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Fame: Jon Savage’s Secret History of Post-Punk 78-81 Mick Middles , March 30th, 2012 06:52

The sleeve depicts a young, clipped Jon Savage, rifling through his record box, earnestly taking up his DJ duties at Manchester’s Rafters Club in 1978. This, of course, was slap-bang in the centre of an era which – courtesy of Simon Reynolds – we would later refer to as ‘post-punk’. Genuinely, a flicker of an era brimming with wild invention. Perhaps the age when the punks, having learned their craft, began to branch out, seemingly in every which way.

Savage, one of the star writers at the great, long-lamented Sounds magazine, had given up the comforts of the organ's Covent Garden office-come-hangout to arrive in Manchester decked in army fatigues, intent on making his way through the weird and dark hierarchies of Granada Television. He simultaneously seeped into the comparatively miniscule music scene and fell effortlessly into place next to luminaries such as Factory’s Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton, and developed his friendship with Ludus singer and artist Linder Sterling. He would even be seen attending meetings of the city’s legendary City Fun magazine, itself an iconic product of ‘post-punk’ Manchester. One must admit, as Joy Division readied themselves to rise from their position as largely ignored local outsiders to the darlings of the raincoat brigade, Savage’s move north – a reverse of Paul Morley’s dash to the capital – seemed both shrewd and logical.

Manchester was beginning to bubble with embryonic talent. More importantly, perhaps, the local artists were starting to respond to the myriad eclectic talents that visited the city. Those in the know would purchase obscure singles from the still Bohemian Virgin Records on Lever Street, or from Rare Records. As such, the name-checking of new and disparate artists started to resemble the scramble for rare northern soul. This is no put-down. The punk era had been largely bereft of playable vinyl, particularly in the early days. But by late ’78, any serious post-punker would have a bedroom filled with wild noise from Sheffield, Bristol, Akron and, increasingly, Manchester. Jon Savage was arguably the writer most perfectly poised to develop this scene on the pages of a widely read national magazine.

Such is the background to these four sides of pristine vinyl which expand beyond the memories of the age and present music not just from the brief era, but from the wide-ranging knowledge of the writer himself. As with his previous compilations, Meridian ‘70 and The Lost History of Californian Punk, the accent is on re-discovering the shadows of the particular era through the writer’s eyes. Nothing wrong with that, of course, although it must be noted that the selections on these 23 tracks do not really represent the sound that one would have discovered in Rafters Club – apart, perhaps, on the odd occasion when the DJ was Mr Savage himself. In fact, partly due to Joy Division manager Rob Gretton’s own diverse taste, a Rafters evening would be nothing in not strikingly broad in scope. Earlier nights would see New York art punk singles (Richard Hell’s ‘Blank Generation’) mixing with a spurge of reggae, odd uncomfortable chunks of northern soul and, perhaps under the guidance of PiL, more and more shards of disco. Incongruous indeed and one recalls listening to Diana Ross’ ‘My Old Piano’ literally moments before the then unknown Bauhaus were to take to the stage. The point being that none of this is reflected here. How could it be?

Nevertheless, we do find 23 tracks that, especially in our current world of templated genre, seem nothing less than extraordinary. So fired, as they all are, by the ferocity of innovative abandon – an overwhelming desire to create something shockingly new. What is truly fascinating is, as Savage states, how they sounded like “nothing that gone before . . . some of it doesn’t sound like anything that has happened since.” Therein lies the key, and the proof that the post-punk energy flash was unique. More than that, it has become an increasingly distant and diminishing flicker.

As such there is much to enjoy. The heart of the compilation features Pere Ubu, (‘Heart of Darkness’) Subway Sect, (‘Imbalance’) Wire (‘A Touching Display’) and Joy Division (‘Autosuggestion’). These tracks seem to offer four contrasting corners to the first two sides, effectively underpinning brasher elements from the brilliantly spiked File Under Pop’s ‘Heathrow’; and how glorious to rediscover Nigel Simpkins’ ‘Times Encounter’. Personally, as one who has been all Joy Divisioned out for a number of years, I find their inclusion both obvious and superfluous. Savage argues that it was such an important track at the time that he felt compelled to slot it in place. Fair enough, but the true power of this release is the full-on sense of rediscovery. As a fan, I thrill to the sound of the ball-busting rhythm and push of Mars' '3E' (never encountered it in the day) and This Heat’s ‘A New Kind of Water’ seems to point towards an eletronica way out. More pertinently, the lost pre-pop stars Human League are allowed to regain their early measured flamboyance (they were stunning when in non-performance at The Factory) and Cabaret Voltaire‘s steely vision is a delight to revisit. How much fun it was, when musicians where simply shuffling through lo-fi experimentalism without a care in the world. Or so it seemed.

The tensions here are myriad and, if anything, seem all the more potent in retrospect. The pull of pop and politics, the bustling between guitars and embryonic synth that had yet to be commandeered by, among others, the Martin Rushent stamp of the eighties. The sense of an out-of-control rollercoaster permeates this collection. Savage and Caroline True label manager John Kertland deserve huge credit for this. Taken as a whole, it thrillingly captures that lost feel, rather than a collection of distant echoes. I close my eyes and see myself shunting through Manchester's then blackened city centre, avoiding the wild stares from wide shirted disco thugs, before diving into the welcoming red darkness of Rafters, pushing to the bar, settling in an alcove and wondering why such nights seemed so special. Why that scruffy ex-folk club seemed the right place to be. This might not be an accurate soundtrack but, nevertheless, part of the answer is right here.

Fame is available direct from Caroline True