AS MUCH as I loved fast and furious bands like Antisect, Amebix and Discharge, who operated at the heavier, more raucous end of anarcho punk, there was also a place within my heart for the bands who took a stealthier approach, who sang rather than shouted, who took their time with what they wanted to say and employed a number of chord changes, hell, sometimes even actual melodies to say it.
Foremost among them were The Mob and Zounds – and the Poison Girls of course, but we’ll have to save them for another time – who always seemed to be linked in my mind, not least because they toured together a lot and shared a drummer for a while. And the two bands also seemed to share a style of approach which often seemed completely at odds with many other bands who released music on Crass Records – not least Crass themselves.
Both the Mob and Zounds employed humour, subtlety and experimentation where others were content to focus on shouting, profanity and buzz-saw guitars – not that there’s anything wrong with shouting, profanity and buzz-saw guitars you understand, but everyone needs a bit of light and shade sometimes, don’t they? Some respite from the anger and hatred, a break from the big ideas? I was very grateful they were around.
They didn’t parrot the by-the-numbers sloganeering endemic in much of the scene, and instead talked about people rather than problems, the personal rather than the overtly political. It was a very different way of working and one that was about setting a mood and creating an atmosphere as much as telling you what was what in the world.
In contrast with the black and white, one-side-or-the-other certainties of Crass and many of the bands on their label, Zounds and the Mob didn’t claim to know all the answers, or indeed any of the answers. They probably weren’t even sure about the question.
Of course, lest we forget, it is entirely to the Elders of Epping’s credit that they were able to accommodate such a diversity of talent within the label while still presenting it all within an instantly recognisable, all-encompassing ‘corporate’ identity.
Although having said that, it’s probably worth pointing out that Penny Rimbaud insisted that the band employ a session drummer for the recording of Can’t Cheat Karma as Josef Porta’s skills were, apparently, simply not up to the job at the time. The affable ferroequinologist and singing drummer now says of the episode: “It’s one less gruesome skeleton in my cupboard.”
Either Doug or Paul would’ve have played me Can’t Cheat Karma first and I probably would’ve rushed back to the sophisticated environs of Singer’s All Tomorrow’s Parties record shop in Scunthorpe to buy it the next weekend. But it’s a measure of how terminally uncool I was that I bought The Curse Of Zounds just before Let The Tribe Increase was released, despite the former having been out for more than a year before the latter. What was I thinking of?
I have a vague impression of first hearing it in the heat of mid-summer accompanied by a lot of steamy and athletic afternoon-sex with the delightful Stephanie – and not much else. It’s all a bit of a blur. But I do know I liked the melodic, thoughtful punk rock of The Curse Of Zounds an awful lot.
As it happens, I bought both The Curse Of Zounds and Let The Tribe Increase again recently, but I got the Zounds album first so I’ll also keep my muddled thoughts about the Mob album for another time.
What would eventually become the band known as Zounds began its life in a series of loose, improvised jam sessions in bassist Steve Lake’s hometown of Reading in 1977. As much influenced by the Beatles, the Byrds and the Beach Boys as they were Can, the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention, following a move to Oxford, Lake and his friends began to pick up on the music of people like the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith and ATV, the Fall, Television and Patrick Fitzgerald.
As Lake (pictured) told the late Maximum Rock‘n’Roll writer Lance Hahn in 1998: “I wanted to be a hippy but I was too young so when punk came along it just fitted in with our bohemian, anti-establishment view. I hitchhiked 300 miles to buy Anarchy In The UK the day it was banned and withdrawn by EMI.”
It was around this time that the band’s first guitarist Steve Burch came across the shortened form of the Shakespearean oath God’s Wounds in a dictionary – meaning the band’s name should actually be pronounced Zoonds. Life in Oxford seems to have been a very sedentary affair, revolving around smoking a lot of pot, taking a fair bit of acid and sitting about making music – as well as reading dictionaries just for the hell of it.
“We were complete outsiders,” Lake told Hahn. “I don’t mean in the sense of some Hollywood rock‘n’roll leather jacket version of outsider. More in the sense that we had become social cripples, barely able to function and interact with anyone outside of our particular bohemian cesspit.”
After a gig supporting Aussie Gong freakozoid Daevid Allen, Zounds somehow managed to get it together – between themselves, the Mob and the Astronauts – to follow the lead of such counterculture heroes as Here & Now by organising the Weird Tales free tours.
Lake remembers that everywhere they went around the country, people would mention another touring band they really should meet. They would definitely get along. They lived near Epping Forest and they called themselves Crass.
“So we were playing near their house and we thought we would just visit them,” Lake told Hahn. “But our bus broke down and we walked to their house across this weird submarine tracking station and they entertained us. We got on like a church on fire and they came and fixed our bus. They liked us, though I think they saw us as quite naive, naughty children who had their hearts in the right place.”
Zounds, now a trio made up of Lake, Porta and guitarist Laurence Wood, released the magnificent Can’t Cheat Karma, backed by War and Subvert, on Crass Records in 1980, but soon fell foul of the Crass organisation’s refusal to work with anyone for more than one single release, forcing them to seek the help of Geoff Travis at Rough Trade.
“We went there out of desperation,” Lake explained to Mick Sinclair in a Sounds interview in 1981. “Crass have a policy of only bringing out one record by a particular band and we had no money to release anything ourselves. We went to Rough Trade for advice. They liked what we were doing and suggested doing some records with them.”
The Curse of Zounds was the first result of this relationship with Rough Trade.
“We wanted it to be cohesive,” Lake told Hahn. “We tried recording it in the order we wanted the tracks to appear, which is what happened with one or two slight changes. It had to start with Fear as it set the whole context for the rest of the album .. it is the worldview of someone blighted by paranoia .. the songs are very from the perspective of someone scared shitless by everything.”
Despite the easy-on-the-ear melodies, the verse-chorus-verse song structures, the happy-go-lucky harmonies, The Curse Of Zounds is a dark and rather edgy, even paranoid record. All those drugs have got to come back and bite you in the arse sometime, I suppose, haven’t they?
“Well, paranoid is definitely a word that rings true with me,” said Lake back in 1998. “I think I have always been a paranoid person – and I don’t mean that metaphorically. I think I really do have clinical paranoia.
“For example I never fly – which means I will probably never return to the USA even though most of my family live there. I almost always avoid going in lifts, I hate the underground .. I have always been terribly fearful of the police, though I have never really been involved in anything illegal.
“I am also something of a hypochondriac and worry like mad when my kids come home late. So in many ways it is no wonder that this tends to surface in my music.”
Right from the off, where the unsettling nursery rhyme of Fear’s introduction gives way to an eminently hummable list of things that Lake is freaked out by (“I’m frightened of the humans, frightened of their stares, frightened of the poisons they pump into the air, frightened of the chemicals they spray upon the land ..” he wails), the album is all about how people relate to each other in a climate of fear, “which keeps us all apart.”
This is followed by the mournful Did He Jump? which makes the themes of alienation and despair even more apparent:
“Who was that on the window ledge? Did he jump or was he pushed? He left a note which no one read, in desperate hand the note just said, Never turned my back on society, society turned its back on me. Never tried once to drop out, I just couldn’t get in from the very start ..”
The album continues in much the same vein, always looking at the reality of any given situation through the eyes of ordinary people like me and you.
According to Lake, “In something like This Land I try to take the narrative from the big global issues of ecology, pollution and environmental breakdown to the very personal, microcosmic, local world of the streets in which we walk and live.
“My Mummy’s Gone is similar in that it is about the anguish and fiction of monogamous, nuclear family life expressed through a very personal experience.
“Target wasn’t just a tirade against nuclear war, but about the effect of the nuclear build up on people who had to live near the bases. It was a very significant feature of Zounds songs that the so-called political issues and social landscape was always related to the everyday ways in which we lived.
“I think that’s the attraction for many people of Zounds, that it is not just sloganeering, but is born out of the frustration and powerlessness we actually felt – and still feel – everyday, and how that affects our personal behaviour and personal relationships.
“I love the songs of Woody Guthrie for much the same reason.”
Lake’s ultra-personal approach to political issues is perhaps best heard on the hilarious Dirty Squatters, where one unenlightened inner-city tenant is horrified to find squatters (“with their non-sexist haircuts and their dirty feet ..”) moving into his street before he realises, appalled: “Oh my God! They’re moving in next door!”
But, with the rising cost of living, worse is to come for our unlucky hero: “Oh my God!” he finally admits. “I’m moving in next door!”
The album came in a gatefold sleeve which gave the best possible showcase for a rare colour image by veteran anarchist illustrator Clifford Harper.
One of the founders of the celebrated Eel Pie Island commune in the late Sixties, Harper – who usually produces instantly recognisable monochrome woodcuts – began to work as an illustrator for the radical movement in the Seventies. For The Curse Of Zounds, he reworked an image he’d originally put together for Anarchist magazine’s cover in support of striking fire-fighters. It’s certainly a striking image, that’s for sure.
Although he’s not been in the best of health of late, Harper still does a lot of radical movement work to this day, subsidised by, you’d imagine, the more lucrative commissions which are often seen in the pages of The Guardian and The Radio Times. More info here.
I was always gutted that I never got to see Zounds live but I think they were on their last legs as a band just as I really got into them. I recall two or three people mentioning that they’d actually played their last gig in Scunthorpe, which I’d always assumed was something to do with their mates the Instant Automatons, or maybe even Theatre of Hate, who they also toured with and who also played in the town – if it ever actually happened at all.
I asked Steve Lake about Zounds playing in Scunthorpe and he told me, “unfortunately not”.
Not even with Theatre of Hate?
“I am sure it wasn’t with ‘the Hate’ because we did three gigs with them before we walked off the tour: Gillingham, where they belied their anti-drug stance by spending the whole night hassling Zounds’ personal dope dealer, Southampton, where they got annoyed because Zounds went down really well and they didn’t, and Nottingham, where they refused to let us use the PA and then told us we owed them money for using it the previous nights,” he says.
“They were very unpleasant people who felt they should be treated like stars, even though they lacked the qualities needed – ie talent, charisma, originality, ideas ..”
Probably between Giros in 1988/89, I flogged The Curse Of Zounds for fuck all, most likely so I could afford to go out dancing while Paul Oakenfold played records at Leeds Polytechnic. It’s a bit tragic, but it’s probably not so very far from the truth, unfortunately. Honestly, it was like Year Zero for guitars. Brutal.
But while Zounds dropped off my cultural radar for years and years, other people didn’t forget them so easily.
I don’t know too much about Lush. I remember being pleasantly surprised by the porn in Miki Biryeni and Emma Forbes’s fanzine, Alphabet Soup. And I remember seeing them, the Pale Saints and the Boo Radleys at the Warehouse in Leeds and thinking it was the loudest gig I’d ever heard (and I’ve heard a few loud gigs over the years). Pardon?
But other than that, they’re a big blank. Fortunately, my man Trunt is a bit more on the ball and he clued me up to the cover of Demystification that Lush put together for a B-side in the early Nineties. Trunt’s friend Chris Ackland, the band’s late drummer, was part of the Cumbrian punk scene of the early Eighties, and it’s likely the cover was his idea. I like it.
I picked up a new copy of The Curse Of Zounds, a Rugger Bugger re-issue (put out by the behemoth once known as Sean from Wot), at Vinyl Revival in town the other week. Eight quid, thanks very much.
It nicely bookends the original album release, more or less chronologically, with tracks from their Crass, Rough Trade and Not So Brave singles. While it might screw up the band’s carefully planned track sequence, handily it also means that you can get pretty much the whole of Zounds’ recorded output in one fell swoop.
Rather perversely, now it’s a double album, the original gatefold has been replaced by a single sleeve, reducing the impact of Clifford Harper’s cover image somewhat – but I guess these things cost money.
Steve Lake, who has a new band by the name of the Evil Presleys and still does occasional Zounds gigs, will admit that The Curse Of Zounds still has “a certain naïve charm”, but you sense he’d much rather be talking about what he’s doing now.
The album has aged perhaps surprisingly well, especially compared to the debut albums of many of Zounds’ contemporaries, and Lake’s wry and very personal take on Britain in the early Eighties still has a degree of resonance. The almost-funk of Can’t Cheat Karma, the anthemic This Land, the strange Kurt Weil synthesiser business of Dancing (mixed by Mikey Dread, no less) still work, musically, as well as they ever did.
We’re still “dancing, girls and boys dancing, making that noise ..”
Some of us are still not looking for escapism, we “just wanna escape.”
And a few of us are even “working for revolution in our place of employment” and throwing the odd spanner in the works.
[Those Kill Your Pet Puppy types have just uploaded the full original version of The Curse Of Zounds, accompanied by the full text of Lance Hahn’s interview with Steve Lake. And many thanks to Trunt for the Lush track.]