As bassist and co-singer with The Boys, Duncan ‘Kid’ Reid was at the heart of the late ’70s punk explosion.
Merging the speed and energy of punk with harmonies and pop sensibilities, The Boys were dubbed ‘The Beatles of Punk’.
A huge influence on bands such as Green Day, they made four albums between 1977 and 1981, but failed to achieve the commercial success enjoyed by the likes of The Jam, Boomtown Rats and Blondie.
After years of inactivity, Reid and the band returned in 1999, going on to play live shows to enthusiastic audiences all over the world.
However, after ‘a massive great fight’ Reid quit and went solo, playing most of the instruments himself on debut solo album Little Big Head.
That first record opened the songwriting floodgates, with EP‘s Matt Catchpole joining him on Zoom for a lockdown chat to mark the release of his fourth album Don’t Blame Yourself.
Never short of an opinion, Reid tackles Trump, Brexit, the birth of punk and tour mates John Cale and The Ramones, over the course of a wide-ranging interview.
He also explains how he came to join Elton John and Paul McCartney as the only musicians ever awarded the freedom of Montevideo.
With COVID-19 leading to the cancellation of multiple tours and festivals, musicians are having to get creative to keep in contact with their fans.
Duncan Reid is no exception, providing a series of online video lessons in the art of songwriting.
“I got sick of watching Netflix all the time and I thought I’d better do something,” he explains. “I started doing these videoblogs of writing a song, which has actually been incredibly popular. It’s on youtube and on our website as well and people found it fascinating.”
In the vlogs Reid shows how to develop a song from an initial idea, building it up into a demo and fine tuning it into a finished product.
“I ended up putting in on Bandcamp and most people bought the demo, so that was very nice,” Reid laughs.
Still looking youthful, despite admitting to being twice the age of his current bandmates, ‘Kid’ Reid is clearly champing at the bit to play live again.
“It’s just great being on stage with people who like showing off just as much as I do,” he enthuses. “The combination of that and going all around the world and looking up from the stage and hearing people singing my lyrics back to me. That’s an amazing feeling. And luckily it happens pretty often. It takes my breath away.”
Reid says the latest album forced him to expand his songwriting palette.
“A lot of my songs have been about myself and what happens to me, because – I think for all of us – it’s the subject we know the most about. But once you get to album four, you’ve sort of done that to a large extent. And you start to have to look for other items.”
The idea for Your Future Ex-Wife, for example, was inspired by an arch note etched onto a Soho pub blackboard.
“It said: ‘Come in and meet your future ex-wife,’ I thought of this fantastic image of this bar with beautiful women trying to trap rich men into marriage so they can fleece them for their money.”
The death of three close friends in quick succession caused Reid to confront his own mortality in The Grim Reaper.
“It’s a jolly, pretty, sort of Paul McCartney, Supertramp-ish sort of tune – in fact the band call it my Take That song – but it’s got an extremely heavy lyric.
“This image came to me of the grim reaper lurking just out of sight and me saying to him: ‘Either bugger off or join in with the party, but I’m not joining you!’”
The title track Don’t Blame Yourself tackles the effect of social media in polarising opinions on inflammatory issues, such as Brexit.
“The internet and the techniques used by the likes of Cambridge Analytica, the Russians, the Chinese, Dominic Cummings and plenty of other players, is designed to reinforce the prejudices of all of us,” Reid explains.
“Don’t Blame Yourself is about the affect of the internet and social media in stirring up arguments. I start with the image of life becoming more and more like a great big bar fight.”
On his website Reid cheekily credits Donald Trump with adding relevance to the title track of third album Bombs Away.
“He’s quite clearly mad, isn’t he?,” Reid asserts. “He’s driven by his ego and cannot suffer criticism. He’s made an even bigger balls-up of the coronavirus than Boris Johnson has.”
As we’re talking, protests are erupting around the world over the death of black American George Floyd and Reid accuses Trump of deliberately stoking division.
“It’s a credit to the American system that it seems to have enough checks and balances to keep him at bay, but they can’t stop him being divisive and nasty.
“There’s a calculatedness about him mixed with this madness and ego. He’s got everything that’s required to be Robert Mugabe, I think. If he ran Zimbabwe he’d be executing people.”
The Boys, like many bands in the first wave of the punk explosion, grew out of the coterie of New York Dolls fans who gathered to jam at a tiny studio in London’s Maida Vale.
“There were people like Mick Jones [The Clash], Steve Jones [The Sex Pistols], Billy Idol, Brian James [The Damned], and various others, who would go to this place and play the intro to Slow Death by the Flaming Groovies for about five hours at a time, because no-one was good enough to get past the intro,” Reid laughs.
“Tony James [later of Sigue Sigue Spuntnik] was another one, who formed Generation X with Billy idol. All these bands coalesced out of that little four-track studio in 47a Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale. And one of those bands was The Boys.”
Many of these figures would perform in The London SS a proto-punk outfit with an endlessly changing line-up.
“Everybody was in The London SS,” Reid remembers. “It wasn’t really a band, I think it was an attempt by Mick Jones to get something off the ground and everybody went in and out of it for five minutes. It never really existed, but Matt Dangerfield from The Boys, was in it.”
Dangerfield joined forces with Casino Steel – keyboard player with another major punk influence The Hollywood Brats.
Guitarist ‘Honest’ John Plain was next on board and he recruited Reid and drummer Jack Black, both of whom worked alongside him in a T-shirt printing firm.
“Punk was a very tiny thing in the early days, but I think everybody felt it was going to be big,” Reid explains. “It was going to change rock’n’roll. We were all sick to death of the stadium bands of the time and – with a few exceptions like Thin Lizzy – we thought all that music was pretty rubbish.”
Not everybody was entirely welcoming of the punk revolution, however, as Reid and others found out to their cost.
“It’s hard to explain now, but it was so shocking. Everybody generally had long hair and flared jeans. And there you were with short hair and there was no identikit punk look, everyone looked quite individual. It was strikingly different and people felt threatened by it,” Reid explains.
“I don’t know why ‘cos we were all soft as hell. You got stopped regularly by the police. And then there was this other thing going on with the Teddy Boys, they particularly took against punks.
“I remember when we played with The Jam in Battersea Town Hall, I was bottled outside by a bunch of Teddy Boys. For some reason it didn’t hurt, I don’t know why, but there was quite a lot of blood that looked impressive and the landlord of the local pub felt sorry for me and gave me a free pint.”
The Boys gained instant credibilty with the music press and landed a prize slot supporting John Cale of The Velvet Underground on their first ever tour.
“I really liked him,” Reid remembers. “At that time he had a bit of a drink problem, but like a lot of people with a drink problem, he was incredibly good fun.
“There was one night in particular, I remember, I think it was Swansea. We were staying in the same hotel, the barman shut the bar and put a grille up, but there was this tiny little gap at the top.
“I was a skinny 17-year-old at the time. And he picked me up and slotted me through the gap at the top, so I could go behind, pull the pints and pass them back through. He was a good lad and he ended up being quite a fan of ours, I think.”
Other fans of The Boys were The Ramones, who went so far as describe them as their favourite group.
The feeling was mutual, but – as Reid was to discover – touring with ‘da brudders’ wasn’t exactly a bed of roses.
“It’s that old cliché you should never meet your heroes and The Ramones were utter heroes of mine, but I was so glad I wasn’t in The Ramones by the end of the tour,” Reid explains. “It was great to see them every night, but they were desperately unhappy people and it was a very weird atmosphere.”
He goes on to paint pen pictures of each member of the quartet.
“You’ve got Joey – it’s been documented what he had to deal with – the near Asperger’s and the rest of it. You’d see him coming into a room with those long long legs that would arrive about five minutes before he did and he’d tap the floor because he was convinced the floor was about to collapse under him.
“Dee Dee was totally miserable, because everywhere wasn’t the United States, it was England. I suspect even when he was back in the United States, he was probably finding something to complain about there too.
“Then there was Johnny, with his brooding, bullying persona, who used to keep the rest of them in line by hitting them.
“And it was Marky on the drums, a very nice guy, we didn’t realise at the time that he was on his way to alcoholism. He used to sneak into our dressing room for a beer and we used to have to stand out outside to keep watch for Johnny, who if he saw him with a beer would come in and thump him.”
Despite their problems, Reid says The Ramones would still put on an incredible show night after night.
“Every night, amazing energy. And almost certainly the best punk band there’s ever been.”
As The Boys were coming up they became friendly with Johnny Thunders‘ Heartbreakers, during their two-year stint in the UK.
“I liked The Heartbreakers. Walter Lure, Johnny Thunders and all the rest of them used to be down The Speakeasy quite often. I liked Leee Childers and Gail [Higgins], their management – they were a friendly bunch. Maybe because they were American.”
When The Boys split in 1982, Reid completely turned his back on life as a musician, working for several years as business development manager for Andrew Lloyd Webber and later as a director of Nottingham Forest Football Club.
He kept his previous career a secret from his colleagues, even Forest’s very own punk aficionado Stuart Pearce.
“I’d sort of psychologically left music behind,” Reid explains. “It’s quite difficult to have this life, touring, putting out records, having a certain amount of adulation. To leave it all behind, I felt I had to have a mental guillotine come down.
“I was no longer a musician. I didn’t play my guitars, I didn’t really listen to music either. At the same time I felt that punk and The Boys had been a very youthful phenomenon and was not a territory for middle aged men. Quite a statement to make now I’m an OAP, but there you go.”
Reid resisted all offers to reform The Boys, until the chance to tour Japan became a temptation he could not refuse.
Interest in the group spiked when Japanese band Thee Machine Gun Elephant began covering their songs and the time seemed ripe for a reunion.
“We weren’t the biggest of the punk bands, we didn’t have a major record deal, we weren’t on Top of the Pops and we didn’t have any huge hits.
“But, after we reformed we found that all around the world, we were one of the most popular and sought after bands of that period. A new generation had grown up and discovered the music through the records. I think that’s a testament to how good those songs are. Bands like Die Toten Hosen, who are huge in Germany, are quite open about how influential The Boys were for them.”
Reid lasted a decade with the reformed Boys, before simmering tensions in the band began to boil over.
“Bands are weird. Very strange things started to happen and it all ended in a massive great fight. It was either me or one other member of the band who had to leave and it was me. At the time it was devastating, because I had no intention of leaving. But thank goodness, I had this bunch of songs.”
Those songs formed the basis for Reid’s debut Little Big Head and sparked the beginning of the development of his career as a songwriter.
“It’s a weird thing, when I was young I wrote a few songs, but I found it very very hard. The floodgates just opened later on for me and I can’t really explain why. It’s a very strange thing, it just happened.”
He’s quick to admit he learned a lot about song craft from his former bandmates.
“Without any doubt, I was in awe of the three songwriters in The Boys. The quality of the songs they wrote was just astounding.
“For about the 10 or 11 years I was in the reformed band, we were lucky enough to go all around the world, South America, Japan, Texas, Germany and of course the UK. And we were treated like royalty. It was great fun.”
Reid chose the title Little Big Head as a joke against himself, but he admits he’s not always as confident as his stage persona would appear.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing the big head. I’m a mixture of extremely confident and at times not so confident, but I enjoy the joke of being a big head.
“Fans will come up after a gig and go: ‘That was unbelievably good!’ and I’ll go: ‘Yes it was, wasn’t it?’ It just makes everybody laugh. There is a truth in it, because people are often accusing me of being over-confident, shall we say. And as I say, that’s sort of half true.”
One of the songs on the debut solo album, Montevideo, led to Reid being presented with the freedom of Uruguay’s capital city.
“It’s one of those towns, I think, a bit like Geneva, it’s quite remote and every day seems like a Sunday afternoon.
“It’s a very nice place and moderately comfortable I think and very quiet – except for this one place called The Clash City Rockers Bar, which is one of those places that sort of blows you backwards when you open the door. A place where time does a funny thing, you’ll sort of look at your watch and it’s midnight, look at it five minutes later and it’s seven in the morning.
“I wrote a song on the first album about how they’re all taking drugs and staying up all night drinking and having a great time and being complete and utter reprobates. The government was so happy with this song that they gave me a medal called – Visitante Illustre – which is the equivalent of the keys to the city.
“The only other British musicians to have that honour are Elton John and Paul McCartney.”
Reid was presented with the award, while touring with T.V. Smith of The Adverts.
“I had another great night in the Clash City Rockers bar till about seven in the morning and then I had to go from there to the parliament to give a speech in Spanish and pick up a medal, which I just about got away with.”
The surreal occasion was compounded when Reid and his wife made their way back to the hotel after the presentation.
“We were going up the steps and we saw this really cool black guy in a captain’s hat and a leather jacket. My wife says to me: ‘That’s Chuck Berry!’ and I looked and bloody hell it was.
“So the guy who invented rock’n’roll was in town and they gave me the medal!”
After that first record, Reid assembled a band “from friends of friends” in London and the Big Heads quickly developed into a formidable live unit.
Lockdown restrictions mean they’ve been unable to rehearse or even meet up for weeks, but Reid is desperate to get back out on the road as soon as possible.
“Of course, the album release, has been incredibly frustrating, with all these tours and festivals which have fallen by the wayside,” he admits.
“I’m really bored and frustrated at not be able to get out of the house and to play. I’ve been dreaming longingly of sweaty, crowded places and drinking beer and coming home and eating the fridge.”
Fingers crossed, the man described as “one of the world’s bounciest bassists” will be back on a stage near you soon.
In the meantime, there’s always that brand new album to enjoy.
- Don’t Blame Yourself is available now from Bandcamp here.
- For more about Duncan Reid and the Big Heads visit their website and Facebook pages.
- More about The Boys at their website and on Facebook.