IF THE KIDS ARE UNITED: THE BEST OF SHAM 69
review by Andrew Darlington
When punk was hardcore, Jimmy Pursey was soft-centred. He thought it a good idea to go dahn the pub with his mates, for a sing-along or a bit of a knees-up, maybe throw in a few neat square-dancing shapes. But all the kidz wanted to do was pogo. He thought it'd be nice for the kids to be united, even as they kicked each other's heads in and trashed the venues. Gigs by Hersham's finest frequency reduced to shambles even as he was pleading for cool. Yet, as punk went uneasily from subversive underground to mainstream, they staggered through an arc of sometimes catchy hits, all of which are here.
With Dave Parsons as long-term guitarist, bassist Albie Maskell replaced by Dave Treganna (in 1977), and Mark Cain on drums replaced by Ricky Goldstein (in 1979), they first picked up attention with a John Cale-produced late-1977 indie single for Step Forward, I Don't Wanna - a live version of its B-side Ulster kicks off this comprehensive anthology, after which they were snapped up by Polydor, predatory for a slice of punk action. To writer Jon Savage, Pursey was "Richard Allen's book Skinhead come to life," while Sham "stormed out of the Surrey wastelands with all the force of a fist in the face," (in England's Dreaming).
There was an immediate tribalism about Sham, what NMEs John Harris called "lumpen, artless and unequivocally proud of it." There are well-intentioned finger-pointing agit-prop anthems about "you are him, and he is you," but the populism is carried on geezerish banter and 'cockney cowboy' caricature. There's a powerfully inclusive live call-and-response on their Song Of The Street with Pursey hollering "what've we got..?" and the audience yelling back 'fuck all!' in a volatile us-against-the-world strategy. In a fiercely confrontational time, with right-wing National Front thuggery on the rise, it seems Sham had devised a strategy of harnessing such violent hooligan underclass energies.
But whether it's possible to radicalise a viable demographic from what would now be termed the Nuts/ FHM football-and-binge-boozing mindset is dubious at best. The problems arise with the hazards of provoking such extreme emotional responses, when theatrical violence becomes physical. First album Tell The Truth (1978) proved a pretty incendiary affair, represented here by single Borstal Breakout, plus George Davis Is Innocent, and We Got A Fight - which Pursey even introduces as "this is all about getting your head kicked in!" There's space here for conjecture about just how knowingly these Sham themes were conflated from the debris of previous pop. At the time, Borstal Breakout must have seemed as ground-breakingly relevant as Alan Clarke's 1979 Borstal movie Scum but, to those in the know, surely it also recycles Leiber and Stoller's Riot In Cell Block Nine, or Jailhouse Rock - or even 10cc's Rubber Bullets?
The vignettes of abrasive Family Life - "Mum's always moaning that my Dad's always broke, I feel sorry for my Dad, he's only got his drink and his smokes," and the frustrations of working a day-job had previously been expressed, if more light-heartedly, by Joe Brown with his "Dad's gone dahn the dog-track, Mother's playing bingo." And whereas Reggae Pick-Up from the That's Life album ends in a ruck, it essentially re-dances the same dialogue as Mike Sarne's playful comedy-hit Come Outside. Pursey can be music-literate, he even opens up with "a-one for the money" before crashing guitar distortion leads into Cold Blue In The Night. Although less obvious than the Generation X lyric cut 'n' paste "I'm in love with Cathy McGowan" kleptomania, there's enough evidence to suggest Sham had done their rock 'n' roll homework, and knew pretty much what they were doing.
Despite his protestation "I wanna say it now, for now is today" - compared with Crass or Poison Girls, there was not really much new being said. And Pursey has one vocal setting, the bellow. With none of John Lydon's acidic sarcasm, cutting put-down wit or vehemence, although he does reference the 'Pistols on Who Gives A Damn by answering the Anarchy In The UK aside 'no dogsbody' with "everybody's on a lead, we're all dogsbodies." Meanwhile, the Sham momentum accelerated when they lifted the title from a 1938 James Cagney movie for Angels With Dirty Faces.
"Who's got a dirty face then?" teases Pursey, before kicking into the riff announcing "we're the people you don't wanna know, we go to places you don't wanna go," before finally fading out with the squealing detonation of a speeding auto-wreck. Whether this is intended to represent the existential 'no future' of the doomed 'blank generation', or just a neat effect is up for grabs. The single cracked the NME chart at #28 on the 20th May 1978, climbing to #17 two weeks later, earning them their first rowdy Top Of The Pops appearance. It would not be their last.
Punk was an insurrectionary movement with a shock-effect that polarised and transfixed the nation's tabloid attention for a stretch of months. While an abrasive alternative media of punk fanzines with titles like Toxic Graffiti used a visually-spontaneous riot of Xerox blackmail cut-up lettering to approvingly champion Sham alongside the latest street groups. The Sex Pistols set their trajectory on total collision-course with the world. Sham's fortunes, although narrower, ended in pretty much the same shambolic defiance. If identifying feelings of marginalised alienated outsiders as the core proposition of their under-represented constituency was a happy accident or an act of calculated opportunism, the extremism they flirted with ricocheted back with a vengeance until it was impossible for them to play live without violence breaking out.
Pursey's likeable "Jack the lad, know what I mean?" wide-boy instincts were for unity, his instant response was that he "hates nationalism, pride and borders." Sham supported the 'rock against racism' kickback. Yet the grubby taint, once there, proved difficult to shake off. Although it's wonderful now to look back at a time when issues of punk cult and sell-out were so vital...
Nevertheless, following their breakthrough single, a succession of chart hits frittered away their credibility. Based on the trades union chant, If The Kids Are United was a rallying shout built on a stomp-stomp-stomping Doc Marten rhythm and a "I don't wanna be rejected, I don't wanna be denied" howl, but the cheery wide-boy Hurry Up Harry pushed the limits of cult tolerance. Cheeky, chirpy, its contagious "we're all goin' dahn the pub" chorus was all that was best, and worst about Sham 69. Yet they came back with a rabble-rousing guttersnipe football-chant anthem Hersham Boys - with a grinning Pursey even doing the dance-steps to the closing hoe-down bit on Top Of The Pops.
Until they ended a run of hits with an OK revival of old Yardbirds' B-side, You're A Better Man Than I, even replicating Jeff Beck's original guitar solo note-for-note. Its message of tolerance and equality underlined the essential continuity of the egalitarian 1960s' teen-vision with its iconoclastic 1970s counterpart. Elsewhere, there were other occasional moves outside the regular Sham template. Whose Generation runs hard riffs over murky samples and submerged voices, while Poor Cow from their fourth album The Game (1980), builds into a kind of acoustic ballad around the title of Nell Dunn's hard working-class novel.
However, not only did punk's austere manifesto serve to cripple any potential for growth or development, it did not travel well. None of the major breakthrough bands made much headway in the 'States. Not until the Police. As their track No Entry narrates, Sham 69 were not even granted visas to tour there, "banned for grass," with characteristic disdain they mangle Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner over a roaring declaration that they "didn't want to go there anyway."
Now, tracks from That's Life (1978), and Adventures Of The Hersham Boys (1979), get rounded out with two bonus tracks by the 'Sham Pistols', White Riot, and Pretty Vacant with the Sham's Pursey and Treganna joined on the Glasgow Apollo stage by Steve Jones and Paul Cook. After which Jimmy Pursey went on to other things. Although there were periodic reunions and fall-outs, the band's notoriety elevated him into a post-Sham career as producer (for Cockney Rejects and the Angelic Upstarts) and general industry activism. But Oi!, it's a lot of riotous fun...