When forming in 1980 in Wood Green, north London, Infa-Riot instantly became the borough’s greatest Oi band by default. Appearing on compilations such as the notorious Strength Thru Oi!, their 1980s career culminated in two albums, Still Out of Order and the somewhat ignored (though probably worth reevaluating) post punk follow-up Sound & Fury. In their prime, Infa-Riot were known as a band that didn’t shy away from playing Rock Against Racism gigs. On one occasion, this stance apparently earned them beatings from Skrewdriver and their enrourage in their dressing room.
Following a hiatus of no less than 26 years, Infa-Riot reemerged in the last decade to record Old and Angry and perform slots at events such as the annual ‘Boot Boys Christmas Knees Up’ at the 100 Club. Here’s Infa-Riot lead vocalist Lee Wilson interviewed by Football Factory author John King, who hardly needs an introduction. Topics discussed included being British, the superior mentality of the British, and how everyone still looks up to the British. Ahem.
Infa-Riot’s most-recent album includes the song ‘I’m More Punk Than You’. Great title, great words. What inspired the lyrics?
I was stood outside the 12 Bar, having a cigarette, and this young lad said to me ‘I know who you are, but you can’t do what you do no more,’ and I asked him ‘why’s that then, am I too old?’ and he was ‘no, you don’t look punk enough.’ I was ‘what, I have to look punk do I?’ and he said ‘well, yes, you do really.’ He was in his twenties and I asked him ‘what do you do then’ and he was at university studying such-and-such. Right… So I thought, no, I’m not having it, and the song is based around that conversation. It’s what I’ve always believed, that you don’t have to die your hair blue or green to enjoy the music. That’s not what punk is about.
It is supposed to be anti-fashion.
Correct. When we started it was fifty-pence dockers — the old army trousers, Doctor Martens or similar, maybe a normal T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. That was as punk as we ever got. The side I hated — and I loved The Sex Pistols — was that Malcolm McLaren, Boy, £150 a top stuff… I hated all that, couldn’t relate to it at all, so I think that was the big difference with Oi. ‘Punk’ had the designer side, Oi was more do-your-own-thing. We couldn’t afford those sort of clothes, and anyway, it just didn’t interest us. None of Infa-Riot were ever posers. Not us, the Cockney Rejects, The Business… That wasn’t punk. It was always about the songs.
It was saying what you thought, but can people do that today?
Yes and no. If you say something which people disagree with and it’s on the likes of Facebook you get bombarded with insults, whereas if you said it thirty years ago you wouldn’t. More people are listening to what you’re saying through social media. The world has changed in that sense. At heart I’m the same, though. I’ve always worked for myself, never had a nine-to-five job, always done my own thing.
Doesn’t that make it more important to stand by your views?
Everything gets watered down on social media though. Like the other day some woman wrote she’d just had a lovely big poo. I mean, I find that…
Why would you want to put that on Facebook? Oh God, I just find that sort of thing sad.
Imagine if social media had been around when punk started.
We got the Letraset out though, didn’t we? Photocopied stuff and spread the word that way. It was amazing when you think about it. Now, well, it makes me sick seeing that Black Friday on the TV and some fat chav girl going ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead with a phone like that.’ What? Wouldn’t be seen dead? Phone maketh the person does it?
If you look at some of the biggest issues, they are either ignored or totally misrepresented. The EU referendum for instance.
We voted to go into a common market. It was meant to be a trade agreement. But it’s become something else and what you’ve got now is this unstoppable train. That’s what makes people so angry. You can’t stop what’s going on with the EU. The last big protest that actually achieved anything, the last violent protest, was over the Poll Tax. Since then I haven’t seen any protest that changed anything. Everything’s been dumbed down. Everyone is out for themselves.
We have more and more information, but seem to be saying less and less. Are people scared?
We live in one of the most free countries in the world. In America they say they are the land of the free but not of the free-thinking, but I like to think that this part of the world is the home of the free-thinking. We’re not stuck in a Latino state of mind, or a southern European state of mind. We’re a clever lot us English. Us British.
A lot of Europeans look at Britain in a way people here don’t realise. They admire our refusal to conform.
We’re an island race. There’s at least twenty-three miles of sea between us and the nearest land and it makes a difference. I travel a lot in Europe and I see it all the time. When I went to Belgium recently I didn’t even know when I entered the country. You know there’s a border when you come here. It’s in our genes, part of our psyche.
De Gaulle opposed our membership of the EEC partly on those grounds.
He did. And the man was right.
Do you think that natural sea border has stopped the country looking towards fascism and communism?
We’ve never come close have we? You get the small parties, but that’s it. We’re a free-thinking lot. And no-one has ever answered this question – why are we so good at music? It is us and America versus the world. Who else is there? You name me ten great German punk bands. Or ten great Italian bands. You’d struggle. Why are we so good at it? Why are we great film-makers? Why are we such great inventors? Maybe it’s because we’re an island race.
With the music, could it be the sound of the language itself, that it somehow flows differently?
I think that helps. There’s a great mixture of people here as well. We’re open-minded. There’s great diversity and that goes right back. Pound for pound, today, you can probably get the best food in the world here. You want a curry, you want Spanish, you want Italian… Go to Spain, for instance, and you can’t get out of that Spanish mode. We have everything mixed in together.
It goes right back, doesn’t it, to the old tribes that settled here.
You can see it in the football still. The different groups that follow different sides. There’s definitely something there. You can’t put your finger on it, can’t really analyse it, but we’re good at what we do. We’re fantastic.
What were the first punk records that you heard?
First one was ‘Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ by Devo. I really liked that song. Another one was by X-Ray Spex. I was living in Plymouth then and one day the lunchtime DJ said this record is something like one-minute forty-nine seconds long and it was Identity by X-Ray Spex. He went ‘I’ve never heard nothing like that,’ and played it again, so I heard it two times in a row. That afternoon I went out and bought the single. Also, I used to watch the BBC Play For Today and there was one programme where two lads were riding along the Westway on their Raleigh choppers and ‘No More Heroes’ by The Stranglers played. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The hairs on my arms stood up and I went cold. That was it for me. I’m there. As I said, I didn’t care about the look, it was always about the songs. I’m insistent on that. Punk is all about the songs.
Devo, X-Ray Spex, The Stranglers – they’re all very different.
Completely different – and isn’t that fantastic? It’s rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what punk is – another form of rock ‘n’ roll. But we like it…
There are so many kinds of punk. That’s what makes it unique.
Correct. I believe in ‘each to their own’. Perfection doesn’t really exist. It only exists in the eye of the beholder. If I say ‘that’s the perfect punk song,’ someone else will say ‘no it ain’t, it’s this’ – we all have our likes and dislikes. We’re all free to choose. Each to their own.
What were you listening to before Devo and X-Ray Spex?
The first record I ever bought was Solid Gold Easy Action by T Rex. Do you remember it? And I saw The Osmonds doing ‘Crazy Horses’ on Crackerjack. I thought that was a great song. It’s about the annihilation of the Indians. And I also got into Sheer Heart Attack by Queen. That was more structured for me than Led Zeppelin. I like my music tidy. Beginning, middle, end. Elvis was good. I thought Sparks were great.
You must like rock ‘n’ roll.
Of course. My dad was a Teddy Boy so I grew up with rock ‘n’ roll. He was a Ted right from the start. Had the quiff until the day he died. I’m a bit of a Jerry Lee fan… The Killer. My mum saw him play. He’s an utter punk rocker. Fucking mad as a hatter. Nobody follows Jerry Lee.
How do you go about writing a song?
I’ve never been one for long verses because everyone’s interested in the chorus. You look at Cock Sparrer and it’s all about the chorus, look at rock ‘n’ roll songs and it’s all about the chorus. That’s what’s important to me. Sham 69 – Dave Parsons – wrote great choruses, great hook lines. When I write a song I need the title and the hook line and then the rest just comes. ‘I’m More Punk Than You’ was rewritten twice, but there was that one main line.
It’s the people’s music – singalongs, sea shanties, hymns.
You are what you are. I’m from a council estate in Plymouth, moved to Haringey in North London. It’s like Jerry Lee, he’s from the Deep South, so he did white man / black man’s music, merged the two together. So did Elvis. You can’t change what you are. If you’re born a bank robber, you’re going to be a bank robber. Good line that! It’s true… The thing with punk is you’re writing about what’s around you and the secret is to observe your own life, put it into a song. That’s not easy. It’s a hard thing to do. You’re not removed from the subject. ‘I’m glad I’m not you… I’m so glad that I’m me.’ I’m free to do as I please.
Your songs are defiant. They have energy and an edge. Is that what makes Infa-Riot work?
And motivation. People think it’s easy being in a band, but it’s damn hard. The travelling is tough. We did thirteen gigs in thirteen days in America. It gets harder as you get older, but… We played Akron in Ohio, Chicago, New Jersey, Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh. Proper places. The real McCoy.
There’s a lot of good music from Akron. Devo…
Pere Ubu, Chrissie Hynde… It’s a Hells Angels town. Akron’s a biker town. It’s great, the sort of place I like. Then there was Detroit – bankrupt city. We went from Hamilton in Canada, where there are no-smoking zones, to Detroit. In America, if you piss in the street you get put on the sexual register, as it’s a form of public exposure. We get to Detroit and people are pissing round the side of the van and smoking manure and I’m going ‘fucking hell, this is a bit different’ and they’re ‘this is Detroit, man, nobody gives a fuck here – we’re bankrupt.’ Rock ‘n’ roll. Probably my favourite on that tour was New Jersey, though. We played on a Sunday afternoon / early evening, and it was great.
Old And Angry was very well received. Your best album?
It is more mature, and certainly, we understand that we are British… and we can only write songs with a British twang, while the Americans write with an American twang. We’re not going to pretend we’re something else. There’s another song I’ve written called ‘I Like Being An Awkward Bastard’. (Sings) ‘If you tell me not to do it, I will… If you tell me not to say it, I’ll shout it… If you tell me we’re right, you’re wrong… If you tell me it’s short, it’s long… Because I like being an awkward bastard.’ And I think that’s an age thing. Does that make sense to you?
It’s important to express your opinions. Both my granddads fought in the last war, one in Burma, one on the beaches of Dunkirk and then Africa. They were fighting for freedom of speech. Someone wants to be a certain way, that’s their business as far as I’m concerned. That’s what I believe.
Any other lyrics bubbling up?
I’m writing something along the lines of Gilbert and Sullivan. (Sings) ‘Twas a jolly weekend… When we met our friends… We were pissed by half-past three… And it all kicked off… And we had a ruck… There was blood amongst the leaves.’ I sing it, then the rest of the band repeat those lines. Do you think that works?
Sounds great. Like music hall.
With an electric twist. It’s a bit different. I want each song I write to have its own identity, each one to mean something. It’s amazing what you come up with when you’re walking or on a bus or on the tube. Or when you’ve had a drink. It’s all in there, but real life distracts you, all the small, everyday things. When you drink that is pushed to the back of your mind and the creative side comes out. I don’t spend my life playing games or going on the internet. I meet my mates in the pub and we’re horrible to each other and we have a laugh. I love it. I get indoors and I write down what’s in my head and the next day I look at it and it’s yea or nay. I’m not competitive. I’m happy doing my songs, happy with an antique in front of me, the radio on. Couldn’t give a fuck. One of the things I got from punk, apart from the music, is not caring what other people think of me. It comes at a cost, because there’s places you don’t fit in, but to me, it’s a price worth paying. Is that a fair point?
Definitely. You can’t write just to suit other people. You have to believe.
I see a lot of punk-by-numbers. As long as ‘skinhead’ is in the title, some people are happy. That’s not for me. No. It’s funny, but I don’t listen to much music. I own about two CDs. Barry doesn’t either. I was talking to Animal about it and he’s the same. I thought ‘thank fuck’. Otherwise you’re going to be swung by it. Sometimes a song will hit me, like the Old Firm Casuals’ ‘For The Love Of It All’, and I think ‘wow, great song’. It takes years to write a song like that. I’m swayed by fuck all me. Never have been and never will be. You are what you are. It’s that simple.
This interview appears courtesy of Verbal, which is edited and published by John King. Issue 7 also carries an in-depth chat with Damned United author David Peace, plus lots of contemporary street fiction. Previous editions include interviews with Cathi Unsworth, Stewart Home, Irvine Welsh and Dan Fante.
Verbal is available from – http://www.london-books.co.uk/books/verbal.html