Youth Rejoice! Young Marble Giants: ‘Colossal Youth’ @ 40

❉ Domino’s fortieth anniversary reissue of Colossal Youth is an incredible package, writes Stephen Porter.

“I remember that first ‘listen’ all those years ago. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t versed in quiet, arty and left-field music, but Colossal Youth was a revelation… When I first put the needle on that Rough Trade album all those years ago, sat back and heard the first beats of Searching For Mr Right, I knew I’d found a thrilling new love. A love I’d never forget.”

I was always an NME person. Being young and pretentious and left-wing and a dreadful musical snob (only the first adjective has changed), the New Musical Express catered for my needs in the way that the other weekly music inkies didn’t even come near, and early every Thursday morning I’d run along Priory Road in Anfield to the little newsagent who ordered and kept my copy (the one copy he sold per week) and then I’d spend the next two hours or so with my weekly bible, a pot of tea and a stack of toast. Heaven.

To accommodate the needs of such musical young sophisticates in the  late seventies/early eighties, the NME had ‘difficult’ but brilliant writers such as Paul Morley and Ian Penman to guide us towards a better musical world, and to stretch the limitations of our prose reading and writing.

NME’s biggest rival was Sounds, a music paper which was less eclectic and more open to the possibilities of genuinely popular music, but was hamstrung (in my eyes) by its devotion to rock, metal and cartoonish or downright unpleasant, right-wing punk bands.

But Sounds had a secret weapon which ensured that eventually I had to buy both papers to get my fix. Dave McCulloch was Sounds’ new wave/new music writer, a man ahead of his time in terms of being open to the changing nature of the world and the rejection of the old values. He would later be headhunted by Warner Music and would set up his own label (Blanco y Negro) to much acclaim.

If ‘Dave’ – my imaginary mate – said an album was worth buying, I went out and bought it. In later life, I often told my students that advertising was usually insidious, a hidden persuader, and that it was unlikely that anyone would see an advert and immediately rush out and buy the product, but that’s exactly what I did when I read Dave McCulloch’s five star review of Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth back in May 1980.

Nothing in life can prepare you for the mind blowing, heart-bursting experience of your first love, and I remember how delicately I removed Colossal Youth from its paper insert and how I placed it so lovingly on the turntable over forty years ago. I hadn’t been listening to John Peel (my usual new music guide) for a couple of months and I knew nothing of how the band sounded.

It could have been a massive anti-climax, but it wasn’t.

It was so beautiful.

And with the Domino Recording Company’s fabulous double vinyl reissue, it’s almost – almost – possible to sense that same, quiet, manic pop thrill I experienced all those years ago; and if ever I was to understand the meaning of a Proustian rush,  I think I’m gaining that knowledge by looking at these clear vinyl discs at this very moment.

For the uninitiated, Young Marble Giants formed in Cardiff in 1978, released one single and one EP, and the brilliant album, Colossal Youth. The band was composed of main songwriter Stuart Moxham, his brother Philip, and singer Alison Statton. By the end of 1980 they were a band no more, and apart from a few (a very few) reunion gigs, the history of Young Marble Giants is a sparse one. But for those of us who were touched by their beautiful and otherworldly sound, their legacy far outstrips their relatively meagre output. Fans of the band have included Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Courtney Love (whose excellent cover of YMG’s Credit in the Straight World opened up the band to a new legion of fans some twenty years after they split up).

By all accounts, Cardiff in the late 1970s was not really the city one would think to be conducive to the Young Marble Giants’ intricate and delicate soundscape. Heavy rock and the blunter end of punk were the order of the day, but even in the toughest of cities (think Liverpool and Glasgow) there’s always a smattering of the more sensitive souls and the sort of bohemian enclaves where such folk are looking for something slightly different.

An appearance on the Cardiff sampler Is the War Over? led to a call from Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis, and within the year Colossal Youth was pressed, released and was inveigling itself into the consciousness of a certain type of young music fan.

Young Marble Giants sound like no other band, and in fact band just seems the wrong descriptor for this particular trio. YMG are as far away from rock as it’s possible to be, whilst still retaining the visual signifiers which make up a band (namely a singer and a couple of instrumentalists).

The 1980 music scene was particularly healthy. The various youth tribes saw ‘their’ bands/singers/acts filling the pop charts with a variety of distinctive sounds and there was still room for the perennial anodyne pop artists and dad rockers who still refuse to go away. Post-punk and the New Wave had created the sort of intelligent, innovative pop/rock scene not seen since the mid-sixties, and the newly-created Independent Music Chart highlighted and signalled a newer, odder and more ‘difficult’ pop music. Many elements of this new music were impenetrable or unlistenable for the average pop punter, but occasionally some oddities would make it as far as such teenage-oriented publications as Smash Hits (which published the Independent Charts every fortnight).

And into the fray leapt Young Marble Giants. Their music has regularly been described as insular, sparse, minimalist, ethereal and by any number of non-rock adjectives and epithets – but however you’d like to describe it, the sound of Colossal Youth is extraordinary. Rudimentary electronic percussion is used throughout the album to create an original and often unsettling sound.  Philip Moxham’s bass and Stuart Moxham’s minimalist guitar and electronic organ playing are always used sparingly, and will drift in and out of songs like gentle sea breezes and help to create songs of delicate beauty; and to propel these songs (there are also a number of instrumentals on the album) into the world of the magical are the vocals of Alison Statton.

Way before a generation of introverts were duped into believing that Morrissey was “singing about my life” (when in fact they were listening to Britain’s greatest example of music autolatry) Alison’s brittle and beautiful vocals suggested a world where it was OK to think and to articulate that everything wasn’t alright in your life, and that the debilitating effects of lost love and modern life will eventually lead us all into the loneliest of places.

The words on Colossal Youth are all Stuart’s and concern the tribulations of a difficult relationship he’d experienced during the previous year, and yet those same emotions become universal and mind-blowingly beautiful through Alison’s plaintive singing voice, and also via the ‘empty spaces’ left via the fabulous arrangements of both the band and the album’s engineer Dave Anderson.

The iconic cover of Colossal Youth has long been a t-shirt favourite of mine with its chiaroscuro image of the trio’s three faces side lit and staring intently and enigmatically into the future – or some nameless void – and it perfectly encapsulates the sound and mood of the album.

Opening track Searching For Mr Right sets the tone. Over a sketchy guitar sound, minimalist bass and an almost a click track percussion, Alison sings about trying to find the elusive perfect love:

Searching for Mr Right
Waiting up half the night
Feeling like I’ll be dead
Before I’m old
Teaching myself to be
The Young Untold

It’s a lovely but ultimately sad little song; Stuart Moxham’s lyrics often share the same minimalist structure and sentiments of poet Stevie Smith, and the wistful nature of many of the songs on this album can engender a sense of melancholy in the listener – if you’re prone to melancholy that is.

And I am. It’s a difficult emotion to corral, and I’d recommend that it’s best experienced in small doses.

Track two, the more upbeat Include Me Out, doesn’t really help matters!

Count your possessions out one by one
Include your lovers, include the one
You threw away in nineteen sixty three
Include me out, don’t label me

The relatively jaunty Eating Noddemix (a Danish health food apparently) sees the song’s narrator talking about an unspecified but ‘gory’ incident; and – changing register and accent to somewhere in the States – she transmutes into a  hard-bitten cop/reporter reacting to what has just transpired. It’s distinctly odd.

This is followed by Constantly Changing – a brief and beautiful song, with a yearning, almost distressing lead vocal. The sadness of the immutable nature of lovesickness is captured so succinctly:

And when I see you
Constantly changing
Never the same as, never remaining
I cannot fix you in a position
Where I would lose you out of my vision
For you are movement
And that is nothing

The album’s masterpiece (for me) is the oddly-titled N.I.T.A. (which – after three listens I worked out to be Nature Intended The Abstract) is a heart-bruising song of lost love, with more wistfulness and melancholia than I could ever handle:

It’s nice to hear you’re having a good time
But it still hurts cause you used to be mine
This doesn’t mean that I possessed you
You’re haunting me because I let you

My goodness, I’ve heard that opening couplet so many times over the years – it’s such a lovely, understated encapsulation of the art of putting on a brave face, and one of my favourite songs.

The titular Colossal Youth follows – an almost jolly song which masks a darker message, as it points out the failings of autolatry/solipsism inherent in being young (or maybe in just one particular person):

If you think the world is
A machine with one cog
And that cog is you
Or the things that you do
Then you are not in this world
The world is not you

Side two of Colossal Youth cuts the lyrical content down to an absolute minimum for most songs, emphasising mood and ambience over the verbal articulation of feeling. Some songs only contain two or three lines of lyrics, but the wistful nature of Choci Loni, Wurlitzer Jukebox! and Salad Days help to create a mood of loneliness, regret and the suffocating pain of lost love. Only the angry Credit in the Straight World reacts against this almost passive internalising.

Penultimate track Brand-New-Life, though as beautiful as the rest of the album, sets a high bar for emotional nihilism. The song starts off with:

So bad when you went away
Nothing I could do or say
And now we are a lonely two
Sit at home and watch the tube

The song charts the death of a relationship and ends with an absence, and a dearth of feeling that seems so chilling coming from such a young writer:

And so I make a brand-new-life
Fashioned out of brand-new strife
And when I hear the doorbell ring
I can never let them in to me

And any song with the repeated refrain:

I’ve been hurt before
Sorrow knocking on my door

is coming to have a certain emotional heft to say the least.

The original album ends with mysterious instrumental Wind in the Rigging, a toytown organ-led anthem to accompany the saddest moment you ever experienced whilst waiting for a film to start in a 1970s cinema.

Colossal Youth was a game-changer in many ways, and though much of what I’ve written about here seems to suggest that it is a downbeat album, the full effect is anything but, and there’s a paradoxical joy to be had in the album’s introverted and melancholic beauty.

It’s an album that affected me greatly during different parts of my life; one that weaned me away from much of the more ‘direct’ rock and pop I’d enjoyed and set me on a path of always trying to embrace the new, and to avoid falling back on the easy options. I remember recommending this to many of my friends during that summer of 1980; some really liked Colossal Youth but many were almost aghast at its years-before-its-time low-fi beauty and it being almost the complete antithesis of what they considered rock.

Needless to say, we didn’t stay friends long.

And I remember that first ‘listen’ all those years ago. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t versed in quiet, arty and left-field music, but Colossal Youth was a revelation. Thanks to the film and the book’s at-one-time ubiquity, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch has long passed into the common collective consciousness as being just a standard romcom, but for a long while it was very well-regarded, cult, indie book about obsession. Its impact has been forgotten now, but I remember Hornby’s description of him being seven years old and seeing the pitch at Highbury for the first time, the lush green grass appearing like a magical verdant sea as he reached the dip at the top of the stand and beheld a vision and a new love that would last forever. It’s a fabulous piece of writing which captures that moment of revelation when your life is changed in an instant.

When I first put the needle on that Rough Trade album all those years ago, sat back and heard the first beats of Searching For Mr Right, I knew I’d found a thrilling new love.

A love I’d never forget.

Domino’s fortieth anniversary reissue of Colossal Youth is an incredible package. The two discs give you pretty much Young Marble Giants’ entire recorded output, including – of course – the main album, along with tracks from the 2000 release Salad Days and all tracks from the band’s Testcard EP and the brilliant single Final Day, an anti-nuclear war song which has been covered by both Galaxie 500 and Belle and Sebastian.

There’s also a DVD of the band’s final eighties performance at New York’s Hurrah club, an interview booklet and a really lovely booklet of Stuart’s lyrics.

It’s absolute heaven for any YMG fans and as vinyl obsessive I doubt if I’ll be doing anything but looking at the clear vinyl pressing (a download code is included), and maybe using my 1980 copy for back-up.

I was lucky enough to see YMG in Manchester six years ago; they would play two more gigs (in Glasgow and Marseilles) and that would be it. They were one of two bands I’d missed out ‘first time round’ (and there was not much chance of ever seeing XTC), and I hoped they were not going to disappoint.

I still think of that night now in almost dream-like terms. There were some technical problems and the occasional hiatus, but sitting there in the lovely Dancehouse Theatre on Oxford Road with a few hundred gentle, like-minded souls was as close to a night of musical heaven as I’ll ever get.

It was Mad Men’s Don Draper who explained that ache for the past better than anyone else: “Nostalgia is delicate, but potent. In Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”

Nostalgia – like melancholy – can be both painful and debilitating – but occasionally, it’s a risk worth taking.

And listening to the Young Marble Giants  Colossal Youth 40th Anniversary Edition takes me back to that night, and to many other times in my life when I felt the need to be reminded of the beauty of this fabulous record.

❉ Young Marble Giants: ‘Colossal Youth’ (40th Anniversary Edition) was released on 27 November 2020, Domino Recordings in various physical and digital formats.

❉ Stephen Porter is a performance poet and spoken word artist. He has written for Esquire and a host of other publications and will be performing at Calderstones Mansion House (Liverpool) in December.

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1 Comment

  1. It is a quite lovely album. I used to read NME and Sounds as I liked ‘rock’ and ‘pop’ music across the board, but NME’s writers were just better. I’ve never understood this thing about some ‘types’ of pop and rock being slagged in a blanket fashion (I’ll make an exception for those right wing punk bands you mention, but that’s not a musical exception necessarily), as I used to buy deletions as well as new releases and found there was an amazing smorgasbord of guitar-based sound out there, but one punk band was good and one was awful, one prog band was good and one was awful etc, and soon realised that there’s only two types of music – stuff you like and stuff you don’t. I was still at school then, and in the tribal playground others couldn’t understand how I could like Genesis, Scritti Polliti, and Weather Report. But it’s all part of making sounds, and you must of course know that the Dave Anderson who does such a good job for YMG here is the same guy who played bass in Hawkwind, Amon Duul II and the Groundhogs, which by the sound of it would have made you recoil in horror back then. It’s all a continuum, really.

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