The S-Haters were a British dark punk band that existed from about 1976 until 1985. They played — well in advance of the trend — a type of gothy punk rock that would later be called, by others, “deathrock,” “gothic punk,” or just “goth.” In many ways the band has never gotten their due.
The original lineup featured Nick Blinko of anarcho-deathrock band Rudimentary Peni, and in fact the S-Haters started out on Outer Himmalayan Records, the label owned by Rudimentary Peni. Despite releasing four EPs, 1 LP, and having appearances on various goth-punk compilations, the S-Haters are still strangely unknown. In fact, while Ian Glasper’s excellent and very recommended The Day the Country Died included interviews with some anarcho-affiliated deathrock bands like Part 1, the S-Haters, who were also affiliated with the anarcho-punk scene, were not featured in that book — despite their having played the Crass-affiliated Autonomy Centre and actually having a much lengthier discography than many bands in The Day the Country Died.
So here is an in-depth interview with S-Haters’ singer, Kieron O’Neill, and guitarist Kevin O’Brien, at long last.
S-Haters singer Kieron O’Neill was interviewed by Oliver in June, 2012. The interview with guitarist Kevin O’Brien was done in 2006 for the now defunct Cultpunk website.
OLIVER: When did the S-Haters begin and end, and was there a pretty stable lineup? It’s hard to find any information on S-Haters these days.
KEVIN (guitar): The band began in our imaginations really, in 1976, as soon as we began to read the music press about what was occurring – punk rock – principally in London, around 15 miles from us! In those days the weekly music papers were crucial – the NME, Melody Maker, and Sounds, which was the first to greet punk in a positive light, with writers like Jonh Ingham and Jon Savage.
I was 15, Kieron (bassist and vocalist) a year younger. We had bonded on a school trip to France a year or so previously where we found we were completely out of step with everyone else’s music tastes! It seems amazing now, but we read a lot about the music before we actually got to hear it – John Peel on Radio 1 was the main man, but records were extremely thin on the ground. It often took a trip to central London to hunt down discs. Clothes and fanzines especially required a train ride to get hold of them. As it became apparent that you didn’t need any musical qualifications and not much money to get involved in punk, that’s exactly what we did.
Ignorance was bliss in many ways – we didn’t have a clue how to make music ‘properly’, so we developed our own sound. The band’s line-up was fairly stable for the years we were recording. Prior to that there were many loose associations, guests, and acquaintances. We had two bassists for quite a while. The principle turnover took place on the drum stool – we seemed to consume drummers at the same rate as we had hot dinners! Kieron and myself were constants; Declan Kane (keyboards) was there a long time, as were Alix Hawkes (guitar/vox) and Jim Blanchard (bass); and 3 drummers were especially memorable – Andy Jackson (AJ), Simon Dunbar (Sim), and Simon Rogers.
KIERON (vocals): The band kind of evolved over time. The first real line up was myself on bass and vocals; Nick Blinko played guitar and synth; and Martin Murphy was on drums.
The band line-up was formed from Watford’s London Irish community at St. Michael’s School, hence all the Irish names in the band. As we were school kids the line-up changed frequently, but Nick decided that it was time to do things seriously. Kevin O’Brien and Simon Rodgers were brought in to flesh out the sound and get us ready for the first single. Nick left just before this was done, throwing us into a panic, since it was his choice to record.
After the second S-Haters record, “Stories as Cold as the Irish Sea,” things went into hiatus for a while. Declan Kane (keyboards) had returned to Dublin and Kevin had got hitched. I was forming a band with Jim Blanchard, who had auditioned by playing Iggy’s “Search and Destroy” on an acoustic at an all-night party. He was in. Then Kev and Declan returned and the band reformed with Jim now on bass. The new line-up stayed, give or take a few drummers, and Jim’s departure after the last record, until the end.
OLIVER: What was the S-Haters’ relationship to Rudimentary Peni? Rudi Peni singer/guitarist Nick Blinko was a member of the S-Haters, right?
KIERON: Nick’s influence was huge. I had the idea of forming the S-Haters and wrote the songs, but Nick had the energy, focus, and abstract musical ideas. He was around almost every night, listening and re-listening to my bass lines and lyrics, often sketching and drawing on what he had heard. It was an odd way to create music. For example, we were both Students at Watford Art College, and he saw one of my half-finished pictures and said, “I like it, what’s it called?” “’The Death of a Vampire,’” I replied. “Where is the song to go with it?” he asked. “There ain’t one. It’s just a painting, Nick.” He then passed me the bass and said, “Then get on with it!”
KEVIN: Nick Blinko was indeed a member of the S-Haters. Nick was always just such great company. He was quiet but extremely witty and funny. I also remember he had great hair and a fantastic old military jacket that I thought looked outrageously good on him, which he wore to a gig we played at a place called the Hemel Arts Centre in Hemel Hempstead, about 5 – 10 miles from Watford. We had no cars, van, nothing, and took our instruments on the bus. (We had been promised backline and a drumkit). Nick brought a Syndrum, which had two basic sounds – the disco sound which is prominent on Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’ and also a fantastic crashing sound that is all over Joy Division‘s first album, like a metal sheet being bashed with a big hammer. Nick really put that Syndrum through its paces that night, and we got the bus back to Watford very happy, still in time to get a drink at the pub! By the time we made our Outer Himmylayan recordings, Nick had left the band.
The line-ups on those singles were: 1) Death of A Vampyre: Kieron O’Neill (bass / vox), Kevin O’Brien (gtr), Alix Hawkes (gtr, vox), Simon Rogers (drums). 2) Stories As Cold As The Irish Sea: Kieron O’Neill (bass / vox), Kevin O’Brien (gtr), Declan Kane (keyboards), Simon Dunbar (drums).
OLIVER: What did the name “S-Haters” mean and what is the story behind it?
KEVIN: Well, Oliver, this has never really been explained… because it never really meant anything as such! ‘School’ and ‘Society’ were the most common interpretations, both of which may have been fairly valid at the time!
KIERON: When I heard The Sex Pistols, I decided to form a band. I told all my mates in the school playground and asked them what we should be called. They all shouted, “The School Haters!” Kevin O’Brien and Richard Maloney (our first guitarist), found this hilarious, but we could not think of anything else, and so it was modified, and kept.
OLIVER: I understand the first S-Haters EP, the “Death of a Vampire” 7″, was on Outer Himalayan Records, a label associated with Rudimentary Peni. In fact, that must have been one of Outer Himalayan’s first releases – 1981, I think? That’s pretty early for the label’s catalog! How did you meet up with the folks in Rudimentary Peni to get the record done through them?
KIERON: Outer Himmalayan was started by Martin Cooper and Nick Blinko of The Magits. Once the Magits single was out, they asked when we would be ready to record.
KEVIN: In fact Outer Himmylayan (the misspelling was deliberate!) was in existence prior to Rudimentary Peni, but Nick Blinko was a principal player from day 1 – see below.
OLIVER: What were the musical influences of the band? It seems you all had a dark sound. Just from listening, my guesses are Joy Division and UK Decay type stuff….
KEVIN: We began before Joy Division, although when we saw them I practically fell to my knees in awe. We were so impressed by them that we couldn’t fail to absorb some of what they were doing. Looking back now, they were so far ahead of the game, but the influence of Rob Gretton (manager), Tony Wilson (Factory Records), and Martin Hannett (producer) was massive, as was the artwork of Peter Saville.
All these elements seemed so complementary: That pristine, ice-cold sound coupled with a daring, independent image and management was certainly new to me and a breath of fresh air from what we’d been used to! But “Death Of A Vampyre / Research” were recorded before we’d really soaked up much from Joy Division, and it was a long time prior to Rudimentary Peni’s existence.
Rudimentary Peni had a similar effect as Joy Division had. When I saw one of Peni’s first shows at a pub in Watford, they were stunning. This was truly something else again. Nick Blinko stood at right angles to the audience, the band were dressed very normally, i.e. not conforming to punk ‘fashion,’ such as it was labeled, and were so incredibly intense. They were genuinely shocking, combining a skin-tight sound with this incredible intensity, evident in Nick’s singing as well as each of the instruments. Grant Matthews on bass was new to me, but Jon Greville was well-known as being THE drummer in the area. I think the material was way heavier than he’d been used to.
KIERON: Not sure that there were any musical influences as such. I played with my own tuning and it pretty much went like this: I’d get a title or any idea, I would draw some pictures Blinko-style, write some initial words, and then try to generate some focus. I would then pick up the guitar and try and come up with a good riff, hum the written lines over this, and take it from there. I would play what I had to the boys and then they would do their own thing. If it worked, we had a new number. Early on, after rehearsals we would also play any new records we had bought. However, this stopped happening later on and older records such as The Doors were played. The Doors were quoted as an inspiration on our written buff for “Death of a Vampire.” The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and Johnny Thunders probably left a mark as they were held in high regard, as were the MC5.
OLIVER: Were the S-Haters at all affiliated with the anarcho-punk scene of the day? It seems there was a kind of niche in that anarcho scene with bands like Rudimentary Peni, Part 1, Amebix, and Vex, that were more on the gloomy side, but still political. Were you all involved in any political stuff? Vegetarianism, CND, anti-vivisection, etc.?
KIERON: We were affiliated with the early anarcho-punk scene, and this was mainly due to Robert Dellar, who knew most of those involved. I started to get letters from some of the anarcho-fanzines and began to meet up with the writers and musicians at London’s Autonomy Centre, the venue associated with Crass and the Poison Girls. Andy Martin of the Apostles and Tony D are a couple of people we came into contact with. I became a regular of the centre and got to know some of the bands there. More importantly, it gave us somewhere to play. It wasn’t my type of music in the main — too shouty -– but what was valid was the creativity, youthful community, and the political and social element, which I suppose is their lasting legacy. They get called “crusties” now and some of them are tied to a tree as we speak. Good on them.
The S-Haters were immersed in left-wing politics from the beginning. We did a lot of benefits, for CND and others, but there was not much in our lyrics until the final track of the last Underlings EP, “Life Under Gold.”
KEVIN: Myself and Declan were heavily involved in the Labour Party – more specifically the Young Socialists, and very specifically the Militant Tendency, which was not a popular group in the Party, as it was based on Trotskyism, and practiced a method called Entryism, whereby Militant comrades would infiltrate the party and get elected onto various bodies, especially where the party was relatively inactive. It was a really Socialist set-up, which the main [Labour] party didn’t like, as [the Labour Party] sought to shed its Socialist principals and pander to the popular press, which it deemed necessary to make it electable against Thatcher’s right-wing Conservative government. We did some benefit shows for striking miners, CND, anti-vivisection, and also for places like the Anarchy Centre in Stratford, London. We were all left-wing of course – in those days nearly every band seemed to have some form of left-wing leaning. Musically we fell between a lot of stools as we were a little off-the-wall. It may seem arrogant, but we were willfully, defiantly plowing our own furrow in those days, refusing to cow down to anything for the sake of popularity. I can even remember Kieron telling people to ‘stop dancing!’ at least once!
OLIVER: The S-Haters 2nd EP (correct me if I’m getting my discography wrong here), “Stories as Cold as the Irish Sea,” was also released on Outer Himalayan. After that it seems the S-Haters went to a label called Midnight Music. What was that label all about – also a punk label, or…?
KEVIN: Your discography is spot-on Oliver! Midnight was owned and run by a great fella called Nic Ralph, who signed a fair few bands operating around Watford / N. London, as well as some Dutch bands, I think. It was a fairly eclectic label, but the common thing among the roster was that most of the artists were fairly off-the-wall. The big names on Midnight were the Soft Boys and subsequently their main man Robyn Hitchcock in his solo guise. Nic Ralph got us into seriously good studios with great engineers.
At that time, recording costs were still crazily expensive if you wanted to go 16 / 24 track, and the only way to save a few quid was to record overnight. Most of us were working during the day, so the pattern for an album recording was two weeks’ night-time recordings while still working during the day. I remember sleeping 18 hours solid after one stint, hallucinating from sleep deprivation – but I’d do it all over again! We recorded one album in a studio called Alaska in Waterloo, London. Alaska was owned by Pat Collier who played bass in the Vibrators. What a place. Quite flash, but quieter takes, i.e. vocals, had to be done between trains, which rumbled close enough from the station to be picked up on the microphones! Selling flowers outside was one of the great train robbers, Buster Edwards, who took his own life a few years later. And we were pestered by Michael Fagin, the chap who broke into Buckingham Palace and ended up in the Queen’s bedroom, talking to her before being discovered. He was a bit too partial to a drink, and while hearing his story was very amusing, he wanted to get friendlier and record with us, which wasn’t on. He’d already recorded an alternative version of Never Mind The Bollocks with the Bollock Brothers, who managed Alaska for Pat. We also worked with Pascal Gabriel who went on to great success on the dance scene. He was like Woody Allen’s twin brother and kept going on and on about drum machines, years before they were being used in big studios – a man ahead of his time! It was such a step up from grabbing a few hours in an 8-track. An exception to this was working with a local musician-turned-producer, Paul Mex, who used to record on a 4-track at home. Paul was our age, of pretty much the same tastes as us, and also just happened to really know what he was doing. Industry And Nature was recorded on his 4-track! Paul became one of my very best friends – his roots are very much in American punk, especially the Stooges / New York Dolls.
OLIVER: In retrospect, who do you think were some of the most important bands of that era, and who were your personal favorites? Do you still keep up with what goes on with “punk” nowadays? Any recent fave bands?
KEVIN: OK… a few names: Mark Perry / Alternative TV, Subway Sect / Vic Godard, The Damned, Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Flesh for Lulu, Wasted Youth, The Fall, The Jam, The Sound, Rudimentary Peni, Killing Joke, and The Skids. Today’s punk scene is something I can claim very little knowledge of. I’m pleased but not surprised that it carries on. If it comes from the heart, it’s a natural soundtrack for expression and rebellion. A good friend of mine, Steve Snelling, is currently working away on a very punk-oriented sound which also features loads of other influences. I have seen Jah Wobble (ex-PiL) loads of times.
OLIVER: What did the name change to “the Underlings” represent and how would you say that band’s sound was different than the S-Haters?
KIERON: The Underlings came from the fact that we grew up in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and felt like serfs. I liked the name; I thought it sounded like a sixties garage band. The sound was a world away. With each record the S-Haters released, we were finding our way, with each one progressing from the last. Signing with Midnight Music accelerated this. Although the records released as the Underlings were pretty much the S-Haters’ live set, it was pretty assured and bore little or no relation to the initial stuff hammered out on my bass guitar.
OLIVER: About the last incarnation of the S-haters-Underlings-VS Halide chain of bands, VS Halide: What does the name “VS Halide” mean and what were the years of that band?
KIERON: Halide is a light source, a bright one. VS Halide was another band that took forever to evolve, probably because of the free-form ethos, but I would have hated to have formed a generic rock band. A set was written and gigs were played, there are some live tapes and tapes from rehearsals. I have some of these on cassette. One demo was recorded but I don’t know what happened to the master tape. I think that Kevin O’ Brien would have a copy; he is better than me at looking after things. Steve Snelling has a lot of this stuff.
Would any of the VS Halide stuff be released? Well, it would have to be re- remembered and re-recorded as most of it was recorded live on cassette. The band ended just as it was getting going.
OLIVER: What are some of the strangest or fondest memories you have of working with Nick Blinko? Strangest or most notable/remarkable shows played?
KEVIN: As mentioned above, Nick was a great collaborator, and just really fun and clever. His artwork is incredible, and I still treasure a framed original that he gave me some years back. A few years after they split, they reformed and I went to see them at the Venue in New Cross, which was absolutely packed. The crowd went wild and I was really proud and excited to be there.
OLIVER: Do you still keep in touch with any of the folks you met working with Outer Himalayan, Midnight Music, and the various bands you must have met at the time?
KEVIN: Strangely enough, around May ’07, a friend of mine described a bloke in a Midnight Music t-shirt who he had seen. It turned out to be Nic Ralph, and my friend put us together on the phone, the first time we’d spoken in around 20 years! Nic is no longer active on the music scene in business terms but goes to quite a lot of gigs. Kieron and I drifted apart in the early 90’s but he called me out of the blue a couple of years back to invite me to his 40th birthday party, which was just fantastic. Kieron is such a gifted man. His songwriting is brilliant. Nick and I hung out a bit in the 90’s at which point we did some jamming and a little bit of recording on my home setup, but I’m afraid to say I haven’t seen him for a few years now.
OLIVER: Any last comments, feelings about punk’s relevance to today’s political climate, etc.? Does it still influence your values, your lifestyle — and if so, how? Still a rabble-rousing anarchist? And, what bands were you in post-S-Haters? In anything still today?
KIERON: I wish that there were more political activists around. Having said that, if you had walked around Londons King’s Road in 1977-78, you would realise that most of the punks hanging around Malcolm MacLaren’s Sex Shop and Seditionaries, and swigging hard cider, were idiots. That legacy has remained, and there are some bands playing and recording that still fly the flag. How has it affected my values? I suppose it has shaped my moral core, taught me that if you do not like the world you live in, take an active and not complacent role. People of my generation still remember the shockwaves of hippy boringness — Never again! For me, playing in a band became more of a grind than fun and that affected my writing and creative flow. In the end I joined up with the territorrial army for seven years. But I am now an active Union representative and my creative side is expressed through the occult studies that influenced my early lyrics.
KEVIN: In tems of bands I was in subsequently, I lost my way to some extent. I think I was chasing that great feeling I had in the S’Haters, before realising it was basically unrepeatable. I knocked it on the head in the early 90’s, at which point I had more than had enough – the buzz had evaporated totally. My interest was being taken over by dance / electronic music. The revolution in home recording technology, studio equipment, digital, MIDI, computers and perhaps most of all sampling, meant this scene was a logical progression from punk. I made some recordings with my friend Paul Mex of which I remain very proud. Paul by this time had scored significant success with his talent, and we had a great time of it, including some work with/for Kim Fowley. I got the same excitement from this new music as I had from punk, really.
I didn’t play live between 1995 and 2000, aside from a couple of covers gigs which were fun. From 2003 to 2005 I was a member of the Disco Students, another band from the punk / post-punk era. We did about 20 gigs, some of which were very successful, including 4 dates in New York, with a headlining date at CBGBs. I left the band in 2005, but we did two successful shows in London earlier this year (2007). The band is fairly Fall / Smiths influenced, but could never have happened without Punk! I go to a fair few gigs still – from the punk era in the last few years I have seen Killing Joke, John Cooper Clarke, Jah Wobble. But for me, one of punk’s lasting legacies is that I will happily go and see Val Doonican one night, Sonny Rollins the next, Nick Lowe the next, and The Fall the next. No rules. No uniforms. No boundaries. Not never!
OLIVER: Will there be any reissues of S-Haters stuff, maybe a CD collection, retrospective? That’s been a rumor for Part 1 (who deserve one, I think) and even Amebix had a DVD made about them, another band that developed a strong cult following over the years, largely thanks to the internet. What will happen with S-Haters’ catalog?
KEVIN: I have been nurturing the idea of remastering for some years now. A very good friend of mine who is a studio genius will be able to do great justice to our recordings. As for re-issuing them, that would be nice but I expect the economics would be crazy – at least as a physical release. Perhaps via download… or a very limited edition CD!…
ADDENDUM: Here is a brief interview with Steve Snelling of 80s UK punk fanzines Skeletons Making Love and Dark Corridor. Steve served as the unofficial photo and gig archivist of the S-Haters, and most of the graphics in this piece appear thanks to him.
OLIVER: What was your favorite S-Haters period?
STEVE: My favourite S-Haters period was from ’83 to roundabout ’85 when “Angel” was still in the set. They would play it different every time. Although the band at this point had been around a long time, I never saw them between 1979 and 1982; my favourite gigs, however, were all the Crystal Palace gigs, Watford Trade Union Hall, a miners’ benefit gig in 1984. It was awesome. Nick from Rudimementy Peni was at a gig at Brighton university with the regular guys — it was a great night. Rock Garden, Covent Garden — the Watford New Penny gigs were great. The Klub Foot was a unforgettable night. Some school in Hemel Hempstead was also awesome. I used to see them practice near enough every sunday at Kev Lee studio in north Watford. It was a great period.
OLIVER: I understand you attended the Rudimentary Peni early 90s show in London and got to hang out back stage with Kieron of the S-Haters and Nick Blinko? How did that happen?
STEVE: The Rudimentary Peni gig was in London in the 90s and was at the New Cross venue in London. It was a long time since Peni had played live and this one-off gig was out the blue. It was billed in the media as their fist live appearance since’ 82 and really was unmissbale. I’d never seen Rudimentary Peni before but they had by this time a mythic reputation about them — many stories, true or false, were going around about this band by now.
I’d been working and was living in the nurses’ home at Leavesden Hospital, 246 The Bungalows. I knew for a fact that Nick at one time worked here as a domestic. He was on the 5 to 8 shift, where you would clock in at 5 afternoon and finish at 8. You were given three wards to clean. I’d been listening to Peni and was in awe. Death Church was one of my favorite LPs, which I’d played to death. The 1st ep, too. On both records are references to Leavesden Hospital in Abbots Langley — for example, “B-Ward” was a ward on the Abbots side, real name “Birchest One” and “Birchest Two.” I’d worked here many times. The song “Vampire State Building” is also a reference to Leavesden Hospital — and, as I’m told, is the Death Church cover as well: It’s an illustration of the Annex, Abbots side.
STEVE (cont.): Also, most of Kieron’s family had and was working at Leavesden Hospital. Kieron and I were near neighbours; we would pop in all the time and play records, ect, Out of the blue Kieron one day said to me, “Where were you last night?” I said, “In London.” He said, “Nick was ’round last night. We came ’round to see you, and you wasn’t in!” At the Rudi Peni show in ’92, Kieron said come back stage and meet Nick. I said, “It’s ok, I’ll wait here at the bar!” I was a bit awe struck. Then, 6 minutes later out came Nick to say hi. I was very shocked at this. I found him very friendly and focused and all. We talked about the Leavesden mental hospital back in Abbots Langley, and then he was gone in a flash. The gig was awesome, incredible.
OLIVER: What were your favorite bands from that era? And when did your fanzines exist?
STEVE: My favourite bands at this time were the S-Haters, Rudimentary Peni, the Birthday Party, Virgin Prunes, the Scientists, early Swans, Live Skull, Black Flag, Meat Puppets, Circle Jerks, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth — to name a few!
I started Skeletons Making Love fanzine in late ’83 and it still runs today on the Facebook page. I only have some of the original copies — one of each, but don’t have issues 1 and 3. I covered a lot of ground between 1983 to 1990. At this point there was 1000s of fanzines; if you went to a gig you could come home with 10 fanzines under your arm. Dark Corridor I started in ’86 and had many great line-ups. We had AJ for a short while. The S-haters and the Underlings — a lot came be heard on Youtube. Go to “the snelling999” on Youtube and follow the link. Today I’m more into making films and adding it to D/C music here in Dortmund, Germany.
STEVE: I also got to know Martin Cooper from Magits and the Soft Drinks during that era; he used to drink in the Wellington Arms, Watford, in the mid-80s, always buzzing with ideas and very wayward thinking.