TRUE PUNKS DO NOT AGE GRACEFULLY. THE
snotty little tossers of Britain’s class of 1976
are middle-aged men now, but they still play
raw, loud, and fast, and with such intensity
that the barrage
at the edge of the
abyss, like a flak-battered
World War II bomber
tearing away from its rivets.
The DIY ethic that drove them
to topple what they considered as
bloated and narcissistic ’70s rock
remains in effect, as well. They book the tours,
scoot from gig to gig in rented vans, and man
their own merchandise tables whenever they
aren’t performing onstage. It ain’t exactly
glamorous, but Nigel Bennett, former Members
member and current guitarist for the Vibrators,
could care less.
“Being coddled is nice, but, ultimately it
has nothing to do with what you do onstage,”
says Bennett. “I realize it’s a privilege to be
able to get up there and play for people, and I
never take that for granted. We’re doing our
part, you know? I think one of the reasons there
has been a void in exciting music is because
people forgot that there is nothing like seeing
a band perform live. And here we are.”
Formed in 1976, the oft-changing Vibrators
lineup now includes just one original member—
drummer “Eddie” Edwards—but youthful
ire and firepower is in fine form as the band
rips through Vibrators’ classics such as “Automatic
Lover,” “Baby Baby,” and “Judy Says
(Knock You in the Head)” at a packed and
sweat-drenched Elbo Room in San Francisco.
The energy and sonic onslaught is not just surprising
because the band is a few decades afield
of their teen years, but also because the London-based musicians borrow gear from their
opening act to save tour costs, and sometimes
don’t even bother to do soundchecks.
“It’s absolutely frightening,” says Bennett.
“It reminds you how much you take for granted
having your own gear when you play back
home. Here, I just hope for a good amp every
night, and it has been hit and miss. But that’s
part of the thrill—being able to make it happen
with strange, often ill-maintained gear and no
idea whether the monitors are working or not.
You plug in, you play—no excuses.”
Still vital as a live act, the Vibrators also
continue to release CDs. The band’s latest is
Garage Punk [Cleopatra], which puts the Vibrators’
spin on rave ups such as the Seeds’
“Pushin’ Too Hard,” the Electric Prunes’ “I Had
Too Much To Dream (Last Night),” and Count
Fives’ “Psychotic Reaction.”
“There are no frills,” says Bennett. “We
recorded everything live in the same room as
a trio, and we whacked it out very quickly. It
turned out great, and I’m not saying that to
promote the album, because that doesn’t matter
to me at all. I’m just proud of the music,
because, when you die, what else do you leave
behind but your recordings?”
As Garage Punk is pretty much a live recording,
I’m assuming you didn’t change gear setups.
No. I’m a Gibson lover, and I used a Les
Paul on everything—except on one track where
I wanted to use a vibrato for a solo, and I played
a Strat. My main amps are a 100-watt Marshall
the Members bought me when I joined the
band in 1980, and another Marshall 100-watt
head that I bought in 1975. Both of these old
heads are consistent, they do the business, and
they give me the most fabulous tone. I know
it’s a cliché to use a Les Paul and a Marshall,
but that doesn’t mean the sound has to be a
cliché. It’s the way you play it, isn’t it?
Did you use any pedals during the sessions?
Just a Marshall Bluesbreaker II to give me
a boost and some sustain for solos.
Did you actually click on the Bluesbreaker while
you were recording a take?
Yeah, I did. Basically, what I did in the studio
is exactly what I do live. When I played a
lead, you hear the normal gap when the rhythm
guitar drops out and you’re playing a solo to
just the bass and drums. I didn’t want to change
my live-performance state of mind by overdubbing
solos. Yes, you can discover some great
and unusual things when you sit in the control
room and explore different tones and parts,
but I’ve found that process tends to go against
the grain of who I am.
I couldn’t help but notice that you’re playing a
Flying V on this tour.
Hey, V is for Vibrators, right? I’m playing a
50th Anniversary Flying V that was loaned to
me by Gibson’s Peter Leinheiser. It looks bloody
sexy, and they’re going to have to pry it out of
my cold, dead hands at the end of the tour.
In the Vibrators, you juggle driving chords,
arpeggios, riffs, solos, and melodic themes. It’s all
very catchy stuff, and it’s a more varied palette
than stereotypical punk guitar.
You know, I love the Ramones, and it’s
very powerful when a guitarist locks right
down with a solid drummer and a bassist
who plays root notes. But, personally, I don’t
want to hear that for an hour. The trick for
a musician is to keep people listening—to
not be predictable. So I like to do the classic
punk thing sporadically, and then do
something else. It’s the dynamics between
the expected and the unexpected that makes
a band sound truly powerful. And being
catchy is so important, as well. The Vibrators
is just a pop band that plays it heavy.
You’re also pretty fearless about dropping in
single-note lines during rhythm-guitar parts. Some
guitarists in punk trios might be reluctant to let
up on the roar.
I think you have to explore the room you’ve
got. When The Edge plays those fantastic
melody lines, U2 is still powerful. There’s
nothing missing when he stops playing big
chords—he still commands your attention.
I’m a great believer in the fact that if the notes
are seductive, people will hear them.
I know some guitarists who think playing punkrock
guitar isn’t much different than an infant
building his first Lego wall. But, in reality, not
every guitar player can take a simple part and
really drive it home.
I agree. But to be fair, back in the ’70s, it
would disappoint me that some punk guitarists
didn’t learn to play—to really use the
guitar as it can be used. I also didn’t like the
close-mindedness. I grew up listening to Jimi
Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Angus Young, and
David Gilmour, and I believed then—and I
believe now—in good solos. But when I
started out in the Members, I couldn’t let
people know that I had Van Halen and
AC/DC playing on my Walkman. That was
not allowed. You weren’t punk if you listened
to bands like that. They’d call you a hippie.
What do you feel were some of punk’s good
The beginning of punk was a reaction
against indulgent progressive bands. So the
Members taught me to cram my solos into
four bars—maybe eight—and to make sure
what I played held the song together. I’m glad
they did that, because it really can get boring
if a guitarist has too much room to go on
and on. I was always challenged to make my
solos short, sweet, and interesting, and that’s
an approach that has followed me to this day.
Serving the song—which is something all
guitarists talk about—is certainly something
that punk got right. After all, if you haven’t
got the songs, it doesn’t matter how well you
can play, or how great your tone might be—
you’re not going anywhere.
Punk was a young man’s club in its first incarnation,
and its music was rife with teenage
frustration, angst, and anger. How do you hearken
back to your 20-year-old self to be able to play
Vibrators songs with the appropriate zeal?
It’s simple—I love the guitar and I love
the music. To still be doing this at 52 years
old is absolutely wonderful. I think the electric
guitar is the most exciting instrument
on the planet, and you’ve got to channel that
excitement every second you play, and no
matter how, um, mature you are. I don’t think
of music as an age thing—it’s a music thing.
I don’t think people give a damn about someone’s
age if they are hearing some great guitar