Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dance This Mess Around

"Messthetics" CD Series Rightly Hyped 2 Death

"Between 1978 and 1983 hundreds of UK bands put out their own records and cassettes. Some were accomplished musicians. Some couldn't play a note."
- Plan B Magazine

A co-worker recently turned me on to a great "Post-Punk/D.I.Y." CD compilation series called MESSTHETICS (thanks Ty!). It's the brainchild of a guy named Chuck Warner (a relation in spirit, if not blood) and is the offshoot of a Westminster, Massachusetts label called Hyped2death Records (www.hyped2death.com).

At first I thought the name might be some philosophical term or a portmanteau of the words "mess" and "aesthetics." I subsequently found out messthetics traces its roots to a Scritti Politti song on 1979's Work in Progress (2nd John Peel Sessions) EP - though some critics have also attributed it to a misheard line in The Undertones 1980 single "My Perfect Cousin" (i.e., "He's got a degree in Economics, MATHS, PHYSICS and Bionics.") But whatever's in a name, this series is far from a mess. It's mostly good stuff by totally obscure bands, making the kind of music blogger Jay of Detailed Twang describes as "super-rare, way out of print, wacko, homemade, small-scale stuff...from the vaguest of the vague." Many of these groups get played on WFMU's playlists, which is always an accredited seal of approval (need I say more?).


Tracing the roots: "Messthetics" was a Scritti Politti song

I liked what I heard on the mix CDs my friend made; I had assumed that in this time period, all the hicks from the sticks would be imitating the reigning sounds of the day in 1978-1981, but I was impressed by the variety of styles. To be sure, some frontman here are parroting Joe Strummer's mouthful-of-marbles mumble-ese, Johnny Rotten's rolled R's and Ian Curtis's dorky dourness, but other tracks showcase more original approaches. Some sound like Robyn Hitchcock's Soft Boys-era neo-psychedelia, others like early Eno records, and still others are raw, Cockneyed rants set against the most primal of instrumentation. Hungering to know more about who I was listening to (my friend didn't provide a track listing or liner notes), I started searching the 'Net and found a handful of reviews. Dave Thomas of All Music Guide has perhaps the definitive review:
It is one of history's most cherished truths that rock in the '70s was a tiresome morass until punk rushed in to resurrect its tired soul with a flamethrower belch of adrenalin, energy, and creative brilliance. And, like most cherished truths, there is a degree of fact to that statement. However, there's also an awful lot of revisionism as well, a reality that the Messthetics series seems single-handedly intent on proving. Titled from a cut from Scritti Politti's second EP (and a lyric in the Undertones' "My Perfect Cousin"), Messthetics is a multi-volume, essentially alphabetical compilation of the myriad bands existing just beneath the mainstream punk radar during the crucial years of 1977-1981. It was an era that has rarely been documented with any kind of thoroughness, but one in which the notion of "Do It Yourself" record manufacture spread through the underground like a virulent plague. The Buzzcocks are generally credited as the first band to exploit the possibilities of total D.I.Y., with their self-financed, self-released Spiral Scratch EP -- but they, of course, are beyond the scope of Messthetics. The rule here is for bands who, for the most part, did nothing more than a D.I.Y. single or two, who have not been anthologized to death elsewhere, and who are considered obscure by even punk connoisseurs. And it's about time, too. Presented in alphabetical volumes, with each single disc devoted to one or two letters of the alphabet, Messthetics is not, of course, complete. For every band drawn from the depths of vinyl obscurity, there's another dozen who still await their day in the re-release sun. But more than any other anthology of punk's forgotten foot soldiers -- be it Killed by Death, Bad Teeth, or whatever -- Messthetics not only goes back to the roots of punk, it also gets to the roots of what punk was all about. And, if some of it is almost impossibly hard to listen to, then blame the cherished truth. Messthetics is the reality check listeners have been waiting for for so long. For reasons of its own, the series actually begins at the end -- the first four volumes travel from the letters R-Z, with volume one (R-"Si") initially catching the eye via the inclusion of the aforementioned Scritti Politti, and one track apiece from their first two self-releases, "Messthetics," naturally, among them. The key, thereafter, is variety. Opening offerings from the Record Players, the Scrotum Poles, and Royston are far, far away from the most familiar tenets of punk, and you're five songs in before Six Minute War cuts in with anything even remotely resembling a muddy two-chord blurge. Elsewhere, too, moods veer from quirky electro-pop (the Scabs) to quizzical early-Wire-isms (the Reducers), from new wave moodiness (the Rest) to Slits-influenced tribal discordance (Sara Goes Pop). Future Sound frontman Adrian Borland surfaces with his formative Second Layer, Atv's Mark Perry is encountered amid the Reflections, and so on. Not every track is a winner, not every band is any good, but across 29 tracks, Messthetics #1 is as buoyant and brittle as the era that it documents -- and that, really, is what matters the most. ~ Dave Thompson, All Music Guide

Thompson only reviewed the first CD, which is understandable given the scope of the series. I'm in the same boat, having eight CDs and roughly 160 songs to wade through. To further complicate matters, the series is available in two versions, the nice color cover CDs that group bands regionally (London, Midlands, etc.) using the Messthetics #101, #102, and-so-on numbering scheme and the CD-R series my friend burned for me, which groups bands alphabetically A-Z using the Messthetics #1-#8 numbering system (as pictured above right).

So far my favorites are London's Spunky Onions, who perform "How I Lost My Virginity" (from their one and only foray into vinyl, 1979's split single Spunky Onions Meet the Ghettoberries) and the pride of Kent, the Record Players. The latter are represented by two singles, "Don't Go Backwards" (from their 1978 double "C"-side) and the wonderfully nostalgic "67" (a look back at The Summer of Love, 1967). And I love Leamington's hapless School Meals, who released a lone single - 1979's wonderful pop masterpiece "Headmaster" (available on Messthetics #103 and the CD-R Messthetics #1) - before being sued by a defunct kiddies theatre group that had been calling themselves School Meals. Served with a court injunction to cease and desist, the band promptly (and cleverly) changed their named to The Defendants. (See their Website for the whole story.)

There's also a Factory Records band hidden in the tracks, Manchester's Stockholm Monsters, who perform their 1982 Bauhaus-influenced single "Soft Babies." Stockholm Monster's 1984 LP was produced by Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook; they also have three CDs available on LTM Records.

Oh, and The Accused are represented here too - but not Baltimore's Dave Cawkwell-fronted band from the late '70s/early '80s (pictured at left); these guys are from somewhere called Solihull, and look to be contemporaries of Baltimore's Accused (go figure!), recording their Mell Square Musick EP in 1979. Love the band members' names: Paul Panic and Martin Hopeless! Baltimore's original Accused lineup featured guitarist Trixy Testone (Craig Krixer), but he moved on (with a name like that he would have been right at home with his namesakes across the ocean!)

Addendum: (12/6/07)
Subsequent to burning me the CDs, my friend brough the covers in, which was great because each track has a listing of the band's hometown, a musical map stretching from Cornwall to Dundee.

And I also found the Messthetics online liner notes, so I can learn more about these obscure D.I.Y. artists:

Messthetics Bands A-M liner notes
Messthetics Bands N-Z liner notes

And Messthetics has their own primer: So, what's Messethetics?

Putting the Wheels in Motion

Chuck Warner credits one band in particular - The Desperate Bicycles - with embodying the spirit of the D.I.Y. movement:
The Desperate Bicycles set the initial standard for the Do It Yourself alternative. To cut mastering costs in half, they pressed the same two songs on either side of their first two singles (August '77 and Feb. '78), and they recorded in one take. Younger fans may be surprised at their printed sleeves and labels [one side only, natch], but in 1978, both letter-press and offset printing were cheaper than photocopying, even in quantities of a couple hundred (although a surprising number of UK DIY 45s came in editions of 1000 or more). But the true rallying cry of DIY came from the Bicycles' "The Medium Was Tedium:" "It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it!"

Music critic Simon Reynolds agrees, citing the Desperate Bicycles' battle-cry in "Don't Back the Front," the flipside to "The Medium Was Tedium": "No more time for speculating...cut it, press it, distribute it/Xerox music's here at last." This record's sleeve also mentioned that "Smokescreen" cost a mere 153 pounds, prompting the band to ask "Why you haven't made your single yet?" In his book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Reynolds concludes:
For the Desperate Bicycles, it was as though sloppiness and scrawniness became signs of membership in the true punk elect. The very deficiency of traditional rock virtues (tightness, feel) stood as tokens of the group's authenticity and purity of intent.

Moreover, Reynolds credits the DBs with inspiring a slew of other UK regional bands:
The demystify-the-process data on the back of "The Medium Was Tedium" and the group's fervent exhortation "now it's your turn" catalyzed a scrappy legion of do-it-yourself bands. Among themwere many of the key figures of the postpunk era: Swell Maps, Scritti Politti, Young Marble Giants, the Television Personalities, Thomas Leer, and Daniel Miller, aka The Normal.

I finally got around to listening to the Desperate Bicycles and agree that they're true stars and pioneers; their songs "Smokescreen" and the aforementioned "The Medium Was Tedium" appear on the superb Messthetics #8, the volume chronicling bands whose names begin with the letter D. By the way, one D-lightful band on Messthetics #8, the Dogma Cats, sound just like XTC on "Choke" while spin-off band Dogmatic Duo's 1980 recording of "Going Up" provides the template for Blur's "Song 2" 17 years later - not to mention The Hives "Hate To Say I Told You So." Another D band here, Dry Rib, offer their own D.I.Y. slogan - one that could just as easily be applied to the Messthetics project: "Obscurity breeds alacrity/And when it's not there, you can hardly miss it."

Man with a Plan

Chuck Warner also credits one man with embracing the D.I.Y. revolution: legendary DJ John Peel: "John Peel and others were only too happy to play and promote the rising tide of self-produced, home-made vinyl." In fact, the track listings for Messthetics were compiled from Peel's BBC archives, "...so if a DIY record is not listed, chances are good that the band never sent him one."

More hype for Messethetics:

Also worth checking out is the April 2007 (#20) issue of the Brit music mag Plan B (pictured at right), in which Everett True reviews the D.I.Y./Messthetics scene and interviews Chuck Warner, as well as many Messthetics bands. (You'll need to mail-order it from across the pond.)

The blog Detailed Twang also has a very informative review. I agree with the reviewer about the Nuggets analogy - this is truly an epic undertaking on the scale of Lenny Kaye's classic anthology.
"Chuck and the Hyped2Death label have pretty much owned this scene from the day he first espied the linkages between strange, low-budget rock/noise/art heroes like Beyond The Implode, The Door & The Window, the Desperate Bicycles and Animals & Men, and when historians look back at when the common threads of these weirdo groups began to be catalogued, they’ll give props to Warner the same way Lenny Kaye gets credit for reviving 60s garage/punk with the first NUGGETS series." - Jay, Detailed Twang

Further Reading:

For more on the D.I.Y./British independent label movement - and specific bands like Desperate Bicycles, Swell Maps, Scritti Politti, Young Marble Giants, etc. - read Simon Reynolds' award-winning 2005 book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. I didn't realize it (until I checked the index of my partially-read copy) but it has an entire chapter devoted to "MESSTHETICS: The London Vanguard." Here Reynolds describes Scritti Politti as overtaking the Desperate Bicycles to become "...icons of DIY, supreme exponents-cum-theorists of a willfully fragmented style of music making, messthetics...", with the DIY groups characterized as "scratchy-collapsy" and prone to basking in "enthusiastic, stop-start mistakes" and a "falling-over sound." I'm only glossing over the surface of the bands covered here; I'm sure many more DIY artists' histories are recorded in its pages.

Related Links:
Hyped2death Website
Hyped2Death's Web-Store
"Messethtics" article in Plan B (#20, April 2007)
Detailed Twang review
So, What's Messthetics?
Johan's Top 100 D.I.Y. Singles (from Ugly Things #19)

3 Comments:

Blogger paul panic said...

hi tom i am the paul panic from the ACCUSED you reviewed on the messthetics cd.Solihull by the way in in the english midlands near Birmingham.There is still a strong interest in our mell square musick ep,anyone interested can email me paulpanic@fsmail.net .Soon to be released is mell square musick the movie a 3 hour look at the scene of 79 and the story of the band and record on dvd.Visit DETOUR RECORDS UK WEBSITE and then click on the bored teenagers link to see more about the ACCUSED.All the best

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and this is martin hopeless...guitarist from the accused.....hi paul!! ...and i hope you keep me a copy of the dvd...its cool to see the amount of stuff you can find now on the net regarding all this.

1:51 PM  
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