‘Peter and the Test Tube Babies: The Albums 1982-87’ reviewed

❉ The complete recorded output of the punk mischief-makers, in a new Cherry Red box set.

Punk rock has, for many bands, been a way of instigating debate and social change, of expounding political thought considered too outre for mainstream consumption, for radical stances of all hues. Peter and the Test Tube Babies, however, were having none of that. Four young hooligans from the environs of Brighton (well, Peacehaven actually) named Peter, Del, Trapper and Ogs, who delighted in causing maximum offence to as many people as possible with their tongue-in-cheek tales of drunkenness and deviancy. Their raison d’etre was to insult everyone; no group was safe, no subject was sacred. They were at the time considered part of a niche subgenre known as “punk pathetique”, along with such lords of silliness as the Toy Dolls and Splodgenessabounds.

This six-disc box set is a lovingly compiled, exhaustive and beautifully packaged chronicle of their first five years of recording, although they’re still going strong forty years after their initial inception. The CDs are housed in miniature replicas of the original album sleeves, contained in a sturdy presentation case with a 20-page booklet of photos and informative notes.

One of the very few bands ever to kick off their recording career with a live album (apart from them, I can only think of the MC5 and, erm, Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts), the debut Pissed And Proud is undoubtedly the record that cemented their legend. They started gigging in 1978, and by the time they recorded this in 1982 they had developed into a powerful and popular live act. “Moped Lads” and “Banned From The Pubs” set the tone convincingly, with “Up Yer Bum”, “Elvis Is Dead” (and its sequel “Intensive Care”, detailing an incident where Peter took a substantial beating from a local Teddy Boy who took umbrage at the song’s content) and the frantic “Run Like Hell” being standout points. The set and album closer is a joyously pumped-up cover of “Leader Of The Gang”, although nobody realised in the distant days of ’82 how Gary Glitter songs would be considered controversial in years to some…

A year later, the Test Tube Babies’ studio debut, the wonderfully titled The Mating Sounds Of South American Frogs emerged. The lyrical approach had not matured in any way, the overall theme of glorious losers’ anthems exemplified by titles such as “The Jinx”, “Blown Out Again” and “Never Made It” (“Never made it to the bog in time…”) but musically their skills had expanded, with guitarist Del in particular displaying a much more dextrous style and a distinctive sound, especially on “Let’s Burn” and “Blown Out Again”, and a more ambitious sound is in evidence all over, with a crystal clear production and touches like the female backing vocals throughout. The Wham! pastiche “Pissed Punks (Go For It)” raises a grin and the stream of righteous ire in “Wimpeez” (originally “Wimpys Are Shit”, but presumably the title was edited by more legally-minded heads, even if the lyrics weren’t) is a joy to hear.

Disc 3, titled Test Tube Rarities, is a collection of early demos, radio sessions and non-album singles, including their earliest recording, a deadpan runthrough of “Elvis Is Dead” from 1978. The Johnny Clarke Demos are the only tracks included in this box from Journey To The Centre Of Johnny Clarke’s Head – originally a throwaway fan-club-only cassette release comprised of rough demos and bits of general pissing around. The demo tracks and early sessions are as sloppy and poorly recorded as you’d expect from a young punk band at that stage of development, but possessed of rare fire and enthusiasm. Things improved markedly for the Oi! compilation appearances and single tracks though – many of the tracks are studio cuts of the Pissed And Proud material, and “Run Like Hell”, “Zombie Creeping Flesh” and “The Jinx” (here presented in both 7” and 12” mixes, and for my money much better than the album version – probably my favourite Test Tube Babies track of all) are up there with their best ever material. On the whole though, this disc is mostly for the completist.

The fourth disc brings us the somewhat odd Rotting In The Fart Sack EP and further singles tracks, opening with the bizarre country spoof “Ten Deadly Sins” and “Rotting In The Fart Sack” itself, a peculiar five-minute-plus ballad about apathy. “Spirit Of Keith Moon” and the bouncy “Alcohol” are more like the usual TTB fodder, but then there’s “Boozanza” (another quasi-country effort).

Disc 5 and we have The Loud Blaring Punk Rock LP (1985), and you can’t fault them for the accuracy of that at least. Something of a retrograde step, this is yet another collection of early songs, along with a batch of material from Peter and Del’s side band Walnut & The Wankers, recorded after ...South American Frogs but completely lacking in that album’s power or relative finesse. Featuring titles like “Pick Your Nose And Eat It”, “Vicars Wank Too”, “TQGGBJs” (that’s “The Queen Gives Good Blow Jobs”, for the record) and “Porno Queen”, it’s pretty rudimentary, and trying a bit too hard to offend, but it’s fun in a crass and gormless sort of way.

Soberphobia (1986) takes up the final disc and is a bit jarring after two solid discs’ worth of two-chord foolishness. It’s a huge step up in quality; the musicianship is massively improved, the lyrics are cleverer, the palette of sounds is much wider. Del’s guitar has taken on a semi-Gothic, jangly timbre (he was also playing with Goth-glam pioneers Flesh For Lulu by this time). “All About Love” is a brilliant deconstruction of the power-ballad genre; “Spirit Of Keith Moon” makes a reappearance in a more polished form, as do “Boozanza”and the celebratory “Key To The City”; “Louise Wouldn’t Like It”, “Allergic To Life” and “Every Time I See Her” are good solid punk/rock tracks with unusually thoughtful words for such an unapologetically daft band, and “Ghost In My Bedsit” is disarmingly poignant.

Lyrically, it must be said, much of the early material has aged badly. They were the product of a much less socially and politically sensitive time, and they were never a band to shy away from a cheap laugh at anyone’s expense. Taboo-baiting and the desperate desire to shock at all costs are no longer punk rock’s preferred modus operandi and the likes of “Transvestite”, “Maniac” and “Child Molester” would be a much harder sell these days than they were in the ’80s. That aside, this collection is a nicely comprehensive package of the early days of one of punk’s perennial underdogs. A companion set of their later output (for the record that’s the Stock/Aitken/Waterman coverfest The $hit Factory, Cringe, the superb Supermodels, Schwein Lake Live, Alien Pubduction and A Foot Full Of Bullets) would be nice to see…

❉ ‘Peter and the Test Tube Babies: The Albums 1982-87’ is out now from Captain Oi!, a Cherry Red Records subsidiary. RRP £23.99.

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