Dave Parsons of Sham 69: The Gonzo Today Interview

by Saira Viola
illustration by Bronwen Griffiths

Gonzo Today salutes one of the founding fathers of Punk nobility: Dave Parsons — proudly anti establishment and a global icon of rebellion — the original co-lyricist with Jim Pursey and guitarist for Sham 69. Dave sheds light on his gritty way to the top and discusses the anarchic spirit that gave birth to Sham 69 and the music industry today. Get his latest solo album UNSTABLE now from www.daveparsons.co.uk

Sham 2015

Saira Viola: The cultural explosion that gave birth to Punk and Sham 69 was born from civil conflict, youth unemployment, recession and racial tension — a time when guitar bluesman Eric Clapton made an inebriated endorsement of support for racist politician Enoch Powell, infamous for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. A bizarre declaration of support from Clapton who has notably built his entire career upon the influences of black music and in particular his rendition of: “I Shot the Sheriff” from the late great Bob Marley. Britain was at a breaking point and music became the rallying cry for disaffected youth. Rock Against Racism, a grassroots offensive by musicians to combat racism in the music business and society, was set up and you were at the forefront of this initiative. For newer fans of your music could you describe a little of how you and Sham 69 got to be at the vanguard of the punk revolution?

Dave Parsons: I didn’t know that about Clapton! Surprising really considering as you say his allegiance to black music. With Sham 69’s rise I think it was because we had a platform to vent how we felt about things and a lot of kids our age were able to relate to us and what we were saying when perhaps there was no one else that fitted that criteria. It was an age when a lot of people are affected by peer pressure, so there were all these kids running around whose elder brothers or cousins (for example) were being taken in by the national front and BNP and they felt that to be accepted they had to follow suit to be part of the clubs so to speak. When we came along and made it clear we were anti racist and brought in Black reggae bands to support us etc. it gave them the chance to think for themselves and maybe join a different club. It was also of course the lyrics to the songs that they could relate to, it’s very flattering when years later people come up to me and say for example ‘Thank’s so much for the That’s Life album, it virtually saved my life, I was on the edge, alone and felt I was the only one feeling this frustration and anger, that album was like turning on the light again’.

SV: How if at all, decades later  have things really changed in the music industry and society, and do you think the conditions are ripe for Sham 69 the next chapter ?

DP: The music industry has changed beyond all recognition for bands like Sham 69 that came out of that era, but we’re very fortunate to have a strong and loyal fan base that sets us free from the confines of companies and managers etc. it’s fantastic that at my age (56) I can still go out and headline festivals and concerts all over the place, when I started out I imagined I’d have a four year run at the most, so I feel very fortunate to be still playing and maybe in some small way making a difference. In some ways it’s a double edged sword, it would be nice if conditions had changed so much that there was no need for a band like Sham 69, but sometimes it seems that nothing has actually changed on the larger scale and therefore the lyrics to our songs are still as relevant today as when we began.

SV: Are we being led in one direction with the globalization of mass produced pop muzik ?

DP: Well it certainly looks like it to me, we’ve always had manufactured bands and in their place that was fine, but it seems to me that these so called Svengali’s have become a sort of music mafia creating their own monopoly in the business. I saw a funny quote the other day ‘Music was much better when ugly people were allowed to make music’, with the emphasis on Allowed, that kind of speaks volumes really, do we really need to get our teeth fixed, our breasts enlarged etc. before anyone will take us seriously?

SV: Do you think  Simon Cowell sometimes generously referred to as the ‘Svengali’ of Pop Music and the growth of talent shows and reality tv ‘rock’ competitions have bastardized the music industry? We’ve had over a decade of Cowell’s musical choices. When do you think the backlash will come against this kind of manufactured pop?

electric 2012 DP 01DP: I don’t know, hopefully soon. The trouble is that the youth of today are almost being programmed to like certain things and seen to behave in a certain way, much more so than when I was growing up, the music has almost become secondary, a background for the games they play or the products they buy. The backlash will only come from an underground scene like it did in Punk and then with luck given the space to take on it’s own quantum leap. One thing that really pisses me off is the way music is being produced now, it’s a forum for producers, not the musicians that make the music anymore, once they’ve found a face to sing the song the producers just drench the music in effects and so highly compress it that you can hardly here any individual instruments any more, they’re just trying to make some pretty sounding wash of a sound to go behind the vocal, gone are the days of listening to what the bass player was doing or picking out some great guitar lick in the background.

SV: The potent lyricism of some of your greatest tracks call for insurrection and defiance against the  establishment. What ‘s your opinion of feather lite lyrics that dominate the charts right now an example is ‘”Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift where she sings:
I stay out too late
Got nothing in my brain
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm
That’s what people say, mmm-mmm

DP: I’ve got nothing against throw away pop music, but in its place, not like I said before when it starts to monopolise the whole scene.

SV: If you had to describe Dave Parsons in 5  lines how would you do it?

DP: Ha ha that’s not easy, it’s always easier for someone else to describe. I guess life is a great big learning process, we’ve all done things in life we’re not proud of, and the whole point of these things is not to beat yourself up over them but to make sure we learn from our mistakes and become better people with more compassion and understanding for our fellow human beings, after all we’re all playing the same game – life.

SV: One of the traits of any successful Punk band are the fermenting tensions behind the scenes and like lots of punk groups you’ve suffered the rollercoaster ride of fame, infamy and renaissance. Any regrets at all?

DP: No I don’t think so, there’s always things that happen that are out of your control and you can’t do much about that. Actually I was thinking the other day, the one regret I have was around 1979 when I had a brief Pete Townsend moment, I had this beautiful 60s Gibson SG and at the end of this particular gig we spontaneously smashed up up our gear, back in the dressing room with my guitar in about three pieces it hit home what I’d just done, especially as today SG’s are my favourite choice of guitar, oh well, as I said you live and learn.