Jordi Valls

Living through the revolution

'I recorded the tapes of the punk groups in the summer of 1976 and 1977'
'I am sure that punk wouldn't have existed without the Sex Pistols'
'I know that something new will always emerge, I am sure about it'

Jordi Valls (Barcelona, 1945) moved to London in 1969 after a few visits to the UK capital. In 1976, after years of prog rock, he witnessed the emergence of punk, which would go on to infect the capitals of the world with rage and humour. Valls made recordings of the first gigs by bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Generation X and the Damned, and these tapes later formed the basis for the exhibition, The London Punk Tapes, which was shown at Santa Mònica in 2010. A tireless activist, Valls founded Vagina Dentata Organ in the 1980s, which built up a significant discography on the World Surrealist Network System label. He returned to Barcelona a decade ago and went to live in his parents former home in Gràcia, which is filled with books, pictures, souvenirs and records. His brother Marc, a graphic designer and editor, joined us for the interview.

When punk began in 1976, you had already been in London for eight years.
I first went to London for six months in 1963 and ended up staying a year. I was taken by the climate of freedom there the enthusiasm on the streets.
With the ‘Beatle' dictatorship in full swing?
Some of us saw straight away that the group had been set up to appeal to mums and dads, but then the Rolling Stones and others appeared and everything changed. I first met the Stones in 1964. They were still with Brian Jones and it was before they had recorded their first album. This meeting is one of the high points of my life. It was as important an experience for me as taking part in the emergence of punk, the appearance of the music industry and young British artists. I guess they are all part of my research. I have spent my life searching and I have always found something new, even though things became more difficult some years ago. I know that something new will emerge, I am sure about it.
What was the London scene like, when there was still industry and workers?
Seeing the miners' demonstrations in the early 1960s was amazing. I had never seen anything like it. There was a revolutionary spirit, which was breaking all the old models. People began to let their hair grow long. It was completely different from here. When I got back to Barcelona I worked for four years at SEAT, where when I crossed the factory they called me 'poofter' and threw bolts at me...
But, that changed...
Oh yes. When I later saw my former workmates from the factory all of them had long hair. Even the older chaps had long hair. That's life...
I was once told that punk came out of months of having to put up with Mike Olfield's ‘Tubular Bells'.
It was terrible because we lived in squats and during the parties this obsessive and repetitive music never stopped. We hated it but didn't think there was an alternative. I didn't know how to sing or play, but I wasn't going to just put up with it.
So how did you get into the music world?
It must have been around 1977 or ‘78 [he gets up to find a diary and checks that it was December 17, 1977]. I read an interview with Genesis P-Orridge (Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV) and it opened my eyes. Soon after reading the interview I came across him in London, 10 minutes from Piccadilly. He was looking for a hairdresser's because he wore his hair really long with a triangle shaven into it. There was good chemistry between us and we spent 20 minutes chatting. Genesis invited me to his next gig and we have been friends ever since.
That was around the time of punk's appearance...
There was a lot going on at that time. I recorded the tapes of the punk groups in the summer and autumn of 1976 and 1977.
Where did you get the idea to record the gigs?
I liked them so much I decided take a recorder with me. The first time I saw them was in my local cinema, Screen Islington Green. They played all night until six in the morning. On stage were the Pistols, the Clash and the Buzzcoks, for a pound. All the punks in London were there.
Did they get on or were there rivalries?
Not at all, they were cordial. When you went to see the Pistols the performances were very quick and other bands also appeared. The members of the Pistols and the Clash would stand at the back to see the other groups perform later.
It's strange such a radical style should emerge after years of the likes of Genesis, Wakeman, Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream...
I only continued buying Stones' albums because of their rebellious attitude. People are now used to it but the Stones represented a break with the parents' generation. Until then, children wanted to be like their parents, to grow the same moustache, make the same recipes, to be carbon copies. The rockers and the mods produced a revolution for the first time: we lived through the generational revolution. The mods, for example, looked down on the teddys boys because they considered them to be from the past.
I've heard they shared the same clubs, separated by a white line on the floor.
You only ever heard about the fights on TV propaganda, isolated incidents that the media exaggerated, but I didn't see anything of that.
Is it true what they say about punk being a scheme invented by Malcolm Mclaren?
I think so [he laughs]. He had his shop with Vivienne Westwood, who was great. He came up with the slogans and she the designs, with trousers that had zips all over them. Can you imagine it? They went into it to make an impression with the safety pins, the magazines, the whole fashion scene. Punk lasted for two years until the Clash went to war and sad episodes like the death of Sid Vicious. What I am sure about is that punk wouldn't have existed without the Sex Pistols. There also appeared interesting groups like Joy Division, with their composer and singer Ian Curtis.
Did you meet them?
Yes, because they were good friends of Genesis. They were from Manchester and used to be called the Warsaw Pact. They played in London on occasion and I saw them in Manchester clubs. We stood at the front. His suicide was a great shame.
Did Vagina Dentata Organ become financially viable.
That was not the aim. I was keen to do things, as I said. At that time the subject of vagina dentada was not as well-known as it is now. For example, when we went on Paloma Chamorro's programme, La edad de oro, he asked me how he should introduce us, whether to pronounce it in Spanish or English.
You also made a film with Derek Jarman.
Yes, it was an intense time because Derek was very interested in the punk phenomenon and some of his films took direct inspiration from it. Christopher Hobbs also came along, who was Ken Russell's righthand man, the one who did all his tricks and effects. If you needed a skull, he would immediately make one for you; he was phenomenal. For the film I did with them, Catalan, he made the scenery.
It was a shame to lose Derek Jarman, or perhaps if he had survived he might have ended up like Peter Greenaway, out of the loop?
He always had a tough time getting his films made. Just when we were about to go on La edad de oro TV programme was when he was looking for money to make Caravaggio. We were in Soho in London, with Genesis and Derek, and we went to have a coffee in Old Compton Street. He began to cry like a kid because he just couldn't find the money to make the film. It later turned out to be a masterpiece, but the difficulties were enormous.
A Fellini-like film...
Even more so was the film he made in Latin, Sebastiane, also at that time, 1976. When he came to Barcelona, he came up to the attic and put the video of the film on for me, just to listen to it, to hear the music of the Latin.
Why did you decide to come back to Catalonia after a life spent in London?
The fact that my children had fallen in love and had kids with people from here has something to do with it. They came to live here before we did.
Your performances always have a touch of humour, such as in the Buñuel tribute in London's Tate Modern.
I always do the drums, as in the Tate Modern, even though I don't play myself. I can't get away from the Calanda drums, although I had to tone it down in London for safety reasons. Yet, the Pompidou, after initial reservations, allowed it. We were presenting Albert Serra films in both cities. I got to know Serra in Cadaqués when we were introduced by Eliseu Huertas Cos, who played Dracula in Història de la meva mort. Huertas had been on Un chien catalan, one of Vagina Dentata Organ's albums.

The safety pin With TVE in Portobello

“The iconography of the safety pin was la quick way of identifying groups in the punk community. It was a paradox to be anti-racist and wear a swastika”

“At the Portobello Road carnival, by chance I bumped into a TVE film crew who had come there to record the appearance of punk. I offered myself as a guide and interpreter, and they ended up doing an interview with me, before they went on to visit the house of [exiled Cuban novelist] Guillermo Cabrera Infante. That is true surrealism”

Industrial pioneers

“In this photo I am with David Tibet, Steve Stapleton and William Bennett, members of some of the bands at the forefront of English power electronics”

A touch of the divine

“I was with Whitehouse at the Barcelona 666 in the early 1980s. They were at the crossroads of the sorollisme style with divine touches of the Marquis de Sade”

Vagina dentata The diaries

“Vagina Dentata Organ's actions can't be separated from our discography. Our first record, Music for the Hashishins, was recorded in the Trident Studio”

“I have always gone everywhere in my every day life accompanied by my diaries (examples pictured above). The diaries have ended up acting as guides along the routes of my past, which is like a labyrinth, in which I come across concerts, appointments, journeys, recording studios, friends, my family, and an infinity of surprises”

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