The late 70s and early 80s were unquestionably a fertile time for many artists and musicians worldwide. The effects of punk on the aesthetic landscape of the underground are so undeniably far-reaching that it remains impossible to quantify and much of my favorite music was born as a result. What I find particularly interesting is the effect it had on the progressive rock musicians of the UK and western Europe.
The Rock-in-Opposition (RIO) movement was begun by a collective of groups who were resisting the artistic censorship and subsequent watering down that was happening in mainstream music. Though the band Henry Cow broke new ground in pop through their collaborations with Slapp Happy, culminating in their excellent Desperate Straights LP (which led to the formation of Art Bears), the bulk of their work — along with contemporaries like Entron Fou Leloublan and Art Zoyd — consisted primarily of fusing jazz-rock with chamber music and free improvisation. As adventurous as it may sound in theory, a good deal of it sounds stiff to my ears. However, in the wake of punk, many of those involved turned from the tiresome academic noodling that permeated the mid-70s toward more concise playing that often incorporated post-punk rhythms and politicized lyrics all filtered through the wacked-out experimentalism of bands like Faust and the Residents. The result was some of the most insanely infectious and innovative music to emerge in the last 40 years.
The members of This Heat, whose work probably needs no introduction, were some of the first to make the jump. Cold Storage, their meat-locker-turned-studio in Brixton, served as one of the epicenters of a nebulous family of art-rock weirdos, including ex-members of Henry Cow and other avant-garde improvisors of the day as well as many younger musicians of the punk generation, who set to work destroying the boundaries of what rock and pop can be. If bands such as Family Fodder, the Work, Officer!, The Lowest Note, etc., didn’t exactly share fulltime membership, they at least regularly guested on one another’s recordings.
While the two monolithic labels of the era, Rough Trade and Recommended, had strong hands in issuing and distributing the proceedings, it was the output of smaller labels (Crammed, Fresh, AYAA, et al) that provided crucial insight into what was happening. Two labels in particular, Woof and Mass Culture Control Bureau (MCCB), put out the best of the best and their catalogs are absolutely essential listening to those interested in digging deeper into this type of music.
Woof was started by former Henry Cow member Tim Hodgkinson and friend Bill Gilonis. Their band, The Work, is undoubtedly the flagship band of the label, but they also put out equally canonical recordings by The Lowest Note and Catherine Jauniaux. MCCB was founded by Geoff Leigh, who, in addition to playing sax in Henry Cow for a time, was a member of Radar Favorites with future This Heat members Charles Hayward and Charles Bullen. The label only put out five EPs, but each one stands as testament to the demented genius of Leigh’s vision.
Admittedly I have a personal bias toward this music. This Heat has been one of my favorite bands for well over a decade. Their recordings are too scant and a while back I felt the desire to scratch below the surface a little and see what else was going on. There turned out to be a lot to sift through – some good, some bad. I would like to take some time to share and discuss some of my favorite tracks. Although a handful of these remain hopelessly obscure, over the past few years labels like Ad Hoc, Life and Living, and now Blackest Ever Black, who just released the first-ever vinyl edition of Flaming Tunes, possibly the totem album of the whole shebang, are doing an outstanding job of making this music available again to a wider audience. Much of it still sounds fresh and ahead of its time, even by today’s standards. By no means meant to be all-inclusive, this is just an introduction to some of the highlights of a particular period where art-rock and punk wove their tendrils around one another to create something quite unique.
1. Black Sheep – “Non Stop Fun Pop”
Black Sheep was the last of the great MCCB groups headed by ex-Henry Cow saxophonist Geoff Leigh. This track is taken from their Animal Sounds Vol. 1 12″. Reggae-influenced rhythms filter through damaged electronics and combine with a catchy vocal melody that slyly mocks rock convention to create a slab of genius pop that gets better and zanier as it plods along, coming more and more unglued by the measure.
2. Officer! – “Anagrams”
Officer! was primarily the songwriting vehicle of Mick Hobbs from The Work along with various friends. His work in Officer! combined catchy pop melodies with avant-rock, often incorporating elements of medieval folk. Total nerd music to be sure. It was hard to pick a track, but this one from 1984′s Ossification LP, produced by the Bullen brothers, Charles and Peter, is them at their catchiest.
3. Camberwell Now – “Working Nights”
Camberwell Now was the post-This Heat project of drummer Charles Hayward and pretty much picks up where his former group left off. This is the lead track off of their album The Ghost Trade. In addition to Hayward’s signature drumming, you can hear the sounds of member Steve Rickard’s homemade tape switchboard all wrapped around a wash of synths and bass arpeggios. Propulsive to say the least.
4. The Flying Lizards – “Hands 2 Take”
Best known for their surprise hit version of the old R&B tune ‘Money’, David Cunningham’s Flying Lizards really hit their stride on their second album Fourth Wall. In addition to producing and releasing This Heat’s first album, Cunningham was instrumental in helping get Cold Storage off the ground, turning the group onto the space after witnessing one of their performances. A composer in his own right, Cunningham’s talents lie in utilizing techniques employed by the 20th-century avant-garde in the creation of pop music, taking an almost musique-concrete approach to the medium.
5. Family Fodder – “Savoir Faire”
Where to begin with one of the all-time best pop groups? Probably here. Family Fodder was spear-headed by Alig Pearce and Martin Frederix, but the overall vibe was very collective, at various points also including Charles Bullen, as well as Mick and Rick from The Work among others. Much of their crucial early work sounds like a new wave version of This Heat. This single, one of their most well-known, also appeared on their first full-length, Monkey Banana Kitchen.
6. Skeleton Crew – “The Hand That Bites”
Fred Frith’s work as both an improvisor and composer is legendary and I’ll spare the introductions. Sadly, the years have not been kind to a good deal of his work from the early 80s. His work with cellist Tom Cora as Skeleton Crew is a notable exception. A potent stew of improvisation and songcraft, they particularly stepped up their game on their second album, The Country of Blinds, with the addition of Zeena Parkins, who seemed to bring along some of the unhinged energy picked up from rolling deep with Geoff Leigh’s crew (Her recording debut was on The Black Sheep’s ‘Strangelove’ and she also was a dancing bear in MCCB cohort Chris Wangro’s Janus Circus.)
7. Aksak Maboul – “A Modern Lesson”
One of the original RIO groups, Aksak Maboul was primarily the lovechild of keyboardist Mark Hollander and bassist Vincent Kenis, They recorded two essential albums in the late 70s/early 80s that ran the gamut from art-rock insanity, improv, baroque and proto-electro Terry Riley influenced minimalism while managing the near-impossible feat of actually sounding good the whole time. This is the lead track off their 2nd album, Un peu de l’ame des bandits and features guests Fred Frith, Chris Cutler and vocalist Catherine Jauniaux. If you haven’t heard it, you haven’t heard anything like it.
8. Kontakt Mikrofoon Orkest – “Do the Residue”
This track by KMO is hands down the highlight of the entire MCCB output and incidentally one of my all-time favorite songs. With its catchy hooks and angular funk-punk rhythm it comes off like a total dance party classic, but with lyrics like When you’re on the scene/And you’re getting the cold shoulder/Just put on your mask/It’ll make you even colder, it’s in fact a wry comment on alienation and social disconnect. An anthem for the true fringe-dwellers.
9. Lifetones – “Good Side”
Although he remained prolific as a producer and session musician, This Heat’s Charles Bullen didn’t produce much work as a leader in the early 80s. The exception is his Lifetones EP. Clearly influenced by the dub culture that worked its way into the psyche of many a young Brit back in the day, his work here is an absolute ray of light. This track is particularly great for its guitar work, coming across like Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’ planted in a pop context. Outstanding.
10. The Lo Yo Yo – “Learning to Fly”
Named after a Beefheart song (always a good idea), this Cold Storage supergroup was driven by the rhythm section of Alig from Family Fodder on bass and drummer Carrie Brooks, but also featured Mick Hobbs, Rick Wilson and was co-produced by Mr. Bullen. The real magic, though, is with Annie Hunt’s dreamy vocals. Unfortunately with only two hard-to-find cassettes and one record, their discography is thin. This little pop gem is from their only LP, Extra Weapons.
11. The Work – “Cain & Abel”
The quartet of Tim Hodgkinson, Bill Gilonis, Mick Hobbs and drummer Rick Wilson created some of the most challenging rock music of the last 35 years. If you’re a fan of This Heat or the Pop Group and haven’t heard these guys, you best get your act together. Drawing from the raw energy of punk and free jazz, their songs were often built around the blistering tribal drumming of Rick Wilson, with arrangements that constantly sound like they’re on the verge of exploding; pin-tight interplay was always left with ample room for improvisation. Take all of that, dub it out and you have their first album, Slow Crimes. Get it.
12. Amos & Sara – “My Pal the Crook”
Amos aka L. Voag’s twisted take on pop music has permeated recordings by his seminal band, The Homosexuals, as well as various off-shoots, including Milk from Cheltenham, Amos & Crew and Amos & Sara. He also did a stint touring with The Work and is heard on their Live in Japan LP. This track’s from the Sara Goes Pop 2×7″, one of the true gems of his extensive catalog. Somebody reissue it already. Sheesh.
13. Red Balune – “Capitalist Kid”
With two 7″ers to their name, Red Balune was by far the most “prolific” of the MCCB groups led by Geoff Leigh, and sometimes included other Henry Cow members as well as Mark Hollander from Aksak Maboul. Their second release, of which this is the title track, was reportedly recorded as a joke during sessions for an LP that never materialized. Completely twisted, this little slab of acid-punk makes the Butthole Surfers sound like Herman’s Hermits. And to think the B-side’s even crazier!
14. The Lowest Note – “Lambeth Salt”
Primarily the work of Billy Rebel and Andy Bole, the recordings made by the Lowest Note also feature a cast including most of the members of the Work, Catherine Jauniaux, Alig from Family Fodder and Trefor Goronwy from Camberwell Now and late-era This Heat. Recorded at Cold Storage, this track is the B-side to the Piggy Bank single on Woof. Dig Rick Wilson’s drumming on the first half!
15. Catherine Jauniaux – “Une escadrille de sorcières”
Anytime I see Catherine Jauniaux’s name in the credits, I know I’m in for a treat. She is hands down the best female vocalist working in avant-garde music. Her voice has graced many recordings by bands such as The Work, Aksak Maboul, and The Lowest Note; more recently she has collaborated with Ikue Mori. This track is from her sole solo outing, Fluvial, ‘from 1983. Recorded at Cold Storage by Tim Hodgkinson with a cast of heavy friends including members of the Work, This Heat and percussionist Mario Boyer, she goes all out with arrangements that range from feral classical to world to full on abrasive art-rock permeated with layers of her distinct voice making all manner of weird sounds.
16. Geoff Leigh – “Psychotropic Ganglions”
Leigh definitely had his wits about him on this odd little nugget is from his solo EP, The Chemical Bank, overdubbed in a 16 track studio. To me this stands as a mission statement for the entire MCCB catalog. All of the elements are here: the wicked horns, the warped electronics, the killer rhythm tracks and of course the lyrics, ever-humorous without losing their edge. Always above and beyond, it’s hard to forget his music once you’ve heard it.
17. Hermine – “Born a Woman”
In addition to music, Hermine Demoriane’s storied career also included writing, acting, and tightrope walking, sometimes performing her acrobatic feats with pre-Throbbing Gristle performance troupe COUM Transmissions. After a brief stint working with members of the Damned, she connected with producer David Cunningham and released her first single, Torture, on her own Salomé Discs in 1980. Sounding somewhat like a new wave Nico, this track is from the 1981 reissue of said single on Human Records and features The People in Control (Charles Bullen along with members of Family Fodder; check out their single on Crammed.)
18. Tim Hodgkinson/Bill Gilonis – “Night by the Sea”
Prior to forming The Work, these two released an EP titled I Do – I Do – I Don’t – I Don’t, a set of forward-thinking home recordings that at times sound somewhat like the Residents’ evil twin, though their twisted compositions are uniquely their own. I can’t think of anything else that quite sounds like this record. This track is the most straightforward of the bunch.
19. The Raincoats – “Baby Song”
Why include a group who has already received plenty of coverage over the years? Well, besides the fact that they just plain rule, I wanted them to be heard in the context of this article. Their second album, Odyshape, was not only written and recorded at Cold Storage, their rehearsal space at the time, and had both Charles Hayward and Robert Wyatt guesting on drums, it also posesses a spiritual quality only surpassed by Flaming Tunes. They were never this good before or since.
20. Flaming Tunes – “Golden Age”
Gareth Williams’ sole output after This Heat was his incredible collaboration with friend Mary Currie, dubbed Flaming Tunes. Conceived over a series of letters while Williams was spending time in India, the resulting album, originally issued as a self-released cassette and commercially unavailable for years, radiates with positivity and mystical beauty. Traces of his old group can still be detected; however, this is something all its own. This track is one of my favorites. Besides the fantastic vocals, its layers of percussion almost call to mind some of Angus Maclise’s work coupled with a fantastic repeating guitar figure by Charles Bullen.