A Flock of Seagulls – “A Flock of Seagulls” (1982)

It’s not accurate or fair to call A Flock of Seagulls one-hit wonders.  They had two Top 20 albums in the US, three singles that made it into the Top 30, and won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the song “D.N.A.”  “Space Age Love Song” is a legit jam.  And yet despite all of this the band is primarily remembered today for two things.  The hit single “I Ran (So Far Away)” and Mike Score’s haircut.

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This faux one-hit wonder status seems like something that blossomed in the early 1980s, probably because MTV contributed to the accelerating emergence of actual one-hit wonders and changed the way we consumed music.  There seems to be a lot of nostalgia for this period (which could be me simply projecting my own sense of nostalgia onto the rest of you) and an endless supply of compilations of the era’s songs.  And if you’re doing an early 80s new wave comp there are a handful of obligatory songs that almost have to be included, their mythological places in the period’s musical landscape becoming separated from reality and in fact making their own reality.  “I Ran (So Far Away)” is one of those songs.  You could almost be forgiven for thinking that in 1982 we all just sat around listening to it along with “I Melt With You” and “Tainted Love” on a continuous loop.  Add the song to things like the GTA Vice City TV commercials and a reference to the band in Pulp Fiction (You, Flock of Seagulls.  Know why we’re here?) and it takes on a life of its own.  But in fact it only made it to #9 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1982.  It’s perhaps more ubiquitous today than it was when it was charting.

There are some good jams on A Flock of Seagulls.  “Modern Love Is Automatic” is classic new way, synthy and a bit dark with a certain insistent quality to it and could have easily been released as a single.  “Space Age Love Song” is rock solid, and of course you can’t deny the brilliance of “I Ran (So Far Away)” which catches your attention immediately, the first three seconds compelling you to continue listening.  It’s definitely a fun album and one that while a bit dated still holds up a pretty well.

The collection of freebies that recently came my way included the first three albums by A Flock of Seagulls, so I gave the others a listen as well.  Listen (1983) is a bit more chill and less poppy than A Flock of Seagulls, things moving into a more post-punk (“Nightmares”) and goth (“Transfer Affection”) realm.  The Story of a Young Heart (1984) opens with the very new romantic title track, and “European (I Wish I Was)” feels like it could have been a hit.  The B side opener “Remember David” is an uptempo rocker, a pleasant surprise and my favorite track on the record.

Schwund – “Technik Und Gefühl” (2019)

schwundtechnikI picked this up at Berlin’s Bis Auf Messer Records on our recent visit to Germany.  I can’t find a lot of info about Schwund online, and almost nothing at all in English.  I’ve seen them described as punk, post-punk, and experimental… based on what I hear on Technik Und Gefühl it’s more toward the experimental side of the spectrum, perhaps even going as far as to use the dreaded term avant-garde.  The songs have structure, but also tend to wander around, sometimes into unexpected territory.  The constant is the use of synths in retro and unusual ways – “Binär-Indianer” makes you feel like some kind of demented circus just pulled into town, while I wouldn’t be surprised if the underlying rhythm on “Gut Gefunden” was actually one of the presets that was on the old cheap Casio keyboard I owned in the 80s.

It appears the vinyl version of Technik Und Gefühl clocks in around 49 minutes and is limited to 200 copies.  However, there is also an even more limited cassette version (100 copies) that contains an additional 32 minutes of music.  Copies of each are available on the band’s Bandcamp page HERE.  If you only have time to check out a few tracks I recommend starting with “Taxi”, which is perhaps a bit less avant-garde than the rest of the album while also being its most fully realized song.

Blue China – “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1982)

bluechinatomorrow2Google searches reveal very little about Blue China other than that they were Swiss and the title track for this five-song 12″ is a Beatles cover (and I didn’t need the interwebs to figure that last part out).  What’s happening on this record?  It’s like a lo-fi proto-Smashing Pumpkins kind of thing, but super proto.

I found it in a box labelled “New Wave / Goth / Darkwave” sitting on the floor just inside the door of Berlin’s Sound Vinyl Store and it seemed interesting enough.  And it is.  They style is more on the experimental side of new wave and the beats have a machine-like quality to them.  Overall the tracks feel more like demos than completed work, great sketches that just need to be filled out a bit.

Who Killed Society – “Before Everything Got Broken” (1981 / 2018) and Circle Seven – “Suburban Hope” (1983)

I don’t go to record shows often.  I spent a lot of time “on the other side of the table” at sports memorabilia shows over the years selling stuff, and that gives you a certain insulation from the crowds and the inevitable frustration of waiting around to try to get into the box that someone else is flipping through.  But a few weeks back, against my better judgement, I went to one in Seattle.  While waiting around for yet another person to finish flipping through a bin I decided to kill time looking at stuff in a box on the floor next to the table, and that’s where I came across Circle Seven’s Suburban Hope.  I’d never heard of them before, but it turns out they were from Seattle (in fact two of the three members are from Montana but had recently moved to Seattle…) so for a fiver I figured why not.

I was pleasantly surprised when I put Suburban Hope on the turntable, so much so that I wanted to find out more about the band.  Fortunately guitarist/singer Randy Pepprock has a pretty unique (and rock related) name that made him fairly easy to track down, and he graciously agreed to do an email interview.  He also sent along an article about his punk band Who Killed Society (WKS) and the early scene in, of all places, Missoula, Montana.  I encourage you to check it out HERE, as I can’t add anything to this well-researched piece.  It was Jeff Ament’s connection with Missoula that eventually allowed for the release of WKS’ Before Everything Got Broken 37 years after it was recorded (by none other than a young Steve Albini), an album that contributed songs to Circle Seven’s first (and only) record.

Randy, WKS broke up in 1981.  What prompted you to move to Seattle after that happened?

We used to drive over to Seattle from Montana for punk shows, so when it was time to leave Montana it was a natural choice. I had a friend (Lya) that lived there that got me a job at a restaurant & put me up for a week or so to get me started. Later on I extended the same favor to Jeff Ament & Sergio Avenia from Deranged Diction, who were also from Missoula.

How did you connect with Sabina Miller and Danielle Elliott to form Circle Seven?

Sabina was the bass player for WKS, and my girlfriend at the time. I think we meet Danielle through an ad in The Rocket.  (♠)

Four of the six tracks on “Suburban Hope” also appeared on the at-that-time un-released 1981 WKS album.  They definitely changed character – not only are they longer, but sonically there’s an overall post-punk feel to all the Circle Seven songs and the vocals are very prominently featured.  You indicated in a previous interview that you weren’t thrilled with the sound of Suburban Hope.  What are your recollections of the recording sessions, and what do you think you should have done differently?

I take full responsibility for how the Circle Seven EP ended up sounding I should have been more assertive & spoken up at the time. WKS was an abrasive, post-punkish band with short, minimalist songs & I think Circle Seven was an extension of that. Very spartan. A friend of Danielle’s, Mark from 3 Swimmers, helped us engineer the EP & he was just coming from an entirely different space. I had this guitar that sounded like a dump truck crashing & when we first started recording he’s like, “Oh my god, that guitar sounds like shit.” So we cleaned everything up and took all of the rust & piss out of it. Prettier, but not nearly as authentic IMO. You know, we were a young band in a nice studio for the first time & perhaps intimidated by the whole process. Whatever, that’s on no one but me.

What was your perception of the Seattle music scene during that period? How did Circle Seven fit (or not fit) into it?

Loved it. I saw so many great bands then. I think at that time everyone just did whatever the hell they wanted because NO ONE thought that it mattered or thought it would ever lead to anything. Later, when I moved to Hollywood, I became aware that everyone was thinking, in the back of their minds, that “Hey, we could get a record deal & become rock stars.” No one thought that in Seattle in the early 80’s. We left right before that happened. Bad timing I guess. 🙂 Not sure we really fit in. I think we kind of fell in-between the cracks and were kind of hard to classify. Not a hardcore or punk band. Not too arty or intellectual (too many rough edges). It was OK, we did our thing anyway.

What are you listening to these days?

I don’t follow most new bands, there’s too much out there. I was listening to Patti Smith the other day, Motorhead, the Velvet Underground. Lucinda Williams. I like Elle King. Always a Stooges fan. In fact, a year or so ago I was playing “Funhouse” in the car & giving my 17 year old daughter a music history lesson about the band & why they were so important. A few months later we were at the theater watching the most recent King Kong & “Down in the street” comes on and I leaned over to tell her, “Hey, it’s the Stooges!” & she looks at me like, “Shut up dad, I know.”

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Once I learned that many of Suburban Hope‘s songs were originally recorded by WKS, I decided to pick up a copy of Before Everything Got Broken to do a little side-by-side comparison and see how they changed over the course of just a few years.  It turns out the answer is quite a bit, actually.

Who Killed Society – Before Everything Got Broken (1981 / 2018)

Originally recorded in 1981 with none other than a young Steve Albini at the studio controls Before Everything Got Broken didn’t see the light of day until 2018 when it came into the orbit of former Montana punk scene musician and current Pearl Jam member Jeff Ament, who helped get it dusted off and released, including selling it via the PJ website.  At seven songs and 13 minutes, it’s very punk rock.

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After opening with the instrumental “Distant” we’re introduced to “Cover Up”, a decidedly post-punk jam full of raw gloominess and alienation, the guitars coming at you like rusty razorblades and the vocals speaking to the kind of societal rejection that only the young can truly express unironically.  “Say One Thing” is more of a standard rock song, though one with some definite new wave elements.  The A side closes out with “Don’t You Dare”, it’s rapid-fire drumming giving the tune a jungle beat, the guitars again slicing through the low end with complete and utter disregard.

The flip side opens with “Suburban Hope”, what would later become the title track of Circle Seven’s album of the same name a few years later.  This version is stripped down and back to that post-punk vibe, the military-march-like snare rolls at odds with the anti-society message of the vocals.  “Just Turned 20” is the first 100% punk song on Before Everything Got Broken, a blistering fast proto-hardcore number that’s over almost before it starts.  “Brave New World” takes us back in a post-punk direction and is my favorite track on the album, the incessant beat creating a sense of angst and pressure that mirrors the stress of day-to-day life.

The sound quality of Before Everything Got Broken is excellent.  There were a few spots where it felt like the master might have had a blemish, but it doesn’t detract from the overall feel of the album.  If you’re interested, it’s available on the Pearl Jam website HERE.

Circle Seven – Suburban Hope (2013)

Four of Suburban Hope‘s six songs originally appeared on Before Everything Got Broken, rounded out with two new tracks.  It opens with the title track, one of the four Before Everything Got Broken tunes on the record.  This new incarnation brings a much more new wave sound to the music while also moving the vocals to the forefront, placing the lyrics and message into the prominent position.

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Down to the office,
Smile at the boss,
Never realizing just how much you have lost.

It’s a longer and more fully realized song than the original, though at the expense of a certain honest rawness.  It’s a style that carries through all of Suburban Hope‘s compositions – pre-synthesizer new wave, sonically well-balanced and with emphasis on the vocals.  Something in it speaks to me in a way that resonates, perhaps because it forces me to look at my own middle class suburban life.  I know Randy isn’t a huge fan of how it sounds… but I really enjoy it.

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Big thanks to Randy for answering some questions and a shout-out to Jeff Ament (as if he needs one from me…) for contributing to Before Everything Got Broken‘s release.  I wonder how many other solid albums are out there on tape just waiting for someone to dust them off and put them out.  I prefer not to think about how many were destroyed or simply thrown away.

(♠)  The Rocket was THE Seattle alternative music scene bible back in the 1980s and into the 90s.  Originally monthly, later biweekly, the free paper eventually grew its circulation to 50,000 copies per issue.  I used to pick it up a whatever record store I happened to be in at the time.

Þeyr – “Þagað Í Hel” (1980)

I spent a few decades actively involved in the sports memorabilia world, both as a collector and a seller.  In fact my dad owned and operated a baseball card shop in the 1990s back when that was actually something you could earn a living at.  I’ve attended shows and conventions in at least a half dozen states plus Canada.  I’m not active in it any more – I sold off most of my stuff over the years, and at least some of that money ended up going to records.

But that’s not why I’m bringing up my hobby history.  It’s because the sports memorabilia world was the first place I heard people refer to “The Holy Grail”, or often simply “Grail”, in a context that didn’t involve blood and wine.  Back in the day auction catalogs constantly tried to outdo each other in hyperbole, and one of the ways they’d do that was to refer to a rare or valuable item as “The Holy Grail of [fill in the blank]”, with [fill in the blank] replaced by “Tobacco Cards” or “Babe Ruth Cards” or “Hall of Fame Autographs” or “Greg Jeffries Donruss Rookie Cards”. (♠)  Generally the term was used to describe the best of something.

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In the record collecting world the term Grail is used in a similar way, but one that is more personal.  It’s not unusual for a collector to as another “what’s your Grail”, meaning the record that you desperately desire but don’t have either due to cost or scarcity, the record that always seems to have been found by someone else 15 minutes before you got to the shop or show, your elusive vinyl nemesis.  I don’t think I’ve had a Grail per se since getting back into vinyl, but the closest album is probably Þeyr 1980 debut Þagað Í Hel.  It’s the one album that I’ve actually told people, “if you ever get a copy of this for sale, put it aside because I’ll 100% buy it”.  It’s the only album I ever marked as a “Want” on Discogs.  And I haven’t seen one for sale anywhere since I started looking a few years back.  Sure, an acquaintance on Facebook had a line on one for a while, but that fell through, and apparently I was a few weeks too late to Reykjavik Record Shop a few years ago and a collector from Japan walked out with their copy.  I wouldn’t say I’ve been actively looking for it, but I’d also say I put more effort into trying to find a copy than I have for any other record.

And about two weeks ago I got an automated email from Discogs letting me know that a seller just posted a copy of Þagað Í Hel that day.  Within five minutes of getting that email I ordered it, then endured a painful 10 day wait for it to make it here from Sweden.  On Thursday I snuck out during my lunch break and picked it up at the post office, and today I’ve been sitting here just sort of looking at it, almost afraid to play it.  The collecting drive is often more about the chase than the actual having of the object, a perversely masochistic mindset.  But I can’t put it off any longer.  It’s been cleaned on the Okki Nokki and is ready to hit the turntable.

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Þeyr got their first record deal on the strength of a couple of pop songs they’d written, but when they went into the studio to cut Þagað Í Hel their style changed to something more new wave-ish, so much so that it almost didn’t get released.  Reportedly somewhere between 300 and 500 copies were pressed, and according to legend the masters were destroyed in a fire, which likely explains in part why none of these eight songs ever made it onto CD.

The opening track “En…” is reminiscent of early Talking Heads, followed immediately by the rockabilly-inspired “…Nema Jói”, so clearly there are no rules being followed here.  Which leads us to “Hringt”, adding a sort of disco thing to the mix and starting to give me the sense that Þeyr was still exploring at this point in their trajectory together, not yet having established the more post-punk sound that came to define their handful of later releases (they last performed in 1982 and put out their lasts release, a 7″, in 1983).  By the second half of “Heilarokk” we start to get some glimpse into the direction they eventually went, breaking free of traditional song structures into something unique to Þeyr.  Of course the ABBA-like “Eftir Vígið”, replete with it’s female vocals and harmonies, is like an unexpected bucket of ice cold water on your head.

Þagað Í Hel certainly wasn’t the record I expected, but it does provide some insight into the band’s early influences and is an intriguing starting line when you consider how they sounded on Mjötviður Mær (which was the very first record I ever wrote about on Life in the Vinyl Lane) just a year later.  It remains impossibly hard to find, but fortunately some intrepid souls have recorded these eight tracks and posted them on YouTube!, so if you want to give them a listen just go search there using the album name.

(♠)  No one has ever said this about the 1988 Donruss Greg Jeffries rookie card, at least not with any level of sincerity.  Jeffries was projected by many to be “the new hot rookie”, and that year my dad bought an insane amount of 1988 Donruss baseball cards.  I spent uncountable hours sitting at the small table in his shop going through box after box of these cards, sorting them numerically and putting aside the Jeffries cards.  He went on to be a solid player for a dozen or so seasons, but never became a star and those boxes of Jeffries cards became little more than recycling fodder.  But hey, dad was paying me by the hour, so I was happy to sort, sort, sort…