Mark Brend remembers short-lived Exeter venue Routes, and the punk, post punk, power pop, mod revival, early electro-pop, and British heavy metal bands that took to its stage.
Just before Christmas 2021 I was talking to the crime novelist Martyn Waites about the documentary, Lindisfarne’s Geordie Genius: The Alan Hull Story. The conversation moved on to other acts from the north east, including the Angelic Upstarts. I recalled that I had once roadied for them when they played at Routes, a short-lived venue in Exeter. I hadn’t kept up with them for decades. I don’t think Martyn had, either. Whatever happened to lead singer Mensi, we wondered? That evening Martyn messaged me with a link to an announcement that Mensi had died earlier in the day. He was 65. I was never really a fan and I didn’t have any Angelic Upstarts records. But I was obscurely pleased to discover that Mensi had led a line-up of the band until the end. The older you get, the more the virtue of perseverance recommends itself, I find.
Routes was open for a few years from 1978, in a building down by the River Exe that was built in 1912 as a cinema. It’s a Pentecostal church now. This was a fertile time for British alternative music. The first wave of punk was finished as a cultural phenomenon, though most of the bands were still playing. What you had in its wake was second generation punk, like the Angelic Upstarts, who’d been inspired by the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash. More so, there was post punk, power pop, mod revival, early electro-pop, and the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM). This cross-pollinating, complex eco-system could sustain at least two gigs a week at Routes. Bands with some profile that you knew about if you read the music papers and listened to the evening shows on Radio 1. The Stranglers, OMD, The Damned, Def Leppard, Wire, The Revillos. So many others.
The Angelic Upstarts played there on Wednesday 30th April 1980. I know because a record of everything that’s ever happened ends up in an archive somewhere, second wave punk gigs in rock’n’roll backwaters included. The V&A museum has a poster announcing the gig, evoking a lost world of “no dress or membership problems”. And a Monday night under-18s disco, with soft drinks bar. Then a 15-minute turnaround for Chris Redding’s ‘Eavy Disco. Who went to both? Did I see the the Vapors, New Musik or the Members — all chart acts? Possibly. I can say with conviction that I passed on NWOBHM pioneers Sledgehammer and synthy art-rockers God’s Toys.
But on that distant Spring day I can be certain that the 17 year-old me turned up at the back door of Routes at about 4pm to help unload the Angelic Upstarts’ drums and amps from the obligatory battered Transit. For this I got in for free, with a complimentary drink. I roadied at Routes for a few bands but only the Angelic Upstarts stick in my mind. This is because I was dispatched in the battered Transit, with Mensi driving, to take the band’s bags to the place where they were to spend the night. Mensi was a powerful physical presence, and my nervousness at sitting next to him on the bench seat was exacerbated by his wild driving. But he turned out to be an affable character.
I don’t know what sort of accommodation I was expecting. Not a B&B in a Victorian terrace, the sort of place where commercial travellers might spend a night. After helping carry the band’s sports bags up the path Mensi said “champion”.
The gig itself is a blank. Nor does much detail survive of the many other Routes gigs I attended. I know I used to arrive as doors opened and sit — often alone — nursing one drink for hours through the support acts until the headliners came on. At which point I might go and stand in front of the stage. Who supported the Upstarts at that gig? Maybe a local band. There were plenty to choose from, for whom a support slot at Routes and a self-funded 7-inch were the pinnacles of aspiration and achievement.
The DJ at most of those gigs was Len, a lynchpin of the Exeter music scene. He also ran the local rehearsal studio, just along the riverbank from Routes, charging 50p an hour. And he played bass in The Fans, one of Exeter’s best bands. They often got on the bill. None of my bands ever reached the heights of a support slot to a name band, though we did play bottom of the bill to The Fans once. At the time we were called The The, but we had to give that up as soon as we heard about Matt Johnson’s band. We played again at an end of A-levels event organised by my friend Dexter. Incredibly, about 500 people turned up.
The drummer in that band, Dave, went on to join another local band, The Gift. I was away at Manchester University by then, but sometimes stood in for them on rhythm guitar when I was home for holidays. Once, like Johnny Cash, The Gift played an afternoon gig at Channings Wood Prison, near Newton Abbott. We rehearsed a version of ‘I Fought The Law’ especially for the occasion. The wrongness of this is vivid in hindsight, but at the time we thought it was a great idea. A bell sounded during our set and most of the audience left. We discovered later that the bell announced afternoon tea. We were supported by a band made up of prisoners. After our set we spoke to a few of the men who’d hung around. Including members of the prison band, who complained they were not given enough time to rehearse. One of them was up for release soon and asked us if we knew of any jobs for sparkies.
I don’t think The Gift ever played at Routes. It might have closed by the time they got going. They did, though, release a 7-inch, a double A-side on Venus Records: It’ll End In Tears/Crashing Down. ‘Crashing Down’ features on the Cherry Red compilation The Sun Shines Here: The Roots Of Indie-Pop 1980-1984. It still sounds good.
I wasn’t there when The Ruts played Routes in 1979. Lead singer Malcolm Owen hit his head on a cymbal. A photo of him, blood pouring down his face but still singing, was on the front cover of Sounds the following week. A Terry Butcher for the punk generation. I missed the Police, too. They appeared third on the bill under Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias and John Dowie, then came back again as headliners, by which time they were on the cusp of stardom. But I saw another venerable trio, The Pirates. Johnny Kidd’s former backing band had reformed playing loud, hard rock’n’roll and R&B that worked for a punk audience. They had the look of men who had just come from a car bodyshop in a nearby railway arch. Except that they wore stripey trousers and billowing ruff shirts. There was a pleasing sense of being in the know in liking the Pirates. It denoted a certain maturity of taste.
You understood that Wilko Johnson, Dr Feelgood’s first guitarist, was influenced by Mick Green, the Pirates’ guitarist. Maybe you even knew that the man who played the famous Shakin’ All Over riff on the hit version was not actually Mick Green, who joined the band later, but Joe Morretti. Who also played on Vince Taylor’s Brand New Cadillac, as covered by The Clash on London Calling. In the pre-internet age a grasp of such labyrinthine connections bestowed status, marking you out as a connoisseur.
The 1970s Pirates still played Shakin’ All Over, and Mick Green owned it. Years later I interviewed him for a book that didn’t happen, about British guitar heroes. I told him I’d seen the Pirates play in Routes, Exeter. He said: “Sorry, no. That’s completely gone.”
Punk was never meant to grow old, but no-one told one-time hairdresser and busker Charlie Harper. I saw his band, the UK Subs, play Routes twice, around the time they were in the middle of their run of minor hit singles. I still have a blue vinyl copy of the second, ‘Tomorrow’s Girl’. We knew that Harper was old even then. Old in punk terms meaning mid-30s. In fact he was born the same year as Mick Green — 1944 (making them both two years younger than Andy Summers of the Police). Harper contracted Covid at about the same time as Mensi but recovered. While the Angelic Upstarts split and reformed a few times before Mensi’s passing, the UK Subs just kept going through the decades. Harper a perennial cultural presence, like the David Attenborough of punk. Faithfull to his calling. He will be 78 in May. The band have tour dates booked throughout the year and into 2023. Harper will barrel around the stage bellowing “I wanna be teenage”. Maybe there’s a sort of nobility in that.
With thanks to Brian Highley and Pete Townsend for the memorabilia.
Mark Brend is a writer of fiction. He also writes about and makes music. Follow him on Twitter / visit his website.