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Membranes
Everyone’s Going Triple Bad Acid Yeah! The Complete Membranes 1980-1993 Richard Foster , August 29th, 2017 12:06

A huge great retro collection from John Robb's lairy-loveable postpunk gang

Behold. A comprehensive and sturdy box set of the Membranes, with a booklet no less, and a recharged and re-energised digital sound. And Simon Clegg’s marvellous 'Jester' artwork well to the fore. Who on earth would have thought, back in the mid 1980s, when fanzines were fanzines, that such spiky exponents of the Death To Trad Rock scene as the Membranes would end up sticking out a thing like a box set?

The Membranes are one of those bands that slipped through the cracks, and as such they're sometimes unable to put their enervating, sometimes life-affirming past to bed, to assess it even. There’s a telling line in John Robb’s sleevenotes for this collection: “Of course, we were never going to win.” It’s a key line, as it is nails the feeling of the times and the original fate of his band. It is nigh-on impossible now to recreate that feeling of mid-80s ennui, the feeling of being continually barked at by Thatcher and her orcs, or wondering if paid employment was an actual 'thing' while wincing at the continual blaring of pastel-hued chart fodder. Or sitting in a mate's bedroom that reeked of patchouli oil, looking at badly photocopied Pooh Sticks and Cocteau Twins fanzines. Going round to terraced houses full of fortysomething brainiacs and punk casualties spiked on acid and dope. Saying you liked the C86 tape in public, while wishing you’d been born five years earlier and seen the real thing, the Postcard bands or the two-drummer lineup of The Fall. Being slowly crushed by the SAW juggernaut. All of this. Even hearing great bands like Half Man Half Biscuit or cracking tracks like ‘Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder’ (the record that first brought The Membranes to my attention) could never dislodge the feeling of continual false starts in countercultural life. Worse, my contemporaries seemed to be (in retrospect) no better, all one step some Merchant-Ivory parody, albeit with semi-acoustic guitars. When would this stasis end?

Quite quickly, as it happened. Richard King’s book on the independent labels of the 1980s, How Soon Is Now?, has a quote from Blast First supremo Paul Smith on the passing of this C86-87 scene: “We certainly sank a generation of English squat bands.” Smith mentions Bogshed as his example. But we could also mention goodish acts like The Jazz Butcher, Jasmine Minks, The Bodines, Stump and The Loft. Anyway, they and a million others quickly shuffled off to pop music’s Grey Havens around 1989. Some acts turned a corner and became brilliant; step forward MBV. Others tried on new clothes. Primal Scream, Soup Dragons and The Beloved got busy with a newfound grooviness and staved off ignominy a while longer.

Given all of this, where were the Membranes? Well, they were still in there fighting; as a future myth, maybe, but certainly still in there, mixing it with a new, rockier scene. But despite knocking out one of 1989’s better records with Kiss Ass… Godhead they seemed to fade away when it looked like they’d weathered the zeitgeist.

So what should we say of their old work, now it’s been offered up once again in these radically different times? Maybe that of a very good band eventually undone by circumstance. Listening to The Membranes is always a warm and fulfilling experience. And this box set - despite its sometimes rambling and bitty nature - confirms that it’s wrong to consider the band as a noise that just got drowned out. They made some killer records. Four of these (1987’s Long Live Trad Rock EP, the Everything’s Brilliant EP from 1986, and the albums 1989’s Kiss Ass… Godhead and 1986’s Songs of Love and Fury) are certainly worth investigating. There’s an underground sensibility on display here that veers between Pinkwind and punk, Beefheart, The Soft Boys and The Stranglers. And it boasts the same (Lancastrian) saltiness that drove Al Reed, Nigel Blackwell and MES, albeit with a much more right-on, forgiving attitude. You could never accuse them of being wallflowers or gobshites. 1989’s Kiss Ass… Godhead is a superb record, beefy, knockabout and funny like a Biffa Bacon strip, containing some incredibly witty, proto-psych tracks like ‘Eternal Protein Man’ and ‘John Robb’s 91st Nightmare’. For me the record is as much a soundtrack to the concerns of Generation X as Isn’t Anything or Yerself Is Steam. That it isn’t considered that way is maybe because it was too giving, too committed, prepared to fall on its arse.

1986’s Songs of Love and Fury harks back to a slightly earlier (and gaucher) time, but still crackles with that weirdly translucent Membranes energy. And it’s a record that manages to span generation gaps without the least embarrassment: tracks like the immensely trippy ‘1986’, ‘Spaceships’ and the classic ‘Phoney TV Repair Man’ are as hippy-punk as they come and give Camper Van Beethoven (another favourite of the period and possibly their transatlantic soulmates) a real run for their money. I find it a shame that some of the information printed on the LP sleeve proper isn’t replicated in the booklet or on the CD cover. It’s instructive to know, for example (if you didn’t), that Ted Chippington adds his wry monotone to the far-too-short ‘Bang’ and makes it into a stone classic. It should be three minutes longer at least.

Elsewhere (outside the aforementioned EPs and the slick take on Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder with Philip Boa) there is fun to be had listening to their screeches and scrawls of their earlier works, especially tuning into what seems like John Robb’s essentially literary imagination being turned into that of a singer’s. It’s a vision that’s been driven to the wall by the constraints of living in Blackpool and only given release by floods of lyrics, seemingly pasted over the top of his band’s ‘clicketty-clacketty’, proto-Beefheart charge. Their first recordings proper, 1983’s 'Crack House' and 1985’s ‘Gift of Life’ are records that feel like the aural equivalent of a fanzine, wordy, scratchy, scraped up and pasted together into an incredibly effervescent whole. ‘I Am Fish Eye’ and ‘Mr Charisma Brain’ are metallic, provincial goth charges, crackling with electrical currents and cul-de-sac creativity.

The Membranes’ sound is actually an old sound; the sound of English heretics and malcontents from Langland to the (original) Levellers. Wyrder, for some reason known unto my subconscious, the noise on ‘Dreadful Sound Engine’ reminds me of Henry Cow. (Maybe it’s the band’s Crass connections bubbling up.) There is something current in their early sound too, something of our increasingly frustrated, political times; a questioning and creative chaos not 100 miles away from early Fat Whites, Pheromoans, or Action Beat. It’s fitting that Membranes have clawed their way back into people’s consciousness by a remarkable effort of will and wit over this last five years. There is something ageless about them. They still have that inquisitive energy that they had back in 1988 or 1989. So the box set is timely, as it clears out the undergrowth and shows a lost track to another creative place that can, and should, be be renegotiated, even if only to make sense of the band’s brilliant renaissance.

A personal footnote. In May 2014 I found myself in the enviable position of being given a fair wad of money by an organisation to bring bands to play the evening programme of an academic conferenc e(!) in Leiden, The Netherlands. We set up the nights in a local squat and invited a trio of bands over, one of whom was The Membranes. One of the stipulations was that John was to give a speech to an august gathering of legal academics in the afternoon. That he did, lecturing them about their misguided approach to rock & roll, before leading The Membranes into action in one of the most sweaty, committed floor shows I can remember. The place went nuts, as squatters and professors moshed and fell over in the dank smelly gloaming of the squat. Legendary stuff. Just like the band’s back catalogue, in fact.

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