'Birth of a Nation' Unearths a Trove of Music from the Liverpool Scene
Over three discs and four hours, Cherry Red Records does a deep dive into the output of Liverpool's Inevitable Records, home to Pete Wylie and Pete Burns, among many others.
Birth of a Nation: Inevitable Records: An Independent Liverpool, 1979-1986
26 April 2019
The Cherry Red label has a long and fascinating history, and it would take entirely too long to trace all of its triumphs, vicissitudes and other twists and turns here. They have been a going concern for more than 40 years, and their label's sound cannot be easily characterized precisely because it always prided itself not only on its dogged independence but also on the catholicity of its roster, from punk to goth to shoegaze and other territories far beyond simple generic classification. One of their earliest releases was a wonderful compilation called Pillows and Prayers (1982), and this was an early indicator of their diversity of taste, featuring as it did artists like Tracey Thorn, Ben Watt, Kevin Coyne, Felt, Eyeless in Gaza, Attila the Stockbroker, the Nightingales and, believe it or not, Quentin Crisp.
This early release tells us at least two vitally important things about the label. First, it was dedicated to an intentional open-mindedness that would continue to this day. Second, the people involved back then, Iain McNay, Richard Jones, Will Atkinson, and Mike Alway among others, knew not only how to spot interesting talent but also how to put interesting sounds up against each other with a wicked knack for the curation of a label (and particularly in this case outstanding compilations). Pillows and Prayers was a very early sign of this combined aptitude, and for quite some time the label has been returning to those earlier days and releasing a series of outstanding box sets, including a reissued and expanded version of Pillows and Prayers (2007), Scared to Get Happy: A Story of Indie Pop 1980-1989 (2013), Silhouettes and Statues: A Gothic Revolution 1978-1986 (2017), Manchester North of England: A Story of Independent Music Greater Manchester 1977-1993 (2017), the recently reviewed Electrical Language: Independent British Synth Pop, 78-84, and, particularly relevant to this review, Revolutionary Spirit: The Sound of Liverpool, 1976-1988, from 2018.
Where Revolutionary Spirit took an encyclopedic if not completely exhaustive look at the vibrant, frenetic and eclectic Liverpool scene of the time, and which included notable acts like Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, China Crisis, the Chameleons, Icicle Works, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pale Fountains, and a Flock of Seagulls, among many other lesser lights, Birth of a Nation brilliantly zeroes in on one small local label from the time, Inevitable Records, and equally brilliantly curates a fascinating collection of bands nurtured by label head Jeremy Lewis. The design and construction of this three-disc, four-hour set is a model in how to curate a historical document of a time in musical history that makes the material very accessible while also contextualizing the circumstances of its production. There are bands you may probably never heard of, alongside bands who might be vaguely familiar, alongside earlier versions of bands who went on to be quite well known in a different iteration and context. Birth of a Nation represents a form of musical archaeology, and it is very well worth your time and attention.
The first thing to note about Birth of a Nation is the way that its bookended organization effectively presents us with a series of sequentially revealing Russian dolls. Disc one offers up a number of singles from 1979 to 1982 (replete with a-sides and b-sides). It starts with Wah! Heat's "Better Scream"/"Joe" and ends with "African and White"/"Be Suspicious" by China Crisis. In the middle, there is a selection of offerings dominated by Pete Burns' vehicles Nightmares in Wax (the title of the collection is taken from the name of the first Nightmares in Wax EP from 1980) and Dead or Alive, along with other singles from Modern Eon, Faction, and It's Immaterial.
Meanwhile, disc two offers up singles from 1983 to 1986, the period during which Dead or Alive had departed for a major label. Indeed, the entire box set might also be seen as a kind of sandwich wherein Nightmares in Wax and Dead or Alive make up the bread of discs one and three and a group of Liverpool's lesser lights (Box of Toys, Freeze Frame, Margox, the Builders, Venus Adore, and the Light) are the savory filling scattered here and there but mostly concentrate in the middle disc. It's a brilliant conceit and very well worked.
Furthermore, the third disc is comprised exclusively of five Peel Sessions from 1981 to 1983, recordings hosted by the legendary and dearly departed British disc jockey John Peel, who gave an airing to any number of bands from any number of genres and background without fear or favor. So we see in this last disc some of the material from the previous two discs in other forms, either reworked from their "official" versions, or in the early stages of their trying out before they were recorded for official release. It's Immaterial's "Giant Raft" becomes a "Gigantic Raft" for the Peel Session, and Freeze Frame's "Foxhole" from disc two becomes "Fox Hole" for the Peel Session version, to cite two minor examples of the process.
This is another brilliant curating conceit by Cherry Red, and it illustrates a few very important things about how music was made and how bands gained exposure at this time in the history of the music industry. While labels like Cherry Red and Inevitable nurtured and encouraged small bands to make recordings and get them pressed and released, John Peel would often give those small bands national exposure on his nightly radio show, which many teenagers would stay up late to record on their cassette recorders. This micro-economy will be familiar to music obsessives of all ages, and it's particularly interesting to see it close up here.
The opening "Better Scream"/"Joe" by Pete Wylie's Wah! Heat seems like something of a misdirection, because it in no way prepares you for the deep dive into the weirdness that follows, and make no mistake, much of the music here is indeed gloriously strange. Birth of a Nation could reasonably be seen as the secret and glorious early career history of Pete Burns, who accounts in total for about 15 songs here, some of which are variations of themselves, or rough sketches for later songs. For example, "Black Leather" previews Dead or Alive's later hit cover of "That's The Way I Like It", while "Shangri-La" sounds like a particularly raucous Teardrop Explodes outtake (as does "Flowers" and the later "Number Twelve" from the Peel Sessions). Some of the Nightmares in Wax material, in particular, seems like gothic fairground music, rather than the glam disco Dead or Alive would become, but you can still detect the roots of their sound here. Several of these Pete Burns songs seem at times to be a mash-up of Teardrop/Bunnymen and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and you can't help wondering what they might have become if Trevor Horn had been let loose on these raw materials as he was with Frankie.
We should also note, in the interest and spirit of the archival eye for detail instantiated by this collection, that before Nightmares in Wax (previously known as Rainbows Over Nagasaki) and Dead or Alive, Burns was also in the very short-lived band Mystery Girls with Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. That would go some way to explaining their common vocal histrionics, and the epic grandiosity of their respective artistic visions. Indeed, the Pete Burns material here is really quite absorbing, and we see him here at an important fork in the road, wherein he could have chosen to go down a number of paths. Whether it be the sonorous post-punk of his previously mentioned contemporaries Cope and McCullough, the gothic route of something like Peter Murphy's Bauhaus, or the high camp of Frankie, there were choices. The fact that Burns is known for a couple of hits that were firmly entrenched in dance music seems all the more surprising when you hear his contributions here from his time spent on the Inevitable label.
The other bands' contributions here are curiosities, to be sure, and a good deal of the material is something of a curate's egg. While there may not be a distinctive label sound as such, there is certainly a common thread of poperatic melodrama, as evidenced by much of the material on the second disc. It feels like a lot of the vocal flexing on display here owes no little debt to Cope and McCullough, whose respective shadows loom large in some ineffable way, combining melodramatic flourishes and a grand, epic romantic vision. Most of this music sounds deadly serious, which was partly characteristic of the Liverpool scene during this period, but it's also interesting to note that some of the bands approached the seriousness of their sound with a greater or lesser degree of irony or performative self-consciousness. Brian Atherton, of Box of Toys and the Light, for example, really seems to mean it, whereas Pete Burns might well be winking at us throughout his superficial life or death performances.
Disc two introduces us to some of these lesser lights, bands we might never have heard, or even heard of - Box of Toys, Freeze Frame, and the Light, among others. Much of this music represents an interesting combination of jaunty 1980s pop music run through a Midge Ure Ultravox seriousness filter, and while it may not be as intense as the Pete Burns domination of the previous disc, it's not exactly underwrought either. Most of these bands only had a single or two, and perhaps a Peel Session here and there (see disc three), before fracturing into other bands, some of which may or may not have ended up having minor chart success. These are the minutiae of British pop music, and they are almost endlessly fascinating.
During the rather wonderful Story of the Undertones documentary from 2002, John Peel told the band during one of their charming strolls around Derry that he would often approach some of these small bands about doing another session for his show, only to be told that they'd broken up because all they ever wanted was to record a Peel Session and get on the radio, and after that they were satisfied and went back to their day jobs. Nevertheless, some bands did manage to break through to some level of what might be called success (It's Immaterial's "Giant Raft" was a minor hit, for example, as was "African and White" by China Crisis, who were quickly absorbed into Virgin records as part of a joint deal with Inevitable).
It should perhaps be noted that the general quality of this music on display here is perhaps not as important as the fact that it exists at all. Cherry Red's (and Inevitable's) attention to these bands is a testament to the ways in which this strand of popular culture has functioned for decades as something of a cottage industry and a labor of love, both on the part of the bands who make the music and the labels who give them a platform to release it. If we were paying more attention to quality control, we might have to say something rather disapproving about Box of Toys' "Foxhole", for example, whose rather trite and cloying "Send me away on holiday" is an earworm you really don't want. The contributions by Faction are rather more interesting, and Freeze Frame's "Personal Touch" is quite strange and appealing in both of its incarnations here, while the introduction of a rare female voice breaks up the agonistic male vocal parade that dominates most of the set.
The Peel Sessions material on disc three could be a stand-alone album all by itself, and it is dominated by Pete Burns in much the same way that Nightmares in Wax and Dead or Alive were all over the first disc. Many of the songs from the Peel Sessions will be familiar from the other discs, but sometimes in a rather rawer and often more vital form than their earlier incarnations. The Dead or Alive material from the Peel Sessions is really quite remarkable in many ways, and it would be particularly interesting to hear all of the Pete Burns material in a single sequence, just to clarify the development not only of his career arc but also to see what he does with individual songs in their various versions. The different iterations of "Black Leather", "Flowers", "Number Eleven" (which becomes "Running Wild" on the Peel Session), and the multi-part "Misty Circles" all show a vibrant creative force at work. You will almost certainly not get any of that from exposure only to "That's the Way (I Like It)" or "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)", from his transmogrification into a global camp icon. It does seem slightly odd, though, that Pete Wylie is absent from any of the Peel Sessions material here since various incarnations of his bands recorded no less than six sessions for Peel's show.
So Birth of a Nation offers up an intriguing, not to say an enthralling slice of popular music history from a period when the proliferation of independent music in the immediate aftermath of punk was quite dizzying in its volume, its diversity, and its intensity. This very granular snapshot sits in fascinating relief against its predecessor, Revolutionary Spirit, and makes one wonder what similar wonders might be worked with other shoestring operations of the period. We may be more or less aware of labels like Bill Drummond's Zoo Records or the ersatz indie Korova (an offshoot of Warner), but this reminder of the gems produced by the Inevitable label seems to scratch an increasing archeological itch surrounding the phenomenon of music production at this level and on this scale.
Birth of a Nation is a terrific project, and it repays all of the attention you might give it, from the liner notes to the most obscure single by some bands who may only have recorded a single song in their entire career. This is the kind of undertaking that is an important reminder of where music comes from and where it still lives.