Originally inspired into existence by Patti Smith and the Sex Pistols, Penetration emerged from northern England (Durham, near Newcastle) in 1977 with a great punk single, “Don’t Dictate.” Led by singer Pauline Murray, the band’s brash amateurism had been converted into competent musicianship by the time of Moving Targets, released at first on glow-in-the-dark gimmick vinyl that was far noisier than illuminating. Playing mostly originals (written by Murray in collaboration with bandmates), but including Smith’s “Free Money” and the Buzzcocks’ “Nostalgia,” Penetration’s debut LP mixes expansive creations and direct punk-outs, all done with flair and originality. Unlike other LPs by young bands of this era, Moving Targets still sounds surprisingly fresh. (The belated CD issue adds five tracks, including “Don’t Dictate” and its B-side, 1978’s “Fire Squad” and its B-side, and the flip of the album’s incisive “Life’s a Gamble.”)
Coming Up for Air, produced poorly by Steve Lillywhite, isn’t nearly as good, despite some swell tracks. Where the first record was almost consistently exciting, only “Shout Above the Noise,” “On Reflection” and “Lifeline” have the same melodic, dramatic intensity. The band had evidently run out of good songs, and the muffled sound only exacerbates the mishmash.
An officially sanctioned bootleg, Race Against Time, joins a side of demos with a side of live performance. The studio work predates the band’s album sessions and is pretty boring; the live material, recorded in Newcastle mostly in 1979, is energetic and well played.
After Penetration, Murray joined forces with producer Martin Hannett’s occasional agglomeration, the Invisible Girls; the 1980 incarnation that backed Murray on an LP included Buzzcocks drummer John Maher and future Sisters of Mercy/Mission guitarist Wayne Hussey. The eponymous album’s subtle pop is closer in spirit and execution to British folk-rock than to the Beatles or Sex Pistols. Murray’s singing is too bright and lively to handle the more downbeat material, but the band’s ability to pattern exciting sounds around her brings out the inherent passion in her voice, and the soft but dense rock creates a mood of chilling agitation.
Searching for Heaven repeats the album’s accomplishments but digresses on “Animal Crazy,” which introduces a dislocated disco beat that turns it into an interesting dance music variant.
Between 1981 and ’89, Murray struck out on her own and managed some wonderful singles like “New Age” and a striking chamber treatment of Alex Chilton’s “Holocaust.” Storm Clouds compiles the best of those efforts and the Hong Kong EP, adding some newer tracks as well. While more consistent and more thoroughly listenable than any of Penetration’s albums or the Invisible Girls record, it’s also lighter and breezier. Like Poly Styrene’s later solo work, Murray sounds hushed, introspective and quiet, a marked contrast to her full-throated Penetration histrionics. The soothing vocals combine with sparkling textures; Murray is inclined to make modest pop gems that succeed with understatement. Investigate completely, then head backwards.