Punishment Of Luxury – Puppet Life

Cherry Red

5CD

Released 25th October 2019

5CD boxset which seeks to present the complete recordings of Punilux, with their 1979 debut album Laughing Academy, first single Puppet Life/The Demon recorded for Small Wonder and Neville Luxury’s solo Feels Like Dancing Wartime being among the offerings….LTW’s Ian Canty feels the unease of the easy life….

Even in the “anything goes” post punk years of 1979-80 Punishment Of Luxury, from the North East, stood out from the crowd. Daring to dabble in art rock (or even, gulp, prog) wasn’t as welcomed with open arms at the time as you might suppose (especially given the reportage about those years we get today). They were out on a limb further than most and to say there was a lot going on in their songs would be somewhat of an understatement. They were never short of an idea, often zooming all over the place during a song, but they also had more than enough talent to make even then oddest concoction work. There was nothing else really like them.

Having their roots in providing music for a local radical theatre group and an earlier band of Neville’s called Kitch, the first true version of the group came together under the Punishment Of Luxury banner during the last months of 1976. The name itself came from a Giovanni Segantini painting, which again stressing their arty origins. But the band were not mere “underground” doodlers, having the enviable ability to supply extremely powerful music to fit their unique lyrical themes. Singer Brian Bond (Rapkin) and Neville Luxury (Atkinson) were the main movers with various others coming and going until the line up eventually settled on the pair with bassist Jimmy Giro and Steve Sekrit on drums.

Influenced by punk but adding their own very individual stance and musical ticks, they rapidly built a following locally with the frantic visual and sonic overload of their live show. By 1978 they were looking to make a record and Small Wonder’s Pete Stennett, always a man with excellent taste, offered to do a single with the band.

That single was Puppet Life, which emerged to an unexpecting world in the middle of 1978. It was a great debut, from The Prisoner-style intro inwards. A rolling punk funk rhythm sets things in place for the suitably paranoid vocal and thunderous drumming, it all added up to something addictive, kind of scary, yet real fun too. On the other side of the disc The Demon buzzes along in bass-led style, before segueing into an art rock coda. All things considered, it was the perfect Punishment Of Luxury waxing and rightly engendered considerable interest in the band.

So much so in fact that soon after the single the band signed to United Artists, who also had the Stranglers, 999 and Buzzcocks on their books. They quickly got to work on an album and a couple of singles which might not have made the charts, but did make a big impression with people who were happiest with something a little spicy to get their teeth into. Disc one here takes in their Small Wonder single and all their UA output and is truly excellent. Laughing Academy is a great album, full of ideas and variety. It is such a complete item it seems churlish to pull out highlights, but I suppose we must.

All White Jack is still relevant today or perhaps even more so. It nails racism acutely and is also rock-solid and bracing musically, full of tense thrills. The Radar Bug/Metropolis segue slips deftly between full on attack and dense slabs of rhythm – the drumming on this record is tremendous. Obsession even has a little in common with the proto-synthpop of early Ultravox!, but you are never in any doubt that you’re listening to anyone other than POL. Excess Bleeding Heart and Laughing Academy ends the LP with fast thrash and chilly near synthpop respectively. Really there’s not a duffer here, each track has its own strengths to make up one of the most consistently enjoyable records of 1979.

The bonus tracks on this disc are also uniformly super and prove what depth the band had to their material at this point in time. Brainbomb, with its frantic pace, could even be said to foreshadow harcord punk and the Excess Bleeding Heart single had a similar drive to the Ruts’ Babylon’s Burning. The latter was a big hit, but Punilux were perhaps a little too strange for Joe Public to grasp onto and the charts eluded them. A real shame as they were putting out top quality songs left, right and centre during this period.

Whereas most UK post punk had gone increasingly softer by 1981, ever ones to buck a trend Punilux were just getting tougher and tougher. Gigantic Days, the proposed follow up to Laughing Academy which only came out on cassette to the time, was a bracing blast of an album. Maybe a few years behind the zeitgeist, but another fine waxing nonetheless, with excellent, scathing songs and the overall attack of the band had never sounded sharper. There is a true sense of purpose here which makes it all the more sad this LP never gained a full release. EMI, who had taken over UA, baulked at the new songs/sound and sent the band on their way. More fool them, because they had something special on their hands.

Gigantic Days is rawer than Laughing Academy, it sounds like the band felt they had something to prove and they set about this task with glee. Fascicult Barbaraaclique might be hell to spell but it’s heaven to listen to, with a positively marauding guitar line and the gritty dread of Blood Money is even a like top grade Goth (before that had actually been invented). All Change finishes at practically Motorhead speed – to paraphrase a famous philosopher, what did not kill Punilux made them stronger.

After the album on this disc we have eight tracks which featured on the CD versions of Gigantic Days and Revolution By Numbers. All songs maintain the high standards set by Gigantic Days, with the thrashing punk/funk of Double Agent being particularly pleasing. Finally on this disc we have the John Peel Session from 30th August 1978 and you only need to listen to You’re So Beautiful to know why Peel loved them – they were a shambling band eight years early. Taking all the above together these first two discs are flawless.

The exit from UA/EMI and the muted release of Gigantic Days would have seen off lesser bands, but Punishment Of Luxury were made of stern stuff. They found in Red Rhino a new label and they were back in 1983 with mini album 7. They were in no sense cowed by their experience over the past five years and still had plenty of fire, starting with the scratchy post punk of chant-along Funghi. The Bird And The Elephant follows in tense futurist fashion and after the brief Fairiation they score with The Gasman, which recalls Bowie circa Scary Monsters. Golden Corsets has a nice touch of XTC pop about it and the closing quick stomp of Tria-dance brings 7 to close on a breezy note.

Next we have the catchy Hold Me (Never Mould Me) single and Doubting Thomas, which was mooted as a 7″ inch, but never made release. A pity as it is a catchy number, but after this activity the Punilux name was retired for a while. The second half of disc three presents Neville’s 1985 solo album (released under the name Nevill Luxury) Feels Like Dancing Wartime. This record was more of a synthpop mode and seemed to gain inspiration from John Foxx’s work. Eyes has an edgy New Wave sound which is smart, but it was probably a couple of years too late. The sweeping electropop of Welcome is good too and overall Feels Like Dancing Wartime is a decent enough pop record with a hint of that Punilux weirdness.

Disc four gives us a real oddity, the Hi Alien LP which was issued in 1989. It doesn’t make it entirely clear on the sleeve note whether this was a Punishment Of Luxury release or one as Neville Luxury (as he seems to be the only original member who plays on it). The Hip Hop beats on Alien Contact are an interesting diversion, but Party Goblins harks endearingly back to the Punilux of old, with Neville as his alter ego Max Pluto.

5 definitely found the band reformed under the Punishment Of Luxury name and in good health by the sound of it. Not quite up to their heyday, this mini LP (they liked them) still had plenty to recommend. The Dragon’s punky vim which seemed to have a little of Adam And The Ant’s Cartrouble somewhere in the mix and the stomping funk beat of I Rang Yvonne found the band in their element. It ends with the bongos and manically soloing guitar of Cry, which also has an Eastern feel. Overall 5 was a respectable comeback recording.

The final disc here is all live performances from the band in 1979, which is a good call. They always were a hot proposition in concert – I saw one of their comeback gigs at the Luminaire ten years back and they were still right on the money then, even all those years on. The good news is that they are up and gigging again (check the fb link at the bottom of this piece) – miss them at your peril.

The 10 song set from the Nashville from November ’79, which begins disc five’s live selection, has great sound and captures the band on fine form. Starting with a muscular version of All White Jack, Punishment Of Luxury freewheel through a set taken mostly from Laughing Academy, but with a few deviations. Radar Bug (dedicated to “the under 20s, who couldn’t get in”) segues this time round with Baboon, a rolling funk treat. They carried on apace, knocking out fine takes of Laughing Academy itself and Puppet Life before ending with the punk Beefheart of My Wife’s In Love With The Polar Bear and a powerful run through of Engine Of Excess. A real gem of a performance which makes the live disc worthwhile on its own.

Next follows five songs from their German date at Kant Kino in March of the same year. The sound fidelity is noticeably less clear – more sort of bootleg quality. Still you can hear what is going on and the band play good versions of Obsession and Garden, a bass-led, almost crooned rarity that lurches malevolently and gains intensity as it goes on.

Then come two selections from the Hope And Anchor at some unknown date in 1979, Let’s Get Married and You’re So Beautiful, both of which featured on the Peel Session of the year before and nowhere else. Again this is roundabout bootleg quality, but the band are all action on these two cuts. The final concert offering is six songs from the Punilux set at Reading Festival in August 1979. John Peel introduces the band and the sound is a marginal improvement on the previous two, nowhere as good as the Nashville but pretty decent though it does go in and out a bit. They play both sides of the Puppet Life single well and Brainbomb provides a thrilling climax to the disc.

Punishment Of Luxury should have made more impact when they first emerged at the end of the 70s – they had so much imagination, talent and pure energy. When one sees the success that bands like Devo and XTC had in the long run, it’s a shame EMI didn’t give them the backing they clearly warranted. Puppet Life is a great boxset with a huge amount to enjoy musically. There is also a long and informative sleeve note from Neville which takes us through the band’s long history. The Laughing Academy and Gigantic Days albums are both superb, the mini-LPs on discs three and four are at least interesting and you definitely need to hear the Nashville portion of the live disc if you are a fan of the band. The compilers have done an admirable job here. Not punishment nor a luxury, it’s simply a joy.

Punishment Of Luxury are on Facebook here

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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