[sic] Magazine

V/A – Messthetics #106. The Manchester Musicians’ Collective (1977-1982)

It’s somewhat ironic that some of the best put together anthologies of historical American rock and soul music emanate from these shores, and yet it takes an American company to do the same for one of the most productive, inspirational and inventive eras of British music – the post-punk DIY explosion of the late seventies and early eighties. The Messthetics series now runs to eight volumes. Six are regionally themed compilations, the others being a general introductory volume and a collection of self-released cassette music. Each takes a city or region, and packs the CD full of tracks taken from records that were either self-released or issued on small micro-labels. This is a world where the likes of Rough Trade may as well have been EMI or Sony. Some of the bands are household names (if you live in a household that includes someone with boxes of Swell Maps 45s), but some were only known to their friends, even at the time, and have long since been forgotten. Not by Chuck Warner of Hyped to Death, though!

Two unsung heroes who need to be thanked are B George and Martha Defoe whose ‘International Discography of the New Wave’ was published by Omnibus in 1983 (ISBN 0711900507). It was a 700+ page doorstop of a volume that attempted to catalogue every punk and post-punk release of the era – from the big names like the Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones and Blondie down to the most obscure home grown vinyl and cassette releases. And not just from the UK/US. There were listings from places as far afield as the USSR (as was), Iran, Ecuador and Iceland. If it wasn’t for this massive labour of love, so many of these bands would have been totally forgotten. The book would cost you a mint these days, if you could track it down. My copy is dog-eared, yellowed and heavily annotated. And no, it’s not for sale.

The book provided a starting point for Hyped to Death to work from, but there was still the task of finding the records, finding the artists and researching the stories. The tales behind the records are often as fascinating as the music itself, and each Messthetics release is packed with contemporary pictures and info in its accompanying booklet.

This kind of labour of love would be fascinating from a historical perspective even if the music was fairly ordinary. But another point where the series scores highly is on quality control. If the tunes are shit, then why bother digging them up? There were some real turds released during the era, but we don’t get to hear them on these CDs. Sure, some of the recordings are pretty lo-fi, and some of the bands’ musicianship was hardly anything to get excited about. But these records were often the only recorded statements that many of these acts would make, and they knew that. So there’s a torrent of ideas on offer, with little thought given to making music that would be played on Radio One (Peel excepted, of course), or attract the attention of the established music industry.

‘Messthetics #106’ covers the work of the Manchester Musicians’ Collective, a charity (and later co-op) that was set up with the aim of providing places to rehearse and play, share ideas and equipment, and give help with getting records made and (hopefully) sold. It was founded in April 1977 and lasted around five years. Early members included The Fall and Joy Division. By 1982, the industry had changed. There were small labels aplenty, and there was a national network of distributors that meant that things were so much easier to do. Also, the whole DIY / collective ethos had become unfashionable (outside of the anarcho-punk scene, at least) as the gloss of eighties’ new romanticism and alternative pop took hold.

The CD contains 21 tracks and 7 bonus MP3s. Some of the acts are relatively well-known. The Passage, Dislocation Dance and Spherical Objects all had fairly lengthy careers and some even signed to majors. Others arrived, made a single and fell apart, or morphed into something else. There are bands with spiky, discordant guitars, bands with a murky wall of fuzz, bands with fairground organ keyboards, funky bands, intellectual bands, dumb bands, bands with virtually no musical ability and bands with a lot. It’s striking how many women were involved when you think how the current alternative scene is so male dominated, with many women these days still confined to the traditional role of singer. You’d have thought that would have changed after a quarter of a century.

If you like the Fall, the Slits, Wire, Gang of Four, the Raincoats, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Joy Division or any of the other major leftfield acts of the era, you’ll like what’s on offer here. And you might well be surprised just how damned good a lot of these records were.


For more from Dez please read his blog Music Musings & Miscellany