Doug Mosurak questions revisionist trends while running down a quartet of recent reissues by Maximum Joy, Delta 5, Fire Engines and the New York post-punk scene.
All Wrapped Up
The Twilight of Post-Punk Reissues (and Maybe Of Us All)
New York Noise Vol. 2
(Crippled Dick Hot Wax!)
Codex Teenage Premonition
Singles & Sessions 1979-81
(Kill Rock Stars)
It wasn’t more than about six or seven years ago that post-punk revivalism (or at the very least late ’70s and early ’80s metropolitan musical concentrate) began dotting the realms of the available once again. Fittingly, technology (then in the form of MP3s and Napster, now on battery-powered hard drives and laptop DJ mixers) was there, allowing the egalitarian collector to share and spread the past, to get it off of vinyl records and decaying audio tape into a digital crypt. We had limitless capital and heads full of dreams … then those dreams fell on our heads, and the haves, in a state of fear, conspired once again to fuck the living shit out of the have-nots, just like it went down from, say, 1979, into 1983 and beyond.
So what’s left? Are we down to the dregs? What else can we overturn in this transitory, meta-historical technosphere of cultural rediscovery? Who else can be swayed out of embedding the past in dusty record shops and in untouched home collections, waiting for its owners to pass away so that they might be freed into the grabby hands of the knowing? Moreover, what all is being held back from us, for one reason or another?
When I was a kid in these early ’80s, I didn’t like school so much, and fantasized of the day when we could just stick Atari-style cartridges in a slot in our heads to upload all the knowledge we’d ever need. Teachers told me of the error of my fantastic folly; that we’d never learn anything if this was the case. Public school teachers who I thought were out to crush my dreams … they were right. The bonds between having that knowledge available and understanding it is still as distant and as strenuous as 16 years of education, and now you can choose to ignore it altogether with the safety in knowing that it’ll always be there. Today, we have this Internet that you’re looking at right now; giving us access to roughly 98 percent of existing recorded music, and maybe 5 percent of it is being commonly utilized, with songs written with the marketing potential and ringtone marketing concepts in mind. We have all the news in the world, reported from just about every angle you could possibly imagine, just a click away, and yet we pore over blogs dumped out to the Net like Ally Sheedy dumping her purse in “The Breakfast Club.” Movies get sent to us while art ages and cracks in museums and in private collections. Did I want to see you naked? No, but there’s a better chance than ever that I can go to any number of sites and visit just that. Garbage is everywhere. The good stuff is still drastically hard to find, but you can get the latter-day version of it anywhere you go. It’s given the impression among some facets of the intelligentsia that if something’s popular, it’s probably worthless. And sometimes they’re right. Things have gotten so easy that the things we consume have the consistency and flavor of the materials they’re packaged in. Obtaining music by Radio 4 is a gimmie, but enjoying their record is every bit as difficult as eating it.
This has always been the case. There’s the real and the Realistic (and don’t ever buy the Realistic). There’s dance music and there’s the selfish request of “hey DJ, play something that I can dance to” – and there’s a large part of the problem. Lack of awareness and amplification of selfishness have only gotten bigger in techtopia town, where life is even further defined by the possessions one carries. That Sidekick is your death sentence, and it’ll spell it out for you, but in a language you’re too jazzed to understand. Yet you run back to the days and the ways of old in the clubs, doing the same thing with a slightly shifting populace that reinvents the past every time “Damaged Goods” or Blondie’s “Rapture” gets played. But neither Gang of Four nor Deborah Harry, nor anyone else of the times and places they frequented, thought of themselves as oldies, even though that’s what they’ve become. The music here is old, the sentiments of the news and the need for escapism as crucial now as they were back then, and in the Depression, and people are still dancing to it. We turn things over, over and over again. Are we wising up? Don’t we see the cliff’s edge? Where does this music leave us when the joy has been experienced and it becomes passé once more? Some answers can be found here.
Surprisingly, due to a legacy of compilations that got a lot of this movement rolling, the folks at Soul Jazz prove that they know when to leave the party, as the dance grooves that fueled the first installment of their New York Noise are largely replaced by terror in its second installment. And if the New York City of today is defined by the terror surrounding it, then the sounds of 1977-1984 represented here are those of the fear within. Looming threats in the Dirty Apple’s skyline, merely mentioned by inclusion of Mars and Theoretical Girls in the first installment, are writ large in Volume 2. What little you can shake it to here is tainted by Reaganomic reality: a looming social epidemic barely understood and yet to bear the name AIDS, real estate and displacement, the rug being systematically pulled out from under the arts community. For proof, look no further than Vortex OST’s “Black Box Disco,” squaring off loose-booty rubberband bass with tape loops of screaming, ominous choral moans, and the threat of cruel and unusual torture in a deliberately non-sensual way, concluding with a barked “Shut up and suffer!” Felix’s “Tigerstripes” (created by disco ingénues Arthur Russell and Nicky Siano) is one of their most claustrophobic productions, kept in line by primitive handclaps from a drum machine and a lockstep, uptight, Gotham rhythm. Even Clandestine’s “Radio Rhythm (Dub)” leans on the dark murk of ebony buildings shining upwards; a disco flip bad acid trip. And the beat goes on, but the crowd changes, as do the venues, the economies of scale tip in favor of the rich, and you can’t do a thing about it.
What’s left on New York Noise Vol. 2 is divided up between cabaret and the noise of the namesake. In this sense, cabaret is an act, much the same sort of diversion one would imagine people flocked to in the Great Depression (and justified in the period by folks like Kid Congo Powers, Klaus Nomi, and filmmakers such as Richard Elfman and his “Forbidden Zone,” all of which took pre-war shots at reviving sounds from Cab Calloway to Kurt Weill). To this end, tribal stomps by Jill Kroesen’s satisfyingly lopsided “I Am Not Seeing That You Are Here,” Don King’s ominous klangfest “Tanajura,” and Pulsallama’s “Ungawa Pt. 2” (yes, it’s their good song; I know, I know, I got burned on their records, too) tumble against the haunt of Jim Jarmusch’s musical outlet, the Del-Byzantines, the loose jazz-funk of Mofungo, and the carefree party thump of Glorious Strangers’ Hollywood swinger “Move It Time.” These tracks could work on their own, but context is sometimes everything, and it’s telling that this compilation wants to bring in as accurate and as balanced a time as one could have had in the era this music was made in. By that token, the contrast of the noise offerings here provides little to no revisionist ground to swell from, and therefore darkens like the ’78 blackout: Sonic Youth’s icy chimes and menacing swell of “I Dreamed I Dream” rests uneasily against Rhys Chatham’s eight-minute “Drastic Classicism,” an unerring and relentlessly crushing assault of treble and metal, a colossal hive of sanitation trucks in hyperspace all grinding together. The rarely heard Red Transistor lives up to its noise king reputation with “Not Bite,” shitting its collective bondage pants in a flurry of industrial repetition and pain. Glenn Branca’s The Static provides atonal agony with “My Relationship,” and the seldom-heard Ut reactivate an early bruise with “Sham Shack,” battleship gray and with designs on a new life overseas (the band would soon relocate to England, where it found a label in Blast First and a career that extended to the early ’90s, a band that the States couldn’t easily contain). There’s a bleakness, and moreover a contextual accuracy, here that will turn casual listeners away, and that’s fine – let them shrink back behind history’s cold gaze, unaware and doomed. The rest of us know that we can become powderkegs for the moment when and where it’s called for.
Looking back, Bristol’s young agitators the Pop Group were every bit as volatile as any angle of the New York loft scene, but turned that energy away from what is now viewed as a golden age for urbane creativity and used it to fuel an anarchic anti-government, pro-human musikmachine. When the group fell apart in 1980, the fragments (Mark Stewart, later to dredge up industro-dubular agitprop with Adrian Sherwood and Maffia; Rip Rig + Panic, formless politico squeal you could sometimes dance to; Pigbag, a fairly embarrassing cartoon-skronk foray into white fonk; and Maximum Joy) were left shaking with their rhythmic remembrances severed at the neck. Out of them all, the most musically successful 20 years out remains Stewart’s metal-clad soundclash, coincidentally the gravest of the bunch. Running ahead of the rest, however, was Maximum Joy, housing two members of the Pop Group and three from fellow dour Bristols the Glaxo Babies. It’s as fitting a name for their music as anyone could come up with, retaining a social conscious but grooving harder with positivity, more focus, and less depth than their contemporaries, a sort of middle ground clearinghouse of ideas and feelings that more often than not worked. Singer Janine Rainforth might have been a vocal doppelganger for the Slits’ Ari Up, and the undeserving space between Slits albums could in a sense be filled by the music Maximum Joy produced in that span. Tracks such as “White and Green Place” and “Building Bridges” tap-danced along unstoppable polyrhythmic tightropes and soundclash production techniques, underscoring the shallowness of feeling presentable in modern times and the need for humanity to focus on its similarities rather than differences. The sensitivity in their sensibilities carries on to strong effect with the gorgeous instrumental “Summer Till Done,” recalling the rich and vibrant cello work of Arthur Russell, and in the rounded bass/Simmons pummel of “Silent Street”. But while the Pop Group’s clearinghouse of consciousness inevitably shook itself to pieces, Maximum Joy’s faults went the other way: too few moments of perfection to match the compassionate revolution of their first two singles. Maybe because these songs were made for the club (the band was licensed to 99 Records stateside), the band found itself at odds to create a full-length (the erratic yet somewhat redeeming Station M.X.J.Y. album of ’82). And when attitudes in the club changed, the group was unable (or more likely unwilling) to bend to the whims of the customers, as their tepid final release, a smoothed out cover of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” (thankfully not included here) indicates. Much like Maximum Joy’s career, Unlimited front-loads the band’s strongest material, leaving the backside to drag along like an instant replay of diminishing returns. When they wrote the song “All Wrapped Up!” they could have just as easily been foretelling their own future, and quite possibly ours, too. And yeah, most of the kids won’t dance to it.
There’s nothing smooth at all about the music of the Fire Engines; not enough to diminish, either, or even enough to return. You’d get more from returning recyclables. But that’s okay in this case of four wiry young chaps from Edinburgh at the turn of the ’80s, uptight and bending at painfully acute angles, using the electric guitar the right way for the times – as a weapon. Brief, exciting, and bludgeoning, the group managed to take the sound of NYC’s Contortions and wring out all of its jazzbo pretentions, creating something sharp and destructive, a wrecking ball for the times. That’s not to say that the group didn’t get indulgent, as anyone who’s heard their original recordings can cop to; on their sole album Lubricate Your Living Room, they pull away from pop and move towards tangled Beefheartian stonk. But there is a certain charm here, and within their version of the sound you can hear the hand-me-downs of future generations all in a row, from Big Flame to the Yummy Fur to Franz Ferdinand and all those pit stops in between (Walkingseeds, Bogshed, etc.) – particularly in their signature cut “Get Up and Use Me,” an electrocuted screed of primal caste system terror, a singer-as-doormat, life-as-chafing-dish excoriation of rock-n-roll whomp that would have probably sounded just as jerked-out coming out of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Little Richard.
Alan McGee’s indulgent (and awesomely ahead of the times) reissue label Rev-Ola made it their first action to reissue nearly every Fire Engines recording in a 1992 collection called Fond, containing their album, almost everything from their singles, and a handful of exciting Peel Sessions tapes from 1981. Only available as a costly import, the collection now languishes out of print, while Domino, spending their Franz Ferdinand money wisely, has placed the Fire Engines alongside Orange Juice in an archival reissue series of crucial Scottish pop music. Why they chose, then, to issue Codex Teenage Premonition, a collection of warbly, room-mic’d live recordings and demos, when Orange Juice got their singles and album tracks intact, is puzzling and somewhat a cheat for the audience this could be reaching. It’s as if they’re pulling the plug on post-punk reissues by denying the availability of a band’s signature material – essentially issuing a bootleg legitimately, to the sound of wheezing and crickets. The material on Codex is strong, no doubt, and the heretofore unreleased tracks “The Untitled One” and “Insert Yourself” find the group vertically integrating their own unique punk-shard peccadilloes into a more conventional rock framework. But the shoddy sound and repetition of certain tracks (why, for instance, do we need three versions of “Discord”?) are a tough sell to anyone not already a rabid fan of the group. Their cover of FF’s “Jacqueline,” dating back to their short-lived 2004 reunion, is the sole studio recording on the collection, rounding things out to a smoky, distorted din, but it adds a level of finality that sours things overall. Why close the books on this band with someone else’s song? Why not offer some sort of liner notes or history of the band? Like many underrepresented projects, Codex leaves behind more questions than answers.
There were plenty of questions left behind for fans of Leeds’ Delta 5 when they disbanded in 1981. Whatever ambitions they had reserved for their lone album, See the Whirl, were lost in the times that might have passed the group by; through the major label polemic that could have maligned the skeletal production which suited the band’s material so well; through the steady rise and sonic transformations of their contemporaries Gang of Four and the Mekons (of which both bands at one time shared members or collaborated with Delta 5). There are questions left without answers, left when the band departed, and left out of the otherwise extensive and personable liner notes to Kill Rock Stars’ new compilation, Singles & Sessions 1979-81. It’s a question that can be left to the times, however, as the collection does what others fail to do: portray its artist with the most honest assessment, the most representative material available, as completely as possible across the designated time period, with enough information to satisfy those curious in knowing more than what they hear.
And to that end, this Delta 5 CD is one the most anticipated and successful post-punk reissues yet, short of the releases on Acute. There’s nary a misstep here; the group’s classic three singles on Rough Trade, presented in all their crackling vinyl glory, and the bulk of See the Whirl – plus a few tracks that followed that material, unreleased until now – replicated with BBC radio sessions, free of the gloss and overarrangement of their LP, and some striking board tapes from American live dates in 1980. (Ironically, it was the unavailability of the original album masters from Big Music that necessitated the inclusion of these ready-available and far superior versions of the same songs). The times, the supply, and the demand have pushed their classic first single “Mind Your Own Business” to the forefront (for a while, it was difficult to go out anywhere fun in NYC over the last five years without being accosted by this song somewhere), but it’s such a pleasure to finally get to hear a large chunk of the band’s material where they actually sound like the band they made themselves known to be. That the five-piece, mixed-gender group came off as overtly feminist and political in their lyrics, it’s interesting that the liners (written by head Mekon and one-time Delta 5 member Jon Langford, and from a 1980 article on the band penned by Greil Marcus) tell a different story; that the group was largely a friend-based, egalitarian project that eschewed traditional boy/girl roles in favor of being in a band simply because one wanted to. The headiness of Leeds, the politically charged nature of the university where Delta 5’s members matriculated, may have miscued the band’s radical nature as a simple way to have fun, and if there ever were any sort of pissy, include-me-out attitude in the group’s lyrics, they were counterbalanced by the sturdiness of their music.
A Delta 5 song bounced the bounce, disco’d the disco, danced its dance and scraped its scrape in cheerfully equal measures. Members traded off instruments and vocal duties with an ambidexterity of skill and spirit that rights every track, every decision. Less willfully abstract and gear-shifting than Essential Logic, nowhere near as well-read and formal as Prag Vec (and by the way, where’s their reissue?), not banner-waving and lockstep like Crass, and without the translatory differences and eye-glaring intent of Kleenex/LiliPUT, the Delta 5 made the kind of unflappable jams that you could roll a tank over and not damage. They reveal sensitivities in tracks like “Try,” “Journey” and “Now That You’re Gone” that aren’t so much mournful as they are realistic. They get absolutely blinding within the confines of “Shadow,” “Make Up” and “You,” both scalding rejections of personal liberties, societal roles and cohabitation that say as much as they sound off on with jagged guitar shrapnel in easy-to-obliterate single-note arrangements. They roll up on Spector-esque girl group pop on “Singing the Praises,” which they then flip on its back and tickle-torture it to an inch of its life. There really isn’t a question posed that these songs couldn’t answer; with each reaction the group elicits, they also offer up water-tight reasoning and multi-sided logic. Don’t wanna do something? Don’t do it. Wanna? Know why first, and then go for it – logic that a post-punk revival, an ’80s overhaul, seems to have largely ignored in favor of revisionist history.
By Doug Mosurock