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Personal Punk review 'Silence is no reaction: Forty years of Subhumans'

A lyric or musical hook can worm its way into your subconscious and nestle there as a constant companion to help guide you through turbulent times, and by virtue of their steadfast consistency – they’ve rarely put a foot wrong in either the studio or the live arena – Subhumans have no doubt provided that spark of inspiration and reassurance, when courage and conviction are desperately needed, for thousands of people around the world… IAN GLASPER

When SUBHUMANS‘ first EP appeared in my local record shop in 1981, it ticked the boxes my awestruck teenage eyes and ears needed: striking, rudimentary sleeve art, political lyrics, and a potent mix of irreverent snot with anarcho earnestness. I played it inside out, following the band’s releases up to the mid-eighties. By the time of their last album, Worlds Apart, they’d already slipped from my radar and had split by the time I picked up the last gasp of 20:29 Split Vision. I never saw them live at that time, though I did catch them in Lincoln, post-reformation, sometime around the millennium. While I may have paid less attention to them in the years that followed, all of their 80s records are peerless and it’s pleasing to see them join a small group of early punk bands who remain relevant in reformation, releasing vital new material.


Formed in 1980, Wiltshire’s SUBHUMANS peddled an uncommon line in politically charged, progressive, spiky teen anthems. Rising quickly to the upper echelons of the UK punk scene, they fizzled out in 1985, only to return in ’98, a going concern ever since. For a band not known to the majority of the general public, their influence is both substantial and a moving beast. Close to Ian Glasper‘s heart – he is an über-fan whose first band supported them, and who released a SUBHUMANS covers album – writing this story is a gift, not least because vocalist Dick documented everything and its dog throughout the band’s journey. For his part, Glasper has tracked down and interviewed virtually every character to enter their orbit, though he receives a stern admonishment for missing the guy who swept the studio floor. Writing about a single band gives the author space to inject more of his personality across this 640-page monster, but his modus operandi remains the same: let the band – and others – tell the tale.

With their roots buried deep in the Wiltshire punk scene of the late 70s, band members discuss their beginnings, uncovering a typically incestuous local scene: PAGANS, A-HEADS, ORGANISED CHAOS, VERMIN, Dick’s first band THE MENTAL, his brother Steve’s band WILD YOUTH and, of course, STUPID HUMANS. From there, a multitude of contributors – and there are a lot – take advantage of the free reign they are given, spanning off in an equally dizzying array of directions. Successfully straddling traditional punk and anarcho scenes – though clearly more well-known for the latter – it’s striking just how young SUBHUMANS were when they started packing out venues, getting a record deal, and touring America, DIY style. The anarcho connections will be the most interesting to the majority of readers, though the band see themselves as an old-school punk band with a sense of humour (“as much TOY DOLLS as CRASS“). Either way, this stuff is a gift for the anarcho-interested: The early demos and gigs, connections to FLUX and Spiderleg Records – including the origins of the label via Derek and Colin – playing with DISCHARGE (“we were shitting ourselves“), THE MOB, and RUDIMENTARY PENI (“they came straight from school in their uniforms“). Every release is given the once-over by the author, with detailed discussions from band members. There are some fascinating windows into that long-ago world too: tensions with FLUX’s Derek during recording, insights from Small Wonder Records‘ Pete Stennett, Rob Challice (ANTHRAX/FACTION/96 Tapes), Dick’s lyrical regrets, and Winston Smith on their Sounds features. A strong sense of this youthful band growing across the years bleeds through the pages. It’s fascinating, for example, to hear Dick talk in the present day about the song British Disease(about the 1981 Brixton riots), racism in the police, and how he sees progress made in the Nineties slipping away, citing Brexit as the start of the rot. Equally valuable are Dick’s thoughtful discussions on the importance of holding to his principles versus the reality of living in a capitalist world and band reflections on the original split.

Since reforming in 1998, SUBHUMANS have been active for 25 years, longer than their initial period. Much of that time has been spent forging ties across the pond, so it’s no surprise that their relationship to the US is awarded heaps of coverage. The band are huge there, most notably in Southern California, highlighted by a heart-warming story of Dick refusing to play until some kids who’d driven for hours to a sold-out show were let in, and similarly, Jock (A-HEADS) describes the police shutting down a whole area of Pomona because the band were playing. Damon and Vique Martin of the bands’ current label Pirates Press discuss the difficulties in getting the rights to the bands’ music from Southern Records, and Chris Boarts Larson (Slug & Lettuce ‘zine) waxes lyrical on her first SUBHUMANS gig. My favourite part of this section is the story of Shannon Saint Ryan. Instrumental in coaxing the band to play the piano-led Susan live, with his accompaniment, he spins his tale of dreams realised via beautiful, visceral prose. Stories from their early-period US tour are engrossing too: A Chinese meal with Tim YohannonJello Biafra, and Ruth Schwartz, being interviewed by Flipside, headlining a 3000-capacity show at the Olympic Auditorium, and playing in a fire station with TSOL, surrounded by fire engines, in front of twenty people.

The list of bands talking about their experiences are of course legion, including Gizz Butt (THE DESTRUCTORS), Andy Nazer of SELF ABUSE, Stew of SHRAPNEL & Peter Jones of PARANOID VISIONS (Ireland), Jaz Wiseman of VIRUS, the author’s own DECADENCE WITHIN, SENSA YUMA’s Stu Pid, and the original line-up of INSTIGATORS, who reminisce on their support slots and recording sessions for Dick’s Bluurg Records. Finally, this wouldn’t be a punk scene book without Sean Forbes (WAT TYLER/HARD SKIN) and his chortle-worthy interjections. Dick’s other outfits, CULTURE SHOCK and CITIZEN FISH, both active and orbiting around SUBHUMANS, are neatly woven into the story and, as the book rounds out with a chapter discussing the band’s impact and longevity, the reader is finally left to navigate a complete, and I mean complete discography and gigography. Coupled with a deluge of crucial and contextual photos, posters, flyers, original lyric sheets, ads, interviews, diary extracts, and letters, including some incredible live shots, comprehensive doesn’t begin to cover it.

 

It’s great to see passionate punk lifers like Ian Glasper and Welly Artcore get the chance to publish their work, thanks to the likes of Earth Island. They are the real deal, and Silence Is No Reaction (incidentally, the title is a lyric from the song Black And White) is no different. Whether a fan of SUBHUMANS or the late 70s/early 80s anarcho-punk scene, I gotta tell you, it doesn’t get any better than this. Utterly compelling from start to finish, the seemingly bottomless quantity and quality of insights, perspectives, and stories is overwhelming, in the best possible way. The bands’ warmth, humility, and eagerness to engage, along with the undimmed impact they have had on so many lives, shine brightly throughout. A veritable blueprint for how every band’s story should be told.

 

Did you know?

From The Cradle To The Grave was inspired by a 20-minute YES song, its sleeve art deemed the most boring in the history of record covers by Seething Wells.

Since Internal Riot (2007), they’ve used E-flat tuning to “make it easier to catch some of those teenage high notes.”

Dick fractured his skull during a bike accident and lost his sense of smell, which never fully returned.

Hurricane Higgins once tried to score speed off the band.

The band writes a different set list for every gig. Bruce has a list of the seventy-odd songs they can play, and pulls it out to create the set.

Dick’s first ever gig was HERE AND NOW.





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