Friday 21 February 2020

Last Week's Trend is Now Passé (part 2): Lost Cherrees "Unwanted Children" 12'' Ep, 1985

Was Lost Cherrees' catchy, upbeat poppiness the cause of their demise in the mid 80's? Maybe a more relevant formulation would be: were they too poppy for their contemporary punk audience? I mean, they were probably the most melodic band released on Mortarhate, not a meaningless achievement since the label also released materials from Hagar the Womb and Flowers in the Dustbin. Apparently, Unwanted Children barely made it to the indie charts upon its release in september, 1985, whereas All Part of Growing Up, their glorious album released but ten months prior, was a genuine success - on a punk scale of course - and there is a general consensus that this Lp is a classic anarchopunk album, worthy of inclusion in the grand anarcho canon (and no, I am afraid it is not calculated with the number of views it has on youtube). In a parallel dimension, I could definitely envision LC becoming really popular because of Unwanted Children and attracting a more mainstream audience. Their subsequent 1987 album - let's call it Tears of a Mermaid - is a pop-punk masterpiece and a phenomenal commercial success. Mortarhate becomes so rich that Conflict can finally buy their own private anarcho-jet, the mighty ungovernable fly, which would result in a bloody feud with Iron Maiden in the following years. Meanwhile, with Sian back in the band and three women fronting it again, LC embark in a world tour and their anarcho-feminist stance triggers a global revolution and, after a bloody war against The Man, we finally get to live in peace and harmony forever and ever (except Conflict and Iron Maiden who are still bitterly fighting), eating organically grown veggies, managing our own lives and basically listening to Antisect all day, in a world free from Chumbawamba's a cappella album (there would have been no need to record it now that the world is one big hippie commune). But of course, LC split up shortly after the release of Unwanted Children, Conflict never got their jet and Chumba did do English Rebel Songs (which I have kinda grown to like, if I'm being honest) and became the ultimate anarchopop band. 

I first heard LC on A Compilation of Deleted Dialogue double cd which I bought in 2002 (I think). I remember being quite confused by the compilation (especially by The Apostles, Flowers in the Dustbin and Class War, bands whose punkness I struggled to give an accurate estimation of, a very troubling feeling indeed at a time such trifles mattered) and now that I am a sensibly wiser, but still rather intrepid punk, I realize that it was all but impossible to digest at that time. I remember being floored by Icons of Filth's two Ep's, because they sounded so bloody intense and pissed, and Lost Cherrees' A Man's Duty, A Woman's Place, because it had a warm, tuneful and dynamic quality but still sounded punky and raw. The Ep also displayed lyrics against sexism and since I was reading a lot about women's struggles and feminist theory, it definitely struck a chord. I have to concede that I have always disliked that reggae-tinged number though... Anyway, from that point on I started to consider bands like LC and DIRT (and of course Crass and Poison Girls) as epitomising 80's feminist anarchopunk and whenever someone would require a band that fits that specific description, I would proudly namedrop LC while gazing pensively at some imaginary horizon and trying to look tenebrous as hell. But then, it must have happened only twice. With the rise of the internet, the legacy of 80's punk bands has become quite arduous to assess with originally very obscure bands becoming as easily accessible as rather popular ones. This monstrous equalizing process can result in awkward, anachronistic claims and grotesque comparisons. LC however, just on the strength on All Part of Growing Up, can be legitimately seen as belonging to the vintage anarchopunk canon. If there were an Olympus with anarchopunk bands, LC would probably not make it to one of the twelve seats reserved to the major gods, but they would definitely be a powerful and gracious deity revered by mortals nonetheless.

The band is fairly well documented so I am not going to linger too long on their illustrious career. Like Political Asylum, LC were a second generation anarchopunk band that put out records between 1983 and 1985, a time when the original anarcho wave was grinding to a halt not without leaving in its glorious trail a new generation of anarchopunk bands that thrived to emulate the spirit and the music of their punk elders (a 23 year old punk was actually 53 in punk years at that time). It was anarcho-influenced anarchopunk and that makes a massive difference. Contrary to Political Asylum who were relatively isolated and thus only, but happily, did tapes before their first proper vinyl release in 1985, LC got to release three Ep's and one album in about two years and the Mortarhate connection implied that the records were well distributed and it insured a decent exposure to the band, without mentioning touring with Conflict, who were extremely popular at that time. What set LC apart from their numerous peers was their open feminist agenda and, for a short while, the presence of three female singers which allowed for some magic, epic harmonising and rather extravagant pop-oriented and postpunk songwriting, with tunefulness always strongly at the helm. This incredible trio behind the microphones combined with a solid sense of catchy songwriting turned a good, but rather classic anarchopunk band, into a memorably melodic punk bands with a combination of female vocals that had no equivalent at the time.

The Unwanted Children 12'' Ep was the last LC record of the 80's and the only one without Sian - who left to ride trains, play cricket and sing with Blyth Power - on vocals, leaving Debbie and Bev handling all the singing. This last Ep, recorded in 1985, is the band's formidably melodic epitaph, one that might have been too uplifting and poppy for the band's Mortarhate crowd. It is often said that "the punx" are a self-righteous, narrow-minded bunch who cannot handle change and see it as "selling out", and as a consequence they will still demand that a band play their faster sloppy songs off their old 4-track demo rather than a number from their brand new, well-crafted, progressive album that is supposed to broaden their audience (I can be that punk to be honest). In substance, that's pretty much what happened to LC and it was probably that depressing attitude that, in the end, prompted the split. Incidentally, the last live performance of LC in that decade took place in 1986 at the Mermaid in Birmingham, according to the band a particularly dispiriting and poorly attended gig that saw them played without motivation before a foul audience shouting "show us your tits" to the singers. Of course, only a few months later, the Mermaid would become one the focal points of the UK hardcore revolution, turning from a wretched place where anarchopunk goes to die to a legendary venue that played a major part in the rise of crust. It might be just a coincidence as the band had probably run its course by then and there were heavier, faster, harder bands in the mid-80's that were gaining momentum whereas the second wave of anarchopunk was starting to decline. In a world where storytelling has permeated all areas of our cultural life, it is temptingly easy to see symbols where it might only be sheer coincidence. The irony however still remains.

So what about Unwanted Children then? It is the most uplifting, triumphant, freshest swansong I can think of. The moodiness and melancholy present on the album are mostly gone as the songwriting focuses on dynamic and anthemic crispy pop-punk. The two singers sing their heart out and some chorus are so catchy that I can - almost - picture myself wearing a dayglo headband and doing aerobics listening to these cracking tunes (the last chorus to "Consider the challenge" is to die for). It is not difficult to see why some would find that lovely 12'' Ep too soft or even cheesy, but then if the thought of vintage dual-vocal female-fronted anarchopop disgusts you, you have probably knocked on the wrong door. In terms of references, the fun-loving Hagar the Womb - the closest comparison in the anarcho realms contemporary to LC - and the always extravagant Rubella Ballet do come to mind, though I would argue that LC were more dynamic and poppier. Unwanted Children is also not unlike the very tuneful Chin Chin from Switzerland, though the former were nowhere as political and I highly doubt LC had heard of Chin Chin (the opposite could be true however). Finally, one could make the claim that LC's dynamic blend of catchy tunes, pop-punk energy and politics, one that is propelled melodically by multiple female vocals, must have inspired important mid/late 80's UK punk bands like Dan or Joyce McKinney Experience in their songwriting. In any case, if you are looking for a quality punk record to play at your birthday party and make your merry guests dance, then this Ep could be a winner (let's face it, no one wants to dance to the early Doom demos as last year's party showed well enough). The only issue I have with this record - and it is a rather minor one that has more to do with my personal taste I suppose - is the presence of horns on the title song. Horns should be forbidden in punk music. In fact, I read somewhere that a country has already prohibited punk bands to use horns in their songs, so it is a first step. But they are not too distracting here, they just add another layer of cheesy poppiness where there was clearly no need for any. Oh well... Lyrically, the band had a lot to say with lyrics about poverty, depression, education, violence, social conditioning, they are much darker and angry than the melodic music or the very new-wave looking cover (not the record's strongest assets in my opinion but then the cover of the Lp was also memorable for the wrong reasons) would incite you to think, but then that's punk, innit? Unwanted Chidren was released on Mortarhate Records in late 1985 and you can find it on the 2012 reissues.

Monday 10 February 2020

Last Week's Trend is Now Passé (part 1): Political Asylum "Winter" Ep, 1985

It is hard to believe that it has been more than two months since my last proper review. To be honest, after Sonatas in D-Major, I felt drained, vapid, both uninspired and uninspiring. Of course, like any modern individual who believes in the performative power of virtual validation (the whole "like and be liked" paradigm) and actively seeks it, I was greatly confused by these feelings of self-doubt and insignificance. Why do I bother raving over proudly unoriginal d-beat bands or rough cavemen crust punk that actual cavemen would be likely to find a tad excessive? Does this existential scepticism and fear of irrelevance merely point to a coming mid-life crisis? If it is widely accepted that the average Joe, as he starts to get seriously bald, predictably buys a new flashy car to impress younger potential mates, then would getting some obscenely expensive Japanese punk records the equivalent for Western male punx who are reaching that same critical stage in life and thus have to wave goodbye to full on charged hair? I'm no sociologist but there could be some truth in this theory (it also works with obscure heavy metal and cheesy cold wave from the 80's obviously). 

Anyway, faced with the meaninglessness of life itself (oh yes, make no mistake, that is what has always been at stake), I decided to get back to basics for this first series of the year, and explore and revisit a couple of records and bands that, I feel, are underappreciated and you could say that this self-righteous, quixotic quest to promote and offer a critical insight about bands that our current superficial epoch unfairly ignores is at the core of Terminal Sound Nuisance, in that it makes feel somewhat useful and on the just side of History, a bit like a jedi but with a proper punk jacket instead of their hippie robe, although sucking hard at fighting and being shit scared of heights are rather unjedilike. 

So, basically, what I mean is that we should have a series about 80's anarchopunk from the British Isles, with a selection of 10 records that were all released between 1985 and 1989, a period that saw the decline of the anarchopunk movement and the rise of hardcore and crust in the UK. With the current renewed interest in the classic anarchopunk sound (although you could argue that the diversity of the movement renders such a concept irrelevant), the focus and attention have often been on the first half of the decade, and while I wholeheartedly enjoy seeing people get into classic '81/'84 bands, there is a relative indifference towards ulterior recordings, sometimes at the cost of overlooking genuine anarchopunk classics like Political Asylum's Winter.

It would be untrue to claim that Political Asylum were an obscure band back then and the mere fact that they were included on so many - usually homemade - compilation tapes in the 80's shows that they were a well-liked and rather popular band at the time, one that managed to sell 6000 copies (!) of their first demo tape, Fresh Hate. If Winter was PA's first proper record, they had recorded two demos before that, the aforementioned Fresh Hate in 1982 and the rather fantastic Valium for the Masses in 1984. It may look quite odd for a band to wait that long before releasing their first vinyl, especially at a time when anarchopunk was lively and at its top, and far lesser bands than PA got to have records under their belt. But then, if you manage to get your tapes around efficiently, tour a lot and get your message across, why bother doing a vinyl if you don't really need to (and I guess being young Scottish lads didn't exactly help either)? In our present day when more and more bands can release a full album before having even played ten gigs, the idea of taking one's time to put out a vinyl almost sounds blasphemous, but I suppose that many youthful anarcho bands of the time were just not as materialistic. Shame on them.

Despite the anarcho/UK82 trend that swept through the last decade and saw relatively confidential bands like Vex or The Mad Are Sane retrospectively gain a virtual cult status, PA, although one of the most important Scottish anarchopunk bands along with Oi Polloi and Alternative, are rarely discussed and, I suppose, seldom listened to (Valium for the Masses is not even on youtube, for that matter). At a time when self-proclaimed cool kids are prone to wear shirts from even the most obscure 80's anarcho bands, I have yet to see a PA shirt, a clear sign of a slight contemporary indifference toward the band. If they are a genuine classic anarchopunk band, PA never sounded like what we modernly reconstructed as "the classic anarcho sound". In fact, PA, with their overuse of vocal harmonies, their endless guitar solos, genuine prog rock moments and a folk influence, sounded like no other band and that's precisely what I loved about them. I remember being really confused the first time I heard them. I had ordered a cdr online and did not know what to expect as I was only aware that they were an anarchopunk band from the 80's and that was why I wanted to give them a go. I shall not palter with the truth and readily admit that the out of control technical solos almost killed me and in other circumstances would have had me burning the cd and calling for an exorcist, but there was a sense of melody, an incredible tunefulness and an intensity to the songs that compelled me to keep listening. Of course, they also had punkier songs that were easier to relate to (like "Disarm or die" of course), but the ones that really stuck were the moodier, darker ones. And I couldn't believe they just shamelessly ripped of a Black Flag line. I suppose it is the band's uniqueness that both made them quite popular at the time and rather unpopular nowadays as we always crave for comprehensible styles that can be pigeonholed, and while it makes sense to do so with the d-beat genre for instance, you cannot really do that with PA and with large fractions of the 80's anarchopunk world.    

I am not going to write about the band's history as they are well documented (their chapter in The Day the Country Died as well as the booklets to their cd reissues come highly recommended and showcase Ramsey's witty sense of humour). Suffice to say that Winter is one of my favourite anarchopunk Ep's of the 80's. It just has everything I look for in an anarcho record, it is angry and yet melodic, melancholy and yet strangely uplifting, the lyrics are political and sensible, the harmonies are perfect to sing along to it in the shower and I have even grown to like the epic solos. Winter may not really be classified as a punk-rock record nor is it a postpunk one, and I guess it effortlessly transcends genres without ever sounding artsy or even intentional. The song "Winter of our discontent", an obvious reference to the Winter of Discontent of the late 1970's, is a poignant antiwar ballad (I guess the term is somehow fitting) with plenty of harmonies and solos (the PA trademark) and an instantly recognizable opening. An absolute anthem that is authentically emotional. Ace. The next song, "Do they care", is a bouncy punk-rock number with a great vocals, a simple but highly catchy chorus and an eerie atmospheric moment toward the end. "System of war" is another beautiful, moving punk ballad that even the excessive use of solos cannot spoil. The folk element in the music can definitely be felt in the songwriting and in the ways PA conceptualized their two slower songs and there is an acoustic version of "Winter of our discontent" on 1992's How the West was Won 10'' which makes a lot of sense. The two issues I have with this Ep is the use of a drum machine (the cymbals were laid down afterwards) that sometimes sound a little unnatural and too mechanical and don't fit perfectly with the very organic and warm vibe of the songs, but I concede that it might make the Ep even more unique and different. My second issue is that Winter will always be the name of an Amebix record for me.   

Winter was recorded in early 1985 and released on Bristol-based Children of the Revolution Records, of which it was the fifth record (right between AOA's Who are they Trying to Con? and Potential Threat's Brainwashed). If you have never heard PA, today is your lucky day. Just imagine a fusion of Zounds, Chron Gen and Lack if Knowledge with a folk music vibe and a prog rock guitar player. Or maybe just listen to Winter and feel the unstoppable power of the harmonies. And sing along my friend, just siiiiiiiiiiiing.