Out Of Time!
The soul punk explosion ... part two

The Purple Hearts once said that they were the missing link between pop art and life. Someone here once said that they were the missing link between Subway Sect and the Wolfhounds. I suspect that is a little abstruse. It may mean more to suggest the Purple Hearts were the missing link between the Television Personalities and the Stone Roses.

I have been thinking a lot about the Purple Hearts recently. I have been listening a lot to the Purple Hearts recently. That's probably because in the space of a week two Purple Hearts CDs have arrived on my doorstep. One is a reissue of their Beat That! set from 1980, while the other is an Extras-style compilation of unreleased recordings, demos, alternative versions, and live performances. Both are wonderful pop records that should be getting major exposure.

For anyone that doesn't know, the Purple Hearts are maverick modernists, who produced a small collection of soul punk gems as the 70s became the 80s. They were the victims of bad timing and discrimination, but there are people out there that would kill for them still.

Like a lot of groups after the initial punk uprising subsided, the Purple Hearts from East London decided a new language and context was needed. They were amongst the first to develop a look that was based on second-hand sta- prests and three-button hand-me-downs, razorcut modcrops/moptops, and Fred Perrys. They looked terrific, rough and strange.

The sound they developed was built on a tight, melodic rhythm section, Simon Stebbing's staccato guitar riffs, and Rob Manton's downbeat, deadpan vocals. It was a formula that less threatening provincial groups like the Smiths and Stone Roses would find success with.

Looking back now, the Purple Hearts' sound intriguingly developed from the hard pop roots of The Clash and Buzzcocks to something that echoed that wonderful moment in the 60s when the nasty London r'n'b groups developed into something stranger and more experimental. For their time the Purple Hearts seem to have had an impressive knowledge of the UK 60s psychedelic/punk scene. By drawing upon the likes of The Creation, Action, Downliners Sect, Pretty Things, and the fabulous if forgotten Artwoods, the Purple Hearts made a conscious artistic statement. They put themselves in a position where they would be studiously ignored by a media establishment that ironically can still pile the plaudits on any clown that replicates Stooges riffs or country cliches.

I hope I have said before that Michael Bracewell's England Is Mine is one of the great pop books. One of the book's great passages is the section on the Television Personalities. He astutely draws attention to the way Dan Treacy linked the humour and realism of kitchen sink drama to carefully chosen cultural pop references. Bracewell doesn't mention them, but this applies as much to the Purple Hearts. Ironically the two groups at times share pop art imagery, though their respective 'Smashing Time' numbers are worlds apart.

For both groups the 60s cultural appropriation was a subversive statement, though one that would never be done again so effectively and innocently. The big difference between the two though was the clumsy, tongue-tied feyness of the TVPs contrasted sharply with the literate Jack-the-Lad swagger of the Purple Hearts. Dan Treacy might be the eternal wallflower on the edge of the in-crowd while one imagined Rob Manton in demand but lost in his Ray Bradbury paperback or busy trying to convince the belle of the ball she should listen to his signed copy of the Pretty Things' SF Sorrow.

Which brings us to the Stone Roses, and my long held conviction that the successful formula the Manchester group eventually settled upon was much more to do with the intuitive Purple Hearts' London flash than the Primal Scream and the West Coast references normally trotted out. One needs only listen to the Hearts' 'comeback' Pop-ish Frenzy set from the mid-80s and then say 'Made Of Stone' to see how it all fits together. And given Ian Brown's scooter boy past and interest in the Situationists it seems quite likely.

The big difference between the two is that one senses the Roses were never the sharpest pencils in the stationers, while there seem to be enough clues to suggest Manton was more interested in Zola, Hancock's Half Hour, Dylan and Lee Dorsey than the source of his next spliff.

So, to the Smashing Time set which Detour (who also have just given us the Small Hours anthology) have put together. It contains some brilliant moments, which make me very sad when I stop and think of the wasted potential. Perhaps of most interest here are a couple of tracks from a session with Paul Weller as producer, which are glorious punk soul vignettes. It also suggests (as with the Nips' lost 'Happy Song') Weller may have become one of our most innovative pop producers.

I used to write to someone back in 1981 when Postcard was where it was at, arguing that the Purple Hearts despite their fall from favour were still very young, and were probably hidden away developing an innovative new sound. Smashing Time shows this may have been the case anyway, and pertinently here 'Restless Dream Recurring' is the best Unknown Pleasures Joy Division inspired moment you will hear outside of an LTM reissue. Intriguingly there is a TV21 cover here too, and I had genuinely forgotten that great argumentative Scottish group existed. Will someone please collect together their works? I remember the Jasmine Minks were big fans. Which is appropriate here, because the Minks had the same London-based hoodlum poet strut the Purple Hearts had, which the establishment never felt comfortable with.

The other reissue I would point you in the direction of is the straight reissue of the superb 1980 Beat That! set. Produced by Chris Parry (of The Jam/The Cure fame) it captures an authentic vintage sound that has ironically allowed it to still sound fresh. Unlike many big label records of the time, there is a lot of room to breathe, and there is a lot to learn from the sound. Stebbing's guitar work sounds particularly invigorating and sharp, and it is easy to see that Subway Sect suggestion in the clanging, while Manton's words are gritty enough to evoke Callahan's anti-midas touch and lucky ten pence.

Many much more critically acclaimed sets sound much more tame and tired, but when the likes of Paul Morley have run out of ideas and have to compile lists like sad trainspotters you can rest assured Beat That! will not be there. And yet this is a group whose debut single borrowed lyrics from a Pete Meaden interview, and pop doesn't come any cooler than that.

© 2003John Carney


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