Various Artists - Revolutionary Spirit: The Sound of Liverpool 1976-1988

by Jeffrey Penczak Rating:8 Release Date:2018-02-09
Various Artists - Revolutionary Spirit: The Sound of Liverpool 1976-1988
Various Artists - Revolutionary Spirit: The Sound of Liverpool 1976-1988

This 5-disc companion to Cherry Red’s similar focus on Manchester follows the same tried-and-true model: highlighting Merseyside’s “second wave” of artists during the turbulent musical decade on offer. From Deaf School through The Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus, the set delivers the best of Liverpool’s fertile musical melting pot, with touchstone household names like Echo And The Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, OMD, The La’s, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Dead Or Alive, China Crisis, and A Flock Of Seagulls just some of the treasures lurking within. The 56-page book annotates all the tracks (frequently by the artists themselves – a huge treasure trove of trivial pursuit), giving you everything you would ever want to know about who released what, when, and how they were received by the fickle record-buying public as punk morphed into New Wave, electronic dance music, and all styles in between. Key labels like Probe [Plus], Inevitable, and Zoo pop up again and again, as this was the energetic birth of so many DIY indies that, like the artists they released, became household names as well. You’ll also discover the major scenesters, from Bill Drummond to Geoff Davies, and key venues like Eric’s and The Armadillo Tearooms are namechecked throughout, illuminating the vibrant nightlife where these bands got up front and personal with their fans. Often I found myself amazed at the number of familiar bands who called Liverpool home. Many’s the time I fell back with a “I didn’t know THEY were from Liverpool, too!” Pete Frame would get a hernia carrying around his Liverpudlian Family Tree!

So who are THEY? And what was that Second Wave all about? The story begins with Deaf School’s debut single, ‘What A Way To End It All’, a toe-tapping, banjo-driven paean to suicide (the act, not the band). Best known for birthing legendary producers Ian Ritchie (Roger Waters, Laurie Anderson) and Clive Langer (Madness, fellow Liverpudlians Teardrop Explodes, Elvis Costello, Morrissey, et. al.) Ritchie also composed one of my favourite telly themes (for Globe Trekker / Lonely Planet). Their Bonzos-styled vaudeville rock was obliterated by the burgeoning punk scene, but their cult continues and vocalist Steve Allen’s liners celebrate WAYTEIA’s longevity as a live favourite today. Like Deaf School, Big In Japan are better known for their pedigree (Ian Broudie, Holly Johnson, Bill Drummond, Jayne Casey, and Budgie) than their music – about seven songs, of which the eponymous selection here is a cacophonous mess of Casey’s headache-inducing screeching and Drummond’s No Wave guitar scraping. Much better is Lori & The Chameleons’ brilliant ‘Touch’, a bubbly synth blast of electro pop backing Lori Lartey’s Betty Boop vocals that should’ve sold truckloads. [Lori’s “backing band’ are not the Mancunian legends, rather Zoo Records honchos Dave Balfe and Bill Drummond!]

Compilations like this are also goldmines of musical history, and nothing could be more “educational” than to hear a pre-Dead or Alive Pete Burns roar his way through ‘Black Leather’ (complete with ‘That’s The Way I Like It’ detour) with his first band Nightmares In Wax. It’s a nightmare, all right. NIW soon morphed into DOA. Burns died from a heart attack in 2016. Elsewhere on Disc One are the deliciously seductive Jaqui & Jeanette, who were one of the scene’s few “female bands” and whose reggae-inflected ‘194 Radio City’ (also heard on Cherry Red’s fascinating “Indie Women” box Sharon Signs To Cherry Red) will drive Slits, Raincoats, and Mo-Dettes’ fans gaga!

Clive Langer & The Boxes’ ‘Lovely Evening’ was the Deaf School guitarist’s solo debut, and a lovely thing it is indeed. It also marked the beginning of a lovely, productive relationship with Alan Winstanley that you may have heard tell about! Glass Torpedoes’ one-off single is represented by the snappy B-side ‘Morning, Noon and Night’, featuring a stellar vocal from Barbara Donovan. Shame they didn’t record more. Original Mirrors was the fruitful project from Deaf School and Big In Japan alums Steve Allen and Ian Broudie and the killer dancefloor filler ‘Could This Be Heaven’ suggests their albums are worthy of further investigation.

Not many of Liverpool’s “second wave” aped their famous forefathers, but The Moondogs’ ‘Heads I Win’ is a credible slab of brisk Beatlemania, and trainspotters may enjoy the Blockheads backing Deaf School bassist Steve Lindsey (as The Planets) on the sprite ‘Break It To Me Gently’, or The Yachts (minus vocalist John Campbell) masquerading as The Chuddy Nuddies slagging through the silly ‘Do The Chud’. But Spitfire Boys blatant attempt to outdo the Pistols (‘British Refugee’) backfires, despite being the first “punk” single to emerge from Liverpool and despite including future Slit/Banshee drummer Peter “Budgie” Clarke and future Frankie Goes To Hollywood singer Paul Rutherford.

Disc Two kicks off with another project more famous for its member’s future careers (in Teardrops Explodes and OMD) than their own releases, but Dalek I’s single (employing their previously unshortened moniker ‘Dalek I Love You (Destiny)’) finds the Liverpudlian synth pop extravaganza well underway by 1980. Chart-toppers A Flock Of Seagulls are thankfully represented by their brilliant debut single, the Bill Nelson-produced floor-filler ‘Telecommunication’, a guilty pleasure around these parts (as is their eponymous debut LP) that’s one of the finest representations of synth pop to emanate from Britain (or anywhere else) in the ‘80s.

Teardrop Explodes’ fluffy synth pop side is represented by ‘When I Dream’ from their essential Kilimanjaro debut, and is more indicative of Julian Cope’s genius way with a tune than Disc One’s more challenging ‘Sleeping Gas’. Colin Vearncombe and his band both traded under the name Black and their debut ‘Human Features’ is  warm, nostalgically-tinged slice of melancholia that suggests Morrissey fronting XTC, whose ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ riff it unashamedly appropriates. Sadder still was the news that Col died in a car crash in Ireland two years ago. The synth pop keeps on flowing with the hitherto unknown (to me) happy foot sweat-inducer Freeze Frame’s ‘Touch’, which is one of the box set’s highlights and should’ve been huge. Catchy chorus, infectious melody, insanely funky bassline – it’s got it all. A shame they never made it beyond the album’s worth of singles they recorded for Inevitable.

Like the Teadrops, Echo & The Bunnymen’s second offering (‘Rescue') is more reflective of their Top 5 future, with Ian McCulloch’s inimitable drawl setting hearts a-flutter on this first of nearly two-dozen chart hits in a career marking its 40th anniversary with their 14th album set for an 18 May ‘18 release. Based on the music spread across these five discs, reggae doesn’t seem to have taken foot in the ‘pool during this “second wave”, but that doesn’t mean Cook The Book’s funky dubfest ‘Piggie In The Middle Eight’ isn’t worth a few turns ‘round the dancefloor. It does go on a tad too long and its Beatles-nicked title is unfortunate, but I’m at a loss for why it didn’t inspire more acts to toss their hats into the reggae ring. Those with a taste for the avant garde experimentalism of backwards-masked dub, arcade electronics and PiL-styled bass rumblings should look to Windows’ completely bonkers ‘Creation Rebel’, an eerie little mindfuck that has me trying to dig up its parent album, the self-explanatory Uppers On Downers, which Roddie Gilliard wrote and recorded in a week whilst a member of Afraid Of Mice, whose perky ‘Intercontinental’ also gets an airing earlier on Disc 2. Gilliard went on to form the Zappa & The Mothers tribute band, Muffin Men, who’ve released over a dozen albums and recently celebrated a quarter century of Zappa-and-Beefheart-inspired lunacy.

Modern Eon actually charted in 1981 with their Fiction Tales LP, from which the starkly affecting dark synth ‘Euthenics’ was lifted, and A Formal Sigh’s Gayna Madder’s infectious vocals on the catchy (but previously unreleased) ‘Launderette’ suggest better things should have been in the offing, but the remainder of Disc Two suffers from filler from justifiably-forgettable acts like Egypt For Now, Chinese Religion, Those Naughty Lumps, and others whose names (and songs) I’ve already forgotten!

On to Disc Three and the Wild Swans, who provide the box set with its title track, a rather forgettable ramble that belies its Teardrop Explodes roots (founder Paul Simpson also helped form the Teardrops) and is best known as the final release on one of Liverpool’s key labels, Zoo. Fans of one of Liverpool’s most successful groups, China Crisis will enjoy their funky ‘African and White’ debut which set the stage for Top 10 superstardom, while the little known Passion Polka jump on the OMD bandwagon for the spot-on, but no less impassioned synth blast, ‘Obsessions’. The Bamboo Fringe’s debut single ‘Dorian Gray’ is passable synth pop, but the unidentified female backing harmonisers outshine frontman Gerry Garland’s uninteresting gruntings. Deaf School’s Steve Lindsey exorcised the demons of his recent breakup with his girlfriend on the jolly finger-snapper ‘She’s Locked My Life Up In Her Suitcase’ and garners extra points for fitting that mouthful into such a catchy chorus. Ex-Post-Facto welcomes the burgeoning Darkwave scene with ‘Oceanic Explorers’, which sounds encouragingly like Gary Numan gone Goth. Chris Clark’s vocals are as stark and magnetic as anything else here.

I also liked Chain of Command’s dark, fx-laden ‘Some Aspects’, which reminded me favourably of Depeche Mode and The Normal crossed with Kiwi synth poppers, Mi-Sex (remember ‘Computer Games’?); Ambrose Reynolds came up with the brilliant idea of mashing political speeches and assassination coverage together and setting them to incessant electronic grooves for the incendiary ‘He’s Dead Alright’, and Royal Family and The Poor’s rantings (‘Art on 45’) sound like someone locked Mick Farren in the fully-stocked local pub with the Funk Brothers grooving away in the front room (it’s Arthur McDonald, actually, but the sentiments are the same). Unfortunately, diatribes like this are (barely) only good for a single run through before relegation to the rubbish bin.

Besides, reggae, there is not a lot of experimental material on tap, but Bunnymen guitarist Will Sargeant has simultaneously enjoyed a prolific solo career, chock full of weird, ambient, avant garde instrumentals, so ‘Themes for ‘Grind’ Scene V’ from his imaginary Themes for Grind soundtrack is a welcome excursion into the void. When last we heard from Gayna Madder, she was mesmerising us with her sexy-yet-aloof vocals on A Formal Sigh’s ‘Launderette’ back on Disc Two. She returns (with AFS partner Robin Surtees in tow) for the equally alluring ‘Through The Glass’ by Shiny Two Shiny (daft name, great song). These are vocals that’s stop conversations dead in their tracks as everyone asks, ”Who is this singing?” Melody Maker rightly proclaimed their mini-LP Halfway Across The Rainbow “Record Of The Week”, so definitely hunt that one down for further investigation. 

The Icicle Works need no introduction, and Ian McNabb and cohorts are brilliantly represented by their second single, the anthemic fist-pumper ‘Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)’, heard in its original version before the Yanks remixed and retitled it for a Top 40 overseas hit! Care’s pedigree (Teardrop Explodes, Big In Japan, and the aforementioned Wild Swans) stood the duo (Ian Broudie and Paul Simpson) in good stead with Arista, who issued three singles of dreamy pop, with ‘Flaming Sword’ lighting the way for Broudie’s Lightning Seeds twee pop. But there’s nothing twee about Send No Flowers’ ‘Playing For Time’, a bunch of teens thrashing around in Raincoats/Slits mode, with 14-year old Lin Sangster’s trilled vocals effectively oozing teenaged angst. The disc ends with the haunting Turquoise Swimming Pools, a sort of Teardrops/Zoo Records one-off side project that only recorded a few tracks for the Zoo comp To The Shores of Lake Placid. I guess that makes them a two-off? Nevertheless, ‘Burst Balloons’ is a frightening mini opera that perfectly captures the gloomy Gothy doom that The Cure were recording during their “suicide trilogy”/Carnage Visors period.

Disc Four launches Frankie Goes To Hollywood into the stratosphere with their second #1 single, ‘Two Tribes’. Lengthy residencies at the top of the charts followed (they were the first act since fellow Liverpudlians Gerry & The Pacemakers to hit #1 with their first three singles), but internal strife knocked them off their pedestals almost as fast as they climbed on, and they split following a sophomore album that paid homage to their hometown. Mr [Graham] Amir kept the reggae torch burning with the chill out groove of his melancholic ‘Reasons To Live’, while Brenda [Kenny] and The Beach Balls’ cha-cha-charming ‘Everyday Another Dream’ picks up the pace for some groovy tropicalia. The Lotus Eaters’ fluffy pop confection ‘The First Picture Of You’ deservedly nearly made the Top 10 in 1983 and Virgin Dance’s ‘Are You Ready (For That Feeling)’ (imagine Julian Cope fronting New Order) should have matched it.

The Cherry Boys sound like Billy Bragg and Julian Cope (again!) fronting a melancholic cinematic outing on ‘Kardomah Café’, an observational slice of life about passing the time away on Stanley Street. Brian Atherton and The Light keep us in a downer mood for the heart-tugging ‘Contrasting Strangers’, suggesting there was room for more than synths and spandex along Merseyside. The much-loved Pale Fountains stop by to tell us that ‘Jean’s Not Happening’ and I feel that Sarah Records may have been paying attention, for there’s a good argument that their twee-centric output may have found its inspiration here.

If you can’t beat ‘em, copy ‘em is the order of the day for Western Promise’s ‘My War’, with such a blatant cop of Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’ that the song’s inherent qualities are drowned in Hooky-styled bass riffage, while the preposterously-named Old Ma Coxum and The Soapchoppers could only possibly have come up with something like the galloping singalong ‘Don’t Cry Darling (Daddy Had To Drown The Cat)’. Listening to psychedelic music in cemeteries does have its consequences. Their Death of a Clump-Press Minder cassette album seems essential listening.

Your exhausted ears (and eyes) have finally reached the homestretch, but don’t fret that the quality diminishes at the ass-end of the collection. Disc Five trickles in on the spittle of Jegsy Dodd and The Sons of Harry Cross, a rueful eye glancing sideways at the shithole Liverpool had become by 1987 with liberal militants battling Thatcherites on a daily basis. But Dodd cheers on the ‘pool’s strength to rebound and “never get screwed again.” The angelic female voice puts one to mind of Sensation Alex Harvey’s ‘Anthem’, and ‘Always The Bridesmaid’ has in its own way become Liverpool’s anthem. You’ll never convince me that’s not Kevin Ayers at the mic of Barbel’s ‘Hip and Her Cheek Electric’, but the rest is certainly not; I do like Benny Profane’s ‘Devil Laughing’, a jangly slice of twee pop from the folks who brought you 051 and The Room, and The Jactars’ ‘The Tallest Man’ is gloomy, Morriseyesque mope that drilled a hole in my skull and refused to vacate for days thereafter. Gotta find their 1989 album Pull The Plug and hope it’s as good as this.

The good times continue on The Tempest’s jollity farm-fresh hopalong, singalong, clapalong ‘Didn’t We Have A Nice Time? (All My Friends Are Here)’. It’s a hoedown, a hoot and a holler, and something that Nick Lowe needs to investigate pronto! But Cyclic Amp’s attempt to revive the punk scene with their vitriolic Killing Joke-meets-Anti Nowhere League ‘Dance’ is sadly a decade too late. Thumbs on the skip button. The Davincis’ ‘When You’re In’ unsuccessfully tries to bring the Paisley Underground to the punters, and the unlistenable drivel of Walking Seeds’ Gary Glitter rip off ‘Tantric Wipeout’ is nothing but a terminal headache.

A Game of Soldiers have the stomping, Julian Cope/Teardrop Explodes pop formula down pat for the superb ‘Big Fat Money World’. It’s a shame the labels overlooked the band and they had to release it themselves, thus depriving it from the ears of so many potential fans. The set ends with the best band to emerge from Liverpool in the last 30 years, Revolutionary Army of The Infant Jesus, an elusive, obtuse amalgam of ritualistic darkwave horror, ambient metal, and spiritual acid folk and electronica. Throbbing basslines, shamanic drumming, chanting co-ed vocals, snake-charming woodwinds, and hypnotic flute encircling your head like frankincense and myrrh at a lover’s funeral are only some of the wonders to be found in the 10-minute soul-stirrer, ‘Come Holy Spirit’ off their ’87 debut The Gift of Tears. All their infrequent releases are essential listening, with 2015’s marvellous return from a 25-year hiatus Beauty Will Save The World one of the best albums of the decade.

Gripes? There’s a few related to track selection, as the compilers have taken a musicologist-cum-elitist approach to the more well-known acts, overlooking signature tracks for obscurities (mostly amoebic – and anaemic – debut singles and previously unreleased recordings) that do not accurately reflect the bands’ oeuvre and will frustrate newcomers who’ve possible heard of or read about the band and will wrongly assume the selection is representative of their full discography. As such, the set seems to be aimed at a more limited audience of already-fans wanting to hear lesser-known tracks, rather than trying to expand Liverpool’s musical legacy to a wider audience. Victims include Echo & The Bunnymen (the sub-Television ‘The Pictures On My Wall’ certainly won’t have anyone digging any deeper into their catalogue); ditto Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Sleeping Gas’; OMD (how does one pass up the brilliant, career-defining ‘Electricity’ for the inconsequential ‘Bunker Soldiers’?); Jayne Casey fans will have to settle for the somnambulistic, lo-fi electronica of Pink Industry’s ‘Don’t Let Go’ rather than rejoice at any of her essential Pink Military offerings; ex-Yachts-men It’s Immaterial would score a Top 20 hit in 1986 with ‘Driving Away From Home’, but we’re left to ponder the herky-jerky ‘Giant Raft in The Philippines’ instead; Dead or Alive dominated the charts and dancefloors throughout the 80s, but you’d never know it from the impenetrable headache-inducing ‘Misty Circles’ included here; there’s no reason to ignore one of Liverpool’s biggest selling songs that wasn’t released by a band called The Beatles, but the compilers have elected to bodyswerve The La’s ‘There She Goes’ for not one but two nonentities, ‘Get Down Over’ and the anachronistic folk strum of ‘Way Out’. Evidence that perhaps the compilers overstepped and should have settled for four discs. But those remaining tracks are well worth your hard-earned dosh and about five hours of ear time.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    A really thoughtful and informative review. Cherry Red do make some odd choices of music to represent certain bands, like the OMD and Echo & the Bunnymen examples. Not exactly sure how they're pitching it. Pictures on My Wall was used on the last box 'To the Outside...' , as was Sleeping Gas.

  • Thanks, Rob. It is rather puzzling. I suspect it may be a licensing issue, but more than likely it's the compilers. As their site says: "Created by the same Cherry Red team behind such previous, acclaimed box sets as Scared To Get Happy, Millions Like Us, Still In A Dream, Action Time Vision, etc."

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