Various Artists - Strange Passion: Explorations in Irish Post Punk, [Cache Cache - 2012]
If this set of 14 songs says something profound about Ireland, it’s not necessarily evident. But no matter: the political and cultural history of Ireland as told by the young in the early ‘80s has been canonized for decades by U2, the name-brand graduate from this scene. Instead, this list was curated from obscurity by Dublin DJ Darren McCreesh, and it unveils the sound of young working class adults trying to make a mark on the world in a vein very similar to everything post-punk coming out of the UK at the time—big names like Siouxsie, the Clash, Joy Division/New Order, and Public Image—all of which were undoubtedly being fed to them via tapes of John Peel on the radio and clippings from Paul Morley in the NME. The bands and artists here are men and women, bedroom artists, and theatrical performance groups, offering up straight up punk-pop, proto-goth, and early synth noodling as lost “classics” that immediately conjure up memories of similar but better music.
Dogmatic Element’s “Just Friends” opens the collection as a perfect example of the era’s ability to bundle youthful innocence and pop appeal in the raw edge of incisor-like guitar strums and thumpy, amateurish drums. (It was also the flipside of the single from which the name of the collection is taken.) Roger Doyle’s Operating Theatre is featured twice, first in playful vocal form—think Lene Lovich and Kate Bush briefly interrupted by Robyn Hitchcock, charting post-punk’s transition into new wave—and later as an album-closing pastoral synth piece. Major Thinkers’ “Avenue B” is easily the most new wave specimen here, a brash and bouncy sing-along that sounds reminiscent to Heaven 17‘s “Fascist Groove Thang.” And special mention has to be afforded the Virgin Prunes’ “Twenty Tens,” an early multi-voiced stomper that captures the mania and cacophony that would catapult them to perhaps Ireland’s second largest post-punk export.
But those tracks are actually the ones that most keyed-in listeners might already know. Nearly half the tracks are previously unreleased, and they range from the lo-fi, almost no-wave “Town” by electronic experimentalist Stano, to the doomy Fad Gadget-ish landscape of the Peridots’ “No Water,” to the joyous, anthemic synthpop of SM Corporation, whose “Fire from Above” deserves a high-profile cover version. “Town” sounds like a drunken outtake, but something about its meandering demo quality seems appropriate as a presage to the electronic experimentalism of the time. The same cannot be said about Tripper Humane’s overlong “Discoland,” which simply sounds like a guy recording a rudimentary song on his first synthesizer. Whatever magic he might have been creating doesn’t quite translate to the tape.
Stano also plays on the Threat’s “High Cost of Living,” a Banshees sound-alike at best. It is absolutely destroyed in sheer goth terms by Chant! Chant! Chant!’s sprawling “Play Safe,” which admits that “there’s a little bit of bad in us all.”
All things considered, it’s an impressive lineup with just the right amount of variety to paint a decent picture of a time if not a place. And while none of these tracks are particularly life-changing, and some didn’t need to be excavated at all, the compilation does make up for the last ten years of post-punk revivalists who never got it exactly right because they always had far more money and affordable technology than any of these folks probably did at the time.
[The commercial release of Strange Passion includes extensive liner notes about the bands involved and is likely pivotal for placing them in the proper context, but the Irish Punk & New Wave Discography (at www.irishrock.org) functioned as a good reference in its place, so kudos to the cool people behind it.]Richard T Williams