By the time of the U.K.‘s Great Train Robbery in 1963, train robbing had already passed more or less into quaintness. But quaintness did nothing to deter 15 men from stopping a train in Buckinghamshire and hauling in what would be equivalent to over $7 million USD today. Several of the robbers were sentenced to a rather harsh 30 years in prison, including Ronnie Biggs, who, though not the caper’s ringleader, achieved the gang’s greatest notoriety by escaping from prison less than a year and a half into his sentence, fleeing to France for appearance-altering plastic surgery, and eventually living openly as a fugitive in Brazil, who would not extradite him to the U.K.
Then, in 1978, at age 49, he became a punk singer.
Julien Temple’s preposterous and incoherent Sex Pistols film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle brought that band—by then halved to just drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones—to Rio de Janeiro, where they met up with Biggs and with him recorded “No One Is Innocent” and “Belsen Was A Gas.” A ridiculous but very, very fun scene in the film shows the band, with Biggs as their new singer, performing “Innocent” with bass player/Nazi fugitive Martin Bormann—actually an actor. One conceit of the film had it that rather than dying in 1945, Bormann escaped to Brazil. And joined The Sex Pistols. Did I mention preposterous?
Biggs was no newbie to music, though—he’d already participated in the creation of a jazz album in 1974! The collaboration with Bruce Henry was titled Mailbag Blues, and the album finally saw release in 2004. Per Bruce Henry via whatmusic.com:
Mailbag Blues was written over a couple months’ period ... with Ronnie at our side telling us his story and us breaking it down into events that we most related to musically. The songs are structured as a soundtrack, each one telling us part of a story and leading on to the next. When we went into the studio to record, we had the whole album pretty well defined, but we left a lot of room for individual improvisation, as was the style in 1974.
The recording took place in a very small room, on a four track Ampex Tape Recorder. Everybody played together, and we only used playback on one or two tracks for additional percussion. We were so young and eager back then, and we took ourselves so seriously, that we wouldn’t let Ronnie sing, which is too bad because he had a terrible voice but the Sex Pistols did all right with it didn’t they?
“London ‘63” from Mailbag Blues
Later, in 1991, German pin-up punks Die Toten Hosen tapped Biggs to sing “Carnival In Rio (Punk Was),” the lone original song on their covers/tribute album Learning English - Lesson One. For the b-side of the song’s single, he reprised his turn on “No One Is Innocent” and also covered The Equals’ classic “Police On My Back.”
Die Toten Hosen with Ronnie Biggs, “Police On My Back”
After years of ill health, including multiple strokes, Biggs surrendered to British authorities in 2001. He was promptly arrested, and confined to complete his original sentence. He was released, due to further deteriorating health, in 2009, and was able to contribute to the book The Great Train Robbery 50th Anniversary:1963-2013. His years of illness finally claimed his life today.
Rest in peace, Mister Biggs. Nobody can say you didn’t live an amazingly colorful life.