John Werner seems a quiet, unassuming man.
He arrives at Continental Coffee on Main Street nicely dressed, soft spoken, and bearing a bag of items for show-and-tell, including seven inches by U.K. punk band the Pack and an LP by the Straps, all of which he appears on.
For years, I have known Werner only as the bassist for the Furies—a legendary Vancouver punk band, who, despite their historical importance, playing the first ever self-identified “punk rock” gig in Vancouver back in 1977—have never gotten their due outside the city. But Werner being the bassist for the Furies is enough for me to say hi to him whenever I see him, for instance when I ran into him at a recent photography exhibition by Bev Davies and Art Perry, where a proximal version of the following conversation took place:
John Werner: I’m really excited to be going to England for reunion gigs by the Pack this January. Do you know the Pack? The vocalist, Kirk Brandon, went on to front Theatre of Hate and Spear of Destiny…
Allan MacInnis: I know Theatre of Hate. I don’t really know the Pack, but I love Theatre of Hate’s “Legion”. It’s an all-time punk favourite of mine, actually.
John Werner: I co-wrote it!
I don’t often have recourse to the old cliché about my jaw hitting the floor, but mine did at that moment, as two things completely unconnected in my mind previously suddenly linked up. Thus begins my education in the story of the Pack, a British punk band that, in one early lineup, was three-fourths from Vancouver, featuring Jim Walker (also of the Furies) and John’s late brother Simon.
Simon Werner had been a member of two bands of note hereabouts, Stone Crazy and the Skulls, whose members went on to form DOA and the Subhumans, and who first recorded “Fucked Up Baby”, which Joe Keithley continues to revise for each new President or Prime Minister who earns his wrath.
I knew that various Vancouverites had gone to England in pursuit of wider fame, with the Pointed Sticks recording for Stiff Records, and Jim Walker appearing on PiL’s first album.
But I never knew that John and Simon Werner had been in the Pack, nor did I know the Pack’s recorded output at all (available, for those disinclined to buy pricy seven inches, on the compilation Dead Ronin, which you can get through Kirk Brandon’s website). By the time Werner arrives at Continental to fill in the blanks for me, I’ve become a fast fan.
“The Skulls were going to move over to England, but then Joe [Keithley] didn’t go, and Brian [Goble] decided he didn’t want to stay,” Werner explains to me over an Americano.
"Jim Walker was already there, and Simon stayed behind after Goble left, so when John arrived, the three Vancouverites—the Werners and Walker—tried to team up.
“We got together, and we were going to start another band in England, the three of us. But we always fought like cats and dogs, and that happened again, so we decided, ‘Oh, fuck it, we’re not going to bother.’ So we started going to auditions in Melody Maker, where all the musicians’ classifieds were. Jim got the gig with Public Image. It was when the Pistols had not long broken up, and everyone wondered what Johnny Rotten was doing, so Jim went and auditioned and got into that, and then he was thrust into the limelight; the next week, he was all over the music papers, and he was on Top of the Pops and everything else, so that was an interesting ride for him. I joined a band, the Edge, which was two former members of the second version of the Damned, Jon Moss and Lu. Jon Moss later played in Culture Club. I played with them for a month and a half or something, played a couple of gigs with them, at the Marquee and the Nashville, which was a popular club at the time. And they fired me because Lu and I did not get along very well. My brother, Simon, had joined the Pack, and Kirk, the singer, was at that time the bass player and singing also, and they decided Kirk’s gotta do one or the other. So they said, ‘Do you want to join the Pack?’ I was a little apprehensive at first, because they were kind of a wild bunch, but I did join them, and we started playing. The first drummer was Rab Fae Beith, who later on played with the Wall and the UK Subs, and then we ended up firing him, and Jim Walker had quit PiL by that time, so he joined us. That’s kind of a thumbnail history.”
Werner hails from Bournemouth, England, originally, but his parents moved to Alberta when he was young, in the mid-1970s. That’s where he started out with rock music, playing in cover bands, doing “all the usual stuff that you had to do—Led Zeppelin, ‘Smoke on the Water’, stuff like that. I moved to Vancouver in December of 1976 and played in cover bands for awhile there, too, and then punk reared its head. I just started hearing about it in the news, and my brother Simon and Jim really got into it. I remember when Simon was in Stone Crazy, and he made them cut their hair or whatever. They were doing Status Quo covers and stuff like that, and all of a sudden they became punks. They were the only ones—the Furies, the Skulls, and then the Dishrags, over on the island. There weren’t many people involved in the scene; it was mostly arts people, I guess. It was an idealistic movement, very anti-establishment, and you just got fired up with this zeal about the whole thing. There was a strong mood about; it felt, it felt kind of self-righteous, really.”
Werner didn’t get involved with the Furies immediately—and he was not at that legendary first punk show in Vancouver, with the Furies and Dishrags at the Japanese Hall, on July 30, 1977, though he did catch them live before he signed up, and knows the backstory well enough.
“Jim saw an ad from Chris Arnett of the Furies in a music store, I think it was: ‘Looking to start a band with New York type sound,’ something along those lines.” (Arnett was following Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls and such—a variety of punk that wasn’t really on John Werner’s radar at the time.)
“So Jim joined him, and they started playing with Malcolm Hasman—you know, the realtor? He was the first bass player with the Furies; and then Malcolm decided he wanted to leave. They asked me to join, and I was still playing in a cover band called Zany McLean. I’d become interested in punk rock, so I cut my hair and just started playing punk. When I saw the Ramones that summer at the Commodore, that was what really put me over the edge for it.”
Werner only ever played a few shows with the Furies before they took a nearly 30-year hiatus.
“I remember we did a television show that broadcast live from the PNE—that was weird! I think we played two or three songs on that, and it was broadcast across Canada. We did play the Japanese Hall a little later, with the Skulls, and I forget who else, and we did a show in Seattle with the Lewd at the Oddfellows Hall there. That was a pretty great show; it was packed actually.”
When the Furies broke up, it seemed like England was the place for an aspiring punk bassist to go.
“It seemed like that’s where it was really happening, the source of it and stuff.”
Asked what British punk bands he enjoyed, Werner responds, “I was really into the usual things—the Damned, the Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, and some of the smaller ones like Johnny Moped” (whose “Incendiary Device” is on a short list with the Subhumans’ “Urban Guerrilla” of songs that mention gelignite in their lyrics).
“Jim was in Public Image until January 1979, or something like that. He was there for eight months. He got kind of freaked out by their lifestyle, which was pretty crazy. Jim rented the apartment that Johnny Rotten owned, right below Johnny’s own apartment, and Simon and I lived there, too, so I got a good taste of the lifestyle, as well. They’d get up at ten o’clock at night, and on would go the massive stereo, all night, reggae and stuff like that, and they’d be drinking and taking speed, I guess, all night, and that was every day. At the time we were kind of annoyed that Public Image had everything given to them on a silver platter like that, and the only reason I felt that they did the album was that Virgin said, ‘No more money’—they’d given them 50 percent of their advance, and they were just jamming here and there, stuff like that, frittering away their advance. So they went in that weekend and recorded Public Image. It was a series of jams, basically. I did go in when they were mixing that single, actually, in Abbey Road—that’s where they did it—and Jim said, ‘Oh, come down and have a listen, have a look at Abbey Road.’ So I did. It was pretty interesting.”
There were a few interactions with Johnny Rotten during that period, but the most memorable story involves Sid Vicious. It’s a tale also told by Werner in Chris Walter’s Misfits and Miscreants: An Oral History of Canadian Punk Rock, but it bears repeating.
“Where I slept, it’s like those old row houses in England: there’s kind of a basement apartment, then you go up some stairs, to what is called the first floor; that was the level that I was on, and then Johnny Rotten’s was on the second floor. So I was right by the porch where you knock on the door—that was right where I slept, by the window. And I heard a terrific noise, screaming and yelling and stuff like that, and it was Sid Vicious and Nancy, and they were drunk, stoned probably, trying to come into Johnny Rotten’s place. And [Johnny] had this little entourage, henchmen I guess you could call them, and had two or three of them chase them down the road with a hatchet! I remember that, looking out the window, seeing that happening. People were wild back then.” Including Werner, who cops to a fair share of debauchery, drugs and drinking himself.
“Young and stupid, right?”
Kirk Brandon’s unique vocal style—which, especially in the early days, sometimes involved extending a single screamed word or syllable through the space of a whole verse—struck Werner the first time he heard it.
“It was unique, I think, actually. They were called the Pack of Lies before they were called the Pack, and my brother Simon went to an audition with them, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to join them. He brought the tape home, and I listened to it, and there was something about it. And he said, ‘What do you think, John’ and I said, ‘There’s something about this, Simon; I think you should join it, actually—there’s something very interesting in that voice.’ I remember saying that very well. He said, ‘I’ll give it a try… they’re kind of crazy guys.’ And then after I got sacked from the Edge, they asked me if I wanted to join as well, so I did! I was apprehensive at the time, too.”
Brandon’s lyrics also were quite arresting.
Like many young punks, Brandon’s views were strongly anti-establishment and concerned with social injustice, but filtered through a rather striking take on Christianity—hostile, but in a way that shows a deeper than average familiarity with scripture, with “Legion” drawing on a Biblical story, and “King of Kings” taking a disrespectful poke at the crucified Christ, with the singer declaring himself “the Alpha and Omega” and taunting Christ to pick up his crown.
Controversies over accused acts of blasphemy were not unknown on the British punk scene. The first version of Crass’ “Asylum", for instance—recorded around the same time as the early Pack singles, in 1978, for Small Wonder records—begins with the line, “I am no feeble Christ,” and variably describes Christ as a “churlish suicide,” “suicide visionary,” “death reveler,” “lifefucker,” “lame-arse,” and—my favourite—“fucklove prophet of death.”
“Asylum” was infamously left off the band’s first album, when workers at an Irish pressing plant refused to press the album with the song on it. First pressings of The Feeding of the 5000 have, in place of “Asylum,” a silent track entitled “The Sound of Free Speech".
When Crass decided to later self-distribute the song—giving birth to Crass Records—it was re-titled “Reality Asylum", but had much the same lyrical content. The seven inch drew the attention of Scotland Yard, who questioned the band, a partial recording of which interrogation appears on the Crass compilation Best Before.
Werner knew of Crass, and believes the Pack played the odd gig with them.
“We were all squatters, but they were extremely political, of course. We used to do a lot of gigs with the UK Subs, too. But I don’t specifically remember Crass. I remember not particularly liking their music at the time, and thinking they were a little head-up-their-bums. Obsessive, or something like that. I didn’t really follow them.”
Unlike Crass, the Pack never had trouble for their lyrical provocations, “other than the odd journalist taking exception.” And Werner sees Kirk Brandon’s fixation on religion as “not so much blasphemy as a hostility to organized religion and the corruption of it.”
It was still a bit disturbing to the bassist.
“I was with him all the way on the corruption of organized religion, but personally I believe in God. I don’t belong to any religion, but it’s just my belief, and so when we wrote ‘King of Kings’, I fought with Kirk tooth and nail on that. He persuaded me that it wasn’t blasphemous, but it was quite controversial with me. In the end I guess he won. It does sound blasphemous when you hear it, really, though, doesn’t it?”
How were Pack songs written, exactly?
Werner sips his Americano and thinks back. This is going back some forty years, so some details are understandably foggy.
“A number of the songs—some of the more punky, fast ones—Kirk had already written when we joined, like ‘Thalidomide’, ‘Pack of Lies’, ‘St. Theresa’, and a couple of others you probably haven’t heard. They’re on some bootlegs—some really good ones, which I’m hoping we’ll revive in the rehearsals when I go to England. But there’s some things I really do remember writing. Like, I wrote the riff for ‘Brave New Soldiers’, for the chorus. And we helped with some of the words, because the chorus of that one, ‘long live the past’—we used to go to this café all the time, Vito’s Café, and there was this strange old man who used to always rant on about the past, and I remember he was telling stories one time and said, ‘long live the past!’ And so we build a song around it. They’re all organic, really. So… ‘King of Kings’ we wrote together, though Kirk wrote all the words for that. Kirk usually wrote the lyrics. ‘Heathen’ we wrote together. Simon and I wrote the music for that definitely, but I don’t even know what the lyrics are for that, I can’t even understand them, so Kirk must have written those!”
Then there’s “Legion”.
It’s better known as a Theatre of Hate song, but was reworked substantially for that band. The original contains a certain harsh, jagged power, rendered a bit less jarring in the Theatre of Hate version. Werner prefers the original.
“It’s very different. Tthey cut out the chorus, for one thing; that’s one of the parts my brother and I wrote, where it goes into a different rhythm. I think I wrote the riff for the chorus.”
Werner also remembers writing a lyric or two: “With cunning charms, I’ll win you in/ another voice in legion’s din.”
The story is Biblical, Werner explains.
“Basically a legion of demons inhabited a man, and Christ cast them out into a herd of pigs, and then made them run over a cliff…” With Brandon singing “let us help you make your choice/ join our legion, rejoice rejoice,” it sounds like the singer is identifying with the demons, approaching a Satanic point of view; but Werner disagrees.
“Not at all—he was speaking of the evil of it, really. It’s a metaphor for the evil in society. It’s not sympathetic to the legion. Quite the opposite; he’s taking on the persona of the legion, singing from that perspective, but it’s not from a sympathetic point of view. Sometimes you write from an evil character’s point of view, don’t you? But I know it sounds like it’s coming from his mind, and it’s kind of chilling if you listen to it that way, for sure…
“When we first started playing, we used to actually scare people,” Werner remembers.
“We didn’t expect that result, but it was very, very intense, and some journalists hated us. A journalist in Sounds, who really had it in for us, and would write really bad reviews, was Gary Bushell, who started the Oi! Movement. He was a prominent journalist at the time. I remember the article. I’m almost certain he wrote it, and the heading, was ‘Squat, Flop, and Rot,’ because we were associated with the anarchist squatting scene, and we used to squat and stuff like that. He was just kind of mocking us for being lowly squatters, I guess. Kind of lowlifes, basically. And they sort of mocked our sound. A few journalists really hated us, but not all of them; some of them liked us!”
Prominent fans included the late John Peel, who played the early Pack singles on his show on BBC Radio 1. Werner carries on his phone “a little snippet” of Peel, which someone had recorded off the radio and included on a bootleg the bassist stumbled across. Peel enthuses about the Pack in the clip, saying how he played “No. 12” and “King of Kings” on his show. (You can hear Peel say the songs are “rather good, I thought.”)
There’s also some rough footage of the Pack, circa 1978, on Youtube.
Werner recalls how it was shot: “A friend of the Pack’s, who didn’t know what he was doing, had one of those big giant video cameras, and went ‘I’m going to record this gig!’ He just totally messed it up. I didn’t know what had happened to that. I hadn’t heard from him since; it just appeared on YouTube a few years ago. It was photo’d at the Nashville, which was a very popular room. Everybody played there. I saw the Pretenders very first gig at that club. It was a very important club, kind of like the Marquee.”
It’s hard to get an impression of the audience from the clip, I observe.
“That was very early in our little career, so we were not well known at that point. People were just kind of standing there watching. But they would watch, and they were listening. At the end we were selling out clubs and stuff, and John Peel was playing our record, all the clubs were playing our records.”
Not all audiences dug the Pack, even at their peak, however.
“I remember playing a gig with the Cockney Rejects, and it was basically a thousand skinheads [in the audience,] and they didn’t like us.”
While he doesn’t recall any particularly troubled shows, Werner does recall that he has “seen a lot of menacing crowds.”
Further, Brandon used to be somewhat provocative to the audience, taunting and abusing them, Werner recalls.
“He would mock them—especially the anarchists, when we used to play anarchist get-togethers. That was a thing of his, that they were basically idlers, and talk a lot, but basically it was just bullshit. Some of it was quite funny, if you listen to the bootlegs. ‘What are you gonna do with the money that you make from this gig, buy tea bags? Rot in fucking hell!’ …They didn’t seem to object to it too much.”
At a couple of points during our hour long chat, Werner directs me to turn off my recorder. There are a few off-the-record stories.
“I’ll tell you another odd little snippet about the Pack. I’m not going to tell you how we broke up, because that’s too personal, but after we broke up, Jim and Simon decided we should get our roadie to be the singer, and we’ll write a bunch of new stuff. And we did a few Pack songs, and we went out as the Pack, and did a few gigs. He wasn’t that great a singer. He’s dead now—Timmy.” (Full name Tim Donahue, he was murdered at the Vauxhall council estate in South London, a location, ironically enough, which was subject of the Pack’s earlier song “Vauxhall Savage”—written about the “very rough, dangerous people, a weird subculture of very poor people” who live on such council estates, Werner explains).
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but I think he got into an altercation with this guy and his girlfriend on the estate and the guy stabbed him to death right there.”
Werner has unreleased four-track recordings done in studio with Timmy as vocalist, as well as a rehearsal tape.
“We did have some pretty good songs that no one has ever heard, and we actually had the Ruts' manager for awhile, and we played a few shows. I remember Kirk being at one of our first shows, at the Fulham Greyhound, which was weird, because we kind of fell out quite badly at the time.”
The unreleased recordings are “quite different from the Pack. Tim had a pretty good tone, but he didn’t have the passion for singing” that Kirk Brandon has.
“It is good, but it’s a different animal altogether, though it’s the same rhythm section—myself and Jim—and my brother Simon. And John Peel offered us a session, but we broke up,” mostly due to personal disagreements between the brothers Werner.
“We were an extremely, unhealthily intense band. I was like a sick brotherhood, in a way. Jim will tell you that, and I’m sure Kirk will tell you that. It wasn’t healthy, but there was a lot of passion in it, so we produced some powerful music.”
The Pack’s last gig—until later this month, that is—was at the 101 Club.
“Funnily enough, that’s where I met my wife; we were together 38 some years. She came with her brother Grant McDonagh, from Zulu, and they were at that gig. It was the first time they saw the Pack, too. We met in London!”
John proceeds to check if I know Lynn Werner by name.
“I don’t know if you’re aware, but even before Bev Davies, Lynn was the punk photographer of the Vancouver scene. She doesn’t really get credit for it, but she was the first one doing it, she was the pioneer. She’s got binders full of negatives. Lynn and Grant McDonagh and Don Betts were the three who put out [early Vancouver punk ‘zine] Snotrag.” [Steve and Wilberta Taylor are also credited with starting the zine].
Lynn Werner also took pictures in the UK, including those used on the cover of the Straps 1982 LP—a later band that John and Simon Werner, and Jim Walker, were all in, before John and Lynn returned to Vancouver.
“The first two Strap singles were on Jim’s label, Donut Records,” Werner reports. “We sold out the Marquee, and we supported the Damned on tour. They’ve started up again with two of the original members. I’m still in contact with Dave [Reeves], he’s a big Pack fan.”
Werner is as surprised as anyone that there is going to be a Pack reunion, with a show January 24 in Portsmouth, followed by Bristol, Manchester, and a final gig on January 27 at the Underworld in London.
Besides Kirk Brandon on vocals and John Werner on bass, the lineup will include “a chap named Woz” on guitar—that is, Warren ‘Woz’ Wilson, ex-Spear of Destiny—and on drums, Steve Grantley from Stiff Little Fingers. (Jim Walker “wasn’t really interested” in rejoining, though he is still in the UK, and involved in making low-budget horror films).
So how did the shows come about?
“I got together with Kirk again, five or six years ago, and we met for a drink and got talking about the old days, how we loved the Pack and how it was never given its just due, really. We never really had a chance to grow and explore what we were capable of. It felt like unfinished business. He was keen on it, too, but it took about five years—his schedule was so busy with touring and everything. He just seems to fill every month with stuff, either Spear of Destiny, or solo stuff with a cellist. Theatre of Hate just finished a tour. So there’s not many windows of opportunity!”
Werner has a “very intense week” ahead of him near the end of the month.
He’ll be flying over to England on January 16, “then from the 21st, I arrive in Manchester, and there’s a studio there where we’ll be rehearsing and also recording,” doing versions of Pack songs that never got properly documented.
“So we’ve got three days, like, all day and probably all night, of rehearsals and recordings, and then the next day we’ll probably have a bus going down to Portsmouth. Each successive gig is the next day, so it’s four days of gigs after three intense days of rehearsal, bouncing around the country. I’m trying to get fit,” he says with a wry smile. “Hopefully I’m up to it!”
As intense as it will be, Werner’s excitement to return to England to work with his old bandmate is palpable.
“I’ve seen him do a version of ‘King of Kings’ with Spear of Destiny. I saw them last year—or two years ago maybe?—in London, and he’s in absolutely peak voice.”More