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V/A - D-I-Y: The Rise of the Independent Music Industry After Punk

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Artist: V/A

Album: D-I-Y: The Rise of the Independent Music Industry After Punk

Label: Soul Jazz

Review date: Jul. 19, 2007

Soul Jazz is always thoughtful and polished, even when directing their gaze at the shambling sods that made this stuff. It's a selection of low-budget British singles from the first five years of the New Wave. The Buzzcocks, Scritti Politti and Throbbing Gristle, who managed to bootstrap lasting reputations out of these early efforts, define the parameters. It runs though rough guitar punk, rougher art funk, and electronic experiments. There's 35 pages of notes, including interviews with early studios, labels and even a guy who printed picture sleeves.

It's the obscure sides that are the real draw, of course. D-I-Y yanks plenty of choice music from the great unknown. The Naffis' sole single combines the three approaches - driven by a rumbling bassline that's just a bit too stiff to be called boogie, it's strewn with scratches and chirps that might be guitars or electronics or both. Artery deliver a rant about a razor blade mishap, and their chanting is accompanied by nothing but tumbling percussion. There's a lo-fi synth workout from Thomas Leer, and uptight Chrome-meets-Devo from Tom Lucy. Most of this sounds like it was thought up in a bedroom or while working a dull job, but it's also easy to hear the first buddings of genres that were about to flower, like Tribal Industrial and Synthpop.

The sequencing to D-I-Y is odd. There's no unifying style, and the order of the tracks doesn't create any particular effect. The collection plays better when put chronologically. That places Scritti's meandering leftist dance throb early, bookended by the more snarling tracks. The singer of one of those bands, Frantic Elevators, stopped growling and went on to front Simply Red. And that shows how oddballs like Scritti's Green Gartside really changed things from the bottom up, proving that more than punk could bubble up from the street.

The elephant in the corner of the room with this collection is the Desperate Bicycles. They're mentioned, but not included, because key members do not want the music reissued. It's hard to tell if they're embarrassed over juvenilia, or standing by the non-commercial philosophy they espoused. The Desperate Bikes created their music rapidly, and apparently intended the shelf life to be just as fleeting. "They'd really like to know why you haven't made your single yet" it said on the back of one of their discs. That manifesto inspired many of these bands to book studio time.

Looking back at how this music was received, contemporary writers were dumbstruck for ways to describe it. Accounts of the Desperate Bikes used "psychedelic" as an adjective, perhaps because Syd Barrett's introverted recordings were one of the few precedents as simultaneously casual and committed. And the psychedelic adjective was still being applied to low-budget icons like Husker Du a few years later. All of this music is far too sober for that sobriquet. You can also tell the players feel nervous about even attempting to make a record. That's why these tracks still excite. They weren't expanding minds, but you hear them trying hard to live up to newfound expectations.

The subtitle gets it perfect: "The Rise of the Independent Music Industy After Punk". The non-independent industry is in crisis now, and just talking about this sort of art as the product of a potential industry already feels quaint. They were working under conditions of scarcity that have evaporated - scarcity of recording opportunities, of distribution, of a press willing to write about the work. They were among the few who possessed the gall that believe anyone could make a record. We're more confident now, more smug. They had more of a structure to emulate, and more pressure to get it right.

The funny thing about this era is the heroic rhetoric that gets flung at it. Its most successful bands didn't shy away from heroics. They wrote anthems. But in retrospect, that made them sound awfully similar the bell-bottomed stars whose moment had just past. These tracks are the opposite - even when clunky and sour and anxious to sound alien, the songs are intimate. It's the beginning of our own era's useless adjective: indie. The term gets slathered on anything not obviously pandering, even if an artist has long ago passed into showbiz professionalism. We're used to the notion that anyone can play pop star (or critic!). No one on this compilation sounds like a hero - grace is in short supply.

There is a real feeling of liberation in the voices here, and with that freedom, a wide-eyed fear. This is music that came from the unknown, and delved deeper into the unknown. Not heroic, but genuinely brave.

By Ben Donnelly

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