❉ Another back catalogue bumper box set from Cherry Red.
Spear Of Destiny are a hard band to categorise these days; there’s nothing really like them around any more. In the early 1980s, in the wake of the punk explosion and its subsequent shattering into a million myriad sub-genres, musical styles and scenes emerged, flared briefly and then faded like cinders. Emerging from the ashes of post-punk hellions Theatre Of Hate in ’83, SoD (formed by ToH survivors Kirk Brandon on lead vocals and guitar and Stan Stammers on bass, along with Chris Bell on drums and Lascelles James on sax) played an unusual but invigorating blend of angry, anthemic post punk, embryonic Goth and the kind of chest-pounding Big Rock that the likes of Big Country and (early) U2 did very well out of. Literate, impassioned, inventive, earnest, occasionally pompous but rarely less than interesting. This set is an exhaustive examination of their early years, comprising the first three albums, each complete with almost as much again in bonus material.
The first of the three, Grapes Of Wrath, is a somewhat low-key debut in many ways. Opening with the sparse, sinuous groove of The Wheel and the arm-waving 6/8 folky sway of Flying Scotsman, it’s a deeply rewarding album to listen to, though maybe not the most immediate of records. There’s a lot of space in these songs; in an age when the second wave of punk was erupting, with the frantic buzzsaw guitar attacks of the Exploited and GBH leading the way, SoD’s slower tempos and open, bass-led and guitar-light arrangements seemed positively laid back; the fact that the saxophone is so heavily featured here marks them out even further.
Solution picks up the pace a bit, with its rumbling tribal drums, foreboding vocal and vaguely spaghetti-western feel. The Preacher edges up to funk territory with its percussive swagger and Chic-esque bassline. Brandon’s tremulous, keening voice adds a layer of drama to the slow-building Omen Of The Times. The Man Who Tunes The Drums is as percussion-led as the title suggests, sharing a kinship with the Burundi influenced likes of Bow Wow Wow and early Adam & The Ants. The title track closes out the original album, with a Joy Division-ish bass part pulling the vibe towards the nascent Goth scene.
On top of the ten tracks of the original album, there are nine bonus tracks here, including The Hop (a reworking of an old Theatre Of Hate tune), alternative mixes of The Preacher and Omen Of The Times from the cassette release of the album, the extended 12″ version of Flying Scotsman and five live tracks.
By the time of One Eyed Jacks, the second album, rolled around there had been big changes on the personnel front. Bell and James were gone, and a new six piece lineup was in place, featuring ex-Tom Robinson Band drummer Dolphin Taylor, saxophonist Mickey Donnelly, guitarist Alan St Clair and multi-instrumentalist Neil Pyzer. Kicking in with the mock-Chinnichap sax ‘n’ drums ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll stomp of Rainmaker and the stirring martial march of Young Men, One Eyed Jacks is a good degree more confident and brash than the debut, with a significantly fuller sound. The sinister Everything You Ever Wanted and the anguished quasi-blues of Don’t Turn Away lead into the sheer majesty of Liberator. One of the defining anthems of early 80s alternative rock, Liberator is a huge, wild-eyed chantalong with a cavernous tom-tom rhythm and a fist-pumping chorus the size of Jupiter, and is probably Spear Of Destiny’s best known song.
Prisoner Of Love is a little more down-to-earth, an organ-led mid-pocket affair that could almost pass for blue-eyed soul. Playground Of The Rich, meanwhile, is a slow-unfurling epic that builds from a delicate piano intro to a howling maelstrom of a conclusion. Attica employs an incongruous ska backbeat that, despite all odds, works well. These Days Are Gone, the original album’s closer, pumps up the melodrama to Wagnerian levels.
Bonus material on the second disc comprises of a further ten tracks to match the original ten, including the rousing chain-gang chant of Rosie, a re-recorded Grapes Of Wrath, a single remix of the slinky Forbidden Planet, two truly appalling 12 remixes of Liberator (the phenomenon of the 12 inch remix was one of the more widespread and less enjoyable aspects of 1980s music) and five more live tracks.
World Service, the concluding part of this triptych, opens in promising style with the straight rocker Rocket Ship and Up All Night, a sort of mutant second cousin to Adam Ant’s Goody Two Shoes. The reggae inflections return on Come Back, while World Service itself is an 8-to-the-bar kicker that positively motors along before giving way to a delicate, introspective mid-section. I Can See ventures further into gothism, while All My Love (Ask Nothing) with its twangy guitar and female backing vocals, harks back to the previous record’s Prisoner Of Love. Mickey is a poignant anti-war epic in the spirit of Young Men, detailing the tale of a young soldier maimed in the Falklands conflict (a popular subject among alternative bands of the time, with the likes of Crass, New Model Army and The Levellers all producing songs of similar sentiment). Somewhere In The East brings the bombast but ultimately misses the mark, while Once In Her Lifetime is a big-production shuffle that promises much but fails to go anywhere and eventually collapses under its own weight. Much better is the original record’s final song Harlan County, a plaintive piano ballad.
Seven further tracks round up this disc, including Last Card, Cole Younger, a stripped down piano reworking of Young Men, the vicious blues of Walk In My Shadow, two remixes of Come Back and one of All My Love (Ask Nothing).
So, three mostly excellent albums (for my money I’d say One Eyed Jacks is the best of the three) and a wealth of extras of varying quality. Historically, the band jumped record companies and lost founding bassist Stammers for their next album, Outland, which yielded their other best-known song, Never Take Me Alive (their only Top 20 hit) before they disbanded in a cloud of poor luck, bad health and management strife. But that’s another story.
As is usual with these Cherry Red reissue sets the presentation is excellent, each CD coming in a miniature replica of the LP sleeve and the whole set being offered up in a glossy little box with an informative booklet – in this case mostly taken up by period memorabilia and a fairly in-depth interview with mainman Kirk Brandon, who still tours and records with a version of Spear Of Destiny to this day. If the more serious and less cacophonous side of 1980s alternative music appeals to you, but you find the Goth genre a little too silly, this is the stuff for you.
❉ ‘Spear Of Destiny: The Albums 1983-1985’ is out now from Cherry Red Records (CRCDBOX54), RRP £16.99.
❉ Lee Terry is a regular We Are Cult contributor and a member of The Kingcrows, Leeds’ scuzziest sleaze-punk-n-roll maniacs.