Tuesday, 9 February 2016

"You are not alone" compilation Ep, 1986

A preventive message before anyone feels the need to make bad jokes about this record: this is NOT a Michael Jackson punk tribute. Now that this is settled, you would be surprised to know how many versions of MJ's "You are not alone' there actually are. I am not sure the world really needed all these.

"You are not alone" was the very first release of Words of Warning records. Based in Bristol, WoW became a pretty successful label through the releases of albums from Blaggers ITA and King Prawn, bands that enjoyed some mainstream recognition. The beginnings of WoW were perhaps not as spectacular, but the label's early years still produced DIY punk records of the highest quality with records such as Oi Polloi's "Outrage" Ep (maybe their best work), the Shrapnel/Toxik Ephex split Ep, the One By One Lp or the first two Terminus albums. It is pretty obvious that WoW started out as an anarchopunk label and founder Karl definitely had an ear for interesting, innovative punk-rock and it was no coincidence if WoW supported the so-called dub-punk sound that developed in the first half of the 90's. The idea behind "You are not alone" was to release a compilation that included four bands from the four different parts of the United Kingdom, thus promoting the idea of togetherness, solidarity and, dare I say it, community. Therefore, you had Hex from England, Stalag 17 from Northern Ireland, Oi Polloi from Scotland and Symbol of Freedom from Wales, which is retrospectively a pretty cracking line-up although I doubt the label realized it at the time.

The first band on "YANA" is Hex, a band that has been criminally forgotten and overlooked to the point that it almost literally pisses me off. Hopefully, the recent Boss Tuneage reissue of most of the band's studio recordings (but for the first excellent demo, "Not the promised land") will provide Hex with all the retroactive love they deserve.

Possibly named after Poison Girls' first Lp, Hex were from Sunderland and were active between 1984 and 1988. They belonged to that generation of Geordie punks that was heavily involved with the Bunker in Gateshead, a venue that played a huge part in the development of the Northern anarchopunk scene and fostered the idea of a punk community. If we ignore for a minute the brilliance of Hex's music, the band is probably remembered mostly because two of its members, Dickie Hammond and Lainey (who was actually a founding member of Hex), went on to play in the hugely successful Leatherface. The band also had close connections with another local band that would prove to be hardcore pioneers in England: HDQ (Golly played in both bands at the same time). You don't even have to listen that closely to spot similarities in terms of tones and composition between the three bands and the last two Hex's demos somewhat gave clues about what Leatherface would write later (in terms of intent more than sound but that's my theory). The song on "YANA" was "Is this to be?", recorded in 1986 and originally part of the band's second demo "Poison in the system". This is clearly an instant anarchopunk hit that displays the band's incredible songwriting skills and rather ambitious composition. This is a moody, diverse song in itself, made up of three parts that would have been good enough to make a proper song each. It starts with an eerie introduction with a postpunk feel but a punk-rock energy, then goes on with a cracking mid-paced anarcho part with great tunes and finally ends with an intensely angry, faster beat. Clearly the band had thought this through, it is like Vex, The System and Icons of Filth writing a song together. The presence of two singers with different vocal tones certainly plays an essential role and helps reinforce the mood change in the song as well. The production is perfect for the genre, earthy and thick but with a fitting unrefined quality. Fantastic song. By the end of their career, Hex's sound would evolve into an incredible blend of sensitive, tuneful, dual vocal anarchopunk and melodic hardcore with plenty of harmonies, which makes me think about the high potential the band had. Get the Boss Tuneage cd, by any means.

Next on "YANA" is Stalag 17, from Belfast, who were probably the best Ulster anarchopunk band of their time (I know, I know, Toxic Waste were brilliant too, but I feel Stalag 17 had something more). Although they were not necessarily spectacular musically in the strictest terms, there was an intensity, a passion, a genuine frustration that pervaded their songs and lyrics and it is really difficult to top that. Even after repeated listens, some of their songs still give me goosebumps. Stalag 17 existed under one shape or another since 1980 but the band only started to record in 1985. It coincided on a wider level with the creation of the Warzone Collective and Giros which played a pivotal role in the making of the Belfast DIY punk scene and, on a band level, with Petesy taking charge of the vocals. The song "Harmless fun" was recorded in late 1985 between the split 12'' with Toxic Waste and the "We will be free" Lp that Stalag 17 shared with Toxic Waste again and Asylum. As a matter of fact, it was even recorded as a two-piece with Petesy playing everything but the bass although I wouldn't say it sounds that different from the other Stalag 17 recordings (it is perhaps just a little less polished to be fair). "Harmless fun" is an intense but tuneful piece with fast sung vocals and some great guitar bits, somewhere between Subhumans and early Conflict. Petesy's singing was quite distinctive and judging from the length of the lyrics, the band had a lot to say in just three minutes. The song is about social conditioning and blindness, about letting oneself go with the flow and about the insensitive tolerance for violence and injustice. It is a dense text that refers to the daily routine of working-class people in Belfast as much as it does to the segregated political situation at the time.

"Brought to a standstill but what does it gain, the people in need are the ones who feel the pain, a blind population accepts this blind fate and don't look for answers to this cycle of hate. So the poor will kill and die while their leaders run away, retreat to their fortress to retrun another day. So while you sharpen your knives there's no cause for alarm, cos it's for the politicians who never done no harm."

Clever, passionate stuff.

The third track on "YANA" is Oi Polloi's "Nuclear waste". Now, Oi Polloi are a tricky band to talk about because they are very well-known in the punk galaxy and because they have always been really prolific, if inconstant at times. Today, they are sometimes seen as a "gimmicky" band that people enjoy seeing live but that few actually care to know very well. For reasons that are beyond reason (and no, the 30-year old "Oi Records" connection is not an excuse), Oi Polloi are still seen as some kind of "oi-punk" band with funny political lyrics, but then, it could just be a lame French interpretation of the band (it wouldn't be the first of its kind). In 1986, Oi Polloi was "just" a fantastic anarchopunk band. The brilliant "Resist the atomic menace" Ep and split Lp with AOA had just been released (though the latter was recorded the year before), on Endangered Musik and Children of the Revolution respectively, and showed that, like AOA, Oi Polloi was having a go at the heavy, hard-hitting anarchopunk sound of bands like Antisect, Anti-System and especially Icons of Filth, which were a huge influence on the band musically and, I would argue, in terms of intensity. The late 80's proved to be the band's highest point quality-wise with the release of the "Outrage" Ep in  1988, a genuine old-school crust classic that is not often regarded as such, and the "In defence of our Earth" Lp in 1990, which remains a great, diverse record of heavy, crusty anarchopunk.

Now that the way is cleared, let's give the song a proper listen. "Nuclear waste" was recorded in 1985 as it also appeared on the aforementioned split Lp with AOA and is one of the band's most famous songs, even today, and for good reason. It is a remarkably heavy, energetic and groovy mid-tempo anthem reminiscent of Icons of Filth and even One Way System with the distinctively gritty vocals we all know. Oi Polloi certainly had an ear for catchy singalong chorus and I guess that is why people still like them so much.

Finally, the last song on the compilation is "Suffering persists" from Symbol of Freedom, a rather obscure band with a brilliant name from South Wales that Ian Glasper had the great idea to include in "The day the country died". The band sadly did not record much during their lifetime between 1981 and 1987: one rough demo in 1984, an excellent split Ep with Shrapnel in 1986 and this song in-between. Symbol of Freedom and Shrapnel were really close, with Mark from Shrapnel joining SOF in 1985 (for that particular recording) and Steve from SOF joining Shrapnel in 1986. Who said incestuous? SOF played fast and snotty anarchopunk, at times reminding me of a speedier version of the classic UK82 sound with a Conflict and Riot/Clone feel. The sound on "Suffering persists", a song about animal exploitation, is raw and a bit sloppy but the very direct, urgent vocals from Steve really make the song stand out. The addition of a female singer when SOF recorded their tracks for the split Ep with Shrapnel - a better-produced, more mature effort by all accounts - made the band sound even more ferocious, with male/female vocals that were not unlike what US anarcho bands like Antiproduct, Mankind? or Thulsa Doom would do almost 10 years later... I doubt many American bands had hear of Symbol of Freedom (though I could be wrong) but the two songs on the Shrapnel split make them sound weirdly ahead of their time...

All in all a truly fantastic Ep.


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  2. You inspired me to pull out my Oi Polloi "Outraged By The System" CD, which collects the Outrage EP, a comp track, and their side of the split LP w/ Toxik Ephex. I've always enjoyed this era of Oi Polloi - absolutely raging songs, thick and heavy guitar sound, just super intense all around. I agree that these releases (and the others you mention) likely qualify as "crust" even though not often identfied as such.
    By the way, I'm in the US, and even when I first got into them in the late '90s/early 2000s, I remember thinking that their reputation overshadowed their actual music. Even today, most discussions of this band just seem to revolve around "Anarcho Pie" (maybe I'm just hanging around the wrong people though).

    1. I agree with you on all accounts. I also have this cd and it is probably my favourite Oi Polloi era. I am a huge fan of the "Outrage" Ep. Had it been recorded by a canonized crust band, it would be deemed an absolute classic. And consider yourself lucky, I'd rather have "Anarcho pie" than "Punk picnic" ;)