CROSSING THE RED SEA WITH THE ADVERTS – THE ADVERTS (1978)
The notion of alternative culture has been diluted enough to leave a gap where the Pacific used to be. What purports to be an alternative is, all too often, scarcely any better than – or even much different to – the thing it’s offered up as an alternative to; trace a line in 2015 from celebrity culture to hipster culture and you’ll hardly travel the length of your own toes; the distinction has been all but erased and there are far too many intersections at Ukulele Junction, Animals In Adverts Corner and Live Lounge Ring Road. And maybe it’s an inevitable by-product of the passage of time but when some of the most emotionally complex and ideologically committed artists of the last half century – the Smiths, the Jam, REM, Radiohead – end up on a Conservative Prime Minister’s Desert Island Discs, is there anywhere left for anything to go? Yes, I’m well aware that there’s still much that’s radical to be discovered but even its most ardent champions have seen it all, heard it all and the notion of anything even vaguely subversive penetrating the mainstream now seems as fanciful as the discovery of a bootleg of Geoffrey Chaucer reciting his own work.
Consider, then, what the Adverts and their peers were up against in the late ’70s. There were no politicians or ubiquitous TV presenters self-consciously and ingratiatingly clamouring to prove how really into this groovy punk stuff they were. Who were they surrounded by when the unforgettably gruesome Gary Gilmore’s Eyes became an improbable hit? Smokie, The Dooleys, Brotherhood of Man; Crossroads, Des O’Connor Tonight and Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club on TV; Keith Joseph and Willie Whitelaw on the news. Punk defined itself against all of these; if they were aware of it at all, the response to it was a deeply-felt revulsion, shown most viscerally towards the Pistols but nobody was immune.
The Adverts stood out as close-quarters observers of the culture they were part of but seemed to be ambivalent towards. On their torrential debut One Chord Wonders (which, along with Gary Gilmore’s Eyes and Safety In Numbers, formed an opening volley of singles fit to stand alongside any), TV Smith berates an indifferent audience which starts off as irate hippies (“Come back when you’ve learned to play”) but turns into fickle, bandwagoneering punks (“We must be the new wave, they’ll like us next year). Safety In Numbers adds a double meaning to its title’s readymade cliche – not only did the scene’s proliferation provide plenty of lookalikes to hide behind but it also eroded its impact. Meanwhile, to the most mellifluous melody of their early period, New Church acknowledges this conformity but urges you to turn it to your advantage (“strength within you, not without you”).
More obliquely, On The Roof slows the headlong charge to a surreptitious tread and Smith appears to be calling for an escape from everyday pettiness (“We’re fighting on the floor for a ha’penny”). On Wheels is much more specific, a reflective and, for its time, bold contemplation of life with disability. It’s less blunt than Peter Hammill’s similarly stark Handicap And Equality, which appeared the following year, but both are notable in dating from a time when a whole lexicon of breathtakingly tactless terms was still applied, without qualm, in official circles to people with disabilities.
The dyspeptic jewel in this tarnished crown is Great British Mistake, one of the most unblinking examinations ever of the nation’s conscience, as lyrically forensic and musically excoriating a dissection as any performed by Weller, Costello or Morrissey. The error is diagnosed as “looking for a way out…getting complacent, not noticing” and personified as people “out of the prepack, into the fear, into themselves.” Torpor and resistance to ideas are the consequence and Smith is fearful – “When will it be over? How can they avoid it?”
It took the Adverts a full year to deliver Crossing The Red Sea… and it appeared a month after the Pistols’ ignominious implosion. I’ve never held with the notion that punk was all over by 1977 – for me, it flourished as late as 1980 – but the Adverts themselves didn’t capitalise on the detonation of this album. A series of strong but sporadic singles came over the next year and a half but the follow-up album, Cast of Thousands, was dangerously flawed. It had one of their finest moments – the untypically gentle, Television-echoing but profoundly sinister I Will Walk You Home – and probably their worst, the hysterical and frankly awful I Looked At The Sun, which ELP would have rejected for being too pompous. But at their peak, they had few equals ; they were once described as “a great band, for a moment” – Crossing The Red Sea… was that moment (PG).