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The First Punjabi Punk

October 14, 2018
by Suresh Singh

Spitalfields Life Books is publishing A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh next week and here is the sixth instalment.

In this first London Sikh biography, Suresh tells the story of his family who have lived in their house in Princelet St for nearly seventy years, longer I believe than any other family in Spitalfields. In the book, chapters of biography are alternated with a series of Sikh recipes by Jagir Kaur, Suresh’s wife.

You can support publication by ordering a copy now, which will be signed by Suresh Singh.

Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St this summer (Photograph by Patricia Niven)

Suresh (in the hat) with punk friends in Spitalfields, 1977

Encouraged by my Trotskyite, Leninist, Marxist and Maoist teachers at the City & East London College – and even Eddy Stride, Rector of Christ Church whose thinking was out on a limb – I became rebellious. I questioned everything and could no longer accept things as they were. I preferred to wear clothes from jumble sales and I looked different from other people. Dad appreciated that too. We both had swag. He was more of a snappy dresser and I was more of a punk.

He never minded when I got my ears pierced, and Mum heated up the needle so I could pierce my nose, a very do-it-yourself job. Dad understood my actions as being like the yogis who wore dreadlocks and painted their bodies with mud.

He preferred that I discovered my own expressions of identity instead of asking him, ‘Dad, can I buy a flash car?’ or even, ‘Can you give me the money for a pair of Nike trainers?’ He would rather I find a pair of old football boots, take the studs off the soles, shave them and make them into a nice pair of shoes by painting a Union Jack or something on them. He liked the sense of surprise and was curious to see what I would come up with. It was so exciting to me at fifteen years old. the courage to put two fingers up to the skinheads and say, ‘You try it now!’

I was an outsider. I was not inside the white community, I was not inside the Bengali community and I was not inside the Sikh community either, because Dad did not want me to be a stereotypical Sikh. So instead I chose the freedom of an anarchic existence.

I remember seeing a skinhead band, Screwdriver, in the student union at the Polytechnic in Whitechapel. The audience were entirely skinheads and I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to die,’ because I was the only Asian there. But I am still here. At the Marquee in Soho, I went to see Generation X and Boomtown Rats. At the Acklam Hall in Portobello, I saw The Fall. All for fifty pence. Through word of mouth, I was able to catch Blues Dub sound systems nights in big basements in Notting Hill. These were exciting times.

In retrospect, I think it was less about rebellion and more about creativity. This explosion of musical culture in London came at the right time for me, just as I left school. The Rastafarians believed the world would end in 1977. Apparently Haile Selassie said that ‘When seven sevens clash, that is the year of reckoning.’

I started listening to the Sex Pistols, though I preferred the early days of Siouxsie & the Banshees before they were signed up. No-one would sign them at first because they did not know how to play their instruments and Siouxsie did not know how to sing, she just wailed like a banshee.

I was a good drummer, even though I had never learned how to play. I just picked up a pair of sticks because I used to play the flute at school and got bored with it. I used to play Dad’s Indian dholki (hand drum) quite a bit at home, so I knew I could do it. I got a drum kit that I bought out of the back of Melody Maker for twenty-five quid. It was a good kit made by Rogers. I practised at home in the back room in Princelet St. A lot of the time I rehearsed using just my drum sticks and telephone directories. I put the directories in place of the snare drum to practice without making noise, allowing me to strengthen my arm and wrist action.

I did not know Spizzenergi at all, although I heard through the grapevine that they were looking for a drummer. Spizz, the frontman, was a nice posh white kid from Solihull. He was living in Portobello Rd, where a lot of people were playing and rehearsing music in the squats. I used to cycle over. I found a bike in an abandoned Anderson shelter in Parfett St which meant I could travel all over London. I made new friends at City & East London College, including Mark Fineberg who lived in Belsize Park, so my social life expanded beyond the East End.

Spizz knocked on my door in Princelet St one day. I looked out of the window at the top of the house. He shouted, ‘Look, I’ve got a van here. Get your drums in the back, we’re going on tour with Siouxsie & the Banshees.’ I said, ‘Who?’ and he yelled, ‘Do you want to go on tour with us?’ So I asked, ‘Can I go, Dad? I’ve got a drum kit,’ and he said, ‘You’ve got a drum kit, so you can go.’

In true do-it-yourself spirit we put our records in plastic sleeves and and delivered them ourselves to Rough Trade in Portobello. I loved doing our John Peel session in November 1979 and seeing in 1980 at Au Plan K in Brussels. When we put out ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’ it became a huge hit and the members of the band thought they were going to become pop stars. They wanted the sound to become more con- trolled and less spontaneous. I did not want us to end up sounding like a bunch of session players. I was Hero Shema, the drummer who never played in an orchestrated fashion. ‘Bollocks to this,’ I thought, ‘I’m shipping out.’ Dad always said, ‘If your ego overrides you, you’ve had it.’ I could see the egos expanding. I recognised the band were losing their edge. Dad said, ‘When that happens, just ship out.’ It was time to be in the world and not of it.

As an adolescent I loved the idea of not conforming – not being different just for the sake of it but to avoid becoming part of the status quo. By questioning, I learned different ways of doing things and different ways of thinking. It taught me to consider the value of things and resist becoming set in my ideas. At that time, black culture was becoming more accepted in this country and, through sharing music, people learned to respect other cultures. Most important for me was that I was not rebelling against my parents, which was quite different from my mates’ situations. They would tell me, ‘My dad hates me being a punk, I can’t even get out the house without my old man going “Who are the Boomtown Rats? And what are those trousers you’re wearing?”’

My parents’ acceptance of punk made me feel that it was of value and gave me more confidence in my own anarchic understanding of what was valuable in life. Dad was the same. He was holding two fingers up to the gurdwaras and the Sikhs, because he had his own way of living and being a Sikh. If your parents love and support you, you do not need to rebel against them because you know that they value you as an individual in your own right. Dad did not want to create another Joginder Singh, he wanted me to find my own identity as Suresh without losing my Sikhism.

Sometimes Sikhs would come round to our house and ask, ‘Why do you let your son pierce his nose?’ and Dad would say, ‘Well, he isn’t doing you any harm is he? Has he said anything to you? No? Well, let it be.’ Their sons would come round dressed up, wearing badly-fitted suits, they just looked terrible. Dad loved it and got off on winding people up – I actually think that was what gave him the edge.

Suresh plays drums for Spizzenergi at Lewisham Odeon 31st October 1979 (Photograph copyright © Philippe Carly)


The cover of Where’s Captain Kirk? reproduced courtesy of Spizz

Suresh’s cat Scratti named after Scritti Pollitti

Suresh Singh will be in conversation with Stefan Dickers at the Write Idea Festival at the Whitechapel Idea Store on Saturday November 17th at 1pm. CLICK HERE TO BOOK A FREE TICKET

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Click here to order a signed copy of A MODEST LIVING for £20

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Lynne Newman permalink
    October 14, 2018

    I was 15 in 1977 and this excerpt from your book evokes so many of my memories of that time and the music . Thank you.

  2. Steve permalink
    October 14, 2018

    I’ve been reading the snippets from the book over the past couple of weeks and suddenly I discover Suresh is the drummer on one of my favourites – (Captain Kirk) – brilliant absolutely brilliant. I may be jumping ahead – but did Suresh go to the big Rock against Racism gig in Victoria Park? Brilliant day – although a bit hairy going pass the NF outside the Blade and Bone in Bethnal Green Road

  3. October 14, 2018

    What great parents to have. I remember those times too and the spirit of rebellion.

  4. James Williams permalink
    October 14, 2018

    I thought I’d just mention that SARM studios used to be down the bottom of Brick Lane, well Osborn Street. Here’s an article about:

    ‘The studio has an illustrious history and was the studio where Queens ‘Bohemian Rhapsody ‘ was recorded. Legendary producer Trevor Horn later owned the studio. The design of the studio and live room has changed little over the years as it was and still is well designed and the live room has a great sound. There are few studios that can boast a client list that include Queen, Bob Marley, Yes, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, INXS, Elton John, Frankie goes to Hollywood, Marillion, The Clash, Stereophonics, Bjork, Buggles. The bell of the studio constantly rings with people wanting to see this famous studio, unsurprisingly enough, mostly by fans of ‘The Clash’ and of course ‘Queen’.’

    http://thelondonrecordingstudios.com/images/stories/fruit/lrs.pdf

  5. James Williams permalink
    October 14, 2018

    Wow! Just checked on Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarm_East_Studios

    Did you know about this Suresh? Enjoyed your article very much, thanks.

  6. October 14, 2018

    Suresh has a great attitude. I hope his book does well. He has a fantastic family, too. Valerie

  7. Mark permalink
    October 14, 2018

    I am the proud ‘owner’ of that very single although the sleeve perished in a squat in Cambridgeshire in the mid 80′s due to inevitable damp. That’s a cracking article that takes me back to the halcyon days when to be left wing and an individual dresser was almost mainstream. Top man. Great days!

  8. October 14, 2018

    Saw Spizz Oil at Essex Uni with the Banshees and Human League. Were you on that tour? In my head it was 1978 but I’m getting a bit forgetfull now.

  9. October 14, 2018

    That time in the 1970s was great. I thought I could change the world by listening to the ‘right’ music and swapping my flares for drain pipes. Rock Against Racism seemed such an important statement. Yes, they were good days and though it might seem, with the growth of the far right in Europe and the gung ho attitude of President Trump in the USA, that we were dancing in the wind, but we were inspired by radicals before us and sewed some good seeds of our own.

    Reading this, I was reminded of a TV show from the early 80s, a wee but later on, called King of the Ghetto set around Brick Lane. I know there have been references to the people who inspired this drama in Spitalfields Life in the past and am left wondering if Suresh and dad were linked with events that inspired that drama. I’ll have to read the book now.

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