Young Marble GiantsColossal Youth
(Rough Trade, 1980)
The sleeve to Colossal Youth - Young Marble Giants' first and only album, shows three faces shadowed against the light, faces seemingly hewn out of granite. Two angular boys flank an equally mysterious girl. It's a black and grey, almost brutal, minimal picture that gives no sense of the beauty hidden inside the cover.
I was 19 when I first heard Colossal Youth in 1980. To say it tore my world apart is an understatement. Never before had I heard such unsettling, eerie, wonderful music. (And rarely since.) The trio's formula was outrageously simple. Over drum machine tapes, the odd throb of bass and occasional keyboard, Alison Statton would sing in a curiously disconnected, melodic style. The bare bones of music, fleshed out by brothers Stuart and Philip Moxham's considered, mannered arrangements. The beat never sounded out heavier than a faint click, guitars were kept to an absolute minimum. You could draw parallels between Young Marble Giants' hurt alienation and the spooked, dark sound of Joy Division, but I never did. The latter were clearly almost crazed. The former were endearing precisely because they were so ordinary. Lyrics spoke directly of disaffection and despair; the mundane made extraordinary by the focus applied. 'It's nice to hear you're having a good time,' sang Alison, almost supernaturally dispassionate, on 'N.I.T.A', 'But it still hurts 'cos you used to be mine.' Who couldn't relate to a stiff upper lyric like that?
There was an all-consuming darkness surrounding Young Marble Giants - not just on the album sleeve, but in the music itself. Strange how something so frail, so fragile and solemn, so commonplace can give off such an aura of bleakness. You could almost hear the emptying pits of Wales' mining villages as Alison sang about a girl painting her nails on the chilling 'Eating Noddemix', while she denied all charges of being neurotic on 'Music For Evenings'. It's not a claustrophobic darkness like that engendered by Joy Division and all the bands that followed, however. There's too much beauty shining through - like a lighthouse beam in a storm, Alison's voice was always there to guide us home. And when it wasn't, as on the instrumental 'The Taxi', there's an upbeat, Casio keyboard sound, a burst of static radio.
I soon became besotted with this most unassuming of bands. Indeed, I was privileged enough to see all six or seven of their six or seven London dates - including one which clashed with The Slits. I must have been besotted. On stage, the trio were even more unsettling and beautiful. Alison always wore white. The band always stood in shadows, with the barest of instrumentation around them. Phil and Stuart were lanky, and how I envied them standing next to someone who could sing with such purity of voice. Always, the drum machine would start up, and then would come the song - perhaps the album's opening song of desire 'Searching For Mr Right', perhaps the single 'Salad Days' with its brief ending burst of longing from Alison, perhaps 'Nostalgia'. The latter was certainly the finest song YMG never recorded - an emotional look back at old friends and past-times sung with all the naivety of youth. (It later ended up on the debut Weekend album, the post-YMG nouveau cool jazz band formed by Phil and Alison.) Sure, I would be down the front, cheering. Dancing even, to the barest of dance patterns.
Listening to Colossal Youth now, the record still sounds as mystery-laden, poignant and life-affirming as it did all those years ago. Side one is edgier and more brittle. Side two is more rounded off. Indeed, Colossal Youth possibly sounds even more poignant now, with the passage of time and memories added. There are three scenarios I would like to share with you now:
A photo of me with shoulder-length hair, badges covering both lapels on my wide-brimmed jacket, standing outside Rough Trade record store in 1980, holding up an autographed Young Marble Giants single. I'd been so besotted, I phoned up Rough Trade and, claiming to be writing an article for a fanzine, got to interview the band alongside the NME (odd - but perhaps that was Rough Trade policy back then). I didn't ask a single question, just shuddered with delight. It was my entrance into the music business. I never wrote the article - this, then, is my belated tribute. Thanks guys.
1989, Melody Maker reviews room. Someone has just passed me the new single from Devine & Statton, a cover of New Order's 'Bizarre Love Triangle'. It is so damn beautiful, it almost breaks my heart all over again.
Seattle, some time in the early 90s. I have no idea how Courtney Love came to hear of Young Marble Giants, even less why she picked upon their sadly cynical 'Credit In The Straight World' to desecrate. I have a nasty feeling I might have been raving about the self-same Devine & Statton single. Anyway. I apologise. (There's a weird link here, inasmuch as soulful Olympia singer Lois was once in a band called Courtney Love, and Stuart Moxham later went on to produce one of Lois' solo albums.) Sorry.
That's it. Young Marble Giants only ever released one album, and it happens to be almost surreally beautiful. More than enough reason to cherish their memory.