'NO MORE TIME FOR SPECTATING' or
HOW THE DESPERATE BICYCLES & SCRITTI POLITTI DIDN'T QUITE MANAGE TO CONQUER THE KNOWN UNIVERSE IN THE LATE '70'S
by RICHARD MASON (November 1999)
'They'd really like to know why you haven't released your single yet.'Excerpt from sleevenotes for The Desperate Bicycles' "The medium was tedium" 45
Picture, if you will, dear reader, the scene. It is 1978. It is Oxford, England. Little Clarendon Street, to be exact. It's probably raining as a callow youth of 18 makes his way down to Sunshine Records, the most unaptly named emporium in the history of anything or everything. A miserable little hovel run by sullen sadistic men with hearts of stone and bulging wallets whose only saving grace was the musical ingots of inestimable value contained within its portals. I always felt about 3 foot high whenever I went in there; they made you feel as if they were doing you the most colossal favor imaginable as they took your money. But they redeemed themselves consistently in my eyes with the variety of the music they stocked. They had all the imports, all the stuff you really wanted, right there on funny little wooden shelves. I always spent an age deciding what to earn my hard-earned cash on in there and always came out thinking somewhere along the line I'd made the wrong decision. This time it was going to be different. I was gonna walk right in, take that Velvet Underground EP called Foggy Notion right off the rack on the front desk, slam down cash and split. No half measures. But of course it didn't quite happen that way as it turned out. Not quite.
'Look at this', the eternally unsmiling individual behind the counter gestured pityingly towards his mate, sat at the back in a Virgin Front Line sweatshirt, 'someone's buying the Desperate Bicycles.' I quaked in my shitty purple basketball boots. It was too late to back out now and yet how I wished I'd had the courage of my initial convictions and bought the Velvets EP, then they might even have been a bit impressed. But no, like the gullible teenage punk rock sheep I was I'd gone and bought two loser records by a couple of no-hope combos called the Buzzcocks and the Desperate Bicycles. They were just there in the racks and I couldn't resist. What came over me?
As I mooched out of the shop, the imaginary mocking laughter of the two Neanderthals behind the counter ringing in my paranoid ears, I told myself I had brought this misery upon myself and that I deserved all I got. Two crappy little 7" records that didn't even look as if they had proper sleeves and probably sounded like a poor imitation of the Cortinas, last week's monumental error of judgement. I'd even spent the money I'd put aside to buy the Subway Sect single that'd probably never happen. These uplifting thoughts uppermost in my mind, I trudged home and put them on the turntable. About 15 minutes later I had come to the realization that my life would never be the same again. True, we have to consider more than just the music here, for reasons that will soon become all too clear (that is, if they aren't already), but the music produced by the two bands I'm grappling with here still sounds as vital today as it did all those years ago.
Of course, what I didn't know when I walked into Sunshine Records that day was that the Desperate Bicycles had already put out their first single entitled "Smokescreen" in early 1977, with both the title song and the 'B-side' "Handlebars" appearing on both sides of the 7", no details on the sleeve, no nuffink. The thing was of course to get it out there in the shops, to do it, to shatter the mystique. And they did. So why not do it again? It seems as though all they needed to do was come up with two more songs, which they duly did. "The medium was tedium" and "Don't back the Front" duly appeared; that was the single I bought. Later they put out other records, including the third EP entitled New Cross, New Cross, which may or may not contain a clue as to their point of origin. Of the group themselves I know next to nothing. No photos on the sleeves, no record company biography, none of that sort of thing. (Now we know slightly better; more anon.) Forgive me if I begin to bore you, but it bears repetition; the important thing was to get the music out and to do it independently, the main considerations being not just the end product but also the very means of production. As the years have passed and the giant strides for autonomy that they took have become things most groups and musicians now take for granted, the Desperate Bicycles have almost been relegated to the status of a joke band; indeed, on several occasions I've noticed their name used as a byword for naïve amateurism and shambolic discord. Sounds fine to me! But the fact of the matter is that in their own way the Desperate Bicycles (deep breath) were/are/will be as important as the Sex Pistols, in some ways more so. There, I said it. And I mean it.
'Shambolic', 'amateurism'; these are words we come back to again and again. A whole musical generation has been polarized by concepts like these. The Desperate Bicycles never sought to promote such values actively, at least not the way I see it now, but neither were they going to feel stigmatized or guilty about having such labels attached to them and their records. The means justified the ends; the promotion of a liberating and alternative way of doing music, bypassing the music business establishment justified their not sounding like Cheap Trick or even the MC5. Theirs was surely an act of leading by example; "it was easy, it was cheap - go and do it!" they yelled out at both the end of "Smokescreen" and at the end of each verse of "The medium was tedium," a call to arms, an attempt at galvanizing some kind of collective change of attitude, provoking a wave (a new wave?) of D.I.Y. music and records. When Johnny Rotten said he wanted there to be more groups like his, he was just playing pop stars. When the Desperate Bicycles sang "no more time for spectating", they meant it, maaaaaaaan.
And the music? Cracking, as it happens. Spindly, fuzzy, guttural guitars through puny amplifiers, reedy, wheezy organs, out of tune electric pianos, cardboard box drums and monotonous declamatory yet somehow utterly reasonable sounding vocals. Just my cup of tea, in other words. They were labeled quasi-psychedelic (quite understandable really - they had a keyboard player, after all!) but this doesn't touch it. It's rock music that doesn't rock, memorable little tunes and riffs, but never is it pop - it just exists in its own space, post-punk before punk got going at all. The important thing is the words; you can only hear snippets in the garbled rush of Danny Wigley's torrent of consciousness, but that's not the point in a way. What you can pick up is enough. You don't need to know the words to all their songs to realise that the Desperate Bicycles had something to say. Without wishing to decry or belittle their music one iota, in a way their most notable achievement was that they existed at all. One small but firm and utterly telling shove and the floodgates were well and truly opened, never to be closed again.
"It was The Desperate Bicycles that gave us the incentive. 'If you're thinking of making a tape why not go the whole way and make a record?' they said."Scritti Politti, Sounds January 1979 interview
"Recording: Space Studios @ 19 Victoria Street, Cambridge. £98.00 for 14 hours, master tape included. Mastering: Pye London Studios @ 17 Great Cumberland Place, London W1 - IBC (George) Sound Recording Studios @ 35 Portland Place, London W1. £40.00 for cutting of lacquer from master tape. Pressing: PYE Records (Sales) Ltd. @ Western Road, Mitcham, Surrey. £369.36 for 2,500 copies at 13p, £27.00 for processing (electro plating of lacquer). Labels: E.G. Rubber Stamps, 28 Bridge Street, Hitchin, Herts. £8.00 for rubber stamp on white labels (labels included in cost of pressing.)"
Details of cost of "Skank Bloc Bologna" EP by Scritti Politti as listed on its cover (UK late 1978 prices)
If there's a more meaningful sleeve note on a record I'd like to hear about it. This says more than any critical outpouring ever could; the empowerment of the group &/or individual as a result of this information created a whole new anti-category of music endeavour in the UK in the late '70's and early '80's. As Johan Kugelberg so rightly put it in his seminal essay on The Homosexuals from 1998, "...records and tapes that basically had very little to do with the punk movement rode on the coat-tails and found themselves trickling into the adventurous record stores of the world..." Like Sunshine records, I suppose. The whole demystification of the process of getting your record out was under way with a vengeance. Groups such as Scritti Politti, already with socio-political issues firmly at the forefront of their thinking and lifestyle, took clear and direct inspiration from the clarion call that was the raison d'etre of the Desperate Bicycles. Having moved to a London squat from Leeds in 1978, they learnt fast, playing the punk gigs but with a different style to most, improvising songs on the spot, taking melodic and rhythmic cues from the Jamaican reggae so in vogue at the time in the UK whilst taking political issues, personal, national and global, as their subject matter. Their first single "Skank bloc bologna" was made with £500 borrowed from drummer Tom Morley's brother and released midway through 1978 on their own label, distributed via Rough Trade. In October 1979, a 12" EP Four A-Sides was released; a 7" EP "The Peel Session" followed in November, though it was recorded prior to "Four A-Sides" during their second Peel session. But again, this only scratches the surface of what was actually going on here.
(N.B. As we all know now, Scritti Politti have become A Proper Group. That is to say, singer and guitarist Green Strohmeyer-Gartside plus whoever he wants to have around at the time. Their records get played on the radio and on MTV, you know the sort of thing. I couldn't possibly comment on them as I've never heard anything (t)he(y)'ve done, at least not after the perfectly respectable debut LP Songs To Remember, though even that was for the most part light years removed musically from these extraordinary first three records. I just thought I'd pop this little paragraph in to make sure there's no confusion over any of this; plus it shows what a modern guy I am.)
I remember the fuss made over the first Scritti Politti single by all the old guard in the UK music press because they thought Green's voice sounded like Robert Wyatt, which ipso facto (whatever that means) made them the new Soft Machine or what have you, just like Wire were the new Floyd because The Ghost Of Syd loomed large every now and then on Chairs Missing. Oh dear, point missed. If I was in a similar frame of mind I might make reference to how the guitar on both "Skank bloc bologna" and "Is and ought the Western world" reeks of Martin Carthy's electric playing on the early Steeleye Span records. Trouble with that is, you'd all get bored and go home, and rightly so, so I won't. I'll content myself with informing you of the fact that the interplay between the group's instruments is simply stunning, the use of space and dynamics combining to great effect with the imaginative melodic and rhythmic patterns of composition and execution. There, wasn't that far more rewarding than a load of twaddle about who they sound like?
Fact is, to these ears they take the cues from the JA musicians and, whilst never achieving anything like the smoothness and effortlessness of those chaps, I prefer the roughness, the occasional hesitancy, the risky element of their music to conventional reggae any day. As with Swell Maps, on these records you can often hear the musicians talking to each other during the takes, urging each other on - there's real people at work here! And it certainly wasn't a one man band in those days, either - Morley's drumming is often subtle, never less than adventurous, whilst Nial Jinks (who Green apparently taught bass to in 3 weeks) provides superb sinuous lines throughout; those lads in Tortoise would kill for his melody line on "28.8.78", which also uses a tape of a BBC news broadcast to great effect.
The Peel session EP contains four songs, the first of which is the mainly voice and drums based"Scritlocks door":
"Problem at hand at Scritlock's door; the issue on your airway
Because out in the world the BT groups and the market forces play
No wishing, no arty, no grab-it-and-run will rid us of this disease
It lays down the laws, the wills and the won'ts and it fucks up liberties..."
Make of that what you will; like most of the group's lyrics, implicit and explicit points are seemingly constantly made. As with the Desperate Bicycles, especially on their "Don't back the Front" track, what appears at first to be a comparatively straightforward political point is invariably more complex, more personal in its expression and meaning. I don't by any means always understand what they're on about, but I get the impression that they're not treating listeners as idiots and not talking over their heads either. By comparison, "OPEC-Immac" sounds totally improvised, with Green muttering and singing by turn and Nial's bass flitting around the monologue. "Hegemony" lines up the cliches of everyday speech and exposes them for the flotsam they are; trite sayings such as "Some are born to lead and others born to follow" and "A place for everything and everything in its place" never sounded so hollow. On the Four A-Sides EP the sound is moving in the direction of the first LP, especially on "Confidence", which takes the word's double meanings and applies them in a more politically personal way over a smooth tremolo guitar and relaxed beat with the usual uncannily memorable melodic sense that pervades throughout these three recordings. "Bibbly-O-Tek" and "Doubt beat," however, retain the splendidly acrid, scratchy feel that assuages all concerns that complacency might be creeping in; the music and the lyrics remain challenging and compelling throughout.
The real problem for you, dear reader, is to find these records. They've never been reissued and I doubt there's much chance they will be unless I suddenly become rich beyond my wildest dreams in which case my newly formed company will officially have them in your local emporium before you can say Jacques Derrida. The effect they had at the time, jostling as they were in the racks with the likes of Elvis Costello, the Boomtown Rats, Talking Heads and all those other new wavers we've taken to our collective bosom in more recent years, is by now hard to reckon with any degree of certainty. Or is it?
These groups were and will continue to be an inspiration. Without their example, how much of the D.I.Y. music of the '80s and '90's would have seen light of day? Of course we can all argue that one till the end of time (or whenever I get my record company off the ground, whichever happens sooner) and no-one might agree on anything, but I know where I stand. These records and the groups that made them, the Desperate Bicycles and Scritti Politti, helped to change the way the music business operated, to demystify it and those who claimed an ownership of it that was never theirs to claim. Empowerment, liberation, greater equality of opportunity, anti-elitism - all those big words - can be applied here with justification. Like most pioneers, their lot is in part to be forgotten and taken for granted, but if you can find these records, a single spin of each on your Dansette should ensure your swiftly coming to the realisation that not only did the means justify the ends, but the ends the means. And their legacy remains as potent as ever. Have you released your single yet?
Thanks to the following, without whom... in no particular order...
* Ian Nixon (ex-THE NO) for loan of Desperate Bicycles recordings.
* Shaun Belcher (& Shaun's mate from Nottingham) for tapes of Scritti Politti 45s.
(Check out Shaun's online 'zine FLYING SHOES at:
* Johan Kugelberg & Richard Ramage for general inspiration. Check out Johan's article on the fabulous Homosexuals (another integral part of the UK D.I.Y. recording revolution) in UGLY THINGS #16
If anyone can help me get hold of any other Desperate Bicycles
records other than those mentioned in this article, please contact me at
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