Looking back at the subtle strains and quiet angst of Young Marble Giants.
By Ken Taylor
'WHAT RECORDS HAVE you bought lately?"
It was a pretty simple question, to start, and the answer at first seemed pretty simple too: Young Marble Giants' Colossal Youth (PIAS America). Realizing, though, that it was the only record I'd purchased in months was all of a sudden fascinating to me. Any music writer will more than likely admit that promotional discs make up the bulk of their collection and are frequently what mold their predilections. Well, pickings had been slim for the weeks preceding my lunch with my editor, and in reality, even good promo weeks can yield rather slushy memories of what has passed across my desk.
Beyond the completely mediocre offerings from P.R. firms and indie labels the only notable exception being a Norwegian pop singer named Annie there was little in my pile that beckoned a second look, never mind a first listen. I needed something that would inspire, redirect, and above all, remind me of everything that was good about pop music. I needed something from a band with no publicist, a criterion that basically left me with records more than a year old. The hunt for a classic gem of minimalist pop was on.
I came to Colossal Youth pretty quickly, though, mind you, it could have just as easily been one of the Virgin Prunes or Go-Betweens reissues. YMG's presence was first made known to me via name-drops by the likes of Kurt Cobain and K Records chief Calvin Johnson many years before, but more recently, chatter on Internet boards such as I Love Music had got me wanting to dig back further into the annals of Rough Trade, Factory, and other purveyors of sparsely orchestrated antipop from around the time of my birth in the late '70s.
Within a moment of listening to Colossal Youth, the embarrassment of having missed out on them the first time around gave way to complete satisfaction and a feeling that I'd just been let in on a terribly scandalous secret. Beyond its loosely wound aesthetic and hollow subterranean atmosphere, Colossal Youth proved to be one of those missing links that connected the majestic poppiness of Magnetic Fields to nearly everything released on K Records to Scottish fop-pop royals Belle and Sebastian and the Delgados. It also represented the DIY ideals put forth by Rough Trade label head Geoff Travis when he expanded from the independent retail realm into the independent record label world in 1978.
Travis preferred the Smiths (masters of the indie-to-mainstream crossover), the Fall (stand-up blokes who never took their eyes off the goal), and, um, the Strokes as the quintessential Rough Trade bands of the day. In many ways, though, Young Marble Giants are truer representatives of the label's independent spirit. To date, they've really only released one studio album as well as the "Final Day" single (Rough Trade, 1980), the all-instrumental Testcard EP (Rough Trade, 1981), and 2000's Salad Days rarities compilation (Vinyl Japan) and it was a cheapie to make (£1,000, a far cry from the hundreds of thousands My Bloody Valentine spent breaking Alan McGee of Creation Records, that poor sucker), but their legacy warrants more than just a passing glance.
Among the din of the ravenous punk rock that surrounded them back in 1979, the Cardiff, Wales, trio of vocalist Alison Statton, songwriter-guitarist Stuart Moxham, and his bass-playing brother Philip Moxham (also Statton's boyfriend) eschewed noise at all costs. With just an organ, guitar, vocals, and tiny sounds squeezed out of a reel-to-reel player and a nuts 'n' bolts drum machine, YMG unleashed a quiet, ever-so-subtle strain of post-punk synth-pop.
After a short European tour to support the extremely fast-selling Colossal Youth, Young Marble Giants made a rather premature jump over to the United States in 1980 with Sheffield, England's Cabaret Voltaire, stopping by the Bay Area for a stream of shows at San Francisco's Tenth Street Hall, a festival at S.F.'s Civic Center, and the Keystone Clubs in Berkeley and Palo Alto before calling the whole thing quits.
In the same way that we might honor Low for providing a soothing contrast to grunge's noisy takeover of the indie and mainstream charts in the early '90s, we should recognize that YMG secretively brought more darkness and angst into the record collections of British kids than any smack-addled punk could. Statton's disaffected voice so strangely belies the emotions written into Moxham's brokenhearted tunes that the band left us with years of stereo-side analysis, mystery, and miserable beauty with just that one record.
Johnson noted in the 2000 documentary on the Olympia, Wash., music scene Songs for Cassavetes that there were no mainstream-ish, alt-rock Becks in the '80s there was Huey Lewis and the News, and there was the underground. Fortunately, those Pacific Northwest kids had YMG and a wealth of other Rough Trade bands from which to learn the basics of the indie aesthetic and lifestyle. Even purveyors of the not-so-soft stuff up Seattle way, like Cobain, were unabashed YMG fans. In fact, he had been championing the band for years, and had it not been for him, most of us might not have discovered YMG, Daniel Johnston, the Vaselines (whose singles collection was compiled by Sub Pop), or the Raincoats (whose entire back catalog Cobain convinced Geffen to reissue).
There's a sad irony behind indie reissue projects. Well, sad in the sense that by the time the discs see their second and third release (usually with many years in between), rights have often changed hands a number of times and profits are spread on down the line of former rights holders, with the artists grabbing for pennies at the very end. However, increased visibility sometimes proves priceless, as it did in the case of Stuart Moxham, who, after Colossal Youth's first reissue (in 1990), was scouted by Johnson and his Olympia-based ilk and brought to the States to handle new recordings by Beat Happening, Lois Maffeo, and Barbara Manning. It was good timing too, seeing as Moxham was growing moss back home working odd jobs and was generally down on his luck. Whether it was a simple gesture to help an idol out of a rut, or out of hope that Beat Happening's You Turn Me On LP would benefit from Moxham's gentle touch and vintage ears, the trip at least temporarily put the Welsh producer back on track. As fortune would have it, his most considerable royalties would come from Hole's cover of "Credit in the Straight World," although he'd probably have preferred the planned Nirvana version, which never saw the light of day.
Quiet is the old loud
In an oft-quoted Sounds interview from 1980, Moxham said that the Young Marble Giants were "a reaction to everything successful today," but even 25 years later, his words resonate. Throw Colossal Youth up against any record today, whether on the CMJ or Top 40 charts, and the comment and the band's art still holds true. Few records nowadays, save for minimal techno tracks from the Playhouse and Perlon labels or the odd K and Secretly Canadian record, can put silence to such effective use quite a legacy for a band that were only together for two years, and one that constantly toyed with NME-type writers of the day by saying they were bound to break up at any minute. When it happened, it didn't take much: Moxham never wanted Statton in the band in the first place.
Reunions were talked about throughout the '80s and '90s but never came to fruition. The trio all kept up small solo projects throughout, but Moxham remained nearly penniless until Hole's cover threw a few quid his way. Random jobs, some of them music-related, helped keep him, his wife, and their kids fed and sheltered for the years in between.
The Young Marble Giants did briefly re-form for a live radio appearance on BBC Wales in January 2004, when the station produced a retrospective of the band to highlight their influence on today's international pop sound. It followed on the heels of Colossal Youth's third or fourth reissue, and artists like Stereolab, the Moldy Peaches' Adam Green, Belle and Sebastian, and Super Furry Animals (the current toast of the Cardiff scene) made their respect for the band known.
Nary a blip on the radar was made surrounding the reunion, however. They came. They sang. Statton ducked out early to pick up her kid from school. All in all it was a quiet affair, just the way they'd have wanted it.