Lo-fi Pioneers of the Great Northeast
If we dare to play in tune we must be selling out
When you think of the post-punk scene in Britain, northeastern towns named Grimsby and Scunthorpe might not immediately leap to mind as hotbeds of musical innovation. These are places whose very names send shivers down the spines of most English people living south of the Watford Gap. And besides, surely anything worth noticing in the North was happening in cities like Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, and Sheffield. For the most part, yes, but Grimsby and Scunthorpe were the respective homes of Mark Lancaster and Martin Neish, otherwise known as the Instant Automatons.
Not many people heard of the Instant Automatons during their lifetime (1977-1982) and fewer actually heard them. Even so, they were at the forefront of a then-radical DIY movement of artists who distributed their music on cassette, free of charge.
Lancaster and Neish's first musical endeavors took the form of electronic experiments in their school physics laboratory, where they spent their time "emulating spaceship noises" under the spell of groups like Kraftwerk, Hawkwind, and Faust. Then 1976 rolled around and punk exploded.
Punk's rejection of the rules and the received wisdom about making music resonated with the pair and, like everyone else back then, they decided to form a band. After a brief flirtation with the very dodgy moniker Abraxas, they chose to call themselves the Instant Automatons. Martin Neish assumed the name Protag and Mark Lancaster became Mark Automaton (for the sake of clarity, referred to here as Lancaster).
While "Do It Yourself" was punk's liberating credo, the Instant Automatons pushed the DIY ethic further than many of their contemporaries, with regard to how they played their music, how they recorded it, and how they distributed it.
The term "lo-fi" was still years away from being used to describe a hip variant of indie rock, but the Instant Automatons were among the forerunners of that genre. Consider some of the weapons in their sonic arsenal – a number of them assembled by Protag, who was something of a whiz in the home-electronics department: rhythm boxes and effects pedals ordered as kits through the mail; a transistor radio; a home-built synth; a bass fashioned from a floorboard; an eight-string guitar from Woolworth's; and so on.
Protag played bass, Lancaster took care of guitar, vocals, and occasional sax, and both fiddled around with synths. The results – often treated with a generous amount of echo – had a considerable amount in common with peers like Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, ATV, the Fall, and John Cooper Clarke. Indeed, as a lyricist, Lancaster often fell somewhere between Cooper Clarke and Mark E. Smith, although he was more subtle than the former and less obtuse than the latter.
What made the Instant Automatons unique, however, was their decision, at the outset, never to attempt to make a penny from their recordings. They felt that if they were to try to make a living off music, they would inevitably have to make commercially viable products, thereby compromising their interest in non-mainstream sounds or, in their words, "Weird Music." In addition, they took the more radical position that it's somehow wrong to make any money at all from creative work. So they kept their day jobs (Protag worked in a chemical factory and Lancaster was a meat inspector), formed their own label (Deleted Records – "The World’s Most Unprofitable Record Company"), and placed ads in the national music papers offering their wares to anyone inquisitive (or mad) enough send them a blank cassette and self-addressed, stamped envelope.
Between 1978 and 1981, Deleted put out four Instant Automatons albums: Radio Silence – The Art of Human Error, Eating People – Hints for the Housewife, Blues Masters of the Humber Delta, and Tape Transport. A fake compilation cassette, Magnitizdat – The Least Worst of Deleted Records, featured the band masquerading under an array of names (e.g., the Running Sores, Rene Alberto & the Balsams, the Bores, and the Dismals). They also made several forays into budget-priced vinyl, their Deleted EP Peter Paints His Fence earning airplay on BBC Radio 1's John Peel show.
The Instant Automatons emerged as central figures in what became known as the "Bad Music" scene, as like-minded loons around the UK started doing the same thing – most notably the Door and the Window, Danny and the Dressmakers, and the 012 (London bands recording at Street Level Studios, the home of Fuck Off Records – Deleted's southern counterpart). Other labels quickly sprung up and British music papers like the NME and Sounds began to devote weekly columns to cassette-only releases.
Lancaster and Protag (who went on to join Blyth Power and Alternative TV) laid the band to rest over two decades ago, but they've finally released a CD compilation, Not So Deep As a Well. Although it doesn't include material from their earliest cassettes and focuses primarily on their vinyl appearances, this 73-minute/27-track release offers a more than generous sampling of the Instant Automatons' work. Apparently, the band's Peter Paints His Fence EP was originally to have been called A Legend in Their Own Lunchtime. This compilation ensures that the Instant Automatons legend will live on a little longer.
Rhetorically at least, punk adopted a year-zero attitude, denouncing anything with a whiff of tradition or establishment about it. But while the Automatons embraced the possibilities opened up by punk's liberating purge, they weren't so quick to consign their record collections to the dustbin of musical history and their work shows unfashionable continuity with earlier artists and genres: they covered traditional English folk tunes and numbers by Fairport Convention, Leonard Cohen, and Janis Ian; they paid homage to American blues; and they reworked a rock anthem by Hendrix. And whereas some of their more extreme post-punk peers messed with the concept of the song itself, the Instant Automatons tended to blend the experimental with the conventional: underneath the weirdness and quirkiness – which was initially the result of their inability to play well or of their equipment being so poor – there were often relatively traditional song structures.
Occasionally, this resulted in avant-pop gems that wouldn't have sounded completely out of place on Top of the Pops next to Tubeway Army and the Human League. Several of these are included here. The sing-along "People Laugh at Me (Cos I Like Weird Music)" is a Bad Music advocacy number, despite the fact that the song's protagonist loses his girlfriend after playing her a Danny and the Dressmakers tape. The droning "New Muzak" sends up the more dour synth-poppers of the time, yet curiously enough it actually holds up as a decent synth-pop song. In a similar vein is "Catacomb," with its austere Kraftwerkian synth and primitive electronic beats. And then there's "John's Vacuum Cleaner" – arguably the band's greatest tune – a moving tale of love, betrayal, appliances, obsessive housework, and suicide, set to appropriately vacuum cleaner-esque churning and whirring.
While humor was a crucial ingredient in the Instant Automatons' work, they weren't a novelty band. Rather, they used humor as a means to a satirical end. Just as "New Muzak" was a musical and lyrical pastiche of late-'70s/early-'80s electronica, the deconstructed rockabilly paean to non-conformity, "Short Haired Man (In a Long Haired Town)," turns the traditional notion of the rock 'n' roll outlaw on its head, recasting the short-back-and-sides as a subversive, outsider haircut.
Lancaster's trope of choice was irony, usually deployed to assail intolerant behaviors and attitudes. Listening to social-commentary tracks like the driving "Ignorance Is Bliss" (featuring "the world's second-worst guitar solo" – the worst one was on the original version of the track) and the weirdly sci-fi sounding "Invertebrates," it would seem that Lancaster doesn't suffer fools gladly. Indeed, he comes across rather like the Philip Larkin of Bad Music. Sometimes, however, the irony is considerably darker, for instance on the anti-war number "Nice Job for the Lad."
Another significant aspect of the Automatons' eclectic sound was their primitive exploration of sampling. Snippets of newsreader voices punctuate the angst-ridden "Scared to be Alone," which evokes Cabaret Voltaire's "Nag Nag Nag" in terms of its abrasive drive. The fragmented "Drunk in Woolwich (On New Year's Eve)" sounds much as its title suggests: the Automatons are gloriously shambolic in their cups (providing an answer to that famous Zen question, "what is the sound of one man vomiting?") and sampled, plummy BBC types prattle on about how terrible young people are these days. (Actually, if you've had as much to drink when you listen to this as the Automatons obviously did the night they recorded it, the spoken samples recall 23 Skidoo's "Porno Bass," with its snatches of Britain's favorite fascist Unity Mitford being her charming self.)
Further evidence of the Automatons' tendency toward sonic exploration can be heard on their forays into dub production. Their dub experiments didn't result in such startling sounds as those concocted by contemporaries like the Pop Group, but they still make for some of this compilation's finest moments. Take, for example, "Peter Paints His Fence," which might put a northeastern spin on Augustus Pablo's Far East sound (albeit with a harmonica instead of a melodica), and Protag's prescient two-word tirade against globalization, "Too Big!"
Not So Deep As a Well takes us back to a time just after the dinosaurs of rock became extinct and when music was free. Sure, you have to pay $5 for this CD (from www.instant-automatons.com) but Protag and Lancaster still haven't sold out. This is a profit-free venture: your $5 covers the manufacturing costs and the postage/packaging, and no money is made.
By Wilson Neate