Brian Eno once joked that few people listened to the Velvet Underground when they were together, but everyone who did ending up starting their own bands. Something similar might be said about the Sex Pistols; although a lot of people heard about them, it was a much smaller segment of the population that actually ventured out to small clubs to see them before they became notorious. And an awful lot of that small segment of society started bands. While a few of the groups inspired by the Sex Pistols went on to become their equals or betters (the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Buzzcocks), there were countless more who were forever relegated to second-string status, mere Jayne Mansfields to their Marilyn Monroes, or Nick Lacheys to their Justin Timberlakes. Chelsea clearly falls into that category. Although the band did chart in the UK and continues performing to this day, Chelsea is probably still best known for the fact that Billy Idol was once a member. In some ways, that’s a shame, because like other second-tier punk bands that are often written off (Vibrators, Subway Sect, Eater, Slaughter and the Dogs), Chelsea put out a number of enjoyable tracks, and a few that I’d dare to call classic punk tunes.
The band got its start when vocalist Gene October recruited the first lineup through a music paper ad in the summer of 1976. That lineup included Billy Idol and Tony James, who, before the band ever recorded a note, left to form Generation X. Thus began the trend of a revolving-door lineup, which could be partly responsible for the fact that Chelsea didn’t put out a full-length debut until 1979, after the dust from the punk revolt had started to settle. Nonetheless, the various incarnations of the band managed to release some strong singles from 1977 on, including “Right to Work”, “High Rise Living”, and “Urban Kids”, all included on the new two-disc compilation, Urban Kids. As the titles suggest, the songs are pretty typical punk fare with a serious lyrical slant, chock full of social commentary. On “Urban Kids” October sings, “You try and escape from your urban hell / Don’t ask your parents / ‘Cause they ain’t done too well”. “I’m on Fire” and “Look at the Outside” are uplifting, energetic should-be anthems that could easily stand alongside “London’s Burning” or “Anarchy in the UK”. Not all of Chelsea’s songs are political, though; despite its dreary title, “No Escape” is actually a fun cover of a garage-rock song by the Seeds, and the original “Come On” has a swinging beat and melodic bass-line that could have come straight out of the ‘60s.
Gene October’s deep growl is somewhat similar to that of Slaughter and the Dogs’ Wayne Barrett, although when he rants against “Government”, his disgusted pronunciation of the word (“government-tuh!”) has a touch of Johnny Rotten in it. While his voice is serviceable, listening to it over the course of the 32 tracks on Urban Kids reveals its limitations. Three solo October tracks prove his voice has grown more ragged and has started to sound a little like Pere Ubu’s Dave Thomas. Two of his songs are covers—a fun if inessential version of the Stooges’ “Raw Power”, and a Clash-by-numbers “I Fought the Law” (and since the Clash didn’t write it, October’s version is like a cover of a cover).
As for Chelsea’s music, it seems to have grown less engaging over the years, which means that the first disc is much more enjoyable than the second. A single disc would probably be the best way to enjoy Chelsea’s output, which shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. The band’s music is competent, often fun, and likely laid the groundwork for more than a few oi bands to follow, even if it’s nowhere near revolutionary or transcendent.