Dale Griffin, Unsung Hero
(Book reviews, part two - John Robb "Death To Trad Rock": Ian Glasper "Trapped In A Scene": Albert Mudrian "Choosing Death")
We can, and will, bore for England about having been blessed enough to have seen so many Sarah bands, of memories of our Sarah days and of our favourite Sarah combo. But for so much of the other music we loved and still love, and as much as we bought it and digested it and listened to John Peel play it, we weren't physically there. We didn't go to the gigs, didn't have too many mates who dug the records with us, didn't have any "in" on the scenes.
That's why we've found such solace and value in three ever-intriguing, if not flawless, books that provide forensic detail about those times, and about the origins of, and motivation behind, music that we cherish and play today, almost as much as our most prized Sarah 45s.
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We remain steadfast in our conviction that what some indie-pop apostles regard as "the dark side" of C86 the album - the assorted mavericks and oddballs, the Ron Johnson bands, the reluctant refugees from noise-rock - is very wrongly maligned in some quarters. Bob Stanley's uncharitable dismissal of three (excellent) RJ bands as "genuinely dire" in his CD86 sleevenotes is but one egregious example, and I for one only wish he had seen the light and put those bands out on Caff Corporation. (CD86, while mainly ace, has got fairly joyless stuff like the ironically-named Laugh for heaven's sake: which, Bob, is the plodding opposite to the teeming-with-colour A Witness).
The facts - and we say this as longtime and still-ardent devotees and defenders of Subway, Sarah, 53rd & 3rd and all who sailed in them - are that Bogshed and A Witness are two of the very best bands of the period (there's a persuasive case to be made that the latter delivered the outstanding track on the whole of C86), while bIG*fLAME are simply one of the most astonishingly complete bands that ever existed. And we're so many years removed now from those groups' heyday that we feel pretty confident this is now a position proven by history, rather than a mere side-effect of us having once been caught up in the thrilling, John Peel-curated mesh of the now and the new that might have driven our devotion at the time.
Whether you will relish "Death To Trad Rock" can be easily tested. If you (like us) can think of nothing more appetite-whetting than seventeen opening pages devoted to the marvellous A Witness, then you (like us) will find yourself dipping into every page of John Robb's almanac of quirked-out, wonky indieness. If (unlike us) you are not convinced that A Witness merit such in-depth treatment, and don't want to read more widely about the role played by Blackpool, the Dutch squat scene, the miner's strike or, er, Stafford Poly in creating a thrillingly visceral musical escape route from the Thatcherite ideology that hellishly ruled the 1980s, then go. Be off with you.
Within the book's pages, the author (erstwhile Sounds journo and Membrane, of course, though the marginally younger of you may be more familiar with his Goldblade routine) describes a 'scene' that few were perhaps aware even existed, one that goes much wider than the usual suspects (i.e. bands who recorded for Ron Johnson, bands who recorded for Vinyl Drip). Although the sleeve coyly heralds a "scene with no name", Robb more usefully deploys "post-post punk" as a shorthand (and subgenre fetishists will observe with pleasure that even post-post punk is itself sub-divided into several "waves" over the years). But labelling aside, this is really a tome about a loose aggregation of (mostly) great and (mostly) undersung bands of the era, many of whom kept their bass high in the mix and their guitars on the earsplitting side of trebly: and the thread that knits the book together is these bands' musical and sociopolitical kinship, rather than narrow, flayed scenesterism.
As hinted above, there was certainly no 'formal' scene that drew its net as widely as Robb does. The book profiles a number of strolling troubadors *not* always traditionally associated with the 'angular' bands including the Wedding Present, Wolfhounds and June Brides: but interviews with Phil Wilson, Dave Callahan and David Gedge respectively put you in no doubt that those bands felt they had plenty in common with their less glamorous, more obviously noisenik contemporaries.
Even aside from that, of course, there has (contrary to popular indiepop perception) never been a law against liking bands from both sides of the C86 "divide". Stewart Lee, who gets to write the foreword, is just as keen to lavish praise on Ron Johnson types as he was to shoehorn mention of his beloved Razorcuts into one of his BBC2 routines. Indeed, Sarandon's Crayola makes the point later in the book that being able to esteem both Razorcuts and Jackdaw With Crowbar - as we unapologetically do - should be regarded as perfectly natural, rather than somehow outré.
Robb's selection of more melodic combos within the book's compass is astute: partly because some TWP or JBs fans might buy a book they wouldn't otherwise have touched with the proverbial bargepole, but also because there always was a sonic crossover between the poppier and the shoutier independent bands, one amply evidenced within the grooves of the better records of the time. It can't just be us who heard hints of bIG*fLAME's mischievous anti-mellifluousness in some of the guitar scratchiness on "There Are Eight Million Stories", say. Nor is the mighty and unashamedly celebratory sound of the guitars on early Wedding Present singles too far removed from the kind of trebliness that "Death To Trad Rock" seeks to celebrate. (Apropos of nothing, we'd observe that the apotheosis of this crossover - this marriage of furious strummed-to-death guitars and glorious popshaped janglism - may have been another Reception 45, This Poison's "Poised Over The Pause Button").
Anyway. While there may be no place in this volume for This Poison! there are still plenty of splendid groups who do get chapters in what is a cracking encyclopaedia of noise and passion (including, of course, the holy trinity of bIG*fLAME, A Witness and Bogshed, described herein as the vanguard of the "second wave" of post-post-punk). Others include Stump (who found headaches rather than fame at a major label, a cautionary tale), the Noseflutes (we recently revisited "Several Young Men Ignite Hardboard Stump", which seemingly seamlessly melds the Fall, Pop Group, Josef K and a host of others), the Shrubs (oh, how we despise our younger selves for, I confess, not actually liking the Shrubs at the time, something we've since remedied in part through extensive resort to their "Vessels Of The Heart" LP), an epic chapter on Dog-Faced Hermans, Hull's furious and funky Death By Milkfloat, Prolapse, Fflaps, Dandelion Adventure (weren't they on "Are You Ready?"), the Ex, Age Of Chance, Five Go Down To Sea (the book sent us scurrying back to "Creation Soup" volume 3 and we are now prepared to accept not only that the undeniably hatstand FGDTS were rather good, but also that their compatriots Stump owed a little something to them too) and Ted Chippington (one's genial host on the neglected but actually era-definingly ace "Ideal Guest House" comp and, rather disturbingly, one of only a handful of the acts chronicled in this book who we've actually seen live).
Unsurprisingly, there's a full-to-bursting chapter on the Membranes, who are placed squarely in the middle of the scene and, judging by the testimonies of most interviewees, merit that. It's worth remembering that they were doing things like signing to Creation Records, or fetching in Steve Albini for production duties, waaaay before either became de rigeur. There's the intriguing story, too, about how the Pastels deserted Creation in protest at the Membranes being thrown off the label (after both groups were involved with Slaughter Joe Foster in what Nigel Blackwell would call a "running order squabble fest"), although the David Cavanagh book on McGee records the Pastels as having been sacked rather than walking away. Come to think of it, there's also a bit in Richard King's book "How Soon Is Now?" in which Stephen Pastel acknowledges the Membranes as kindred spirits: that takes us back to our central theme here, I guess.
Even more excitingly, there is rare and belated published recognition for the likes of Thrilled Skinny (complete back catalogue seemingly now on i-Tunes, with the likes of "So Happy To Be Alive", "Good Doss" and "Biscuits In A Tin" all thrillingly now public domain) and the ever-wondrous Rosehips, who we may just have mentioned before. There's also plenty of space for those in the contemporary firmament like seasoned in love with these times, in spite of these times favourites Sarandon, whose singer and guitarist Crayola has been the lynchpin of some of this scene with no name's 21st-century revival (post-post post punk, anyone ?)
Rifling through our record collection for other trad-rock defying souvenirs from down the years, we're reminded of the unenviable task Robb had in deciding who to include. Rote Kappelle, Morocco, Twang, Donkey and Eton Crop are but examples (although the latter two do get a nod in a handy round-up of the "Dutch scene"). We're also reminded of how few of these groups we ever got to see play, which I guess is where we came in. The closest we got to seeing A Witness was on an advertised and long-looked forward to Weddoes support slot, although for reasons set out in the book (the sad death of Rick Aitken, marked only by a sidebar short and photo in the next week's Sounds) that was a support slot that never materialised.
It's fascinating, too, seeing how the bands describe their influences, and establishing exactly which ones - at the start, at least - were familiar with Can, Faust, Beefheart and others in whose footsteps they trod. In many cases, these influences were only indirect, with peak-period Fall being the direct template. Sadly there's no acknowledgement in the Thrilled Skinny chapter of that band's debt to second-wave punk, although the Exploited are mentioned at least by the Dog-Faced Hermans as part of the wider Edinburgh scene back in the day.
At times the narrative of "Death By Trad Rock" perhaps gets a little excitable: the suggestion that A Witness might, in the 21st century, have been a chart band is as eyebrow-raising and, er, 'novel' as it would be frankly the best thing ever, and we're not convinced that Death By Milkfloat sound *that* much like either the Arctic Monkeys or Franz Ferdinand (notwithstanding that the latter had some 'form', given their amtecedents in Yummy Fur). But, overall, it's a book that's given us a valuable glimpse into a scene which we could never have dreamed would one day be documented in such detail.
There is also an accompanying CD. Along with Daren Garratt's superb "Commercially Unfriendly" compilation, the "Death To Trad Rock" compilation is an essential purchase, given the crying shame that so many of these bands' recorded outings are impossible to track down now (random stumbling across the original vinyl in Music & Video Exchange is as close as we ever get).
Highlights of the CD are plentiful. Wolfhounds' ever-excellent "Magic Triggers" really comes into its own in this company: it sounds even more vital than usual, and completely sympa to the noise-clutching tunes arrayed around it on the tracklist. "My Favourite Dress", obviously. AC Temple's anti-anthem "Food Of The Dogs" is sheer beauty, a harrowing yet inspiring revelation. There are fine songs too from the Ex, Dog Faced Hermans, the Turncoats, Age of Chance, Death By Milkfloat, Sarandon, the Ceramic Hobs (whose "St Petersburg Series", a song that could have been released by much-missed and insouciantly mentalist Bristol label Swarf Finger, makes even most other songs here seem middle of the road). The Membranes themselves are represented by "Tatty Seaside Town", perhaps not their greatest moment (NB one of their actual greatest moments was re-released on a Slumberland 7" not too long ago, oddly enough: see #46 here) but, as a song featured once on BBC2's ephemeral Snub music magazine show, it does at least remind us of our first exposure to the band on national TV.
'Twould be invidious, of course, to suggest too many other tracks that should have been included: we recognise that there couldn't even be room for every band in the book to appear, and of course that ex-Bogshed singer Phil Hartley has consistently vetoed the re-issuing of any of their material (we won't ever stop going on about how much of a public service it would be if he changed his mind, because songs like "Morning Sir", "Panties Please" or "Tried And Tested Public Speaker" deserve much wider airing). Mind you, the Keatons' classically catchy "Residivistish" would have been nice, as too the Noseflutes' "Harmony of Dogs" and the world is also being severely neglected in the continued absence of readily-available material from Jackdaw With Crowbar, MacKenzies or Twang. Please, if you're reading this and you're a person who works at Cherry Red, future indie compilation compiler, or just general all-round philanthropist, could you bear that in mind?
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"Trapped In A Scene" (title of a Heresy tune, of course) is another Cherry Red book: it's punk / HC expert Ian Glasper's take on the hardcore / Britcore madness that blew up majorly in the second half of the 1980s. Like the bands outlined by John Robb, the groups described here were largely young, disaffected and raised well away from London: they used music to rail against the government of the time (doing so directly, rather than just obliquely). At the start, they were united by idealism and energy: by the end of the 1980s they had all pretty much either split up, or gone "full time" with music and begun to refine their sounds and widen their vision (not always for the better).
The rise of scene darlings like Extreme Noise Terror, Napalm Death and the Stupids is of course covered with detail and insight, but the true merit of the book is perhaps in bringing us detailed profiles of other bands of the era whose names no longer ring so vividly: Heresy (never undervalued within the scene, but wrongly ignored outside it), HDQ, Doom, Ripcord, Electro Hippies, Unseen Terror, Snuff, Hellbastard, Sofahead, Intense Degree, Doctor and the Crippens and the band who followed a 99-track album with a single-track epic, Sore Throat...
And you don't have to strain too far to find overlaps between the bands described here and the post-post-punk fraternity, either (honest). Stoke-on-Trent's Exit Condition shared many a bill with the Rosehips before going on to support the likes of Leatherface and Fugazi. A "Maximum Rock n' Roll" 'zine feature sees the early Napalm Death describe their main musical influence not as Celtic Frost or Discharge, but aforementioned 'indie' stalwarts the Ex. And there's an intriguing if unlikely link between two of the greatest labels ever, Ron Johnson and Earache: it sounds like it was the former's Dave Parsons who sat the latter's Digby Pearson down and taught him a bit about how to run a record label (the irony of this will not be lost on most readers, as the Ron Johnson empire went broke, whereas Earache went on to sell ten million records and become a worldwide brand. One assumes that amongst Dave's pieces of advice to Dig was "don't release a double-7" Ex single containing a 144-page book of Spanish Civil War photographs that loses a pound on every copy sold, and then shift 15,000 of them"). Oh, and more than one band mentioned in Robb's book mentions Napalm, ENT and their ilk in their lists of influences or inspirations.
As you know, the politics of it all is important to us, especially when explicit ('political' metal these days deals with its subect matter in terms so obscure that it is barely possible to discern exactly what is being railed against, save for some vague notion of general governmental badness). So it's really interesting to read Lee Dorrian's take on lyrics when he was in Napalm Death, and how he feared that Napalm risked becoming self-parody, rather than being known for the positive things they stood for socially (his interview also acknowledges the forgotten role of one-time bassist Jim Whiteley in contributing some of the best early Napalm lyrics). This chimes with the testimony from Hellbastard's Scruff, who is open about how disillusionment set in when the band moved away from politics and into rather more generic lyrical territory, even as their career was seemingly on an upward curve with Earache. It's a telling nugget that at the end of his last gig with Napalm, thoroughly disillusioned yet still showing a keen sense of punk history, Dorrian would ask his Japanese audience: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
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A confession to make now. We are not huge fans of death metal. Don't get us wrong: we love Obituary, for example, and try to see them every time they're in London. And there are individual songs (Morbid Angel's "Chapel Of Ghouls" and Deicide's "Homage for Satan" being standout examples) which are simply stunning rock songs, however their makers might be pigeonholed. But Albert Mudrian's death metal primer "Choosing Death" isn't dealing with subject-matter that we find quite as instructive, or as vital, as the other two books.
Nevertheless, it is the best-written of the three books, and the only one that adopts an intertwined narrative (and disciplined editing) as it tells the story of new forms of music emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. There's even a foreword by John Peel, in what must have been one of his last pieces of writing before his untimely death. And despite its title, "Choosing Death" is not just about death metal: in order to do that topic justice, it first as to chart the emergence of what became grindcore, and so Mudrian, like Glasper, knows that chapter one of any book in this field can only start in one place: in Birmingham, and with Napalm Death.
The author has had access to a number of sometime members of Napalm, and lets each tell their own side of the story on those occasions when one ex-member is ranged against another, or the band are pitted against their former label, Earache. Like "Trapped In A Scene", "Choosing Death" helps us to reappraise Napalm, one of our favourite bands: the attitude of Jim Whiteley, Lee Dorrian and Barney Greenway especially reminds us that their lyrical and political direction really *is* the focal point, maybe even the crucial determinant of how good they are at any one time: while other band lynchpins might have driven the musical direction, the *purpose* came from their positive, no sell-out attitudes. And when Mick Harris talks about the hype that surrounded the band after Peel infamy and the success of "From Enslavement To Obliteration", he recognises that indie kids flocked to see Napalm, just as Barney Greenway more recently spoke of the long-term overlap between Napalm and Wedding Present fans, say.
Because Mudrian's book also surveys the world beyond British shores, it is able to give us insights into short-lived but almost scarily influential bands like Siege and Repulsion, and to more accurately document how American bands were taking on board both US and UK influences (seguing Minor Threat and Discharge with more metallic elements). He also looks at key bands in Europe, with the focus unsurprisingly on Scandinavia, and how black metal came to usurp death metal in the 1990s.
There is a real "decline and fall" narrative as the 1990s are documented, with Earache Records at its heart: their hook-up with a major label, the failure of their bands to break through, the unpopular retreat into electronic music (it wasn't unpopular with us, mind, because some of Earache's 'dance' stuff was amazing, and of course some of it came from members and ex-members of some of their erstwhile metal acts). One band at the heart of Earache's rise and fall was, of course, Carcass, and their ever-melodramatic story is played out through the words of Bill Steer and others, from the muddy rush of their first album through to their blossoming with "Heartwork" and then back to their rather stilted swansong (yep, "Swansong"). The book doesn't omit to mention the vegan / vegetarian angle to those early Carcass albums, either, as well as confirming our long-held suspicion that Steer got much of the inspiration for his er, "technical" lyrics by rifling through his sister's medical textbooks.
The book on the other hand is not technical, much as there would be scope for an Alex Ross-style treatise on DM given the incredible complexity and skill behind the playing, but there are some diverting clues as to how the bands managed to play as fast as they did: some of it was friendly competition; some of it was listening to traded tapes that played too quickly because they had been recorded via ropey cassette decks; much of it involved drummers having to practice by playing along to their rock albums spun at 45rpm, because no records yet existed that were as fast as they wanted to go.
The real testament to "Choosing Death", as with all good books, is that it sends you back to the source material. So I dug out my "Gods Of Grind" CD, and the Entombed tracks are marvellous. I dug out the "Choosing Death" CD and re-listened to it and whilst none of it had really improved (after Siege, Repulsion and Napalm it still kind of tails off for me), I wouldn't even have given them another chance were it not for Mudrian's engagement and purpose.
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And Dale Griffin ? Well, yes, he was once the drummer in Mott the Hoople. But he is a recurring character in relation to bands described in all three of these books, courtesy of his later day job of recording Peel Sessions at the BBC's Maida Vale studios. Portrayed as a baddie by all and sundry for his obvious lack of patience with the chaotic lo-fi noise being made on his watch by unkempt and sullen young adults, it seems fair to say that he despaired of many of the bands that came into his studio, but as far as we can tell he largely bore this with great fortitude. However high his hackles rose, he nevertheless contributed to what, in many cases, turned out to be stunning Peel sessions. Nobody else seems to be actively praising him for his role in all this, but we think they really should, and note with some sadness that he has apparently been suffering from Alzheimer's over recent years. We wish him well, and salute him as a *true* professional.