THE ODD thing about the history of punk is, it’s very easy to forget some of its best progenitors.
You know the kind of bands we’re talking about – the ones that never made the front page of the daily papers after vomiting once too often in public; the ones that never earned the wrath of society for writing a song that decried a sacred cow; the ones that never really had a hit single to be lumped onto a thousand Greatest Spits type compilations.
But they were there all the same, forever gigging, forever flinging new records onto the racks and, when you do chance upon their scratchy old 45s today, they still sound as great as any of their better-feted peers.
999 were one of those bands.
Named for Britain’s emergency telephone number, 999 formed from the partial wreckage of Ian Dury’s Kilburn and the High Roads – under his given name of Keith Lucas, frontman Nick Cash was that band’s guitarist, while Guy Days was a session guitarist who helped out on some of the Kilburns’ demos. When the Kilburns disbanded, the pair stayed together, and began planning a new group.
Auditions during late 1976 saw them turn away applications from Chrissie Hynde, future Culture Club drummer Jon Moss and Generation X’s Tony James, before bassist Jon Watson and drummer Pablo Labritian – an old schoolfriend of Joe Strummer’s – were recruited. Sporadically known as 48 Hours, the Dials and the Frantics, 999 made their live debut in Northampton on January 22, 1977.
Signing to the Albion booking agency, 999 became Monday night regulars at the agency’s most treasured venue, the legendary Hope And Anchor pub in Islington. They also opened for the Jam at the Red Cow in Hammersmith; and went on to star at most of London’s prime punk niteries. (The band would repay the Hope for its support by headlining the venerable old pub’s Front Row festival the following spring.)
The band’s first single, ‘I’m Alive’, appeared on 999’s own Labritian label in July 1977, a defiantly thunderous noise that immediately put one in mind of the Buzzcocks – both bands mined a similar vein in adrenalined power-pop, both had an eye for hyper-catchy choruses. Certainly the United Artists label, who had just snapped up the Buzzcocks themselves, were impressed and 999 signed to the company in the fall of 1977, around the same time as they toured the country with the Runaways.
Neither was the label the band’s only supporter. The music paper Sounds was likewise thrilled by ‘I’m Alive’, and having already described 999 as “one of the best pop groups to have emerged in years,” went onto prophesy that 999 “might conceivably be bigger still than the Sex Pistols.”
That, of course, was never going to happen. But still such instincts were not wrong. 999’s first single for the label, the speed-crazed ‘Nasty Nasty’, was the first in what would become an unbroken string of garage classic anthems, each one bringing an ever more memorable chant to the lips of the faithful: ‘Me And My Desire’, ‘Emergency’ and ‘Feeling Alright With The Crew’ – dedicated to the band’s own following, a vast mob known as the Southall Crew.
They knew how to grab headlines as well, at least in the music press. For the launch of 999’s self-titled debut album in February 1978, the label staged an extravagant Punk Rock art show. Among the starring exhibits were one of Billy Idol’s dirty T-shirts, Clash bassist Paul Simenon’s still life of a junkyard, an abstract by ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock; and a Picasso print given the Damned treatment by Brian James.
October 1978 brought 999’s first serious rush of success, when the single ‘Homicide’ climbed to #40 on the UK chart. A second album, the Martin Rushent produced Separates, followed, and in December, 999 unleashed their fifth immortal single of the year, a magnificent rejuvenation of ‘I’m Alive’.
It would be their final UA release; over the next couple of years, 999 would embark upon a nomadic existence that took them to three different labels, Radar, Polydor and Albion. They were, however, also establishing themselves as one of the leading bands on the live circuit, at home and in the United States. Indeed, since the band’s first American tour, in 1978, 999’s popularity had reached almost epidemic proportions.
There was even an America-only album – High Energy Plan, was released in 1979, based around Separates and substituting various singles for album tracks. It was a convincing set. Though the punk hair-dos and studded bracelets which the band habitually sported fooled few into believing that 999 were real punks, the surprisingly powerful High Energy Plan proved that blinding conviction, tight songs and a studiously raucous attitude can pay dividends. And while 999 never did score the commercial and media recognition that their live support insisted they deserved, still the import racks bulged with their burgeoning catalog.
At a time when the “pure” punk of the Sex Pistols, the Slits and Siouxsie & The Banshees was considered too extreme for college radio tastes, 999’s speed pop good humor stepped smartly into the breach: ‘Emergency’ and ‘Homicide’ remained firm favorites, to be joined by ‘Found Out Too Late’ in October, 1979, and ‘Trouble’ and ‘Obsessed’ during 1980. Fall 1980 then saw Polydor release 999’s second US album, The Biggest Tour In Sport.
Recorded with Ed Case replacing Labritian, temporarily disabled by a car accident, The Biggest Tour In Sport was a live set, recorded during 999’s recently completed two month American tour (the title punned on the band’s last UK studio set, The Biggest Prize In Sport). The whole thing lasted for less than 20 minutes worth of aggressive pub rock crossed with pop (a la Eddie & The Hot Rods), with a dash of ’60s garage thrown in for good measure. But few better documents of 999’s sheer sonic savagery exist.
America impacted hard on the band. As they toured, they came into regular contact with the country’s own punk underground, a relationship that 999 believed worth pursuing. Returning home, they recorded a new album, Slam, titled for the US hardcore dance craze, and offering up a fair approximation of what could precipitate it.
But the album was doomed – the label got cold feet when the English tabloids went into overdrive about the evils of this latest punk outrage, and Slam was shelved for the next 17 years. It finally made it out on the archive Overground label in 1999, and proved more or less worth waiting for.
Such disappointments notwithstanding, 999’s American success was suddenly contagious. 1981/82 brought 999 a fresh string of minor British hits, including a pair of brilliant covers – Sam The Sham’s ‘Lil Red Riding Hood’ and Paul Revere’s ‘Indian Reservation’ joined the band’s own ‘Wild Sun’ on the indy charts.
With them came a fast broadening musical base: Concrete, 999’s fourth album, and 13th Floor Madness, their fifth, both found the group’s traditional punk sound mellowing – the British press (who never particularly liked the band anyway) actually hailed Madness as a stab at 80s disco, although all it really evinced was an attempt to keep up with the musical times, and a not unsuccessful one either.
Despite the band’s obvious ambition, however, their label, Albion, seemed more interested in maintaining 999 as a nostalgia act than a going musical concern. A parting was inevitable and, while Albion contended themselves with a 1984 greatest hits collection, 999 themselves revitalized their Labritian label, and ploughed on.
1985’s Face To Face proved that the group was still a power in the land, while their latest British tour saw them headline the London Lyceum, on a bill which also featured the UK Subs and the Exploited; two years later, following on from the band’s first full time personnel change (Danny Palmer replaced Watson), the live Lust, Power And Money only reaffirmed their continued prowess.
999 broke up shortly after, but the sundering was never likely to be permanent. In 1991, 999 were one of the classic punk acts invited to re-acquaint themselves with their legacy by guesting on the German band Die Toten Hosen’s Learning English punk tribute album.
In 1993, the reformed 999 cut You, Us, It, and the following year, with the punk revival which that album presaged now burning up both the UK and US, 999 – featuring Cash, Labritian, Days and former Lurkers bassist Arturo Bassick – headlined the legendary Holidays In The Sun Punk festival in Blackpool, England. The same line-up is still going strong today, recording infrequently, but maintaining a solidly booked live date sheet.
999 were never the biggest punk band of their era, nor (in chart terms) the most successful. But they were one of the hardest working, and for many Americans, they were the first to actually bother with the backwoods, playing places which other Brit bands hadn’t heard of, and returning to them again and again. And while no-one knows how many American bands were first inspired to take up arms by 999, those that did still wear their loyalties loudly.
© Dave Thompson, Goldmine, 17 May 2006