'like King Arthur's knights buried beneath the soil of merrie Englande we are ready to be called on in the country's hour of peril...We were called. And we will play......only noise and confusion can save us from the apocolypse...the thunder of hooves and the clash of metal armour...rise up...rise up!'
The Membranes, the eighties post-punk noisenik band fronted by John Robb, have been asked to reform for All Tomorrows Parties- The Nightmare Before Christmas gig on December 4th by hosts My Bloody Valentine.
The Membranes who took a break in 1990 have accepted the offer from the band that supported them in the late eighties.
Their mid eighties full on live performances with a high energy, ecstatic, noise assault- combined melancholy with euphoria and frustration in a series of astonishing records that went further out than anyone else had ever been before and won them considerable critical acclaim.
The band were formed in Blackpool in 1977 by the 16-year-old John Robb and a couple of younger friends. Fired by punk rock and the DIY ethic they created their own idiosyncratic, dislocated, very noisy music that coalesced with their third single, 1984’s ‘Spike Milligans Tape Recorder’ and the follow up ‘Death To Trad Rock’ EP.
They would have been the first band to sign to Creation records but lack of funds meant initial releases came out on another label. Eventually, though, they signed to Creation for their 1985 debut ‘Gift Of life’ album. Epitomizing the rugged independent spirit of the time the band played deliberately in your face, influential, discordant music that combined elements of punk rock, free jazz, blues, Beefheart and their own interest in bass science that saw Robb design and build his own lethally loud violin bass.
They dealt in loud, thrilling songs with esoteric titles like ‘Everyones Going Triple Bad Acid, yeah!’, ‘Kafka’s Dad’, ‘Mr. Charisma brain’, ‘The Throat’, ‘Sexy? Big Tongue!’ ‘Cor Blimey, Ain’t England Snidey’ and ‘Bulbous Love Child’ and had lyrics equally as acidic, pithy and poetic.
The band had arrived two years too early and were out of step with the gentler sounds of the then indie scene. Their influence on the scene would be felt with several bands going deeper into the noise scene that was part of the so called C86 a couple of years later.
The band’s appearance on the Tube in early 1985 captured them and their maverick following in typical riotous mode. They were Peel favourites and had press front covers- this was back in the times when underground bands were mailing their own records out from home with no conventional music biz support.
It wasn’t until the American bands like Sonic Youth and Big Black arrived three years later that the Membranes had any real contemporaries and perhaps they were a UK equivalent and a precursor of the more esoteric end of the US hardcore scene like Black Flag and the afformentioned post hardcore bands like Albini’s feral trio, Big Black.
The band’s influence could be felt across the British scene of the time. The UK equivalent of the American hardcore and post hardcore scenes- the Death To Trad Rock scene is documented in Robb’s upcoming book, ‘Death To Trad Rock’ on Cherry Red books out in September which is a 900 page account of the 45 bands who made up the loosely affiliated scene- bands like Big Flame, Bogshed, A Witness, Age Of Chance, Shock Headed Peters, Age Of Chance, Very Things and many others who in different ways brought the noise to their creativity. The Membranes were central to this fervent scene of exploding hair shorn at the sides, ripped paisley shirts, sardonic American thrift store t shirts, black jeans or ragged Dickensian pinstripes and big bovver boots driven by a chemical imbalance and a new kind of kick.
The Membranes bass led psychodrama was a scene influence and their high-pitched treble guitar assault had an acknowledged affect on the likes of the Wedding Present whilst that bass was an influence on the then just forming Napalm Death..
Mick Harris, drummer and founder member of Napalm Death and, more recently the brilliant Scorn, was a teenage music freak in Birmingham when he first heard them.
‘Membranes meant a lot to me as a teenager. Peel turned me on to them and whenever they arrived in Birmingham I made an issue of going to see them. One thing that caught my attention was the bass sound. I’m not saying the whole mixture wasn’t good because it was, but I was really into the bass sound, especially on the classic Death To Trad Rock EP- That monstrous bass sound was a big influence on Napalm Death. I have always been into dirty distorted bass and this is one bass tone I will always enjoy time and time again.’
Their later albums, like 1987’s less willful ‘Songs Of Love And Fury’ was a big critical hit in the USA and was one of Rolling Stone's recommended albums of the year, whilst Steve Albini, on one of his very first recordings worked on 1988’s ‘Kiss Ass Godhead’-both records were released by hip American label Homestead Records along with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jnr, and other key noisenik outfits.
The Membranes toured America a few times where they are still held in high regard- supported by the likes of Pussy Galore, Afghan Whigs and White Zombie- at one New York gig they met David Baker who told them he was so inspired he was going to form his own band which turned out to be Mercury Rev.
The hard touring band, who would spend months on the road in Europe where they were a top ten indie band in Germany, took their full on aesthetic into countries where no-one had heard this kind of music before on insane tours with all day drives criss crossing the continent for months on end. They were regulars touring the pre lifting of the iron curtain East Europe and came back armed with tales of riots, wild gigs and the sort of faraway look in their eyes that old school touring fostered.
Back home the Membranes sprawling, hand painted Manchester house became a notorious band port of call. When Dinosaur Jnr stayed there a few times they returned to film the video for ‘Freak Scene’ in the Membranes back garden:
The Membranes back catalogue will be remastered and re-released to commemorate this event and they are looking at festival offers coming in from the round the world.