Tuesday, March 02, 2010

DEATH TO TRAD ROCK - John Robb (Cherry Red books/2009)
There's this theory - one often propagated by yours truly - that the Brits, somewhere 'round the 1981-'82 time zone, completely lost the plot when it came to making good rock 'n' roll. Prior to that time frame, I'd rate many of ol' blighty's young 'n' pale youth as some of the finest rockers there be: whether it's obvious '60s outfits such as the Kinks, Pretty Things, 'Stones and even (and most definitely) The Beatles; through to pop-artsters in the realm of Soft Machine, Syd's 'Floyd, The Move and Roxy Music; solo performers such as Robert Wyatt, Eno and even David Bowie in his demented '70s prime; heavy metal monsters Hawkwind, Pink Fairies and Black Sabbath; '76 punkers The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks; post-punkers the Swell Maps, Wire, PiL, Raincoats, The Pop Group, The Fall and the list goes on. It's just about the best there ever was. And then things went all so horribly wrong. By 1982, or so it's always seemed, just about anyone left from the 1960s or pre-punk '70s had lost the plot entirely (except for the likes of Wyatt or Eno), the '76 brigade had run out of steam a few years previous, and the post-punkers - the ones who held all the cards during the glory years of 1978-'80 - either called it quits or sold their souls to "New Pop" and started donning pirate shirts. As for that much-lauded "second wave" of punk ca. 1980-'82: fugedaboutit and move on. The bands who got all the acclaim and press in the '80s - The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream, Teardrop Explodes, Cocteau Twins and the 4AD crew - have never held any interest for me. In fact, usually much worse. The only band to've kept a constant (and largely fruitful) presence throughout the last 30 years would be The Fall, a band whose shadow looms large over most of the bands featured in the book. This has always been my version of history (and one not too dissimilar to that given by Simon Reynolds in his worthy Rip It Up And Start Again post-punk history lesson from a few years ago), and John Robb's rather excellent new book hopes to put such bunk to rest. I think he's done a pretty fine job. At the very least he's got me hunting down a whole slew of interesting bands whom I never knew existed.

Robb was the singer in '80s UK outfit the Membranes, a band whom I actually own a record by and have never even listened to properly (sorry, but I bought it for a dollar at a record fair back in the mid '90s coz I knew the name from old issues of Forced Exposure... I really should dig it out), and he's also quite a well regarded print, radio and TV journalist in his homeland, so he's the best man for the job. He wasn't just an observer, but an active participant. The back-cover blurb neatly sums up his aim: "The post-post-punk scene was a collection of bands united by fierce independence and a gig circuit based around off centre venues the length and breadth of the UK, aided by coverage in fanzines and the vital radio play from John Peel." So, in essence, if you were disappointed by Reynolds' conclusion in his book, that the endgame of PiL wound up being the pop success of ABC and the Human League, and that perhaps it should've ended on a highnote, such as the awesome recorded works of The Ex and the Stretchheads, this reference book may be of a higher interest.

Split into chapters dedicated to what Robb deems to be the best and/or most important bands of the UK (and, occasionally, continental Europe) from roughly 1980 to the mid '90s, it's an easy-to-read guide to plugging the holes of your musical knowledge. Some you probably already know about (and perhaps don't want to know about), such as The Age Of Chance and The Wedding Present, both of whom scored major label hits in their time, though Robb is at pains to explain that such was the breadth of the under-represented underground of the time: every once in a blue moon, someone scored big, and it doesn't make them any less interesting. But alongside these names you get the goods on bands such as bIG fLAME and Bogshed (and others on the Ron Johnson label: perhaps the underground UK label of the 1980s); post-Fall outfit The Creepers; all of the Scottish bands whom I've spent the last 18 years forcing onto everyone in earshot like Dawson, Badgewearer, Whirling Pig Dervish, Stretchheads, Dog Faced Hermans, etc. (a few chapters of which have uncredited quotes from moi!), as well as brethren bands Revenge Of The Carrots, The Ex and The Keatons; eccentrics such as Stump (who were all over public radio down here ca. 1987) and the Noseflutes; as well as quite a few unknowns-to-me such as The Legend, Pigbros, Vee V V, The Turncoats and a whole lot more. The running thread is the sound of a band rallying not only against the mainstream pop of the day, but the stifling blandness of most of what passed for "indie" music at the time.

Robb's writing style doesn't possess the elegant prose of Jon Savage or the literacy of Nick Kent; it's more in the enthusiastic-fanzine-writer realm, which is perfectly fine, given the subject matter, one which requires someone to rev you up and get excited. It's not a book about the UK class system or how the Situationists relate to Brit pop culture in the late 20th century. Those subjects are fine, but Death To Trad Rock is purely about the music: the bands, the records, the fanzines, the radio shows, the tour circuit and the clubs. The opening chapter is almost a manifesto, detailing what it is that makes up this mini-scene Robb is attempting to bring to wider attention.

Can one recommend it? You bet. The fact that this book exists is a very great thing. The loose clutter of bands it gives the nod to, by all accounts, need to be given their due, and I say that as a man completely ignorant of more than a few of the bands covered here. I needed it. Any book which can dedicate full chapters in the year 2010 to bands such as Dawson and Stretchheads has proved its worth right there. It's easy to read, informative and full of humour and interesting anecdotes and, if you're like me, you'll probably burn through the 395 pages in a couple of days. Get it.

PS - I must correct one mistake: DAWSON's double CD on Lexicon Devil entitled Everything Is Under Control (where the hell did Robb get that title??!), apparently released in 2008 and listed in their "discography" section, does not exist. That double CD may just never exist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Check out the Turncoats brilliant band only did two releases a 12 and a split 7 with the Dog faced Hermans/Membranes and The Sperm Wails who shouuld of been in the book as well fucking great band got a video somewhere of them supporting Sonic Youth!