I FIRST came across Brigandage when John Peel broadcast the session they recorded for his seminal nightly radio show in 1983, although they first came to national prominence in the NME’s examination of the so-called positive punk scene around the same time, alongside Blood & Roses, Southern Death Cult and The Mob in a piece entitled The Music, Mystery and Magick of the New Punks.
North would go onto to join the reformed Brigandage after they imploded following the NME coverage, while the scene he dubbed positive punk somehow ended up becoming Goth. They were never my favourite band or anything, and I don’t recall ever seeing them live, but I had a lot of time for Brigandage’s shouty yet tuneful punk, which occasionally seemed to take as much from Joy Division as it did the Pistols and Siouxsie.
As a result, I did a postal Q&A with lead singer Michelle (pictured with North) in early 1985 and published in my fanzine Airstrip*2, alongside interviews with Omega Tribe, Inca Babies, Lunatic Fringe and Toxic Shock. While the interview remains the product of a very particular time and place, it still makes for an interesting read, I think.
* * *
LOOKING back, do you think that the Positive Punk piece that Richard wrote for the NME was a good or a bad thing? Did it give some of the bands, maybe even Brigandage, too much exposure too soon?
“The piece that Richard wrote was not really supposed to be about the groups as such (but being a music paper groups had to be mentioned), it was all about us in London or Newcastle or villages in Scotland and Wales, about anyone who still had beliefs and ideals but unfortunately most people didn’t or didn’t want to see that, and here we’re talking about the bands especially. Richard and I don’t talk to any of those bands now!
“It was bad that, in the main, it was so misunderstood but it was good that it really brought bands out in their true colours – shit brown. This includes Brigandage. It’s so sad because at the time there was such a buzz, just like there used to be. Bands were friendly towards each other, like lending equipment, and then it just disintegrated and we were left with the same as before, egos and power games.
“As for Brigandage, well, how would you feel when three boys you’d known for years and were your best friends changed overnight? We’d been through so much and it just meant nothing to them. After the piece and all the other publicity, they expected to be stars overnight! Mick wanted to be in a ‘Gothic’ band. They had no vision, any fool can see it was just a great starting point. They wanted everything and when it didn’t happen they decided to change and go for it”.
Has the break up of the old band affected the way you deal with people? Is it inevitable that when a band starts to become successful, they stop becoming friends and start becoming business associates?
“I suppose the break up has affected me. I trust no one really. I started the last band with the drummer Ben who I was also going out with at the time, and this time I started it with Richard North. Unfortunately he couldn’t play anything but that didn’t matter to me, as he was the only person that I could trust, and I knew that he understood what ‘Brigandage’ means. I mean, I didn’t need musos, I needed people with ideas.
“On one hand, it’s great to be in a band with your partner, but it does have its difficulties. Richard soon picked up the bass and now he’s really good, and because he’s got confidence now and he comes up with new ideas, he starts to challenge me – which is okay with Tom and Dave but because Richard lives with me, the rows get out of hand and far more personal.
“Also the power balance in the group tends to stay with us, which isn’t perfect and isn’t the way I had originally conceived the idea but after last time I’m very wary of conspiracies. When I first started in groups, it never occurred to me that you could end up hating each other. I also thought that it would be you against the world, and it probably is when you’re struggling but I have noticed that friendships are very fragile when success rears its confusing head. I’m not sure if it is inevitable but if it’s not, it’s a bloody hard fight to stop petty jealousies”.
Can your music change anything?
“Music is only a small cog in a large wheel of change. People who are in bands and think they can actually make major changes are fools. But music can be used to create a wild magical feeling in which small changes are made possible. It can uplift and energise them in creating and as each person gets something out of it, it gets a bit bigger, like the ripples in a pond when a pebble is thrown in, but it’s a slow change.
“Music can bring people together and end isolation, a great disease of the 20th century. This is one of our aims, to be a focal point where there’s no competition, no fighting. To start a network of co-operation all over the country. It’s not impossible. Already people are writing offering help, arranging gigs and accommodation and vice versa. It’s a great feeling to know that people still care!”
Have your experiences with record companies totally put you off them? Could you survive by just releasing tapes and making the real money from gigs?
“My experiences have totally put me off, whether they’re major or indie, they’re all the same. The only people who make any money are them. They’re always really into you but then they start making suggestions for changes, in my case that I should look more like a girl. They try to get you to bland out musically and then on top of all this, they rip you off.
“We are actually releasing a live tape from various gigs [entitled Fuck Your Mother .. And don’t run away you punk]. It has 16 tracks (50 minutes), a 16-page fanzine and a badge. We hope to sell it for £2.75 including P&P as we have found there are atrocious bootlegs of us going for more than £3.00. So we thought we’d better release a good quality tape, it’s being done by Fuck Off Records. We might even make some money off it to buy some equipment.
“Rubella [Ballet] once told me that they’d made their only money off Ballet Bag and this is probably true. We make hardly any money gigging at the moment, but I expect it gets better the bigger you get, maaan. Yes, I think it would be possible to survive on tapes and gigs but everybody was to get onto those little seven-inch pieces of black plastic”.
Do you think you’re lucky living in London? Do you think that people can get a bit jaded towards new bands in the capital?
“No, I don’t think I’m lucky living here. I just moved here, anyone can, it’s not a secret club. If you’re on your own, then it’s hard. There’s no community, it’s a big city of loners and even the punks here have changed. There was a time when you could walk down the street and people would talk to you just because you were punks. Now everyone just stares and punk is so split.
“Yes, you are right about people being jaded. Londoners are spoilt for choice and don’t really care unless you’re big. And up north, everyone treats you suspiciously for being southern. This has to be stopped at once, DO YOU HEAR?”
Will describing yourselves as a punk band put people off? And isn’t punk far too narrow a term to ever accurately describe something? Can’t you be more precise?
“Yes, I expect that calling ourselves punk rockers will put people off but I couldn’t give a toss! Any label is dodgy and loaded with preconceptions but punk rock is the nearest to what/how/why we are. The reason I started Brigandage was to show that punk rock could still be a driving force, that there was nothing to be ashamed of in being a punk rocker anymore (10 years on).
“If we didn’t play punk, we’d still be punks. It’s in our heads. Punk is a broad term, that’s exactly why I love it. It doesn’t describe anything accurately, it just conjures up a feeling, an ATTITUDE. It doesn’t restrict, there’s no dogma and I can reinvent myself every day – my ideas, clothes, music (if you like) – and I’d still be a punk rocker.”
Have you got any heroes left?
“Heroes, now that’s a funny word. Heroines is probably a better choice. I have a couple of heroines from when I was young – Violette Zarbo, a French resistance fighter who held off the Germans for two hours on her own, helping others to escape before she was captured and shot for spying. And all the Suffragettes and the women before them who fought against convention.
“Today, I don’t have heroes as much as people I admire or respect, the main one being Johnny Rotten. People are always going on about him selling out, but to who? John Lydon plays himself. He promised nothing and he gave nothing – except a sense of freedom to do your will. He opened up our eyes to the future, what we make of it is up to us.
“There is also Patti Smith who, apart from Suzi Quatro, is the only positive female role model I had when I was about 13.”
Is the band something to do or are you trying to achieve anything?
“Brigandage is more than a band, there are a lot of members of Brigandage who are not in the band but part of the group. Brigandage means ‘the art of stealing’ and it is this we hope to achieve. Everybody has the knack, we want to steal everything back that has been stolen from us – dignity, love and pride, the reasons for living. We want to discover joy and hope, we want everyone to feel alive and fulfil themselves”.
Don’t people tend to look at 1977 through rose-coloured spectacles and romanticise early punk? Shouldn’t it be more like your first love? You always keep them in your heart but you’re more concerned with what’s going on at the moment?
“I don’t know why everyone goes on about 1977, fucking hell, the real year was 1976! Christ, that year I thought that the world was going to burn down. But it didn’t. It meandered into 1977 which was alright but then it crawled into ’78, which was pretty dread, but then the worst happened, ‘79-’80. I thought that it couldn’t get worse but it did in ’81 and ’82.
“Punk rock is a culture, for some it’s a heritage, with its own heroes and myths. In years to come it will be regarded like Celtic secret societies are now, and romantic ballads will be sung with names like The Ballad of Johnny Lydon or The Day of The King’s Road Riot by gun-toting rebel youth sitting around bonfires in the midst of crumbling cities. And a few of the old ones will say, Yes, I remember when I was a girl ..
“Yes, 1977 is/was/will be viewed though rose-coloured glasses. Your analogy between 1977 and a first true love was most apt. It’s true you can’t go back to those heady first days but they will always have a place in your heart. Both, I think, give you courage to go on and face new challenges. And when life becomes too daunting, you can retreat into your heart and find both comfort and the strength to do battle”.
* * *
More on Brigandage at www.brigandage.com, where you can also buy clothing from Michelle’s Sexy Hooligan fashion range, “21st Century punk rock alternative clothing, including men’s and women’s shirts and t-shirts in sizes up to 4x-large .. So come and join stealing from the past to re-invent a future standing against a world of global, corporate blandness and alienation”.
Richard North now works under his real name of Richard Cabut and you can visit his MySpace here.
And of course there are loads of downloadable Brigandage goodies, including the Peel session and the FYM cassette release, via the Kill Your Pet Puppy online positive punkzine here.
Music, mystery and magick indeed.