Album Reviews

Various Artists – Rough Trade: Counter Culture 76

(Rough Trade) UK release date: 29 January 2007

Well known for releasing their compilation albums of alternative music each year, Rough Trade Shops (not to be confused with the independent Rough Trade Records, of course) have now decided to go all the way back to 1976 – the year their original shop opened at 202 Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill.

1976 saw Callaghan replace Wilson as Prime Minister, Southampton beat Manchester United in the FA Cup Final, the longest heatwave for decades – and, oh yes, the music hotted up too with the birth of punk rock in Britain. Not surprisingly for a store in the vanguard of the New Wave, punk is well represented here, but as the punning title ‘Counter Culture’ suggests, Rough Trade Shops have always prided themselves on supporting all sorts of underground or anti-establishment music on the fringes of the mainstream.

Hence the eclectic mix on display in this album of 22 tracks, which ranges from jazz rock, art rock and psychedelic rock to reggae, Scottish folk, funk and even disco – which it’s sometimes forgotten flourished simultaneously with its antithesis, punk. In fact, though there are plenty of great songs here, some celebrated, some more obscure, you feel that breadth and variety has sometimes been prioritized over quality, as a few of these surely songs don’t justify their presence on musical grounds alone.

In terms of early punk, although The Pistols‘ Anarchy in the UK is omitted (presumably as too obvious), there is some strong stuff here. Even now, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when you hear the start of The Damned‘s New Rose: Dave Vanian’s spoken words “Is she really going out with him?”, followed by an aggressively thudding drum volley leading into the opening scything guitar riff. Britain’s first punk single feels as dynamic and as exciting now as it did over 30 years ago, a short, sharp shock of pleasure.

The Ramones‘ less angry and more melodic debut single Blitzkrieg Bop also still sounds great, as do the two pioneering Australian punk songs (I’m) Stranded and Burn My Eye from The Saints and Radio Birdman, respectively – a welcome blast of fresh air after the mediocrity or pomposity of much of mid-’70s rock music. Blondie‘s first single X-Offender disappoints though – you can’t dismiss them as a pop band who jumped on the New Wave bandwagon as they were there pretty much at the start but they always lacked a cutting edge.

In contrast, the wonderful Keys To Your Heart by The 101ers (Joe Strummer‘s band just before he co-founded The Clash) is as lively a piece of pub-rock as you’ll ever hear, while Nick Lowe‘s pleasingly tuneful So It Goes was not only his debut but the first single released by Stiff Records – even if it sounds uncannily like a Thin Lizzy song.

There is more American rock from survivors of 60s West Coast pyschedelia The Flamin’ Groovies, garage rock’n’rollers The Slickee Boys and an almost unrecognizably discordant version of Jagger and Richards’ Satisfaction from The Residents, which fairly bristles with menace. The Patti Smith Group‘s sublime Pissing in a River is arguably the standout track on the album – a compelling five-minute drama of mounting intensity.

Reggae is as almost as strongly represented as punk, including classic Jamaican roots legend Dennis Brown (Wolf and Leopard), The Upsetters‘ Croaking Lizard (with toasting from Prince Jazzbo, produced by Lee Scratch Perry), Yabby You‘s mesmeric Conquering Dub (mixed by King Tubby), plus Britain’s finest ever, Aswad (Back to Africa).

Dance also features in the guise of funk (Stretchin’ Out (in a Rubber Band), by ex-James Brown and George Clinton bassist Bootsy Collins) and disco (would you believe, Candi Staton’s Young Hearts Run Free, which sits rather uneasily here as the only commercial mainstream big hit).

At the other end of the scale are the arty and avant garde: An Harangue by Art and Language and the Red Crayola (a Godard-influenced Marxist manifesto read over a punk instrumental), the surreally amusing Bicarbonate of Soda from cult Scottish performance poet/musician and John Peel favourite Ivor Cutler and the Penguin Caf� Orchestra‘s hauntingly beautiful Hugebaby.

Finally, Canadian folk singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle trill Come a Long Way, while the gloriously unclassifiable Tom Waits sings the jazz-based number Step Right Up in his own inimitable, charcoal-grilled tones.

Something for everybody, you might say.

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