VARIOUS ARTISTS – Harmony In My Head: UK Power Pop & New Wave 1977-81

Back in the 90s, Rhino Records released two compilations celebrating the birth and subsequent explosion of power pop in the US between 1975-1981. Entitled ‘Come Out & Play (American Power Pop 1975-1978)’ and ‘Shake It Up (American Power Pop 1979-1981)’, those discs are an invaluable addition to any power pop collection, introducing many to the works of Pearl Harbor & The Explosions, 20/20 and Earth Quake, alongside more familiar cult recordings by Shoes, Off Broadway, Cheap Trick, Chris Bell and far more besides.

‘Harmony In My Head: UK Power Pop & New Wave 1977-1981’, a 2018 box set from Cherry Red Records exploring the UK power pop and new wave scenes, is every bit as wonderful as those US-centric discs, presenting the popular and familiar alongside some also-rans and bands whom never made the big time.

Fittingly, the comprehensive three disc historical archive begins with the Buzzcocks number of the same name and also features major players Squeeze and Elvis Costello within the first few tracks. Key numbers from Nick Lowe, Eddie & The Hot Rods (predictably, their evergreen ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ is present and correct) and The Ruts are possibly enough to put the merely curious at ease. The title song from Midge Ure’s Rich Kids also acts as a timely reminder that their ‘Ghosts of Princes In Towers’ is a fine album that’s often been overlooked over the years. For some listeners – particularly those who didn’t invest in Edsel’s equally enjoyable ‘Gary Crowley’s Punk & New Wave’ box set from earlier in 2018 – Tonight’s hit single ‘Drummer Man’ will evoke strong memories of the late 70s. One of those singles that no decent collection of new wave 7”s should be without, despite a few rough vocals it holds up amazingly well. With a driving riff and superb hook, it’s one of the greatest examples of how punky attitudes and poppy hooks could live side by side throughout the UK punk boom and how The Damned, Clash and Pistols only represented a tiny amount of the alternative music output of the era. If you’ve not heard this single since 1980, prepare yourselves for a massive, massive earworm…

As with all great anthologies, though, it’s the lesser known material that provides the genuine interest for genre fans and collectors – and with source material from various independent labels and some very hard to find 7”s, this set digs up various superb treats. ‘Suffice To Say’ by Yachts really captures the spikiness of the late 70s by blending a bassline with a slight Stranglers influence with vocals that fall somewhere between pub rock and new wave. It’s a great example of how the alternative music that grew out of the punk and DIY scenes could be sharp but also radio friendly. It might only represent three minutes of the band’s entire output, but is impressive enough to perhaps inspire checking out Cherry Red’s own Yachts box set for further listening. Melodic punks The Boys come across excellently on an alternate version of ‘The First Time’, a guitar driven, chorus heavy workout that sounds like a noisier version of The Jags and Automatic (the latter mysteriously absent from this otherwise brilliant set), and The Jags themselves are represented by a great Mod beat tune ‘I Never Was A Beach Boy’. A number that falls somewhere between the light end of Nine Below Zero and the chart friendly sounds of The Jam, it makes the best out of a surprisingly punchy chorus; so much so, that even a slightly flat vocal can’t spoil an obviously jaunty single. it shows how there was always far more to this band than their late 70s hit ‘Back of My Hand’. Perhaps an even better example of the Mod revival sound comes from The Amber Squad’s ‘I Can’t Put My Finger On You’, a tune that features some great 60s influenced guitar work that’s then boosted by a little late 70s grit. In the main, it’s easy to imagine the original 7” appealing to fans of The Jam and Secret Affair, but a shift in tone for the mid-section adds a very Costello inspired breakdown, suggesting this short-lived band were more than just recyclers of their obvious Mod influences. It feels familiar right from the first time you ever hear it, making it another of this collection’s true gems.

New Musik – a band led by Tony Mansfield and often only remembered for their hit single ‘Living By Numbers’ – are remembered here with another superb new wave track, ‘Straight Lines’. With very mechanical rhythms powering a fantastic pop arrangement with bell-like keyboards and rigid bass work, this track more than proves this is a band who deserve to be loved almost as much as the omnipresent Buggles. Between the very 80s music and Mansfield’s slightly twee vocal, the band are so distinctive and this number is very much a highlight of this compilation. In a more guitar driven style, but just as punchy, Chris Sievey’s band The Freshies are a welcome reminder of a world of underground post-punk and their Buzzcocks-esque ‘No Money’ brings angst and great power pop sound together with ease, while a minimalist two word chorus makes it insanely catchy. Sievey and The Freshies make a second appearance as part of Going Red, a flash in the pan project fronted by one Graham Fellows (aka Jilted John). The resulting track isn’t anywhere near as memorable – or legendary – as John’s own theme song (a top 5 UK hit in 1978), due to a rough and ready recording and a less obvious hook. Still, with The Freshies jangling and an unashamed use of handclaps, this fun ode to adolescence and the correct use of soap is worth hearing all the same. For many, it might even represent a first listen. Cult heroes of the era, The Records, add something extra special with ‘Teenarama’, a slice of power pop that’s chock full of big, chopping chords and a mid 60s influence beefed up for a new generation. It comes with an equally huge hook and a sense of musicality matched only by Flamin’ Groovies at their 1976 peak. In fact, the US style slant to their sound is most welcome – this is a track to open new ears and one to revisit time and again. As a footnote, their presence here is somewhat bitter sweet: between the compiling and eventual release of this box set, The Records’ founding member John Wicks passed away. Hopefully this will act as a timely reminder of the musical legacy he and the band left behind.

In a full-on power pop workout with finger clicks and handclaps, you can almost hear the skinny ties on ‘Plain Jane’ by New Hearts, an unashamedly bouncy pop/rocker embellished by a rhythm guitar that sounds like the spirit of Rick Parfitt attended the recording session, and Squires’ 1980 b-side ‘Does Stephanie Know’ does a fantastic job of working 60s harmonies and a very retro chorus into something sharper. As one of the most perfect Mod revival tunes, is utterly indispensable. A feel good tune peppered by stabbed piano, Any Trouble’s ‘The Trouble With Love’ goes deeper into new wave sounds. Sometimes feeling like a more pop oriented Elvis Costello fuelled by the song-writing chops of Glen Tilbrook, it’s a mystery why these guys weren’t huge. In some ways, this song sounds like a forerunner to Kurt Baker, resulting in a surprisingly catchy four minutes, whilst the less fortunate Bleeding Hearts’ 1980 single ‘This Is The Way…OK’ takes a new wave spikiness that sets up a great verse, but fails to capitalise on any kind of chorus. It should definitely be far better than it is, but taken purely as an historical listen, it’s nice that another largely forgotten independent single is back in circulation. Scotland’s Fast Cars – a perennial choice for box sets and anthologies such as this – also bring a little punky spirit to ‘You’re So Funny’ (originally released in 1979). A fast and sharp workout, this early recording makes it really easy to hear their Buzzcocks influence, though when crossed with a touch of Generation X, it has a genuine gutsy quality that has really aged well. For all fans of the first wave of pop-punk, this is a must hear and the fact that the recording sounds as if it were sourced from the original DIY 7” on Streets Ahead Records just makes it sound even better. Never mind remastering or digitally clean, this is the real deal!

For those who crave something a little noisier, The Stiffs’ ‘Magic Roundabout’ delivers a jagged riff that’s truly designed for pogo-ing, but is a cut above so much UK punk of the era thanks to a strong vocal that comes in more than just a shout-along style. There are hints of 999 and the more palatable UK Subs at the core of the track, but a vocal performance that’s full of Andy Partridge-ish quirks adds plenty of interest throughout. …And yes, the instrumental break does indeed reference the ‘Magic Roundabout’ theme… In short, it’s three minutes’ worth of fantastic. Also punkier than the lion’s share of this three disc extravaganza, The Carpettes take a Damned curated riff and splice to it a world of handclaps and a wayward power pop guitar solo, leaving behind something that occasionally sounds like a rough and ready Buzzcocks tune that has a real energy. With some sharp riffs and a Joe Strummer inflection in the vocals (courtesy of Shane McGowan in one of his best ever performances), The Nips also add something punkier to this set. Their ‘Happy Song’ is a melodic punk classic that draws a lot of influence from the first two Clash LPs, but also has something about it that vaguely sounds like something from The Jam’s ‘In The City’. Perhaps having Paul Weller produce the track had an effect there… In short, this great single needs to be played loudly for best results. [It’s also worth noting that, should you ever find one, the original DIY 7” will set you back a small fortune. Far more than the original RRP of this box set.]

The Radio Stars’ ‘The Real Me’ offers some tough guitar chops contrasted with a very US influenced sound, often coming across like a less glammy Cheap Trick serving up power pop gold and the same applies to The Name, whose jangling guitar sounds and snotty vocals might sound a touch more rooted in the UK scene, but for lovers of simple hooks and skinny ties, the track will be have a welcome presence. Neither tune tries to be clever or bring any new angles to a well established sound, but they’re all the better for that. Like The Nerves, The Scruffs and Tommy Tutone, The Name show there’s a lot to be gained from a three minute, keep-it-tight approach.

Always underrated, The Photos represent some of the poppier sounds from the 1977-1980 period. More Lene Lovich than Blondie, ‘Irene’ features a superb bass line and some brilliant power chords, but it’s always Wendy Wu’s natural vocal style that makes the band stand out. A simple hook and some great musicianship shows how the band were broader in appeal than some of their peers, too. Their power pop gifts scored them a #5 hit on the UK album charts at the start of the 80s and yet, somehow, they’re never more than a footnote in the rock history books. Their inclusion here is an essential one…and their self-titled LP holds up equally well. Hopefully this compilation means more people will be reminded of – or even introduced to – this great band.

From the selection that could be labelled “really obscure”, it’s great to hear the A-side of Staa Marx’s sole Cherry Red 7” from ’79. The music is firmly in the skinny ties and power pop camp; an upfront bass drives forth some excellent jangle pop – a little Flamin’ Groovies influence is mixed with something a touch more UK-centric, while a big hook fuelled by harmony vocals isn’t a million miles away from ‘Drums & Wires’ era XTC, making it a must hear for enthusiasts of post-punk sounds, despite a wobbly vocal at the start. The Cherry Boys’ ‘Wait A Minute’ shows a more modern take on a very mid-60s sound, as shimmering guitars and a natural vocal blend in a way that sometimes sounds like a more sedate version of The Who, or a deep cut from The Jam during their peerless ‘All Mod Cons’ period. In terms of power/pop and new wave, it’s a near perfect example of the style, so it’s a mystery as to why it’s been sitting gathering dust until this release.

There have been dozens of new wave and power pop compilations over the years, but few have been as thoughtfully compiled as this. Largely casting aside the old faithfuls in favour of independent singles, this release – comprising seventy six tracks and three discs – is very much a treasure trove of cool. Like all great anthologies, there are omissions of course (in this case, the obvious lack of female fronted bands is a little disappointing), but for listeners interested in the era’s offshoots from punk, ‘Harmony In My Head’ still presents a fascinating musical archive.

September/October 2018