Wednesday, August 1, 2012

STRANGE PASSION – Explorations in Irish post punk, DIY and electronic music 1980-83 (CacheCache / Finders Keepers Records 2012)


About 4 years ago, a certain rabid and dedicated blogger compiled 7 volumes of a very excellent bootleg series called Synthesizers Rules 1978-1983 ( cough! ) collating a diaspora of proto electronic singles, starting with widely known releases and becoming steadily more obscure as the series went on. The later volumes were region specific, including French and German compilations, and if there were anything that could call itself the Irish equivalent, then STRANGE PASSION makes a very good case for itself (although electronic music is only a portion of what’s here). This is an era that has generated increased interest over the past 2-3 years and while there’s no doubt that inventive noise suffered domestically as a result of emigration, isolation and general poverty, the slug-trails of punk, new wave, power pop and electronic music did manage to leave at least a handful of oddities which have weathered well. Somewhat insipidly, the sounds of the era are often referred to as post-punk as if it were a well-rounded genre. Later into the 80s this nasty habit would also befall the word “indie”, but much like the bands/entities on this compilation, there is no real common gene except for their existence in the same period. STRANGE PASSION simply looks at a space in time where music had changed considerably and many new possibilities were now presented to those whose creativity largely outweighed their musical literacy.

Bangor’s DOGMATIC ELEMENT encapsulated a prevailing sound at the dawn of the 1980s: a creative period after the second wave of punk bands (including a very strong climate in Northern Ireland) acted as ambassadors for a low fidelity, self-driven direction of music. JUST FRIENDS featured all the components of what would drive independent guitar music throughout the 1980s, including strong basic hooks and distinctive vocals but like so many others at the time, the band failed to capitalize in any significant way.
THE THREAT’s HIGH COST OF LIVING is probably one of the more celebrated articles of the era, remembered fondly for its influence and innovation beyond the drudgery of amateur punk. In a legacy of one standalone 7” and a haze of urban mythology, the sonic palette encapsulated the seeds of sophomore Wire and PiL (The story of THE THREAT is covered in detail by the Wretch HERE).
CHANT! CHANT! CHANT!, spawned from a fracture in a line-up of THE THREAT and were distinctive for inventive bass playing and a killer pudding-bowl fringe. PLAY SAFE from their solitary 7” is overstated in duration by about a minute and the flipside, QUICKSAND, was an altogether superior piece of indigenous guitar abrasion.
The VIRGIN PRUNES debut, TWENTY TENS, is the first of a glorious run of incredible records that capture a unique and brute primitivism. In this country, history often maligns the Virgin Prunes because of their associations (elsewhere, they seem to get their deserved recognition), but while the core line-up remained intact, their recorded output was off the map in all sorts of wonderful ways.
Under the name OPERATING THEATRE, Roger Doyle created one of the great Irish albums of the 70’s in the mesmerizing RAPID EYE MOVEMENTS, a Musique Concrète masterwork on Steven Stapleton’s United Dairies label, so I was curiously disappointed to uncover a mildewed copy of the AUSTRIAN single some time in the mid 1990s only to find that the next logical step was a ghastly commercial trajectory. Utterly indecisive as to what it was supposed to be, it belies the focus of almost everything else Roger Doyle has done. Clearly, an academically informed musician would be the first to fail in a climate where rank amateurs were succeeding and this was not to be Mr. Doyle’s destiny. He sensibly returned to leftfield composition and has been incredibly productive ever since (Interestingly, RAPID EYE MOVEMENTS was reissued on CD as Roger Doyle, not Operating Theatre).
After the demise of THE THREAT, STANO’s first single ROOM/TOWN (issued by Vox magazine) combined a wide range of experimental elements with all the idiosyncrasy of a bedroom recording background. While ROOM struck out a somber electronic rhythm and an insular mesh of piano chords, the track featured here, TOWN, devised a discordant funk that still sounds alien to any time period in music... no easy feat! STANO’s adventures in sound continue steadily to this day.
The PERIDOTS, one of the more enigmatic entities out of Dublin in the early part of the decade, experimented in primal bubbling synths, acoustic instruments and dark brooding lyrics (a formula later perfected by the likes of the LEGENDARY PINK DOTS). Their official output was limited to a 7” and a compilation cut - NO WATER appears to be an unreleased track and I’m aware of one other recording, SO MANY ANGELS, which makes curious as to what else might be there. As a product of the infancy of amateur synth music, The PERIDOTS sound is very much of its place in time but this addition to their tiny oeuvre is fascinating.
ALWAYS IN DANGER by Dundalk band CHOICE is the sort of minimal synth pop that would have clocked up mileage had the band started in a major city in England. It has the root elements of what might have been nurtured into something viable for an early 80’s chart band.
LAST DAYS by the economically and somewhat studiously entitled PH was product of post PERIDOTS recordings by Peter Hamilton. Never released, it’s the sort of willfully morose underground synth pop that sounded great for a brief moment in time before it’s very essence demanded progression and a choice between the sparkle of the Gallup top 20 or the purgatory of mid 80’s Goth.
A product of distant shores, AVENUE B was an accidental downtown Manhattan club hit for Wexford ex-pats MAJOR THINKERS. It’s a ramshackle and irritatingly intoxicating piece of what can best be described as mutant disco (possibly Ireland’s only contribution to the genre?).
SM CORPORATION was the end result of a succession of synth groups led by ex-Radiator Steve Averill. According to the album’s sleeve notes, ACCENTUATE was originally composed as an ad jingle for a clothing store in Switzer’s. The SM CORPORATION moniker itself suggests deliberate sonic multi-tasking and while pandering to aspects of commerciality might have been viewed as crass at the time, it would now simply be accepted as “library of sound” (I’ve no doubt that at some point in the not too distant past, the notion of Daphne Oram’s BBC Radiophonic Workshop experiments being packaged as a standalone listen was inconceivable - a Jingle for a store in Switzer’s is kind of the Craggy Island version of this!). The second SM CORPORATION track, FIRE FROM ABOVE is an early version of a track that later received an official release on a Comet compilation. This is a definite shot at creating something similar to successful early Mute synthpop and has a confidence and charm to it even without the obvious wizardry and budget of Vince Clarke. Sleeve notes state that unreleased recordings are considerable.
TRIPPER HUMANE’s DISCOLAND, a cassette release sold by it’s creator to school friends in 1981, is an exercise in outsider art with a calamitous mix of domestic percussion, meandering timing and cassette production. This is an excellent indication of the sort of results that could be obtained in synth music at entry level and is definitely worth a study for the solo segment alone (although it’s somewhat of a relief that TRIPPER HUMANE is limited to one track – the novelty would simply become irritation otherwise).
A final track from OPERATING THEATRE, EIGHTIES RAMPWALK, sees Roger Doyle fare much better than his pop attempt. This subdued instrumental passage from a Fanning session in 1981 glistens with an ambient professionalism suggesting that, while he’s undoubtedly the most important figure in Irish electronic sound, he’s possibly the most out of place here.

As I obtained some of these artifacts through record shop excavations 15-20 years ago, this era of Irish music will always remind me of grimy crate digging hands. It’s only when they’ve been digitized and collated in this fashion does the aged film of dirt lift to reveal elements of greater substance that may otherwise have been obscured by mildewed (or missing) picture sleeves, or the snap, crackle and pop of vinyl records that were handled in a faddish manner by their original owners. Given the scope of this compilation, I was hoping that it would include the greatest of all synth driven artifacts from this country, the oddball genius of MAX VON RAP’s I WISH I HAD A KAWASAKI (for another day and another compilation perhaps?). That aside, there’s much to absorb from these recordings and their corresponding sleeve notes and STRANGE PASSION succeeds as a captivating exercise in the presentation of raw inspiration from it’s chosen place in time. - BOZ


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