Living miles away from the music press friendly haunts of London and Manchester, guitarist Stuart Moxham spent his 20s in a mildly successful covers band in Cardiff, grumbling over how lauded bands like The Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash were just rehashing his parents’ rock ‘n’ roll and, even worse, doing covers of Bobby Fuller and The Monkees.
He decided to quit what he was doing and form his own group, Young Marble Giants, to perform some of the music that he’d been writing. He also couldn’t understand the myopic praise all these bands were receiving for putting out DIY singles. He knew, from his love of Led Zeppelin and Can that longform albums were the best way for you to put down your vision; they gave you space to play around with. And so he put his mind to putting out a record first, and maybe then he’d consider some singles.
Recruiting his brother Philip to help achieve world, or at least Welsh dominance, and taking their name from an uncool book about Greek statues, they collectively elected to eliminate all the superfluous solos that bored audiences and focus in on the subatomic structure of sound, to create acute sketches of song that didn’t sound like everyone else. The songs still referenced standard musical themes such as broken relationships and the innocence of youth, but were unique in how marginal and ephemeral they came across. The first band to ever be interviewed by The Legend! (aka esteemed music writer Everett True), when asked to explain the process behind the creation of their uniquely slight melodies, Stuart responded: “It’s like taking the best riffs you’ve ever heard and playing four notes and saying, ‘Look at the relationship between these four notes, it’s really good’.”
The first track they put to tape, the one minute long instrumental Have Your Toupee Ready, made their intention concrete. Guided by eerie metronomic pulses, courtesy of a drum machine built by their cousin, it recalled the military bleep of radar, scanning the desolate horizon for friend or foe, a feeling that must have hung in the air with the Cold War just around the corner. That mechanical vibration would continue on album tracks like The Man Amplifier and the ominous The Taxi. It was still rock, but avoided the nostalgic Chuck Berry bluster, instead it took inspiration from the queer cosmic melodrama of Joe Meek and the contemporaneous otherness of Kraftwerk. It drew attention to the group by their willingness to disappear into the background.
Stripping away extraneous elements would leave an abundance of space on the record for any potential singer to fill, but they were resistant to have someone with The Slits’ snarling wildness or Debbie Harry’s sexual unapproachability. The clipped low-end guitar, bass and muted drum, would require a thoughtful approach, more reminiscent of spoken word poetry. They found their muse in Philip’s young girlfriend, the unassuming shy Alison Statton. Doubting her own capabilities as a singer led her to perform Stuart’s often cynically aggressive lyrics in a crisp preoccupied manner, delivering each line as if she were ticker tape.
The monolithic awkwardness that plagued her would come to the surface on Include Me Out, where a bass motif gently lampooning Blondie’s Heart Of Glass, as she implores “Include me out / don’t label me”. Her sole songwriting credit remains one of the album’s high points, the nihilistic and dub infused Eating Noddemix. The character in the song is self-obsessed and oblivious to the accumulative calamities of the world around her: “Putting on her makeup / she glances at the clock / next she’ll paint her nails / the train has collided / the driver didn’t stop / as she slips onto the scales.”
Although their Wikipedia page and countless fawning articles over the last 40 years keep referring to Young Marble Giants as being innovators of the ‘post-punk’ approach, you could also make a case that YMG, as they preferred to be known, were one of the only truly ‘punk’ bands. Every aspect of their existence was paradoxical and went against the accepted conventions of the day, from their anti rockist sound, to their inoffensive fashion sense, their hushed concerts and studio recordings, right down to their affable and polite personalities. Even their desired acronym was deceptive. It may have spoofed the bombast of ELO and the suburban quirk of XTC but was more likely a courteous nod to Japan’s electronic pioneers YMO, with whom they shared a few similarities.
This 40th anniversary collection released by Domino compiles the band’s entire recorded output, their classic album Colossal Youth, two follow-up EPs and a DVD of their notorious concert at New York’s Hurrah nightclub, where Stuart pulled a Ziggy Stardust and announced, unbeknown to Alison and Philip, they would be splitting after the show. Over a meagre 29 songs they had achieved all they set out to do and went their separate ways. By attempting to deconstruct the family tree of rock ‘n’ roll, they inadvertently managed to uncover new branches that continue to bloom to this day.