Bruno Wizard: the lone star

Bruno Wizard: the lone star

With his life on film and his work in Selfridges, the fiercely independent punk artist and iconoclast tells us why he’s still not selling out

If you’re one of the select few who know Bruno Wizard, chances are you’d call him a punk. You might remember hearing him back in the movement’s 1970s heyday, fronting bands The Rejects and later The Homosexuals in London’s first official punk venue, The Roxy, in support of bands like The Damned, Wire and X-Ray Spex: the anarchic lyrics, clattering three-chord riffs and performances that made up in sheer visceral energy what they lacked in musicianship. 

If you really know Bruno Wizard, though, you’d know “punk” is a label he has consciously rejected almost from the outset. “I felt I’d already had my revolution hijacked in the 60s by the establishment having control of the means of production, distribution and media,” he says. “It took about four years to happen to my generation. So when punk came around, they had learned from the last time and what I call ‘establishment punk’ got co-opted after, what, six months? I was outside of that.”

Interesting, then, that Wizard identifies himself with the previous generation, despite only being a few years senior to punk’s main offenders. “Punk originally could have been a continuation of the outsider – the beatniks from the 50s,” he points out. “They didn’t know how to co-opt beatniks – heroin and homosexual sex. They couldn’t really bring that in and sanitise it. Homosexuality was still illegal!” Warding off the threat of industry exploitation is one of the main reasons Wizards changed the band’s name from The Rejects to The Homosexuals (none of the band members actually were). As a strategy, it worked: even to this day, he’s never had a record deal. But rather than mock those, like The Sex Pistols, who got overrun by the whole scene, Wizard looks back on punk’s heyday with slightly amused affection. “(The Sex Pistols) were Malcolm McLaren’s ultimate Situationist thing,” he laughs. “They were a piece of performance art, but not all of the actors in it understood the writer and director. The one that did get it was John Lydon – he was very sharp. On their US tour, he just quit, saying, ‘I’m sick of being a puppet.’ I’ve got the utmost respect for him.”

“I live in a molecular, sub-atomic world, I just see these balls of energy bouncing around. It was only later on I realised not everyone saw things like that” – Bruno Wizard

So who, then, is Bruno Wizard? And why, at the age of 64, is he appearing not only in an award-winning documentary on his life, but also in Selfridges’ Bright Old Things showcase, where a group of veteran artists are being given their own window display to offer “an intimate insight into their creative visions”? Cynics may balk at the involvement of an establishment bastion like Selfridges in this late-career success story, but by any definition, it’s a remarkable renaissance some 38 years on from that first Rejects gig. 

Even the story of how the documentary came about deserves its own movie. In the winter of 2011, aspiring Norwegian filmmaker Elisabeth Rasmussen was working with UK charity Crisis at Christmas, where she met Wizard, himself homeless but also volunteering. It was enough to inspire her to quit her Oslo home and job, buy a Canon 7D camera and start filming on the fly what became The Heart of Bruno Wizard. 

The Heart of Bruno Wizard

The one label Wizard does allow for himself is “writer”. It connects him back to his beloved beat generation – “I identified with those people because of my love of words” – and encompasses all of his artistic pursuits. But there’s something even more spiritual and mystical about that particular designation, something he still taps into. “It also goes back to when I was a young child and words were my friends,” he explains. “I used to sit watching the stars sing and dance all night…’” He discusses this as nonchalantly as if describing an everyday scene from primary school. “I live in a molecular, sub-atomic world, I just see these balls of energy bouncing around,” he says. “It was only later on I realised not everyone saw things like that. We all have synaesthesia, but we have it conditioned out of us as children.”

“All the stories he told me got me really excited,” Rasmussen says of Wizard. “I looked up his stuff when I came home and found 108 tracks on Bandcamp and was blown away. It was one of those moments in life where you think, ‘Can I jump or not?’ and if you do, it will change everything. Being with Bruno, I lost the fear of doing what I really want to do in my heart… I was almost in a trance.” The cheerfully DIY film freestyles around Wizard’s triumphs and tragedies, from early band days through to his drug-addicted years living in the infamous Warren Street “Blitz Kids” squat alongside an extraordinary roster of up-and-comers (fashion designer Stephen Jones, filmmaker John Maybury, burgeoning pop stars Boy George and Marilyn). Also explored are video collaborations with underground artists such as M Henry Jones and Wizards’ ex-wife Susana Vida – very little of it previously accessible – along with his recent musical resurgence gigging with a new incarnation of The Homosexuals.

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Bruno Wizard
Bruno in The Homosexuals. Photography by Susana VidaCourtesy of the artist

While many of Wizard’s contemporaries became household names, Wizard never found – or indeed sought – the limelight. “If Bruno Wizard had gone more mainstream, he wouldn’t be Bruno Wizard,” says filmmaker and collaborator M Henry Jones. “We thought he was absolutely crazy!” says Stephen Jones. “In a way, that’s why this film is being made about him. He stuck his neck out and knew what he wanted to do.”

“At the time, it was very much them on one side of the house, and me and Susie (Vida) on the other,” says Wizard. “I was around 30 and they were 20, students really. John Maybury was always very measured. Stephen, too, because he always had a craft in mind, brought a little sanity when he walked through the door. (Boy) George ended up being a little bit of a fame junkie, not because he was shallow as a person – George has always been very intelligent and sensitive.”

“I was self-protecting, still living in fear, still on drugs. It was only when I was 30 and I got busted that I realised I couldn’t run any more” – Bruno Wizard

“There was an awareness that they were all part of something from being friends,” he notes of the new romantic explosion with which many of his then-housemates were inextricably linked. “But I don’t think any of them were able to step outside of that. I had a more joined-up writing sort of approach.”

It’s easy to rewrite the narrative and suggest a sense of manifest destiny in Wizards’s singular career path, but the real story is far more interesting. Growing up in post-war Sunderland, young Bruno McQuinlan struggled with an abusive Catholic education he likens to “being force-fed concrete” before barely escaping down to London at the tail-end of the 60s. And while Wizards at times does little to dispel the more mythic aspects of his journey, with casually tossed-in asides such as “When I get an idea I get it all immediately, like seeing a movie in a second”, he’s also very frank about his own demons. “I partly changed (the band name) to The Homosexuals to keep the major labels away,” he admits, “but I was also self-protecting, still living in fear, still on drugs. It was only when I was 30 and I got busted that I realised I couldn’t run any more, and I had to go back to find out where that prism of love got replaced by a prism of fear.”

That process itself clearly took time. By his own estimation, he finally got clean in 1987. Given that it’s now 2015, that might seem to most people like a huge swathe of time to endure with little widespread recognition. Not for Wizard. “One of the very first things I wrote was a song called “Instant Hit” at the beginning of 1976,” he says. “I didn’t record it – at the time, I couldn’t handle that kind of fame anyway. Time is just a measurement of fear. I just needed enough money to be able to get the next idea out and stay plugged into the universe…”

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Bruno Wizard
Photography by Susana VidaPhotography by Susana Vida

Wizard ended up in the homeless shelter where Rasmussen met him after the original Homosexuals guitarist, with whom he was living and attempting to record new music, changed the locks and kicked him out. In the meantime, of course, technological advances offered a much more level playing field, allowing Wizard to re-engage creatively with the world on his own terms. 

“Now, because I always stuck to my guns, we’ve got our own means of production, distribution and media,” he says, a clear note of satisfaction in his voice. And not just for music. Ideas for films, installations and other art projects, long out of reach, may now be a possibility. “Almost thirty years ago, I had this lucid dream about a cathedral of light for Burning Man,” he says. “But I thought, ‘There’s no way I can get access to the technology.’ Now, though… The moment of conception has always been the most important thing for me, the energy I get from that. Sometimes I despair that I can’t get (the ideas) out quickly enough.”

Still, music remains his most wide-reaching creative endeavour. Some might argue that Homosexuals compilation Astral Glamour is unlikely to trouble the likes of London Calling or Never Mind the Bollocks… on greatest albums lists. In fact, Wizard cheerfully recounts in the documentary how Tony Parsons’s 1977 NME Rejects review called them “hopelessly out of tune, out of talent and out of depth”. Yet if you listen closely to his output, there are plenty of hidden gems to savour. The likes of “Hearts in Exile” or “Astral Glamour” can stand up to the best of the punk canon. The lyrics are less overtly aggressive, somehow more ethereal and seeking, as one might expect given Wizard’s intuitive take on the world.

“I used to be shitting myself, but now I’m up there and know exactly who I am in relation to the audience. It’s simple: love recognises love” – Bruno Wizard

“The mountains I’m climbing have got nothing to do with the record industry, or the establishment saying we will put a price on your gift,” he says. “People are coming to me after 30 years, because they somehow got hold of the limited editions we put out, which had the required effect. Those that did get it received it in a loving way.” As the documentary shows, the Rejects’ cult is growing. Recent live shows, says Wizards, have been “better than ever”, as if buoyed by a sense that this most single-minded of artists is finally getting his due. “I used to be shitting myself,” he says of his onstage performances, “but now I’m up there and know exactly who I am in relation to the audience. It’s simple: love recognises love.” 

You certainly don’t interest a behemoth like Selfridge’s without forging some sort of connection – but with the establishment he’s always shunned? “I didn’t approach them – they approached me, on the strength of having seen the film,” he says. “It’s not like I’m being bought by Selfridges because they’re not paying me anything. I’m using it as an art forum and that’s it.”

He goes on to enthuse about the “Octopunk” model to be displayed in the department store window – a giant octopus with Wizard’s head that doubles as the poster image for the documentary – is subverting the Union Jack flag, with its undulating tentacles. “Only I’m calling them ‘tentacultures’,” he grins, “and at the end of each one is a screen, through art and love, bringing something back, not sucking it out.” It’s fitting that, if Wizard is to finally embrace the “punk” sobriquet, he’s absorbing and assimilating it to showcase his own stealthy, under-the-surface continuum of work, on his own terms. Some things, after all, aren’t meant to change.

The Heart of Bruno Wizard is available on iTunes, Netflix and Google Play now