Sham 69 filmed live on April 10, 2002 at the Concorde 2 in Brighton, England.
If original 1976-77 U.K. punk seemed barebones to mainstream rock fans, Sham 69 seemed simpler yet. Surfacing in London from Surrey’s bucolic Hersham, its songs lacked the withering disgust of Sex Pistols, the cutting cultural barbs of the Adverts, the wild abandon of the Damned and the art-attack smarts of Wire, X-Ray Spex and Manchester’s Buzzcocks.
Its music was a coarser, rougher, more stripped-down cousin, initially discounted by London’s music press (albeit championed by fanzines such as Sniffin’ Glue). Yet the band rode guitarist Dave Parsons’ powerful attack and singer Jimmy Pursey’s garrulous “man of the people” persona to Britain’s Top 10 singles chart three times and the Top 20 twice more, while also scoring a Top 10 album and two Top 30s.
Think of a mouthier, more working-class Ramones with a heavy Cockney accent. Parsons’ riffing had a load of Johnny Ramone’s no-frills, buzzsaw, down-stroking density. (On Sham 69’s zenith, the 1978 U.K. hit “Hurry up Harry,” he appropriated Ramone’s up-down-up-down sequence from “Beat on the Brat.”) The bellowing, charismatic, lanky, wide-eyed (and caterpillar eyebrowed) Pursey sounded more like Keith Moon singing The Who’s “Bellboy.”
To the group’s revulsion, its concerts drew copious violent neo-Nazi skinheads.
His shouting everyman style, sometimes following pitch and sometimes making it cry uncle, and penchant for sloganeering football (soccer)-chant choruses led to a large, loyal fanbase dubbed the “Sham Army.” That army, however, proved a mixed bag. To the group’s revulsion, its concerts drew copious violent neo-Nazi skinheads. (At the time, punks were already under violent attack from other youth gangs; for example, in June 1977, nine Teddy Boys ambushed Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten outside a pub and slashed his face with razors.)
Soon, white power National Front members began using Sham 69 shows to solicit converts. Pursey was publicly aghast — the group’s 1977 B-side “Ulster” had decried sectarian bloodshed, he sang with the Clash at London’s 1978 Rock Against Racism festival and he worked with the Anti-Nazi League. But his exasperated group eventually, understandably, ceased British live appearances.
Finally, after a fraught fourth LP sarcastically titled “The Game” (by then the band had issues with its major label, Polydor), the fed-up group quit in 1980 despite scoring two more Top 50 U.K. hits. That was not the end of the Sham 69 story, however, as Pursey and Parsons put a new lineup together in 1987.
After tweaking its sound with post-punk keys and saxophone, the band swung back hard to its original style by 2002, as documented by “The Adventures of Sham 69 in Concert: Hersham Boys” from seaside Brighton’s the Concorde 2. Not only are 16 of the 20 songs from the group’s 1977-80 records, the others are also straight-up punk, from the 1997 album “The A Files” (“14 Years,” “Blackpool”) and the 2001 release “Day 21” (“Tattoo”) plus a new, unreleased, 9/11 reaction, “September 11.”
Pursey is no less a star, mugging with those penetrating eyes in his still-wiry, still-eventually-shirtless frame. He’s clearly imbibing the straightforward freedom/joys of “Give a Dog a Bone” and “Angels with Dirty Faces” while still believing within an inch of his soul that “If the Kids Are United” (“they will never be divided”).
He also summons the gleeful lunacy of touchstone “Borstal Breakout” not once but twice. (A “borstal” in Britain is a juvenile detention/reform facility.) He customarily leaves gaps for the fans to sing, which they do. Meanwhile, Parsons’ right hand makes a chunky, heavy roar on “Questions and Answers” and “Tell Us the Truth” while adding flashy leads on “Ulster” and “Give a Dog a Bone” and a whammy sound on “September 11.”
Sham 69’s mid-period rhythm section, bassist Mat Sargent and drummer Ian Whitewood, had by then played together with Parsons for 15 years, and it shows. Despite some hiccups — like omitting the last verse and chorus of “Hurry up Harry,” leaving Pursey to start a chorus as his mates end the song — the group is tight.
Interviews with Pursey and Parsons detail the creation of the featured songs. Both still relish being officers in their own Sham 69 army.
“The Adventures of Sham 69 in Concert” Setlist
What Have We Got
I Don’t Wanna
They Don’t Understand
Tell Us the Truth
Give a Dog a Bone
Angels with Dirty Faces
Questions and Answers
Hurry Up Harry
If the Kids Are United
September the Eleventh
You’re a Better Man Than I
Jack Rabid is the founder, editor and publisher of 40-year New York music magazine The Big Takeover, whose writing has appeared in Spin, Interview, AllMusicGuide, eMusic, Trouser Press Record Guide, Creem, Village Voice, Amazon.com, Ice, Rock ‘n’ Roll Globe, Maximum Rock n Roll, Paper, Rockpool, Alternative Press, Musichound, Stereotype, East Village Eye, CD Now, Jam TV, Hit List, Amp, Seconds, Generation, etc. He is also a club/radio DJ, host of “The Big Takeover Show” on realpunkradio.com every Monday (archived at bigtakeover.com) and drummer in early ’80s punks Even Worse, SST-era Leaving Trains, post-punkers Last Burning Embers and dreampop-era (currently revived) group Springhouse. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Mary and their two children, Jim and Caroline.