TERRY GROSS, host:
The Subhumans are a political punk band from Britain who were first active in the 80s, but whose back catalog of six albums has now been re-mastered and released in the U.S. Although the musical setting has changed dramatically from those days, critic Milo Miles says The Subhumans sound more timeless than old hat.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. DICK LUCAS (Lead Singer, The Subhumans): (Singing) (unintelligible)
MILO MILES: Not all overlooked excellent music is a so-called lost gem. Sometimes they're hidden in plain sight. British punks The Subhumans were active from 1980 to 1985, and their records were never rarities, just very hard to find in the United States, where they never got much traction in their heyday. However, being vintage punks missed by the U.S. guarantees nothing. A UK group called The Adicts are by far the most long-lasting punk band with original members, and that's the most interesting thing about them. The Subhumans, on the other hand, will remind you why people were knocked out by punk in the first place. They deliver short, sharp shocks of fury and anguish. But like the best of the breed, they're angry in a funny way or funny in an angry way, or something like that, as here when they explaining why "Mickey Mouse is Dead."
(Soundbite of song, "Mickey Mouse is Dead")
Mr. LUCAS: (Singing) Mickey Mouse is dead, got kicked in the head, cause people got too serious. They planned out what they said. They couldn't take the fantasy, tried to accept reality, analyzed the laughs, cause pleasure comes in halves. The purity of comedy. They had to take it seriously. Changed the words around, tried to make it look profound. The comedian is onstage, pisstaking for a wage, the critics think he's great, but the laughter turns to hate.
MILES: In their first releases, The Subhumans were an early example of British hardcore punk, a style that stripped the sound down to its basics in the manner of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. The goal was to attract crusaders and purists, the only ones alive in a dead world of lies. The closest American parallel might be the group Minor Threat. The Subhumans' shouter Dick Lucas, guitarist Bruce Treasure, bassist Grant Jackson and a drummer known only as Trotsky hammered away at themes of mental disease, murder, oppression with every breath and love as a disaster.
But they also offered a welcome British perspective with rants about class structure, work, money and the evils of meat in a song that ends with the perfect line: It's the family butcher. Lock up your family.
(Soundbite of song, "Pigman")
Mr. LUCAS: (Singing) Guilty conscience stews away in the kitchen. Knock at the door it's, the next door neighbor. Farming is a living, killing is a crime. Where do the meat men draw their lines? Revenge for the timeless market slaughter, the pig man's coming. Lock up your daughter.
MILES: The Subhumans hit a peak in 1982 with their first LP, "The Day the Country Died," which is full of clever snaps of melody, rhythm and wit. Those who prefer the punk straight up should also check out the earlier Subhumans sides collected on the descriptively named "EP-LP." The Subhumans themselves began to defy one of the commandments of hardcore punk. They evolved and became more elaborate. There were a few dead ends and blind alleys, but The Subhumans wound up their first incarnation with the 1985 album "Worlds Apart," their most varied and reflective, including sighs about apathy and ex-teenage rebels. It ends with "Power Ames," a song by purists, all grown up to warn that purity itself is something to guard against.
(Soundbite of song, "Power Ames")
Mr. LUCAS: (Singing) Without asking it, I had called them out, without knowing what it was all about. They assumed it was a wind-up or a con. Making sure with a nervous glance, they re-affirmed each other's stance, and smiled and then forgot about it all. The passing strangers stayed that way, rotted away in their own decay, convinced they'd got it right, the rest were wrong. By deriding them to gain respect, they tied a noose around their neck and fell when something different came along.
MILES: The Subhumans have reunited a few times, and they're still semi-active today. But still, they did their best job of blowing down complacency as youths with brains on fire. In the 1990s, the roars of hardcore punk could sound dated. But by now, the commitment and conviction of The Subhumans sounds like a call to arms waiting to be heard again.
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed The Subhumans' back catalogue, newly reissued on the Bluurg label.
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