The early 80’s was a time of relative musical chaos. The 60’s had all coalesced into the hippie movement and The Beatles which fell gradually apart to be replaced by bands taking the “complex” sound of the times and running with it. This produced the incredible sounds of “progressive” rock which inevitably turned to crap.
Then, there were the “heavy” bands such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple who took the “heavy blues” vibe and ran it head first into the ground of wild (stupid) mysticism (in the case of the former) and lazy, riff nicking (in the case of the other).
Then punk came around and created the myth that it destroyed “bad” music forever by destroying the former “dinosaurs” and bringing rock back to the masses.
That lasted about a day: if punk was the “huge thing” in the late 70’s, how come crap rock bands like Foreigner and REO Speedwagon still existed?
I’m not knocking punk (I like a lot of it) but just the idea that it destroyed the careers of the dinosaurs. Yes, a few bands disappeared but most just warped into other, more mainstream styles of music.
The best influence of punk is that it did inspire amateur musicians to pick up their instruments and try out new styles, sounds and ideas that were neither “punk” or “mainstream” and which would come to influence a wide variety of musical stylistics in the decades to come.
This is where the “Young Marble Giants” come into the picture.
The Young Marble Giants was a three-piece with guitar playing brother Stuart Moxham writing the tunes, Phillip Moxham playing the melodic and nimble bass lines and Alison Stratton singing the “vibrato free” vocals. A drum machine (sometimes treated) keeps up the rhythm while an occasional organ pops up, played by Stuart.
What the band did reads very easily on paper: they created an airy, minimalistic “pop” style that influenced dozens of future indie bands looking to avoid the strum and drang of rock and roll and to develop a more subtle attack.
Hearing the album is a whole different experience. In my opinion, there are two possible reactions to this album: complete excitement or complete boredom.
The boredom is easy to explain: nothing happens. The songs all sound the same. The singer sucks. What’s the big deal? Next record, please.
The excitement that arises in the right person (such as yours truly) comes from an appreciation of how little the band is doing to create the atmosphere and style they are creating. Stuart is a capable rhythm guitarist and an excellent songwriter who’s signature guitar style comes from palm muting the guitar during most of the album.
Yes, palm muting, that thing you hear metal guitarists do during “breakdowns” in songs. Except Stuart plays his guitar mostly clean with just a touch of distortion for the “harder” parts i.e. those parts where he plays simple but memorable non-muted riffs.
The drum machine plays along with Stuart’s model: the beats are muted and warped through a slight phase effect. The drum beat is never more complex than a basic 4/4 but the phased beat creates an absolutely unique pulse that has never been repeated.
Phillips is perhaps the most important member of the band instrumentally as he has the most freedom to play. Stuart has surrendered himself to the rhythm: as Gabriel said, it has his soul. Phillip plays to the beat, around the beat, adds simple runs, plays melodies and does everything he can to color in the spaces between the beats.
Even then he picks his notes carefully (he’s not exactly doing Chris Squire stuff) and chooses careful, simple parts and pops them in from time to time, all adding to the slight, airy beat that is the sound of this band by adding a slightly more muscular attack.
And then there is Stratton. Her simple, child-like voice (forced on Stuart, who had wanted to be the band’s singer) floats above the simple rhythm bed singing simple, but catchy, memorable and endearing melodies as if commenting on the band playing beneath her.
Her voice is simply something: not much there technically but her vibrato free, no nonsense approach practically defined female indie singing for…well, ever it appears.
All of this praise would be to nothing if the band simply played atmospheric airy nothingness (a million bands do that) but this band does nothing of the sort. Stuart writes the kind of snappy, simple pop songs that defined the early punk era but plays them in the gentlest way possible.
“Looking for Mr. Right” is a perfect start for the album: the distant fade in of the atmospheric, faded drum beats slowly builds into a trademark Stuart palm mute rhythm. Phillip starts playing simple, stabbing bass lines that raise the tension. Stratton then comes in bemoaning her ability to find “Mr. Right.”
Bemoaning isn’t the right word: simply stating. She’s simply stating how difficult it is to find the right guy to a Stuart melody that is hard to deny.
A serious complaint that can be lodged at this album (that I can’t deny) is that it all sounds the same. This is very true: the band does throw in an organ from time to time, but generally when they do that the organ becomes the predominant instrument. With arrangements this simple, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve heard it all before.
However, and I insist this is the case, the band is obviously doing everything they can to diversify the songs within their formula. “Searching for Mr. Right” may serve as the prototype but “Include Me Out” breaks the mold by featuring some slight distortion, a straight forward guitar riff and the type of fluid bass lines that came out of the punk world.
Seriously, throw in a real drummer, a bit more distortion and Joey Ramone and you got a punk tune.
“Credit in The Straight World” is a similar “punk like” song that is so good, Hole of all people, did a cover on “Live Through This” that follows this arrangement to the letter except it adds a real drummer and another guitar to make it the hard core punk song it never quite becomes (for good or bad) in the hands of the Young Marble Giants.
And then the band slows things down, brings out the organ and croons about a “Wurlitzer Jukebox.” This song is a great example of how the band changes their style: by slowing down, focusing on the organ and developing a solid “ballad” vocal melody they create a song that stands out from the album.
Honestly, each song qualifies as either “good” to “great” but differentiating all of them would require focusing on the type of tiny details that only pop out after multiple listens.
Final verdict? Buy the shit out of this, especially the “Special Edition” as it contains two more discs: the first being “Colossal Youth” the second a disc of singles and EP’s the band recorded that are now impossible to find and a series of Peel Sessions. The band was right on the cusp of making it big and were the “next big thing” before the tension within the group finally broke them up for good.
Songs to YouTube:
Any I mentioned in the review plus a live performance of “N.I.T.A.” It gives you a solid feel for their live presence (which wasn’t much to be fair) and giving you a solid look as to what these strange, enigmatic people could possibly look like in the real world.
They look like a few British gits and a daffy broad (in the good sense of the word). Awesome.