"Messthetics #104: DIY 77-81 South Wales 1" CD (Hyped 2 Death)
"Messthetics #105: DIY 77-81 Scotland 1" CD (Hyped 2 Death)
I have an insatiable curiosity for punk rock and its variants. At times, when I survey all the cassettes, LPs, CDs, and 7"s—and, in the last couple years, the bedevilingly cheap and plentiful but unsatisfying MP3s—that populate my dwelling, and my consciousness, I wonder if my insatiety is not a form of insanity.
Then along comes something like a new volume of “Messthetics,” which demonstrates two things. One, I haven’t heard quite a lot of the punk (etc.) out there, for better or worse. Two, I’m not nearly as bad off as some of my elders in this game. Still, the mere announcement of this CD’s release induced a visceral feeling of anticipation, even anxiety. The back of my throat grew rough and I got butterflies in my stomach as I read the tracklisting and remembered that, oh shit, I still haven’t heard What to Wear and now, as soon as this damn thing arrives in the mailbox, I will be able to hear them. Of course, hearing them meant that my desire to own the actual 7" has only grown. And then, for fuck’s sake, this CD tells me about a compilation EP with What to Wear and Venom, the Welsh Oi! band whose nearly unreleased song “Saturday Afternoon Trouble” is about as perfect a terrace anthem as any close-shorn, be-braced-and-booted knuckleheads ever penned. Yeah, for fuck’s sake.
So, of the 40-plus bands on these two CDs, I had previously heard seven. On Volume 104, Swansea’s What to Wear, previously covered in my interview with Steve from Low Down Kids, and Crash Action Winners, another of Steve’s early bands, are among the highlights. They’re actually better than I expected either to be. What to Wear is a fine meeting of UK DIY, in one of its multifarious forms (defined as you please), and late 70s UK punk. I guess that means they’re more on the erudite side of punk song-craft than the sociopathic. Like a less mass-market Buzzcocks might be a fair description, especially due to the near cock-beat on “We’re the Martians Now.” (Seriously, you gotta be kidding me: a Welsh comp with an Oi! song and a pop-punk band that plays a d-beat, all of which I didn’t learn about until this week. Fuck. This CD is not anything remotely like a therapeutic balm for my problem.) What to Wear’s actually don’t sound like they were recorded in a coal shed, unlike the gloriously lo-fi Crash Action Winners. Their tune compiled herein is a punked-up cover of the Red Crayola song “Hurricane Fighter Plane” with an insistent and somewhat caveman-ish backbeat. Long before such things were cool, the band pretended to be an America neo-garage band and decorated the record’s sleeve with a collage of 60s American 45s and LPs (13th Floor Elevators, Music Machine, etc.—the proto-est of proto-punk). I expected to like these bands, and I was not disappointed. So what were some of the surprises? Well, first of all, the cacophonous pre-Venom Autonomes playing exuberant teenage punk overload. And then?
Almost all the pre-hardcore Welsh punk I’d previously heard was relatively upbeat and poppy. Even if Y Trwynau Coch’s sound mixes hooks and melody with minor chords at times, it doesn’t seem to evoke the rough lives that one associates with the coal-mining capital of Europe. Enter Tax Exiles. With a—sob, sniffle—guitar sound to make grown record collectors weep, as Kugelberg might say, their tune “(I Don’t Believe in) Miracles” from 1977 is as bleak as it gets. After four minutes of this guy’s blasé accounting of his outlook on life, it’s only the awesome, minimal guitar scrubbing that keeps me from tying a noose. I guess I’m glad I didn’t hear this tune as a fragile teenager. When Steve Ignorant of Crass sang “Do they think guitars and microphones are just fucking toys?” he captured about half the seriousness, and the potential, of this Tax Exiles tune.
The bonus MP3s on the CD include another tune by Tax Exiles called “Rough in the Valley” and one by the singer solo under a pseudonym. None of these three related tunes made it to vinyl originally. If “(I Don’t Believe in) Miracles” was not enough for us to start rewriting the punk history books—first by crossing out Warsaw—certainly Tax Exiles’ aptly named “Rough in the Valley,” an unheralded Welsh anthem, deserves an entry under British proto-hardcore punk. This ‘orribly recorded, ultra-simple, extremely pissed-off blast has some of the most strained vocals and roughest guitar I’ve heard in a British punk tune prior to 1980. And it’s from 1977! Rotten, Strummer, and the rest of you lot, hang your heads in shame. “Rough in the Valley” is vicious, possibly surpassing Llygod Ffyrnig’s single (the one truly aggressive Welsh punk record). “Rough in the Valley” is the song I’ve been seeking from Wales: a desperate, vitriolic attack on everyday life (and the economy) in the region sung in English, unlike the heralded classic, the violent “National Coal Board” by the ferocious Ffyrnig. (The plaintive chorus to “Rough in the Valley” is simply “We want out” repeated three times.) Part of the sickness that manifests itself as the compulsion to buy punk records is the belief that somewhere out there a song exists tailor-made to certain imagined specifications. Sometimes, I pick the band and then decide, before hearing it, that this is the one. Then, upon hearing said band, the truth reveals itself: this was not the one. No matter how many times I get burned, I still hold out hope. And so, in a strange refutation of Pavlov, the search continues. In this case, I had no idea which 70s band would pen the ultra-crude Welsh punker about the shittiness of trying to eke out a life in a society dominated by that wretched black rock. Somehow I knew that if such a song existed, it would exude authenticity and immediacy unlike the solidarity songs of the 80s, penned during the miner’s strike and Thatcher’s final showdown with labor (a primary order of business in the birth of neoliberalism). I had almost given up hope. But here it is. And this long-shot song, buried as a bonus MP3 on a compilation CD, is the catalyst for continued searching and increased anxiety at the possibility that other songs I’ve imagined might be out there waiting for me.
Speaking of guitar sounds ‘n’ weepin’ ‘n’ all ‘at, the comp starts off with the teenaged Czechs, from Cardiff. Not quite up to the standard set by Tax Exiles but still great, this tune has an ambitious interplay between crisp drums and bass and the aforementioned guitar, inna Wire meets Gang of Four meets your nerdy little brother style (stretched to over 3 minutes). Moving on, The Sane come try to sound anything but with their weird little tune “Arnold Palmer.” Of course no one but a bunch of British intellectual types could come up with something this intentionally not-sane. Unlike US punk faux psychopaths like Mentally Ill, there was little menace to be found among the UK DIY jokesters. That’s fine, though. A bit more unhinged, and probably the one track most listeners will skip, is the ex-Puritan Guitars band Janet & Johns. In the context of the musical experimentation the era encouraged it’s neat I suppose, but from a distance, “I Was a Young Man” sounds like a low-budget soundtrack to a set-piece British drama about a medieval knave peeping through the castle wall into the princess’s dressing room. Luckily, What to Wear comes next on the CD (which, incidentally, actually flows quite well, like an album rather than a retrospective compilation).
Addiction, whose song “Violence” originally appeared on the compilation LP “Is the War Over?,” are probably the most straight-forward punk band on Volume 104. This tune would be at home on a “Bored Teenagers” compilation. It’s clean-cut, flash-in-the-pan, class-of-79 punk rock. Flying Brix, Reptile Ranch, and especially Puritan Guitars, fall further toward the UK DIY side rather than punk or post-punk/wave side of things. The Brix tune included here is probably their most straight-forward and punkish. Actually, most of their EP kinda sucks, but I didn’t know it had a picture sleeve—cool one, too—until I saw it reproduced in this CD’s booklet. The irony on display in their “Uniform (I Don’t Wanna Be Different)” is, as Kugelberg says in his Top 100 DIY list, “ur-English”—except it’s Welsh. Puritan Guitars contribute the 7-minute “Making It,” about as pure an expression of the weird noise side of UK DIY as you’ll find outside an Instant Automatons record. It comes across as improvised, urgent, and idealistic yet melancholic and dissatisfied. Like many UK DIY bands, Puritan Guitars (and Flying Brix too) seem to have taken punk’s ideals seriously, in an intellectual way, much more so than those bands who took to heart only the aggressiveness. I wish the lyrics to “Making It” had been reproduced in the booklet here. In comparison to even the most esoteric DIY weird-punk that comes out today (and this realm is particularly fecund at the moment), Puritan Guitars still sound like they hail from another planet.
Beneath the postpunk commodity known as “The Sound of Young Scotland” lay the music on Volume 105. Like all such constructions, manufactured by industry types, the unity of this “sound” was more orchestrated than organic, but the underground provided its bricks and mortar. The bands on this CD show that the foundation they provided also was a bit cracked and mildewed and might have had dry rot. The lone 7" by Scotland’s Scrotum Poles has long been prized by collectors; it is one of the finest examples of UK DIY meets 70s punk, quirky but still eminently pogo-able. Volume 105 includes one track from that record and another track from a demo tape, as a bonus MP3. That track, “Put an End to It All,” is rawer than anything on their record—hence you need to hear it—though less spry and original. Also, in the rough-hewn category is “Baby Don’t Go” by International Spys, another MP3 track, which was clearly influenced by “Time’s Up”-era Buzzcocks.
Overall, my comments about the quality of Messthetics Volume 103 hold true for these volumes. I really like Volume 104, the Welsh one, in particular. The main question it left me wondering is why none of the bands sang (or “sang”) in Welsh. My guess is that the bands featured herein came mostly from the cities Swansea and Cardiff, rather than the outlying valleys. On top of that semi-cosmopolitanism, most probably comprised university students who were speaking English every day. (My interview with Steve LDK touches upon this topic.) I should mention that Warner points out that the Glaswegian punk scene defiantly refused to drop its native brogue in favor of a more commercially viable imitation of American or Londoner accents.
A highlight of these two CDs is the inclusion of DIY bands composed of women. Back then, there was no “DIY” scene as such, but many of these bands were consciously attempting to set themselves apart from both the mainstream and the often macho, brutish underground punk offerings. By being a receptacle for all that didn’t fit in, or didn’t want to fit in, with the punk underground without totally rejecting its promise, UK DIY was inherently inclusive. Yet there is a notable paucity of women in such a vibrant and expansive “scene.” Anarchopunk—which I and Mike Clarke have previously noted was not always distinguishable from what we now consider UK DIY, especially early on—was quite inclusive, with many women in bands, writing fanzines, etc. Chuck Warner has previously hypothesized that the conscious non-professionalism of UK DIY subconsciously worked against bands with female singers: a bunch of blokes who had a woman singing may have thought their chances of “making it” were greater than if they had had one of their male mates singing. This unacknowledged sexism probably meant that a lot of bands with women singing did not “make it” or get to enjoy the unsuccessful success doing-it-yourself offered. Instead, embracing neither the chaotic cohesion of punk nor that ramshackle anything-goes oddity of the various strains of DIY, they were left striving for an impossibility. Even still, as DIY bands, those with women included herein didn’t leave much of a legacy. The words “unreleased” or “demo” follow the song title in the liner notes for at least half the bands with women singers and/or musicians. Maybe it took the explicit feminism of British anarchopunk to create a space for punk records by women. In any case, Warner deserves deep gratitude for making these otherwise forgotten songs available, especially because a few of them are among the best on the CDs.
Current Obsession and Table Table from Wales, and Jazzateers from Scotland, are far from the traditional punk sound, or even from the Kleenex/Slits/Siouxsie axis. Current Obsession would’ve fit in well on “The Potent Human” compilation—how’s that for a uselessly obscure reference? Jazzateers sound like the house band in a tiki bar; I’m not sure I quite grasp what they were doing, but it’s certainly weird and way meta. Maybe they were trying to sound like what the Slits’ album cover looked like. From Scotland, the major highlights are The Commercials, The Ettes, and Rhythm Method. The Commercials trade off male and female vocals on “Simon,” and something about the melody reminds me of The Buzz on “Messthetics #103.” The lo-fi Ettes sound like a cross between Raincoats and a much, much less strident Poison Girls. This is a recording that, had it made it to vinyl at the time, would today be highly sought-after. It’s too short and leaves me craving more. Man, I hope the rest of their tracks come out someday. (Note to self: suppress tremors and twitches.) Even more lo-fi is Rhythm Method, who appeared on a just barely released a cassette compilation in 1980. Probably influenced by X-Ray Spex only more nihilistic, this is top-rank no-nonsense just-before-Discharge punk rock with a wailer of a front woman. Discovering songs like this and the two by Tax Exiles is one of life’s finer pleasures.
Finally, in addition to one-time Good Missionary Paul Reekie’s utterly awkward DIY loner acoustic folk tune, I have to mention “New Clash Single” by Scotland’s Vertical Smiles, which not only has a lo-fi recording but also embodies the ingenuity, anticommercialism, and fuck-you attitude that demonstrates the multiple dimensions of shit-fi music. Though it was never released, Vertical Smiles planned to release a record called “New Clash Single,” which was to use The Clash’s logo on the picture sleeve. Many unsuspecting buyers would’ve been disappointed, after throwing the platter on the mat, to discover that the song was an anti-Clash rant, sounding a bit like UK DIY meets lounge, “against the commercialism of punk and the audience who were falling for it.” Their bonus MP3 track, “Carnal Knowledge,” is also a truly rough and inept punker. I need more. And more. And more.