Desperate Bicycles: Smokescreen (Refill Records)
And now for one of the most influential ever British independent singles.
What is independent or indie?
The question was asked in last year’s BBC4 documentary Music for Misfits. ‘Is it a genre of music, generally accepted to involve noisy guitars?’ presenter Mark Radcliffe suggested. ‘Is it a business model, small companies not beholden to major corporations? Is it a state of mind?’
My answers being ‘No. Not necessarily and not necessarily.’
Almost forty years after buying my first independent single I still can’t give you a definitive answer to the question but what I can say is the that some records described as indie or independent are more independent than others. Early on Stiff set up a distribution deal in Britain with EMI and one with Epic for their American releases, while Jerry Dammers arranged a deal with Chrysalis to fund 2 Tone. Independent?
When the Guardian addressed the question last year to coincide with the first showing of Music for Misfits, Jude Rogers stated: ‘Some facts remain unshakeable. At the beginning were Buzzcocks, with their made-for-£500 Spiral Scratch EP.’
Okay, to try and shake the unshakeable, I’ll mention just one of many examples that I could. During the long hot summer of 1976, just as Buzzcocks were setting up a show in Manchester for The Sex Pistols, Abercrombie Fraser – a pseudonym of Kevin Westlake, who’d played guitar in Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance – released a version of Marie’s Wedding on Pinnacle, a British independent label label – yes, they did already exist – and distribution company that had some success around this time with the highly irritating boyband Flintlock.
Some facts do though actually remain unshakeable, one of them being The Desperate Bicycles were pretty much as independent as it was possible to be in the late 1970s, no distribution deals with majors and certainly not a penny in funding from them either.
The Desperates were one of those bands like Wire and Subway Sect that made records in 1977 which now sound more post-punk than punk. They formed with the simple ambition to record a single, cheaply and without record label involvement and this before they had even rehearsed as a band, let alone played a live show.
When asked about this by fanzine New Wave, bassist Roger Stephens, explained: ‘I think the only way we could get five people to actually get interested in playing together was to say, well we’re going to cut a record straight away. The whole novelty of it was enough to make sure people turned up. It sounds crazy but that’s a part of it.’
On their own Refill label, this is that debut single, Smokecreen, yes, the very first independent single I ever bought:
Call me lazy but if you want to know about the band and the basic details of how they made their first two 45s, then here’s what they said themselves on the back cover of their second DIY release The Medium was Tedium:
‘The Desperate Bicycles were formed in March 1977 specifically for the purpose of recording and releasing a single on their own label. They booked a studio in Dalston for three hours and with a lot of courage and a little rehearsal they recorded ‘Smokescreen’ and ‘Handlebars’. It subsequently leapt at the throat. Three months later The Desperate Bicycles were back in the studio to record their second single and this is the result. “No more time for spectating” they sing and who knows? They may be right. They’d really like to know why you haven’t made your single yet. “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it” (the complete cost of “Smokescreen” was 153 pounds). The medium may very well have been tedium but it’s changing fast. So if you can understand, go and join a band. Now it’s your turn…………….’
And if you’re wondering what 153 quid would be in today’s money, then adjusting for inflation that would be the inflation adjusted equivalent to is £664.63. According to Moneysorter.co.uk anyway.
Refusing to advertise, the band only played live sporadically. Word of mouth was their main means of spreading the word until John Peel began repeatedly playing Smokescreen, before inviting them in to record a session for his show in the summer of 1977, which kicked off with a version of Smokescreen that surpassed the single.
The Desperates punted their record to independent music shops like Small Wonder and Rough Trade. Happily the initial Smokescreen pressing of 500 sold out with the band putting the profits into a second pressing of 1000 which again sold out allowing them to put the further profits into a second single. That pressing soon also sold out and this time they used the profits to press up 2500 more copies of each of the two singles and to buy some new equipment.
In his book Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds described the Desperate Bicycles as ‘DIY’s most fervent evangelists’. Buzzcocks might have got in there before them and significantly the Manchester group used the back cover of their EP to help demystify the process of making a record by listing the number of takes and guitar overdubs on each track. This would be an obvious inspiration to the Desperates but as Buzzcocks were lured relatively quickly from New Hormones to United Artists you could easily argue that it was The Desperate Bicycles who were more influential to many new DIY bands emerging around this time.
Here’s Simon Reynolds again in the same book quoting Nikki Sudden of Swell Maps: ‘It wasn’t until Desperate Bicycles did their first single that we realised you could actually book a studio and make a record. We thought only major labels could hire them. Which seems ridiculous now!’
Scritti Politti, a bunch of puritanical Camden squat dwellers who spent their days scrutinizing far-left samizdats and post-structuralist theory while plotting the best way how to bring about the immediate downfall of capitalism – and likely existing on a diet on brown rice as they did so – also undoubtedly took encouragement from the example of the Buzzcocks and Desperates, listing not only the cost of making their debut single on the sleeve but also breaking down precisely each of the costs they’d incurred as well as giving out contact details for each of the companies they had used.
The Television Personalties are another band that found inspiration in records like Smokescreen and, in turn, they influenced the next generation like Alan McGee, who had by the mid-80s (when this type of music would be regularly termed ‘alternative’ rather than ‘indie’) established a reputation for signing some of the most exciting independent acts in the country like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream to his label Creation – and, of course, later McGee went on to sell around half of Creation to Sony Music in the early 1990s.
Here’s a question, a hypothetical one.
Would The Desperates have been tempted if – unlikely I know – a major had taken a serious interest in tempting them to sign on the dotted line with a hefty advance?
As far as I can tell, they seem to have refused the opportunity to ever license any of their material for a re-release on CD or as a download, although they have spoken of doing this themselves.
So, the band do still strike me as genuine outsiders.
But hey, you never know.
By the time The Desperates had petered out in the early 1980s, Scritti were becoming frustrated by the limitations of being on an independent (in their case Rough Trade). As the decade progressed, singer Green Gartside took the not very democratic decision to elect himself leader of Scritti, eventually using the band to all extents and purposes as a solo vehicle.
Bob Last was appointed manager. I’m guessing because Green approved of how he’d handled the mega-success of The Human League. When offered the chance Scritti moved from egalitarian Rough Trade to hippy capitalist Richard Branson’s Virgin, something that Green would surely have laughed at back in the days when he would rail against everything from the usual capitalist suspects through to the experimental London Musicians’ Collective (castigated as ‘bourgeois imperialist improvisers’) and fellow leftist acts such as The Pop Group.
Duran Duran became fans and Green found himself in the pages of Smash Hits as regularly as NME, where he would be as likely to praise Tiffany as Marcel Duchamp. In all probability far more yuppies bought his records than squatters.
He took to wearing glossy lipstick and employed Arif Mardin to make his sound even glossier.
Worst of all, though, he somehow started to believe that it was a good idea to wear a shellsuit. Made by Nike.
Uploaded by Hell From The Eighties, sorry, Hello From The Eighties, this is Absolute:
More Scritti to come shortly as, believe it or not, I am actually a fan and should maybe say before I finish that Green/Scritti signed again to the reactivated Rough Trade imprint around a decade ago.