I solemnly declare open Blyth Power week.
Punk-rock is in constant flux and always has been. It has spread and continues to spread throughout the world and I for one am a constant enthusiast when it comes to discovering new bands from parts of the world I know little about. But this extraordinary punk breeding ground can also make one dizzy and overwhelmed. That's why I think we need anchors so that we don't get lost in an ocean of distorsion and studs. To me, these anchors are my favourite bands. They are a bit like best mates you visit regularly, but wish you did more often, and will always be there. You understand them as well as they seem to understand you and you can always rely on them during hard times as they get you through the daily grind. These bands we hold the closest to our hearts are reminders that we are indeed alive and kicking. Antisect and Deviated Instinct work that way to me, as does Blyth Power.
Now, how is that for a cheesy intro?
I have to admit that Blyth Power and I didn't really get along at first. For some reason, I had overlooked them in the midst of the myriad of British punk bands. I was acquainted with them but they remained a distant relation I didn't really care about but would shake hand with whenever I bumped into them. And then I had an epiphany while listening to the "Junction signal" 12'' that I had downloaded but never really given a proper listen to. And it just hit me: this absolutely fucking brilliant! The song "Bind their kings in chains" made me ecstatic and from that moment on, I couldn't listen to this song without picturing myself in medieval times fomenting a peasant rebellion in the English countryside, harmed with forks and spades.
I quickly proceeded to buy everything I could from Blyth Power and fortunately for me, I could find all their records from the 80's and 90's for cheap (thanks fuck they are not a hyped band and people don't have flawless music tastes like I do). The record I will be talking about today was released in 1989 on Midnight Music, a rather big English post-punk record label. "Pont au-dessus de la Brue" is a compilation of early Blyth Power songs as the record was destined for the French market (an oddity when you know how French people generally suck at listening to good punk-rock). According to the very good Blyth Power's website, the band didn't have great relations with the label and ironically none of the Lp's made it to France as Midnight Music went bankcrupt before the records even left the warehouse and it is even inferred that the band still has copies of it stacked in the Blyth Power's headquarters.
"Pont au-dessus de la Brue" is a perfect introduction to early Blyth Power: it contains the four songs on the "Chevy chase" 12" from 1985, two songs ("Junction signal" and "Sordid tales") from the "Junction signal" 12"" from 1986, two songs ("Emmanuel" and "Coriolanus") from the "Ixion" 12"" from 1986, two songs ("Father O'Brien" and "The rookery") from the "Goodbye to all that" 12" from 1988, two songs ("A tale of a cock and a bull" and "Blow the man down") from the "Up from the country" 12" from 1988 and one unreleased version of "McArthur" that was meant to appear on the band's second Lp, 1988's "The barman and other stories", but never did. The 1985 and 1986 recordings were originally released on All the Madmen records, while the 1988 ones were already licenced by Midnight Music.
For those who do not know, Blyth Power has Joseph Porter from famous anarchopunk bands Zounds and the Mob on drums and vocals, and during their early days, Curtis from the Mob also played bass in the band. By 1988, Blyth Power also had one of Lost Cherrees' singer, Sian, among their ranks. All the Madmen records was run by members of the Mob and released materials from challenging bands that were keen on experimenting beyond the punk formula like the Mob (obviously), Thatcher on Acid, the Astronauts, Flowers in the Dustbin and Blyth Power.
Describing Blyth Power's music is as difficult as describing what their lyrics are about (but then what can you expect from a band named after a railway locomotive). Now, I guess it doesn't really help you if you are not familiar with either. Some would qualify Blyth Power as "postpunk" but to be fair I have grown rather tired of seeing the "postpunk" tag being applied to pretty much anything lately. The latest postpunk trend has revealed that what passes for "postpunk" today is really "goth-punk" and there is nothing wrong that genre, but the term "postpunk" doesn't imply that you have to sound like Sisters of Mercy, Crisis or Joy Division, two bands that Blyth Power couldn't be further from.
Let's say that Blyth Power goes well beyond formulaic punk-rock by incorporating elements of English folk music and pop-rock. There is a distinct theatrical quality to the music, not only because all the songs actually tell a story, but also because of its epic and dramatic nature. Joseph has an emphatic voice that brings to mind old English minstrels telling a tale, so he is singing as much as he is telling. And he REALLY can sing. There are gloriously infectious choruses in the songs, greatly improved by the addition of female singers and instruments like the piano, the violin and even - gasp - an acoustic guitar. All the songs are memorable for their tunefulness, their incredible energy and their originality. Mind you, they are even danceable. There is just no other band that I know of that sounds like Blyth Power. Their songs display a wide range of tunes, emotions, moods, as well as paces and tones. You can hear that the song-writing is very strong and thoughtful. And while many bands didn't survive the 90's, Blyth Power actually went on making great records and I would even argue that some of their 90's recordings are superior to their All the Madmen years.
Lyrically, Blyth Power is an anomaly in the anarchopunk world. A lot of their songs actually deal with British History, famous or colourful characters ("Coriolanus" or "Father O'Brien") and events. Trains is another recurring theme, especially in the band's early days, as well as cricket ("Chevy chase") and village life in the English countryside. The meaning of the songs is often circumvoluted, twisted and they often refer to real places, characters or even other texts (that's intertextuality for you). As previously mentioned, "Chevy chase" is a cricket anthem; "My lady's game" is a metaphor about Thatcher's foreign policy and her alliance with Reagan during the Cold War; "God has gone wrong again" is a drunken story about the English playwright Benjamin Jonson and his feeling of being forsaken by God; "Song of the third cause" is a bit of an obscure one with references to Brecht, Hemingway and Camus, I think it is about pacifism and desertion and how the most vocal political speakers can often be after domination. "Sordid tales from the ffucke masticke room" is another weird one with references to Thomas Hardy's novel "Under the Greenwood tree", a love story taking place in rural Wessex, and to travels into strange, hostile lands. I see this one as being a humorous story of impossible love, lust and loss. "Junction signal" is a song about the magics of trains and a mythical railway worker; "Emmanuel" is an adaptation of an Hebrew text in olde English. "Coriolanus" is about class struggle. Coriolanus was a famous Roman politician and general who despised the plebs and would rather have them starve than taking part in Rome's political life. The song is told from the point of view of a hungry railway worker who wants to revolt against the Coriolanuses of this world. "A tale of a cock and a bull" is about an English political scandal involving Thatcher and her Defence Secretary, Lord Heseltine. The song uses irony to emphasize the manipulations, the hypocrisy and the cowardice of the political elite. "Blow the man down" is a song playing with the proverb "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness" as applied to political repression and suspicion. "The rookery" is about autumn and the passing of seasons with references to Greek mythology. "Father O'Brien" is a story about an Irish priest who led a rebellion against the feudal system in the Philippines in the 80's. Finally, "McArthur" is about boozing to forget your problems and how you just keep stuck in them in the process.
I am not utterly positive that my interpretations of the songs are all accurate, so I have included all the lyrics so that everyone can see for themselves. The next two posts will also be epic rants about Blyth Power.