When I got through to Kirk Brandon, there was an uneasy silence at the other end of the line, his approach similar to mine – if you don’t know a number, let the caller do the hard graft and explain themselves first.
What’s more, who can blame him for any reticence to put his head above the parapet bearing in mind past interest from the media circus?
After I introduce myself, he tells me, “I thought it was another, ‘Have you been in an accident recently?’”
Indeed. Or in Kirk’s case, perhaps ‘Are you a Dead Man Walking?’ judging by his occasional live work with Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns and The Ruts’ Segs Jennings and Dave Ruffy.
Westminster-born Kirk is now 62 but still going strong on the live scene, despite a few health problems over the years. He was at home in Brighton when I called, where I saw in recent years extra-curricular activities included tutoring at a music college. Has the South Coast been home for quite some time?
“Yeah, I went back to London for a couple of years then sort of got fed up with it really. I’m originally from London, but it‘s all just so corporate – everyone chasing the pound, shilling and pence. As my Dad put it, ‘All the rats are chasing the cheese, son, but there isn’t any more cheese and they’re just chasing each other.’ I thought that was a great way of putting it – the old cockney looney!”
Kirk reckons his family go back in Westminster ‘for around 140 years’, although he left the capital for Devon when he was around 10, going to school there.
“I’m really glad he took us out of London. That was basically for one reason – my sister’s poor health. She had bronchitis and pneumonia and living in London was pretty grim, and he wanted seaside air and all that.”
But while home became Churston in Torbay, eventually the big city called him back at 16.
“Well, unless you want to carry on working the Hobart washing machine for the rest of your life, or wash khazis …
“To be totally honest, I don’t really understand why I ended up in Brighton. I’ve lived in Philadelphia, I’ve lived in Copenhagen, in Hastings and all over London, in Lewes, and now back to Brighton. I do like visiting London though – the art galleries, seeing bands play, and seeing Chelsea play when I can get a ticket. But I wouldn’t want to live there 24/7. It’s just too much.
“I’d rather live in Huntingdon Beach, out on the (US) West Coast, somewhere warm. I’m gonna be a complete old duffer and say it, ‘When you get older, the arthritis starts.’ Ha!”
Or earlier in Kirk’s case, having in 1987 – aged barely 30 – developed reactive arthritis, in the form of Reitter Syndrome, a condition where the joints swell and fill with liquid, causing severe pain. He was unable to walk for more than a year. But he battled back, as he did after heart surgery in later years.
And now he’s going back to his musical roots, reforming The Pack, founded with school friend John Fuller and Scottish drummer Rab Fae Beith (later with UK Subs) as The Pack of Lies, their first songs taking shape in John’s uncle’s house in Stanmore.
The Pack itself formed in 1978 in Clapham, South London on the punk anarchist scene, at a time when Maggie Thatcher was a major polarising figure as Prime Minister.
Remembering those days, he wrote, “Looking back, the lyrics to the songs were simplistic, aggressive, confused, funny and silly – much like myself at the time. Life consisted at the time of trying to survive on the streets and squats of the south London – the whole period was funny, violent, grim and all at the same time, the band mirrored its surroundings – so no excuses made.
“The band’s first gig, now consisting of myself, Canadian brothers John and Simon Werner and Rab, was as much a shock to the band as to startled filmgoers. I remember they showed Marlon Brandon in The Wild One before we went on, so we were all juiced up for some kind of riot!
“What actually happened was about 150 people with thousand-yard stares stood stock-still, stunned at the power at the noise of the band – we were fucking angry!
“A lot of the shows we played ended up in mini-riots and many venues were trashed. One night we played Deptford, South London at The Crypt, and I recall thinking, ‘Great, everybody’s dancing!’ Only when we had finished our set everybody was still dancing – in fact they were all trying to kill each other. We left the stage as The Crypt was being deconstructed.
“All band members, myself included, I would describe as a fairly unhinged bunch, and what passed for normal amongst the band and its constant crowd of friends and supporters, did not tie in necessarily with the outside world as a whole.
“This is a period that only now filmmakers are beginning to see the significance of. With all the violence and drugs, and with one member of the band becoming religious in the end it had to implode sooner or later.
“The music industry would not touch The Pack with a barge pole, apart from ‘King of Kings’, our Rough Trade single. For the band it was a lifestyle, the idea of making money out of it was just too far-fetched and in our own strange way seemed dishonest, preferring instead penury bolstered by dole cheques.
“The last gig took place at the 101 Club in Clapham. Ironically it was completely sold out by the time the band went on stage. However, by this time success was not an option the band was willing to take.
“Along the way we lost a few friends and a lot of idealism, but for a lot of us the memory still lives on.”
So why get the band back together again now, Kirk?
“Very good question! The actual answer is tinged with a bit of sadness. I was living in Hastings when a friend told me someone who played guitar for me wanted to meet up and have a drink, a fella called Simon. I said, ‘Simon who?’ It eventually clicked it was Simon Werner. He wanted to talk over old times.
“Simon and John were born over here. Their parents emigrated to Canada with them, but they later came back. Anyway, we decided to meet but I got a call at the end of the week to tell me Simon had died in an accident (late November 2010).
“But later his brother, John the bass player, got in touch, we corresponded, and he later told me he was flying over and wanted to meet.
“We met at Foyles in Charing Cross Road, of all places, and spent hours talking about this and that. John really wanted to get the band back together again. But it would be without the drummers we had – one (Jimmy Walker) is I understand a recluse, and the other (Rab Fae Beith) … I don’t know where he is.
“John was really keen to ‘square the circle’, as he put it. A lot of bad things happened back then, and a lot of people died around the band. It was a really violent time. It wasn’t the music, it was just that South London punk rock squat scene – very politicised, very angry, with lots of people on the dole.
“But John wanted to play the music, which was what it was all about in the first place. I’ve always been busy with other projects, and I wasn’t sure as it stirred up so many emotions. Did I really want to put myself through that again? It wasn’t that much fun in the first place.
“Some of the music was quite brilliant and John was always keen to do it. Then, some months ago he said, ‘Look, I’m a few years older than you. If not now, when?’ And the way he said it hit me, so that’s what we’ve done. We’re gonna do these four shows and square the circle for John, and poor old Simon, who left behind a daughter, I think in her early teens.
“And some of the songs really stand up. ‘Brave New Soldiers’ is one of the best songs I’ve ever written. It’s up there with ‘Westworld’, ‘Propaganda’ and ‘Never Take Me Alive’.”
Did that spell in The Pack signify the first time you gained the confidence to believe you were a bona fide songwriter?
Rough Trade released ‘King of Kings’ on single, while the SS Label put out a four-track Kirk Brandon and The Pack of Lies EP in 1980, but that was more or less it, studio-wise, first time. it wasn’t meant to be, I’m guessing.
“It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of great music in there, and we could have used the help. Liam Sternberg, who also produced the Bangles and lots of other stuff, came in, did two of those songs and offered us some guidance. He was fantastic, the kind of person you need. If we’d had someone like him to back us and put out a record it would have been one of those benchmark albums.”
I’m guessing though that experience at least inspired you to press on and come back with Theatre of Hate.
“Erm … yeah … although it was a real chequered life.”
So equally it could have put you off doing anything else?
“Yeah, one of the roadies died, and it all got too much. The whole thing was crazy.”
You needed a rethink at that time, then?
“Absolutely, and straight after I had a year on Ladbroke Grove, on my own, and really enjoyed myself, doing what I wanted to do, going to Electric Cinema all-nighters, watching film noir and Robert De Niro seasons. I saw Taxi Driver 27 times! Ha! I kept going back to see it. And Mean Streets and all those Robert Mitchum B-movies and gangster films – Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney … I loved all that.”
That cinematic approach ultimately showed in his next two projects.
“Yes, that’s often quoted.”
Kirk formed post-punk outfit Theatre of Hate in 1980, with Stan Stammers on bass, Nigel Preston on drums, Billy Duffy on guitar (before he joined Ian Astbury in Southern Death Cult, later becoming Death Cult, then The Cult) and John ‘Boy’ Lennard on saxophone. The Clash’s Mick Jones produced their debut album Westworld, the single ‘Do You Believe in the Westworld?’ a minor UK hit (No.40) in early 1982, while the LP reached No.17.
But by the following year, it was all over, Kirk and Stan reconvening with Lascelle James (saxophone) and Chris Bell (drums) to form Spear of Destiny, showcasing a more melodic, less aggressive sound, moving further towards mainstream pop. Their 1985 album World Service, the third, reached No.11 in the UK, while follow-up Outland reached No.16, the latter – from 1987 – ending with ‘Never Take Me Alive’, which made it to No.14.
I reminded myself of those hit singles via the BBC’s Top of the Pops archives this week, Kirk with trademark teased punk peroxide blond hair in Theatre of Hate’s ‘Westworld’ appearance in ’82 (that episode also marking John Peel’s first TOTP appearance since 1968). A real rockabilly romp that still exerts power all these years on, the added sax takes it to a whole new level. And then the 1987 appearance with ‘Never Take Me Alive’ by a five-piece Spear of Destiny, Kirk having traded in capped sleeves for rolled-up canvas white shirt by then, the mohawk long gone, his blond tresses now in something of a wedge, the sax replaced by keyboards, but – his Gretsch in evidence – again with a powerful number, this time more of a slow-burner.
They swelled to a six-piece before slimming down to four again, yet their reputation as a live act never truly translated into sales beyond ‘Never Take Me Alive’, a series of unlucky turns following, from Kirk’s arthritic condition to a high-profile court case, bankruptcy and divorce.
Yet he finally clawed his way back and by 2004 was out as a solo artist supporting The Alarm, touring their In the Poppy Fields album, playing electric and acoustic selections, showcasing old and new.
Then came his first spell with punk supergroup Dead Man Walking, Kirk returning to the road with Spear of Destiny in 2007. And he continues to tour with them, Theatre of Hate, and a revamped Dead Men Walking, as well as putting on acoustic shows, including those with cellist Sam Sansbury.
He’s come a long way from those rowdy beginnings. Or has he? You can be the judge, checking out The Pack’s ‘Dead Ronin’ collection, originally released in 2001 and later this month available on limited-edition coloured vinyl via Newcastle indie label Overground Records. And you can also catch those live dates.
Bearing in mind the inevitable line-up change, I mentioned to Kirk how there have been a lot of personnel swaps over the years in his various outfits. But I guess he’s made some good friends over the years.
“Absolutely, and the guys in Spear – Craig Adams, Adrian Portas and Steve Allan Jones – they’ve been with me for more than 20 years, although the drummer’s only been with us four or five years. But until we got those three it was a floating line-up, and we always say it’s volunteer basis only. If you don’t wanna do it, don’t do it. And we’ve got a bunch of guys who just like the music. It’s really cool to have that. It’s not guns for hire and ‘how much are we getting paid?’”
Remind me about your part in Dead Man Walking, with roles in the past for the afore-mentioned Billy Duffy, The Alarm’s Mike Peters, The Clash’s Mick Jones, Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer and Slim Jim Phantom, The Damned’s Captain Sensible, Simple Minds’ Derek Forbes, Motorhead’s Lemmy, The Selecter’s Pauline Black, Sex Pistols and Rich Kids’ Glen Matlock, Big Country and Skids’ Bruce Watson, and Pete Wylie. Clearly another band with a revolving door recruitment policy.
“Yeah, and that was always going to be the case. It wasn’t going to be a fixed line-up. But the guys who are currently involved are Segs and Dave from The Ruts, and Jake Burns from Stiff Little Fingers. Jake can certainly talk, and people love his stories, and we have such a laugh. You get out of the van at the end and don’t even realise you’ve been on tour. It’s fun all the time. A great bunch of blokes. And we will try and do something soon. For definite. I spoke to Jake recently about that. I said, ‘We can’t let it drift – it was such fun!’
“Erm, I haven’t seen Mick in a few years now, and he’s got his own thing with the Rotten Hill Mob. He’s brilliant though, and such a nice bloke. A brilliant guy.”
Were The Clash a big influence on you?
“Yeah, they took us out on tour and Mick produced all the Theatre of Hate singles and the Westworld album.”
He was a big Mott the Hoople fan and The Clash followed their lead in that way – as The Jam did – breaking down barriers between band and fans. Is that something you aspired to?
“Yeah, I don’t think anyone should be too high and mighty just because they play an instrument. I believe that music is a great leveller, and a great communication device. No matter who you are, you get it, even if you don’t like it.”
So what was the main catalyst for you in forming The Pack and predecessors The Pack of Lies?
“I heard ‘Anarchy in the UK’ on a 7” single and that changed everything. I don’t want to be too much of a smartarse, but I was there with a group of mates when we heard it in a record shop, and I said, ‘That’s it. That is it. I don’t know what it is, but that is it!’ They weren’t sure, but I was. I just knew it, that everything changes. I saw The Clash not long after that. I saw the Stranglers, the Ramones, whatever. I saw loads of other bands.”
And you never looked back (until now, maybe)?
“No. It changed lives, didn’t it. Music changed lives. And these people wouldn’t have been what they were without the music. It changed people’s mental outlooks. It was a revolution.”
And now you’re in your early 60s. If you’d had a regular nine-to-five job, you’d be retired by now, wouldn’t you?
What do you think you’d be doing now?
“Ha! I don’t know. A bit of stamp collecting, maybe. A bit of train spotting. Something nice and gentle.”
Instead, you chose punk rock.
“What a silly bastard! I could have had a nice little pension, talking about flowers with the wife. ‘The geraniums are coming up nice, love’. Instead, I’m playing some fucking dive in God knows where.”
I asked Kirk a bit more about home life, but he’s – perhaps understandably – quiet on all that, although he did mention how his daughter was at university in Copenhagen, with no intention of following his career path, something that tickled him. I should add that he’s immensely proud of her.
There have been health issues in recent years for Kirk, and not just the afore-mentioned arthritis.
“I had a (heart) valve replaced in 2009 and again in 2011. I’ve had heart attacks and a couple of mini-strokes, TIAs, and endocarditis … which isn’t much fun – the reason I had the valve replaced the second time. Apart from that, I’m fine!”
Does that inspire you to make the most of what you’ve got now – live for the day?
“I don’t know if you’ve ever had that kind of life-threatening situation, where family are gathered around you, and the nurse says, ‘If there’s anything you’d like to say to him, now would be a good time.’ All my family had that – brother, sister, ex-wife, whatever.
“When you come back from that, you see the world differently. Everything changes. You see your time lifeline, and see you’ve had 60/70 per cent of it already, and it impresses upon you how short life is. Everyone’s under the impression it goes on and on, but it doesn’t, and when people start dying of natural causes, strokes, heart attacks and cancer, your take on life changes.
“The rehab nurse said, and she’s absolutely right, ‘When you leave here, you find out what really matters to you, because that’s all you have left.” And I should spend more time with my sister, fly over to see her, and will sometime this year.
“Also, your immediate family – the people you really care about – have had their take on life change too. They now realise that, hang on a moment, this silly bastard could die, and we’re not going to see much more of him. Their take on your life with them also comes sharply into focus.
“It works both ways, not just for the person lying in the bed. And I really hope it’s taught me to be a little bit kinder to people. And a bit more appreciative of other people’s situation in life. I’m not a rich man, but I’m not lying there in minus two degrees on the streets of Brighton with snot all over my face, freezing. This is not funny.
“Can’t we possibly care enough for these people? And the amount of money that goes through the City of London every single day … you could build homes for the whole of Sussex if you wanted to. So why can’t we levy another tax on these corporations?”
And now we have a situation where those with money who helped bring about the Brexit farce are those who reinvested and did well from the financial woes that followed (he says, lighting the touch paper, seeing us off with a proper Kirk Brandon rant).
“Yes, all these money brokers, the moment they saw what was happening, bet on the pound going down. They bought currencies and they bought commodities and got out of the pound, and as they did it slid even further, so there’s no confidence in the pound. They just got the fuck out.”
The Pack, with special guests Desperate Measures, are out and about next week at Portsmouth Dockyard Club (Thursday, January 24), Bristol The Exchange (Friday, January 25), a sold-out Manchester Star & Garter (Saturday, January 26), and London Underworld (Sunday, January 27).
Then, ‘if Donald will allow us’, Spear of Destiny will visit North America, starting at The Red Party, New York on February 9, with four more US dates before a March 3 show at Astoria Hastings, Vancouver, Canada, then a date at Dreadnought Rock, Bathgate, Scotland on May 2, with more transatlantic dates lined up later in the year. There’s also Kirk’s Westworld Weekend XVII on May 10/11 at the Royal Hotel, Crewe, Cheshire. For more details about all those dates and The Pack’s Dead Ronin LP, head to www.kirkbrandon.com or Kirk’s Facebook page.
With special thanks to good friend of this website Warren Meadows for access to his splendid Kirk Brandon live photograph archives.