❉ Too cerebral and poppy for the punk crowd and just too odd for the mainstream…
In 1991, a friend of mine lent me a copy of Learning English Lesson 1, a covers album by the German punk band Die Toten Hosen. Most of the track listing consisted of well-known punk rock classics, recorded by the band with guest appearances by members of the original bands. The bulk of the material I knew well, but there were a few tracks I’d never come across before. One of these was a pulsating minor masterpiece called Love And A Molotov Cocktail, which inspection of the sleeve notes told me was by The Flys. I had never heard of the song before, but I loved it immediately. I still do, particularly once I’d heard the original version. However, in the twenty-eight years since that first hearing, I have never knowingly heard anything else by The Flys. Here’s where I fix that gap in my experience, as Cherry Red Records have fired out a mammoth compilation of the band’s entire output (a total of fifty-three tracks) on a 2CD set.
Hailing from Coventry, The Flys (most of whom had played together as a slightly hippy rock band called Midnight Circus until they caught a Clash gig in Birmingham and re-thought their musical position) received their major breakthrough when they were asked to open for Buzzcocks in October ’77. The pairing worked so well that they became a regular support act at Buzzcocks gigs. Their independently released debut EP A Bunch Of Five emerged two months later, prompting EMI to snap the band up. Two albums and a slew of singles followed, until their momentum ran out and they moved on to other things.
So, what’s on this here compilation? Well, each of the two discs includes one of the EMI albums plus a wealth of bonus tracks. The first dozen tracks on CD1 comprise the entirety of the first LP Waikiki Beach Refugees, a surprisingly mature and eclectic collection of songs more in keeping with the New Wave umbrella than straightforward punk rock, being by turns elegant pop-rock and slightly askew, angular post-punk. Opener We Don’t Mind The Rave is a nicely melodic number in the Buzzcocks/Eddie & The Hot Rods vein, She’s The One is a semi-ska tune from long before fellow Coventry locals the Specials broke out, the belligerent Fun City stomps through in a manner reminiscent of the Stranglers’ Five Minutes. Other standout tracks on the album include Some Kind Of Girl, I Don’t Know, the perky Saturday Sunrise (lifted from the independent EP) and the strutting title track.
The first of the non-album tracks is the aforementioned Love And A Molotov Cocktail, which featured on both the Bunch Of Five EP and their first EMI single but was left off the LP. It’s still a startling piece of music, with its minimalist guitar lines, stark drumbeat and the sort of menacing bassline that New Model Army would later centre their style around. If this is the only Flys song that anyone still remembers, it’s still a hell of a thing to be remembered for. The rest of the Bunch Of Five tracks and the b-sides from the LAAMC single are all present and correct, including the Voidoids-esque Can I Crash Here?, Me And My Buddies with its irresistable na na na chants, and the lascivious Just For Your Sex. Alternative single versions of Fun City, Waikiki Beach Refugees and Beverley also appear, along with other single-only releases such as the amusing Name Dropping, the quirky instrumental Fly Vs Fly and the Fleet Street baiting EC4. The disc concludes with three tracks never before released – Adrian (Don’t Call Me Jimmy), undoubtedly the most punk track in the collection, I’ll Survive and the initial demo of Living In The Sticks.
The second album Own makes up the first fourteen tracks of the second CD, and the variety and quality of the material remains exceptionally high, with an increased level of experimentation. Let’s Drive makes for a pleasingly chunky opener, Energy Boy is powered by an almost AC/DCish riff, and Talking To The Wall would be held up as a Goth classic if it had emerged two years later. Fortunes has something of a Squeeze vibe to it. Night Creatures carries a distinctly garage-rock shuffle with a vaguely ‘60s-psych keyboard layer. When 2 And 5 Make 9 and Walking The Streets are pure psychodrama. Through The Windscreen anticipates the kind of style that Gary Numan would soon make a fortune from, while Freezing calls to mind an updated Small Faces circa Lazy Sunday Afternoon, and the album ends with the soaring Frenzy Is 23.
Further singles, including the looming menace of We Are The Lucky Ones, re-recordings or re-edits of Living In The Sticks (a significantly harder and faster reading this time), Night Creatures and Undercover Agent Zero, and the pounding Today Belongs To Me, follow, along with another half a dozen previously unreleased tracks – including, presumably for completeness’s sake, yet another version of Living In The Sticks.
It’s hard to classify The Flys in a few words. Their output incorporates a myriad of styles and I can’t think of a band that sounds quite like them, which may help to explain their lack of commercial success. They were a bit too cerebral and poppy for the punk crowd and just too odd for the mainstream. Going by the quality of their music they certainly should be better remembered than they ended up being. Beset by internal frictions and frustration over the lack of chart action, they eventually disintegrated in mid-1980 when guitarist/vocalist Neil O’Connor left to join Megahype, a band fronted by his sister Hazel, who would shortly go on to huge, if fleeting, success with the Breaking Glass soundtrack and its hit singles. David Freeman (vocals/guitar) and Joe Hughes later formed a New Wave duo called The Lover Speaks, best known for writing No More I Love Yous, covered to stunning effect by Annie Lennox in the mid 90s.
So, an exhaustive collection by a prolific but woefully underappreciated band. The included booklet includes a meticulously detailed history of the band, along with a staggering amount of photos, record artwork and memorabilia. Well worth the investment if you’re in the market for something of a late ’70s vintage but just that bit different from the norm.
❉ The Flys – ‘Today Belongs To Me (The Complete Recordings 1977-1980)’ (QCDBRED785) is out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95. Click here to buy directly from Cherry Red.
❉ Lee Terry is a regular We Are Cult contributor and a member of The Kingcrows, Leeds’ scuzziest sleaze-punk-n-roll maniacs.