I saw Sham 69 at the Whiskey (the Dead Kennedys opened) back in 1979. Right there on the Sunset Strip. Great set. I loved Sham 69. Loved that first album. OK, it was dumb. Way dumb. The Ramones looked like intellectuals compared to Sham 69. What about the people who are lonely?/You don’t really give a shit/People that you never meet. It wasn’t exactly poetry. It was oi. Oi! None of us Californians had ever even heard somebody say oi! before punk rock. Now snot nosed rich punks from Pacific Palisades would say oi! Oi? Yeah, oi! It was a very deep time. The hippies had Dylan. The Beats had Ginsberg. And punks had oi. Well not all punks. Just the less coherent ones. Swilling beers and yelling oi! They don’t say it now, though, they are lawyers. But this was 1979, and they were all here at the Whiskey for Sham 69. Though criminal as they tried desperately to look, none of them stole the microphone when Jimmy Pursey, the singer, stuck the microphone in the audience for the sing along. A bit of English football camaraderie, that. If the Kids are United we all chanted, they shall never be united. Deep stuff. Rhymed even. To this day when I hear that ferocious guitar riff I can’t help singing along, me, a very late middle aged jazz critic, singing if the kids are united, they can never be divided.
Sham 69 did White Riot in their encore, too, the Clash song. Jimmy Pursey stuck the microphone into the crowd again and the kids all sang I wanna riot, a riot of my own! They repeated it. Repeated it again. And started to repeat it one more time when the microphone cut out. Jimmy pulled the microphoneless cord back from the crowd and shrugged. They’ve stolen the microphone a stage hand yelled. The band roared on, Jimmy grabbed another mic and finished the tune. The audience was mad with testosterone, swirling, bouncing, pushing and shoving. It was a moment of punk rock heaven. Meanwhile the stage was flooded by stage hands and sound men and bouncers peering into the boiling mass, looking for the culprit. No one leaves till we get the microphone back someone announced over the PA.
Let me explain. I was in a punk rock band then, the drummer, and we had drums and guitars and amplifiers and even an avocado ranch to practice at. But we didn’t have a microphone. Our singer had to scream bloody murder to be heard above our proto hardcore din. Suddenly right there in front of me was this beautiful, state of the art, zillion dollar microphone. Being a drummer, I didn’t make the connection between it and us, but my guitar player–who shall remain nameless, as he has three beautiful daughters and a grandchild–did. Take the mic, he yelled into my ear. What? Take the mic! Steal the mic! We need a mic! So I stole it. It took a tug or two but it came off the cord. I stood there in the packed crowd, staring at it. Hide it! my guitar player yelled. Hide the mic! Stick it in your pants! So I did, hoping it would pass for a rather impressive hard on.
A small army of bouncers began moving through the crowd. Big dudes, muscular, mean. The sound man announced that someone had stolen the microphone and no one was going to leave till it was returned. They began patting people down on the floor. We better return the mic I said, stupidly. My guitar rolled his eyes. Then they’ll know that you stole it, he said. It dawned on me that it was actually me who had stolen it, and it was in my pants, feigning manhood. I must have looked panicky. Drop it on the floor, my guitar player said, and we’ll tell them we found it. So I retrieved it from my pants and dropped it on the floor. He picked it up and yelled Hey! We found it! We found it! He held the microphone aloft for all to see. Several bouncers rushed over. He found it, one said. He found it said another. My guitar player said and since we found it for you can we go backstage and meet the band? The bouncers rolled their eyes. C’mon, we found this expensive microphone for you! He whined like that for thirty seconds. OK, alright, let them backstage for a minute. And lucky felons that we were, we were led through the mass of sweating kids, past several other bouncers and either up or down some ancient stair to the backstage area.
It wasn’t what I expected. No lush chairs. No cocaine on mahogany tables. No greenless M&Ms. And the girls appeared perfectly nice and fully clad. Someone with an English accent said these guys found the microphone and want to meet the band. The girls rolled their eyes prettily. We were led into another room and there, exhausted, was Sham 69. Oh my god, real rock stars. It was like meeting the Rolling Stones in 1965, if the Rolling Stones were midgets. Because Sham 69 were dinky, like five foot tall. Well, five foot four maybe. We towered over them. I remember them peering up through exhausted eyes. Back home guys our size were always trouble, the toughest football hooligans. Here we were just kleptomaniac punk rockers. I shook Jimmy Pursey’s hand. You were great, I said, with genuine originality. Fanks, he said.
Their manager ushered us out again. C’mon now, the lads have another set to do. Back up (or down) the stairs we went, thanking the bouncers profusely. They thanked us for finding the microphone. You guys really helped us out, they said. Most people would have tried to steal it. I still feel a tinge rotten about that. Then they let us out a back door and into the December night, where the punks were chucking beers at passing cars.
Meanwhile a buddy of mine I didn’t know yet mouthed off to the bouncer at the door when they tried to search him for the microphone. I don’t have your fucking mic he said and got worked over good. Beat up by bouncers at the Whiskey for being such a punk. He told me this twenty years later and I laughed it was so funny but I bought him a beer for his pain. When he reads this I’ll have to buy him a whole six pack.
(And I don’t want to use without permission, but there is a great live shot of Sham 69 at the Whiskey by the Jenny Lens here.)
This story can also be found on Brickspicks.com, along side all the cultural stuff I’ve written about.