Action Time Vision – UK Independent Punk 1976 – 1979

Punk was a watershed moment for UK music, one which shook the mainstream, enlivened the underground and influenced everything that followed. Everyone’s aware of this but if you weren’t there at the time, how much do you know about the scene beyond its epochal acts – punk’s acceptable face, The Buzzcocks, its unacceptable face, The Sex Pistols and its conscience, The Clash? Maybe The Damned, X-Ray Spex, Stiff Little Fingers and a few others have entered your consciousness but even then the musical legacy doesn’t seem to match the cultural legacy. Action Time Vision is a just-released, four-CD set featuring punk records released on a variety of independent labels in the late-’70s which helps give an idea of the breadth of the scene beyond the main players.

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Cherry Red Records have developed a formula for this sort of thing – taking an underground musical subgenre, collecting together the best examples of tracks from that scene and sticking them on CD compilations, lovingly packaged with illustrations, photos and writings from journalists who covered the scene at its height. Just this year the label has released collections covering the early-’90s shoegaze scene, 1980s neo-psychedelia, early British electronica and the developing C86/indie scene. These collections provide a nostalgia trip for those who were part of these scenes and a rare insight for those who weren’t. Cherry Red’s punk collection, covering a scene that everyone’s aware of but not so many really know, is probably overdue.

In the case of Action Time Vision, the foreword is written by Kris Needs, editor of Zigzag magazine during the punk era. By his estimation, the songs collected here “wrench up the paving slabs to reveal what was really going on underneath street level during that seminal time”. And so it is that the collection starts off with The Damned’s debut single on Stiff Records, New Rose – which reached the dizzying heights of number 81 in the 1976 charts – before unearthing lost treasures that never got that close to rubbing shoulders with ABBA, like Lockjaw’s Radio Call Sign, New Religion by Some Chicken and the Poison Girls’ Under The Doctor.

There are 111 songs on the four discs of Action Time Vision, ranging from really great stuff, like Stiff Little Fingers’s classic Suspect Device, Little Miss Perfect by Demon Preacher, Blank Generation by Xtraverts and Teenage Treats by The Wasps, to energetic triers like Steroid Kiddies, whose 1979 effort Dumb Dumb,  sounds a lot like something by Bad News. There are also rarities like the previously unreleased I Hate The Whole Human Race by Newcastle band Big G and curios like a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made For Walking, released on the UK label Golden Sphinx by Philadelphia’s Pure Hell.

Early incarnations of The Fall (with Psycho Mafia), Joy Division (Failures) and a pre-nose-plaster Adam and The Ants (Zerox), are all featured and sounding great along with a whole load of other musicians who really made their mark in the next decade. Kevin Rowland of The Killjoys became the lead singer of Dexys Midnight Runners, Shane McGowan, Billy Bragg and Gary Numan started their singing careers with The Nipple Erectors, Riff Raff and Tuebeway army respectively, while Johnny & The Self Abusers had the audacity to evolve into Simple Minds.

Action Time Vision gives a real sense of what UK punk was about, showcasing dozens of bands who bought into its DIY ethos and helped give the scene weight. Listening to it is like being handed a crate full of obscure punk 7″s collected by a fan – and who wouldn’t want that? – it’s a compilation to live inside for a long time and really absorb. Everything included was released by independent record labels, and whether the bands featured went on to greater successes or disappeared after one single, they all got their opportunities and audiences from the same musical revolution.

 

Pixies, Live – still dealing in magic

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Pixies at the Academy, Birmingham, UK – 8th December 2016

Of all the bands I’d never seen, the Pixies were the one that meant the most to me. They were one of the first bands I fell in love with and Bossanova was the first album I bought on vinyl –  Pilgrim, Surfer and, Doolittle followed soon after. Other bands came and went over the years, but Pixies remained constant. They were special. They were one of those rare groups whose sound was so distinctive and uplifting that they seemed to be dealing in magic rather than music.

I was meant to see them on the Bossanova tour in 1990. Millhouse and a few other mates went and I would have been there too, but girl trouble intervened. If I’d know then that I wouldn’t get another chance to see them for 26 years, I might have been prepared to let that trouble get a little deeper. Finally, this year, I had the opportunity to witness the Pixies live, a quarter of a century later; that’s only three albums though, which doesn’t sound so bad.


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In the days of Bossanova I was a child. In the days of Head Carrier I’m technically an adult with children of my own. When the tickets came on sale I bought four, thinking that those children might want to come with me and Mrs NoiseCrumbs for their first gig – and if they didn’t, I knew plenty of people who would take the tickets off me.

“Hey, I’ve got Pixies tickets for December. You want to come with us?”

“What do the Pixies do?”

“Er, Monkey Gone To Heaven, Wave Of Mutilation, Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons. Loads of things.

Dunno, maybe.”

Snakes. You know Snakes?”

“Oh yeah, alright then.”

They’ve been properly indoctrinated, they know their whole catalogue, even if they don’t know the song names, but they love Snakes and its video.


 

It’s not the same seeing a band so long after their heyday (and yours) is it? Especially when the original line-up isn’t complete and you know they’ll probably not play all the songs that you love the most and even if they do they’ll resent it. So prior to the gig, I was extraordinarily excited, just not quite expecting to experience the unrestrained elation that was once a feature of seeing a favourite band.

But this is the Pixies – they’re different. They’re special. And when they took to the stage, spitting distance away, and smashed out the opening chords to River Euphrates – a song you’ve loved for a lifetime – played like you’ve never heard it before, to you, your children and 3000 people who love the Pixies like you do, well it was just joyous. My sons, 12 and 13 years-old were awed and thrilled by it too, like I hoped they would be, and later they were singing along to Monkey Gone to Heaven and Tame and Here Comes Your Man. It was emotional.

It seemed like, as a live band, they were still in their heyday. Charles was one minute screaming away as if trying to tear his lungs to ribbons, next minute crooning and la la-ing sweetly as they remorselessly ripped through their discography (with no hint of resentment). The band didn’t utter a single word to the crowd between songs, but we didn’t care because there was a lot get through and a limited time to get through it. Charles did have a little joke with David Lovering on La La Love You though, keeping on playing his guitar part at the end, over and over to keep the drummer singing.

They seemed like a happy, contented band, and that must be partly due to Paz. Paz isn’t Kim, but she doesn’t need to be. She’s a wonderful musician and vocalist with immense stage presence and the rest of the Pixies obviously love playing with her. Any band would miss Kim’s charisma, but Paz brings plenty of her own, and it never felt like a ‘Pixies-lite’.

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We didn’t get to hear Gigantic – presumably out of respect to Kim – but we did get most of the songs we loved, with tracks from Come On Pilgrim (Caribou, Nimrod’s Son), Surfer Rosa (Bone Machine, Where Is My Mind?), most of Doolittle some highlights from Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde (Ana, Rock Music, Planet of Sound, U-Mass) and most of Head Carrier. We also got a ferocious version of Head On and the UK Surf version of Wave of Mutilation, which I’ve always preferred to the original, so it nearly brought a tear my eye. There was nothing at all from Indie Cindy though; so no Snakes, sorry kids. I got them both a bootleg t-shirt to compensate.

After finishing with a rendition of Debaser that finally sent everyone fully delirious, Charles, Joey, David and Paz took the avid applause and encored with the brilliant Into the White, while pumping the Academy so full of dry ice that we couldn’t say whether they were playing it from the stage or the dressing room. It was a fantastic finale and a wonderful, wonderful gig.


Of all the bands I’ve seen, the Pixies are one of those that’s meant the most to me. They really aren’t like other bands – even now, they’re capable of eliciting unrestrained elation from their original fans and their new ones with their still distinctive and still scintillating sound. Twenty-six years after I fell for them, they’re still dealing in magic.


Epilogue: During the course of the evening my boys, for reasons even they probably wouldn’t be able to explain, rechristened the band members. From now on, they’re known in our house as, “Bobby Bee, Jimmy Gee, Flamingo Pete and Babyface Syd”. They didn’t say who was who, but I think it’s pretty obvious.

Below, the Pixies: Bobby Bee, Jimmy Gee, Flamingo Pete, Babyface Syd, a stuffed wolf.

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Magnificent Cover Version No.17, ‘The Model’ by Kraftwerk covered by Big Black

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I had never seen this record sleeve before. Isn’t it horrible? It’s the mighty Big Black imitating Kraftwerk. Left to right, Steve Albini, Santiago Durango, Dave Riley.

In 1987 Big Black released their cover of The Model as a B-Side to another cover, this one of He’s A Whore by Cheap Trick (they imitated Cheap Trick on the front cvover). It was their last single. Both songs also appeared on the CD version of Big Black’s final album, Songs About Fucking, but only The Model made it onto the vinyl release, and that’s where I know this song from.

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Big Black were an amazing band – powerful, shocking, thought-provoking and funny. They’d finished by the time I discovered them but I was a big fan before Steve Albini started really making his name by recording The Breeders and Nirvana. I bought Atomizer – the earlier, better album –  Millhouse bought Songs About Fucking and we each taped our copy for the other.

As a child, Albini was compelled to move from town to town by his father’s work – Albini senior was apparently a rocket scientist. Skinny, sarcastic and smart-arsed, the young Albini seldom made a good impression at new schools and he had few friends. He credits bands like the Ramones, Stooges, Suicide and Television for getting him through high school. While recovering from a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19 he taught himself to play the bass.

On enrolling at college in Chicago in 1980, Albini immersed himself in the city’s active punk scene, becoming a devoted fan of local heroes Naked Raygun and attending their gigs religiously. He began broadcasting on college radio and writing a monthly column entitled Tired of Ugly Fat? for a Chicago fanzine. Through these media he began to gain notoriety for the witty but venomous broadsides he’d aim at characters in the scene – this reputation would only build over the years. Here are some of his words of wisdom:

  • Albini on the Pixies – “a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock.”
  • Albini on Mudhoney – “it’s silly how great they think they are. It’s almost offensive to me.”
  • Albini on Courtney Love – “psycho hose beast.”
  • Albini on Al Jourgensen – “I’ll cut your balls off and sew them shut in your mouth.”

His column and radio work split opinion and gave him a profile in the music scene, but what he really wanted was to make his own music. After unsuccessfully attempting to get the sound he wanted with a couple of short-lived groups, self-sufficient Albini bought himself a drum machine and a guitar and borrowed a four-track for a week.

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The result of this endeavour would become Big Black’s debut EP Lungs. These days Albini apparently hates the Lungs EP – “It just makes my flesh crawl. I can’t listen to that record anymore” – but it sounds fucking good to me, particularly the opener Steelworker (“I’m a steelworker, I kill what I eat. Great big thing crawling all over me”). It lacks the ferocious power of Big Black’s later output, but it’s fantastically unsettling and possesses a video nasty-era sense of impending violence. It later formed the first side of The Hammer Party album, which you should definitely own.

In 1982, at the point that 1,500 copies of Lungs were released on Ruthless Records, Big Black still consisted of Albini and his drum machine – Roland. The release of Lungs helped Albini to entice guitarist Santiago Durango and bass player Jeff Pezzati of his beloved Naked Raygun to join him and Roland, turning Big Black into an actual band.

The new line-up’s first studio output was the Bulldozer EP, which took the template established in Lungs – exploring dark, sordid themes to an accompaniment of drum machine beats and jagged, unconventional guitar sounds – and turned it up several notches. Cables was about bored kids sneaking into a slaughterhouse to watch the action; Pigeon Kill was about a town-wide pigeon cull utilising poisoned corn, while the opening sample on Seth is an horrific rant from a white supremacist. Overall the sound, the ideas and the riffs on Bulldozer set it apart from its predecessor – Texas is a highlight – and it represents a big leap forward for Big Black. Bulldozer would become the second side of The Hammer Party.

The Racer X EP followed – featuring the excellent Deep Six – but it was after that, when Dave Riley replaced Jeff Pezzati on bass that Big Black really took shape. Riley had previously worked at a recording studio in Detroit that had been frequented by Sly Stone and George Clinton and he brought an element of funk to the group that complemented it, against all logic, and helped to define its later output, the high watermark of which was their 1986 debut album Atomizer.

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Atomizer sees Big Black trawling up pulp legends from the darkest depths of small town America and setting them to music that’s sometimes so abrasive it hurts. Bazooka Joe is an upbeat ditty about a desensitised Vietnam veteran putting his numbness to violence to profitable use, Bad Houses is about an individual’s compulsion to do “bad things…even when the thrill is seldom worth the degradation”. Jordan, Minnesota is a deeply unsettling tune about child abuse while Kerosene opens with a guitar riff reminiscent of grotesquely warped church bell chimes and famously references a small town resident who combines his twin loves of sex and arson.

Albini enjoys himself in the sleeve notes, enigmatically describing each little horror story masquerading as a song and crediting the band as “Dave Riley: bass, flyswatters”, Santiago Durango: “train guitar”, Steve Albini: “rocket guitar”, Roland: “Roland”. The combination of macabre subject matter, dark humour, relentlessness and sheer power tapped a vein in underground circles, sparking myriad bad imitations and elevating them to new levels of popularity.

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By the time Big Black recorded their next LP, Songs About Fucking in 1987, they’d already announced their intention to split. The stated reason was that they didn’t want to outstay their welcome, but Durango’s decision to start law school may have been a catalyst. Songs About Fucking – the name derived from Albini’s often stated bemusement that love is seen as music’s default subject matter – sees Big Black treading similar territory to Atomizer, and it’s another fine album. Kasimir S. Pulaski Day and Bad Penny are among the best things that they ever recorded, but the cover of Kraftwerk’s The Model is the standout track for me. The band take the kitsch euro-pop of the original and explode every aspect of it. Dave Riley turns the bassline into a monster, backed in the rhythm section by the ever hard-thumping Roland. Santiago Durango’s guitar is shrill and piercing, like a dentist’s drill, while the lyrics,in Albini’s distorted voice, suddenly seem threatening – Kraftwerk singing ‘I’d like to take her home with me, it’s understood’ sounds sophisticated and sexually confident; Albini makes it sound downright sinister. Big Black make the song completely theirs and wipe the (blood-stained) floor with the original.

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So in 1987, after their final show at The Georgetown Steam Plant in Seattle, Big Black did indeed break up. Dave Riley and Santiago Durango pretty much retired from the music scene there and then, though one of Durango’s first cases as a lawyer saw him helping to recover Cynthia Plaster Caster’s bronze casts of rock star genitalia. Albini of course became a world renowned producer with Nirvana, The Breeders, The Wedding Present and many, many others. He also kept performing, first briefly with Rapeman, and then, to this day, with Shellac. Steve Albini remains a wildly unique musical talent, a punk rock trailblazer and a loud and uncompromising voice on the industry he loves but the work he did with his colleagues in his first band still stands out as his best.

 

Magnificent Cover Version No.8, ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ by Donovan covered by Butthole Surfers

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