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 screeches 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 musical lessons?
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 playing.