“CBGB: Punk from the Bowery”: Pure Mania and power pop punk from The Vibrators

By on July 23, 2016

The Vibrators are just one of more than a dozen bands performing a pair of songs on CBGB: Punk from the Bowery — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — and we thought they deserved to be singled out, as the power pop punk progenitors have been making music together for more than thirty five years now.

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The Vibrators were just one in a string of bands formed by their longtime vocalist/guitarist Ian Milroy Carnochan (born in London in 1945), who had already been playing in bands for more than ten years by the time they got together in 1976.

Carnochan — who first began going by the name “Carnox” and eventually just “Knox” by the time he was a teenager, living in the Cricklewood area of Nort West London — first picked up a guitar in the late 50s, which he’d been given as a Christmas present.

Before the end of the decade was over, he’d already begun playing in bands with fellow schoolmates at an all-boys school, Watford Grammar School for Boys, including Knox and the Knight Riders and one band called the Renegades, who covered songs by Cliff Richards and the Shadows.

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The Renegades were lucky to be able to use one of the empty rooms at Watford to rehearse during the lunch hour, and soon they were good enough to beat the Zombies in a local London-area talent contest. Other bands followed for Knox, including Stilletto, a three-piece who called themselves Lipstick (they had a girl on bass), and during the mid-to-late 60s, while attending college art school classes in Bristol, he even had a psychedelic band called The Dream Machine.

Guitarist John Ellis had also previously led bands in the Hammersmith area, including an Irish show band whose membership featured a strange Nazi transvestite jazz organist, and another band, Bazooka Joe, which he’d formed with Stuart Goddard (later known as “Adam Ant”).

Apparently Goddard fully embraced punk rock after he and Ellis saw the Sex Pistols play at St. Martin’s in 1975 (future Vibrator bassist Pat Collier and drummer John Edwards, who went by the name “Eddie” — he was a roadie for Bazooka Joe at the time — were at that club gig as well).

Inspired by this new edgier rock sound, frontman Knox and his new bandmates — Ellis (guitar), Collier (bass) and Eddie (drums) — began playing together in February 1976, with Eddie actually being the one who brought them all together (the drummer would remain the only consistent member of the band during their long career).

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Just a few weeks later, on March 7th, they played their first gig supporting the Stranglers at Hornsey Art College in North London, revealing that their sound tended more towards pub rock classics and power pop (mostly easy three chord songs they could play with little to no rehearsal beforehand).

At the time their hair was still a bit on the longer side, but they could all see that punk rock was the new direction that most new bands were going, but they didn’t quite feel like they fit in, but eventually they embraced at least the fashionable look — leather jackets, short spiky haircuts — even if they never quite embraced the sound.

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Early on they played on the same bills as the Sex Pistols (at the 100 Club), the Jam and the Clash (actually, Joe Strummer was fronting The 101ers even before then), but what really put them on the map, so to speak, was being added to the 100 Club’s Punk Rock Festival bill, playing on the second night of the two-night event which took place on September 21st and 22nd, 1976.

That’s where they met guitar hero Chris Spedding, who had the Vibrators stand in as his band (the Vibrators also played a set of their own songs).

Shortly after, John Peel invited the band to make their first appearance on his BBC Radio 1 show (October ’76):

Then, the Vibrators found themselves backing up Spedding on his song “Pogo Dancing,” which was seen by the punk rock press and many fans as something of a cash-in single (released in November ’76 on producer Mickie Most’s RAK label) that wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously.

Here’s the band backing Spedding in a performance on the British TV show “Supersonic”:

The single, however, led to the band being taken more seriously in the London area, despite not fitting it with the gob-spittled blistering sound of their contemporaries, and signing their own record deal with Most’s RAK label, an imprint that had an impressive track record for producing charting hit singlers.

They landed on Ian Hunter’s tour, opening for him in December, but after the Pistols cursed out TV host Bill Grundy during their notorious two-minute appearance on the ITV magazine show “Today” (they called him a “fucking rotter” at first, and then, encouraged to continue by Grundy, spewing even more curse words on live TV), many of the Vibrators’s gigs were cancelled.

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Things would eventually settle down and they would see the release of their debut single on RAK as the Vibrators — “We Vibrate” b/w “Whips and Furs” — which today is considered one of the first official “punk” singles, released three weeks before the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK,” becoming Sounds music newspaper’s Single of the Week.

The b-side, “Whips and Furs,” had been a song Knox had written when he was in the band Lipstick, and had been written after hearing the S&M-influenced songs performed by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

Curiously, the band had recorded a second single for RAK that was never actually released — “Bad Time” b/w “No Heart” — but balked at the fact that Mickie Most wanted to market the band as, in Knox’s own words, “pin-ups for young girls,” saying “that wasn’t what we wanted.”

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By the beginning of the new year, the Vibrators were becoming well known in the London area, playing shows at London’s Roxy Club and headlining that January and February. By March, they were added to the opening for Iggy Pop during his tour of the UK in March 1977 (Iggy’s band featured the Sales Brothers, Tony and Hunt, and David Bowie on keyboards).

Representatives from major record labels began showing up at their gigs, and soon the band were signing with Epic Records, a division of Columbia Records (and the Clash’s record label), and actually began working in the studio on their debut album the same day they signed with the label.

They soon had a new manager, Tom Wereham, but even with all the good stuff happening for the band, they continued to struggle to attain a foothold in the UK’s punk environs, where they simply weren’t taken too seriously by most UK music critics, and the main accusation seems to be that for some reason they were seen by some as jumping on the punk “bandwagon,” when in fact they weren’t really punk at all despite some of their songs being both fast and aggressive.

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Some of the blame possibly should be laid at the feet of publications like Melody Maker who in late ’76 lumped the band in with other London bands who were actually punk, and when punk rock fans bought their singles or saw them live, they thought the band were trying to pass themselves off as something they weren’t.

The band’s first single for Epic, “Baby Baby” — one of two songs they perform during CBGB: Punk from the Bowery — was released in May ’77, and immediately recognized for being the pure pop sensation that it was, there was certainly nothing punk about it. Knox (during an interview he did for Punk77.co.uk online in 1999, has said about it, “I always think when I play it is like being on holiday.”

The single’s b-side, “Into the Future,” was a rollicking little number that had the band shouting out “Sex kick!!”

 

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One month after the single’s release, in June 1977, the band’s debut, Pure Mania appeared, climbing into the UK Top 75 album charts where it spent the next five weeks, peaking at #49.

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Night Flight contributing writer Mark Deming — reviewing Pure Mania for the All Music Guide‘s online site, said this about the album:

” If the Vibrators were into punk as a musical rather than a sociopolitical movement, it’s obvious that they liked the music very much, and on that level their debut album stands the test of time quite well. Pure Mania boasts a bit more polish (and less politics) than many of the albums from punk’s first graduating class (such as Damned Damned Damned or The Clash), but if you’re looking for a strong, satisfying shot of chugging four-square punk, cue up “Yeah Yeah Yeah,” “No Heart,” “Petrol,” or “Wrecked on You” and you’ll be thrown into a gleeful pogo frenzy. Maybe Pure Mania isn’t purist’s punk, but it’s pure rock & roll, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The Vibrators would soldier on for the rest of ’77, and would face the first of many significant lineup changes when original bassist Pat Collier left the band later in the year.

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The band would follow up their debut with a well-received sophomore effort, V2, was released in April 1978, and consistent airplay of their single “Automatic Lover” landed them on the UK’s “Top of the Pops” while charting at #35 on the UK singles chart.

Afterwards, the Vibrators continued to struggle in those early years to be recognized as one of the progenitors of power pop punk, even breaking up for a few years in the early 80s (1980-1982) before reforming again and continuing on.

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Here’s the band performing on “The Old Grey Whistle Test” in 1978:

Since then, they’ve remained together and weathered numerous lineup hiccups along the way, staying together for more than thirty-five years and releasing a bunch more albums and surviving a helluva lot longer than most of their late 70s contemporaries, maintaining a loyal following that now extends all around the world.

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The Vibrators are one of more than a dozen bands — along with Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, Madball, H2O, Poison Idea. Harley’s War, UK Subs, The Varukers, Chaos Uk, Molotov Cocktail, Kraut, Adrenaline OD, Even Worse, Furious George, and Redrum — you can see performing a couple of songs on CBGB: Punk from the Bowery, which is basically a collection of live performances shot by a static camera aimed towards the hallowed stage of Hilly Kristal’s iconic New York City club, CBGB, which opened in 1973. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.