MOJO (June '06)
Punk File #4
The Scene's First Disciples
In the summer of 1976 a group of outrageously attired London teenagers dubbed THE BROMLEY CONTINGENT-brought punk to the masses before mutating into SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES.
The stars of this shocking scene reveal all to MARK PAYTRESS.
BRITAIN IN THE MID '70s: THE STREETS were awash with stale, post-hippy denims and air-brushed, Farrah Fawcett-Majors flickbacks. We'd become a nation of voyeurs, thrilling to John Hurt's portrayal of Quentin Crisp in the television production of The Naked Civil Servant, to Liza Minnelli's stockinged thighs in Cabaret, and to the stage production of The Rocky Horror Show. But few, it seemed, dared take their secret fantasies out onto the streets. And yet... in The Boy Looked At Johnny, their rancorous 1978 audit of the good, the bad and the ugly elements of the punk era, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons reserved some of their most bitter bile for "a posse of unrepentant poseurs, committed to attaining fame despite the paucity of talent other than being noticed". They were, the pair snarled, "The Bromley Contingent", fashionistas who sought to achieve their aim "by displaying themselves in a manner meticulously calculated to kill".
A loose ensemble of suburban misfits from the outer fringes of south-east London, the Bromley Contingent were among the first to take up the cause of the Sex Pistols. As the group's reputation spread during 1976, so did that of their most flamboyant followers. Sometimes feared, though more often regarded with envy and suspicion, The "mysterious Bromley Contingent" were mythologised in the music press to such an extent that Melody Maker named them Group Of The Year in their 1976 Christmas round-up. Two years later, Siouxsie And The Banshees, the band that sprang from the belly of the Contingent, had eclipsed the Sex Pistols and their third-rate imitators with a look and sound that echoed the defiant elitism that brought them to notice in the first place.
"We didn't even call ourselves 'punks' let alone refer to ourselves as 'The Bromley Contingent'," complains Steven Severin, ex-Banshees bassist and Class Of '76 ace face. "There was no such thing. It was just a bunch of people drawn together by the way they felt and the way they looked."
United in their desire for dressing-up, outre music and bringing outrage to suburban respectability, the Bromley-based peacocks created a subculture of their own. During 1975 and 1976, this artful, intelligent and often dangerously attired vanguard of proto-punk misfits did much to create the aura of illicitness and cultural degeneracy that characterised the early punk aesthetic.
THERE WAS NOTHING IN BROMLEY TO CATER FOR young people," says Bertie Marshall (alias Berlin) of the dormitory town that was a 20-minute train journey to London's Victoria Station. "It was the end of glam rock. 1969 was all sunny and bright, but by '75 it was grey, desolate, nothing." But there were alternative histories to seize upon. "We were enamoured by Warhol and The Velvet Underground, Isherwood and Burroughs," he adds.
The first stirrings of camaraderie among the decadents of north Kent came on September 20, 1975, when two music-obsessed late teens, Steven Bailey (alias Severin) and Simon Barker, met 18-year-old Susan Ballion (alias Siouxsie Sioux) during the intermission at Roxy Music's sell-out show at Wembley Arena. The common currency was clothes. "Fashion was very important," says Severin, who can still recall the outfit he wore that night. So can Siouxsie, who reckons her second hand purple and green dress with a large, fish-tail-like bustle was a costume drama hand-me-down.
Siouxsie, an Emma Peel-inspired fantasist from nearby Chislehurst, had an epiphany of sorts while recuperating in hospital after a stomach operation. It was summer 1972, and David Bowie was performing Starman on Top Of The Pops. "He was incredible," she says, "the skinniness, the alienation, the otherworldliness."
Soon after, the schoolgirl loner began to form an identity of her own. Following her elder sister, a club dancer, to central London, she discovered the camp delights of The Rockv Horror Show and the subterranean world of gay nightlife. That made her an ideal invite to The Nuremburg Rally Reunion Party, thrown on Valentine's Day 1976 by Steven Bailey and Simon Barker, where guests were asked to "dress in Nazi uniform or drag". "Ostensibly it was a normal house party," Severin recalls, "but with home-made swastikas, armbands, brown shirts, things like that. There was no evil behind it."
"I called myself Berlin after Cabaret, which was based on those Isherwood stories," says Marshall. "I was into the look of it. Very superficially, it's red and black: great colours, and stylish. It wasn't pro-fascist, pro-Nazi. It was the worst thing you could do to fuck your parents off." The Bromley Contingent's persistent, almost belligerent use of Third Reich imagery, for aesthetic reasons and as a shock tactic, created confusion later when some wrongly interpreted their symbol stealing as evidence of punk's far-right leanings. Sioux is curt and pointed in her explanation. "High camp, not death camp," she says.
As the flashiest femme fatale in the area, the arrival of "the girl from the Roxy Music concert" was eagerly anticipated. "The door went about 1.30am," says Berlin, "and the whole room crackled. She looked like a '20s flapper, and a bit punky, with a gold and black Chinese dress, fishnets and these pink transparent stilettos from Sex. She had a crop, with blonde spikey bits around her fringe, and theatrical make-up with little swastikas on her cheekbones. She saw me dressed in drag. We clicked immediately."
"People think that Sioux is an invention," adds party host Simon Barker. "But she's always been how she is, even before she had a group. Some people have a look for the public, but when they're at home, it's back to the track pants. Sioux always looked incredible, a star even before she'd sung" anything."
Stars were in short supply during the mid-'70s, and in Severin's view, even the once otherworldly and cultish Roxy Music had lost their lustre. "They'd gone from small concert halls to Wembley and that was quite symbolic," he says. And their '40s GI look was deadly dull. "It was the tail end of glam and they were looking backwards," he continues. "Roxy and Bowie were getting too big. There was nothing new coming through that we could identify with."
But when, on December 9, 1975, Simon Barker caught an unknown support band, the Sex Pistols, playing at nearby Ravensbourne College of Art, he knew instinctively that this was a noisy riposte to the detached complacency of the old guard. "I was the only one of us who actually saw the show," says Barker. They were brilliant, he told his late-arriving mate Severin. "The singer blew his nose on stage!" Reckoning the band to be akin to Iggy And The Stooges and the New York Dolls, Barker and Severin went to the Marquee on February 12, 1976, when the Pistols' support slot to Eddie And The Hot Rods ended with a ban from the club. "At last we'd got a band who we really could get into," Severin remembers.
Their friends soon started coming too. Siouxsie, Berlin, even their old mate Bill Broad (alias Billy Idol), who skived off from his English Literature course at Sussex University to see what the fuss was about. "Johnny [Rotten] would harangue the audience, telling them, 'Why don't you go home to your Melanie records'," Idol says. "Seeing them was an epiphany. They were a model for what you had to do. You had to go on a stage somewhere."
For the time being, the core of the Bromley Contingent was content to regard the suburban streets as its theatre. But bonds between band and fans grew fast, hastened by a memorable night in May 1976 at Berlin's family home at 8 Plaistow Grove, Bromley. (Two doors up from where teenaged David Jones < later Bowie < had lived at number 4 a decade earlier.)
"It was known as Baby Berlin's Bondage Party," recalls the host, who'd agreed to let Sioux and Steven bring along their new pals. "We had this real suburban, three up, three down house with a draylon sofa, a shag pile carpet and a wooden music centre that played Bowie, The Stooges and Patti Smith, with a bit of Diana Ross thrown in. About 60 people turned up and it was great, real chaos, people losing their minds with sulphate and alcohol. Johnny Lydon wrecked my bedroom for no reason. Everybody fucked everybody else. Siouxsie called it the Sex Olympics."
Increasingly, the suburban starlets stalked the clubs of the West End, gay discos such as Bangs in Tottenham Court Road and Louise's, a lesbian club at 61 Poland Street in Soho where they'd dance to Doris Day and disco records. "We couldn't go into a straight club at that time without encountering a bit of aggro," Barker explains.
They also frequented Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's shop Sex, a haunt for Siouxsie since its days as Let It Rock. "She was the first of a crowd of people who were a bit different from the rest," remembers Glen Matlock, who worked there before joining the Pistols. "They were a bit glam rock, a bit Velvet Underground, a bit Roxy Music. The forerunners of punk. The Bromley Contingent."
According to Berlin, another shop assistant, the lavishly made- up, lasciviously attired Jordan, outflanked even the Bromley crowd. "We were extreme, but how she presented herself in everyday life between 1974 and 1977, commuting every day from Seaford, was extraordinary, a mix of naivety and bravery."
"We did find kindred spirits there," says Barker. "If you wore straight legged trousers in those days, you were classed as a poof. To go up to Sex and see people wearing the same clothes was a peculiar thing. When you're living in Bromley, you feel like you're the only ones."
McLaren soon saw me potential in this peacockish posse. "From the start, Malcolm was keen to build an entourage around the band and the shop," reckons Severin. "He would ring and tell us when the Pistols were playing." Increasingly, he and Vivienne found the 'Contingent' and their widening circle of fabulously modish friends < such as Little Debs from Burnt Oak, Philip Salon from Dollis Hill and Sue Catwoman - at Linda Ashby's flat in St James's Court, near Victoria.
"Malcolm liked the idea that he was recreating the original [Warhol] Factory," says Berlin. "Linda Ashby, the lesbian prostitute, is very important in this. Hers was the place where we could go after a night out, it was a great breeding-ground where Malcolm could spout his ideas off." Her services as a dominatrix were a source of amusement: "In the other room, there'd be a newsreader or a kids' TV presenter with a baseball bat up their arse," Siouxsie says. Both Jordan and Simon Barker would soon rent rooms from the dominatrix, whose outfits invariably came from Sex.
As a showcase for interested record companies, McLaren booked the Pistols to play a late-night set on August 29 at the Screen On The Green cinema, Islington. Media interest was high, and Sioux and Severin reacted as they best knew how< with sartorial warfare. Photographers were more interested in Siouxsie, in black cupless PVC bra and knickers, fishnet tights, swastika armband, bondage stilettos and sec-through polka dot raincoat, than they were in the band. The shots suggested the Pistols were more than a band < they were inspiring a new cult.
As the band's notoriety spread, so did that of the Bromley Contingent, christened and mythologised in Caroline Coon's report on the Pistols' trip to Paris early in September. The provocatively dressed Sioux, Severin and Simon Barker had driven down there in Billv Idol's ex-Post Office Morris van. When the Pistols were hastily invited to appear on LWT's Today show, hosted by Bill Grundy, on December 1, there they were again, their peculiar glamour teased into view by the scheming McLaren. It was Grundy's ill-judged attempt to flirt with Siouxsie ("We'll meet afterwards shall we?") that set in motion the "foul mouthed" outbursts that stunned a nation.
The Bromley Contingent were fast becoming cult anti-heroes, but in the moral panic that followed, their reign of terror was cruelly curtailed. Within days of the Grundy appearance, Siouxsie was plastered over the front of the Daily Mirror alongside a "SIOUXSIE A PUNK SHOCKER" headline. "I hated that," she remembers. "It was like a handbook of how to be a punk: they drink brown ale and they spit. Total rubbish."
Bromley's style warriors had effectively been mugged. Their mix-and mismatch attitude to style had become a prototype, there to be aped. "It became a uniform very quickly," says Billy Idol. "Everyone looked like The Ramones."
"Look at The Damned, pur-leeze!" pouts Berlin. "I wouldn't have wiped my bum on them. Sid Vicious hated us, too. He called us a bunch of poseurs, and in a way he was right. Looking from the outside, all we did was stand around, give off attitude and look incredible. What is posing, besides standing there being yourself and presenting your creation?"
But by late 1976, posing was no longer enough for Siouxsie Sioux and Steven Severin. They'd hastily assembled Siouxsie And The Banshees and opened the first night of the 100 Club Punk Rock Festival Vicious sitting in on drums. Within months, and with the similarly elegant (and suburban) Kenny Morris and John McKay joining them, Sioux and Severin made the leap from larger-than-life obscurity to the fast lane of international rock stardom. There was, insist the Bromleys, no alternative. Says Simon Barker: "Soon, anyone who was seen out with us was described as a member of the Bromley Contingent."
The Banshees' fame gradually loosened the ties between the old Bromley crowd, but in recent years, they're all best mates again. Berlin, whose rip roaring memoir of the era, Berlin Bromley, is published by SAF in May, has nothing but admiration for the pair who became as famous as they always imagined themselves to be. "They did everything with such aplomb, style and integrity," he says, recalling values that were no less crucial 30 years ago. And Siouxsie? A genuine icon, he reckons. "Just like those old Hollywood glamour stars." A timeless classic: Made In Bromley.
OUR DAY OUT!
The Bromley Contingent's trip to Paris, September 4-5, 1976. By Steven Severin
The trip to Paris was the culmination of nine months of slavishly pursuing the Sex Pistols around every dive in London. Some of us had been to France on school day trips before. We'd grown used to the silent hostility of the suburbs, the twitching of lace curtains up and down the avenues of boring Bromley but we were quite unprepared for the pack of razor wielding Algerian boys that greeted us at the gates of the Chalet du Lac club.
Siouxsie got a punch in the mouth while I negotiated in my best Franglais a way of queue-jumping into the relative safety of the venue. Of course, the uproar continued inside and within five minutes security was escorting us across the stage (while the band were playing) to the tiny dressing room.
Lydon, in particular, was impressed that we'd made the effort to come over for their first show outside the UK and invited us to hang out with them the next day at the Deux Magots café in St. Germain. We spent the night in Billy's tiny van and in the morning were amazed to discover that we had parked directly underneath the Eiffel Tower! These photos are taken en route to the café, larking around in the streets of Paris, showing off to stunned passers-by, revelling in the moment.
Mark Paytress is the author of Siouxsie &The Banshees: The Authorised Biography (Sanctuary Publishing, 2003). Billy Idol quotes from Pat Gilbert.
Contributed by Bonnie Bryant.