By Lance Hahn
Originally printed in Maximum Rock-n-Roll
"I don't think we ever thought about why we did it. Career was a dirty word to us. Playing music was something we did like eating and drinking, breathing and shitting. It seemed to be a natural function." Steve Lake, singer - bassist
At the ULU venue in London, Zounds are tearing through their set. Songs about squatting and alienation become anthems for the choir (as opposed to sermons) as the gig is a benefit for the defendants arrested for passing out leaflets about vegetarianism in front of a McDonald's. The audience is an enthusiastic and mesmerized stew of squatters, punks, hippies and all the gray area in between. But this isn't a journal entry from 20 years ago. This is 1998.
Of the many bands, anarcho and otherwise, revisiting the past recently, Zounds seem especially current. This is partly because the lyrics about the aforementioned subjects are in many ways as relevant under Blair's England as it was under Thatcher's. But also because of their musical status as outsiders within the underground that prevented them from ever being typecast to one particular style. Of course, that same uniqueness kept them from benefiting of the recognition and success that many of their peers did. Unlike other bands also in that situation, this reunion gig was a one off affair strictly for the greater good.
Steve, "We never reformed. We just did a couple of benefit gigs for the McLibel campaign. Dave Morris the defendant was an old friend of ours. I don't know why but I have a particular hatred of McDonalds."
Formed in 1977, Zounds started as a nameless "jam" band of constantly shifting personnel. The one central figure that would eventually take control of the band's direction and give it form was Steve Lake.
His parents splitting up when he was five, what little contact he had with his Dad was characterized by jazz music.
Steve, "I was abandoned to my grandparents when I was five. My mother went to live with her family in the U.S.A. She was a dancing teacher. My dad ran a jazz club. He took me along once to see a New Orleans jazz band when I was about 6, that was probably a key experience. He introduced me to the band and it just seemed such a great thing to be in a band. But ultimately I didn't have much contact with either of my parents."
But he had an epiphany when he first heard the Beatles and '60s rock-n-roll. He became interested in taking part in the creative process of popular music early on.
Steve, "I was seven years old or something and heard the Beatles on the radio and I was so overwhelmed I still haven't come down… The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, the Who, Tamla Motown, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash. I always liked the good stuff."
A few years later, he began learning how to play in order have a more physical connection to the music. At 15, he met a guitar player named Terry Small who gave him the right encouragement to pick up the bass.
Steve, "He and a drummer were trying to get a three piece heavy blues band together like Cream. We got on really well and he said I could play bass in their band. He said it was easy as there were only 4 strings and they were so big you couldn't miss them. I got a bass and the rest as they say is history."
The desire to play overshadowed the "what" and "where" as the only things more dubious than some of the music he was playing were the venues where he would play them.
Steve, "(I learned to play the bass) when I was 16. I started playing in a rock'n'roll band, doing Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Presley stuff in brothels and Speedway club dances."
Like many kids at that age in that time, he felt like he had been born too late. Being born in the '60s or late '50s meant you were too young for the birth of rock-n-roll. You were a bit too young for mod and a little too young for the hippies. You were truly a rebel (anti-establishmentarian) without a cause (youth culture). For many people, this was the psychic swamp that bred punk rock.
Steve, "I wanted to be a hippie but I was too young so when punk came along it just fitted in with our bohemian, anti-establishment view. I hitchhiked three hundred miles to buy Anarchy In The U.K. the day it was banned and withdrawn by E.M.I."
Growing up in Reading, Steve eventually was drawn to what local counter-culture there was.
Steve, "I am from Reading. It was a market town with a cowboy mentality. Now it's a bland software based shopping mall type of place. I had to come to London because it was and is the centre of many things I love and hate."
Despite that, there was enough of a scene that Steve was able to find people to play music with. This original improvised music would be the building blocks of Zounds.
Steve, "Zounds originally evolved out of a series of jamming scenes that took place between various groups of friends of mine. First of all we were based around the Reading area, which is where I come from. Circumstances moved us to Oxford where we developed a very 'peripheral' lifestyle that consisted of a lot of jamming, a lot of painting and drawing, an enormous amount of dope smoking, and more than a passing interest in L.S.D. and psychedelia. None of us had jobs, we were unhealthily terrified of the police, and were unknowingly engaged in the process of transforming ourselves from happy-go-lucky, harmlessly mischievous teenagers into marginalized, paranoid wrecks who had become totally alienated from the 'straight life'. Musically we were involved in a lot of weird free form jamming that was influenced by everything from the Velvet Underground and Can to the Grateful Dead and the Byrds."
From these "open" sessions, a proper band eventually took shape. Taking form around Steve's organization and songwriting, Zounds was first documented in the public eye in 1977.
Steve, "The first incarnation of Zounds must have formed and started doing gigs in 1977 or '78. Lawrence was around then but wasn't in the band. We didn't meet Joseph until a couple of years after that. The idea of recording demos never crossed our mind. We were absolutely alienated from the world of record companies and mainstream 'cultural business'. We were complete outsiders. I don't mean in the sense of some Hollywood Rock 'n' Roll leather jacket version of outsider. More in the sense that we had become social cripples, barely able to function and interact with anyone outside of our particular bohemian cesspit."
In fact, it was the guitarist that preceded Lawrence who came up with the band's name.
Steve, "Steve Burch, our original guitarist found it in a dictionary. We always mispronounced it to rhyme with 'sounds'. It's an exclamation; a corruption of the phrase 'gods wounds' which we thought was appropriate at the time. Though I grew not to like it pretty quickly and am still not keen on it. Actually God's Wounds would have been a better name. I could start a Zounds tribute band and call it God's Wounds."
Though still in a sort of psychedelic funk, the band was aware and interested in punk from more than just a sociological perspective. The result was that their first gig was supporting a local punk band.
Steve, "Yes, the first gig was as a three piece and we didn't have the name Zounds at that point. We supported a punk band at a village rock club near Reading. At that point the line up was me on bass, Steve Burch on guitar and Jimmy Lacey on drums.
"Then we added Nick Godwin on guitar for our second gig. This was at Oxford Polytechnic supporting Australian psychedelic fruitcake Daevid Allen who had previously been in Soft Machine and Gong. We were still doing a lot of improvising and free form stuff at that point but they were really dynamite gigs, full of fire and power and energy. The Oxford Poly gig was the first time we played 'Can't Cheat Karma' and Steve Burch came up with that great way of playing that riff. It was the best performance of it really. They were great gigs but you would have had to be there to get it I think. Tapes don't do those kinds of events justice."
While being self-described outsiders, the normal band activity of recording a demo tape was ignored. Despite not having an easy way to expose their music to promoters or booking agents, the band still managed to gig and the line-up continued to evolve.
Steve, "We just didn't bother with demos. Despite our fragile, broken egos we were supremely arrogant and felt if the world deserved Zounds they would have to seek us out, we were not going to chase after anything. In our childish, fantasy world we regarded it as inevitable that the world would beat a path to our door. And at first things progressed in that way. Our fourth or fifth gig was reviewed in the New Musical Express, which at the time was pretty much the main voice of youth culture. It wasn't a great review but it made us think we were on the map and recognized. It wasn't really until we moved to London and got Lawrence in that I started to think we were going to have to make a record and somehow pursue that notion, as nobody was coming forward to offer us the chance to make a record.
"Anyway, after Steve Burch left and Lawrence joined, the band deteriorated terribly. We became directionless and plodding. It took us a lot of playing and a lot of gigs to get good again. Which we did."
With the band's music evolving from jam sessions and free experimentation into more conventional song structures, there had to be a new concern about the process of lyric writing and what was to be written about. In writing about his surroundings, there was much fodder for angry expression in late '70s Britain as it's economic and therefore political climate was a weather vane for what would become Thatcher's England.
Steve, "Well my music and my songs have always been born out of my experience of living in and observing the world around me. As I said, we were pretty alienated from mainstream society, and consequently mainstream politics, including traditional radical left politics. But our experience was that the world of work was oppressive, tedious and destructive and offered us nothing but drudgery and boredom. We had constant hassles with the police for looking like freaks; it was becoming really difficult to find affordable places to live. We really started to understand that we had 'no future'. At first we would not have even recognized this position as being political. But things were really hotting up in England during 1978/79. The 'right' were starting to exercise a lot of muscle and becoming noticeably and violently more of a presence. The National Front were gaining ground and the Conservatives were following them to the right. Ditching the old post-war consensus and preparing the way for hard Thatcherite, Corporate, market economy.
"At the same time elements of the police force were completely out of control. The S.P.G. in London, the West Midlands Crime Squad. Unemployment was rising and race relations were becoming a potent issue.
"On top of all of this we were becoming aware of the massive build up of nuclear weapons by the U.S.A and the Eastern Bloc, which led to the reactivation of C.N.D. and various environmental groups. No sensible, intelligent person could fail to see what was happening and how bad things could become. We couldn't fail to become more politicized and see how political power was impinging on our lives.
"That is why things like Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League started. We started to see ourselves as enemies of the state just because of the way we thought; we weren't activists in any sense of the word. Yet we felt we were under attack by the forces of society. These things affected everything we did, how we lived, what we ate, who we slept with. And ultimately the songs we wrote and the way we played them.
"We were never attracted to the organized left with its infighting and dogma and rules. We were instinctively drawn towards anarchy. Not because we had much of a clue as to what it was about, but we just wanted to be left alone to pursue our own weird trip and not have people tell us what to do."
While much of the anarcho punk movement at the start was referred to as being "hippy punk" or "peace punk", the terms usually were meant in defining ideology and practice. But within the traveler scene that had been developing for some time, there were musical bridges being created with punk bands like Alternative Television and hippy bands like Here & Now. For Zounds, the mesh of musical ideas had more to do with the psychedelia of the '60s rather than the acid rock of the '70s.
Steve, "The very earliest incarnations of Zounds were really in to psychedelic San Francisco bands. We were also in to Can, the Velvet Underground, lots of weird stuff, the early Mothers of Invention. The Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Beatles… We were really into music. That was always the thing with us. I really got into Patti Smith early on, things like "Piss Factory". The early punk stuff that was inspirational was stuff like the Fall, ATV, Patrick Fitzgerald, Buzzcocks, and American stuff like Pere Ubu and Television. But we were never trying to emulate anybody; we were trying to find ourselves through music… I think Robert Smith was also kind of marrying the weird and unusual with a pop sensibility, which I think characterizes Zounds in many ways."
But Zounds were coming to both musical camps without prejudice to either side. While many eventually identified them as a punk band, their connection was one of camaraderie rather than of punk's rank and file.
Steve, "We never saw ourselves as anything. But I personally felt very connected with the concerns of punk. The day Anarchy In The UK was banned and withdrawn by EMI I hitchhiked 300 miles to buy a copy. It changed everything and at last people had the courage and audacity to just get up and say, yea we are fucked up, but it's our world too and we are going to do what we want, even if we've got no resources. It wasn't unprecedented but at last people were sitting up and taking notice.
"I was never into the ramma lamma, identikit punk thrash sound that soon took over punk and was very tiresome and unimaginative. What was good about it was the scenes that started up all over. The metropolitan London glam-punk scene was nothing really. Just the usual old trendy, fashion crowd trying to get their pictures in magazines. That is the current official media history of punk; that it was all about these London trendsetters. But, there were more interesting things happening at the margins as usual. Us in Oxford, the Mob in Somerset, The Astronauts in Welwyn, The Instant Automatons in Hull… A whole load of weird, idiosyncratic bands creating their own lives and scenes and music."
The Free Festival scene of the '70s in England was the perfect incubator for Zounds. Drawn to the scene both by the politics and the desire to play, they found themselves entrenched in that gray area of hippies, punks and activists.
Steve, "Well Here & Now were doing Free Festivals and free gigs and seemed to be much more politicized than other bands, this of course was slightly prior to punk. There was a kind of radical hippie tradition that included Hawkwind, Gong, and The Pink Fairies centered around Ladbroke Grove. The Pink Fairies were influenced by the radical politics of The MC5 and Jerry Rubin and the Yippies. A lot of future punks lived amongst this Ladbroke Grove hippie scene. Joe Strummer lived next door to Here & Now and there were people like the Slits. Everyone was getting into Reggae at that time and there was a lot of interest in Rasta."
As the punk scene began to grow, they became more and more involved with the Free Festivals setting up tours and carrying on the tradition with other punk bands.
Steve, "Here & Now championed the free tours and us and the Mob dug the idea and met each other through them. We carried on the free tour idea by starting the WEIRD TALES tours, Zounds the Mob and the Astronauts, and of course the legendary Jonathan Barnett who was an inspiration to us all."
Through the free festival scene as well as Here & Now who were very involved in the regular details of those events, Zounds were introduced to the Mob, a band they would tour with and develop close ties with.
Steve, "We had met the Mob and had done a couple of tours with them and some other bands. And through them we met Joseph. We met the Mob at a thing called the Dursley Seventh Vale festival. And a guy called Jonathan Barnett put a tour together with us, The Mob, the Astronauts and the Androids of Mu. We all kind of were on the fringes of the Here & Now free music scene and were under the influence of their ex-drummer, a guy called Kiff-Kiff who was an amazing guy and went on to limited fame in England with a band called World Domination Enterprises. He and Jonathan Barnett put together this outfit called Fuck Off records, and us and the Mob put out tapes and stuff through them. We all hung out round Ladbroke Grove and Shepherds Bush. There were loads of gigs at the Acklam Hall and round West London. Then we did these mad free tours. During which we met Crass and Zounds dwindled to just Lawrence and myself."
As much as with Crass, Zounds would forever be linked with the Mob from then on.
Steve, "I think we met in 1978. We toured with them, lived in houses and buses with them, had the same drug dealers and slept with the same people. Despite that we were never really close."
Another band at the time were the Astronauts. More closely merging the musical ideas of punk and hippy, the band still maintains a bit of a folk edge mixed with anarchist politics.
Steve, "The Astronauts were a weird band who had a very punk sensibility but didn't play punk music as such. They still do a lot of do-it-yourself/fanzine type gigs. I sometimes play on the same bill as them at the more alternative venues we do. Us and the Mob were always big fans of the Astronauts and they were the other main band on that scene. A lot of the other bands were kind of noise terrorists, like the 012 who later became World Domination Enterprises. Yea all those early tapes were on Fuck Off records or one of its illegitimate offspring."
An engine breakdown on the last free tour led them to their first meeting with Crass. While operating separately in the same small ideological and physical space, the two groups had never met despite similar ideas and practices.
Steve, "While on tour we kept playing places where Crass had just played or were about to play. And people kept saying we should meet them because they detected some sort of similarity in something.
"So we were playing near their house and we thought we would just visit them. But our bus broke down and we walked to their house across this weird submarine tracking station and they entertained us, we got on like a church on fire and they came and fixed our bus. They liked us, though I think they saw us as quite naive, naughty children who had their hearts in the right place."
Whether or not that was the case, the meeting had a huge impact on Steve and Zounds. Crass deeply impressed him as people and how they lived. It ultimately would give Zounds a direction that had previously been missing in lieu of the comparatively casual path they had been organically following.
Steve, "Well I was tremendously impressed by all the people in Crass. They were really funny, very intelligent and had very powerful personalities. I admired their analysis and commitment and knowledge. But generally I remember just going round to their place and chatting about stuff and having a laugh. I liked them a lot, and am very fond of my memories of them."
That night ended with discussion of possible future projects together. While mostly talk, it left Steve and Lawrence with the idea that they would record a demo tape to send Crass. But by the end of the tour, they as well as the Mob were somewhat defeated by the grind of maintaining that type of idealistic free tour.
Steve, "Apart from meeting Crass that last 'Weird Tales' tour had been grueling. The Mob split back to Somerset and Zounds lost a guitar player (Nick Godwin) and decided to chuck out the drummer. After we did the demo we asked Joseph to join, he had followed the Mob up to London but didn't follow them back. Joseph had been playing in a mod band at the time but we liked him and knew he was committed to playing music. He sort of looked like a punk too, which Lawrence and I didn't. Anyway Crass liked our demo and asked us to do the record on their label."
Joseph, "I joined just after they met Crass, and were presumably streamlining the band accordingly. I was drumming with a band called The Entire Cosmos, which featured members of Here & Now's road crew, and we did some of the Weird Tales gigs."
With this new lineup, condensed to a three piece, the side of the band that lent itself to open-ended jams fell to the wayside and the more song-oriented material became the make-up of the band's set. While in some ways it was turning the band into something new, it was also working on material more suited to the new lineup
Joseph, "I moved to London to play music. I'd been drumming for Attitudes for about a year when Zounds asked me to join… All the jamming stuff ended then. It was pretty much down to short sharp songs, a lot of which were never recorded."
At this stage, the band was living in the squatted area of Brougham Road. The block of squats would become home to them and eventually the Mob. But like many of these situations, it had a self-determined time limit.
Steve, "Zounds lived in Brougham Rd which was a squatted scene peopled by old anarchists. They started to move out so we moved the Mob in and soon after came hoards of teenage runaways and the whole thing deteriorated as these things always do. It was really no different to all the scenes all over the country/world."
With a new set of material worked out, the band met with Crass in the summer of 1980 to record their first single. Spending time with them out on their farm became an eye opening experience for Joseph who was still developing his own political ideas.
Joseph, "I had no intellectual concept of anarchism when I joined Zounds. I had a vague awareness of a lot of slogans, and a great fondness for cannabis resin. Steve on the other hand, while endorsing the latter, had a better grasp of the former. I didn't care. I just wanted to be in a band."
Oddly enough, it was the discipline of Crass' anarchism that made an impact on Steve.
Steve, "We were in a different scene entirely. Much more untogether. We were all a quite a bit younger than most of Crass. Us and the Mob, the Astronauts, the Androids of Mu, Here & Now, the Fuck Off Records crew, Grant Showbiz (who went on to produce the Fall and Billy Bragg and work for the Smiths). There were gigs on the Portobello Road, Ladbroke Grove. A lot of free festivals (which is another huge story in itself). Crass and Poison Girls were quite insular and very much in control of their scene."
The recording process became as much Crass' project as Zounds'. Their control over the production work on the record extended to having a session musician brought in to play Joseph's parts!
Joseph, "Simple. I wasn't any good. While I was with Attitudes, they kept my drumming disciplined, but once free of that, and into the more laid-back atmosphere of Zounds, I regressed into a clattering nuisance. Penny, who cared passionately about production, didn't want to release a record with out of time drums on it. He was right."
Years later, Joseph is surprisingly ambivalent about his replacement on their debut record.
Joseph, "None at all. It's one less gruesome skeleton in my cupboard."
For their first proper recording session, the band was in for an odd experience.
Steve, "It was a bit weird. We did it at Southern Studios, which was owned by Crass' business manager John Loder. At that time the studio was in his house and the control room was in the garage.
"Was there any pressure internally or externally to conform to a sound or style of Crass? They chose the songs from our repertoire. We played it and Penny and John did all the recorded and produced it. To some extent they directed the performances, particularly my vocals. Crass the band, and the Crass label were both Penny's babies really. He was the man with the vision. They made us use a session drummer who played Joseph's part. That was difficult to take as authenticity is quite important to me. After the recording they mixed it without us there and brought it to us for approval."
The resulting record was "You Can't Cheat Karma". Released in early 1980, the three song EP starts with the mantra-like drone of "War". It's repetitious bass and guitar riff are more reminiscent of the first Modern Lovers record the UK punk. Like "Pablo Picasso", the song becomes hypnotic and the list of war torn countries becomes a rhythm of it's own.
This song leads directly into what could be the bands most known track, "Subvert". Upbeat but with a very clever guitar part for a verse, the song is a cross between the Minutemen and "Jumping Someone Else's Train" by the Cure. Lyrically, it's a shopping list of small daily acts of subversion.
If you've got a job
You can be an agent
If you work in a kitchen
You can redistribute food
If you are a policeman
Ordered to arrest me
You don't have to do it
You can refuse
The title track was probably the most unique song of the bunch. With a sing-song vocal pattern, the monotone vocals make for a twisted children's song about ennui and paranoia.
But I just don't know what I can do
You don't trust me and I don't trust you
I bet you wish you did
Cos I know I do
Why have you got secrets?
Well, I know you have
If you've got something to hide
Then it must be bad
The layout for the record was a simple black and white (like most of the Crass releases) with typewritten text and inked images including a fold out poster.
Steve, "Crass were a band who wanted things done a certain way. They had a vision and they were not into compromise. Which is not to say they were unreasonable, but if you wanted to work with them then obviously it was on their terms. Nobody forced us, or anyone else to do it. And anyway we liked them and dug what they were doing. We were happy to be associated with them. So they designed the cover, wrote the blurb and we wrote the songs and played them. Lets face it the main reason it sold so many was because of the association with them. If it had just come out anonymously maybe it would never have been heard.
"Ironically I think that Crass were an early example of what is now very fashionable and significant in western culture. And that is the whole total corporate identity. They were one of the first to have that sense of 'total image'."
With the release of their first record on the label run by one of Britain's premier punk rock bands of the time, Zounds found themselves playing out to a much more enthusiastic crowd newly made aware of the band by the one single. The band also began connecting more with the young anarcho punk scene by playing gigs with Crass. The cross pollination would continue with the Mob eventually recording for Crass as well.
Steve, "After the record came out on Crass we did some gigs with them. They were great live. Especially when they had all the video monitors and banners and stuff. But actually it was more like a cross between some dubious political rally and a dark Brechtian theatre. Much better than on record.
"But our scene was less earnest and less developed. People coming to our gigs were kind of more bohemian than a lot of Crass' audience. Other squatters and hippiefied punks. When we got our record out it expanded the audience, and outside of London there was a lot more working class kids who lived with their parents coming to the gigs."
Joseph, "We didn't see them often, but they were always very friendly. I was too young really to understand most of what was going on then though, and probably too stoned as well to take it in."
While always a bit cautious, Zounds found themselves apart from the traveler / hippy scene that they came from and in the middle of the anarcho punk scene. As is well documented, attempts at merging the two scenes had mixed results.
Joseph, "We almost played Stonehenge in about 1980 or 1981. We were just getting onstage when Bikers took over the generator, and decided to ban Punks from the stage. That was crap - that was the reality of Anarchy in the UK. Stonehenge was just about taking lots of drugs. That's the only reason most people went there."
But even in their new scene, Zounds found themselves in a scene at times more anarchist by propaganda then by deed.
Steve, "Ironically there was a very strict hierarchy in the Crass camp that was acknowledged but accepted. Crass at the top, Poison Girls were their second in command and Zounds, Flux and the Mob were favored subjects. But in all honesty that was about right because Crass were phenomenally popular far beyond the Anarcho scene. Their significance has never been fully realized to my way of thinking.
"Outside of the Crass thing when we were gigging a lot with the Mob their was a lot of sharing and co-operation and working together. But I think there were definitely less benign forces at work below the surface. There were definitely jealousies and petty backstabbing going on. But I prefer to remember the good things, though that can be difficult sometimes."
The band continued to exist mainly as a live act. Tours with Crass and the Poison Girls made them take more concern about their actual performance and the result was some of their best gigs.
Steve, "The Acklam hall in Portobello Road was a legendary gig and Zounds and the Mob and the Astronauts did loads of free gigs their. That was where we really got it together as bands.
A short tour with Crass and Poison girls and Zounds in 1980 really inspired me. I realized we were just fucking about until then. It really made me think a lot more about how we should be on stage. Zounds always loved playing in Holland and Belgium most though and the best was playing in 1981 in Berlin in the heart of the anarchist/squatting quarter called Kreuzberg They were brilliant gigs, fantastic audiences and we were really happening on stage at that point."
With the one off single with Crass helping to establish the band nationally, they struck a deal with Crass' old label at Rough Trade. This relationship would last the band through most of its recording career.
Steve, "Geoff Travis made all the decisions about who was signed and what was released. They tried to run all other aspects of the company like a workers co-operative. Which led to all the usual decision making problems most workers co-ops seem blighted with. Plus the banks wouldn't deal with them in the way they would with a 'normal' client. Which led to cash flow problems. Geoff was an absolutely beautiful guy who I still admire and respect very much. I used to get a bit intimidated by the others though. Even the warehouse staff seemed far more trendy than us and use to regard us with something like disdain."
Despite a lot of speculation about the Crass record being recorded afterwards ("I think when I was putting the cover art together I was so stoned I put the wrong year on it," Steve), Zounds then went into the studio to record their one and only full length LP. "The Curse Of Zounds" was recorded and mixed in five days, which, oddly enough, sets it apart from the Crass style of recording that often would go on for months.
These time limitations forced the band to work intensely on the recording. Despite the contrast in recording styles from that with the Crass camp, the band remained thrilled with the process.
Steve, "Weird but very exciting. We were pretty out of it most of the time but we worked pretty hard on it."
Their one and only studio LP turned out to be a classic unlike anything else at the time. An incredibly dense and claustrophobic record, it captured the paranoia of the post-hippy counterculture and feeling of outsider status and it's personal affect on the human psyche. Songs like "Did He Jump" reinforced the specific nature of society's reflected paranoia. It startles in its poignancy amidst the superficiality of most "punk" from that time.
Who was that on the window ledge
Did he jump or was he pushed
He left a note which no one read
In desperate hand the note just said
Didn't turn my back on society
Society turned its back on me
I never tried once to drop out
I just couldn't get in from the very start
"Dirty Squatters", which was one of the more direct anthems on the record, was also one of the first direct acknowledgements of that scene and it's connection with the underground.
Some dirty squatters moved into my street
With their non-sexist haircuts and their dirty feet
Their dogs and cats, political elite
They may have beds but they don't use sheets
Furnishing their houses from the contents of skips
Things that decent people put on rubbish tips
They look quite harmless sitting out in the sun
But I wouldn't let my daughter marry one
Steve, "Well paranoid is definitely a word that rings true with me, I think I have always been a paranoid person, and I don't mean that metaphorically. I think I really do have clinical paranoia. For example I never fly (which means I will probably never return to the USA even though most of my family live there). I almost always avoid going in lifts, I hate the underground (subway) and many other things of that nature. I have always been terribly fearful of the police, though I have never really been involved in anything illegal. I am also something of a hypochondriac and worry like mad when my kids come home late. So in many ways it is no wonder that this tends to surface in my music.
"Claustrophobic is a great word to describe the album. And that's the way I felt at the time. I think that is why I responded so well to going to Berlin. The way it was this small island surrounded and walled in by an 'alien regime'. I still have tremendous nostalgia for the cold war. I know Joseph does to. It's not because I think the cold war was good, but because it echoes my state of mind. When we did the album I felt we were existing in our own little world, closed in and only in contact with similar scenes dotted randomly around Europe. I hated it when we were thrust into contact with the wider world. Everything seemed hostile to me. Not just the big global things like nuclear war, government corruption, corporate greed and media brainwashing, but even the everyday world of supermarkets, family life, little Hitler bosses, aggressive and insensitive teachers.
"I think that really comes through in the writing on 'Curse Of Zounds'. The way in something like 'This Land' I try to take the narrative from the big global issues of ecology, pollution and environmental breakdown to the very personal, microcosmic, local world of the streets in which we walk and live.
"'My Mummy's Gone' is similar in that it is about the anguish and fiction of monogamous, nuclear family life expressed through a very personal experience.
"'Target' wasn't just a tirade against nuclear war, but about the effect of the nuclear build up on people who had to live near the bases. It was a very significant feature of Zounds songs that the so-called political issues and social landscape was always related to the everyday ways in which we lived. I think that's the attraction for many people of Zounds, that it is not just sloganeering, but is born out of the frustration and powerlessness we actually felt (and still feel) everyday, and how that affects our personal behavior and personal relationships. I love the songs of American folk singer Woody Guthrie for much the same reason. Though of course I would never compare my own limited talents to his inspired genius. As Leonard Cohen said of Hank Williams, "he's 100 floors above me in the tower of song". Probably thousands of floors actually."
Released in 1981, the record was like a film noir that starts off with unease and paranoia and ends with a collapsing world much worse and larger than first imagined. It was perfect that it would start with "Fear" and end with a revamping of "War".
Steve, "Yes, we wanted it to be cohesive. We tried recording it in the order we wanted the tracks to appear, which is what happened with one or two slight changes. It had to start with 'Fear' as it set the whole context for the rest of the album. As you pointed out it is the worldview of someone blighted by paranoia, and the rest of the songs are very from the perspective of someone scared shitless by everything. It ends with 'Target/Mr. Disney' and a snatch of 'War' (re-titled 'The War Goes On'). Because what ever was going on was existing in the shadow of the impending Nuclear threat and U.S. cultural and military imperialism, in particular the positioning of cruise missiles in the English countryside. At the time this was of massive significance in Europe and we all felt very close to the issue. Many people believed that we were heading for a nuclear catastrophe and so it was very much an overriding concern at the time. Ending the album with the reprise of 'War' and letting it fade out in full flight was just to emphasize that war was not just an historical fact but an ongoing aspect of the human condition and that we shouldn't forget that and needed to do something about it fast. The revised title refers to a song Scottish folk singer Donovan used to play called 'The War Drags On', I don't know if he wrote it but I liked it a lot. It might be a Tim Harding song, I'd like to find out actually."
Perfectly suited was the cover art by Clifford Harper. Known for his anarchist oriented woodcuts, Harper's artwork both captured the urgency of the times as well as playfulness with the wrap around cover being utilized for comedic purposes.
Steve, "Love it. Love the joke and I have always been keen on comics so it was just right. Cliff had originally done it for a cover of a magazine called 'Anarchy' and redrew it for us. He did it during the fireman's strike of the late 1970's. We thought fireman were heroic in that they did a dangerous and selfless job and were drawn from well-intentioned working class people. I think he ripped off the concept from a cartoon in the right wing London newspaper the Evening Standard. Lawrence and I helped publish a book of Cliff's work and biography called 'The Education of Desire' which I still think is one of the best things I've been involved with."
In the process of recording the record, the band involved themselves with Adam Kidron who was given production credits although his job was more a glorified engineer.
Steve, "We had a guy engineering called Adam Kidron, he was the millionaire son and heir of the Socialist publisher who owned Pluto Press. He was really funny and we were very naive and impressed by him. He talked us in to giving him producer royalties when we didn't even know what royalties were and we thought we were producing the album ourselves. We recorded the album in the order we wanted the tracks on the final album, though we did revise the order slightly. I thought it was really important that it was a coherent record where the track order had some sort of internal logic. Adam hated guitars so we ended up with a far less powerful guitar sound than we would have liked. We were a guitar band after all."
With Rough Trade behind the record, publicity and reviews were prevalent including a full color poster campaign in London.
Steve, "It got some good reviews and some not so good ones, but it didn't get us known much beyond the anarcho scene."
The band did their part by playing live as much as possible though they quickly went from proper channels to DIY methods.
Steve, "We just tried to play all the time. Rough Trade's agents booked us some gigs but they were all wrong for us so we just got fans and likeminded individuals to book gigs at community centers and such places. We hated getting involved with music biz types and promoters and agents and the rest of the hangers on."
Yet, by the time the record was released, the band had grown sour on it. Their concerns about the mix, they felt, were confirmed with the final product.
Steve, "We thought it sounded great when we did it, but as soon as it came out we went off it I think. We thought the guitars weren't big enough and it was all a bit lightweight. When we first met Geoff at Rough Trade Joseph told him we wanted to sound like the Dead Kennedy's and I think we would have been happier with that sort of powerful sound. In retrospect though I think it is probably better the way it is. But I'm speaking as someone who feels they have heard enough rock guitar to last several lifetimes. That's why I no longer have a guitar in my band."
Just prior to the LPs release, Rough Trade issued the "Demystification / Great White Hunter" single, recorded at the same time as "Curse Of Zounds". At the time, they described the record themselves as "Velvet Underground meet white liberal guilt".
Steve, "I can't remember whether it was Joseph or I that came up with that, but we would both have shared that point of view. We were nothing if not self aware and self-critical. A lot of my songs tended to be about striving and failing and not making it, not being brave enough, not being able to live up to ones own expectations."
Though recorded at the tail end of the session that produced the full length, the band insisted that the tracks from the single not be on the LP.
Steve, "We recorded 'Demystification' and 'Great White Hunter' at the end of the album sessions, by which time I think we were starting to get the hang of it. I would have liked to have started the whole thing again at that point. We never wanted the single on the album. Partly because of my slavish devotion to rock n roll folklore. When I was a kid the Beatles and Stones and such groups never put singles on albums. We associated it with the rip off tactics of the music biz. Selling the same thing twice. I always thought singles were cool and something different from albums. I don't know why it came out before the album. Probably something to do with Rough Trade's clever strategic marketing policy, which also remained a mystery to us."
As strong as anything on the LP, 'Demystification' in this context does stand out as a single. Almost reminiscent of an even more depressed 'She's Lost Control" era Joy Division, the record is quick paced with an effectively memorable chorus. The b-side, which they described as a "hot dance number", took advantage of the rhythm heavy mix using it to sparse advantage. If anything, it was more reminiscent of Quine era Lou Reed than the Velvets. In some ways, it was the band's most accessible record. But that wasn't necessarily a plus when coming from a scene that mostly drew hardcore punks. Joseph, "(the anarcho's reaction was) blank incomprehension."
The record cover wasn't your typical anarcho fair either instead using a black and white photo staged to convey the song's idea rather than constructed, message oriented collages.
Steve, "Lawrence is very visually oriented and the concept was his. Just the idea that we are all 'mystified' and can't see what is really going on in the world. So everyone is blindfolded except for the central figure who is tearing off their blindfold and has a look of horror at the harsh reality of life. We trooped off down to Kings Cross Station with a friend of ours called Googy Pete who was to be the Demystified star. We stood him on some sort of plinth and took the shot. When Lawrence did the artwork painting the blindfolds on to the crowd it became apparent that Pete didn't have the right expression on his face. But in the corner of one of the shots was me making the right sort of face in an effort to will Pete to do it right. So Lawrence got busy with the paste and scissors and put my head on Pete's body. A situation neither of us would have liked in real life."
While a greatly underrated record, the songs still stand the test of time especially well.
Steve, "Well there was no peak for me. We never made a record I was really happy with. Our live gigs in Berlin were the experience that has stayed with me more than anything else from the Zounds period. My favorite Zounds record is 'Demystification'."
1982 started with the band still gigging and touring on the continent not knowing that it would be their final year as a band. The touring motivated the band as well as eventually, like so often is the case, burned them out.
Joseph, "It was fun most of the time. Playing in Holland allowed us to binge out without fear of arrest, which was pleasant. Low points must include a tour of the UK in which the only cassette in the van was the first UB40 album."
The year also started with the release of their third single. 'Dancing / True Love' marked the first use of outside instruments on a Zounds record with the addition of keyboards. On 'Dancing', it introduces a Brechtian circus bounce that would make Kurt Weil proud.
Steve, "Well I wrote Dancing on a friend's keyboard. It wasn't even meant to be a Zounds song. Jonathan Barnett from Fuck Off Records asked me to do a solo thing for a tape he was putting out called "Folk In Hell", which I'm told is quite sought after now.
"When Lawrence and Joseph heard it they wanted to do it with Zounds and thought it would be a good single. When we played it live though it was very different. More like a kind of Neil Young and Crazy Horse tune. When Geoff Travis of Rough Trade heard us play it at a gig he was keen for us to do it as a single. We got Brian Pugsley, a friend of ours who lived in our house in Brougham Road, to play keyboards on it. We were keen to develop our musical ideas so we approached it completely differently and got him playing all that nice piano. As he was in the studio with us we thought he might as well play on 'True Love' as well. I have to say Joseph was completely against the whole thing. He was much more of a purist punk than us. We could have carried on churning out 300 mph guitar stuff like 'Subvert', but we were more adventurous than that. I'm not saying we were adventurous in the way Can or Faust were, but we didn't want to be an identikit punk band. 'Dancing' is a very dramatic song and we wanted to conjure up that dramatic, dark, nightmarish and sad world of living in a fascist state. We wanted it to be Teutonic with a whiff of Berlin Cabaret about it."
'True Love' on the other hand was an upbeat track with enough detached irony to find its place welding Gang Of Four's 'Anthrax' to any of the Buzzcocks' singles going steady. The song was as much a critique of the process as it was a reflection of the protagonist's predicament.
Steve, "As with most of these things it was a bit of both. It was a difficult time because we were all intellectually against sexual jealousy and possessiveness, but emotionally we were not very good at handling it. So while there was a lot of sexual freedom and experimentation going on, people were getting very fucked up about it. This coincided with my girlfriend getting pregnant and me having to face up to the fact that I was going to be responsible for another life. I wasn't really mature enough to handle it, and in fact I am still not, and I've got three kids now."
The recording, especially on 'Dancing' was especially creative. The openness of that song and its minimal percussion can directly be linked to some of the dub ideas brought in by producer Mikey Dread. Known for his work with the Clash on 'Sandinista' as well as his work as a DJ in Jamaica, what on the outset seemed like an odd choice for a producer worked to the record's advantage at least in the mixing stage.
Steve, "It was bizarre because it was going to be produced by Mickey Dread, a Jamaican DJ who was quite well known at the time and worked a lot with the Clash. He hardly ever turned up and when he did he spent the whole time on the phone. I didn't know that many Jamaicans at the time and I don't think I ever understood a word he said. His accent was so strong. We wanted to build up the drum track by laying one drum at a time so it didn't sound like traditional kit playing. Joseph despised this approach and walked out before we even got to doing "True Love". In the end the drums on "True Love" were played by a guy called Tim who at the time was playing drums for the Mob, he was Mark's sister's boyfriend. He just came down the studio to check it out and ended up playing on it. It was an incestuous little scene at times. I wasn't there for the mix. My girlfriend's pregnancy meant she was under a lot of pressure from her parents to get married. So I did the decent thing any working class boy with my upbringing would do and ended up getting married on the day we mixed "True Love". No wonder I was writing an anti-love song. I don't think Joseph ever got it, it was supposed to be an anti-love song that sounded like a conventional poppy love song."
Not having played on half of the record, Joseph still involved himself with the cover art drawing of a scene somewhere between a ball and a battle.
Steve, "That was great. Joseph drew it. I love Joseph's drawing. I don't know if he did it especially for the cover or whether I just saw it and thought it was great and really appropriate. We use to give out these posters that Lawrence and I made up by cutting up loads of covers and sticking them back together like a big collage. I ended up with thousands of the posters and I tried to get my kids to use the back of them as drawing paper. The trouble was my kids were frightened of the picture and wouldn't use them. In the end I threw them all away."
The follow up single would be their last for Rough Trade. 'More Trouble Coming Every Day / Knife" came out that summer and Joseph calls it his favorite "by a mile".
Oddly enough, this record represents the only documentation of the five-piece lineup Keeping Brian on as keyboardist, they decided to also keep Tim on as bassist with Joseph back on drum duties. But the mood was already sour.
Steve, "Deteriorating. In an attempt to save the band Joseph suggested we get Tim in to play bass and I move on to guitar. So we did that and Tim was promptly sacked by the Mob for being in both bands. And then they asked Joseph to drum for them, it didn't seem to matter that he was now in both bands. Tim was a great drummer though, really powerful, not to take anything away from Joseph but Tim was a virtuoso musician who was great on loads of instruments. He was not only better than Joseph on drums but he was better than me on bass and better than Lawrence on guitar. He did that one record with us and a couple of tours and then we split up. I never really considered him part of the band. He was just along for the ride. Zounds was just me and Lawrence and Joseph."
'More Trouble' was a great juxtaposition of anguished lyrics with upbeat, pop music. The infectious, tune mixed with the brood was a great mixture that was more reminiscent of the old New York punk scene especially Television or the Talking Heads. The coarse rhythmic structure and almost funk bass part of 'Knife' put that song way ahead of it's time preceding certain musical ideas utilized later and across the ocean by the Minutemen on 'Double Nickels'.
Steve, "Well we got Brian to play keyboards on it again and it made it a lot lighter than the way we played it live. I liked the 60's pop feel of it. It's a bit of a clichéd chord sequence based on quite a common 4-chord turn-around. We probably did think it was commercial, but we didn't concoct it to be. It was just teenage angst really. I wrote it because I loved the phrase 'more trouble coming everyday'. The line 'the smell of burning...etc' refers to the riots that were going on in England's major cities at the time. More knowledgeable listeners would know immediately that I ripped off the title from a Frank Zappa song, which I think is on Freak Out, his first album."
Again, Joseph supplied the cover art.
Steve, "Joseph drew the cover to "More Trouble" as well. I thought it really complemented the song, a scruffy bored teenager. The P.R. people at Rough Trade hated it. Joseph really should have stuck with the drawing; he's good."
By October of that year, the band was just about done. With one last tour of Europe, the band released a final record that had all the signs of a band split. A mish mash of different recordings, the record seems like a last effort to collect some remaining songs.
Steve, "'La Vache Qui Rit'. By the time that came out I had pretty much lost interest in Zounds. It is undoubtedly our worse record, I wish in some ways it had never come out. Its genesis and history is actually more interesting than the record itself.
"It was put out by a very, very good friend of mine who is a beautiful guy and still a close friend. Originally it was supposed to be a double release with us on one side and The Mob on the other, and it was supposed to be a benefit record for a draft resistance campaign in Belgium (my favorite country by the way). The Mob was going to do a version of "No Doves Fly Here" in French. That would have been good; Mark always had a lot of style for a farm boy. (In fact as I perform a lot of songs in French myself now I have considered covering it that way).
"Anyway the Mob never got it together and I don't know what ever happened to the draft resistance angle. We went ahead and did it anyway."
'Biafra' starts the record off on a promising note. Its upbeat and catchy tune again, is undermined perfectly by a much more sordid lyrical tale. It could have been seen as advancement on the idea that sparked 'More Trouble'.
Steve, "No, sadly the band had lost all direction at that time. We always had a bit of a pop sensibility. It was a fun song to play but I don't think it was so much fun to listen to. It was basically the riff from the Elvis Presley record 'His Latest Flame' married to my synopsis of a short story by one of my favorite authors Kurt Vonnegut."
'Not Me' follows with a relentless riff that is reminiscent of the opening Coltrane-derived sequence on the Byrds' 'Eight Miles High'. The noise could easily also be equated with a 'White Light, White Heat' outtake.
Steve, "Yes that is an interesting observation. The riff was one of Lawrence's and I just put lyrics to it. I had never noticed the similarity to "Eight Miles High" before but I see what you mean. "Eight Miles High" is one of my favorite records and the Byrds are still one of the groups I listen to. I was really in to 1960's psychedelia, in all its forms. A lot of people involved in Punk were into that. When Caroline Coon (ex manager of the Clash and founder of Release) said Punk was the hippie's revenge I don't think she was far from the truth."
The flipside of the record features an updated version of 'Fear' and an old track called 'Wolves' both recorded live.
Steve, "It wasn't planned. On our final European tour someone recorded the gig in Leiden in Holland. And the guy who was putting the record out asked if he could put two live tracks on and make it an E.P. We just said do what you want. So he did. I was really ill at that point. Just exhausted by everything. We were cold all the time. We were staying in squats with no water and inhabited largely by speed freaks who never slept. The van kept breaking down. The whole Zounds/Mob scene was riven by petty jealousies, conspiracies and bad blood. I had just about had enough of it all. The song 'Wolves' on that EP was a really old song we had done before Joseph was in the band. Tim who played bass with us on that last tour and persuaded us to play it. God knows why. I was past caring."
In that kind of atmosphere, it was obvious to all parties involved that there was little remaining interest in the band internally. Burned out by the grind of touring in harsh conditions was becoming a drag. The high points of touring at that stage were equaled by the lows.
Joseph, "Cheap and Nasty, from Leiden in Holland were pretty unforgettable. The Androids of Mu were friends - I think - of Here And Now. I know their drummer, Susie, was one of Here & NOW's singers at one point. We also toured with Theatre of Hate, which was pretty awful…"
Steve, "On that final tour of Europe. Lawrence just said to me one day that he thought it was all a bit of a drag and he and I should do something else that was musically a bit more adventurous and a bit more fulfilling than churning out "Subvert" for ever more to people who really didn't want to hear anything different. Anarchists can be a conservative lot I've discovered. Flux Of Pink Indians had the same problem. I went along with Lawrence and when we got back we spoke to Joseph and it was clear he didn't want to do the same kinds of things as us and was much happier playing with his old mates from the Mob."
Steve's growing disaffection with the anarcho scene or any of Zounds' audience for that matter was also a heavy factor.
Joseph, "Basically, Steve's measured and intelligent approach to anarchism, and life in general, was lost on the anarchos, who didn't understand Zounds at all. I think Steve got fed up with that. My involvement with The Mob was turning me into a bit of a prat as well, and in the end I think we were all relieved when he decided to call it a day."
Steve, "I seemed to be getting older and the audience seemed to be getting younger. The whole Zounds trip had been so exciting and brilliant for me in the beginning but it was becoming a dull routine, and very unpleasant. We never had any money, my girlfriend was having a baby and I was musically very unsatisfied. I always liked loads of music, pop, country, psychedelia, Krautrock, just loads of stuff. The thing about the punk scene in the beginning was that it had been really open and fresh and interesting. But it had become stagnant and formalized and predictable. I had to move on in my life."
The band finally just ceased one day at the end of 1982.
Steve, "We were supposed to go to a gig in Colchester and none of us could raise the enthusiasm to actually go. We phoned them up and said the band had split up and we were not coming. Our name is still mud in Colchester. There was a bit of a falling out with Joseph after that, but it all got sorted out and I have nothing but respect and admiration for him and loads of fond memories of the times we had together. We still do the occasional gig together, in fact the last time we were on the same bill I sang "Dancing" with Blyth Power, which was great."
By 1983, the band was completely done. As a last release, Rough Trade encouraged them to license some songs for an Italian only singles collection. Base Records released the LP using much of the same dubious practices they've used for years with punk and jazz records.
Steve, "Just after we split. Rough Trade suggested we do it and they arranged the licensing. Joseph refused to have anything to do with it, which is why he is absent from the cover. It was supposed to be limited to 1500 copies, though I know a couple of distributors that took as many as 4000 each. They do things differently in Italy. It goes without saying that we saw no money from it."
At the same time, Steve and Lawrence had started a new band called The World Service. Something of a continuation of Zounds, the band was quick to record for Rough Trade.
Steve, "It was the name of a band that Lawrence and I formed with original Zounds member Nick Godwin. This was immediately after Zounds split up. We released one record called "Celebration Town" on Rough Trade. The B-side of that record was fantastic actually, it was called "Turn Out The Lights" and would probably been the next Zounds single if we had continued."
But that band soon collapsed leaving Steve on his own. Before the end of the decade he had put out two solo records as well as numerous compilation and live appearances. It wasn't until the '90s that Steve played music in a band again, this time with a group called the Relatives.
Steve, "That was a band I was in in the 1990s. It started off as a drab anonymous indie band but after a while we went acoustic and became England's greatest ever country band. We had Eric Mingus (son of jazz legend Charles) on bass for a while. A very beautiful guy."
When that band ended, Steve went back to being a solo artist though his coming to terms with his musical frustration did allow for him to want to do the reunion gigs in '98.
Steve, "I've always been artistically unsatisfied. Though what I am doing now is finally getting close to what I want to do. For years I found Zounds cringing-ly embarrassing, but I have come to terms with it more now."
While a remaining benefit single for the McLibel campaign is still in the works as well as a possible live record, there's no looking back or nostalgia with Zounds.
Steve, "No. That is it. It would not be possible. I am a different person. I've learnt to love Zounds but I can never go there again, it just fucks it up."
"…Mind you our life was like a 24-hour art workshop. When we were not playing we were painting, writing, clay modeling, making ecologically unsound plastic structures that we would set fire to and pollute our lungs, brains and living environments. People would come round to our house in Oxford and be amazed that every bit of space was covered in paint, paper, clay and musical instruments. It was such a groovy scene. Our life was our art, but we would never have seen it like that at the time.
"…Well in a lot of ways it was the most exciting time of my life. We just had such great times. It all got a bit much by the end but generally it was a great time. Essentially I still believe most of the stuff and ideas that informed those records. I still am deeply suspicious of capitalism, Christianity and religion, consumerism, the family, the education system, the whole thing that in my childhood was called the military industrial complex. I wasn't as good a lyricist then as I am now. But the words had a simple, naive charm and they were from the heart. The music I am less sure about. There are some good moments, but we didn't really have much clue. If you stand it next to Can or Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart or the Byrds or whatever it doesn't really stand up for me. But it touched a lot of people so something must have got through. John Lennon said he was never a Beatles fan and I guess I am not a Zounds fan."
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