To celebrate the recent release of our 33 1/3 on Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth, we’re pleased to bring you the 3rd installment of Young Marble Giants Week by authors Michael Blair and Joe Bucciero!
Colossal Youth Mixtape
Nine songs not by Young Marble Giants that help shed light on their album’s singular sound
Colossal Youth interacts with numerous musical, artistic, historical, and political contexts. Throughout our book, we explore Young Marble Giants’ music within these contexts, referring to music by other people frequently as means of understanding how YMG could have created a sound as simple yet original as the one we hear on Colossal Youth. For this mixtape, we picked one song to represent the themes and ideas of most of the chapters in our book.
Chapter 2: Eaten Out of House and Home
Reptile Ranch: “Saying Goodbye”
Reptile Ranch were the driving force behind Cardiff’s small but enthusiastic DIY music scene in the late 1970s. Inspired by bands like Scritti Politti and the Buzzcocks, who had self-released their early recordings, the members of Reptile Ranch founded their own label, Z Block Records. In 1979, Z Block issued a compilation entitled Is the War Over? that surveyed Cardiff’s scene at the time. While most of the bands on it took a straight-ahead, three-chord approach to punk rock, Reptile Ranch stood out with their strange, skeletal post-punk (an example of which is on display on “Saying Goodbye”). The other band on the record that stood out was Young Marble Giants, whose two minimalistic contributions caught the ear of Rough Trade Records founder Geoff Travis, leading to their being signed to the label and releasing Colossal Youth in February 1980. Few may remember Reptile Ranch, but they played a crucial, if indirect, role in Colossal Youth’s creation, and were, in our opinion, an excellent band in their own right. (And one of their members, Spike Williams, would go on to be in Alison Statton’s post-YMG band Weekend and also kindly answer questions for our 33⅓ book.)
Chapter 3: Everything Comes from Chaos
The Pop Group: “We Are All Prostitutes”
YMG stood out among their Rough Trade peers as well. Note, for example, The Pop Group’s “We Are All Prostitutes,” which was released by Rough Trade as a single just three months before the label put out Colossal Youth. The Pop Group and YMG shared an interest in Jamaican music like dub and reggae, which was a favorite among youths in both Cardiff and London (and certainly in Rough Trade’s brick-and-mortar record shop at the time), but as one can hear clearly when comparing “We Are All Prostitutes” with, say, YMG’s “Searching for Mr. Right,” those interests manifested themselves very differently in the two groups’ music. The Pop Group were noisy and confrontational, their abandonment of traditional rock ’n’ roll music paired with exaggerated compositional touches and transgressive lyrics. YMG, meanwhile, absorbed the revolutionary spirit of the times—both formal and ideological—and looked inward. In our book, we argue that their music does contain radical gestures and ideas, but in a way apart, even at odds, from that of bands like The Pop Group (or This Heat or The Fall, et al.).
Chapter 4: Showing the Way to Go
Erik Satie: “Vexations”
As mentioned above, we hear YMG’s music as being fairly radical, despite its low volumes, simple structures, and non-confrontational lyrics. Stuart Moxham happily admitted that, in many of the songs, the band plays the “same riff the whole way through,” making it such that many of the short tracks (most are around two-and-a-half minutes) are composed of the same, even shorter fragment of a song repeated several times. The composer Erik Satie similarly utilized repetition as well as quietude to help his music subtly push formal musical boundaries; his composition “Vexations” is simple and easy to listen to, until you learn that its light motif is meant to be repeated 840 times. YMG aren’t necessarily Satie’s heir apparent, but their take on pop music reveals an avant-garde approach and rebellious, arguably humorous spirit—like Satie’s—upon close listening.
Chapter 5: The World Is Not You
John Cage: 4’33”
One of the hallmarks of YMG’s sound is silence. From the long, silent fade-in that begins track one, “Searching for Mr. Right,” to the numerous gasps of silence that populate every song thereafter, Colossal Youth made quite a statement at a time when so much other music was filled to the brim with noise. While John Cage’s 4’33” isn’t the first piece of music (or art, more broadly) to utilize silence in its composition, it’s probably the most straightforward declaration of what silence can accomplish in an artistic context. Cage’s piece allows its listeners to both identify the constructs of musical composition and performance, and hear—in a way that they wouldn’t normally—the sounds of the real world around them. Colossal Youth, despite not actually being silent all the way through, also opens its listeners’ ears to the sounds around them, and around the music.
Chapter 6: Let’s Be a Tree
Brian Eno: “Sombre Reptiles”
The members of YMG had previously played together in a covers band called True Wheel, named after the 1974 Brian Eno song of the same name. True Wheel’s dissolution into the quieter, more abstract YMG reflected Eno’s own shift from the glam rock of tracks like “The True Wheel” to, in the following year, the experimental pop of Another Green World and ambient music with Discreet Music. Both of these 1975 Eno albums are crucial forerunners of Colossal Youth: the simple melodies and drum machine rhythms of songs like Another Green World’s “Sombre Reptiles” precede those on Colossal Youth, and the quiet, minimalist pieces on Discreet Music allow for a listening experience that joins recorded music with the outside world in a manner that bridges John Cage and YMG.
Chapter 8: Sit at Home and Watch the Tube
Devo: “Mechanical Man”
The protagonist of “Mechanical Man,” an early song by Devo (who all the Rough Trade groups adored), is a robot or cyborg—a creature of the information age—yet he speaks like a caveman, suggesting that contemporary technological developments may not be as sophisticated as their shiny veneers make them seem. YMG’s “The Man Amplifier” is less jagged and assertive than Devo’s track, but it paints a picture of a cyborg figure that, in its quaint clumsiness, reveals the discomfiting encroachment people felt from robots, computers, and other technologies in the Cold War era. Songs like “The Man Amplifier” affirm our feeling that, while YMG’s lyrics often look toward the banal goings-on of everyday life, they’re also filled with the technological, political, and nuclear anxiety that plagued their era.
Chapter 9: No Rain Outside
Booker T. & The MGs: “Green Onions”
One of the YMG songs on that Z Block Records compilation was called “Ode to Booker T.” Why would this quiet Welsh group of three working-class white post-punks dedicate one of their first major songs to classic soul organist Booker T. Jones? Maybe it’s not so much of a stretch. Stuart Moxham has admitted Booker T. & The MGs as an influence on YMG, and while the tone of their respective recordings differ, there are clear sonic connections: the loud organ melodic leads, the short and simple song structures, the tight rhythm sections. Additionally, as we note in our book, Booker T. & The MGs often functioned as a back-up band to more famous singers—and Stuart may have identified with that “back-up” status. Although he wrote nearly all of YMG’s songs, he also may have seen himself as something of a “back-up band,” given that it was Alison and not him who sang the songs.
Chapter 10: Blind as the Fate Decrees
Gang of Four: “Paralysed”
Gang of Four were perhaps the most cogent critics (among post-punk bands) of the messy political situation in the United Kingdom. Songs of theirs like “Paralysed” get at how British youth felt stuck, held back by the conservative government’s policies. Gang of Four’s music, meanwhile, suggested an amplified version of YMG’s in many ways, in that their songs were also bass-heavy and filled with exaggerated gaps of silence. This is not to say that YMG was a toned-down Gang of Four, but at the same time, once you’re versed in the pointed Marxist critique of Gang of Four’s songs, you might be better able to hear that, in fact, YMG’s songs have something of that critique in them too.
Chapter 11: The Editors Agree
The Raincoats: “Fairytale in the Supermarket”
With songs like “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” all-women Rough Trade group The Raincoats were able to level critiques on the patriarchal status quo in a manner both simple and sophisticated, humorous and serious. They propped their words up with a spare, somewhat unusual musical set-up, with which they made music recognizable as being within a “rock” lineage but certainly more experimental and without the genre’s traditional aesthetic markers (many of which were, and are, decidedly macho). YMG, on the other hand, weren’t engaged in the same feminist and leftist discourses, though; both Stuart and Alison admitted their relative neutrality in that regard in multiple interviews. Still, The Raincoats’ simple arrangements and quotidian stories-turned-parables of an unequal society find a quiet echo on Colossal Youth. Alison, as the leader, lets us accompany her in the open mixes, and when we do, we feel the pain and fear that went along with being a woman in punk and in the UK at large.