Punk never dies, it just gets a little older and perhaps settles down with kids. So, where do you go if you fancy a spot of boisterous old school fun? Brighton Open Air theatre might have just the answer in their Punks Picnic. This al fresco daytime event comes to the Dyke Road venue on Sun 27 May and will pay homage to Brighton’s own spikey punk heritage.
There’s a rich history in the city of DIY rock music, as legendary local DJ Gremlin tells me. “Punk was one of the contributing factors, along with the gay scene, of making Brighton a really nice place. It used to be awful here. Up until the mid-80s it was a right dump. It wasn’t bohemian and accepting like it is now, it was quite a violent place.”
The media gives us a distorted view of what those years were really like. The uniformed observer may think everyone was into the headline-grabbing youth culture. The truth is, only a few people truly were. “You could probably have all of us into one pub and we’d just about fir in. Most people were boring.”
Part of BOAT’s summer music programme, Punks Picnic offers an impunity for the original scene to share some good times with their families. Fundraising for local charities, the day features DJs alongside bands like psychobilly act The Hillmans, female The Ramones tribute The Ramonas and local ska legends, The Hot Knives.
For Gremlin, his full submergence in the scene started back in 1982, when he started holding alternative nights. Starting off with Revelations, and then Subterfuge. In the late 80s he became a staple of every self-respecting indie kid’s weekend, with the iconic Sister Rays. “After the disco boom, there were loads of little nightclubs underneath hotels, playing that music. There was far too many of them, so by about ‘82 most were empty, or shut, thus available for private hire. So, it was fairly easy to go in and say to the owner: ‘I’m a professional DJ and I’ve got loads of mates. We’ll fill the place up for you.’ That’s all they care about – filling the place up and selling beer. Provided you did know lots of people to come down, then you were alright.” Of course, some hotel managers were a little concerned about the boisterous nature of the music played, but any negativities were always placated by the night’s bar-spend.
People might not really realise how much Brighton & Hove has culturally changed. The city has always had a reputation for great live music, but the scene which forged this has long gone. Situated beneath the then infamous Brighton Resource Centre off North Road, The Vault was originally a crypt beneath the old Presbyterian church – on the site where the Brighthelm Centre is now. This tiny venue was just one of the long-lost spots in the town’s musical history. “It was run by bunch of people as a community centre. The first punk gig in Brighton was when they got The Buzzcocks to come down and play in 1977. A few weeks later The Jam played in The Embassy cinema, which is now a Thai restaurant on Western Road. The Clash played Sussex University on the White Riot tour, and things began to spiral.” Not that everyone embraced punkm especially not pub owners. Especially if you were into punk. “If you were dressed like that back in the day, you wouldn’t get served in pubs. One was The Windsor, which is now The Earth and Stars. Another was The Buccaneer, which is now Patterns, on the seafront.” Elsewhere, behind the Taj world-food store on Western Road used to be the Starlight Rooms, which hosted stars like Bowie and The Small Faces. The Sea Life Centre was once a club called The Florida Rooms. Where Boots is now, used to the Regents Ballroom, which welcomed T-Rex, Genesis, Captain Beefheart and Fleetwood Mac. By the university’s art building was The Basement, which hosted and embryonic Killing Joke and New Order. The list is lengthy. “It always amazes me that people don’t realise how much youth culture Brighton has had. The old Hove Town Hall, which burnt down in the 1960s, they had bands like The Rolling Stones and The Who play there.”
He’s started a Facebook page called DJ Gremlin’s Rockin’ Stompers, which gathers Rock and Roll memorabilia from past to present. It started with just posts of old flyers, and has mushroomed into an online history of local punk with several thousand members. ”Birmingham and Manchester – their museums have online histories of everything that’s happened youth culture-wise. There’s nothing like that in Brighton. Even though the city was used by the Prince Regent as a centre of hedonism and parties, there’s this idea of high culture here. Which is complete bollocks, because it’s always been about getting pissed, having lots of sex and drugs.” He’s eager to try and preserve the city’s cultural legacy. There’s not a suggestion that the scene is dead, but it’s certainly not as potent. “Now when you go to gigs it’s usually an older crowd. I recently saw Goat Girl, and all the crowd were made up of people my age. ‘Youth culture’ is not for the youth anymore.”
One major positive is the decreased threat of violence in modern times. Going out in the 70s, you take it for granted the night would see some kind of trouble. “Because of punk, gay rights and feminism, people are less inclined to let themselves be pushed around. Also, there’s not much credence to the fact by the late 80s people started using ecstasy as their drug of choice. If you’re all loved-up you don’t really want to have a fight.”
So, those days might have gone, but will punk resurface? “You could argue that it is with Pussy Riot. I’ve also been reading about a band in Iran and what they’ve put up with. It’s not so different.” Still kids are going out and reacting to what was happening around them. It’s just happening in different ways now. There is still a chance to go out for a nice picnic and bask in the tunes which defined a generation – one that took matters into their own hands. “If it’s a really nice day, you can’t go wrong with a bit of reggae. – obviously some punk and some ska.”
Punk Picnic comes to Brighton Open Air Theatre on Sun 27 May 2018.