It’s a sobering thought to think that the punk and post-punk boom of the late seventies and the very beginning of the eighties is as far back in history to us now as the end of the second world war was to them. Society was very different. Mass unemployment was a new thing not experienced since before the war, and compared to what it was to become in the Thatcher era and again today, it barely merited the term. Britain still had industries – factories, shipyards, steelworks and mines – and a working class who were working and politicised. Against that, of course, most of the technologies we take for granted today simply didn’t exist. Where music scenes now can be transnational due to the wonders of the internet (this blog being an example – you, dear reader, could be anywhere on earth right now), back then they were necessarily localised. You could be a legend in Kentish Town and a complete unknown in Camberwell.
The latest trip in the post-punk time machine that is the brilliant Messthetics series takes us back to a three year period between 1978 and 1981, and to a few square miles of North London centred on Camden and roughly stretching south to Euston and north to the far off reaches of Hornsey. Central to the story are the short-lived Dining Out label and the art-rock collective The 49 Americans.
Messthetics 107 thus has more of a focus to it than any other volume bar the Manchester Musicians Collective one, and consequently a slightly more homogeneous sound. That is just a relative statement. But there is a definite musical theme running through the tracks. Percussion is rarely limited to a standard rock drum kit playing straight four/four time. Bass lines are fluid and often the main melodic force while guitars scratch away adding atmosphere and colour, or simply dissonance. There are also an unusually high number of folk who would go on to greater fame.
There are 23 tracks on the CD, plus 7 bonus MP3s as well as a fact-stuffed 24 page booklet that includes interviews with a good number of the band members. The quality of the music on hand varies considerably, but there is nothing without some merit. And in the same way, although some of the production is distinctly lo-fi, you’ll have heard much much worse.
The set’s relative superstars are the Disco Zombies, Six Minute War and the aforementioned 49 Americans, a collective whose passing members probably exceeded the 49 mark and included such luminaries as Max Eastley, Steve Beresford and David Toop among their number. The band’s two contributions are both brief – “Newton’s Laws” is exactly what it says it is, a reading of the basic laws of physics against a punk-ish backdrop, while “Should Be More Ideal” features tuba, tin can percussion and off-key piano in a wild piece of experimental pop. Spin-off group the Avocados bring a lovely little pop tune to the party.
The Disco Zombies featured writer Dave Henderson and future boss of Food Records Andy Ross. They were more mainstream than the Americans, dealing in a fairly arty take on power pop. The previously unreleased “Greenland” is especially good, a sensible response to nuclear war (ie bugger off quick to somewhere no one’s going to bother obliterating). My favourite track of all on the CD is Henderson and Ross’s other band Club Tango and their funked-up epic “Performance” – a real find.
Six Minute War started life as North London’s answer to the Minutemen. A trio playing very short, highly political punk songs. By their third EP, represented by “Weathermen” here, they’d stretched out musically way beyond the two minute mark and adopted a more martial post-punk sound.
The set has a few fairly generic lo-fi pop songs (and a band called Steppes who add a distinctly old-school guitar solo to their track. What were they thinking?), but also some fantastically inventive pieces. Patterns’ “The Bishop” is a like a four minute medley of completely unrelated mini-songs. If the voice is naggingly familiar, it’s because it belongs to Nanette Greenblatt. No wiser? Well, Patterns became And The Native Hipsters whose “There Goes Concorde Again” was a Peel favourite (and Festive Fifty number one? Close anyway) and almost a proper hit.
Elsewhere, future members of Alien Sex Fiend, A Certain Ratio, the Alabama 3 and the Afro Celt Sound System all pop up, and the influences of bands like Swell Maps, Joy Division (the brilliantly named Insex do a better job than most JD imitators), Raincoats, Pere Ubu, Scritti and the Pop Group are all apparent, but never in a copycat way.
Another fine set from Hyped to Death. It seems like the well of goodies is nowhere near to running dry yet.
1 Stepping Talk – Common Problems
2 Jelly Babies – Roller Skate
3 Avocados – I Never Knew
4 Occult Chemistry – Water
5 Patterns – The Bishop
6 Six Minute War – Weathermen
7 Demon Preacher – Royal Northern
8 Methodishca Tune – Leisuretime
9 Jangletties – Happy All the Time
10 Stolen Power – Little White Lies
11 Flags – Is God Love?
12 Steppes – God’s Got Religion
13 Disco Zombies – Here Come the Buts
14 Insex – Inner Sanction
15 49 Americans – Newton’s Laws
16 Disco Zombies – Greenland
17 Milkmen – Since You Went Away
18 Methodishca Tune – LFD
19 Design for Living – One to the Wise
20 Twilight Zoners – Twister
21 49 Americans – Should Be More Ideal
22 Club Tango – Performance
23 Jelly Babies – Living It Up