Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Archive Interview - Penetration (interviewed in August 2015, prior to the release of 'Resolution')

Last Sunday afternoon I had an interesting chat with a band about old music and new music. Nothing unusual in that, you might think. Except that the band in question were the legendary Penetration, the old music that we discussed was the shifting of tectonic plates that was punk rock and the new music that we chatted about was Penetration’s first new album in 36 years.

I started by asking the most obvious question of all. Why record and release a new album now?

Rob “On the last lot of gigs it became apparent that we were becoming almost our own tribute band. We’d been out doing shows now since 2002 and not done anything seriously in the studio; a couple of 7” singles came out but that was it. After the last lot of gigs we felt that to make ourselves a proper band that we’d make a record. It kind of brings you together really, it unites you as a team when you make a record in the studio. I knew that we’d make a good record as well because I had it in my head how I wanted it to be.
Neil “Was then album ready to go when you announced the Pledge campaign to record it?”

Rob (firmly) “No”  (they all laugh.)

Neil “Was it a leap of faith?”

Rob “It was, in a way. Pauline did some solo shows in Australia and when we came back we kind of made our minds up. The thing I liked about the Pledge campaign is that you give yourselves a deadline and if you don’t do that you would never get an album finished.”

Pauline “Once we pressed that button for the Pledge campaign at the end of January and the counter started going around like that (Pauline makes a clock hands gesture at this point) and it got to 100% quite quickly, I thought ‘Oh my God, shit’.  At that point all we had written was ‘Guilty’, we’d already done ‘The Feeling’, we’d already done ‘Sea Song’. ‘Two Places’ we’d had for quite a while but hadn’t really done anything with it and we had a few little ideas kicking about. The drummer that we had had left, so we were drummerless at that point as well. Rob had the idea of a team of people to put together, he’d already gone into asking John Maher, Fred (Purser), all of that.”

Rob “I knew exactly how we wanted it to be. I knew we wanted to work with Fred, we wanted it to be a Penetration album, we wanted to have that sound. So I sat down with Fred and we had a couple of nights talking and chatting about what the album would sound like and where we were going with it. I can hardly remember anything about recording the first album, or the second album to be honest with you, but he knew the whole process so we compared notes as to how we were going to do it.”

Pauline “It was an absolute team effort. At that point we had the basic chords for ‘Just Drifting’ but we had no lyrics. We had the basics of a song that became ‘Betrayed’. I always knew that we would come to a sticky point three quarters of the way through. John came down, he lives on the Isle of Lewis, maybe four consecutive weekends to do the drums.”

Paul “There wasn’t any panic though, I was really confident we could make a good album.”

Neil “Does it feel like a natural progression because it certainly sounds like one? It doesn’t feel like there’s a gap of 36 years.”

Steve “I’m interested in you saying that because it was always a big thing was that it was going to be ‘the next Penetration album’ .”

Pauline “We needed to retain the essence of what Penetration is. I stand back in the writing so that the guitarists or whoever can come up with the chords because that’s the way Penetration used to do it and then I shoehorn into that. You’ve got the two guitar thing going on, you’ve obviously got Rob who’s there from day one, you’ve got my voice from day one but you’ve also got a wealth of experience to draw from as well.”

Neil “I find this an interesting concept, bringing a wealth of experience to, what was on those early albums, as much about youthful exuberance as anything else.”

Pauline “Oh yes.”

Paul “I think experience can bring its own problems, because what you don’t want it to sound is contrived or planned with an eye on a certain area, but it was so natural the way that the album was made that very quickly that issue just disappeared.”

Pauline “And it unfolded as it wanted itself to. We just did whatever we thought was necessary and it didn’t matter if it fitted in that bag or that bag. We wanted to make an album, not a series of tracks, we wanted to make it a whole thing, a whole listening experience. Originally we wanted a lot of the tracks to run into each other because we didn’t want the scenario that you have these days where you have the download where you go ‘oh, I’ll have track two. I like track three’ where they never know the titles. We wanted it so that it should be listened to as a full album.”

Paul “I think that’s right, down to the fact that we thought of it as two sides as well. We were thinking of a vinyl album, the length of a vinyl album, well some of us were.”

Pauline “We wanted to make a proper album.”

Neil “If we can backtrack almost 40 years, is it true that you formed after seeing the Sex Pistols perform live?”

Pauline “I think we were already sort of formed before that, because we were practicing and we were doing complex stuff like ‘Roadrunner’ and ‘Pills’ by the New York Dolls and I think that was slightly before or around about the same time. But seeing the Sex Pistols you knew that something new was going on, you knew that that was the past and this is now. We probably started to form the band slightly before.”

Rob “Yeah, I think you’re right, although I wasn’t part of it then. I was the mate with the car.”

Neil “But it’s very obvious when listening to the original Penetration albums that you had influences that were earlier than that.”

Pauline “Oh, absolutely. I was going to see bands from the age of fourteen. I was very, very lucky.”

Neil “Where did you go to see them?”

Pauline “Mainly the City Hall, or The Mayfair or Middlesbrough Town Hall. I even travelled, I saw the New York Dolls at York University, Lou Reed at Crystal Palace Hall when I was about fifteen. I saw all the great bands that passed through, Bowie when the City Hall was three quarters full, Bowie at Sunderland Top Rank, Roxy Music, Cockney Rebel. I saw all of that early ‘70s stuff, and I mean all of it, anything that was worth seeing. Prior to the punk thing I saw Bruce Springsteen’s first gig in this country, prior to that you started to get the American stuff coming through, Patti Smith’s ‘Piss Factory’, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’, those sort of independent releases, Ramones, Jonathan Richman. So that was prior to the Pistols really. I was very influenced by that New York, American scene prior to punk and I think what you got in this country was the attitude. It was like ‘we don’t give a fuck’, like ‘hey we’re young, this is our world, you lot have got it all wrong’. It just felt like something that we could claim. To me punk was about being inventive, following your own muse, doing something that was unique to you. So, yeah, I was really switched on and (to Rob) you were as well.”

Rob “Yes, from thirteen, fourteen, there was stuff we’d go to see. We’d go to the same gigs.”

Steve “I started going to gigs in the late ‘70s. I was going to gigs in Sunderland, I remember going to Sunderland Mayfair to see The Stranglers.”

Pauline “I was really lucky, I was fourteen and I had an older boyfriend who was four years older than me and he was really switched on. I was so lucky; I was young to be going out seeing all that stuff. I had very understanding parents, looking back.”

Neil “I feel that this album messes with my concept of what came next because it was always the Pauline Murray and The Invisible Girls album that came next for me, yet this new one seems to somehow fit in between.”

Rob (to Pauline) “You had that theory, didn’t you, that this is the missing link?”

Pauline “Well I actually think that. I think this album is the missing link between the third Penetration album and The Invisible Girls.”

Steve “It’s jumbled into one isn’t it? We set it up within the framework and idea of it being a Penetration album and tried to put the certain elements in place, but then all the stuff that you’ve done in the past gets thrown into the pot as well.”

Neil “So who do you find exciting musically now?

The response is a brief silence, then nervous laughter.

Pauline “Ha, a resounding silence.”

Paul “I don’t like a lot of contemporary stuff, but that said I do listen to a lot of radio 6. I hear it and there’ll be something that I’ll like. It’s almost like you know too much, like ‘well I know where that’s come from’ and for me I’d rather go back and listen to where it originated. Since Penetration split and since The Invisible Girls album we’ve had this thing called post-modernism and it’s changed everything.  And we’ve had technology and that’s changed everything. It’s a different listening experience, a whole different experience of how we take in popular culture now. I think it’s a more superficial activity, even for younger people, not just for us. I do think White Stripes made some brilliant music actually, but I don’t really go out and buy the records. It’s around and if I hear it I hear it.”

Pauline “There’s a lot of good original stuff around, there really is but it never gets out there, that’s the problem.”

Rob “There’s a lot of people from around the ‘80s that’s still making great music. Nick Cave is still making great albums, and Morrissey is still making great albums I think.”

Paul “That air of cynicism just used to go through pop music and those commercial areas but now that cynicism goes through the independent scene as well and the alternative scene, or the left-field scene and you just don’t feel there’s an air of authenticity. Look at Mumford and Sons, that hideous band, their latest album suddenly they’ve gone all electric. You know it’s a marketing issue; it’s not a creative issue. It’s like ‘well you know we’ve done that folk thing that people are starting to not really like as much, we’re a bit uncool, we’ll make the next one electric.’”

Rob “And get our hair cut!”

Paul “and you just think ‘oh, fuck off!’”

Pauline “I think people just aren’t turned on to music any more. They’ve become very distracted by what the mass people are interested in. Money, how big it is, if everybody wants to go to it, coffee table band music really. They’ve even turned on to Nick Cave now ‘oh yes, we’re going to see Nick Cave’”

Rob “Nick Cave at the Sage. Oh dear!”

Paul “The metropolitan media elite, they decide suddenly that someone like John Cooper Clarke is the nation’s favourite.  We knew that in 1977”

Rob “He’s doing nothing different to what he was doing back when there was only 200 people turning up to his gigs.”

Paul “It’s interesting because I think that people say that the music business is in trouble, and it is, but the media are more in control of the whole thing now, than they ever were when punk broke.”

Pauline “With the punk thing people took ownership of their own movement, but it was soon infiltrated and used by others.”

Rob “And there was great journalism as well.”

Pauline “You don’t really get writers like that any more, where people will analyse something. They cut and paste your press release now. You think ‘well could you not get your own angle on that, what’s the matter with you?’”

Paul “There were some writers at that time that tended to over-analyse and be pretentious but that was part of the fun of it, you could always pull them up if you thought they were going too far. Certainly that kind of analysis of music, there’s a lot of that disappeared now.”

Neil “When we lost John Peel, did we lose the last of the pioneering disc jockeys?”

Rob (as if to egg Paul on) “Go on.”

Paul “That fucker was well past his sell-by date! I think this thing about John Peel, he’s held up as some sort of hero and he wouldn’t have had a show without the music. He made a decision to start playing punk music when two months before he was playing Jethro Tull and Yes and things like that and it was really the bands that made the music.”

Neil “Was there a switch flipped that changed things from Pink Floyd to punk?”

Pauline “Oh, there was.”

Paul “There was a proper paradigm shift and that should never be forgotten. It happened within days.”

Pauline “I saw it happen before my eyes. For instance I went to see the Doctors of Madness at Middlesbrough Town Hall, and I’d been to see them quite a lot, they were a left-over from the Glam era which I loved and the Sex Pistols supported them and they made that band obsolete there and then. And that was it for that band. It was as quick as that, and a lot of those old bands were frightened by it because they knew their time was up.Young people were out there, making their mouths go and those people had had it good. Whoever hadn’t behaved themselves right were turfed out. Some people made it through, like Iggy Pop made it through, Bowie made it through, Lou Reed made it through, some people did make it through; Marc Bolan did to an extent. He embraced punk and they embraced him, but a lot of the excessive early ‘70s people were laid to waste overnight and it was definitely an immediate type of shift. You just turned your back on them, and I’d loved a lot of those bands.”

Paul “All those people who talk about when punk hit it was like they were out at sea and there was a fucking storm and the ones that knew how to sail, this is a terrible analogy isn’t it, that knew what they were doing, who were experienced and clever, they saw it out and they found calmer waters.”

Rob “A lot of people just went to ground didn’t they? Just disappeared off to Bermuda for five or six years.”

Paul “And I think history has proved that we were probably right as well.”

Pauline “Nobody can put their finger on it though. They try to analyse punk again and again. They’ve picked over it so much that there’s nothing left to analyse. But they still can’t get a handle on it.”

Rob “It was a point in time as well wasn’t it?”

Steve “I don’t think that our age can ever be recaptured though can it? The people who were being outraged were the ones who’d came through the war and were looking for an easier life and the youth were coming up and wanted to kick against this easy life that everybody had. The people in power and local politicians were people who’d been in the forces, so they were easily outraged by these kids who were bored and constrained. And you’ll never recapture that kind of outrage. There were questions in Parliament about punk rock. You’re never going to get that about any music culture again. That outrage can’t be replicated.”

Pauline “And the hippies were put in their place. All the sixties people who had pioneered for this and that had suddenly turned into the capitalists of the day.”

Paul “We had a tailor-made enemy with the hippies.”

Pauline “Never trust a hippy. Malcolm McLaren said that and no truer word was said. I will always use that as a yardstick. Never trust a hippy. I’ve found it to be very true on a lot of occasions.”

Neil “I’ve recently seen Penetration described as a ‘first wave’ punk band?”

Paul “There’s no argument that Penetration were a ‘First wave’ punk band. They played The Roxy, I think it’s very important that the single came out in 1977.”

Pauline “Musically everything comes from something else. The Pistols were very like ‘60s, Small Faces, traditional really.”

Steve “They were souped-up Mods really.”

Pauline “The music was pretty traditional when you think it was coming from something that already existed, as Jonathan Richman would have been coming from The Velvet Underground. Everything is connected; nothing is set on its own. What set The Pistols apart, because musically they were fairly conventional, was the lyrics and Johnny Rotten’s delivery of them.  And his look, his intensity.  I’d never heard anybody sing ‘God save the Queen, she ain’t no human being, she made you a moron.’ I had heard something like ‘Pretty Vacant’ previously in something like ‘Blank Generation’ but, lyrically some of the things that he was coming out with, he would have been hung, drawn and quartered in another century, uttering those words out into the open like that.”

Paul “But to them that was very natural, that wasn’t contrived either.”

Pauline “It takes a lot of courage to come out with those things when no-one’s ever said them before. I can’t think of anyone who’d said stuff like that about the establishment.”

Paul “I don’t think even they realised how inflammatory it was. I think they were just doing what they were doing; they were having fun. I think even they were taken aback.”

Pauline “What did they have to lose? What did any of us have to lose? We were all from working class backgrounds; what did any of us have to lose? Nothing really. We just saw it as a bit of fun at the time, a bit of a laugh. I didn’t think 36 years later we’d still be sat here talking about it.”

Neil “I know that you’ve played live gigs recently, but it must feel different playing to promote a new album.”

Pauline “Ooh, it’s going to be really different. We haven’t started bloody rehearsing yet and we’ve only got four weeks to go. And we have a drummer who’s in the Isle of Lewis, we can’t get him down here all the time. It’s going to be very different to the last time we went out.”

Steve “There’s a lot of tracks which were just worked out in the studio. We’ll have to re-work them out and see which tracks work best live.”

Neil “How much of the new album are you going to play live?”
Pauline “Quite a lot, I would say.”

Rob “We’ve sort of worked out a set list and it includes most of the new album.”

Neil “Was it important to you to have a ‘physical’ release?”

Rob “The record buying public is going back to physical purchases. This was mixed in a studio to be listened to on a hi-fi system.”

Neil “It’s true that most people now don’t listen to music on particularly good systems.”

Steve “They listen to it on shit! Most modern music sounds shit. Most modern music players sound shit. MP3s are shit, by their nature. It nearly all sounds shit and it’s on shit players everywhere you go.”

Paul “And we asked Vaughan Oliver to design the sleeve as well, because it’s a whole physical package and we wanted that quality and that kind of experience.”

Steve “It’s the people who wanted the physical package who enabled this album financially.”

Rob “The Pledge campaign didn’t have a ‘download only’ option, we made sure it didn’t. It was always going to available physically, on CD, or, if you buy the vinyl you get a download code. It was never intended to have just a download option.”

At this point I thank the group and wish them good luck with the album’s release.

Paul “We know it’s a great record so any criticism is like water off a duck’s back. You’re always going to get that. The most frustrating thing to me would be to be ignored. It’s better to be hated than ignored. I think that quiet confidence that we all had throughout it is key.”

Rob “And the live gigs are going to be more exciting for us because this adds an extra element playing brand new songs. It’s just going to add to the tension, to the excitement for us.”

Paul “We’re not idiots; we’ve all been to see bands where we’ve sat through the new stuff, just waiting for the classics. We know that, but we think that at least 50% of the set is going to be new stuff because we’re excited about playing it. That will come across. I think it will also help the old material as well. I’m just ready to start stuff now, my fingers are itching.”

Pauline “We want as many people to hear it as possible because it’s all done for the right reasons.”


Please don't forget that you can download and read 'The Great Cassette Experiment' and 'Writing About Music' from Amazon and Google Play Books.