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Dave Parsons

Written By Andy Gunton

  • Photograph by Simon J. Newbury Photgraphy

  • Photograph by Dod Morrison

Hastings resident Dave Parsons is the guitarist with Punk Rock legends Sham 69. Together with singer Jimmy Pursey he wrote such classics as ‘If The Kids Are United’, ‘Hurry Up Harry’ and ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’. 

Andy Gunton, from The Stinger, spoke to Dave recently about Sham 69, why he now lives in Hastings, his thoughts on current music, and the music business today. Dave also gives a more technical insight into the favourite equipment he uses on stage.

Andy Gunton: What were your first musical memories, and what first grabbed you as a kid or teenager?

Dave Parsons: My mum used to have an old reel to reel tape recorder. She used to tape things and I remember hearing The Beatles ‘She Loves You’ and ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie. They were the first things I ever heard. I was about 4 or 5 at the time.

As I started to get into music it was the Glam Rock stuff, and especially T.Rex that I first became aware of. In fact, the first gig I ever went to was T.Rex at the old Empire Pool, Wembley. I was so naive in those days that I didn’t really understand what I was going to see. In those days the bands often did two shows, a matinee and an evening gig. We went to the evening show. We turned up as the matinee show was kicking out and there were all these young girls in tears, and I thought ‘what the hell is going on?’

AG: How old were you at this time?

DP: 12 or 13. I had no idea what it was going to be like. But it being a huge hall and the whole atmosphere of the gig, with all the screaming girls, just blew me away. That was the moment when I thought ‘that’s what I want to do’.

Then I started to branch out and listen to other music, which was such things as The Who, The Kinks and even back to Eddie Cochran. His rhythm playing was a huge influence on me.

I also had an older friend, who just loved music, almost a musicologist. He played me all this Blues stuff, which got under my skin. I subsequently ended up joining his band. They were the first band I was ever in, when I was still at school. The band was crap to be honest, but it was a great education.

AG: There’s quite a rebellious feel to a lot of that early music, Eddie Cochran and The Who etc. Would that have had an influence in what came later? 

DP: Definitely, yes, especially as a teenager with all that teenage angst. It was all that energy. It was just fantastic and kind of freed my soul I suppose.

AG: When did you first pick up the guitar?

DP:  My dad played the violin and played in a few small orchestras. When I was about 10 or 11 I started learning the violin, which I quite enjoyed. That gave me a grounding in music. It was good for me to do it that way around as I understood a lot more. I then became more interested in the Pop and Rock music that was going on and got a guitar when I was around 12 or 13.

I was self taught, except for one art teacher at school who gave up some lunch times and showed me a few things.

AG: You mentioned your first band, did you actually play live with them? So many young bands just end up in bedrooms.

DP: Yes, we did play a couple of gigs. The rest of the band were all about 10 years older than me. I was about 14 at the time. We did an awful amount of rehearsing and only about 2 gigs. I loved it.

AG: Were there many other bands pre Sham 69?

DP: While that original band were still going, I started to find out who the local muso’s were and eventually put my own band together. The music the original band were playing wasn’t really up my street. Great for learning, just not what I wanted to be playing.

I found a drummer, a bass player and guitarist while we were at school and put a band together. We started playing stuff like The Stones and The Kinks, and we fell into being kind of a Mod band. We were dressing up in black jeans, black jackets and white shirts. It was exactly the same time that The Jam, in Woking just down the road from us, were doing the same stuff.

It was with that band that I started to write my own songs. One or two of them actually made it into our set. We were playing Working Men’s clubs and pubs, places like that.

Funnily enough it was while in that band that I first met Jimmy Pursey. He was in a band called ‘Jimmy and the Ferrets’. We played a gig at the local Walton Hop where they were also playing. This was at the time that Punk was just starting to break, and they were well into that. In fact they’d just changed their name to Sham 69, a name Jimmy had come up with. 

Jimmy didn’t have a lot in common with the rest of his band and the rest of my band weren’t really my kind of people either. It was very soon after that that we decided to get a band together. At that time the band wasn’t even going to be called Sham 69. We threw around lots of names, but ended up with it as we thought it was a good name.

AG: Where did the name Sham 69 actually come from then?

DP: There was a Walton and Hersham football match played in 1969. After the match, someone had written ‘Walton and Hersham 69’ on the men’s urinal wall at Hersham station. Where people had been pissing on it, the ‘Walton and Her’ bit got washed away leaving just Sham 69. Jimmy saw this and it stuck with him.

AG: When did you first hear Punk music, and was there anything that you saw, or heard, that made you change musical direction and go the way that Sham 69 did?

DP: There were a number of things that made a big impact. The first was at a place called The Winning Post, not far from where I lived. The band was called the Heavy Metal Kids.

AG: I remember them. They came from the Rock era, but had that kind of edge to them didn’t they?

DP: That’s right. That weren’t a Punk band, but it was like watching one. It was a totally new experience for me to walk into a gig where the audience were almost scared. When Gary Holton (the singer) walked out he had a syringe hanging out of his arm and a great big chain wrapped around him. This was at the time when people would be sitting in chairs, feet up on the stage, with their pint glasses lined up on it. He came on, swinging this chain, and smashed all the glasses. The audience were shocked. It was that attitude.

Then there was all the Pub Rock stuff going on. We used to go up to London to see bands. One night, quite by accident, we walked into a pub and Dr Feelgood were playing. That was when we realised that a whole new scene happening.

Then it was seeing the Sex Pistols do the Bill Grundy interview on TV. It all happened so quickly as it was around the time that I was just leaving school, as well. 

I’d also just got together with Jimmy. It was never a ‘let’s sit down a form a Punk band’ kind of thing. It was almost as if we felt a part of that, it was just natural to be doing that stuff. We were playing the faster end of the rock songs and when Jimmy and I started to sit down a write songs, that’s just where it went.

AG: With the Parsons/Pursey compositions, was it purely you writing the music and Jimmy doing the lyrics, or a bit of both?

DP: It varies from song to song. I’ll usually demo up a complete song at home with scat lyrics. Then I give it to Jimmy. Sometimes some of my lyrics will stay and sometimes Jimmy will have good ideas for melody changes. In the early days most of the songs were written with us sitting down together and just throwing ideas back and forth. That's often been the easiest and most successful way we've written. We can easily sink into the same wave length together.

AG: When did you start playing gigs as Sham 69?

DP: It was almost immediate. After that Walton Hop gig, we both left our bands, and it wasn’t long before we had a 20 minute set. 

One of the great things about Jimmy is his confidence, which is everything in the music business. He’d been seeing bands and was aware of Step Forward records, run by Miles Copeland. He walked into their office in London, which is also where Sniffing Glue magazine was based, burst through the doors unannounced and said ‘we’re the best Punk band in the country, give us a gig’. They were so taken back that they offered us a gig they’d booked at the Acklam Hall the next week. They put us on bottom of the bill, supporting Chelsea, The Cortinas and The Lurkers. That was our first proper gig. It was very quick.

We came out on stage, first band on, and there was nobody there, they were all in the bars around the sides. Most bands would have just started playing, but Jimmy started shouting down the mic ‘we’re not going to start playing until you come out’. Suddenly we had an audience! 

Miles Copeland was there with John Cale (Velvet Underground) and also Mark. P from Sniffin’ Glue. Mark. P loved it and so did John Cale.

AG: How was John Cale involved?

DP: Miles Copeland had signed him as a solo artist. 

Because both Mark. P and John Cale loved it, Miles came backstage and offered us a two single deal. It was like all our Christmases had come at once.

Next thing we had a manager, Tony Gordon. He had bigger plans for us and got us showcases with EMI, CBS and Island, a label we really wanted to go on. We did some demo’s for them, but were only offered a two single deal with an option further on. Tony turned that down. I was starting to get a little nervous at this point. We were being offered deals, and we were saying no.

AG: Maybe that’s where a manager comes in? Many youngsters would have jumped at the first one?

DP: Exactly, if we’d been doing it we would have been on Step Forward records for life.

Around this time we played our first gig at The Roxy. We were still supporting bands, but people loved it. 

One thing people did get confused with was whether Sham 69 were a Punk band, or a skinhead band. We were a Punk band, but that was all down to one remark that also helped us get our main deal in a way. We were playing The Roxy & Jimmy noticed an old mate of his, who had been an original skinhead. As an off the cuff remark Jimmy said ‘skinheads are back’, just as a laugh. 

Anyway, a couple of weeks later we were headlining The Roxy and Polydor Records were coming down to see us. From that ‘skinheads are back’ remark of Jimmy’s, there were queues of freshly cropped skinheads right down the street. The place went berserk when we played, and we ended up with, what I’ve been told, was one of the best deals offered to any Punk band at that time. We were off.

AG: After you signed with Polydor, how many years was it before the band split?

DP: When I look back it seems like it was 10 to 15 years, but it was barely 4.

AG: That’s why I asked the question. I expected it to be a lot less than people realise.

DP: We packed so much in really and right from the moment that Jimmy and I met, it was like this massive rollercoaster.

AG: No time to draw breath, just fast and furious?

DP: When you’re that age you can take it, it was fabulous.

AG: I remember seeing Sham 69 at the Reading Festival back in 1978 and I remember all these skinheads running around. There was a bit of a reputation with the bands audience. Was that something you felt held you back a bit?

DP: It didn’t do us any favours. Like all these things it was a minority, but there were enough to cause a lot of problems. At Reading for instance, after we finished playing a lot of these fans got backstage and they ransacked the place, letting the tents down etc.

AG: It was happening in the main arena too. Skinheads were smashing up things like the hospitality tents. It was quite a heavy atmosphere.

DP: After that we were told that Sham 69 would never play the Reading Festival again. We were banned.

(You can find out more about the 1978 Reading Festival, including comments about Sham 69, here: http://www.ukrockfestivals.com/reading-78.html)

AG: Those are the not so good memories. But what are your better memories of that time?

DP: So much really. I remember being in the van on the motorway and hearing our second single ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ come on the radio and almost directly getting a phone call saying ‘you’re on ‘Top of the Pops’ this week’. The high and the buzz from that tops almost anything, after all it’s your first time. You’ve got a single heading up the charts and you’re on TOTP!

Some people were funny about playing TOTP, but we were passionate about what we were doing. The whole point was to bring it to as many people as possible, say something and make a point. How are things going to change if you don’t become a part of something to change things. We had no qualms about doing that.

AG: So part of the aim of the band was to go with that whole Punk ethos of stirring things up and changing things? Was that what you were all about?

DP: Yes, definitely. We were a Punk band and very much a part of that whole scene.

AG: So how did the Sham 69 eventually fold? 

DP: What really brought things to a head was the violence at gigs, and it wasn’t just at Sham 69 gigs either. You’d have a few people at gigs causing trouble and the headlines in the press would be ‘right wing riot at Sham 69 gig’. To the point where some people started to think that Sham 69 were a right wing band, when we couldn’t have been further away from that.

AG: I remember reading the music press at the time and that’s the impression it gave. Some people obviously got sucked into that and encouraged others of that ilk to go to the gigs.

DP: It left a mark and it was hard work dealing with that.

There were a lot of gigs that were cut short because of the violence and we had a concern for the safety of the fans. People getting hurt and in the end that just drove us down. Times were changing as well, we were coming to the 1980’s, and we were probably worn out by it all as well. 

It kind of fell apart and sadly petered out. I look back now, and I’m not really sure how it did end. I think we were all quite relieved that it had come to a stop, so we could take a breath.

AG: After the band split was there ever a temptation to think ‘right that’s it I’ve lived my dream a bit’ and find something else to do? Or was it a case of ‘music is my thing, I’ve got to keep on doing this?’

DP: There was no thought in my head of doing something else. Maybe that was naive, I don’t know, but I wanted to carry on.

(There was a reunion with Jimmy Pursey and Sham 69 from the late 1980’s until 2006. Dave then carried on the Sham 69 name with different band members, until an acrimonious split which means that there are currently two bands called Sham 69!)

AG: You are now back with Sham 69. Are you writing new material?

DP: Yes, we’re half to 3 quarters of the way through a new album. 

AG: Is the new material recognisable to the fans as being Sham 69?

DP: Yes. Because we’re playing a lot of the old numbers live, that’s kind of where our heads are at, and that’s how the new stuff is sounding. People would certainly recognise it as Sham 69. Hopefully the next album will be the best one we’ve ever done. That’s got to be the attitude.

AG: Coming round to the Hastings point of view, you’ve lived down here (Hastings) for a few years now, haven’t you?

DP: 13 now I think?

AG: Any particular reason why you moved here in the first place?

DP: We moved because we needed more space. I wasn’t one of those people who visited Hastings for a holiday as a kid. However we came down to check it out, because we’d been looking at a couple of places along the coast, and ended up in Hastings. I don’t know what it was, there was some sort of vibe about the place, some sort of buzz going on. One of those things you can’t put into words. There was a feel about the place that we really loved. There’s something special that’s been maintained about Hastings.

AG: It’s a little bit more out the way and takes a bit more of an effort to get to.

DP: Yeah, which keeps it nice. If we had great road and train links, maybe a lot of the character of Hastings would be destroyed? When we were looking around, we just bumped into so many writers and musicians in the pubs and clubs. Out of all the places we looked at, Hastings was the one we felt we could move to, and instantly feel at home in. Fortunately, it was one of the best moves we have ever made. We still love it here and can’t really see ourselves going anywhere else.

AG: Did Sham 69 ever play in Hastings, because I seem to remember hearing about you playing on the Pier?

DP: Yeah, there was a gig on Hastings Pier in the very early days, The Vibrators were headlining. In fact, that was probably one of the first times I ever came to Hastings.

AG: You’ve seen a lot of changes in the music business, from the analogue to the digital days. Is there anything you could tell young musicians out there? Or do you think things have changed too much?  

Are times harder now or easier, and what would you do differently?

DP: I was thinking about that as I guessed you’d probably ask me that question. 

It’s such a difficult thing to say because I’m not out there fighting for my first record deal. I’m established, if you like, and all the rules are completely different now. People are coming up through the Internet and I’m not sure if that makes it easier or harder for bands nowadays. 

AG: You mentioned earlier about Jimmy Pursey charging into that office and saying “give us a gig!” it would be very hard for someone to do that now. 

DP: And that ultimately gave us our first step on the ladder, and enabled us to get on the scene. It was an emerging scene and there weren’t that many TV channels, so the media were much more focussed on it. I think it must be a lot harder for bands to become noticed on a big scale now. I can’t quite see the Internet being able to do what a big record company would have been able to do in the old days for exposure etc. I don’t know....

AG: It’s a tough question, isn’t it?

DP: Yeah, I mean if a young band could get on a major record label, that would be the way to go. Certainly as start, but that’s a dream, and probably harder nowadays than it ever was.

AG: There are far more possibilities now, but there is such diversity around that people’s attention is spread across many different platforms.

What does a band have to do these days to have a chance?

DP: Whether it’s right or wrong, there are certain things a band needs right from the start. Commitment; if you haven’t got complete commitment within a band, it’s never going to happen. And belief; belief that you’ll get to where you want to. It’s like a magical formula, if you don’t have that conviction and belief, it’s never going to happen for you. 

I worked with a couple of artists in Hastings, and I got a bit disillusioned. I recorded some stuff with them, I organised gigs for them, but right at the last minute they would pull out. One of the band said, “Oh, it’s my cousin’s stag party”. Ok, had it been his wedding, I might have understood. But if a stag party is more important than your band, then there’s no conviction there. 

To get somewhere the band comes first. Ok, things can suffer because of that. But it’s that belief that nothing stands in the way of the band; we’ll kick down doors, play any gigs, we’ll stand up and be counted. That’s the fundamental thing with a young band, the first building block on the way if you like.

AG: I agree with you. You’ve hit the nail right on the head there, it is about commitment. If you don’t commit it comes across to people, and as you say, the band comes first. Other areas can suffer, but that’s what successful artists in the past have done, suffered for their art. 

DP: Yeah and made compromises in other areas. You’ve pissed off your girlfriend because you‘ve got to do something with the band.

AG: One other thing I want to ask, from a techy point of view. It’s about the equipment that you use, either live or in the studio. Is there a favourite guitar you like to play and what sort of gear do you usually use?

DP: Amplification wise I’ve always used Marshall. They’ve just gone on and on, and are getting better all the time. 

I used to use 6, 4 x 12 cabs with 300 watt amps, all linked up together. I would stand by that night after night, I’m amazed I’ve got any hearing left!

These days I use 1, 4 x 12 cab and a 100 watt Marshall amp. I also use either a JCM900 or a JCM2000 DSL. If you’ve got a good guitar and those amps you can use them almost flat EQ and get a great sound. Just amazing amps. 

You have to be careful though. I’ll ask for a JCM900 and a 4 x 12 cab, and I’ll get to the gig and there’ll be a JCM800 there. They are very different. It may only sound like a slight difference to them, but the difference is amazing to the sound you develop. Just to the extent of how long you can hold a note for without it dying away. If you’ve suddenly got an amp that doesn’t hold on quite long enough, if leaves a hole where you’re playing. People who aren’t musicians don’t understand that. 

That’s the only thing that makes me nervous about playing. Not playing to people, but the technical side to things. Going on stage and finding the amps aren’t working properly, or the speakers aren’t working. As long as you’ve got your hardware sorted, and it’s performing well, then you can go on and play well. The equipment is everything really.

AG: Do you think you’ve developed a personal sound? Not being derogatory, but some people might think ‘Oh, it’s just punk, it’s just loud and noisy’.

DP: Yeah, I think I have. I’m quite flattered actually because, in the early days, I read that people wanted a sound ‘just like Dave Parsons’. I think the good thing about technology today is that it’s easier to dial in a sound that you want. Everyone has a different sound, and there is a certain sound I use. I can get that with a Gibson, with the Gibson humbuckers and Marshall. 

In the early days I used to use a Gibson Les Paul deluxe. But I had to stop using them, because they were so heavy, it was like carry around a big tree trunk, and I started getting problems with my shoulders!

AG: What’s your favourite guitar now?

DP: A Gibson SG standard. I’ve used many different years of the SG, and it’s not always the case of the older ones are better. My favourite years for the SG’s are from the late 90’s to the early 2000s. There are different variations of SGs through the years, but those are just fabulous instruments. They stay in tune, and I hit the strings pretty damn hard. 

I change my strings every two gigs, and I rehearse with them first to wear them in, so that’s about three gigs worth. Once it’s in tune you can go out on stage, through all the heat changes, and it will stay in near perfect tune. You don’t have to worry about tuning your guitar on stage, it gives you extra confidence.

AG: I know about that confidence factor from working with local bands, especially at London gigs. They’re nervous getting up on stage anyway and then their guitar goes out of tune, due to the heat. Not good.

Do you use any effects?

DP: No, I keep it straight as possible. The only thing I do use is a volume boost pedal, during guitar solos, because I never trust the sound man. So I control it myself, as it gives me that boost. It fills out the sound, especially when you’re playing as a three piece, and there’s no rhythm guitar. 

That’s it really. I use two SGs on stage now into a volume boost, straight into the amp and then one 4 x 12 cab on the ground. I don’t like stacks because stage monitors are generally so good these days. If you have a stack up at ear level, you’re not going to hear what everyone else is doing.

AG: Do you use ear pieces, or anything like that?

DP: No, we don’t and I don’t even use ear protectors either. That’s why I’m happy that we don’t play so many gigs these days. If I carried on playing the way we used to, my ears would probably have been damaged. 

I’ve tried using all sorts of things before. Some would let the frequency in, but if you lower the level you lose something. With Punk Rock, when you slam a chord you want it to knock you down, and you want the audience to feel that same power too. It’s part of the magic of what you’re doing, it’s more than just a sound, it’s a physical thing, you want the audience to be whacked by it. 

I remember seeing Pete Townshend years ago, when I’d only just started playing the guitar, and he tried describing the sound he aimed for. He put his hands to his ears and went “WAAAAHHH”. You want the audience to feel that “WAAAAHHH” right in the gut and I like to hear that too. That’s why I’m taking my chances with my ears, and so far I’m still ok.

AG: Last little thing. Is there any newer music that you listen to? Or do you find that you just listen to the old stuff. Is there much new music you like?

DP: Unfortunately I’m a bit lazy.  I’d love to be listening to the newer stuff, but I’m a bit of a recluse, people have to drag me out to see new stuff. The last time it happened really was when I went down to Hastings’ Fat Tuesday in February...

AG: Yeah, I was surprised to see you down there....

DP: ....I surprised myself too. But, I had one of the best evenings I’ve had in a long time, and saw some great bands. The Kid Kapichi were fantastic, it restored my faith in younger bands and new music. I saw them twice, first in the Dragon Bar and then saw them do a bigger gig later at The Carlisle, and they just blew me away. I almost felt like a 17 year old again. 

So, no, I don’t really listen to new stuff. But that’s only because of the lack of people turning me on to it, and the lack on me getting off my arse to go find it. But my musical taste is as wide as you can get, from finger in your ear folk music to Wagner and everything in between it. Why blinker yourself to certain styles? 

AG: If it’s a good song, it’s a good song.

DP: Exactly, there’s great music in every genre and there’s a huge amount of crap too. But if you can weed out the bad stuff, you can get pleasure from all genres. You need a variety in life really.

AG: I agree. Most musicians I know have that same attitude. It’s all about not being blinkered, opening your ears and letting other things in. At least give it a chance, it may even influence you in different ways too.

DP: There is always something you can learn from somebody else. It sounds a bit of a cliché, but if you play an instrument or listen to something, you can always go that one step further, or find something in a track that you hadn’t heard before. 

That’s the great thing about music – you never stop learning.

AG: Thanks very much Dave. It’s been a pleasure to talk and I hope we haven’t bored anyone out there.

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