Saturday, July 16, 2022

Raise Some Eyebrows: Various Artists, "Agitprop: The Politics of Punk"

I absolutely adore compilations like this. Before the advent of streaming music services, compilations ranked as one of the easiest ways to discover new music. In no particular order, the primary discovery methods included record reviews in magazines and zines; thumbing through the bins at record stores (even Music World); browsing the mail-order listings from Blacklist Mailorder and catalogs from J&R Music World (and to a lesser extent, the Columbia Record Club); music video programs on television such as 120 Minutes, Headbangers Ball, and Night Flight; mix tapes made by friends; trading tapes through the mail; select radio shows and stations; and—clearly—compilation records and tapes. 

All required you to do something other than just keep listening. Outside of those approaches, there were very few ways to determine whether you’d like a given band based on your affinity for other bands. In some record stores, the staff could be quite helpful, even disambiguating between Butthole Surfers and Couch Flambeau, believe it or not. I bought many a record because a reviewer compared a band to Bad Religion, Crimpshrine, or Descendents in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll.

Even today, you’d be hard pressed to have an algorithm or recommended mix offer such a tightly aligned selection of songs as that offered on this comp. This three-CD collection—I’m reviewing only the first compact disc—focuses on political punk music, either bands that were overtly political or songs that are explicitly political. The comp offers the benefits of the best comps—and runs the risks that all such compilation projects pose.

Here’s the track list, including an unlisted 20th song, along with cursory release info:

  1. The Ex Pistols, “Land of Hope and Glory” (Virgina [not a typo], 1984)

  2. The Mekons, “Fight the Cuts” (CNT, 1982)

  3. Redskins, “Unionize” (1987)

  4. Billy Bragg, “It Says Here” (Go!, 1984)

  5. Penetration, “Don’t Dictate” (Virgin, 1977)

  6. Poison Girls, “Old Tart” (Small Wonder, 1979)

  7. The Three Johns, “Death of the European” (Abstract, 1985)

  8. New Model Army, “Spirit of the Falklands” (Abstract, 1984)

  9. Joolz, “Paved with Gold” (Abstract, 1984)

  10. Morgans, “Atishoo” (only released on comps, active in the mid-1990s!)

  11. Dead Kennedys, “Chemical Warfare” (Cherry Red, 1980)

  12. Angelic Upstarts, “The Murder of Liddle Towers” (self-released, 1978)

  13. Patrik Fitzgerald, “Irrelevant Battles (Small Wonder, 1978)

  14. Newtown Neurotics, “No Respect” (Razor, 1983)

  15. Stiff Little Fingers, “Suspect Device (Live)” (Rigid Digits, 1978; live on Link, 1988)

  16. Chelsea, “Right to Work” (Step-Forward, 1977)

  17. Chaos UK, “Selfish Few” (active in early 1980s, released on single comps in early 1990s)

  18. Chaotic Dischord, “Fuck Religion, Fuck Politics, Fuck the Lot of You” (Riot City, 1983)

  19. The Exploited, “Hitler’s in the Charts Again” (Secret, 1981)

  20. 999, “Bye Bye England” (active on major labels in late 1970s, collected in early 1990s)

On the upside, Agitprop is an excellent collection of adjacent and similar music. Mostly released on independent labels in the late 1970s to mid-1980s, the bands and songs represented are predominantly British. The Dead Kennedys are the one exception, even though Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables was released in the United Kingdom before Alternative Tentacles released it domestically.

The comp is also a wonderful mix of better-known (ahem, Billy Bragg) and lesser-known acts. For those listeners not already steeped in this kind of music, it’s sure to raise some eyebrows and tickle one’s fancy. For me, the surprises were the funky Redskins number reminiscent of the Clash, Penetration’s clarion call for freedom (among the oldest songs on the collection), the Three Johns (whoah; who are they?), and Patrik Fitzgerald’s brief barnstormer about distraction. I was also reminded how awesome the Mekons’ early recordings are—and how much the band has evolved; so glad they’re still recording—how one can always listen to more New Model Army, Angelic Upstarts, and Newtown Neurotics; and to spend more time with Poison Girls, an anarcho-punk band that was fronted by a middle-aged woman and worked closely with Crass.

If a listener digs a little deeper to learn more about where the songs come from—this collection didn’t come with much in the way of liner notes—one can even identify labels that might be worth more attention. In the case of this comp, Abstract Records and Small Wonder Records are the standouts. In addition to Joolz, New Model Army, and the Three Johns, Abstract also released records by Exposure, the Gymslips, Plain Characters, and Nikki Sudden—all of which I plan to check out. Similarly, Small Wonder—home of Patrik Fitzgerald and Poison Girls—also put out work by the Carpettes, the Cravats, and the Molesters, none of which I’ve previously been aware. (I would not have been able to so easily and quickly make those connections before the Web. Thank you, Discogs!)

On the downside, given the vagaries of clearing music rights, the collection occasionally offers odd versions of a song—because it’s the one they could secure rights for. So, instead of the Sex Pistols (newly relevant given the Disney+ TV show; see the Paul Cook interview in the current issue of Vive Le Rock), Agitprop includes a song by the Ex Pistols, Dave Goodman’s somewhat controversial sound-alike band (though the vocalist, credited as Rotten Johnny, could easily be mistaken for Johnny Rotten). We also get a live version—credited as such—of Stiff Little Fingers’ “Suspect Device,” though still wonderful, perhaps culled from a later performance. Redskins’ and Angelic Upstarts tracks are also live recordings. While the comp might feature original performers, these aren’t all necessarily initial recordings.

But the primary outlier on the disc is the Morgans song. The band, while British, was active well outside the era represented by the other tracks—a full decade later! Even though the song, “Atishoo,” is still relevant given COVID-19, it’s a bit of an odd duck on the collection. The band released several singles on Diversity and Rented Life in the mid-’90s and recorded an album. Gang of Four’s Andy Gill even produced some Morgans songs. But the band’s legacy is mostly left to strange occasional appearances on compilations, which vocalist Chloe LeFay credits to their former manager’s absconding with the rights. Ransom offers a wonderful examination of the history of the band in his blog Chronological Snobbery. The song was also included in Dressed to Kill’s six-CD 1999 compilation, The Shit Factory, which basically includes this CD—the first of Agitprop—as its fourth disc, quite the example of creative reuse.

In terms of the compilation’s theme, most of the songs are explicitly political—through the lens of the late 1970s and early 1980s—and address topics such as patriotism, labor organizing, truth in journalism, freedom, gender relations and rights, aging, homelessness, war, police brutality, double standards, and more. It strikes me that it’s odd to be so enthusiastic about a set of songs focusing on such dire subjects, but we need more music like this, not less.

As the CD’s back cover says, “Whoever you vote for, the government gets in.”

The songs are available as a playlist so you can start poking around yourself, too. The songs Spotify recommends at the end of the 20 tracks might not be as political, but the bands are definitely promising.

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