THE ALBUM -- 999 "The Biggest Prize in Sport," Polydor (PD-1-6256.); THE SHOW -- At the Bayou Tuesday, at 8 and 11.
The emergency telephone number in England is 999. And 999 is also five Englishmen, looking very out of place amidst the gym equipment on the cover of their Polydor debut album, "The Biggest Prize in Sport." It's possible they know what to do with an exercycle or leg weights, but the odds are these run-of-the-punk musicians have other sports in mind.
Their entry in the middle of the wave LP category is energetic but mostly uninspired. It could easily be trounced by competitors like Elvis Costello or The Clash, who likewise have toned down their raunchy punk approaches to become more commercially successful in the past year. Clearly 999's lyrics are not as clever as Costello's, nor is their music as wide-ranging or substantial as The Clash's on "London Calling." Instead, the "Sport" album contains simple dance music, pleasing to a punkster's ear.
When the group first got together in 1976, they were far-out on the scale of punk shock value. Now they deliver happy numbers that are safely in-bounds for most modern American rock tastes. Two earlier albums, "999" and "Separates," failed to garner much of a U.S. following. And two short tours in the States haven't jolted the band from a low profile. But they've got another chance and will make what's expected to be an animated appearance at the Bayou on Tuesday.
Several songs on "The Biggest Prize in Sport" are packed with mindless teenybopper sentiment, monotonous drum beats and whiny vocals. Others borrow (and vaguely update) a variety of older musical styles.
The title track hints at risque meaning while pouring on '60s-style backup vocals:
ya know that I will get a prize . . .
I could even get a rise
It makes me feel good can't you see
The biggest prize in sport."
Echoes of an earlier British wave are present in this tune, through harmonies, rapid-fire drum beats and electric guitar discord. This is sporting innuendo rock for the '80s that won't win any medals for longevity.
Other cuts demonstrate obvious McCartney influences. The melody of the first line of "Stranger" sounds almost too close to "I read the news today, oh boy" to avoid copyright infringement. But for a song about alienation, it's quite cheery, pairing good-timey rock'n'roll riffs and droning drum. (They claim it took three months and 72 drummer auditions to find Pablo Labritain, and he's reliable, pounding out repetitive rhythms.)
Next to other punkish Britons, 999 hardly sounds delinquent. In fact, their imagery suggests mild frustration rather than violent anger, delivered with a vibrating bass through each song. Even the solemn "English Wipe-Out" becomes just another toe-tapper. The song meshes surfer jargon with bleak A-bomb predictions for the group's homeland, bidding farewell to various cities and pricipalities. A wailing guitar finale seals the warning of doom. But the tune is a dance number like all the rest, and listeners can't rock and mourn for Wales at the same time. (For new wave's last word on a "nu-clear error," refer to The Clash's "London Calling" title cut.)
Meanwhile, their Bayou show may not rescue them from obscurity, but 999 deserves an honorable mention in the new wave sport.