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If the latest batch of reissues is any indication, the great postpunk revival may have finally skronked its last. True, No New York still hasn’t seen the digitized light of day stateside, but good little noisemongers haven’t exactly been lacking for new old releases otherwise. The past few years have given us Liliput/Kleenex, A Darker Bloom: The Blue Orchids Collection, Fanfare in the Garden: An Essential Logic Collection, Mars LP: The Complete Studio Recordings NYC 1977–1978, DNA on DNA, and so on—and on and on. This time last year, in fact, it seemed as if the rediscovery of late-’70s/early-’80s screechin’ ’n’ scrapin’ might never end.
At the moment, however, you have to wonder whether the record industry hasn’t at last reached the bottom of the reissues barrel. Because whereas the likes of Liliput/Kleenex and DNA both achieved the kind of mythic status that makes reissues inevitable, the same is not true of the Prefects and the Beakers, the subjects of two new complete-collection CDs. Sure, vinyl nerds can tell you that Prefects’ vocalist Robert Lloyd went on to make some pretty good music with the slightly less obscure Nightingales and later as a solo artist, but neither group left much of a mark in the music-history books—or, for that matter, much in the way of music.
Like countless other bands of the era, these two simply made a din and crossed their fingers. Formed in Birmingham, England, in the same year that the Sex Pistols met Bill Grundy, the Prefects were, courtesy of their brief existence and complete indifference to the dictates of the marketplace, an archetypal punk band. They formed, opened shows for the likes of the Subway Sect and the Clash—the latter’s manager was the one who dismissed them as “amateur wankers”—and promptly broke up. By not surviving long enough to record even one proper album, they made Malcolm McLaren’s bunch look like crass careerists.
Yet as Amateur Wankers makes plain, the Prefects may have been amateurs, but they were anything but wankers. Indeed, this collection of single sides, radio sessions, and live recordings is more than merely the genuine article—it’s a revelation, an outrage, and as good a reminder as any of the sheer sonic possibilities of not giving a fuck. Between the untutored punk propulsion of singsongy opener “Faults” and the 10-plus minutes of remorseless drum pummel and guitar torture that make up the artier “Bristol Road Leads to Dachau,” you’ll hear lots of things—including a skronky sax or two—but the sounds of a clock being punched or a cash-register drawer being opened aren’t among them. Even better, the Prefects didn’t have to get serious to show they were smart: That they had a blast making these blasts is only too evident.
“Escort Girls,” for example, moves along at full gallop, with Lloyd doing his breathless best to keep up. “Things in General” is a bleakly perky pogo through the badlands of futility that finds Lloyd name-checking himself, throwing out the most disconsolate “la, la, la” in the history of rock, and sneering, “I could write a book/But would you even look?” Then there’s “Barbarellas,” a bottom-heavy football chant of a song about a club where the beer tastes like prune juice and “they sell tickets to the exits.” “They got carpets/They got ashtrays,” sing Lloyd & Co. in what is simultaneously a guided tour through mediocrity and a thoroughly endearing example of mankind’s love/hate relationship with the local watering hole.
But Amateur Wankers’ truly big number is “Going Through the Motions,” a 1979 track released on the band’s sole—and, naturally, posthumous—45 that’s right up there with the Fall’s “Repetition” for smartass statement of purpose. This is the sound of punk becoming post- before your very ears: Following an opening guitar nod to Chuck Berry, the band kicks into a groove as ponderous and monolithic as anything Flipper ever put to record, topping it all with a maddeningly repetitive piano figure that evokes John Cale at his primitive best. Lloyd, meanwhile, slyly conflates sex with stagecraft, drones on about how he’s doing it all for us, and stretches out the word “motions” as if he’s breaking it on the rack. And in case you were wondering what quality of performance he deems this, he bleats, “I am not in the mood/Not in that mood tonight.”
Of course, he was. But that’s just the sort of paradox Amateur Wankers was made to celebrate. By the end, you’ll wonder how anyone could be in a great band without saying he isn’t.
After Amateur Wankers, the Beakers’ Four Steps Toward a Cultural Revolution can’t help but be something of a disappointment. The Beakers, who during their three-year career in Carter-to-Reagan-era Seattle specialized in a brittle funk-punk punctuated by much James Chance–like sax blurt, turn out to be one of those very good bands that just happens to sound a lot like an even better band.
Or, in this case, several even better bands: On the 17 songs that make up their own after-the-fact anthology—an EP, a single, some compilation tracks, and so forth—these Northwest nervous ticsters produce a quirk-heavy brand of brainy art rock that, when it doesn’t make you think of Chance or Talking Heads, evokes comparisons to Pere Ubu or the Fall. The lead singer/guitarist is even named, no lie, Mark H. Smith.
That’s too bad, really, because Smith was a truly inspired vocalist and a guitarist of uncommon ferocity, the rhythm section was as tightly coiled as your average postal worker, and Jim Anderson’s saxophone squawk was, well, all over the place, which is usually a good thing in these situations. On “Walking,” Smith talks about shakin’ booty in a way that makes you think he’s not talking sex. “Red Towel” is an intentionally prosaic paean to a beach towel on which an agitated Smith sings, “We’re getting a great tan/We’re soaking in the rays/We’re changing our color/We’re lying on a red towel!” And “Football Season’s in Full Swing” sees the band shouting, “Hey, hey, hey!” just like the coach told ’em to while Anderson steps up to the mike to spin a tale of a lawn mower pulling somebody around the yard and Francesca Sundsten slaps away at an almost impossibly funked-up bass line.
In other words, you’ve heard it all before, though the Beakers do manage to get a long way on sheer charm. Indeed, the live “Insulation” gives you a good idea of how much fun the band must have been to see in a ratty club somewhere: They’re bigger and less gnomic-sounding; though they’re still an enigma, it’s more of a table-sized jigsaw puzzle than a Rubik’s Cube. As for the oddly hermetic version of “Funky Town” that closes Cultural Revolution, I’ll bet it was a hit at house parties, but it’s not very funky—which is fine by standards of postpunk irony, but not something that didn’t cross the minds of a zillion other similar outfits back in the day.
Don’t let the unoriginality bother you too much, though: Until No New York gets a domestic reissue at last, this is just the sort of thing you’ll have to settle for.CP