Time to return to the modest indulgence of reviving musical obscurities from the punk and new wave era which can can be found on YouTube and not really anywhere else. Previous posts, Where’s the New Wave now? and It was easy, it was cheap – go and do it, have revived happy personal memories of the Cybermen, the Golinski Brothers, Epic Soundtracks, Liliput, the Desperate Bicycles and others whose passion for the liberating ethos of the new wave still rings out even if fate has condemned them to obscurity. So I dug out my box of 45s, leafed through making notes of records I could no longer remember the reason for buying, and others whose tunes automatically leapt out at me the moment I saw that familiar sleeve once more. And then I went hunting for them on YouTube.
First up The Freshmen. They came from Ireland, and were as far away from the genuine New Wave as you might imagine. They were formed back in 1962, and were a showband, specialising in covers which they played up and down the land in ballrooms and the like. They had assorted hits in Ireland, and were commemorated on a set of Irish stamps in 2000. As their final record in 1979, they released ‘You’ve never heard anything like it’, a sing-a-long parody of punk rock. Cringe-making? Anything but. The magnificence of the rousing chorus raises the song above its mocking intentions into something approaching greatness, not unlike Plastic Betrand’s similarly-intentioned ‘Ça plane pour moi’. Probably it would have been squirm-inducing to watch, but with the music alone – and a striking sleeve – it is joyous.
The Moondogs were Derry’s second finest, a power pop trio who actually had their own TV series for a while (Moondog Matinee, made for Granada). They spent a lot of time as the support act for Derry’s prime musical export, The Undertones, but never quite hit the big time. ‘Who’s Gonna Tell Mary?’ dates from 1980 and you couldn’t hope for a better pop record – professional, but completely sincere, from a time when pop somehow mattered.
I had completely forgotten about Ludus until I came across this number, ‘My Cherry is in Sherry’, among that box of 45s, but I can see why I bought it. It’s a sparky, inventive and continually surprising piece of deconstructive post-punk, which starts off reasonably conventionally with the angular guitar style so common back in 1980, but then goes off at wild tangent after wild tangent. They hailed from Manchester, and were headed by Linder [sic] Sterling (famed for having once dressed for a concert in a dress of red meat, decades before Lady Gaga). Morrisey is a great fan of theirs.
The New Wave era coincided with, or incorporated, the ska revival, from which we got Madness, The Specials, UB40 and so forth. But there were plenty of British ska bands who tried but never quite made an impression on the charts. Take The Same, for instance. ‘Movements’ dates from 1980, and it’s a gem – delicate, tuneful, danceable. I know little about the band, except they seem to have come from the Brighton area and were part of the Mod revival of those times.
OK this one was an alternative chart hit at the time (1979) and its cult fame has endured, but the relatively low number of hits on YouTube suggests it is not appreciated as much as it should be. The great thing about Spizzenergi were the band’s name changes. Led by Kenneth Spiers (Spizz), they changed their name every year, which can’t have helped the marketing, but did give us Spizzoil, Spizzenergi, Athletico Spizz 80, The Spizzles, and the disappointingly unimaginative Spizzenergi 2. ‘Where’s Captain Kirk?’ doesn’t just have a gimmicky theme – it’s a really musically inventive number, with a tune slyly adapted from the TV series theme tune and more twists and turns in its structure than the programme ever managed.
The Prefects hailed from Birmingham and were led by Robert Lloyd, who went on to form The Nightingales, a firm John Peel favourite. Their one single, ‘Going Through the Motions’, was released on Rough Trade in 1979 after the band had broken up, and is just magnificent. The hyped-up rock opening makes you think you are going to listen to a standard upbeat rocker, but the beat slows down to a menacing trudge, guitars jangle menacingly and a rasping saxophone plays in the background. Of its time, yet unlike anything else, a great anti-song and a great record.
More overlooked ska, from The Outline, with the single ‘I like bluebeat’ (1980). The release of this was a bit of an oddity, as the other side has a different recording of the track by the same band under a different name, Cairo. The latter is a bit over-produced for my taste, but either way it’s irresistibly catchy, with a sweet chorus (‘I like b-l-u-e-b-e-a-t, I like bluebeat’). Apparently two versions of the same song on the same record by ostensibly different groups did not help sales, which doesn’t come as a surprise. Bluebeat was a pre-reggae variant of ska.
Eyeless in Gaza were a duo, Martyn Bates and Peter Becker, who hailed from Nuneaton. They produced tastefully anguished electronica, like a bohemian folk Soft Cell. Their records came with beautiful black-and-white photography. They have maintained a small but enthusiastic cult since the 1980s, and ‘Invisibility’, their second single I think (from 1981), is their finest moment. It builds up gradually, with a falling melody behind somewhat mannered vocals that some how turns into something beautiful, as the music richens and the vocals reveal real feeling. A poem of a piece.
Who were The Paranoids? I have an idea of them being a small-time band who turned up in a studio in 1979, when a producer a sensed a hit from a poppy tune they were rehearsing. Said producer threw in the works, with strings, background singers and big beat production, and told them they were going to have a number one. It didn’t happen. In an alternate universe this is the song that everyone sung through the summer of ’79 and now turns up on the soundtrack of every nostalgic TV programme. But in this universe it didn’t happen. Perhaps it was the stupid music sleeve that condemned it.
Talking of classics that never got their chance to become classics, here’s Cowboys International and their single ‘Today’ from 1980. Strictly speaking they were a person rather than a band, Ken Lockie, who lingered on the fringes of being big (Terry Chimes and Keith Levene played in the group for a while) without it ever happening for them. This restrained epic pop song has lingered in my mind for thirty years, with its yearning sense of having caught the temper of the times. Unfortunately the version on YouTube comes with someone’s DIY video rather than the record sleeve (and I never managed to track down a copy at the time), but just close your eyes and listen to yesterday’s today.
Update: The other posts in this musical series are: