Sick on You: The Disastrous Story of Britain’s Great Lost Punk Band
By Andrew Matheson
Ebury Press 2015
As it says on the cover, Sick on You: The Disastrous Story of Britain’s Great Lost Punk Band is “the disastrous story of Britain’s great lost punk band.” Fronted by Andrew Matheson, and featuring Casino Steel, later of The Boys, the Hollywood Brats were British contemporaries, and in a way the mirror image of the New York Dolls. Although arguably as influential as the Dolls, they went commercially unnoticed.
The story starts in 1971 with an 18-year old Matheson packing his belongings and hard earned money from working in a coal mine to head off to London. It’s the end of Swinging London or as he describes it: “The Beatles are dead. Poor, pure, blond, bitchy Brian drowned. Jimi choked. Morrison reduced from a pretentious West Coast pseudo-poet, albeit with great hair and a svelte physique, to a bloated, bearded metaphor, soon to float, barely, in a Paris bathtub.” The quote sums up Matheson’s style and outlook– smart, snobbish and devilishly funny.
We follow him through his adventures working odd jobs, staying in shit holes and auditioning a plethora of hopeful, mostly hippy musicians, in search of perfect allies with whom he could form a rock ‘n’ roll band that will stir things up again.
After a catalogue of setbacks and disappointments, things kick into gear when he meets a Norwegian piano player called Stein Groven, soon to be renamed Casino Steel. Equally fed up with the musical fads of the day, they start recruiting like-minded angry young men. Soon enough, they have a band together and it’s time to play some gigs to hone their craft and create some buzz.
They either play for post-hippy prog rockers to utter indifference or for Teddy Boy 1950s revivalists and bikers. The reaction there is more violent and they get the shit kicked out of them on more than one occasion. But, here and there, hidden in a sea of hostility, a few punters start approaching them and digging their brand of wild and snotty rock ‘n’ roll.
Finally they get a gig at a premier London club, The Speakeasy, and, as Matheson puts it– they kill it. None other than Keith Moon shows up backstage and tells them they are the greatest band he’s ever seen.
The real game changer is the fact that they get a proper manager in Ken Mewis or in Matheson’s words, “The curtain is pulled back and, good Lord, a vision from rock ’n’ roll managerial heaven enters. This thing is 5 foot 10, maybe 11, grey pin-striped suit, sunglasses (in a club at 10 pm, mind you), white shoes, spiky blonde hairdo, fag drooping out op pouty lips, looking for all the world like James Dean’s sexually confused cousin.”
Overnight their lives are changed. No more starving in squats and rehearsing on half-burned gear, they get a real place (with a TV set!) and embark on a decadent binge of daily socializing in clubs, rubbing shoulders with celebrities and getting smashed at a Hustler party.
To not spoil it all for you, I won’t tell you the reason for their ultimate downfall. Except that the universe was conspiring against them and they were just a few years too early to the party. The story ends in 1975 with the end of the Hollywood Brats and Matheson and Casino meeting Malcolm McLaren, Mick Jones and the Pistols among others. In other words, it screams for a sequel! Just as the tidal wave of punk was in its formation, the snotty messiah Matheson leaves the stage with us, the readers, wanting more.
The incredible detail, gusto and certain bitterness combined with a healthy dose of self-assurance makes it clear that Matheson is still in great shape. According to a few recent interviews, we will hear a lot more from him. The book’s doing great and there’s a renewed interest in the Brats. Sometimes laying low for a few decades and building up frustration about lost dreams of one’s youth can produce an unexpected late resurgence of a great talent.
Andrew, sir, please give us more.
By Marko Petrovic