Sunday, August 23, 2009

August 23: Sham 69, "Tell Us The Truth"

Artist: Sham 69
Album: Tell Us The Truth
Year: 1978
Label: Sire

While some of the best punk rock ever is so good because of the brilliant lyrics that accompany the music, there is something to be said for the more simple, less intellectual brand of punk rock as well. A huge number of the biggest punk bands ever built their careers on songs that told the plight of the "working man," yet many of these bands were comprised of more well-off white kids from suburbia. Then of course, there was U.K. "Oi!" pioneers, Sham 69. A true working class group of musicians who always kept themselves on the same level as their fans, the group rallied against the collapsing British economy and the content of their songs was straight to the point and with songs like "Hey Little Rich Boy," the meaning behind the songs was always very clear. Though many bands started their careers with these types of songs, an overwhelming majority of them moved on to "other" topics after gaining fame, yet Sham 69 always stayed true to their roots, even after finding commercial success. With their high energy, sing-along songs, the group also made a name for themselves by attracting some of the most violent and wild crowds of any band ever, and this would eventually play a large part in the band calling it quits. Releasing four albums over the two short years the band existed (they reformed in 1987), it is Sham 69's 1978 debut, Tell Us The Truth, that stands as their most influential and absolutely stunning record.

To clarify, the style of "Oi!" punk rock is often synonymous with "street punk," as it is based around the idea of promoting unity between the various working class groups of punk rock fans. The songs are often full of group sing-alongs or chants, and lyrically, the songs sing of the plight of the working man. Sham 69 represent one of the earliest and most influential bands of the genre, and later groups like Cock Sparrer and Dropkick Murphys owe a great deal of their success to Sham 69. On To Tell The Truth, the group splits the record into two distinct sides, with the "A" side being a live performance, and the "B" side being comprised to studio recordings. This gives a wonderful insight into everything that made the band great, and the crowd on the first side of the album perfectly presents the entire spirit behind the Oi! style. The crowd is very much a part of the performance and this can be heard all over the first side of Tell Us The Truth, but most notably after the band plays their most well known song, "Borstal Breakout." At that point, the crowd very much takes over and begins their own football-style chanting of the song, "Knees Up, Mother Brown" before breaking into an encore call for the band. It is this spirit and interaction between artist and audience that makes Sham 69 a truly amazing and special band.

Though Sham 69 went through a large number of lineup changes, it is the grouping that played from 1977 to mid-1979 that was, by far, the group's finest lineup. Guitarist Dave Parsons is not trying to blow anyone away with his speed or volume, but the aggression and skill with which he plays made him as good as any of his contemporaries. Like many of his peers, Parsons largely avoids anything resembling a solo, and when he does, they are simple, almost elementary progressions. With a sound that is far more forward in the mix than is usual, bassist Dave Treganna truly drives the songs on To Tell The Truth. His tone is absolutely fantastic, and he plays with far more creativity and skill than an overwhelming majority of his peers. Rounding out the bands' musical side is drummer Mark "Dodie" Cain. Like his bandmates, Cain plays masterfully on the entire album, and proves he is more than capable of producing amazing amounts of emotion, regardless of the tempo. It is the combination of these three musicians that makes the songs on To Tell The Truth morph into a frenzy of sound, and it is quite clear why the bands' music was able to insight wild, violent energy in their crowds. Writing, recording, and producing the entire album themselves, Sham 69 leave no doubt that they were easily one of the most talented bands of the U.K. punk explosion, and the addition of the live side shows why they were true crowd favorites.

At the front of the bands' music on both sides is the amazing presence of the one and only Jimmy Pursey. In the spirit of a majority of punk frontmen, Pursey leans more to the side of spoken word or yelling then he does to the more formal use of the word "singing." On the live side of Tell Us The Truth, Pursey is constantly interacting with the audience, and this is where it becomes perfectly clear that the band clearly saw themselves on the same level as their fans. Pursey sums this entire idea up as he says to the crowd before "Ulster," just dance and sing it...we want you to sing it...'cause you're going to get on the LP with us, 'cause you're us..." Whether he is leading them in football-style chants or calling a few of them out by name, the performances show a perfect example of the energy exchange between a band and their audience. Lyrically, the songs on Tell Us The Truth are as working class as one can find anywhere. Sham 69 writes songs that their audience can truly "feel," as they are by far some of the most direct and raw words for the less-well-off that have ever been written. Whether he is singing about the stores and shops that are too expensive for the working class on "Rip Off" or simple thoughts on finding yourself on "It's Never Too Late," the lyrics are as fantastic as the music. In both their words, as well as the manner in which they conducted themselves on stage, Sham 69, and the vocal stylings of Jimmy Pursey stand as the epitome of what it means to truly be a band "of the people."

Crowds interacting with bands and singing along has been present at live performances since the earliest days of live music. However, with the rise of the punk rock genre in the mid to late 1970's, this trend became far more interactive. Taking this idea to the next level, U.K. punk legends, Sham 69 truly made their fans "part" of the songs and made it a point to stay true to their followers. In many ways, this can be seen as the rock equivalent of "keeping it real," as even when the band found commercial success, the subject matter of their songs and the manner in which they conducted themselves on stage remained largely unchanged. With a trio of musicians who truly play as a single unit, and need neither excessive volume nor chaotic speed to whip the audience into a frenzy. Jimmy Pursey's brilliant vocal delivery on top of the music is nothing less than flawless, and he perfectly captures the spirit behind every song, and constantly keeps the audience involved in the performance. Whether it is the raw, untamed sound and mood captured on the albums' live side, or the perfectly executed studio sessions on the second side, Sham 69 plays without fault on the entire album, and prove that they are undoubtedly one of the most important bands to emerge from the U.K. punk explosion. Though this lineup only lasted a few years, it is by far the finest grouping of the band, and Sham 69's 1978 debut album, Tell Us The Truth, remains one of the most energizing and influential albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Rip Off," "Borstal Breakout," and "Hey Little Rich Boy."

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