Friday, 4 August 2017

The Tumult of a Decad (part 5): Famous Imposters / The Dead "Open your eyes / Your future is held in one hand. Your death is held on the other" split Ep, 1984

I may be stating the obvious here (it would not be the first time really, in fact some would argue that it is one of my special moves), but have you ever noticed how few punk-rock split records were released during the first half of the 80's? There were a lot of compilations, to be sure, but very few splits between two bands, which nowadays is a bit of a punk tradition. In the realms of British anarchopunk, the instances I could think of were mostly released after 1984 (the Crass / Poison Girls split Ep being a notable exception), collaborative records like the Blood Robots / Reality Control flexi, the Oi Polloi / AOA Lp or the Shrapnel / Symbol of Freedom Ep. I wonder why that is. I wish I had something smart and insightful to offer about this tendency but I really don't. Perhaps bands didn't really consider the split record medium as being worthwhile and would rather strive to occupy both sides of the vinyl or be part of a compilation with many more bands. As for the date, it could be suggested that the post-'84 period corresponded to a steady decline of popularity for punk music which meant that record sales decreased and bands and labels got perhaps more cautious with expenses, so having two bands instead of one on a record could have looked like a good - and safe - idea for everyone involved. From the 90's on, the practice certainly spread and now it is so common that people only really thinks about the format when it is time to find a correct spot for the record and decide which initial letter to base the classification on (usually the better band of the split but there have been rumours of other techniques as well... Crazy, right?).

So today, as my linguistic acrobatics might have inferred, we are going to have a split Ep of vintage English anarchopunk, released in 1984, which was kind of a rare thing, as you know if you bothered to read the first paragraph without snoozing (this especially, but not exclusively, happens when one reads Terminal Sound Nuisance just after lunch): the Famous Imposters / The Dead split Ep.

Let's start with Famous Imposters, although they are technically on side B. They were from Sunderland, a city close and rival to Newcastle (in terms of football at least), in the sunny English Northeast, a region which produced phenomenal punk bands throughout the years as we already saw with the Reality Control post. Last time, I complained (well, whined really) that Reality Control should rightfully be more famous or, at the very least, that someone should make a RC shirt so that I could wear it with pride and a smug expression on my face. Well, it is even worse for FI since they have not even had the privilege of a discography compilation (yet, I hope it's "yet") even though they were also exceptionally good. In this day and age when I see quality moody anarcho bands like Passion Killers, Hex, Hysteria Ward or Vex being reissued, the absence of any FI retrospective breaks my heart.

The band formed in 1982 and quickly became heavily involved with the Sunderland Music Collective and its independent venue called The Bunker, where all the best British punk bands of the era played (there are more than a few good live recordings floating around if you care to look). FI were originally a four-piece, with Raf on the bass (he was responsible for the Acts of Defiance fanzine), Anth and Teaser (who left in 1984) on the guitar and Andy (formerly in Barnley's Societies Vultures) on the drums. The name "Famous Imposters" was taken from a Bram Stoker's novel entitled Famous Impostors (go figure why they changed a letter...), so with a reference to a classic Gothic author, you can already guess that FI's music is not going to be particularly cheerful or of the ciderpunk variety. And rightly so since the band played what we call nowadays "postpunk". Now, I have already written about how the term "postpunk", since the so-called "postpunk revival" of late, has come to refer to a very specific kind of postpunk among the DIY punk scene, namely its dark, melancholy, goth-tinged aspect, which would be perfectly fine if it did not also result in dozens of clones all sounding exactly the same. But that's another debate entirely. My point is that FI's music, if it were released tomorrow, would be undoubtedly a smashing hit for the hordes of post-2012 "dark punks" and "goth-punks". In terms of dark and melancholy anarchopunk, the first 1983 demo From the cradle to the grave is an absolute gem, full of emotions, passion and intensity hardly affected by the thin, punky production. There were ace anarcho bands going for that sound at the time, each of them trying to build their own identity by bridging the gap between the Crass ethics and politics and goth or postpunk music. In essence, From the cradle to the grave is an emotional, vulnerable even, punk recording that borrows heavily from The Cure and Southern Death Cult in order to create sorrowful but tense and tuneful, catchy songs that are just... well, beautiful really. This is "shower-level" catchy, let me tell you.

The two songs on the split with The Dead, "Open your eyes" and "Fighting again" (in a superior version to the one on the demo tape), are in the same vein but benefit from a much better production which allows more space for musicianship (there are some pretty neat and intricate guitar parts on "Open your eyes" and genuinely cracking drum beats) and for the elaboration of the darkly enticing melancholy mood that the band aims for. As I mentioned, The Cure and Southern Death Cult are relevant points of comparison and I am also reminded of Zounds for the Beat element, of The Mob and No Choice for the sensitivity and the moodiness (although the songwritings clearly diverge), and of Kulturkampf, contemporaries of FI and almost neighbours from Barnsley, who, I feel, shared a similar creative intent, a similar sensitivity and expressive drive. This is just great anarcho music with heart and sincerity and the way the trio works so well together reinforces the emotional power of the music. This is almost perfect music in the sense that, given the templates, the songs couldn't really have been better. Following the split Ep, FI recorded the Would anything change 12'' that would be released on Children of the Revolution records in 1985, not long before the band split. The sound on this one is even poppier and more introspective, with a distinct folk influence, but the overall mood, atmosphere and motivation are quite similar. You could say it is another way of expressing the same thing, like a different hour of a same day. Makes sense?

Though it is just a (hopefully educated enough) guess, I am pretty sure the two texts that appear on the foldout were written by FI (I mean, one is framed with flowers and ends with "Together we CAN learn, together we SHALL overcome"). The first and longer one is about commitment, sincerity and dedication to the politics we display and the importance of sharing "our dreams and hopes, (...) our joy... to share our love". The sheer honesty and openness of the tone that does not try to conceal the fears and insecurities is completely coherent with the mood of FI's lyrics and music. The second one is much shorter and is a call to action questioning our apathy and sincerity. And I really like the two blindfolded punks on each side of it. As for the lyrics themselves, "Open your eyes" basically summarizes the second text's content into music while "Fighting again" is - you will never believe it - an antiwar song.                      

Other side, other region with The Dead from Whitehaven, a rather small coastal town in Cumbria, in the English Northwest. Unfortunately, little information about The Dead (which I will call TD from now on cuz I'm lazy) can be found and the KFTH page about them is down and so is the whole site for some reason... Bummer. Incredibly enough, there were no other UK punk band using that moniker at the time. You had Screaming Dead, The Living Dead, The Undead, Dead On Arrival, Dead Man's Shadow or The Dead Wretched but just one called The Dead, which I really like for its dark simplicity. The band's first demo was self-released in 1982 under the name To our glorious dead and it was not as morbid an affair as the title suggests. It is a pretty rough and ready recording with possibly too many songs (and solos) for its own good. There are, however, a couple of genuinely solid tracks on this one, especially those with a synth, which adds a welcome postpunk touch to the otherwise pretty typical anarchopunk sound of the day, somewhere between The Mentals and The System, for the band did have some catchiness in them. On this first demo, the vocals were almost exclusively handled by a male singer, something which would change by 1984, a prolific year for TD since they recorded two demos and the two songs for the split (I am sadly clueless about the actual order of release). Not only did the band drastically improve in terms of songwriting with a spectacular turn toward tasteful goth-punk (and more synth!), but Claire also mostly took over on vocals, and even though the male-fronted songs were clearly much better by then, she just had the perfect voice for the genre.

The '84 self-titled demo included different versions of "Duty calls" and "Burke & hare" that were re-recorded for the split with FI during a session that may have been the same one than that of the Rest in peace demo (again, an educated guess). Thanks to a much more focused sound and a tighter production, TD easily penned some of the best female-fronted goth-punk songs of the era and - I know this is becoming a running gag by now but what can one do when it is just the plain naked truth - would their '84 materials be reissued today, all the modern "dark-gothy punx" would fall from their chair and smudge their make-up with tears of frustration before the greatness of the music. TD had everything, an upfront singer with a spontaneous but ethereal, ominous voice, a great dark atmosphere, a punk but still fragile energy, real songwriting skills and a top sense for macabre melodies (but then, perhaps too many solos...but that's always the risk when you have an actual guitarist in your band). They were just brilliant. Imagine the catchiest melancholy cross between A-Heads, Awake Mankind, Skeletal Family and Paranoia with a spoonful of the All The Madmen sound. Yeah, that good. That they weren't offered some kind of record deal is quite baffling and disappointing since it also means that I will probably never be able to find a TD shirt as well... My life is miserable indeed. If it hadn't been for all those solos...

Anyway, the two songs from the split are everything even the most demanding goth-punk with an anarcho bias could wish for. They have a dream-like quality and an almost uplifting sadness with the synth adding a thick distinct layer without being overbearing. The vocals are tuneful and adequately melancholy and passionate while the bass offers some really lovely hooks. The drums are quite loud in the mix which probably confers even more of a danceable punk sound to the songs. Well, I can definitely imagine myself dancing awkwardly to The Dead, never too far away from the bar but close enough to the centre of the dancefloor so that I can display some of my spectacular dance moves that have become the stuff of legends throughout the years.

The Dead (and to a lesser extent Famous Imposters) were one of the many ace bands that History has forgotten about and I hope that my nonsensical blabbering did them some justice. This wonderful split Ep was released on Scrobe records (it was also a zine apparently) from Cumbria, a label that may have been short-lived but still had an awesome logo.


  1. Thanks very much for that! - Andy (Famous Imposter)

    1. You're more than welcome, it was my pleasure.
      Thanks to YOU for writing all these great songs :)