Bridget Wishart sang for the Hippy Slags from 1987-1990, before joining Hawkwind. ‘Who…’, you say? Yes the Hippy Slags, a group of youths from Bath in Somerset who were part of the English West Country punk and traveller scene, alongside bands like Amebix and Smart Pils, sometimes playing at gigs ( in actual towns, with running water ) as well as those lawless festivals in many an unsuspecting farmer’s field that were a feature of those times, with all the fun of the increasingly out-of-control and pissed-off with-everyone new-age traveller movement, their feral kids running up to you, kicking you in shins and calling you a ‘yuppy’ for not being covered from head to foot in dirt like they were, and local farmer types driving past in cars shouting ‘get a job!’ every five minutes. Yes it was certainly an interesting period, where ideology collided with grim establishment reality, and there was only ever going to be one winner…
But there were lots of good things happening too! ‘The Slags’ ( as they were affectionately known ) stood out as more punk rock than all the deep reggae / dance stuff most of the festivals were beginning to play ( techno and rave were only a couple of years away after all), and we loved them for it – good songs, driving bass lines, inventive guitars…imagine if Lemmy had stayed in Hawkwind, and they’d got Poison Ivy and Ari Up, they had that kind of feel. Granted, apart from a handful of recorded tracks, a few pictures, a lot of blurry memories, and interviews in books you’d need to be an old punk to own anyway, there isn’t much of a tribute to this wonderful band on the web. But maybe we can put that right! Here, we look back with a mixture of amusement and horror at the chaotic end of the 1980s in the UK, certainly a challenging time if you had dared to ‘opt out’ in any way, a time when very, very few people actually took a camera with them anywhere, nobody had any money ( and I mean they had NO money ), and living in the moment was the order of the day. So, on to the band….this may well end up being a live document with more stuff added over coming weeks, but let’s see what Bridget remembers….and if you’re still unsure as to whether to read on, well, ask yourself, who looks more fun – this lot, or the Stranglers?
Brilliant to have you here Bridget! Let’s go back 30 years and to the Hippy Slags. You always looked like you were having the time of your life. In every photo, everyone looks happy…what were the best times, and the best gigs?
The gigs weren’t always the best part. The onstage sound was often appalling. Some of us suffered terrible stage fright. We did a few gigs with Culture Shock, they were good fun. The Fleece in Bristol being a stand out gig. When we supported Hawkwind we had great onstage sound but not much audience participation which was off putting. The best gig for me was at Moles, Bath. The Battle of the Bands final. The audience were mega, the vibe was electric. I couldn’t see how we wouldn’t win but we didn’t. Hugh Cornwall was one of the judges and said we were ‘derivative’. However, the band he voted for, John’s Brother, won but were exactly like Talking Heads! 😂 The practices were the most fun. Playing and writing music together. Vodka may have been consumed…
How would you explain a band like yours to a young person now? Do you have to do that very often?
Young people? Most young people I’ve met aren’t really interested in bands as such, they really like music but are into DJ’s or rap or grime. Those that are interested haven’t asked me too much about it.
Perhaps you approached the Hippy Slags as much as an artist, as a musician? I wonder if that was part of your success?
When I was in the Slags I was teaching art. I didn’t have time to be an artist. Claire was more into art at the time. She did a lot of the gig posters. We did design the Tshirt together tho.
‘Oh no not Hawkwind again'( lyric from the Electric Landlady track ‘Sunlight on the Truncheons’ ), was a masterstroke, as was the band name – surely some of you ended up in marketing?
That was before my time. I did love singing those lines tho! Particularly at Hawkwind gigs! 😂
Of all the people I knew at the time, they all respected the Hippy Slags as a really good band. With the name, did you face any problems at the time within the scene? Reclaiming a negative is surely a powerful thing. But maybe some people didn’t do irony?
Some people struggle with the name. To me it was a rallying cry. Cycling thru town someone would yell ‘Slags!’ – you knew it was a compliment.
I wonder where you got your spirit of adventure from? Did your parents contribute in some way to you choosing that lifestyle? Are / were any of them hippy rebels?
My dad was in the navy we travelled a lot when I was young. I went to 5 different primary schools and then got sent to Boarding School. My mum is a strong minded creative person. Mostly, I inherited the best of them, though I’m not blessed with academic intelligence or focused thinking. I am naturally rebellious, always concerned for other’s rights and very creative. I can be easily distracted, forgetful and have obsessions that suddenly appear or disappear overnight. My mum’s youngest sister was a beatnik, into sufiism, vegetarianism and bands like Can and Pink Floyd. She moved into a commune when I was 14. She had quite an influence on me.
I think the first time I saw you was at Aktivator at Bushley. It was my first festival and I was a bit shocked at the total anarchy of it all. I bought some home made ‘scrumpy’ off a traveller ( it tasted like petrol ) , and god knows what was in it, but it didn’t stay down long, and it was a bit of a blur. Some of those festivals felt like you could have been in a time many centuries ago…how was it for you?
88 Activator was organised by my landlord, Adrian. I don’t even know if he was even 20 when he organised it. His mum owned the farm and had held Rainbow Camps there. I don’t think any of us knew quite what we were letting ourselves in for. Festivals had changed by then. Thatcher had introduced the Poll Tax. The Brew Crew were prevalent. There was always an edge of anarchy at festivals but it grew into something quite antisocial. Surrounding farmers in Bushley had sheep killed by dogs and some travellers refused to leave the site for months.
Did any of you take the plunge and become travellers? Or were you always in the periphery? The difference between being alternative then and now is that most people actually lived the life 24/7. Was that a good thing? Or maybe the smart people kept one foot in the real world?
Rachel, the Slag’s original drummer, was a traveller. That’s why she left. Batty, the original singer had links to many travellers.
Looking back at the freedom you had, if you have children or young relatives – would you want them doing the same things as you were up to?
We had freedom as young adults because we were able to sign on, leave home and live in squats. It meant we could live an alternative lifestyle, write music, go to festivals and be in bands. We were extremely poor but incredibly free. As time went on Claire and Sarah formed a gardening and cleaning business together, I became an art student so we didn’t have to rely on the dole. The prevalence of drugs and related crime and violence was the main negative aspect of that lifestyle. I wouldn’t want anyone in my family involved in that.
Do you think experiencing any negativity of that time – infiltration of drugs and crimimal gangs, police state etc – affected your outlook in your later life?
I was really sad and shocked at how the festival and travelling life style deteriorated. Obviously it wasn’t everyone who went bad. A lot of folks went abroad or got jobs and homes but the craziness of Telscombe when our gig got disrupted and Dave’s bus got trashed and burned was the last time I was part of that scene.
I ended up teaching guitar for a living, and I get people from all walks of life – ex-policemen, ex-soldiers. I guess the police were just happy to tar everyone with the same brush at the time. Most of them have softened a bit….but they still seem to be quite black and white. Do you ever come across authority figures from those times today?
No. There must have been so many positives though.
Did you learn any pearls of wisdom from wise traveller types in those years?
No! I thought they were wise at the time but it was because I was young and naiive.
To my ears, you were just playing naturally what you wanted to play rather than trying to be like anyone….I guess the closest comparison could be the Slits, but that would be a lazy one. What was going through your minds at the time, influence wise, if anything?
I don’t recall we ever tried to sound like anyone. We just tried to play music. That was the great thing, none of us were experienced musicians. Sarah was the most talented of us. We wrote songs and worked out what we needed to do in order to play them!
On gender – does who you are, and how you are perceived by others, rightly or wrongly, affect how you express yourself in art, and how that art is received? And if so, why not play it to your advantage?
We didn’t think about it too much at the time but us being girl band did have an effect. We didn’t take advantage of it though we enjoyed it. I think our male friends and the other bands around were proud of us. Being in an all girl band was good fun. Until it went pear shaped… Oops! Certainly, it was the best band I’ve ever been in. At the time there were loads of strong women on the scene. Punk rock as a genre wasn’t sexist. Siouxsie was cool, so was Patti Smith and Tina, the bassist from Talking Heads plus Ari from the Slits. I could go on. It wasn’t until I was in Hawkwind that I realised my gender could be held against me. Some fans felt that Hawkwind and spacerock should be played by men. Dancers could be female but not musicians. Well, bollocks to that! 😀
The second time I saw the Slags, you were supporting Hawkwind, and again looking like you were having a great time. Claire was on bass and she looked brilliant – staring the audience out with a big grin – and my mate was enthusiastically gushing that she was ‘his kind of woman’, and that he should ask her out. He got sidetracked with a spliff though, so she had a lucky escape, I think. Did fanboy ‘romance’ from the audience occur particularly often?
No! 😂 Or not when I was in the Slags, yes when I was in Hawkwind but I didn’t pay it any attention. Just made me feel incredibly uncomfortable.
Are you aware of any bands or younger people that you might have influenced?
How was the reunion in ’07? Are there any videos of it?
It was great! We rehearsed in Jasp’ house in Bath ( Culture Shock). It felt good to be playing the songs again, the old magic was still there. Yes, there is a vid.
In your book Festivalised, Claire says that you recorded two tracks for TAT, but ( perhaps due to someone accidentally turning the tape over in the four track and using the ‘other side’? ) only the slow one got on there. But’s Cats Mother doesn’t sound particularly slow to me….how fast was the fast one? Cat’s Mother is a great track too!
They didn’t use the other side… It was a reel to reel…what they must have done was rewind the tape and record over it. It was very fast! And it was a much better song!
The traveller movement was all about the moment, so you recorded only a little – are there any undiscovered recordings languishing on bookshelves? If not, is that something you regret now?
There are a few live recordings, a 4 track demo of dubious songs… nothing of any quality. I really regret that. Home recording was hard to do. None of us had any money to go into the studio.
Any plans to rerelease Electric Landlady? My copy is 90% tape hiss. Maybe someone could get hold of the original tape and master it?
Claire has reminded me that actually there are plans afoot, in the not too distant future, to revamp and re-release Electric Landlady in the USA with Jack Gold-Molina, an American drummer, who has worked with Spirits Burning and Nik Turner.
How different would your life/lives have been if it weren’t for the band?
Don’t think it would have been that different…I was also massively into art so I’d have probably just concentrated on that aspect more.
How much does art and music making factor in your life today?
I have a part time job. The rest of the time I spend as little as necessary on cooking, cleaning, washing etc and as much as possible on art and music. I’m always writing songs with my partner, Martin, the other half of Chumley Warner Brothers. I’m also working on a recording project with Steve Bemand. Other projects with Spirits Burning and Omenopus are in the pipeline
How has 2020 been?
As a TA in a local Primary School I worked through the first Lock Down. We were teaching children of key workers. It was a scary time because no-one knew about the disease. As there were fewer pupils in, I wasn’t needed every day so had more time for music and art. (Work is still scary, staff or pupils are often away, isolating due to family members testing positive or waiting for test results.)
All our (Chumley Warner Brothers) gigs were cancelled but thankfully, Koz Fest went ahead online and invited bands to send a video. Making that was challenging, creative and good fun! I have really enjoyed revisiting drawing and using coloured pencils. I put the best ones into a limited edition bird and butterfly calendar. (I’ll give them out as Christmas presents).
2020 saw the completion of Ghost (Bridget Wishart and the Band of Doctors ) and Submarine Broadcasting Company released it on Halloween, with all proceeds go to Refugee Action. I’m really pleased with how this turned out! Other projects are stirring in the pot but they’re not quite ready for unveiling. With the craziness of the political stage, Brexit and the Pandemic, 2020 has been full of major downs but I’m trying to focus on what I can do not on what I can’t change. I’ll go crazy otherwise!
Why is your name spelled wrong so often?
I think the original spelling mistake was on the Space Bandits record cover… Dave Brock sometimes spelled my name with two t’s so it could stem from that.
Would you have done anything differently?
Loads! I sometimes wish I’d never joined Hawkwind, there were so many sad things that happened as a result but I if I hadn’t I wouldn’t be who I am today. I do wish I hadn’t been so naive though. I would have earned more from my songs!
What would you have said to your younger selves when you were starting out?
Go for it! Watch out for sharks!
Plans for 2021 and beyond?
A Chumley Warner Brothers CD… it has to happen one day! Another album with The Band of Doctors. Regain lost fitness. See all my children.
If you could change the world, in a sentence?
Heal humanity, then no one can be a baddy.
Read more about the events that changed the English traveller movement here: http://digitaljournalist.eu/OnTheRoad/battle-of-the-beanfield/
If you’d like to unravel some of the mystery of the lineups and various side projects of the band then check out Bridget’s book Festivalised, and also Ian Glasper’s book Trapped in a Scene