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V/A - Messthetics #108: South Coast DIY ‘77-81

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Artist: V/A

Album: Messthetics #108: South Coast DIY ‘77-81

Label: Hyped 2 Death

Review date: Jun. 9, 2011

This eighth entry in Chuck Warner’s series of regional post-punk compilations is, by all measures, even more DIY and obscure than its predecessors. Past collections, centered on London, Manchester, Glasgow, even Wales, each had a few bands (or, at least members of bands) who went on to greater recognition. The South Coast scene — comprised of bands from Portsmouth, Southampton, Brighton and Bournemouth — was almost entirely self-contained, playing in odd venues (grocery parking lots, beach sides, an abandoned air shelter) and documented mostly on local labels and compilations. A very few of them did Peel Sessions, a few more got radio play, but for the most part, the bands had almost no impact on popular (or even underground) culture. These bands, and in fact this entire scene, might as well have sunk into the sea. Even Warner, with his uncanny knack for finding members of long-forgotten bands, was unable to locate key people from The Church Daubers, The Media, Wrist Action and Fan Club (and as a result, though they are referenced in his extensive liner notes, no music represents them).

A complete lack of support — from the music press, labels, local institutions and damned near everyone else — enabled this South Coast scene to develop in distinctive ways. Women played a large part in many of these bands. A strong thread of pop melodicism ran through much of the music, juxtaposed with dark, even disturbing lyrical imagery. DIY to the point of amateurism was fetishized, to the point where one of the scene’s best loved bands, Mike Malignant and the Parasites, was unable to play its songs twice in the same way. The guitarist and bass players simply improvised, in bizarre, shapeless riffs that changed every time. (The drummer, just to mix things up, was technically very skilled and a bit of a child prodigy.) A common way of getting gigs was to jump on stage when another band was playing, grab their instruments and perform until a fight broke out.

Consider a description of The Vault, Brighton’s most important punk venue, from Richard Famous of The Poison Girls. “The Vault, as it became known, was disgusting! We were told it had not seen any use since the second world war, where it was used as an air raid shelter. There were certainly ‘Remember to Bring Your Gas Mask’ posters on the wall. There was rotting plasterboard covering headstones in the wall, and one chamber with human bones in it. There were no electrics to begin with, no toilets and one tiny entrance down a dozen or so steps.” And yet many of the bands on this compilation played there regularly — and The Buzzcocks made their first appearance outside London or Manchester on its makeshift stage.

The South Coast scene was, at least judging by the liner notes, a chaotic one, but remarkably free of expectations and constraints. There was no “South Coast sound” in any real sense, though bands seem less wary than, say, similarly DIY Manchester outfits, of new wave-ish tuneful-ness and pop hooks. The stinger, usually, is in the lyrics. The Chef’s “Commander Lonely,” sung by scene mainstay Helen McCallum, is as melodically accessible as it is disturbing. Elsewhere, The Lilettes’ “Air Conditioning” employs wheezing, pop-friendly keyboard lines and three-part harmonies to make a connection between technology, alienation and climate control. There’s a fey eccentricity in these songs that seems quantitatively different from the claustrophobia and paranoia of London and Manchester bands.

Not all of the songs are pop, and some reflect the prevailing post-punk aesthetics of the late 1970s. Again Again’s “Wrong Again” is straight-up, Clash-into-Buzzcock’s melodic punk. Objeks’ “Negative Conversation” mimic’s the jerk-rhythmed asymmetries of Delta 5. And The Poison Girls’ “Cat’s Eye” jangles as madly, as dissonantly as Fire Engines. It’s not that the outside world never got into this scene, just that there was enough isolation to allow these bands to process influences in their own distinct ways. And, moreover, the scene was small and interconnected enough to nurture (or at least tolerate) some very odd endeavors, just because they were local. How else to explain the early multi-media experiments of Attic, a band that incorporated Super 8 footage and dada-esque theater into its live shows, or Renaldo and The Loaf’s fascination with prepared guitars and tape manipulation?

As usual, Messthetics #108 is extensively documented, with notes on all the bands, songs, labels and personalities, as well as an overview of the scene itself. There are contemporary photos, art from singles, cassettes and compilations and links to websites for further information. (Punkbrighton.co.uk seems to be a primary source.) You could question whether the South Coast scene really merits this much exploration, and whether it was as important as what was going on in London, Leeds, Manchester or Glasgow. Still, there’s something to be said for the pure DIY-ness of this isolated outbreak of post-punk creativity. It’s proof that kids will pick up guitars and basses and ill-tuned synths anywhere, without the slightest bit of help or encouragement, without any hope of a career or recognition or even a paid gig. Messthetics #108 is, on one hand, a fascinating case study in music for its own sake, and on the other, a pretty impressive collection of tunes. Maybe the South Coast scene never had any lasting impact on the world, but it was a pretty interesting phenomenon while it was going on.

By Jennifer Kelly

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