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Sunday, 8 June 2008

Written in granite: Hard Attack

I suppose most of the records we've looked at lately have been... well, perhaps more lyrical (in both senses) and, by the very nature of the project, there's been a certain English or at least British bias. So I think it's about time we redressed the balance a little bit and looked at something very, very different.

When people write histories of punk, post-punk, post-post-punk and all those other things with more post than Mount Pleasant sorting office in Islington where... but that's another story... When they write these histories the party line generally is that although the first British punk record was The Damned's New Rose and then things like the Pistols' Anarchy In The UK, the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP et al, there had been a few American records out which had already broken with the past to at least some extent. Although not necessarily in chronological order as I can't be arsed to look it up: the first Ramones album, obviously. Television's Little Johnny Jewel single, Patti Smith's first two albums, Pere Ubu's early singles, maybe the first Talking Heads single (although, like Television, the Heads were essentially pre-punk post-punk, if you catch my drift), then odd things like Richard Hell... and in Australia The Saints' phenomenal (I'm) Stranded... There are others, not that many, and most of them were essentially groups who liked The Stooges and the MC5 or had picked up on the New York Dolls. They were generally backward rather than forward-looking; they'd become sick of the excesses of the early to mid seventies and so they'd looked back to basic rock 'n' roll.

However one record almost always seems to get overlooked, even though it's actually the most extreme of the lot. Now don't get me wrong, I adore those early Ubu singles and they are utterly extraordinary. But MX-80 Sound's 1975 EP Big Hits in many way trumps them all. It's more extreme and, in a lot of ways, far more of a punk record. For a start there's the fact that this is a 7" EP containing seven songs and lasting for well under 14 minutes. Three of the seven songs are under well 2 minutes. The sound is dense, the vocals are sardonic in a way that would later become de rigueur... Like Ubu there's an obvious Beefheart influence and you can hear some early Mothers of Invention here too. The guitars and overall production are reminiscent of the Velvets' White Light/White Heat more than anything else.

After self-releasing Big Hits (yes, a 1975 independent EP), MX-80 found themselves courted by two major labels and coincidentally by two A&R men with the same surname, Thompson. One was Howard Thompson, at Island in the UK... This was back in the days when there were some A&R men who actually loved music and signed groups that excited them. How on earth either Thompson ever managed to convince anyone that MX-80 Sound might be the Next Big Thing back in 1976 is beyond me, but they both clearly did. We know all this because the story is recounted in Man On The Move, the opening track on the band's astonishing debut album, Hard Attack, released on Island in 1977. I must first have heard it a year or so later and even then it sounded far more extreme than almost anything I'd heard. However Hard Attack had an obviously problem in falling into an abyss between two stools: it was way too weird, uncommercial and downright unpleasant to appeal to conventional music fans but unfortunately punks were put off by the fact that these blokes could clearly play their instruments far too well. The sheer technical ability on display is breathtaking, not to mention sometimes rather insulting: the guitar lines played during verses are frequently of mind-bending complexity and then when the solo comes up you get something so dumb as to be practically a slap in the face. Not that there are a lot of solos. Oh, and did I mention that by the time of the album MX-80 had two drummers? And not Glitter Band-style, where both thump out the same pounding beat, no, this was jazz-style, where they play off one another. The other obvious influences in MX-80 are free jazz: there's certainly plenty of Ornette Coleman in there.

The album opens, as I say, with Man On The Move: "there's a Thompson in England and there's one in L.A./Both want more tapes but now who's gonna pay?" So yes, it pretty much explains how the music business works. The guitars are abrasive, the sound is murky, the beats off-kilter and God is it heavy. That's followed by Kid Stuff, all about an American pastime enjoying some vogue at the time, the kidnapping of heiresses. It stutters then twists and turns, the two drummers weaving in and out of one another's patterns and bits of organ stabbing away in the background. Side one is faultless, a personal favourite being Crushed Ice which is, ahem, about some of the more outrĂ© leisure possibilities afforded by household appliances. Side two is mainly slightly longer pieces, I'm particularly fond of Facts – Facts in which our protagonist finds himself stranded in a library with only the letter "L" for company, thus providing us with a great deal of fascinating information such as the fact that "lacrosse is the only truly American sport". Now I didn't know that – I'd've put the number of truly American sports somewhat lower. The whole album is... well, that word again, but there's no avoiding it: dense. I suppose in some ways this is slightly closer to the "post-punk jazz" stylings of later outfits such as the Lounge Lizards or James Chance, but it's so much heavier. The only things I've really heard since that are even faintly reminiscent are nineties metal – but this is way further out there than the Queens Of The Stone Age (as well as being 20 years earlier). Maybe MX-80 are heroes to those groups? If they're not then they certainly ought to be. That's the thing: hardly anyone seems to have even heard of MX-80. At the time there were a few of us who absolutely adored these records, but whereas with almost everything else we adored at the time, I've since met people from elsewhere in the country who go all misty-eyed over early Ubu (and Ubu's influence should never be underestimated: this was precisely where real punks looked once they got bored of people pretending that after playing the guitar every day for 6 months, with 50+ gigs behind them, they still only knew 3 chords), or who got into The Fall at the same time as I did – or earlier if they're from the North-West – then adored the Blue Orchids... They don't ever seem to know Hard Attack.

I don't know an awful lot about MX-80 Sound other than the records. I've got a 1990s CD which features all of Big Hits and Hard Attack plus an outtake from the latter. Then I've still got my vinyl, including a copy of their second album, Out Of The Tunnel which, logically enough, was released on the Residents' Ralph Records. It's also pretty damned good, although it's a little bit trebly and has lost some of that density. There was a third album, called Out Of Control, I think, and a live album recorded, appropriately enough, in a library.

I've just done a bit of googling and it would seem that I'm right. I've found a site here and apparently they're a going concern, variously described as "Art/Metal", "Avant rock" and various combinations of these terms. They're selling CD-Rs of the albums and I strongly recommend them. I must pick up the ones I don't have or only have on vinyl and I'll be fascinated to hear what they sound like now.

My research suggests that I'm right and that they've at least to some extent been adopted by the metallic fraternity. It's a funny thing; there used to be real friction between punks and heavy metal freaks... Not as much as between certain other groups, admittedly, but metal always seemed so closed to outside influences, so completely self-centred. Then gradually, over time, it's as though the roles became reversed. So-called punk turned into a self-parody (see above) and all the key people had moved on to pastures new – which was supposed to be the point, at least as I understood it. On the other hand metal seems to have broadened its horizons considerably over the years. Apart from obviously taking lots of punk on board (and musically the two are very close relatives), through grunge – essentially a hybrid – and on to the point where nowadays there are far more interesting things going on in the various genres including the word "metal" than in those including the word "punk". Of late I've been listening to so-called "post-metal" outfits such as Pelican and Isis – Pelican are an instrumental band, for goodness' sake, they're heavy but arty, Isis for me are at their best when they're doing this kind of thing, I'm less keen on the "Good evening everyone... Satan's the name and I've quite literally got a frog in my throat. Along with several larger reptiles and a stoat. Grrrrrrrr...." vocals that some of these groups occasionally indulge in. Then I've become very fond of some so-called "drone" rock, which is also rooted in metal... Now, though, many of these groups have clearly been as influenced by Joy Division as they have by Deep Purple. No, what am I saying? JD look to be a much bigger influence than DP. It does look and sound as though a lot of these groups have picked up on the MX-80 "roadblock of sound". I've just dug out a QOTSA album and guess what? It's not as dense, it's a lot more commercial, glossier production, the vocals aren't as sardonic, the lyrics nowhere near as off-beam, but it's got some MX-80 somewhere in its DNA. As has a lot of the harder end of modern rock.


 

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Hi,

My Uncle was one of the drummers for awhile.
He plays on the track that is featured on the BLOOMINGTON 1 sampler lp which predates the ep by about a year or so.

When I was about 14 or so I attended a band practice and read almost all of Hollywood Babylon at the same time. Changed my life.

Saw them perform a show in a basement that was completely wrapped up in tinfoil right before they relocated to S.F.

Rich Stim had a stack of flashcards on a TV tray and would introduce each song (there were many!) by showing the appropriate card.

Oh yea... THEY WERE LOUD!!!!!!!!

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