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23 Skidoo - Seven Songs; Urban Gamelan; Just Like Everybody (LTM)

19 March 2009

One of the great post-punk bands, 23 SKIDOO probably owes its relative obscurity (compared to pals Cabaret Voltaire) to its frequent and radical style-shifts. To an extent the 1980-2000-spanning two-CD compilation Just Like Everybody demonstrates this; it’s easy to imagine people who love the angular cacophony that dominates disc 1 but hate the beat-heavy disc 2 (especially its hip-hop parts), and vice versa. But even that contrast just scratches the surface.

Seven Songs, the group’s 1982 album debut, has eight tracks (but one is just a lock groove – or was on the original vinyl). Its mixture of abrasive electronics, “tribal” drumming, and touches of funk is the most obviously post-punk entry in the group’s catalog, sort of halfway between The Pop Group and Throbbing Gristle and thus on the more confrontational end of the post-punk spectrum. Some tracks, especially the relentlessly grooving “Vegas El Bandito,” are relatively accessible; others are much more abstract and challenging, more sound collage than song, constructed spontaneously in the studio. The six bonus tracks more than double the album’s length and include such crucial non-album bits of the group’s early evolution as the funky “Last Words” (their first single for the Fetish label) and its epic flipside, “The Gospel Comes to New Guinea,” and the Tearing Up the Plans EP (made without brothers JOHNNY and ALEX TURNBULL, who were traveling in the Far East), which among its four tracks includes “Gregouka,” a nine-minute blend of Joujouka (drums and wailing double reeds) and Gregorian chant (with its altered speed making it weirdly spooky). No post-punk collection is complete without this masterpiece.

On the strength of the success and critical acclaim for both the singles and Seven Songs, 23 Skidoo could have been indie stars, but they left that style in the dust almost immediately. Made after some personnel shifts that left the Turnbulls dominating the band, 1984’s Urban Gamelan really lives up to its title and, aside from a few songs, originally consisted largely of clanking drums and scrap metal, but its impact was not industrial in tone or impression, but rather ethnographic. Now there are four bonus tracks, two versions each of the bass-heavy “Coup” – which includes the horn section of ASWAD, samples dialogue from Apocalypse Now, and may have been the inspiration for Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats” – and the equally bass-heavy but radically disjunct “Language,” both featuring bassist SKETCH MARTIN.

With the 33 tracks on JLE offering relatively little exact overlap with Urban Gamelan and Seven Songs, in the sense that many of the album titles appear in different versions, all three albums are well worth buying.