When Wha’ppen hit stores in 1981, many (English) Beat fans probably wondered just that: What happened? Actually, in the short time between the releases of their frenetic 1980 debut and this more cerebral follow-up, lots happened. An increasingly unpopular prime minster lorded over a Great Britain still in the throes of a deep recession. Racism and nationalism ran rampant, and social decay seemed everywhere. Very few albums of this era reflect its troubled times as effectively as this Birmingham band’s sophomore effort. Musically, Wha’ppen denotes a departure from the classic ska influences of their debut, I Just Can’t Stop it, replaced with forays into other Jamaican forms such as roots reggae (“Doors of Your Heart”) and dub (“Cheated”). But these serve as mere jumping-off points. The band finds inspiration in other parts of the Caribbean (the calypso-infused “All Out to get You” and the steel drum-flecked “Over and Over”) and also the Mother Continent (the Soweto township jive-infused “French Toast”). But while these tropical influences make the arrangements sunny and bright, the subject matter is decidedly DARK. A close listen to much of the lyrics reveals an unsettling undercurrent of fear, paranoia, and dread. “Monkey Murders” delivers a cutting condemnation of domestic violence, “I Am Your Flag” questions the logic of dying for one’s country, and “Get-a-Job” addresses Britain’s spiraling unemployment. But the album’s most chilling moment is surely “Drowning”, a vicious attack on capitalist excess, wherein chief “toaster” Ranking Roger mocks the song’s upper-class fat-cat protagonist as he sinks to his watery grave. Some have criticized the silliness of the album’s closing track, “The Limits We Set”. After all, we’ve just endured a musical roller-coaster ride through all manner of serious social ills, and now we have a song about… shoplifting? But in actuality, it’s one of the Beat’s cleverest tracks, a song that reminds us that we’re no better than the corrupt leaders and institutions whom we condemn if we don’t hold ourselves to the same high moral standards. The Beat would make one more great album, the classy and eclectic Special Beat Service, before calling it quits, but this one was their most edgy and adventurous—a can of day-glo paint splattered across the grey and cracking facade of Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain. If the 2 Tone movement had a Sgt. Pepper’s, this was definitely it. —Richard P
There are some albums which will never age and remain relevant no matter what the prevailing musical trends; Another Music In A Different Kitchen is one such album. Many predicted the demise of the band following the departure of founder member Howard DeVoto but this magnificent album proved the doom-mongers wrong. The Buzzcocks’ magnum opus is not punk but brash rock and roll with pop overtones couched in the candid language of the day. It carries no pretensions and refuses to acknowledge any inspirational influences. This is simply four blokes having a good time. From the buzz-saw introduction of early single “Boredom” which both opens and closes the album but doesn’t actually appear in its entirety, this is a quite breathtaking selection of songs but, in my opinion, side two is where all the nuggets are to be found. The brilliant jagged guitar that ranges throughout “Fiction Romance”, the driving bass/guitar that punctuates the chorus of “Autonomy”, the desperate, manic vocals which feature on “I Need” and the devastating drumming which rolls through “Moving Along With The Pulsebeat” and is one of the few occasions a drum solo can claim to be more than window dressing – all important considerations when understanding what makes this type of music so powerful. A true classic of the punk era without being a punk album. –Ian
Much as the Rock press would like to think, The Go-Go’s were never Punk Rock. What they did take from Punk was the ethos rather than the music, the ability to form a band from a group of like minded individuals who perform music, disregarding technical musical ability or preconceived notion that rock is a masculine world, and for a brief moment they were the Darlings of the music industry. “Beauty And The Beat” is a testament to this ethic, brash, fun, slightly shambolic, but always heartfelt Power Pop. Formed in 1978 and originally called The Misfits and made up of Belinda Carlisle (Vocals), Jane Wiedlin (Guitar, Vocals), Charlotte Caffey (Guitar, Vocals), Margot Olaverra (Bass), and Elissa Bello (Drums), the band’s major breakthrough would come through building a following from their support slot for British Ska nutty boys, Madness, and this led to a contract with Stiff Records for a one off single “We Got The Beat”. The major record labels showed an interest in both the single and the live following the band were attracting, and The Go-Go’s signed to IRS in early 1981. This, their debut would reach number 1 in the Billboard album charts for 6 weeks and would eventually go to sell over 2 million copies. Spiky Power Pop at its best, the Jane Wiedlin/Terry Hall co-composed single “Our Lips Are Sealed” would be the star attraction, along with other highlights including “We Got The Beat”, “This Town”, “Lust To Love”, and the fine closer “Can’t Stop The World”. A surprisingly assured album, that carries alongside its demure directness, a touching astuteness. –Ben H
When Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware left the Human League following the release of the band’s second album “Travelogue”, one would have thought that the sole remaining member Philip Oakey would have either called it a day, or risked a solo career. When the music press revealed that he was re-assembling the new Human League with an unknown Bass player ( Ian Burden), a slide projector operator (Philip Adrian Wright), two girls he had met in Sheffield club with no musical experience whatsoever (Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley), and a guitarist from the long defunct Punk band The Rezillos (Jo Callis), many must have thought that Oakey had lost the plot, and the world was half expecting the next appointment to ba a fire eating lion tamer from Halifax. Virgin uneasily supported Oakey’s moves and recording started on the band’s 3rd album “Dare”, with The Stranglers producer Martin Rushent at the helm. Musically, Oakey wanted to retain the mechanical, industrial synthesised instrumentation and style, but introduce a Pop and Dance element to make the music a more viable proposition to the growing New Romantic following. He suceeds, and “Dare” is THE best Pop/Synth/New Romantic album of the era, a culmination of great Pop songs, dark vocals, and simple, crisp instrumentation, resulting in a number one album in the U.K. and a top 5 success in the States. There are many highlights, from the pure Pop duets “Don’t You Want Me” and “Open Your Heart”, the brilliant Dance numbers “Sound Of The Crowd” and “Love Action”, the upbeat “Things That Dreams Are Made Of”, and the paranoic “Darkness”. A masterpiece of it’s time, and Oakey would never be able to recapture this moment again. The album gave us an excitement that no one had come close to. –Ben H
What on earth was I thinking of? After English Settlement I gave up on XTC for 20 years! There’s simply no excuse. I knew the first time I heard English Settlement I was listening to a classic and yet I still let my interest lapse. This is probably one of the most perfectly crafted double albums by any English band, notwithstanding Exile On Main Street and London Calling. It contains such complex, intricate constructions the word “song” seems too restrictive a word to describe their function. Like an absorbing novel, a spectacular movie or a sumptuous meal, this album can be enjoyed on many levels. There was an abridged version of English Settlement released at the same time as this double and I’m aware that many prefer it, feeling it cuts out the filler. I’ve never heard it and I never want to. Listening to English Settlement today, I can’t think of a single track I’d want to get rid of. It would be like choosing a favourite from among my kids.
Considering how perfect this album is I’ve always felt that it was around the release of English Settlement that it all started going wrong for XTC. An overstressed and exhausted Andy Partridge was overtaken by stage-fright and suffered a breakdown soon after the album’s release. As a result the album passed relatively unnoticed. How huge could this band have been if given the opportunity to publicise and tour English Settlement? How huge could this band have been if Partridge had ever been able to overcome his fear? Tragic really.
Even though Colin Moulding contributes the ska rhythms of “English Roundabout”, the twisted “Fly On The Wall” and the excellent “Ball And Chain”, English Settlement really is Partridge’s album. “Senses Working Overtime” would provide the band with their only top ten single. “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late)” is simply sublime. “Yacht Dance” is a mix of pure pop and English folk and Dave Gregory’s Spanish guitar is a revelation and the flamenco rhythms continue to ripple through anti-gun rant “Melt The Guns”. “It’s Nearly Africa” brings the sounds of that continent into XTC’s quaintly weird world and “Snowman” takes what is well-worn subject matter for a song – a crumbling relationship – and comes at it from an unusual perspective.
English Settlement is a fabulous album but, amazingly, still isn’t the high point for XTC but, as an example of the quintessential English band playing the quintessential English eccentrics, it’s difficult to beat. –Ian
You can’t seem to pick up a music magazine nowadays without some interviewee citing Howard Devoto and Magazine as defining influences upon their own musical aspirations. Either that or some sycophantic retrospective which seems totally out of proportion for a band who were nothing more than a mote in the eye of music chronology. Amazingly, in this case, the hype is totally justified. Unhappy with the direction The Buzzcocks were taking and, possibly, recognising the limited shelf life of punk, Devoto formed Magazine and attempted to weave punk conviction into a more conventional and structured rock format. I’m convinced that longevity was no more guaranteed down this route, but it proved a panoramic trip whilst it lasted. The album is full of highlights and some quite astounding musical performances, particularly the bass and keyboards on the likes of “Definitive Gaze”. Messrs Adamson, McGeoch, Jackson and Formula deserve praise. Personally I have reservations about Devoto’s vocal style but as a discordant counterpoint to the music it works perfectly. “Shot By Both Sides” is spiky rock at its best and “The Light Pours Out Of Me” remains in my personal top twenty to this day. Magazine paved the path for post punk, pity they couldn’t walk the road for longer themselves. –Ian
When Keith Morris left seminal Californian Punksters Black Flag, it was obvious he needed something even more shocking, for pushing the boundaries of music and taste was it seems his ambition. So in 1979 he formed Circle Jerks with Greg Hetson (Guitar), Roger Rogerson (Bass), and Lucky Lehrer (Drums). A reputation for the most wild local shows and enormous amounts of alcohol intake onstage and off started the folklore legend which attracted the disaffected SoCal Skater punks. The debut “Group Sex” is amazing by its brevity, with 14 songs spanning just under 16 minutes. It’s typical early American Punk thrash, razor sharp lyrics, tinny production and songs covering Politics, middle class Hollywood malaise, drugs, and of course sex… What seems unusual for the time and the sentiment, is that Hetson is a strong Guitarist and musically the band seems tight which in turn raises the quality above many of the bands of the period. The highlights include “I Just Want Some Skank”, “Beverly Hills” and “World Up My Ass”.That same year, the group was one of several California punk bands to be immortalized in the Penelope Spheeris documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization”, and live versions of four songs from “Group Sex” appear on the movie’s soundtrack album. “Group Sex” is a rabid pulsing slice of aggression liberally smattered with gruff and gritty lyrics from Morris. Though not essential, it’s a useful snapshot of American Punk circa 1980. –Ben
Deciding enough’s enough is a tough call to make at the best of times. For a band accustomed to fame and its requisite trappings the severance must be that much harder. So it’s understandable why so many plow on regardless of their relevance or quality of work. The Stones, for instance, will continue until someone drops dead but their sound will remain timeless. On the other hand, Bon Jovi have had nothing to say since the early 90s but refuse to accept the fact. Japan belong to an elite club. Although diehards will argue, they jacked it in at just the right time leaving a stunning, if flawed, volume of work. I’ve always had a preference for their original incarnation as trash glam funksters a la New York Dolls or Hanoi Rocks but they were criminally ignored. There is some quite brilliant guitar playing from Rob Dean, particularly on “Suburban Love”, “Wish You Were Black” and “Television” but this, along with David Sylvian’s strangled, sneering, kazoo-like vocals were lost when they turned towards the New Romantic movement. Their musical vista of the seedy, dangerous, disposable isolation of modern day living deserves retrospective re-evaluation. –Ian
Imagine the scene. The house lights dim on an expectant crowd. It’s difficult to see through the darkness but the swish of heavy fabric announces the stage curtains being drawn back. The spots slowly rise on a stage shrouded in a huge sheet of black plastic which rises to cover the vague shape of a drum-kit. A bright beam of white light picks out movement from under the sheet and flashes off a number of blades which pierce the plastic and slash vicious tears into the black skin. Like a sci-fi caesarean Devo push themselves through, clutching instruments and dressed in vivid yellow boiler suits. It takes a little time to rip the sheet away from the drums before they launch into “Uncontrollable Urge”, but it’s still got to be one of the best entrances ever.
Far more guitar-led than their later releases, Are We Not Men? Was considered radical upon its release in 1978. Much closer to the punk revolution than is realised, Devo savaged the American materialistic way of life and dared to suggest that humankind was de-evolving. From sex related psycho-babble (“Uncontrollable Urge”) to satellites falling from the sky (“Space Junk”), from consumerism (“Too Much Paranoias”) to genetics (“Mongoloid”), this is a very strange and, on one plain, deeply disturbing album. It remains a powerful indictment of the human condition. –Ian
For me this is far and away the best album The Replacements ever made. Some people say that they wish rock and roll was always imbued with the spirit that The Clash brought to it on “London Calling”. I could easily say the same thing about “Let it Be”. This is the perfect synthesis of rock aggression and songwriting finesse. A song like “Androgynous” probably wouldn’t move me so much if it had been more slickly produced. The raw beauty of these songs makes me believe in them. There have been a million songs written about adolescence but “Sixteen Blue” is one of the only ones that really feels like it. The painful yearning and confusion of being sixteen is captured perfectly in those crunching guitar chords and especially the guitar solo with which the song closes. Rather than offering release, the end of the song raises the unresolved tension higher and higher. It is full of beauty and sadness. And then we have the album closer, “Answering Machine”, with its fabulous, tight guitar playing, its earnest, pleading vocal and gorgeous melodicism. This is one of the best songs ever written about romantic obsession. Indeed this is one of the best rock songs period. In its rawness, energy and its dual loyalties to grunge and melody, in 1984 this album sounded like the future itself. –Javasean
In 1972 Elektra Records’ Jac Holzman asked future Patti Smith Group guitarist and bassist Lenny Kay to compile what was a essentially a glorified mixed tape, resulting in Nuggets: Original Artyfacts of the First Psychedelic Era. This release became synonymous with the term “Garage Rock”, but this designation is not entirely accurate. Though rough and tumble staples like the 13th Floor Elevators and the Seeds are represented, more poppy-sounding bands like the Mojo Men, Sagittarius (featuring Glenn Campbell on vocals), and a host of other acts—some of whom were nowhere near a suburban garage when they cut these sides — are there too. Nuggets’ legacy is not so much its innovative (re)packaging of near hits, but its role in defining an aesthetic and its establishing of multiple genres and sub-genres: acid rock, power pop, sunshine pop, imitation Merseybeat, Dylan copycats, blue-eyed soul, even early Latino-rock — they’re all here along with more that send rock critics reaching for their thesauruses and record collectors scrambling for their paypal accounts. Perhaps neither Kaye nor Holzman knew the long-term ramifications of their Frankenstenian experiment. Indeed, the monster they created essentially spawned a whole industry, that of the Esoteric 60’s Music Compilation. It’s an industry that refuses to die, even almost 40 years later. Exploring this brave new world can be a daunting task. Here then is a quick guide to some logical starting points:
1. Pebbles – Conceived and created in Australia only a few years after the original Nuggets, this series focused on more raw and obscure (though not entirely unknown) acts from the US. Numerous volumes and offshoot series of widely varying quality proliferated through the 70’s and 80’s, but volumes 1-6 are pretty darn solid.
2. Back From The Grave – One of the few series worthy of the “60’s Garage Rock” classification, the US bands represented here are young, fast, raw, and sometimes very poorly recorded, which undoubtedly adds to its authenticity.
3. Acid Visions – Regional garage and psych compilations are very common. This one focuses on the Lone Star State, which produced a surprisingly diverse and consistently high quality array of sounds in the ’60s. The third and final volume focuses on female artists, a very underrepresented demographic in this male-dominated realm.
4. English Freakbeat – Since suburban two-car garages are not as common in England, perhaps it was inevitable that a moniker for similar music from the British Isles would be invented, and “Freakbeat” seems just as apt as any. Though the bands on these five LPs share many commonalities with their American garage brethren, a rawer and more purist blues sensibility often dominates.
5. Rubble – While this Anglocentric series covers the Freakbeat sound like the series mentioned above, its emphasis is on the more cerebral and whimsical Psych-Pop of the late ’60s British and European scenes. Though spotty at times, many installments in this twenty volume series have numerous great tracks.
Further listening: One would think that by this point everything worthwhile has been unearthed, but the excavation continues. As unknown sides from the US and British scenes of the 60’s become scarcer, collectors are looking to more unexplored caches. Private pressings, underground Prog Rock, and Global Garage Rock have been the subject of many comps as of late. Cambodian Rocks delves into a thriving Asian scene that was tragically quashed when the Khmer Rouge took power. Love, Peace, and Poetry, a series still in progress, spans the globe to bring listeners impossibly rare pysch from the ’60s and ’70s. —Richard P
Are we forgetting your favorite series? Share your comments here:
“The Strange Idols Pattern…” is the masterpiece of early indiepop, although is often less considered than Felt’s fifth album, the organ driven “Forever Breathes The Lonely Word”. Here Maurice Deebank provides the best guitar playing I’ve ever heard, a constant whirl of sweet jangly picking (on a 12 string guitar I think) and sometimes classical/Spanish melodies; Lawrence encapsulates such imaginative and brilliant solo playing in wonderful three-chord songs, sung with a monotonous and subtle tone that never sounds cheesy or pathetic like Morrissey’s howling. I understand that such vocals can be considered boring, but I think they’re the best accompaniment for the stream of background notes that – at least for me – has to be on the frontline, while the vocals are secondary. Absolutely great album, my favourite song here is “Crystal Ball”, with the best guitar work ever made by Deebank, and a constant sense of tragedy that remains subtle and never explodes, not even in the final short solo. –Gneo