Play at Sustaining and This Is Where We Are Thrown
343 · 23 August 01
Skids: Days in Europa
1979 was a fantastic year to be a punk teenager in a city with a vibrant cutting-edge music scene. At least, so I gather. I was a skittish twelve-year-old living in a placid suburb, listening to Toto and the Bee Gees and dreaming of one day owning Double Vision and that cool album with the guitar-shaped city-spaceship on the cover. Punk happened without me. I'm not sure I was even really cognizant of its existence until high school, circa 1982, when Dudley McKenzie started showing up in Journalism class wearing the t-shirts of bands with names so ridiculous it took him a while to convince me he hadn't made them up himself: Dead Kennedys, Stick Men with Ray Guns, the something something Experience. And so, perhaps through of a combination of reaching punk when it was already post-, and reaching it with my complexity expectations heightened from having spent what could have been my punk years working my way slowly from Toto to Rush, the "original" punk bands and albums that have ended up with the most enduring roles in my life have mostly (with the obvious exception of Never Mind the Bollocks) been from relatively late in the first wave. Later Jam, later Buzzcocks. I never developed any emotional attachment to the Clash or the Ramones, I never liked the Stranglers or the Damned at all, and although I cherished my copy of the seminal survey-compilation Burning Ambitions, the only thing on it that prompted me to buy a band's own record was the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia", and even in the DKs' case illicit thrill quickly dissipated. Perhaps most tellingly, my copies of Plastic Surgery Disasters, London Calling and the Ramones' Mania, all of whose historical importance I readily acknowledge, are still on vinyl. My turntable works, I could play them. But I don't expect to.
After extended stays on my steadily dwindling LPs-that-should-be-reissued-on-CD list, though, two of my personal favorite punk albums, both from 1979, have just finally been revived by obsessive archivists Captain Oi!, whose tastes I wouldn't otherwise have expected to intersect mine. In both cases I'd been making do with excerpts on compilations, but Days in Europa, the second album by Stuart Adamson and Richard Jobson's pre-Big Country/Armoury Show Scottish punk band Skids, is particularly resistant to abridgement, in my opinion, and badly underrepresented on the Skids' best-of Dunfermline even if it weren't. The Skids career trajectory was abrupt and off-putting: Scared to Dance, the debut, released early in 1979 (and reissued on CD by Virgin in 1990), was a straightforwardly buzzing punk album, less glib and more heroic than many of its peers, but clearly part of the same movement. 1980's The Absolute Game, the third album, resembles the Armoury Show far more than the early Skids, and 1981's Joy, the fourth one, made without Adamson, strays irretrievably off into dementia. Days in Europa, the second, came out only a few months after Scared to Dance, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a more dramatic example of rapid maturation.
At least, that was my memory of this album, but it has hardly been in high rotation in my house. My turntable spins old disks when I ask it to, but I don't ask very often. I bounced through snippets of Days in Europa when I was making my last extended DID list, to make sure I still thought it belonged, but that was 1996, and I didn't listen to the whole thing then, and probably hadn't for three or four more years before that. Maybe five. So I greeted this reissue mostly with anticipation, but a little trepidation as well. You can't leave an album alone for a decade and expect it to be the same when you come back to it.
And in fact, this patently isn't the same record I had on vinyl. First of all, and this shouldn't matter but it's part of my memory, the Days in Europa I had was stylishly black, with Brian Palmer's great, weird, alluring party-tableau painting in the center of the cover, and Jobson in what looks like a Star Trek shirt in the little band picture on the back. That turns out to have been the album's second cover, and the reissue exhumes the first one, which Palmer included in miniature on the wall in the background of his replacement art, a mustard-yellow painting of a woman placing a wreath on the head of a sternly Aryan Olympian, both of them seeming to have been carved roughly out of soft wood and then soaked for two days in a vat of self-tanning lotion. This one was abandoned because somebody thought it implied Nazi leanings, a fairly dense interpretation but one it probably didn't pay to debate. More significantly, it turns out the LP I had was the second version of the music, too, with a slightly different running order, the pre-album single "Masquerade" inserted into side two, and the whole thing remixed by Bruce Fairbairn. This could easily have been trouble. I remember the album's sound and atmosphere being astonishing, and always assumed it was the result of an inspired tension between Adamson's surging Celtic instincts, Jobson's oblique urges and Bill Nelson's gadgety production, but maybe it was all really imposed by Fairbairn after the fact, and this reissue, restoring the album's original mix in a perfectly well-meant devotion to authenticity, would end up disinterring something I wouldn't even recognize.
A few A/B comparisons later, I am delighted and chagrined in equal measure to make the following report: Bruce Fairbairn massacred this record. What I thought was a quirky, elusive, fascinatingly odd LP was actually the vague, muddy outlines of a quirky, elusive, fascinatingly odd album pretty much squashed flat. What anybody thought Fairbairn accomplished, I have absolutely no idea. If he'd taken a rough DIY record and slathered shiny studio gloss over it, at least I'd understand the goal of the exercise, but he took an airy, sparkling, dynamic, ambitious rock record and turned it into sludge. Maybe somebody at Virgin, in 1979, thought sludge would sell better. And I don't know the sales figures, so perhaps it did. But it means that when I thought this album was great, I was woefully underestimating it. Fairbairn's version of "Animation", the opener, was all guitars and blurry drum-roar; in Nelson's original mix the crinkly keyboard noises are another foreground part, and the drums are clear and subtly articulated. "Charade", I discover, has these completely integral drum concussions in the choruses that Fairbairn suppressed entirely, effectively casting the rhythm adrift, and the little synth fill is a complex, evolving, panning thing that Fairbairn dumbed-down until it just sounds like a "Baba O'Riley" rip-off. Fairbairn's "Dulce et Decorum Est (Pro Patria Mori)" sounds like the seething original played through a bad AM radio. The galloping "Pros and Cons" is the track they dropped to put "Masquerade" on, despite the fact that it's one of the album's more guitar-centric songs, and thus arguably better suited to Fairbairn's agenda than most of the others. The second version of the slow, dramatic "Home of the Saved" pushes forward a small-mindedly obvious keyboard part I don't hear in the first one at all, like taking an elegant pencil sketch and drawing over the "important" lines with orange crayon. My LP had the single version of the signature anthem "Working for the Yankee Dollar", which was actually done by Mick Glossop not Fairbairn, without nearly as much violence to the structure, but Nelson's album version is still a lot more detailed and interesting (although to be fair, the single version, included on the reissue as a bonus track, has also been improved noticeably by remastering). The surging "The Olympian" is at once the most Scared to Dance-like of these songs and probably the one that most directly anticipates Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson's dueling guitar-sound for Big Country. The real "Thanatos" has twittery synthesizers Fairbairn simply muted, and its vocal part sits down in the mix with the rest of the instruments, instead of wobbling around, inexplicably exposed, on top of them. "A Day in Europa" itself has the makings of a proto-New-Wave hit until Fairbairn sits on it. "Peaceful Times", the album proper's finale, is the only song to escape egregious mangling, probably because it's so resolutely uncommercial, about half of the parts slithering by in reverse, that nobody thought there was much to be gained by fiddling with it.
The reissue adds seven bonus tracks to the album's ten. "Masquerade" is clearly, it now seems to me, a jittery, sped-up proto-"Harvest Home". "Out of Town", its pre-Bill-Nelson b-side, now reminds me oddly of Dramarama. The squawking "Another Emotion", the third song on the double-pack edition of the "Masquerade" single, sounds mostly like a left-over from before the Skids had a clear idea of their own identity, but it's intriguing to hear later ideas just starting to coalesce in some of the stray drum and guitar riffs. "Aftermath Dub", a lurching remix of "Masquerade" that was the back of the second disc in the double-pack, is disposable, but "Grey Parade", the b-side of "Charade", is a somber, atmospheric hymn something like "The Little Drummer Boy" laced with a few of the new-morning-dawning-ish synth hooks from Rush's "Jacob's Ladder". And "Vanguards Crusade", the b-side of "Masquerade", can't decide whether it wants to be spaghetti-western music or the beginnings of Big Country's "Porrohman", but I'm happy to eavesdrop on the argument. In the end, though, while I'm very pleased to have this complete era in the band's existence so conveniently captured (as it happens I owned all these singles, as well, but that's more vinyl I never listen to, and if anybody's thinking about reissuing The Absolute Game next, I only have one of those singles), the difference between the two versions of the album itself is so remarkable that to me the b-sides are unwelcome distractions. Twofold distractions, in fact, since a) there's nothing to compare them to, and b) most of them do not have the album's sophistication. I would like to see Marillion's approach, putting all the bonus material on a separate disc, gain general acceptance, and I see it's the tack Rhino is taking with their new Elvis Costello reissues, so maybe I'm not just dreaming. In the meantime, just hit pause after track ten, and let Days in Europa sink in a little before you go through the footnotes and appendices. It would be worth a little effort, if you're interested in the history of sell-out second-guessing, to see if you can track down the black-cover LP so you can do the comparison yourself, but if you can't, or don't have the energy or the turntable, I merely point out that I've believed for about fifteen years of this album's twenty-three year life that it was one of the signal moments in the transition from punk to New Wave, and now I realize that what I heard was just a shadow of the album it could be.
Penetration: Coming Up for Air
The other 1979 punk record Captain Oi! just reissued, Penetration's Coming Up for Air, is also a second album (Moving Targets, their first, coincidentally, was reissued on CD by Virgin in 1990 as part of the same series as Scared to Dance), and also underrepresented on their best-of, but that's about the end of the resemblance. Where Days in Europa is abstruse (lyrically, as well as musically), Coming Up for Air is determinedly simple. Bill Nelson's production was wildly inventive for 1979, and still sounds vital to me in 2001; Steve Lillywhite's production here is dry and gimmickless, and thus rather obviously dated. Even if somebody had wanted to botch a remix of Coming Up for Air to try to make it a hit, the band broke up too soon after its release for there to be much point to expending energy on their behalf. I'm not sure I've ever encountered a complimentary mention of this album that I didn't write myself, with the prevailing wisdom apparently being that Penetration had one decent punk song ("Don't Dictate") that they weren't especially successful in parlaying into a first album, never mind a second. Singer Pauline Murray's post-Penetration solo career might hold up in a commercial comparison with Richard Jobson's work post-Skids, but I fear that it is mostly only in my own peculiar cosmology that she is a major presence in the history of the female voice in rock music. Back when I discovered Penetration, though (1983 or 1984, a year or two before I worked my way backwards from Big Country to the Skids), I didn't know any of this. In fact, I didn't know anything about Penetration at all. On one of my earliest high-school pilgrimages to Metamorphosis Records, they were having a buy-an-album-get-a-junk-single-free sale, and as I didn't know enough yet to recognize any of the artists in the junk-single bin, I picked out a 45 solely on the basis of cover art, thus ending up with Penetration's "Come Into the Open", I guess on the strength of its typography. So unless I'm forgetting something, that means Penetration were the first band I ever acquired a record by without having heard them first, and the album, when I bought it on the next trip after loving the single, was the first piece of music I ever purchased without knowing whether anybody but me was aware of it. At the time it functioned as punk music in my life, especially the ambiguously defiant exhortations of "Come Into the Open" and "Shout Above the Noise", but over the years it has slowly mutated into comfort music, into one of the albums I listen to when I am too exhausted to hear anything I have questions about, a rather heterogeneous set that also includes Fiona's Heart Like a Gun, Patty Smyth's Never Enough, Pat Benatar's Seven the Hard Way, Del Amitri's Waking Hours and anything by Rick Springfield. I don't care what anybody else thinks of these records, because they're precisely the records I listen to when I don't want to think about whether I care what anybody else thinks of them. For forty minutes, I don't have to ask questions.
To fill this role, a record must have two specific qualities. First, fractal-like, every individual moment must remind me of the whole. This implies both a distinct style and rigid consistency. Second, every track on the record must give me a little jolt of "Oh, this song!", which means every track has to be individually identifiable and memorable without compromising the overall identity or consistency. Come Up for Air has been relatively neglected, the past few years, since I've had all those other albums on CD, but returning to it after a long time away, I'm surprised how quickly all these sounds come back to me: "Shout Above the Noise"'s long drum-roll intro, pinched guitar tone, gang backing vocals and Pauline's decisive enunciation; "She Is the Slave"'s thumpy snare sound and Pauline's whispers leading into the choruses; the menacing rhythmic tension and barbed-wire guitars of "Last Saving Grace"; the stop/start nervousness, slapback vocal treatment and buoyant end-of-chorus breathlessness of "Killed in the Rush"; the lumbering guitar, ticking drums and imp-with-a-megaphone verse singing in "Challenge"; the crescendos, half-stops and redemptive choruses of "Come Into the Open"; the slight syncopation and iterative ascent of "Slip away / And make plans / Of our own" in "What's Going On"; "Party's Over"'s choppy guitars and goofy background mock-yodeling; "On Reflection"'s rumbling bass and Pauline's octave jumps; the cowbell pops, sturdy bass-and-guitar riffs, infectious restarts and busy lyrics of "Lifeline"; the low, muttering groove and twitchy drums of "New Recruit". I could have done without the bonus tracks here, too, as the itchy "Danger Signs" I already have on the best-of, and the two live recordings ("Stone Heroes" and "Vision") have a completely different sound from the album's studio tracks. I didn't need this album expanded, it was already fine. Pauline may have been the first singer in whose style I found overtly girlish breathiness appealing, even as a trace element, which would make this album an early step on the road to eventually liking Cyndi Lauper, Jane Siberry, Kate Bush, Björk, Juliana Hatfield and hundreds of others. But the important steps in that particular journey came later, and it's not significance that draws me back to this record. I listen to it in welcome, temporary peace because something about the combination of Gary Chaplin's taut, brittle guitar tone, Pauline's just-barely-astringent voice and Steve Lillywhite's unfussy, matte-finish production seems elemental to me, like one of the handful of palette-reductions that either define the nature of rock and roll, or model the curvature of my exact ears, or maybe we could never tell the difference, or maybe there isn't one.