Every once in a while, a true gem is unearthed from the mines of musical history. This debut is one such excavation, though archaeologists might have trouble dating the contents which, on first hearing, seem to be the aural equivalent of retro-futurist designs done on an Etch-a-Sketch.
Absolutely central to Young Marble Giants’ sound are Stuart and Philip Moxon’s guitars. Simon Reynolds’ in-depth liner notes tell us that Stuart played his Rickenbacker with a hard, serrated-edge pick called a shark fin, and that he forged a choppy, rhythmic tone by resting his strumming hand on the strings, muting them. The complementary style of his brother Philip’s bass was often mistaken for another guitar, as it sometimes carried the melody. This interchange gives the band their trademark sound: elastic and precise.
Another vital element came from their cousin, Pete Joyce, a telephone engineer. Joyce made a ring modulator which (although the name suggests that he took a telephone volume switch and made it into a time machine) in fact enabled the band to put in the sound of a drum machine and an electric organ and blend them together. They also used the adult version of a stylophone and Philip recruited his 17-year-old girlfriend Alison Statton to sing (much to songwriter Stuart’s chagrin). Statton was into the Residents, hymns, and children’s tunes—evidenced by the fact that her singing is very un-rock and roll, favoring a plain and unemotive delivery that, luckily, matches the highly rhythmic yet spacious music.
The phrase “less is more” might have been coined for Colossal Youth. Originally released in 1980, the album is conjured from a slim palette and adheres to a stripped-to-the-bone ideal of sound, yet it is close to perfection. It is hard to recall any other album to which the terms “pastoral” and “neon” could be simultaneously applied.
Far from being mere sketches, this set of monochrome tracks are like great black-and-white photographs—they don’t need color to “improve” them. Either adding to or subtracting from these songs would have been a mistake; we can only imagine what would have happened if Kurt Cobain had made good on his intention to do a version of the Young Marble Giants’ “Credit in the Straight World”. Colossal Youth is one of the last great albums. Putting any these songs on your mobile digital listening device will make the other items in your collection sound very average, but I urge you to hear the whole record. Likewise, shuffling the songs on a CD player detracts from their brilliant sequencing.
Young Marble Giants - Brand New Life
Colossal Youth is in some ways the antithesis of blood-gorged rock and roll, multi-layered thrash, and frantic punk. Moreover, while the album packs a stylish punch and is crammed with energy, one of the band’s strengths is that its influences are not easily discernible. There are, though, subterranean elements of 1950s twangy-guitar dynamism and clean-lined, Muscle Shoals economy in the sound.
The post-punk period in the UK was a time of both brilliant and woeful experimentation. At the sublime end were fabulous pieces such as the Native Hipsters’ slow spoken-word loop “There Goes Concorde Again” or Fish Turned Human’s bizarre “Here Come The Nuns”, but as with any period of sped-up creative activity, quality control comes more easily in retrospect. To their credit, Young Marble Giants produced a record that still sounds urgent, innovative and vital. Some may have likened the band to Slapp Happy (perhaps due to some of Stuart Moxon’s highly personal lyrics) or noted the influence of Kraftwerk, but to emerge fully-formed with a record so confident, so apart from any scene or sound, was truly an achievement.
The whole of Colossal Youth is a highlight. At gunpoint, though, I would probably admit my preference for the wonderfully lean and taut “Choci Loni”, the thudding, hauntingly melodic drone that is “N.I.T.A.”, and “Salad Days”: a wisp of sublime melancholy perfection that, of course, passes all too soon.
This 2007 packaging by Domino also includes the EP Testcard, the brilliant single Final Day, the relatively unnecessary Salad Days album, and a Peel Session. Make no mistake though, it is Colossal Youth that is the essential item. It is a classic: the most singular work of art to come from Wales since Dylan Thomas’s poems and Gareth Edwards’s rugby.
On “Salad Days” Alison Statton sings, “They were good, they were young.” When it comes to Young Marble Giants, that’s putting it mildly. The now-middle-aged band came together again for an appearance at the Hay-on-Wye Festival earlier this year (the Youtube clips sound amazing), and more appearances are planned in France and England.