Alongside their contemporaries, London’s never-say-die UK Subs’ 1977-vintage punk sounds old-fashioned, yet Nicky Garratt’s wall-of-sound rhythm guitar and Charlie Harper’s chanted/sung vocals make for highly enjoyable charged rock’n’rage. Maybe it’s the familiarity of their style that makes the quartet more listenable than, say, the early Exploited; whatever the case, the Subs play high-energy, fast-paced rock with a social conscience, and that keeps them one of England’s most successful punk outfits.
Brand New Age finds the Subs bemoaning alienation in the modern world (on the title track) and singing their signature tune, “Emotional Blackmail,” twice. Diminished Responsibility confronts such issues as racism, rioting, gangsters, Paris, prison and urban decay. Harper’s songwriting (in collaboration with various members of the band) shows lyrical growth — he’s quite capable of incisive lines and spot-on humor — on Endangered Species, a fact he almost acknowledges on “Sensitive Boys”; elsewhere, the bleak terrain is littered with better-expressed and subtler observations about the world’s ills. Best tune: the touching “Fear of Girls.”
Flood of Lies showcases a new lineup and has a great political cartoon of Maggie Thatcher on the cover; the songs are once again more aggressive (“Violent Revolution,” “Soldiers of Fortune”), but there’s room for some humor as well (“Revenge of the Jelly Devils”). Gross-Out USA, the Subs’ third live album (after Live Kicks and Crash Course), recapitulates the band’s career in fine raucous form with 16 songs offered start-to-finish, just as they happened. The tape-only Left for Dead does the same feat, adding to the Subs’ live album legacy with with yet another lineup, recorded in Holland. The 23 songs overlap only a half-dozen with Gross-Out; the performance is typically incendiary and the recording quality not half bad.
Japan Today is the Subs’ tenth studio album (but who’s counting?), a more controlled and musical assault than usual, recorded by Harper and five sidemen, including ex-Vibrator guitarist Knox. The sound is a bit ’70s hard rock, the lyrical stance broader and less clichéd as well. An improvement, but not exactly a high point in contemporary rock’n’roll.
In mid-’88, Harper and Garratt reunited (the last UK Subs album they had done together was Endangered Species) in New York to record the likable Killing Time, a crisply produced example of moderate Clash-styled guitar rock with some workable melodies and lyrics that don’t take a very strong stand on cars, cities and women. Although the solemn piano/acoustic guitar tribute to Nico that ends the LP is a nice idea poorly executed, the record’s overall lack of consistency — Harper shares lead vocals with Garratt and bassist Alvin Gibbs, and all three contribute to the uneven song collection — is its major flaw. (The CD adds three outtakes from the sessions.)
Harper’s first solo effort is worth checking out. Unlike the Subs’ all-original music, Stolen Property oddly consists of traditional garage band standards, such as “Pills,” “Louie, Louie,” “Hey Joe” and “Waiting for My Man.”
On Urban Dogs, the not-so-super session of Harper and Knox (plus a rhythm section) plays highly charged riotpunk that sounds like a cross between early Stranglers, early Pistols and early Stooges. Alongside Knox originals (including the Vibrators’ classic “Into the Future,” here retitled “Sex Kick”) and a couple of Harper’s own raunchy numbers, there are covers of Iggy’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and the Dolls’ “Human Being,” the latter complete with soundalike Thunders licks. The raunch, spirit and electricity run high from start to finish, making Urban Dogs everything a great punk record should be.
Harper, Knox and a drummer called Turkey made the turkey called No Pedigree with Anthony Thistlethwaite (of the Waterboys) adding a little sax. Unlike the Dogs’ first outing, this one is, for the most part, lame and uninspired, a plodding mush of (presumably) originals and such covers as “Monster Mash,” Marc Bolan’s “Children of the Revolution” and the Fugs’ “Slum Goddess.” The only track of real note is John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” sung by two women dubbed the Rhubarb Tarts.