Carnivalesque pop music filtered through an eccentric lineage that defies categorization and transcends time. A good thing since it was recorded 20 years ago and is only just now seeing the light of day.
In this contemporary pop culture-heavy climate where anything and everything is ripe for reissue or revisiting regardless of whether or not it might actually merit a second consideration, it’s a rarity that we are afforded the opportunity to experience something from the not-so-distant past for the first time. Such is the case with Blackest Ever Black’s recent unearthing of this seemingly lost Officer! release recorded in 1995 and only just now, nearly 20 years later, finding its way out into the world.
Primarily the work of Mick Hobbs, a Londoner who kicked around with various under-the-radar eccentrics in the late-1970s and into the 1980s, Officer! first appeared in 1982. Following a handful of releases throughout the 1980s, Hobbs joined up with the like-minded Jad Fair (who makes an appearance on this album) as part of Half Japanese. Knowing just this much would provide appropriate referential access into the kind of music Hobbs tends to favor. But unlike Half Japanese’s often slipshod approach to music making, Officer! shows a greater focus on the arrangement in its controlled chaos of the pop variety.
Appropriately titled, Dead Unique is just that: an utterly inimitable amalgamation of random instrumental blasts and blurts, dabbling in free-form experimentation, jazz textures, shabby indie rock, carnival-esque song structures, and idiosyncratic lyrics. From the opening lines of “Nardis” (not to be confused with the identically titled track that runs nearly twice as long later on in the running order) it becomes quite clear that Hobbs is of that very particularly British band of pop eccentrics that stretches back into the acid-fried work of Syd Barrett up through contemporary noiseniks and sonic terrorists hell-bent on disturbing the perennially placid peace of popular music.
Because of this kitchen sink approach to production, instrumentation, and arrangements, Dead Unique possesses an utterly timeless feel making this archival release impossible to place on any sort of musical chronology. Often sounding like a lost late-‘60s folk/psych freakout record, Dead Unique quickly morphs into something else entirely, resembling any number of shambolic indie rock bands kicking about the UK in the early ‘80s. It’s a wildly disorienting approach to songwriting that requires complete and total attention throughout in order to properly process the random spoken-word snippets, instrumental asides and stylistic shifts.
More than anything, Dead Unique and, subsequently, Officer!’s approach to the creation of music seems fully rooted in the avant garde. But a closer inspection reveals somewhat basic pop structures that have been chopped, mixed, and matched and stitched back together to create a sort of musical Frankenstein of sorts that stumbles about, knocking over common held notions of what a pop song should sound like. This makes for a thrilling, disorienting listening experience that feels almost hallucinatory at times in its funhouse mirror approach to performance and instrumental proficiency.
Featuring a host of like-minded noise freaks including the aforementioned Fair, Hobbs is aided and abetted by a host of instrumentalists banging and thrashing away, albeit politely, on their respective instruments. Of these, the flailing saxophone and clarinet work of John Dierker is perhaps most impressive. Employing a free-form blowing approach that results in a blitzkrieg of shrieks and squeals on both instruments, Dierker adds an at times disquieting element of danger before careening into a cabaret-lite performance (“Shrug/Good”). Without his work, the record would no doubt have a very different feel as he proves an ideal foil for Hobbs’ more musically demented leanings.
Throughout, Hobbs and company sound as though they are channeling the spirits of the more musically absurdist leanings of Frank Zappa (less the scatological humor) and Captain Beefheart (less the blues detours), refracting the sound through his own decidedly British sensibilities. While most easily described as being firmly entrenched in the avant garde, the music of Dead Unique functions wholly outside of time and space, belonging to its own alternate universe in which pop music refutes the very notion of expectations and structure and instead embraces the endless possibilities afforded by the creative mind.