Just shy of thirty years ago the Sex Pistiols were heading to their own imploding doom. Punk was starting to be "commercial" while being exposed as fashion marketing. They served their purpose and when one looks into the history of that era, how many musicians, and non-musicians, started bands after seeing the Pistols club dates? Once they were gone it was time to move on and that is when post-punk began, I guess?
The CD compilation North by North West (Memory Versus Oblivion) is a record of the inception of the fertile and strongly rooted post punk foundation from the english burgs of Manchester and Liverpool. It wasn't just the music but the producers, clubs and boutiques that fashioned the trend. You may have gotten a taste of the times by seeing the movie 24 Hour Party People" and now the sounds being made are cataloged in convenient three CD-box set.
The box is sparse and is gray and bland as english weather. Gritty train station and track photos are the graphics with the cover adding a train map to designate the areas traveled by the bands and fans catching the shows. Each CD is in a simple cardboard sleeve and backed by gray on gray excerpts from the liner notes. The CDs are designated by area, Manchester and Liverpool. A third "bonus" CD is entitled Liverchest and contains some of the more under known bands of the time.
The liner notes are compiled by Paul Morely the NME journalist and band promoter. He writes his liner notes like he was there and guess what? You weren't! The format is disjointed and jumpy while being educational and entertaining despite the seemingly stream of consciousness construction. The notes start with an interestingly truncated musical genelogical tree. You will find out how all these bands got together. You hear how one band formed from one to the other and what the naming options were, be glad they chose what the names that go down in history. You will find out where Ian McCulloch got his signature trench coat and an insiders view of the bands and performances that sprouted farther then the confines of the UK.
The first CD has a list of bands that shows their obscure influence and now classics sounds in the history of underground and independent bands. The sounds are fresh and as resonant as when they emerged. The Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division, Magazine, New Order, A Certain Ration to The Smiths with some lesser known bands like The Passage, Ludus and The Distractions. With the basic knowledge you see the interrelation of all the bands and player's roots
CD One starts with the first single by the Buzzcocks, the Shelly and Devoto construct, Boredom. The fifth song is What Do I Get?, sans Howard Devoto. Two brilliant tracks in the roots of modern rock and pop. Newly expressed emotions and love's tribulations are retooled into a edgy and raw power pop. Devoto went on to create Magazine after being bored with scene that surrounded the Buzzcocks. Magazine's first single. Shot By Both Sides is on CD One and has a sound that is still current in 2006. At the time nothing came close. No keyboard band every sounded so raw, rich smart. Not a trace of new wave novelty but truly novel. Over shadowed by the 'Cocks, Magazine I believe is rife for rediscovery.
I always thought that The Fall's first single in 1977 was Bingo Masters Breakout. The box opts for Repetition which was on the same 7". The sound is pure Fall. The sound ground work was in place and even to this day the tinges of Repetition come through in recent Fall material. It isn't just M.E. Smith's vocal delivery it is the credo of their style. It is abrasive and infectious. It is atonal but has the right pop references to be approachable. You know the Beatles only were around for about 7 years. The Fall is at thirty years. This is the start of The Fall. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
The third song is from John Cooper Clarke, the sixties through seventies till today beat poet from the Big British Book of Smiles. Clarke was Dylan in the Mods. His first single called I Don't Want to be Nice is signature Cooper Clarke. His delivery is sneeringly sarcastic as the times. The title takes a punk stance against normal society. His acidic, drunken swagger mix with intellect and working class toughness. His sound can be redundant in its delivery after a few songs but the point is made with this appearance. Alleyways dirt, ash, soot and societal disgust are raised to a level of beauty and paranoia indicative of the times.
Joy Division's first single, Transmission and New Order's first, Ceremony make chronological appearances in the track list at seven and at thirteen. Joy Division and Ian Curtis is forever synonymous with the tortured legends of rock. The sound on Transmission is hard to place. The combinations are alien in any prior rock/pop outside of Roxy Music. The piano is an icy out of place heart beat the drums are like a funeral. What is it that made the sound hit a far reaching emotional chord? Joy Division's early performances were misunderstood and now they are legendary. Every quality that started the legend is encapsulated in Transmission.
Ceremony was a song that Joy Division was performing just before Ian Curtis' suicide. The band had yet to record the song. Looking to find a replacement singer was a daunting task in the shadow of Curtis's death and the rising international popularity of Joy Division. Even naming the band had pressures that strained the band's relationship. New Order was settled on after Peter Hook threatened to leave the band if they stayed with, The Witch Doctors of Zimbabwe. Barney Sumner took on the vocals after an intensive vocalist search. New Order was not a Joy Division rebirth but a new direction for their music and is one of the enduring songs of the early eighties, right along with Joy Division's classics. Ian's Ghost is still haunting in the track but not for long.
A Certain Ratio's Shack Up is included and with the popularity of bands like, !!!. Out Hud and The Rapture it is no wonder the song sounds fresh today as it did then. Weird white funk is what it is. There is something mathematical and intelligent i Ratio's sound. The Contortion's were crazy and Liquid Liquid was too deep. A Certain Ration seemed to get it right. Just danceable enough to get a groove on and smart enough to make the kids think.
The disc contains a few obscurities in the mix. Most songs are fairly recognizable as earmark tracks of the generation but some over looked influences are; Durrutti Column Ludus, The Distractions (listen for the Joy Division Passover bass line), The Passage's Fear and Blue Orchids Doing the song Work. Durrutti Column is a good addition but the most misplaced with its sweet and romantic guitar instrumental, Sketch for Summer. The Passage is the most experimental of the tracks on CD One and they rivaled the misunderstanding that Joy Division received in their early performances. The Blue Orchids track is a lighter experiment and more approachable but this band could just sink without anyone knowing how good they really were. The Ludus track fits perfectly between Shack Up and Ceremony. It is funky and experimental but also has the ethereal quality of the Orchids and New Order.
Ending the first CD is The Smiths signature opus, How Soon Is Now? The spine tingling Johnny Marr riff comes inand all is forgiven. All is forgiven for the sampling is Soho's pop piece of garbage, Hippy Chick. The Smith's Morrisey hit a chord in the disenfranchised and disconnected generation and Marr made one of the greatest riffs of the last 25 years. The song soared and something new was born. A new pop that exalted the depression of a generation. Being down was now cool. Being effeminate was cooler. Being celibate was back. Needing love was not wimpy if you hung in the right crowd or went home alone when the club let out.
CD Two begins with The Spitfire Boys' British Refugee. The sound is raw and poorly recorded but suited them. It was punky with a Sweet glam rock quality of the NYC scene. Originally the band was The Blackmailers and that changed to Spitfire Boys by Wayne County who was self-exiled in Britain. Despite only putting out two singles the band was influential to folks like Julian Cope and their members went on the be in Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Visage, The Slits and Budgie (then known as Blister) went on to The Banshees.
Yachts come next with Suffice to Say. The song starts with potential. Early new wave keyboards and intricate instrumentation lead in but the vocal are a disappointment. They were in the ranks of all those new wave new pop bands with one name; Shirts, Shoes, Records....Yachts. Their song leads into Will Sergeant's (soon to join Echo and the Bunnymen) Fuzztronic. It is one of my favorites and a new discovery on this compilation. It has a mysterious quality like a noir spy film and adds a surf guitar sound that heightens the eerie atmosphere.
Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark's first single Electricity is a song that never took off to the heights that was expected. Taking their cue from the band Kraftwerk while even emulating their album graphics and synthesized sound. The song is cinematic in its composition and like Kraftwerk's foreshadowing of compu-sound OMD had a more romantic and dreamy quality. The OMD sound was richer and more approachable. Electricity is an extolling in the realm of Radioactivity but far more magnetic than robotic.
Echo and the Bunnymen have two appearances on the Liverpool disc. First is Pictures on my Wall (their first single) and Rescue. Pictures is the origins of Echo and started their catapulting sweep into the modern rock consciousness. Rescue is the first major hit for the band. You can hear the start of a band who grew into one of the most recognized and popular bands of the time and share space with The Cure, Joy Division, XTC, and Squeeze. They were dark and different but still became a major international hit.
Wah! Heat's Peter Wylie was an example of how connected all these players were in Manchester and Liverpool. Marked by strong singular visions all his colleagues cut their paths to various recognition. Wylie played with Julian Cope in Teardrop Explodes, who contributes Rewards to the second CD, and Echo and the Bunnymen. The Wah! Heat track is Better Scream. The song is a fantastic and obvious overlap of Echo and Wylie. There is a grandeur in the arrangement that also taps on Cope/Teardrop. Even though it feels like thievery, from whom and to whom?, the track glistens.
Lori and the Chameleons song has a very new wave cast. The keyboards are like Lipps Inc.'s Funkytown on 'ludes. The vocals are part X-Ray Specs and Missing Person's Dale Bozzio. The tunes dark shadow makes it a deeper listen than any new wave. The slightly Japanese sounding guitar work and vocal references show the origins of new wave through simple machine-like marches.
Teardrops Explodes had a shot at fame of less caliber and spray than Echo and the Bunnymen launched. A cult following did come for Julian Cope. I have never fully enjoyed his vocal style. Teardrop's Reward is an intricate arrangement of horn blasts of free jazz and retooled pop. An oddness is only heightened by Cope's vocals. But not as odd and annoying as Care doing Flaming Sword. You go from Echo to Teardrop to Care. This song is so new wave, very effeminate and has a major cringe factor and is one of the weakest in the Box.
Pale Fountain's There's Always Something On My Mind is a prediction of Paul Weller's Style Council. There is a swanky soiree in the arrangement. The jazzy, breezy horns and piano carry the song. It is authentic. There is no cheese factor here. It has a smart, quality arrangement and attention to detail that overcomes campiness. In its day I imagine the song was ironic. After all the time passed it loses the irony and it is just a good listen.
Dalek I Love You was a band that crushed in on itself but all members went on to fame in Echo, OMD, Teardrop Explodes and the lesser known Big in Japan. The song Holiday in Disney land is new wave and keyboard driven. It is a short song with a reggae starting point. But leads beautifully into Lotus Eaters The First Picture of You. An echoing light, romantic ballad. There is a tinge of the Charles Hayward band Camberwell Now without all the mathematical rhythms. It is too sappy for me but where many new wave bands have a cheese factor this song plays like a lost artifact. No cringe factor. Nice arrangements. There was a romantic movement and this cut is a nice indulgence even at 5 1/2 minutes.
Last from Liverpool is Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax. The track is bigger than the sum of its own parts. Sure it is a dance floor classic of benign yet captivating sexual lyrics that are pushed in simile and metaphor but what the hell does it mean? If you were in Europe at the time you never wanted to see another Relax t-shirt, again! I can see the importance in the addition because the band was inbred with others band like all that appear in this box. The problem is that it is product. Sold as product and eaten like a product. Now expelled like product.
The "bonus" CD called Liverchest is the less famous but equally important bands that intertwined in the Manchester to Liverpool scene. The CD leads off with Warsaw's No Love Lost. This was to be the first Joy Division album but it was not released till 1994 outside of bootlegs and the odd pressing. Songs from Warsaw became classic Joy Division material like Transmission on CD One. The sound is Raw Power Iggy to the nth degree. It is nothing like Joy Division. It is naive and visceral. The guitar is nerved, wired. The song sounds like kids trying to be a punky Gang of Four but lack the discipline. The emotional charge leaps from the track. It kicks open the third disc brilliantly.
Slaughter and the Dogs' Cranked Up Real High and Bette Bright and the Illuminations cover o fMy Boyfriend's back are not classic moments outside of the fact that the members were incestuous players in the scene. The Dog's track is a weak, punk pop piece with origins from Dead Boys Sonic Reducer. The trend of redoing classic black pop songs and turing them into odd new wave send ups was rarely successful and the cover of My Boyfriend is not good and from Warsaw to these two songs you really get the feeling that this CD is a mish-mash up of oddities.
The Mighty Lumps recover with a raw surfish version of English pop called Iggy Pop's Jacket. It is a rough and roguish recording that suits the track. Wild sax soloing ala Blurt over zaps the meters. The roughness enhances the feel and delivery. Big in Japan's self-titled track is another raw experience that has a Flipper Brainwashed stop start of ragged bass and guitar with multiple female vocalists. The track is fun and amusing while being punky and dancey. Big in Japan ends with a bit of Japanese keyboard fun that is a quaint artsy touch.
From Big In Japan we jet to Stockholm Monster's'Happy Ever after. Trumpet and piano dominate the arrangement. There is a OMD quality but the sound is more off beat then OMD's controlled melodies. It is a smartly crafted and intricate track. Even with the odd combinations of instruments and influences the experience is very listenable. One of the more interesting listens in the box.
The band James has their song Folklore. It is a sparse track with brush drumming, bar room/ fireside sing along feel. The drumming sound of James leads sweetly into China Crisis' African and White. This is one of my favorite tracks of the time and I think the opus work of China Crisis. The electronic drumming that starts the song has a brush quality of the preceding James song but the bass line and guitar notes change any relation. The breathy two part vocal harmony don't quite fit with the funky bass line. Too white. But isn't that the point? It is an interesting dynamic. The song has an upbeat and laid back rejoicing quality that seems to go against the topic of South African apartheid. That could be the intention as so many African songs are praising and rejoicing in the face of adversity.
Spherical Objects Sweet Tooth gets back to the rawness and weirder sounds. The vocals are not really right but the home made recording and Fall like guitars and keyboard mix to a glorious Spy Vs. Spy soundtrack. The harmonica solo comes out of nowhere but shows what a fantastic monster is created by mixing different parts and pieces of pop to create this track.
Pink Industry, yet another Factory band, has a dreamy echo bass line in Don't Let Go. The sound is soaring but toned down to atmospheric. I can hear Gilbert and Lewis' brainchild AC Marias in the electronic bass and open air arrangemnet. This track is really wonderful and moody.
Crispy Ambulance's Deaf starts with a bass line that is far rawer and then Pink Industry. The signature of Factory records is that heavy echoing drone bass. This song has a far more discordant quality than later Ambulance material. The construct is simple pounding and repetition with vocals that are more yelling than singing. The emotion is angry and painful with a beauty in the release. Crispy Ambulance is an all time favorite of mine and this track has all the basic elements of their later work; intricacy, emotion and add to instrumentation that is both jarring, haunting and often beautiful.
Section 25's Knew Noise comes out of Cripsy Ambulances arty dischord. The sound is P.l.L.'s Flowers of Romance era. Raw and sawing guitar slices right over the sparse drumming and bass guitar that combine to one sound. It sounds like the origins of Savage Republic and Malaria's Klates Klares Vasser. Swamp Children's Call Me Honey has that same sparseness and bass drum rhythm but the guitar is more laid back. The sound is jazzier and mixes The Fall's Hip Priest with the Slit's reggae styling and Pigbag's horns and funk. These two pieces are a really smart combination and worth the wait of going deeper in this third disc.
Another John Cooper Clarke song is second to last on the bonus disc. Valley of the Lost Women is not one of his masterworks and really shows a cheesy side to his vocals. I really don't like this track. It seems like a gibe to add it. There is a cringe factor. But that was always the problem with Mr. Clarke. His limited delivery got tired while his lyrics were still alive. The problem became making the music cover up the lack of range in his delivery. Not successful. There must have been something else they could have added. What about Beasley Street?
The final song is Royal Family and the Poor's Dream. It has a sweet finality. The vocals are weak and are only adorned by reverberating open guitar chords like the band Felt's Lawernace Hayward. It plays like a demo. There is a saccharin beauty to all of the Royal Family's material and this track is no different. The song also has the same problem that Cooper Clarke has. The vocalist has a real hard time sounding different from song to song. The music is able to add some variety.
As a box set this will not go down in history. What you will get is a decent overview of a fertile time in the history of punk, post-punk and new wave. You may have these tracks on other compilations and some you may have not heard in decades. Some you may wish you never had heard again. One thing you are assured is that a great proportion of the material is important and relevant even there are varying degrees of commercial successes. In its day all this material is was groundbreaking and reaching for a new voice and now is looked back on and has influential status.
If this were a six-disc set, had better liner notes, it would be an archive. I don't think the box wants to be that deep. It gives you what you need to know. The basic knowledge and history of that time. What is clear from reading and listening , all these artists were stealing and influencing each other as they moved and morphed into new entity's. Like any movement of art and music that is what you do. Talented folks inspire other talented folks and they ingest and digest what they are feeding off of. The jockeying for success and fame may strain the relationships but the market place decides, right or wrong.