Happy Refugees: Thoughts on Beyond Moth and Rust

For devoted record obsessives, few joys are as exhilarating or rewarding as THE DISCOVERY—the moment you uncover a GREAT overlooked band that’s been inexplicably ignored or forgotten.

I live for those moments. But as most record crate diggers worth their weight in limited edition seven-inch pressings know, the truly revelatory discoveries don’t happen every day. They happen infrequently, and when you least expect it—almost by some cosmic design to ensure the band in question hits you with the maximum possible impact.

That’s exactly what happened when I first heard Happy Refugees. A few years before Acute Records valiantly rescued and reissued their classic 1984 mini-LP “Last Chance Saloon,” I experienced that only too uncommon feeling of exhilarated discovery thanks to the Mutant Sounds blog, where some kind soul had shared the record with unsuspecting music fans.

I was immediately struck by the band’s restless creativity and sense of adventure, the wonderfully odd way they married the shambolic with the elegant, the unexpected left turns, the often cinematic scope of their reach, and just the sheer quality of everything I was hearing. To my ears, Happy Refugees were every bit as thrilling and imaginative as cult post-punk heroes like Television Personalities, The Monochrome Set, and The Fall.

How could this band go unnoticed for so long?

Thankfully, the tide began to turn in 2011 when Acute Records reissued Last Chance Saloon. The record received well-deserved plaudits from discerning music scribes. Happy Refugees were getting name-checked by contemporary indie favorites Crystal Stilts and Cloud Nothings. Word was starting to get around.

When Crystal Stilts invited Happy Refugees to New York to play a rollicking, sold-out show at the Knitting Factory in December 2011, the band didn’t disappoint. Not only did they grace the crowd with inspired live renditions of classic Saloon favorites, they played several new numbers—all of them scorchers. It was clear that this was a band firing on all cylinders.

February 2012. The NME includes Last Chance Saloon on its “100 Great Albums You’ve Never Heard” list, with some nice commentary from Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings.

Fast forward to 2015. It’s been over 30 years since Happy Refugees released their remarkable mini-LP, and the band has somehow not only reconvened to record again, but they’ve delivered an inspired follow-up, Beyond Moth and Rust. All the qualities that captivated me in the first place are still here—the band’s vigor, knack for sharp hooks and capacity to surprise remain undiminished by time.

Great songs are in abundance. Album opener “What’s Your Appeal” is a shining example of vocalist Tim Shutt’s mastery of language as a rhythmic device. The track unfurls in a seductive manner at first, gradually building in intensity as Shutt uses repetition and unconventional rhyme schemes to dazzling effect. When the track explodes into a bruising, euphoric finale, it’s easy to see why it’s already become a live favorite.

The band showcases a more tender side on “Grasp the Nettle,” a love song as pretty as anything the Go-Betweens ever wrote, with its gently strummed chords, flickering keyboards, and enticing chorus. It also has the added bonus of Shutt comparing the sensation of falling in love to “puncturing an artery.”

While age may have deepened the band’s appreciation of sophisticated wordsmithing, it hasn’t diminished their interest in barbed jolts of brash rock and roll. The title track captures the band at their most edgy and idiosyncratic, with odd chord patterns and a sneaky hook that singes as much as it sticks.

Like all great Happy Refugees tracks, “Collapse” plays off the dichotomies that make the band so special. The first part feels like a foreboding movie cue—beginning with stark, tip-toeing piano, only to be followed a few moments later by a lonely guitar line. But right at the moment when the full weight of the song’s melancholy begins to sink in, the band veers into a driving, punk-fueled four-on-the-floor chorus. In theory, this kind of stylistic schizophrenia probably shouldn’t work, but in practice it manages to come across as strangely organic—a testament to the Refugees’ skill as songwriters.

Another new personal favorite is “Slaving for a Rainy Day,” which stomps along to a deep, rockabilly-locked groove with a call and response chorus that’s so irresistible it’s hard not to imagine Mark E Smith raising a pint glass in approval.

The band hasn’t abandoned their ’70s-era New York influences either, as “Backlash Prayer” can attest. Channeling more than a pinch of The New York Dolls, “Backlash” is like a savvy update of “Screaming and Shouting” from the Last Chance Saloon record, with an old school rock and roll flavor for the 21st Century school.

The album also veers into abstract experimentation and stark introspection in interesting ways. “Hope Street” is eerily moody in the way it marries unpredictable rhythms to intermittent guitar patterns, while “Unstable Recovery” concludes the record on a genuinely affecting note, ruminating on the uncertainty associated with recovery from a serious illness.

An additional download track—“Walking Around, Parts 1, 2 and 3”—is a three-part suite that reminds us just how wide in scope the Happy Refugees musical ambition is. The track shifts from gently strummed acoustic guitars and plaintive music box keyboards to a surprising a cappella section before drifting further into abstraction with each passing measure. It forces you to pause for a few moments while you try to comprehend everything you’ve just heard.

In the overhyped, sensationalized world of London’s new wave pop scene circa 1984, Happy Refugees failed to find an audience. They were everything the commercial new wave scene wasn’t: edgy, daring, contradictory and yes, punk—in the best, most open-ended sense.

And here they are again—more than 30 years later—with a triumphant new record that offers the band a second chance.

At a time when ambition is synonymous with chart sales and bad haircuts, the music world is desperate for the unbridled creativity of Happy Refugees.

Yes, their creative muse brought them back. But I’d like to think we—the fans—brought them back too. After all, we need them. And so do a whole bunch of music listeners who have yet to discover them (they just don’t know it yet.) Welcome back lads. I get the distinct impression you’re here to stay.

Happy Refugees’ Beyond Moth and Rust is unreleased Stateside but is available via mail order through Rough Trade U.K. and Piccadilly Records.

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Happy Refugees

    @happyrefugees also want to let you know that you can buy this record or download direct from our website happyrefugees.com. We can can ship to you direct.

  • Rick Taylor

    Good news for us Yanks! Happy Refugees are so fond of their American fans that they are kindly offering to ship the “Beyond Moth and Rust” LP to anyone in the U.S. who orders it from their website (happyrefugees.com) at a special discounted rate for a limited time. Yes, downloads are cool, but having the actual vinyl is so worth it, especially THIS record. The inner gatefold sleeve is truly a work of art to behold! So do the right thing and treat yourself to this lovely new record.

  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text