Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Great Leap Forward "This Is Our Decade Of Living Cheaply And Getting By" (Communications Unique)

As coincidence would have it, it was on the song "Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards" that Billy Bragg sang those oft-quoted lines "mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is / I offer him embarrassment, and my usual excuses". It's a strange sentiment, because bands rarely have to apologise for other topics they decide to write lyrics about, or indeed for relentlessly harping on about the same topics (another criticism aimed at Bragg, but rarely levelled at those who write suites of songs bemoaning some ill-defined pseudo-indie ennui, knock off whole albums about chilling in the club with honeys, or deliver track after track plundered at random from other people's "classic songbooks"). But in 2012, it seems that mixing pop and politics is even further beyond the critical pale. It's not widely *derided* as such: it just doesn't really happen. And happily, this is where the Great Leap Forward come in.

But some history first, because it all starts with bIG*fLAME. Everything starts with bIG*fLAME. bIG*fLAME were an insolent foghorn of itching POP noise, a brutalist Molotov cocktail of humour, frantic energy and situationist sloganeering that crossed Beefheart with the Pop Group, upped the tempo several notches and then hurled itself with fizzing glee at any unsuspecting lughole within range. Even in the context of a typical John Peel show they sounded exotically raging and ragged, spewing molten lava and exclamation marks over the airwaves. It was no wonder, as Meat Mouth later had it, that the girls all fancied bIG*fLAME: after all, us boys did too. The trio even performed a smash and grab on side two of C86, with the splenetic "New Way (Quick Wash And Brush Up With Liberation Theology)" launching itself from the grooves to daze the unready listener, the rest of the record rather wilting away until the concussion had died down. bIG*fLAME were positively incendiary and impossibly perfect, and frankly we will never hear their like again.

It was only after b*f had (inevitably but deliberately) imploded, circa 1986, that their bass-mangler and singer Alan Brown began his Great Leap Forward project. The first couple of EPs represented a transition stage during which some of the former band's trademark scratchiness remained, but wisely the GLF did not seek to emulate the fLAME's spluttering, scattershot blueprint of musical violence. The guitars got cleaner, the treble was reined in and by doubling the average song length, Brown was soon able to incorporate electronics and samples alongside his wordy, nakedly political lyrics. In doing so, he revealed a penchant for thoughtful songwriting that his former band's M.O. simply did not allow, amply illustrated by upwardly-mellow third 45 "Who Works The Weather ?" and, later, by "Heart and Soul", a gorgeous and upbeat pop standout that was surely their great lost hit single.

So back in 1988, when Mao's "great leap forward" was meant to have ended in triumph, and while Billy Bragg sang the lines above, we immersed ourselves in the Great Leap Forward records that circulated on the 152 bus and in the junior cloakroom at school. That series of splendid initial singles had culminated with the tremendous album, "Don't Be Afraid Of Change", bedecked with gems like "How To Be Successful In A World Of Failure", "Honours In Spades" and "Cursing This Audacity": a record which now seems as much a postcard from eighties Britain as an unmournful goodbye to it. By the turn of the decade - just like the Wolfhoundsit seemed the Great Leap Forward were *on fire*, but just like the Wolfhounds, the breakthrough never came. Life moved on, and the moment was gone. We chalked it up to experience.

Their welcome re-emergence came in 2008, with a 'catch-up' album, "Finished Unfinished Business":

"the songs are polished, spattered with samples, keenly political and not infrequently funky. This is all nothing less than you'd expect..."

Despite the two decades between "Don't Be Afraid" and its sequel, we noted then how much of the political background hadn't changed, a legacy of this island's post-Callaghan neo-liberal consensus. And while, on the surface, much has happened in the four years since - the vicissitudes of recession, the return of an (essentially) Conservative administration and a new austerity drive which can only magnify the very inequalities that a thirty year love-in with Thatcherite policies created in the first place - the laissez-faire leanings of all three main parties remain largely undimmed.

The time is ripe, then, for the third Great Leap Forward LP to enter from stage left. Little wonder that it begins with a sparky title track lamenting the cyclical nature of the free-market jihad: "we’ve seen it before, boys / it’s come full circle, but now with added interest..." croons Brown, as the guitars arc and swoop in empathy. It's no time before "Race To The Bottom" is mocking, with expansive glee, the continued delusion (completely unhindered by evidence or experience) as to the success of trickle-down economics. To quote early GLF classic "A Peck On The Cheek", is this the only way forward ?

We're soon on to what would be the obvious single, if there was one. "Tax The Richer" may be a manifesto (literally: half-way through, Brown raps (!) his way through a seven-point plan for recovery) but it is also a mini-anthem, an unashamedly catchy pop song, gilded with skybound trumpet, whose cascading guitars recall McCarthy at their most devilishly insouciant (you know, like the beautiful peals that frame "Governing Takes Brains"), and which elides into "Capital Is Wonderful", a sarcastic paean to the bail-out that inevitably finishes with the distant rattle of Gang of Four's "Capital - It Fails Us Now".

One striking feature of the album is that it transcends agit-prop tradition by taking care to outline solutions, rather than merely highlighting problems. As well as "Tax The Richer"'s shopping list for political change, the GLF canvass a healthy dose of personal improvement in the driven guitar-pop narratives of "The Power Of Positive Deviance" and "Turning Difficulties Into Goals". "Combatting illiteracy, disempowerment and poverty / doesn’t have to be huge steps / just little things that bring big change", sings Brown, and it's vital that we sign up to that, don't merely despair at what's visited on us and in doing so betray the apathy that helped them do this to us in the first place. In the same spirit, the LP finishes with a reprise of the title tune, but whereas the opening version soundtracked the gathering storm and warned us to batten down the hatches, part two is optimistic: it's about how to cope, urging that we rise above the ideology that underlies both the crash and the subsequent stampede to impose austerity.

The lyrical themes are not confined to socio-economic blues, though. "Heaven's Just A Short Journey From Platform 4a" makes a case for getting away from it all, for escaping the unforgiving rigour of the city for a sojourn in Yorkshire, while "I Catch The Last Bus Home With The Driver Of The Flying Scotsman" is the story of a chance meeting that brings back childhood memories of "an excited small boy / caught in rapture and awe" by the locomotive in its prime. And - somewhat typifying the ambition on display - a luxurious ten minutes are devoted to the sweeping, elegant "Not The Full English Breakfast", a rather affecting song about social anxiety disorder no less, pursued by an extended instrumental reprise that sweeps up the embers of the original version and sprinkles them with speech samples and wistful piano.

All the while we are still, musically, within a stone's throw of the GLF's previous work. Most of the songs, driven by guitar and bass, nestle between harder-edged indie-pop and tune-led indie-rock, but the drum machine, neatly-deployed sequencer and a fair smattering of spoken word samples help to retain the innate danceability that has become one of their hallmarks. For those feeling starved of past funk leanings, the mesh of guitar on "Theme From The Basher" and some startlingly fine bass-plucking on the re-working of the title track will provide nourishing slivers of added funkiness.

Ah. As you'll perhaps have gleaned, "This Is Our Decade Of Living Cheaply And Getting By" is a lengthy tract, with a decidedly didactic dynamic. But it also boasts a heart the size of the Yorkshire Dales. If I cast back again to those days on the 152, discussing last night's Peel show, there are so many records from the time that thrilled me, excited me, charmed me, beguiled me, seduced me, or made me happy for a host of other reasons, but looking back there were very few that *inspired* me in the way that the Great Leap Forward's did. That's the tradition which "This Is Our Decade..." continues, and is ultimately why we implore you to give it a spin. For which we *refuse* to offer either embarrassment, or our usual excuses.

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