At once too punk to be prog, and too prog to be punk, late-1970’s/early 1980’s London experimental band This Heat released two albums and promptly and unceremoniously fell through the cracks, remembered only as another band in a long career for three musicians of middleweight pedigree in the thriving UK progressive rock scene of the 1970’s. Although This Heat was influential (within a certain radius of the experimental prog/jazz scene), the two albums the group left behind hardly kept the royalties flowing, even enjoying occasional collector status due to intermittent availability.
This is a shame, because This Heat might just be the best band you’ve never heard.
Eventually, Recommended Records imprint This Is did the right thing, reissuing the entire recorded works of This Heat as Out of Cold Storage in 2006. And what resulted, a remastered edition of 1981’s cleverly-titled Deceit (try saying “This Heat” with a thick Cockney accent, squire), turned out to be not only the missing link between the heady Krautrock scene of mid-70’s Germany and the post-punk revolution of 1980’s London, but also a nightmarish time-capsule/Cold War cautionary tale.
And while the message of the album is pretty heady (a post-WWII Britain gets a bad case of the globalistic socio-economic hubris, gets in an arms race and proceeds to get the living shit nuked out of it), what (ironically) sets Deceit apart from This Heat’s self-titled debut is its accessibility. Where This Heat was a roiling, disjointed trainwreck of nasty sonics and Pierre Schaeffer-method sound collages, with occasional melodic and lyrical flourishes, Deceit seems to try and take a different tack, that of sugar-coating its cautionary tale for posterity by forgoing the tape-loop method in favor of writing catchy pop songs. This results, happily for the listener, in utter failure. The end result is one of the wildest, scariest, and weirdest albums ever put to tape–set apart from the pack by being eminently listenable.
And while the band does subject some of these songs, like second track “Paper Hats” to the music blender-on-“chop” treatment, watching chunks of world music, tape experiments, and punk fury spin about eventually disintegrate into a “European Son”-style found-sound breakdown (which is quickly spliced into a coda that sounds like a lost riff from NEU! 2 stuck in a jarring cross fade with a field recording of Zimbabwean drummers). the dominant trend of the album is an increased emphasis on songwriting and melody. Singer/drummer Charles Hayward almost does succeed in writing a full-on pop song with “S.P.Q.R.”, a three-and-a-half minute pseudo-punk blast, replete with crackling high-tension wire guitars, a propulsive drumbeat, and acidic, politically charged lyrics. And while it certainly wasn’t Top of the Pops fare (the dissonant pedal tone vocal harmonies suggest not-quite-pious-enough monks doing time in the bowels of Purgatory), “S.P.Q.R.” is one of the few songs in the band’s catalog that manages to stay in one key for more than two minutes.
A couple tracks later, Hayward finally gets to have his cake and eat it, with the incredible “Makeshift Swahili”. Kicking off with a syncopated proto-hardcore riff, and snarled vocals, and winding its way through a weird organ bridge and chorus that sounds almost exactly like Television, this, more than any song on the album, manages to synthesize This Heat’s experimental proclivities with accessible, if eccentric songwriting. This uneasy alliance doesn’t last long–at 2:30, there’s a hard cut to a double-speed alternate take, that sounds like it was recorded with a tin can and a string in the worst garage in London, with Hayward shredding his throat through most of one verse and then chanting “Rhubarb!/Rhubarb!/Rhubarb!” until the fadeout. So much for sugar-coating.
Although Hayward and Co. achieve their goal of making Deceit more listenable than its predecessor, while still as aggressively anti-commercial, it’s in the lyrical and sonic message of the album that the band finds its greatest success. Detailing a downward spiral of radical consumerism (“Shrink Wrap”), Thatcher-ist cultural imperialism (“S.P.Q.R.”), decaying international relations (“Makeshift Swahili”), ending with nuclear fireworks and the world in ruins, Deceit dexterously juggles its big ideas of nuclear disarmament and cosmopolitanism with a clever sense of history and an ear for wordplay. Where This Heat’s lyric sheet (had there been one) would mostly have consisted of suicidal grumblings and an anomalous number about embassy officials in Vietnam eating a cat, songs like the foreboding “A New Kind of Water” and the aforementioned “S.P.Q.R.” (which equates England’s cultural imperialism and arms-race militancy with that of the Romans by way of their 43 A.D. founding of Londinium) feature an unprecedented lyrical agility on the part of Hayward.
And much like the rich cultural references and acerbic sense of humor that are buried throughout the dense sonics of the album, Deceit has been buried, in a way, too, waiting to be dug up by those with the requisite patience. Frankly, there’s no better time than now. With later experimentalists, like Liars, Mi Ami, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor paving over many of the rough trails blazed on Deceit, it’s surprising it’s taken this long for the album to see a reissue. And while one of the major faults with overtly political music is its comically brief shelf life, Deceit‘s politics, while decidedly Cold War-era, have a chilling relevancy. And while this recording may have been intended for future generations to pass around a plutonium trashfire in post-apocalyptic Brixton, Recommended Records has offered the record-buying public a second chance at fair warning–it certainly can’t hurt to hear Deceit a few years before the bomb drops. It’s a good record.
You may also even have time to dig a new fallout shelter.
“S.P.Q.R” : I, Claudius meets Margaret Thatcher.
“Makeshift Swahili” : At 2:28, turn volume to maximum. Duck and cover.