Angelic Upstarts – The Albums 1983-91
Released 25th January 2019
Boxset encompassing the six albums the Angelic Upstarts recorded on their return to the independent sector, with five studio LPs being joined by the Live In Yugoslavia set. Ian Canty hears the resilient North East punks’ progress through the 80s to the 90s.
After five years which saw the Angelic Upstarts score hit singles, appear on television and record some well-received albums, they found themselves surplus to requirements at EMI/Zonophone in 1982. Their album of that year, Still From The Heart was a major misfire for the band. In trying to recapture some of their fading commercial success, they went too far in the other direction with a horrible production job and the resulting effort fell between two stools. In doing so, it alienated most of their original fans and didn’t appeal to the pop crowd at all either. Naturally the LP tanked, giving EMI the excuse to send them on their way soon afterwards.
After this setback and one of their many line-up overhauls (with Brian Hayes, Tony Feedback and ex-Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson coming in), they re-emerged in 1983 with the Woman In Disguise single on Cherry Red. The irony of the LP that followed, Reason Why?, is that it was pretty much the perfect follow-up to their best record 2,000,000 Million Voices. Unfortunately Cherry Red, at that time, did not have the resources for it to reach its full potential, but it did at least make a good showing on the Indie chart. This album was a very pleasing blend of styles that built on the band’s punk roots rather than retreating from them. It was also packed with good tunes and interesting songs too. With this LP, the Upstarts successfully re-positioned themselves as elder statesmen of punk, the experience they had built up over the years making their music and words all the more powerful.
Woman In Disguise was a good example of their new direction, a step away from the thrash of their earlier efforts, more towards tuneful but still hard-hitting punk with keen pop hooks. They seasoned their up-tempo sides with the brooding Solidarity (still in their live set to this day), folk touches and spoken word. 42nd Street is like third album Clash given a North East going over and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner gave a clue to their strengths when they stepped away from the punk template, sharing a little of the Skids’ epic vision circa The Absolute Game.
Geordie’s Wife mined the kind of unaccompanied folk singing that had gone on in pubs for decades before by the likes of the Copper Family and the title track utilised ex-Starjets vocalist Terry Sharpe on an excellent piece of punky reggae. Where We Started is a great set closer – really energetic and catchy, realistically charting the progress of the band to date. A fine album, and with that song it really did feel like an end of an era had been reached (and it had with Mond leaving soon after).
Among some smart bonuses on this disc are follow-up single, Not Just A Name, which has a winning big chorus, an excellent demo of Solidarity which almost verges on being a different song and the cool bass rumble of The Leech. They also prove they still had some good old punk rockers up their sleeves in Lust For Glory and Victory In Poland too. This makes Reason Why? very much the pick of this boxset, an excellent album plus really good extras.
By the time Last Tango In Moscow was released on the Picasso label a year later in the late summer of 1984, Mond Cowie had left the band. Despite songs that were co-written by him with Mensi (now the only original member of the band) still littering this LP, he was clearly a big loss to the Upstarts and it is fair to say that they struggled without him. Ex-Crabs guitarist Ronnie Rocka, Max Splodge and Derwent of mod band, The Rage came in, but you felt the band had lost something. Having said that, Machine Gun Kelly was a good single and this album does have some decent tracks. Even so, Last Tango… does not quite live up to what had gone before – and the break with Cowie would leave a gap that was hard to fill, a fact that became very apparent later on, as we shall see.
On the positive side, One More Day is a decent, mature punk track that harks back to the previous LP and the bitter Blackleg Miner again has more unaccompanied folk singing than spoken word. Jarrow Woman is an agreeable slice of 80s folk-punk too, though the demo version of She Don’t Cry Anymore arguably trumps it. The title track is a passable synth piece and I Think It Should Be Free (after a fairly pointless studio argument intro) is a fairly explosive punk number.
Whatever your opinion of the band/man, I think most would agree that an Angelic Upstarts record is no place for a Splodge track. Rude Boy (he also provided the single track There’s A Drink In It which is included as a bonus, another bit of a waste) does absolutely nothing to help the feeling that Last Tango In Moscow falls away badly the more it goes on, culminating in the hilarious decision to cover the Holland/Dozier/Holland Motown classic Nowhere To Run. While it is not quite as bad as it sounds on paper, Mensi just hasn’t got the kind of voice that could make a convincing stab at the song. On No News, which is more of a 60s pop thing, he struggles too.
Among the bonus tracks are seven demos cut before Mond’s departure, five of which were used in a different form on Last Tango… These demos have much more of the old Upstarts’ energy, generally knocking the new recordings for six. The harp-driven Bo Diddley beat of Living In Exile and the upbeat Box On didn’t make the album; they’re no great shakes, but you have to wonder why with Rude Boy and Nowhere To Run making the cut.
Next came very much a stop-gap live album, recorded by the same line up as Last Tango In Moscow and again on Picasso. For me, I’m afraid, Live In Yugoslavia is a little underwhelming and the guitar is too far down in the mix. Knowing the fire that the Upstarts can still capture today on stage, one can’t help feel this one was done on the cheap. To be fair, the band’s performance is pretty good and improves as it goes along, but the audience sound a mile away. It is very much a greatest hits set plus a spirited go at White Riot and One More Day from the last LP and as such, bearing in mind their previous live LP in 1981 and the Angel Dust collection, pretty inessential to all but rabid fans. In the context of this boxset though, it does add a lot of their best-known tunes though.
The Power Of The Press album followed in late 1985 and does represent a marked downturn for the band’s recorded output. Many of the problems with this record stem from the use of a drum machine – not a piece of equipment utilised much on punk recordings, with good reason. It makes some fairly good songs sound like demos, just like on the Blitz LP, The Killing Dream. On this record, the Upstarts rejig I Stand Accused and Soldier, both from Still From The Heart and they are an improvement from the original recordings. Even so, they are similarly hamstrung by the lack of life the recording techniques employed grant them. It was probably done to cut costs and I can understand that in a way, but it drains away any energy the songs might have had.
The straightforward reading of folk standard, The Green Fields Of France fares best, because it has no percussion at all on it. Brighton Bomb, the headline-grabbing single, is actually not quite the shock horror cash-in the papers would have had one believe. It is the one bonus track on this disc and again, the plodding drum machine is present. The whole disc is a definite tale of what might have been.
Blood On The Terraces made the news again for the wrong reasons and this would be their last album of the 80s. For me this is another step backwards – the dreaded drum machine is retained and the songs even further from the best that Mensi ever penned than the tracks on The Power Of The Press. The LP as a whole represents the Upstarts’ recording nadir. Nothing stands out too much; if pushed I suppose I Wanna Knighthood is ok in a mindless punk rock way – far from the direction of the more positive Reason Why? had so ably suggested. The drum machine successfully sucks the life out of the tunes, if there was any in the first place, so the overall sound is mostly as flat as a pancake.
It is not easy to say for someone like me who likes the band a lot, but Blood On The Terraces is mostly terrible, coupled with the uneasy feeling that Mensi was doing songs mostly to get a tabloid reaction, like the title track and Heroin is Good For You. An awful version of Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town) mercifully brings down the curtain on the album proper. The best thing one can say of this disc is the run through of seven old chestnuts from the Angelic Upstarts’ back catalogue from the 1988 Main Event gig sounds lively enough.
Bombed Out, the final selection, thankfully brings this boxset to a conclusion on a much more positive note. Mond was back after a decade or so in good form, and with a proper drummer this time, the Upstarts managed to record an album more worthy of the name. Over ten years might have passed and times had changed immeasurably by 1991, but this LP successfully harked back to the sound of their debut, Teenage Warning. Maybe a bit of a regressive move, but it works as this record is a whole heap better than the last few platters.
Red Till Dead comes screaming out the blocks with the vim of old and Victim of Deceit has some natty bass playing propelling a good song. Still Fighting finds the Upstarts reborn with new purpose and the driving Taxi Driver referencing A Real Rain shows that Mensi can more than handle singing within logical parameters, i.e. when he’s not murdering a soul classic or overreaching his abilities, he’s a good punk singer. The guitar poem, Proud & Loud might be a little simplistic lyrically, but you can’t doubt the passion and Stone Faced Killer is a powerful set closer. A real improvement after the travesty of the last two albums.
After the previous boxset captured the band in their early prime, The Albums 1983-91 does represent a bit of a mixed bag. Reason Why? should be in the collection of any self-respecting Angelic Upstarts fan, but you would struggle to make a strong case for any of the others apart from maybe Bombed Out. Last Tango In Moscow is ok, but The Power Of The Press and especially Blood On The Terraces are best forgotten and the live LP doesn’t have anything out of the ordinary about it. Thankfully, in the 21st Century, they have recorded some much better material, culminating with the excellent Bullingdon Bastards LP in 2015. The 1979-82 collection (reviewed here) served as an excellent introduction to the band. This one, however, is for the more committed fans.
The Angelic Upstarts are on Facebook here
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here