The Stranglers and the Finchley Boys
Photo courtesy of Punk 77, with Mr. Hiller seen to the right with a white 'Boys' T-shirt
Memoirs of a fan's fan by Al HillierED NOTE: The following are some memoirs of exploits from a member of 'The Finchley Boys,' a group of fans of the punk group the Stranglers as the band was embarking on a UK tour. The Boys were characterized by BBC radio as 'a hooligan outfit more suited to football terraces than music venues.' Strangler Hugh Corwell said this of the Boys: 'These guys, who were then very hardcore punks - safety pins through their cheeks, the whole bit - apparently found they could identify with us and just started following us to every gig' (from an interview with Chris Salewicz).
October 24th 1977
Just want to curl up and die, kind of cold
Shut your eyes and let the clouds of icy breath billow upwards and take your frozen soul with it, kind of cold.
I won't forget it.
It still makes me shiver.
We knew, well, I always knew, when there was going be trouble. I 'always' knew. Like some frickin Doris Stokes, I always had a gut feeling when things were going to go bad. So I used to shut these feelings away inside and just get the fuck on with it. It was my way of dealing with it and doing it had become second nature to me.
I envied all those who were blissfully unaware of impending doom. Me, I just hid it really well. Maybe they did too, who knows. But no one displayed any emotion when we discussed the Swansea gig.
By now the Finchley Boys were well known. Most of the early Strangler interviews mentioned our 'role' in the 'psyche' of the band. The way the press had decided to portray us as a "proletarian street army," spearheading the assault on the rest of a sleepy society who were only just emerging from the lethargy of the 'swinging sixties,' had created an aura and a reputation that had already spread far and wide.
Articles with references to our antics (often exaggerated) appeared weekly. Our notoriety was no longer confined to London. Our reputation preceded us and we were now considered 'legitimate targets for any group of nutters who fancied having a go.' The whole country knew who we were. The Stranglers were gigging like men possessed, up and down the country, night after night, town after town. We tried to get to as many as possible, which is why some are no more than a blur. One gig becoming a bit like the one before.
Not this one..........
The band had 'Finchley Boy' T shirts produced and distributed (still got one, the other was, lets just say, swapped, with a hells angel. But that's another story).
We were 'issued' two each. We wore them with pride, the band was a class live act, hurtling along on a roller coaster ride and well on their way to the top of the tree and we were the Fucking Finchley Boys, and we were there. We were always there. Now, we were there dressed in our 'official' Finchley Boys T Shirts.
We might just as well have painted the roundels of targets on our backs.
I heard a voice
"Finchley Boy"! Stay in tight formation my son, or just like that stray Dornier flying lost and low over war torn London or that reckless animal who wanders too far from the safety of the herd, there will always be a chance of a lucky kill."
Our usual form of transport was a van owned by Dennis Marks. The van was called ROD. ROD was a dirty old grey Ford Transit van, a troop carrier par excellence. Trouble was, Rod's engine was knackered and we were waiting for a brand new one to arrive direct from Fords. Dennis's two brothers Mick and Billy were both foreman mechanics so the installation was a formality.
My brother Steve was working for a fruit firm at the time and managed to borrow a blue Bedford van as a last resort. I remember him driving it down our road parking it outside our house with the engine running, jumping out through the sliding front drivers door and asking:
"Well... what do you think of that"
I couldn't believe the sound of the engine, blowing like fuck, missing at least one cylinder possibly two; add to that the rattle of a knackered old exhaust and it sounded just like a like a fucking printing press clattering out the morning edition.
I laughed my bollocks off. I took a good look at it and realised that apart from the state of the mechanics, this shit heap had no front grill and to make matters worse had a whacking great hole right through into the drivers cab where some prat had probably smashed a well aimed Doc Martin.
"Your not serious" I said
"Fuckin am, got any better ideas," said Steve
I opened the back doors and got the whiff of rotting fruit. Bits of every conceivable vegetable were either stuck hard to the sides or clung limpet like, frozen to the battered, buckled, rusted, freezing steel floor.
"Fuck that Steve, can't you give it a wash out?" I asked.
Steve turned and smiled
"It's all we got Al, you want it washed out, you fuckin do it"
Slamming the sliding front door of the van he smiled and quietly remarked "Cheeky cunt"
So there it was. This riddled, stinking, frozen pile of shite was going to take us all to Swansea the next day. God help us.
THE ROUND UP
This October was the coldest I can ever remember. Arctic winds and snow from the East had already hit town. It was snowing in London and cold enough to settle on the ground. But it was the freezing wind that cut you in half. The roundup involved the collection of the boys that were going to make the gig. Steve and I dived into the van. Then we shot straight down the East End Rd, hung a right into Elmshurst Cres, where we were to collect, Graham Hayhoe, Leigh Bull, and last but certainly not least Philip Rawlings. Phil had a quiet spirituality that unnerved some, scared others and a smile as engaging as it was menacing. Jack Nicholson meets Pinocchio. Dennis Marks, who lived on the Elmshurst Estate and the owner and driver of ROD, was already down in Swansea, having been at the Cardiff gig the night before. We had arranged to meet up when we got there
We pulled up outside the flats and Steve hit the horn.
Then, there they were..... Piling down the stairs of the flats, out into the road, Graham first, literally covered in clothes, combat trousers, and flying jacket, anything to try and beat out the cold. Then the rest of them, in various bits of camouflage gear hats, scarves, mufflers, anything, just standing there smiling, like a platoon of fucking scruffy GI's
Easy company eat your heart out.
Then, Phil emerged from his block. Walking slowly towards me in this darkening, freezing, grey, desolate afternoon. He was a vision. A short muscley little gargoyle of a man wearing nothing but a cap sleeve T-shirt jeans, boots and of course, his normal wicked grin.
"Your fuckin mad Phil, where's your gear man" I asked
" I don't need a coat today, It's not cold" He replied in his soft quiet, smiley voice
"Fuckin crazy"said a voice from somewhere else
"Lets go, lets go," screamed the ever-impatient Steve.
So we all piled in. After a bit of a scrap for the remaining front seat, we screeched up East End Rd took a left at the lights with the junction of High Rd and Fortis Green Rd (The Stag Pub) and pulled up outside the Wimpy Bar. We picked up Leigh Brown and steamed back down the high rd to pick up the North Circ. Already, the temperature inside the van had dropped to below zero. Most of us were visibly shaking. As we made our way around Chiswick Roundabout and up the entry slip rd to the M4, I was already frozen.
We had begun our journey to Swansea, proper.
Spluttering and blustering down the M4.
No heaters, no blankets, and to make matters much, much worse, a freezing arctic icy wind was funnelled through that gaping hole and was acting like a refrigeration unit. Nice for keeping your frozen food or even chilling down your beer, but not for sitting motionless for hours on end
The frozen wind ripping through the van was relentless, blowing through that frozen steel panelled shit heap, reducing the temperature ever more, mile, after miserable mile. We were a sorry looking bunch. That is....all except Phil
While those in the back shuffled and tried to get some blood moving about their bodies, Phil, now laying on the uncovered steel floor of the van in just his T-shirt, produced two of the biggest knives I have ever seen. They looked a bit like the kind of weapons that the Ghurkhas use, big blades big handles, fucking dangerous looking.
"What the fuck you doing with them Phil" I asked
Phil laid back on that frozen floor in his fucking crazy little capped sleeved T-Shirt and holding one of those awesome knives in each hand proceeded to cross his arms, like an Egyptian mummy, left hand, arm, and knife resting on right shoulder and then the same with the other side.
"When we get to Swansea, don't forget to wake me....will you" he said He then shut his eyes.
We all stared at Phil for hours. Trying to catch him out. Trying to catch a glimpse of the tiniest of movements. Waiting for this stupid game to come to an end. Waiting for him to crack, give up, jump up and grab a coat or anything to cover that frozen body. Watching, relentlessly for a twitch or the faintest sign of a shudder, or a blink, anything to show that this was a game that had gone too far.
But he didn't crack.
To our amazement Phil appeared to have put himself into a state of suspended animation. The temperature in the van was well below zero and we were all still shaking and moaning, but there he was, hour after frozen hour silently asleep in a T-Shirt with crossed knives, not moving an inch, not a twitch, not a flicker.
"He's fucking dead," said Leigh
"Check his breathing Arth," (Leigh's nickname was Arthur) I asked
So Leigh bent down and put his ear to Phils mouth
"Yea, he's alive, but he's fucking cold and he aint moving"
"Leave him," I said
"Lets just wake him when we get there"
The hours rolled by, the van was a dog and even on the slightest gradient it almost ground to a halt. Up those inclines I think I suffered most. This journey had sapped my very soul as it went on and on. I can't remember how many hours it took; I just remember that when I saw the sign for Swansea Town centre, I wished that I were dead. All talking had long since ceased; movement was non-existent. The van felt like it was driving itself, on it's own mission to deliver its frozen cargo, dead or alive.
We were hours late when we pulled in to a parking space as near as possible to the venue. We were supposed to have been there for a meet up with Dennis and the boys who had travelled down from the gig in Cardiff, the night before, at least a couple of hours before the gig started. I could hardly move but managed to slide open the passengers door and get out. Phil had awoken from his suspension and looked like he'd had a really good kip.
As we walked the stairs of the gig I could hear the band on stage already, well into the set. Inside the foyer I felt the first warm air that I had felt for countless hours. I felt like sitting down on my haunches and just staying put. It all seemed a bit unreal and irrelevant. The normal excitement and electric anticipation that I always felt when I got to the gig was replaced with a genuine gratitude that I was out of that freezing fucking van.
We decided to go up to the circle bar and get our shit together. It was then that reality kicked in, as it always does. The bar was deserted. No punters and no barman in sight. As I walked slowly across the room, I was aware of a crunching sound. I was waking across a carpeted area that was literally covered in shattered glass. The atmosphere was electric, I could feel the tension.
What we didn't know at that moment was that less than half an hour earlier, the circle bar had been a battleground. The place had played host to rival local Welsh gangs who had chosen the Stranglers gig as the perfect venue to settle their old scores. There was no doubt that they'd had some fun. Towards the main bar, I saw a small pool of fresh blood, mixed with smashed glass. We decided to get downstairs and find out what the fuck was going on.
The battle upstairs had only been a spot of jousting. These tough old welsh boyo's were going to show these Finchley Boys how they were going to finish the job properly. When we reached the dance floor of the hall, another massive brawl started. Boots and fists seemed to explode from every direction, circles opening and closing around skirmishes in the large crowd, sending shock waves and rippling people in an involuntary Mexican wave.
The Stranglers were aware of the happenings in the hall; I remember John giving back some verbal to a section of the crowd with his usual sneering "Fuck You" attitude. That was the way it had to be dealt with. No quarter asked and certainly none given.
"Believe this, anyone who ever suggests to you (and there have been some) that John and Hugh, or for that matter, the whole band, hid behind the punk image or that it was all an elaborate act; college boys and teachers on the road, playing the part of proletarian punk rockers, dishing out the verbal and mixing it with the deranged elements of society, all for show, know absolutely jack shit about the reality of those days. I had some very hairy scary moments being around them and believe me they had many, many more of those moments than I did. This interaction, live, between band and audience had a life force of it's own. Add to that a real violent gang agenda and you have got aggro with a capital A. John and Hugh had plenty of bottle, fucking plenty, and certainly, a lot more than I ever did."
We moved around the perimeter of the dance floor trying to make our way backstage and hopefully, to get onstage. We normally watched the gigs from the side of the stage partly so that we could see the crowd and react to any situation quickly; partly to check out the nubiles and in the early days, to get onstage to jump about to "Go Buddy Go."
I eventually found myself backstage. The gig was now over. There had been a couple of attempts to storm the front of the stage. Dennis and a few of the boys had managed to remove the teeth of at least one Welshman, whilst trying to persuade him against any further attacks. Although these attacks had been repelled, the Welsh gangs had decided to stick around and sort out a few more of their personal issues, which now involved new ones with the guys who had fought them off at the stage front.
The crowd was still large and very, very hostile. Large groups of punks were still milling around stage front but were now beginning to gather outside the entrance to the backstage area. A very threatening atmosphere hung heavy over the hall. Backstage, there was the usual après gig tension and the band went into their normal wind-down routine. Various visitors, local press, and whoever else could blag their way backstage were all adding to the tension. I found Dennis sitting on the floor with a Holstein Pills in his hand; he had the look, the one that I always recognised in him the one that says "That was fucking close".
"Dennis was our leader, no one would ever argue about that. Whether we ever sat down together and elected him or whether we ever actually acknowledged that to each other is irrelevant. We were a group of strong-minded individuals but he stood out amongst us even when we were little kids in opposing council estate gangs (which is where I met him), he was our leader and he was a good leader. He was a Rucker, a scrapper and I can assure you that you would not have wanted to take him on. But as with a lot of the boys, he had a quick wit and a very sharp brain (Still has) and was generous in victory. He never suffered fools gladly but more importantly for me was that he never bottled out. He always had that air of invincibility that is essential in all good leaders. I never ever felt that all was completely lost when he was around. He had guts and would fight his way out of the toughest situation and get you out too.
One occasion that demonstrates these qualities was when the two of us were having a quiet drink in a pub in North Finchley. Dennis had a reputation even before the Finchley Boys and was a 'face' around any scene. All of a sudden this guy was standing directly in front of us, towering above us as we sat drinking our beer. I looked up at him and asked him what the fuck he wanted, he just gave us both a mad stare and said that he'd heard all about Dennis fucking Marks and what a hard cunt he (Dennis) thought he was. He decided to challenge Den there and then for no apparent reason but possibly to impress the local girls or simply to gain kudos with his own mates, who were lurking in the background. Whatever the reason, he must have fancied his chances as a scrapper or else he was plain and simply fucking mad. There were about six or seven of these dim looking droogs hanging around the bar. Den looked this guy up and down but said nothing. I asked him what the fuck that was all about and how had he managed to upset this guy. Den told me that he'd never met him in his life before now. The guy made his threats and walked back to his smiling mates under the mistaken impression that he had achieved exactly what he had set out to do in a bloodless coup. We both finished our beer and went for a piss. We were standing in the toilet when four or five of this guy's mates came in. I was getting jumpy and whispered to Den that I thought we should take them on right there in the toilets and fight our way out. Den looked straight at me and slowly shook his head as if to say no. We pushed passed these guys and were back in the bar. Den went straight to the guy who had made the threats and in a characteristic display of bravery 'offered' him out side.
There was plenty of dialogue between us all, but in a classic moment of military strategy Den got this guy to agree, before battle commenced, that no other party was to get involved. He called upon the primeval instincts of this guy's character and turned his own reasoned logic back on him. Den suggested that only a 'one to one' could be considered honourable enough to satisfy honour and that as the challenge had been directly made it must be deemed impossible for him to turn these conditions down. A straight fight to the finish with no interference from his mates or me, no putting the boot in.
So here we were 'all' in the car park of the pub. Dennis and I, this guy and his mates. Coats were literally taken off in the surreal atmosphere of a traditional 'duel'. Neither of the two gladiators had ever met before and yet they were about to fight. The stakes were high; the prize for this unknown duellist was only really known to him but was perhaps simple primeval glory? Kudos, but there was also the distinct possibility of failure in his attempt to wrest a reputation from Dennis and create one for himself, and he knew it.
I never trusted for one minute, the honourable intentions of this guys mates and felt uneasy in this Mexican standoff. I managed to work myself slowly around to an area of the car park where I could see some loose building materials and where, perhaps, there would be a chance of finding a weapon, any kind of weapon, should all these honourable promises be broken once this guy started to get the shit kicked out of him, as I surely believed he would. At the end of the day it was still seven to two so I needed to even things up a little should it turn out that way.
So, under the sepia coloured glow of a low powered orangey brown Victorian street light and watched only by official 'seconds' and empty beer barrels and crates of bottles, they set about their work. Wheeling and turning for an advantageous position to strike from, watching each other for that important first move. Then at last a clash, a break and then another clash. Fists feet arms, full contact, no going back now. I was trying to keep one eye on the fight and the other on his mates who were more animated than I was. A few minutes of combat seemed to take hours then all of a sudden, the guy was down on the floor, Dennis pinning him to the floor in a classic pose. Immediately to his right and within arms reach was an empty orange milk crate. A panting Dennis raised it above his head and demanded that this guy concede or have his face turned into crinkle cut chips. He did. He panted out his surrender so I took the crate from Den's still upraised hand and got him off the guy, never for one second taking my eyes from his supporters...
The loser stood up and gasped something about "A good fight" we just watched them until they all turned and walked out of the car park and out of site.
It takes a special person to do what was done on that night. Dennis had worked out our chances of taking them all on in an instant and had selflessly realised that the odds were not in our favour. Even though the challenge was a direct one, few people would have had the bottle and clarity of mind to work it all out under those intense circumstances. He had saved us both a potential good kicking and more importantly, had made this guy look the total cunt that he obviously was. I never saw him again.
"Where are all the others" I asked Den
"There all over the place, we've had a right battle with these local nutters" Den replied
"We had to knock the crap out of some of them to keep them from totally invading the stage"
"I can see that, there's hundreds of them building up out the front"
With that, we decided to have a round up and get our shit together to escape. There was no way that we could fight our way through the front and no way that these crazy fuckers were going to just let us walk away. We had to come up with a plan and fast. I suggested that a couple of us, who had not been involved in the fighting at the front of the stage, try and slip through the crowd and get the vans around to the back of the venue and try and make a quick exit with as little defending to do as possible. One of the Stranglers management at the time was a guy called Dai Davies; he volunteered to go so I felt I'd better go too. Dai was a tough old Welshman himself, but he wasn't crazy either. Neither of us could be directly identified as having dished out any violence so we had a beer, plucked up a bit of courage and headed toward the bolted doors that had protected us from the baying mob, that led out to the auditorium. This side of the doors and just holding on to his sanity was a big burly, local Welsh security guard.
" Your not going out there are you boyo's," he sang in his delightful accent.
"They'll fucking murder you out there"
Dai looked at me and I looked at Dai
"Open the door as quietly and as slowly as you can," said Dai
" It's not opening it that worries me," chirped the security guard
"It's getting the bloody thing closed again that's going to be the problem" his face was a picture of honest terror.
"I'd better get a few more boys down here to get behind it and shove it closed, I don't fancy you luck" he said
The guard got on his radio and five or six reinforcements arrived. Standing altogether by the front stage door they looked like the front row of a rugby team. I felt small, weedy and insignificant in their midst (and I'm 6ft) and wished like fuck that they were all coming with us. We prepared ourselves and the door was duly opened. It was like crashing stone cold sober into the maddest party that you have ever been to, unwanted and uninvited we found ourselves in the seething midst of a stinking drunken baying mob who wanted to know who was coming out of the doors. There were screams and shouts and general abuse as we tried to push our way through the sweating bodies. Dai was ahead of me and he manfully kept moving, doing a couple of rugby 'hand offs' of his own. Me being younger and looking less like management and more like a Finchley Boy received a few kicks and a few slaps just in case I was. It felt like hours passed wading through to the back of this sordid crowd, but all of a sudden Dai and I were outside into that freezing cold air once again. Dai had to go in the opposite direction to get his van so we said good luck, agreed where to meet up again and split. I felt a little bit more anonymous now I was outside the venue and every yard that took me away from it lessened the chance of getting 'jumped.'
Then there it was, Steve's wonderful blue Bedford van, the one that got us here more dead than alive and the little beauty that was going to freeze our bollocks off all the way home.
I put the key into the drivers door lock and attempted to slide the door open. The considerable condensation that we had created on the way up seemed to have contributed to the fact that the door had frozen stiff.
"Fuck it" I remember saying as I went round to the passenger door
"Fuck you, you pox ridden cunt" I mouthed quietly
"Open you bastard" I screamed.
In my temper I managed to rip the door open, jump across to the drivers seat and offer a warning to the van
"Start first time you cunt or I'll kick the shit out of you" I pulled out the choke and turned the ignition key. The engine turned over with a dreaded wur wur wur that denoted that the battery was almost flat
"I fucking knew it," I screamed inside the van
I quickly switched off the ignition and waited for a few seconds then tried again. I turned the key so hard in a futile subconscious attempt to force the engine to explode into life that I almost snapped it off. I willed the thing to start. That dreaded sound of the flat battery was back, but even slower now. I smashed my foot down hard on the accelerator, nearly shoving my foot through the rotten rusted, pox ridden floor and when I'd nearly given up all hope, the bastard caught on what must have been the very last ounce of battery. I revved the engine, trying to keep it alive, I nursed that peddle gently encouraging the revs to settle, but it was cold and the missing cylinders made it choke and chortle cough and splutter but it didn't die on me. I sat there for ages shitting myself in case the engine died. This was my only chance and I had to get it right. It was then that I noticed that I was sweating. Beads of perspiration on my brow and on my nose. I laughed out loud. I was freezing fucking cold and I was sweating trying to keep this shit heap of a van alive. Finally, I felt the engine was sufficiently warmed up to attempt to drive it. I had no idea what was going on back at the gig or whether Dai had got there yet. I put the blue beast in reverse and backed out of the parking space and headed toward the gig.
There were still plenty of gangs around but things had thinned out a lot. As I swung round to the rear stage door I could see the tour van pulling away. Dai had obviously made it with out too much bother. I screamed up and parked in the place Dai had just vacated and was immediately surrounded by punters. I blasted the horn two or three times, the doors opened and out they came piling through the crowd. The back doors were not even closed as I roared away from the gig with no intention of stopping should any brave boyo get in my way. I'd had enough of this shit and I wanted to leave it behind. Someone closed the doors as I asked if they were all there.
"Yea, were all here" came the reply. I looked in the rear view mirror and smiled
"Were all fucking mad, we are," I said
"What else would you be doing right now," said Graham with a relieved smile
"Fuck knows" was my weary reply.
Whilst waiting for me to turn up, the others had arranged to meet the band and all other Finchley Boys who were in other transport, at the first services out of town.
We pulled into the services and were glad to get out of the van. We all got something to eat (paid for by the band) and chatted about the night. That was a great feeling. Warm, fed safe and happy to have got out of it all with no more than a kick up the arse and a few bruises to the old ego. I was feeling fine, until it was time to go. The idea of the journey back filled me with dread, but we had no choice but to suffer it.
When I finally got home, I can't remember what time it was. My brain was so numb and my head was exploding with the early morning cold. It took me hours to get warm. I shivered, laying in my bed still in my clothes my teeth chattered and although I was tired as a dog, I couldn't sleep.
Eventually at around 7 am, I felt a warm glow finally spread throughout my body. I felt myself float off to sleep, only to return in my dreams to the journey and the chaos of the Top Rank Swansea.
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