There was an article in Sounds magazine back in 1980, entitled ‘Let’s Hear It for Quiet Music’. Soft-sounding music of various kinds had long existed in the pop and rock world, with the 70s being full of confessional singer-songwriters hunched over their acoustic guitars, somehow managing to put their fingers to the chords through a curtain of long hair. But this article was about something quite different – the Young Marble Giants.
The Young Marble Giants came from Cardiff. There were three of them – keyboard player and guitarist Stuart Moxham, his brother Philip on bass guitar, and Alison Stratton on vocals. That was all. They were formed in 1978, released two songs on a compilation of Welsh new wave music that got them a deal with Rough Trade records, an EP ‘Final Days’ and album Colossal Youth in 1980, another EP ‘Testcard’ that was all instrumentals in 1981, and then they broke up.
Colossal Youth has been called the most influential album since Velvet Underground and Nico, or the perhaps most influential album you never heard of. It was revolutionary at the time. These stark, unaffected songs, with child-like organ accompaniment, a chunky bass playing simple melodic lines, and Statton’s modest vocals telling elliptical tales through hypnotic, brief tunes. Plus the drum machine, of course, mechanically tapping out beats that rang both comical and true. The gnomic lyrics didn’t signify a great deal when seen on their own, but bound up with the melodies, pin-sharp accompaniment and deadpan delivery, they became haunting. And the titles alone conjured up such pictures: ‘Searching for Mr Right’, ‘Credit in the Straight World’, ‘The Man Amplifier’. Nor was it all wistful: they could do funky, funny, and mysterious.
The Young Marble Giants’ spare music sounded like it was being played in the loftroom in Cardiff where it had been composed, and could have been handed over to some unthinking producer to flesh out with fuller orchestration and extended musical ideas. The beauty of the music was that it did not need such treatment; it was obvious to the listener that the works were complete in themselves. A musical comparison might be Erik Satie’s Sports et divertissements, precise, intuitive brevities. Another comparison could be with the cartoons of Renaissance painters, whose fine sketches sometimes reveal more of the essential idea than the fully painted final work.
Quiet music meant not just not loud in volume but quiet in tone and manner. It was unassuming in character – quite English you might say, if only it wasn’t Welsh – disarming in effect. It was at one with the ordinary appearance of the trio, who you might have been less surprised to see queuing at a bus stop than appearing on a stage. They were mirrors of ourselves.
The music certainly influenced a great many musicians of that period who wanted to get away from the traditional rock formations. There is something of them in This Mortal Coil, Everything But the Girl, Belle & Sebastian and the like, but they inspired rather than were copied as such. Kurt Cobain was said to have been a great admirer of theirs. It was music for those of their peers who aspired to be free of pretension.
The Young Marble Giants playing ‘N.I.T.A.’ at Dingwalls in 2013
I bought all of the Young Marble Giants’ music at the time, but never got the chance to see them live. Thirty-five years on (ye gods), they were advertised as performing at the David Byrne-curated Meltdown festival, the group having reformed a few years ago to satisfy the demands of the 50-something nostalgists and a younger audience discovering them by reputation. So it was that I saw them the other night in a cavernous and half-full Royal Festival Hall. They were marvellous. Playing all of the music from the first EP and the album (bar the instrumental ‘Wind in the Rigging’, sadly, as it is my favourite track of theirs), they played the music as though it had been freshly composed and they were eager to try it out on an audience. They played the songs as the audience remembered them (there was a real, minimalist drummer with them, instead of a machine), yet without a hint of staleness. They looked both amused and pleased at what they had inherited from their younger selves, commemorating a brief time of special inspiration that it would always be worth revisiting, because those younger selves had got it so perfectly right.
If you know of the Young Marble Giants, you’ll already know what I mean. If you don’t, here are a few tunes to start exploring. Then follow the links.
- Colossal Youth, plus a second disc with the EP tracks and assorted demos, is available on CD. The demos alone are available on the album Salad Days, which is for the specialist really.
- You can find the band on Facebook, but it’s indicative of the lack of hard-nosed professionalism about them that the web address www.youngmarblegiants.com has been appropriated by a football betting business (you can find proper content on its Internet Archive record). Go instead to their agent’s site, not least for news of more gigs.
- For background information, there’s this interview with Stuart Moxham for Wales Arts Review, a review of the Colossal Youth reissue on Pitchfork, and a nostalgic piece by Ken Taylor for San Francisco Bay Guardian.
- On the same night saw I saw them, there was a tribute to the band in New York where assorted indie groups played their own versions of YMG songs – details here.