Johnny Thunders in Winchester, 1977

Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, King Alfred’s College, Winchester, May 11, 1977

A traditional teacher training college in the city of Winchester was not the place you’d have expected to experience Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. Rising from the ashes of the New York Dolls and beset with every imaginable problem from work permit issues to hapless heroin addiction, they were working their way round the UK to keep body and soul together. Darlings of the music press, who loved Johnny Thunders’ “wasted elegance” (Julie Burchill described them as “the most immaculate combo on the planet”), the band had been booked in what seems to have been a deliberate attempt by social secretary Don Allen to provoke unrest among the staid college authorities and the thuggish rugby playing student elite. Previous college bookings had been the likes of Julie Felix and the Albion Band, and the Heartbreakers show was originally scheduled for the plush, seated John Stripe Theatre. On the day, however, scruffy punks from all over the country started pitching up and it was hastily moved to the Great Hall, deemed to be harder to trash.

Now a respected author, Mark Hudson then fronted local support band The Ba, effectively Winchester’s only punk outfit, based down at the Art College. Hudson’s memories of Winchester in the seventies accurately recall a certain era when violence was never far from the surface.”“It was a cathedral town with a seedy underbelly. I’d been corralled into the college band, which was led by a guitarist called Nick Jacobs, who dyed his hair aubergine, made his own clothes out of furnishing fabrics and was trying to create an alchemical fusion of Syd Barrett and Dr Feelgood. Our gigs were shambolic affairs, mostly in the dank shed of the students’ union, or in down-at-heel local pubs – our audiences always in a drunken frenzy.”

Andy Dobbs, now a record dealer in Lincoln, was one of the incipient teachers at King Alfred’s. Being a member of the social committee, he was privy to all the shenanigans, of which the audience was blissfully unaware.

“From midday on the day of the gig, we became aware of a sizeable crowd beginning to assemble in the car park. It was decided quickly that we must do whatever it took to change the venue, as already the drama department were freaking out at the very idea of letting the crowd into the theatre. The Great Hall had been booked by one of the PE tutors for a dance class. Eventually, she reluctantly agreed to cancel it.

Then the second problem confronted us, in the form of the HBs’ tour manager, the truly scary Gail Higgins Smith, who declared that the band would be playing for cash, to be paid at the end of the gig. It had been clearly stipulated in the contract, signed weeks before, that payment would be made (for legal and constitutional reasons) by cheque. While the crowd waited outside, contemplating their evening, the KAC Ents committee were locked in a fierce argument in one of the offices over whether we should break with Union rules, or risk the band pulling the gig, with the probability that cancellation might not be well received by the assembled masses.”

Remembering the drugged and desperate remnants of the New York Dolls, Mark Hudson recalls meeting the band in the city centre. “Thunders had very dark, possibly dyed hair, which accentuated alarmingly pale, washed-out skin – so much so that the blood in the rims of his eyes really stood out. Seeing him walking down the high street past the Buttercross with the tour manager, a very big, peroxide blonde American woman, was a surreal sight.”

Mark recalls his contribution to the evening: “‘This one’s for Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’, I yelled. And we’re a lot better than they are!” As I spat out our lyrics, I could see Johnny and his boys, standing in a line at the back, watching us, their unassailable cool disrupted by a look of curiosity that asked, “What is all this about?”’”

The only verbal contact the Ba had with Thunders was when he asked Nick Jacobs what he played:

Nick: “I play guitar.”

Johnny: “Really, I play guitar too.””

Nick: “Do you want a ginger biscuit?””

Johnny: “Not just now, thank you.”

Me, I was there covering the Heartbreakers for the local paper and my memories are of pure enjoyment, and of being surprised how good this supposedly washed-up lot were. How fickle is the memory. When I now look back through my archives, I discover that my review was as sniffy as if it had been written by the college authorities themselves, sanctimoniously referring to them as bad tempered and sneering and as competent as any band of schoolchildren. Well, it was pretty much true, but as a fully paid up punk follower, you’d have thought I’d have been a bit more supportive.

While arguments raged among the Ents committee as to how to solve their various problems, guitarist Walter Lure was causing problems in the student canteen. Failing to understand the convoluted ticketing system, he ended up calling the checkout lady a fucking whore. Meanwhile, the rest of the band was busy spraying “Fuck you, Richard”, presumably a reference to erstwhile member Richard Hell, on the wall of the dressing room.

There were security issues, of course. Andy Dobbs describes the usual hassle of  “the morons from the rugby club who would try to gain access to the gigs solely to start fights. On this night, the security guards stayed until after the end of the gig, for no other reason than to keep student troublemakers out of the hall.””

The band was to split acrimoniously within six months and Thunders himself died in 1991. As for King Alfred’s, the feathers of this traditional establishment had been well and truly ruffled. The subsequent fallout among the student community lasted months, but for everyone else, the memories (even if they do have the benefit of hindsight) are of a wild, unique and legendary evening.

Mark Hudson’s latest book, ‘Titian, the Last Days’ was published by Bloomsbury in October 2010.

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