Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Forward Into the Past

No Future? Rewind. Playback.

I love music compilation records and I recently picked up the following two '70s and '80s punk/DIY/New Wave CD comps as part of my ever increasing musical Completion Backward Principle. The obvious big name compilations for music of this time period are the Stiff Records Box Set, Hyped2Death's Messthetics DIY comps and Rhino's Postpunk Chronicles/Left of the Dial series, but here are some worthy supplements to the cause, both of them imports from across the pond: D-I-Y: DO IT YOURSELF (Soul Jazz Records) and A PUNK + NEW WAVE EXPLOSION! (Spectrum).

D-I-Y: DO IT YOURSELF (Soul Jazz Records)

This great compilation from the fine-taste arbiters at Soul Jazz Records takes a look at "the rise of independent music industry after punk" in the UK. Its 22 tracks span the years 1977 to 1986, and while a few are obvious or familiar names (Buzzcocks, Scritti Politti , Swell Maps, Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer) the rest are complete unknowns to me - but pleasant discoveries. And it really is a mixed bag, from primal low-tech punk doodlings to to experimental synth noodlings, with funk, dub, electronica and synth-pop to boot.

The Buzzcocks' anthemic "Boredom" is the perfect lead-off track, since it served as the First Gen DIY's clarion call when it first appeared on their 1977 Spiral Scratch EP. As Howard Devoto spat out the lyrics about being "in a movie that doesn't move me," Pete Shelley played punk's most famous two-note guitar solo as if to reenforce the "why bother?" attitude of Devoto's disposable ennui. 30 years on have not dulled this song's brilliance, ba-dum ba-dum.

Speaking of minimalist, even better is the follow-up track "Aint You" by Kleenex, Switzerland's first all-girl punk group. Along with England's Slits and Raincoats, these art school babes from Zurich were one of the first three all-gal bands of the punk era when they formed in 1978 and the first Swiss punk export when this song from their 4-track EP made its way to London to be played on John Peel's radio show. They subsequently had to change their name to LiliPUT in 1980 when Kimberly Clark, the company that owned the copyright to the tissue brandname had their lawyers ask the girls "Aint you wanna cut it out?" to which they reluctantly answered in the affirmative. As SF Weekly critic Lawrence Kay succintly described Kleenex's sound, "Music like this doesn't have to be pretty or nice; it just has to make the plaster rattle before the walls cave in." Done and done.


Kleenex: Tissues became issues

After that it's all virgin territory to my ears. Even though I had one single by Swell Maps and had heard material from krautrocker Thomas Leer and Throbbing Gristle, I know not from these songs and most of the bands.

Kleenex is followed by two post-punk Scottish bands, A.P.B (for All Points Bulletin?) doing a funky little instrumental called "All Your Life with Me," followed by Edinburgh's Fire Engines performing the jaggly guitar-driven "Everything's Roses." According to Wikipedia, the Fire Engines released a limited edition split single with fellow Scots Franz Ferdinand in 2004, with each band covering a song by the other.

Naffi's "Slice 1" is a not-unenjoyable 4 minutes and 18 seconds of fret noodling, while Swell Maps' "Let's Build a Car" is, well, swell.

I found Patrik Fitzgerald's "Babysitter" highly amusing ("At least she don't molest your baby"), his Cockney accent and subject matter reminding me of Manchester's punk poet laureate John Cooper Clarke. Apparently he once auditioned alongside Mick Jones and Tony James for the band London SS and toured with The Jam, but his best known work remains the Safety-Pin Stuck in My Heart EP, which he subtitled "a love song for punk music."

Artery's "The Slide" is all go-nowhere tribal percussion backing Cockney chanting about things like "I don't want a wife! I don't want a wife! I don't want a wife!". All fine and well, if not exactly breathtaking. This would play well at Baltimore's High Zero experimental music festival.

Blurt's "The Fish Needs a Bike" sets aggressivley screeching guitars against squawking saxophones in a high-tension affair straight out of the Gang of Four playbook while a Teuton-toned vocalist dementedly repeats "Da feesh need a bike, da feesh need a bike" over and over. Crazy man! According to Wikipedia, Blurt is the brainchild of Gloucester, England's triple threat (poet, saxophonist, puppeteer) Ted Milton. Wikipedia adds, "Blurt's compositions are based around repetitive minimalistic guitar and/or saxophone phrases with relentless, machine-like drum beats, over which Ted Milton orates his lyrics in a variety of 'voices'." It works for me.

The Glaxo Babies' "Shake the Foundations" is pure dance music, bordering on disco, while The Flys' "Love and a Molotov Cocktail" is more grounded to punk rock simplicity, its dogmatically chanted chorus sounding very much like early Clash.

Russ McDonald's "Looking from the Cooking Pot" is downright wiggy, all beeps and blips and odd percolating noises from a sonic stew at full kettle. Who is this guy?

On more familiar ground, the Leeds-based Scritti Politti's debut single "Skank Bloc Bolgna" (1978) is all hair-raisingly tense guitars and socio-politico warblings from lead deconstructionist Green Gartside. In other words, it's ab fab, and on the strength of this DIY effort - and some helpful airplay on John Peel's radio show - the band got signed to Geoff Travis' Rough Trade label in 1979.

Next up is Windows (doesn't Bill Gates own this word in every conext by now?) performing the dubby, effects-laden "Creation Rebel." I know nada about Windows, but the song is nice background music. Likewise I'm clueless about the girls in Icon A.D., but their "Fight for Peace" is a catchy little rocker. According to the only blurb I could find about them on the Interpunk web page (www.interpunk.com), Icon A.D. was "formed in Leeds in 1978 by four school friends aged 16 to 18, all with no musical ability whatsoever but plenty of attitude" who "noticed an advert from Crass who were planning to release an album of ‘unknowns’. They submitted a rehearsal tape and the track ‘Cancer’ was included on the first ‘Bullshit Detector’ on the Crass label." A John Peel session soon followed and, well, stop me if you've heard this one before.

Then things start to get synthed out and icy-cold, beginning with German electronic futurist Thomas Leer on "Tight As a Drum." Genesis P. Orridge's Throbbing Gristle continues the electronic drift with the beautiful "Distant Dreams (Part Two)."

Then it's back to guitars with The Last Gang's single "Spirit of Youth," in which the vocalist sings about love, love, love and hate, hate, hate and wonders "Is there more than this?" (But didn't Byran Ferry already ask if there was "More Than This"?) The avant-garde explorations continue with Biting Tongues' "You Can Choke Like This," in which a steady drumbeat anchors free-form jazz solos from wailing saxes and scratchy guitars.

Tom Lucy does a spot-on Iggy Pop (circa mid-80s) trying to be provocatively outrageous while picking on the "stupid French boys" of "Paris, France." According to Bridge House Records, "Tom Lucy is currently a top stunt arranger for many top films and TV shows and has worked as a stunt double for stars such as Sean Connery. Tom is also first cousin to Darren, the bass player with Wasted Youth and this is the secret behind this release." Apparently, Wasted Youth were blacklisted from radio play (execpt for John Peel, of course!) because of their name. "To see if this theory was true it was decided to put the single out under the name of Tom Lucy because as well as being Darren's cousin he was in the studio every day with the band and contributed to the recording and production of the single. When this single got almost daily radio play it seemed the fears were proved correct. Although pressure was applied on the band by music industry bigwigs to change their name and style but they would not sell out."

And finally Red Lorry Yellow Lorry close the disc with some dour instro funk (think Joy Division transitioning into New Order).

Here's D-I-Y's full track listing.

1 The Buzzcocks - Boredom
2 Kleenex - Ain't You
3 A.P.B. - All Your Life With Me
4 Fire Engines - Everything's Roses
5 The Naffis - Slice 1
6 Swell Maps - Let's Build A Car
7 Patrick Fitzgerald - Babysitter
8 Artery - The Slide
9 Blurt - The Fish Needs A Bike
10 Glaxo Babies - Shake The Foundations
11 The Flys - Love And A Molotov Cocktail
12 Russ McDonald - Looking From The Cooking Pot
13 Scritti Politti - Skank Bloc Bologna
14 Windows - Creation Rebel
15 Icon A.D. - Fight For Peace
16 Thomas Leer - Tight As A Drum
17 The Frantic Elevators - Every Day I Die
18 Throbbing Gristle - Distant Dreams (Part Two)
19 The Last Gang - Spirit Of Youth
20 Biting Tongues - You Can Choke Like That
21 Tom Lucy - Paris, France
22 Red Lorry Yellow Lorry - Paint Your Wagon

A PUNK + NEW WAVE EXPLOSION (Spectrum)

More to my liking is this import compilation that contains simple (mostly) three-minute pop songs - no dubs, no jams, no electronica. I picked up a used copy at Record & Tape Traders mainly for two songs: "Back of My Hand" by The Jags and "Don't Care" by Klark Kent, alias Stewart Copeland of The Police (my all-time favorite drummer, after Baltimore's own Skizz Cyzyk, of course - who is also my favorite fake lefty guitarist). I already had the Jags single and the Klark Kent EP on vinyl, but good luck trying to find these rarities on CD - except on something like this import compilation!

The Jags were a typically mumbly-mouthed Scots band whose powerpoppy "Back of My Hand" was one of the highlights of my "Telephone Songs" mix tape (I used to make lists like these back in the day; other comps included "Girl's Name Songs," "Car Songs," "Train Songs" and so on - I obviously had a LOT of time on my hands! And yes, I totally identified with Nick Hornsby's Hi-Fidelity audiophile). Unfortunately, listening to this song was like watching Trainspotting - I couldn't make out much beyond the chorus of "I got your number written on the back of my hand." I think the singer says something like "I'm not a fuck machine" (if so, I love that line!) but it might just as well be "I know just what you mean" and I think he says something about "dry your eyes" but the broque is so thick it sounds like "dry yer ass" (which gives the song a whole new slant - does the singer have the girl's No. 2 written on the back of his hand?). The track included here is the original single version; apparently a remix version appears on the Best of the Jags CD (God, I hate when they do that - it's like Gerry Todd Remix Overkill Syndrome; you should always put the original versions people first heard when reissuing records - don't get me started on the Richard Hell & The Voidoids Blank Generation CD that subsitutes an alternate version of "Rock and Roll Club" much to my vexation!). Anyway, here's a YouTube clip of the Jags performing "Back of My Hand"; see if you can phonetically decipher it.

Klark Kent's 1978 single "Don't Care" is a great little pop tune with Stewart Copeland's characteristic humorous lyrics ("If you don't like my haircuts, you can SUCK MY SOCKS!"); Sting would cringe at the words, but let's face it, Stu added whatever sense of humor there was to the early Police records (a la "Be My Girl - Sally"). Thank God for good old American pluck! Copeland played all the instruments on the 1980 Klark Kent EP (which was really more like a mini-LP with 8 songs clocking in at almost 25 minutes and was pressed on Kryptonite-green vinyl!), but put together a DEVO-esque masked band for TV appearances, as illustrated in this YouTube clip for "Don't Care."

A very pleasant surprise was hearing Ultravox!'s 1977 single "Young Savage," which would later turn up on their 2nd LP Ha!-Ha!-Ha!. Was anyone a cooler frontman/wordsmith than John Foxx with his rapid-fire delivery and voluminous lyricism that seemed to be equal parts Dylan, Burroughs and J. G. Ballard? From the kick-start opening salvo "The Jekyll-Hyde of you/I can't survive the tide of you" to lines like "Money rents you insulation/Tenderness, asphyxiation," I have no idea what he's talking about, but it sounds so damned good I'm ready to sing his accolades as a post-modern poet of the highest order.

I also liked the way this collection placed two songs about time back to back (synchronicity!), namely the Boomtown Rats' "Like Clockwork" and Joe Jackson's "Got the Time." Listening to the Rats reminded me not only of how effortlessly poppy they were but also of how irritating Sir Bob's voice was (not that my opinion counts for much - after all, he got knighthood/sainthood for his Live Aid work and also got to shag uber-babes like the late Paula Yates). And the superb "Got the Time" reminded me that, before he chucked the killer guitar riffs to become The Piano Man, Joe Jackson and his band - whom I had the pleasure to catch performing at their height in 1980 at Towson State University (perhaps you've heard of it?) - totally rocked. The heavy metal band Anthrax obviously agreed with me, as they covered this song in 1990. Mental note: Pick up the first Joe Jackson album Look Sharp! (1979).

Other highlights include the modish Chords out-Jamming The Jam on "Maybe Tomorrow," Squeeze's first single "Take Me I'm Yours," and Julian Cope's neo-psychedelic The Teardrop Explodes performing "Reward." I remember the Teardrop Explodes being a big deal in the early '80s, with the Liverpudlians even making a pitstop at Baltimore's Marble Bar on March 15, 1981.

The Passions' "I'm In Love with a German Film Star" is a gem, of course, but it already appeared on Rhino's 1998 Postpunk Chronicles: Left of the Dial CD with a better (and louder) mix. I first discovered this song when it was used as the soundtrack of John "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" Heyn's Girls on Film, a short film celebrating the anonymous women who appeared on film countdown reels.

You also get The Slits sounding ultra-cool dabbling with dub and ska on "Typical Girls," Adam & The Ants playing "I see London, I see France" on the amusing "Young Parisians" and Manchester's Slaughter & The Dogs with a typically working-class-punk assault on "Where have All the Bootboys Gone," which could just as easily be a soccer singalong.

There are also two tracks each from The Jam (the excellent "In the City" and "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight"), the progressive-era Damned ("Grimly Fiendish" and "Eloise", from when they added keyboards and high-production values in the mid-'80s; "Eloise" was a cover of Barry Ryan's 1968 #2 hit and when The Damned released their version in 1986, it became their biggest chart success ever, reaching #3 on the UK charts) and, Eddie & The Hot Rods ("Teenage Depression" and "Do Anything You Wanna Do," the latter's chord progressions sounding strikingly like The Records' "Starry Eyes" - no wonder it was their greatest chart success, climbing to #9 on the UK charts in 1977) - though I never understood why these pub rockers were so big; I remember they played the Marble Bar and local bands thought it was a big deal to open for them because they were from the UK and (erroneously) associated with the punk rock scene. Still, "Do Anything You Wanna Do" was a pretty nice tune and probably the best thing they ever did; watch them do the "Do" as "The Rods" on Marc Bolan's Marc Show and see what you think.

Here's the full track listing:

1. In The City - Jam
2. Teenage Depression - Eddie & The Hot Rods
3. Young Savage - Ultravox
4. Like Clockwork - Boomtown Rats
5. Got The Time - Joe Jackson
6. Typical Girls - Slits
7. Young Parisians - Adam & The Ants
8. Grimly Fiendish - Damned
9. Back Of My Hand - Jags
10. Where Have All The Bootboys Gone - Slaughter & The Dogs
11. Don't Care - Klark Kent
12. Maybe Tomorrow - Chords
13. Reward - Teardrop Explodes
14. I'm In Love With A German Film Star - Passions
15. Down In The Tube Station At Midnight - Jam
16. Take Me I'm Yours - Squeeze
17. Do Anything You Wanna Do - Eddie & The Hot Rods
18. Eloise - Damned

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