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Stuart Jones: Post-Punk Compilation

There were so many splendid classics issued on albums, as singles and taped for John Peel’s radio sessions in the golden years 1978 to 1981. Here I’ve selected eight such timeless gems, audio treasure rich in atmosphere, melody, power and character.

They are only twelve, amongst arguably a hundred or so equally brilliant tracks. I’ve nicked some background information (not much, actually)from a few websites featuring several of these artists, so I say thank you to those original authors. The descriptions of the songs themselves are mine alone.
Stuart Jones, Brighton, January 2008.

No. 1: 4 Hours by Clock DVA

Contemporaries of Heaven 17 and The Human League, Clock DVA emerged from Sheffield, England, in 1978 and were formed by Adi Newton and Steven Turner. The name was inspired by the constructed slang dialect of English by the linguist, novelist and composer Anthony Burgess. Additionally, DVA is the Russian word for ‘two’.

To begin with the sound was brutally industrial, but by the time of their debut album, Thirst (1981), they were combining experimental electronic music with standard rock instrumentation.To fill out the sound and in order to recreate the songs live, Newton recruited two more members prior to the recording sessions for the album, which sold well, knocking Adam & The Ants’ Dirk Wears White Sox from the top of the NME independent charts.

An amazing single, 4 Hours was released alongside the album. It kicks off with jagged guitars, a hi-hat-snare-floor-tom wash and, unusually, a piercing wind instrument, possibly a recorder, wailing away attractively. Adi Newton growls out what amounts to stranded statements describing a curious mixture of the depressing and the atmospheric.

After a second verse, at around 1:51, double-tracked rhythm guitars and snare cracks are isolated, creating an awesome tension. Newton’s vocal dips lower still, his gloomy baritone full of barely restrained desperation.

There’s the creepy mention of a piano, falling from a great height and smashing to pieces on the pavement; and then the rest of the instruments rejoin the fray and Newton simultaneously regales us with a warning of imminent nuclear destruction (four hours away, right?) and a simple yet pithy comment on the ageing process. And then it’s over – just like that.

No. 2: Terror Couple Kill Colonel by Bauhaus

Daniel Ash, David J. Haskins, and his younger brother Kevin Haskins had played together in various different bands since childhood, often not lasting more than a single performance. One of the most long-lived of these was a band called The Craze, who did a few gigs around their native Northampton. They soon split up too and Ash once again tried to convince his old school friend Peter Murphy to join him, simply because Ash thought he had the right look for a band. Murphy, who was working in a printing factory, decided to give it a try, despite never having written lyrics or sung. Ash's old band mate Kevin Haskins joined as the drummer. Ash then invited David J to replace original bassist Chris Barber.

With their lineup complete, the unnamed band played their first gig at the Cromwell pub in Wellingborough on New Year's Eve 1978. The band chose the name Bauhaus, a reference to the German Bauhaus art movement of the 1920s due to its 'stylistic implications and associations' according to David J.

After being together for six weeks, Bauhaus entered a studio for the first time at Beck Studios in Wellingborough to record a demo. The band recorded five songs and one of the tracks from the session, the over-nine-minute-long Bela Lugos’s Dead, was released as the group's debut single in August 1979 on Small Wonder records.

The single received a positive review in Sounds and stayed on the British independent charts for two years. The song received crucial airplay on John Peel's evening show; they were subsequently asked to record a session, which was broadcast on 3rd of January 1980. The band released three more singles, Dark Entries, Terror Couple Kill Colonel and Telegram Sam, a cover of the T.Rex classic, before the debut album In The Flat Field in 1980.

At this stage of the game, the word Goth had yet to be coined and Bauhaus were a very sharp unit indeed, utilising an economy of style that didn’t last long – by 1982 they had become pompous and lyrically immature. The early, sparse attitude is to the fore on their remarkable 1980 single Terror Couple Kill Colonel, which begins with skittering drums, discordant harmonic noises and the dominant, spiralling lead guitar riff. Under this is a second, occasional, guitar pattern: sinewy and trebly. Taken almost verbatim from a newspaper report of an actual terrorist assassination in Germany, the lyric outlines events in authentic cold war terms:

His eyes were heavy
He carried a card
One couple questioned
the other discharged

Real care has been taken with the production here. Flanges, echoes and delays subtly treat certain instruments, creating an impressively otherworldy ambience, at once dangerous, cold and European. The pace is unhurried – this is no punk thrash – and the drums in particular are superbly E.Q’d (how much bass, how much treble etc).

During an extended fadeout the band stretch their talents over more of Murphy’s groans and some odd scat-singing: guitars itch and scratch, panned across the stereo spectrum. Fantastic.

No. 3: Nerve Pylon by The Lines

Richard Conning (guitar/vocals) and Jo Forty (bass) began playing together in 1976, won some studio time in a Sounds music competition and cut their first tracks at Phil Manzanera's PSL Studios. They debuted live as Proof before becoming The Lines later in 1977, playing the Roxy club amongst other London venues. In January 1978 they recorded their White Night 45 on their own Linear label (later reissued on Illegal records), but hit their stride in 1979-80 with Richard, Jo, and Nick Cash on drums, (ex-pragVEC), recording the On The Air single and then adding Mick Linehan on lead guitar (ex-ATV) for their first Peel Session, the 12” Cool Snap EP and – their finest moment – the awesome Nerve Pylon single (1980).

This obscure, gorgeous gem begins with the lonely beat from that failsafe rhythm tool of the period, a drum-machine, before bass, glistening guitars and a high-pitched popping sound complete the audio picture.

Richard Conning’s teen-dream vocal maps out some melancholy thoughts, almost a weary rejoinder to some very bad emotional news.Another verse of similar navel-gazing takes him to the irresistible chorus, with its nagging desire to ‘roll over, to the terminal’, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.

The splendid chorus returns, slowly building and suddenly we find ourselves in grand ballad country – and the post-punk’s very own My Way, or even Life On Mars: Conning’s singing here is impressive, holding high, long notes with ease.

Nerve Pylon is an emotional, mature piece of work which (despite the drum-machine) refuses to sound dated.

No. 4: Skank Bloc Bologna by Scritti Pollitti

Green Gartside was born Paul Julian Strohmeyer in Cardiff, Wales. Paul grew up in Cwmbran, attending Croesyceiliog Comprehensive School, and in his teens decided on the name Green 'while viewing the countryside during a train journey back to Wales.' He studied Fine Art at Leeds Polytechnic, where The Sex Pistols Anarchy tour (which included The Damned and The Heartbreakers) was launched on 6th December 1976. This inspired Gartside to form a band with childhood friend Nial Jinks and fellow student Tom Morley.

For their first public performance supporting local Leeds punk group SOS, the group went under the name The Against. Upon finishing their studies the group relocated to London's Camden Town around 1977 where they lived in a squat at 3, Regent's Park Road and in the infamous Carol Street Collective. Alongside other groups of what has been termed the DIY movement (notably the Desperate Bicycles and Steve Treatment), the group released a classic DIY single, Skank Bloc Bologna, on their own St. Pancras label in 1978.

The band exhibited a very explicit do-it-yourself attitude, which manifested itself in their hand-made record sleeves with detailed breakdowns of production costs, including addresses and phone numbers of record pressing plants, and even their own Camden squat address for feedback. In the days before the internet, this openness delighted fans.

Skank Bloc Bologna picked up airplay on John Peel's influential radio show and the band were signed to Rough Trade records in 1979. This extraordinary track gets under way with a barrage of scratchy guitars and a meandering, childlike bass riff, which effectively conveys the main melody. Utilizing abrupt changes, rythmic displacements and discordant harmonies allied to Green Gartside’s sweet vocal style, this is strange music indeed.

Let me try to describe the startling instrumental which bridges this to the next verse: a trebly guitar plays a pretty, spiralling riff heading towards a solitary tinkling xylophone until the same guitar now sounds like Duane Eddy at his twangiest - fabulous and unexpected. Further bizarre words are unfurled, and amidst the scratchy guitars Gartside can be heard murmuring to himself like a man high on ganja.

It all ends with the child’s xylophone, tinkling off into the distance. Surreal, mesmeric and undeniably tuneful, this single is howlingly rare now, in its original version. Happily for me, I’ve got it (he said smugly).

No. 5: Ticking Away by TV21

Emerging from Ediburgh in 1979, TV21 released a string of singles and one album, A Thin Red Line. During that time they toured extensively, both in their own right and as support to bands such as The Skids, The Jam, The Moondogs and The Undertones but by May 1982 the band had grown frustrated at their inability to break through to the next level and decided to quit while they were ahead, immediately after coming offstage supporting The Rolling Stones at Edinburgh Playhouse. They were: Norman Rodgers (guitar, lead vocals), Ali Palmer (guitar), Neil Baldwin (bass) and Colin Maclean, (drums).

My favourite track of theirs (and they knocked out at least six or seven brilliant songs in their time) was one of two tracks on the b-side of an early single. It’s called Ticking Away, and is concerned with a subject not often found in rock (normally it’s a staple of folk music and/or singer-songwriters): growing old.

Norman Rodgers is an intriguing person – quite a few of his TV21 songs are peppered with mature, thought-provoking lyrics which stay with you for years. Ticking Away begins with chiming, attractive guitars playing high up the fretboard heralding some subtle rim-shot work from percussionist Colin Maclean. The first lines of its three verses quickly establish a lonely, estranged individual looking back on a largely underachieving life, wistfully gazing at snapshots of himself when young, dreading the present and the future.

With amazing economy the straightforward, simple lyrics tell us everything their author wants us to know, a shining example to songwriters everywhere (Elvis Costello, are you taking notes? I hope so!).

The rhythm is slightly choppy, taken at a brisk walking pace; echoing guitars underpin an attractive chord sequence and Norman Rodgers brutally forces his reflective leading character to face facts:

Hanging on to days gone by,
hanging on to days – gone by…

The musicianship here is very impressive, with Neil Baldwin’s bass dancing up and down during that twice repeated line.

The second verse is if anything even more harrowing – this man has been socially cast out and nobody, least of all potentially romantic possibilities, gives a shit.

Following the repeated line which serves as a chorus (hanging on to days gone by) we’re treated to a brief instrumental passage and gradually, one by one, each instrument drops out of the mix until only the drums (snare augmented with handclaps), piano and a fantastic guitar (playing harmonics to illustrate the jerking robotics of the life-clock) are left.

With cunning guile and displaying a theatrical bent, Norman Rodgers half whispers the final verse in a voice brilliantly conveying the irony of existence – yes, we have only one life. His voice fades and with it so do the drums, the slowing tick-tock guitar harmonics and the remaining days of this sad character’s life.

Thrown away as a b-side on a little-label seven-inch single that hardly anyone bought, by a group nobody cared much for, this awesome track (poorly re-recorded for TV21’s only album, which failed to sell and has never been reissued) has proved to be an enduring treasure as far as I’m concerned. The points it raises about the ageing process, the dangers of overloading on nostalgia and how we should all enjoy as much of life as we can while we still have it will always be relevant.

No. 6: Tomahawk Cruise by TV Smith’s Explorers

The Adverts were formed in 1976 by T.V. Smith (dominant songwriter and lead vocalist) and Gaye Advert (bass), both from Bideford, a small coastal town in Devon, and were later married. After relocating to London the two young punks recruited guitarist Howard Pickup and drummer Laurie Driver and The Adverts were born.

Unfortunately, despite releasing some classic punk singles, The Adverts were not able to maintain the momentum they had reached and their career stalled after the release of their second album. They split up shortly after the accidental death by electrocution of their manager, Michael Dempsey. Their last gig was at Slough College on the 27th of October, 1979. After the band split up, T.V. Smith continued with Tim Cross, forming a new group called TV Smith's Explorers, then Cheap, and finally from the 1990s to date performing as a solo artist.

In 1981 the Explorers recorded and issued their debut single, the now obscure but fantastic Tomahawk Cruise. A scalding diatribe against the insane nuclear agenda of the eighties, Smith’s lyrical talent, held in check by punk’s charmless limitations, finally burst forth with a veritable landslide of witty invective.

When he sings the title, the voice is drenched in reverb and delay.
The crucial phrase though is ‘at the cost – you have to choose between living and Tomahawk Cruise’.

A surprisingly tradional, poppy middle-eight lowers the excitement level temporarily and Smith’s vocal is suitably smooth and restrained. The pace quickly builds again towards a sublime instrumental break: warm sythesizers lead to a splendidly old-fashioned guitar solo which in turn, amidst echo and reverb, ends with rumbling bass, stabbing drums and the next verse – the tension is almost unbearable.

By now, he’s snarling his vocal and bloody hell, he really means what he’s singing! A curious refrain is treated with relish by its author, his voice audibly excited:

I look at myself – what is this body?
A few limbs, stark responses, a heart turned to steel
I just love the attention!
I’m in the news!

Chiming, high keyboards battle it out alongside guitars and big drums as T.V. issues his ultimatum: ‘you choose, between living and Tomahawk Cruise!’ Exhausting, memorable, edge-of-the-seat stuff.

No. 7: I Should Have Known Better by Wire

Wire formed in London in October 1976, (and intermittently active to the present) by Graham Lewis (bass, vocals), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), Colin Newman (vocals, guitar) and Robert Gotobed (drums).

The first two Wire albums were full of very short spiky bursts of punk rock, but by the time of the excellent third LP, 154 (1979), they decided to slow things down slightly and take some time to experiment with musical form, production and a more mature approach to the arrangements.

The result was, in my opinion, their best album, and included was a standout track, I Should Have Known Better. Over a fairly ordinary backing track of guitars, bass and drums brilliantly charismatic words are spoken, not sung, in a lethally calm voice. They seem to suggest that this is a tense emotional scene between lovers, where something appalling has occurred and now, finally, a price has to be paid – cards on the table:

In an act of contrition I lay down by your side
it's not your place to comment on my state of distress
For this is for real
I've tears in my eyes
Am I laughing or crying?
I suggest I'm not lying

The vocal grows more emotional and angry, but still controlled; while guitars fizz in an agreeably dirty manner and there are random bashes on the snare-drum. The next two lines are, for me, the important ones. They may be a bit pompous (you could say the whole song is, I suppose) but they speak volumes when you are confronted with proof positive that someone has fucked you over big time - and you’ve caught them in the act.

Creative differences pulled the band in various directions, culminating in the Document & Eyewitness LP (1981), a recording of a performance that featured almost exclusively new material.

No. 8: Politics by Girls At Our Best!

Originating from the Leeds area in England, the first incarnation of GAOB! were the duo SOS, formed in 1977 by guitarist James Alan and bassist Gerard Swift. Then while in art school Alan met Judy Evans, who joined the group and so SOS morphed into the Butterflies.

The Butterflies broke up towards the end of 1979, but several months after their demise Rough Trade records heard a tape of one of their previously recorded songs, Warm Girls, and liked it so much that they offered to back its release on the band's own label, Record Records.

Renaming themselves after a line in that song - Girls At Our Best! - they hit the independent charts in 1980 with Warm Girls/Getting Nowhere Fast (recorded with drummer Chris Oldroyd). Released on Record Records, Warm Girls went on to sell 7,000 copies. Later that year they released a second single, (again on their own label) Politics.

It gets underway with crisp percussion, double-tracked guitar and wobbling keyboards followed by the untrained, falsetto trilling of Judy Evans, probably the single most distinctive element of GAOB! In a voice as crystal clear as a thirteen-year old schoolgirl from the local church choir she shares with us her jubilant thoughts on the stateside political agenda:

I love to hear the democrats when they’re partying all night long
love to hear the sacred sect when they’re saluting their favourite song
I love to see you smiling when you’re travelling round the world
love to see you smiling when you’re kissing little girls

Answering backup vocals respond to Judy during the chorus, which follows. There are sudden splashes of electronic cymbals (probably from a synthesizer) and angry guitars growl impatiently prior to and during the next verse, which is simply the first one repeated.

Again, it is sung in that adolescent, honeyed tone, as if Joyce Grenfell had recorded a clap-happy Christian ode with the Clash providing instrumentation. This brings us to the wonderful middle-eight, a thing of abrupt power: the drums pound out a Burundi-beat on the low-toms, a high synth holds a sustained high note, the bass plays a pretty riff and the young lady gets all vituperative.

The chorus returns and continues towards the fade, where weird triplets on the snare drum and isolated synth-stabs hold sway until its all over. Like ninety percent of their short output (one great album and a handful of equally good 45’s) this song is packed with the splendid trademarks of Girls At Our Best! – infectious enthusiasm, an economic arrangement and an irresistibly strong powerpop melody.

This concludes Stuart's Reviews

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