An accomplished bassist and sideman, Alvin Gibbs is an integral part of the well-known punk group UK Subs, with Singer Charlie Harper. Gibbs teamed up with muscians Brian James and Mick Rossi to record his album Your Disobedient Servant and made his way as a solo act.
Tell me about the writing and recording process of your first solo album.
I resisted the idea of a solo record for a long time but a lot of people in recent years said to me they would very much like to hear an album of my songs so I eventually warmed to the idea. Once that was decided I set about writing twelve brand-new tracks for the project keeping in mind a balance of fast, mid-paced and slower material to give the album variety and balance. The songs came surprisingly quickly, most of the twelve were written within a two week period. I then had to think about where to record and decided on the home studio of my friend and Godfathers’ guitarist Steve Crittall in Soho, London. I live in France so it was at times difficult to work consistently on the record, plus my band the UK Subs are constantly touring and recording leaving little time for solo projects. Never-the-less, I managed to get the recordings done with a variety of guest guitarists and Jamie Oliver of the Subs playing drums within a month by means of recording a couple of days here, a couple of days there.
How was working with Brian James?
I’ve known Brian for forty years, played bass guitar in his bands Brian James and the Brains and the Hellions back in the late 1970s, and I actually left the Hellions to join the UK Subs in 1980. I’ve always loved his playing style and he was the first musician I contacted to ask for a contribution to a track on my album. He couldn’t make it to the Soho studio so we sent him a song to play to at his own studio in Brighton, which is where he now resides with his wife and son. The song I sent to him was Clumsy Fingers (now on the reverse side of the single Ghost Train as well as being an album track) and a fine job he did too, quintessential Brain James – raw, edgy and cool.
What is the name of the album? Who are the Disobedient Servants?
The title of the album is Your Disobedient Servant, this being a subversion of the old, eighteenth century and nineteenth century Regency method of signing off a letter. Instead of Yours Faithfully or Sincerely it was the fashion then to conclude a missive with Your Obedient Servant before adding a signature with your quill. This anarchic alteration of an antiquated valediction seemed somehow appropriate to my character and a noteworthy title for my first solo album. The Disobedient Servants are the guest musicians that have contributed to my record – Brian James, Mick Rossi of Slaughter and the Dogs, Leigh Heggarty of Ruts DC, Barry ‘Barrington’ Francis of the Saints, James Stevenson of Chelsea, Steve Crittall of the Godfathers, Timo Kaltio ex-Johnny Thunders and Cheap ‘n’ Nasty guitarist, keyboardist and film music composer Mel Wesson and my partner in rhythmic crime from the UK Subs, Jamie Oliver on drums. The artist title on the album will be Alvin Gibbs and the Disobedient Servants and I will be thereafter playing live shows to promote the record under that name.
What about Gaye’s cover album? How did that happen?
Gaye is also a long-term friend of mine. She’s a very good artist and I’ve purchased a number of her artworks over the years. I live in France, but when I’m touring the UK with the Subs I generally stay at Gaye’s home in London on days off. While staying there she showed me a new series of prints that had ghostly images as their general theme so I asked her to work on some similar visual subject matter for the cover of my forthcoming vinyl single, Ghost Train, for obvious reason. She also provided a piece for the back cover, and most excellent cover artworks they are too. Gaye’s artwork will not be on the cover of the album though; we have acquired a photo from the 1960s film The Servant, starring Dirk Bogarde for that.
What sparks your creativity?
History – I’ve a BA Honours’ degree in the subject and I confess that I’m a history nerd – politics, art, literature, an intriguing idea or a stimulating a song title I’ve managed to come up with. Just wanting to be productive is also a great trigger for creativity for me as is my age: there are a number of songs relating to mortality on the album.
Where did your interest in music come from?
I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s which provided some of the best rock bands of all time: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, etc, etc. This was the music that provided the soundtrack to my early teenage years and, of course, influenced my musical outlook. The Glam Rock bands in the early 70s were deeply influential too (Bowie, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople) as were the first wave of Punk Rock outfits such as the Ramones, the Clash, Generation X and the Pistols.
What’s one of the most important qualities for a bassist to have?
An understanding of how to serve a song with your playing but also, as a musician, professional tenacity is essential.
What kind of basses were you playing in the early days? What basses are you playing now? What is the magic of the instrument?
My signature bass for many years was the Gibson Thunderbird. This was the instrument of choice when I played with the Subs, Iggy Pop and Cheap ‘n’ Nasty. But in recent years I’ve switch to the Fender Jazz bass, which I now find easier to get a good sound from and is more practical as a touring instrument, the Jazz being a lot more robust than the Gibson basses.
Do you go back and listen your own records?
I never listen to my back catalogue. I’m only interested in present and future recording projects.
Give me a snapshot of the making of albums Diminished Responsibility and Endangered Species
I cannot reduce the making of those two albums to a mere snapshot, sorry. They were both important records for me, but I believe Diminished Responsibility could have been so much better if we had gone for Guy Stevens (producer of the Clash’s London Calling LP) as producer rather the record company’s choice, Mike Leander. As for Endangered Species, I believe it’s a classic and it is still to this day Charlie Harper’s, Nicky Garratt’s, and my own favorite UK Subs album.
Did you enjoy punk rock era and what are your memories of that time?
I enjoyed it enormously, though to be a Punk rocker in those early years of 1976 and 1977 was a dangerous proposition. Everybody seemed to hate and want to physically harm us and you had to watch your back constantly when out and about and away from the Punk rock community. My abiding memories of that early period were seeing the Ramones play in my home town of Croydon in 1977, which was a life altering experience, and getting down to the Roxy Club to see the Clash and Generation X, during that same glorious year.
What is punk?
It’s a word that people offer many different interpretations for. There is no definitive answer, it’s what you believe it to be – which in my case is a genre of music that deconstructs past rock music and reinterprets it for the present, in conjunction with an attitude that distains the mundane aspects of life and seeks an alternative way of thinking and living. What it certainly is not is dressing up in clichés and the belief that if you have a Mohawk hairdo that makes you an authentic Punk rocker.
What do you think about punk violent audiences?
I have to report that even though there was a lot of violence at Punk gig s back in the 1980s it is now something that is a very rare occurrence indeed and that pretty much every show the UK Subs play is a joyous occasion free from physical confrontations.
Do you believe music has a responsibility to address social and political issues?
I don’t think it’s a responsibility rather than something that individual songwriters may or may not want to comment on in their lyrical ideas. I’ve certainly done so, but I don’t condemn any other musician who has no interest in making political or social commentary and who would sooner focus on writing more confessional and personal songs instead.
UK Subs: What went wrong/what went right?
That would require a book to answer! Read my memoirs on the uksubstimeandmatter.net website and you may get some answers there.
How the musical combination work between Charlie and you?
It’s very good. Charlie and I both essentially like the same music and have the same approaches to songwriting so it’s easy for us to co-write together and to appreciate and contribute to each other’s individual song offerings.
What are the essential UK Subs songs?
Warhead of course, Endangered Species, CID, You Don’t Belong, Down on the Farm… hell, I could be writing all day in order to answer to that question!
Can you recall the sentiment behind writing and recording Down on the Farm? Were you expecting to be such a classic song?
Yes, we were recording Endangered Species in a residential studio in the middle of the countryside. I’d written the music and Charlie heard me playing around with it and said he could write some words if I wanted him to. Of course, I said ‘please do’ and he came up with the lyrics which were based on his frustration at being away from the clubs and bars we both regularly frequented in the West End of London rather than the farms and sheep and cows that surrounded our studio. I think the Guns ‘n’ Roses recorded version is great, but I especially like their live version from their Farm Aid performance in the early 1990s, which can be found on YouTube.
What is the legacy of the UK Subs?
That’s up to others to decide, I couldn’t possibly comment.
In terms of politics, music and technology: What do you make of 21st century so far?
A mixed bag, some aspects of 21st century reality are good, others pretty frightening, especially in the political sphere. Brexit, Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Kim Jong-Un, Le Pen, such self-serving and divisive UK politicians such as Boris Johnson, Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage and the general swing to the far right and far left all scare the hell out of me.
Do you have any regrets?
Yes, far too many to list here.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a man who knew the difference between a fine Bordeaux wine and an indifferent one.