In the period after punk, and before the shiny new face of 1980s pop poked through the debris, the post punk bands were still making up the rules as they went along. New bands coming up through the colleges and squats were starting to make an impact, and along with a whole new attitude, punk had shown that music was no longer the domain of the record companies, and DIY was often the best route. In 1981, a band, who had lived in south London squats during that post punk period, had released their own DIY-ed records, had toured their roughed up brand of squally danceable punk, and just as they seemed on the brink of an Indie breakthrough, suddenly split up. A year later they were back as a sleek stripped down three-piece who became one of the most identifiable bands of the 1980s. Their new direction shaped, not by some record company stylist, but by their percussionist, lyricist and all round purveyor of good ideas.
Alannah Currie no longer gives interviews about music – if we’d known that earlier on, we’d probably never have asked her. Not that there isn’t plenty to talk about, but just how many times can someone re-visit their reign as the coolest Thompson Twin. Fortunate then, that we hadn’t really planned on talking about that….we were here to find out more about the band she formed before that, the legendary and brilliantly named, Unfuckables.
The Unfuckables came out of the primordial melting pot that was London’s squat culture of the late 1970s, and Alannah had also mentioned that if we really wanted to get to the bottom of it, we should also seek out fellow Unfuckable and all round legend, Trace.
With one, albeit legendary gig, no records and scant mention in the great annuls of rock, we didn’t have much to go on, which is how come we are now in full punk girl Sherlock mode and ringing the bell on a studio door, somewhere south of the river. What follows is the first part of our favourite punk girl afternoon of the year….
Sitting around Alannah’s large table, its enormous top carved with words and phrases of the sort often slung at women; we can see both “slag” and “TERF” amongst the words burned into the surface. The legend that is Trace arrives, and over tea she and Alannah immediately kick off with the kind of jokey bickering that only people who have known each other well and for a long time can do….
They debate which year their band The Unfuckables came into being and just about settle on 1979, “It was once we’d moved into Lilleshall Road”.
Alannah – “ I had come to London from New Zealand in 1977, and I was straight off the plane and into a squat, it was in Brixton which was pretty shocking, because I thought I was going to Chelsea!
I was 19 years old, I had seen the pictures, and my Grandmother, who’s English, had told me about Chelsea and thatched cottages and so I had this peculiar idea. We got a cab from Heathrow, and it just kept going and going, it actually went through Chelsea and I went “Yes, Look! I have come home”, but then it went across the bridge and up the hill and it went to Brixton.
And everything there was corrugated iron, there were bomb sites, it was filthy, it was unbelievable, and friends had squatted lots of buildings, New Zealand friends, there were squats all over”
After this spell in Brixton, Alannah moved to another squat in neighbouring Clapham, which is where she first met Trace,
Alannah – Trace was a proper punk, she had a leather jacket and bleached hair, I met her in the Launderette. She was younger than me, but she knew all the bands, and knew all the bands who had girls in them which is what I was interested in, I wasn’t really interested in the boy bands, because they were just annoying, and by then I was already into feminist politics. I’d been politicised! So Trace introduced me to lots of bands and we used to go to gigs together; Raincoats, Mo-Dettes, Au Pairs, I think we saw Joy Division at Walthamstow School Hall…”
Trace – There was one venue that I really liked called the Moonlight Club, in West Hampstead, it regularly had Rough Trade groups on, so The Raincoats, Swell Maps, and the other place that we’d go was the Africa Centre, in Covent Garden, which was great, it used to have a balcony round it, and we saw the Psychedelic Furs there…
Alannah – We saw The Pop Group
Trace – We saw them at a church in Covent Garden…
Alannah – That was the one were I saw Gareth Sager playing the saxophone and I thought “I could do that!” So that’s when I went out and bought a second-hand saxophone, and that was the start of The Unfuckables! Trace had the bass, and I had the sax. It was just a laugh really, we were in the squat so it didn’t matter how much noise you made, and there was always something going on and we had a big sort of loose girl gang, between Stockwell, Brixton, Clapham…. and so the Unfuckables came out of that. We rehearsed a couple of times and made up some things, and they were quite mad, and people came and went, and then somebody (she pauses for emphasis because the somebody was Jimmy Kauty, now Alannah’s husband and quite possibly within earshot) told us that they’d got us a gig. It was at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, and so we went “Oh Shit” and then just called up everybody we knew, everybody around us from bands like This Heat, The Pop Group, Gareth Sager, the Slits, all these people, and said “do you want to be in a band, it’s called the Unfuckables, we’ve got a gig, quick come!” And it was fantastic. In that sort of post punk era, the big thing was improvisation. So it had gone from lots of racket to improvising vaguely, and a quieter racket, and there was some sort of esoteric ideas, and people were trading records and listening to different stuff…
But what about the gig??
Alannah – The one and only legendary gig. It was after an Anti Psychiatry conference, there were about 8 people in the audience, one man I remember had a top hat, we filled the place up with incense, there was lots of smoke and then there were maybe 30 of us onstage….just making a strange noise and went on in this really bizarre state for about 2 hours..
Trace – It went on for ages.
Alannah – Until somebody said that’s it, and we thought great, fine we’ve done it, we don’t have to do that again! But by then we’d already got into that whole thing of everybody participating.
Did the show give you a taste for being in a band?
Allanah – Well I was going out with Tom Bailey by then, and he had come down with his friends, and I’d met him because he’d moved into the squat across the road, and they had this band The Thompson Twins, who were a boy band from Sheffield, who were doing interesting things…and eventually, the boyfriend suggested that The Unfuckables come and join Thompson Twins (Mk1), because they had this tour, it might have been the CND one, and so I said something to Trace about us going on tour and she said “Don’t be disgusting!” or something, and marched off, “You sell out!” she shouted at me! So I went off on tour with the Thompson Twins, with my saxophone and we had toy instruments too, we were quite into these plastic toy instruments, which had all come from the Unfuckables, and I had these 3 tracks that I would come on as The Unfuckables and do this sort of wild improvised mad piece…
Trace – I never saw any of this….
Allanah – And then I also sold the records at half time, and made money, so I was the richest one on tour, because I got a cut on the records plus I didn’t have to go on the stage for very long and I could just make it up as I went along, it was the perfect job for me!
So we were out for maybe 3 weeks, it was quite a substantial tour, and I’d just ask roadies or people in the bar – I’d just pick people out in the Student Union, and say you can be in the Unfuckables, when I say play, you just go!! So we had one mic, always with lots and lots of echo on it, that always worked really well, so I’d do a bit of saxophone and I got to this point where I was really into just using the sax as like a little rage thing, if I could bite the reed hard enough and get it right I could make it scream really loud, so that was me…but of course there were 3 songs, so I did have to have a variation on a theme. So I did that tour, and then I did it again when they supported Teardrop Explodes, which must have been in 1980, with Courtney Love in the toilet borrowing the lipstick – but I never let her be in the Unfuckables! She was in love with Julian Cope so she was hanging around with them, and then I think after one of those tours everybody came back, and everybody hated each other, and then we formed the 3 piece in 1981 or something…
Trace – Yeah but hang on…there was just another little thing here..with the first Thompson Twins LP (A Product of Participation), there was a free single which was the Wet Blankets…
Alannah – I forgot about the Wet Blankets!!!
Trace – Well I’ve got to say this because I’m on it! So one night, me Tom and John (TT Manager) were messing around with tapes round at Tom’s place, and Tom was recording it all, and afterwards he chopped it all up, put it together and it ended up being this free track that came out with the LP. (To Alannah) Didn’t it used to get played before they went on or something?
Alannah – There was lots of chopping up of tapes! You see I’d done my thing as a radio journalist, when I was 17, so I’d been doing all those tape and reel to reel things and so to me, what were they called? the TEACs, so that was fun, getting the right sound and then making loops with them, yeah it was fun. What ever happened to the Wet Blankets? That Unfuckables gig, really got the TT boys to open up and invite people on the stage, and I remember doing a gig in Hammersmith and so many people were onstage and then wrecking our stuff, you know we didn’t have a lot of money, and it was like arrgghh Fuck Off! It got to the point that you just wanted to put machine guns on top of the sound system!!
There’s much more to this fantastic afternoon of stories and subject matter, and it’s something we shall visit in part 2 very soon. Alannah and Trace are both incredibly funny, articulate, and interesting and we can’t thank them enough for spending the time to share some of this. In part 2 we’ll hear about what happened when Ari turned up for a bath, and we all mull/rant the problems with modern feminism!
Alannah now trades under the name of Miss Pokeno, bringing both The Sisters of Perpetual Resistance and Armchair Destructisvism to the world, meanwhile Trace is still at war with the council.
Follow Miss Pokeno on twitter HERE