Reviews: Brit Pop, Unicorn, Stooges, Northern Ireland Punk, 1971, 1978, NWOBHM

Dave Thompson reviews the Stooges live, the Unicorn box set and a heap of hot compilations
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Super Sonics: 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats

(RPM)

Britpop was the last truly significant musical movement in the history of rock’n’roll. Which may well prompt cries of outrage from followers of emo, emu and all the other one day wonders with which we’ve been assaulted since then, but tough. If any of those represent a new musical force, then rock’n’roll is so dead that even the pennies on its eyes have turned to dust.

But we digress. Britpop was fun, Britpop was fab and the fact that it meant next to nothing in the USA only amplifies the accuracy of its name. Songs about drive-ins, turnpikes and having fun in daddy’s teabag are universal. Songs about walking down Streatham High Street and popping into Dixons to buy a Music Centre… less so. Camden New Jersey is always going to trump Camden NW1, and that is how it should be.

Of course, not every Britpop band was successful, even at home. In fact, when you actually count them up, not many were. Suede, Pulp, Oasis and Blur were the big ones; there was a dozen or so hearty also-rans - Gene, Sleeper, Elastica… there was a bunch of one hit wonders… and then there’s this lot. Forty songs by forty bands, and if you remember even six of their names, let alone own one of their records, then you’re doing well.

First things first. Shampoo, Kenickie, Menswear and David Devant & his Spirit Wife don’t belong here, the first three because they did have hits, the fourth because they had (and still have) one of the best band names ever, and made music to match.

The rest, though… ah, Powder and Peepshow, Posh, Pram and Pimlico. The magnificent Scala, Spearmint and Speedway. Rialto, who packed at least two Britpop classics onto their debut album, and then fell off the radar. And the Weekenders, whose contribution to this package probably sums up the whole Britpop vs America dilemma. “Inelegantly Wasted in Papa’s Penthouse Flat in Belgravia” is a wonderful song title. But it probably won’t fly in Peoria.

There are no words for how much fun this box is, how many memories come screeching out of it, even if you’ve never heard the song before. That sound, that attitude, that ineffable specter of Fey Punks on Chamomile swaggering out of the speakers as every fresh song begins.

That’s especially true across disc one, which is one “oh my goodness, this is brill” after another; disc two shines the light on some of the more arty contributors, which is another mood entirely. But it’s fabulous regardless, and it’s probably the only place you’re going to hear Mambo Taxi, and the second finest title in the set. “Do You Always Dress Like That In Front of Other People’s Boyfriends?”

Only when I’m hanging out in Camden….

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The Stooges

Live At Goose Lake: August 8, 1970

(Third Man)

Stooges live albums are like buses. You wait for hours and then a ramshackle beater with rusty wheels and zero brakes comes shambling along the road. It seems only yesterday (although it was, in fact, ten years ago) that we got the Live at Ungano’s set from the week after this show), and who can forget that span in the nineties when there seemed to be a new Metallic KO era live set released every month?

This one, though is special. Goose Lake International Music Festival was as major an event as its name suggests - performances from the Faces, Ten Years After, Jethro Tull, the James Gang and Bob Seger saw to that. And the Stooges, as you’d probably expect, aren’t quite up to the occasion - a stash of horse tranquilizer saw to that. Guitarist Dave Alexander sounds the most affected by the pre-gig refreshments, and there are moments where… well, there are moments where.

But that is simply window dressing. The fact is, the best sounding vintage Stooges live album yet is everything you could hope for, the full Fun House album sounding as urgent, threatening and magnificent as it did the very first time you played the original record.

The audience is, as is the norm with such recordings, largely apathetic, but the band sounds fantastic for all their handicaps, and - let’s face it. If there was any other live performers who could hold a candle to period Iggy, nobody got around to recording them.

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Shellshock Rock

(Cherry Red)

The latest in Cherry Red’s occasional series of local scene round-ups shines the light on the Northern Irish scene of the late 1970s/very early 1980s. It’s led off, of course, by the Undertones and headed up their colleagues on the groundbreaking Good Vibrations label, but it quickly spills out to highlight 74 tracks worth of local talent, many with two songs apiece.

The accompanying DVD, meanwhile, serves up the legendary 1979 movie that titles this collection, a rough but very, very ready study of what made local punk tick - and, of course, it was unlike any of the motivations behind the British scene. Life in a virtual war zone is a helluva lot different to being young and broke and on the dole in the English suburbs.

That the conflict looms large over all the bands featured here goes without saying - what must be commended is how few of them chose to comment directly upon it; Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device,” opening disc two, is probably the most blatant. Elsewhere, the sense is of bands trying to show that teenage kicks (to borrow the Undertones’ greatest moment) are the same the world over, whatever is going on around you. And they do it really well.

As always with this kind of collection, not every inclusion is skull-crushingly brilliant, but those are certainly in the minority. Truth is, for the most part, this box is at least a ton of fun, while the accompanying booklet is Cherry Red’s usual packed affair of info and pix.

If you know even a handful of the bands included here (Ruefrex, Protext, Rudi, the Outcasts, Victim… you’ll find them), you will want to seek this out. If you don’t, but you care about the era… you’ll want it anyway.

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Unicorn

The Recordings 1974-1979

(Esoteric)

Now this is good. At least for two albums, 1974’s Blue Pine Trees and 196’s Too Many Crooks, Unicorn were at least some people’s tip for top rock fame, and when you remember that one of those people was Dave Gilmour, you’ll appreciate why there was so much excitement. Four well-stuffed CDs prove that his faith was justified.

Disc one rounds up Blue Pine Trees - Unicorn’s second album, following on from a debut that most people had forgotten about by then (and apparently continue to do so - we await its reissue with increasing impatience).

Ten songs pinpoint the melodic brilliance of Unicorn’s music, opening with an “Electric Nights” that nails them into the kind of territory that a rootsier Dire Straits might have fallen into, had there been less reliance on that guitar sound… in fact, recent solo Mark Knopfler releases might well have spent a fair bit of time hanging out with old Unicorn albums, a mood that percolates across Blue Pine Trees and will reach its apex on their second set, Too Many Crooks.

Certainly the presence of Dave Gilmour as producer, while doubtless a selling point for some would-be purchasers, should not be regarded as an acid test by the unconverted. Blue Pine Trees packs a casual looseness that falls far from any Floydian pastures; indeed, if you think Brinsley Schwarz before big rigs and flying pigs, you’ll again be in the right ballpark

The original album is appended here with no less than six bonus tracks, including a BBC session and both sides of the “Ooh! Mother” and “I’ll Believe In You” 45s… much the same as the album’s 2017 reissue, then, barring one absent song, the alternate version of “Ooh Mother.” An odd, and somewhat infuriating decision.

Too Many Crooks also echoes the 2017 reissue, only this time it gets it right - all six bonus tracks are included. Again it’s a very strong album… maybe even superior to its predecessor, with “Bullseye Bill” and “No Way Out of Here” in particular standing out. Again, Gilmour is on board and this time he was impressed enough to cover the latter track on his first solo album. This band was going places.

And then it all came tumbling down with 1977’s Slow Dancing, which would have been a less than stellar effort even without the outside world having suddenly become more interested in punk than country-flavored, west coast influenced, guitar rock. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad album - just that it’s nowhere near as good as the two before, and Unicorn knew it. They broke up soon after. (Again, seven bonus tracks echo the last reissue).

That leaves The Archive Recordings which, infuriatingly, offers up scant information as to what, where or when the material dates from, beyond a credit for the guy who transferred a bunch of them from quarter-inch tape, and a lone BBC copyright. Three songs were recorded live on the band’s 1974 US tour, there’s a demo and alternate mix that date from the Slow Dancing era, and there’s some intriguing cover versions, from the McGarrigles to Gram Parsons, and three Bob Dylan, too. It’s great, but an ounce of context would have been nice.

Mysterious origins notwithstanding, it’s a terrific collection and there’s even better news in discovering that nothing here duplicates the Laughing Up Your Sleeve collection of 1973-1974 Gilmour demos released by Omnivore a couple of years back. Which means Unicorn fans have now two full CDs worth of unheard material in just a couple of years, and could anyone ever have predicted that?

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1978: The Year the UK Turned Day-Glo

(Cherry Red)

Consult the majority of punk history books, and they’ll all tell you the same thing. Punk Rock ended … maybe when the Pistols split, maybe the day they appeared on TV and swore, and maybe somewhere in between. It was certainly dead and buried by 1978, which begs the question… so how come this box set is so riotously enjoyable?

True, there’s nothing here with the primal game changing force of the first wave of bands… the Pistols, the Adverts, the Clash, the Damned. But there’s a ton of 1977 survivors on board, and a wealth of bands that clearly grew up in their shadow. There’s glimpses into the future, there’s a bucketload of UK chart hits, and there’s sufficient three chord wonders to at least keep the punk fires burning.

In fact, song for song and idiot grin for idiot grin, a box devoted to 1978 might actually be more exciting than the one that was given to ’77, not so long ago.

Where to start? At the beginning with Sham, the Stranglers and 999? On disc two, with X-Ray Spex proclaiming the song that titled this box in the first place? Disc three, with Public Image arising from the wreckage of the Pistols, and leading us into a world in which the likes of the Cure, the Fall, the Monochrome Set and Magazine would flourish?

Elsewhere, there’s hits from the Tom Robinson Band, the Boomtown Rats, the Rich Kids, the Only Ones, Jilted John, the Rezillos and Stiff Little Fingers; a great Status Quo parody from the Albertos; glimpses back at last year from Eater, the UK Subs, Menace and the Automatics; and tastes of the superstars that weren’t from the Zones, Nikki & the Dots, the Records and the Stoat. Oh, and the Coventry Automatics, trying to get a ska revival up and running a year before they became the Specials.

Yes, there are plenty of notable absentees here, but with almost eighty tracks across three discs, and a great little booklet too, this is as thorough a snapshot of a really-not-so-bad year as you could hope for, and a lot more convenient than trying to hunt down the original singles and compilations.

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Musik Music Musique

Cherry Red

Ah, the history of synthipop… or, at least, its birth. Fifty-eight chunks of bleep, squeak and boop-boop-boop that add up, across three discs, into a reminder of just how revolutionary a lot of this stuff was, back before everyone was buying a synth and pressing this button. Followed by that one.

It’s early. Names you know are not necessarily caught at the points you’d expect - OMD, Japan and Spandau (“Messages,” “Quiet Life” and “Glow” respectively) maybe. But the Human League, Ultravox, Suicide, Toyah, Kim Wilde… not so much. Especially if you’re wondering whether some of those names should even be included.

We catch Our Daughters Wedding with the perhaps inevitable “Lawnchairs,” and Karel Fialka with the Numan-esque “The Eyes Have It.” But no Numan, which does seem a bit of a weird one; instead, we find Phil Lynott getting down with the kids with the still exhilarating “Yellow Pearl,” British Standard Unit’s absurd cover of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, the Silicon Teens’ “Chip and Roll”… seriously, it’s so all over the place that one wonders how any kind of musical movement ever coalesced from such disparate roots. After all, if your forebears include the Residents, Suicide and Fad Gadget, would you really expect fame to come knocking?

But it’s a wonderful listen, three hours plus that illustrate just how left field this whole thing was and, as a thematic follow-up to earlier Cherry Red collections of seventies/early eighties electronica, the only thing missing is packaging to match - they came in lavish bookshelf boxes; this arrives in a thin cardboard slipcase. But the booklet’s fun and the bleeps and squeaks will haunt you forever.

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NWOBHM Thunder

(HNE Recordings)

That’s the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, in case you were wondering, and if you picked up the same label’s NWOBHM: Winds of Time anthology a couple of years back, here’s your chance to delve even deeper into a world where the energy of punk and the might of metal came crunching together to produce…

…Saxon! Girlschool! Witchfynde! The Tygers of Pan Tang! And more, more, more, forty four heaving monsters from the end of the seventies and into the eighties… too far into the eighties, maybe, because the wave was hardly new by 1986. But the bands sound like they’re still having fun, and if you don’t follow along in the accompanying booklet, it’s occasionally hard to tell whether you’re listening to a first wave pioneer or a mid-decade late-comer.

That the NWOBHM probably resurrected more veteran careers than it launched brand new ones is a crime for which the music industry of the time should one day be held accountable - Praying Mantis, Cloven Hoof, Demon Pact and Chrome Molly are all as scintillating as their names suggest, and certainly better than spending another night in wondering what is this white snake of which David Coverdale seems so proud. Samson top Gillan every day of the week, and there were nights on Girlschool’s tour with Motorhead when you wondered whether the billing had not been accidentally inverted.

Yes, there are the usual losers on board… no names, just in case Girl are your favorite band ever. But we forgive them for all the discoveries included here, and metal’s last truly great insurrection still feels as fresh as - insert your own menacing simile here.

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Peephole in my Brain: The British Progressive Pop Sounds of 1971

(Grapefruit)

1971 for reasons known only to the calendar, was the year in which the underground came overground and, without quite Wombling free, certainly upset a lot of predictions for the new year.

The psychedelic weirdness formerly known as Tyrannosaurus Rex was the biggest breakthrough, at the end of 1970, and a bunch of reconfigured skinhead shouters named Slade neatly bookended ’71.

In between times, though… Curved Air, Medicine Head, Atomic Rooster and John Kongos leaped out of the prog potpourri to become, if only for a moment, genuine UK chart contenders. Status Quo reignited their long ago moment of pop stardom by kicking off another; there was a heavy metal version of “Sugar Sugar” which, if you didn’t know it was really Jonathan King, you might have blamed on Frigid Pink; and the Move’s “Tonight” was simply a Behemoth.

And behind it all… Kevin Ayers, Stray, Michael Chapman, the Broughtons, Siren, Zior, underground angels one and all, suddenly didn’t seem so avant after all, while Barclay James Harvest and Emerson Lake & Palmer might have had names that sounded like law firm letterheads, but when the latter kicked into “Are You Ready, Eddy?”, all bets were off.

This is a crazy box, three discs and seventy-one tracks worth of bouncing, boogie-ing, bopping … well, it’s still prog, Jim, but not as we know it.

In fact, you can imagine closing the door on 1971 and thinking, if that was anything to judge by, the next few years are going to be extraordinary.

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