With the commanding Mensi (Tommy Mensforth) as singer and spokesperson, the Angelic Upstarts came down from Newcastle in 1978 — after self-releasing a powerful and controversial protest single, “The Murder of Liddle Towers” — and found a patron in Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey, who produced their first album. As one of the groups responsible for the continued strength of ’70s punk in England, it is to the Upstarts’ credit that they have avoided the demagogic stupidity of other skinhead bands by maintaining a progressive attitude and speaking out against racism and fascism.
Through shifting lineups (several of which included ex-Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson), the band’s early albums — effectively culled on the excellent Angel Dust compilation — are classic/standard working-class thrash, a predictable and hardly timeless jolt of accented electric rabble-rousing, but no less effective for it.
Reason Why? is the Upstarts’ great leap forward, a blend of angry socio-political lyrics with a controlled and melodic rock attack (broken on the title track with a reggae digression and on the a cappella folk ballad, “Geordies Wife”) that is punky only in Mensi’s unpolished bellow and the band’s gang-shouted backing vocals. Otherwise, the guitars build an attractive base — like the Clash on Give ‘Em Enough Rope — that is embellished by guest sax and keyboards. The songs are competent enough and the production, by guitarist Mond, captures it all with clarity and energy. A surprisingly good record for all rock tastes.
The (old) Clash comparison carries through on the equally listenable Brighton Bomb (the American equivalent of Power of the Press), which actually contains a song addressed specifically to Strummer: “Joe Where Are You Now?” quotes assorted Clash tunes to make its point about punk traditionalism. As modern electric folksingers, the Upstarts’ unprepossessing but palatable musical approach may be excused in consideration of the lyrics’ good intentions: simplicity is in direct proportion to the sincerity. Two appropriate non-originals (“Soldier” and Eric Bogle’s “Greenfields of France”) show a healthy broadening of scope and a fearless respect for folk music in all its many variants.
The picture of Mensi on the back cover of Blood on the Terraces (the title track is about football hooliganism) shows him smiling and short-haired (not crew-cut) in a Nike T-shirt, looking for all the world like a cheerful suburban brother-in-law. Typical of the increasingly diverse and intelligent quartet (which here includes Splodgenessabounds’ Max Splodge on drums), the album includes a reggae tune (“It’s Your Life”), a punked-out Mel Tillis cover (“Ruby”), a rejection of cold war mythology (“I Don’t Wanna Fight the Soviet”) and a touching prison drama (“Four Grey Walls”).