The Only Fun in Town/Sorry For Laughing
Young and Stupid
(Les Tempes Modernes)
Melody Maker, October 20th 1990
By Simon Reynolds
A decade on, it's hard to think yourself back within the Zeitgeist, the aesthetic worldview, that once enshrined Josef K on the cutting edge. If Josef K were poised on that edge, it was because (like so many of their turn-of-decade contemporaries) they were high on anxiety. Existensial doubt was taken as the exhilarating price of existensial freedom. Songs like 'Crazy To Exist' and 'Sorry for Laughing' ("there's too much happening) strove to strike the correct, flattering posture in the face of absurdity. Where the bewilderment rock of today is about surrendering to the chaos within you or the sensory overload without, Josef K was about the heroic Outsider (Paul Haig) suavely surfing across the fraught surface of their albino funk fracas.
When the Young and Stupid material was first exhumed a few years ago, Steve Sutherland pegged Josef K as prime participants in an age where groups were "instruments of discourse" rather than purely musical initiatives. It's true: Josef K was music to talk about, music engendered by talk, music as talk (a meta-music commentary on the role and reason of pop). Postcard labelmates [error! didn't have Wikipedia in them days!] The Fire Engines performed 15 minute sets as a gesture against hippy indulgence, and released Lubricate Your Living Room as "background music for active people". Animation and speculation were the only artificial stimulants on the agenda.
So it might be difficult for all you whippersnappers who weren't around at the time to take this cerebral, palsied sound as "pleasure" or even music. Josef K's relationship with funk, for instance, was purely notional. But their monochrome austerity/asperity, their uptight, un-baggy grooviness, and even Haig's existentialist croon, sound surprisingly good in 1990. In retrospect, their early aborted attempt at a debut album (Sorry For Laughing) feels much superior to what was finally released in July 1981 (The Only Fun in Town). What Josef K saw then as a fault (Sorry was "too clinical and well-produced") now seems preferable to the trebly, tinned sound of The Only Fun (which was intended as a "punk" record). The earlier versions of the songs sound superbly coiled and keen, whereas some of that barbed and wired edginess is lost in the lo-fi murk of the official debut album. Stand-outs include the hair-trigger panic of "Sense of Guilt", "Art of Things" with Malcolm Ross's sunzoom-spark guitar (Chic meets Captain Beefheart), and the sublime poise of "Endless Soul", Josef K's truly timeless blaze of glory.
The Young and Stupid package is strictly for anal retentive completists, consisting as it does of early singles, B-sides, demo versions, Peel session tracks and sundry bits and bobs. There's two version of the brilliant "Radio Drill Time", two of their first single "Chance Meeting", and two of "The Angle" (already featured on The Only Fun). There's the oddity of an Alice Cooper cover ("Applebush"). The closing "Torn Mentor" and "Night Ritual" see Josef K opening up some awry space in their agit-funk (that's "agitation" as in having a restless soul, rather than the stern placards and stern tracts of Gang of Four et al).
After the K split, Paul Haig went off to make debonair disco records (his work this year with the likes of Lil Louis and Mantronix is his most convincing yet), Ross plied his wares with Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, and the other ones dedicated themselves to even more inconspicuous activities. Having virtually no ancestors (bar a trace of Television and the VU), Josef K fittingly left no progeny (unless you count the June Brides). But these reissues will ensure that JK will "forever drone".