Various Artists: Optimism/Reject
Subtitled ‘Punk & Post Punk Meets DIY Aesthetic’, this collection is a follow up to 2017’s To The Outside Of Everything boxset and focusses on the golden years of UK Independent music 1977-81….LTW’s Ian Canty enters the Messthetics zone……
It has been suggested by more eloquent (and probably more elegant) writers than myself that the most important record of 1977 wasn’t God Save The Queen or Complete Control, but Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP. By issuing it on their own label they demonstrated to the growing phalanx of Punk enthusiasts outside of the capital that you could truly “do it yourself” without the aid of the big records companies. Though the band themselves would eventually sign for United Artists, the fillip this gave fledgeling bands/artists/experimenters was immeasurable. The lack of understanding in the majors to the new music was evident – both the aforementioned Complete Control and the Pistols’ EMI directly address the issue.
You didn’t have to ingratiate yourselves with some smarmy A&R bod anymore, being kept to on tenterhooks in an air-conditioned office while your fate was decided. Things were changing. It became clear that you could go another way, retaining that crucial control over your music by having direct input into the whole process. In an acronym, DIY. This opened up Britain for a golden age of independently made music – if after a while went it became difficult to tell the bigger indies from the majors, for the time period spotlighted here that wasn’t really the case. Optimism/Reject, taking its name from the Patrik Fitzgerald song featured on disc one, makes its way from 1977 to 1981 by taking in a bewildering and bewitching number of different styles and sounds, the only unifying factor being they were all made independently.
Optimism… glances towards crucial regional compilations, like all three volumes of the Vaultage series from Brighton and Norwich: A Fine City and also the nationwide assessments of the state of play like Cherry Red’s own influential collections Labels Unlimited and Business Unusual. It touches on some of the prominent labels i.e. Rough Trade, Fresh, Step Forward, Small Wonder, Good Vibrations and Cherry Red themselves (though nothing from Factory, Fast or Mute), plus a plethora of homemade efforts. There are remarkably few examples of obscurity for the sake of it – most have something to offer musically and often they are superb efforts made on a shoestring budget.
The title Optimism/Reject is apt: there was the optimism of putting your own records out, hoping for success or even just leaving that mark that you were there and rejecting the standard music “business”. Disc one begins with Eater’s Michael Monetary System from 1977, which came out on the other side of their great Thinking Of The USA single – people will tell you that Eater was a bog-standard Punk band, but don’t believe a word of it, this is great Psychedelic Punk with a touch of Syd Barrett about it. Alternative TV’s Love Lies Limp simply never ages and it is always a pleasure to hear the Swell Maps, Black Velvet being their tune on here. Attrix might sound like standard R&B Punk on Hard Times, but they were to be hugely influential on the Brighton Punk scene with their eponymous label issuing the three Vaultage collections along with some fine singles.
After Hard Times there is an absolutely killer run that hardly lets up to the end of this disc. The Subway Sect might have been seen as an ‘inner circle’ Punk band, but they always gloriously trod their own path, starting with their mighty Nobody’s Scared single featured here. The Freshies follow with Washed Up, the sleeve note intimates this was recorded some years previous to its release, but it sounds totally in tune with the times. The Upstarts offer up their marauding Police Oppression, then we have the classic I Am A Dalek by the Art Attaks and Essential Logic’s debut Aerosol Burns, possibly the underground anthem of 1978.
Scritti Politi was a world away from their later Pop successes when they cut Is And Ought The Western World, though Green’s voice always had those honeyed tones he would employ on Wood Beez etc. The song itself neatly juxtaposed tense galloping interludes with Dub touches and they priced out the costs of recording on the sleeve to let people know how simple it was. The flipside to Thomas Leer’s Private Plane single International is a fabulous Electro Punk fusion of beats and thrashing guitar and if the Devil’s Dykes’ Fruitless owed a debt to the Slits, they cannily fused it with a classic 60s Girl Group structure. Disc one of Optimism/Reject ends with the manic drum-looping march of Times Encounter by Nigel Simpkins – actually a pseudonym for Cally, the drummer of the Tea Set (they’re on disc 2 with the more conventional Pop Punk of Sing Song).
By the time we arrive at disc 2 of Optimism/Reject we’re firmly into 1979, when if quality Punk bands like the Ruts were still emerging (the sadly prophetic b-side H-Eyes), the floodgates had well and truly opened to the strange and unusual. Passage’s biting The Competition is completely different from their later electronic adventures, excellent organ-driven acidic Post Punk and the Brighton Vaultage contingent shows up early on with the threadbare tension of the Dodgems’ Lord Lucan Is Missing and Nicky And The Dots’ New Wave 60s Garage of Girl Gets Nervous. The Scissor Fits (who contained Mike Alway, later to work with El/Cherry Red) have their classic I Don’t Want To Work For British Airways present, along with the Shapes (Batman In the Laundrette) they typified the crucial surreal humour element that took Punk/Post Punk away from being too po-faced and joyless.
You can’t seriously have a conversation about ’79 UK Indie without the Raincoats and they, of course, are present with In Love, Velvets-style grimy strings giving way to a stepping rhythm and heady chorus, a gem. They Must Be Russians from Sheffield gleaned their name from a letter to the tabloids in response to the Pistols’ scandalous appearance on the Today programme in 1976. They enlisted Richard Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire on the excellent ghostly electric drone of Nagasaki’s Children. Second Layer was Adrian Borland and Graham Bailey’s next step after the Outsiders and came just before they teamed up again in the brilliant Sound. Here they appear in a more synth-driven guise, with a certain amount of influence from NY’s Suicide, on the brief but thrilling Metal Sheet.
Bristol’s Art Punk enigmas Glaxo Babies show up with their early calling card Christine Keeler and the Associates’ quick-fire cover of Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging benefits from Billy Mackenzie’s wonderful, near-operatic voice. Top Of The Pops by the Disco Zombies critiques that programme in a more scathing way than the Rezillos, but is just as infectious and the Fatal Microbes’ Beautiful Pictures is boosted by some great raw guitar from a teenage Pete Fender.
Disc three is ushered in by the Au Pairs. This important group floundered after an unimpressive second LP entitled Sense And Sensuality, but back in 1979 they were kicking out addictive and acerbic zingers like Domestic Departure. Them Or Me by Medium Medium is possibly the perfect fusing of Punk and Funk: this sound steadily shows its hand more as the years go by and Optimism/Reject proceeds. Given their later guitar-driven outings on Postcard Records, Josef K’s Chance Meeting sounds positively Psychedelic, with an organ out front leading the tune and the Membranes’ debut flexi-disc gives us the jangly Fashionable Junkies.
If self-produced records were occasionally a stepping stone to a mainstream chart career on the majors like for Nightmares In Wax/Dead Or Alive’s Pete Burns, caught here fronting the former on the early Gothic rumbling of Shangri-La, then for bands like the Leicester’s excellent Deep Freeze Mice they were not merely a means to an end but a vocation. They issued ten albums in ten years, starting with My Geraniums Are Bulletproof from which their contribution here Minstrel Radio Yoghurt comes. Their highly unusual viewpoint perfectly enhanced the tuneful New Wave Psychedelia that they excelled at.
Bloody by the Goldinski Brothers ended up in John Peel’s record box, I can’t quite share his enthusiasm for it though, the brittle tension and sax recalling their fellow Brightonians The Piranhas. The Art Attacks’ Neutron Bomb is among disc one’s highlights and the band reconvened minus drummer J.D. Haney (The Motors’ Ricky Wernham stepped in) as Tagmemics, giving a tantalising glimpse into how they could have developed on Chimneys here. Blurt’s off-key Jazz Punk finishes off this section of the compilation, Ted Milton’s madcap notions feeling just so right for 1980.
Kicking off the final disc of Optimism is the Young Marble Giants’ perfect Final Day (perhaps the best 1 minute and 40 seconds of UK music in 1980) and Charge’s rare and strangely Undertones-sounding You Get What You Deserve. Judy Evans of Girls At Our Best, much like Alison Statton Of YMG, had a wonderful and pure voice and uses it to great effect on the slyly subversive Politics and Emma Sharpe, another Vaultage contributor, mixes Spizz Oil and the Slits on her offering Motorway.
Moving into the 80s, the independent scene in the UK was so established that even Pop glossy Smash Hits ran an indie chart, but that didn’t necessarily mean that things were getting safe. For instance, the 49 Americans, a haphazard collective that included Viv Albertine and Lol Coxhill at times, might seem wilfully amateurish on Should Be More Ideal, but the Fire Engines’ hyperactivity on Everything’s Roses has never seemed more bracing and exciting. Mark Perry again crops up with the Reflections (ATV on disc one and also on disc two on The Door And The Window’s basic electronic thud of Subculture Fashion Slaves), their Zigzagging being far more accessible than one might suppose.
Though Tracey Thorn would go onto chart success with Everything But The Girl, for me she’s best heard on the charmingly evocative Holiday Song by the Marine Girls and Vivien Goldman brought the knowhow of Keith Levene and John Lydon for her Laundrette single. The Higsons and the Tesco Bombers both had future TV comic actors in their ranks, with Charlie Higson singing the fast Punk Funk of Insect Love and Keith Allen somewhere in the mix of the Bombers’ Funkadelic groove Break the Ice At Parties. The final track here is by …And The Native Hipsters, no thankfully it’s not that Concorde song yet again, this time out we get I Wanna Be Around (Paul) which is a jarring meditation on the old ‘Paul Is Dead’ rumour, bit of a Residents feel to this.
Optimism/Reject is, without doubt, a fine collection, with great and vital music from truly exciting times, when anything did seem possible. For the most part, the compilers have steered clear of the obvious choices and corralled some rare and much sought after tracks. Yes, there can be some debate about who else could have been included (perhaps the Cabs, the Television Personalities, the Pop Group and Crass), but those bands have mostly been reissued many times over the years and their inclusion would have come at the expense of the rarer finds.
So no complaints from me, a great compilation that shines a light on a lot of unjustly buried music. As part of the package, we also get pen pictures of all the bands and some neat graphics in a sturdy hardback “book” format. All this gives a unique perspective on a veritable hive of industry that produced more memorable sounds than the major labels, who were busy knocking the rough edges off the New Wave at the time. UK Independent 1977-81 was also important as to this day, all over the world, people still put out their records out – the inspiration of this burst of creativity is still influencing people 40 years on. Not merely a museum piece with some great music on it, Optimism/Reject keeps on giving. They did it themselves, proving you can too.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here