The Roots of Indie: The Bromley Contingent
One of the oldest cliches in the music book is that every kid who watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show went out the next day and started a band. Obviously that's a slight exaggeration, but one would be forgiven for believing that old chestnut based on interviews and memoirs from rockers of a certain age.
What that tall tale reveals is the importance of flashpoints, those musical moments that at the time seemed inconsequential but sparked a fire. Every generation has their "Beatles on Sullivan" moment, though some of them aren't quite as cool. I don't hear anybody bragging about going out and starting a soft rock band after catching Christopher Cross on MTV, for example.
For the hairy beast that we call punk rock that flashpoint might have occurred in November 1975 at St. Martin's College in London, when an unknown band named the Sex Pistols opened for Bazooka Joe, whose bassist later found fame as Adam Ant.
Might is the operative word there. The more commonly accepted date for this particular flashpoint is June 4, 1976, the location Manchester's Free Trade Hall. This is the site of the Sex Pistols gig that launched a thousand bands; well, a few at least.
Much like Woodstock, if everyone who claims to have attended that gig was really there, the audience would have numbered in the millions. The phenomenon even lent its name to a book: I Swear I was There: The Gig That Changed the World.
Among those rumored to have been at Free Trade Hall that night were future members of the Buzzcocks, the Fall and Joy Division. Even Morrissey was allegedly there. That's a lot of firepower to come out of one concert, and that's not even the half of it.
A scene cropped up around the Sex Pistols, their hangers-on a group of young people from the London district of Bromley. When we think of the London punk scene in the '70s, these are the kids we picture: safety pins, fishnets, liberty spikes and horror show makeup. Caroline Coon, a writer for Melody Maker, coined the nickname "The Bromley Contingent" for the innermost circle of Sex Pistols fans.
Susan Ballion was among their numbers, as was her friend Steven Bailey. Inspired by their favorite band, they decided to give music a shot. The newly christened Siouxsie Sioux and Steven Severin first performed three months later at a punk festival organized by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm Maclaren.
Some of punk's and post punk's biggest names served tours of duty in Siouxsie and the Banshees. Sid Vicious was the band's original drummer, and Adam Ant's head ant Marco Pirroni one of their original guitarists. Robert Smith of the Cure was a Banshee during a couple of different stints.
Siouxsie's and Severin's first tastes of fame didn't come on stage, but rather television. The two joined the Sex Pistols for the now infamous December 1976 taping of the British edition of the Today show, which devolved quickly when drunken host Bill Grundy made a pass at a teenaged Siouxsie.
Also among the Bromley Contingent was young William Broad, a good looking English kid who spent a portion of his childhood living in New York. Broad first joined the seminal punk band Chelsea, but in '77 he, along with band mates Tony James and John Towe, split and formed Generation X.
All that remained were the hair bleach and the name change, and Billy Idol was born.
Clash drummer Terry Chimes spent a little time in Generation X in the early '80s, demonstrating again just how small that first wave London circle really was. Chimes was on board for Gen X's 1981 album Kiss Me Deadly, as was former Sex Pistol Steve Jones. This is the line up that recorded the band's biggest hit, though it wasn't actually a hit until Idol re-recorded it a few years later as a solo cut.
Athough not part of the Bromley Contingent, we have to give a nod to Chelsea before moving on. If you think you know punk and you don't at least have "Right to Work" in your stacks, you need to remedy that immediately. This is mandatory listening:
They're all in their 60s now, or close to it, but those early followers of the Sex Pistols continue to influence generations of young people both in terms of fashion and music. Every disaffected kid with a Mohawk and plaid bondage pants owes a debt to the Bromley Contingent.
But more important than giving a nod to the geezers is realizing the power of your local scene. We see it happen over and over again. From London punk to D.C. hardcore to Athens Rickenbackers to Seattle grunge, local scenes take root and global movements follow.
Don't wait for someone else to make it happen, do it yourself. Put down the game controller and pick up a guitar. Make some noise, make a scene. We're listening.