The Newtown Neurotics
Beggars Can Be Choosers
Razor Records, 1983
File Under: Punk anachronism.
For the sake of historical context, let's take a look at what England's punk founding fathers–the so-called Class Of '77–were up to in 1983. John Lydon was morphing his arty PiL into a catchy if relatively tepid pop act stocked with session musicians. Mick Jones had left The Clash after the massive success of Combat Rock; he'd soon form the beatbox experiment Big Audio Dynamite while Joe Strummer gathered a new lineup that would drag The Clash's fine name through the mud. Buzzcocks had broken up, and Pete Shelley was in the midst of a so-so synth-pop phase. Wire was mired in an eight-year hiatus. The Damned was on its way to becoming a lightweight if fun self-parody. And The Jam's Paul Weller had exited the band at the height of its popularity to start his slick soul outfit The Style Council. The vast majority of the younger punk groups in England–driven to even greater extremes by the New Romantic movement and fey, jangly upstarts like Aztec Camera and The Smiths–started sounding less like slightly sped-up versions of The Who and more like slightly slowed-down versions of a car wreck. (That said, I still love Amebix and GBH as much as I do Roddy Frame and Morrissey.)
In the midst of this punk-rock identity crisis, a tiny trio from Harlow–one of the first wave of communities built under the New Town Act Of 1946 to ease Post-War housing shortages in nearby London–issued its debut LP. The 1983 full-length, Beggars Can Be Choosers, was The Newtown Neurotics' blistering, blazing statement of intent. It was also perhaps the most out-of-step and utterly bizarre punk record England produced that year–simply for being the most ordinary one.
I first heard The Newtown Neurotics as a high-school kid in Denver in the late '80s. Still delirious with the discovery of all this edgy, noisy, transcendentally pissed off music, I found a secondhand copy of a compilation album called They Shall Not Pass. It was a benefit record for striking miners in England–I'd lived in West Virginia for a few months as a little kid, so I kind of pictured them like that–featuring bands such as Mekons, the Mekons spinoff The Three Johns, The Redskins, The Sisters Of Mercy (!), and The Newtown Neurotics. I also fancied myself quite the budding young socialist at the time–thanks mostly to prolonged exposure to The Housemartins and Billy Bragg–so The Neurotics' anthemic, stridently leftist "Mindless Violence" and "Kick Out The Tories" really resonated with me. Even if I didn't know exactly what a Tory was.
A couple years ago I was trading records with my old friend John, and while flipping through his doubles I came across Beggars Can Be Choosers. John is an obsessive collector who spends an insane amount of his life combing eBay and going to record shows. Still, he was reluctant to part with his extra copy of Beggars; all I knew was, I was willing to trade everything in my own modest stack for that one LP. In all my years of crate-digging and working in music retail, I'd never even heard of the album, let alone seen a copy. After a post-haggling victory, I took it home, put it on my turntable, and dropped the needle–and it was like listening to a recording of my 17-year-old self. Stringy, angular, cynical, and warily sensitive, Beggars is simply one of the best unsung British punk albums of all time. And The Neurotics' earnest self-righteousness is so endearing, so goddamn goofy; while the world of music–punk included–whizzed by them in the early '80s, the band stood their ground and played punk rock the way they imagined it ought to be.
Beggars Can Be Choosers is one sustained high point from beginning to end, but the track that sticks with me the closest is "The Mess." As with the best political songs, it's not political at all. Instead, society and authority are invisible, intangible abstracts that yank like gravity at the soul of singer-guitarist Steve Drewett, who recounts how his promising young life went down the shitter in a sudden paroxysm of apathy and depression–something I could more than relate to: "I was brilliant at school, but not in exams / My teachers, they could not understand / how five years' work went to the wall." Backtracking through a litany of adolescent failures and almost melancholy reminiscences, Drewett slashes at his guitar like he's trying to flick snakes off it. The tension is fantastic–even the silly fake ending and the shout-out to the Ramones totally work. And the rest of the album follows suit: The jaggedly reggae-ish "Newtown People" sounds less like a cribbing of Stiff Little Fingers and more like a sloppy gesture of solidarity. And Drewett's courageously intimate, heart-wrenching toughness is pushed to the breaking point in "Agony": "Let me ask you something / When was the last time you saw a man cry on TV? / And it's agony."
I have no idea how Beggars Can Be Choosers was perceived in England when it came out. I suspect it wasn't perceived at all; the band, while championed by John Peel and benefiting from some peripherally hip associations, just didn't fit anywhere in the weird world of 1983. The only true contemporary of The Neurotics I can pick out is New Model Army–but even NMA, as great as they are, were far too dour and scowling to jell with the manic, spastic Drewett and crew. If anything, The Newtown Neurotics remind me of one of those forgotten groups that appeared on The Young Ones in the early '80s–the bands that faded to humble insignificance when placed next to all the Motörheads and Madnesses of the world.
Current whereabouts: After disbanding The Neurotics to form–of all things–the African-tinged The Indestructible Beat, Drewett eventually got the old band back together; he still plays the occasional punk-nostalgia gig with the group, as well as doing solo shows and remaining politically outspoken.
Album availability: Following years of scarcity, Beggars Can Be Choosers is readily available via download and on CD. The vinyl, if you're so inclined, will still set you back 40 or 50 bucks.
Key track: "The Mess."