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Various Artists – Action Time Vision

7.9

London is wrapping up a yearlong celebration of the 40th anniversary of the birth of punk, officials having decreed its origin to be marked by the release of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” as well as the Ramones’ first area concert. The establishment’s embrace included an impressive exhibit at the British Library and a series of public talks with academics, journalists and musicians. Consider Action Time Vision a late but welcome party crasher, an enlightening look into some of the genre’s odder corners.

This four-CD, 111-track set is messy – in a good way, like the punk explosion itself. The accompanying 64-page booklet has more than a few typos, lending the package the no-holds-barred feel of a fanzine. It’s anchored by an essay from Kris Needs, then editor of ZigZag, a pioneering “legit” magazine in documenting the scene and publisher of the Small Labels Catalogue, now a collectors’ treasure. Needs nods to a US legacy of scrappy independent labels dating back to the ’60s, pointing out that no UK equivalent existed before punk.

Action Time Vision opens with the Damned’s “New Rose,” which Cherry Red declares “the first British punk 45” and which hasn’t lost a shred of its power. Things proceed more or less chronologically from there, with a healthy dose of sides from trailblazing labels like Stiff, Chiswick, Small Wonder and Step Forward. That latter label was founded by Miles Copeland, brother of Police drummer Stewart Copeland and a man who deserves more credit for cobbling together a US club circuit for “alternative” touring bands (British and American) that exists to this day.

As its title indicates, British bands are the collection’s sole focus, extending to Northern Ireland’s Stiff Little Fingers – whose “Suspect Device” from Belfast’s war-torn troubled days remains as angrily inspired as two-minute bashers come – and Scotland’s kinetic Skids. That the packaging seems targeted toward a UK audience – I doubt many Yankees will gain immediate insight from repeated references to the West Midlands – heightens its voyeuristic joy. A handful of these bands, like the straight-ahead rock-leaning 999 and a pre-commercial makeover Adam and the Ants, soon graduated to major labels, but as is often the case these early releases are also their most inspired.

Action Time Vision (the name, by the way, is lifted from the Alternative TV single that opens Disc 3 and whose frontman started the Sniffin’ Glue fanzine and wrote the first prominent feature on The Fall, whose classic “Psycho Mafia” also makes the cut) includes surprisingly harsh early turns from Joy Division and Tubeway Army, the latter before they moved Gary Numan’s name front and center. There are also proto versions of Simple Minds (anyone remember Johnny & the Self Abusers?), Dexy’s Midnight Runners (the Killjoys), Billy Bragg and the Pogues.

It’s easiest to rattle off recognizable names, but Cherry Red’s curators have admirably opted to cast a wide net rather than repeat the known quantities. Even punk historians are likely to encounter 40 to 50 bands they haven’t heard of, or at least heard. Roughly half of those are best forgotten – mostly ones that leaned on shock value and novelty shtick. And that’s OK – it makes the discoveries and/or reminders of artifacts like the Cravats and the Outcasts that much more rewarding. In that sense, Action Time Vision is reminiscent of the fine US Messthetics anthology series, whose founder similarly found value in documenting a scene’s chaff among the wheat.

The booklet includes a capsule biography of each and every band, plus some great collages of gig posters from the era that rival the ones that were displayed at the British Library. I’d kill to have been at the Stiff Little Fingers/Gang of 4/Fall/Human League/Mekons show, although only the first and third of its lineup appear on this collection.

An often-overlooked tidbit illuminated by these bios is that several of the players had roots dating as far back as 1972. For some of those bands punk may have lent a creative spark, for others a marketing angle. And as the notes make clear, there was no shortage of challenges to authenticity from the early days. Strands of Stiff Records’ genealogy are easily traced to pub rock days, and non-singers like Johnny Moped had been gigging since 1974 but found a safe haven under punk’s airbrush-averse umbrella. Meanwhile, Oi! bands like Sham 69 and the Angelic Upstarts found themselves in a battle to avoid being co-opted by skinhead culture.

Cherry Red’s own heyday came a few years later – they’re best known stateside for the gentler and excellent Pillows and Prayers compilation – but the label’s earliest releases are included here. They’ve since become a fine re-packager of deserving archival material, and Action Time Vision is a worthy addition to that catalog.

Various Artists
Action Time Vision: A Story of UK Independent Punk 1976-79
[Cherry Red]