In an age when the compact disc has been pushed aside by downloads and streaming, the time, effort, and expense of putting together a CD box set might seem like an exercise in futility, of blind nostalgia for a dying form. But there was a time, however brief, when a well-curated box-set was something that could actually shift the cultural zeitgeist and re-frame the conversations of popular music history and reception. The Complete Robert Johnson box set (1990), for example, brought household name status to that artist in a way that a hundred testimonies from Jimmie Page, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan could never do despite Johnson’s great influence upon them. It did so by making Johnson a status purchase, a commodity. But the care in restoration and research that went into the collection transcended its existence as a product and served to revise popular history. That was the power of the box set in its heyday.
Cherry Red‘s John Reed hasn’t forgotten that, and To the Outside of Everything: A Story of UK Post Punk 1977 – 1981 is a box set that does everything right to a level that is capable of re-writing the common history. Simply put, this is the definitive story in sound of post punk in the UK. This is a collection that will stand alongside Simon Reynolds’ equally definitive history of the age, Rip It Up and Start Again. We wait only for the comprehensive work that would collect America’s bold provocateurs of the period who were content to let New York and Los Angeles wallow in piss-filled punk while occupying outlying urban centers like Boston and Cleveland, which produced the mutated art of Mission of Burma, Human Sexual Response, and Pere Ubu, among dozens of others.
Indeed, To the Outside of Everything offers hours of discovery and renewed acquaintance with a time when, disrupted by the slash and burn of punk but also disaffected by it, anything seemed possible. Neil Taylor has composed an enlightening collection of liner notes for the set, from the extensive opening essay through the informative write-ups on each of the performers compiled, often with their first-hand input. Taylor smartly refuses to argue for any kind of stylistic consistency to post-punk while also avoiding the romance of calling its period of dominance an era, akin to, say, the ’60s. Rather, for Taylor post-punk is “neither a genre nor an era, but an approach, one where innovation and playfulness, the deliberately odd and the purposefully unconventional meet.” It is, he continues, “an approach to creativity that has always been here and always will be here.”
Taylor describes how the next wave of artists learned from punk’s disappointingly quick commodification and descent into scenester prescriptivism and chose to be inspired by its DIY anything-goes spirit and distaste for nostalgia. This aligns with Reynolds’ take on the transitory period following punk’s quick decline: “By the summer of 1977, punk had become a parody of itself.” For Reynolds, the first wave of post-punk artists defined punk as “an imperative to constant change” and “dedicated themselves to fulfilling punk’s uncompleted musical revolution, exploring new possibilities by embracing electronics, noise, jazz and the classical avante-garde, and the production techniques of dub reggae and disco.” Post-punk, it becomes plain, is an amalgam comprised of anything that seemed to fit together, or better still, did not fit but could be hammered into a justifiable framework.
The 111 cuts from as many distinct performers argue for the adventurousness of the times while capturing a captivating collection of the known, the vaguely familiar, the rumored, and the forgotten. Numerous among the groups collected here would go on to commercial success, though most would have to go through significant reorganization of members (and vision) in order to coordinate a successful assault on the charts. Future UK pop sensations who appear here in earlier, less mass-appeal iterations include Adam and the Ants, Ultravox!, Thompson Twins, Human League, and Modern English. Others who would burn bright but briefly earning early critical praise and growing into legendary status over time such as PiL, Wire, Joy Division, Raincoats, Birthday Party, Gang of Four, and Josef K. Still more, like Au Pairs, Crispy Ambulance, and Pop Group would become the focus of apocryphal legend and cult followings. And a few, like The Fall, The The, and Killing Joke would stubbornly forge singular and surprisingly long-term careers.
Possibly most fascinating here are those collectives whose raw visions echoed or shaped those of others while being overlooked by the masses. These are among the most vivid, exciting, and important inclusions on the anthology. Consider Art Objects whose track “Hard Objects” captures cold war malaise in brilliant succinctness: “The nuclear bomb is a blunt instrument in the hands of disturbed children.” Then there’s Glaxo Babies whose “This is Your Life” offers up a British perspective of the kind of existential urban paranoia mastered by Talking Heads. The Last Gang’s lone single “Spirit of Youth” grinds forward with a Gang of Four-like aggression while throwing shade on the spastic if sincere passions of youth. The excavation of lost or forgotten tracks like this is what makes a box set of such imposing reach special.
Another particularly refreshing element of the collection is the way in which the compilers clarify and acknowledge the role of women in the music of this time. The feminine perspective is an often under-examined element of the post-punk stew of influence, but To the Outside of Everything serves to emphasize the fact that female artists were actively influencing from the inside of the agglomerative movement. Indeed, some of the best and defining cuts of the set, and the time, come from female-fronted bands. Of course Raincoats, The Slits, and Throbbing Gristle (whose Cosi Fanni Tutti deserves equal visionary credit with Genesis P’Orridge) are all represented here, but so too are important contributions from Poison Girls, Family Fodder, Mo-dettes, Ludus, Occult Chemistry, and Blue Orchids (featuring Una Barnes, a founding member of the Fall). While still greatly outnumbered by the boys, some of the most refreshing and important tracks among the five discs collected here are shaped by a feminine vision.
In all, To the Outside of Everything is a challenging and enlightening listen from start to finish, and it is a triumph of curatorship that provides near-encyclopedic insight into this important chapter of UK popular music history. From the punk hangover of O’ Level and The Addicts, to the cold war paranoid drone of The Membranes and Tubeway Army, to the art-noir funk of Spoon Fazer and 23 Skidoo, the proto-goth of The Birthday Party, and the ever-forming dark-pop sensibility of bands like Human League and Psychedelic Furs that would come to dominate the charts under the banner of new wave: To the Outside of Everything captures its age in full.