I'm an old git, you see. I was sentient when the British punk scene exploded. I was even a part of it…minus the scarlet mohican and the strange urge to squirt glue into ATMs whilst shouting something about "anarchy", and I still hold that era dear. I was, therefore, also fortunate to be around when the rich seam of rage, angst and aggressive, dysfunctional outpourings petered out and were usurped by acts more suited to the tag "New Wave". Songs became more thoughtful, whilst still retaining punk's energy.
Singer-songwriters with an attitude and an aptitude for a good
lyric and a good (right) hook under the chin of society came
to the forefront and cemented their place in musical history.
Yes, OK, the Pistols and their peers were responsible for the
shift away from the barren wastelands of disco and an adult
rock scene which had been diluted to a thin, tasteless shadow
of its former self. But 1978/9 saw the real impact that people
like Joe Jackson,
Elvis Costello, XTC (surely
the most intelligent and witty collective of the New Wave bands),
The Stranglers, Squeeze, and The Police (with that young scamp
Sting playing with his peroxide almost as much as he thumped
the strings of his Fender Precision). And, of course, don't
forget The Clash.
These were days when adults could identify with the very real
day-to-day trials and tribulations of the human condition that
the likes of Jackson,
Costello, and XTC sang about.
We were reminded that the ugly bloke always got the girl that
the average bloke lusted after, that relationships were minefields,
that the slightly unbalanced kids we went to school with were
now in possession of the vote and free to walk the streets and
that the respectable family next door were as screwed up as
we thought we ourselves were. Songs bursting with wit and self-mocking
And, by God, it was FUN.
Now, twenty-plus years on, Don Condescending and his band The Shut-Ups have steered a clever, witty and competent path back to the days when it was OK to sing about what a strange bunch of creatures we share the planet with. Embracing the New Wave ideal of good tunes, observant lyrics and addressing situations we've all been in at some time or another (with, perhaps, the exception of the track Day-Glo Underwear….not even in my punk days…..), Don and the boys have impressed me immensely with their debut album It Hurts To Be Seen. Whilst there are undertones and overtones of that rather special period of musical heritage, The Shut-Ups are very much a modern band, singing songs which are relevant today, just as they would have been twenty-something years ago.
There's even a nod to those arch-musical japesters 10CC, who managed to combine a sly, funny dig with a catchy tune, without losing any musical integrity. Shades of They Might Be Giants here too, although Condescending's songs are far more personal than, say, the Giants' Birdhouse In Your Soul. The opening cut, Various People is the anthem of Billy Ordinary. "I'm a suburban kid for sure/ I never listen to The Cure/ And I don't wear black/And I don't smoke crack" is the plaintive cry of those who refuse to conform to the uniformed armies of so-called non-conformists.
The Shut-Ups are a very British sounding band, even though they hail from Atlanta.
Just how much of this is by accident or design is unclear, although
there is an acknowledgement to Richard Hell in the liner notes.
Furthermore, It Hurts To Be Seen is an album that
1980s post-New Wave outfit Squeeze would have been proud to
release. Superficially innocent sounding songs like What's
A Booty? hide a snide stab at the dance scene. Lyrics such
as "I'll be accepted like a brother/The women there will love
me like my mother" have their roots in Frank Zappa's Dancin'
Fool. Further on down the playing order is Too Late For
Disco, the tale of an ex-Travolta acolyte who grudgingly
accepts that disco is never coming back again.
Darker moments, dressed in jolly tones, also grace this album. Baby is the cry of the new, young father and the time when the agonies, implications and possible future threats to the male's role in the family structure are brought sharply into focus by the demands of a new arrival. The living nightmare of an enforced schoolboy friendship (God bless well-meaning teachers everywhere) with the class weird kid is marvellously illustrated in Sneed.
Thirteen tracks, almost of all which work, although Edgar The Nothing (I Am) may be the one possible exception. And I was pleasantly surprised by the strong vocals and musical ability of the band. I'd love to see this band play live as I'd assume that their energy is multiplied manyfold on stage.
Don Condescending and the rest of The Shut-Ups deserve to go far. I hope that people will be able to see past the poppy-sounding facade to understand what they're really about. With the right nurturing, they could bring some welcome wit, humour and humility to the music scene. Whilst in the same bracket as, for instance, The Cars, Condescending and the boys never take themselves as seriously as the latter, whilst succeeding in getting their wry message of suburban anarchy across.
And, most importantly, by God, it's FUN.
Nice one, chaps. Please tour the UK soon and I'll buy you all a beer.