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Going underground

Fri 21 November 2014, 11:29 am

Medway bands developed a musical heritage that has endured. James Wood explores Medway’s role in punk, indie and garage rock from the 1970s to the present day.

Singer, painter and writer, Billy Childish, from Chatham, in his heyday

Punk music exploded into the public consciousness in the late 1970s, pioneered by the three-chord, DIY approach to songwriting that has been a staple for guitar bands at various points during the last 50 years of popular music.

At that time, in a supposedly sleepy corner of south-east England, amplifiers were being cranked up in bars and clubs across the Thames Estuary towns. These vibrations created the Medway Delta Sound – a tag coined by the Chatham singer, painter and writer, Billy Childish – and likely to have been a wry nod to Mississippi blues music born on the banks of the great river.

Childish’s bands came to characterise this style, which gave birth to the garage rock movement – a no-holds-barred approach to songwriting of brazen power chords and bellowed vocals heard in the output of his acts, including Thee Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, The Del Monas and Thee Headcoats. It’s a style that would later be alluded to by a variety of bands, from Blur to The Strokes.

Many of Childish’s acts were signed to the indie, punk and garage rock label Damaged Goods, which is still in existence today. Set up in 1977 to reissue punk vinyl, the label put out its first original record in 1991 – the debut single by Billy Childish and Thee Headcoats. An all-girl group, Thee Headcoatees, also came to be a big part of the scene, led by sometime Headcoats collaborator, Holly Golightly, who is still releasing records on Damaged Goods today.

The scene rolled out through Medway in the eighties and many bands achieved success. The Prisoners, who met at a Rochester school, played venues throughout the region for the best part of two years, before being picked up on by the kingpin of indie music, John Peel, who would help the band gain wider appeal by giving them airplay on his Radio 1 evening show. The band’s style would develop through the decade and two members would go on to enjoy further acclaim with jazz funk outfit, The James Taylor Quartet.

But it is the cult and legacy of Childish himself that has had the most longevity and spread far and wide. Name-checked by artists throughout the 1990s such as Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Graham Coxon of Blur, and Kylie Minogue, it was Jack White of The White Stripes who would take the reference one step further by having Billy Childish scrawled in biro across his arm during an early band appearance on Top Of The Pops.

In the early part of the 21st century, bands such as The White Stripes, The Strokes and The Libertines formed part of the scene’s revival. They hailed from both sides of the Atlantic, and it was perhaps not a coincidence that when garage rock once again began to fill the pages of the NME, it was an underground Medway which was at the forefront.

Queues still stretch down Railway Street for the intimate Tap’n’Tin music club in Chatham, which hosted performances from many bands of the era, and made its name in 2003 when The Libertines reunited, one month after Pete Doherty, the band’s singer and guitarist, was released from prison. Around 200 people packed in to witness the “freedom gig”, during which The Libertines were joined on stage by cockney duo Chas n’ Dave. A picture of Doherty and his band mate Carl Barratt taken at the Tap ‘n’ Tin gig would be used for the cover of the band’s self-titled second and final album.

Other acts to have played at the iconic club include The Charlatans and The Mystery Jets. Festivals to have taken place there include “Kimbofest”, which showcased local bands, and The Love Music Hate Racism event, which featured acts performing a variety of musical styles including indie, African drumming, hip-hop, reggae and psychedelic.

A longer version of this article appears in the latest print edition of Medway1 magazine.

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