Graded on a Curve:
The Adverts,
Crossing the Red Sea with The Adverts

Talk about your one-chord wonders. England in the mid- to-late seventies was awash in them, punk bands that woke up to the fact that you didn’t have to be Queen to seize the stage and play rock and roll. The spirit of the day was “Look ma! I just picked up a guitar ten minutes ago and played my first gig last night!” And it was The Adverts who perfectly captured that spirit on the opening cut of their 1978 debut LP Crossing the Red Sea with The Adverts, “One Chord Wonders.”

Early arrivals on London’s punk scene, The Adverts perfectly encapsulated The Replacements’ sentiment “I hate music/ Sometimes I don’t/I hate music/It’s got too many notes.” And on “One Chord Wonders”—a feedback-laced hit of pure punk amphetamine—they turn it into both a point of pride and a manifesto. Their message: “I wonder how we’ll answer when you say/”We don’t like you – go away”/”Come back when you’ve learned to play.” And, “The wonders don’t care–we don’t give a damn.” On “Bored Teenagers” they channel the ennui of a time when the only way to get a job was with a personal referral from the Queen. Looking for something new isn’t paying off, opines T.V. Smith, tying yourself to the railway tracks isn’t a completely unreasonable idea, and everyone’s “looking for love/or should I say emotional rages.”

“New Church” is stripped-to-the-bone power pop in an era when power pop meant the Raspberries, On it T.V. Smith gobs on the notion that the meek shall inherit the earth, so he intends to stick with the winners: “So long – goodbye to the blind and the weaklings/I’ll follow my feelings/Be strong – I’ll do what I want.” “On the Roof “ is a drag that picks itself up only to fall down again, and what Smith is getting at is adult hypocrisy, which he wishes was a joke—he’s “waiting for the punchline” but it ain’t coming, and in the meantime he’ll “be on the roof/Waiting for you/Where we’ll hide.”

“Newboys” is a crash-and -burn slice of, well, I’m not sure what. The only things I know for sure are Smith’s final “Don’t you touch me!” is as powerful as the guitar solo that follows. The urgent “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” is the band’s signature song, and is almost enough to make you rethink the merits of organ donation. “Bombsite Boy” opens as a slow crawl that perks up, and leads us through the rubble left by the bombs that rained down on London during the Battle of Britain. Smith’s home grounds don’t bring him down—”I don’t believe you have to be an idiot/To get somewhere these days,” he sings, or sell your soul for that matter, and he for one doesn’t intend to close his eyes or be mesmerized by the ruins that is England itself.

“No Time to Be 21″ combines the hope of your more optimistic punkers (yes they existed) and the Sex Pistols; “Life’s short, don’t make a mess of it,” sings Smith, “To the ends of the earth, you’ll look for a sense in it,” only to follow that with “It’s no time to be 21/To be anyone.” And he and his generation revel in their rejection; “We’ll be your untouchables/We’ll be your outcasts/We don’t care what you projects on us/It’s no time to be 21.” “Safety in Numbers” could be a companion piece of the Minutemen’s “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?” “What about the new wave?,” sings Smith. “Did you think it would change things?/It’s just safety in numbers.” Smith’s contempt is obvious in stanzas like:

“When it’s tricky, when it gets tough,
When you need to feel that you’re good enough,
All you pretty people who’ve been taken over.
Had better start looking for your own answers.
‘Cause there’s no safety in numbers anyway,
Or in a new wave.”

“New Day Dawning” casts Smith in an inspirational light: “Don’t be a hero because we don’t need them,” sings Smith–what are needed are “panthers and poets.” But is the song so inspirational after all? Lines like “Prepare to lose/Prepare to harden to distress/This ain’t your system/You’re just second-generation business” are just what the world’s always needed; a cross between “Born to Lose” and Norman Vincent Peale.

The cryptic “On Wheels” appears to be a show of compassion for the forgotten old (“What’s left in the wheelchair?/Who bothers what’s in there?/Who worries what life’s like on wheels?”) but its final line throws everything in doubt: “I wish,” he sings, “This embrace could last forever.” On the “Great British Mistake” Smith sails like a bird over his failed country and concludes “They’ll have to come to terms now, they’ll take it out somehow/They’ll blame it all on something/The British mistake—when will it be over?/How can they avoid it?” The squall of guitar at the end hardly bodes well.

Idle hands make for pissed punks, and England’s stodgy establishment, combined with catastrophic unemployment, left the country’s disaffected youth little to do but rage against those responsible and vent their spleen on those who made England’s punks scapegoats. The Adverts kept their eyes and ears open, and what they saw and heard was hardly encouraging. They may have been one-chord wonders, but they were hardly in the position to perform miracles. No one was. The Great British Mistake was to carry on, mind the gap, and pretend the Empire was as strong as ever. The bombsite boys knew different.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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