COLOSSAL YOUTH -YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS (1980)
It’s unlikely that the title of the world’s quietest band has ever been actively, or even eagerly, coveted but the hushed highnesses over the years have been so noble that it’s hard to see it as a dubious accolade.
The stillest, smallest voices of calm for a number of years now have been Low. Despite having a looser hand on the volume control for more than a decade, the brilliant Minnesotans are still associated with their earliest whispers, which reached their zenith during a live John Peel session, in which they played so quietly that at one point they triggered the emergency broadcast that kicks in following a certain period of dead air. Previously, the title was silently seized by the Cowboy Junkies, through the pindrop, eyeball-close mystery of 1989’s Trinity Session.
But the notion first came into being with the arrival at the dawn of the ’80s of Cardiff’s Young Marble Giants. The critical acclaim they encountered was equalled only by the bafflement of those same critics; after the commotion of punk and the more cerebral, but no calmer, post-punk ferment, they had little clue what to make of this seemingly fully-formed and uncategorisable creature. There were few signposts; casting around for comparisons, unlikely parallels were drawn with Slapp Happy and even Ivor Cutler who, for all his greatness, shared nothing with YMG but a penchant for holding long keyboard notes. In Smash Hits (at this point, not yet the breathless, ultra-frivolous publication it would become but a slick, fearsomely smart younger sibling to the NME) the enigmatic Red Starr observed that it would be “doubtless received with massive uncertainty by those who haven’t been told how to react” but gave his own approval and was mercifully off beam in his wry prediction that metropolitan hacks might label it “mining pop.”
If there really have to be comparisons, the closest might be Robert Wyatt, in the floating-serenely-on-the-surface-paddling-like-mad-below (I realised after writing this that it might seem an unfortunate turn of phrase but, for avoidance of all doubt, it refers to the song only) Sea Song from Rock Bottom and his spectral cover of Chic’s At Last I Am Free, which appeared a few months after Colossal Youth. Like Rock Bottom, along with Astral Weeks and Spirit Of Eden, it’s a record which inhabits its own landscape, follows its own internal logic and is completely self-contained. Like all of these equally astonishing records, it gives the impression of a forest but, where the others are rich in foliage and vegetation, every last leaf of Colossal Youth has fallen, yet its unclothed branches and stricken bark have an autumnal beauty all of their own.
The opener Searching For Mr Right strikes the tuning fork immediately. A distorted rhythm generator fades in, like the footsteps of a seeker of eagerly-anticipated news, the Moxham brothers, Stuart and Phil, on terse bass and taciturn guitar make their points with clarity; amid them and between them is Alison Statton, a voice of folk, a voice of jazz, a voice of pop, a voice beyond category – and a contender in a BBC poll for Wales’ Greatest Living Voice (spoiler: Shakin’ Stevens won). If the title seems cliched in a post-Bridget Jones and all her nieces world, lines like “Blind as the fate decrees/I will go on/Teaching myself to be/The young untold” should prompt a rethink. This is desperate hope, the kind that keeps a quest going when a cause seems lost – I’ve certainly been there, though fortunately not for a long time.
The album’s best and – at three and a half minutes – longest song, NITA, begins with a barely audible rumble below the pulse, giving it an in-the-room live feel similar to the start of Television’s Little Johnny Jewel, where, if you listen closely, you can hear the tape being switched on. The organ hums almost to itself, resembling nothing so much as an interval signal from a shortwave radio station, the kind that would appear at the furthest reaches of the dial (anyone remember Radio Sweden?) accompanying a generous, poignant and very modern (more than most you’d hear today) reflection on a relationship that’s no more (“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”). The scene shifts sharply to what appears to be an acting workshop where the title’s acronym is expanded (“Shake up your body, let’s be a tree/Visual dynamics for you to see/Nature intended the abstract for you and me”) but the sinister calm coasts, intact, until it ends as suddenly as it began – an excerpt from eternity.
A consistency in tone doesn’t mean in any sense that this is an unvarying record – it slices across a vasty spectrum of ideas, shades and details. Colossal Youth – the song – emerges as if it intends to be a slightly awkward 12-bar exercise but soon pivots on a see-sawing melodic figure which could have wandered over from Rough compatriots the Raincoats, a band as far from blues as Debussy is from thrash. Stuart Moxham has revealed to TNPC that Include Me Out, improbably, owes a debt to Whole Lotta Love – to my ears, it’s always sounded uncharacteristically abrasive, and while the brusque, choppy riffing is perhaps closer to Billy Bragg than Jimmy Page, the solo dares to Rock in a way YMG seldom did. But any threat of spandex is defused by the rhythm generator bounding around gleefully like the scribbled logo from the much-loved BBC children’s series Vision On.
Eating Noddemix’s strange tale of a memory of an accident, and its attendant prurient media clamour, takes a stop-start route to a curt but satisfying halt. The metronome of Music For Evenings ticks at a tempo Wire repeatedly returned to on Chairs Missing and evokes an early ’80s moment suspended somewhere between the end of homework, Play For Today and the Nine O’Clock News. The Asimovesque sci-fi of the Man Amplifier glides on organ straight from Blackpool Tower and makes its final descent on a church bell carillon, bookended by the starling-like mimicry of the BBC’s time signal pips – though it’s just over three minutes long rather than an hour. The bass of Wurlitzer Jukebox alternates between gleeful funk and classically post-punk pokerfacedness, all sealing its absence from just about any of the eponymous contraptions.
Brand-New-Life, conversely, is an overtly pop-new wave song, swaggering on the crest of a tough-tender melody which Blondie snoozed on and lost, laced with unexpectedly gruff Moxham harmonies. There’s another serrated edge on Credit In The Straight World, sharpened to a stiletto point by a troubling lyric (“Look a dealer in the eye…I lost a leg I lost an eye), all making a package which prompted a significantly overhauled cover by Hole, who we’ll return to shortly.
Salad Days, a two minutes flat lament for not that long ago youth, is placid even by the standards of the songs around it; it took me a long time to figure out why but it suddenly clicked – Rhythm Generator is absent but I didn’t quite notice at first. And this is one of the keys to Colossal Youth – it may be quiet music but it’s not slow music; it’s often in quite a headlong hurry. And it’s never subdued music – as we’ve seen, it’s robust and forthright whenever it needs to be. In fact, let’s slay that canard; this is not quiet music so much as it’s sparse music, skeletal but a skeleton with every bone intact, sparse but sounding full precisely because it’s full of spaces.
The album’s brace of (well, one and a half) instrumentals are equal partners with the rest, despite being Stattonless zones. The instrumental seems to have become something of a lost art, possibly seen as indulgences and missed opportunities in testing times, but the turn of the ’80s were highly testing times as well. And anyway, these are sketches, vignettes, not merely interludes. The spirit of Joe Meek sits in the back seat of The Taxi as an, appropriately (Bravo!) tango rhythm sweeps a subtly Hispanic melody into the front. A largely indecipherable radio message crackles across the reverie, while refusal to cross the boundary, reluctance to allow you to take your pizza in and failure to indicate are all blissfully absent.
From land to sea, the closing Wind In The Rigging is more blissful still. Rhythm Generator sweeps like a broom on deck and it all sets its compass for the queasy serenity of Bowie’s Art Decade, berthing well ahead of schedule. It evokes the fragile magic of the briney as readily as Adagio from Spartacus – Khachaturian’s Onedin Line theme – or even Sailing By, the Shipping Forecast theme which is as belovedly soothing to uncomprehending landlubbers as it’s essential to the survival of mariners. But Sailing By harbours (intended) a dark secret; though synonymous with the sea, it was first used to soundtrack a balloon race. Should this led to it being deemed unfit to serve in its current post, I nominate Wind In The Rigging as its successor.
Within a year, Young Marble Giants had ceased, after two more EPs, the all-instrumental Testcard and, two months after Colossal Youth, Final Day, the title song of which articulated, in 100 seconds, the daily dread wrought by the Cold War as eloquently and bluntly as any in-depth documentary.
Statton moved on to Weekend, who briefly but beautifully surfed the jazz-with-everything vogue of 1982 and a fine string of folk-inflected records, firstly with Ian Devine, formerly of Ludus, and then her fellow Weekender Spike Williams. More recently, she recorded a heart-battering interpretation of the mining disaster lament Bells Of Rhymney, securing an overdue homecoming for a song that Pete Seeger and the Byrds had all but claimed for America. Philip Moxham joined Weekend’s kindred spirits Everything But The Girl and, later, The Pedestrians, formed by David Thomas during Pere Ubu’s mid-’80s furlough. Stuart Moxham explored, without bombast or ostentation, the new decade’s new pop through the Gist, producing the lost summer hit to lord over them all with Love At First Sight, which rolls all of 1982 and 1983’s many sunny days into four cider-effervescent minutes. It was also covered by Lush and by French singer Etienne Daho as Paris Le Flore, reviving a practice most prevalent in the ’60s of completely different lyrics for different languages, which saw Da Doo Ron Ron become a bittersweet farewell to lost love, I Only Want To Be With You a sour dismissal of a liar and, in House of The Rising Sun, the “mother, tell your children” caution coming from a life prisoner.
Just about every article written on Young Marble Giants in the past quarter century has mentioned that any or all of Michael Stipe, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love are among their fans. I guess this can now be added to that pile but, truthfully, it’s one of the least important, possibly even least interesting, things about them. Their greatness exists independently of, and predated, any celebrity endorsements – which is what these effectively amount to, although it would be churlish to dismiss their role in raising awareness of YMG. The band’s influence spread fast to Tracy Thorn, the Cocteau Twins and Barton and Jane, long before their It’s A Fine Day had a bangin’ donk applied to it by Opus III, while much more recently, they’ve been frequently mentioned in dispatches around The xx.
Independent music at the start of the ’80s was, to a great extent, highly regionalised, devolved even, with small labels and DIY cassette producers in just about every part of the UK. Did this give you space to create a distinctive sound?
Yes, though it was really more of a late ’70’s thing than early ’80’s. We wrote the YMG set from ’78 -’79 mostly, with the “Final Day” 7″ material coming in early 1980 when Geoff Travis asked me if I could write something for a potential single.
Although I find it difficult to distinguish any particularly Welsh qualities in our repertoire that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Being a child of the 1950’s I grew up in an Anglisized south Wales – nobody was interested in Welshness, in my experience. Certainly I come from a background where we were told that our regional accent would be a handicap in life by our parents. I think we looked to England and thought of ourselves as British. My father, although born in Cardiff, is from Gloucester farming stock all the way back. These things have subsequently changed completely of course and I now content myself, in my conflicted state, by paraphrasing Morrissey: English blood, Cymric heart.
In 1979 I produced a home made cassette album of “Colossal Youth” and sold it through the auspices of the Virgin record shop, where I worked at the time, which precisely allowed Young Marble Giants to get their music out to a potential audience in Cardiff, in an era when Status Quo were the only band in town, so to speak. We wanted to see if there was an audience for something different.
Spike Williams and the folks at Z Block records consequently invited us to contribute to “Is The War Over?” which was the U.K’s second D.I.Y. compilation album after Manchester’s “Spiral Scratch.” So it was very much a localised phenomenon, with Z Block very much mentored by Scritti Politti as I understand it. Certainly Wales is famously Nonconformist and that religious culture naturally attracted a ready audience who were perhaps inclined to simmering rebellion against the English overlords and therefore identified with different ways of doing things.Despite the sparsity of your sound, songs like Wurlitzer Jukebox and, in particular, Include Me Out, are actually quite abrasive. Do you feel this aspect of Young Marble Giants was overlooked?
Abrasive? Certainly my guitar style was abrasive throughout, partly because I was a beginner at electric guitar and just did what came to me at the time, i.e. my main concern was that I didn’t know much about chords and composition, and so I tried to compensate by finding things which sounded good to my ear like using two note chords and moving the relatively few chord shapes I did know up and down the neck, using a very trebly setting and a very hard “Sharkfin” plectrum. All these things were self taught. But I take your point. I would say more rock influenced though, as in power chord riffs. I remember playing the “Wurlitzer Jukebox” intro one day in 1981, when Phil Legg was in the room at our squat in Stoke Newington, after YMG split. When he saw that I was only playing two strings at a time, in the 9th and 11th frets, he said, “Is that all it is?” Music is much more than the sum of its parts because it has psychological and supernatural elements. Those are what good composers try to work with – A.I. my arse! Courtney Love’s Hole arrangement of “Credit In The Straight World” was a good example of a New World shedding of YMG’s Old World repression. So yes, in all definitely an overlooked aspect. Somebody could probably do a decent mini album with the repressed rock tracks from “Colossal Youth.” For instance “Include Me Out” is actually a semi skimmed homage to “Whole Lotta Love”, for example. Evidently the tightly controlled, tense and uptight renditions we made had their own appeal though!
What was the reason for Nature Intended The Abstract being condensed to the acronym NITA? Was it inspired by the wartime radio show ITMA (It’s That Man Again)?
Nice guess on the acronym. I don’t think I knew about ITMA at the time. It was just easier to condense it. As a songwriter I soon realised that I would be writing titles down kazillions of times over and so I have kept them short. “The Man Shares His Meal With His Beast” is a very rare exception!Many Welsh bands of the ’90s had a strong national identity. It appeared to be less overt in Young Marble Giants but was it still there in your sound and your approach as a band?Regarding whether Welsh national identity is detectable in YMG’s output, our being Welsh was something that journalists and etc. picked up on. I don’t think it mattered to us so much – it certainly never crossed my mind. I wonder if people who don’t know our geographical/cultural background ever hear Welshness in our music? We missed out on the entire “Cool Cymru” thing because we popped up long before that sea change in attitudes and therefore, perhaps, the next generation completely missed us. There just wasn’t any particular support within Wales in our time because it wasn’t seen as anything remarkable, marketable or downright meritorious to be Welsh. Even recent music oriented websites fail to flag up what a big deal we actually were in Wales for some people.Admittedly our diffidence was mirrored by the media. Historically Wales is a conquered nation and I think suffered, and still suffers, a lack of confidence as a result. The basic issue is that, once the coal was mostly mined out, the place is basically a massive tourist destination/sheep farm and the poorest country in Western Europe. Looking back at some interviews from 1980 I often mentioned the apathy prevalent in Cardiff. It’s difficult to explain that, but a general lack of money circulating in the country means less opportunity and maybe that can lead to less aspiration.I do think there was something Cardiffian in our approach to – well, everything really. Cardiff has long been the test bed for new theatrical productions, variety shows, etc. because there is a strong bullshit filter inherent in the Cardiffian audience. If a production goes down well there, then it will work anywhere. The converse is true and when I have occasionally found myself getting windy at the prospect, say, of doing a solo show in some glittering American city rising out of the MidWestern plain, I simply steady myself by saying “You’ve played Cardiff, you’ve got nothing to worry about.!” I terms of YMG, both in business and in our music, we operated the Cardiffian attitude too; give people the goods, and do it directly – don’t fanny around. Don Watson, in a NME review of The Gist album “Embrace The Herd” said “It has the feeling of firesides, Welsh cottages and shaggy dogs.” There’s lovely!When you played Glasgow in 2014, Alison Statton told a great story about a couple who had bonded over Colossal Youth years earlier and took their children with them to see you in Manchester. I feel this illustrates that Young Marble Giants are a genuinely timeless band whose music makes sense in any era – would you agree?Timelessness is often attributed to YMG’s music and who am I to argue? Sonically it’s mostly standard elements; bass, electric guitar and vocals, so they won’t age quickly, although the cheesy electric organ harks back to the ’60s and the rhythm generator, (not a commercially available drum machine, because there weren’t any in 1979,) is prescient. The way we used these elements was pretty sui generis, as Steven Appleby once said, so that also helps to keep it fresh. The bass being an upfront, melodic instrument (nonconformist) and the guitar as almost a percussion instrument, with both of these locking into the metronomic and highly artificial “drum” sounds created an open mesh (hence my knitting analogy) to support the single, untreated voice. None of that was chosen from a range of ideas – it was just the way we liked it. There were a lot of ideas and risks in what we did, but I felt that we had nothing to lose. I almost feel sorry for today’s University students who are studying discrete areas of music making, production and performance in great detail, because coming to make, record and perform the YMG set (and everything since) has been a totally personal evolution for me, drawing largely on native wit and cunning. It’s like the coke bottle – not designed by a dedicated team after much research and consultation, but built by inspiration and totally “right.” That’s how things used to be done. Anyway, good songs are always timeless because their lyrics are about universal concerns.