In recent years, Cherry Red Records has made waves with their box set celebrations of music eras gone by. From late-'70s Scottish independent releases and '60s Baroque pop, to '80s shoegaze and even the avant-garde sound explorations of Edgard Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen, the label has a reputation for their meticulous deep-dives into music subcultures.
In November, Cherry Red put the spotlight on the late-'70s U.K. pop-rock scene with Harmony In My Head: UK Power Pop & New Wave, 1977-81. The 3-CD set is a musical exploration of the development of British New Wave. New Wave was initially coined in 1977 to describe a growing cadre of artists who embraced the energy of the punk scene, but whose work was more grounded in traditional pop songcraft and technical ability. But the term came to be applied differently in the U.S. than in the U.K. Stateside, the term metamorphosed into a catch-all phrase for, well, pretty much any pop music that was being created by young people. In the U.K., however, purveyors of the New Wave were far more strict in its definition, though they couldn't always agree on terminology. Nick Lowe called it "pure pop for now people," The Pleasers preferred Thamesbeat, while some among the London scene called it Newbeat. Whatever the term, the British New Wave was a deliberate reaction to, if not rejection of, the punk musical aesthetic. It eventually mutated into the Mod Revival - members of which drew greatly from the melody-driven pop of the '60s - and later to another unique British psychedelic strand in the '80s. Harmony In My Head examines all these musical threads and, with the help of a set of liner notes and discographical notes that's 12,000 words strong, contextualizes the era with impressive depth and detail.
On the music front, most of the Power Pop and New Wave heavy hitters are accounted for on this 76-track collection. Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Nick Lowe, and Buzzcocks feature, as do less-successful but significant bands such as The Freshies, The Flys, and The Records. Cherry Red also dug into the proverbial record crates to include rare 45s from micro-labels, many of whose songs have never appeared on CD before. Even on these recordings, the sound quality doesn't distract or seem out of place next to the more slick and professional productions. So music of all provenance sounds equally compelling, thanks to the work of Simon Murphy at Another Planet Music, who remastered the set with Mark Stratford.
Naturally, the set begins with "Harmony In My Head," one of many non-album sides that Buzzcocks recorded during their first incarnation. Featuring Steve Diggle's vocal overtop a rollicking and energetic rock beat and bolstered by layers of guitars, the song places the listener in the late-'70s music crossroads of pop and punk. Next up is the B-side "You Belong To Me," by another familiar name, Elvis Costello and The Attractions. With an organ accompaniment straight out of 1966 and a guitar intro that could easily be mistaken for The Rolling Stones, the track demonstrates the throwback strains of power pop and the artful, melodic craftsmanship that underpinned the style.
But it's not just legends that are on display on the first disc of Harmony In My Head. One standout is "Trouble With Love," by the group Any Trouble. The infectious groove and engaging harmonies are enough to make one wonder, "How was this not a huge hit?" Signed to Stiff Records at the tail end of the '70s, the band cut a handful of sides for the label, as well as two long-players. Despite praise from Melody Maker and considerable play on British radio, their records never quite broke through.
Another often-overlooked group featured on Harmony In My Head is The Jerks. Hailing from Worcester, the band of teens was hailed (by their manager, at least) as the next Sex Pistols. And while their tale of the eccentric billionaire is considerably raw, the song finds the band embracing studio trickery as well, with reversed cymbals, delayed vocals, and other effects.
UXB's "Crazy Today" shows a brand of punk-influenced sociopolitical awareness that sometimes permeated into the power-pop sphere. After building a following in Birmingham, UXB released two sides for Crazy Plane Records, a small label run by mobile DJ Little Winston. However, the band imploded before another single could be released to the masses.
Disc Two includes 26 more tracks that are largely inspired by the early-'60s rock aesthetic. It kicks of with the jangly "Do Anything You Wanna Do" by Eddie and The Hot Rods. With lyrics about the quest for self-fulfillment and purpose, a catchy melody, and a groove propelled by tambourines, handclaps, and boisterous drums, it's no wonder that the track hit No. 9 on the U.K. chart.
Also taking a page from the '60s garage rock handbook is "Biff! Bang! Pow!" by The Times. The group included Edward Ball and Daniel Treacy, who had previously been part of Teenage Filmstars, O' Level, and Television Personalities. After finding some success with those groups, they set up their own label, WHAAM Records in order to secure complete artistic control. Released in May of 1981, the track harkens back to two decades prior, featuring the clear-as-day influence of The Creation. "Biff! Bang! Pow" was the title of a different song released by The Creation in 1967, and The Times also recorded a track called "Red With Purple Flashes," borrowing a phrase that The Creation used to describe their own music.
One of the highlights of Harmony In My Head's third disc is New Hearts' "Plain Jane," which recalls the earliest days of The Beatles with a McCartney-esque melody, a jaunty, rollicking beat, tight harmonies, and layered 12-string guitars. The teen outfit had formed in June of 1977 and was quickly signed to CBS. They toured with The Jam later that year and found some success with "Just Another Teenage Anthem," but were dropped not long after the release of "Plain Jane."
In a reprieve from the '60s-inspired pop comes The Dodgems' "Science Fiction (Baby You're So) and New Musik's "Straight Lines." Both spotlight the influence of synth-pop and turn-of-the-decade new wave on the shifting power-pop scene. "Science Fiction (Baby You're So)" is The Dodgem's arty debut single from late 1979, including swirling synth and spacey, talk-sung lines. The group performed the track in a session for veteran DJ John Peel and it eventually became their first of only two singles before the band and their label collapsed.
South London-based New Musik's "Straight Lines" shows a different approach to new wave. With an infectious melody, shifting meters, Hollies-esque harmonies, and a seamless blend of synth layers and conventional rock instrumentation, "Straight Lines" a hook-filled slice of immaculate pop. Though it received a lot of radio attention, the infectious single somehow stalled just under the Top 50.
In a poetic nod to power-pop's beginnings, Harmony In My Head closes with a 1979 single by one of the originators of the Beat music scene, The Searchers. Well known for their string of successful '60s singles - "Love Potion #9," "Sugar and Spice," and "Needles and Pins" among them - the group all but retired from the recording studio when RCA dropped them in 1974. However, The Searchers returned five years later, re-energized by the power-pop boom and supported by a multi-record deal from Sire. "Hearts In Her Eyes" is culled from the first of two Sire albums, their 1979 self-titled effort. It presents their trademark blend of Rickenbacker guitars and harmonies in an updated, slightly more glossy context, demonstrating their undiminished talents for power-pop performance, even a decade and a half after their initial breakthrough. As such, it's a fitting closer that brings the immaculately curated Harmony In My Head full-circle.
Between the well-curated selections, the detailed notes, and the all-around enjoyable sound and music, Harmony In My Head: UK Power Pop & New Wave: 1977-81 is a definitive look at a special moment of music history, a point where styles converged, where old became new, and where all sorts of bands established and fledgling took a shot at defining a new genre.
Harmony In My Head: UK Power Pop & New Wave: 1977-81 is available now wherever good music is sold, including from the links below. Scroll down to check out the full track listing.
- Harmony in My Head - The Buzzcocks
- You Belong to Me - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
- Time Goes By So Slow - The Distractions
- Take Me I'm Yours - Squeeze
- Trouble with Love - Any Trouble
- Rich Kids - Rich Kids
- Teenarama - The Records
- Born a Woman - Nick Lowe
- Suffice to Say - Yachts
- First Time - The Boys
- He's Frank (Slight Return) - The Monochrome Set
- Sarah Smiles - Bram Tchaikovsky
- You Know What I'm Thinking Girl - The Pleasers
- Does Stephanie Know - Squire
- Howard Hughes - The Tights
- She's Gonna Break Your Heart - Salford Jets
- Teenage Crush - The Trend
- Strike Talks - The Donkeys
- Couldn't Believe a Word - The 45's
- This Is The Way ... Ok - Bleeding Hearts
- (You're Gonna) Lose That Girl - The Name
- Can't See - The Drones
- Turn The Lights Out - Venigmas
- Crazy Today - UXB
- (I Wish It Could Be) 1965 Again - The Barracudas
- Do Anything You Wanna Do - Eddie & The Hot Rods
- I've Got a Heart - The Realists
- The Real Me - Radio Stars
- Irene - The Photos
- I'm Sorry - Straight Eight
- West One (Shine on Me) - Ruts
- Billy - The Circles
- Broken Doll - Wreckless Eric
- I Never Was a Beach Boy - The Jags
- Biff! Bang! Pow! - The Times
- Let's Talk About The Weather - The Radiators
- Jilly - The Piranhas
- Everyday, Everyway - Really 3rds
- How about Me and You - The Carpettes
- UFO - The Monos!
- 9 O'Clock - Snips
- Shattered By It All - TV21
- Hey Baby - Disguise
- Some Boys - Going Red
- Don't Want You Back - The Letters
- Ruby Toot - The Vandells
- While I'm Still Young - The Autographs
- Wasting Time - Strangeways
- Curtains for You - The Accidents
- Down at the Zoo - Those Naughty Lumps
- 24 Hours - The Chefs
- Look at The Outside - Chelsea
- Plain Jane - New Hearts
- Crazy Weekend - Staa Marx
- Straight Lines - New Musik
- Common Truth - Amazorblades
- You're so Funny - Fast Cars
- She's So Good Looking - Knox
- Angry With Myself - The Smirks
- My Business - Eater
- Now That It's Over - The Users
- Science Fiction (Baby You're So) - The Dodgems
- Lady of the Afternoon - Shooter
- No Money - The Freshies
- Name Dropping - The Flys
- Out of Place - The Outsiders
- Magic Roundabout - The Stiffs
- Something to Tell You - The Wasps
- (I Can't) Put My Finger On You - The Amber Squad
- Mr. Sad - The Thought Police
- Sons of Survival - Doctors of Madness
- Happy Song - The Nips
- Wait a Minute - The Cherry Boys
- High Rise - The Trainspotters
- Drummer Man - Tonight
- Hearts in Her Eyes - The Searchers