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This Weekend I will Mostly (not) be Listening to the Worst. January 9, 2021

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A very welcome guest post from SonofStan!

In January 1978, the Buzzcocks played in the Exam Hall in Trinity College, Dublin. This was just after the release ofAnother Music in a Different Kitchen, the band, having been early to the party with Spiral Scratch, came a little late to the debut album stage. There were two support bands that night: Revolver, probably at that point the most popular punk -new wave act in Dublin and the Worst, from Manchester, on the bill as Buzzcocks’ guests. Much to Revolver’s annoyance they were forced to go on first and then watch as the Worst put on a performance that left much of the audience open-mouthed. The drummer had a toy Chad Valley drumkit, songs appeared to stop and start at random, with little enough in the way of intelligibility or melodic sense. I thought they were fantastic, being, at the time, at about their level of musical competence, but I recall Revolver’s singer, Philip Byrne, being outraged: ‘they can’t sing, they can’t play, it’s a joke!’ or words to that effect. The Worst remain one the few completely unrecorded bands from that era: as the trawl of demo tapes, radio sessions, and limited issue singles that has put almost every note recorded by a band with any claim to be considered post-punk anywhere in the world onto vinyl, the Worst appear not to have recorded anything or even have had a gig picked up on a stray cassette recorder. Truly, the Buddy Bolden of (post-?) punk. They were not however a joke: the point was an almost Maoist purity, a refusal to compromise with the industry even to the extent of writing a song that might be exploitable. 

The fact that the Buzzcocks, now signed to a major label (United Artists), with presumably tour support and a commitment to selling records, were prepared to take the Worst with them wasn’t just a comradely helping hand, since it was clear from the first note that the Worst had no ambitions that could be satisfied by the music industry, or by anything less than the complete transformation of society, said something about them, and where they came from. The materialist name and the simplicity of the first EP, the two note guitar solo in Boredom (reprised at the beginning and end of the first LP) that announced ‘this is a guitar solo’ while failing to do the guitar solo, Pete Shelley’s original half a guitar: all of this attested to a knowingness that was the underside, the back of the tapestry that was fronted by their apparently simple music.

As I said, I thought the Worst that night were fantastic: I was familiar with the punk ideal that anyone could do it, but up to that point I hadn’t really seen anyone actually do that. I’m not exaggerating when I say that without this example, it’s unlikely I’d ever have been able to play guitar in public.

Rather belying their ethos, the Worst have a website, which details their entire gig history – 17- odd shows, the first a RAR benefit in Hulme – and the quite considerable amount of press they got: including a review in a Dublin fanzine (can’t recall the name and they don’t give it) by ‘Katie and Paula’ – Katie I do recall, was Katie McGuinness, sister of Paul. The website also puts to bed any notion they were ‘arty’: in a rather good piece (link here) by Frank Owen he remembers the nucleus of the band, Ian Hodge and Alan Deaves as ‘a pair of car mechanics … who rarely bathed’. The ‘prole art threat’ of punk is sometimes exaggerated and there were plenty of middle- class people involved in the scene in Manchester, but it was also a scene that centred around working class and lower middle class grammar school boys – almost all boys – the kind of kids who now would be fed into the university system, but then left school young and fed their auto-didacticism and music consumption from low grade clerical work. 

The Worst didn’t quite fit that picture though: they really do seem to have been rough as anything. What is extraordinary, and what was extraordinary about punk, was the way the temporary collapse of the old order allowed all sorts of weirdnesses to flourish for a bit, and, even more so, outside London. In the capital, the identikit wannabees quickly occupied the lower rungs of the bill at the Roxy or the Vortex, but in Manchester, in Sheffield and a little later in Liverpool and Glasgow and in isolated outposts elsewhere, scenes quickly leapfrogged over punk. Manchester was both exemplary in the unity of the scene, but also exceptional in not really having ‘a sound’: not much united Warsaw/ Joy Division, the Fall, John Cooper Clarke and the Buzzcocks/ Magazine axis apart from being in the same city, playing the same venues and, crucially, a stubborn localism. What I wondered at the time, and continue to wonder, 40 years later, is why Dublin, where there was at least the potential for an equivalent flowering interpreted the opportunity and challenge of punk rather differently. On the one hand, of course, the city produced the single most successful post- punk band ever, but on the other, there was no independent label that captured the spirit of the place as Factory, Zoo or Postcard did and, despite a perfectly serviceable infrastructure, very few attempts to build a truly alternative scene. The recent, beautifully produced collection of VOX fanzine from 80-83 captures much of what the city was about at the time, and glimpses of what might have been, but also reminds me of how conservative it really was: how bands that were either veterans of a previous era pretending to be ‘new-wave’ or younger careerists waiting for the London A&R guy to wave a contract at them, dominated the scene. Belfast and Cork did, in very different ways, manage to forge an identity during this period and, in the case of the latter, to sustain for a brief period, a really adventurous and completely distinctive scene – although, again, under-recorded.

Whatever… worrying about what didn’t happen 40 years ago is the kind of left-wing melancholia that does nobody any good, and the Worst, that night, great as it was, was hardly the Paris Commune: but definitely an example worth not listening to.

Comments»

1. WorldbyStorm - January 9, 2021

This has to be a first, a This Weekend with no actual music linked to it. I’ve got to be honest I’ve no knowledge at all of The Worst but this is great. Thanks a million.

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2. Fergal - January 9, 2021

Son, that was The Worst ‘this week I’ll be…’ ever, truly The Worst 😉😉

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3. crocodileshoes - January 9, 2021

Food for thought, SofS. I wasn’t at that Trinity gig (studying for my mock? Very punk!) but remember the Worst as a name, no more.
I’m not surprised that you were inspired to play in public yourself: I’ve spent a lot of my career arguing with teenagers about aesthetics and the notion that art can be separated from expertise, technique, careerism is hard to get them to accept, then liberating. I know nothing about the Worst, but if punk was an attitude, then they seem to have embodied the logical conclusion of that attitude.
Your comments on Dublin in 1980 are insightful. The lack of one record label, club, something for the scene to coalesce around, was obvious at the time, I think. Most bands hadn’t the capital to play full time, record, tour, buy gear. Maybe in the UK the presence of a social security safety net that was then better than Ireland’s helped? My cousins in Belfast waved their student grant cheques and dole giros in my face and scoffed at my black-market jobs. Things are rather different now.
A couple of questions: was that post-Devoto Buzzcocks? How would I find that Vox book that you wrote about on your website? Is there any current performer whose attitude you think is more important than their ‘product’?

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sonofstan - January 9, 2021

Yep, post Devoto.
The book is sold out I’m afraid – details here
https://hitonebooks.ie/vox-8083-page
Current performer question is interesting – lot’s of improv artists for whom process is more important than output. Let me think a bit more on’t.

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4. WorldbyStorm - January 9, 2021

In a way, what’s amazing is not that there’s no footage of the Worst or audio, but that there’s some of so many bands from that period. It’s one thing in a phone/camera pervaded world like this one we now live in and have since say the very late 90s, but in the late 70s, a cine camera was a luxury item, and although tape recorders were everywhere they were big and clunky and so on.

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5. 6to5against - January 10, 2021

In the topic of how a Dublin musical ‘scene’ didn’t really form in the punk/post-punk era, two thoughts spring to mind. Firstly, its notable that a trad scene had very much developed 10 – 20 years before: a number of interlinking bands, a loosely shared set of values, a number of key recordings. Though I’m not sure if that’s relevant.
But secondly, I wonder if you’re comparing like-with-like? Its obviously true that no one label became associated with them, but there were certainly a lot of bands around Dublin in the 80s. Maybe you knew the Dublin scene – such as it was – so well that you could see all the flaws and fakery, and you’re comparing this internal view with your external view of scenes elsewhere, where there’s surely been no lack of mythmaking? I wouldn’t know enough about the music to judge, but surely there were a few careerist bull-shitters wandering around Manchester and Coventry and Liverpool in the 80s. Aren’t they everywhere?
Just a thought.

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WorldbyStorm - January 10, 2021

I’ve always felt a scene(s) did build in a way – but in a very scattered fashion. You had Eamonn Carr’s Hotwire label (interesting your point re the trad scene before and of course that fed into Horslips etc). There were others but I guess the cohesiveness of say a Manchester was more difficult to achieve because of a historic tendency to see London as the ‘centre’ – through emigration, economics, and even culturally to some degree. And smaller crowds too. So for bands to build up took much more effort. McGonagles was kind of a significant venue for a long time, the SFX a bit earlier, others a bit later. And let’s not forget the wannabe U2 bands that arrived in the mid-80s… quite a few of them.

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sonofstan - January 10, 2021

“Maybe you knew the Dublin scene – such as it was – so well that you could see all the flaws and fakery, and you’re comparing this internal view with your external view of scenes elsewhere, where there’s surely been no lack of mythmaking? ”

Yeah, know what you mean – but over recent years I’ve spoken to many people who were involved in music in various northern English cities, and their memories of those scenes are different enough from mine of Dublin to suggest that I’m not completely on the wrong track. The other thing is that we toured Britain a lot in the late ’80s, and those cities felt much different in those terms to Dublin: more co-operatives, more DIY, venues that functioned as community spaces, often, as with the Leadmill in Sheffield, a great deal of help from local authorities.

The trad thing is completely relevant, and someone who posts here has a really good view of how that fed into the later rock scenes in Dublin via Windmill lane etc.

@WBS, the attitude to London is interesting: and maybe a big part of it. Up here in the grim north, people are quite resistant to the pretensions of London as ‘the centre’ (think half a dozen bigger Corks) whereas Dublin, then anyway, was actually more slavishly devoted to the metrolops.

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6to5against - January 10, 2021

That’s all really interesting SoS. And I suppose it feeds into crocodileshoe’s point above about the benefits of a decent social welfare system (and more) in the UK at the time.

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WorldbyStorm - January 10, 2021

Just thinking about what youre all saying, Cork is an interesting example of perhaps something a little different during that time, a defined local scene or three, quay co-op and a lot of radicalism, and so on, though again a lot of folk went to London eventually.

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