Friday, 10 May 2019

Column: Leatherface's Records, Ranked From Top To Bottom (by Omar Ramlugon)


Generally spoken of in reverent, laudatory terms, Leatherface are one of those ‘cult’ bands that somehow managed to fly under the radar and yet have had an absolutely earth-shattering impact on punk rock of all stripes. At turns ferocious, wistful and declamatory yet always searingly dynamic and melodic, they laid down a savagely introspective sound which has been endlessly imitated but never with quite the same unique blend of face-ripping guitar with singer/guitarist Frankie Stubbs’ sandblasted vocals. And I should know; I hasten to add that my own band is so heavily indebted to them that if we were described as ripping them off, I’d take it as a huge compliment because we were described in the same sentence as them.

Stubbs’ and his frequent right-hand man Dickie Hammond’s guitar playing is exquisite, weaving arpeggiated guitar filigrees in amongst barrages of power and barre chords; Stubbs himself is a lyricist easily on par with Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits, but delivers his vocals in a throaty roar reminiscent of Motorhead’s Lemmy, or even the aforementioned Waits if he had grown up in Sunderland. They are in a class of their own and completely dodge the macho knuckle dragging that dogs a lot of punk rock through virtue of Stubbs’ deft pen and their melodic sensibilities.

They have been namechecked by too many bands to count, among them Hot Water Music and J. Robbins[1], and inspired two separate tribute albums – 2004’s The Bastards Can’t Dance, comprised solely of Japanese punk bands, and 2008’s Rubber Factory Records Presents A Tribute To Leatherface. Indeed, Chuck Ragan himself has cited their LP Mush as one of his top five albums of all time[2] and in an interview with the AV Club recalls in reverent tones the first time he heard 1989’s Cherry Knowle[3]. They are one of the greatest punk bands of all time and, in my humble opinion, the best punk band Britain has ever produced.

So with this heaped praise in mind, how on earth do we go about ranking each of their eight albums? It wasn’t easy, but after much rumination, I think I have come up with something of a list; it must be noted that there isn’t a single album here that isn’t a bracing listen. It’s all a matter of degrees. Let us begin, fellow peasants in paradise…

8. The Last (1994, Domino Recording Company)
Closer to an EP than a full album, The Last fittingly represented a period right before the band took quite a long break, before reuniting five years later under tragic circumstances. There’s some good stuff here, such as the almost Police-like riff of ‘Little White God’ and the reckless abandon of ‘Patrick Kills Me’ and ‘Daylight Comes’. The piano grounding ‘Shipyards’ is a very interesting curio; however, it’s a little short and the bizarre Louis Armstrong-aping ‘Ba Ba Ba Ba Boo’ at the end is bewildering to say the least.

7. Cherry Knowle (1989, Meantime Records)
Young and full of rage, this is Leatherface still finding their feet. However, it’s also completely infuriating that they were this damn good this early on. There’s already the crunching melodies that would define later releases on cuts like ‘Cabbage Case’, ‘Colorado Joe/Leningrad Vlad’ and ‘Alright Jack’ while the political track ‘This Land’ is like a hot brand to the skin in this day and age, skewering the idiocy of white nationalism right through its craven heart. Not all of it is instantly memorable but it’s still a powerful listen.

6. Dog Disco (2004, BYO Records)
Shorn down to a three piece and with a thick, almost grunge-like guitar tone which stands in stark contrast to the exploding-Marshall midrange bite of their earlier LPs, Dog Disco finds Leatherface older, slower-paced and reflective. ‘Diddly Squat’ and’ Small Yellow Chair’ allude heavily to fatherhood while ‘Plastic Surgery’ is practically a ballad, albeit grounded in Stubbs’ weathered croak. The uptempo ‘Eggbound’ is almost pop-punk in its delivery. It certainly makes for a refreshing change up of their classic sound and, while it may not be Leatherface’s finest hour, it’s certainly one of their most interesting.

5. Fill Your Boots (1990, Roughneck Records)
Edging closer to the eventual blueprint of the Leatherface that we know and love, Fill Your Boots introduces even more interesting flourishes and left turns that popped up from time to time on Cherry Knowle – the turn-on-a-dime tempo shifts of ‘Here Comes The Judge’ and the slow drop-out before coming back in with a vengeance on ‘Razorblades And Aspirin’ to name but two. Pounding tracks like ‘New York State’, ‘The Bastards Can’t Dance’ and ‘Peasant In Paradise’ come forceful as a brick to the face, while ‘All I Wanted’ is about as close to a pop song as the Sunderland foursome get. Hammond and Stubbs weave in and out of each other like a very angry fencing match. The only mis-steps are covers of Elvis Presley’s ‘In The Ghetto’, which wouldn’t be that bad had they not already done so on Cherry Knowle, and ‘Candle In The Wind’ – however, the ten tracks preceding more than make up for these.

4. Horsebox (2000, BYO Records)
Another of the records without Dickie Hammond, this actually doesn’t prove to be a great detriment as Stubbs and newcomer (at the time) Leighton Evans’ guitar work on Horsebox is absolutely heart-pounding. Not as reflective as Dog Disco, this record has almost folk-like chord progressions in places, albeit played on a Gordon Smith and rammed through a Marshall set to stun. Some of the tracks jump right out of the speakers and bury themselves in your heart instantly, like ‘Sour Grapes’, ‘Watching You Sleep’ and ‘Lorrydriver’s Son’. Others work their way in more slowly, as is the case with ‘Box Jellyfish’. But to be honest, the entire album is worth it for the incredible ‘Choice’, a song that is impossible to find footage of the band playing live. Its twisting, gut-wrenching riff and Stubbs’ oblique but somehow heartbreaking lyrics are a perfect compliment to each other, but then the whole song opens up in its last minute into a beautiful, soaring, distorted roar of melody that you wish would ring on forever. Sadly it doesn’t, but that’s what the repeat button is for.

3. The Stormy Petrel (2010, Big Ugly Fish Recordings)
The last album they ever produced, and with the Stubbs/Hammond duo finally back together, this is somehow reflected in the elegiac quality of much of the music on The Stormy Petrel. In spite of Stubbs and Hammond being in their fifties when this was made, much of what is on here burns as brightly as anything from their youth – and puts to shame a lot of punks half their age. If anything, Stubbs’ advanced years on this record puts even more gravitas and weathered experience behind every word out of his ragged throat. Tracks like ‘Never Say Goodbye’ and ‘Broken’ could stir the hardest of hearts while at the same time fully rocking out. ‘My World’s End’ and the punishing ‘Disgrace’ clock the listener in the jaw; Stubbs’ uniquely English phrasing is in full flight here, referencing Roger McGough in one moment and then Channel 5 and Häagen-Dazs in the next. ‘Isn’t Life Just Sweet’ is one of the darkest songs in Leatherface’s catalogue, with its brooding arpeggios and lyrics alluding to one dearly departed; “I can’t kill you / But I forgive you. And I believe you.” The Stormy Petrel is, in short, rather excellent and all the sadder given that it ended up being Leatherface’s last album.

2. Minx (1993, Roughneck Records)
Perhaps the most underrated album in Leatherface’s catalogue, Minx deserves to be held up as a band on an absolute winning streak and was a victim of unfortunate timing given the album that preceded it. Recorded by Stubbs in his own home studio[4], Minx’s perhaps slightly raw production does little to blunt the quite unbelievable harmonically charged guitar and vocal hooks that make it worm its way into the ear as much the heart.

The opening salvo of ‘Wallflower’, ‘Books’ and ‘Fat, Earthy, Flirt’ could blow back your hair, but these slash-and-burn songs occupy the same space as two of the best songs Stubbs ever penned; ‘Heaven Sent’ and ‘Don’t Work’, a one-two punch that is basically worth the price of admission alone. The almost-five-minute-long former is somehow tragic but retains a clenched-fist determination; heart-swollen but furious guitars offset Stubbs’ barks of “A natural disaster a bit of a bastard / A mutual feeling of levelling the blame and how / The truth hurts and lies do the same.” ‘Don’t Work’ induces a gritted teeth head bang like all great punk but there is more beautifully rough lyricism in show; “Don’t waste your time / It’s heart that’s hard / It’s the head that’s fucking soft”. Stubbs’ trick is to somehow commingle the absurd with the poignant rather than recite past specific grievances in dull rote repetition and therein lies his genius. There’s only one slightly below par song here and that’s ‘A Sad Day Indeed’ – the rest is gold.

1. Mush (1991, Roughneck Records)
It was always going to be Mush that topped this list, as predictable as that might be to any Leatherface fans reading this. But by that same token, I will say that this is completely deserved; Mush is the album where absolutely everything came together. The fury of Fill Your Boots is now fully realised by the superb production, where the ferociously melodious guitar maelstrom find their match in absolutely battering drum work and grinding, muscular basslines. There’s so many classic songs here that it’s very hard to single out a few for particular note. ‘I Want The Moon’ is a simply glorious opener, an explosive minor-key adrenaline rush with searing guitar solos dotted through its brief length. ‘I Don’t Want To Be The One To Say It’ blazes with furious speed but power-pop like hooks. ‘Pandora’s Box’ spoils us with a powerhouse chord progression as well as one of the simplest, best choruses lines in punk; “Do as you would be done by / Do as you would be but don’t buy it!”. ‘Not Superstitious’ and its folk-like chords blast through the speakers with its life-affirming chorus cry of “All I can do / Is try my best for you / With all my indecision”, while ‘Springtime’ is as wistful and heartfelt as anything ever written but delivered with a thrilling gutsy aggression. ‘Dead Industrial Atmosphere’ is arguably the beating heart of the album, with references to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ standing side by side with Vauxies Beer, the classic proletarian punk tropes exploded and then rebuilt with economy, class and spine-tingling riffs.

Mush is a perfect album. Miss it at your peril and then buy all the others because you will want to anyway. Leatherface are the best British punk band of all time and their catalogue speaks for itself. Buy/stream/download with confidence.

[1] https://arcticrodeorecordings.bandcamp.com/track/j-robbins-new-york-state-leatherface-cover
[2] https://www.reverendguitars.com/interviews/chuck-ragan
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jU3Tm_r6fo
[4] https://www.firerecords.com/leatherface/

This column was written by Omar Ramlugon.

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