Cherry Red Records’ John Reed is proving himself one of the great compilers of British popular music’s underground history, particularly in chronicling the British punk/post-punk scene. 2016’s
Action Time Vision: A Story of UK Independent Punk 1976-1979 and 2017’s To the Outside of Everything The Story of UK Post Punk 1977-1981 each collected over a hundred definitive and forgotten independent singles in one place, with extensive liner notes and smart, engaging design by Keith Davey. One could have spent a lifetime on the scene and still not found all of the obscure singles collected in these sets. Each set out to demonstrate the breadth of creativity and vision that was going on beyond the trivial eyes of a British media machine more interested in creating firestorms of scandal and paranoia than engaging with an increasingly disaffected youth culture. In retrospect, they show just how much that fractious transition period of the 1970’s into the 1980’s remains with us today, both stylistically and ideologically.
Burning Britain: A Story of Independent UK Punk 1980-1983, a direct sequel to the Action Time Vision set. Like its predecessors, Burning Britain offers a treasure trove of punk singles, many from bands long overlooked or ignored. This set may be even more revelatory than the ATV set considering that UK punk had gone back underground during the years covered here. Ian Glasper’s excellent introduction and band bios amplify the importance of the time period and of how these many “minor” bands (according to the official history) combined to make a major statement.
For the bands contributing to what became known as the UK82 punk scene, everything was personal and rage was a defining factor. The common narrative is that UK punk had become commodified and lost its way by the end of the 1970’s, a victim both of its success and of its adherence to its own stubborn codes. But Glasper argues that the scene went underground, became even rawer as the next generation of teenagers embraced the DIY aesthetic, and, subsequently, entered a new phase of vibrancy. Glasper describes the shift as “an infinitely simpler, harder and more abrasive take on the genre, distilled from the original concept of punk but with all the arty pretense and mainstream aspirations ripped away in a frenzy of violent frustration”. Unlike the media-savvy manipulations of McLaren’s Sex Pistols or the cynical calculations of the Clash, this music “all came from the heart”. These were kids who were foolish enough to buy into the original punk mythos but then sincere enough to turn the bullshit into a visceral reality.
When the major label signing frenzy of the first wave of UK punk died down, it was left to a new breed of indie labels to pick up the slack, and here’s where labels like Fallout, Riot City, Anagram, Spiderleg, and a dozen others chronicled here stepped in. While Britain’s musical exports in the first years of the ’80s embraced the cold synthesized sounds of the New Romantics and fashioned the new wave as a white neo-soul dance music, Britain’s punk underground remained hot and was allowed to fester and grow free from commercial interference.In both sound and sympathy, these bands would have a major influence on the US’s growing hardcore scene of the middle ’80s.
The issues central to the UK82 bands collected here ring loud and clear and their messages remain relevant. It is easy to forget the worldwide sense of dread that enveloped the early ’80s, with a global energy crisis still unresolved, with numerous countries experiencing civil and economic unrest, and with the US and Russia locked in the deepest stalemate of the Cold War. Johnny Rotten’s cry of “No Future” seemed an imminent promise. Numerous tracks here amplify the growing distrust of governmental systems: Anti-Establishment’s “No Trust”, Ad Nauseum’s “Crazy World”, Blitzkrieg’s “The Abuse of Power”, Infa-Riot’s “Kids of the 80’s”, Anti-Pasti’s “No Government”, Special Duties’ “Police State”, and the Skeptix’s “Born to Lose”, which comes across as a brilliant amalgam of the Heartbreakers and the Dead Boys.
Paranoia at impending nuclear war might be the dominant theme of many of these songs as they reflect the anxieties of a generation one push of a button away from extinction: G.B.H.’s
“No Survivors”, Chaotic Youth’s “Whose Bomb?”, Erazerhead’s “Shell Shock”, the Insane’s “Nuclear War”, Resistance 77’s “Nuclear Attack”, and the Varukers’ “Die for Your Government” are just a handful of the youthful responses to the imminent global apocalypse. Maybe the most effective statement of the youth perspective comes with Vice Squad’s “Last Rockers”, an ominous embrace of impending doom as Beki Bondage sings “Time has come for us to die / No memories left to cry / No chance of a rebirth / For the last rockers on earth.” Apocalypse is supposed to promise a new beginning, but the global nuclear war will bring only erasure.
Under the weight of an uncertain future, these kids were not alright, and they were justified in both their anger and anxieties. Perhaps that’s why British society at large recoiled in horror at their very existence. A mohawk or a safety pin became a symbol of separation and disaffection. For most adults, rather than giving an ear to youth concerns, these badges became symbols of rampant juvenile delinquency that required either blind shunning or violent intervention. Peter & the Test Tube Babies’ anthemic “Banned From the Pubs” gives voice to youth frustration of being unfairly judged on the surface: “Banned from the pubs ’cause they don’t like punks / Banned from the pubs ’cause they treat us like thugs.” How else to respond but with vitriol and an embrace of one’s outsider status?
Start to finish,
Burning Britain‘s 114 tracks do not constitute an easy listening experience. This collection of songs refuses to be treated as background music and threatens to overwhelm when foregrounded; in short, it demands attention. With rare exceptions such as Toy Dolls or a reconstituted the Damned, the pop-friendly undercurrent of first wave punk is erased from in favor of abrasive waves of sound and angry shout-singing. This is invigorating music best experienced in short bursts, but what a collection of bursts this set provides.