The band’s mortified gaze was locked down on the front row seating at the Santa Monica Civic Center. Seats weren’t punk rock. They warned the promoter. He shrugged it off. So the band played and the seats were punk-rocked to oblivion courtesy of the crowd. The dishevelled promoter now understood. This was punk. He most likely smiled in a moment of clarity and asked the band from England to come back and play again…
Most music genres have flatlined. Seriously. No surprise there. This era of supposed musical creativity lacks something. I could say energy or hooks, even substance. And definitely strength. But it goes beyond that. An intangible, perhaps. What is apparent is that passionate experimentation and soulful purpose are glaringly absent on any of the debuts released today. And the reality is this: popular music is lost. There’s presently nothing that audibly resembles the febrile and effusive sounds of the mid-1960s, late ‘70s or 1990s. Anything sonically alive in 2020 comes from artists who began recording before 2000 (the Len Price 3 the lone exception), which brings us to the point of this piece: an incredibly powerful holdover from the early punk era is rescuing music to the best of its ability. Welcome, 999.
This imaginative and artistic quartet from London recently dropped an album — “Bish! Bash! Bosh!” — that sounds remarkable for a band who first dipped their feet into the pool 40-plus years ago and were completely submerged in the British punk scene within a year.
The triple nines new recording comes on the heels of an embarrassingly feeble effort from that well-known punk trio from California. The contrast between the albums demonstrates how the old schools the new; where unrestrained creativity casts a heavy shadow over music manufactured from the back end of a major record contract. Inventive inclination vs. prosaic obligation. I guess the trio had to be there back in the day.
“We are so proud to have been part of that first wave.”
“Personally, I preferred the earlier version of punk and the bands it produced both here and in the States it was completely new, something different, full of energy,” said 999 vocalist and guitarist, Nick Cash, in an interview with For The Love Of Bands. “We are so proud to have been part of that first wave.”
That wave of course crashed upon the shore of a 1970s music scene that had made a lot of wrong turns. A rescue-conglomerate of raging punk bands nudged it back in the right direction; 999 at the forefront along with the Clash, Pistols, Jam, Lurkers and so many others.
Punk is as relevant today as it was when that wave first came ashore and has held its own Cash said.
“I think with Bish! Bash! Bosh! we have somehow managed to take the feeling and energy of those first punk rock days and recordings and breathed some new life into it all these years later,” he said.
Since their debut in 1977, the band really hasn’t broken stride. Yes, there have been some lengthy gaps between records, but no void in desire or avidity.
“The energy and zest of the band comes from a massive desire to still wanna play doing what we love, we really don’t do much else we don’t have a lot of hobbies, I guess it’s been our life for so long we don’t know or want to stop,” said 999 bassist Arturo Bassick in an email to For The Love Of Bands.
Cash and lead guitarist/vocalist, Guy Days, formed the band in December of 1976. They added Jon Watson (bass) and Pablo Labritain (drums) to the original lineup and burst onto London’s punk scene in 1977 playing their first gig in January of that year at the Northampton Cricket Club.
Cash said on the 999punkband fan site that before they decided on the rhythm duo of Watson and Labritain some soon-to-be well-known players tried out for the band.
“We auditioned people at Manos Studios at the bottom of King’s Road,” he said. “We had so many people turn up: Tony James (Generation X and Carbon/Silicon), Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders), Dolphin Taylor (Stiff Little Fingers and Tom Robinson Band), Jon Moss (Culture Club). In the end, we picked Jon Watson and Pablo Labritain because they were the best people for the job.”
Constantly performing around the London area with their high-energy act generated a mountain of interest allowing them to develop an anchored fan base.
That era sparked a multitude of strong compositions from 999. The musically rock/lyrically punk “Homicide,” “Emergency” and “Subterfuge” were the visible portions protruding from the water but below a floating mass of gems were driving their sound.
The band’s first release “999” (1978), rolled into three more studio recordings, “Separates” (1978), “The Biggest Prize in Sport” (1980), and “Concrete,” (1981). Since then, the band has periodically released albums and continuously played gigs.
After a 13-year recording hiatus, 999 once again embarked upon the recording studio so to speak. Their process wasn’t four guys converging on the studio with recently-penned songs and recording them with a ready producer nearby. Cash said the songs were derived organically over 13 years some evolving rapidly others a bit more slowly.
“Nick and Guy just send me rough recordings of their new songs then I work my parts out at home, then we rehearse together and we chop and change arrangements as we feel necessary,” Bassick said. “I wasn’t at the studio the whole time, neither was Stoo (Stoo Meadows), the drummer, we put down the backing tracks and Nick and Guy put the colour on top. So the majority of the work is all done by those two.”
“Bish! Bash! Bosh,” recorded at Blast Studios in Newcastle, has successfully kept 999 on an interesting trajectory musically while aptly preventing a breach of the band’s artistic integrity.
“My favourite 999 album is the new one ’Bish! Bash! Bosh,’ as in my opinion it contains the best, most complete, well-finished songs we have achieved to date, however, I have fond memories of all of them particularly the first two albums,” he said. “’Bish! Bash! Bosh!’ was the most enjoyable to record and the most challenging as we did all the production ourselves.”
“The energy and zest of the band comes from a massive desire to still wanna play doing what we love, we really don’t do much else we don’t have a lot of hobbies, I guess it’s been our life for so long we don’t know or want to stop”
– 999 bassist Arturo Bassick
The album jumps off with a slice of highly credible power pop but expeditiously shifts gears keeping the listener guessing at each turn.
“We like to produce diverse albums with songs that sound different and yes “Don’t Wanna Know” we consider to be one of our finest ever pop hooks which you also have pointed out,” Cash wrote. “We thought it was our most catchy song which is why we chose it to open the album.”
The sounds range from military drumming on the strange “I Hate It All’ (Stoo Meadows studied military drumming) to funky swamp rock on “Monkey,” replete with a dizzying bass intro. And if you open your ears you might pick up some Angels, Motörhead, Gerry Rafferty’s Stealers Wheel and Ramones but most of all you’ll hear the derivative uniqueness of 999. And as you would expect, Nick Cash’s unmistakable voice passionately cascades from headphones to eardrum.
Lyrically, the record reaches into the bag of contemporary issues plaguing mankind but also shakes out some personal narratives along the journey. “My Dad Trashed My Submarine” centers around an incident where his father wrecked his toy submarine when Cash was a boy.
“I deserved it very much I’m sure but at the time my father had been through two wars, the World War and the Korean War, and I realise that some of the anger that he displayed was, in fact, PTSD so it was great to write a song about it, my dad was the greatest by the way,” he revealed.
The music itself is on full-go here as each instrument contributes mightily to the entire collection of compositions. Guy Days’ guitar work and layers are unarguably engaging reaffirming his great ability to play mesmerizing riffs and smart solos.
And for the musical gearheads, Cash broke down their rigs.
“The equipment used for the recording of the Bish! Bash! Bosh! was a Marshall JCM 900 100 watt and 4 x 12 cabinet the same one for all the guitars except the bass which was an Ampeg SVT bass rig,” he explained. “The guitars were Gibson SG standard, Fender Telecaster and John Smith custom single pick up guitar and various effects.”
Johnny Burgess and Alex McArthur oversaw the guitar sound on the album.
“Both are experienced guitar players so sometimes in the session there were four guitarist discussing one guitar part which obviously helps to encourage the results of which we are very pleased,” he added.
Many bands have reached the four-decade milestone or longer but probably shouldn’t have; their art long- stagnated and the creative tank empty of fuel. We can all name them. If you’re playing the casino and county-fair rotation regularly without releasing anything worthy of note then arguably it’s time to retire the band.
But 999 is just the opposite. Energized shows, albums still as innovational and inspired as “Separates” and “Concrete” and an attitude that seems as real and fresh as 1979. Their fans appreciate it. And so will their future followers.
“999 fans are very zealous we still see old faces from the early days as well as new mainly young folk who have discovered the band one way or another, having such classic songs that never seem to age or feel old hat and being honest and real with no pose also endears fans to the band,” Bassick commented.
Their musical landscape appears to be clear. No walls in site for them to hit. 999 seemingly wouldn’t want to do anything else but bring committed, honest songs with staying power to the people.
“Long live the music,” Cash proclaimed.
What enables 999, and many other bands of that era, to write songs with more life than most groups today?
Could it be that they possess a foundation that spans a range of rock ‘n’ roll styles and includes, at the very least, a familiarity with other types of popular music (from show tunes and light opera and classical to comedy and novelty songs)?
I noticed that before the shutdown, when I’d go out to see live music, that many of the bands had great musicians. And they had great guitar tone. But if you’d set a million dollars in cash on the table, and said I can have it if I could hum just one of their songs, I’d fail. Which is too bad, because I could really use the money.