999: Feelin’ Alright With the Crew

ANYONE WHO SEES more than one rock show a year knows that a lot of the glitter wears off after the first few times. Which doesn’t mean you’re jaded, just that inevitably you start paying more attention to lighting, equipment, the band’s mistakes, sound trouble, what time you’re going to get home, and so on. The magic of even a very good show can easily be elbowed aside by more mundane factors.

Those rare occasions when the music overcomes the distractions are not always dependent on the act being that special band in your life; often, unassuming, singleminded clods whose only purpose is to blow a few fuses can provide the best escapism onstage. At various dark moments in the past I’ve been happily reduced to partial deafness by Johnny Winter, Robin Trower, Lynyrd Skynyrd – none of whom exactly personify the pursuit of the finer arts.

Recently England’s 999 pulled off the same trick at Hurrah, a New York club. Befitting the band’s new wave image, a lot of semidetached people showed up to pose, but it wasn’t long before 999’s rousing act drew them to the stage in the most old-fashioned way. Your humble scribe blew his cool and stood up front next to one of the speakers, the consequence being two days with a high roar in the left ear.

999’s two LPs and many singles are likeable enough for fans who like snotty British rock’n’roll delivered with ceaseless aggression and sung in a semi-hysterical style. But in person you begin to see better how the new wave aesthetic might grab people for whom “punk” is a dirty word.

The band’s fervor doesn’t garble their songs, it pumps them up, which is the way all the best rock’n’roll works. Guy Days’ vigorous lead guitar seems drawn, albeit frantically, from Chuck Berry (“Some of it is and some of it isn’t,” singer Nick Cash corrects me later.) And now that Guy doesn’t peroxide his hair anymore, they hardly look strange at all. Cash has a five o’clock shadow that suggest a young Nixon. Even bassist Jon Watson, deathly thin in a fake leopard skin, projects wholesome involvement as he plays; a few days earlier, he’d broken a few amps onstage by hopping around and knocking them over.

One night after a sound check, we repaired to a coffee shop to sort out the 999 tale. As told by spokesman Nick Cash, it’s a fairly simple one. Especially since none of the band want to go back to earlier days; Nick is particularly vague, which give creedence to a recent item in NME saying he was once a member of Kilburn and the High Roads. (Though he does confess to being the offspring of a foreign service official.) Anyway, the quartet was finalized in December 1976 with the addition of Pablo Labritain, the 73rd drummer Cash, Days and Watson had auditioned. After a debut gig the next month at the Northampton Cricket Club, there wasn’t too much encouragement: few dates and tapes rejected by record companies. So they decided to relocate.

While waiting for his tuna fish sandwich to arrive, Nick details what happened. “When we hit London on April 5, 1977, supporting the Jam, there were hundreds of record companies there; just about every one wanted to sign the band straightaway. So we turned them all down and put out our own single” (‘I’m Alive’/’Quite Disappointing’).

“That went to number one in the new wave charts and increased our bargaining position with the record companies, so we could say to them, ‘Look, we know what we wanna do, so you’ve got to give us the freedom. We don’t want you dictating to us!”

999 subsequently signed with UA and since then “our following’s just grown through solid hard work.” So much so that ‘Homicide’, their last UK single, sold 50,000, despite the fact that it “didn’t get a single radio play. Nobody would touch because of the lyrical content.

“I think that actually helped sell it,” Nick notes, amused. He also points out that having the first 10,000 or so pressed in green didn’t hurt either. “In England this collectors’ item thing has reached the peak of fever. The charts even have a column that classifies the number of gimmicks a records got going for it: colored vinyl, picture disc picture sleeve, see-through vinyl, cheap price, free record, free T-shirt…”

The DIY (do it yourself) approach, which served the band so well at home, is now being tested here. Paragon, an agency that’s brought over (UK) Squeeze, Chelsea, Ultravox, and others, has made it possible for 999 to play the states on their own terms “Instead of stepping onto somebody else’s tour we prefer to start in the clubs and world up. We get a fair hearing and it’s great to meet the people.”

Cash is serious. They had an offer to open for Blue Oyster Cult. “We turned that down – didn’t want to know.”

They’re taking the same low-key route LP-wise. PVC Records will release their second LP (Separates) here, retitled as High Energy Plan, with two previously unavailable tracks in place of two others. They want it sold cheap “because it’s very important to us that things are priced right.”

Although Pablo Labritain is along for the tour, he isn’t playing. Nick explains why Ed Case is filling in. “Pablo broke his arm in half completely. When they fixed him up they jammed a radial nerve into the bone. So he can open his arm but he can’t grip anything. Sometimes he’s had to have 250 electro-shocks a day to get it going again.”

Save for that cloud – and Pablo’s expected to recover fully – 999 are unreservedly upbeat. Between the LP and steady touring (another visit is already being considered) they hope to worm their way into America’s heart the way they have in Britain. Naive? I would have thought so if I hadn’t seen their powerful plebian charm in action. And, as Cash says, “The very good thing about new wave music, punk music, call it what you like, is that it’s opened people’s ears up a lot. It incorporates a massive spectrum of music now.”

But enough. After a hard day of sight-seeing that included a visit to the Empire State Building, Nick Cash wants to take a nap before gigging. And then it’s back to their small, but very dedicated, assault on the USA.

“People come to see our gigs and the word goes around: ‘They might have short hair but I really enjoyed it.’ They want powerful music, and I’ll never give up on doing powerful music.”

© Jon YoungTrouser Press, June 1979

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