From left, Steve Grainger - drums, Nic Austin - guitar, Gene October - vocals, Mat Sargent - bass and Rob Miller - lead guitar. Photographer - Hayley Jupp.
Gene October gripped the microphone so tightly it was as if he would snap the helpless but crucial object into bits. With beads of sweat dripping down his scowling face, the gutsy Chelsea frontman spit out his lyrics as if they were written specifically for the fans raging in front of him.
As the vocalist leaned into the crowd at Seattle's DV8 in the summer of 1999 on the Social Chaos tour, we were hanging onto every word that shot forth from his mouth -- and his soul. The songs that once blasted through my bedroom speakers in the early 1980s were finally searing through my ears in a live setting. The 15-year-old punk inside of me was bursting through my now adult body. It was fucking worth the wait.
Leaping into the present -- but also giving a major nod to the band's past -- October and his mates have a stellar 2021 album, "Meanwhile Gardens," on their hands and have dug back into their vault and are primed to unleash a new in-studio live recording of the classic album, "Evacuate," that first stoked us in 1982. We're on fire all over again.
In separate phoners with October and guitarist Nic Austin earlier this month, the duo spoke from England about the two albums, the band's longevity and life during the pandemic.
Starting with "Meanwhile Gardens," October -- who formed the band in 1976 in London -- said they wrote and recorded the 13 tracks during the COVID-19 lockdown. There were no gigs to play because venues were shuttered, so the lads found windows of opportunity to enter the studio and bring October's dream of days past to life.
Austin -- who joined the band in 1982 -- said they had luck on their side while working diligently during difficult circumstances, and it was a minor miracle they pulled it off during lockdowns. The Kickstarter album features some longtime supporters singing backup vocals and was a trip down memory lane for all involved. Austin has received favorable feedback from those he's spoken to about the album and is thrilled that people remain interested in what they're bringing to the punk table. In the writing realm, Austin penned three tracks, October wrote three, bassist Mat Sargent wrote one, and Austin and Sargent paired up on six.
We'll let October kick things off with his description of "Meanwhile Gardens":
"I had this idea of going back to Meanwhile Gardens. In my sleep, I had a dream about it. It's an area off Portobello Road in west London, a community area where there was a stage and people just used to turn up, plug in and go for it. You never knew who was gonna play and you used to go, 'Who's that band?' or whatever," he said while taking the first steps on his journey back in time. "We're looking at say '75, '76, '77 era, where you'd get all kinds of bands. You'd get the Here and Now, the Gong, sort of like a lot of reggae acts 'cause there was a lot of dread guys in that area. You'd get the 101'ers, pre-Clash. The Boys. Everybody just turning up, just trying their stuff out, all rehearsing their band for free. A space where they could do a gig or just have a go. On a Saturday afternoon, it was where everybody hung out anyway, Portobello Road. It was a very bohemian atmosphere, sort of like Greenwich Village in New York, where loads of artists, musicians and all kinds of people went down there, it was very popular. Lot of bars down there where you could just start at one end of the road (chuckles) and then down the other end of the road 10 bars later... and end up at Meanwhile Gardens with a couple of cans in your hand and just sit there."
Chelsea never played the gardens, but October became acquainted with his early band members Tony James and Billy Idol there. It was the place to be if you were into the music scene.
"That area was where music people liked to hang around, and if they looked good, you used to stop them and go, 'Hey, can you play?' And then you were lucky enough to, 'Yeah, I'm a bass player' or whatever. There were a lot of people in them days wanted to do it, so they couldn't really play, but they said, 'Yeah.' And they played later (laughs)," October added.
October feels the catchy title track would find a home on American college radio stations. On the whole, the stellar album features two songs, "World Wide Domination" and "Here and Now," that namecheck bands from his Meanwhile Gardens days, and "Ladbroke Grove" is a street where he resided on for seven years. Along with soaking up the tunes, October reminisced about bumping into Joe Strummer or Paul Simonon in a Portobello Road bar playing pool or downing some drinks during those halcyon Saturdays.
It's Austin's turn to dig into the latest album in Chelsea's treasure chest of punk gems:
"The song 'Meanwhile Gardens' is just about sort of going somewhere where you feel like you belong," he began.
"The idea was that it was gonna be our last studio album as such. So we went to a lot of time and trouble kind of writing all the material. I think we're all very pleased with how it came out. It just sort of tells a bit of a story about the times and just the energy and how everyone felt at the time. It's sort of a romantic kind of look back at the times, 'cause times have changed dramatically now and the line in 'Meanwhile Gardens,' 'Take me back to Meanwhile Gardens,' it's sort of take me back to where it all made sense (laughs)."
The album was recorded during chaotic, uncertain times, and Chelsea was trying to deliver something positive out of the situation. "I think it helped us and hopefully everyone that hears it might help them a bit," Austin added.
Let's move over to the "Evacuate (Revisited)" album, a brilliant 10-song set that has certainly stood the test of time and still resonates lyrics-wise to this day. You can't help but sing along and raise your fist -- and a pint -- while giving your mind and body a workout to this platter.
Chelsea recorded the revisitation in December of 2021 and it will hit the proverbial streets this April, a month during which they have gigs in London and Brighton on the docket. Later to come will be the Undercover and Rebellion festivals. Fingers crossed.
So the burning question is why bring "Evacuate" back to life?
"I think it was quite important to remind people what a great album that was: A. And B: There's some very important messages on it, I think, which relate to today. You know, the general atmosphere of today, what people are going through. It was worth going back on that again and reminding people," said October, noting that the title track and "Last Drink" especially resonate with listeners in modern times.
Like the pro he is, October nailed the vocals on the first take and evidence exists on the band's Facebook page.
"Yeah, what's wrong with that? Aren't you supposed to do that?" he said with pride. "Well, A, we ain't got the money, right? Studio time, it's not cheap. And, B, it's kind of taught me to get the job done in one, if you can. To save costs. We've always had that kind of discipline anyway because anything we do album-wise we've had to finish a whole album in four or five days. Backing tracks, vocals -- the lot."
Austin penned five songs, including the infectious title track, October brought forth two (one with Stephen Corfield) and Austin and October tag-teamed on two tunes. "Looks Right" and "War Across the Nation" are especially stunning anthems.
The guitarist noted that they recorded the album mostly live in the studio with next to no overdubs.
"Chelsea have always had a reputation of being sort of a great live band and so we wanted to try and get that across with this new sort of live recording, if you like," Austin said. "To get away from the layering of upon tracks and things and just have it raw, and the two guitars, bass, drums and vocals. It's basically how we see the 'Evacuate' album now. It's been very strange with the 'Evacuate' album, obviously 40 years ago when we did it-- it was just what we did at the time. With time passing and hearing what people say, it's been regarded as a bit of a punk classic."
It's been an interesting and fun experience for Austin, who has not played some of the songs for 40 years.
"It's just been quite surreal, actually, just revisiting the whole thing, and you can't help thinking to yourself, 'Blimey! 40 years? All've gone quick," he said with a laugh.
Austin echoed October's sentiments that the lyrical themes still ring true in 2022. "The world has moved so far away from making any sense whatsoever, and it's like, sort of those early punk days and things, everyone was trying to change the things that were wrong, but it all felt achievable back then," he said. "It feels like sort of resurrecting something that had hope in it."
Austin elaborated on those thoughts: "It's been nice for the band to kind of go through all the stuff and bring back a lot of memories, but it also sort of fires you up and gives you a little bit of enthusiasm for the fight now." All the while, bringing fans along for the ride and hopefully lifting their spirits and getting them out to gigs again.
'IT'S JUST GOOD FOR THE SOUL'
October's been roaring into a microphone for 46 years now and he's just doing his thing like he always has without thinking about how the years have rolled by.
Longevity isn't a word that exists in his lexicon.
"I never really thought of it in that respect. You remind me and a lot of people remind me. I kind of just think, 'Oh, all right, we've got some gigs booked here in two months time,' and I just think, 'Right, get them gigs done,'" he said. "I don't really think of it in the long term. I never thought way back I'd be doing it long term -- just did it there and then, it's just ended up going on and on and on and on. And I've enjoyed it. If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't do it."
When asked his age, October quipped: "25 next week...I'm not a youngster, I'm 68. I just get on with it. I don't bother with birthdays, I never have. Who wants to be reminded they're another year older?"
With heaps of thoughtful, corking songs and attitude under its belt, Chelsea has played its own game and never became involved with major labels. October encourages people to write truthfully and about things around them. And stay cool, of course.
October would like Chelsea to be remembered as: "A band that tried, a band that cared, a band that spoke for the people and a band respected for staying the way they wanna think. Doing it their way."
And he's already had a dream about where he wants the next Chelsea album to go. Songs are in the works, he says, but he's not giving away any clues yet.
As for Austin, he's sitting at the age 60 mark and has never stopped writing songs. He's plugging away on Gibson SGs these days and helping create the best Chelsea sound possible alongside October, Sargent, lead guitarist Rob Miller and drummer Steve Grainger.
They don't gig as much as they used to, but they're making every one count, he said. Same goes for the precious time in the studio.
Austin notes: "It's really good to get together and play, especially 'cause we've had little windows in the lockdowns and things where we could do stuff. Apart from anything else, it's just good for the soul doing something, innit? Having human contact."