Why the world needs yet another obscure music compilation

Why the world needs yet another obscure music compilation

Imagine you’re in a band. Your passion is inversely proportional to your talent. You get together with a few buddies twice a week and bash out some noise. You play a few shows. Before you know it, things get serious. So you head down to a local studio and record your songs.

They’re not half bad. You’ve captured something: Not just the sound of your band, but something in the air. A music journalist might call it the zeitgeist. Fuck music journalists. They don’t pay attention to piddly little bands like yours, and they never will. It’s liberating. You’re the band next door, and you embrace it.

For a while, anyway. After releasing a single on a small local label, or simply by yourself, you do a short regional tour. When you get home, you’ve lost your shift at work. While away, you’ve cheated on your boyfriend or girlfriend, or they’ve cheated on you, or both. School starts to look like a more viable option. Careerism rears its sensible head. 

Eventually, the band drifts apart. You’ve gained more talent, but you’ve lost some passion. That zeitgeist or whatever? It’s passed you by. In fact, one of the other bands in town—the one that always got written up in the local press while you were ignored—has hit the big time. That band represents your scene now, even if those dudes are kind of dicks.

No big deal. You move on, settle down. Every once in a while, when cleaning the basement, you crack open a box of your old record. It’s a 7-inch, just two songs. Two measly fucking songs. That’s all that has been preserved for posterity. All those months of sweat and hope and hangovers and missed work and wrecked relationships. It’s all condensed onto a flimsy piece of plastic. A piece of plastic no one cared about then. A piece of plastic no one cares about now.

Years later, a crazy thing happens. You get an e-mail. Some record label somewhere wants the rights to your songs. They want to put them on a compilation. Even crazier, a music journalist—the same type of jerk who wouldn’t give your band the time of day—is writing effusive liner notes. Your band, you find out, has attained minor cult status. Copies of your original 7-inch sell on the Internet for the princely sum of $16. 

There’s a market for this stuff. People actually buy this shit. By any stretch of the imagination, this is mediocre, grade-C music, your band included. But it has historical significance, you’ve been told. You—the guy in the band next door—has at last been validated. Hell, even vindicated.

And then you get back to cleaning the basement.

The above scenario does not stem from my personal experience. No one has yet blessed my inbox with an invitation to rerelease the crud that my old punk band from the ’90s put out. Sometimes, though, I think it’s only a matter of time. That old band of mine may be caked at the bottom of the barrel, but that barrel is getting scraped harder every day.

Case in point: Strange Passion, a new compilation of obscure Irish post-punk bands from the early ’80s that’s being released this month by the British boutique label Finders Keepers. Modeled after obsessive, vinyl-junkie releases from imprints like Soul Jazz and Sublime Frequencies—and part of a tradition that stretches back to the famed Nuggets comps—there’s a love of history and preservationism that clearly drove the creation of the compilation.

It sure as hell wasn’t the money. Of all the bands on Strange Passion, only one—Virgin Prunes—is even remotely known. And that’s partly because two of its members are noteworthy in other ways: Singer Gavin Friday went on to a lauded solo career, and guitarist Dik Evans began his career playing with his brother David “The Edge” Evans in a group called The Hype—which became U2

The rest of the bands on Strange Passion? They might as well be the band next door. I say that out of adoration. Without knowing any of the people who played in these groups half a world away when I was still in elementary school, I know them. They were the same band-next-door types that I was (and still am). Take, for instance, “High Cost Of Living” by The Threat, a Dublin post-punk group with a throbbing, tribal crudeness that makes PiL sound like ELO. Fantastic.

Even better, though, is the wobbly dub-punk of “Play Safe” by Chant! Chant! Chant!, a band that evolved from The Threat. It’s sloppy, inept, and unoriginal. Coming from kids in a troubled country with no hope of turning this sound into money or fame, it’s utterly inspired. I’m making an assumption here, but I’d wager that it’s bands like The Threat that accurately represent what living and playing in Ireland was like in the early ’80s. Certainly far more than U2 did, even in that early stage of its eventual world domination.

Music isn’t required to reflect its environment. Many great bands—like U2—transcend their time and place. Some might even say that’s a requirement of greatness. But there’s a reason why so many punk, post-punk, and hardcore comps of the ’70s and ’80s are based on geography. From Flex Your Head, 1982’s definitive collection of D.C. hardcore, to 1986’s Deep Six, the first comprehensive document of the emerging Seattle scene, compilations have served as time capsules. Ironically, the more obscure the bands are, the better the snapshot can be.

But there’s a difference between Deep Six and Strange Passion. Deep Six captured a scene as it was forming, and in fact aided in that formation. Strange Passion is pure archeology. That’s been the pattern for a while now. Starting in the ’80s, series of compilations such as the Nuggets-like Pebbles and the punk-oriented Killed By Death helped establish an ethic of musical excavation. Old singles by obscure bands were dug up and gathered together, usually arranged by city or country of origin. Apart, these songs are flashes in the dark. Together, they form a mosaic.

One of the best KBD-style comps is No One Left To Blame, which features a song by an early-’80s Chicago band called DV8. The outfit only released one 7-inch single in its lifetime. The group’s drummer, Eric Spicer, went on to play in the legendary Naked Raygun. Aside from that, DV8 is totally unremarkable—except for the fact that its track on No One Left To Blame, “Guns On The Right” is one of the greatest punk songs I’ve ever heard—from any era or anywhere.

Again, though, quality is not the point. For every gem like “Guns On The Right,” there’s a compilation track like Tripper Humane’s new-wave oddity “Discoland.” One of Strange Passion’s weirdest, least compelling songs, “Discoland” triumphs in one perverse way: It somehow manages to make a drum machine lose the beat. And then, three minutes after a duck-fart meltdown, it just… keeps going. Mostly, though, Strange Passion is totally riveting. Some cuts—like Choice’s “Always In Danger,” a Depeche Mode-meets-Young Marble Giants synth lullaby—even sound like they could have been made today.

Granted, that’s one of the reasons why comps like Strange Passion continue to be made: so that new bands can draw from old sources that have yet to be tapped, regardless of genre. These kinds of collections have been made for obscure music of every stripe: power-pop, funk, Sumatran folk, what have you. Anything that’s fallen through the cracks in culture to wash up on some collector’s shelf (or mixtape, or blog) is fair game. The process isn’t any different from crate-diggers hunting through old LPs for undiscovered breaks to sample.

Ultimately, that’s why this unending flood of obscure music compilations is needed—and probably will always be. They help preserve the continuum. They fill in the gaps. They’re a history written by the losers, which is always more interesting anyway, if not more telling.

And it’s not like the world will ever run of out groups to compile. Obscure bands that release small amounts of music before disappearing? That will always be one of music’s bottomless, self-renewing resources. Just ask the band next door.