Book Review:  Diminished Responsibility: My Life as a U.K. Sub and Other Strange Stories – Volume I Alvin Gibbs

 

Image Courtesy Tome and Metre Publishing

The best memoirs are written by strong, self-aware individuals who take their audience on a journey with them from who they were when they started to who they are now. The best authors offer him or herself up as a down-to-earth person who has, through living an interesting life, somehow changed. Diminished Responsibility: My Life as a U.K. Sub Volume 1 succeeds on both counts.

Comprised from a series of re-vamped blog entries originally published on http://www.uksubstimeandmatter.net/ with a new foreword by Henry Rollins, Gibbs paints a multi-coloured picture of a young, sometimes-selfish kid who, though experience and self-reflection has grown into a man. A man comfortable enough in his own skin to recount instances when he was an “arsehole” who learned and grew.

Gibbs starts at the beginning, takes us through his childhood and adolescence in the London suburb of Croydon. He moves chronologically from young fan and novice musician through his early days on guitar to a blossomed performer – writing, recording and touring the world as the bass player for The Users, Brian James’ Hellions and his first three-year stint with the U.K. Subs from 1980 to 1983.

The author knows his audience. Well. After having spent years chatting with them pre and post-gig, he knows what they want. He gives plenty of detail on the writing and recording process for the Subs’ fourth and fifth records, Diminished Responsibility and Endangered Species and copious anecdotes on guitarist Nicky Garratt, drummer Steve Roberts and their perpetually young-at-heart leader Charlie Harper. The best of which had my significant other writhing in hysterics, clutching his ribs.

Citing literary influences as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hunter S. Thompson, Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski, Gibbs’ descriptive prose and humorous anecdotes would entertain even readers unfamiliar with the Subs music. One humorous bit includes the portrayal of an uptight Swedish hotel manager who refused to allow unmarried consenting adults into his rooms, as “The Sex-Finder General” – a nice nod to Matthew Hopkins, the historical figure who burned witches during the English Civil War. Gibbs describes the puritanical hotelier as a man, who in his spare-time likely wore “nothing but a gimp mask and leather jock-strap” and whipped himself “furiously” to “expunge his many sinful thoughts.” This one had me giggling almost as hard as my husband.

Speaking of “sex-finding”, it’s clear that Gibbs was repeatedly torn between wanting a stable relationship/home life and having the freedom to live what Joey Ramone once referred to as “the life.” He’s not the first musician to battle with this issue, nor will he be the last. Hindsight has given him the ability to assess his feelings honestly and embrace his discomfort. It’s refreshing to see a musician deal with the subject head-on rather than brushing it off casually or brandishing his conquests as a badge of honour as so many do.

The book also portrays the feast-or-famine financial nature of the music business, and the high-contrast characteristics of life on the road. Each story is well-balanced with plenty of booze, sex, drugs and sometimes destructive behaviour to offer glimpses into the darkness while remaining light-hearted enough to make one envious. It’s a wonder the author’s liver hasn’t written its own memoir titled, “Oh, Christ… Please… No More.”

As engaging as the contents are, the omissions are equally worthy of discussion. The events recalled on the dissolution of the 1983 Subs’ lineup 1983 seems to come almost out of nowhere, with little to no buildup of animosity portrayed between the various members. Other than a few mentions of Steve Roberts’ growing problem with alcohol, there are precious few hints foreshadowing the meeting where they split.

Anyone familiar with the machinations of the music business–or the entertainment industry – knows there is no absolute truth in any situation. Only Rashomon-like scenarios, where each party involved in recalling a past episode possesses a unique point of view. Diplomatic to the end, there are never any suppositions made on the motivations of anyone on that fateful day other than the author himself. As it should be.

This is not Gibbs’ first outing as an author. His last book, Some Weird Sin: On Tour with Iggy Pop – the updated version of which was published in 2017 – chronicled his experiences touring with Iggy Pop in the late 1980s. When read back-to-back, Some Weird Sin and Diminished Responsibility Vol. 1 reveals another high-contrast image – the difference between touring with the Subs versus touring with Iggy. As interesting as Harper and the gang are, Iggy is…well, Iggy. He’s a legend. He’s also Jim Osterberg and the book goes a long way to making that distinction.

Despite the luxurious perks that come with touring with a major act, the exhaustion described at the end of 1988’s Instinct world tour further clarifies just how difficult–and fun – life on the road can be. The cast of characters encountered are equally entertaining, and the hotel managers a lot nicer than the aforementioned Swedish gentleman.

Some of this material will likely be revisited in the second forthcoming volume of Diminished Responsibility, which picks up in 1983 and continues all the way to present day. A far greater span of time that will cover the author’s self-described“most interesting period” of life.

In the meantime, you can purchase Diminished Responsibility: My Life as a U.K. Sub and Other Strange Stories – Volume I and the updated version of Some Weird Sin at: http://timematterrecordings.bigcartel.com/?fbclid=IwAR2MIj5ADBIP_Aptv755DAlcDgzlHrhqdFd4Rq_cqncQdNORTwxTOVWH480.

Image Courtesy Tome and Metre Publishing

 

 

 

History in the Making: Bassist Alvin Gibbs Discusses his latest EP with The Disobedient Servants

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Completed before the global Covid-19 pandemic – the most historically significant event in a generation – Alvin Gibbs and the Disobedient Servant’s aptly titled History EP is a solid effort, displaying both growth and reliability in the trio’s second outing.

History serves up four new songs, each distinct in style as the band members themselves.

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Bad About You, written and by guitarist Leigh Heggarty who also performs lead vocal duties, is perfect for radio. A catchy song that stays in the listener’s head after hearing it a few times. The title track is bluesy, chocked full of bass runs and lyrics reflecting the time Gibbs spent studying for a degree in the song’s subject.

The second half of the tetrad is rawer than the first. If Only – penned by drummer Jamie Oliver- and Pavlovian (Gibbs) are both examples of punk at its finest with fist-pumping rhythms guaranteed to please audiences looking to pogo when the band hits the road again.

On stage is where this band shines brightest. Despite having very little rehearsal time, last year’s shows supporting their first album, Your Disobedient Servant was noted by many in attendance as among the tightest they’d ever seen for a newly formed outfit. Gibbs has assembled his crew wisely, drawing from both the UK Subs and Ruts DC, currently two of the hardest-working touring bands in punk.

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With all live events on hold, Gibbs has not slowed down. Along with writing new songs for future Servants’ records, he is putting the finishing touches on his latest book Diminished Responsibility: My Time as a UK Sub and Other Strange Stories due in early July.

Mr. Gibbs kindly answered questions about his latest EP via email from his home in the south of France. No doubt with a glass of regional red wine within arm’s reach.

You’ve played on and off in other bands for your whole career. What made you decide in 2018 this was the time to finally put out a solo effort?

It had been suggested to me on numerous occasions by the likes of Charlie Harper (I don’t think he was trying to get rid of me from the Subs!) and others who have enjoyed my compositions and occasional modest vocal performances on various albums, but I always thought it smacked a little of indulgence and vanity. Then, whilst on a drive to Warsaw with the Subs’ Polish promoter Krzsztof Lach, he finally convinced me that it would be nothing of the sort and that a decent amount of folk would welcome a solo album from me – that was the other consideration, would it be commercially viable, would enough people actually purchase the record to cover recording cost, etc? Also, I had just reached the age of sixty so it became a case of now or never, and I opted for now and, as it happens, the first run of the album sold out in two weeks.

Was there anything you were looking to achieve or expand on (either lyrically or musically) between the first album and History?  

Keeping up the quality control both lyrically and musically was important of course. The solo album turned out to be so much better than I thought it would, therefore I was determined that this release would be a worthy follow-up and not a disappointment to either myself or those who acquired it. Having brilliant musicians like Leigh Heggarty from Ruts DC and my UK Subs’ rhythm section cohort, Jamie Oliver, play on this record certainly guaranteed a level of excellence that would have been sorely lacking without their involvement. I hope we’ve managed to again lyrically and musically provoke and entertain.

You’ve been in a lot of bands over the years. Are you enjoying being a leader for a change? What kind of leader are you?

I guess you could say I’m a benign dictator, certainly not a tyrant! No, seriously, although I’m aware I hold a tacit position of leadership in the Disobedient Servants I’m very open to suggestions and input from those I collaborate with and I actively encourage Leigh and Jamie and whoever else to might be involved in recording or playing live with us at the time, to challenge any ideas I might offer up whether they be musical or, more broadly, strategies or promotions for the advancement of the band. I learnt some of this from my time playing bass guitar with Iggy Pop. Although Iggy was obviously the undisputed leader, you could go to him with a new arrangement idea for a song or suggest some new material be added to the set from his large back catalogue and he would enthusiastically hear you out and, in most cases, adopt your suggestions. He realised the motivation in nearly all instances was to improve our performances, which in turn would reflect well on him. I’m the same. The best way to command a band’s respect and loyalty is to involve them as much as you can in the decision making without unduly compromising your own personal vision for the sound, look and performance-side of, what after all is ultimately a collective endeavor.

I’d like to dig a bit deeper into the title track History. In it, you weave a Bayeux Tapestry-like story that is simultaneously broad and very personal. You reference Nero and Vlad the Impaler and also your own personal life. Describe the genesis of the song.

I’m a self-declared history nerd. I’ve always been passionate about the subject and a few years ago obtained a BA Honours Degree in history from the Open University. When I tell people about my love of this topic a fair few start mumbling about how wearisome and irrelevant the subject is to them. That’s because they view history merely as old events, battles, wars, dates to be remembered at school such as 1066 or 1666, men in wigs, kings and queens. What they don’t realise is history is all encompassing, and personal too – yes, it is about those things listed above, but it’s also about the occasion your grandparents met, the day you divorced you husband or wife, the night you heard the song that changed your life, the technological advancements through the years that led to the accomplishment of that smartphone that resides in your pocket or the body scanning machine at your local hospital. In fact, far from being immaterial to our lives, history is actually all we have. The present is fleeting (even as I write these words, they are fast becoming a part of recent history), the future has not yet occurred, so we are ultimately left with that vast ocean called the past from which we’ve all emerged and that created the people we are today. My lyrical motivation for the song was an attempt to elucidate this.

If punk had its own Bayeux Tapestry starting in the mid ‘70s, continuing on to today, how do you see yourself within it?

Wow, that’s a tough question. I think I would have started out as one of those Saxon warriors in the shield wall but having lost the battle and survived (I’m nothing if not a survivor), would have been open to the Norman influence and tried to amalgamate it’s culture with my own rather than be a bitter survivors who constantly succumbs to nostalgia and endlessly moans about the loss of Saxon purity and the death and defeat of king Harold.

As a journeyman musician you have witnessed history and adapted to many changes over the years to within the recording industry. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen since you started? 

By far the biggest has been the technological and business transformations, one serving to alter the other. When I first began playing as a rock musician in the 1970s every band aspired to join a record label in order to pay for and release albums and singles. Due to the technological revolution pretty much anyone can now make a record in their bedroom and have an instant audience via internet platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. There is no need for a middleman anymore. These tech advances have allowed bands and musicians to go DIY in the recording of albums and in the promotion of them. Plus, virtually everyone owns a smartphone these days, and if you have a smartphone you also have a camera, allowing for a wealth of photographic material for bands to call upon from social media sites to use for promotional and record design purposes. Technology has transformed the music business for both the good and, occasionally, for the worse.

If you could interact with your younger self. The kid listening to T-Rex in his bedroom, what advice would you give him?

Just keep doing what you’re doing kid. You’re on the right path.

What are the future plans for the band both short and long term?

We are presently in the midst of a worldwide pandemic with countries prohibiting the movement and the gathering of people, so the prospects of doing anything regarding live work with the band for the short term are not looking too good. In the long term, I firstly want to fulfill the dates we’ve had to cancel in May and June, hopefully rescheduling them for the end of the year or, failing that, early in 2021. Secondly, I think we should record a new album around that time too. To this end I’ve been using the lockdown situation here in France productively to write new material for this forthcoming album and work on a fresh set with some new songs for when, mercifully, we can again play show as your Disobedient Servants.

History and Diminished Responsibility: My Time as a UK Sub and Other Strange Stories are both available now for pre-order at http://timematterrecordings.bigcartel.com

His first book, Some Weird Sin – On Tour with Iggy Pop candidly chronicles Gibbs’ adventures on Iggy’s 1988 Instinct tour and is widely available in paperwork at all the usual online booksellers.