The archetypal working class ramalama dole-queue band, deliverers of socio-political bromides over blazing guitars, Sham 69 (the name, and the band, came from Hersham, a town on London’s southern fringes) had a bad case of arrested development. Their populist slogans were ultimately chanted like football cheers and taken seriously only by the enormous British Sham army. Arguably their best single, “Hurry Up Harry” is about the importance of “going down ‘a pub.” Lead singer/lyricist Jimmy Pursey was earnest enough, and the band simple and basic: although their records are of no lasting import, Sham became the most popular UK punk band of their time, scoring five Top 20 singles.
The first LP sidesteps the issue of decent production by having one side with none at all and the other recorded live. The sound, oddly enough, isn’t so much derived from the Clash and Pistols as it is from the Dolls, Heartbreakers and Ramones. (It’s hard to judge how much of that is by design and how much is due to sheer incompetence.) More than any of those, Pursey’s Cockney yelling tabbed him as the Anykid who could, but it’s also true that almost any kid could have written the LP in his sleep.
That’s Life offers more of the same, while enlarging on an idea heard briefly on Tell Us the Truth: inserting narrative slice-of-life dialogues (kid vs. parents, boy and girl, boy and girl’s boyfriend, etc.) between songs. All told, a funny punk LP which features “Hurry Up Harry” and the anthemic “Angels with Dirty Faces,” both hit singles.
Pursey worked up some “poetic” lyrics for Hersham Boys; this, plus the increased use of keyboards (played by Pursey’s co-producer, Peter Wilson) meant that Sham was nearing the stage of early Boomtown Rats, complete with a surprising cover of the Yardbirds’ classic “You’re a Better Man Than I.” A break with the punk scene, but no less aggressive than usual. (Although it wasn’t issued in the States, American Polydor imported the LP and distributed a few copies as if it were a domestic release.)
By The Game, Sham’s playing and lyrics had sharpened to the point of respectability, with the strongest material (the single “Give the Dog a Bone” in particular) of all their LPs. However, having perfected their narrow craft, there was nothing to do but disband, which they did soon after. The First, Best and Last compilation does include some non-LP singles (but not their first, from ’77, on Step Forward) plus a limited-edition bonus live EP.
Live and Loud!!, a scorching live album recorded in 1979 and released eight years later, dwarfs Sham’s studio catalog. Featuring their best, most mature (Hersham Boys/The Game) lineup, the LP is an ideal distillation of material from the first three albums, played with fire and confidence. It’s odd that the truly essential Sham LP — their finest moment and the only record that could put to rest their reputation as a sloppy, by-the-numbers punk circus — would emerge so late in the game.
Immense UK sales of Live and Loud!! led to Volume 2 (though redundant, it’s more of the same quality; That’s Live is a five-song live EP on a subsidiary of the same label) and the 1987 reformation of the group. Unfortunately, their two singles, Volunteer LP and a brief, aborted ’88 US tour (they’d snuck over to play without work permits) reveal that the new Sham is nothing like the old: Pursey and original guitarist Dave Parsons attempt a fifth-rate Beastie Boys rap/metal/boogie-down trip. While there’s something to be said for resurrected groups who don’t simply trade in nostalgia, Sham ’88 is totally banal and contemptible.
Besides a straightforward hits compilation (Angels with Dirty Faces), late-’70s Sham artifacts continue to surface. A document of the band’s 1979 farewell gig at London’s Rainbow, Sham’s Last Stand rehashes the same material as its two predecessors. Although not as good as the first Live and Loud!!, it’s an emotional, last-chance gas. (The CD adds bonus tracks.)
Live at the Roxy is one concert record too many. Though not as embarrassingly awful as the Buzzcocks’ Live at the Roxy, neither is it any good. Worse, it’s the same old songs with an original ’77 lineup far inferior to the later Shams of the Link live albums. What’s more, the live side of Tell Us the Truth (featuring the same musicians) blows this away. Only those with real time to kill will make it to the ill-advised cover of “Day Tripper.” Boring and unnecessary.
As a solo artist, earnest Sham 69 mouthpiece Pursey took a turn for the artier, leaving behind some of his plain-spoken charm as well as much of his punky obstreperousness in favor of more emotional and creative depth and range. Slide guitar, sax and even synthesizers broaden the instrumental palette of Imagination Camouflage; while none of the songs are excellent, they’re almost all good. (Renegades from Generation X aided in composition and performance.)
Unfortunately, Alien Orphan goes almost too far. Leaving behind the stagey rock of its predecessor for a goulash of electro-rock-funk-jazz often held together by fluid, graceful bass riffing (guitar and keyboard are used only as embroidery), Pursey seems to have forgotten the notion of songs as songs, not elaborate aural concoctions. Still, it’s swell background music — a meticulously constructed soundscape — and other than the parts that do try to be poignant or obvious, most of it does connect eventually, one way or another.
Revenge is similarly varied in its stylistic concept: eight spare semi-songs that wander off in different directions as if the idea of consistency had never occurred to the artist. Pursey is not the cleverest lyricist or suavest composer in the world, but his heart has always been in the right place and it’s hard to denigrate sincerity. Although the album doesn’t hold up at all, a few of Pursey’s unpredictable forays are odd enough to work.