Thursday, 13 September 2007

Off on a Tangent (Part 3 of many)

Lack of Knowledge - Grey EP, 1983

This 7" single appeared in 1983 on the Crass label, home of the original "dog on a string" brigade and perhaps the sole inspiration for smelly anarcho crusties across the land. However, on the face of it, this lot were different. From what I can gather, Lack of Knowledge were predominantly led by Tony Barber, who now plays bass for the Buzzcocks: they toiled around the usual anarcho gig sweat pots where their drainpipes and skinny ties attracted odd looks. The fact that they only played a handful of gigs perhaps shows that they didn't fit into the punk ‘scene' very well. Bear in mind that at the time, Crass Records specialised in apoplectic punk rock and wildly left of centre experimental nuttiness: spoken word EPs, a novelty Christmas record played entirely on a pocket Yamaha synthesiser, even a single by Captain Sensible. Merely admitting you could play an instrument to a proficient standard would automatically elevate you over the amount of angry punk rock detritus the label shovelled out with alarming frequency. However, it wasn't just the musicianship that elevated LOK - it was much more.

The four songs on this single are LOK's finest ten minutes. Even the LP that followed a little later - Sirens are Back - couldn't match what these guys did here. OK, so it's only four songs, but whatever it was - a fluke of a fluctuating line up or the attentions of a sympathetic producer – LOK were never able to reproduce what they did on this single. Comparisons to Joy Division are perhaps inevitable given the New Wave tag, but where Joy Division's sound was often cold and alienating, LOK's is warm, lush, pensive even, which is ironic given their lyrical concerns: Northern Ireland, imminent nuclear collapse, a dispiriting vision of the future that still sounds strangely contemporary today.

These concerns are a pretty good match with those of the other bands on the Crass roster, but LOK are more subtle – these guys want to tell stories rather than swear and sneer and carry on. And besides, this is hardly what you call a genre puck record: We’re Looking for People features a riff that isn’t the obligatory three chord racket – good god, the song even features a literate guitar solo! The drums are a little militaristic in keeping with the Crass house style, but are kept down in the mix, and just as well – man, that bass player can play! Another Sunset is flooded with (shock, horror) expansive keyboard washes which add to the melancholic vibe: this isn’t punk rock as we know it, and thank god for that.

Having the publicity that being 'signed' to Crass Records afforded them, LOK were never exactly obscure in the same way that Slab! were. The records that followed Grey made you wish they were. After Grey, they thrashed away with the obligatory three chords as the compilation Americanised demonstrates (where the criteria appears to be quantity not quality) – which makes Grey seem like a complete aberration. Sirens are Back has its moments, which certainly does not include a clunky funk work out halfway through Weapons Range (someone’s been listening to too much Pop Group). The fact that this record is self-produced speaks volumes. It really isn't very good.

There was a slight return to form on Chainsaw Records 12" Sentinel, but it sounds a little clumsy, derivative even, probably the result of recruiting a 'trainee' bass player in the shape of Karen Gower, Tony Barber’s girlfriend (the legend has it that when she joined the band, she had never played a bass before, let alone picked one up – subsequently, she was told to “fucking well hurry up and learn it’”!). The internal rhythmic engine that fuelled Grey had changed, and not for the better.

The thing that amazes me about LOK is the fact that after the triumph of Grey, they slowly returned to the punk formula of three thrashy chords and general lack of imagination. Tony Barber went on to play bass for the Buzzcocks in 1993, and since then LOK have not exactly done a lot. Ah well – perhaps expecting them to top Grey was asking a little too much.


Gabba Gabba Hey! said...

I am suitably intrigued.

Chip Smith said...

If you can find the 'Grey' CD cheap, it's definitely worth picking up for the first four tracks alone - but after that point, it all goes a bit 'pear shaped'. Even so, I think it's best thing Crass Records ever released!