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Put simply, The Exploited's first album is perfect evidence of a band being so much more influential in terms of their concept than the music itself. Thirty odd minutes of simple, fast paced, furious Punk Rock may not sound much to the common listener, but it's with these thirty minutes and seventeen songs that “Punk's not Dead” is surely proved to be a worthwhile album. Comprised of no other than an aggressive ex-soldier from Scotland in Wattie Buchan, alongside three other equally as “politically correct” musicians who barely sound as if they so much as knew what the names of their respective instruments were, The Exploited began as a political statement. That statement can safely be summed up thusly:
“PUNK IS NOT FUCKIN' DEAD!”
Whatever you would expect from a Punk Rock album released in 1981 can probably be found in spades on this particular album, as it is musically one of the simplest and unsophisticated releases ever made. However, it is also a very organic and live-sounding record. Right from the opening title track, rowdy chants of a menacing yet youthful following of the band literally take place of the guitars, drums and bass work, until a chainsaw riff cuts through your ears as easily as a knife would through butter. This, if you haven't yet worked out, is indeed the staple of The Exploited's sound. Every one of the following sixteen songs generally follows in the same way, and for every change in tempo or every lyric that includes the well known 'F' word, there is always innocent, youthful banter between each member of the band or even a devoted fan of Punk Rock.
Lyrically speaking, it both sounds and reads as if a six-year old could have done it easily, but at the same time, all you need to do is look at this album's title, and discover the answer to that question, or the solution to whatever problem or quip you might have. In the very satirical 'Royalty' Buchan orders you to “Sign me a picture of the queen now/Dirty little Bitch, fucking little Cow”, whereas in the equally as aggressive “Son of a Copper” all known innocence of any individual is scoured when Wattie spits out “I won't end up like my Dad/And I won't end up being a Screw/Working with animals in a Zoo”. As said before, these could be advantages or disadvantages to any budding listener, but it is the idea that this album is nothing more than staple of classic Punk Rock, and quite rightfully so. Even when songs such as 'Exploited barmy Army' and 'Sex and Violence' literally depend on out of control repetition of their respective song titles, it works in such a way that, although hard to forget, can be forgiven when reviewing this album professionally. This may well be part of the fact that not only Wattie Buchan, but also every other member of the band contributes to vocals, whether it is the soulful group shouting/singing/screaming or the sole example of any member's voice. It's all heartfelt (!), menacing stuff, but it's stuff that manages to stay directly in contact with the 'Back-to-Basics' approach of playing Punk Rock.
The instruments themselves however are probably the main problem here. It's not exactly a well concealed fact that the band had tried to emulate the rawness of albums such as “Never Mind The Bollocks” or The Clash's self-titled debut, but “Punk's Not Dead” could well have benefited more from a clearer and more definitive approach to practising instruments more than was perceived upon the album's release. For instance, the guitar work, whilst it does have a couple of tempo changes, never really attempts to show off to the listener with its plain existence, whereas the bass is more than just a little prominent. As well as this, the bass proves its worth on the album by introducing many of the album's tracks in 'Mucky Pup' and 'Free Flight', the latter of which basically centres around the instrument's performance.
The only other thing that hasn't been said so far about the album is the significance of the song structures themselves. The song structures in “Punk's Not Dead” can be perceived as a 'Love/Hate' relationship by each respective listener. Whereas the more straightforward, battering ram approach of 'Cop Cars', 'Army Life' (an ode to Wattie Buchan's life prior to The Exploited) and 'Blown to Bits' constantly impresses those who lust for classic Punk, the more tense likes of 'Dole Q' and the extremely sinister 'Out of Control' serve as two of the album's true highlights, offering not only an unsettling sound but also a deviation from the norm. However, the last point simply points towards the fact that whereas some listeners love this difference in structure, others may be disinterested simply because of the fact that they are used to short bursts of Punk Rock, speeding along at eighty miles per hour.
If ever you wanted to know just why the phrase “Punk's not Dead” is thrown around as much as it is, this album is definitively the answer. An erratic and chaotic collection of simplistic Punk Rock tunes, some sub-par, some above average, it is something that has been on this planet for the last thirty years, and has played a wonderful yet somewhat unnoticed part within three, perhaps, four decades of fast paced, furious and politically charged Punk. This album is honestly for everyone to listen to, but may only be kept like a prized possession by those who love and strive for the very existence of Punk Rock.
In one sense Johnny Rotten was the typical teenager, with his desperate desire to shock, such as the gleeful stressing of “c*nt” in Pretty Vacant and the gratuitous swearing in Bodies. Except that most teenagers are obsessed one way or another with sex, whereas Rotten seems strangely asexual. He doesn’t write about love and relationships. In fact he even had a massive hit with a song saying exactly that (This is Not A Love Song - Public Image Ltd).
Before the Sex Pistols, there was heavy metal, rock operas, glam rock and prog rock: all various forms of musical escapism. Yet thirty years after World War II, the country still writhed not just in economic disorder but social disarray, with unresolved issues such as mass immigration, welfare dependency, terrorism and cold war paranoia. Johnny Rotten returns us to earth with a bump, espousing a basic humanist philosophy, an articulate and eloquent diatribe on a post war dream gone wrong:
“You won’t find me working 9 to 5. It’s too much fun being alive. I’m using my feet for my human machine. You won’t find me living for the screen. Are you lonely? All your needs catered? You got your brains dehydrated!” (Problems)
“Die little baby screaming! Body screaming f*cking bloody mess!
Not an animal, it's an abortion! Body! I'm not animal!
Mummy I'm not an abortion.” (Bodies)
Don’t let yourself be fooled by Malcolm McLaren, the band’s avaricious and rent-a-quote manager, that the Sex Pistols were some kind of social experiment that he had fabricated. He was just hanging on to their coat-tails, milking the phenomenon for all it was worth. His subsequent interventions, such as his mockumentary “The great rock and roll swindle”, his replacement of Matlock with Vicious (as bass player), of Rotten with Vicious (as lead vocalist), of Vicious with Ronnie Biggs (a notorious career criminal), were woeful. Despite recording only one album and four singles, the impact of the Sex Pistols was phenomenal.
The commonly used "Irish Clash" tag is a lazy one, but there can be no denying the influence that Strummer and co had on SLF. Band leader Jake Burns has never made a secret of his admiration of the London legends, and cites his first spin of their classic self-titled debut as a key moment on his road towards forming his own group. The Clash's imprint can be found all over his songs too, with a similar balance of grit and melody appearing in the records more up-tempo moments. There's even a reggae crossover here in the form of their Bob Marley cover "Johnny Was," which along with the classic singles lifted from the album (more on them later) ranks among the highlights.
As well as being songwriter in-chief, Burns also acts as the single most important component of the band's sound throughout Inflammable Material. The record's production is red raw, but even less polished is the singer's voice, an intense, powerful and yes, angry weapon which gives the majority of his songs their added edge. Even more impressive are Burns' lyrics, which provide absolutely everything you'd want from an album made in such desperate context. As far as openings go, the shrill cry of "Inflammable material is planted in my head/ It's a suspect device that's left 2000 dead" takes some beating, and the album is packed full of similar moments of introspective genius. Take "Wasted Life" for instance, a stinging anti-militant anthem packed with refrains such as "I won't be a soldier/ I won't take no orders from no-one/ Stuff their fucking armies/ Killing isn't my idea of fun" which ring just as true today as they did when they were written 37 years ago.
"Wasted Life" and the aforementioned opener "Suspect Device" make up two thirds of a trio of singles which are quite simply stone-cold punk classics. The third, "Alternative Ulster" was also the most successful, topping the UK's independent chart but more importantly providing perhaps the most frank statement of dissatisfaction with their homeland on the whole record. The rest of it isn't half bad either, and can pack just as strong a punch. In true punk fashion, the band experienced a backlash to the raging blast of "White Noise," with many accusing them of being racists despite the fact that the song's underlying message is of quite the opposite stance. Not so controversial but equally thrilling are the likes of "No More Of That" and "Breakout," but amid those standard punk moments it's "Barbed Wire Love" which brings the biggest surprise. As its title alludes, it's lyrical core is as abrasive as Burns' other songs, but this composition also shows his more tender side, displaying a versatility which the band would come to expand on with subsequent releases.
Really, the only misstep here is finale "Closed Groove," a song which holds a similar level of lyrical brilliance as the 12 to it, but fits them around a melody which sounds pathetically amateur. Burns himself has never held back in his criticism of it, claiming that he's never rated it as a song, and deeply regrets including it an album where it simply doesn't fit. Aside from that though, there's not really much that you can fault with Stiff Little Fingers' debut. Its singles may rank as clear high-watermarks, but the same could be said of just about any classic punk album of its time, and the album tracks can certainly hold their own anyhow. They may have arrived a little late and thus missed out on the hysteria surrounding the genre's earlier bands, but Inflammable Material was just about as genuine as punk rock got, and for that reason alone it deserves to grace anyone's collection.
Standing On A Beach With A Gun In My Hand…
By Debra Rae Cohen
Sal Solo: Not really, because we came here with “Guilty” before MTV started. You know, “Guilty” was released in 1981, and the first time we came to America all we did was we went to a big kind of concert place in Manhattan called The Ritz. They were sort of introducing the New Wave of British bands, so I think that the week before us was Adam And The Ants and the next week was gonna be Spandeu Ballet then Duran Duran and then a few months later we came back and did a bit of a tour where we played Chicago and D.C. and some other places (I can’t quite remember them all) but this was probably the spring or the summer of ’81 …
SS: Yeah, I think that was sort of strange in a way, because it was always really a guitar rock band, and we were always doing the stadium gigs and really, it was just as near to U2 as it was to Spandau Ballet or something like Human League, as you say. And a lot of people didn’t really understand that, because they thought that the fashion was only about beat boxes and so on. But in a way, new movements in music, I think, generally speaking, kind of happen by accident. They’re not planned. I don’t think that a group of bands get together and say we’re going to start a new wave of music; it’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time. What was called the New Romantic thing at the time … I remember the first time that phrase was ever used. It was in one of the rock papers in the UK (it was NME or Sounds or something) and I think it was a member of the public that wrote in and said something about the New Romantics and mentioned Classix Nouveaux, Ultravox … And Japan was the other band, I think. All of us were groups that had been around a little while before that, but we weren’t really noticed because it wasn’t a fashion then. Interestingly, well, Ultravox was more kind of electronic than most of those early groups, but it was still more regular drums-and-guitars type stuff.