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Looking quite the quintessential young punk rocker--bright red Docs, platinum spiked hair, dark and mangled clothing--Benji Bollox could well be mistaken for the typical misguided suburban kid, half-heartedly chasing after the mirage of a lifestyle 20 years too late. In fact, it's a fate he narrowly avoided. Were it not for the day that Bollox stood up and declared to his former bandmates that he was walking out to pursue his dream of playing serious music, Benji might've been...well, just bollocks.
Instead he's Benji Bollox, the latest addition to the famed London punk outfit, UK Subs.
Sitting quietly on the floor at a home shared by Dallas punk comrades Trailer Park, Benji inadvertently reveals a few things about himself to anyone who bothers to notice. First, there's a trace of a London accent cushioning his voice, which tells you that he's not from around these parts. Next, in contrast with the hardcore vestments is a young, almost boyish face with two clear and noticeably shining eyes, giving you a clue that he's got more going on upstairs than your average tosser. When he's talking about his band, the UK Subs, you begin wondering to yourself, "Do you mean the UK Subs?" The UK Subs that are renowned for being the most obnoxious, drunken band in all of Britain? The UK Subs from whom Guns 'n' Roses covered "Down on the Farm?" The band that's been going non-stop practically since punk began?
After a lengthy conversation, you determine that you're dead right on all counts. But when you ask the name of his record company, and he spends the next several minutes searching his pockets for a business card, which he eventually reads aloud to himself as if hearing it for the first time, you also reach the ultimate conclusion that Benji is not out to rescue punk's bad reputation, nor his own.
It would be a slightly more miraculous take to explain how a 24-year-old Dallasite packed his bags, took off for London, and wound up becoming the drummer for UK Subs were it not for the fact that Benji actually was born in London and lived there until age 11. Nonetheless, the story remains inspiring.
In the late '80s, Benji was knockin' around Deep Ellum, enjoying a fertile punk scene, content with small gigs and homemade demo tapes. He was singing for a nice group of young boys called the Abnormals, which later became known as Riot Squad, whereupon he shifted roles to that of drummer. They were good times for Benji, who, like any self-respecting punk, didn't give a crap about his future.
But as the scene deteriorated and Benji "matured," he became disillusioned with not only the state of punk in Dallas, but with his own band. It all converged on one strangely prophetic day that Benji recounts with eerie humor.
"The day I left Riot Squad, I said, 'You guys can all go to hell--I'm gonna go play with somebody good. I'm gonna go play with UK Subs.'" He looks up slowly and says as if convincing himself, "I was just joking then. I didn't know it was really gonna happen."
In case you're not familiar with the UK Subs and what they meant to Benji and most of his friends at the time, it would basically be like a kid in your neighborhood picking up the football and saying, "Forget you guys, I'm gonna go join the Chicago Bears."
"I grew up listening to punk," Benji says, "and I always loved UK Subs." Even his friends will attest that Benji is, and always has been, a dedicated punk. British punk held a special place in his heart, maybe because he associated it with his childhood in England, which he describes as "some of the best memories of my life." Or perhaps because of early musical infiltration. "My first record was Adam and the Ants' Kings of the Wild Frontier," he says proudly.
At any rate, with the blessings of his "hippie" parents in Richardson, Benji gravitated back to his land of origin with only vague hopes of getting on with a band. Bollox had previously met Charlie Harper, the now 52-year-old only original member of UK Subs, and when the two met again in London, Benji asked if he'd let him know if anyone needed a drummer.
Much to Bollox's surprise, Harper immediately asked him to sign on with the band. "He hired me without even hearing a demo," recalls Benji. "I was a little surprised, and later when I asked why he did it, Charlie said 'Well, you put out an album [with Riot Squad], didn't you?' I guess he thought if I recorded something, no matter what it was, that was good enough."
Benji was only four when the British punk explosion occurred. But, in retrospect, it was good timing. He was joining UK Subs in the midst of a great punk revival--the 20-year anniversary of punk rock that witnessed the regrouping of the Sex Pistols and a new album from the Buzzcocks. He was in a band featured at the "Holidays in the Sun" festival in Blackpool, drawing thousands of punk fans, both young and elderly.
It was an era of rereleases and new compilations, including The British Punk Invasion--Volume 2, which would set down in vinyl a tiny piece of history that Benji could claim a part of as his own. The Subs have even recorded a song that Benji wrote when he was with Riot Squad that includes the lyrics "Riot Squad" sung with extra volume and irony to show Bollox's distaste for the band, which he's currently battling over name rights and general philosophical differences.
Of course, there are downsides to Benji's new career. Like the fact that New Musical Express, Britain's premier music mag, misreported the real UK Subs as a UK Subs tribute band at the Holidays in the Sun Festival. And the fact that the original UK Subs, including Iggy Pop alumnus Alvin Gibbs, frequently reunite, leaving Benji warming the benches on the sideline.
In addition, the whole punk revival of 1996 has fallen to serious, and in many respects, well-deserved criticism for its outright commercialism--the Sex Pistols reunion tour being a prime example.
"The Sex Pistols said outright they were doing it for money," says Benji. "But I'm still glad these bands are getting back together. I'm happy that I can say I saw the Sex Pistols."
Another problematic issue for Benji is that of sub-stardom financial reality. "Basically, we're all living on the dole," he says, referring to London musicians' guardian angel, the UB40, or "unemployment" (from whence the band UB40 got its name). Part of Benji's reason for returning to Dallas was to work at AT&T to save up some money for a flat. While in Dallas, he's playing with the band Fall Out, which does do a few UK Subs covers. Back in England, he also plays with Splodgenessabounds, which, although relatively unknown in America, is a fairly well-regarded punk band in the UK. "People think these musicians they see on stage are doing so well, but it's not true," he says. "I know the guitarist from Siouxsie and the Banshees, and he lives in a small flat around the corner from King's Cross [underground station]. He's totally struggling."
Still, struggling or not, it's obviously been the best move Bollox ever made. "I see so many people bitching all the time about their lives," he says. "But if you really want to do something, get up off your ass and you can do it."
Benji Bollox and Fall Out play Saturday, January 4, at Last Beat Records.