Early on in his thorough and colorful Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, author Martin Aston recounts some of the records released by the British label in 1980, and uses the East London band In Camera’s IV Songs EP as a prime example of the early aesthetics of 4AD and its storied figurehead, Ivo Watts-Russell:
IV Songs was more proof that Ivo was content to put out records that were committed, passionate and uncompromising, though, looking back, the cumulative effect of the catalogue – Red Atkins not withstanding – was fifty shades of black. The gloom was claustrophobic. Where was the light and shade, the fuller spectrum of humanity? “Musically, that was the era,” Ivo argues. “And to paraphrase [American pianist] Harold Budd, I was suspicious of anything that is enjoyed by the masses. I don’t think pop artists would have come to 4AD in any case.”
Without a reunion tour on the agenda (at least not yet), and lacking a major Goth rock revival to capitalize on, it might seem a curious time for 4AD to revisit the short lifespan and limited catalog of In Camera. No obvious profit motive appears to be driving the release of Era, which makes it a perfectly appropriate tribute of sorts to the way Watts-Russell ran 4AD in his time. Bringing together the singles and EPs released in the band’s 1978-1981 run along with demos, live recordings, and five tracks ‘from a recently found rehearsal tape’, the two-disc set is a fond remembrance by the label of the budding potential of its past.
In Camera were partial to references. For example, the quartet took their name in part from a Sartre play. Fronted by vocalist/keyboardist David Steiner (Scinto is his actual surname, he adopted Steiner from Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron), who later went on to be a screenwriter on such films as Sexy Beast, In Camera were steeped in existential film and literature. Musically, they were certainly of the moment. The obvious musical reference points for their brand of post punk are Bauhaus (a band whom In Camera played shows with) and Public Image Ltd., while Steiner/Scinto notes in Aston’s book the significant influence of others like Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Pop Group.
Steiner’s rising bellow-speak delivery in fact has more in common with that of Pop Group vocalist Mark Stewart than it does with the melodrama of Peter Murphy or John Lydon’s nasal taunting. The often ominous bass lines, however, do echo Bauhaus’ dour disposition, and In Camera didn’t hide their affinity for the stark disco repurposing of PiL. “Final Achievement” in particular feels like the byproduct of many late nights spent with Metal Box on the turntable. “Die Laughing”, with its high-up-the-fretboard bass and rigid drumming, also hints that they were paying attention to Joy Division’s early punk phase as well.
Some appraisals of Era have faulted In Camera for being too much a product of their time, leaning on their contemporaries for inspiration without providing enough of their own. In pop music’s rearview mirror, the further down the road we get, the less room there is for those that the general consensus didn’t declare the winner. It’s worth noting that once said consensus declared early PiL to be brilliant after the Rapture nicked from “Careering”, it’s been all but forgotten just how disliked John Lydon’s new band was at the time, making In Camera’s borrowing from them hardly a cynical act.
Veer too much in the direction of a more commercially successful peer, and in hindsight you become the inferior version of them. In whatever the current landscape is, however, the rules are inverted. A bunch of musicians all doing the same thing is validated as a ‘movement’. Hundreds of punk bands all playing the same three chords have coexisted for decades. This year there is plenty of room for, say, Beach House and Lower Dens, but how will the latter fare in the eyes of future Millennial music scholars twenty or thirty years from now?
Era, then, is most rewarding when it is allowed to be itself. In addition to being a document of unfulfilled potential — the Peel session version of the eleven-minute “The Fatal Day” shows the unique possibilities In Camera were capable of – it is further proof that Watts-Russell was right: things really were that gloomy in Britain back then. It wasn’t just the Cure and Bauhaus and Joy Division, it was in dozens of other bands, in social realism films of the time, in every citizen affected by the stagnant economy and increasingly violent tribal youth culture. The language of In Camera’s song titles – “die”, “fear”, “apocalypse” – directly reflects that widespread pessimism and angst, and their too-few recordings capture it well.