Singer/guitarist Darren “Wiz” Brown must have sat around between meals, thinking up rousing choruses. For six studio albums and a dozen non-LP singles and EPs by the Mega City Four, he didn’t run short of them. Though the young quartet from Farnborough, a nowhere English farm town, was too smart to accept any “punk” tag thrown at them, the band’s earliest works are high-octane blasts of melodic pop, with loud, clean, heavy guitars and a souped-up rhythm section. The more recent mature work, though tempered by comparison, is even more immediately convincing and satisfying.
The usually reliable Iain Burgess’ production on Tranzophobia is way too muddy, and the band’s chunky sound is a little rag-tag sloppy in places, but the hooks are so ringing and the lyrics so first-rate, that, like the early Descendents, the record overcomes such troubles. Although none of the eight hot tracks from the band’s first four 7-inch singles is on the album (some bands believe in value for money), Tranzophobia sounds like the MC4’s own Singles Going Steady anyway, with one catchy tune after another. Don’t miss “Severe Attack of the Truth” and “Things I Never Said.”
Burgess failed a second time on Who Cares Wins — again, the mix is murkier than it should be, and the long record sounds as if it were pressed on cardboard-but the band’s work is dramatically improved. Coinciding with more manageable tempos and tightened ensemble work, Wiz’s writing displays more breadth and breath. The hooks are more deceptive but just as deep, and the harmonies on “Messenger,” “Who Cares?” and the ripping backbeat blast of “Me Not You” are a plus. Typically, none of the four songs from the intervening There Goes My Happy Marriage EP are repeated on the album.
When Mega City Four signed to Big Life, the band’s former label released the twelve-song Terribly Sorry Bob, a compilation of all its non-LP tracks to date. The best document of the group’s early period piles one should-have-been-a-hit amphetamine rush onto the next, culminating in the beautiful charm of “Finish” (from There Goes My Happy Marriage). A resounding riposte to anyone who believed, prior to the success of Green Day, that fast tempos, aggressive buzz guitars, simplicity and cheerful intelligence were dead.
That done, the Megas metamorphized magnificently on Sebastopol Rd. The transformation mirrors that of the young Replacements, whose mid-period work (down to a blatant lift of the “I Will Dare” riff for “Anne Bancroft”) seems to have inspired this album of dense pop songs with deep, jagged edges. The knowing frustration/heartbreak of “Prague” and the glorious “Scared of Cats” (“Begging for the truth, and then wishing I was told a lie”) run counter to the euphoric, confident sweetness of the twin-guitar noise. Acoustic strums also abound, over which the singer vents optimism, experience and, most of all, poignant disillusionment. A rough-edged pop classic, Sebastopol Rd. garnered the group its first UK Top 40 (“Stop”) and became its only US studio album release.
Inspiringly Titled the Live Album adequately documents the Sebastopol Rd. tour, but its main value is less the five songs from the album than the ten older ones, which benefit from the band’s sharpened knives (the fierce-sounding MC4 was known to play 200 gigs a year) and enormous improvement as a unit. The album closes with a smoking version of Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely.”
The quartet’s brush with UK fame was brief. A falling-out with the record company consigned Magic Bullets — which fails to match Sebastopol Rd.‘s end-to-end excellence — to relative obscurity. Still, it’s far from a failure. “Perfect Circle” jump-starts the album, the single “Iron Sky” is a lacerating, fresh gem, “Enemy Skies” recalls the whomp and whack of the band’s early days and “Speck” closes things on a somber note. Best of all, the melodies still stick to you like a dog in a thunderstorm.
After being dropped by Big Life, the band took two years before striking a new deal with Fire Records, during which interval The Peel Sessions appeared. The two sessions included are from five years apart (’88 and ’93): with five Tranzophobia-era recordings followed by four songs recorded after the fourth album, the stylistic jump is startling. The nine-track record is notable mostly for the two unreleased songs, “Stay Dead” and “Slow Down,” written in preparation for Soulscraper.
Mega City Four broke up in spring 1996. Wiz moved to Montreal and played in the Doughboys. When they disbanded, he returned to the UK and assembled a new group, Serpico, that initially involved former MC4 bassist Gerry Bryant. He was leading a band called Ipanema when he died in London of a cerebral blood clot on December 6, 2006. He was 44.