Will Sergeant Claims His Plaice in Post-Punk History
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Britain in 1978, that is, the year Will Sergeant recorded Weird as Fish.
Punk was dead or being transformed into a parody of its original self, kids with mohawks would soon be posing for tourist snapshots on the King's Road, and it was business as usual at the higher end of the charts, with little evidence that a musical revolution had occurred comparatively recently.
Obviously, innovative music is usually the last thing that sells in large quantities but you'd think that popular taste would have changed slightly after punk. True, between 1976 and 1978 a number of punk bands made it into the Top 20. Even so, a list of 1978's biggest selling 45s still reads like something from the pre-punk era, the top six comprising Boney M's "Rivers of Babylon," two records by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, the Bee Gees' "Night Fever," Abba's "Take a Chance on Me," and the Commodores' "Three Times a Lady." And never mind the Buzzcocks – Manchester gave us the year's eighth-highest selling single in the shape of Brian and Michael and their dire school-children's sing-along homage to L.S. Lowry, "Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs." The only remotely promising contenders in 1978's top ten were the Boomtown Rats and Kate Bush, but the pair of them were outsold by Father Abraham with "The Smurf Song."
Although most of the record-buying public was unaware, the post-punk era was also one of the most fertile periods in British music since the late '60s, arguably more so than punk itself. While London had the likes of PiL, the Raincoats, and This Heat, the focus shifted away from the capital as other hives of musical activity declared themselves. XTC and the Pop Group proved there was more to West Country music than songs about combine harvesters and scrumpy. The North rose again, especially Manchester, which gave us the Fall, Vini Reilly, Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, and Magazine; across the Pennines, Sheffield had electro-industrialists Cabaret Voltaire and Leeds spawned agit-punk funksters Gang of Four. And in the Midlands even sleepy Leamington Spa got in on the act with Swell Maps.
Needless to say, things were happening in Liverpool too. By the end of 1978, the Teardrop Explodes and Echo & the Bunnymen had played their first gigs and Bunnyman Will Sergeant had released his first solo album – although only a handful of people were aware of it at the time.
Home-recorded on a two-track machine, Weird as Fish consists of lo-fi instrumentals fashioned from bounced layers of guitar, occasional synth, and drum machine – perhaps the very "Echo" used on Sergeant's earliest recordings with McCulloch that same year. Sergeant made seven cassette copies, each one mixed slightly differently, and gave them to friends. Twenty-odd years later, one of those lucky recipients (Paul Simpson, ex-Teardrop Explodes and Wild Swans) rediscovered his copy in his cellar. The present release derives from that particular mix.
Weird as Fish stands on its own merits in the context of Sergeant's solo career, as a forerunner to 1982's Themes for Grind and his later work as Glide. More significantly, it provides further evidence of the innovative and diverse directions being taken by post-punk artists in Britain at the time.
So much punk passed off stripped-down, speeded-up rockism and attitude-based shock tactics as originality. Not that there was anything wrong with that: it was fun, it was a breath of fresh air, and, besides, it had to be done. Most British punk may have been aesthetically limited, but the possibilities it opened up for subsequent artists were limitless: punk's great lessons were that anything goes and that you could do it yourself. Sergeant's long-lost solo debut very much captures the post-punk zeitgeist of DIY experimentation.
Weird as Fish is a multifaceted record that resonates with the work of several of Sergeant's contemporaries and, in places, anticipates the sound of subsequent artists. At the noisier end of the spectrum, the harsh, squalling "Darkness" evokes Cabaret Voltaire numbers such as "Nag, Nag, Nag," while "Cloudy Monday" flirts with the sort of dissonance that Sonic Youth would later make their trademark.
Most engaging, however, are those tracks on which Sergeant takes a more subdued approach that nods to Eno's ambient excursions of the '70s. On "Viewscape" and "Fuzztronic," he channels that influence into passages of cascading guitar minimalism that aren't a million miles away from the sound Vini Reilly would pursue on The Return of the Durutti Column.
The Eno-esque dimension is enhanced here by Sergeant's incorporation of synthesizer: with its sparse ethereal keyboard lines and spare rhythms, "W.A.F." foreshadows Eyeless in Gaza's early work, whereas the juxtaposition of synth, pulsating beats, and subtle drones on "Vacuum" puts listeners more in mind of Kraftwerk. Indeed, there's a marked Teutonic flavor to Weird as Fish as Sergeant's experiments occasionally intersect with some of the more electronically oriented tendencies in '70s German music (as well as with Bowie and Eno's development of those tendencies on Heroes).
Such influences make their presence felt more strongly on Sergeant's previously unreleased soundtrack for the short film Le Via Luonge (1982), which is also included on this CD as an extra treat. Le Via Luonge was a road movie of sorts, shot on a 1981 Bunnymen European tour; even listened to without the accompanying visuals, it certainly evokes movement. This is particularly true of the 11-plus minute tracks "K100-A34-90MPH" and "Clermont-Ferrand." They have the clean, streamlined feel of Neu! and Kraftwerk, their interwoven guitar, synth, and pulsing beats coalescing into propulsive, motorik grooves that take listeners on a journey. These tracks put us in the driver's (or passenger's) seat and, to quote Simon Reynolds, "instill a sublime sensation of restrained exhilaration, like gliding cruise-control down the freeway into a future dazzling with promise." Meanwhile, the Cluster-like amorphous ambience of "Uffizi" leaves earthbound transportation behind, takes us to the outer limits, and leaves us floating in space.
Taken together, Weird as Fish and Le Via Luonge comprise a fascinating archival document, but this release is in no way a novelty or a curiosity that will interest only Bunnymen completists.
By Wilson Neate