In December 2008, PAULINE MURRAY and ROBERT BLAMIRE of Penetration talk to SIMON McKAY about announcing the band's break up on-stage at Newcastle in 1979; and Pauline retiring at 23 because she says she was 'an old fart'.
PENETRATION - Pauline Murray at Newcastle Polytechnic
Penetration were amongst the first salvo of groups associated with punk. Inspired by a Sex Pistols performance, they formed in 1976 and the following year released their first single, 'Don't Dictate', on Virgin Records. During the next three years, despite line up changes, they released further singles and their debut album 'Moving Targets'. In 1979 they toured the UK to promote the follow up album, 'Coming Up For Air'. It was to be the major tour that would establish them commercially but at their hometown gig, in Newcastle, singer Pauline Murray announced, "This is the last gig that this line up is ever going to do here... I think everything's got to change after a while". The words didn't make it entirely clear but the subsequent emotional rendition of 'all of their old songs' marked the end of Penetration. They played the rest of the set to fans who were stunned (I was in denial and even now, listening to the recording to get the 'split' quote sent a shiver down my spine). At the same they were excited to be caught up in a moment of such passion. This was breaking news and would feature heavily in the following week's music papers.
Thirty years on, Pauline Murray and Robert Blamire are performing as Penetration again. They meet with Eccentric Sleeve Notes on a rainy day in Kentish Town. Pauline reflects upon the final Newcastle performance: "I shouldn't have said it… I think it was shocking to people. I didn't realise how devoted people were. We were very idealistic and true to ourselves. If it wasn't working, we couldn't put a fake on it. It was very cut and dried." Although the group had agreed to split at the end of the tour the announcement was unplanned. "It came out didn't it? Being a very honest person I have to say what I think." Once it was said, the group were able to connect with the audience and give the performance needed to mark the occasion.
PENETRATION - Pauline Murray (Robert Blamire in background)
Newcastle City Hall
The show has since been released on a double CD called 'Penetration Live 1978/79'. (The 1978 recording is from Thames Polytechnic.) Excerpts from both shows were released in 1979 but this time it's complete. It even has the gaps between the encores and in its spontaneous glory - the split announcement. It seems Pauline is still a little haunted by that night as she admits that she hasn't listened to the recording even though it was her and Robert who arranged the release through the Easy Action label. There's a lovely irony to the emergence of the Newcastle recording. When the NME reported the split they mentioned Virgin's mobile recording van being stationed outside the venue and quoted a passing band member as sniggering, "They won't get anything from that for a live album."
In 1979, Penetration were in step with the times and seemed to be on the verge of a major commercial breakthrough. Pauline agrees, "We packed up at the peak really. Neale Floyd said he was leaving and I thought 'I've had enough of this'. There was a lot of conflict between him and Fred Purser. When we added Fred maybe Neale felt intimidated that Fred was such a virtuoso but Neale was a very good guitarist too and he came up with good song ideas."
"He underplayed himself; he didn't see his value," adds Robert.
Pauline continues. "We'd also done a five week tour of America, which was quite gruelling. We'd had a lot of internal wrangling and had to come back and record our second album straight away. Neale announced his decision as the band were about to do a major tour to promote the album. Pauline comments on the fighting within the band: "We'd already been 'going at it' for quite some time. We might have needed to take a step back in order to go forward. We were just out there, young; we didn't realise what we had."
There was a lot of pressure from the label. In 1979 Virgin Records had an impressive roster; Penetration, XTC, Devo, Ruts, Members and The Skids. They wanted to make their mark and were keen to break America. Pauline says this was when the band were 'connected to the machine': "It was too much. It was non-stop. We were physically and mentally burnt out. We were really young. It was something that we loved to do but we worked so much that we just got sick of it. It became a job and that's not what I'd want to do as a job." Robert agrees, "We never saw it as a career... But if you've got management it's the way that you're going to climb up the ladder. You go out there and work."
PENETRATION - Pauline Murray and Gary Chaplin 1977
'Connecting to the machine' had been gradual and had produced an early casualty in Gary Chaplin, the guitarist who was a key member in the original line up. In 1978 with only 'Don't Dictate' released, he suddenly left. Pauline explains, "We'd just signed up to a management company and that seemed to be the point that Gary lost his bottle. I think he got frightened or he didn't like what was happening. He'd had a lot of control over the band previously - he did a lot of phoning. When we signed with the management company he lost his control… I found an old diary recently and I was amazed that he'd only given us one week's notice before we went on a Buzzcocks tour."
Neale Floyd had a week to prepare for a full national tour of 30 dates. "He was a fan of the band and used to come and see us so he knew the songs. We showed him all the parts and we went off on the Buzzcocks tour; just the four of us. Neale had never played before."
The band had already recorded the next single, Firing Squad. Pauline continues, "Gary Chaplin did it originally with his solo in the middle. He said he was leaving the band. We weren't very happy about it so we erased his solo and Neale played it. Gary's rhythm is still on there but no solo and he didn't get his picture on the sleeve…It's a shame that he left. He was a good guitarist and a good songwriter. He was a bit of a showman… the last person that I thought would leave the band. But these things happen... We carried on."
By the time Penetration recorded their debut album, Moving Targets, they had added a second guitarist, Fred Purser. His addition caused a stir amongst the fans and in the press. For a band associated with punk to bring in a guitarist that looked and sounded like he was into heavy metal was always going to meet resistance. "We didn't realise. We just went with what we thought was right. Virgin weren't starting to move on an album: they thought we needed another instrument in there so we added Fred. I really loved The Only Ones at the time and his playing reminded me of that and I thought, 'Ah, that's it.' We just added him. We didn't even think 'what would the fans think?' …They didn't take it too well… He got stick but if you look at old photos now, he actually looks good."
It's obvious from his quotes in interviews with the band in the 70s that Fred was a sensitive man; he talked about his emotions! Not something that was commonly done at the time. Pauline describes him as a really nice guy and certainly appreciates his musical contribution: "I don't think we'd have made albums as good without him because it did add another dimension it's given it a more long lasting thing. It would have been much more limited had we not got him in." It's certainly true that listening now to something like the sessions Penetration recorded for John Peel, Fred Purser's guitar adds a depth and richness - it sounds great - however, there may have been a few 'told you so' comments when, after Penetration split, he joined Tygers of Pan Tang!
PENETRATION - Pauline Murray and Fred Purser
It was deeply unfashionable for Penetration to have a guitarist that looked like a roadie but that shouldn't be such a surprise. The band often found themselves on the outside. Maybe it was coming from Ferryhill; every article about the band used to stress that, but as Pauline says, "It was an amazing thing to come from a tiny village like that. How did we get out of there? People in London always think they're the centre of the universe and they know everything and they set the scene. People away from the scene, read the music papers, take the information in but process it in a different way. You take an influence from it and have a different view point... that's not to say that you know nothing. You perhaps know more because you filtered it." With a typical understatement, Rob adds, "We were never at the hub of the music business. We'd [come to London,] do our thing and leave. We were never ambitious to the point that we'd sweet talk somebody and lick their arse. The Stings of this world were a bit older and knew what to do to get on. He'd had one go at it already."
Penetration had the same management as Status Quo and Rory Gallagher, but again, found themselves on the outside when they did a tour of France with Rory Gallagher. Pauline opposed it saying it wasn't the right tour for Penetration to do. "None of the band backed me up and we ended up going. The audience hated us. They used to throw stuff at us every night. But Rory Gallagher was lovely - put us up in the same hotels. They really looked after us well. We did a whole tour of France with them and we got pelted off every night: absolute mismatch."
In the digital age, there's so much information to be found about a band from the moment they emerge and forever after their demise that any mystique has gone. In the late 70s, fans waited until the music papers were published on a Thursday to get a few paragraphs on a band and perhaps a few pictures. They didn't really know what the band looked like until they went to a gig. Robert agrees that there were limited channels to receive information. "You had to buy a record to get the music and it was only available from certain places. You'd study the music papers. It meant a lot. There's really only the NME left from that 'inky' era and that's been an imposter for quite a number of years. It's NME in title only. It's a brand. It's not the NME that we used to read."
PENETRATION - Pauline Murray on stage
Although Penetration didn't make an impression on the charts they were always rated highly in the end of year polls by the writers and the readers in papers such as NME. Pauline Murray was a big name as a singer and often pictured in the news or gigs section. Penetration were renowned for being a good live band but they didn't get the hits and consequently they can't pull crowds now in the way that the Stranglers or the Buzzcocks can. Pauline says, "It's slow but we'll get there." She's always worked hard to connect with the audience, and was particularly successful in the 70s at reaching the young punk girls. It wasn't just being female - she was never aloof and that was important. Pauline agrees, "I was one of the people. It was very liberating for women at the time. I always thought of myself and still do, as a member of the band."
It was the nature of punk - extreme and unsustainable - that it would burn very brightly and not last long. "It was fairly limited as a musical form but you've got to take into account what went on around it, the energy, the insight into life that you wouldn't have had; the fashion. It was very innovative."
Very few of the first wave of bands that broke though in 1977 were still around in the early 80s yet 30 years on there's a punk festival up the road featuring Penetration. In the weeks following this interview,Buzzcocks, The Only Ones and The Damned are all playing London. Pauline tells me what she thinks about that: "When I was young and I was in the band, I thought that at 23 I was an old fart. I retired. I thought that's it... too old. But obviously - as you go through life - and as we started to sing these songs again it felt alright. I couldn't have done them if it hadn't. It actually felt relevant again. In some ways, the things that were said need saying again."
Pauline explained that over the years people asked about Penetration getting back together but she never wanted to do it and felt that it was the past, but at the point when two former members got in touch for the first time in years and it came up again, she decided that it wasn't going to go away. "I thought I'd open the door, have a look and give it a try. If I like, I like it; if I don't then I know that's it - forever. We had one rehearsal with the original line up. It was very rusty, obviously, after 20 odd years. Fred, the original guitarist was too busy to do it and Neale was living in London and it wasn't practical. Me, Rob and Gary, the drummer, got together. Paul Harvey was from the Storm Clouds period (of Pauline's solo work). Steve was from a band called Automatic who used to rehearse at Polestar (Pauline and Robert's rehearsal studios in Newcastle) and he was well capable of doing the tricky bits so we got back together as that just to rehearse. Eventually, we rehearsed it until we had a whole set so we thought we'd go out and do something live. That's how it started again really. And it's been fun."
Black and white photos: Rik Walton
In 2015, Penetration released an album of new material called Resolution. The current line-up of the band is Pauline Murray, Robert Blamire, John Maher (ex-Buzzcocks), Paul Harvey and Steve Wallace.