The post-punk era saw new artists emerge all over Britain, inspired by the DIY ethos and attitude of punk. Having missed the boat as far as rudimentary three-chord guitar rock was concerned, they embraced other influences – dance, dub, jazz, avant-garde etc. – and created sub-genres which would set the template for much of the alternative music scene for decades to come.
Two newly released collections document the early days of two of these sub-genres. Close To The Noise Floor showcases the pioneers of underground electronica in the late-70s and early-80s, while Another Splash Of Colour covers neo-psychedelia from 1980 to 1985.
In the sleeve notes of Close To The Noise Floor, journalist Dave Henderson, who covered the ‘miniscule phenomenon’ of the early electronic music scene describes it as ‘a decidedly awkward generation’ who were ‘too lacking in confidence to get on stage and play three chords, but they can sit in their bedrooms brooding’. And while they sat in their bedrooms brooding, they fiddled with rudimentary synthesisers, two-tracks, drum machines and samplers and created weird, futuristic music which they released themselves, on a minimal scale.
Opening track Computer Bank by Five Times Of Dust is a good example of this introverted approach. It was made using a cheap analogue drum machine, reel-to-reel tapes, manipulated vocals, an entry-level Casio keyboard and a stylophone by two amateur musicians who collaborated by post. Both collaborators then distributed the results on their own, cassette-only labels; producing about 100 copies in total. Despite its weird inception, obscurity and the decades-old technology used, the funky Computer Bank and the duo’s other contribution to this collection, The Single Off The Album still stand up to repeated listening, for their unique structure, inventive sound and retro appeal.
Colin Potter’s catchy, robotic reggae track I Am Your Shadow is another example of the DIY ethic at work. Trying to emulate multi-track studio recording using domestic technology meant improvising, experimenting and using the equipment to its maximum potential. Potter credits punk and new wave with redefining what was ‘acceptable as music’ and how it could be produced and disseminated. Instant Automatons were a bunch of teenagers using the resources of their Lincolnshire grammar school’s physics lab to produce ‘experimental soundscapes’ and ‘spaceship taking off rackets’. Their New Muzak is also quite tuneful and has a laid-back Fall feel to it.
Several of the more ambient tracks are reminiscent of soundtracks to sci-fi films – Zorch’s Adrenalin, Sea Of Tranquillity by Ron Berry, Embryo by Mark Shreeve and DC3’s Eco Beat among others – while the unsettling Fractured Smile by Inter City Static, with its dramatic and insistent Space Invaders beat, is more like the score to a video nasty.
Technology changes so quickly in electronic music and the available sounds can date horribly, so it’s easy to assume that the older music in the genre won’t have aged well at all. But because this music had no roots, it had no rulebook. There was no musical grammar at this stage of its development – no formula had been established – so listening to it now, you find yourself constantly surprised. Stopping And Starting by Voice of Authority is a fantastic early hip-hop influenced tune while the brilliant Optimum Chant by British Electric Foundation dates from 1979 but would sit comfortably on a present-day Aphex Twin album. Adrian Smith’s gothic Joe Goes To New York sounds like a Cure instrumental and British Standard Unit’s cover of D’ya Think I’m Sexy has a playful, Devo quality.
Not all the artists featured in Close To The Noise Floor stayed in their bedrooms. The Human League’s first single Being Boiled is included and, aside from the fact that they have a proper singer, it has more in common with the dark imagery and threatening sounds of their contemporaries than their later monster hit, Don’t You Want Me? The chorus also sounds a lot like Visage’s Fade To Grey, despite predating it by three years.
At a time when any Chuck with an iPad can knock up an album’s worth of EDM in an afternoon, it’s difficult to appreciate how much care, effort and imagination must have gone into the creation of the music collected together on the four discs of Close To The Noise Floor. And despite the technological limitations that the featured artists had to contend with, this collection is wonderfully disparate and consistently entertaining. A punk-inspired revolution was started in bedrooms in provincial towns and spread around the country by mail-ordered cassettes.
Meanwhile, in music venues and provincial clubs at the beginning of the ‘80s, some of the more extroverted children of punk – those who didn’t ‘lack the confidence to get up on stage’ – were also energised by the success of The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones, but embraced psychedelia in a way that those bands never would.
The new psychedelic scene that emerged as result was originally celebrated on the vinyl compilation, A Splash Of Colour in 1982. That compilation had never been released on CD until now, and Another Splash Of Colour expands it to 64 tracks in a three-disc set, providing a glimpse into a sub-genre that you may not have even realised existed.
All aspects of ‘60s psychedelia was referenced by these bands. The High Tide with Dancing In My Mind, The Earwigs with Keep Your Voice Down and The Prisoners with Strawberries Are Growing In My Garden (And It’s Wintertime) all have a hippie-ish vibe straight from Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco.
Few people embraced psychedelia and psychedelics more enthusiastically than Julian Cope. After the collapse of his briefly popular band The Teardrop Explodes in 1983 he continued his epic consumption of LSD and began a solo career which saw him frequently compared to Syd Barrett. The brilliant Sunspots from his classic second album Fried is included, and it’s clear from this that the Barrett associations were based on more than just excessive acid consumption; it falls somewhere between Barrett’s Octopus and I Am The Walrus, complete with brass section and flute solo. Early Pink Floyd and Syd Barret’s solo work were an clear influence on many of the acts in this collection, including on Knox (of The Vibrators) whose strangely glam-rock cover version of Barret’s Gigolo Aunt is on the first disc.
If, like me, you thought that the Hammond organ disappeared between The Doors and Inspiral Carpets you’ll be as surprised as I was to hear it appearing throughout this 80s collection. A Red Light For Greens by Deep Freeze Mice, Do I Have To Be Here by The Way Out, Slow Patience by The Attractions (without Elvis Costello) and Reaching My Head by The Prisoners, among others, all feature one.
Elsewhere the collection is filled with curiosities like the camp, gothic melodrama Brothel In Rosenstrasse by Michael Moorcock’s Deep Fix and the full on Zappa-style freak-out of Endless River by The Brainiac Five. Where Are You? by The Primevals sounds like an early grunge track, Wide Eyed And Electrick by Magic Mushroom Band is like Hawkwind crossed with X-Ray-Spex whilst Waltz Of The Fool by Le Mat is actually a waltz.
The new psychedelia scene was a small, technicolour haven in the drab, grey early-‘80s and Another Splash Of Colour gives a comprehensive feel of what it was like. It’s an entertaining trip back to an obscure sub-genre which might be the missing link between ‘60s subculture and classic indie.
Close To The Noise Floor and Another Splash Of Colour are out now on Cherry Red. Get your copies here