The Passage – Pindrop/Degenerates
Released 9 October 2020
Reissue of two of the best loved albums by Dick Witts’ band The Passage, the debut Pindrop and big selling third collection Degenerates, which included the XOYO single. Both come with a surfeit of bonus material. LTW’s Ian Canty hears a group Mark E. Smith termed “messing around with kids”…
While bass player Tony Friel was still involved with The Fall in March 1978, he joined up with then drummer Dick Witts and Bob Dickinson (who was in the first Magazine line up) on keys to form The Passage. Witts was an unlikely conscript to the new wave, having studied at the Royal Manchester College Of Music and been a member of the Hallé Orchestra. He was busy as a prime mover in the Manchester Music Collective too, which brought him into contact with the city’s thriving alternative music scene of the late 1970s. Added to all these activities he also had a presenting role on the Granada TV music show “What’s On”, the sequel to “So It Goes”.
The Passage, at first, were a part time venture. Dickinson quickly dropped out and was replaced by Lorraine Hilton as the band began to play a few gigs locally, with Witts and Friel singing. Through the MMC they became aware of the Object label and eschewing other local imprints, began recording for them with the New Love Songs EP, which was released in the run up to Christmas 1978. After another EP About Time, released nearly a year later in October 1979, both Hilton and Friel exited the band. This left The Passage as pretty much Witts’ sole concern for the time being.
Another year elapsed before debut album Pindrop saw the light of day. It emerged in November 1980 to almost universal acclaim in the music papers and sold very well too. Pindrop forms the first disc of this set, along with the early EP tracks and six numbers from a Piccadilly Radio session taped in early 1981.
The witty, sweary anti-macho Love Song kicks off the first EP in fine style, with the organ key to the 60’s punk sound. “You make me seem so strong and tough” is among a raft of great lines which dampened bully boys’ ardour by firing their own nonsensical words back at them. The EP has four short, sharp cuts, all of which come in under two minutes, each deftly making their point in the small amount of time they are allotted. The bright Competition is breathless fun and Slit Machine plays around with sexual politics in a smart and funny way.
They do sound a little like The Fall’s little brother band here (especially on the snotty New Kind Of Love which ends the EP), catchy melodies and maximum sneer in the vocals, very enjoyably snotty though. New Love Songs is a great EP, full of the energy, edgy uncertainty and gallows humour that marked those times.
The second extended play About Time represents an advance on New Love Songs, they were really starting to find their feet on this one. You can hear elements of how The Passage would develop over the next few years, though they were still a long way away from their Degenerates sound. A slightly slower tempo is employed and the songs are given more running time to develop. Laidback opener Taking My Time introduces bass, drums and organ, before stopping and starting again, as some punk rock guitar is dropped into the mix. It even has a good chorus chant and is topped off by what sounds like a cello. Synths show their hand for the first time on 16 Hours and the faster, bass-driven Time Delay concludes the EP with another addictive effort.
Now onto the LP itself. A rumble of drums and ominous synths signal the onset of Pindrop and the song Fear, with vocals sparring back and forth effectively, before we’re into the more traditional electro punk of Troops Out. It’s no wonder they re-recorded this one later, it’s a great tune and the vocal is passionately delivered. This is where The Passage truly embrace electronics after the garage sounds of the first two EPs. Though there is a reappearance of the 1960s garage feel on Carnal, which lyrically is an anti-love song full of cool, cynical lines like “I don’t need sex”.
The skipping rhythm of Hunt gives way to electric squelches that help evoke a real atmosphere and From The Heart is a downbeat synth thriller/killer. The spooky synth drones slow things down on Locust and Watching You Dance is the only time their influences really show through. There’s perhaps a little bit of Suicide circa Dream Baby Dream in there, but even then they reposition it well enough to make the sound their own.
Carmen has speedy drums and synths rasps that propel a lyric that with bland sarcasm intones “I’m a driver, I’m a car”, before careering into a crashing finale. A Certain Way To Go is a barbed reference to their Manchester contemporaries, with bass sounds and synth twinkles setting the tone for Dick’s spicy invective. Pindrop represents the perfect combination of punk energy and the electronic advances that were taking place. When Witts says “I’m more frightened than you” on ironically titled closing track Prelude, you can bet he means it and the album is a rollercoaster ride of neurosis, style and cool, pithy comment backed by some fine tunes.
Sometimes the excellent and interesting wordplay is too obscured by the production, with Witts often sounding like he is singing down the corridor somewhere. But on the whole Pindrop is a classic slice of electro punk that haunts one long after the music is over. Quite often the songs stop suddenly, like in Watching You Dance, leaving this listener a little shocked and bereft. But that isn’t a criticism, as it works to get the listener out of their comfort zone and deepens the enigma and charm of Pindrop further.
A highly positive press reaction to the album meant that The Passage now became a proper, working band, rather than a Witts solo project. New drummer Joey McKechnie had been playing with Liverpool outfit Modern Eon and with young guitarist Andrew Wilson, singer Lizzy Johnson and of course Witts he completed a new Passage aggregation that was now on a more serious footing. Johnson soon dropped out, but the remainder are heard on the Piccadilly session, with Wilson’s inventive guitar work and Joey’s drums being crucial to the new sound.
The song Tangled borders on gothic punk with some great stuff from Wilson and the very tribal sounding Mr Terror, Chief Of Police is a typically cutting viewpoint of Manchester’s God’s Cop James Anderton. All six of these offerings show a band in no way dispirited by the upheavals of the last few years’ more negative events and final track Shave Your Head is simply exuberant, with “You think you’ve seen it all” possibly cocking a snook at critics who may have written the band off already.
Their new recordings would be on their own Night & Day label, distributed through Virgin. They recut Troops Out for their first single and completed a second album, For All And None, with this imprint. Unfortunately despite being a more than decent record, the album put them no nearer the pop charts that they aimed for than their debut. Virgin hadn’t pushed the band and as a result sales were minimal. The Passage quickly extricated themselves from this unfruitful arrangement.
After this second album McKechnie departed and the band, stung by their Virgin misadventures, opted to move to leading independent label Cherry Red. They brought in Paul Mahoney to replace Joey after the Taboos single and a Peel session that were completed as a duo. The new personnel exhibited a new found confidence – with Top Of The Pops full of electropop, surely the time was right for The Passage, one of the originators, to conquer? With the eminently catchy and clever XOYO single they certainly had something, that with a little luck, could have done great things. Typically for the Passage, it was more complicated than it seemed on the face of it – this was in fact an effort to put a John Cage theorem into a pop tune and somehow it worked. The accompanying album Degenerates makes up the second disc of this set, along with the relevant single tracks.
By this time the sound of the band had changed immeasurably from the punky flurry of their first EP. Degenerates was totally in tune with the electronic 80s, whilst not dumbing down their intelligent insights one bit. The robot voice that introduces XOYO with “If music be the food of love, may God give me excess of it” gives way to a cool, catchy and clever electropop offering that should have scaled the charts by rights. It resonates through the years elegantly, like a fine jewel just waiting to be discovered.
Probably the nearest thing on Degenerates to XOYO as a pop moment is Born Every Minute, the snarky lyric about users being set to bright synth drum handclaps and a gliding pop beat. An alternate version, which was given away on a Melody Maker flexi, is among the bonus tracks. Other good moments abound on the album. Go To Seed juxtaposes a near boogie rhythm to sleepy sounding vocals and dreamy synth flourishes and Time Will Tell advocates “violence to the here and now” with a simple keyboard melody and clattering drums. But everything on the album impresses, using the pop medium to communicate complex ideas in an accessible and pleasing way.
The final section of this set rounds up the single tracks. XOYO shines in its 7 inch mode and its fast paced non-LP flipside Animal In Me shows what an attractive package the record was. The final two efforts are the Taboos single and its dub, which both have pumping percussion, plus synth lines and guitar drifting over very coolly indeed.
After Degenerates The Passage cut the Wave and Sharp Tongue singles plus the Enflame album in 1983 before splitting up for good. Dick Witts undertook some media work and has since written a book about the Velvet Underground and lectured at various UK universities. Joey McKechine was recently in the Blue Orchids. The Passage are seemly just a history lesson now, but as judged by this set alone, a very vital one.
It’s tempting to draw the conclusion that The Passage were just too clever for the general public to get a handle on. However I don’t think its quite that simple, as they certainly could have made the breakthrough at the time of XOYO and the Degenerates album. When you consider Scritti crossed over successfully coming from a similar position, it seems more the case of fate dealing them a bad hand.
Perhaps if their link up with Virgin had happened at the later stage of Degenerates rather than the second LP, could they have rivalled the “New Pop” royalty? It’s possible when bearing in mind the quality material they had at the time, something which comes over in all their work presented here. In the final analysis, hit singles really don’t matter – few bands of the era could offer up anything as original and enthralling as Pindrop/Degenerates. The Passage took punk and adapted it for their own ends, constructing something truly different, something passionate, articulate and often scathing, wrapped up in the sweetest and neatest of synthpop tunes. This collection is one to treasure.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here