Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Roxy Club : Interview with Paul Marko
Author: John Clarkson
The Roxy was a legendary Covent Garden nightclub, which serving as a base in 1977 for the early punk movement, saw bands such as the Buzzcocks, the Adverts, the Damned, the Heartbreakers, the Jam, the Slits, the Stranglers and X Ray Spex all pass through its doors.
The focus for much myth making, one of the stories that has generated about the Roxy over the years is that, after it opened on New Year's Eve 1976 at a show headlined by the Clash, it stayed open for exactly a hundred days. While its original promoters Andy Czezowski and Barry Jones were ejected from the club for non-payment of the rent in April 1977 and it was constantly threatened with closure as a result of complaints from local residents, it in fact it survived for another year after that until April 1978. After Czezowski and Jones were forced out, it re-opened briefly as a rock 'n' roll club at the height of punk and ted battles in London, before returning to its punk roots and being taken over in its last few months by a shady underworld figure, Kevin St John.
Paul Marko, who runs Punk77 www.punk77.co.uk, undoubtedly the most authoritative old school punk site on the web, has recently self-published a book about the club, 'The Roxy London WC2 ; A Punk History'. A vast but thoroughly riveting 500 pages in length, it tells of its brief glory period under Czezowski and Jones' tenure ; its decline as first of all the gangsters and then finally builders moved in, and also of the two live albums it created, the chart-breaking 'Live at the Roxy', and the posthumous, poorly-received 'Farewell to the Roxy'.
Paul Marko spoke to Pennyblackmusic about the writing of his book, and, thirty years on after its demise, the Roxy's enduring legacy.
PB : How long did it take you to write your book ?
PM : It took about a year.
PB : You have also got a full-time job working in E finance and run the Punk 77 website as well. Was it difficult balancing your commitments for work and with the website with writing the book ?
PM : When I started the website I spent an inordinate amount of time working on it, but the longer I did it the more quick and efficient I became at doing things for it, and the book came into the void there.
It was difficult though. The amount of hours I worked on it were just ridiculous, especially as in the end I decided to self-publish it. My girlfriend and I had to do all the setting out of the layout, find the photos and do the proofing ourselves.
PB : There have been a lot of other books about punk in recent years. Your book, however, only makes passing mention of Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious. If you’re writing a book about punk these days, it seems that you really have to have the Sex Pistols or the Clash on the cover. Did that make it difficult for you to find a publisher as a result ? Was that why you decided to self-publish it ?
PM : Yes. I fully appreciated that the book dealt with a niche area of punk. Trying to sell something like that to the shops is very difficult. All they will see is ‘The Roxy Club : London WC2’ on the cover. If it had said ‘The Clash’ on it, then that would have been fine. That is just the way things are these days though. It is the same when you look at‘Mojo’. You might see the Sex Pistols on the cover, but never any of the other not-so-well known punk bands. It is like having Princess Di on the cover of ‘The Sun’. Your circulation goes up by having something familiar and well-known on it.
PB : You have said in the introduction to the book that you always swore that you would never write a book. What made you change your mind ?
PM : The whole project started when I did an up-date on the Punk77 website about the Roxy Club. With various interviews with various people I had done, I already had a few little snippets on it, and then I started to interview more people about it. The more I looked into it the more interested I became in it and eventually my girlfriend said to me, “You should do a book on it.” It was after she said that that I started writing it.
I thought that in writing it I might be able provide a different slant on 70’s punk, more of a view from the street and the actual people that were there and visited the club, the opposite to the usual range of talking heads, and the same musicians and journalists who always appear in these books. Then I was able to wrap around the subject of the Roxy a few other things as well, like the battles between teds and punks which hadn’t been covered that much before.
PB : You were 13 in 1977 and never actually went to the Roxy Club though.
PM : No, I never did (Laughs).
PB : What do you think then was the ultimate fascination to you of it ?
PM : I do remember getting the ‘Live at the Roxy’album at the time. I lived up North in Inverness then, and to me, all those hundreds of miles away from it, it just seemed totally exotic. One of the things I really love about that first Roxy Club album is that, as well as some great music, it has this absolutely fantastic sleeve and then inner sleeve that has all these wonderful photos of punk and punkettes and the bands. I suppose that was where my initial interest stemmed with it.
You could be writing a book on the Roxy Club or you could be writing a book about Julius Caesar, but the more details you uncover the more you live it. There were times when I was writing it when I felt that I could actually taste the atmosphere in there. It was really strange, but I got so close to it from people’s testimonies and everything else that comes with writing a book that I felt that if I went back in time I would be able to walk straight into the Roxy without any problems.
PB : You talked to hundreds of people to write this book , didn’t you ?
PM : Yes. A lot of people in fact contradict each other with their quotes. That is the beauty though of memory. I was stunned though at how amazing some people’s memories were. They could remember certain nights there thirty years on in full detail. There must have something magical about the place if they were able to remember things so clearly. Some of them also kept a diary. Some of the book is lifted straight from their diaries.
PB : The diary of a 16 year old punk and Roxy regular Arcane Vendetta is used to provide a lot of the main backdrop to the early days of the club. How did you come across his diary ?
PM : When I started the book I seriously thought it would about 150 pages long (Laughs), but more and things started to come out of the woodwork.In the case of Arcane Vendetta, it really was a matter of typing Roxy Club into Google. I found him on about page 160 there (Laughs).I scoured the web for anyone who mentioned the Roxy, and then would follow the link to it and ask them if they wanted to be interviewed for the book.
You never know what you are going to end up with when you do that. Sometimes people would say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll do an interview”, and then I would end up getting like three words out of them. Other times people would go, “Oh, alright, if I have to” and they would provide shed loads of information. Arcane Vendetta was one of those. He provided a lot of the book’s photographs as well as his diary.
PB : How many of these people did you know already through the Punk ’77 website and how many of them did you have to trace such as Arcane Vendetta ?
PM : To be honest I didn’t know very many of them beforehand, That’s the beauty of the internet though. It is so easy to get in touch with people. It wasn’t too much of a problem really.
PB : Andy Czezowski and Barry Jones were ejected from the club on the 23rd April 1977 because of alleged non payment of the rent. By that stage punk had become much more fashionable than when the club had opened four months before. Do you think the real reason they were kicked out was because they simply hadn’t paid their rent, or do you think the owners just wanted a bigger slice of the action basically ?
PM : Even now I get confused with the whole finances of that club, but I am pretty much sure that it didn’t have a drinks licence. It always ran on extensions and ninety day appeals.
I think the basic thought behind it on both sides was to squeeze as much out of it as quickly as possible. Andy has since admitted that. The owners would sometimes come down on nights when it was absolutely packed out. They would see loads of kids there and I think they decided that they wanted a slice of the action and thought, “Let’s turf them out”.
Andy and Barry hadn’t paid the rent though for some weeks either. I think that they knew that they were screwed as they kept having to agree to these ridiculous rent demands to stay open and just in the end stopped paying them. It was always on the cards though that they would go.
PB : The Roxy lasted for sixteen months and throughout had a faltering history. Do you think it was always ultimately destined for failure ?
PM : I think that failure is probably the wrong word. I think it was doomed and in a way, to be honest, that probably helped it. It could never have been a success in the long term. The local residents always wanted it closed and that was why there were so many of these ninety day appeals. It was always doomed.
PB : It ended up being owned by a gay gangster, Kevin St John, who had spent several years in jail. How did he end up running the Roxy ?
PM : Even though one of them was a barrister, the previous owners were no doubt linked to various shady underworld figures and so sold it to him. The club was already on borrowed time. He must have known that and I think that the only reason why he took it on was as a front for something else or possibly as a means of procuring young boys.
He also worked as a booking agent, and a lot of the punk bands I spoke to for the book described having to audition at his house where he would make lots of lewd comments and come on to them. When you’re in a rock ‘n’ roll band,and you’re young and you’re trying to get fame, you’ll do pretty much anything. I don’t think much has changed there. I am pretty much sure that there are still managers who screw their bands in both senses.
PB : He was by all accounts a pretty shadowy figure. There is only one photo of him in the book because that is all that you could find,. The circumstances of his death in approximately 1982 were dubious and you have said in the book that a lot of people even now were very reluctant to talk about him. Was it difficult researching his role in the club as a result ?
PM : The worst part was trying to find out about his death. My girlfriend, her sister and myself spent days in the British Newspaper Library trying to find out what happened.
A lot of people I spoke to for the book mentioned reading about his death in ‘The Evening Standard’ in around about 1982. That is the kind of thing that when you are researching something you think, “Oh, well, I suppose that is something”. We had to look at all these newspapers, not just for 1982, but on the years on either side over a five year period. It was overwhelming really.
The more interviews I did the more I was able to build up a picture of the man. People would give or lend me fanzines from the time and there were a lot of snippets there about him. In the end I was able to piece together quite a lot of information about him.
PB : You think he was killed in a car crash, don’t you ?
PM : I am pretty much sure of it. We were never able to find out definitely even despite all that research, but that seems to be the general consensus. I think he would have phoned me by now otherwise if he was still alive (Laughs).
PB : The first era of the club saw a lot of well known names like the Clash, X Ray Spex, Wire and the Heartbreakers all playi there. The latter era saw a lot more obscure acts, bands such as Blitz, Open Sore and Billy Karloff and the Goats, play there. A lot of these latter day Roxy Club bands are dismissed as being really bad. Do you think that is true or do you think as punk had become much more mainstream that they were just eclipsed by all the other punk groups and punk clubs which had also sprung up since the Roxy Club has first opened it doors ?
PM : I think the standard definitely went down. All the top groups who had originally played the Roxy had record deals and got too big to play there. If you look at the second layer of groups which played there, you can, however, see another level of top groups starting to come out. Sham 69, the UK Subs, the Psychedelic Furs, even Adam and the Ants all played there during its last days. Those were all groups that were going to be as big over the next couple of years or even bigger than those in that first layer.
There is a loss of quality though. A lot of people had hopped onto the bandwagon by that stage and there were so many punk bands that there was inevitably going to be a decline in standards. A lot of those punk bands’ dream was to play somewhere like the Roxy.
Even though if you look at that first wave of bands, people like the Adverts had maybe three singles that did well. They had one album that did well also and then that was basically it for them. X Ray didn’t get a deal for a long time, but they were exactly the same. They had a couple of singles and did just one album of any note. Very few of those bands had any kind of longevity apart from the Stranglers, the Damned and the Clash, the actual cream of the crop really. It was probably the best that carried on going really.
PB : Now that you have done the book what will you do now ? Will you just go back to running the Punk ’77 website ?
PM : I think I will. I enjoy the immediacy of websites. I enjoy the typos. I enjoy being proved wrong and being able to go back and change stuff and to make amends for the horrible, pithy comments I have made. To me the website is a lot more fun because it is so immediate and also because it is free for everybody.
PB : Would you ever do a second book ?
PM : I can’t see it myself. The only thing I would probably be interested in doing is Andy Czezowski'ss autobiography since I have learnt so much about him doing this book, but I think he wants something like twelve volumes of it. His pre Roxy years. His time in the Roxy. His years with the Fridge, the club he ran after that. I don’t know if I would have enough time or the patience to write all of that (Laughs)…
PB : (Laughs) Thank you very much.