“That was the strange thing about punk – what had started as high fashion swankers had somehow escaped like a million demented wild-eyed butterflies from a suffocating Pandora’s Box of England’s dreaming and permeated even to the faraway towns like Blackpool.” John Robb, Membranes, 2017
Every kid from a provincial town dreams of leaving it, even if that town has a funfair, a beach that’s too cold to sit on 363 days a year and a 158-metre high replica of the Eiffel Tower. You get to a certain age and start looking for more. For 16-year old John Robb in late-‘70s Blackpool, punk looked like it might provide an escape – if not a physical escape from the confines of his windswept seaside town, then at least an artistic one and an alternative lifestyle to embrace.
The Membranes began as a name scrawled on Robb’s school exercise book and quickly developed into an actual entity. Refusing to allow a lack of technical ability to stand in the way of creating music, they recorded and released their earliest material in 1980. Their first effort was Ice Age, an atmospheric, arty track built around a bassline reminiscent of Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer. This was followed the same year by the strangely subdued, vaguely gothic Fashionable Junkies – which squeezes in a killer mid-section and one of the least professional drum rolls ever committed to vinyl, despite clocking in at under two minutes – and the upbeat, synthesiser-embellished punk of Almost China. With true, youthful, punk rock chutzpah, they’d taken their first steps as a proper band.
Fast forward half a lifetime to 2015 and the Membranes, out of the blue, taking unlikely inspiration from the CERN Project and its atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider, release a concept album about the universe – their first album since 1989 – and they’re a band once more. Dark Matter/Dark Energy is critically acclaimed and becomes their most commercially successful release to date. In the wake of renewed interest in the Membranes, their entire, hard-to-find, 20th century back catalogue has now been collected together on a five-CD anthology, Everybody’s Going Triple Bad Acid, Yeah!.
For those, like me, who were introduced to the music of The Membranes through Dark Matter/Dark Energy, this collection of their work from 1980 to 1993 might come as a surprise. The Membranes lived by the credo ‘death to trad rock’, using that approach to free themselves from expectations and steer clear of cliché. It’s ironic that their most recent and successful material veers much closer to the conventional than anything in their previous work.
According to John Robb, “the whole battlefield of post-punk was dictated by those teenagers redefining punk rock on their own terms in whatever dog-eared town they were living in”. This diffuse scene was defined by a subversive mind-set and a refusal to accept artistic limits rather than by geography or any particular sound. The Membranes were at the heart of this, though as Robb points out, “We had no idea we were post-punk – there was no such thing back then”.
After releasing two new EPs in 1982 – with the paranoid Gang of Four-like Entertaining Friends the high point of these – the Membranes released their first album, Crack House, in 1983. This saw the band becoming more ambitious, more experimental and more confrontational. It’s full of atonal, scratchy guitar, huge bass riffs, odd structures and repetition. The Throat and Kafka’s Dad are the best examples of the raucous turn the band was taking, a direction which they fully embraced with the legendary Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder single the following year. Both sides of that 7” are huge slabs of noise with monstrous clanging basslines, particularly the B-side, All Skin And Bone. This release was a breakthrough for the Membranes, getting them press coverage, a TV appearance on The Tube and a reputation for creating extreme music.
Extreme as their music remained over the next couple of years, the Membranes never got themselves stuck in a sonic rut. They remained consistently unconventional, inventive and artistically experimental. The band would throw in unexpected elements like the X-Ray Spex-style saxophone on Barbed Snake Fish Thing from 1985’s Gift Of Life LP and the weird, distorted synthesiser hooks embellishing Snaffleflatch from the 1986 Songs Of Love And Fury album. They’d experiment with different styles, from the performance poetry of Fireface and the C86 pop of Everything’s Brilliant to the weird rockabilly of Sleazeball and the 47 seconds in Butthole Surfers territory that is The Elvis I Knew Was No Junkie. Their music was also full of surreal, thoroughly British humour, with song titles like, 24 Hour Drinking At Northern Prices, Cor Blimey! Ain’t England Snidey and Typical Male Penis.
During this time the Membranes’ popularity and influence were becoming increasingly widespread. Their third album, Songs Of Love And Fury was released in the US, leading to an American tour and their becoming the first band to be produced by Steve Albini following the break-up of his magnificently brutal three-piece, Big Black. Albini, a vociferous advocate of musical authenticity and outspoken critic of anything derivative, was a natural fan of the band. The resulting album, 1988’s Kiss Ass Godhead is among the Membranes’ best work. Tracks like Love Your Puppy and Viva! Spanish Turncoat have the relentless aggression and prominent drum machine of Big Black tunes, while Bacon Factory has the jumpy rhythm section and wah-wah pedal that would soon become prominent characteristics of Madchester bands. The album also includes Tatty Seaside Town, a brilliantly rowdy fan favourite about the tribulations of an adolescence spent avoiding drunken violence in northern England’s premier weekend piss-up/punch-up destination.
The Membranes’ next album, To Slay The Rock Pig came out in 1989. High velocity opening tracks Auto-Flesh and Space Hopper Ignites make for a promising start, but apart from these and the excellent, angular Tuff Veggie Agro it’s mainly a drop off in quality from Kiss Ass Godhead. John Robb has since described the album as ‘limp and tired’ and attributed this to exhaustion caused by the two solid years of touring that preceded recording. Needing a break, Robb ‘decided to take a week off and that lasted 26 years’.
After the demise of the Membranes Robb continued to work in music, as a journalist, producer, manager and musician, as well as tirelessly supporting, influencing and encouraging the generations of bands that came after his; an enthusiastic champion of new and interesting music.
So ultimately punk did provide John Robb with an escape from Blackpool. In fact not just an escape but an entire life steeped in the underground music scene that followed the original explosion of punk. But all that started with the intense, chaotic, witty and original music of the Membranes. This music may not have led to the death of ‘trad rock’ but its influence helped to keep pushing its boundaries in curious and challenging new directions.