While Pauline Murray is now four decades down her chosen career path, it’s worth noting that the first incarnation of the band she co-founded as a teenager, County Durham’s pioneering punk outfit Penetration, was rather short-lived. It was certainly a happening time though.
“It probably lasted about three years in duration. We got together probably as 18-year-olds, and our drummer was 16, at the end of ’76. I’d already seen the Sex Pistols and various punk bands that year.
“We started off doing cover versions. We weren’t doing gigs. It was early ‘77 when we sort of established the four-piece line-up – Gary Chaplin (guitar), me, Rob (Robert Blamire, Pauline’s partner) and Gary Smallman (drums). Everything was so intense and fast, so full on, though, that I think we crammed a lifetime’s worth into three years. We did a lot.”
In my recent interview with The Sweet’s Andy Scott, he stressed something similar about the glam-rock movement, how that initial scene was also fairly short-lived.
“Well, punk wasn’t meant to last, by its very nature and what it stood for. It was very nihilistic, against everything. It was more about what we didn’t like, but that was a very necessary way to go about it.”
My excuse for talking to Pauline is her latest visit to the Continental in Preston, Lancashire, on February 1st, barely 14 months after her band dropped in as part of their 40th anniversary tour. And there’s clearly still a lot of love for Penetration out there (so to speak).
Their debut single, ‘Don’t Dictate’, is now acknowledged as a classic punk single, while first LP Moving Targets also proved to have enduring appeal. A second album followed in late 1979, Coming Up For Air, but it would be another 36 years before the next long player, 2015’s acclaimed Resolution.
As it was, Gary Chaplin left in early 1978, replaced by Neale Floyd, second guitarist Fred Purser joining that summer. And it was all over by late 1979, a disappointing response to that second album not helping. But they reformed in 2001, Pauline and Rob rejoined by Gary Smallman, with guitarists Steve Wallace and Paul Harvey drafted in.
The catalyst for change for Pauline and her bandmates in punk terms was seeing the Sex Pistols play in nearby North Yorkshire market town Northallerton, of all places, soon identified as the ‘Durham contingent’ on the punk scene, perhaps the North East’s answer to Siouxsie Sioux and the Bromley set in the eyes of the music press. But that movement didn’t just start in 1976, as far as Pauline is concerned.
“I think you’ve got to trace it back further, and for me probably to the early ‘70s, when I was a young person into David Bowie and T-Rex. I was massively into Bowie, as a lot of the early punks were. Because he was different I think it wheedled out all the people who were a little bit different at the time.
“We were into Bowie, Roxy Music and Sparks, and the New York Dolls a little later. And I think all those who sort of instigated punk came from that sort of time.
“Everything was short-lived though, even the Bowie thing, and in the mid-‘70s you had Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, and you’d start hearing about New York bands. We were already into the Dolls, but then you’d hear about Television, Blondie, Ramones, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, and all that.”
Was pub rock important in that development for you too, bands like Dr Feelgood taking things back to basics?
“Yes, there was a vacuum really. I went to see loads of bands in the early ‘70s, always at the City Hall (Newcastle), a big seated venue, with the likes of ELP and all of that.
“Then there was a big drop-off of stuff, and I started to see in small venues Eddie and the Hot Rods, the Heavy Metal Kids, people like that. But Dr Feelgood, who people would see as the quintessential pub rock band, were also playing City Hall-like venues, as were early punk bands like The Stranglers.
“People like Eddie and the Hot Rods and Ian Dury were playing bigger venues by then, although you did get the pub rock thing in the fact that they we replaying old nightclubs and the like, so that was directly feeding into it as well.”
You mention The Stranglers, who Penetration supported at the City Hall in only their second gig. Was that a nervy moment?
“We were really young, and full of it, and I personally didn’t have any fear. I don’t think you have. But there weren’t many punk bands up here, and we had strong links with Manchester, Liverpool and London bands. So when people were doing gigs up here we’d quite often get asked to be a support.
“I suppose it would have been really daunting, but you just went on and did it. You had no fear, you had nothing to lose, and what you were doing was totally new. There were people who hated punk, so you really were an underdog, in every sense of the word.”
Penetration also played legendary London punk club The Roxy, and in early April ‘77 were on the same bill as Billy Idol’s band, Generation X there, their debut show in the capital. They also supported The Vibrators and toured with Manchester’s Buzzcocks, a band they remained close to, even recording versions of a couple of their songs.
“Well yes, we were true north. It doesn’t get much more north than where we were coming from. We weren’t even coming from a city, but from a pit village, even more startling in a way.
“But when punk started there were only a few bands. It wasn’t established. It was totally new, and we’d ring and go to Manchester, Sheffield, Hull, and up to Scotland.
“We’d go to Manchester and play the Electric Circus with Buzzcocks. We did a lot of gigs with them in the early days and toured with them several times, and covered Pete Shelley songs.
“I saw them the first time at the Screen on the Green (Islington) in ’76, possibly their first London gig, with Howard Devoto still involved, while The Clash had Keith Levene with them.”
From my own research into the early days of The Clash (subtle plug for this publication), I seem to recall they weren’t happy about their early hours slot there, as engineered by headline act the Sex Pistols and their manger, Malcolm McLaren.
“Well, the gig didn’t start until midnight. It was an all-night thing.”
Was Howard Devoto still with Buzzcocks when you started playing with them?
“By the time we played the Electric Circus, he wasn’t in the band, but he’d still come along. He was an intellectual, the sort of guy wandering around with his man bag with lots of books in it, that sort of character, more of a reader. And the punk thing was part-intellectual and part-arty, but a lot of it was raw energy – animal-type energy – and that kind of energy you needed to break things down.”
You mention the late Pete Shelley, and I got the impression you knew him well. An amazing talent, and I’d suggest he helped redefine the love song, making it more accessible in punk terms.
“He found a different way to write the love song. Love songs have been written again and again and again. Most of pop history is based around the love song. But he had a different take on the love song, more of a realistic take, which was what punk was about – trying to say what was happening for real.
“So ‘Orgasm Addict’ – who’d ever written about that? Or a song about falling in love with the wrong person? The gay side of it. Nothing had been expressed like that in the love song.
“A lot of stuff about punk was expressing all things in a new way, and by being nihilistic you actually get something come out that – putting all the other love songs to one side.
“And I’m sure someone like Pete Shelley was a Bowie fan. You can hear a lot of Bowie inflections in what he sings. But it was a new take on the love song, and teenage love was different to how teenagers expressed love in the ‘50s, ‘60s, or even the ‘70s. It was like, ‘We’ve had enough of all these slushy love songs. Let’s look at what love is really like’. And it’s quite angsty, y’know.”
Your Manchester links didn’t just stop with the Buzzcocks either.
“No, we had connections with The Fall, going to Manchester and doing lots of gigs with them, and we had connections with Warsaw, the band that would become Joy Division.
“We invited them up to Newcastle in 1977, jubilee time. We had a manager at the time who ran a record shop and we put an event on at the Guildhall (New Wave Jubilee Bop) – it was us, The Adverts, local band Harry Hack and the Big G, and Warsaw.
“John Cooper Clarke would also come across. And then there was (producer) Martin Hannett. We stayed at his house while we did the album, using Manchester musicians apart from Rob and I, like John Maher (Buzzcocks) on drums and Steve Hopkins (keyboards). So it was almost like Factory Records … but not.”
John Maher seems to have nipped in and out of your career over the years.
“Yeah, he did the Invisible Girls album, then toured with us. We asked him to do the last Penetration album. He lives on the Isle of Harris – that’s the only problem. We did tour with John, but it proved logistically very difficult – it takes him a full day to get here. Playing places like Manchester, we’d have to fly him to Glasgow and on from there. It became really difficult and we couldn’t rehearse as we wanted to.
“We also did a joint-tour with John Cooper Clarke, alternating the bill each night, using the same band apart from the bass player. So it’s all connected, y’know.”
And you recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, I see.
“Yeah, staying at Martin Hannett’s place. We were talking about this recently, how Rob and I wrote all the songs for that album but then put all our trust in Martin, allowing him to interpret the songs in his way, to do his thing. It wasn’t easy, but it was an unusual album that came out of it.”
After their first two singles, Penetration recorded the first of two sessions for legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel in July ’78. Was Peelie a great help to your cause?
“Yes, he was probably the only DJ that would play any of the punk stuff, but it was such a force to reckon with that I don’t think he could have resisted it. It was going to break down at least one door, with the force of it. Somebody had to do it.
“John was a hippie before that. It wasn’t his natural type of music, but he could see it was a force to be reckoned with and somebody had to let it through the door. He was in the right place to let it all through, and the only place it could have got through was the BBC.”
I think people like my brother’s mates only got to know about Penetration through Peelie playing you in the first place. And his show was such a great way to let people in on the whole scene.
“There were so many people listening for new stuff. It was thrilling to get a Peel session, and I think John Peel was the first to play ‘Don’t Dictate’. That was thrilling when you think about it. We were on the radio!
“We did a couple of Peel sessions, and those sessions were great. When you think of all those fledgling bands given an opportunity to go into a studio and record their songs. It was a great thing to hear new music as it’s done by young people. And it was essential really to get it through.”
Their debut album soon followed that first Peel session, going on to reach No.6 in Sounds and No. 13 in the NME critics’ charts later that year.
In 1979, they toured Europe, the US and Britain, but that gruelling schedule took its toll, and a disappointing reaction to second LP, Coming Up For Air, proved to be the final straw, a split following that October.
However, going along with that initial punk ethic, Pauline soon moved on. In 1980 she collaborated with The Invisible Girls, also including Rob as well as Manchester musicians Vini Reilly, guitarist in The Durutti Column, and the afore-mentioned Steve Hopkins (who later pursued a career in experimental cold atom physics) and John Maher. An album followed, produced by Martin Hannett, together with three singles.
Pauline also went out under the name Pauline Murray and The Storm with Rob – who has also worked as a producer for various groups over the years – plus Tim Johnston and Paul Harvey, the latter now part of the reformed Penetration. There was also Pauline Murray and the Saint. In fact, it’s fair to say my interviewee has rarely stood still in her music career.
“Well, I did leave music for a while, after The Invisible Girls and all that. I was 23 and I’d had enough of it, although I did another solo album, self-financed on my label, Polestar Records.
“Then in 1990 I set up a rehearsal studio in Newcastle, called Polestar Studios. And we still have it. We were in one location for 21 years then moved about seven years ago, where we have rehearsal and recording studios.
“Then last year I recorded another solo album, to come out next year, again done in our own studio. Rob produced it, and we’ve had various people play on it. So yes, it doesn’t stand still.”
Is there another Penetration album in the offing?
“Not yet, but we’re playing the Royal Albert Hall in June. The line-up was set to be Buzzcocks, Skids and Penetration, and although Pete (Shelley) died, it’s still going ahead.
“So we’ve started putting on gigs leading up to that, to get ourselves match fit again. We’re also doing the Rebellion Festival in Blackpool again. While my album’s more or less ready to go, we didn’t want it to tangle up with all that, so it’s probably coming out around August.
“I also do acoustic shows and a lot of the songs were written acoustically, so we’ll do a few of those, and might do something with a band – like The invisible Girls.
“We’ve been working with Steve Hopkins again, and we’ve got Paul Thompson from Roxy Music on drums for some of it. But it’s taken a while, as we had a studio refit in the middle of it all.”
Will you showcase some of the new material at Preston?
“Not the new album, just Penetration songs. Then we’ll probably start writing again as a band, having had a year off in 2018 – only doing one gig.”
I was too young to see the band first time around, but my brother and his mates did, and over time I’ve understood more about your own important part in that whole punk story. And it all resonates.
“It does. You’ll link into it all in a different place from where I linked into it. Punk was a very powerful movement and the early bands were pioneering. We just did it, but when you look back, people hated it, but everything that came after was informed by it.
“The early bands had to find those gigs, whereas for the later ones those gigs were there and all the record labels were there. It showed the way. I mean, Buzzcocks did their Spiral Scratch EP themselves, and it was pioneering in every way. Yeah, that’s why it resonated.”
It was a similar story later across the water with Good Vibrations in Northern Ireland, the Terri Hooley record shop and label that brought us Rudi, The Outcasts and The Undertones, bands having to fold their own record sleeves, and so on.
“Exactly. And that initial energy of people doing it themselves is very powerful. It’s a very powerful statement when you do it yourself.”
So I’m guessing Newcastle-upon-Tyne is your home as well as your office these days.
“We’ve lived here since 1982, so yeah … that’s a long time.”
‘We’ in this case is Pauline and Rob, whose children are now in their 20s, both with musical talent of their own. Did they know much about their parents’ pioneering punk rock past while growing up?
“They knew nothing about it when they were little. We had the rehearsal studios, but weren’t out doing gigs. Our son’s now 25, and our daughter’s coming up to 23. But they didn’t really know anything about it until we reformed in the mid-‘00s.
“We were asked to do a gig on the South coast, a punk festival. We weren’t too keen but the guy supplied a sleeper bus, said he’d bus us down. They came with us, went to the gig and couldn’t believe it. That was the first time they realised their parents did something else.
“But they’re both musical and both had bands. My daughter had an electronic band when she was about 17, her and her boyfriend, Transfigure. They went over to Europe and did loads of gigs, with the synth scene big over there.
“My son moved to London with a band, but then got picked up by a model agency, doing that for around three years – high-end stuff. But he’s very musical and is now working in our studio. He’s so good, really talented on the engineering and digital side.
“We’ve just got to draw more people to the studio now. I did my solo album in there and we’ve released various things so far.”
At this point I butted in and told Pauline that I’d seen Transfigure live, not having realised the link with lead singer, Grace Blamire. It makes perfect sense now, of course. Grace’s stage presence truly shone through on that occasion, when her band were part-way through a tour with Blancmange, playing Darwen’s Library Theatre in late 2017 (with my review here).
“It’s a shame that ended, but she’s now working on her own stuff. And our son had a really nice duo. They didn’t really do many gigs, but recorded everything themselves, also working on a project in London with these Swedish producers, but with no sign of anything coming out. That was a little frustrating and I think that’s why he came back. But he played a lot of instruments on this new album.
“So yes, unfortunately they both have the music bug – because it’s not the best life path, in a way!”
And somehow this year marks the 40th anniversary of debut Penetration album, Moving Targets. How often do you listen back to the old records?
“I don’t, unless I need to for reference purposes. We’ve made a conscious effort this time to put more of the second album into the set though, ahead of that album’s 40th anniversary. With something like (Buzzcocks cover) ‘Nostalgia’, you take shortcuts, but then go back and listen again to see how we did it then.”
“Unfortunately, this time there’s not a lot, because we’re looking to do this Royal Albert Hall show, so we’ve got to find the right set. We were really happy with Resolution, but it’s difficult to integrate it. But at a later date, we’ll bring more of that in.”
And in the meantime, the studios remain the day-job for you and Rob, by the sound of it.
“Yes, that’s the main thing. That’s our living. We bought the building, and we’ve done up properties. We rented the building for 21 years but then bought an old school dinner depot from the council and moved Polestar into there as a big building project.”
Pauline also told me that the band Maximo Park rent some of the building, as does Arctic Monkeys keyboard player John Ashton.
At that stage, I told Pauline how on past trips to see my beloved Woking FC at Gateshead, I’d look back across the Tyne from the International Stadium, my Newcastle-based friend pointing out the Byker Wall, near where her studios are based.
“Well, we’re on the bottom edge of the Byker Wall, surrounded by allotments. It’s amazing, that wall, an amazing piece of ‘60s architecture.”
You were an art student before all this, weren’t you?
“Yes, I left school at 16 and did a foundation course in art and design at Darlington. I left before it finished but still did my A-levels. I just wanted to get a job and get some money by that time.”
Is that where you met Rob?
“No, we went to the same grammar school in Ferryhill, although we didn’t really know each other. He knew Gary Chaplin and joined the band, so it was all connected. And it’s amazing what we achieved.”
The line-up at Preston will see Pauline and Rob joined by Paul Harvey and Steve Wallace, all four involved with 2015’s Resolution album, with Ken Goodinson on drums.
“It’s mostly the line-up we reformed with, although we did change guitarist as Paul – who did a lot of my solo stuff in the ‘80s – left for a while. And it’s a strong line-up.”
Have there been day jobs along the way, between bands, solo projects and bringing up a family?
“Rob’s family had a printing business and he went back and did stuff there for a while, but I didn’t go and get a day job, although I washed dishes for a year in a restaurant.
“But I always wanted to run some rehearsal studios, then found this building. I had no money but took a massive chance, took on the lease then realised what I’d done. That was in 1990.
“I had to make it work, or I was in trouble. So I haven’t really gone back to work for anybody. There’s no money and it’s harder, but you know where you are with things.”
Are you living the dream then?
“Not really. Everything I do is pretty much out of the ordinary. But when I make tea for the customers it’s living my own dream, I suppose.”
Penetration, supported by The Mardigras Bombers (with more details in this December 2018 interview with co-vocalist Bianca Kinane-Ewart) and Vukovar (reviewed on this website in January 2017, linked here), play The Continental, South Meadow Lane, Preston, on Friday, February 1 (8pm), with tickets (£14 advance) from WeGotTickets, Skiddle and SEE Tickets, from the venue’s bar (01772 499425) and Preston indepedent store Action Records (01772 884772).
For more Penetration dates in 2019 and all the latest from the band, try their official website and Facebook and Twitter pages. And for a personal appraisal of Penetration’s career on vinyl (and a tribute to committed Penetration fan Alan Leadbeater), you can also head to friend of this site, Neil Waite’s Toppermost posting on the band from late 2017.