the proposition of ‘making rockets miss’ in our songs as EMI were linked to Thorn at that time, or it could have been down to the satire ‘Money talks, money lies’. Or maybe simply that we didn’t fit into a commercial pop template.
A breakthrough came with Red Rhino, a record company based in York who liked the band. (Rob Aitch (guitar/vocals) was added to the line up during their deal with Red Rhino and for live performances, they brought in Tim Jones (guitar/vocals).
In 1983 we recorded the album 7 at Alaska and Greenhouse studios. This period marked a time when we had emerged tattered from legal lashings and management muddles with miraculously diminished funds.
What happened then ? After the album 7, Brian and I began exploring other directions this was perhaps compounded by lack of record company support and different musical and creative visions. Brian continued his brilliance and developed his theatrical roots with the application of excellent songs in a band called Punching Holes.
While I continued the music with the integration of visual approaches, retaining the Punishment of Luxury theme while experimenting with different players, new collaborations and experimenting with musical inventions (Alien Contact) while living in London.
What are you up to now ? Brian will be releasing his Punching Holes album on April 17th 2020 which will be an historic record to what he was creating then along with the excellent Richard Sharpe and Tim Jones.
I am currently busy writing, and both Brian and I are exploring and assessing the possibility of creating a new album as we exchange our ideas and songs, along with Jim and Steve.
Have you any final memories from the early years of Punishment of Luxury ? We played at an event created by the adventurous pioneer promotor John Keenan. It was called The Worlds First Science Fiction Music Festival (aka Futurama, Leeds Queens Hall, Saturday September 8th 1979). This was where we played with Joy Division and Public Image.
Our lighting system was in London and Hawkwind, who were playing the next night, kindly let our lighting maestro Rob Meek use their laser light rig. What great people, and an excellent show followed.
After watching our first official gig for many years at the Three Tuns, Gateshead in 2008, music critic Dave Simpson wrote in The Guardian about his experience at Leeds in 1979 and said it ‘changed his life’.
‘I went to Futurama liking Sham 69. I came out rejecting everything I knew, having realised that music could be about power, passion, psychology, even the genuinely futuristic, and be far more than “entertainment”.
That principle colours my thoughts on music to this day. If I hadn’t gone, it’s almost certain that I wouldn’t now be writing about music for a living, never mind still experiencing the unique thrill of watching bands’.
Certainly a lasting impression on Mr Simpson, and no doubt on many others in the audience. If you were at Futurama that day get in touch and let me know your memories.
If you haven’t heard the band check out the recordings from the gigs at Nashville, Kant Kino, Hope and Anchor and Reading Festival which are on the Punishment of Luxury box set released by Cherry Red in 2019.
Interview by Gary Alikivi March 2020.