It was August 1977. We were huddled around a tape recorder listening to the Sex Pistols ….
… blasting out ‘God Save The Queen’ – their tribute to the British monarch. This song and others including ‘Anarchy in the UK‘ featured on their groundbreaking album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’. This irreverence was music to our ears, partly because we had no time for the British Monarch and secondly we were elated with the arrival of punk rock. Her Majesty’s foot-soldiers patrolled our estate daily and they took great delight in stopping and searching local residents and carrying out house searches. My friends and I and other local youths were singled out for daily searches and given verbal and physical abuse.
During this time there were bombings and shootings on a daily basis all over the North of Ireland. There were complex historical and political issues involved which were rarely explained by the media pundits, who printed lame excuses to justify the harassment meted out on a daily basis by Crown Forces. We took great delight in singing ‘God Save the Queen’ in our best Johnny Rotten voices as a response to our harassment. We taped most of the songs, as we couldn’t all afford to buy the various punk albums and singles. Many of the recordings were from the John Peel show; he was the only radio DJ at the time who played punk music.
There were always groups of young people standing outside the local shops. Every time the British army came into the area there would be stone throwing incidents, which often exploded into mini- and sometimes full-blown riots. The local youth viewed this as a justifiable collective response to the daily military invasion of the estate.
There were a small group of us who shared an interest in the punk rock scene. I was serving my time as a painter. It was messy job at times, but it provided some of my friends with ready access to all shades of paint colours for graffiti which adorned many walls in the area.
My fellow punk rockers included, Dee, ‘Blue’, Liam and Mickey. Dee wasn’t around too often. He had just left school and was waiting for a date to start a job in a local factory. ‘Blue’ was in the last year of completing his ‘A’ Levels at the local Grammar School. He once dyed his hair sky blue, hence the nickname. His real name was Thomas. Liam was also still at school and had, we believed, a promising football career ahead of him. Mickey worked in the office of a coal yard and was big into fishing.
One afternoon we gathered at our usual spot outside Makem’s shop. The focus of our conversation was the weekly Tuesday night disco at the youth club. During the previous few weeks we had attended the disco dressed in various items of clothing that fitted the attire of most punk rockers. The doormen always stopped us on the way in and warned us about our version of ‘pogo’ dancing. We were sharing a few cigarettes and cans of lemonade and talking about the John Peel show from the previous evening. Peel had featured a new session from the ‘The Clash’, which sounded promising. ‘Blue’ was repeating his usual boastful reference about seeing ‘The Boomtown Rats’ in Dublin. He was a massive ‘Rats’ fan and every Tuesday night he sported a pair of striped pyjamas just like ‘Johnny Fingers’. We talked about going to some gigs in Belfast, but it could be dangerous as the only pubs that allowed punk bands to play were close to the city centre. Belfast was a dangerous place at any time of the day. There was also the additional problem of getting home as the last bus left Belfast at 9 o’clock.
‘Blue’ was always the centre of attention as he was very witty and it was hard to know when to take him serious. He was originally from South Armagh and spoke with a distinctive accent. He had a very deep voice and could be heard above everyone. ‘Blue’ suggested that next week our attire should be amended to make us more distinctive. We looked at him anxiously awaiting his suggestion.
‘ Right lads, we’re punks, but to be different we should wear a ‘guttie’ on one foot and a ‘wellie’ boot on the other. We will call ourselves the ‘ punk wellie gang’, the ‘PWG’.
What do you think of that?’
Our attentive faces exploded into a chorus of laughter. ‘Blue’ didn’t join in. His face was crimson; he thought he had just delivered the best idea since sliced ham. We stared at each other and I spoke first.
‘ Are you f***ing serious? You want us to go to the youth club next Tuesday night with our usual punk gear and wearing a ‘guttie’ and a ‘wellie’ boot.
We’ll be f***ing laughed at and the doormen probably won’t let us in.
Anyway where are we supposed to get the wellies from?’
‘Blue’ was well prepared. He would liberate a supply of wellies from his uncle’s farm and he knew that the doormen were good friends of my dad. He believed this was the reason we got into the disco. He wasn’t worried about being laughed at. He believed that by adding to our appearance we would be laughing at our peers who he described as boring idiots. Liam and Mickey were both very excited. They sang a tune celebrating the birth of the ‘PWG’ to the sound of ‘What do I Get’ by The Buzzcocks. Dee also added his approval and I acquiesced. My reservations were more to do with being the added attention of the doormen and I suppose there was a bit of vanity lingering in the background. We decided to celebrate the formation of the ‘PWG’ the following Saturday night with a carry-out of cider and beer at our usual spot at the edge of a local river. We agreed to keep our ‘PWG’ plans to ourselves to increase the impact of our first ‘outing’. I added another cautionary note about graffiti as any references to the ‘PWG’ could invite questions about a new IRA splinter group. We all laughed at the notion of local IRA men running around our estate wearing a combination of ‘gutties’ and ‘wellies’.
That night we went to the youth club sporting our usual punk attire. As usual I had to do the talking to gain access. I told the doormen to expect a change to our apparel the following week. I hinted about footwear, but that was as far as I could go. We engaged in our version of dancing: the DJ was sound, he always played any records that we took with us, although the youth club committee wouldn’t let him play certain songs by ‘The Pistols’ and ‘Orgasm Addict’ by The Buzzcocks.
We met up at ‘Blue’s’ house early that Saturday evening to try on the ‘wellies’. There was a garage adjacent to his house. Most of the boots fitted, but Dee‘s and Liam’s were a bit on the big side. Once the fitting was over we made our way into town to purchase the booze. The alcohol was consumed with additional pleasure that night as we sang our hearts out to mark the birth of the ‘PWG’.
D Day arrived. It was Tuesday night. The disco usually kicked off about 8 pm. We were always first in. However, we decided to wait to 8.30pm, as this would add to the impact of our new image. We met up in my house, as our back door was literally a few feet from the youth club. We got changed into our ‘new footwear’. My mum and younger sister obtained a sneak preview. They both roared with laughter with my mum making references to our collective sanity.
At 8.30pm I looked out the kitchen window. The coast was clear and it was time to reveal the PWG to the world, or at least to our peers in the youth club. We left the house to the echo of loud giggles from my mum and sister and made our way to the youth club door. As usual I was first to enter as my dad’s friends were always on duty. They gave me the once over and busted out laughing at my footwear. We entered the youth club under strict instructions not to remove our wellies. We made our way to the stage and gave the DJ some punk records to play. He never even noticed our footwear. I asked him to play anything by ‘the Rats’ with a request for the PWG. At first he looked startled, but when I displayed my footwear he gave me a ‘thumbs up’ gesture. He later told me that our footwear was a good idea as it added fun to the whole punk image. I was disappointed by this comment, as we didn’t want to be figures of fun.
The DJ announced the request for the PWG and everyone looked in our direction. We hit the dance floor with our usual gusto, but it was more exciting with our new footwear. The DJ played four punk records in a row including ‘The Pistols’ and a double dose of The Clash. By the end of ‘White Riot’ by The Clash we were exhausted and gladly occupied seats in our usual location by the stage. ‘Blue’ was grinning like a child in a sweet shop. Mickey was complaining about his left ankle as his ‘wellie’ kept coming off during our session on the dance floor. For the first time in months we sat in silence whilst the DJ played a triple dose of Donna Summer. Our usual response to this disco queen involved going to the middle of the dance floor pretending to vomit and shouting ‘death to disco’.
We received a varied reaction to our new attire, most of it negative and included references about looking like eejits. We just laughed it off. Mickey’s older sister was very vocal: she didn’t hold back,
‘You lot are a bunch of dickheads! My friends are laughing at me’.
She pointed her finger at ‘Blue’.
‘I suppose this was your idea, you big culchie’.
We responded in unison by singing the opening lines of a song by The Wurzels whose stage act involved dressing up as singing farmers. She turned on her heels and stormed in the direction of the toilets. Near the end of the night the DJ announced that he was going to play a punk record as a personal dedication to us. He played ‘New Rose’ by The Damned and we went wild. As we were leaving the disco the doormen made a few jokes about our footwear, tractors and cow dung.
The doormen repeated the same jokes every week and our peers also indulged in comic remarks. We were accepted for what we were, local young people who liked punk music and wore ‘silly’ footwear. We stood out all the same and the PWG were talked about in other parts of the town, in schools and workplaces. We were ‘legends’: at least we hoped that we were. It was fun. It was an expression of youth culture and the music still sounds as good today as it did then.