The best British punk bands either crashed and burned early (the Sex Pistols) or wandered away from their original style and themes (the Clash). In grafting social outrage onto the terse, punchy style of American predecessors such as the Ramones and Television, however, those spirit-of-'77 groups created a music that still resonates throughout the Empire. Hard-edged new releases from England's Godfathers and Screaming Blue Messiahs and Australia's Midnight Oil demonstrate that Brit-punk can still be jump-started. All it takes is a handful of chords and a lot of attitude.
The Godfathers: 'Birth School Work Death'
Lined up on the back cover of "Birth School Work Death" (Epic BFE 40946) in their shiny suits and skinny ties, the Godfathers recall the Jam, the late-'70s punk band that clung most determinedly to its working-class Britishness. Musically, the resemblance is less striking, but both bands work similar territory: The burning disillusionment, frustration and anger of dole-queue kids.
"Birth School Work Death," a quick, bitter tour of a lower-class life, opens Side 1 and sets the record's tone. This edgy rocker crackles vehemently as Peter Coyne spits out that "I've been abused and I've been confused/ And I've kissed Margaret Thatcher's shoes." Revising an old welfare state motto, Coyne snarls that "Heroin was the love you gave/ From the cradle to the grave." The motif continues on the second song, the equally incendiary "If I Only Had Time," with Coyne noting that "Cary Grant's on LSD" and "a million mums are hooked on Valium."
Oddly enough, the band's sound gets druggy occasionally, as backward guitars drone in psychedelic songs such as "When Am I Coming Down" and "The Strangest Boy." The quintet's members are more convincing when they portray themselves as everyday blokes, though -- or rather as smarter-than-average blokes stuck in a everyday lives. Even their romantic tunes have a cynical bite: "I told her I loved her more than life itself," admits Coyne in "Tell Me Why," "And then I told her I loved her more than I loved myself -- and that's saying something!"
"Just Like You," a lowered-expectations love song ("all I want is a day from your life"), is uncharacteristically pretty. "Love Is Dead" is more the band's cruising speed -- it's built for lean, sassy, no-frills rock 'n' roll. Fortunately, the Godfathers have no problem with that -- "Birth School Work Death" is one of the liveliest contemporary examples of the genre.
Midnight Oil: 'Diesel and Dust'
Most punkers, no matter how political, are content to voice their discontent rather than propose public policy initiatives. Few rock bands, though, have a lead singer who made a respectable showing as an antinuclear candidate in Australia's parliamentary elections. In keeping with that pedigree, Midnight Oil's "Diesel and Dust" (Columbia BFC 40967) ties aboriginal land rights and Antarctic colonization to the likelihood of nuclear destruction. The record's first song, "Beds Are Burning," gets right to the point: "The time has come/ A fact's a fact/ It belongs to them/ Give it back!" Clearly this band has forfeited any gigs at Australian real estate developers' conventions.
Midnight Oil tops the charts Down Under, but that's probably due more to the band's pop than to its politics. Musically, the sextet has never been experimental, but its work is deftly arranged and tuneful. The anger of songs such as "Warakurna" and "Dreamworld" is balanced by surprisingly sweet melodies and harmonies; indeed, the band's antinuclear injunction, "Put Down That Weapon," is positively lilting.
At a time when Third World rhythms have penetrated even the insular Upper West Side aerie of Paul Simon, and for an album that frequently takes on an aboriginal persona, it's surprising how white "Diesel and Dust" sounds. (Perhaps the band didn't want to be among the "white men," recounted in the "The Dead Heart," who "came took everything.") Midnight Oil's sound remains rooted in English art-rock, and profoundly conventional.
Still, the band has toned down its grandiosity -- even melodramatic singer Peter Garrett sounds more human this time out -- making this its most melodically appealing record. And even those who find it simplistic will be hard-pressed to forget the intensity of "Warakurna's" prophecy: "This land must change or land must burn."
Screaming Blue Messiahs: 'Bikini Red' British bands' simplistic notions of the Americas are usually tempered on their second albums, after an actual visit to the unruly colonies (the Clash's rueful "Safe European Home," for example, or Gang of Four's hilarious "Cheeseburger"). Few bands have come back quite so obsessed as the Screaming Blue Messiahs, the so-called "Clash 'n' blues" band whose "Bikini Red" (Elektra 60755-1) might as well be titled "Messiahs Leave Home." It's virtually a concept album about stateside culture shock.
Just as it might seem if viewed with the help of a TV remote control, the Messiahs' America is a cross-cultural jumble: sex, cops and UFOs in "Bikini Red"; cars and religion in "Jesus Chrysler Drives a Dodge"; King Kong, Superman and Charlie Chan, to name a few, in "I Can Speak American."
Chief Messiah Bill Carter, who seemed a little dour on the trio's white-hot debut album, "Gun-Shy," coped rather well with his dip in America's overheated media pool; in fact, he learned to like it. He and his accomplices still chug along in overdrive most of the time, but "Bikini Red" is looser, more relaxed and flat-out funnier than its predecessor.
The record's keystone, in fact, is a riot: "I Wanna Be a Flintstone," which kicks off Side 2, even includes Carter yelping "Willlllma!" in a credible Fred Flintstone imitation. Despite its light-heartedness, "Flintstone" is typically swaggering and raucous, with Carter tearing off jagged clumps of guitar noise during the bridge. This song -- and indeed all of "Bikini Red" -- shows you can leave blue-collar London without losing your edge.