If you were assembling a track by track feature on classic Oi/punk albums, then Red Alert’s We’ve Got The Power (No Future) would be high on anyone’s shortlist. A literal document of life in the North East in the early 80s, living up to their label’s name for sure, the LP packs an urgent vocal delivery and wall of sound production feats.
The dole, Soviet missiles, police brutality, even the influence of hairy rockers UFO, it’s all on there as lyrical content. Still belting them out live after the band’s 40th anniversary in 2019, vocalist Steve ‘Cast Iron’ Smith was on hand to dust off his slab of vinyl and talk us through each of the tracks.
You were something of a singles band after you signed to No Future, how long did it take to write the album?
By the time we’d signed to No Future we already had a lot of songs written. No Future decided to release the singles and EPs first, then the album, then the 12 inch EP. This was fine with us. We were prolific songwriters, so we always had plenty in the tank, so to speak. We had more than enough songs for the album, it was more a case of which songs to pick.
There was a bunch of great songs, in my humble opinion, that were never recorded when it came to getting it down to 12 for the album. Due to our high work rate with writing new stuff, they were just forgotten about in favour of new songs. We also had a policy of not putting previously released songs on the album, but with ‘SPG’ we thought we could do a better version than the one on Carry On Oi! and the track ‘Third and Final’ had only appeared on our self-released first EP, which was only 250 copies, so we decided to do an updated version of that too. But the likes of ‘In Britain’ and ‘Take No Prisoners’ were never gonna be included.
No Future were pretty much the Oi label back then in the early 80s, did you have much affinity with their other acts?
We played with quite a few No Future bands, but only got to do one big gig with the ‘bigger’ bands on the label (Blitz, Peter and the Test Tube Babies and The Partisans), at the Lyceum Ballroom in London in 1982. Those days, without the internet n’ stuff, people didn’t really keep in touch with each other as much as they can now, so we didn’t have much contact with the other bands. I got to see Blitz at Newcastle, and that was about it. There were very few festivals back then too, unlike now where you can catch up with all the bands regularly. We were fans of all those bands, though, especially Blitz, one of the greatest bands ever in my opinion, and we still run into PTTB quite often – again, great band n’ great lads too. It’s a pity we didn’t do more gigs together with the No Future bands. It would have been a great tour package, that.
Any regrets about signing with No Future? What’s your memory of the label and experience?
Not a single problem with No Future. From day one they treated us with respect and fairness, explained everything they planned to do, but only if we agreed to it all. Not once did they do anything that we weren’t happy with. We had full control over what was released, all of the artwork was our own ideas, where we recorded stuff was our decision etc. Sounds like the perfect deal, and it was – everything went smoothly, there was never an issue. The main memory I have was when we got the phone call to go and meet them at their office in Malvern. We’d been rehearsing and headed back to the house where I lived with my parents and siblings. There’d been a phone call I’d missed, and my mam said it was ‘someone called Chris from No Future, he wants to sign yous up’. I remember it clearly, the boys were waiting outside and I went out and told them, all of us were screaming in the street, diving all over the road, ha ha ha! I’d still say that was one of the best days of my life. A week later, we travelled down there and we were signed. Happy days, seriously happy days, it felt like all our hard work had finally paid off.
The album cover with the Wearmouth Bridge actually made Sunderland look cool and that’s high praise indeed for someone from Teesside. As you say, it was the band’s design concept?
Ha ha ha! I’m not going there, mate. Since I don’t live there anymore, I’m not allowed an opinion apparently, and I can do without a crying match, ha ha! I love Sunderland, it’s where I go for me holidays every year so that proves it, ha ha ha! Yeah, it was our idea, though No Future had paid for us to have some photos professionally taken around town. We ended up in the old shipyards area, and the bridge was in a few of the pictures. There were a lot of photos taken, but those with the bridge in them stood out, and No Future thought so too, so that was an easy decision for everyone involved to use one of those. The main reason we used it in the pictures was that at that time the bridge had been painted red and white, instead of the dark green colour it normally was, and it just looked great. It was only like that a short time and has been the old green colour ever since.
What was the split in songwriting duties? You wrote the lyrics and Tony supplied the powerful sound?
Yeah, Tony did the tunes and I did the lyrics, but everyone contributed in their own way. The simple fact of the matter is that, without sounding like a wanker, I wrote the best lyrics in the band and Tony composed the best tunes, so it was just a case of playing to our strengths. No one got frozen out, the other lads were more than welcome to try n’ do it also, but me and Tony just had that connection that worked. On top of that all the money went four ways, we never took the lion’s share because we wrote the songs, everything was equal in this band. The same still applies today. Mick does all the tunes and I write all the lyrics, but everything still goes four ways. Well, it will if we ever make any money, ha ha! But that’s how gig money n’ stuff goes.
The Rejects were a big influence on Tony’s sound but there’s also an acoustic track on the album (‘Industrial Slide’) and post punk flourishes on some tracks (‘Smash Your Chains’)?
We were influenced by a lot of bands, but obviously, Tony was heavily influenced by the Rejects. Some of it was in our songs around that time, but not in everything we did. Tony and Gaz Stuart, bassist at the time, had grown up playing guitars from a young age, 5 or 6 years old if I’m not mistaken, and unknown to most, Gaz was pretty much as good as Tony was on the six string. Tony was the better songwriter, though, he was always full of good ideas, very productive, he was always working on new songs. They were both accomplished acoustic guitarists, known to go carol singing as kids with those acoustics and earn a king’s ransom every night, ha ha! True story. So putting an acoustic track on the album was always gonna happen.
As for post punk – well, we were always progressing with our songs. It would have been too easy to keep writing the same kind of songs, but we were never like that. Every time we wrote what we thought was our best song to date, then the next aim was to write a better one. We started out as a punk band, still are a punk band, but we were never afraid to write songs out of the ordinary, or songs that weren’t expected of us. We basically wrote what we wanted to write, still do.
As others here have noted, the likes of ‘Tranquility’ on There’s a Guitar Burning EP was closer to The Cure than the Rejects.
Yeah, we did take it further with the Guitar Burning EP, but I think tracks such as ‘Tranquillity’ would always be a one-off. We never sat down and said, let’s go in any particular direction with any of the songs, it was very spontaneous. Tony would walk into rehearsals with a new song, and the boys would just play along to it, then eventually I’d try singing it. We weren’t really conscious of going in any different direction, it was just another new Red Alert song to us. Obviously we had to like it – we’ve never wrote songs just for the sake of it. And lyrically-wise I’ve never done that – I have to believe 110% in what I’m writing. It’s easy to just write what others want to hear, but we were never that band. Our lyrics are true stories about what we’ve done, what we’re doing and what we’re gonna do, or things that go on around us or around the world, nothing is off the table.
OK, talk us through the album then…
We’ve Got the Power:
I still remember the day Tony walked into the rehearsal and played this. It was totally different from anything else we were doing at that time. The build up at the start on the drums and so on – all his idea. This track was first recorded on our third demo, later recorded again for the Carry On Oi! album, but was never used for some reason. The lyrics are just about the Russian threat, which seemed to be more prevalent back then, but I guess it could be about a few more countries these days. ‘You can’t touch us, we’ve got the power’ – it was basically them saying that, not us saying it about ourselves, as some thought. I chose it as the album title because it’s a strong title, gets the attention. The song is still a big part of our live set. Sometimes we finish with it with a prolonged chorus at the end involving the audience. It’s always been a good live song. There was a 7-inch release of the live version in Spain after our gig in Mondragon in the Basque Region that kinda captures how it goes down at gigs. It’s a complicated song live with the mini-choruses, so it rarely gets played the same twice. It ends up with a load of ad-libbing, so to speak, with the vocals and the music – but it works, we enjoy playing it.
Melodic tune with a few stops n’ starts which seem to work. Lyrics about a kid on the dole. Yeah, nothing new, but it’s how it was back then for a lot of lads like us, so it was just a documentation of what was going on. Gets put in the live set now and again. Still sounds good to us and probably still relevant in some ways.
Again a good melodic tune from Tony, a bit more hard hitting than ‘Crisis’, musically wise. The lyrics are about what we’d get up to on a Saturday. In those days, it was custom for punks and skins to gather in the Market Square in Sunderland town centre, not really doing anything, just meeting n’ talking n’ being a nuisance to shoppers really, ha ha! We’d end up in a few scraps with people who didn’t like us being there, and often the police would be called, and sometimes it got out of hand. There was still a few of the old teddy boys from the rock n’ roll era against us, and mods had started to turn up creating friction. Comical now looking back, as we were all kinda doing the same thing, rebelling against shit, but we turned on each other in those days. We haven’t played it at gigs for years, but we’ve talked about putting it back in the set.
They Came in Force:
Music-wise this was different from most of our other stuff. By this point we were listening to all kinds of music, particularly rock music, and this riff was kinda inspired by an old band, UFO. The lyrics are a brief tale of a gig we did in a north-eastern town called Darlington, down the road from Sunderland, about an hour in that old van of ours. The week before the incident, we broke down on the way to Darlington to do the gig, we got to a phone and explained things, but the bloke on the phone was far from happy even though it was no one’s fault. So we agreed to play the following week. At that time we had a good following that travelled with us to gigs, a bunch of lads called the Station Skins from Sunderland. So off we went in a hired Luton van full of band, equipment, a good number of skinheads. Soon as we arrived, a punk outside told us to watch our backs as they were still angry that we didn’t play the week before. We just laughed it off – we weren’t the toughest lads in the world, but we weren’t frightened of shit like that either. So the gig played out, the hostile locals standing round watching and our travelling mates having their usual boisterous piss up and dancing and singing along. Sure enough, it kicked off at the end. It started with football chanting, it became a Sunderland/Newcastle thing for some reason and up it went, big time. Lot of glass broken, people hurt, and eventually the police came. They took us down to load the van, which by then had a beer keg on the front seat having been thrown through the windscreen. They escorted us most of the way back to Sunderland and a few lads were left behind as the fight had spilled into the streets. Next day we met up in the Market Square as usual n’ just laughed it off, some battered n’ bruised but nothing major. It was just one of those things – not cool, but it happened. I’ve actually got a cassette of the whole show, fight included, crazy.
Rebels in Society:
This was one of the first songs I ever sang with the band. The lads already had the band together when I joined, they hadn’t done any gigs or anything, just rehearsing in a local bar. They had a couple of names, PVC and then Shear Radiation, yeah, that spelling. I’d been messing about playing guitar and singing myself with a few mates, Cheapskates we called ourselves, and our drummer Dona had joined Tony and Gaz and another lad playing second guitar. Anyway, they asked me to sing, so to cut a long story short, I joined and the name Red Alert came shortly after. The song was originally called ‘No One Knows the Reason’. Without being disrespectful, the lyrics weren’t the greatest, neither were mine in truth, but I rewrote the song and changed the title. The original was a ‘Crisis’ type lyric with a good catchy tune, in my opinion, so we kept the tune, and ‘Rebels in Society’ is pretty much self-explanatory. The recording was different from the original, though – well, the guitar work was, but the song turned out fine. It was an early fixture in the live set and got phased out as we progressed, but I’d still happily sing it now.
Third and Final:
We went against our policy of not including previously released songs with this track. This was on our self-financed and released EP. Lyrically nothing new, the threat of World War 3, but it seemed to be a big topic at the time. Musically it was different from our other stuff, no big chant for the chorus etc. A bit more middle paced, but we liked it. By the time we came to do the album this was one of our oldest songs, and it had changed a bit from the original recording, plus the lads were better musicians by then, so we included it on the album. Also the fact that only 250 copies were made of that EP – a lot of people hadn’t even heard the track, so we were cool with including it on the album.
You’ve Got Nothing:
Simple enough punk rock tune – nothing flash, just a basic banger, so to speak. The lyrics were inspired by the constant rivalry between bands back then. The ‘rock star’ shit that we took for signing to No Future was pathetic to say the least, even more so considering that we helped most bands out best we could with songs and equipment and so on. But that’s life, I guess. Every time we did a gig in Sunderland around then our posters would be torn down. A pointless exercise as word of mouth had more effect anyway, but that’s how it was. It must have rattled my cage cos I ended up writing about it, as instructed by the rest of the band incidentally, ha ha!
Self-explanatory lyrically wise, even though we’d never came across the SPG as it was more of a London thing. This was written at the same time as ‘In Britain’, and that was obviously the period when the Rejects sound was influencing Tony. We went through a phase of writing this type of song. Originally on our second demo tape, then on the Carry on Oi! album. Again, normally we wouldn’t have included it, but by then we’d slightly changed it, with a new start etc, so we decided to use it. If it hadn’t appeared on the Carry on Oi! album, this would have been the follow up single to ‘In Britain’, but it was too well known and we wanted a new track, so ‘Take No Prisoners’ was recorded instead. Still a big song in our live set, it always will be along with the rest of the crowd’s old favourites. We’ll never be that band that pushes the old songs out.
Great guitar work from Tony here, but if my memory serves me well it was kinda stolen from some old rock tune we’d heard, ha ha, but not close enough to be hounded for plagiarism, just part of the riff. This also appeared on the B-side of our Visca el Barca single in Spain/Catalunya. Lyrically, I must have been looking for something else to write about and sat watching TV waiting to hear what was going on in my area, but it was all foreign affairs. It must have pissed me off cos I ended up writing about it. Nothing life changing, but something I had to get off my chest, ha ha!
This was a late edition to the album, so late it’s not listed on the original album sleeve, though I don’t think it was our fault, as it was recorded with the rest at the same time. A short and sweet punk rock tune, kinda protest song lyrically. We were writing so much at the time that I don’t even think we ever did this live, it just seemed to appear on the album then disappear. A pity really, as we always liked it.
The Art of Brutality:
Anti-police song, like most bands had. A lot slower than most of our other tunes but a good song all the same. It’s more or less a true story, which I think most kids of our age were suffering at the time. The hassles we had with the police in those days was ridiculous. They hated punks and skins in our town – most towns, for that matter. Many a good kicking was had just for being different back then, but getting taken down a back lane and beaten up then freed was better than getting arrested and cheaper too, ha ha ha! To us, it was just part of life, some bored copper driving around bored and there you were, biker jacket, strange clothes, attitude, an easy target. That’s this song in a nutshell.
Smash Your Chains:
One of the newer songs on the album – a great tune from Tony, in my opinion. Catchy tune and great chorus. Lyrically it just tells the tale of thousands of kids like us who left school without much of a plan. The one thing that kept us going in life was having the band, all roads led to the band. Hassles with a school leaver’s life in general were all forgotten when we met up for rehearsals and gigs. It was basically telling other kids that there was more to life than toeing the line: get out there and do what you want to do, not what others think you should be doing. 40-odd years later I’m still living that way, done me no harm, ha ha! There’s a middle-eight type thing in this song with a clashing sound behind the drum rolls, we always got asked what it was, it was one of the boys slamming the little door of a Calor gas heater over and over, daft but it worked for us. Nowadays you got all those things in the studio, pretty much any sound effect you want, but back then there wasn’t much like that.
Yeah, as we discussed earlier it was guaranteed there’d be an acoustic track on the album. The only real problem we had was we needed a fitting lyric, and I’d been working on this. It just seemed perfect for the track. Where we grew up, Sunderland, shipbuilding and the coal mines were the main industry. When a lad left school, if he chose to, he could get a job at either of those places, but Maggie Thatcher put paid to all of that. This was basically about what was happening around us, people losing jobs regularly with no real future ahead of them, families destroyed more or less, and obviously no work there for young lads leaving school. No long term prospects anyway, as it was known they were gonna close eventually in the near future. And sadly they did.
It’s Me Boys:
Another Oi style tune, great catchy sing-along song. This actually started on a weekend in Roker, an area of Sunderland. It’s a documentation of how we’d meet in a bar and pub crawl our way through Roker, ending up in the Roker Hotel. There was a good squad of us back then, and one of those nights one of us started singing ‘it’s me boys, it’s me boys, it’s me boys…’ It became our weekend chant. Eventually it started getting chanted at local gigs, in between every song as I remember, so we decided to put a tune to it. Another mainstay in the live set, still a crowd favourite, and we love playing it too. On a personal note, I wasn’t there when the lads recorded the music for the album, I had a newborn kid, and apart from wanting to be with her, I hated the studios with a passion, have done since day one. Not so bad now, but back then, jeez. Anyway they’d kept it secret about incorporating the ‘In Britain’ bit at the end of the song – man I was blown away, to this day it sends shivers down my spine hearing that.