If you were a fan of Cockney Rejects a third of a century ago and wanted to see a band you like play songs you like then you’d have probably been best off taking along a flak jacket. The late seventies, early eighties were, to put it mildly, tumultuous times in Britain with rampant unemployment and a government loathed by the masses so it probably wasn’t the wisest decision for the four lads from the east end of London to wear West Ham shirts for their debut appearance on Top of the Pops. They were, to be fair, playing a punk version of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles at the time.
Their club affiliation, in an era when football hooliganism was on the rise and punk gigs were becoming politicised and downright nasty, resulted in their subsequent national tour combusting into one big tear-up. A particularly fractious affair in Birmingham has gone down as ‘the most violent gig in British history’ with a hundred local yobs attacking the band and guitarist Micky Geggus being charged with GBH.
But that was then and this is now and the intervening years have allowed a reassessment on the musical genre termed ‘Oi!’ that simplistically can be viewed as a merging of punk and an early incarnation of scally. It was lads from estates picking up guitars and making a racket, an ethos that was widely celebrated in later periods for being an undiluted sound of the streets.
Now in their early fifties the Cockney Rejects play music for entertainment only and it is entirely possible to see a band you like play music you like with – to inappropriately paraphrase Phil Collins here – no flak jacket required. Yet one constant remains: their love for the Hammers.
On May 10th West Ham bid farewell to the Boleyn Ground after 112 years of stylish football and ferocious atmospheres and to commemorate this sad parting the band are releasing a single entitled Goodbye Upton Park.
It is guaranteed to be an emotional day for everyone connected with the club and as the momentous date approaches we caught up with singer Jeff Turner to discuss Pop Robson screamers, Billy Bonds with his socks rolled down and the general passing of time.
Daisy Cutter: How do gigs of today contrast with those from the old days?
Jeff Turner: I think that things are a lot more controlled and everyone has calmed down a little bit. Back in the day the sound systems weren’t very good and people were more tribal then. Playing across the country now is really fun and it’s a completely different age.
DC: Was OI! A misunderstood genre?
JT: Yes it was. We never really wanted to be part of any movement it’s just that we wrote a song called ‘Oi Oi Oi’ back in 1980 because it was a laugh. Somebody did a review of the band when we played in Leeds and said those were the only three words I could muster in between songs. He slaughtered us so I thought I’d write a song called that for a laugh.
It was misunderstood in a lot of ways because there were a lot of working class boys who were part of the first wave of punk who went up against a lot of middle-class art students. I’ve got nothing against them but a lot was misrepresented. Some didn’t help themselves with connotations and doing silly things but it was misunderstood.
DC: So much of music now is safe and insipid. Do we need a modern-day version of punk to come along and shake things up?
JT: It would be nice for something to spring up but in the seventies we had prog rock and three day weeks and people unable to bury the dead – punk had to happen. Nowadays I’m not sure it could happen because people are so comfortable with their computers and iphones. It also feels now like everything has been done. When we had the rap thing and hip hop in the eighties it stirred things up a bit but now I don’t know.
DC: Tell us about East End Babylon (a film made about Cockney Rejects released in 2012)
JF: That took ages to make, about four years and longer than Ben Hur. The idea was taken from my autobiography Cockney Reject which came out eleven years ago. A screenplay was written and it was diabolical; no-one really grasped it. Then the director Richard England said what about a film documentary telling the social position of the band and it was a story worth telling. I’m very pleased with the film. It reflects on kids who grew up in working class areas and shows that anyone can be in a band.
DC: May 1oth is sure to be a highly charged evening. What has the ground meant to you and Hammer’s fans down the years?
JT: I first went there in 1971 and we drew 2-2 to Chelsea. We were two goals up and Chelsea came back with Keith Weller scoring twice. The fact that he used to play for Millwall made it hurt even more. I was born a mile away from the ground and I went there from the age of ten outside the north stand. The ground used to open up around 12.45 and you’d just stand and get your position watching the atmosphere build up. There has been some cracking nights and blows. I’ll be honest and say that I’m choked that we’re moving but I suppose you have to move with the big boys or be left behind. It hasn’t dawned on me yet that it’s going.
DC: What’s your favourite Boleyn Ground memory and goal?
JT: November ’76 on Bonfire Night was a European night against Frankfurt and we’d lost the first leg. We beat them 3-1. I was only 12 and we had a mad Geordie called Pop Robson who scored a screamer. I’ve never known an atmosphere like it. We made the final that year.
My favourite goal I could pick out Di Canio’s but funny enough it was a penalty in 1980 in the last minute against Aston Villa. It was the quarter finals of the FA Cup and Ray Stewart got it. We were a second division team and suddenly we were into the semi finals and we released I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. If we’d gone to Villa Park in the replay we’d have been smashed and history would have been altered.
DC: Who is your all-time West Ham hero?
JT: People will say Bobby Moore but I only saw him on the back-end of his career and Trevor Brooking was the best player we ever had but it’s got to be Billy Bonds. From his commitment to playing with his socks rolled down he was Mr West Ham. He epitomised everything when the chips were down – which they often were in the seventies – and was a swashbuckling hero. He was an idol as a kid.
DC: How do you feel about moving to the Olympic Stadium?
JT: I’ve got very mixed emotions because you lose your soul and identity as a club. This is no disrespect to Manchester City but I’ve been to their ground – and many others like it – on numerous occasions and they’re stuck in the middle of a trading estate. All of a sudden there’s a Harlem Globetrotters feel but that’s a sign of the times. Maine Road was absolutely unbelievable but now it doesn’t feel the same. I could never envisage West Ham being in that position but I suppose we have to compete with the Man Citys – and Tottenham are getting a new stadium – or you’ll get left behind.
DC: Can you see Champions League at the Olympic Stadium either next season or in the near future?
You probably could but everyone is striving to get in there and there should be a note of caution with West Ham. They’ve got a good team there and good manager but when they go into that stadium it’s not automatically our own ground. We’re not used to the surface, the changing rooms, or anything. So next season is going to be the tough one.