Public Image Ltd., Ministry drummer Martin Atkins talks punk and touring

By  Peter Lindblad

Even the most liberal child-rearing philosophy would allow that a nightclub full of exotic dancers is no place for a young boy.

MartinAtkins2.jpgMartin Atkins didn’t turn out so bad, though. For the one-time drummer for Public Image Ltd., Killing Joke and Ministry, the job provided the kind of life experience not many people get.

Now, the man whose wildly inventive beats and unique drum patterns make him one of industrial-rock’s leading musicians is sharing everything he’s learned from more than 30 years in the music business in a new book called “Tour: Smart” that dispenses the kind of brutally honest advice and wisdom every touring musician should receive. Whether they want to heed it or not is up to them.

“I mean, I’ve been on the road since 1978,” says Atkins. “I was playing out when I was 11. I was backing strippers at Newcastle Labour Club. Yeah, drinking and backing up strippers … that’s good parenting there.”

Atkins did what was asked of him, no matter how “bizarre” he found the gig.

“The guys in the band sent me to the strippers’ dressing room to ask what kind of music she wanted, and I knocked on the door, and she answered the door naked, so I’m freaking out,” remembers Atkins. “If I looked down, this guy, who was her manager or boyfriend … I’m going to get punched in the face for being rude. So, ‘Yeah, what kind of music do you want?’ ‘Anything that goes with leather gear and whips.’ So, me, I’m 11, I’m going, ‘Right, yeah, like I know.’ Yeah, I know just the kind of music that’s going to go with leather gear (laughs).”

In retrospect, that was probably the best preparation Atkins could have had for a career in punk rock. At the time, he was playing eight shows a week, including Sunday afternoons with the strippers and Sunday nights doing cover songs and original material with his band.

Then, as he says, punk happened, and Atkins went from seeing glam-rocker Gary Glitter to going to a Stranglers show. “I have one distinct memory (of his initial punk experience),” says Atkins, who says he also saw U2 play to 18 people. “I was in the north of England, which is, although its maybe 300 miles from London, it’s culturally about the same distance as L.A. from New York. There’s definitely that feeling that you’re at the other end of the country. So, this punk thing we watched from a distance, and then we went to a rehearsal room in the north of England and somebody had written ‘Sex Pistols’ on the wall, and it was like, ‘Look out, it’s here.’”

Conditions in England at the time were bleak. The country was bristling under the rule of Margaret Thatcher. The economy was a disaster, especially in northern England. And there was the little matter of a violent miner’s strike.

“Things now, musicians and bands, they’ll have a cause, something to get behind,” says Atkins. “Punk wasn’t a marketing idea. It was a revolution. Everybody started their own label.”

The experimental freedom of the period appealed to Atkins, who’d been playing drums for 10 years by this time. He was on the verge of joining PIL with John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.

“I wanted to experiment and have no rules, and I didn’t realize the degree to which I’d be able to express myself and experiment, but we were experimenting at the Townhouse Studios in London,” recalls Atkins. “Queen were in the studio next door. We went into the studio without any ideas, and we’d see what happened. My audition for PIL, I thought I was going to a rehearsal room, and it was Townhouse Studios.”

Thrown right into the fire, Atkins was handed drumsticks, directed to a drum kit on the other side of the studio and ended up playing on and co-writing the last song to go on PIL’s classic Metal Box LP, the group’s second album. Lydon’s credibility allowed for such spurts of inspiration.

Still a young man of 18 or 19, Atkins, who admittedly was drinking a lot and using prescription speed, was in awe and a fish out of water.
“I hadn’t done anything, certainly musically, that made me feel entitled to be there,” admits Atkins. “People in London traditionally don’t like people from up north. It’s very strange. I’d go to a nightclub and someone would hear my accent and say, ‘Hey, you’re from up north. Let’s go fight in the car park.’”

He would spend his weekends in an apartment “ … listening to dub, watching laser discs of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and drinking Red Stripe and speeding, and just listening to music and hanging out. But that was the strange part. I really enjoyed that, watching people come and go like Don Letts and Vivien Goldman, all of those people. But, then I’d go over there one weekend and the door would be kicked in, and John (Lydon) would come running down with a sword, because there’d been a police raid the night before and he didn’t have staff or protection.”

Just recently, Atkins says he read how Lydon had been knifed in the early days of the Pistols. For his own part, Atkins’ relationship with Lydon has been volatile.

“He can swing from being hilarious and a pleaure to hang out with to being threatening and not fun hanging around with,” says Atkins. “We’ve been out to dinner. I’ve got a photo of him with my kids pulling on his ear. Our relationship goes up and down.”

The working environment in PIL was full of energy and confrontation.

‘Yeah, there was chaos, and (PIL guitarist) Keith (Levene) would fire me for six months and then nothing would happen, and they’d need to go in the studio, so he would call me,” says Atkins, referring to sessions for PIL’s The Flowers of Romance LP, where he added loops, beats and other treatments.

Between 1979 and the mid ‘80s, Atkins shuffled in and out of PIL. After PIL, Atkins found work with Killing Joke, a band he would also go on to manage, and Ministry, for the industrial greats’ infamous “Cage Tour,” his own Pigface project and Nine Inch Nails (he appears in the “Head Like A Hole” video and worked on the Grammy-winning “Wish” track).

Nowadays, Atkins teaches “The Business of Touring” at Columbia College Chicago. “Tour: Smart” ($29.95, available through IPG Distribution, will serve as the textbook. Purported to the touring musician’s bible, it includes advice from Atkins, touring musicians, band managers, booking agents, publicists, venue owners, cops, attorneys and everybody else associated with the business. Even Al Gore’s deputy national campaign scheduler chimes in.

Through bouts of diarrhea, flying bottles, shoestring budgets, rampant drug abuse and infighting so severe it made Atkins imagine he was hitting Lydon’s head every time he hit his tom, he has survived. Having graduated from the school of hard knocks with honors, Atkins has now became the teacher.

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