“Angry songs and bitter words – have you heard it all before?”
“I THINK THAT it’s lovely that people are still interested and enthusiastic about it and the music; it’s really sort of humbling,” says Omega Tribe frontman and lead vocalist Hugh Vivian about popular reaction to the reforming of the much-admired 1980s’ anarcho band. “It is definitely encouraging,” agrees drummer Sonny Flint. “Yes, overall it’s been a really positive response.”
News of the band’s reformation was announced on Facebook in mid-August and since then there’s been a steady stream of updates from the photo archives and details of the band’s first new live dates later in 2016. Omega Tribe originally formed in 1981, as a four-piece; releasing the celebrated Angry Songs EP on Crass Records in 1982 and the equally impressive No Love Lost LP on the Corpus Christi label the following year. The band played live and toured with artists from across (and beyond) the anarchist punk scene, with the group picking up many plaudits for their distinctive sound. Omega Tribe’s proudly independent musical sensibilities provided an effective contrast with many of the other punk bands with which they shared a stage. The band’s pairing, at different times, with both Poison Girls and with Conflict (and a whole lot of other artists) made for many a memorable gig.
In 1984, Sonny Flint joined the band, taking over the drum stool from Pete Shepherd (who moved the role of percussionist). That year, guitarist and founder member Pete Fender (who also worked as producer on the band’s studio work) left. The band’s 1985 twelve-inch It’s a Hard Life would be Omega Tribe’s final vinyl release, and heralded a marked shift in musical direction. Recordings and live gigs now featured flautist and saxophone player Jane Keay. To the band, Jane seemed more like a session musician than a full member. “She wasn’t very rock’n’roll, so to speak,” says Sonny.
But if things appeared to be evolving for the band musically, the departure of lead vocalist and guitarist Hugh Vivian later in 1985 was the first in a series of unfortunate events. “When Hugh left the band in 1985, it was quite a shock,” admits Sonny. “The gigs stopped, Jane disappeared and I think Pete Shepherd decided to throw in the towel too having done a tour playing percussion.” As only Daryl and Sonny remained, there was no choice but to rethink. “Daryl decided he would switch to the guitar and write songs,” explains Sonny. “We got bass player Nigel Mogg in for a while, and another sax player as well.” Renaming the group as “The Tribe” it proved to be a productive period; for writing new material, at least.
“The songs sounded a bit like Madness and The Jam,” Sonny suggests. “We recorded lots of demos, and about an album’s worth of material in Pete Fender’s studio. But we didn’t seem to do much with it.” As the band considered its next moves, Sonny found himself distracted. “In 1987, I left the band to follow a girl to Devon. It wasn’t because I disliked what The Tribe were doing.” Despite this latest departure, Daryl was keen to continue and rebuilt the band with new members. But these efforts were to prove short lived. In 1988 The Tribe broke up, and Sonny and Daryl lost contact.
So is this the first time since the band split that its former members have considered getting back together? “We reformed in the 1990s and we did a gig at Vi Subversa’s 60th birthday,” recalls Hugh. “And then we carried on playing together under a different name for a while.” The incognito outfit “Charlie” showed some potential, but that revival lacked the necessary traction.
Omega Tribe’s proudly independent musical sensibilities provided an effective contrast with many of the other punk bands with which they shared a stage
Sonny first raised the idea of getting the crew together again back in 2012. “I think it was about four years ago and sent [bassist] Daryl [Hardcastle] a message about it,” he recalls, “but he only responded this year – which was an unexpected nice surprise.” Daryl remembers that it might have been more than the one message. “I kept being hassled by the drummer to have a play!” he says. “You were hassling me so much”, says Daryl, looking at Sonny. “I wasn’t hassling you!” Sonny insists.
In contrast, Hugh just found himself getting involved. “I don’t ever really remember being asked about the idea really,” he says. Everyone agrees, though, with Daryl’s account of the sequence of events. “I said ‘OK, let’s have a jam then.’ Then I went to work at Hugh’s school, and said to him ‘we’ve got a rehearsal on Sunday, you wanna come?’ and he said ‘yeah, alright. I’ll come’.” Then things happened really quickly. “So I came and had a jam on Sunday”, Hugh adds, “and then on Monday there was an official Omega Tribe Facebook page.” A Facebook page “that some bastard did!” reveals an unrepentant Daryl. “But I didn’t mind,” Hugh stresses. “We might as well do this while we can. We may as well have a laugh. We will all be dead one day,” insists Daryl. It was clear that everyone was feeling equally impulsive and enthused. “Exactly!” says Sonny.
The returning Omega Tribe will be a four-piece. The three original members will be joined by new recruit Keith Gilles, who will take on Pete Fender’s former role of lead guitarist. “Pete cannot commit at the moment to rejoining the band,” Sonny explains, “although he says he has not ruled it out.” In the early 1980s, during the first years of Omega Tribe’s existence, Keith fronted the bands A Taste of Honey and Tender Object. In recent years, Keith and Sonny have worked together on a number of different musical projects. “I’ve always admired anarcho-punk as far back as when I first became aware of Crass and Poison Girls as a spotty 15 year old, but it wasn’t a road I went down as a performer,” concedes Keith. He was drawn to the idea of joining the Omega Tribe reunion “by the quality and profundity of the band’s material, and the strength of the ethos”. It seemed a natural fit. “Politically and philosophically, this is where my head lives,” he affirms. “It also helps that they’re thoroughly nice people.”
To begin with, ambitions were modest. “Daryl and I initially wanted to get together to work out how to play Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick as a sort of challenge,” explains Sonny. “And then it became apparent Hugh was going to join us.” So there was nothing decisive that made this the moment to bring Omega Tribe back. “The timing was pretty random, wasn’t it?” suggests Hugh. “Yep,” agrees Daryl.
How did that first band rehearsal in decades work out? “Not bad considering it’s been over 30 years!” says Sonny. “Daryl is a top bass player, so it wasn’t difficult for the rhythm section to lock together again. Hugh has got a strong voice and that’s still there.” Hugh concedes “it was a bit challenging to remember everything, but it all came back eventually.” The band took advantage of an obvious digital ally. “Thank god for the internet”, says Hugh. “We can find our songs on there, to remember how they go!” Daryl confirms that streaming the band’s songs from the web was indispensable: “It’s true!” he says.
“The timing was pretty random, wasn’t it?” suggests Hugh. “Yep,” agrees Daryl
So has it been a surprise to see the esteem and affection that exists for Omega Tribe, so many years after the band wound up? “Yes it has,” says Sonny. “It’s a surprise how people and fans have come out in support of this reunion. In the first few days of starting a Facebook page a few hundred people joined our page with lots of positive comments and gig offers from as far as USA.” The scale of that reaction was certainly bigger than the band had anticipated. “It’s a bit shocking really,” admits Daryl. That feedback has encouraged the band to recognise that there is an audience out there, interested in them and keen to get involved in what they’re planning. “That’s the nice thing about reforming and bringing people together,” says Hugh. “It’s quite affirming.”
And has the fact that other artists, such as Hagar the Womb, and now Dirt, have decided to reform encouraged Omega Tribe? Does that make it feel like there’s a community or a scene to connect to? “Yeah I think that’s true, isn’t it? Because there are some events and networks we can tap into,” says Hugh. That’s something reinforced by a sense that there’s a wider punk renaissance to be a part of. “I was talking to Dave Morgan (the current drummer of the band Alternative TV) the other day,” adds Sonny, “and he was saying that right now there seems to be a resurgence in punk.” Some of Omega Tribe’s old connections can now be remade. “I’m looking forward to seeing Gary of Dirt”, says Daryl.
Over a short space of time, Omega Tribe developed a very diverse musical catalogue. Is the reformed band planning to perform songs from across the band’s original repertoire, or to focus on a particular period? “It’s not like we are David Bowie and we got 27 albums to choose from,” protests Sonny. “Christ! We only had one album and two singles!” agrees Daryl. Hugh clarifies that the band will be performing songs “covering the whole period of the band… although probably leaving out material from our very early formative stage.” But revisiting material from those earliest days appears to be an intriguing idea, at least for some. “We could teach Sonny how to play ‘System in Decay’,” suggests Hugh. Daryl is clearly appalled at the idea. “Oh no, ‘System in Decay’?” Daryl mutters under his breath. “You wouldn’t wanna hear that.” It’s a song from years before Sonny joined the band. “No?” he asks. “No,” Daryl confirms.
“System in Decay” appears to be more than just an early song. “We were actually called System in Decay, early on”, Daryl recalls. Hugh is unconvinced by the memory. “Really?” he asks. “Were we?” Daryl is certain. “Yeah, yeah,” he insists. “We were called System in Decay before we were Omega Tribe.”
“Some of the lyrics may need a little tweak. But only a minor tweak. The basic ideas are still very pertinent”
The band’s retrospective CD compilation Make Tea, Not War, first released in 2000, was well received (along with its selective vinyl version) and all copies quickly sold out. Is the reformed band hoping to reissue (and maybe to update) that? “Well, it would be nice to – wouldn’t it?” says Hugh. “Yeah, it would be nice,” agrees Daryl. There are currently, however, no firm plans.
Do the band think that the lyrics and sentiments of Omega Tribe’s original songs feel as relevant and pertinent as ever? Will they be changing or updating any of those words to reflect the world of 2016? “I think some of them may need a little tweak,” says Hugh. “But only a minor tweak. The basic ideas are still very pertinent.”
Are the band hoping to reach out to those who never knew the original incarnation of Omega Tribe, or were not around at the time? “Yeah, the more people who are touched and moved by anything you are involved with, the better really,” suggests Hugh. “So we would never limit it. We wouldn’t say this is only for people who are…” Sonny finishes Hugh’s sentence for him: “…old bastards like us, yeah.”
The three band members then discuss the likely make-up of their 2016 audience. “It’s funny, because in the old days they were saying that we were ‘preaching to the converted’,” recalls Daryl. “It was a thing that was banded about: ‘You are preaching to the converted.’ As if everybody agrees with you before they even walk in the hall. Maybe it will be a bit different this time, because there have been a lot of younger people connecting with us on Facebook.” Sonny is not immediately convinced. “Did you see our Facebook demographic?” he asks. “Our biggest audience is males between the ages of 45 and 54! But things could change, I suppose.” Hugh appears to be more optimistic about the possibility of reaching out to a new, and maybe a younger, audience. “Well, our core audience may well be of a person of a similar age having had a similar kind of experience,” he says. “But the question is ‘are you hoping’. We’d never kind of say ‘No, no we are not hoping reach a younger audience’. For anyone who never saw anything like that at the time, it will be a new experience for them, won’t it?”
And is the band working on new material as well? Does Omega Tribe have new things to say and ideas to communicate? “Yeah definitely,” says Hugh. “There are always new things to communicate,” adds Daryl. For Hugh, new creativity is key. “I think making new things and creating new things is the most important thing,” he says. “Making something that never existed before is the best thing.”
“There is no three year plan,” affirms Hugh. “We are going to see how it goes”
With the first gigs now booked, and new offers coming in, how far ahead are the members of new Omega Tribe looking? “I think we are seeing how things go, aren’t we?” suggests Hugh. “Of course,” Daryl concurs. Much therefore depends on the reaction that greets the band when starts to play live once again. “There is no three year plan,” affirms Hugh. “We are going to see how it goes.” The other factor is time; or the lack of it. Do the musicians of Omega Tribe all have the time that they would like to be able to commit to the band? There is a chorus of “No”s. “I’ve got a bloody job,” says Hugh; “No way, I’ve got a bloody job too, I run a business,” adds Daryl; “Job,” says Sonny simply.
If Omega Tribe had never reformed again, how would its current members have liked the band to have been remembered? “As a band that inspired and supported people,” says Hugh thoughtfully. “It would be nice to think that we inspired people to do something.” And what would the band hope that the experience of hearing or seeing Omega Tribe will be like for an audience today? “Fun, engaging, moving,” suggests Hugh. “Interesting,” says Daryl. Sonny is pretty clear on the issue: “It should be good fun, shouldn’t it?”
Motivated and excited, the members of the relaunched Omega Tribe appear up for all of it. “While we are sat here, can I play you my new song?” asks Hugh. “It goes like this…”
Many thanks to Hugh, Daryl, Sonny and Keith. Badges photo: Jennie Long; rehearsal photo: Sonny.
Omega Tribe gigs
- 3 December 2016: appearing as part of an anti-fascist benefit gig at the 1-in-12 Club in Bradford
- 19 February 2017: appearing as part of ‘Vi Day’ during the Another Winter of Discontent festival at the Boston Arms, Tufnell Park, London
- 24 March 2017: appearing as part of a three-day event, presented by The Surplus People, at the Green Door Store in Brighton