Reviews: The Move, the Pop Group, Blue Orchids and the English Psych Underground of the Eighties

1The Pop Group

The Boys Whose Head Exploded

(Freaks R Us CD)

The first time I ever saw the Pop Group, they were a completely unknown proposition, opening for Otway-Barrett at the Lyceum in London, and positively nobody knew what to make of them.  So they shouted abuse and went to the bar, and left it to the evening’s host, a disc jockey from London’s Capital Radio, to make some equally disparaging comments as the band left the stage.

That was then… this is later.  Two years on from that spring 78 show, the Pop Group had been widely accepted in the UK press as one of the most crucial harbingers of a whole new musical consciousness.  They still weren’t being played on the radio, but their debut album had landed some stellar reviews, and the only people you saw at their gigs were those who knew what to expect.  The band itself had not changed – still confrontational, still angry and wired, and still the last place you’d look for a tune you could whistle.  But boy, were they good.

The Boys Whose Head Exploded is a document of the band’s onstage demeanor as they first worked towards, and then went out in support of, their second album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?

Sound quality-wise, it’s ropey – think sometime-labelmates the Slits’ official bootleg album and you’ll be close.  But that’s exactly how it should be.  Nothing about the Pop Group was ever comfortable or comforting, and that included the sometimes brain charring volume at which they played.  The bulk of this album (six out of ten tracks) was taken from a show in Cologne in 1980, an audience recording that adds immolatory ambience to the band’s already flamethrowing assault; other cuts hail from Milan, Helsinki (an otherwise unrecorded song called “73 Shadow Street”) and Sheffield (a shuddering twist through the swampy “Blind Faith”), while the group’s eye for the odd also sees them serve up a cover of the Glaxo Babies’ “Shake The Foundation.”  Although it’s been through their own wringer first.

Thirty-plus years on, a lot of the pain that the Pop Group first inflicted has been dissipated – too many other bands borrowed their approach, cleaned it up and shook off the shock, and from Public Image to Pigbag and on to Gang of Four, these startled, and once-staggering avenues were paved with hit singles and stadium shows.

The Pop Group had broken up by then, though, and it’s probably just as well. In its first life at any rate, the Pop Group was not built for the long haul – two studio albums and a smattering of singles was all they needed to do.  Because the mark they left on the end of the seventies, and the first misbegotten months of the decade that followed remains one of the most significant footprints ever embedded into the corpulent flab of contemporary society.  And if you listen closely now, a lot of what they said still holds true today.

Mass murder remains tolerated.  And heads are still exploding.

 

2various artists

Another Splash of Colour: New Psychedelia in Britain, 1980-1985

(RPM – 3CD box set)

It’s alright, don’t say it.  The British psych revival… Robyn Hitchcock and sundry ex-Soft Boys; the Monochrome Set, the Deep Freeze Mice, Julian Cope, Naz Nomad and the Nightmares… of all the offspring of late seventies punk, a return to sensibilities that had been disgraced a decade earlier was one of the last things that anyone expected.

But peculiarly, it worked.  At the top of the pile, both the Cure and XTC dipped curious fingers into the currents; at the punkier end of things, the Damned, Knox (the Vibrators) and Charlie Harper (UK Subs) let their own freak flags fly. And all to quite remarkable effect.

The true heart of the movement, however, lay in those corners of the underground that were, for the most part, content to do nothing more than flick out a few singles, gang up for occasional compilations, and then vanish – either back into the obscurity from which they came, or onto another musical platform once they’d go the acidic urges out of their system.  And that’s where this glorious three disc package comes into its own.

A few of the names will be familiar; most of the above-named, of course, but also the likes of Icicle Works, neither whispering nor screaming across the fuzzy “Nirvana”; the Bevis Frond’s sojourn as the Von Trap Family; Martin Newell resplendent in the Cleaners from Venus; a pre-hit Doctor & the Medics; a pre-almost everything Primevals; a post-Mod Purple Hearts; the surfer devil Barracudas; the first glimmering of the glorious Legendary Pink Dots; sci-fi poet and sometimes Hawkwind collaborator Michael Moorcock – the music flies all over the place, and neither three discs nor a clamshell box are capable of holding it in.

But whether you got your kicks at the London Dungeon, or spend your nights at Alice in Wonderland, this is at least partially the soundtrack of those psilocybic nights, and if you bought the original A Splash of Colour compilation, which first gave vent to stirrings such as these, you can at least retire half of your poor, worn-out vinyl, at the same time as catching up (or, at least, remembering) an awful lot more besides.   Including Nick Nicely, latter day hero of the Fruits de Mer label, but here heard in his earlier prime.

Including, and this might well be worth the price of admission on its own, Firmament & the Elements’ “The Festival of Frothy Muggament,” featuring a well-disguised Bruce Wooley (of Buggles and Camera Club fame) and his brother, and a laconic second cousin to “Safety Dance” that will leave you frothing and mugga-ing all night.  Is it one of the greatest records ever made?  Probably not.  But is it one of the most stupidly enjoyable?  You’ll find out.

With sixty-four tracks, not every thing in the box is a deathless classic, reborn for a salivating world.  But that’s not the point.  This isn’t a box to be sliced and diced for consumptiuon; it’s one to just let play from the beginning, and absorb.

History tends to regard the early eighties psych revival as just that, a revival.  But beyond a few well chosen points of reference, it was a lot more than that as well.  A rebirth, a restating, a reinvention of attitudes that should not have been allowed to slip away so easily.  Plus, we all need a fresh splash of color occasionally.

 

3Blue Orchids

Awefull

Blue Orchids

The Once and Future Thing

Martin Bramah

The Battle of Twisted Hill

(Tiny Global Productions, CDs)

Recalling Bramah from his time with the Fall, it would have been easily to assume thathis next project would meander in similar directions.  Encountering that project aboard Another Splash of Colour (above), it swiftly becomes apparent how wrong you would be.  We don’t hear the Blue Orchids’ name nearly enough any more, and Bramah’s even less.  But asudden shock of new releases out to change that.

Awefull is the archaeologist’s dream, a collection of Orchids’ material that escaped inclusion on their debut album, the superlative The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) and has been demanding a compilation ever since.  The glorious yelp of “The Flood” is, after all, one of the defining sounds of 1980; the shuffling discomfort of “Agents of Change” likewise for 1982.  But they represented just two of the Orchids’ multiple musical facets… and, for that matter, they still do.

The Once and Future Thing is the band’s latest album, built around Bramah and a new crew of players, but still in thrall to the edgy warmth of their earliest incarnation – Bramah’s songwriting and singing remains a thing of creepy beauty, the missing link between the Lou Reed of Berlin and the Lloyd Cole of Rattlesnakes, and that’s a pretty spectacular place to be.  Especially with an album that’s this good.

Amid so many blooms, is there room for more?  Why, yes.  Bramah has also resurrected one of the lost legends of his career… no, not a much-needed reminder of the Orchids’ days as Nico’s backing band, though that would certainly be a thing of beauty, but a solo album issued back in 2008, briefly by mail order, before it disappeared.  Eleven tracks fill this revised version of Twisted Heel – “Strangely Lucid” is replaced by an alternate mix, and an “unheard mix” of the non-album “Necessity” closes it up.  But, as precious few people even own the original, both will probably be new to you, as indeed the rest of Bramah’s career might be.  In which case, these three albums are just the start of a promised plethora of archive treasures.  So let’s start here and we’ll see what happens next….

 

4The Move

Move 

(Esoteric 3CDs)

Shazam

(Esoteric 2CDs)

It feels faintly heretical to say it, but… do we really need more Move reissues?

A lot like Procol Harum, the Move’s catalog has passed through so many owners over the year, all of whom seem determined to milk the last drops of anything even approaching goodness from what was, after all, a shockingly brief career.

The band released, after all, just four albums, yet here we have five discs dedicated to just two of them – the debut Move which arrived as the band rode a superhuman sequence of British hit singles; and its follow-up, Shazam, which caught them as they neared the end of that sequence.

Yet the astute Move collector already has a shelf that groans beneath the weight of duplication, and with the Anthology box of a few years back having already been acclaimed as the last word in archive scraping, what else is there to say?

Quite a lot, it seems.  No less than forty-two BBC sessions are spread across these latest packages, seventeen of which have never seen the official light of day – and that includes four complete sessions from 1969.  A couple of other tracks on Move have lain unheard since broadcast on local Birmingham radio in January 1966, and that same month finally surrenders a couple of tracks from an early acetate.  So yes, while there’s no shortage of familiarity on display here, there’s plenty of reasons to celebrate, too.

Plus, you get Esoteric’s traditional promise of decent mastering, which is something else

to celebrate.

In fairness, that first Move album is not the passionate classic that it ought to have been.  No matter that Roy Wood was the band’s principle songwriter, the band was nevertheless riven by four distinct musical minds, and a lot of Move was dedicated to satisfying each of them.  This is even more evident on the BBC sessions, although it must now be conceded that past attempts to collect these tapes have not done the band any favors.  With way too much attention paid to their sometimes eccentric taste in cover versions, previous offerings served up a wholly skewed vision of the group.  Hearing the complete sessions, in sequence, tells a very different, and far more dynamic tale.

It was as a singles act that the band truly excelled, however, because that’s where Wood’s control was complete.  The first half of any self-respecting greatest hits LP is recreated here, alongside the b-sides and sundry other jewels… including “Vote For me,” a brilliant choice for a summer 67 hit single, that went unreleased for fear of – well, read the liners.  It’s a long story.

But anyone who can sit through “Flowers in the Rain” without grinning like an imbecile is obviously a soulless corpse, and “I Can Hear the Grass Grow” is almost as all-consuming.  Just wait till we get to Shazam, though, and the incomparably stupendous “Blackberry Way.”  Now that’s what pop music ought to sound like.  All pop music.  Every single bit of it.

Back to Move.  Mono and stereo mixes devour the first two discs, and for all the collectible cachet attached to the former, it’s the latter that truly sparkles.  The behind the scenes team of producer Denny Cordell and engineer Gerald Chevin knew tricks that left almost everyone else in the shade, and they deployed every one of them on the Move’s stereo mixes – this was the age of psychedelia, after all, but whereas everyone else seemed content simply having the music whizzing from speaker to speaker, the Move wound up sounding like the speakers were whizzing around as well.

All of which means it was a sad day for the ears when the band (aided again by Chevin) took over production themselves for Shazam – although, notably, they had Jimmy Miller handle “Blackberry Way.”  A rockier sound emerged, not quite pedestrian but certainly lacking the unhinged mania of the best of Move, and the public did not respond well.

“Blackberry Way” aside, singles from this era performed far less dramatically; Shazam itself vanished with nary a look back… it was really only with the Move’s rediscovery by the cult that now sings their praises so loud that Shazam (and, indeed, its successors) was dissected for its good points, rather than its bad, and the six songs that comprised the original vinyl do now glimmer with the group’s future intent, a muscular flexing that would culminate in the mighty “Brontosaurus.”  And, if you’re so inclined, “Do Ya” as well.

So, two beautifully packaged, great sounding albums, back on the shelves for the umpteenth time, but whispering sweetly to all who glance at them, “forsake all others, I’m the one that you want.”  And they’re right.  Whether the Move have ever moved you or not, these are the reissues we’ve spent way too long dreaming of.

Now go play “Blackberry Way” again.  And again and again and again.

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