Cumbrian Punk 1981–1982
“Its muddy, monotone grind is composed of home-made tapes recorded by groups in the very first stages of an amateurism that is only endearing if it’s linked to inspiration or the spirit of musical adventure. One of the worst legacies of Punk ’77 has been the enshrining of incompetence as an aid to credibility” (NME review of v/a “Bullshit Detector” LP)
The local Sellafield/Windscale Nuclear plant shaped the interests of the Cumbrian punk bands, but they were also dominated by the now-familiar early 80s occupations of mass unemployment, Maggie Thatcher, union discontent, and the Falklands War. It’s hard to overstate the importance too of Crass, who made a brief visit to the area in 1980 and helped energize a hermetically sealed scene, isolated by geography and largely made up of pissed-off, bored working-/lower-middle-class kids with little money, who pooled instruments, shared band members, and organized gigs in their local youth clubs, barely making it to the county boundary, let alone the bright lights of London or Manchester. The place names were Cleator Moor, Workington, Distington, and Fritzington. For these bands, excited by the initial promise of punk but a little too young to participate in the initial Sex Pistols/Clash furor, the more hard-edged, political approach of Crass and company gave them the inspiration and motivation to sing about local issues, pertinent to themselves. There were few, if any, recording studios, so they hired out rehearsal spaces in moldering youth clubs, church halls, and the backrooms of pubs, then simply did it all themselves: playing music, writing scrappy small-run fanzines, designing fliers, and getting involved in CND, anti-vivisection issues, and the like. As the spiel from Sean McGhee on Volume 1 of the Contamination cassettes goes: “The sound quality may not be that great…the reason being lack of money and recording facilities locally, but the energy still exists.”
Small regional music scenes existed countrywide by the early 1980s, often derided by the national music press on one hand or absurdly overhyped on the other, depending on current cultural mores. But behind those bands that managed a few records, a trip to London, and a desperate attempt for coverage in Sounds or NME lay an entire substratum that barely made it into the studio or got farther than the pub at the end of their street. As the NME quote above reasons, for the purposes of political communication such bands were worse than useless: indiscriminate schoolboy sloganeering? vital issues reduced to shallow rantings? sloppy clichés ill-used to delineate political issues of vast dimensions? circled “A”s and despairingly adolescent “them and us” oversimplifications? impotent parodies of anarchy without the solutions? All the above and more are true in the rose-tinted hue of smug hindsight, where ubiquitous digital “perfection” and instant communication reign supreme. Certainly, self-righteous anticommercialism is an anachronism in the shiny, bright “new” Britain, but, coincidentally, the construction of a whole new series of Nuclear reactors (some of which may end up in the same Cumbrian backyard as Sellafield, Windscale, et al) might just awake a whole new generation from their torpor of consumerism and apathy. In the meantime, these tapes are “rough” even by punk standards, with barely half-a-dozen out of the included 50 tracks recorded in anything remotely resembling a modern studio, but their sheer primitive verve and lack of pretense make them worth more than the cursory glance.
Contamination Compilation Vol. 1 (1981)
3rd PARTY: What Price?/Religion Stinks/Die Senile
The one band on this tape from outside Cumbria (in this case Manchester), they did seem to play in places like Keswick with the likes of Distortion and the Not Sensibles during the early 80s. Between 1977 and 1985, there were thousands of small punk bands outside London who practiced, played a few local gigs, and, at most, recorded a demo. The production here is a lot better than that to be found on the rest of the tape, benefiting from heavy use of the crash cymbal and a nice, dense guitar sound. To use a football analogy, 3rd Party were a decent, reliable 2nd Division side and an outside bet for promotion on the basis of “Religion Stinks.”
SCUM: Tears Of Fear/Gen’s Song/Persona/Linkage/Pigs Protect
That’s an acronym for Society Can’t Understand Me. Reasonable rehearsal-space recording quality, but with a flat, droning tone mainly due to the vocalist following the bassline in a rather limp, aimless style. Falls apart a bit by track 3 but the rousing chorus on “Pigs Protect” revives their muscular juices, if not their creative ones.
From early 1982, Decontrol were defunct by this tape’s release. Fuzzed-out rehearsal-room punk dominated by an enthusiastic drummer, the song titles encapsulating almost the entire lyrical repertoire of early 80s UK Punk. In their buzzy, insistent tinniness, three-chord distortion, and relentless drum/bass backbeat, this kind of stuff was infectious in a small pub back-room setting.
What a name! The members were ex-Activist and -Psycho Faction, playing straight, catchy punk with a glorious twin-guitar chainsaw sound that, especially on the final cut, reminds me of the Wedding Present’s “George Best,” with slightly stronger lyrical sentiments of course. Following a pattern here, Cumbrian bands seemed affectionately nostalgic for old-school 77 “classic” punk riffs in their simplicity, but they married them with a heavier sonic assault and defiantly political, harder-edged lyrics
KEVIN AKITT: Where Are All The People/Soldier Soldier/American Dream
The first track has an impressive, naggingly catchy keyboard motif, but on repeating the trick for track 2 atop a martial drumbeat, it sounds more like fucking Paper Lace! Put Akitt (one-man band?) in a 24-track studio and he may well have produced some sterling synth-pop (this was the 80s), or…“Where Are All The People” is a good mid-paced rocker, track 3 again has the hooks, but some added guitar histrionics. Trying to compete with the big boys in this manner merely gave the listener too much license to compare production values, whereas the punkier bands on this comp relied on the sheer energy of their brash, youthful approach to cancel out any such fripperies (let alone that of excessive self-consciousness).
DISORGANISED THREAT: Work/Russian Massacre/DT/It’s No Joke
Bullshit Detector-standard. “Work” sounds as if they’ve been listening to Neos or Middle Class but are unable to master the necessary velocity, and the drummer hits the groove only for “It’s No Joke,” by which time it’s too late.
PSYCHO FACTION: Life We Live/State Propaganda
The best-known Cumbrian band (singer Sean McGhee was the mastermind behind Contamination Cassettes), but these two tracks are throwaways. The tape ends with fragments of a TV Documentary about Vivisection, specifically the infamous LD50 tests.
Contamination Compilation Vol. 2 (1982)
SADISTIC POLITICIANS: Steps To A Safer Existence/War Is Legalized Murder
Reedy vocals and undistorted guitar, drums but no bass. The singer is un-mic’d, which gives this a total shitty front-room-whilst-the-parents-are-out-shopping feel. Lyrics are predictable, anti-war/nukes.
Heavy, fuzzed-out guitar, rumbling bass and, strangely, no drums but two of the shrillest female voices you’ve ever heard (imagine Deno of Dirt triple-tracked on high frequency; dogs all over Cumbria must have gone berserk when this mob rehearsed). The guitarist and bassist keep up such an efficient rhythmic attack that the lack of drums is rarely noticeable. This is also angry and confident enough to make its obvious amateurishness positively endearing. Reminds me of Solvent Abuse for sheer verve. “Demented Youth” is cliche-in-motion, though, and with drums and a studio production, it would have made an ideal Riot City/Beat The System b-side.
SLAUGHTERED CORPSES: We Don’t Fit/Systematic Lies
In 1980–1981, we used to drink a lot at a punk’s pub in Reading (Berkshire: 20/30 miles west of London) and go to gigs at such locales as Binfield Hall or Balmore Church Hall, watching bands like the Pierres, Lethal Dose, Seize, Suspects, No Respect, and Lost Cause. I remember the Church Hall because excessive drunken pogoing caused part of the floor to cave in and a grouchy vicar to come scurrying out from wherever he’d been surveying proceedings with his holy vino. ‘We Don’t Fit’ reminds me of nights like that: sloppy/lumpen/plodding punk with a riff replicated the length and breadth of the UK at that precise point, cheap cans of lager, woolly hats jammed over soaped hair and no way of getting home when the gig had finished.
NERVOUS CONDITION: Deification/Pink/Dreams Are Made Of This/Same Old Joke Again
The “Joke” in this case being of the “Killing” variety, these tracks are the only studio ones to be found on this comp. Heavy Killing Joke/early Southern Death Cult influence, which reminds me that these regional samplers worked best with a more varied musical palette on offer. Nervous Condition would have fit neatly into that whole Play Dead/1919/Sex Gang Children scene, with their tribal drums, histrionic vocals, winding basslines, and themes of the Night. Back then, Sounds invented the catch-all “Positive Punk” for those bands that retained punk’s original modernist-streak, colourful fashion sense, and high quota of female-involvement while simultaneously ditching the cod-political posturing. Eventually this merged into “Goth,” which was all in all a refreshing alternative to 1) ‘orrible Heavy Metal influences then creeping in, and 2) Gary Bushell’s dumbo Oi!/Real Punk hijackings.
PEROXIDE: Oppenheimer/War Is Not A Game/Picked On Youth
Peroxide had a track on Bullshit Detector 3. Plaintive female vocals, reverb’d guitar, and a barely capable drummer, all recorded in what must have been a very large, very empty aircraft hangar. Second track achieves a quaint Shop Assistants/Petticoats level of DIY-endearment.
Standard, adequate three-chord punk à la the first Varukers EP.
THE DEAD: Bandstand Boys/The Dead/Come To The Place
The Dead later had a split EP with The Famous Imposters and are one of the most assured bands on here, for some reason sounding more rooted in a 1977/Heartbreakers-tradition than Crass/Anarcho. Track two has powerful guitars and a relentless crash cymbal throughout. “Come To The Place” has a superb opening riff (is that a theremin in there too?!) that conjures up an obscure old Neutrons LP from 1973 that I came across in a junk shop one day and kept ever since (they were the offshoot of a band called Man, apparently). My only beef with The Dead is the drummer, who persists in doing these truncated half-rolls that simply don’t fit.
SUICIDE VISIONARY: The Workers/Radiation/The Lies The Reasons
Great name, nothing I can say about the music.
PROSPECT ZERO: Spectre/Switchblade/Siren
Heavily phlanged guitars, theatrical vocals. Amateur-hour death rock but I like it. Prospect Zero receive points for not singing yet another song about war. Third track could have an early Gun Club flavor to it had it been recorded in a decent studio.
PSYCHO FACTION: No Religion/Anti-fascist Poem/Oppose Law Oppose War/Country Life
“No Religion” is a live recording, beginning and ending with a “Sieg Heil” chant from some skinhead morons no doubt intent on wrecking proceedings. The track itself is a fine Crass-style punker with an insistent martial drumbeat, the vocalist bravely refusing to be intimidated by attendant knuckleheads (who stretch their meager collection of braincells to fit the “chant” to the music). The poem is a nice, angry “Fuck off!” to those idiots. “Oppose Law Oppose War” goes as follows: “Fuck the State, fuck the Law, we don’t want your fucking War.” Check out Psycho Factions’ retrospective 7" at www.shockhorrorrecords.com (one track from it is on the first Shit-Fi Virtual Mixtape). McGhee recently compiled a series of Anarcho Punk compilation CDs; for more see www.overgroundrecords.co.uk.
The tape ends with John Pilger, taped from a TV Documentary about the Cold War.