What was, by far, England’s finest, most exciting punk band of the ’90s began up north in Sunderland as a pretty-good/nothing-special thrash quartet that suddenly caught fire on its third album, the band’s only US release. Those who thought real punk was passé‚ missed out on the overwhelming passion, sincerity and smarts of singer/guitarist/lyricist Frankie Stubbs. With a Lemmy-like Frankenstein monster growl, Stubbs’ intellect and desire burn all over Mush, Minx and The Last; the band is equally red-hot, a finely tuned, post-Ruts pummeling unit.
Cherry Knowle and Fill Your Boots are dispensable; both are fine hardcore records but add nothing especially exciting to the genre. Nevertheless, the seeds of Leatherface’s later work are there in the debut’s “Colorado Joe/Leningrad Vlad,” “Discipline” and “Cabbage Case,” and the second album’s “Razor Blades and Aspirin” and “New York State.”
Mush, however, is a knockout. Led by a ferocious guitar attack (Stubbs and co-writer Dickie Hammond) at more manageable fast tempos — the rhythm section’s work is much improved — the fifteen-song fireball has awesome throat-grabbing drive and thoughtful lyrics. Following such great tracks as “Dead Industrial Atmosphere” and the anthemic “I Want the Moon,” the album ends with an eye-opening detonation of “Message in a Bottle” as if it were written by the Give ‘Em Enough Rope Clash instead of the Police. Mush is a shake-you-up, make-you-angry, get-your-ya-ya’s-out experience.
Minx was bound to be in Mush‘s shadow, and it is. Stubbs’ grotesquely rough voice still pours out the fury and Leatherface remains an unreservedly mighty force, but there are fewer places where the tuneful roar goes over the deep edge. The album starts off cracklin’ (especially the low, fast and thoughtfully violent “Fat, Earthy, Flirt” and an old-time smasher, “Books”), but fails to sustain the pace, as the songwriting lacks dramatic edge. The closing “Pale Moonlight,” however, blows away the acoustic version found on an earlier EP.
If Mush is the punishing punk classic, The Last is the mature masterpiece. Recorded but a few weeks before the group split up onstage, the LP finds Leatherface broadening into more varied styles and making use of outstanding production — without sacrificing the massive muscle and precision. “Little White God” is the song of the band’s career (and recalls the final days of the Ruts before heroin finished off singer Malcolm Owen). Utilizing a huge-sounding punk/reggae beat for the verses, with Stubbs’ gruff, tormented voice bellowing about the consequences of cocaine addiction (“He’s in love with the little white god/He’s so in love, he’s forgotten about being a mod”), this dramatic single was an incredible send-off for an inspired group. Elsewhere, “In My Life” sways back and forth like a drunken rummy, and a few tracks hearken back to older days, but “Shipyards” is a curveball (a boozy, bluesy Stubbs backed mainly by piano and drums) and the closing “Ba Ba Ba Ba Boo” is an obvious tribute to Louis Armstrong.
In the wake of Leatherface’s dissolution, Hammond formed Doctor Bison and Stubs unveiled Pope, whose album, Pope John Paul George Ringo, was shelved when the band split up. Meanwhile, the posthumous Live in Oslo appeared, to prove that Leatherface was even more bloodthirsty in concert than on record. Discography – Part One is also live, from a pair of concerts, but the strongest live Leatherface is on the Your Choice disc split with Jawbox. Discography – Part Two combines singles, two acoustic tracks and half of Live in Oslo.
Leatherface returned in 1998 (with Leighton Evans replacing Dickie Hammond on guitar). The first new material from this lineup is on the album shared with New York acolytes Hot Water Music. Opener “Andy” (a memorial to Andy Crighton, whose bass duties were taken on by David Lee) is a blistering return. Lyrically more cryptic than ever (“Eat her face and then it pours again”), this picks up where The Last left off, obliterating the five-year gap between studio recordings.
Horsebox brings a little production clarity and a few throat lozenges, neither of which is a bad idea. Neither is the occasional hook. Kicking in on the third track, “Soundbites” is quintessential Leatherface (“Avoiding the sunspots / Soundbites like snowstorms”). “Lorrydriver’s Son” once again makes connections to the DC punk sound and, somehow, covering a Cyndi Lauper hit (“True Colours”) works out alright. “Eddy Bumble” is Cal-thrash, but the art-punk chiming in “Kill DJs” makes it the standout here. If Horsebox brings Leatherface closer to traditional punk rock, it also allows emotional room for Stubbs’ vocals. If not as stylized as The Last or Mush, it’s also less of an acquired taste.
Recorded without Evans, Dog Disco has less-inspired playing and cover art, though the lyrics are as ever. Still sounding like a mad dash between Motörhead and a hardcore Johnny Cash, it fills all punk requirements. Though fewer tracks stand out, the album is more refined. Fatherhood adds a new dimension to “Diddly Squat” (“In one child’s eyes / I see everything I’ve ever seen”). Elsewhere, age itself causes reflection (“Am I anything at all? / I’m just an ugly old fart” in “Heed the Ball”). “Small Yellow Chair” is quite melodic for this band, and, while “Hoodlum” has the best hook, other tunes fall back on repeated metal-reggae-chunk figures. “Plastic Surgery” is (gasp) a ballad, and “You” demonstrates what Tom Waits might sound like if he accidentally stepped on a distortion pedal.
The BYO reissue of The Last adds all but one track from Pope’s LP. Similar sounding, maybe, but with musical components set a notch back (recorded without Dickie Hammond) and less diversity. The Frankie Stubbs 10-inch is a solo acoustic performance. Jesse is another Stubbs project, sounding similar to Pope.