[25 June 2008]
I don’t blame history for forgetting about the Lines. During the time that the band was together, from approximately 1977 to 1982, there were a hell of a lot of explosions going on in Western music: punk, post-punk, disco, no wave, goth, new wave, hip-hop, synthpop, dub, reggae, industrial, pop-prog, and beyond. The Lines for the most part avoided scenes, barely ever toured, and cut only a handful of records which, contrary to their name, defied a lucid linear trajectory. In addition, nobody bought these albums.
The sleeves of the singles they recorded are arty and sparse, much like their music, completely detached from rock and punk’s bloated sense of ego or achievement. “Help me when the movement gets beyond control / when you get too high the air is thin and cold”, vocalist and guitarist Rico Conning sings in “On the Air”, the band’s second A-side. As a humble band, they were destined for history to look the other way.
To be fair to history, the Lines consisted of nothing entirely revolutionary. In part, the delight of perusing the long out-of-print material of Memory Span comes from that familiar thrill that comes with listening to practically all of the DIY music cut from this vibrant era. It is music mixed with no artifice. Its pop is all sensation, pure “Blisstability”, as one song title put it. Its experimental edges are indulged solely as a means of pushing the music further, rather than as a byproduct of any personal pretension or attempts to dialogue within a community of fashionable or trendsetting artists. Bands from that odd and wonderful era often have that tendency, as the Lines possess righteously, that they’re the only band in the room, recording alone at the beginning and end of the world. All influences and historical references dissolve around the sublimation of elements bonded together by such a group of passionate autodidacts.
Bookended by the A- and B-side of the Lines’ first single, “White Night” b/w “Barbican”, Memory Span is an otherwise chronological chronicle of all of the band’s singles going steady, including their lone EP, Cool Snap. You’ll have to rely on file-sharing services or high priced used copies if you want to hear the band’s two LPs, the slightly superior and more darkly experimental Therapy and the slightly inferior but nevertheless progressively sharp Ultramarine. Until those reissues are underway, Memory Span suffices as a stellar cluster of songs, easily containing more solid material than most greatest hits collections. It’s part of Acute Records’ latest rescue mission, which has also recently saved works by the likes of the Fire Engines, Theoretical Girls, and French proto-synthpunkers Metal Urbain.
If they had drove in and ridden out on the “White Night” single alone, the Lines would have been deified as a hushed odyssey, haunting mix tapes and strange comps eternally. Luckily for today’s music fans, the Lines stayed around long enough to alienate just about everyone in their tiny fan base, by moving from angular new wave to esoteric, deep, dark, dub-influenced post-punk.
“White Night” sounds like a band trapped in the shadows, shrouded by self-imposed walls. Rico Conning’s breathy high-toned voice and droning wails are phantoms migrating metempsychosically through his young body; Peter Harker’s drums a poltergeist zeitgeist mystery train slightly off-time and off-track. Hywel Phillips (on his only recording with the Lines) plays his guitar pagan, bluesy and eerie. No wonder the band didn’t take their show on the road. Music like this belongs in abandoned buildings, in tinny headphones on long lonely subway rides, on midnight freakouts with bad acid in the rural heartland. “White Night” is slightly more goth-pop than the power-pop that fills out the first half of Memory Span, but it’s still undeniably infectious, like the Shoes circa Black Vinyl Shoes covering Echo and the Bunnymen in the House of the Rising Sun.
On the flipside of that single (also Memory Span’s final track), “Barbican” politely borrows a riff from the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For the Man” before riding it off into the sunset with a vaguely motorik beat, jammed-out guitars, and eventually a processional of detuned trumpets. The band’s B-sides often carried this blueprint, as a kind of proxy reinterpretation of the A: end credits to the main melody. This often also presented a great occasion to get weird (the screaming, pounding, effects-twittering “Over the Brow”) or to explore long-form, trance-inducing, bass-driven exercises (the post-rock atmospherical “Part II”) or to play around with new forms like hip-hop (the spatially distorted Tom Tom Club-isms of “Old Town”).
Unfortunately, none of these translate in the context of a single sitting when lined up back to back. Listening to Memory Span at once, its agrestal spirit gets muddled under jungle-like sensory overload. The non-stop jangle-pop can fade out less energized songs like the upbeat ska of “False Alarm”, which sounds perfectly memorable and justified within the context of the Cool Snap EP. Without knowledge that these songs were supposed to be consumed in small doses, Memory Span often runs the risk of sounding either tedious or ridiculous to listeners who might otherwise become awe-addled admirers.
Yet there’s a great chunk of post-punk’s full oeuvre present, from the gauzy clouds to the dankest subterranean spots, for those with the patience to sort through the album’s 78 minutes. The early material has a bent that can sound equally like it’s interpreting an angular version of the fashionable disco beat art-punk of the time or anticipating Murmur-era R.E.M. Later recordings (and by later I should stress that we’re only talking a year or two) can get quite grim. (The band performed shows with Bauhaus and The Birthday Party at the time.) The Lines also exhibited what seems like a deep fascination with the Manchester sound coming out of Factory Records, going so far as to add Martin Hannett-esque production flourishes to their songs. “House of Cards”, for instance, juggles a Peter Hook-style bass hook, huge echoing drums, and a primal vocal performance by Conning, until halfway through the track when the house of cracks literally begins to leak. The song carries on into fantastically ecstatic and abstract territories as the Lines themselves slip through the same tracks and become buried under years of dust.
“Back again in the background”, Conning chants in “Background”. Out of context, many of The Lines’ lyrics sound rooted to a perennial undergroundness, but in actuality the songs serve as a critique of parochial working class complacency. “I never hoped for anything / except for what there was”, Conning says in “Not Through Windows”. In the same song he goes on to observe, “And now I’m standing in line / but it’s not moving / I hope that somebody knows what we’re doing”.
Many of Conning’s lyrics boast this desire to break out of a self-governing trap: “We didn’t ask for fairy tales” (“2spliteseconds”), “I want to see for myself and not through windows” (“Not Through Windows”), “Our blissful stability / we haven’t paid for it yet” (“Blisstability”). The band themselves possessed an ardent belief in the openness of the world and an urgent need to explore it, sonically at least, as witnessed in the aural geography they covered in just four short years of recorded sound. “Everything construed it was a fantasy / everything is legal that was robbery”, the Lines reveal to us in “On the Air”.
“Where’s my aspiring?”, Conning asks in “Blisstability” (though it sounds as if he may be saying “aspirin”). Memory Span makes it apparent that it was all over the place during the brief time that the Lines put out records. “Where’s it happening?”, he goes on. Unfortunately, in far too many places for history to keep track of.