PUBLIC IMAGE LTD’S early stuff wasn’t all about the bassline. It wasn’t 100% about Wobble’s bossy, insistent, unstoppable low-end throb. No. I believe the band had a singer, a guitarist and an occasional drummer too.
Let’s have it right though: from the outset, from the very first moment of their very first single, it was Wobble’s bass that defined, bullied, pushed and pulled PiL’s sound forward.
Don’t get me wrong. Lydon’s whiney and increasingly obtuse voice style and Levene’s insane guitar had their moments, obviously. Anyone who had a hand in First Issue or Metal Box deserves our gratitude and admiration. And, while PiL had some absolutely fantastic drummers, either Lydon or Levene, individually, would have totally dominated the sound in any other band.
But how can you compete with Wobble?
NEITHER fish nor fowl, single nor album, the Fall’s dinky 10-inch Slates is a little record that makes a big impression.
“I was looking through the import bins in Wax Trax in Chicago, and I found Slates,” said Brix Smith in an interview with Guitarist magazine. “I took it home and became obsessed. It was the most brilliant thing I ever heard. It was outrageous. Two weeks later they were playing Chicago at Cabaret Metro, so Lisa and I went along.
“Stephen Hanley was totally, totally hypnotic. I was scared of Mark E Smith. They played a lot from Slates. After the gig, Lisa took off with some boyfriend, leaving me at the bar on my own. Before I knew what was happening I was talking to Mark E Smith ..”
And we all know what happened after that.
Slates made a big impression on me too, although unlike Brix I didn’t end up marrying Mark E Smith. I have a vague recollection of buying it from some record fair some time later. But I’m not entirely sure that people like me and Brix were the target audience for Slates in any case.
“That’s what I was trying to do with Slates in England, you know, get across to people who have no music,” MES told an interviewer in New Zealand. “People who either haven’t been told about the music trappings and the rubbish that surrounds it or people who do know it and don’t like it.
“That’s why it was a 10-inch, neither single nor album. It’s very conceptual, do you understand? It’s like an attempt to get over to these thousands of working class or middle class people, whatever, in England who don’t listen to records anymore, who don’t buy records .. I’d be one of them if I wasn’t in a group, I know that.
THESE days, buying records, actual vinyl, from Boots the well-known High Street chemist and purveyor of beauty products probably seems about as likely as the idea of buying, say, a vibrating cock-ring from Boots would have seemed 30 years ago.
But, of course, thanks to the unending onward and upward trajectory of civilisation, you can now buy vibrating cock-rings in Boots. Terrific. I’m glad. I am genuinely pleased that cock-ring enthusiasts are now catered for. I’m just disappointed that you can’t buy vinyl there anymore.
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.
IN MANY ways, being able to get into the football club discos and pigeon fanciers dinner-dances which were held at the village community hall was merely a fringe-benefit of getting served in the White Lion.
I must’ve been about 14 when me and Sally from down the road – blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful, blessed at an early age with a mesmerising, gravity-defying bosom, and utterly oblivious to my hopeless, clod-hopping adoration – summoned up all the courage we could muster, took off our school ties and went into the White Lion to buy advance tickets for some do at the community hall one dinnertime.
It was obvious that Sandra behind the bar would’ve been as happy to sell us booze as she was tickets. We had to get back to school but I promised myself I’d return to try my luck the following weekend.
Unfortunately, getting the tickets for the do didn’t really get me any further with the hypnotically unattainable Sally, although it did teach me a couple of lessons which would prove to be invaluable in later life – when it comes to illicit fun after dark, you have to brazen it out and look the part, even if you’re not. And while girls are often quite impressed if you can get them into night clubs, they’re not that impressed.
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, Crass released an album called Penis Envy, but you wouldn’t know it.
There will be no ill-informed tributes in the New Musical Express, no fawning retrospective on The South Bank Show and no self-satisfied, smug eulogy in The Observer Music Magazine.
Too young, stupid or docile to get Crass the first time around, our media friends prefer to stick to the easy stuff: Sgt Pepper, Smile, London Calling, anything by Nick fucking Drake.
There’ll be no remix albums, and you will search in vain for deluxe box sets, live DVDs, or tickets for a 25th anniversary tour. And while we should be thankful that this particular revolution will still not be televised – even 25 years after the event – it would be a shame if Penis Envy’s silver jubilee were to pass by completely unnoticed.