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Death To Trad Rock By John Robb - An Extract
John Robb , November 23rd, 2009 13:04

John Robb celebrates the UK mid-80s alternative indie scene that spawned The Wedding Present, Prolapse and A Witness in his new book Death To Trad Rock. Here he argues why this music was so important . . .

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"We want to sound like a nuclear war!" The Membranes

It’s 1985. The upstairs room of the pub is packed.

A ruddy-faced, callow youth is standing on the door collecting the money and putting it in a battered old cashbox. He’s also selling a pile of fanzines – pages of impassioned doggerel photocopied on to sheets of A4. Xeroxed sheets filled with reviews of treasured 7-inch singles and wild gigs, stuffed full of fierce opinion surrounded by cartoons and collage cutups of heads glued on to wrong bodies, strange animals, pictures from encyclopaedias and wild jokes. The room is buzzing with expectation. There’s plenty of drinking and some mind-altering chemicals going on. The crowd are skinny, young and look a bit crazy with rough-hewn exploding hair with the sides shaved, black drainpipe jeans, big army boots and paisley shirts over well-worn obscure logo T-shirts.

The stage is set, the PA is propped up on tables and the room is hot...

Very hot.

The talk in the room is of noise, madness, discord, action, how to hitchhike round the country and where is everyone going to sleep tonight as the search for floor space begins. The expectant hum grows louder as the band take the stage. Wandering up from the crowd where they have been hanging out, they plug in and… Bang!

Everyone goes crazy! Triple bad acid crazy.

An amazing, thrilling, discordant racket explodes into the night. The music is a stunning combination of punk rock, blues squall and agit-funk with a heavy bass and slashing guitar. It’s played fast, it stops and starts and, from the first riff to the last, zigzags all over the place.

There is a wild pit at the front full of weird-shaped dancing, flailing limbs and fantastic chaos followed by a shower of homemade confetti as beer flies everywhere.

The songs are short, sharp shocks of wild noise with off the wall titles – some of which take longer to say than they do to play. There are no guitar solos – in fact no clichés of any kind – this is rock music turned upside down and inside out. This is a scene that exists beyond the music business. It seems to exist beyond itself, as there is no discernible scene as such, just a loose confederation of bands sharing phone numbers, floor space and an audience.

Faster! Louder! Harder!

For a brief flicker of time in the mid-Eighties something really wild was going on in the UK. As Prime Minister Magaret Thatcher turned the screw and the charts filled up with the most boring pop music ever made the underground, quite literally, went mad.

It was the most extreme music scene ever in the UK. The mid-Eighties post-post punk scene was a diverse collection of bands who were joined together by wild nights in a never-ending series of gigs in venues up and down the UK, aided by reportage in fanzines and radio play from John Peel.

The bands generally produced loud, noisy, discordant music with a stripped down punk energy and quirky anti-rock songs. Most of them had a dirty bass sound, shrapnel guitars and surreal lyrics. Many of the bands played benefits for the miners’ strike. Then again, some of them did none of these things but somehow still seemed to fit in.

The scene didn’t have a name and it was so smartass that it wouldn’t even call itself a scene. But there was a sense of a scene. I should know. I saw all the bands play, put most of them up, released several of their records, wrote about all of them in various fanzines and music papers and played in one of them, The Membranes.

The title of our Death To Trad Rock EP is also the title of this book because it kind of sums up the attitude of the period. Rock was boring. Trad rock was KISS and other jokers. It was conservative, it was lightweight, it didn’t actually even rock. If you were looking for adrenalised kicks then that sort of rock with its tinpot clichéd riffs just didn’t have the power to excite. Rock was great when it was listening to all other musics and mixing them in with its riffola and that’s what was missing in the trad rock canon.

Death To Trad Rock was a loose confederation of noisenik bands, reacting against the bland conformity of the mid-Eighties and driven by the kind of noise that served to drown out the soporific drone of the ‘loadsamoney’ Eighties with sharp and angular songs.

Some of the bands went on to mainstream success, some of them were rounded up and placed awkwardly in the middle of the NME's ‘C86’ cassette which arrived a couple of years after things got going, some of them faded away and some of them have become seminal influences. In this book we will meet everybody involved and find out just why they all arrived at such a tangent in such a boring decade.

DIY! Do It Yourself!

The noisenik scene was the last flowering of punk rock DIY and the last time bands made a genuine grassroots political stand. After this there would be great music but there would never be bands who would be prepared to take on the whole establishment and believe that rock’n’roll played deconstructed and played loudly could change the world. In the late Seventies punk had represented a massive sea change, a real cultural revolution. It tore down the structure of rock’n’roll, including both the means of production and the very sound of the music itself. The coolest thing about it, though, was the DIY ethic. The sudden realisation that you could make your own music on your own terms was to have a profound effect on the generation of midteens who were caught up in punk’s adrenaline and promise. The DIY networks thrown up by punk perfectly encouraged this kind of freeform music and culture. There was no grovelling to labels – you just made your own record. You could press up a thousand 7-inch singles in the Czech Republic and sell them cheap at your gigs. Maybe John Peel might play it as well!

Suddenly you could be plugged in to the network

The 7-inch was the key, the perfect shot – one blistering two-minute-long song that told the whole world of your frustration and your slanted take on things. Several bands also printed their own fanzines – this was a true alternative DIY medium. You could even put on your own gigs. Do. It. Yourself. This was a scene that existed by word of mouth, endless letter-writing and the fanatical devotion of a surprisingly large coterie of wild-eyed fans that drove the whole thing along. It was like they were having a private, and quite mad, party in the grey days of Thatcher’s Britain.

"If We Play Pretty Loud – The World Will Listen!"

The backdrop was mid-Eighties Britain, the dissatisfaction with the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher and the brutal suppression of the miners. It was a culture war. The miners’ strike was the key political issue. It united the bands with one another and also with the mining communities that were being besieged by the vicious government. Along with the Falklands War it galvanised and politicised anyone left who cared. Of course, alongside the themes of general dissatisfaction or cynical world-weariness there was sometimes the odd witty, obtuse love song. Some of the bands were apolitical, preferring down-to-earth surrealism,whilst others were actively angry, screeching their discordant polemic at endless benefits.

In many bands you could sense an anger at being let down by the fallout of punk. The scene was political but with a neat surrealist, satirical edge. Many of the bands played benefits for the miners during the miners’ strikes but hardly any of them would write a direct political anthem. They assumed the audience were smart enough to know which side they were on as they satirised post-punk British culture. The politics of mid-Eighties Britain were desperate. This was a time of Tory rule with Thatcher riding high after the Falklands War and making the crushing of the unions, and especially the miners, her priority. "There is no such thing as society," she cackled, and this music scene with its sense of community was a direct reaction to that kind of selfish mindset. It was a very politicised time and while the Top 10 was about dancing around in frilly shirts and pretending to be in Rio, the underground took it upon themselves to fight back.

This was the last flowering of the counter-culture; the last time underground bands would pick up guitars and talk about revolution, albeit in a weird and wonderful way. This was the last time that ‘indie’ actually meant independent and wasn’t just shorthand for a major-label marketing campaign. These bands were never going to have hits but they believed they were making a sort of pop music and beneath the noise and the high-treble action there were plenty of great melodies.

Raise A Glass To The Punk Rock International!

The scene was a celebration of a very distinct culture and its kamikaze approach to any notion of having a ‘career’ made it even more appealing. These were groups who genuinely didn’t care about success yet, perversely, made an impact. An impact that, a couple of decades later, sees many of the key bands still quoted as influences by such unlikely bedfellows as the Manic Street Preachers, Blur, Lambchop, Franz Ferdinand and the American undergound.

In many ways its equivalent scene was the hardcore and post-hardcore scene in the USA. When the noise rock of Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi and Big Black began to make it presence felt in the UK the British bands had already been at it for up to four or five years pioneering the new, louder music. Some of the UK bands were heavier and more far-out than their transatlantic contemporaries, and some were poppier, but it was through their shared attitude that you sensed a kinship between the two scenes. The way the bands toured relentlessly and operated beyond the fringes of the tastemakers, the way they built up their own communication network beyond the fringe! This was music made by fanatics for fanatics. The American bands were welcomed as fellow travellers and when the UK bands made it to America it was quite often on the same labels as the American post-hardcore bands. Both scenes were trying to find the answers to all the questions posed by punk rock.

Millionaires Against Poverty!

For many, Live Aid was the high water mark of Eighties pop culture, greedy old pop music putting its hand in your pocket with a self-styled fantastic fuckfest of music celebrating all that was shiny about the decade and making millions for charity with YOUR money!

But for anyone who was still awake it was the low point in the history of pop and the counter-culture. For sure, Bob Geldof’s motives were spot on and it would take a hard heart not to applaud the former Boomtown Rats frontman for his impulsive act of charity. But the actual show was awful – shiny, happy people in white clothes, grinning like idiots, patting themselves on the back for turning up and playing a concert. Multi-millionaires making cheerleader pop and asking everyone else to pay for their charity, all the while gaining maximum exposure for their greatest hits sets. If you were slumped in front of the TV watching the endless procession of prancing pop puppets you would have to have realised that this was the real ‘day the music died’.

But just beyond the backslapping there was a fightback. On the fringes of the most disappointing pop decade so far there was an energetic, idealistic last stand for everything that punk had fought for.

All Hail The Sharp And Angular!

The bands in this book floated round in that space between punk, post-punk, the new pop of The Smiths and the nascent goth scene. This was a scene full of misfits that were linked by a common audience. There was no brand sound, no scene style. This was outsider music that sat firmly on the outside. There were vague links between the bands in that the inspiration or the spark of energy came from punk. There was a shared audience and shared venues up and down the country and into Europe. Several of the bands took the energy of punk rock and infused it with the twisted genius of Captain Beefheart. There was a playful eccentricity but also a cross-referencing of styles.

If punk had been ‘year zero’, when old musics had been swept aside by the brash impudence of the new, this was now a time of re-discovery, a looking back as well as forward. In the years after punk many of that generation were on a quest to find the same kind of spark in a myriad of musical forms. Blues, jazz, soul, old rock’n’roll, ska, funk and dub were all referenced.

The same sort of pioneering spirit could be found in all these forms of music – the same sort of devil-may-care, abrasive honesty – and that appealed. Many of the bands took ideas from those genres and twisted them out of shape into new forms. You can quite often hear a slap of funk about the bass, or a clipped disco guitar cranked through a crazy amount of treble and volume. Drummers could be heard mashing up funk and punk and ending up somewhere else. There was also a post-punk consciousness, an idea that music had to go somewhere else, and a deliberate anti-rock attitude.

As the early post-punk scene faded away the new breed arrived with a far more extreme idea of what they were doing. I can remember having songs where the riffs were played seven times because to play them four times seemed too conventional. Yet somehow it worked. We would deliberately play out of tune because, somehow, it sounded pretty good. It was exciting and it freaked people out – but the people who got it really got it. Of course, not all of the bands in this book went to those extremes. There were bands who were almost jangle-pop but they had that steely attitude and determination about them. The June Brides and the Wedding Present are in here because, despite their melodic tendencies, you can hear in their grooves a tough edge, a reaction to fluffiness and daytime radio banality, and it made them all the better.

New Blood For Young Skulls

At its peak there was a whole circuit of gigs up and down the country, with audiences in packed venues doing the spastic jive while checking out the bands on the scene. Bands that were quite different but somehow hung together, bonded by a similar attitude and a similar communication network based on hastily cut and pasted fanzines that were attempting a typewritten guerrilla raid on pop culture, perfectly mirroring the bands’ own idiosyncratic approaches.

From the clattering pop of the June Brides to Big Flame’s shrapnel guitar agitpunk funk; from The Membranes’ noisenik apocalypse to Bogshed’s skewed garage pop weirdness; from the Stretchheads and Dawson’s furious riff collisions to the Ex’s machine clank; this was a scene tied together by the belief that music could change the world and that you could operate outside the mainstream, the belief that a 7-inch single could change everything and that you could create your own culture with your bare hands.

It’s no coincidence that many of these bands came from small towns – those last bastions of punk’s ideals. Far from being backwaters, the small towns were the backbone of creativity in mid-Eighties Britain. The big cities were chasing fashion and ending up with Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, bands that were trying too hard to be cool, misunderstanding everything that was great about music and reducing it to its lowest common denominator – lager music for white-socked suburban dullards. The small-town bands were true believers who were still staring into punk’s powerful flame and living their own version of the revolution.

Xerox Machine – The Great Fanzine Revival

I interviewed nearly all these bands at the time for my fanzine, Rox, then for ZigZag or, eventually, the long-lost music paper Sounds and was always inspired by their outrageous self-belief. From the Ex’s post-Crass revolutionary zeal to the Shrubs’ sheer eccentricity, this was a music that lived in its own idealistic universe.

In many ways the music and the fanzine culture went hand in hand. Look at the fanzines now especially the big three of The Legend!, Rox and Attack On Bzag which were cut and paste jobs crammed with detail and an insane explosion of ideas. They perfectly matched the music of the bands. The fanzines documented the action, time, vision of the bands. The fanzines also created the network, putting on the gigs, providing floor space and collecting phone numbers – an electric conduit of rebel information!

Musical Routes…

The sheer energy and excitement of punk affected people in so many different ways. From 1978 onwards an independent scene began to emerge in its wake – Rough Trade Records, Swell Maps, the Pop Group, the Monochrome Set, Factory, the Fall, New York No Wave, Gang Of Four, the Fire Engines, the earliest of the goth bands, Killing Joke and many, many more. Bands that suggested so many possibilities. Ambitiously crosspollinating different strands of music, they were creating their own style. Funk, soul, blues, you name it – everything was in the pot as the ‘year zero’ generation rediscovered music’s roots and put them through a blender of punk-rock attitude and energy.

There were certain key groups whose names will crop up again and again. The Pop Group were born right at the start of punk. Mark Stewart was a fast-talking Bristol wide boy who would hitchhike to London and hang around the Sex shop in 1976 before going home with a heap of hip clothes. Very much part of Bristol’s nascent punk scene, Stewart put together the Pop Group, incorporating the shrapnel funk of prime-time James Brown and cranking it up with the wild energy and abandon of punk rock. The resulting explosive and animated industrial funk was a wild-eyed clarion call to any defiant young rebel.

Wire took the stripped-down ethic of punk rock and made it into a two/three chord music that explored a million textures and possibilities inside their own basic format. Wire constructed seemingly simple songs that were deceptively complex with dark nihilistic sentiments sung in a detached, almost robotic voice. Whist they were re-defining punk they also managed to invent post-punk, creating the landscape for Joy Division and a thousand others to change rock music. Wire also made great pop records…‘I Am The Fly’ and ‘Outdoor Miner’ are two of the most exquisite and beautiful rock songs ever written, with an evocative, almost psychedelic, edge.

Wire were a profound influence on the Death To Trad Rockers by making music that was ingeniously simple yet suggestive of so much more. Interestingly enough they were also a big influence on the parallel hardcore scene in America, with their fingerprints all over the likes of Minor Threat, who even covered Wire’s punk rock anthem ‘12XU’.

The Stranglers were the bad boys of punk… and that’s saying something! Written out of history by the tastemakers, it is sometimes easy to forget just how innovative they were. Their shadow hangs heavily over this book. JJ Burnel’s lead bass is one of the signature sounds of many of the bands included here, a revolutionary cranking of the four-string that changed the way people wrote songs.

Hugh Cornwell’s splintered Beefheart guitar riffs and scratching rhythm was another key influence. Add to that the neo-Psychedelic keyboards and imaginative, almost jazz, drumming they crammed into pop songs that actually hit the Top 10, and the Stranglers have to be one of the oddest bands in the history of British music. They also sang obtuse, surreal lyrics and their first three albums created a template for many of the bands we are dealing with.

Ignored by the media, their contribution is, nonetheless, always acknowledged by musicians. The Fall, on the other hand, have been lauded by the media from day one. Each new album is the best one they have done for twenty years and they sit beyond criticism. They have earned it though, their bass-driven music, with its splintered Beefheartesque guitar riffs and brilliantly off-the-wall lyrics fuelled by a bagful of attitude and blunt northern wit.

Other bands warrant a mention, from the sheer excitement of the Clash’s insurrectionary, revolutionary rock’n’roll to Public Image Limited’s dub-heavy turning inside-out of rock, especially with their second album, Metal Box, which hinted at Can, Beefheart, dub, funk and even prog, but sounded like nothing else ever released before. Gang Of Four’s shrapnel guitars and funk dub-bass also had an effect, as did A Certain Ratio’s dark funk and Joy Division’s atmospheric bass-driven journey into the heart of darkness.

The Death To Trad Rock bands grew up with this music, sitting round their radios listening to John Peel, the key player in disseminating the information. The Peel show was crucial. Every night, Monday to Thursday, from 10 till midnight, he played what seemed to be every type of music you could imagine. African hi-life, Jamaican dub and reggae, punk and post-punk – it was a brilliant show, the best radio show ever, and, even if he did sometimes miss out key players and great bands for a variety of reasons, he was generally on the nail and a great education for the army of teenagers starved of punk rock-styled music by a mainstream media which was still stuck in the hairy cornflake, Smashy and Nicey world that it, oddly, still inhabits under a slightly different guise.

The rise of the independent labels was also crucial; suddenly a space was created for the music to get made. The demystification of the process of making music was crucial. Before punk, music had been made by what seemed to be Rolls-Royce driving, fat cigar-chewing big record company moguls. Six months after punk there was a cottage industry of young hopefuls with their cheap pressing of five hundred 7-inch singles, hastily photocopied sleeves stuck together with Pritt-sticks. It was a massive sea change in the very attitude towards making music.

No longer did you have to go cap in hand to a major label to get your music heard. You could actually make your own statement and, even better, John Peel was going to play it on Radio 1 and the music press might even write about it.

TREBLE! The Worship Of The High End

"What made us think that we knew how to produce records?" laughs the ever-astute Dave Callahan from the Wolfhounds in a Soho pub a couple of decades later. "I mean all those wonderful records in the Fifties and Sixties had proper producers! And we were obsessed with treble – make the guitars sound nasty!’ Of course, he’s got his tongue fimly in his cheek. The point of cranking the treble was that it sounded so damned exciting. This was Death To Trad Rock! Normal rock was about comfort and none of us were looking for that.

Treble was the key to the scene sound. The guitars got nastier and scratchier like they were switchblade-sharp knives and they made you feel awake… Alive.

The whole idea was to crank up the high end. Scratchy guitars like Telecasters were favoured and shoved through a Vox AC30 as one-fingered chords were slashed out.

There were hints of this in post-punk, in the Scars’ first single, in Josef K or the Fire Engines. Combine it with punk-rock snottiness and aggressive energy and you had the scene’s archetypal guitar sound, typified by Big Flame’s shrapnel scrape, The Membranes’ slash discords, the Dog Faced Hermans’ treble-infused ska attack or the Ex’s grinding machine-like six-string clank.

Why all that treble? We might have been deafened but it made us feel pretty wild and cranked up the intensity to a ridiculous extreme. This was real heavy metal! No rock band ever sounded this heavy or this metallic, that’s for sure.

Bass! How Loud Can You Go?

The other key factor was the bass, often promoted to a lead instrument in the tough, gnarling style patented by the iconic JJ Burnel of the Stranglers, who took the four string and reinvented its role. Previously the bass had been the back-up, the dull rumble in the background, and most bass players were sort of forgotten, holding back behind the guitar player. Suddenly Burnel had changed this. The sound he got out of his bass was amazing, ultra-melodic and ultra-tough. It really announced itself on the Stranglers’ second single, ‘Peaches’, with a sound that no-one had ever really heard before, one that made a big chunk of a generation want to be bass players.

I remember sitting with Steve Albini in the studio in the early Eighties, analysing that very Stranglers sound, spending hours discussing its finer details as we attempted to hone its brutal magic. The bass was out and loose now – and for many of the bands in this book it formed the backbone of their sound. You can hear it running around in A Witness songs, counterpointing the guitar. It could be the lead in Bogshed’s warped epics, the apocalypse now of the Stretchheads’ four-string or, as in the case of The Membranes, just a huge wall of sound cranked from a home-made violin bass.

The bass was suddenly important; no longer stuck in the background, it became another lead instrument. No-one was a backing musician any more, everyone in these bands played lead. All at once. We called it ‘bass science’, but in reality it was ‘everything’ science, as somehow, in all that noise, every instrument was running the show and playing melodic lead lines. Trying to make sense of the times.

Words Are Our Weapons!

Scene band lyrics were packed with in-jokes, bizarre observations and surrealist wordplay. Some of the bands wrote songs that dripped with northern humour, songs that could be obtuse, about obscure ideas and scenarios, but had bigger meanings.

Some could be funny and scary at the same time, like an Eighties musical version of The League Of Gentlemen. They could be nightmarish with a dark sense of humour or they could be big and bright and bold, statements of intent that celebrated their stance against the Eighties pop world. Some were taking strong socialist/anarchist/punk rock political stances, others were simply love songs or at least wry observations on love.

‘It Always Speeds Up Towards The End…’

We were the children of the evolution, a generation fast-tracking out of punk. We swallowed the whole DIY ethic. We manned the barricades with guitars. We believed everything we read about the dislocating rock’n’roll revolution thing that was punk. Hook, line and sinker.

We took all this and started a revolution of our own.

John's book is published by Cherry Red and is available from all righteous book sellers. A compilation to accompany it is out now as well.

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Sensurroundandaroundandaround
Nov 29, 2009 8:49pm

John Robb. A man so edgy he shears electrons off the very atoms around him.

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Chris
Jan 19, 2010 10:52am

Great writer, love his opinions and musical insight. John's starting up a Rivmixx blog which looks to be pretty awesome check out more here http://bit.ly/6lglgZ

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Chris
Jan 20, 2010 10:50am

Really dig his book, really descriptive. John Robb's first blog post for Rivmixx has just been posted, supporting Billy Bragg's protest against bankers bonuses. The post is here http://bit.ly/5q8aNX

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Mark Davies
Feb 4, 2010 10:49pm

Haven't read the book yet but this has got me ready to cause some mischief...
and to see the membranes at ATP was a 18 year old dream come true.

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Lucy Cage
Feb 17, 2010 11:47am

I got the book because I wanted to know more about those bands. I wanted facts and I wanted analysis. Unfortunately the book is so off-puttingly unattractive that I can hardly bear to have it open. The photos are unbelievably badly reproduced, the crammed type-setting makes reading a chore and there is so little evidence of an editor that I am in disbelief that any publishing house would let such a thing out of its presses. Typos and factual inaccuracies abound. There's no index! NO INDEX in a book that catalogues dozens of bands and musicians and writers in a sprawling scene. Why not? Was it just too much effort? Is not having an index sticking it to the Man or just to the reader?
The bands which are included seem to be selected on the basis of how well John Robb knew them rather than on merit or relevance.
Oh dear. What a wasted opportunity.

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Oct 27, 2011 1:08pm

In reply to Lucy Cage:

I think John's heart is in the right place, but you're right Lucy, his writing is always more about him and his pals, that's a small world John.

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