Dismissed by more than a few as a bad joke, London’s never-say-die Chelsea was one of the few original punk groups to forge a unique sound and survive. Their distinctiveness stems from the grunt’n’groan vocals of Gene October, the guiding force and only constant member through enough lineup changes to rival John Mayall’s role in a different musical realm.
Even in the early days, Chelsea didn’t pursue the buzzsaw punk stereotype, instead favoring a less-fevered, sometimes lumbering intensity, redolent of an ignorant, lower-class background. Chelsea does offer plenty of thrills, however. Future Generation X guitarist James Stevenson enlivens slashing rockers like “I’m on Fire,” and October constantly seems about to burst from the pressure. On a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s exquisite “Many Rivers to Cross,” he renders a vivid portrayal of someone suffering extreme pain who can’t articulate it properly. It’s poignant.
Alternative Hits (issued in the US as No Escape), produced by onetime Who manager/producer Kit Lambert, consists largely of tracks originally (and better) heard on singles. Collected on an album, these songs betray the band’s lack of versatility. But at least it includes Chelsea’s electrifying debut 45, “Right to Work.”
Evacuate brings Gene October about as far into the modern age as he can go. In a bid for relative respectability, the bull-in-a-china-shop approach is toned down a bit. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right.
Like a beaten punch-drunk fighter who doesn’t know enough to lay down, Chelsea slips further with its 1986 studio LP, Rocks Off. The record opens with an eyebrow-raising candied Hare Krishna chant, followed by its only enjoyable song, “Fools’ Paradise,” an engaging, harpsichord-laced ballad that might have been a radio hit in a more hospitable dimension. October’s voice fits the flavor of the song, his clumsiness conveying an appropriate sense of confusion. From there, Chelsea retreats into “Revolution #9”: a Beatles title, a Stones riff and 999’s sound. The remainder is utterly pedestrian and dismal. Some legends are best left in the past.
Underwraps begins and ends on weird notes: “Somebody Got Murdered,” a surprisingly accurate replica of the Clash song (from Sandinista!), and a coherent rendition of “Let the Good Times Roll,” on which some of Chelsea is joined by ex-Clash drummer Topper Headon and original Police guitarist Henry Padovani (who sounds like he hadn’t been practicing for a while). In between, October and his three current cohorts run warm (the Professionals soundalike of “Nice Girls,” the mid-speed ’77 punk of “Life of Crime”) and cold (most everything else, all of it simple rewrites of familiar melodies) in a generic exercise that couldn’t mean anything to anyone other than relatives and girlfriends.
The band has continued existing, on and off, for better and worse, to the present. Urban Kids is a two-CD retrospective of Chelsea career landmarks sprinkled with a trio of credibly rocking tunes (including “I Fought the Law,” Clash-style, and “Raw Power,” Iggy-style) to represent October’s incipient solo career.