Of all the albums of 1980, the last safety pins of punk long since rusted and ‘post-punk’ no longer seeming adequate to describe the myriad shards of pop, goth, industrial proto-electronica and avant-garde experimentalism into which punk had shattered, there was perhaps none quite as distinctly ‘other’, certainly none as quiet, as Young Marble Giants’ sole long-player (“the pop equivalent of a zen painter’s landscape,” frothed the NME).
Concocted in the Cardiff trio’s bedrooms, using instruments paid for with borrowed money or, in the case of the drum machine, handmade (the rhythm tracks recorded to cassette prior to the rest of the spartan instrumentation) Colossal Youth was released by Rough Trade, and well-received. Despite this, they split up shortly afterwards, but their minimalist, defiantly DIY music would continue to be influential, through the cut-and-paste fanzine world of ‘80s indie-pop – spoken of in reverent tones almost as hushed as their output – and they were named by Kurt Cobain as one of his favourite bands.
And it’s thanks to that continuing influence, buoyed by a reissue of the album and sporadic reunions since 2007, that the band are here at the Royal Festival Hall, a grand venue for rather small music, as part of David Byrne’s Meltdown. “Somebody pinch me,” says guitarist/keyboard player Stuart Moxham before the instrumental opening. Singer Alison Statton yet to take the stage, he is joined by brother Phil on bass, with another Moxham, their brother Andrew, playing the part of human drum machine. (“He makes it look easy, but it’s not,” Stuart quips later, “he’s got a cassette player looking over his shoulder all the time!”)
“That was The Taxi… I had to get the bus,” Statton says on walking out and, after an airing for b-side Radio Silents, they play (almost) all of Colossal Youth. What’s immediately striking is the sense of space, both visual – the almost empty stage lit by single spots – and aural: the gaps around the trebly bass (it might be surprising to discover that the surf guitar line of Choci Loni is in fact played by Phil, up an octave), the reedy organ or staccato guitar and the strange, metronomic pulse of the drums. It seems at once a reaction to, and a continuation of, the loud, brash stomp of punk: they “mean it, man!”, and just as much, but don’t feel the need to shout.
Statton’s voice too is as lovely, untutored a thing as ever, and 35 years don’t seem to have dimmed the potency of such highlights as the chilling Cold War parable Final Day, Eating Noddemix, where a girl watches TV as she gets ready for a night out, oblivious to the unfolding onscreen carnage of a train crash, Brand – New – Life (“for this very old music,” Statton notes) and the gloriously funky, popping bassline of Wurlitzer Jukebox. One of the very biggest reactions of the night, though, is saved for Credit In The Straight World. Cobain intended for Nirvana to record a cover (the honours posthumously being done, in typically bruising fashion, by Courtney Love’s band Hole), and it’s easy to see why – you can almost hear in the clean, muted chug of the guitar the click of the distortion pedal never stepped on: grunge inchoate.
As sparse and skeletal as Young Marble Giants’ songs may be, they are also very brief, and they fit 16, including an encore, into 60 minutes. It may well all be over by 21:30, but there’s no question of the audience feeling short-changed by such an early finish: after all, we’re not as Young as we used to be.