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The Punjabi Punk

January 6, 2021
by the gentle author

To give you a chance to stock up for the new lockdown, we are extending our January sale. All titles in the online shop are half price with the discount code JANUARY until midnight on Sunday.

Click here to visit the Spitalfields Life Bookshop

A MODEST LIVING, Memoirs of a Cockney Sikh by Suresh Singh is included in the sale. In this first London Sikh biography, Suresh tells the story of his family who 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 Sikh recipes by Jagir Kaur, Suresh’s wife.

Suresh Singh & Jagir Kaur at 38 Princelet St (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. It gave me 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


Click here to order a copy of A MODEST LIVING for half price

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Gregory permalink
    January 6, 2021

    Love these photos and love these memoirs – I am from the same generation and the same cultural-musical influences as Suresh: art, punk rock, dub wise, cultural expression. It’s so nice to see these good people, righteous people, artistic, adventurous, people of good spirit – I loved these days, listening to everything from Ali Akbar Khan and Hari Prasad Chaurasia to Jah Shaka Sound and King Tubby’s to JB’s funk, The Pistols and Fela Kuti.

    As soon as ‘punk orthodoxy’ came in — it was all over : the point was, to use that original punk energy to do something different, not to reproduce the same old thing.

    And ‘Where’s Captain Kirk’ was a fine record – it’s nice to know who played the drums!

    Excellent post. My only minor query is the date on the first picture – that doesn’t look like 1977 – the DIY mohair and leather jackets pic – just a hunch, just intuition – but isn’t that 1979 or 1980? It doesn’t look like 77 to me.

  2. Pamela Traves permalink
    January 6, 2021

    I would Love to read this Book. I need to read this. Thank You So Very Much????????.

  3. Richard Smith permalink
    January 6, 2021

    I enjoyed today’s blog GA. I liked the confidence of Suresh and his family. I liked the love that obviously existed between them. I liked Scratti the Cat! Thank you.

  4. Kate permalink
    January 6, 2021

    “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”

    Love these words so much. I wish I had experienced this parenting, but I try to for my own children

  5. Mark permalink
    January 6, 2021

    Re Gregory.
    Isn’t that a two tone suit on the left?
    That would place the pic at around 79/80, alongside the
    Mod revival.
    Proud owner of Where’s Captain Kirk,as previously boasted!

  6. Cherub permalink
    January 6, 2021

    I’m another from the same generation and enjoyed reading this very much. I suppose I was what was referred to at the time as a “plastic punk”. If you did an office job like me during the day then you had to be sensibly dressed, but in the evenings we went mad with our outlandish looks. I remember spending a small fortune on knitting big mohair jumpers, the hairier the better, and being asked to knit them for friends. When we left school in 1977 a friend became an apprentice hairdresser; she used to pinch Crazy Colour from the shop she worked in so we could colour our hair in outlandish shades for the weekends.

    Happy days, I’m 60 in the spring but feel 16 again after reading this 🙂

  7. February 16, 2021

    Nice to read your article Suresh. They were fun days. Its good to be part of change in a positive way and I hope the younger generation take a leaf from your book.

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