Debut album Manic Pop Thrill, despite its apparently genteel title, was a massive switch away from the harmonies and sharp new wave tunes of the ‘Tones, and eschewed the religiously apolitical outlook of that act.
Manic Pop Thrill alerted those who didn’t listen to the inanity of daytime radio that here was something good on the make. It took Babble, their second and most successful album, to seal that opinion beyond the John Peel loving coterie.
About three years ago, among largely expensive vinyl at a record fair, I grabbed a copy of Babble for five bucks. It’s in pretty decent condition, thankfully. Those who bought the vinyl version in 1987 (I only ever had it on blank cassette taped by a mate, or after borrowing it from the Montrose library) would have found enclosed an insert featuring on one side the band looking mean and moody wearing sunglasses adorned with hand-written statements such as ‘sensory assault’ and ‘psycho babble’. The other side contained an excerpt from Nothing But the Same Old Story – the Roots of Anti-Irish Racism on the hugely controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act used in Northern Ireland. It was as brazen and political a statement as you could imagine in a musical product.
Babble has stood the test of time; while many albums of that era sound like a timepiece, Babble defies age, it’s a faultless collection of jerky, driven and passionate songs.
The opening chords of Swamp has me gripped: it contains a fantastic pop hook and the whining, intertwining guitar playing is immense. Spin Cycle features perpetual greasy riffs and a haunting refrain of “loneliness makes my head a mess.” Third track For What it’s Worth is extraordinarily eerie, beginning with slow bass tones, and Steve Mack adopting a low-key near monotone voice, before the tracks bursts with life. It’s a remarkable passive-aggressive track.
All this before the single that should have been No.1 in every country in the world, Big Decision. It’s catchy, delirious and annoying all at the same time, and boy does it work. Intense guitar work mingle with agit-pop chants and even a brief rap, the inspiring “educate, agitate, organise.” It was the first real attempt to make a dance record by an indie band. It also has political overtones, echoing the insert… “Plastic bullets shoot headlines in store” …. “Bells won’t ring when scum boot down the door.”
Static is mind-blowing in its minimalism and cold, sinister lyrics, and Split! is a brazen, frantic number reminiscent of the bastard pop of Bogshed and Big Flame of the same decade.
Belly Bugs kick starts the flip side with wild abandon, with the hum of the drum firing in both ears; Inside is the slowest track of the album, but beautifully coherent with Mack sounding like a prisoner losing his marbles; Chester Burnette is musically detached from the album, and the repetitive, brief lyrics fail to tell the story fully. And finally, Creeping To The Cross begins with Mack harmonising ‘ah ah’, ad nauseum and you wonder if there’s actually a song in here. There is: Damian O’Neill’s relentless bass line collides with Ciaran McLaughlin’s drumming to fantastic effect.
It’s been re-released on CD, of course, with a couple of B-sides and remixes, but really, the 11-track original is more than enough to keep me happy.
Here’s a blogger whose review of Babble provides far more information on the PTA …..