FROM HIS early bookings of the Sex Pistols in 1976 to his savvy management of the Police and the Go-Gos, Miles Copeland has proven New Music can make money. For that reason alone, he reigns as entrepreneur supreme in the New Music field of rock.
Copeland, president of IRS records, proved early on that New Wave groups could establish viable artistic and economic careers for themselves without aiming for platinum. Like a number of other New Wave-oriented independents, including Stiff, Slash and 415 records, Copeland's IRS label has a production/distribution promotion deal with a major label, A&M records, in this case. The success of that relationship is reflected in IRS' ability to support promising young bands by having them start in clubs where they can build an audience and mature creatively.
For example, R.E.M., a Georgia-based quartet, has just followed its promising debut EP, "Chronic Town," with a triumphant first album, "Murmur" (IRS SP70604). The record is an absolutely stunning piece of modern pop that, like the dreamlike state the group's name evokes, embodies the elusive and surreal quality of dreams seductively racing from early-morning consciousness.
Part of the strength of "Murmur" is that R.E.M. is no longer toying with the studio-based experimentalism that partly marred "Chronic Town." This time the group has committed itself to the riskier act of creatively restructuring '60s styles in search of new and evocative effects. The choral folk-rock sound, haunting melodies and ringing guitars that invite frequent comparison with the Byrds and Beau Brummels still abound in songs like "Laughing" and "Talk About the Fashion." But Michael Stipe's abstruse nasal whine, the structural unpredictability of the echoing harmonies, and guitar and base-drum interchanges, all create a somewhat disconcerting, if mysteriously dynamic, modern rock sound.
One would like to say more about the elusive, and allusive, imagery that haunts some of this record's best songs, like "Radio Free Europe" and "Pilgrimage," but Stipe's singing remains mostly indecipherable. In the latter song, one hears of a "pilgrimage" and of "speaking in tongues," before Stipe's emotionally drained voice leads the band into a chorus that sounds like, "your brown eyes escape momentum." Like so much of R.E.M.'s music, the song lingers and tugs on the corners of your mind, never totally giving itself away, yet suggesting that if the listener pays attention more will be revealed.
The Fleshtones are an American rock band who, like the Cramps and Blasters, continue to refine and extend their regressive party-based rock 'n' roll. "Hexbreaker" (IRS SP70605) is their second album and reveals the group pushing toward a more original and identifiable synthesis of the great American party music continuum. While they never lose a grasp on their strength--a commitment to the liberating dynamics of the best '60s punk--they have refreshingly committed themselves to being an '80s band.
Both "Right Side of a Good Thing" and "Hexbreaker" make concessions to the funkier dance breaks of the '80s, while "Deep in My Heart" has a more exotic feel than one expects from this boisterous combo. The thunderous fuzz-tone of "Screamin' Skull" may recall the Sonics, just as the psychotic tones of "This House is Empty" can recall the 13th Floor Elevators. The great thing about "Hexbreaker," however, is that, more than ever, the Fleshtones act like contemporary rockers devoted to the past only because the party has to start somewhere.
The continued vitality of IRS' operation is apparent in a new five-song EP, "The Alarm" (IRS 70504), by a young Welsh band of the same name. From the EP's first cut, "The Stand," the band projects the same youthful idealism and almost overpowering emotional appeal of acts like the Clash and the Jam. In fact, the stridently political lyrics, impassioned cries for youthful solidarity, soccer stadium choruses and militant drumming all explicitly recall the best of the early Clash.
While the band does sound a little derivative, even archaic in these cool electronic times, its clamorous calls for emotional commitment in "Across the Border" and "Marching On" are so heartfelt that the music rolls over critical reservations like a tank on a battlefield. The band's use of folk-rock instrumentation--harmonicas, tambourines and acoustic guitars--and the Welsh cowboy appearance of its members add even more intrigue in sound and sight to a young band that is rumored to be one of the most exciting on the live club circuit today.