The story of UK DIY: 131 experimental underground classics 1977-1985





DIY classics_cover

Originally published on FACT.

This is the incredible story of the UK DIY scene from 1977-1985 – one of the most febrile, unpredictable and demented periods in British pop history – as told by scene scholar and enthusiast Jon Dale.

Below is an introduction to the movement; alternatively, alternatively, click here or click the arrow key at the foot of this page to go straight to the list. You can also stream the selected records as a single YouTube playlist here.

Words: John Dale

Do It Yourself: within those three words, both declaration and imperative, lies both an industrial and aesthetic programme that would take the year zero scorch of punk rock and turn it into one of the more inspiring self-realisation disciplines of the late 20th century.

It’s not as though DIY, self-released music hadn’t existed before: countless free jazz and improv artists had started their own labels and seized the means of production; oddball visionaries and genuine one-offs had been releasing private press LPs for some time, feeding generations of obscurantists and fanatical record collectors; DIY can even lay claim to roots in ‘50s skiffle, or perhaps further back, to the Arts & Crafts movement.

Two things differentiate DIY music from its potential precursors, however. One is the sheer weight of releases that flooded from the countless micro-scenes that made up the DIY diaspora – and even though this article focuses on DIY from the United Kingdom, it was an international beast, albeit focused in the UK, USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The other thing that marks DIY out as its own beast is its intensely programmatic, self-aware nature. As DIY collector Michael Train points out, “It’s an odd feature of DIY that it was created with its first record, and intentionally – usually genres get created by critics after the fact, or at a minimum by the second in the series, since that’s the only way you can have a type. (Or by marketers and enthusiasts years later, as with Minimal Wave.) But DIY came into existence fully fledged and knowing on the first Desperate Bicycles single – graphics, sound, and slogan. There was a template, and by Bicycles’ second single, even a set of instructions.”

Indeed, if you’re going to map out a history of DIY, you need to start with the Desperate Bicycles, and perhaps further back, The Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch, which started the step sideways from standard-order punk and hinted that self-realisation was a possibility for any group, should they choose to follow the darker trail. The first two Desperate Bicycles singles, ‘Smokescreen’ and ‘The Medium Was Tedium’, were intensely meta documents, the grunting jangle of the two singles almost a literal smokescreen for smuggling in, almost by the back door, an industrial lesson in how to liberate art from conglomerates and corporations. The third point of the triangle would be Scritti Politti, the Marxist collective who’d relocated from Wales to their Carol Street squat in London, got fired up by the Desperate Bicycles’ lead, and self-released an EP, Skank Bloc Bologna, on their own St. Pancras imprint, detailing the costs and contact details for producing your own record on the sleeve.

Of course, all of this energy didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s true enough to say that punk lit the fuse for DIY. But it was the after-effects of punk, both aesthetically and socio-economically, that really kicked things into the stratosphere. Collector, curator and writer Johan Kugelberg sets the scene: “In the short-lived anything goes phase of independent record distribution in the late ‘70s / early ‘80s following the barn-storm financial credibility of punk, one could get almost anything distributed through a handful of outlets if packaging, lettering, photos etc. screamed out a new DIY ethic. The product demand was such that records reviewed in the English music weeklies (NME, Melody Maker, Sounds) had a built in demand in the thousands, with a network of independent record shops that would order at least a couple of copies of anything perceived as belonging to the new thing, or for that matter, antithetical to the old thing. Records and tapes that basically had very little to do with the punk rock movement rode on the coat-tails and found itself trickling into the adventurous record stores of the world, copy by copy.”

There’s complexity in discerning exactly what constitutes a DIY record, though Kugelberg offers the most succinct description I’ve ever read – “Quacks like a duck” – before continuing, “self-released, home-made, created in the fevered wake of punk-driven independent record distribution, and the network giants like John Loder built.” Train continues, suggesting, “A problem with the DIY is that it’s now simultaneously an overall approach to making records and a shorthand for the graphics and sound at its origins – the black-and-white Xeroxed sleeves, rubber-stamped labels, stumbling drums, and roughly tuned guitars trading riffs with keyboards working antique melodies between 1977 and 1983, or so… Both usages are fine, of course, but I find it helpful to be clear about which we’re using.”

So to this list of 130 DIY, or DIY-related releases from the UK. Moving on from Train’s parameters, I’ve looked at the window of time between 1977 and 1985, as there are a few releases from ’84 and ’85 that scream a higher-minded DIY aesthetic, and deserve to be included in the list. There are doubtless some contentious inclusions in this list – it’s guided as much by personal aesthetic desires as it is some hard-and-fast rule of what ‘is’ DIY – and I’ve tried to make links with broader-scale punk or post-punk cultural phenomena where possible, hence the inclusion of some Wire-related projects which seem to fit the experimental and self-actualising rhetoric of DIY.

One other arm of DIY production in the UK that’s often left out, but which screamed to be included, was the Recommended Records, Rock In Opposition etc collectives – wild, free-thinking figures like Geoff Leigh and Mick Hobbs who, much like their patron saint Robert Wyatt, give every impression of being liberated by what the plucky DIY kids were doing: hence their connections with musicians from The Homosexuals and Family Fodder gangs. There are some clear precursors to the C86 and ‘jangle’ movements in here, too, mostly due to connections with other DIY players or labels, or some sense of a shared set of beliefs. One more thing: I’ve largely avoided the concurrent explosion in industrial, experimental and noise singles, LPs and cassettes, partly because it would have made the project completely unmanageable, partly because it’s similar goals for different aims, and partly because it would make another, parallel, and rather appealing list in itself.

But this is far from the end of the story, and there are plenty more records still out there to be re-discovered. Case in point: when I received interview responses from Michael Train, I discovered a clutch of groups I’d not encountered before, including the fabulous Spunky Onions, who turned up too late to be included in the master list (but you might want to check them out, from their split single with the Ghetto Berries) It can be hard to verify, clarify or even locate clear information about many of these groups – and, frustratingly, all my Messthetics, Hyped 2 Death etc. discs are currently sitting, prod and unreachable, in deep storage – so I welcome any corrections, extensions, elaborations, or even scurrilous rumour-mongering. (Not really, for the last one.)

But bring your ears and your enthusiasm, and keep on mapping the terrain, of what a bunch of excited, liberated kids did with their early years. The story is far from complete, and it’s always going to branch off on wild tangents, anyway – as Train says, “DIY was so grassroots and homemade that it’s a repudiation of a controlled narrative and is more the story of an upwelling desire channeled into common outlets – its participants had no other choice than to keep making music and no other options than to keep putting it out this way.” Amen to that.

Thanks to Johan Kugelberg, Michael Train, Chuck Warner, Stephen Pastel, Paul Gough and Simon Reynolds for their help.