Personally, I think ‘Music For Pleasure’ is a gas. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but unlike The Jam’s near contemporaneous ‘This Is The Modern World’, it shows a true progression on its makers’ debut album and – to these ears at least – doesn’t sound rushed at all. In fact, so taken was I with its relatively sophisticated, slightly prog-infused vibe that I all but disowned the back-to-basics output that the reformed, James-less Damned spilled onto the masses a couple of years later. And I never went back. As their first record label would say, if it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck, and that applies to The Damned in my book. Two fine albums, a handful of 45s of mostly high quality, and goodbye.
I suspect that a lot of folks’ issue with ‘Music For Pleasure’ may lie with the 45 that opens the album, ‘Problem Child’. Certainly from this punter’s perspective, it’s the weakest track here and doesn’t inspire confidence in what’s to follow. Co-credited between Brian James and Rat Scabies, it may be the drummer who is largely responsible for a one-dimensional tune which, unlike his minimalist masterpiece ‘Stab Yor Back’ on the first LP, hasn’t the energy to save it from yawndom. It drags, and seems to last a lot longer than the two minutes thirteen seconds it actually does.
Once that’s over, the vim is back – and how. ‘Don’t Cry Wolf’ and ‘One Way Love’ are Brian James-by-numbers riff fests with loads of ooomph and choruses that infuse the cranium like acid. ‘Politics’ is faster still, with some well-weird time signature abuse in its verses, a barmy lyric that expounds anything but what its title suggests (“Give me fun, not anarchy”) and an opening guitar lick that floors me every time I hear it. The two guitar line-up really makes its presence felt here. ‘Stretcher Case’, a re-recorded version of one side of a freebie single given away at The Damned’s summer gigs, is another James/Scabies co-write, thankfully blessed with more character and verve than that iffy opening track.
This far (ten minutes!) into the album, it’s been Brian James' own songs that have stimulated the grey matter. But then comes ‘Idiot Box’, a Sensible/Scabies affair, that closes the first side and really turns ‘Music For Pleasure’ upside down – in a good way. On the face of it a puerile diatribe against New York new wavers Television (I’ve never understood why), ‘Idiot Box’ is built around a staggering, jazz-influenced riff which is as far away from barre-chord simplicity as punk would ever get. That gives way in turn to a chorus lick which owes more to heavy metal, before moving to an extended coda where James gets to show off some insanely fast, high neck string plucking over Lu’s arpeggio chords. It’s punk, Jim, but not as we know it – and certainly not as we expected it in the fall of ’77. Whatever the genre, it’s fabulous: one of the standout tracks in an already great year. And it’s totally at odds with everything The Damned had released up to that point …and maybe beyond.
The rest of ‘Music For Pleasure’ is purely Brian James inspired, aside from a Dave Vanian co-credit on ‘Your Eyes’, a song built around a particularly adroit, mid-paced riff with I suspect deliberate ambiguity in the way Vanian pronounces the second word of the title (I won’t spoil it for you, but I hear another part of the anatomy… maybe it’s just me!). All five tracks – the last James would write for the band – are well up the standard set by ‘New Rose’, but two – ‘Alone’ and the closing ‘You Know’ – are little short of astounding.
‘Alone’ is as frantic a Damned song as ever existed, its 200mph riff defying all melodic and rhythmic logic while Scabies out-Moons his greatest inspirer with serious cymbal abuse and Vanian infuses another bile-filled lyric with his patented creepiness (Check out how he intones the “You're alone…and I love you” bit at the close – ugh!). It makes The Clash sound like a boyband by comparison and, musically speaking anyway, is a credible precursor to what the likes of Crass and Discharge would subsequently unleash upon the world – and I’m sure I don’t need to emphasise how influential that was.
I’ve always loved fade-ins, and ‘You Know’ has a great one. Yet another superb James riff (on the face of it simple but no one else would ever have come up with it) rises from the depths and roots itself into your consciousness like an alien in John Hurt’s gut. Delivered at a steady yet relentless pace, on and on it goes, relieved only by a not dissimilar lick after each chorus. Towards the end none other than Lol Coxhill enters, blowing some serious free jazz genius over the melle. In fact, he gets the last word as his multi tracked soprano sax closes the record alone. It makes for a close that seems resolved, yet unresolved, at the same time. I find the only way to effectively deal with it is to play the LP right through again (minus ‘Problem Child’, natch) but then the same issue arises half an hour later. Kinda strange, but I like it.
And through it all lies that Pink Floyd drummer’s production which, while unaffected, takes nothing away from the vitality of the songs and, I think, actually makes ‘Music For Pleasure’ sound much more original and relevant today than another Nick Lowe treble-fest would have done (and I speak as a true admirer of Basher in all of his guises). By the time they came to make their second album, the dying Damned had progressed every bit as much as the Canterbury bands that had so thrilled their bassist at the start of the decade and needed, in turn, a producer who could capture that change without losing their ever-present energy. Much as I wonder what ‘MFP’ would have sounded like with a Madcap production job, I’ve never had a problem with Nick Mason’s production skills. After all, no-one to my knowledge has ever criticised the way ‘Rock Bottom’ sounds, and if he was good enough for Robert Wyatt, I’m Damned sure he was good enough for this lot.
Contrary to its critics and creators, ‘Music For Pleasure’ is precisely that. Great sleeve too!