Graded on a Curve:
Some Bizarre Album

When the Some Bizarre label is mentioned, many folks will think of Soft Cell, others might recall Matt Johnson’s The The, and some could even be reminiscing over one of the six dozen or so names for Jim Thirwell’s Foetus project. But Some Bizarre Album is where it all began, a swell compilation of then unsigned bands that provides a concise snapshot of the UK electronic/experimental/post-punk scene circa 1981.

At least in the late-‘80s American suburbs, the availability of Brit post-punk felt dominated by four labels. There was Factory with techno-pop titans New Order and the back catalogue of their almost immediately legendary predecessor Joy Division, 4AD with the Goth-rocking Bauhaus and their various offshoots, most prominently solo Peter Murphy and the quite popular Love and Rockets, Mute with the electronic pop stylings of Depeche Mode, Yaz, and Erasure, and Rough Trade with the comparatively traditional sensibilities of The Smiths. Yes, The Cure was a major player in this scenario, but their stuff was licensed to big companies like Polydor and Elektra, a fact that frankly didn’t hold the same sort of appeal.

Of course there were other labels making an impact on the record collections of those attuned to the multi-dimensional developments of post-punk. There was Beggars Banquet (actually the company from whence 4AD sprang) with The Fall, and Cherry Red with all sorts of stuff, notably Everything but the Girl, but upon consideration the one imprint that seemed to hover closest to joining that visionary quartet of entities cited above was Some Bizarre Records, an eccentric and enduring venture that lent a hand in the baking of all sorts of interesting musical pies.

Some Bizarre was formed by an audacious upstart named Stevo Pearce, a guy haunting the wide-open electronic/experimental fringes of the late-‘70s punk explosion, his lingering reputation perhaps best summed-up as a pricklier version of Mute’s Daniel Miller. As a DJ he reportedly engaged in all sorts of provocative behavior, in one instance spinning six different records at once, and unsurprisingly this earned him esteem with some as a sort of trailblazing, button-pushing visionary.

It wasn’t long before he was contributing to Sounds, which along with NME and Melody Maker was one of the big three Brit music weeklies of the time. All were pulpy newsprint publications that exuded a strong allure as they ended up getting stuffed, often months out of date, into the magazine racks of US Mom & Pop record shops way back when. I never glimpsed Stevo’s contributions to Sounds with mine own eyes. In fact only a few copies of the rag ever managed to land in my knowledge thirsty mitts, and by then the input of Mr. Pearce was long gone, his role having been to compile a “Futuristic Chart” that was apparently made up of demo tapes of unknown unsigned bands. Man, what a sweet gig.

But thankfully Stevo wasn’t satisfied with being a just a tastemaker. He wanted to move some units, and struck upon the idea of compiling a batch of the unsigned bands he’d heard onto a record, with the result becoming his label’s first release, the bluntly titled Some Bizarre Album. Now, the inaugural entries into the discographies of the heavyweight post-punk imprints often lack widespread recognition years after their first pressings, see 4AD’s opening salvo “Junction One” by The Fast Set for example, and the contents of Some Bizarre Album do indeed have some of that, even including a cut by The Fast Set that reinforces how these modest moguls were often on the same page in the book of breaking new stylistic ground.

But Some Bizarre Album also holds a few names that require mention in any study of the decade’s post-punk progression, so it’s far more than just a minor beginning to a story of lasting musical impact. Side one, denoted as the Fish Side, begins with “Tidal Flow” by Illustration, an obscure group from the outskirts of Manchester that existed from ’79 to ’81, for years known only for the track on this comp.

It’s a nice bit of late-period Joy Div-inspired moodiness, except that instead of examining the dark qualities of vocalist Ian Curtis, Tony Harrison embodies the mode of the crooner. And that’s a situation which became far more common as the ‘80s polished up the attitudes of early post-punk for wider consumption, a circumstance that inevitably brought an atmosphere of lesser returns. But at this point Illustration offer a quite likeable if non-mind-blowing variation upon a sound that many had no compunction about unabashedly ripping off. “Tidal Flow” is chilly, yet it possesses a palpable sense of poppy extroversion and is strong enough to make me which they’d recorded more. Well, they did cut a single with big-name producer Marin Hannett, but it remained unreleased until a couple years ago, and I’ve yet to hear it.

I have heard a whole lot of Depeche Mode over the years, however. And the band’s most bonkers fans probably already know that Some Bizarre Album was the home of the Mode’s first ever recording “Photographic,” but it’s a fact that bears repeating for more casual listeners who might’ve assumed they burst onto the scene fully formed with Speak and Spell, their first LP for Mute. It’s said that “Photographic” was recorded in one take, and it does ooze the vigor of a young band that’s determined to prove they have their thing totally together.

Style-wise it leans to the Germanic Neue Deutsche Welle, which is to say it’s a little robotic. But it’s also a fine example of the soon to depart Vince Clark’s shrewd melodic touch. This track is easily findable elsewhere (and in different versions), but hearing it in the context of the fledgling verve this compilation brings, gives it a little added something. They were once just another band amongst many.

At the point of Some Bizarre Album’s formulation The The was such an unruly, unsigned concern that the cut here didn’t even have a name. “Untitled” is a buzzy bit of experimental percolation, quite different from the more pop-focused tracks that proceed it on the album and for that matter the more accessible nature of Matt Johnson’s later stuff under the moniker of The The. It’s somewhat closer to the original issue of Johnson’s ’81 debut for 4AD Blue Burning Soul, a very good, at times excellent record that featured the playing of Wire’s Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis.

That record was later reissued under the banner of The The and fudged by replacing certain tracks with different mixes. Search out the original if you’re interested. But “Untitled” is also worth knowing. It feels initially like a disheveled throwaway, but like so much post-punk that falls to the DIY end of the spectrum, it really gains traction with repeated spins. And the way Johnson’s guitar, distorted and yet anemic, blends with the rigidity of the drumbox beats is a real treat.

Next up is B-Movie, a band that landed some devotion from certain heavy-duty synth-pop addicts of my youth’s acquaintance with their ’85 release on Sire Forever Running. I wasn’t a convert however, and haven’t heard the record in well over two decades. But I’ve always dug “Moles,” their entry found here, probably because it reminds me a bit of Ultravox. Not a great tune perhaps, but it does provide a worthy example of a rock sensibility cohabitating with that synth-driven icy disposition, a relationship that sorta evaporated as time marched forward.

“I Dare Say it Will Hurt a Little” is the only work by Jell, a project that features a member of Cabaret Voltaire in Eric Random as well as producer Colin Richardson. There’s also a Lisa Lisa in the band, but I can’t imagine it’s the one that fronted the Cult Jam. Their track is a down-tempo excursion where emotionally detached femme vox meet edgy guitar and a squeaky clarinet while a bass adds weight and an attractively dinky programmed rhythm provides some needed motion. What results isn’t brilliant, but it’s also pretty good. I admit to being a softy for this kind of artiness, though.

And “Central Park” by Blah Blah Blah wraps up the Fish Side with a pure mainline injection of just that sort of artiness, and it’s a cinch for most folk’s least favorite cut on the record. Basically a male voice relating a story of seeing a guy on a horse in the song’s titular location and the curious fallout that the sighting inspires, the music that accompanies it has always struck me as a little bit Ralph Records (or maybe even Los Angeles Free Music Society) and a nudge like the avant weirdness that emerged in downtown NYC a bit later. And it has often struck me after listening to “Central Park” that I should seek out Blah Blah Blah’s other stuff (there is a single and a couple albums) but I never have. I’ve frequently just reached for Heiner Goebbels’ The Man in the Elevator instead. Harrumph.

The Eye Lamp side opens with “Sad Day” from Blancmange, a very nifty instrumental tune that combines Neil Arthur’s extremely pretty guitar melody with keyboard, synth, and tape rhythm from Stephen Luscombe. The track succeeds in nailing that cheap Casio-like feel that countless bands have hit upon in the last dozen years or so, a sound that at the time of “Sad Day”’s creation was quite cutting edge, to use the parlance of the time. Blancmange went on to a few years of commercial success, and their debut continues to stand as a good example of smart early-‘80s techno-pop (think OMD). But I can’t deny that I’ve always dug “Sad Day” best.

Soft Cell’s “The Girl with the Patent Leather Face” is a real doozy. Best known for a cover of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love,” that song, while fairly representative of what the group was about, also didn’t really get at the extremes of which they were capable. This does. It combines lurid imagery via lyrics that a high school sophomore might consider overblown as delivered by Marc Almond, who alternates between near ranted spoken passages and an uninhibited cabaret style while Dave Ball sets to establishing the trashy electronic ambiance. It’s definitely a take it or leave it proposition, halfway between William Burroughs and the mental fumes of an apocalypse-minded drag queen. Upon consideration, I think I’ll take it.

Neu Electrikk is spoken of often in regard to early electronic/post-punk goings on, but they only recorded a pair of singles. The track found here “Lust of Berlin” is the a-side to the first, and the looming shadow of the Thin White Duke looms large upon it. While it’s an okay declaration of influence, it’s also never impacted me as being much more than that. It does feature some solid guitar and even a little sax bleating, so it goes down pretty easy.

Naming your band Naked Lunch is probably being a wee bit too obvious. And at the time of release the group’s “La Femme” likely sounded a little ominous and a mite decadent. These days it mainly seems like they had the same ideas as many others regarding the use of the new technology and the appropriate accompanying themes and moods. With this said Naked Lunch registers as being somewhat ahead of the pack, though the modesty of production ultimately marks it as of a certain vintage. And without those studio “limitations” I suspect this would be a much less enjoyable tune.

It seems that The Fast Set recorded only four songs in their short lifespan. Two of them were covers of Mr. Marc Bolan. And why not? “King of the Rumbling Spires,” a gloriously loose and half reverent take on the classic track from the Steve Peregrin Took-era Tyrannosaurus Rex, succeeds through sheer charisma, and its casualness manages to counterbalance Some Bizarre Album’s general aura of seriousness. Smart move there Stevo.

The Loved One, a duo comprised of Dryden Hawkins and Zeb Yek, wrap up the proceedings. It’s a nice bit of melodic (though non-pop) experimentalism, with squishy synths interlacing with guitar amp residue as Hawkins sings. And his rather mannered, not quite operatic style takes a little getting used to, but once that’s managed “Observations” is a winner. They have other material but I’ve never knowingly been in the same room with any of it. More’s the pity.

Some Bizarre Album isn’t perfect, but compilations rarely are. A large part of Some Bizarre’s charm was that it took big chances by promoting artists that did the same. Some paid off and some didn’t. And so it was from the beginning.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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