In a chapter on U.K.’s new-pop movement in Simon Reynolds’s excellent 2006 book, Rip It Up & Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Scritti Politti frontman Green Gartside is shown scripting a manifesto for his rejection of abstruse post-punk and subsequent embrace of deconstructionist pop (which ended up sounding a lot like the regular kind). Gartside’s beef with his post-punk contemporaries, among them his Rough Trade comrades the Red Krayola and Pere Ubu, was that their willful effort toward obscurity pushed their music to the point of being insular and contrived. The so-called authentic margins at which these groups defined themselves were, as Gartside called it, reactionary and even silly.
Fascinating stuff, ain’t it? And it’s not tough to taste a bit of what Gartside was gnawing on after a listen to Domino’s fresh three-disc comp of Scritti’s erstwhile Rough Trade mates Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth & Collected Works. Rigidly stark and performed with metronomic precision, the album aggrandizes the limits of punk’s stripped-down D.I.Y. approach, the emotional possibilities of the music forcibly held in check for the band’s cold, ascetic restraint. The first disc features the crisply remastered Colossal Youth, the band’s only LP release (in 1980); disc two collects the Testcard EP, Final Day single and Salad Days, a collection of early demos; and the third disc contains the five-song appearance on Peel Sessions.
Young Marble Giant’s true innovation was turning a sense of loss and inability to communicate inward where most punks raged outward. Here the scorned lover of “Brand New Life” sounds tense and apprehensive where other bands’ declarations of independence are brazenly cocksure. On “Searching for Mr. Right,” singer Alison Stratton’s brittle and hopeless voice gives the impression that the search is already over, and the deceptive naivete of Stratton’s voice lends an extra sting to lines such as “Feeling like I’ll be dead/ Before I’m old.” Meanwhile, Stuart Moxham’s palm-muted guitar defines the group’s sound, at once echoing a stripped-down version of classic Chuck Berry riffs that channeled the past while foretelling the future (see the Feelies or any of the Cure’s early records).
As intriguing as Young Marble Giants’ rigorous musical abstinence can be, for every brooding “Brand New Life” there’s a song that the band seems to labor to make dull, particularly instrumentals like “The Taxi.” The Testcard EP is full of them; its pre-twee “Zebra Trucks” resembles Esquivel forgetting the notes to the Stone Ponys’ “Different Drum,” and the rest get slighter from there. Elsewhere, the single “Final Days” is a welcome gem, the early-’80s re-ignition of cold-war fear and polemics seen through the eyes of “the people who never had a say.”
It’s hard to make an unqualified case for an album as strenuously stiff as Colossal Youth, though Reynolds makes a go at it in the comprehensive and overly flattering liner notes. Nonetheless, the record’s moments of frustrating beauty reflect the highlights of the brief flowering of ideas in post-punk’s outer limits. Any time we turn on VH1 and see that tattooed jackass from Rancid pointing at suburban bozos riffing on London Calling insisting “punk’s not dead!,” Young Marble Giants can remind us of punk’s potential as a musically inclusive voice of the ignored.