Monday, October 12, 2015

Van Der Graaf Generator

The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other
H to He Who am the Only One
Pawn Hearts
Blender, 2006

by Simon Reynolds

Earlier this year Van Der Graaf Generator reformed and released their first album in decades. The timing was perfect: groups like Mars Volta have been busily rehabilitating and renovating the “prog” concept by giving it an aggressive, noisy edge. Punk-prog was always VDGG’s game, though. Check out these reissues and you’ll see why Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten admired VDGG frontman Peter Hammill’s piercing vocals and macabre lyrical imagination. Now and then you’ll even hear  uncanny advance glimpses of Rotten's snarl-sneer in Hammill’s aristocratic and dramatic tones. On 1970's The Least We Can Do, though, the singer sounds more like Arthur Brown of "Fire" fame, while the music has yet to shed the glad-rags of late psychedelia. On H To He, from later in 1970, VDGG blossom into a mighty monster with hard-riffing tunes like "Killer," powered by the rasping raunch of David Jackson's twin saxophones and the murky churn of Hugh Banton's keyboards. " 1971’s Pawn Hearts climaxes with the ten-part song-cycle "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers," which took up entire second side of the original album and moves through trudging bombast, woodwind-laced ambience, musique concrete outbursts, and more. Yes, it's portentous, and sure, it's pretentious. It's also visceral, and surprisingly swingin', thanks to the lithe drumming of Guy Evans. These reissues are expanded with splendid bonus material like the 15-minute triptych "Squid 1/Squid 2/Octopus."  

Young Marble Giants

Liner notes by Simon Reynolds

Postpunk and “perfection” rarely went together. This was an era of experimental over-reach, of bands catalysed by the punk do-it-yourself principle attempting to expand the music by embracing genres (funk, reggae, jazz) that in their original context relied on virtuosity and slickness. Artistic ambition and anyone-can-do-it amateurism make for uneasy bedfellows, and many of the key groups of the period made records that were closer to sketches towards an ideal of a new music than the fully-realised deal. Even some of the accredited classics that defined the era—Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, Gang of Four’s Entertainment—have the odd moment or several that are substandard, botched, or simply misconceived. And really, that’s okay, because perfection wasn’t the point of postpunk. What was? Throwing out ideas, setting challenges for band and audience alike, keeping the collective conversation moving. That’s why groups like Cabaret Voltaire, the Pop Group, Scritti Politti, Throbbing Gristle, were heroic figures, true catalysts.

What this does mean, though, is that there are really just a handful of long-form recordings from the entire 1978-84 period that are immaculate from conception to construction. The Slits’ Cut, Slates by the Fall, Pere Ubu’s first two albums… and Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth. The Cardiff trio’s one-and-only album contains not a wasted note, barely a blemish. The individual songs have something of the “rightness” of things found in nature—leaves, snowflakes, pebbles, sea-shells—that are at once miraculous yet commonplace, marvelous and unassuming. Together the tunes add up to a perfectly sequenced whole, a cohesive experience. Colossal Youth became the independent scene equivalent of a blockbuster smash on its release in early 1980, and clearly the punters were partly responding to the sheer quality and aesthetic integrity of the record, which arrived without fanfare, seemingly from nowhere. But they were also spellbound by the originality and unusual-ness of the sound—there was nothing else like Young Marble Giants around at the time—and by its quiet radicalism. Colossal Youth was followed by a couple of EPs, and then the group split up, to everyone’s surprise and dismay. Frustrating as this disintegration was for fans, it had the beneficial side-effect of ensuring that the group left a small, perfectly-formed body of work—compact enough to fit on a compact disc.

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The story of Young Marble Giants starts with two brothers, Stuart and Philip Moxham. They grew up in Cardiff, but were half-English, their father's side of the family hailing from Gloucestershire farming stock. And there are actually four Moxham brothers. The eldest, Richard, was an adventurous spirit and returned from travels in the Far East with a fantastic record collection and a great stereo. Stuart, the principal songwriter and driving force in Young Marble Giants, fondly recalls his adolescent initiation, via Richard’s “top-of-the range headphones”, into the pleasures of immersive listening. At this point--the early Seventies--the sounds he lost himself in consisted of progressive rock and folky singer-songwriters such as Neil Young, Ralph McTell, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell.

Stuart had some of his older brother’s restlessness and signed on for a see-the-world stint in the Royal Navy. Returning to Cardiff, he took up music-making at the relatively late-starter age of twenty and was soon playing guitar in a band called True Wheel (the name came from the title of the Brian Eno song on Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), the very same ditty whose lyrics supplied A Certain Ratio with their name). In another fit of restlessness, Stuart jumped on his motorbike and drove to Norwich, where he lived for a period, working on a farm. When he came back to Cardiff, True Wheel had recruited his brother Philip as bassist, and a teenage girl called Alison Statton had joined as a backing singer. Stuart shifted roles to become the band’s frontman; Philip and Alison, meanwhile, started dating.

True Wheel was a covers band and Stuart, looking for a vehicle for his songwriting, decided to start his own band. He invited Philip to join. Philip agreed--but only on condition that Alison was involved. Stuart wasn’t keen on this idea at all: he had envisaged singing his own songs. But he really wanted to work with his brother, on account of their “telepathic” musical bond. “We were very close, and when it came to playing, we had a phenomenal communication… we could jam and change key at exactly the same time, stop at the same time.” So Stuart agreed to Alison being the vocalist, but with “a tiny seed of resentment” lodged in his heart right from the start.

Formed in November 1978, Young Marble Giants found their name in a book about classical sculpture. Later they would put the text in question on the back sleeve of the Final Day EP: "...Young marble giants greeted the sailor as he entered the home stretch to Athens. Two basic intuitions of Greek art -- tensed vitality and geometric structuring -- are as yet disunited; the sculptor partly carves, partly maps an abstract concept of human form onto the rectangular block." Something of this quality of geometric starkness and clarity of form infused the group’s sound, very much a consciously chosen and conceptualized-in-advance style, as opposed to something evolved haphazardly. Hating what Stuart described in one interview as “this business of Phil Spectorism, this whole idea of masses of strings and layers of sound,” the brothers rejected its modern equivalent, the punk rock “wall of noise” built from thickly layered guitars and fuzzed-out distortion. Instead, like an old fashioned pocket watch with its casing open to reveal the moving parts, the Young Marble Giants sound would be pared and bare, its meshwork of cogs and spindles exposed in all its intricate distinctness. As Philip would later express it, "You write the gaps as much as you write the music."

Crucial to the band’s crisp and dry sound was Stuart’s Rickenbacker, “a very trebly guitar” which he played using “an extremely hard plectrum, called a shark fin, with a serrated edge.” Throughout the YMG songbook, Stuart eschews lead-guitar flourishes and soloistic playing in favour of  a signature style of scurrying rhythm guitar, its characteristic choppy quality reliant upon on a technique called “muting”, where “you’re basically resting the hand that you strum with on the strings.” The result was a feel that was dynamic and propulsive yet curiously suppressed, subdued, even furtive. Philip played his bass high, such that it was frequently mistaken by listeners for another guitar; indeed, with Stuart’s playing so intensely rhythmic and stripped-down, the bassline was often the melodic thread in YMG songs. The brothers’ instruments wound around each other like fibres twining into yarn. “We became immensely tight,” says Stuart. He attributes their supernatural synchrony not just to fraternal closeness but to their use of machine rhythm. Instead of a human drummer, YMG twitched to the precision pulse of a very basic drum machine. “We were playing to what was effectively an electronic metronome”, akin to the click-track used by sessions musicians in recording studios.

Stuart compares the interplay between himself and Philip to “knitting”--a strikingly un-rock’n’roll and non-macho metaphor that speaks volumes about the low-key radicalism of YMG music. Alison Statton’s voice meshed perfectly with this androgynous sound. Seventeen years old when the band started, a trainee dental nurse at the University Hospital of Wales, Statton sang with a plaintive simplicity and cool pallor of tone that bypassed all the mannered drama of the singerly arts. Statton arrived at this unadorned naturalism without much conscious stylization. “I admire a trained voice or 'real singer', someone who can belt it out and you never doubt they can hit any note they want to, but I have always loved the exposure of a naked human voice and all its frailties and the individual-ness that comes with that exposure, that honesty,” she muses. “It adds a tension yet it also makes me feel more connected to the person singing.” Alison’s intriguingly motley music taste does help to explain her avoidance of straight-ahead rock raunch and soul-blues emoting: “Hymns, disco, the Residents, nursery rhymes,” is the list of favored listening she gave in one 1980 interview, while another journalist noted the presence of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Tom Waits and Ultravox in her record collection. “I did like the raw energy of punk rock at live gigs,” Alison says now, “but I was more inspired by less urgent, quieter music--less 'masculine' sounds if you like. I can remember being mesmerised by the church organ in the Scottish Presbyterian church on a Sunday and can still hear the detail of a dropped hymn book echoing or a stifled cough when it stopped and silence fell once again. Then there's the music one’s parents listen to, in my case Orkney fiddle and accordion music, swing bands and crooners with the likes of the original 'My Way'. It all somehow settles itself into your musical psyche whether you want it to or not! It's always been the points of sound in silence that get my attention most of all--the ticking of the clock and crackle of the fire in Mr. Morgan's parlour, the rain on a window pane or an owl at night. Those are the sounds that have an exquisite intensity for me.”

There was a shadowy “fourth member” of Young Marble Giants, a non-musician who nonetheless played a vital technical role. The Moxham brothers’ cousin Pete Joyce was a telephone engineer by trade and a dab hand at cobbling together electronic gizmos; he was also a fan of avant-garde rock bands like Pere Ubu and Can. Joyce built YMG’s drum machine from a diagram in Practical Wireless, and he also made them a ring modulator. “It had two inputs and one output, so you’d put two things in and it would blend them together,” recalls Stuart. “You could put the drum machine and the electric organ in and you would be able to play the drum machine. It was like an early sampler in a way, the pitch of it would go up and down.” The ring modulator and other gizmos (including the non-kiddy version of the Stylophone, a very rudimentary synthesizer) embellished the basic YMG sound with wisps of electronic sound and subliminal drone-tones.

“We had a very limited palette–electric guitar, electric organ, drum machine and ring modulator… Oh, and voice, of course,” says Stuart. On first hearing, this was the most striking aspect of Young Marble Giants: the sheer emaciation of the sound, the miniaturization of detail. Rather than blaring in your face or grabbing the lapels of your attention, this was music that drew you into its withdrawn and chilly stillness, rapt you with its moods of stealth and solitude. Not exactly rock’n’roll, then, and as such primed to chime with the ideals of 1979, a year in which the postpunk vanguard of PiL and Cabaret Voltaire were loudly insisting on the utter obsolescence of rock and looking for music’s future in the studio-based innovations of disco and dub.

PiL and the Cabs were just two of countless bands who loudly lambasted The Clash and (bizarrely) Chuck Berry as representing the definition of arriéré-garde, everything that modernist music should be renouncing and leaving for dead. YMG also went in for this kind of rhetoric a little bit. In one interview, Stuart recalled an early gig they played in Cardiff--an industrial town oriented around heavy rock bands and twelve-bar blues--during which an audience member shouted out “play rock and roll!” “So I kind of went into this Chuck Berry riff, and then stopped and said ‘look, anyone can do that. They're doing it all over town. But we want to do this. If you want that, go somewhere else’.” Yet weirdly there was a subliminal rock’n’roll element in YMG music.  Stuart loved both the twangy instrumental rock of Duane Eddy and the crisp rhythm-and-blues playing of Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs; on certain YMG tunes, like “Include Me Out”, there’s a dashing rock’n’roll feel redolent of Eddie Cochran or Bo Diddley, while “Brand-New-Life” sounds a bit like The Police’s “Message in A Bottle”. “In a lot of ways, I was a frustrated rocker. A lot of those riffs would sound great on loud, distorted guitars in a conventional band. There’s something a bit repressed about Young Marble Giants music.” Yet the restraint, the leashing, of that impulse to rock-out, is crucial to YMG’s sound. This was rock’n’roll Anglicised, the urge to cut loose checked by a native reserve and inhibition. In another sense, it’s the authentic sonic depiction of mental unrest and emotional disquiet; the way the music moves suggests someone physically immobile but internally agitated. “Music for Evenings”, for instance, simmers with damped-down rage, jitters with imploded violence.

Cardiff being such a rock town, YMG struggled to have any impact, playing a handful of local gigs (as few as four, by some reckonings) and selling cassettes of early tape-reel recordings via the local Virgin record store, where Stuart worked. What New Wave/postpunk scene there was clustered around the coffee bar Grassroots, a social advice center run by Cardiff City Council. The place had a practice room for bands and hosted the occasional performance. YMG’s debut at Grassroots wasn’t especially auspicious: legend has it they played to an audience of exactly one. Generally, crowds tended to be perplexed by the sight of a band without a drummer. YMG didn’t even have a drum machine onstage, just a Casio cassette machine playing a “tatty old mono cassette,” recalls Stuart. “Phil would play the bass and at the end of the track he’d turn off the tape recorder with his knee. And it worked fine.”

YMG did become friendly, though, with the prime movers of the Grassroots scene, Reptile Ranch, a group who were far more plugged into the postpunk scene across the UK. Specifically, they aligned themselves with the do-it-yourself/release-it-yourself sector pioneered by the Desperate Bicycles and Scritti Politti. A key aspect to postpunk’s ethos of democratizing music-making was the idea of resisting the centralization of the music industry in London. Hence the late Seventies upsurge of independent labels and musicians collectives in the provinces. One manifestation of this defiant regionalism was a spate of city-based compilations aiming to showcase local talent, albums like Hicks From the Sticks, Bouquet of Steel, Avon Calling, Norwich, A Fine City, Street To Street: A Liverpool Album, and many more.

In the spirit of the time, Reptile Ranch assembled a Cardiff compilation titled Is The War Over? and released it via their label Z Block. The initial spur to action came when the band saw a South Bank Show documentary about Rough Trade. As well as a shop and label, Rough Trade was also a distribution company. Working in tandem with similar companies across the country, Rough Trade had been the driving force behind the establishment of a nationwide independent distribution network. As historian Dave Cavanagh noted in his book My Magpie Eyes Have Seen the Prize, “in the context of post-punk Britain” Rough Trade’s efforts ““were as beneficial and as provident as if they had been building the first roads.” Lacking effective distribution, independent labels outside London had hitherto relied on mail-order and the hospitality of whatever record stores they could physically reach. But the system developed by Rough Trade and the other members of the Cartel (as the alliance of regional distributors came to be known) meant that all kinds of remote and far-flung musical eccentrics could reach a national audience. Or even an international one, as Rough Trade’s tentacles began to extend overseas and form alliances with similar companies in America and Europe

YMG contributed two tracks to Is The War Over?, “Ode to Booker T" and "Searching for Mr. Right," recorded in a rough-and-ready studio upstairs at Grassroots. When Reptile Ranch went up to London to talk to Rough Trade about getting distribution for the compilation, Geoff Travis--the label’s co-founder and A&R visionary--immediately noticed there was something special about the YMG songs, despite their demo-like  recording quality. “Reptile Ranch went up to London to peddle our wares and came back with the glad tidings,” recalls Alison. “I was gobsmacked!” Suddenly, says Stuart, “we were in London and Geoff Travis was asking, ‘what do you want to do next?’. Rather than the obvious first step of recording a debut single, Stuart wanted to gamble on the bigger impact of coming out of nowhere with a full album. Eventually he swayed his band-mates to the risky notion and Rough Trade dispatched the group to Foel Studios, a converted farmhouse in the rolling hills around Llanfair Caereinion in mid-Wales.  Foel’s owner Dave Anderson was a veteran of longhair kosmic rockers Amon Duul II and Hawkwind and had already engineered the debut album by another Rough Trade act, Essential Logic. YMG recorded Colossal Youth in just five days, spending a mere twenty minutes per track each when it came to mixing the album. “When we were finished doing all the mixes, we turned all the lights out and listened to it really loud. It was all I could do to stop crying," Stuart recalled in a 1981 interview. At the end, Anderson asked if he could be credited as producer, as opposed to just engineer, and YMG, with some reluctance, assented. In hindsight, Stuart Moxham thinks the credit was thoroughly deserved, capturing their sound in all its delicacy and nakedness being no small achievement.

Listening to Colossal Youth, the word “naked” seems quite apt, as it often feels like you’re eavesdropping on someone’s private thoughts: you don’t catch all the references, the meaning is often cloudy, but the aura of intimacy and inwardness is unmistakable. “It’s that cliché, artists as people who can’t communicate in normal ways,” says Stuart. “They don’t go to the pub, they sit in a room and agonize. For me, writing the songs was a cathartic exercise. When I came to do sleevenotes for the first re-release some years ago, that was the first time I’d seen all the lyrics in one place. I hadn’t even thought about them for 15 years and suddenly I was looking at myself at the age of 25. There was all this wisdom in the lyrics I hadn’t seen. Almost like I was wiser than I could’ve dreamt and was writing advice to myself–and not being able to take it, of course.” The songs on Colossal Youth, he explained in a 1980 interview, “are all based on things that happened to me with my girlfriend. That's the most important thing that's happened to me in years, meeting this particular girl and what we've been through.  We broke up and now we're back together again. It's been a really stormy relationship." 

Not that this was really confessional songwriting in the blatantly open-souled, “dear diary” sense. “N.I.T.A.” veers from anguished clarity (“it’s nice to hear you’re having a good time/but it still hurts 'cos you used to be mine/This doesn't mean that I possessed you/You're haunting me because I let you”) to dream-logic opacity (“shape up your body "Let's be a tree"”) before signposting its own coded obliqueness with the cryptic line “Nature intended the abstract for you and me”. The abstraction got heightened by the distancing effect of Stuart’s words being ventriloquised through Alison. “It’s really weird … when I sing it, it tends to be emotional because the lyrics are mine,” Stuart noted in one interview. “Alison on the other hand is really laid back and unemotional sounding.  It's a strange paradox, a disinterested voice singing about something emotional."

Not all of Stuart’s songs were torn from his troubled love life. Others were more existential musings or simply involved the joys of mucking about with language. “It was that Devo/Bowie cut-up arty approach to lyric-writing really. Something like ‘Choci Loni, it was almost like Edward Lear. The words are obscure and deeply personal. That whole language in that song is my family’s baby talk –which even we don’t talk about. But nobody would ever suss that!”

Although Stuart was the main creative force, Philip and Alison together wrote one of Colossal Youth’s stand-out songs, “Eating Noddemix”. Alison’s lyric is a kind of split-screen movie, juxtaposing a girl going through her daily routines (munching the Swiss cereal bar of the title, adjusting her make-up) with horrific accidents (a collapsed apartment building, a train crash) that are going on simultaneously. “Just one of those moments when you realise we're all preoccupied with the mindlessness of the everyday routine, not realising how precious every moment of this existence is,” muses Alison today. “Meanwhile, elsewhere, people are meeting an abrupt end to it all. Death comes without warning.”  The song ends with a slightly comical voice-over, Alison impersonating an “official”-sounding, hard-bitten voice--a police officer or ambulance worker perhaps, or maybe a news reporter--who switches from talking about the tragedy to their TV-viewing plans for that evening without missing a beat. “I hate that voiceover bit at the end but basically it's looking at how people who face these realities on a daily basis adopt a matter of fact, hardened distance to it all. We can't stay in that vital space for long without anaesthetising ourselves in some way.”

Certain songs glisten with a particular intensity, but Colossal Youth really takes effect as a whole. It’s an album of great songs, but also, in a way, an ambient record. Stuart mentions the headphone listening that was such an important part of his youth--“That’s the ultimate way of getting inside the music and cutting off the world: you’re not available, you’re inside the headphones, dedicated to listening”--adding that in his opinion “all truly great music has two elements: atmosphere, and detail. So it works on the micro and the macro.” Abundantly endowed with both, Colossal Youth is almost the postpunk counterpart to Dark Side of the Moon.  Although maybe the Brian Eno of Another Green World and the second, slower and more tranquil half of Before and After Science is more apt: all those songs about castaways and  daydreamers, washed-up and washed-out characters who’ve hemorrhaged all their will power. “I remember saying in one interview that what I wanted the album to do was to sound like a radio that’s between stations, and you’re listening to it under the bed-clothes at 4-AM, and you’re getting  these fantastic short wave sounds and snatches of modulated sounds,” recalls Stuart.  Colossal Youth seems “real” in the sense that it evokes, through its textures as much as the songs, those large portions of our lives that are interstitial and event-less: the nullity of waiting or killing time; the long stretches of lethargy and languor, low-level anxiety or pensive reverie. 

When Colossal Youth arrived in record stores in February 1980, it looked as striking as it sounded. The cover was a black-and-white portrait of the group taken by Patrick Graham, with the trio’s heads catching the light so that one half of each face glowed palely while the other side disappeared into inky blackness. The image had a sort of timeless classicism faintly redolent of an early Beatles album cover, but also made the YMG look statuesque, their impassive expressions perfectly indicative of the subdued aura of the music. Colossal Youth was instantly successful, as if people had been waiting for exactly this sound: music by introverts, for introverts. In the independent scene context, the album was a best-seller, peaking at #3 in the indie charts and shifting some 27 thousand copies in the immediate year of its release. Because Rough Trade operated its famously non-exploitative 50/50 deals, which split profits (after costs had been made back) evenly between label and band, YMG actually saw some dough. “Enough to wish I hadn't frittered it away,” laughs Alison. “I seem to remember a phase of eating out all the time! But I lived in a squat at the time and certainly wasn't going on expensive holidays and investing in offshore banking. Let's just say it earned a meagre living.” Stuart did better than the others, having written the bulk of the songs and also getting a publishing deal off the back of Colossal Youth.

Doing their first round of music paper interviews, Young Marble Giants left many journalists enchanted. Typically they presented the group as small-town naifs, often fixating on Alison’s fresh-faced aura, her plimsoles and print dresses and ankle socks. . Dave McCullough from Sounds, a big YMG supporter, described Alison as “wide-eyed and straight out of a Girl's Own story, as the heroine, of course.  You get the impression she's going to fall over any minute in the big-city smog, and that she's been brought up on fresh cow's milk and healthy Girl Guide rambles through the Welsh valleys.  She looks frighteningly innocent.” Yet Alison was a smoker in those days, and Cardiff, an industrial city, was hardly a remote haven from the hurly-burly of modernity.
That said, Young Marble Giants did stick out somewhat in the Rough Trade milieu, where they were warmly welcomed but never quite fitted with the bohemian/radical vibe that surrounded the label, which hostile outsiders tended to describe with derogatory terms like “brown rice” or “hippie”. “It was quite a different world,” says Alison, adding that that although “we met some incredibly kind people there, in another sense it was a bit overwhelming for me. I felt naive and lacked confidence.”  In 1979-80, Rough Trade was at its zenith of power and influence, with a roster that included many of the leading post-punk bands of the day: Swell Maps, Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, The Fall, The Raincoats, The Pop Group, Essential Logic, This Heat, Red Crayola, Kleenex, and Pere Ubu. The Raincoats--an all-female feminist band based in Westbourne Grove, a short walk from Rough Trade’s headquarters just off Portobello Road--virtually adopted the wide-eyed provincials. “They took us under their wing like feisty aunties or something,” recalls Stuart. “On one level they were kind of frighteningly feminist and that was new to us. They didn’t shave their legs, for instance. On another level, they were very kind to us”. Young Marble Giants played their debut London gig with the Raincoats in Deptford, bringing Stuart’s dog Nixon to the venue. They also became close to This Heat, a ferociously intense trio of proggers-turned-postpunkers who resembled the Soft Machine stripped of English whimsy and jacked-up on Cold War paranoia. But more important than anyone else was Geoff Travis, who became something of a father figure to Stuart, especially after he moved up to London. “Geoff actually said ’I‘ll always have faith in anything you do,’ which is such a fantastic thing to say.” Alison recalls Travis as “a very quiet and gentle guy with a knack for picking out potential other people missed. I remember him playing me a Smiths demo he'd just got hold of when I was at the Rough Trade offices and to be honest I couldn't jump up and down with excitement on my brief listening, but Geoff was very animated about it.”

The gambit/gamble of releasing their debut album first, rather than a single had paid off: Young Marble Giants had made a major statement and blown everybody away just as Stuart had hoped. Now, reversing the normal sequence of things, YMG recorded their debut single, “Final Day”. Actually, it was a four-track EP, but the title track eclipsed the other tunes so utterly it tends to be remembered as a single. On its June 1980 release, it became a night-time Radio One hit, played heavily on John Peel’s show at first and then getting picked up by the early evening DJs.

“Final Day” captures the feeling of 1980, a year of mounting dread that nuclear Armageddon was nigh. The Cold War, which had briefly thawed in the mid-Seventies with détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, had abruptly plunged back below freezing point, the election of saber-rattling conservative leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the West being matched by a renewed hard line from the Soviet Politburo. The geopolitical backdrop to this terrible re-polarisation was turmoil in the Middle East: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (to prop up a socialist government threatened by fundamentalist rebels), the Iranian Revolution and the seizing of US hostages by Ayatollah Khomeini’s government. In response to the escalating tension between the superpowers, the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, dormant since its early Sixties heyday, reactivated. In 1980 CND organised massive anti-nuclear rallies in the UK to protest the deployment of American Trident missiles in the UK--a move, its critics argued, that would turn Britain into a client state cum launching pad for America and Target #1 for Soviet warheads in any full-blown nuclear exchange.

“Final Day” wasn’t the only pop song to register the mood of apprehension. UB40’s “The Earth Dies Screaming” and Kate Bush’s “Breathing” actually made the charts, while on the postpunk underground YMG’s buddies This Heat recorded Deceit, virtually a concept album about the balance of terror and the quiescent complicity of ordinary people in the insanity of mutual assured destruction. But “Final Day” was the most effectively chilling evocation, from the subliminal keyboard drone running through the whole track (“I put a matchstick in one the keys to get that tone,” chuckles Stuart”) to Alison’s forlorn fatalism as she intones the lines “As the light goes out on the final day/For the people who never had a say,” to the sheer startling brevity of the statement (the song lasts just one minute and 39 seconds). “It was the easiest song to write, it just came out perfectly formed, and it took as long to write as it does to listen to,” says Stuart, explaining that the lines “when the rich die last/Like the rabbits” is a fusion of “an Ian Fleming short story about how rich people will die last because that’s the privilege of wealth, and the fact that apparently in a nuclear war rabbits will survive longest, along with beetles.”

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Having arrived with a double debut more auspicious and immaculate than even Joy Division’s (who emerged from the coarse chrysalis of Warsaw) Young Marble Giants seemed poised for greatness. The only problem was translating what they did to the stage:  music so un-rock was hardly likely to rock a crowd. The band became (in)famous for its lack of onstage presence, the static presentation owing to stage nerves as much as the nature of their music. “We used to smoke a hell of a lot, that was it,” says Stuart. “I used to line up my cigarettes on the electric organ at sound-check and virtually chain smoke our way through the set.” Alison recalls Stuart being “the most animated out of all of us, the one with the best rapport with the audience--but even that was limited.”  But this was all part of what she calls the music’s “human factor”. “We were all exposed and stripped back to the bare bones both in an audio and visual sense. I'm sure sometimes people held their breath from start to finish at a concert. You could sometimes hear a pin drop between songs.”  None of this went down well with your average punk audience, so it’s hardly any wonder that the group sometimes fantasized in interviews about finding alternative venues more genial to their music. They told Sounds they’d prefer to “play chamber- music places… places where people can just sit down,  relax and listen,” like churches with their reverberant acoustics or even “rural places”.

Despite these problems with live performance, Young Marble Giants embarked on a tour of North America late in 1980, although it could be more truthfully be called an East Coast/West Coast tour, the group understandably shying away from
venturing into the rock’n’roll heartland. In Los Angeles, they played a gig at a Czechoslovakian community center. There was a batch of shows in the Bay Area,  San Francisco being the bohemian capital of the West Coast and America’s #2 postpunk city after New York(Rough Trade even had a branch of its record store in Frisco at that point). “We stayed in a converted fire station loft owned by two artists, with a cool veggie restaurant/bar downstairs called The Right Spot,” recalls Alison. There was a show at the Berkeley Keystone, an outdoor concert with the Flaming Groovies (a real chalk and cheese pairing, that one), and a show in Palo Alto, 35 miles to the South of San Francisco, at a club run by Hells Angels. After playing a gig in Vancouver, they switched to the Eastern seaboard, playing several shows in New York and New Jersey: two nights at Hurrah’s, a New Wave club that was a haven both for visiting Anglo bands and for NYC Anglophiles, plus a gig in Hoboken, NJ, a short ride on the Path train from Manhattan. “New York I found more depressing than San Francisco, but then I was ill at the time,” says Alison.  Severe tensions had also developed within the band during the American traipse: between Stuart and Alison, between Stuart and his brother, and, fatally, between Alison and Philip, who actually split up midway through the tour. 

The amorous discord didn’t result in Young Marble Giants’ equivalent to Rumours, however. The next release was low-key: Testcard, a six track EP of “instrumentals in praise and celebration of mid-morning television music”.  In those days, there were extended periods during the day when British TV ceased programming and instead broadcast just the Testcard--an intricately coloured and geometrically patterned diagram designed so that TV repair men could adjust the definition and color. This static image was accompanied by a peculiar sort of lite-jazzy Muzak whose crisp definition and detailed arrangements lent itself to similar fine-tuning of the TV’s sound reproduction. Stuart had absorbed this music as a child hanging out chez his grandmother, who kept the TV on constantly as a sort of hearth-warming ambient presence. Outlining the concept of the EP (the work of the Moxham brothers, Alison being sidelined still by illness) to NME, Stuart argued that “any kind of ambient music just isn't listened to seriously but it has a lot of merits. We've been influenced by testcard music, by nursery rhymes, by popular classical music--all that light, fringe stuff. The sound of those great big cinema organs, fairground music… I don't listen to it as much as, say, Radio One but I enjoy it a lot more."

A couple of months before the EP’s release, though, and just as they were being anointed one of 1980’s best new groups in the NME’s reader poll, in January 1981 Young Marble Giants announced they were splitting up. While Alison and Philip’s break-up was clearly problematic, the main problem was Stuart’s feeling that, since he was writing 80 percent of the material and handling the band’s business affairs, he should be the group’s frontman. The attention paid to Alison as the singer aggravated him, and burst out in an NME interview when the subject of her having being voted one of 1980’s best female singers came up: “But Alison’s not a singer! She’s someone who sings. Alison sings as if she was at the bus-stop or something. A real singer sings with more control”. The comment inadvertently pinpointed precisely what was special and even innovative about her vocals: a naturalistic style of under-singing later picked up by Barney Sumner in New Order, among many others over the years. In a late 1980 interview conducted during the American tour, Stuart had confessed, “it is frustrating not to sing the things. I'm not writing songs 'cos I want to be a musician, I'm writing them 'cos that's the only way I've got to express myself." Finally, the “seed of resentment” that had lodged in his heart at the very formation of the group blossomed, and Stuart announced that he was starting a sideline group, The Gist, in which he would be the singer.

Although officially presented as a sideline to Young Marble Giants, the announcement precipitated the break-up. Especially as it had been preceded by various attempts by Stuart to kick Alison out of the band. From the start, admits Stuart, he “didn’t really want to have Alison in the band, I wanted Phil but I took Alison on as well because it was a fait accompli. I thought nothing’s going to happen anyway, but when it did happen it did matter. I wasn’t mature enough to deal with it. I made Alison suffer and I’m really sorry for it.”  It was a messy moment made worse by the split-up between Philip and Alison and Stuart’s final break-up with Wendy Smith, and the obvious solution was to scatter. So ended the short and bittersweet existence of Young Marble Giants, just two years, evenly divided between obscurity and fame.

With hindsight, “it was the best thing for all of us,” Alison concludes philosophically. “The good thing is I'm really fond of Stuart now but that might not have occurred had we not had that space and distance to grow up in.”  The brothers too reconciled reasonably swiftly, with Philip helping out on some of the Gist recordings. Inevitably, there’s a temptation to wonder what might have happened if they’d resolved their differences and reformed after a brief furlough. What if Stuart could have relaxed his creative control enough to allow more space for the budding songwriting talent evidenced by Alison and Philip’s “Eating Noddemix” and Philip/Stuart co-authored pearls like “Choci Loni”? Could they have translated YMG’s magic into pop music, or something close enough, and endured as a Cocteau Twins-level group, or even achieved the mainstream success of Everything But the Girl, contemporaries of theirs?  Je ne regrette rien, says Alison. “We might have all gone doolally!” It’s also hard to imagine something as fragile as YMG’s music surviving the grind and graft required to really make it in the music business.

As Rough Trade’s top-selling band after Stiff Little Fingers, the ex-Giants were encouraged by Geoff Travis to pursue any musical impulses they had. In 1982, Stuart released a flurry of records as The Gist, including three singles and an album, Embrace the Herd; after this, his musical activity became more sporadic, spurts of solo work alternating with periods working as an animator and a driving instructor.  Philip Moxham briefly joined Pere Ubu singer David Thomas’ solo sideline outfit the Pedestrians and also played with Everything But the Girl. Alison formed Weekend with Spike from Reptile Ranch and another Cardiffian, Simon Booth, who had been a key member of the Camden squatland collective/think-tank that surrounded Scritti Politti. On singles like "The View From Her Room" and on the album La Variete, Weekend embraced an idea of “jazz” then circulating through the post-postpunk hipsterland: melodic and Latin-tinged, as opposed to fiery and freeform, as purveyed by the likes of Carmel, the Style Council (in their Café Bleu, left-Bank Parisian beatnik mode), and Everything But the Girl, who covered Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” in the style of Astrid Gilberto and got played on Radio 2 for their pains. When Weekend split up, Booth formed the jazzier Working Week and Alison embarked upon a musical partnership with Ian Devine (formerly the accomplice of confrontational postpunk chanteuse Linder Sterling in the band Ludus). Later Alison would join up with Spike again to record a couple of albums. Nowadays she she’s a chiropractor. “As far as music goes, there are a couple of 'quiet' projects in the pipeline and quite a lot of interest in YMG stuff. But with work and two children there's no sense of urgency. Que sera.”

And the legacy of Young Marble Giants? The sound is close to inimitable, but over the decades there have been audible echoes, whether conscious borrowings or simply a group discovering for themselves the same principles. In the late Eighties, drumless outfit Hugo Largo played their tranquil, glinting songs to New York audiences sitting on the floor. In the Nineties, you could detect the YMG imprint in some of the more melodious post-rock groups like Pram and Insides, as well as the idyllictronic toy-music of Mouse on Mars and Mum. And then there’s the fact that Kurt Cobain was a massive YMG fan and had planned for Nirvana to cover Colossal Youth’s “Credit in the Straight World”, perhaps seeing this oblique opt-out anthem as the perfect protest rock for a passive-aggressive, narcoleptic generation. As it happened, he never got around to doing it, but his widow Courtney Love recorded a version on Hole’s grunge-goes-glossy blockbuster Live Through This.

Mostly, though, the legacy is the music itself, that slender and virtually flawless body of work that has proved impervious to the eroding attrition of time. Although the members carried on making music fitfully after going their separate ways, the name Young Marble Giants itself retains a kind of immaculateness—there’s no after-trail of legend-disgracing lesser material, precious little in the way of demos, basement tapes, out-takes, and the like. For once, the Collected Works = the Best of. You hold it in your hands, or hear it in your ears, as you read these words.