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V/A - Messthetics Greatest Hits: The Sounds of DIY 1977-1980

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Artist: V/A

Album: Messthetics Greatest Hits: The Sounds of DIY 1977-1980

Label: Hyped 2 Death

Review date: Jun. 27, 2006

Eight compilations into Chuck Warner’s Messthetics project, Hyped2Death pauses to summarize with 15 classic cuts and seven new cuts from the exuberant late-1970s UK DIY scene. Named, as all these compilations have been – after the early Scritti Politti song – this "best of" CD charts the scene that grew up when punk went lifeless and commercial, and DIY stepped up to fill the vacuum. It was a time when unknown teenagers could bang out a single on thrift store guitars and untuned keyboards, photocopy primitive sleeves and press cheap vinyl and sell a thousand copies, reaching listeners as far away as Japan and Finland. Like all the Messthetics compilations, the disc is accompanied by detailed, often very amusing liner notes and lovingly reproduced original art. It would all be a lovely little history project -- something along the lines of Folkways with cardboard drums and Voxes – if it were not also such an entertaining listen. You can listen closely, following along reading about bands, culture and history as you go, or you can put this disc on for the sheer joy of its unprocessed, eccentric music. It works either way.

Warner has been chronicling this scene for several years now, with eight numbered Messthetics collections, organized alphabetically by band name. It's a big job and you've got to start somewhere; he's covered R-W and A-D bands so far. This new compilation hits the highlights of those previous issues – the jangly New Zealandish pop of Scrotum Poles' "Pick the Cats' Eyes Out" from No. 1, the fractious anarchy of Danny & the Dressmakers' "Don't Make Another Bass Guitar Mr. Rickenbacher" from No. 8, the foul-mouthed, garage-Kinks "Shark Fucks" from No. 3, among others. The vast, neglected middle of the alphabet gets a lick and a promise here, with the X-Ray Specs-ish sax and drone of Instant Automatons' "Scared to be Alone" and the food-sex-obsessed goofiness of Mud Hutters' "All About."

There's lots of variety here – straight up pop (Thin Yoghourts’ "Girl on the Bus") next to warped and distorted no-wave (Danny & the Dressmakers' "Don't Make Another …"), hyped-up ska beats (The Rejects' "Vision Smashed") in close proximity to droning minimalism (Puritan Guitars' "£100 In 15 Minutes"). What the songs have in common, though, is minimal production values, unusual instruments (especially keyboards, which Warner explains, became cheap after punk bands cleaned out pawn shops' guitar/bass/drum inventory), and unmediated, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. It's hard to improve on Warner's description of the "Messthetic,” when he says, "The classic DIY sound is a jumble of one-take vocals, angular, scrubbing riffs crabbed together out of diminished chords that had lain unused since Restoration times, all churned (or droned) out on cheap guitars, wheezy unreliable keyboards, and rhythms thudded out on whatever was nearby and relatively indestructible."

Many of the songs here are rare, but the great thing about Messthetics is that's not the reason they're included. Warner's a music fan first and a collector second. He picked these songs because he liked them and thought they'd appeal to an audience beyond rabid record collectors. He's annotated them carefully, providing both a broader context for the movement and detailed information on the bands. So, there's no reason to hang back if you've never heard of these bands or if your knowledge of late-1970s DIY is minimal. Messthetics Greatest Hits is a fantastic entry point if you missed the earlier comps, and there's enough previously unreleased material to justify a purchase even if you haven't.

By Jennifer Kelly

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