The punk rock firmament glowed brighter on Wearside than most other English conurbations during the 1980s, with Red Alert, Red London and the Toy Dolls all sharing beers, band members and basslines on Oi compilations during its heyday. Sharpened by the experience of growing up amid the closure (or “managed decline”) of its shipyards during the Thatcher era, Red Alert saw themselves as Sunderland’s answer to the deserted Docklands’ Cockney Rejects and released a steady stream of EPs on No Future Records, calling it quits after their standout 1983 album We’ve Got The Power. By 1989 the band had reunited, though line-up changes inevitably followed over the years (bringing in the likes of Lainey from Sunderland punks Leatherface), as did a split LP with The Templars following a New York tour.
Since then there’s been the sad death of mainstay Tony Van Frater (also later of the Rejects) and relocations to Catalonia, but singer Steve ‘Cast Iron’ Smith’s voice and anger remains undiminished as the band prepares to mark 40 years on the road. It’s fair to say that the Wearside Oi acts sometimes vocalised their approach to ‘real life’ by singing about booze, but Andrew Stevens caught up with the Red Alert frontman while he was off the sauce and between frenetic bouts on his Xbox. Here they talk about why Newcastle never spawned any notable punk bands, Sunderland’s Station Skins, aggro in Darlington, Catalan politics and the state of Oi.
To kick off then, what are you up to at the moment mate?
Musically, the same as always: trying to book gigs and writing lyrics. We’re trying to get an album out for May 2019, that will be our 40th anniversary. The lyrics are done and our guitarist, Mick Jones, is working on the tunes as we speak. We’re undecided whether to self-finance it or go with a label, time will tell. We were hoping to do some gigs in Germany before the end of the year but that’s not definite. There’s some gigs booked for next year, some UK gigs which we don’t do many times and as I say, I’m working on getting as many as I can for the 40th celebrations.
Away from music, I’m kinda in semi-retirement now. My wife Cath, me n’ me dog Charlie moved to Badalona, just outside of Barcelona, five years ago but it hasn’t really interfered with the band, just less rehearsal time, which was limited anyway as our drummer, Axel, is German and still living in Kiel. My wife works and I’m a kinda house husband, a cha cha as they call it here, hahaha! It works, we like it here. I first came here with the band in ‘92 and I always said I would end up living here n’ now we do, it’s all good.
How’s the sound working with different musicians? Are you still in touch with the previous line-up, the late Tony [Van Frater] aside of course?
The sound we have now, since 2006 when Tony left, is different. I knew it wouldn’t sound as powerful because very few people get the wall of sound that Tony could but Mick Jones, who replaced Tony, has a unique sound of his own. Still powerful but more of a punk rock feel to it, with Tony we were sounding more n’ more like a rock band, no shame in that but it wasn’t really the direction I wanted us going. With Mick we kinda got our punk sound back and the old songs started to sound like they used to sound, it was refreshing, like starting over again. On bass is Dave Jones, brother of Mick, he’s also extremely talented, he’s a guitarist in his own band.
The brothers have had their own band, Loudmouth, for around 20 years, they’re still going, still a great band and recently released their second album, Easy Tiger, one of the best albums I’ve heard in a very long time. On drums, we’ve got Axel, great drummer but working with different drummers is nothing new to me, we’ve had quite a few. The main thing I like about working with these lads is we’re all really good mates, a big help. So in a nutshell, our sound ain’t a million miles away from what it’s always been, just we got more of a punk rock sound going again.
Through Facebook I have contact with a few previous members, Gaz Stuart n’ Dona from the original line up, and a handful of other lads who came n’ went, we did use quite a few different people for touring in particular, I’m still friends with them all. No bridges were ever burnt, we were never that kinda band, me n’ Tony were always very easy going lads, we both had the same ‘couldn’t give a fuck, where’s me beer’ attitude. I still have that now with the current line-up, I’ve never taken the music thing seriously. Sure, I want us playing well n’ putting great releases out, but it has to be fun – otherwise I wouldn’t continue.
Do you miss Sunderland? How did the city shape the band’s sound/outlook you mention?
In all honesty, I never liked living in Sunderland; this just intensified when the band started travelling the world from 1990 onwards. Every place we played I just saw more good than what was back in Sunderland. Maybe a classic case of thinking the grass is always greener n’ all that, but that was just how I felt. Whenever we’d come home off tour the rest of the lads were always excited to be going home, but I was wishing the tour wouldn’t end. I dreaded getting back home.
Eventually in ’92 we played Barcelona for the first time n’ I was so taken with the place, the people, pretty much everything, that I said ‘one day I’ll live here’. 21 years later, longer than planned, but that’s exactly what I did. Sold the house, packed up n’ went. I have good mates in Barcelona, in particular David Peret, our one-time promoter, and he sorted a flat out n’ everything which made it a smooth move. Never looked back n’ never regretted it for one second. However, I do like going back to Sunderland to see family n’ friends n’ we usually organise a gig when I’m over there, but at this time I wouldn’t want to live back there. But you never know what the future holds.
The city, or town as I still call it, most people my age do, it was always a town to us, always will be, it definitely influenced what we were doing as a band. The ‘77 era was a great time for kids wanting to start bands up in Sunderland. There was many came and went before we got it together, too many to name. Red Alert was already forming before I joined, under different names, PVC was one I remember, hahaha!
Tony and bassist Gaz Stuart had been playing from a very early age, 7 or 8 years old I believe, so by the time I hooked up with them they were quite accomplished, and had been writing their own stuff as kids too. They needed a singer, I went down there, sang ‘Tommy Gun’, and got the job so to speak. Early days we divided our set between covers and our own stuff. Mainly Clash, UK Subs etc. It was when we first heard the Cockney Rejects that our sound began to change. Tony was very heavily influenced by Micky Geggus’ sound, the power etc. and for a while we went down that road. It didn’t affect my lyrics, I always wrote about things going on around me, the band n’ stuff, things going on in the world, on TV, the usual, as most bands do I guess.
The same still applies today which obviously gave me the chance to write stuff about the independence movements here in Catalunya. But yeah, Sunderland was a great place for bands at the time, Thatcher was destroying our town with the closure of the mines and the shipyards, there was plenty to be angry about n’ it came out in our music.
Why do you think there were so many Oi/punk acts clustered in Sunderland? Not only yourselves but Red London, Toy Dolls and the Upstarts just up the road?
One of life’s great mysteries that, mate. Newcastle up the road is twice the size, yet never produced one punk band of note. There was a couple on the periphery but none that had the success of the Sunderland bands, in all honesty, I can’t explain it. It seemed every man and his dog was in a punk band in Sunderland back then, a lot of great bands that didn’t see it through too, countless bands. It was great to be a part of it, no real rivalry, most bands got along just fine though there was animosity towards us when we got the No Future deal. Sad really, as all we ever did was help other bands, still do.
So in a nutshell, I personally can’t explain why there were so many good bands in the town, it’s just how it was. I guess we just didn’t think about why it was happening at the time.
From outside it looked different, for instance, the shared personnel with Red London.
We never really thought about it, we just thought it was the same everywhere else more or less, that’s why Newcastle always puzzled us. We were well aware that it was harder to get success being in Sunderland compared to the London bands, we actually discussed relocating to London but after a trip down there for a recce we changed our minds.
The shared personnel with Red London began way back and continued for years. It kinda became a permanent situation when we decided to take a break in ‘85. Red London had begun to play in France and we’d never played outside the UK at that point, and they took Tony along as a guest guitarist to get up and play a few tunes alongside Kid Stoker. This was instrumental in us rehearsing again in ‘89 and doing a kinda comeback gig in Sunderland in early ‘90.
The stories of the craziness and fun that Red London were having across the channel were too much to resist and we ended up touring Europe together for the next few years. All members of that Red London line up at that time have spent time in Red Alert apart from the singing duties and the roles have been reversed on occasion, I sang for Red London for couple of years back end of the 90s into the 2000s.
How did the split LP with The Templars happen? What do you make of their latest?
We did our first USA gigs in ‘94. The Templars and Oxblood lads sorted our flights out. Due to a mix-up, we couldn’t get there on the date we’d planned to so it meant we couldn’t do as many gigs. Anyway, we did the ones that we could and apart from me losing my voice at the first one the mini-tour went really well.
We were aware that the flights had cost an arm and a leg and the lads were probably cutting it fine with covering the costs, so we offered to go into Carl’s studio and blast a few songs out for release to hopefully recoup some of the travel costs. At the time we didn’t really know what the recordings were gonna be used for, we just did them n’ that was it. It was only later we found out about the split album which was a nice surprise, as it was well put together and we were more than happy with how it turned out.
I have to hang my head in shame and apologise to the lads, but I haven’t heard their most recent release. I tend to stumble across things I’ve missed a while later, I’m not as on the ball as I once was but I’ll hear it eventually.
What did you make of Tony joining the Rejects?
Tony was obsessed with the Rejects, and I mean that in a good way. Once he’d heard their early stuff it was more or less the only band for him. As soon as he got his hands on each single we were covering it at our next gig, hahaha! Even the B Sides, he was outta control, hahaha! When we started to play Germany in the early 90s we had Keith Stix Warrington on drums, he’d left the Rejects by then and basically our set in those days was pretty much a mix of Red Alert n’ Rejects songs.
I’m not 100% certain what happened, but eventually Tony ended up playing bass for the Rejects whilst still playing guitar for Red Alert. It worked fine, we worked around each other so dates etc. wouldn’t clash. In 2006 things changed. We had a three week US tour booked, a tour which took months to organise, and Tony decided he didn’t wanna do it. To cut a long story short, I wasn’t prepared to cancel the tour so that’s when present guitarist Mick joined, initially just for the tour. When we got back I spoke with Tony and we decided it was best if he just carried on with the Rejects and Mick became his permanent replacement in Red Alert. It was tough, we’d wrote all those songs together, we’d been best mates, it was our band but we both knew his heart lay with the Rejects by then, so that was that.
In spite of what some people think or have said, I never had a problem with him being in the Rejects, as long as it didn’t affect what we were doing with Red Alert. As for afterwards when Mick became guitarist in Red Alert I didn’t think about it, I like a lot of other bands but I only really care about what my own band is doing, I’ve always been that way, so we moved on. I will just add that we remained good mates and it was one my saddest days when Tony died, my house here is covered in framed posters of us back in the good old days, he’ll never be forgotten, not in my world.
Red London have recently reformed?
Just a coupla months back. They got original singer Patty back at the helm, my older brother for anyone that doesn’t know. Gaz Stoker, who’s spent the last 17 plus years in the Angelic Upstarts and former Red Alert bassist, is back on bass. John Forster who had a spell in Red London way back when is back on drums, but founder member Kid Stoker opted out and stayed in retirement so they got two younger lads in, Scott and Alex on guitars.
I saw them at Rebellion, great set. I got up and sang a song with my brother for the first time in about 20 years, it was great. As well as doing their own shows we’re teaming up when we can, just like the old times, there’s gigs in the UK already booked for next July. It’s great to have them back, having sang for them for a while I’m obviously a big fan, they got some brilliant tunes, long may it last.
Always meant to ask what ‘They Came in Force’ was about?
It was about a gig we did in Darlington mate in ’82. The week before the incident the van broke down on the way to Darlington, didn’t even make it outta Sunderland. So we rang the venue saying we couldn’t make it, they were fuming n’ asked if we could try n’ make it the following week, so we agreed. Hired a Luton van n’ headed down there, about 15 Station Skins n’ a few other lads in the back with the gear. Soon as we arrived there a punk outside said ‘I hope you lads are ready for trouble cos they are after you didn’t turn up last week’.
We just laughed it off, there was plenty of us we thought. The atmosphere when we walked in was deadly, coulda cut it with a knife, fulla old Slade-type skins n’ other assorted nutcases.
Anyway, near the end of the gig they started chanting ‘Newcastle!’ to get us wound up, so one of our lads grabbed me mic n’ started shouting ‘Sunderland!’, that was it, bang. The place went up, glasses flying everywhere n’ about 50 people fighting, right into it. It musta went on for about 10 minutes at least, like a bloodbath, then eventually the police arrived. They tried to arrest me for inciting a riot cos they were told I was the one shouting Sunderland, but they let it go.
We got outside and there’s this beer keg through the windscreen on the front seat, I jokingly told the police to leave it if it was full, didn’t go down well, hahahaha! So we started doing a head count n’ realised we had three or four lads missing, the fight had spilled out onto the street. We had three lads from Middlesbrough caught up in it all, they ended up coming back with us and sleeping at mine. So we decided we couldn’t leave the lads behind n’ we’d drive round Darlington looking for them but the police weren’t having it, they escorted us halfway back to make sure the trouble was finished.
Next day as was the custom we met up in the Sunderland town centre n’ the missing lads showed up with tales of getting chased all over Darlington by just about everyone, they walked part of the way home and eventually jumped in a cab. Shoulda seen the states mate, black eyes, broken noses, stitches, the lot. Aye, a memorable night, one of a few like that, but that one was the worst.
Who would you say the usual fans of the bands in Sunderland were back then? You mentioned the Station Skins.
When we first started out it was mainly friends who came to the gigs, there wasn’t many places to play so we were kinda doing the youth club circuit. It was good at the time but it all changed when we started playing in bars. There was a legendary bar in Sunderland called the Old 29, it was mainly a rock bar but Dougie Bell, the owner, was open to giving punk and Oi bands a chance. I’d saw the Toy Dolls and the Upstarts in there, terrified when Mensi was biting the ears off a pig’s head, hahahaha!
Anyway, we got a gig in there and we started attracting a bigger audience which included the Station Skins. They started following us everywhere, even when we went to London playing they all came, they were a real loyal bunch, all good lads. We had punks, heavy metal lads, straight lads etc. coming too, it was a good mixed audience. I’ve since heard stories about lads being threatened and afraid to come and see us, but to be honest we never saw any of that at the time.
How about now in Catalunya? The switched-on audience there sometimes seems more numerous than here in England these days.
Catalunya is a strange place audience-wise. In the 90s and early 2000s we were packing places out here, especially after we wrote ‘Visca el Barca’. Other parts of Spain too, particularly the Basque Region, probably my favourite ever Red Alert gig, a town called Mondragon, seemed like the whole town turned out for us, an amazing gig from start to finish.
However, as with most things, it started to die off for us a little. Less people coming and before long our annual trip over became every two years, then three, and these days we rarely play here. This applies to most older UK bands, there’s still a big scene here but the people seem to want to see their own bands playing, Catalunyan bands. I know a few, they’re great bands so I have no problem with that. We still have a core of support here, but not as big as it was in the 90s.
So what do you make of current North East bands like Gimp Fist and Murdaball?
I’ve watched Gimp Fist from their very early days, a lot different from the band everyone knows n’ loves now. Their style of music was different, more hardcore sounding before they got the Oi sound. We actually had drummer Michael playing for us on tour in Germany a few years back, before Gimp Fist took off. Good lad, as are Jonny and Chris, a great band too, it’s nice to see them doing so well, really is. I haven’t really heard much from Murdaball to be honest, the coupla songs I have heard I thought were pretty good but I’ve never saw them ‘live’. There’s another great crop of bands coming out of the Sunderland area again, too many to mention but Kickback Generation, Symbient, and Zero Negative spring to mind, but the best band from that town since our wave of bands is my two lads, Mick (guitar) and Dave (bass)’s band, Loudmouth. Obviously people are gonna think I’m biased, but I defy anyone who likes punk to listen to their last album Easy Tiger and not be impressed.
As the band’s 40th approaches, you were on Carry On Oi!, do you think that and Oi has weathered as well since?
Yeah I do, some of the stuff on those albums is timeless and there’s still good number of the bands on them that are still around and still great bands. The Oi scene still seems to be in good shape and there’s a lot of newer bands that are great. Back then the Oi scene wasn’t just about skinheads, it was as much about punk rock, it just had a bit more working-class attitude with it.
We have always proclaimed ourselves a punk band but were obviously tied into the Oi scene. In my opinion, the clothes were the only difference, it all still sounded like punk rock to me. It’s just a pity politics came into play n’ created divisions, we didn’t really have that back then.
Overall though I’d say Oi has weathered well, you just have to see the Beach, Beer n’ Chaos festival here in Badalona every August to testify to that, fantastic weekend every year with Oi fans from across the globe here, no trouble, just a buncha likeminded people having a great time in the sun n’ catching some great bands new and old. Well worth a visit next time if you’ve never been to it yet.