I KNOW for a fact that Doug only started talking to me because I wore a White Riot T-shirt at sixth form. He’s told me often enough. And as he will also no doubt tell you given half the chance – like it’s somehow an issue – I was actually more into reggae at the time.
We’ve been bickering about my fake punk credentials ever since. You’ll find that Doug crops up in a fair few Hip Replacement pieces, one way or another. On balance, he probably has a few more embarrassing stories about me than I do him – but not that many more.
Despite his often lamentable taste in music, extraordinary clumsiness, excessive flatulence and outlandish dress sense he is a top bloke. Generous, reliable, as dry as fuck and – although he’s always been a good deal more sensible than me – as daft as a brush. Well, he was daft as a brush once. Having children often makes you a good deal less daft and it seems to have done the trick for Doug. He’s still a bit daft though.
Together with Rachel, Garbage, Andy and Paul, we used to go to a lot of gigs in exotic Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Retford, as well as Steve Bird’s discos in town, various boozers in the village, John’s mum and dad’s flat above the Post Office – anywhere there was loud music and alcohol really.
Doug eventually moved over to Leeds for university, although he came back for a memorable gig with the first chaotic incarnation of my own art/noise-shite project the Shreddies at the Rock Open. He managed to get over the shame by placing an advert in Jumbo Records in the Merrion Centre looking for people into bands like Sonic Youth, Big Black and That Petrol Emotion.
His advert was answered by an impossibly tall bass player from Middlesborough via Edinburgh named Mark. Having bonded with Doug through a shared love of agit-punk, dub and Rudimentary Peni, Mark brought in his equally impossibly tall brother Ste to play drums and hey presto! The finest band you’ve never heard of was born.
They called themselves Nerve Rack (I never really liked the name myself) and their first gig was a 120-band all-dayer at Leeds University in spring of 1988.
Mark, who worked at Waterstones, had previously played in Goodbye Mr Mackenzie with Shirley Manson and was a big Fall fan with an enviable On-U Sounds collection, as well as an appreciation of anarcho-punk and the Blast First roster. Ste was signing on, playing with the “frightfully” named (according to John Peel) Lemon Ice Cream and listening to your bog-standard Eighties indie music as well as a bit of hip-hop and funk. He was like a human drum machine.
Doug worked in the RSPCA’s kennels at the time and was big into all the original punk and new wave stuff, as well as anarcho punk, and bands like the Gang of Four, Killing Joke and Husker Du. What he might have initially lacked in technique as a guitarist, he more than made up for in fuzz pedal, distortion and volume.
Considering they were such a mild-mannered bunch, Nerve Rack grew into an incredibly ferocious live band with an urgent and enormous yet precise and controlled sound. A few months down the line, however, their first demo tape revealed they also had an arty, cerebral, intellectual dimension which avoided simple sloganeering and avoided it in a consistently challenging and thought-provoking and often genuinely amusing way.
Despite the concerns of anarcho-punk becoming less and less of an issue and even a bit unfashionable in the scenes we frequented, Nerve Rack’s debut album Gnaw, recorded for Ian Armstrong’s Darlington-based Meantime label, tackled many familiar topics – machismo, the fur trade, eating meat, social conditioning – but their lyrical subtleties were head and shoulders above most Crass bands and their contemporaries alike.
And they also sang about bald men who set the pace, “Plagued by insecurity .. spreading rumours about virility”.
The self-styled trio of Doug Malatesta, Marc de Bord and Steve Laurel (pictured) accompanied this with music that was as often raucous and stupid and noisy as it was intricate, experimental and clever. It was a fucking brilliant combination really, absolutely inspired (although it isn’t a million miles away from the modus operandi of the Fall). And if Nerve Rack occasionally sounded like their influences, they more often sounded like no one else at all.
Among Gnaw’s many highlights are an indignant Fur Cough (“Shamelessly shimmering in the fur .. cultivate an appetitite for something absurd ..”), the slamming Abrasive Material, which, musically at least, bears more than a passing resemblance to some of Rudimentary Peni’s early work, and the hypnotic Miracle Of Dead Baby, which dials down the mayhem somewhat for a sparser, more restrained sound.
I used to be vaguely concerned that Mudhead, with its protagonist’s “useless, empty head” might actually be about me but on reflection, it’s probably not – it turns out it’s not always about me – although if anyone can be said to have had a muddy head during these times, it was me.
And so what if Blood Beats sounds, in part, very similar to Sister/Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth? It sounded great then and it still sounds pretty cool now. Ditto the knockabout punk rock stylings of Kick Mother and the album’s closing broadside Through Light To Dark.
Even though I was beginning to get more and more into the dancing music and less and less into noisy guitar stuff, I could never really understand why Nerve Rack weren’t more successful. I guess that the musical tastes of the rest of the world had moved on too.
Live, they were as tight as a gnat’s chuff and easily held their own on bills with bands like Slum Turkeys, Thrilled Skinny and Crow People. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, I got the impression that a lot of the stuff they were talking about just went right over the top of the average audience member’s head and I don’t suppose that did them any favours with the record buying public.
By the time their second album Experiments With Facial Hair came out (again on Meantime), I’d moved into some hellish student house in Woodhouse and got into a nocturnal raving lifestyle that didn’t leave much room for noisy guitar rock, even if it was made by old friends. I’m not even sure I ever got a copy of the album.
Doug eventually gave me a copy of Experiments With Facial Hair at the same time as he gave me another copy of Gnaw last year. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t know them so well in the first place, but for me a lot of the songs just don’t work as well as those on the first album. The music seems a bit more intricate, a bit more mannered and not as gloriously raw or unpolished as on Gnaw, although with tracks like Neutral Heart, Flipper and Rottweillers it certainly has its moments.
In places it almost sounds like they’re nodding toward the repetitive beats of the dancing house music – and they have form on such things – but if I was talking about a band I didn’t know, I’d probably describe the album as a great EP in need of a judicious edit.
I’ve no idea where my copy of Gnaw went. I wouldn’t have sold it but it definitely went west at some point. These things happen. Correction, these things happen to me. A lot.
Mark and Ste went onto form crazed loungecore punk absurdists Rudolf Rocker (named after the German anarchist librarian of the same name) with keyboard player Jeremy Dyson. They ended up recording a couple of well-received albums, as well as Voodoo Lady, as played by Crème Brulee in the TV programme Dyson helps write for his day job, The League of Gentlemen.
Doug hasn’t done so much since Nerve Rack split in 1993, which is a crying shame I think. He played with Mark from Crow People as the Blind Fitters for a bit, and a couple of years back there was talk of him and Paul getting together under the inspired name of the Dirty French, but other than that, not much.
For my money, this is every bit as senseless as Santiago Durango or Keith Levine not regularly strangling guitars in front of people. He is the post-punk Syd Barrett, except his fingernails aren’t quite as long. And he’s not a milkman.
With all manner of tedious twats currently reforming their dreary Eighties groups, Nerve Rack are practically the one unreformed Eighties band that that I’d actually like to see get together again. Unfortunately, there’s not much chance of it ever happening.
I am seriously thinking about starting an online petition.
In the meantime, I’d suggest that lovers of noisy guitar rock should somehow track down a copy of their debut album. You will absolutely not regret it.
And like it says on the lyric sheet, play it loud or not at all.