The 101ers: The Key to Joe’s Art

Punk pioneers the 101ers gave us Joe Strummer’s earliest recordings. The band’s drummer Richard Dudanski reminisces with Terry Staunton.

OFTEN RELEGATED to a footnote in lightweight retellings of the mid-’70s London punk scene, the 101ers were nonetheless a hugely popular live attraction who promised great things — until frontman Joe Strummer jumped ship to form the Clash.

Now the band are ripe for reappraisal, with the release of the 20-track Elgin Avenue Breakdown (Revisited), an expanded version of a compilation last seen in 1981, put together by original drummer Richard “Snakehips” Dudanski. Taking its title from the address of The Elgin, the Ladbroke Grove pub where the group had a legendary residency (their name comes from the house number of their West London squat), it’s a frenetic cocktail of ’50s R&B, pub rock and embryonic punk — several elements of which survived in the records of Strummer’s next, more famous outfit.

The 101ers had already called it a day before the release of their only single, ‘Keys To Your Heart’, on the famed Chiswick label. But their legacy has continued to grow, and it’s plain from listening to Clash albums like London Calling or Sandinista! that Strummer never abandoned his roots entirely. Dudanski, who was still a close friend of Strummer’s up until the singer’s death in 2002, is still active from his base in Spain as a musician, producer and concert promoter. Indeed, he was fresh from staging a Chuck Berry gig when he spoke to RC about the old days of blood, sweat, and not many beers…

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What were you listening to when the band formed?

We were into a lot of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, and any black R&B we could pick up off the local market. Our bass player was also a bit of a reggae fan, so that got into the mix as well. We also had a horn section at some gigs and we used to cover a lot of the blues shouters, people like Big Joe Turner. Of course, our inexperience and early lack of musicianship at the time was part of what became known as the punk ethos.

The first gig I did was literally a week after I picked up a pair of drumsticks for the first time, so to say we were raw is a bit of an understatement. We used to come offstage with blood all over the place. We were more than a bit untutored! But having somewhere to play so regularly was a great education, and I reckon we got pretty good pretty quickly.

The Elgin was definitely your “patch”. It must have felt like a second home?

It was great to have a place like that just around the corner. We could load all the gear into two cars and get from home to the gig in two minutes. There was also the Charlie Pigdog Club, upstairs at a pub called the Chippenham. It was a place we could get all our mates in, charging them a 10p entrance fee. That would just about cover the broken guitar strings.

How did you get through the marathon sets?

Well, it certainly wasn’t drugs! It’s a myth that we had long, hard slogs like the Beatles in Hamburg or something like that. We’d quite often play a couple of sets a night, but it was usually about two-and-half hours total. I suppose that seems long to some bands, but we never knew anything else.

People saw us playing so frantically and for so long and would be convinced we were on something. Some of the audience would come up to us after the set, assuming we’d be able to get them some coke or speed, but the truth of the matter was we couldn’t even afford a drink most of the time. No, what we did on stage was through pure adrenalin.

The compilation includes live tracks from a gig at Wandsworth Prison. How did that show come about, and what do you remember of it?

Playing the prison was easily one of the highs of the band’s time. I remember speaking to Joe about it only a few years ago, and he agreed that it was probably the best show we ever did. The promoter John Curd, who’d previously booked us gigs at the Roundhouse, just offered it to us one day. He thought our raucous style would go down a storm, more so than a lot of bands around at the time. I remember a few musicians saying they’d never want to play in front of that sort of audience, but that’s their loss. It was absolutely fantastic.

The gig itself took place in the prison chapel, which was packed to bursting with 500 eager faces, and they just lapped up a band like us. Joe really shone in front of that audience, although he was a bit nervous before we went on. If you listen to a tape of the whole show, that nervousness comes across. But as the set goes on, he just gets stronger and more confident. People talk about Johnny Cash’s rebel attitude being perfect for prisons, and Joe had that rebel element as well. Wandsworth was probably one of the first clues I had to how great a frontman Joe could be.

Joe became a fairly prolific songwriter with the Clash, but would you say he initially lacked confidence?

Probably no more than anyone else who had never written anything, or at least played something to other people. The first few months we were together it was just cover versions, but it was round about the end of 1974 when he started churning stuff out. I think ‘Keys To Your Heart’ may have been the first song he wrote.

A song like the vaguely calypso ‘Sweet Revenge’ may surprise people familiar only with your rockier side. How do you think the band would have developed, had you stayed together?

‘Sweet Revenge’ is one of my favourites of ours. It’s hard to imagine what might have happened next, because things got very complicated towards the end. There were all kinds of personality problems within the band. Certain people weren’t getting on too well and we tried a couple of line-up changes, but I think we were really just postponing the inevitable.

Was sharing a bill with the Sex Pistols the beginning of the end? Some versions of your story claim Joe told the rest of you he’d “seen the light”…

Ha! That’s a bit of a legend, and I can understand why people would want to believe it as the gospel truth. Yes, we did play a gig with the Pistols, but I don’t think it was any kind of an epiphany for Joe — and he certainly didn’t break up the band by declaring he’d “seen the light”! It was clear to anyone playing music in London at that time that things were changing, but the 101ers were a part of that change. The whole scene was going in a direction that we’d always wanted it to. Even if we hadn’t played with the Pistols, I don’t think we would have stayed together. The band was already on the rocks.

Had Joe already left before ‘Keys To Your Heart’ was released?

It came out the week after we split up.

Do you have any regrets about, having been invited, not going with Joe when he was forming the Clash?

Not especially. Bernie Rhodes came in as the Clash’s manager and he used to wind me up so much that there was no way I was getting myself involved with him. I would have been happier if Joe had stuck with our old manager, but that never happened. People have said to me over the years that if I’d stuck with Joe I could be a millionaire now, but that’s hardly the point. You do what you feel is right at the time, and I’m still happy today with the decision I made.

But you were still in contact with Joe long after the 101ers’ demise?

My friendship with Joe survived, so I’m very happy about that. We set up a label together called Andalucia in 1981 to put out a 101ers collection — it’s the label I put my new stuff out on to this day. Even at the height of his fame Joe would find time to play in our hobby band the Soul Vendors at a youth club in Notting Hill. I could hardly believe it when I heard he was gone. He was such a dynamic bloke, a really special kind of guy. He used to come over to Spain every summer and stay quite near where I still live now. We even got to play together a few months before he died. I did percussion with him and his band at the Cambridge Folk Festival. In hindsight, it seems like a perfect way to say goodbye. It’s the having to say goodbye that sucks.

© Terry StauntonRecord Collector, June 2005

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