To The Outside of Everything - A Story of UK Post-Punk 1977-1981

by Rob Taylor Rating:10 Release Date:2017-12-01
To The Outside of Everything - A Story of UK Post-Punk 1977-1981
To The Outside of Everything - A Story of UK Post-Punk 1977-1981

By the time of John Lydon’s departure from the Pistols, punk-rock had breached its social contract and become a fashion, ceasing to be a cornucopia of anti-conformist rock , and becoming a mediocre semblance of its former self. Punk had a point to make, and once it had made it, it was time to move on. Not many people thought that Lydon would abandon his muscular singularity as a punk-rocker in favour of roots reggae, dub and even dance, but in fact, Lydon was quite the musical chameleon. Quite the aesthete.

The times, they were a changin’, and even though Malcolm McLaren commented at the time that Lydon had become ‘..a constructive sissy rather than a destructive lunatic’, Lydon was always better than the image that had been foisted upon him. There were other musical revelations in the United Kingdom to take up focus such as reggae, dub, funk, jazz and even European forms of progressive rock, especially German. Whilst ironic that Richard Branson and his Virgin Label quietly switched its roster from the likes of Tangerine Dream and Faust, to XTC, The Human League and Magazine, it was nonetheless a deliberate and calculated move to engage with the art rockers that were beginning to gain traction.

Look to The Clash, The Pop Group and Public Image Limited and you see what a huge influence black music had upon their respective sounds. Much of what appears on To the Outside of Everything – A Story of UK Post Punk 1977-1981 carries this marker. Alternative TV with their tribal percussion, The Slits with their skank-lite, Scritti-Politti with their unstructured jazz nuttiness, Gang of Four’s funkiness. Even minor groups like Brumbies, Fashion struck upon a reggae beat.

At a time when home politics was becoming oppressive (Thatcher came to power amidst this period in music in 1979) it was perhaps inevitable that music would adopt an intellectual focus and become a more cogent voice against the times. Certainly, the members of Gang of Four were exposed to student politics and made a deliberate decision to chasten against the establishment, and generally speaking, the music from this period became more progressive as young people took up more of the cause. Although post punk from 1977-1981 continued, at least in some quarters, to be as scabrous as punk music, it was less vacuous.

At the outset , I’ll say that Cherry Red have really outdone themselves with this compilation. Truly a superb offering, and seemingly not constrained by record label licenses.

Disc 1 starts with the John Foxx lead, Ultravox !. The lyric ‘everything goes when no-one knows your name’ is a harbinger for much of the anti-commercial music that was to follow in this era. Remembering that much of punk, including Never Mind The Bollocks, was really just conventional hard rock, what came in this little era was anything but conventional. The pure inventiveness of Wire, the sinister themes of Magazine, the industrial harshness of Throbbing Gristle, the off-key atonalism and cold lyrical delivery of Mark E Smith. The latter sounded on first listen (to 14 year old me) like a demented English Teacher. Punk might have molested the public with an anti-social message and a DIY aesthetic, but music by 1977/1978 was an abrupt diversion into experimental musical fusion. Magazine’s ‘Shot by Both Sides’ (to the outside of everything) is a brilliant track, like a wake up call to a new generation of would be indie-rockers. It is fitting that the title borrows from their lyric.

Of the highlights on Disc 1, there are many. I’ve mentioned a few, but Tubeway Army’s ‘Bombers’ pre-dates the urchin lyrics and electronic minimalism of The Pleasure Principal, and is more grungy however with signs to come – electronic missives firing strategically in the mix. The affectations of Mark E Smith are evident on Repetition, which does what the titles indicates but is the antithesis of staidness. I’ve always found his tendency to add an ‘ah’ a the end of each phrase a bit annoying, but I guess that’s his schtick. One for the blank generation to wake up to or something.

I had forgotten The Tight’s song ‘China Eternal’ and had a blast remembering the crunchy precision of punk and electronics of that fine track. Scritti Politti’s ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ is freewheeling jazz rock experimental, a brave and altogether successful excursion into left-field rock. Gang of Four’s ‘Damaged Goods’ is funky and maintains an alluring rhythm, almost danceable. The android vocals from The Flying Lizards, the fun as hell Big in Japan, and the formidable Julian Cope with his Teardrop Explodes, off-kilter neo-psych with a B-Movie sounding motif on ‘Sleeping Gas’

As we turn to Disc 2, The Human League take the musical ideas of ‘Being Boiled’ on ‘The Dignity of Labour’ but turn it into something more akin to a Phillip Glass composition, a minimalist journey. Alternative TV is mongrel post-punk which plays with tempo and oozes energy. Ian McCulloch from Echo and The Bunnymen could always soar with his quasi-operatic vocal, effortless and shimmering on ‘The Pictures on My Wall’. Lydon’s enigmatic voice and Wobble’s trademark bouncy bass, rounded out by a great little guitar figure make ‘Death Disco’ a 5 Star track. I never took to The Monochrome Set, the nasal delivery was too vague and indistinct for me, but their track here ‘Eine Symphonie Des Grauens’ is pure commercial delight. Adrian Borland, who was to establish The Sound, is here with his former band, Second Layer on ‘Court or Wars’. What a wonderful voice he had, and its interesting that thematically, both in concept and music, this has much in common with The Sounds song, ‘Missiles’. The noisey, atonal, abrasive lead out is brilliant.

The Slits were ostensibly inept in their early days, but still pretty entertaining, and ‘Typical Girls’ is a great little dub inspired strut. No need to mention the likes of Joy Division and Fad Gadget. The Pop Group of course were disruptive, desperate and slightly feral, but that’s the point, and their mix of rock, dub and jazz, whilst slightly demented, is stimulating. The Psychedelic Furs preferred chamber pop over anything as abrasive as The Pop Group, but the ground swelling bass still added oomph to what was essentially a 60’s pop template.

As we move into 1980, the musical landscape is expanding further away from conventional rock form, although The Swell Maps are perhaps a late reminder of the remnant of punk-music, with a veneer of three chorded guitar and vocals with attitude. Now however, we have more experimentalism. Clock DVA’s ‘Brigade’ has a basic electronic structure which helps to create an intimidating atmosphere. Girls At Our Best ! On ‘Warm Girls’ employ a kind of boy choir effect, polyphonic harmonies within an indie rock framework. Interesting, and good. The Membranes as always utilise a headache-inducing rhythm section, with a bit of early synth, proving that blokes who were essentially punks could be brainy about it. The Thompson Twins here are more interesting than their cloying dance shit of years to come. In Camera’s ‘Final Achievement’ is good stuff, a nasty, brooding theme with an unrelenting beat and a bleak vocal.

Some like Section 25 but I find their art-school cool a bit aloof. Much better is Art Objects with ‘Hard Objects’ with a touch of the Joe Strummer solo sound. The The’s ‘Controversial Subject’ is nothing like what was to come with Soul Mining but still, the abstract, sinewy, fractured sound is built around a beat structure signalling a move towards the dance floor. The Associates ‘The Affectionate Punch’ is a lovely reminder of the alluring voice of Billy McKenzie, who sadly committed suicide on 1997.

From Disc 4 onwards we move into more abstruse experimental fields. Well mostly. Funny, I thought The Birthday Party were Australian but anyway, with the unholy racket of ‘The Friend Catcher’, they brought the ashes back to the UK, that’s for sure. Dislocation Dance, again, prescribes what their name says, a stop start funky dance with a droll delivery. Colin Newman (he of Wire) delivers a crazy club piece called ‘B.’  a piece which for mine was a little overbred as an experimental track, but kudos for the insane thought process.

 Mass deliver a dissonant mess, but when we arrive at Dance Chapter, we get a track that borrows the dub aesthetic of PIL but advances in a new musical direction. Lots of echo, scratchy guitar and a nod to those who appreciate a bit of conventional rock. Everyone of a certain age remembers Blancmange, and they’re still around. Some of their typical percussive mania is on show here on the modestly titled ‘Overspreading Art Genius’, but unlike what was to come, there’s no emphatic baritone narrative, just disjointed vocal wavelengths.

New Order’s ‘Ceremony’ is great of course.

The delicious swagger of Five or Six’s ‘Another Reason’ was a great find. Electro percussive pop-rock without any histrionics. What happened to those guys ? They were excellent. The epic ‘Raindance’ from The Past Seven Days is what you wished U2 sounded like without a knob-end as a lead singer. Catchy chorus and another hit for the relatively unknown. To me anyway.

And so we reach our final segment. Its been awesome so far, for the most part, even with a few misfires. Unlike other Cherry Red boxes however, this box hasn’t contained any real clangers.

Theatre of Hate start the last lap, but hardly in front of the field. Loud, brash and yelping, ‘Rebel Without a Brain’, I would hazard, would be autobiographical were it not for the fact that the music is occasionally quite good. Marine’s ‘Life in Reverse’ is heading towards late night clubland with its incessant beat and slapped bass. The warning shots of the sax lead into various stanzas of dance.

Jah Wobble’s ‘Fading’ is a reconfigured ‘Transmission’ by Joy Division, though spooky with sci-fi synths, and a gentle lulling vocal, which is kind of creepy, given that it harks back to ghosts of yore. Tv21 are like a British version of Hunters & Collectors. Celebratory horns lend a vaguely festive sound to the laddish vocal. The Drowning Craze’s ‘Storage Case’ is a fantastic song. The cabaret style vocals and leisurely club feel is diverges from much of this compilation.

The droll teutonics of Nico (isn’t she German ?) make her dance-floor track one you’d rather sit out, maybe in the beer garden. Maximum Joy and 23 Skidoo continue the trend towards the new sector, the former reminding heavily of Tom Tom Girls and ESG, with Nile Rodgers on bass. Probably the best track on this last disc is ‘Imagination’ from Sad Lovers and Giants. I cannot relieve my head of its spiny hook.

By 1981, many music journalists were calling time on the endlessly experimental approach of this era, but for mine, it was probably the most fervent period of music from the UK. Essential.                               

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