Wayne County and the Electric Chairs
Wayne… now Jayne… County was already a legend when she arrived in the UK in 1976, fresh from what any other artist would have regarded as a career-stifling sojourn in David Bowie’s entourage, but which she simply turned into anecdote.
A debut single on the Illegal label, a fabulous appearance in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee movie, and a slew of increasingly outrageous/hilarious/exhilarating live shows followed, and then the records started pouring out.
The “Eddie and Sheena” single, the further adventures of the Ramones’ hit punk rocker; the banned-by-everyone “Fuck Off” 45; and then the conciliatory magnificence of “Trying to get on the Radio”… County’s seven inchers represent one of the key sagas in the UK punk story, and still they were only a warm up for the albums.
Wrapped up together in this box set, with bonus tracks aplenty and an excellent book of liners and pix, three studio lengthers fell from the skies: the Electric Chairs debut, Storm the Gates of Heaven and Things Your Mother Told You, each more adventurous, more explosive than the last, and the latter poised so close to wired experimentation that the band probably had to break up in its aftermath, because where else could they go?
County’s Safari label career wound down with her first album as Jayne, the live Rock and Roll Resurrection, and it’s probably the place to start for ingenues - a sharp round-up of the expected showstoppers, drawn from throughout her career.
But when you move onto the albums yourself, you realize that County - for all her onstage volatilty - was anything but the naughty novelty act that the UK media seemed to think.
A savage songwriter schooled in the tunefulness of the British Invasion, but never content to leave her influences where she found then, County was at the forefront of punk rock’s charge into the post-punk era, and she was there before most punks even realized where they were headed.
Again, that third album was the crucial one. Produced by a future Flying Lizard, its veers wildly around the County spectrum, but “Berlin,” its strongest number, says more about the divided city than any number of boring Bowie instrumentals. Because that, too, was one of County’s strongest points - she didn’t just reflect what she saw going on around her. She understood it, too. And, in doing so, she let everyone else in on the secret.
Metal Postcard Records
If there’s any good to have come out of lockdown, and the appalling toll it has taken on live music, it’s that the nature of the modern studio is almost tailor-made for social distancing. I sit at my laptop, you sit at yours, and we’ll just hurl our contributions back and forth through the ether. Expect to see (hear) a lot of lockdown rock in the next few months.
But don’t expect Brian Bordello to approve of much of it. Whether with his regular band, the Bordellos, or not, he may be the king of low-fi, but he’s also the king of curmudgeonly observation as well. And when you slam the two together with as little sonic trickery as possible, the end result is akin to an evening spent listening to your own thoughts on… well, everything… The good ones, the bad ones, the worse ones, and the positively intolerable ones.
Unlike the band, the solo BB is basically a duet for voice and acoustic guitar, with its sights set largely on the nostalgia-driven riptide that seems to dominate modern conversation. Which doesn’t stop him writing a very brief little song about the Velvet Underground (titled, naturally, “The Velvet Underground”), because sometimes, the past really is better than the present.
But time and again, a lyric, a line, an underlying notion, will leap out of the speakers and you wonder just how long Bordello’s been sitting inside your head, mining your most unspeakable thoughts and setting them to music. And then you realize how glad you are that he is.
Oh, you can’t even imagine how much fun this three CD box set is. You think you know your junkshop glam, your seventies kitsch, your scratchy old singles, and maybe you do. But secreted within the 86 tracks that lurk behind this garish cover, there are joys… there is fun… there are seasons that you’ve never heard of, all reaching out saying “play me… love me… and if you don’t, f*ck ya.”
The timespan is crucial. For the rockers, 1970 may have been all about trying to make sense of the decade that had gone before (the swinging bits of it, anyway). But for the popsters, it was about throwing all that in the garbage pail and marching on into a future that nobody could have predicted, but which seemed to be looming regardless.
Glam rock was coming, but even Marc Bolan - who invented the thing - didn’t know that yet, so instead we had things like Blue Mink’s strident “Banner Man,” Hotlegs’ pounding “Neanderthal Man,” Lt Pigeon’s plonking “Dirty Old Man”, Tristar Airbus’s “Travellin’ Man,” and just in case you’re thinking “well hang on, was every song of the day about men?”, there’s Jonathan King’s “Gay Girl” to start balancing the books.
There are songs about undergarments…. “Leap Up and Down and Wave Your Knickers in the Air.” “Don’t Stick Stickers on my Paper Knickers.” And songs about over-garments… “Yer Big Girl’s Blouse.” The thing is, pop was fun back then, and not just fun in a “hey, lets all go to the hop and tap our toes to the jukebox jive.” Fun in the kind of way that not only eschewed, but positively disparaged the deeply bearded souls who sang of serious stuff on the album stations.
Fun in a way that made you want to run around singing “Harry the Earwig” and “Cowboy Convention.” When Mungo Jerry’s post-“Summertime” hits were the greatest thing on two ears, and the aforementioned Jonathan King was simply churning out the hits and misses. Spin Cycle’s favorite is “Johnny Reggae” by the Piglets. Except when it’s “Loop Di Love” by Shag. Even his pseudonyms were brilliant.
There are some “grown-up” moments in sight - Viv Stanshall, David Essex, Marmalade, the Tremoloes. There are some obscure 10cc sidelines lurking in the small print, for it was making records like these that paid their bills in the post-Hotlegs era). There’s bands whose toes will curl in horror at the thought of being featured on a box set like this.
But there’s also bands with names like Fickle Pickle and Flannelcat, Butterwick and the Bay City Rollers (who will never get anywhere if that’s what they’re called). And the music ends in 1973 because, arguably, it did. Glam was in full swing by then, and people stopped writing brilliant songs in the hope of igniting the next musical wave, and concentrated on trying to ride the current one. And you can guess what happened next.
Golden Strings to Tether the Sun
And here’s another reason to laud the lockdown. It wasn’t that long ago that the Mill declared that it was closing for business. And then business elsewhere came to a halt, and we’ve had more fresh prolusions in the last few months that we’d had in years beforehand.
Golden Strings was largely recorded between April and June this year, and rounds up the Mill’s own favorite folk/traditional songs. “John Barleycorn,” “Bushes and Briars,” “Bedlam Boys”… some familiar from the Among the Gorse to Settle Scores EP of a few months back, but the remainder fresh and just as invigorating.
The arrangements, as you’d expect from the Mill, are lavish, laced in traditional instrumentation, and yet performed with such gorgeous simplicity that one almost wants to shake a fist at the folk rock creations of yore. This is how this music should be heard, and long may the Mill continue to turn it out.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik
Oh shush, you liked them really.
Of course you did, because what was there to hate? The loudest noise the mid-eighties ever heard, the brightest colors they ever saw, the tallest hair, the most magnificent clothes - Mad Max meets Max Factor and steals his auntie’s wardrobe… Sigue Sigue Sputnik pillaged all that was great from every past era, then splayed it across a computer floppy disc and told the world they were brilliant.
And the world agreed. Up to a point. For a few moments.
But that was enough. Sputnik made one great album and even diehard fans have trouble remembering the second, which is why this box set is all that you need. More than you need. Too much, you might say, and maybe you’re right. But the original Flaunt It! debut album fills one disc, remixes and b-sides hog two more… and we will pause for a moment to consider the ramifications of listening to seven versions of “Love Missile F1-11” in a row… and an unreleased live show devours disc four.
And the whole thing is exactly as you remember it. Or, if you don’t remember it, exactly like you wish modern bands looked and sounded like.
Yes, the computer stuff sounds hideously dated now, for what was once cutting edge is now an old potato skin at the bottom of the pig bin; and what was once outrageous is now so outmoded that even lacing real live commercials through your debut album is no different to listening to Spotify.
But, when they were good… and truly most of the album, a lot of the remixes, and the whole live show meet that criteria… Sputnik were fabulous, and just in case you’d forgotten, even David Bowie covered “Love Missile F1-11.” And if you can’t trust him, who can you trust?
(Fruits de Mer)
Sadly not a new album, but still Barrett’s Allsorts is a special thrill, as Tony Durant sets his sights on two primal Pink Floyd numbers, and transforms them both into… well, Fuchsia.
“See Emily Play” and “Bike” are, respectively, among the most oft- and seldom-covered of all Syd Barrett’s Floydian constructs, but Durant doesn’t have much truck with any place they’ve been before.
“Emily” is heavily orchestrated, lush and lovely; “Bike” is taken as a mach-ten Cockney knees up, with discordant fiddles and everybody sounding as though they can’t wait for the verses to finish, so they can get on with the instrumental break. And , to be truthful, it’s not necessarily a triumph. But how much better it is to hear the song upended like this, rather than being laid flat out and familiar, which is how most people would treat it.
“Emily,” however, is a soaring success, and this might well be Fruits’ single of the year. Another couple of months and we’ll know for sure.
Talking, as we were, of Rowan Amber Mill, but adding Grey Malkin and Gayle Brogan to the brew, Meadowsilver have been punctuating the ether for the last year or so with a string of four singles, and a fifth (“She Casts Her Spell”) that is imminent.
And here they all are, bound up into one glorious deluxe package of so-called “single edits,” accompanied by a second disc comprising full length versions and more.
Deep-and-darkly orchestrated folk, of the variety that the modern age insists on terming “wyrd,” Meadowsilver is an exquisite melding of Mill and Malkin’s haunted musicianship, and Brogan’s haunting vocals. In as much as it is allied to all three conspirators’ more familiar musings, there is a warm familiarity to it all. But there are layers beneath the layers, and so much more to discover that one can only hope this is not a one-off aggregation.
It’s funny how “women in rock” remains a marketable topic, whereas “men in rock” probably wouldn’t get off the post-it note. Numerically, the latter do have the historical edge, and that was even more true during the period beneath the microscope here.
But still there’s something almost archaic about the concept today… something that is only kicked into play when you drop in the first disc, and Poly Styrene shrieks the battle cry that probably united more female punks than all the eyeliner in the world. “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”
Four discs, eighty tracks, and at least across the first couple of discs, you do get the impression that being a woman in a band in late 70s/early 80s Britain was a norm-defying gesture. The Mo-Dettes, the Androids of Mu, the Raincoats, the Au Pairs, the Spoilsports, the Slits… the rebelliousness of punk itself took on an extra dimension in their hands, and it was one which really only started to crumble once the early 90s brought us Riot Grrrl and Lilith Fair.
But it’d be wrong to regard the contents of this box as simply a precursor to either of those scenes. Rather, four discs may be united by the fact that at least one member of every act here was a lady, but more fascinating is the fact that they spun so far across the musical spectrum that to even try and pinpoint a single “female rockers” viewpoint is utterly futile.
From the punk extremes of the Poison Girls to the anarcho-thrust of the Lost Cherees; from the pop effervescence of Bananarama to the stark tones of Sinead O’Connor, and on through the Cocteaus, “The Boiler,” A Craze, Vice Squad, Talulah Gosh and the mighyt, mighty Fuzzbox, Make a Noise! makes a lot of points, as well.
Not all of which are at all relevant to the box set’s subtitle, but maybe that was the intention. Oh bondage, up everybody’s.
Check out Dave Thompson's Spin Cycle column every month in the print pages of Goldmine magazine!