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V/A - The Total Groovy

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Artist: V/A

Album: The Total Groovy

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jan. 31, 2012

Of all the first-wave punks, the legacy of The Buzzcocks has ended up the most conservative. It’s inevitable that the shocks of any shock-art movement should be absorbed. But even more than The Beatles or Ramones, the singles of Singles Going Steady -- the tempos, the nasal melodies cutting through distortion, the love-is-frustration -- have become the blueprint for guitar rock that aims to please. If The Buzzcocks will never sell as many t-shirts (no iconic look, no intriguing backstory), it’s Pete Shelley who figured out how to resolve the left-hooks of Lennon and McCartney with the straight punches of Joey and Dee Dee.

Shelley seems OK with the legacy, and a reformed version of the main Buzzcocks line up has turned out solid bomb-pop for 20 years. When the band dissolved the first time, he was on a different trajectory, though. His solo single “Homosapien” was banned from the BBC for being less than ambiguous about falling for someone that you shouldn’t fall for, given the norms of the 1980s. In his solo records, polished synthesizers were replacing guitars. And on the side, he had a little record label called Groovy that was putting out unpolished noise.

Groovy only dropped three albums, each composed of long untitled tracks. This reissue project from Drag City adds a fourth album of more concise numbers. Much of the music is drawn from jams at Shelley’s home, with other experimenters from around Manchester. It’s intriguing to hear Shelley as an audio provocateur, tossing darts as sharp as his lyrics. If these tracks aren’t all lost classics, they’re still fascinating; they fill out the story of the city circa 1980, a scene we’re still scratching through, even as pop-punk has become a form of comfort tunage. Turns out there is a backstory.

The first Groovy release, Free Agents, is mostly constructed from tapes loops and guitar noise, with hints of a rapport between musicians, but never coalescing into something as mundane as a band. The first side is live work, moaning arcs of noise that fade into rock drums for a minute or two before fading out as atmospheric feedback. Another track wanders around a goose step of unidentified percussion, making it the most forbidding section of a forbidding record. The last track is lead by clanking, pitchless bass bathed in tremelo, like Neu! with low end. It’s Barry Adamson on the bass, from Magazine, the band that formed from The Buzzcocks early schism, in which Howard Devoto left for artier pursuits. Adamson’s simple and spidery work is one of the few cases of Groovy musicians carrying their signature style to the sessions. If Magazine was more abstract than Buzzcocks, it was comfortably mainstream compared to these side projects.

Sky Yen was created in 1974, a year before Shelley met Devoto, though he repurposed it as a soundtrack in 1980. It’s a boy and his oscillators, and nothing more. He makes his electronics squeal, unadulterated by neither beat nor chirp. The sirens and escalating waves loop and collide, building up pressure like a rocket launch, but never climactically launching. It may be the most carefully composed of the music here, but feels like a learning exercise. Taken as a garage tinkerer’s tribute to No Pussyfooting, it’s a bit of fun, and it makes one wonder what Shelly and Devoto might have put together if they hadn’t witnessed The Sex Pistols.

Another soundtrack, Hanghar, was the last Groovy effort. Credited to Sally Smmit & Her Musicians, it’s the one work in the set where vocals are predominant, though they’re mostly wordless. Sally is recognizably Sally Timms of The Mekons, her folky clarity pushed toward an almost medieval choral style. She plays off chants by Lindsay Lee, who was the girlfriend of Factory honcho Tony Wilson. Shelley and friends nudge an oscillator and interject tumbling drum kit runs. But the cathedral-sized reverb gives the piece a distinctly ancient feel. Genuinely disorienting, the record found its way on to the Nurse With Wound list (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nurse_with_Wound_list) of category-cracking artists.

In retrospect, this music does carve out it’s own category. Seen from a distance, it’s not just doodles from up-and-comers of a northern English city. It’s full of the details that made Manchester so central to pop in the decades that followed: the dual desires to wreck the norms of rock music, yet also transform and maintain it. Cold, stiff, unbluesy playing generates its own strange sort of fun.

From that angle, Strange Men in Sheds with Spanners, the fourth disc of previously unreleased improvisations, is the most satisfying part of the collection. For something drawn from circa 1980 jam sessions, there’s nary a note that would have sounded normal in a jam session in any other city. Beats are rigid, discarded swing. No one bends a note, but they do find grooves. There’s likely some cherry-picking to find jams that were most prescient, but it’s surprising how many of the explorations here are still being explored. On these 30-year-old sessions, you can hear them resolving that German kosmische is a sibling of disco, and that referencing both of them opens up whole new ways to drive a song. A few of the tracks hit on a formula of a lopsided dubbish bassline and industrial percussion that sound like lo-fi drafts of contemporary U.K. bass.

It’s good to have these early works unearthed. What else has Shelley been doing on the side all these years?

By Ben Donnelly

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