Various Artists: The Akron Compilation (Stiff); Short Circuit — Live at the Electric Circus (Virgin)

OH JESUS! After Devo, the (marketing) deluge.

If Devo’s message to the world (such as it is) has included the fact that geeks can become superstars as well as macho clods and instrument worshipping idiots, then the Stiff Akron album moves in sharp in the wake of their lease deal for three Devo singles to capitalise on any Akron sound and promote geek chic. The shit-detectors begin to ring instantly. They wouldn’t ring so persistently if this was put out as just another buncha local bands from kindanyville, USA, but the whole (lavish) packaging, promotion and pre-release hype has been such to indicate that this is (erk) the ‘NEXT BIG THING’…It isn’t.

Such promotion is, of course, part of Stiff’s method — as an indie they have to be more alert, sharper and more blatant, but it doesn’t cover the fact that any compilation of groups arbitrarily lumped together because of geography is rarely cohesive let alone “fun listening”. Remember the Mersey/SF/Bosstown/etc sound? No? That’s part of the point. And, add the usual “wacky” Stiff hypeola that us childlike media persons always like to have dangled in our greedy faces — balloons tickets caps AND a scratch ‘n’ sniff sleeve (rubber) — and…this little piggy overdosed, funsters!

That the album shows evidence of hanging together in parts can probably be attributed to the fact that there is a certain interchange of musicians and liberal helpings of one Liam Sternberg, who’s mainly responsible for the best cuts. Also responsible for these are Jane Aire and Rachel Sweet, now both Stiff recording artistes from the evidence of the promo pics attached here.

Aire’s ‘When I Was Young’ and ‘I’m An Actress’ are both excellent minor league pop, both under-achieved for modern radio purposes but to these ears more appealing as such. True garage style, A certain quirkiness is added to solid hooks and an individual sensibility: ‘Young’ is the best tune on the album dissolving into an anachronistic yet effective phased ending.

‘Actress’ is probably the album’s classic, showing you Aire’s true suburbarn roots as she claws: ‘So you think you hold all the cards, do you? Well I’m walking right out of here! If you wanna reach me, I’m in Madrid!All right Jim, I admit it! ‘I’ve been having an affair — so what? Haven’t you been having yours? I get it: you OWN your little wife don’t you?’ to a surging, falling chorus ‘Get the contracts ready baby!’ Duplex duplicity from a very real kind of hell.

Rachel Sweet is sixteen and precocious. (Whose Merc, Rachel?). Attempts Dolly Parton on ‘Truckstop Queen’ and makes it her own, but the reggaefied ‘Tourist Boys’ hits some kind of entropy in the middle, as indeed does the second side. The Bizarros’ ‘Nova’ is the Velvets set to authentic garage band dynamics (that’s a compliment) where sloppiness can mean freshness and (even) excitement: reassuring in its very predictability.

‘Slide’ by the Waitresses slips along with no gaps no resolution in a curiously claustrophobic way, while ‘Clones’ — for some reason not credited on the sleeve — ends the second side with the album’s other ace in the hole. The definitive answer to ‘Are we not men?’: ‘MuhmuhmuhMUHmuhmuhmuhMUHmuhmuhmuhMUH there are millions of them there are millions of weClooones — disposable men disposable men/Clooones — just throw us away just throw us away/we like it this way, we’re not men/we’re just Clooones‘ Chi-pig’s ‘Apu-Api’, the preceding cut, is a tantalising oddity, reminiscent of Beefheart’s ‘Clear Spot’ in jerkiness, slide guitar and build, although anonymous in length.

From here on it’s downhill fast: Idiots Convention aim high and yearn, with some bad acid guitar (Mad River) offering no atmosphere except a shrill kind of dead-end boredom, while Tin Huey’s ‘Chinese Circus’ is self-consciously “weird” in a peculiarly prissy manner. Sniper’s ‘Love Is Making Me Bleed’ and the klutzish chauvinism of Rubber City Rebels are entirely disposable. Into the incinerator…

It’s at least better than expected and, at £2.99 for 14 cuts, good enough value, but is mainly for those who like American garage bands and various degrees of odd-ball. They exist and they’ve always existed. So forget about this being a ‘new trend’ or something you gotta possess to get hip.

VIRGIN’S ELECTRIC CIRCUS album hits rather more severe problems fast. As a projected documentary of the last two nights of Manchester’s Electric Circus In October last — the closure by the council itself living proof of our bureaucrats’ inability to think in human terms — it falls between several possible stools so comprehensively that, if it were for me to say it (and, strictly, as a last minute attender, it isn’t), it stands as nothing else than a disgustingly shoddy testament to some great music and a unique atmosphere, also confirming rumours that Virgin didn’t know what the hell to do with the tapes. Although, such is the state of the game, it’s beautifully packaged…

It’s mainly worth your attention for the first appearance of The Fall on record. ‘Steppin’ Out’ sensibly opens the album — it’s the best cut — with muscular modern dance. Hypnotic tune, electric piano fills and growled lyrics: ‘I used to believe everything I read (X 3but that’s OK ‘cos now I’M STEPPIN’ OUT! I used to stay in the house and never go out, but now I’m STEPPIN’ OUT’, ‘Last orders’ likewise shows the signs of greatness to come, in its formative stages: ‘Everybody’s in prison or in the army, all sincere, all phoney, reading all their books, taking in the news, they’ve just given me their last orders!’ Now, if they make a movie…

Elsewhere the inimitable John Cooper-Clarke runs through the brilliantly accurate ‘Daily Express’ and the less inspired although atmospheric ‘I Married A Monster From Outer Space’, Joy Division (then Warsaw) likewise run through ‘At A Later Date’, which, like their EP Design For Living hints at a promise yet to be fulfilled, and Steel Pulse rhythmically for six minutes with ‘Makka Splaff’, tailing off towards the end; in context, isolated. The Drones’ punk-by-numbers ‘Persecution Complex’ is best forgotten unless you excavate one bass line, and it’s left to an exhausted and emotional Buzzcocks to call time with (you guessed it) ‘Time’s Up’, which serves as an odd reminder (and one which they’re apparently none too happy about) of a time when they weren’t so experienced or well known.

The 10-inch format — gear marketing/instant collectability natch — makes for paltry running time: certainly not enough to establish any atmosphere. And, from personal recollection, that’s what the last night, at least, was mostly about.

By beefing the production, sanitising the audience sounds, and generally aiming the album at a putative, ‘wider audience’, Virgin have stripped the original project of any authenticity, and neutered what was to these eyes and ears one of the finest night’s music ever. Add the tantalising glimpses on the sleeve of great unrecorded bands like the Worst and the Prefects, and you realise what a documentary and musical waste-land this album is, in context.

Add also the non-inclusion of the Negatives, John the Postman, Magazine (but of course not) and the melee at the end, which although admittedly questionable on musical grounds (the first two at least) still were a vital part of the night, and you have an album which I’d be surprised if it pleased many. Those who were there will have to make do with it (and the Paul Morley sleevenotes seem to sum up an era) and those who weren’t might want to check out The Fall. Otherwise…you get what you’re given! On blue vinyl of course…

Look: just a couple of final points. The first is easily dealt with: compilations are notoriously tricky affairs and are at best transitory in appeal or worth. It’s not possible to please everybody of course but you can always hope. These two follow the pattern down to the last groove and are therefore recommended to be approached with a certain caution unless you’re specially attracted.

In both cases here, two fairly unappetising albums (and the fact that the ‘Electric Circus’ is such hurts) are dressed up in scratch ‘n’ sniff sleeves/blue vinyl/10-inch, hinting at a desperation which is spreading to the whole rock ‘industry’…obsessed by packaging which in the end has little to do with music. New tricks. New gimmicks. First thrashings of protracted death throes. I don’t want to alarm you, but some foundations are built on sand…

© Jon SavageSounds, 24 June 1978

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