The Membranes – Everyone’s Going Triple Bad Acid, Yeah!

The Membranes made an unexpected late 2015 Atlanta tour stop in support of their first album in 25 years. Perhaps more unexpectedly, leader John Robb flagged Stomp and Stammer’s show preview – taking exception to my labeling Dark Matter/Dark Energy “a poor man’s Grinderman.”

Leave it to a journalist like Robb – whose 540 page Punk Rock: An Oral History is worth tracking down – to split hairs. I stand by my assessment, but in hindsight would qualify it a bit better. Dark Matter’s high concept (enlisting Higgs Boson particle physicists to explain the universe) leads to several ponderous musique concrete diversions, but when the band locks into its longstanding Death To Trad Rock task, the results are quite ace. And besides, coming in second to Grinderman is hardly a dis….

Now for the biggest surprise – a 5-CD box set of the Membranes’ entire pre-hiatus output, which begs two questions:

Q: The Membranes actually released five CDs of material?
A: Yep – 99 tunes in all.

Q: Do I really need five CDs of this stuff?
A: Probably not; However, you do need two or three, and a lot of these releases have been hard to find in any format.

The Membranes were a surprisingly unique proposition. The British trio (and sometimes quartet) originally hailed from the bedraggled working class tourist town of Blackpool, eventually decamping for Manchester. They kicked into gear at roughly the same time as the Birthday Party in Australia and Big Black in the States, all three pursuing a highly abrasive yet reasonably melodic sound anchored by monolithic, cavernous basslines. The Birthday Party were more menacing and Big Black more willfully confrontational. The Membranes, meanwhile, were more absurdist, political, and enamored with hummable tunes despite caking them with layers of sludge. A less mannered Jesus and Mary Chain without the Velvet Underground fixation might be another reference point – according to legend, the Membranes nearly joined JAMC on Creation Records’ nascent roster.

Unlike most bands, the Membranes didn’t hit their stride until their midpoint. Notwithstanding early successes like the iconic “Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder” single, their debut LP sounds rather tinny and the Death to Trad Rock EP, while a great mission statement and fun one-time listen, is ultimately too untethered.

It’s on Discs 2 and 3, when Robb and company got some adult (?) supervision, that things really clicked. Jon Langford produced 1986’s standout Everything’s Brilliant EP and lent guitar to other songs of the period, likely attracted by a fuck-all attitude reminiscent of pre-whiskey Mekons. Steve Albini produced 1988’s ferocious Kiss Ass, Godhead, which lustily embraces the “everything dialed to eleven” ethos and contains perhaps the Membranes’ crowning achievement – “Tatty Seaside Town” miraculously combines pathological overmodulation with sublime hummability.

Sandwiched between those titles is the Membranes’ best start-to-finish album, Songs of Love & Fury, which by this band’s perverted yardstick qualifies as downright poppy without relinquishing its usual Oi- inspired chanting. Alas, by Robb’s own admission 1989 swansong To Slay the Rock Pig is rather limp, and Disc 5 serves as something of a coda. The sequencing isn’t strictly chronological, and this last-blast mix of old and new is a decidedly mixed bag.

Although the Membranes were influential on many levels – including publishing fanzines in both Blackpool and Manchester to jumpstart their respective scenes – few bands elected to pick up the baton and emulate their full formula. Easily their closest acolyte was Mclusky, who trafficked in a similar balance of chaos, noise, humor and melody. Still, the Membranes’ subversively noisemongering spirit can be heard pulsing through much of the Slumberland Records catalog or before that, the Wedding Present’s more extreme moments.

Or perhaps the Membranes will simply run with the baton themselves. Although Robb recruited a mostly new lineup for Dark Matter, its clattering din picked up pretty well where Triple Bad Acid left off. And the crew reportedly has another new one in the works for this fall.

The Membranes
Everyone’s Going Triple Bad Acid, Yeah!: The Complete Membranes 1980-1993
[Cherry Red]