“Messthetics #103: DIY 77–83 Midlands 1” CD (Hyped 2 Death)
Chuck Warner’s “Messthetics” compilation series has introduced us to the breadth and variety of music that is now called UK DIY. Warner, in the liner notes to volume 100 of the series (the first on a pro CD), describes the sound of DIY: “a jumble of energetic one-take vocals, angular, scrubbing riffs crabbed together out of diminished chords that had lain unused since Restoration times, all churned (or droned) out on cheap guitars, wheezy unreliable keyboards, and rhythms thudded out on whatever was nearby and relatively indestructible.” He further describes the common choices of instrumentation: “Proper drum-kits were never affordable—as you’ll doubtless hear—but Punk’s narrowed focus on guitar, bass, and drums had filled British junkshops with banged-up horns, reeds, violins, accordions, harmonicas, and more exotic noise-making gear that graced innumerable DIY disks with gleeful disregard for what was or was not cool.” The sound of UK DIY falls on a spectrum, from extremely basic punk, to glam-inspired basement rock, to gloomy synth escapades, to nigh danceable new wave. Predictably, my favorite variations are the dorm-room rants and the lo-fi, inept crap-punk/weird noise. This volume of Messthetics is actually the punkiest yet of the four new pro-CD volumes.
Warner reasons that because heavy metal (and later ska) was the most popular musical form in the Midlands and because there were so few well-known punk bands or labels, DIY-sters did not need to branch out far from basic three-chord punk rock in order to distinguish themselves from the masses of local bands, as was the case in places like London. He notes that, on the whole, bands from the Midlands suffered from a lack of a local pressing plant, proximity to London (to which many bands eventually relocated), a weak economy, no large label in the region like Factory, and not much of an art scene centered around universities. Due to its high punk quotient, this volume of Messthetics might be the best introduction for listeners coming from a more strict punk background, but it still has enough obscure DIY material on it to appeal to the more knowledgeable DIY fans out there. Probably the most admirable aspect of these compilations is the inclusion of cassette-only and live tracks (six on this compilation), which are otherwise pretty much unobtainable.
Anyway, some highlights: The Accused’s tune “Arrested” from V/A “Mell Square Musick” 7"—man, this is one of the most inept, shambolic punk tunes ever committed to vinyl. Lyrics like “I can’t help it if I’m drunk / Pick on me cuz I’m a punk.” Indeed. The guitar lead is completely nonsensical and the drum “beat” is a series of snare rolls punctuated by a tom hit or two (no cymbals), definitely an antecedent to Psycho Sin. There’s a slightly less bleedin’ ‘orrible live Accused track included as one of the bonus MP3s (also a really cool feature of these plenty-of-bang-for-your-buck compilations). Warner has printed three variations of the sleeve to the original compilation EP, all of which are impossible to find. Also included is another track off the EP by 021, named after Birmingham’s phone code (not to be confused with Weird Noise’s 012). This track, called “Robot” is a bit less snotty but not much more proficient than “Arrested” by The Accused, with properly punk anti-socialization, “I don’t wanna be a robot” lyrics. Don’t worry, guys, no programmer could build a robot to play music like this.
Dangerous Girls just barely made the DIY cut: they were a relatively professional band, but Warner included them because they financed their touring by running a P.A. rental company (thus, presumably aiding some local DIY bands). Actually, as strict as I can be about what are ultimately ancillary criteria for liking a band’s music, I am really glad this band made the cut. The ‘Girls eponymous track is brilliant and is a real stand-out on this compilation. It manages to combine punk rock, new wave, glam, and dub into a highly memorable tune. The singer’s high-pitched voice sounds so brittle that you want to keep listening to the whole 5-minute song just to be sure he survives to the end. And he does, in fine style, when the thin, tentative, dubbed-out guitars give way to a full, rockin’ anthem. The lyrics don’t make much sense in the best possible way (who are the dangerous girls?!?), not self-indulgent so much as just genuinely odd—the kind the teenager in all of us still thinks are rad.
The compilation opens with a UK DIY staple, Versatile Newts. It’s number 20 on Kugelberg’s Top 100 list. He writes “If this record hadn't existed we would’ve had to invent it: The marriage/blend of the Swell Maps, This Heat, and the TV Personalities. In equal chunks with no lumps. Gadzooks!” To me, it’s a blend of ultra-simple punk rock with the weird noise end of the DIY spectrum. Maybe the best part of all this is that in the liner notes Warner claims there was another contemporaneous Versatile Newts that made finding the correct band a challenge and one band member, who never revealed his last name, swore he was never in the band (trying to one-up the Desperate Bicycles in anti-stardom?). Good grief.
One last highlight: Lester and the Brew, demonstrating the essential Britishness of UK DIY. Coming from a The Door and The Window meets Monty Python perspective (is that redundant?), Lester and the Brew have three songs on this CD, one as a bonus MP3. Warner attributes this particular type of nonsense poetry ranted over nonsense music to a flourishing poetry scene that was contemporaneous with punk, and enabled by the “protective cover” punk provided, by creating large, energetic audiences interested in the nonconventional, the iconoclastic, and the generally weird. Not knowing anything about this supposed poetry movement, I can’t say whether Warner’s hypothesis is accurate, but it seems convincing. Warner sees a parallel between Lester and the Brew and Beat poetry, as well as various meetings of free jazz and poetry. It seems to me that the intersection of punk and its derivatives with the avant-garde is far more palpable in these bizarre one-off records than in the parts of punk history that get all the mainstream attention thanks to Greil Marcus and John Savage (Jamie Reid, McLaren, etc.). Regardless of historical context, these tracks, which I had never encountered before, are funny, charming, and weird.
The other material on the CD, much of which veers in a still-punky “postpunk” class of ‘79 direction, is great. Not one track struck me as a loser. Unlike on the early CD-R versions of some of the Hyped 2 Death compilations, Warner has managed to “clean up” the music without detracting too much from its original dirtiness. At points, it becomes clear that the songs have undergone a good deal of editing and modernizing, especially those I know well from the original vinyl, but it never seems excessive. Reissuing lo-fi sounds requires a delicate balance between preservation of the original qualities that make the beloved music important and navigating the difficulties presented by deteriorated master tapes, scratched-up vinyl, digitization, new masters, today’s inferior production processes compared to the vinyl of yore, etc., and I believe Warner has mostly figured out how to strike this balance optimally—though releasing these compilations on CD does eliminate the problems inherent to pressing vinyl in 2007. Finally, in addition to the great liner notes, I love the sleeve scans Warner uses. It seems highly appropriate to reproduce sleeves in “German ex-“ condition. First, cruddy DIY music was never about the cleanliness we associate with corporate-manufactured commodities, and, second, the impression that the very records included on the compilation were well-loved, played, and appreciated by their owner (whether Warner or someone else) parallels the obvious love and dedication put into these compilations.