Punk and New Wave

Klark Kent “Klark Kent” (I.R.S., 1980)

For a few years in the ’70s and ’80s, Stewart Copeland moonlighted from his main gig as drummer for new-wave/reggae mega stars the Police to cut some records under the alias Klark Kent. Some of them were super, man. The most substantial of them is this nine-track, 10-inch mini-album. An accomplished film composer (Rumble Fish, Wall Street, etc.), Copeland/Kent plays all of the instruments—drums, guitar, bass, piano, typewriter, kazoo—with bravura facility.

Opener “Don’t Care”—which was a top 50 single in the UK in 1978—originally was intended for the Police, but Sting reputedly couldn’t relate to the sneering, bratty lyrics. But the song triumphs with its insanely catchy, speedy new wave heat, its smooth propulsion, unpredictable dynamics, and sneering lyrics. It sounds as if it’s going to fly right off the grooves and smack your face. The yobbish reggae rock of “Away From Home” reveals Copeland’s voice as the album’s weak link; it’s a bit too proud of its gawky geekiness. As a singer, he makes a great drummer. But the track does boast a wonderful, curt, corkscrewed guitar solo.

“Ritch In A Ditch” [sic] is tensile, slightly quirky rock in the vein of early Police. The line “I wanna be rich/I don’t wanna work in a ditch” is funny because Copeland was likely well on his way to having a fat bank balance by this time. “Grandelinquent” is a slashing, skewed instrumental with a manic piano solo and wicked Snakefinger-/Fred Frith-esque guitar solo.

Things get really interesting on “Guerilla,” whose brilliant, proggy new wave moves are not too far away from what Robert Fripp was doing in the late ’70s/early ’80s. “My Old School” toggles between breakneck new wave and well-meaning Causcasoid reggae and is laced with revenge-fantasy lyrics. The song proves that Copeland is better at the former than the latter. The lean, swerving, Police-like rock of “Excess” comes replete with sizzling guitar solo and crucial cowbell accents as Copeland laments, “my excesses are getting the better of me/I’m ready to go home.”

Klark Kent peaks on the closer, “Theme For Kinetic Ritual.” Rhythmically brash and melodically heroic, this instrumental sounds like a score for the best sports TV show that’s never been aired. Seattle radio station KEXP used to use this track as a bed for its concert announcements, and it was perfect for stoking anticipation. I love to drop this one in DJ sets and then see the baffled look on people’s faces when they ask what it is. -Buckley Mayfield

The The “Uncertain Smile” (Some Bizzare, 1982)

As someone who’s only listened to The The up through 1986’s Infected, I can’t claim to be an authority on leader Matt Johnson’s musical career. However, I can confidently state that I am an expert on The The’s 1982 EP, Uncertain Smile. I bought it soon after it came out on British import during the grim Reagan/Thatcher era and proceeded to listen to its three sui generis songs obsessively, while putting the title track on many a mixtape. Uncertain Smile may not be the most popular or revered release in Johnson’s catalog, but I maintain that it deserves repeat plays and a lofty place in your musical pantheon.

“Uncertain Smile” itself begins with some of the most urgent, warped marimba you’ve ever heard, before suavely shifting into a midtempo dance-rock groove augmented by a plangent guitar and mournful flute motifs of utmost poignancy. The flute solo is mellifluously melancholy enough to earn a spot on a Moody Blues LP. Johnson sings like an introverted, less narcissistic Morrissey here, relating a fraught internal emo-drama with intimate equanimity. You will feel Matt’s pain.

The song’s long instrumental bridge coasts into mysterioso jazz territory, with brooding sax and sly bass laying a foundation for another madly undulating marimba solo. As the song progresses, more elements enter (sumptuous synth swells, heavily FX’d harmonica, an intriguing sound I can’t pinpoint), adding to the sensation that this is a once-in-a-lifetime epic that transcends its early-’80s British milieu. Make no mistake: “Uncertain Smile” is The The’s peak and one of the greatest songs ever. The truncated version on the 1983 LP Soul Mining pales beside this one.

By contrast, “Three Orange Kisses From Kazan” is a weirdly ominous yet enigmatically beautiful piece of art pop, like some amalgam of Tuxedomoon, early Clock DVA, and Tin Drum-era Japan. “Why do people never say what they mean? / Why do people just repeat what they read?” Johnson gripes, and that sentiment still resonates 37 years later. Another example of Johnson’s unique way with songcraft and vocal modulation, “Three Orange Kisses” presents a perfect balance between melodiousness and cacophony. It’s some of the most gorgeous chaos that appeared on record in the ’80s. “Waitin’ For The Upturn” can’t help sounding somewhat anticlimactic after the preceeding two classics, but it’s still a gem of low-key, chilling balladry, like a master class of muted Sturm und Drang. The production on Uncertain Smile by Mike Thorne (Wire, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, Soft Cell) is spacious and dynamic, abetting Johnson’s idiosyncratic ideas about timbre and atmosphere. -Buckley Mayfield

Patti Smith Group “Wave” (Arista, 1979)

The final entry in Patti Smith Group’s tetralogy, Wave is not as highly rated as their first three full-lengths. Much of it’s pretty bombastic, melodically turgid rock that sounds stodgy, particularly after PSG’s mercurial, poetic burners Horses, Radio Ethiopia, and Easter. Produced by Todd Rundgren, Wave preceded a seven-year hiatus during which Patti married MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and started a family. It’s not a total dud, though—otherwise I wouldn’t be spending precious time reviewing it.

Basically, you need Wave for its first three songs. Talk about a front-loaded LP… “Frederick”—which retreads Smith’s biggest hit, the Bruce Springsteen collab “Because The Night”—is a tribute to Patti’s soon-to-be husband, Mr. Sonic. It’s a sweepingly romantic rocker that sounds nothing like her beau’s band. Co-written with guitarist Ivan Kral, “Dancing Barefoot” is a low-slung rock mantra in which Smith sings as if she’s in a trance. The easy-going, undulant ramble foreshadows R.E.M. and certain Feelies tracks. No wonder the latter covered it, as did Simple Minds, the Celibate Rifles, Pearl Jam, U2, and others.

Wave crests on Roger McGuinn/Chris Hillman’s “So You Want To Be (A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star).” PSG’s is my favorite version of this much-covered song—I like it even better than the Byrds’ original. Smith and company execute an irrepressible interpretation whose main riff is a masterpiece of minimalism that hints at the transcendental, tidal rock of late-’90s Boredoms. (Highest compliment!) Patti surely could relate to McGuinn and Hillman’s cautionary tale and their lyrics’ overarching cynicism—even as she’s singing the hell out of the song in a display of sheer bravado that’s very rock-star-like. The guitar solo is also striving for the sort of glory against which the words are warning. Irony!

Unfortunately, the stretch from “Hymn” through “Broken Flag” is hard going. “Revenge” is lumbering, slow-blooming, dramatic rock about a dying relationship, as Smith sings, “All the gold and silver couldn’t measure up my love for you/It’s so immaterial.” “Citizen Ship” and “Seven Ways Of Going” are hugely bombastic tunes that make Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds seem like shrinking violets. The former’s a Sturm und Drang political song while the latter is so over the top, it qualifies as PSG’s “L.A. Blues.” “Broken Flag” is a swaying, lighters-aloft anthem that sounds like music for a political rally—but ironically rendered.

Yeah, Wave is kind of a disappointment, because we have such high expectations from Patti Smith and her crack band. But that opening triumvirate of classics is sufficient to make it worth your while. -Buckley Mayfield

The Normal “T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette” (Mute, 1978)

English cultural catalyst Daniel Miller used some Korg 700 synths and a TEAC 4-track tape recorder to cut a single in 1978 that was so riveting and fulfilling, he didn’t need to follow it up. Plus, he put the better track on the B-side, like the perverse mofo he is. He formed his own label, Mute Records, to releases, thinking it would be a one-off, but the single unexpectedly caught on with the punters, capturing Europe’s disaffected demeanor of the burgeoning minimal-wave movement. While Miller basically ceased operating as a recording artist after this 7-inch dropped, he embarked in earnest as a record-company mogul, and Mute is still going strong more than four decades later.

“T.V.O.D.” is a throbbing synth ditty whose main chipper motif radically contrasts with the foundational low-end oscillations and swift, spluttering Velcro-rip beats. It’s the epitome of a kind of robotic synth-pop that was gaining traction in the new-wave/post-punk era. Miller recites his lines in an unnerving, panicky monotone: “I don’t need no TV screen/I just stick the aerial into my skin/And let the signal run through my veins.” Sick stuff, on all levels.

A song about the erotic possibilities of vehicular carnage, “Warm Leatherette” is a paragon of monomaniacal, minimal, anhedonistic synth-pop. Irony! Granted, you can dance to the track’s fleet, lopsided drum-machine beats, but the emergency-room Korg ripples and dentist-drill-drone counterpoint seem intended to zap the joy out of such movement. Still, there’s no denying the hypnotic power of the synth headfuckery and inhumane rhythm Miller generates here. Inspired by J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, Miller’s lyrics condense the climactic scene into a morbid fantasy of auto(mobile)-erotic pain. The words deserve to be reprinted in their entirety.

“See the breaking glass
In the underpass
See the breaking glass
In the underpass

Warm leatherette

Hear the crushing steal

Feel the steering wheel

Hear the crushing steel
Feel the steering wheel

Warm leatherette

Warm leatherette

Warm leatherette
Melts on your burning flesh
You can see your reflection
In the luminescent dash

Warm leatherette
A tear of petrol
Is in your eye
The hand brake
Penetrates your thigh
Quick – Let’s make love
Before you die

On warm leatherette
Warm leatherette
Warm leatherette
Warm leatherette

Join the car crash set”

With this one track, Daniel Miller spawned dozens of covers, nearly all of them worth hearing—especially those by Grace Jones [see the Jive Time review of the album on which it appears here], Trent Reznor/Peter Murphy/Atticus Ross/Jeordie White, Suzi Quatro, J.G. Thirlwell, and Boyd Rice. This is how you do a one-and-done music career, people (not counting his joint 1980 live release with Robert Rental). -Buckley Mayfield

Lydia Lunch “Queen Of Siam” (ZE, 1980)

Lydia Lunch has a reputation as a provocative, profane No Wave icon and as a spoken-word badass who would just as soon kick you in the ‘nads (with her words) as look at you. Her band Teenage Jesus And The Jerks tore it up on Brian Eno’s No New York comp, and she’s loaned her caustic wit and withering sneer to several other groups (8-Eyed Spy, Harry Crews) and collabs, including a memorable cameo on Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley 69” and a fruitful link-up with Birthday Party’s Rowland S. Howard that included a gothy stab at Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning.”

But Lunch’s debut full-length under her own name shocks by being accessible—relatively speaking. It contains two covers that suggest the range and vibe of Queen Of Siam: “Gloomy Sunday”—made famous by Billie Holiday and Associates (joking about the latter) and “Spooky,” the chill lounge-pop gem from 1967 that Classics IV took to the charts. Lunch imbues the latter with kittenish charm as her band jazzes it up with boozy gusto. The former is a paragon of insular moroseness—so beautifully hopeless.

Opener “Mechanical Flattery” captures the weird balance of song-oriented approach and arty knottiness that appears throughout the album. Lunch’s numbed deadpan somehow approximates the effect of a coquettish diva, but the stilted beats, oblique piano, and melancholy horn thwart any easy commercial pay-off. This sort of tension makes Queen Of Siam a riveting experience that just improves with each listen. The sleepwalking ballad “Tied And Twist” lumbers lithely, a No Wave plaint in slow-motion. Lunch’s sparse, laggard guitar solo is fantastically wonky; Robert Quine would be proud.

“Atomic Bongos” is the closest thing on Queen Of Siam to a hard-rocker, with its maddeningly repetitive and rugged bass riff and scathing, Contortions-esque guitar tang. “Lady Scarface,” by contrast, exudes a cabaret/big-band-jazz aura—shades of Quincy Jones—as Lunch recounts a lurid scenario about seducing a 16-year-old boy. In fact, most of the record bristles with a strange strain of carnality, at once sleazy and classy, edgy and retro. “I’m split and unbled and I’m ripped to the sore/Every man’s madness and I’m hurdling ripped to the core/There’s knives in my drain/Empty splints in my brain” Lunch leers in “Knives In My Drain” as a David Lynchian nightmare jazz tune slinks behind her. It conjures a pleasingly queasy feeling. (It should be noted that multi-instrumentalist Pat Irwin [the Raybeats and 8-Eyed Spy] and the Billy Ver Planck Orchestra are the low-key stars here.)

[Note: Amphetamine Reptile Records reissued Queen Of Siam on vinyl and CD in 2017.] -Buckley Mayfield

Sonic Youth “Sonic Youth” (Neutral, 1982)


Often overlooked and underrated, Sonic Youth’s debut mini-album is a fascinating snapshot of the New York City avant-rock icons’ nascent greatness. It would be hard to find anybody who’d claim the five-track Sonic Youth is the band’s finest moment (though no doubt they’re out there), but it does merit respect as an auspicious hint of what was to come—even though it was the only record on which SY played in standard tuning.

What Sonic Youth makes clear from the beginning of lead-off track “The Burning Spear” is that they were eager to bust out of rock-song conventions and invent their own approach. Part of that impulse included guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s desire to make their instruments sound unlike other rockers’. You can hear them already generating the urgent alarm-bell clangor for which they’d be famous later in the decade. They don’t riff so much as erect environments—metallic, droning vistas redolent of post-industrial devastation and fraying nerves. Kim Gordon’s tensile, marauding bass straddles the line between dub and post-punk, not unlike how many other early ’80s groups were doing then. Ranaldo ran a mic’d electric drill through a wah-wah pedal for extra WTF? texture while Moore wailed like the No Wave disciple he was. What a way to blow out of the gate.

By contrast, “I Dream I Dreamed” is aptly oneiric, a mesmerizing lope animated by loitering guitars spangling with menace. The song swells in intensity and then subsides to allow Gordon and Ranaldo to sing some baffling lyrics in counterpoint (sample line: “A lot of people suffer from impotence/All the money’s gone”). Overall, SY effectively and nonchalantly create a detached sense of desolation. “She Is Not Alone” is one of the oddest entries in Sonic Youth’s discography; it’s jaunty and miniaturist, almost like a dubby Young Marble Giants or General Strike, as the guitars are tuned to sound like a warped xylophone and Richard Edson tattoos the tightly wound tom-toms with some rudimentary Native American patterns. (Yes, Richard Edson the actor in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan; he left SY for Konk after performing on this record.)

“I Don’t Want To Push It” reputedly was inspired by Can’s “Sing Swan Song,” but this is way more manic, with Edson’s kinetic beats buttressing a flaming wall of radiated guitars. “The Good And The Bad” finds Moore plucking out a brilliantly see-sawing bass line and Gordon and Ranaldo stroking out articulate guitar klang as the group forge an ebbing and flowing aural organism that seemingly wants to destroy passersby. This shit is ominous, and at nearly eight minutes, it foreshadows Sonic Youth’s future forays into tumultuous, multi-movement epics.

Sonic Youth would go on to make much better records, of course, but this initial offering stands the test of time and is a riveting curio in this important group’s renowned, sprawling canon.

(The 2006 Goofin’ Records vinyl reissue includes a bonus LP of a live show from 1981, plus an early studio cut, “Where The Red Fern Grows.”) -Buckley Mayfield

Mudhoney “Mudhoney” (Sub Pop, 1989)

Seeing Mudhoney tear it up at SPF30, the free outdoor festival held August 11 at Alki Beach celebrating Sub Pop’s 30th anniversary, reminded me again why y’all need to listen to their explosive debut album with fresh ears. This thunderous slab tends to get overlooked by its predecessor, Superfuzz Bigmuff (which we reviewed in this space in 2010) and Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge—both of which are crucial, of course. But clear some space in your busy life for Mudhoney, too. It really holds up. You can verify that due to Mudhoney’s insistence on playing a lot of material off this one in live sets 29 years after its release.

The sinister and seething “This Gift” boots the album into life with an oblique homage to the Stooges’ “No Fun”—a fantastic way to open your first LP. As a bonus, the phased guitar shivers recall Butthole Surfers’ “Cherub.” In the liner notes to the March To Fuzz best-of comp, Steve Turner quipped, “I’ve always figured Mark was talking about his dick here.” Songs like“Flat Out Fucked,” “Here Comes Sickness,” and “The Farther I Go” are anthems of rage, highly torqued hard rockers that writhe with youthful truculence and ill wah-wah destruction. I remember dudes with bald heads and graying ponytails slamdancing to this at the Tractor Tavern a mere six years ago.

The explicit Blue Cheer tribute “Magnolia Caboose Babyshit” is 65 seconds of ozone-depleting, speed-gobbling biker-rock—hell-raising elevated to a debased art form. “Come To Mind” is the “ballad” of the album, sort of like “Ann” was the “ballad” of The Stooges. Meaning, it still has violence in its heart and steel in its phallus. “When Tomorrow Hits” represents yet more Stooges love, as it’s sorta Mudhoney’s “We Will Fall.” This badass glowering tune was covered by Spacemen 3 on their Recurring LP, and it almost seems as if Mudhoney wrote it for those opiated British blokes. Album-finale “Dead Love” encapsulates Mudhoney’s nearly unmatched ability to summon unstoppable rivers of magmatic rock.

While Mudhoney captures the Seattle grunge pioneers (sorry, guys, but you’re stuck with that tag) at an early peak, they have barely slipped from that lofty level of high-energy, powerful rock action three decades later. Freaks of nature, for sure… -Buckley Mayfield

This Heat “Health And Efficiency” (Piano, 1980)

Slotting between the twin towers of This Heat’s 1979 self-titled debut LP and 1981’s Deceit, Health And Efficiency is no mere stop-gap release. Rather, it’s a peculiar peak in this short-lived yet crucial experimental/post-punk group’s discography.

Health And Efficiency” itself is simply one of the greatest songs ever, an art-rock tune so grand and uplifting, it deludes us into thinking that humanity is going to continue to evolve into a peaceful, super-intelligent species that values equality and yes, health, over all else. Seriously, its melody and ecstatic vocal arrangements are that powerful. Then, two minutes in, This Heat say, “Fuck it, y’all don’t deserve this much euphoria,” as they slam into one of the nastiest (lock) grooves to which you’ve ever had the good fortune to lose your mind and spastically jack your body. It’s a real bucking mechanical bull of a rhythm, cantilevered to the max and laced with an array of rolling bottles, children’s screams, and enough noisy distortion to start a wildfire in your brain. The freakout near the end will tear your ever-loving head off and punt it into the sun (the star to which “Health And Efficiency” is dedicated).

Health And Efficiency” is a definitive example of what radical explosions can be realized with (mostly) typical rock instruments when the musicians disregard orthodoxy. In the liner notes to the most recent reissue, This Heat drummer Charles Hayward says that the track was “improvised pretty much fully-formed, an 8 minute stretch.” He notes that Charles Bullen plays an electric/upright piano that the Rock In Opposition band Henry Cow left at the Cold Storage Studio through some distortion pedals. Now you know.

On “Graphic/Varispeed,” This Heat revamp “24 Track Loop” from the self-titled 1979 debut album into a supremely resonant, ASMR-inducing drone that the band manipulates ever-so-subtly, so it changes pitch and intensity in minuscule gradations. An early example of remixing and sonic deconstruction, “Graphic/Varispeed” puts a particularly industrial, northern English spin on ambient/drone music.

Originally released on Flying Lizards/General Strike member David Cunningham’s Piano label, Health And Efficiency received a deluxe reissue in 2016 via Light In The Attic subsidiary Modern Classics, with liner notes by Mr. Hayward, thereby earning the eternal gratitude of all right-thinking music fans. -Buckley Mayfield

Butthole Surfers “Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis” (Touch And Go, 1985)

For a stopgap EP released between two mind-boggling LPs, Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis sure has had legs. Three of its four songs became staples in Butthole Surfers’ live sets and lead track “Moving To Florida” has become the pinnacle of blues mockery/homage among white rock groups. And the title Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis exists on a whole other level of sacrilegious brilliance, to boot.

Slotted between Psychic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac and Rembrandt Pussyhorse in the Surfers discography, Cream Corn finds these Texas psychonauts flexing blues, psych-rock, industrial, and country-rock muscles with rude intensity. I’ve heard “Moving To Florida,” a ludicrous send-up of blues-singer machismo, over a hundred times, and it still cracks me up. No, I can’t believe it, either. Most songs that lean heavily on humor begin to pall after a few listens, but “Moving To Florida” has retained its absurdist potency for over three decades. Every line out of Gibby Haynes’ mashed-potatoes-filled mouth—uttered between bursts of spasmodic blues-rock demolition—is a comedic gem. I’m tempted to cut and paste the whole lyric sheet here, but a few examples should suffice. “I’m going to move down to Florida/And you know I’m gonna have to potty-train the Chairman Mao/…I’m gonna grind me a White Castle Slider out of India’s sacred cow/…They be making tadpoles the size of Mercurys down in Florida/That be telling Julio Iglesias what to sing.” Fuck me running, Gibby’s a walking advertisement for the rewards of daily hallucinogen-gobbling.

“Comb” sounds like a Big Black song being played at 16 rpm. It’s a sluggish, brutish slab of disorienting industrial-music waste that you should play for your worst enemy; I mean this as a compliment. “To Parter” begins with the Surfers’—and indeed any band’s—most ominous riff (thanks to mad-genius guitarist Paul Leary), building to a tumultuous, sinister, psychedelic ordeal that makes you feel as if you’re being sucked into a vortex of bilge water. “And all the teachers who were flunkies/They all taught you and me,” Haynes bellows, before he approximates the gibbering and wailing of a dementia patient. “Tornadoes” ends the EP with scathing, speedy punk-rock as played by maniacs, becoming ever more unhinged as the song progresses. You could probably see this sort of finale coming, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling.

Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis (did showbiz legend Sammy, the subject of the title, ever hear it, one wonders?) is an essential piece of the crazy puzzle that is Butthole Surfers’ catalog. -Buckley Mayfield

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark “Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark” (Dindisc, 1980)


The first four OMD LPs represent some of the most affecting and influential electro-pop creations ever to ruffle a synthesizer manual. Their first one has always been my favorite of the bunch… and not just because of the rad Peter Saville die-cut cover design. Beyond the brilliant packaging, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark set an incredibly high bar for swoonworthy melodies, efficient, heart-pumping beats, and clean-blooded male vocals. Mofos are still biting their style in 2018.

Even better than Soft Cell and Depeche Mode, OMD songwriters Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys struck upon an approach that fused instantly hummable tunes with unusual textures. Of their debut album’s 10 songs, a mind-boggling nine could logically be singles. The only exception is “Dancing” (irony!), an amazing anomaly that’s almost Residents-like in its subterranean otherness and strange array of FX’d voices; shockingly, its rhythm is closer to that of Throbbing Gristle’s “20 Jazz Funk Greats” than to anything on Top Of The Pops.

But, as I said, the majority of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark bursts with a striking accessibility that is anything but LCD. The cleverly titled “Mystereality” boasts a sax part that lends the morosely peppy song a Roxy Music-like air, and the singing even resembles that of Brian Eno’s early solo efforts. “Electricity” is a fairly blatant homage to Kraftwerk circa Radioactivity, but it’s done with so much poised panache and sugar-rush urgency, slack is cut. The synth arpeggio in the heartbreak anthem “Messages” signifies an almost unbearable wistfulness, and the keyboard solo in the song’s middle section bears the grandeur of Kraftwerk at their Trans-Europe Express haughtiest.

My favorite OMD track of all time, “Julia’s Song,” contains the group’s most seductive bass line, which anchors some of their richest drones and a gorgeously sinuous melody that I wouldn’t mind being the last thing I heard on this mortal coil. “Red Frame/White Light” is an instant classic of frantic, spine-tingling effusiveness that would be a career highlight for most acts, but on this record it’s about the fifth-best cut.

You really can’t go wrong with any of the first four OMD full-lengths, but if you can only spring for one, go for this zenith of emotional synth-pop. -Buckley Mayfield

[You may also want to read our 2014 review of OMD’s Architecture & Morality.]

Fire Engines “Lubricate Your Living Room” (Pop:Aural, 1981)

A fascinating book could be written about Scotland’s original post-punk scene, and I hope somebody’s on the case. One band who should figure prominently in such a tome is Fire Engines. Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Davy Henderson, Fire Engines were a pop group, but spiky as fuck, buoyant yet abrasive, and terminally enamored of Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band. You can glean that from one listen to Fire Engines’ breathtaking 1981 single “Candyskin,” which nicks the melody from Beefheart’s “Sweet Sweet Bulbs,” and adds a phenomenal spring to its step.

Coming out slightly before that 45, Lubricate Your Living Room was a revelatory mini-LP that established Fire Engines as one of the UK’s most exciting rock bands. With a lineup filled out by Graham Main (bass), Murray Slade (guitar), and Russell Burn (drums), the Engines used Captain Beefheart’s guitar sound circa Trout Mask Replica and Doc At The Radar Station as their foundation: a nerve-fraying, traumatically trebly tonality. But instead of distorting the blues and translating rock into intimidatingly difficult math equations as the Magic Band did, Fire Engines sped up No Wave to a splenetic, amphetamine shriek, with Henderson yawping about consumerism’s pros and cons and problematic relationship dynamics. He begged listeners to “get up and use me” as if he were just another good on the marketplace.

Like contemporaries the Fall, Fire Engines lived for repetition in their rhythms and riffs. Unlike the Fall, the Engines loved manic cowbell patterns and had a propensity for freaky funk that distinguished them among their Scottish peers. These Edinburgh speed demons plowed so compulsively into their grooves, you expect their instruments to burst into flames, and/or for the needle to fly off the record.

Fire Engines only lasted a couple of years (1980-1981), but they staked a claim to immortality with a catalog consisting of a mere 18 songs. (Acute Records’ 2007 Hungry Beat CD comp might be your best bet—outside of streaming services—to hear what all my fuss is about.)  Lubricate Your Living Room is probably the definitive document of their raw, jagged, Beefheart-on-bennies rock.

Also, as with many records reviewed on this blog, this one could use a reissue. May this critique—however infinitesimally—help to make that a reality. -Buckley Mayfield

The Slits “Cut” (Island, 1979)

Over a decade before riot grrrl was a term or a movement, the Slits embodied its spirit on their uniquely radical debut album, Cut. Consisting of British musicians Ari Up, Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt, and Palmolive (the band’s drummer, who left before Cut was finished, opening the door for Budgie, a dude who’s also played with Siouxsie & The Banshees, the Creatures, and others), the Slits bust out of the gate with their busts bared on the LP cover, while caked in mud. (Yep, they gave zero fucks.)

Now that they’d snagged your attention, the Slits went for the jugular with their crazy rhythms, dubbed-up punk, left-field funk, raw reggae bastardizations, and ramshackle feminist anthems. Credit should also go to producer Dennis Bovell, whose aptitude at the console made these unlikely elements cohere into a vivid collection of sonic sucker punches that makes you feel wonderfully woozy.

Cut‘s first two songs—“Instant Hit” and “So Tough”—fail the Bechdel Test, in that they reportedly are about drug-addled PiL guitarist Keith Levene and the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, respectively. No fear, though, feminists: The oddly buoyant reggae and clattering new-wave/dub eccentricity of them compensate for their focus on men. The proto-riot-grrrl content will come soon enough.

The charmingly askew “Spend, Spend, Spend” critiques the emptiness of consumerism to a zombified reggae lurch while its conceptual counterpart, “Shoplifting,” captures the churning anxiety and accelerating pulse rates of the titular subject. As a bonus, it possesses one of the most marrow-curdling shouts in music history, courtesy of Ari Up, and a killer descending dubwise bass line by Pollitt.

FM” equates radio’s frequency modulation with “frequent mutilation,” set to music that’s too radically oblong for most stations, although the sporadic, tom-heavy beats bang hard. Later in the album, a couple of soured-love tunes follow: “Ping Pong Affair” pairs slack, slanted reggae with lamenting lyrics over a familiar story of botched romance. Even better is “Love Und Romance,” a ferociously torqued piece of dubbed-out rock laced with sarcastic observations about relationships, skewering their tendency toward triteness and possessiveness.

Cut peaks on “Typical Girls,” the Slits’ greatest song, musically and lyrically. A masterpiece of sarcasm, its disdain for restrictive expectations toward women makes the patriarchal status quo seem horribly banal, thereby spurring women to lead more interesting, fulfilling, and progressive lives. Musically, the song epitomizes the Slits’ penchant for surprising dynamics and hairpin-turn rhythmic shifts, as it looms and sprints in a bizarre, exhilarating ska-rock fusion.

The 2000 CD reissue contains two bonus tracks, including a cover of Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” The Slits’ brutal, gut-wrenching version ranks among the best among very stiff competition (e.g., Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & The Pips, CCR; note also that 4 Men With Beards reissued Cut on vinyl in 2005.).

I’ve played Cut nearly 100 times in my life, and it never fails to send shockwaves of delight through my body and mind. It’s a classic of femme-powered subversion that, for all its inspirational moments, is nearly impossible to replicate—almost in the way that nobody can really follow in the footsteps of the Shaggs’ Philosophy Of The World. This stuff is just too distinctive for the imitators.

(Bellingham, Washington-based director William Badgley completed a documentary about the Slits last year; keep your antennae up for local screenings of Here To Be Heard: The Story Of The Slits.) -Buckley Mayfield