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The Boston Phoenix Homemade Punk

The return of classic DIY

By Douglas Wolk

AUGUST 14, 2000:  Shrapnel does as much work as the bomb itself, and the splinters set flying by the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Buzzcocks -- records by hundreds upon hundreds of tiny bands of tiny means kicked into a do-it-yourself frenzy by punk -- are finally starting to reappear.

An ongoing series of bootleg compilations called Messthetics -- four volumes to date -- collects ultra-rare British DIY singles. Given that their contents are organized alphabetically by band name, you might guess that these releases were assembled by a record dealer to show off his wares, and you'd be right (there's no label, but they can be ordered through www.undergroundmedicine.com).

There are plenty of half-assed punk songs on Messthetics: When the first punk bands appeared, they declared that "once you were caged, but now you're free," and some musicians mentally added ". . . to sound like the Sex Pistols or Menace, just shabbier." But others caught on: satisfying music was no longer limited by anything but creative vision -- not financial resources, not technical ability, not adherence to tradition, and definitely not commercial viability. The Messthetics bands flail around and make awful mistakes, because they know they're on the verge of something really exciting and that's the only way to get there. On the first volume, the Scissor Fits' Nik East sings "I Don't Want To Work for British Airways" as if it were the most important issue in his life, and Paul Reekie flounders through a naked, awkward confession called "Lovers"; you couldn't call either of these good songs, exactly, but both have stumbled onto virgin territory.

They're still in the popular-song format, though -- tunes, hooks, rhythm, euphony. And for the most serious DIY musicians, that was too played out. For them, punk hadn't just lowered the net, it had erased the lines on the court, removed the fence around it, burned the rulebook, and handed everybody in sight a ball and a racquet. To make truly revolutionary music, these DIYers thought, it was necessary to discard the cultural baggage of rock. The new I Hate the Pop Group compilation (Vertical Slum) is a confusing, alternately irritating and wonderful LP bootleg that assembles really weird DIY tracks, from both sides of the Atlantic, by the likes of Men/Eject and Band T Plus Instruments. "A track such as the Door and the Window's 'I Like Sound' is not only an exciting negative blast," compiler Oskar Spee declares, "it is in all ways more beautiful than something like 'Layla' or 'Stairway to Heaven.' " That's debatable, but it's certainly an argument that a joyful noise doesn't have to be pleasing.

Still, it can be. Consider the Messthetics track "Include Me Out," by the Welsh trio Young Marble Giants. They declined to rock altogether: their percussion was limited to a machine that barely tickled audibility, and the playing of brothers Stuart and Phil Moxham was clipped and spare, leaving lots of room for Alison Statton's spring-air voice. Their sole album, Colossal Youth, is a cult classic, the maximum intersection of DIY attitude and unpunk sound. (Hole covered its "Credit in the Straight World.") It's also a hermetically effortless album, measured and calculated down to the last note; you can hardly imagine the process that led to it.

That's not the case with the recent release of Salad Days (Vinyl Japan), a CD edition of a 1979 YMGs demo tape. The band are audibly feeling out the edges of the songs and of their own sound. They know where they're going, but they're not sure how willing they are to be pretty or smooth, or how exactly they'll manage it. Salad Days is flawed in a way Colossal Youth isn't, but actually hearing the bumpy, messy, homemade route they took just illuminates their achievement the more.

Most of the original DIY bands barely outlasted the raw blurts of a single or two -- Danny and the Dressmakers' 10-second "Truth About Unemployment," from I Hate the Pop Group, sounds as if the band had self-destructed at the moment they hit the "Record" button. Of the roughly 100 bands on Messthetics, only two are still in business: Scritti Politti, who have become something very different, and the Television Personalities, whose frontman, Daniel Treacy, never gave up the ideal of that first DIY moment, or the slashing, bitter jokes behind his proudly underclass warble.

The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Dreaming (Vinyl Japan) collects 16 years' worth of TVPs rarities, bookending it all with two versions of their insolent "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives." One of the constants of Treacy's career is his fascination with pop art's mixture of craft and crudeness; even on his most accomplished records he sings as if he'd stumbled into the song and doesn't quite belong there. "Do you think if you were beautiful, you'd be happy?" he goes on a track from 1995, as the band behind him barely manage to keep the beat steady. The TVPs will never be either beautiful or happy. They'd be betraying themselves if they were.

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