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Still crazy after all these years.

Byline: By Jennifer Bradbury

It's 30 years since punk spat and snarled its way into the national consciousness. In the first of a two-part series, Jennifer Bradbury talks to North East punks who have survived the passing of time. Today it's the turn of controversial South Shields outfit the Angelic Upstarts

I defy anyone to reach the notes that Vera Lynn does," roars an animated Mensi as he gets on to his high horse on the subject of who are the best singers.

Well, I don't fancy defying him. Mensi's a massive bloke, solidly built, sporting a shaved head and earring. He's also got presence. Not a man you'd want to mess with.

"People are always asking me about punk music but I don't know anything about it," he adds. "It's basically rubbish. Now that Andy Williams, he could sing."

We're sitting in a pub in Jarrow. Mensi's sipping on a pint of cola, while bandmate Decca's on to his third pint of lager and what must be his 30th tab.

It's a surreal encounter. Here's Mensi, the main man behind the South Shields-based punk outfit Angelic Upstarts, a fanatical Sunderland FC fan (the top's a giveaway) and he's gushing on about singers who wouldn't, not publicly anyway, give the punk movement the time of day. He's also a grandad who is about to turn 50.

Remember this is the man whose most famous stage stunt involved kicking the head of a dead pig wearing a policeman's helmet. Now he's middle-aged, with 13 children and four grandchildren. The result, he says, of his rock and roll lifestyle.

Time has moved on and the man who was inspired to start his own band after listening to the anarchic tunes created by the Sex Pistols and The Clash has moved with it, albeit on his terms.

Mensi (Thomas Mensforth, for long) is old enough, big enough and wise enough to say what he thinks.

And if you believe the band's drummer Decca (Derek Wade), Mensi's always been a wise one.

"If John Lennon had written England it would've been a classic. But because Mensi wrote it....." Decca trails off.

It's the same old story as far as he's concerned. Mensi never got the recognition he deserved for his songwriting because he was in the Angelic Upstarts and with that came the inevitable baggage. Controversy has dogged them for three decades.

Before Mensi arrives at the bar I spend time with Decca, who now lives above the pub. He's the physical opposite to Mensi ( small, wiry, with bleached spiky hair. But Mensi's the man in Decca's book. It was Mensi who brought the Upstarts together.

"We saw the Clash at Newcastle Mayfair and Mensi decided to form a band," says Decca, now 49, a dad of four, and a grandad to boot. A dreamy look comes over him. It's hard to say whether that's caused by the memories flooding back or the alcohol taking hold.

"Despite the fact that Mensi can't sing, he writes a mean tune," says Decca proudly.

Meanwhile Mensi, currently in Russia with his 24-year-old internet girlfriend, reckons the best ever gig he went to was meeting Arthur Scargill. "No doubt about it," he shouts down his mobile. "Best gig ever. He was superb."

It's no surprise that Mensi was an admirer of the National Union of Miners' boss. Before embarking on a career in music, Mensi was a pitman at the former Westoe Colliery in South Shields. He went to the local grammar school but like many working class lads when it came to choosing a career, he followed his dad.

At the same time, childhood pal Decca was also following in his father's footsteps, enrolling as an apprentice boilermaker at Swan Hunter in Wallsend.

But Decca didn't last long, although he did complete his apprenticeship. He was playing in bands and learning his trade when his gaffer at Swans asked him to choose. The shipyards or music. "I said I loved the glamour of the shipyards and he gave me my cards. So I followed Mensi down the pits. It was only for six months though as by then the Upstarts had kicked off," says Decca.

The Angelic Upstarts got together in 1977 and the original line up featured Mensi (vocals), Mond (guitar), Steve (bass) and Decca (drums).

Variously described as a meeting of working class ideology and musical aspiration, Mensi, from Brockley Whins, was always going to provoke reaction. His songs made much of his working class roots and he was liable to lash out at police and politicians. A point in case is their first single, The Murder of Liddle Towers, which they released independently in 1978. The band paid pounds 25 each for the recording and pressing of 500 singles which they sold at gigs and local record shops. Decca reckons he never saw any money for that particular single, even now, 29 years on.

Back in the 70s, the single was soon picked up by Small Wonder Records which released it nationally and its attack on police brutality earned them the respect of Sham 69's Jimmy Pursey, who was equally disaffected with the system. The band signed to Warner Brothers and Pursey produced the LP Teenage Warning (1979). Unfortunately the band, who were vocally and wholeheartedly against any form of racism, did become associated with the skinhead movement, with its right-wing leanings.

Mensi says: "The fascists try to latch on to every youth movement, they have done throughout history. They tried to latch on to the Upstarts. At first I welcomed them. I thought I had the power to change them but I was misguided. They tried to change me, unsuccessfully I must add."

But what's their secret? While other bands have gone by the wayside the Angelic Upstarts are still here, despite numerous line-up changes. Even Decca's left more times than he cares to remember.

The linchpin over all these years has been Mensi, who now lives in Penshaw. He said: "I planned on the band lasting three years. One year getting known, one year at the top and one year on the slide. But we're still here. Punk was a genuine movement and it's the genuine hardcore bands that have lasted."

Mensi says the punk movement wasn't just a protest about politics. It was a protest against superstars like Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones, who had the monopoly on record sales and tours.

The fact that they've survived is more surprising when you taken into account their history. A trawl through the Chronicle's cuttings reveals that for the past three decades the Upstarts have found it difficult to throw off their "sickest band in Britain" tag. Controversy has followed them wherever they go.

Over the years, Mensi's outspoken views have frequently landed him in hot water. Even the patron saint of pop Cliff Richard showed a rare flash of temper when confronted by him in a religious TV programme.

"The idea was to set me up, to make me look like the devil incarnate." And while Mensi says now that he's Christian by nature and not a disbeliever, his comments enraged Cliff.

"He got all red-faced and started pointing his finger at me," says Mensi.

Former manager Keith Bell (Collins) was sentenced in March 1980 to four-and-a-half years in prison for arson after his relationship with the group turned sour.

And in December of the same year Bell was sentenced to a further 18 months after being convicted of threatening to kill Decca.

They also found themselves banned from many venues, including Newcastle's City Hall for seven years, because of the hardcore troublemakers they attracted and their controversial stage act.

And in 1979 some inmates at Acklington Prison walked out in disgust at the blue language using during a performance there.

Prison chaplain Alan Craig who booked the band, said at the time : "To be honest the group was so loud I couldn't make out much of what they were singing."

Mensi roars with laughter when reminded of this incident. It emerges that the chaplain was hoodwinked as the band pretended to be gospel singers to get in.

Now, Decca's a full-time drummer spending his time with the Upstarts or Crashed Out, while Mensi's a property developer in the North East, although he plays this down, saying it's just the odd council house.

Of his four children Decca is only in touch with the youngest, Connor,13. He's not had contact with his three daughters for a long time and has never met his grandchildren. He doesn't seem to know their names. But he says he has no regrets. And that all of the Upstarts have done all right for themselves.

And if the drumming work dried up tomorrow he could always go back to being a boilermaker.

"It'd be a bit like riding a bike," he says unconvincingly. "Though with the shakes and my eyesight, the calibrations could well be a bit out."

He laughs uproariously at the thought of him shaking and squinting over his work.

And with that he lights another fag.

NWere you a punk during the 70s? If so we'd love to hear from you and see your pictures. Ring Jennifer Bradbury on 0191 201 6445 or email:

Tomorrow, in part 2, we catch up with Pauline Murray, of Penetration
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 23, 2006
Previous Article:Change face of borough.
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