Paul Cook gives Punktuation the lowdown on THE PROFESSIONALS’ new album SNAFU, his early days with the influential punk band and John Lydon’s legal tussle over Danny Boyle’s film.
When Covid struck and the UK ground to a halt last year Paul Cook and The Professionals were just three gigs into a tour with Stiff Little Fingers. Those dates were meant to be a prelude to working on their follow-up to 2017’s well-received ‘What in the World’. Instead, Paul and Tom Spencer, his co-conspirator in the latter-day version of The Professionals, spent a frustrating 18 months trying to get the new album together.
Sat in a West London studio on a wet, grey October afternoon, he and Spencer are reflecting on SNAFU‘s difficult gestation. It was a time when they had to grab whatever time they could between stop-start Covid restrictions to write, rehearse and record. But as time stretched and the months dragged on, it also saw them lose guitarist Chris McCormack and end up with a confusing array of recordings that had to be rescued by producer Dave Draper.
Pre-Covid, it was all going so well for them. Cook originally formed the band with Steve Jones in 1979 after the Sex Pistols first split, reactivating it in 2015 with the guitarist’s blessing and a guest appearance on their last album. Support slots for Billy Idol and live appearances at the Rebellion and Isle of Wight festivals followed, with a trio of EPs in the first three months of 2020 seeming to build momentum. Then the global pandemic hit, with Cook thankfully getting off relatively lightly when he caught Covid.
All things considered, the album probably has no right to sound as powerful and fully realised as it does. SNAFU’s certainly not short on highlights, with thunderous opener ‘Easily Led’ setting the pace. “I open the album with my great drums, my really basic drums,” as Cook puts it. (“Absol-bloody-lutely,” Spencer chips in).
Despite having been involved in one of the most influential punk bands of all time, the album’s reception seems to have been weighing on Cook’s mind.
“We was a little bit worried about it, I must admit.”
But if ‘What in the World‘ was, as Spencer puts it, “a stepping stone” to see if The Professionals (Mark 2.0) even had an album in them, the new one’s proved even more important.
“This album’s helped me survive lockdown,” he says. “The happiest times I had during lockdown was when we could get together and make some music, [when] we started smiling again.”
The album title came about by accident. SNAFU (or, ‘situation normal: all fucked up’ in military slang) was something Cook’s dad used to say all the time.
He explains: “It started off as a joke. ‘Tom, how’s the album going? Oh, it’s SNAFU’, we’d always say. ‘How’s the album?’ ‘Still SNAFU’, and we thought, that’s not a bad title for what’s happening with the world.”
“I went to LA to see Steve Jones… and I had to take Steve’s mum’s ashes because he couldn’t come to the funeral. Next thing I know, we’ve written a song about it called M’ashes [for Mary’s ashes]. I think that’s the best way to write, what’s personal to you.” Paul Cook.Tweet
The recordings were bolstered by guest spots from The Cult’s Billy Duffy and Phil Collen from Def Leppard. Covid restrictions in the US may have prevented Steve Jones from assisting this time around, but Cook’s relationship with his old school friend makes an appearance on at least one song.
“I went to LA to see Steve Jones, our old guitarist, and I just mentioned to Tom that I had to take Steve’s mum’s ashes because he couldn’t come to the funeral. Next thing I know, we’ve written a song about it called M’ashes [for Mary’s ashes]. I think that’s the best way to write, what’s personal to you, what’s going on in your surroundings.”
The inspiration for another of the album’s songs is even closer to home. ‘Spike Me Baby’ followed some ill-advised snacking while Cooke was visiting his daughter Hollie.
“He calls me the seagull,” Paul Cook says, pointing at Spencer, “I’m always swooping in and nicking people’s [food]. You know the people, those annoying fuckers. I’m always raiding her fridge for snacks and stuff and biscuits or whatever, and one day she had some ‘chocolates’ in there, which I thought looked interesting.”
He spent the night “totally off my head … lying down in my room really freaking out”.
Spencer adds: “He phoned me up, and he was being all negative, ‘I’ve got palpitations. I’m not sure about this album’. I remember hanging up thinking, that was a bit weird. Later on, he phoned me up again saying, ‘Well, I’m listening to this music, it sounds fantastic’.”
No prizes for guessing what was in the little savouries, but the incident sparked another great song, once that’s enlivened by backing vocals from Hollie, who’s a successful musician in her own right, having played with the reformed Slits and released her own acclaimed reggae albums.
Meanwhile, with the UK, not to mention much of the world, still SNAFU, the new album’s artwork – a stained glass piece by Spencer – appropriately enough shows fractured images of a unicorn and a lion, both symbols of the country. But despite the uncertainty of Covid and a petrol crisis, The Professionals will give the new songs their live debut when their UK tour kicks off next week.
Naturally, both Cook and Spencer can’t wait to hit the road, but they’re also mindful of the new risks they face.
“We’ve got to be careful,” Spencer says, “because of course if we do have a positive test – the tour’s off, and that’s not just us – there’s the seven of us that we’ve got to try and keep it together [for]. With meet and greets, it’s going to be tricky.”
Another question is where the band sits in today’s musical landscape. “We kind of fall in between two stools, I think. We’re not an out-and-out punk band; we’re not a classic rock band,” says Cook. “Punk is a spirit. We capture that spirit live, and we’ve captured it on the album. Do we have to define it? You either like it, or you don’t; it’s either good, or it’s crap.”
“We’re not an out-and-out punk band; we’re not a classic rock band, punk is a spirit. We capture that spirit live, and we’ve captured it on the album.” Paul Cook.Tweet
Cook and his former Sex Pistols bandmates also captured that spirit on the band’s early recordings, collected in the new 76-77 boxset.
“I just remember being really creative at the time. What people don’t realise, those songs in the format that ended up in ‘Never Mind the Bollocks‘ really changed a lot as we was going through them, and a lot of that is on that recording, on that early stuff. [We were] just getting ourselves together as a band and a unit and learning our stuff and learning how to write songs and play songs basically.”
More recently, that unit, already famously fractious, fell further apart over Danny Boyle’s forthcoming Pistol. Use of the band’s music was only possible in the Disney mini-series after a court case that Cook and Jones won, after which Lydon called his bandmates “liars, liars filthy liars,” on UK television.
“What I don’t want to do with the court case is get into a slanging match with John,” says Cook, “He’s already started it [but] I don’t want to get into this tennis match. I could really tear into him, and I should defend ourselves, but I’m not going to.
“All I will say about that is that it was really sad, and it was a bit of a shitshow that we ended up in court to sort this problem out when we should have gone round the pub, sat down and had a chat about it.”
“What I don’t want to do with the court case is get into a slanging match with John. He’s already started it… I could really tear into him, and I should defend ourselves, but I’m not going to.” Paul CookTweet
One of Cook’s stock phrases is ‘never say never’. It pops up on SNAFU as a song title, and it used to be his standard answer when people asked him about the next Sex Pistols reunion. Would he still give that answer?
“Oh no, I’m pretty confident that’s never going to happen again, actually. They’ll have to get another drummer if they do.”
To support the release of SNAFU (released today Friday, 8th October 2021) The Professionals head out on the road and play 15 intimate headline shows starting on October 13th at the Forum in Tunbridge Wells and includes The Garage in London on October 24th.
To pre-order SNAFU go to: www.theprofessionalsband.com/snafu .The album will be available as a limited edition CD in a box with a poster, limited edition gold 12″ vinyl and download.
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I’m a punk rock aficionado, martial arts pupil and fair-to-middling student of the Bengali language. I’m also a journalist, writer and editor, specialising in medicine and technology.
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