The Scrotum Poles - "Helicopter Honeymoon" (Messthetics #105)
This latest batch of Messthetics compilations have the series aiming at detailed overviews of regional scenes – Midlands, South Wales and Scotland. (Scotland’s not really a ‘region,’ I know, but bear with me.) It’s no surprise that they’re the strongest sets yet in the Messthetics/Homework run of discs – their previous focus on the alphabetical made for decent compilations that leapt all over the shop, but that organizational process made it tough to sufficiently grasp what exactly motivated specific artists or scenes. Hearing Beyond The Implode or Scrotum Poles or Thin Yoghurts or whoever made for revelatory listening, sure, but you came away feeling your understanding of a particular scene, city or region’s DIY output was still pretty limited. British DIY is a broad church, and Chuck Warner’s more rigorous focus on #103 - #105 makes for a more holistic listening experience. Connecting the dots is easier, but it also yields more intensive knowledge. It’s a damn good move.
It also means you can get to grips with the specific personality of each scene. #103 focuses on the Midlands, and plenty of the DIY singles here display the influence, either direct or indirect, of the Swell Maps. It’s not just because Nikki Sudden, Epic Soundtracks and Jowe Head helped the Famous Explorers and Cult Figures (who feature here with a rough take on their excellent Rather Records 7,” “Zip Nolan”); songs like Cracked Actors’ “Statues” share with the Swell Maps insistent, post-motorik drums, guitar that grinds and sputters like whipping wires, and a chunked-out approach to songwriting – riffs assembled almost like kid’s building blocks.
The Swell Maps’ more diffuse, improvisatory experiments are also reflected in Lester And The Brew’s potting-shed poetry, “Bad Day In The City/Eyesight Brew” – as noted in the liners, there wasn’t much of the ‘weird noise’/Fuck Off Records vibe in the Midlands: Lester himself is probably closer to, say, Ivor Cutler or L Voag than The Door and The Window. And Felt fans will be astonished to hear Lawrence on the opener, Versatile Newts’ 97-second “Newtrition,” one of my favorite examples of that particularly admirable DIY sub-set of ‘energy/enthusiasm over ability.’ You can also hear the nascent fumblings of Robert Lloyd of The Nightingales, and the beginnings of Pigbag (Hardware’s “Walking” and “Face the Flag,” whose tetchiness feels slightly removed from the compilation’s aesthetic brief, anyway).
#103 is timely, given the relatively recent rush of Swell Maps reissues, and so’s #104, which focuses on the South Wales scene that yielded Young Marble Giants (whose Colossal Youth was reissued last year by Domino). Indeed, Spike (from post-YMG group Weekend) turns up here, playing music and running the Z-Block imprint. #104 shows the openness of the post-YMG crowd was no fluke: witness both Current Obsessions and Spike’s Reptile Ranch, who’ve got that multi-disciplinary, all-hands-on-deck vibe firmly in place (cf. the latter’s wheezy violin and organ, and the former’s jazzy sax). More surprising is The Decadent Few, whose delicate mournfulness reminds me of those early Flying Nun singles (especially Sneaky Feelings). Indeed, much like New Zealand, South Wales’s DIY scene is a good reminder of how living in the relative geographical isolation can make for the best counter-cultural creativity.
The South Wales set is also particularly winning for the way it illuminates the pre-history of some of your favorite first tier post-punk/DIYers. Green Gartside turns up, as Sugarfly Islam, playing bass on the Immortal Invisibles’ “No Zip”; Jon Langford of the Mekons is a floating presence through several other DIY groups’ story. The real thrill – and surprise – is finding What To Wear and Class Action Winners, the first two groups for Steve Mitchell (the mastermind behind the Pooh Sticks), are well-represented. The latter’s cover of “Hurricane Fighter Plane” is so rudimentary, it’s as though the original was recorded by the Familiar Ugly instead of The Red Crayola; What To Wear’s “Robbery” and “We’re The Martians Now” are both wonderful slices of post-Buzzcock pop that, even at this early stage, herald Mitchell’s winning way with a pop tune. It’s a real surprise to hear a ‘Now Sound of Swansea’ I never even knew existed.
Messthetics #105’s runs through some of Scotland’s most interesting DIY sides. There’s some overlap with that Kilt By Death: The Sound Of Old Scotland 3xCD-R set I was stupid enough not to buy when it came out a while ago, but there’s enough that’s exclusive to #105 to make both purchases mandatory. Scotland always had a particularly good grasp on how punk rock should be done, and again, there are parallels here with New Zealand’s home-recording scene, and certain American centers (Cleveland, Boston, Houston) when it comes to turning disaffection and physical estrangement to your advantage. #105 starts with Scrotum Poles and Fire Engines, two key entries in any DIY collection, and they nicely set out the parameters for most of Scotland’s entries – spiky, razor-sharp post-punk goonery, or punk-oid DIY pop, where guitars ring like tinnitus (see also Article 58’s “Event To Come”).
Plenty of highlights here, as befits any compilation of under-the-radar Scottish music: Tony Pilley’s “Waiting For The Man To Come,” which sounds like a less surrealist Robyn Hitchcock avant la lettre; the sarcastic, rough-hewn glory of Metropak’s “You’re A Rebel”; the gorgeously genteel “Blue Moon Over Hawaii” by Jazzateers, which posts them as Glasgow’s answer to the Marine Girls or Weekend. The Subway Sect’s organ sound also hangs heavy over Visitors’ “Moth,” reinforcing Warner’s liner-note observation that it was Vic Godard, not The Clash, who so impressed the Edinburgh faithful on the White Riot tour. Pretty much everything here is worth hearing and knowing, and it gives you a real good feel for the milieu from which groups like The Pastels, The Shop Assistants and The Jesus And Mary Chain later sprung.
Indeed, Messthetics #105 nicely complements recent reissues of Orange Juice, Josef K and Fire Engines, snuffling around in the undergrowth of Scotland’s punk/DIY milieu for the hidden gems. And indeed that’s where these Messthetics compilations do their best work – they’re guide maps for further exploration, lamps lighting the way for those who want/need to know more… Not only do they provide access to the dustiest corners of music enthusiast Johan Kugelberg’s mind, which is surely a great act of cultural generosity, but they’re also engaged in some subtle cultural redress, a reminder that history isn’t written by the music weeklies and major labels. I can see, in 10 years time, a row of Messthetics discs in the record collection acting as a prime example of how to do these archeological digs right. And let me tell you – it’s a real nice vision.