ALBUM REVIEW: Disco Zombies – ‘South London Stinks’: a punk story retold by Optic Nerve

DISCO ZOMBIES, like the countless DIY punk bands that sprang up in the late 70s before promptly disappearing, remain pretty much unknown outside of the circles of the genre’s connoisseurs.

The Leicester band, originally formed at a student hall of residence in 1977, had a career composed of fluctuating line-ups, sporadic releases and an album released on cassette. Cassette! Throw some delays, contractual issues and controversy into the mix and you’ve got a surefire recipe for not quite breaking into the mainstream. 

Nevertheless, South London Stinks, this 20-track, double vinyl compilation released by Optic Nerve, offers countless snippets of biting, whip-smart lyrics as well as some memorable hooks. And by memorable, I mean that they’ll stay firmly stuck in your head and you’ll be humming anthemic choruses about football players of the past to yourself whilst doing the dishes.

The compilation opens with the four tracks from the group’s 1979 The Invisible EP. Recorded in a single one-hour session in April 1978 and planned for release on Carl Tebbutt’s Uptown Records, its production was plagued by financial and contractual issues so, by the time the EP was finally released in September 1979 after more than a year’s delay, it surely sounded like a relic of the past amongst some of the pioneering post-punk releases of that year; Unknown Pleasures, Fear of Music and Entertainment!, to name but three.

So, due to bad timing and competition, The Invisible EP’s name became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, it’s definitely worth a listen.

The EP and this compilation kicks off with “Top Of The Pops”, a track which, by virtue of its name and genre, is immediately reminiscent of The Rezillos’ hit. Sonically, like much of the EP,  it has more in common with The Buzzcocks, but the lyrics still offer a snarky, clever indictment of the programme. Frantic and confused with its screeching guitars, the track hurtles along whilst Andy Ross (of future Food Records‘ fame) drolly explains that “they just ignore things they don’t like and hope that it won’t last”, all before the vocals dissolve into the strangely catchy, stuttering chorus. 

“Punk A Go Go” is like an ode to the genre that clearly provided some escapism to the band, and one that perfectly incorporates its chaos, anger and give-it-a-go mentality. It builds up from chords and hi-hats. I say builds: it’s all over within three minutes so it gets to the point pretty quickly. The ‘point’ is when Johnny ‘Guitar’ Hawkins gets his chance to shine, with a brief but joyous moment in the spotlight as the guitar trills and explodes, spluttering notes wildly in the release the track has been careering towards. “Punk A Go Go” epitomises what Disco Zombies do so well in their ragged, unrefined and occasionally off-key way: punk. 

Mind you, elitist punk fans should ignore the sacrilegious, though brief and spectacular, guitar solos. Focus on the short, loud, bursts of energy that characterise South London Stinks instead.

Opening the second side is The Disco Zombies’ debut single from way back when, the anti-racist “Drums Over London”, released by Andy Ross’s own South Circular Records. The single, a sharply intelligent distortion of the colonial narrative in which “The natives are restless, they’re brandishing their Spear & Jacksons”, describes the Brits, was a minor hit at the time, earning the support of Peel with its pulsing drumbeat and scratchy guitars. 

Later ambiguity in the track’s lyrics, a bit too close to the pervasive racism of the 70s’ in the assertion that, “things are getting slightly less than British in London”, a comment that’s not out of place in some of today’s rhetoric either, meant the track was misinterpreted by most and picked up on by Rock Against Racism. Understandably so, given punk’s flirtation with fascism, ranging from the exchanges of shy glances across a room right through to what seems like the whole marriage in kids in some places. Performative or not, the very fact that the irony of “Drums Over London” was lost is surely reflective of the extent of the problem. Backseat Mafia premiered the newly put-together video for “Drums Over London” in November; to save you clicking around, we’ve included it for you below.

The Disco Zombies

Disco Zombies, however, were a step ahead of the game. Their tongue-in-cheek lyrics and satire are ubiquitous across their back catalogue that features similar piss-takes of the music industry, Thatcher’s Britain and ideologies. Even their own fans don’t get away scot-free.

Take “Mary Millington”, named after the model and porn actor, with lyrics professing love to her that seem both comically predictable and dripping with irony too. These proclamations of love are squawked out by Ross over the dissonant, urgent guitars that dissolve into a brief but powerful solo, controlled chaos above the regular hi-hats that come like repeating slaps in the face. It would be funny and jovial if it weren’t for the fact that Mary Millington had committed suicide by the time that the track was released. 

And, to really cement the comprehensive picture of their fanbase that Disco Zombies are building here, “Mary Millington” is immediately followed by “Where Have You Been Lately, Tony Hateley?”, a rousing ode to the eponymous football player. It’s impossible to not to detect at least a hint of affectionate mocking of their fans in these tracks, especially in the former.

Moving through to the second LP, the comic “The Year Of The Sex Olympics” and “Target Practice” imagine sporting events replaced with sex acts and shooting your ex with an air rifle respectively. Onto “Greenland”, and the infectious twang of its bass, though that’s soon drowned out by the nursery-rhyme like lyrics, singing, no, chanting the praises of Greenland whilst dismissing the “unemployment blended with corruption” at the dawn of Thatcher’s term in office.

It’s not all upbeat politics and jaunty melodies, though. “Here Come The Buts” is far darker and melancholic with its drawling, calculated, vocals and growling, sullen guitar courtesy of Hawkins. Similarly, “Paint It Red” features a snarky conversation between bass and guitar, each exchanging shots of sound before the beat attacks, pulsing sharply below the jumpy bass and sniping vocals that create a sense of dread. 

“Night Of The Big Heat” opens the second side. Rumbling bass, catchy hook, Hawkins’ guitar flickering into and out of something resembling a solo; it’s a real standout. The track stumbles from squealing guitars and the strangely comforting grumble of bass towards its explosive, chaotic climax as the increasingly tense vocals describe the invasion of Earth by aliens. Then everything breaks down, fizzing away into groans of guitar, sprawling out from the central beat before finally dissolving into fading spirals of echoing, pulsating electronic tones. You heard me right – electronic! 

There’s Communist-inspired songs with a refrain of “Paint It Red” and “Lenin’s Tomb”, the latter of which describes a couple’s honeymoon to the mausoleum, before the compilation ends with “Hit”. This sees the Disco Zombies lament the music industry once more, adding a nice bit of circularity with its similarity to opener “Top Of The Pops”.

And so, although there is no shortage of skilled, brilliant punk emerging at the moment, if current times are forcing you to take a trip down memory lane and bury your head in the sands of nostalgia, South London Stinks is a safe bet.

And who knows, what with The Disco Zombies’ discussion of various lost tracks, maybe a few more treasures will be unearthed from the sands of time soon. 

Disco Zombies’ South London Stinks will be released by Optic Nerve on remastered, coloured double vinyl in a gatefold sleeve with a poster on February 5th; it’s available to pre-order now, here.

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