Does the title Greatest Punk Hits seem odd to you? A little redundant, a little insecure?
Let’s deal with this part right away: The Vibrators’ Greatest Punk Hits isn’t the compilation it appears to be. It’s a release of a 1991 session, in which the then-current lineup re-recorded 12 tracks from their first few albums. It also offers five songs from their post 1982-output, although you’re forgiven if you were unaware they even had a post-1982 output.
And that’s a shame, because if there’s any band that deserves a thorough retrospective, it’s the Vibrators. The London-based quartet released their debut Pure Mania all the way back in early 1977, and it’s a doozy: a ridiculously fun and raucous onslaught of rock and roll gems, sly and innocent, just provocative enough to justify their name. The Vibrators were punk enough to perform with the Sex Pistols, but their sound was more melodic and a lot more joyful; songs like “London Girls” and “Baby Baby” are more Eddie Cochran than Johnny Rotten. But while they kept releasing albums and influencing the hell out of their peers, the Vibrators fell out of fashion as punk gave way to new wave; their last song to reach the UK Top 100 was their 1978 single “Judy Says (Knock You in the Head)”.
I don’t know the reasons behind the re-recordings, and can’t find any info online, but I’d bet that crappy contracts and greedy execs were preventing the band from seeing a single shilling from their earlier releases, so they decided the only way to make a little filthy lucre was to actually, y’know, own the tunes that gave them some popularity in the first place. This isn’t unheard of – Lee Ving infamously re-recorded Fear’s The Record as The Fear Album 30 years later, after all, because sometimes a band’s gotta do what a band’s gotta do.
So it’s a noble and righteous endeavor. But here’s the rub – these recordings, identified as the “Greenhouse Studios Sessions” on the CD cover, weren’t actually released in 1991, far as I can tell. And here’s even more math to deal with: The Vibrators founder and lead singer Ian “Knox” Carnochan was already over 30 when they released Pure Mania, which means he was on the shady side of 45 when he fronted these re-recordings, and that’s a tricky age for a punk. It’s young enough to feel righteous anger and the libidinous thrill of a chunky four-chord progression, but old enough to wonder if the glories of a dingy club stage are worth the hearing loss and tendinitis.
And sadly, the difference is palpable. The new versions of “London Girls” and “Whips and Furs” sound like the works of journeymen; they lack the punch and wide-eyed, bratty charm of the singles. Sure, the band got better (thanks to practice and replacements), but the addition of “craft” doesn’t do these songs any favors. “Sweet Sweet Heart” almost works, thanks to some sneaky lyrical updating (“now we’re getting old / I feel things have become so shitty”), but the two-guitar attack is a little too competent to register. And “Baby Baby”, so sincere in 1977, sounds too relaxed now, almost bored. “Your eyes are so pretty / And the clothes you wear they’re so fine,” Carnochan sings, but the words sound remarkably cynical and tired coming from a middle-aged bloke.
“Automatic Lover” and “Judy Says”, with their Kinks-inspired guitar licks and refrains as catchy as they are menacing, are as grand as rock and roll gets, and pretty much any version of these tunes are worth your time. But where the originals capture the band at their most exuberant and playful, the newer ones sound like what they are – re-recordings by a band who’ve performed them a thousand times, unable to tap into their own energy. They give them a good, honest go, but again – professional polish only dulls the shine.
The songs on Greatest Punk Hits get a little more comfortable as they go, perhaps because the band knows there’s less at stake. “Disco in Moscow” and “Flying Home” are worth a listen, and “Amphetamine Blue” and “Troops of Tomorrow” might even improve on their originals – “Troops” especially is an oddball gem, a lumbering number drenched in distortion from their 1978 album V2, and the new version is excitingly confrontational. But why they chose to redo the dull “Rip Up the City” or the embarrassingly awkward ballad “Every Day I Die a Little” is a mystery; few bands this side of Manowar would attempt lyrics as cringe-worthy as the latter’s “Out ride the four horsemen of the apocalypse / Spittle falling from their fevered lips.”
The rest of the album is pulled from the band’s mostly unremarkable post 1990-output, and it’s a mixed bag. A honking sax gives “Wonderful World” a nice sense of adventure, and “The Kid’s a Mess” is a lo-fi gem, fun and funny, but “Tired of Living With You” is a by-the-numbers Ramones-lite offering, and “Your Love is Fading Away” tries a little too hard to be punchy and relevant. But the selection closes with the grumbly, grumpy “Under the Radar,” the title track from their 2009 release, and it’s a welcome hint that these old men might have a few more nuggets in them yet.
So whaddya do? Buy this album and settle for lesser versions of great songs, hoping the proceeds actually reach the band? Or buy Pure Mania and V2 and enjoy the punk bliss of the originals while suspecting you’re only making some Epic Records hack richer? Beats me. But I really hope the Vibrators, who are still touring (although drummer Eddie Edwards is the only remaining original member), are someday able to release a collection that allows them to reap some benefits from their early work. If anyone deserves a little payback for making the world a better place, it’s these guys.