Action Time Vision - A Story of Independent UK Punk 1976-1979
Strange, but true. The most telling observation on the post-punk passage of time is the scene in the video for Shampoo’s “Trouble.” A middle-aged dad is looking angrily up the street, waiting the teenaged daughters who have stayed out too late. He is wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt.
That was in 1995. And it’s telling because it reminds us not only, as author Nik Cohn once put it, that this year’s anarchists are next year’s boring old farts, but also because it illustrates the ease with which the most irresponsible youth will eventually turn into his or her own parents. And you can argue with that all you want, but first answer this. What do you think of the rubbish that the youngsters listen to today?
Well, it’s a load of passionless bollocks, innit. Not like wot when we woz young. Maaaaan.
Our-parents-ourselves are going to be having a high old time this year, though. Forty years since the summer of Punk; forty years since 1977; forty years since Johnny was Rotten, Sidney was Vicious and even KISS’s latest album got down with the kids. Well, what else is a Love Gun if not a sex pistol?
Let’s have a party.
The next year promises a lot of new soundtracks to remind us of the good old days, and a few of them are already with us. Four CDs of sub-bootleg Sex Pistols live recordings from their formative blast through 1976 dropped last summer; the Ramones’ debut album got the deluxe treatment too. Soul Jazz have been pumping out multiple volumes of their Punk 45 compilations; and, of course, the Snivelling Shits finally made it into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.
Actually, that’s not true. A whole bunch of snivelling shits made it into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, the same as they always do. And that’s good, because there’s a lot of people who don’t like punk, and it must be very reassuring for them to know they can trust one august bastion of class, taste and musical excellence not to fall for all this retro-bondage-pant nonsense. The closest the class of 2017 got to the halcyon days of forty years back was probably Yes. Let’s keep it that way.
Enough. Yes, there’s going to be a lot of soundtracks released etcetera etcetera, but they’re all going to have to try very hard indeed to top the one that landed just before Christmas… which is titled for the one of the immortal songs of the entire era… which packs four discs full of aural napalm, then sits back to watch the fireworks. It’s called Action Time Vision and yes, it includes the Snivelling Shits, with the immortal “Terminal Stupid” (which wasn’t as good as its b-side, “I Can’t Come,” but no matter.). And “Action Time Vision” itself, by the mighty ATV. Which wasn’t as good as its flexidisc predecessor, “Love Lies Limp,” but again, no matter.
Cherry Red, the minds behind the box set, have form when it comes to punk compilations. Indeed, back when the scars were still fresh, they released a double album package called Burning Ambitions, which told the tale between 1977-1982 and, in terms of visceral immediacy, it remains Year Zero for punkoid anthologies.
Think of Action Time Vision as its grandson, then. There’s enough familial resemblance to keep the family tree a-flourishing, but enough of its own personality to assure us that this ain’t no simple zerox. As Adam and the Ants put it via their contribution. In fact, you’re three discs in before you reach the first duplicate… the Ruts’ seminal “In A Rut”; and onto disc four before you find another, the Cockney Rejects’ “Flares’N’Slippers.” Which, across 111 tracks, is not a bad innings whatsoever.
Neither, for which we should all get our nipples pierced in fulsome celebration, is there room for the vast majority of the bands whom you’d expect to find here. To paraphrase the Clash, who are just one of the most notable absentees, “no Pistols, Jam or the Boomtown Rats in 2017.” No Gen X, no Stranglers, no Adverts or Banshees, either.
We do get the Damned, by virtue of them releasing the first UK punk 45 of them all (“New Rose”), but this is the story of punk seen largely through the eyes of Those That Also Served, the lumpenprole whose sheer weight of numbers insisted that punk become a phenomenon, as opposed to a mere flash in the cans.
Eater, the Radiators from Space, the Cortinas, the Drones, the Lurkers, the Unwanted, 999, Johnny Moped… a few of them later washed up on major labels, but this tells us where they started, amid the ferment of indy labels that punk encouraged, and that’s the other key to the movement’s legacy, the fact that the majors might have had the biggest names, and that’s how punk was tamed.
Even the Pistols calmed down once they arrived on a label (Virgin) that wasn’t going to disinfect the offices every time their name was mentioned, while the Jam (Polydor), the Clash (CBS), Generation X (Chrysalis), the Stranglers and Buzzcocks (UA)… and so on and so forth… all lost more than a little of their formative fury once they realized how much more comfortable they’d be if they exchanged their maisonettes for mansions.
Puncture, the Vacants, the Maniacs (signed briefly to UA, but it didn’t help), the Outsiders, the Unwanted, the Wasps… these bands barely got their foot on the ladder, but that was not the point. For perhaps the last time in rock history, and certainly the last time that actually mattered, bands were forming and recording because they could, not because they dreamed the man from Decca Records would be pouring cash down their throats the moment he heard them. They’d be lucky if Step Forward paid attention.
Of course they could dream, and some dreams came true. The singer from the Killjoys became the singer with Dexy’s. Johnny and the Self-Abusers put the kleenex away long enough to become Simple Minds. Tubeway Army begat Gary Numan; the Skids begat Big Country; the Nipple Erectors spawned the Pogues. Kirsty MacColl and Billy Bragg both emerged from Riff Raff, the aforementioned Adam would become a teen idol, and it now seems impossible to even imagine a time when we didn’t all genuflect at the feet of Joy Division. But there was, and this was what it sounded like.
We meet Sham, the Rezillos and Stiff Little Fingers when an indy 45 was the peak of their ambition; and the Stoat, V2 and the Art Attacks when that remained the case. But Nicky & the Dots still thrill with the über-compulsive “Never Been So Stuck”; The Shapes make you shiver with the plaintive “What’s For Lunch, Mum? Not B***s Again!”; the Flys’ “Love and a Molotov Cocktail” was a monster hit in waiting, long before EMI signed and then set about burying the band. And Patrick Fitzgerald’s “Safety Pin Stuck In My Heart” is still a stone cold, drop dead masterpiece.
Menace, the X-Certs, the Only Ones, the Dodgems. The Adicts, the Proles, Silent Noise and the Licks. The Disco Zombies! The ACME Sewage Company. Some Chicken. The story didn’t end in ’77, after all - there was still a bucketful of classic punk singles being churned out through 1979, and there’s a heaping helping of them here, whether you think you’ve heard of the artists or not.
Classic hits in scrappier clothing. A few tracks here were rerecorded by their makers on the occasions when major labeldom came along… the Members’ “Solitary Confinement,” for one. Others were rereleased ditto… Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device.” But still this is punk as the most level playing field, from Sensible to Small Wonder, from Fresh to Vengeance; from Albatross to Zoma. Some of the labels became better-known than others; some (Stiff, Beggars Banquet, Chiswick, Cherry Red) eventually became major players in their own right; and a couple (UA, DJM) shouldn’t really be here, but they are, and their contributions work. The whole box works. The entire package works.
Great liner notes tell the story first via brief reflections by One Who Was There - the Vice Creems’ Kris Needs; then with a track by track breakdown of the bands. Sleeves are pictured, live ads are reprised, faces stare out of old promo photos. And the older folk who pick this up will browse through its pages, reflecting sadly on all the singles they bought and then sold when they needed a quick spot of cash, never even imagining a time when all this would be nostalgia, and punk rock would be as distant from today as the outbreak of World War Two was from then.
You think you’re cool with your vintage Pistols T-shirt, and maybe you are. But you laughed at your dad’s Glen Miller tux, didn’t you?
Punk was glorious, punk was fun, and sometimes, yes, it did feel like a battle. Or a war. But it also meant a lot to the people to whom it meant something, and continues to do so, too, which is why one sometimes feels sorry for those people who missed it at the time or, worse still, were there and just didn’t get it.
So what if a lot of it was snot-nosed rubbish? So what if a lot of the bands couldn’t play well? And, especially, so what if it all looks slightly silly now (“Are you really going out dressed like that?”)? You can’t hearspiky haircuts and safety-pins on a record, any more than you can hear antique rugs and muesli on whichever prog concept album you’ve jammed up your backside this week.
The fact is, rock’n’roll is meant to be fun. Which is what punk was. Or, at least, it was a lot more fun than sitting contemplating your navel while some over-sensitive pantywaist droned on about how he’d bathed his underpants in the pools of cosmic awareness, while his bandmates hoped the tape ran out before the bong was emptied. Cos that’s a lot of what we had to listen to beforehand.
Pedantic history points to the survival of swathes of the musical generation that punk succeeded, and mocks the insistence that it purged rock’s hoariest excesses. Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Tull, they all lumbered on apparently unaffected. Ah, but their songs grew shorter, their rhythms grew spikier, their topics grew more topical. They started having hit singles, three minute bursts of bopalong sound that had absolutely nothing in common with the topographic hogweeds of earlier renown, and everything in common with the new economy. An economy that punk created.
Besides, cockroaches survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the landfills will outlive the human race. That doesn’t mean we have to like them, though, and it doesn’t negate the cause of the apocalypse, either. Punk junked more than it permitted to survive, and beyond that, it rewired the musical aspirations of a generation, to ensure that the vanquished would never return in anything like their earlier numbers. And that was (one reason) why it was important. Indeed, even if it only put an end to one philosophically-inclined, Mellotron-toting, classically-inspired mid-seventies grotesquerie, it probably served its purpose.
Forty years on, though, we do not praise the destruction. We honor the destructors’ existence in the first place. And while this collection… the best since the majors-heavy 1-2-3-4 Punk & New Wave 1976-1979 collection, boxed up back in 1999… won’t catapult you back to another night at the Roxy, missing the last bus back to the burbs, and walking home late to find dad at the gate, you will at least have an answer to his inevitable question.
“Do you know what time it is?”
Yes, father. It’s time for Action, Time and Vision. And if you play the four discs loudly enough, you might still get into lots of glorious trouble.