Various Artists - Optimism/Reject: UK DIY Punk and Post-Punk 1977-1981 - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Various Artists - Optimism/Reject: UK DIY Punk and Post-Punk 1977-1981

by Jeff Penczak Rating:6 Release Date:2019-07-26
Various Artists - Optimism/Reject: UK DIY Punk and Post-Punk 1977-1981
Various Artists - Optimism/Reject: UK DIY Punk and Post-Punk 1977-1981

There are over 100 tracks spread across four more discs (not five as erroneously stated in the liners) of UK post-punk in this sequel to 2017’s already sold out To The Outside of Everything. That may be gilding the lily, but like last month’s British Synth Pop set Electrical Language which seemingly eschewed all the usual synth-pop suspects, Optimism/Reject affords Cherry Red the opportunity to dig deeper into the morass to unearth forgotten National Leaguers who’ve been mostly relegated out of music memory and history. To be sure, it’s not all, “’ello, ‘ello’, ‘ello, who’s all this then”, with top rankers like John Cooper Clarke, Subway Sect, The Fall, The Sisters of Mercy, Raincoats, Young Marble Giants, The Ruts and their ilk along for the ride. But a right post-punk geezer like myself honestly didn’t recognize ¾ of the acts on proffer. So let’s dive in and see and hear all the rest of the post-punk scene that flourished (and in most cases faded) as punk gave way to the more soap washed commercial sounds of radio-friendly New Wave.

     Disc one goes straight for the jugular with Eater’s ‘Michael’s Monetary System’, proof that the DIY  ethos wasn’t always about how much noise you can make and less about what you said whilst making it. Propped up against Roger Waters’ classic bass riff from ‘One Of These Days’, the spoken word B-side stalks out of the room before it really gets started and we never do discover what our hero’s “monetary system” was all about, but in 1977 no one else was experimenting with piss takes like this. Mark Perry’s Sniffing Glue zine was one of punk’s greatest broadsides, and as it slowly smouldered in the aftermath of Punk Mk 1, he formed Alternative TV, whose reggae-inflected ‘Loves Lies Limp’ may have been a thinly-disguised knock on punkers’ drug of choice, amphetamine’s unexpected side effects on one’s love life.

The Outsiders’ adrenaline-fueled Stooges’ riff-o-rama ‘Freeway’ sets the stage for punk poet laureate John Cooper Clarke’s throbbing discourse on the incredulities of Britain’s justice system, ‘Suspended Sentence’, the opening salvo on his 1977 debut EP that introduced us to one of music’s greatest wits. The Times and TV Personalities fans may not be familiar with Ed Ball’s original incarnation as the leader of ‘O’ Levels, and their eponymous offering owes more to Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys than his subsequent more accessible work. Patrik Fitzgerald’s wonderfully-titled debut EP “Safety-Pin Stuck In My Heart” yields the box set’s title track, another short, spoken word piece that finds Patrik coming across like a Cockney Billy Bragg.

     Subway Sect always seems to find their way into conversations about the seminal British punk scene (they featured at the legendary 100 Club Festival in 1976), but Vic Goddard and Co.’s debut ‘Nobody’s Scared’ doesn’t actually set the world on fire, being standard thrash and burn with unintelligible lyrics, as is The Freshies’ ‘Washed Up’, which is probably best remembered (if at all, given its Grade Z lo-fi production) as the project that launched Chris Sievey, later responsible for the novelty smash ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk’ and the loveable character, Frank Sidebottom. Big Country fans will certainly be surprised at Stuart Adamson’s first band (Skids)’ debut, ‘Charles’, a through-the-paces stab at punk. It belies their brilliant future singles (e.g., ‘Into The Valley’), itself a blueprint for Adamson’s trademark bagpipe guitar sound he polished to perfection a few years later. Sadly, like a surprising number of participants in this box set, Adamson died way too soon.

     The Angelic Upstarts may be the longest tenured punk band in Britain (over 40 years), but it’s always nice to hear where it all began and the flip to the debut 1978 single ‘Police Oppression’ captures all the vitriolic spittle fans have come to know and appreciate. And it features a goddamn unheard-of blistering guitar solo. “The Irish Jam” may not be how Victim would choose to be remembered, but the Northern Ireland band that beat the Undertones into the shoppes on Belfast’s legendary Good Vibrations label pull it off with élan on their ‘Mixed Up World’ debut. Essential Logic’s debut anti-music squealer ‘Aerosol Burns’ clearly demonstrates the more talented gal from X-Ray Spex was Poly Styrene, but Laura Logic did go on to a lengthy career contributing to other artists’ records, including the current box set’s Swell Maps.

     The Tights have an in, in getting on this box, as their debut EP launched Cherry Red, but everybody has to start somewhere and evidenced by one of the EP’s B-sides included here (‘It’), er, it was an inauspicious beginning, to say the least. The Fall belong on every box set covering the last 40 years of music ever released and if you’re not familiar with any of their 50+ singles or 30+ albums, why not start at the beginning with the ‘Bingo Master” debut from 1978. The legendary Mark E. Smith is another horrific loss the music world has suffered in recent years (2018). The Cravats suffer from the disc’s sequencing, as shouter “The Shend” sounds like an even angrier Mark E. Smith and their agitprop post-punk ‘Situations Vacant’ suffers in comparison, but is an outstanding effort in its own right and was deservedly loved by DJ God John Peel. Like the earlier Skids track, Scritti Politti’s strangulated anarchic distortion-filled ‘Is And Ought The Western World’ debut sounds nothing like their smooth pop sheen that made frontman Green [Gartside] a pop star sensation (‘Wood Beez’, anyone?)

Disc two opens with the promising debut from reggae-fied punks The Ruts, who could’ve been bigger than the Clash had singer Malcolm Owen not ignored the warnings of the incendiary ‘H-Eyes’. His passing 39 years ago on the day I write this review hovers in the air as I listen to his contemporaries smash and thrash out their own inner demons in the ferocious tunes that spread anger, animosity, and an occasional stab of good ol’ bollocks across these four discs. I miss your energy, Malcolm. Scissor Fits sound like a punk Bonzos if ‘I Don’t Want To Work For British Airways’ is anything to go by. Tongues firmly planted in cheek, this novelty act/comedy routine is a riot. Hunt down and have a listen to ‘I Wish I Hadn’t Shaved My Pubic Hair Off’ from the same debut EP for additional evidence!

     Spizzoil hit paydirt with the novelty smash ‘Where’s Captain Kirk’, but their early single ‘Cold City’ is nothing to write home about and gives no indication of the fun to come. In fact, the obscure Proles’ ‘Stereo Love’ actually sounds more like ‘Captain Kirk’ and is all the better for it! Despite the atrocious name, Brighton’s Molesters have a rather groovy gothic, Banshees-meets-Cure vibe going for them on ‘Commuter Man’, and while the Raincoats are always namechecked as influential punkettes, it’s more for what they were (female) than any inherent talent, as evidenced by their unlistenable, room-clearer debut ‘In Love’.

     Murder The Disturbed is another in a long line of “one and done”s, but their frightening stalker of a horror show narrative, ‘The Ultimate System’ will gnaw its way into your skull like rats in an abandoned council estate and give you nightmares for days to come. It, alone, is almost worth the price of admission! Family Fodder continues the creepy-crawly antics with the weirdly wonderful ‘Playing Golf (With My Flesh Crawling)’ which should appeal to Sparks, Residents, Bonzos, and Mothers fanatics. However, musicologists alone will find any value in Mick Hucknell’s early headache-inducing Rottenesque rantings whilst fronting the Frantic Elevators, as ‘Every Day I Die’ is why the Skip button was invented. At least I wish compiler John Reed would have treated us to their original version of ‘Holding Back The Years’ to possible hold our attention.

     The next segment features some of the obscure electronic sounds that were beginning to creep into the post-punk scene, courtesy eerie, Cabaret Voltaire-styled industrial hauntings like They Must Be Russians’ ‘Nagasaki’s Children’ (produced and abetted by the Cabs’ frontman, Richard Kirk) and the Suicide-inflected minimalism of Second Layer’s ‘Metal Sheet’, which is ‘Cheree’ in all but name. Metrophase’s ‘Cold Rebellion’ is another grower with an incessant melody desperately trying to escape its industrial cacophonous backing. Disturbed didn’t make much noise at the time, but their alluring ‘I Don’t Believe’ is a thousand times better than anything the Raincoats screeched forth, and Au Pairs, Mo-dettes, Delta 5, and Girls At Our Best fans may be interested in exploring their limited discography, along with subsequent material from lead singer Josi Munns.

     Through the nearest Door and The Window is where said agitators should be tossed, with ‘Subculture Fashion Slaves’ right behind these noise mongering nogoodniks. The Associates are much revered, not least because of their gimmicky cover of Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, which isn’t half bad and worth a few spins for all Bowie-holics. It’s certainly one of the strangest covers of Bowie’s oeuvre. I had to do a triple take whilst reading the liners for ‘Fatal’ Microbes, as I could have sworn I stumbled on to a Beki Bondage rarity, perhaps a long lost Vice Squad demo. Alas, it was only 14-year old Honey Bane shouting about ‘Beautiful Pictures’, but it grew on me and will intrigue you, too. The Disco Zombies sound like a Dickies-inspired Buzzcocks copy band, but they retain both bands’ keen sense of writing great tunes as ‘Top Of The Pops’ attests. Alas, they didn’t duplicate Dr. Hook’s Rolling Stone cover gimmick, as I don’t think it landed them on the prized telly pop presentation.

     The aforementioned Au Pairs inaugurate Disc three with their interminable brain-rattling debut ‘Domestic Departure’ and English Subtitles roll in with perhaps the first and only fuzz solo in post-punkdom courtesy ‘Reconstruction’. Miles better is the mournful, neo-gothic Cure-meets-Joy Division dirge, ‘Choreography’ from Liverpool’s Modern Eon. Sadly, they only left this EP and one album behind. Josef K are another moribund offering, with the dreary ‘Chance Meeting’ coming off like Tom Verlaine toying with a cheap Casio. Catchy melody, though. Another punk icon, in this case, the Only Ones’ Peter Perrett immediately springs to mind while listening to The Lines’ ‘On The Air’. Slightly whiney, but its incessant pummeling guitar and loping rhythm section will get under your skin (no pun intended).

I have a huge soft spot in me heart for Mo-dettes ever since I followed them from gig to gig on their debut tour to promote their only album, The Story So Far…. Their reggae-funk-punk rhythms balanced Swiss vocalist Ramona Carlier’s fractured delivery and they arrived at the cusp of the Ska revival to great acclaim. In fact, bassist Jane Crockford was married to Madness drummer Woody Woodgate. ‘Masochistic Opposites’ was the flip of their debut single and also featured on the album, which included their brilliantly staccato version of ‘Paint It Black’. Bassist June Miles-Kingston features on Fun Boy Three’s ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ and later played with The Communards, Thompson Twins, and Everything But The Girl. The LP is one of the post-punk era’s best and definitely worth hunting down.

     Deep Freeze Mice isn’t exactly a name that rolls off the tongue when you visit the corner record shop, but their quirky, Television Personalities-brand of skewered pop and left-field humour is in fine form on ‘Minstrel Radio Yoghurt’. Singer Alan Jenkins even bears more than a passing resemblance to TVP warbler Dan Treacy (with a dash of Perrett). Can’t believe they released ten albums(!) I’ve got some catching up to do. And if Black Sabbath ever chose to slum it and take a crack at the post-punk audience they could do no worse than the Bodies’ lone brain belter ‘Art Noveau’, which starts out slowly but has one hell of a kick at the finish – sorta like Lou Reed’s ‘Heroin’!

    Nightmare In Wax’s gothy, gloomy ‘Shangri-La’ certainly doesn’t evoke images of paradise, particular when Pete Burns snakes his way into your skull with his patented dark bark. It’s certainly pretty freaky, like a carnival house full of haunted rides and doesn’t tip ol’ Pete’s future fame and fortune as gothic disco king fronting Dead Or Alive.

   Weird Strings’ angular pop of ‘Oscar Automobile’ might be considered the birth of “Steampunk” seeing as it was one of Paul Roland’s first projects. There’s a hint of Jonathan Richmond via Marc Bolan on this one. Richmond’s dulcet tones are also in mind on Again Again’s ‘Self-Employed’, which also sounds like a lost Modern Lovers’ rehearsal.

     Like several early projects here, the material doesn’t necessarily represent the music the performers would go on to win hearts and top charts with. Case in point: Blancmange’s ‘Modichy In Aneration’, a shitstorm of weird industrial noises, creepy voices and heartstopping electronics. ‘Blind Vision’ it ain’t! The ever-challenging Eyeless In Gaza have explored numerous musical directions to great effect, but the flip to their debut, ‘The Feeling’s Mutual’ sounds like they spent a lot of time locked in a room with the Normals’ ‘Warm Leatherette’ on repeat. Nearly 40 years and almost as many albums later suggest they must be doing something right! Distributors’ incessant bassline pummels your brain throughout the minimalist ‘Lean On Me’ to the point where Jah Wobble seems to be playing in your front room and there is certainly a PIL vibe to this intriguing funky, punky blast of fresh air.

girls at our best

     The final disc opens with the beloved Young Marble Giants, whose ‘Final Day’ is an infectious, minimalist pop classic compressed inside 100 seconds, and The Sisters Of Mercy are an equally essential listen, even if their anarchic debut single ‘The Damage Done’ is slightly out of sync with their emerging discography as one of the kings of the emerging Goth scene. Girls At Our Best! were one of my treasured discoveries when I stumbled across their late single ‘Go For Gold’ in 1981. Its bouncy dance beat, slashing guitars, funky rhythm section, Judy Evans’ stratospheric vocals, and shout-along chorus highlighted one of the year’s best releases. Sadly, they were winding down and after one more single and a lone LP, they disappeared. Their second single, another non-LP track called ‘Politics’ is included here and it features all of the above features to recommend it as one of the box set’s highlights.

     It seems most of the “familiar” acts (and, frankly, better tunes) were saved for disc four, which continues with the electro-pop sheen of A Popular History Of Signs’ ‘Justice Not Vengeance’ and the funky, but disorganised debut single (‘Could Be Her, Could Be You’ from the debut album A Product Of…) from a distinctly different (and barely recognisable) Thompson Twins featuring the original septet before they trimmed down to a trio and hit the big time (still no Thompsons or Twins, though!) The Laughing Apple are known for what they would do, not what they did as the Apple. Andrew (Primal Scream) Innes and Alan (Creation Records boss) McGee started their careers here before morph into Biff Bang Pow and releasing a string of brilliant albums. Their opening salvo as The Laughing Apple, ‘Chips For Tea’ owes a serious debt to the syncopated pop of Gang Of Four, which isn’t all that bad.

the marine girls

     Like Eyeless In Gaza, The Legendary Pink Dots’ career spans about 40 years and 40 albums, but early tracks like ‘Defeated’ highlight the dreamy, psychedelic electronic side of Edward Ka-Spel, Phil Knight, and seemingly hundreds of others over the years. And speaking of legends, Marine Girls boasted a number of talented women, included Tracey (Everything But The Girl) Thorne who wrote catchy pop tunes that seemed so simple, anyone could do it. But few could top the endearing ‘Holiday Song’, complete with seagull sound effects that make you almost smell the saltwater and hear the ocean.

 Sad Lovers and Giants are another band I always heard of but never really heard, until songs like ‘When I see You’ started popping up on Cherry Red comps. A 5CD box retrospective is due in September, which may be an opportunity to catch up on their Teardrop Explodes-styled minor key, dreamy post-punk tunes, which leave a lovely nostalgic glow all around you long after the track fades away. Vivien Goldman was much more than a music journalist, although admittedly she was one of the best promoters of the punk scene via articles in the big three: NMESounds, and Melody Maker. She had a hit novelty song with the Flying Lizards and also recorded a solo single with Robert Wyatt from Soft Machine on drums. Perhaps illustrating the old adage, music journalist should be read and not heard, ‘Launderette’ is another novelty-level piss-take that’s more recited than sung and best remembered, if at all, for the inimitable Keith Levene’s throbbing bass and cat-scratch guitar lines and Levene’s and fellow PIL trouble maker, one John Lydon’s lo-fi production.     

I’m sure few people outside Norwich heard of Screen 3, but on the strength of the delightfully poppy thrust of ‘Shades Of Black’, it’s our loss. Sadly, after three singles on major label Epic, their fans did too, as the band split up. Another Norwich band, The Happy Few also appeared on the Norwich comp that gave us Screen 3, but even their infectious New Wave electronics on ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ couldn’t get them enough fans to stick around for more than a few years and they also disbanded.    

     Ultimately, Andy Peart and Mark Paytress’ liners are more interesting than the extremely difficult listening experience that awaits you, for their mini-book-length narrative gives you a historical (and, thankfully, chronological) setting in which so many DIY-ers took a stab at encapsulating their ideas into three chords and a prayer. Punk surely was a matter of “anyone can do this”, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into “anyone will listen to this”. And this set is thus recommended only to serious collectors, crate divers, and musicologists of late-‘70s UK underground sounds.

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