Sunday, 20 November 2011

DIY: "It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it."

 It wasn't Punk (necessarily). It wasn't Post Punk (too many angular/Joy Division/semi-Goth connotations). But the DIY record boom, which operated in tandem between 1977 and 1982, was one of the most influential scenes in the British pop saga. One of the most underrated too. It took rabid American and Japanese collectors to remind us in Britain, the home of DIY, that it ever happened. Names like The Petticoats, Thin Yogurts, Take It, Tronics, and Puritan Guitars barely figured in record collecting price guides until the last few years, let alone on nostalgia radio. But from C86 indie, to jungle/drum'n'bass white labels, to electronica innovators like City Centre Offices, their influence is wide and the debt is deep.

The sound was art school mirth. A kind of urban British folk inspired by Vivian Stanshall, music hall, and Dada. It was rickety, semi-musical, anyone could do it - it related to punk in the way skiffle had to rock'n'roll. DIY archivist Johan Kugelberg describes it as "the wild enthusiasm of being seventeen and discovering Alfred Jarry and the beauty of children's drawings." Strange, redundant keyboards were a common feature, as punk had laid waste to anything outside the guitar/bass/drums set-up and this old gear was going cheap (Martin O'Cuthbert's Vocal Vigilante EP lists a Dubreq Stylophone and a Crumar Performer as his instruments, both highly desirable now but obsolete technology in the post-punk heat of Feb '78).

The look was monochrome, handmade, an A4 photocopied sleeve wrapped around a hand-stamped seven inch single. Photos of the bands were rare. Grinder were an exception - their sleeve shows four blokes, three with moustaches, the other with a Rocky Horror tee shirt. DIY had no time for poseurs. Pseudonyms abounded, most probably so the dole office wouldn't get wind - after all, some of these records were selling thousands of copies, and you wouldn't want the DHSS to confuse you with a professional musician. Bearing this in mind, the sleeve to the sole EP by Hornchurch's What Is Oil?, on the Oof Potato Enterprises label,  has the band members listed as Dunk, Mike, German, Stuntman, Falsk, Stoat, and - playing "toast with cheese" - Dungheap.

How and why the DIY craze happened is unclear, but the prize for being first out of the blocks goes to Desperate Bicycles' Smokescreen, released in the spring of '77. The band were formed "specifically for the purpose of recording and releasing a single on their own label." Their second release, The Medium Was Tedium, railed against the industry ("Just another commercial venture!") with as much righteous anger and ur-English humour as Anarchy In The UK, only the drums were cardboard, and Steve Jones' guitar had been replaced with Nicky Stephens' Winfield Farfisa. "It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it" ran the chorus and the sleeve boasted that the complete cost of recording and pressing a few hundred copies of Smokescreen was  153. "If you can understand, go and join a band." The floodgates opened.

Like the folk revival of a few years before, DIY was fiercely localised. One of the genre's most directly emotional singles was by Hornsey At War. Then there was The Good Missionaries' Deranged In Hastings, and Wickford's So Boring by the moustachioed Grinder. These were truly private projects. No one expected their records to reach beyond their home town's boundaries so contact addresses rarely appeared on the sleeve. It was far more common to find a list of pressing plants, printers and costs worked out to the penny - the Desperate Bicycles' £153 was the real benchmark of DIY. Competition over who could function on the smallest budget was intense. Johan Kugelberg: "Distributors like Rough Trade and Small Wonder couldn't get enough of these records. Punk was global. Buyers were hurting for records. There were at least 900 made in that window of opportunity between '79 and '81." In reality, these records left Hastings or Hornsey and, via the eager distributors, some copies ended up in Stockholm, San Francisco, Tokyo. The result was chaotic 45s like Do You Wanna Dance by The Silver, a band from Finland aged 12.

The Instant Automatons from North Lincolnshire are a classic DIY tale. Originally there were two schoolmates, Mark and Protag (aka Martin Neish). They decided to form a band but were held back by the fact they couldn't play, had no instruments, and didn't have a clue how to get a record deal. These were the rules of rock - in 1974 there was no alternative. Mark: "Like many teenagers I was painfully aware of my own mortality, so I started off writing poetry." Next they dabbled with signal generators and amps in the physics lab, pleased with their ability to approximate the German pulsebeats of Can and Kraftwerk. Then two major events happened - they left school and the Sex Pistols happened. "It's difficult to convey the sense of freedom that came with the rise of independent record labels and the bands that founded them. I suppose it was akin to witnessing the demolition of the Berlin Wall." Liberated, Mark and Protag got themselves a home-made synthesiser and a drum machine. They wrote various words on bits of paper, put them in a hat, pulled out "instant" and "automaton" and found a name. They called their label Deleted. Their first release was a C90 called Radio Silence - The Art Of Human Error and they advertised it in the music press. To get a copy you just had to send them a blank tape and an SAE. This was a first.

Like other one chord wonders, the Instant Automatons recorded at a London studio called Street Level. It was run by one Keith Dobson, known as Kif Kif Le Batteur, a former member of art hippies Here And Now who also worked for the still functioning International Times. Inspired by the Automatons, Kif Kif started his own cassette label - Fuck Off Records - and put together the Bad Music Festival at the Acklam Hall under the Westway in 1980 featuring bands from the cassette scene. Between 40 and 60 copies of Fuck Off cassettes were produced, most now lost or taped over. Danny And The Dressmakers recorded a box set of three C90s called 200 Cancellations. Johan Kugelberg is "utterly charmed by its total redundancy. Naive art school music, barely one chord, as subtle as Riesling." Distribution for Fuck Off and other cassettes duplicated by Kif Kif was provided by Better Badges, a company on the floor above the Street Level studio. NME and Sounds had weekly columns on cassette albums. This was a genuinely underground scene, about as far removed from corporate rock as you could ever get.

It began to wind down when the leading bands either got writers block (The Instant Automatons) or became musically proficient (Scritti Politti). "Most musicians are careerists" reasons Kugelberg, "their music becomes more professional, the distributors and journalists respond. Between '81 and '83 there was more of a focus on dance rhythms, the music was closing in on the mainstream." Bristol's avant screechers The Pop Group provide a case study as they splintered in 1980 producing a batch of new groups, all heavily rhythmic - The Mafia, Maximum Joy, Pig Bag, and Rip Rig And Panic whose singer, Neneh Cherry, completed the process by becoming a star at the end of the decade. How to get from the Rough Trade shop to Buffalo Stance in three easy stages.

If you can find them, DIY records are extraordinary artefacts, the last hurrah of the Angry Brigade, good hippy aesthetics, and the punk/situationist interface. And most are still relatively cheap (The Medium Was Tedium is thought to have sold 12,000 copies). If you can't find them, then the Messthetics series of CDs (available from provides an in. This was the sound of the underground; the hiss of the tape, the amateur pressing, the sloppiness and the sheer sense of glee, the feeling of liberty. To quote Hornsey At War, "They won't play this on the radio because it poses a threat."

Many thanks to Johan Kugelberg, Geoffrey Weiss, and Dan Fox at Frieze.


  1. One of my favourite records to fit this aesthetic is 'Jive Baby On A Saturday Night' by The Jellies. A bizarre single in many ways.

    Anyway Bob, hope you are well indeed. x

  2. Thanks for this. I've long been intrigued by UK DIY but haven't heard much beyond Desperate Bicycles and the stray comp track. Just ordered Messthetics #100 though!


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