My memories of the occasion are blurred, obviously. I know that the music school concert-hall was packed out, and I was standing at the back with my friends Benjamin and Philip. Nice enough kids, despite having hippie-ish tendencies. At this stage in their lives it was an uphill struggle to get them to talk about anything except the band they were endlessly on the point of forming. A couple of years before, along with Harding, we had made up an inseparable foursome. Those loyalties were now beginning to fracture, slowly; but we were all still intrigued by him, and curious to know what kind of performance he was planning to lay on for us today.
When he got up to speak, after the other three candidates had collectively bored us to tears, the first thing we noticed was that Harding had managed, somehow, to transform his physical appearance. He shambled on to the stage, crook-backed, bow-legged, his eyes glaring sullenly around him with a mixture of venom and settled disappointment at the world’s stupidity. He appeared to have aged about sixty years. I think the idea was to produce a parody of A. K. Chesterton, an unfamiliar figure to most of us, although the fact that he had been the NF’s leader for a few years was just the sort of thing Harding would make it his business to know. The rules of the debate stipulated that the candidates write their own speeches, but Harding ignored this, and reaching awkwardly into his blazer pocket with those palsied, old man’s hands, he produced what was clearly one of the Front’s own printed leaflets. All he did, from that point on, was to read it aloud.
The reaction he got was probably the last that he – or indeed I – would have expected. The heckling died down and soon an astonished hush fell upon the audience. If nothing else, we learned that day that there is, in the language of pure racism, a kind of malign talismanic potency. Some of those phrases lodged in my memory and are still there, a quarter of a century later, like burn marks on the unconscious. He talked about ‘droves of dark-skinned sub-racials’, ‘race-degeneration’, ‘the lie of racial equality’ and the threat to our ‘Nordic birthright of freedom’. After less than half a minute of this stuff Steve Richards, the only black kid in the school (nicknamed ‘Rastus’, in case you were wondering), walked out of the concert-hall, hot with pent-up fury. Harding noticed but it didn’t stop him. He started talking about ‘the maws of doom’. If the government didn’t abandon its policies of racial tolerance, he was saying, that’s where we would find ourselves. ‘The maws of doom!’ he kept repeating. ‘The very maws of doom!’ It became so absurd that a few people did start laughing, nervously. It became just about possible to regard the whole thing as an elaborate piss-take. But some of us were beginning to feel that Harding’s humour, if that’s what it was, was taking us to some pretty strange places lately.
He got six votes, by the way: more than five per cent of the total. Not bad, but the NF candidate in the actual by-election did much better. We were a friendly lot, in the West Midlands, back in 1976.
The following day I was privileged, if that’s the word, to attend the first and, as it turned out, only rehearsal of Philip and Benjamin’s band.
I should reiterate, at this point: the 1970s was a very strange era. Music is another example. You wouldn’t believe the stuff that people – clever people, too, for the most part – used to listen to with a straight face on their dads’ music centres or in their student bedsits back then. There was a band called Focus – Dutch, I think they were – whose keyboard player used to break off from hammering away at his Moog synthesizer to start yodelling into the microphone. There was a band called Gryphon who used to call a sudden halt in the middle of some rock’n’roll riff, whip out their recorders and crumhorns, and launch into a spot of medieval riddle-me-ree. And the grand-daddy of them all, of course, was Rick Wakeman, with his monstrous concept albums about Henry VIII and King Arthur – one of which, I seem to remember, he presented as a live ice-skating spectacular at Wembley Stadium. Peculiar times.
If this sort of music was your thing, there was one book that was bound to be weighing down the Army and Navy Stores rucksack you carried into school with you every morning. My reference, of course, is to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Needless to say, this was Philip’s favourite reading matter and this fact was reflected in the series of names which he’d attempted to inflict, over the last few weeks, on his unfortunate musical colleagues. Lothlorien was one of them. There was also Mithril, Minas Tirith and Isildur’s Bane. In the end, though, they managed to surpass themselves and settled for the silly name to end all silly names. They called themselves ‘Gandalf’s Pikestaff.’
Philip and Benjamin had somehow managed to dredge up a trio of would-be collaborators for that first rehearsal, and I’ve never seen anxiety written so eloquently on three faces as when Philip started handing out the chord sheets to the first song, which must have extended to at least fourteen pages. They were covered with dwarfish runes, Gothic calligraphy and Roger Dean-style illustrations of dragons and busty elfin maidens in various stages of provocative undress.
‘What’s this?’ said the drummer, apprehensively.
Philip explained that his first composition was to be a rock symphony in five movements, totalling some thirty-two minutes in length (i.e. even longer than ‘Supper’s Ready’ from the Genesis album Foxtrot), and narrating the entire history of the universe from the moment of creation up until roughly, as far as I could make out, the resignation of Harold Wilson in 1976. The title of this catchy little number, destined to be a surefire hit in the soul clubs of Wigan, was ‘Apotheosis of the Necromancer’.
Well, they gave it their best shot, I’ll allow them that. For about five minutes, anyway. But Philip had chosen the wrong moment, historically, to make his personal bid for progressive rock super-stardom. This was late in 1976, remember? Word was beginning to filter through, even in a cultural no-man’s-land like Birmingham, of a new kind of music that was springing up in places like London and Manchester. Names like The Damned and The Clash and, of course, The Sex Pistols were beginning to be whispered around. It was the glorious rebirth of the two-minute single. No more guitar solos. Concept albums were out. Mellotrons were verboten. It was the dawn of punk or, as Tony Parsons more accurately called it, dole-queue rock. And even my upper-middle-class schoolchums were beginning to catch on.
It was the drummer who sounded the first note of rebellion.
After tinkling away on his ride cymbal for what must have seemed an eternity, as part of an extended instrumental passage that was meant to evoke the idea of zillions of far-off galaxies springing into life, he suddenly announced, ‘Fuck this for a game of soldiers’, and started to lay down a ferocious backbeat in 4/4. Recognizing his cue, the guitarist whacked up his volume and embarked upon a riotous three-chord thrash over which the lead vocalist, an aggressive little character called Stubbs, began to improvise what the charitable might describe as a melody. Now here’s an interesting thing. He was singing the first words that came into his head, probably, but what do you suppose they were? Bizarrely, it was that stupid phrase from Harding’s fascist speech the day before. ‘The maws!’ he was screaming. ‘The maws! The very maws of doom!’ Over and over, like an incantation, as the music got more and more frantic and Philip ran to the front, waving them to stop this hideous racket, and then, when they just ignored him, standing and watching with his arms folded, until Benjamin joined him, and put his arm around his shoulders, and they both just stood there on the sidelines, watching it crumble, this project which had taken them years to put together. There was a fire in Stubbs’s eyes, at that moment: a kind of demonic exhilaration, fuelled by sheer, unpolluted delight in trashing something, kicking something over. That was how our school’s first punk band was born, and that was their name, from then on, The Maws of Doom, and although it was funny watching it happen like that, I felt sad as well, sad for Philip, sad for the dream that had so quickly fallen to pieces around him.