Tuesday, August 22, 2006

No More Time For Spectating (DIY Pioneers The Desperate Bicycles)

One of the many things associated with the early UK punk scene was the rise of the independent label. While there had always been small labels and private pressings of garage and folk etc, it was the rise of punk rock in the UK that popularized the idea of starting a label to release your friends band or scraping together enough money to make your own record.

While some of the early punk indies may have had grand ideas about challenging the dominance of the major labels, for the most part, the bands they signed saw the chance of releasing an independent single as the first step on the ladder of following the Clash and Pistols to a major label deal and everything they assumed that would bring with it. Throughout 1977 there was a label feeding frenzy with both the majors and new indies trying to sign anything ‘punk’ that moved. In effect, majors, indies and bands were all part of the same old rock ‘n’ roll game, the indies being de facto talent scouts for the majors.

The first punk band to challenge what ‘independent’ really meant was The Desperate Bicycles. Between 1977 and 1980, the band released a number of self financed singles and EP’s as well as an album ‘Remorse Code’, on their own Refill Records and right from the off they made it implicit that the reason they were putting out their own records was not because they saw it as a stepping stone to signing to a bigger label but because that was the way they wanted to work. The band was choosing to do things on their own away from the mainstream. Other self released and independent singles may predate the Bicycles first 7’’ from 1977, ‘Smokescreen/Handlebars’, but the true DIY ethic starts here. On the sleeve of the 7’’ the band even detailed the costs of producing the single (£153.00 all in!) in an obvious attempt at demystifying the whole process of making and releasing your own music. As the band sang: “It was easy, it was cheap; go and do it!”

Musically, while occasionally playing ‘punk rock’, the Bicycles were not your average punk band. Starting off sounding like some sort of amateurish (in the best way) low-fi garage band, their sound eventually developed, taking in elements of psyche, folk and what was to become post punk. It stands up incredibly well. Despite their pioneering efforts though, the band never achieved the popularity even in limited cult terms of other DIY bands such as the Television Personalities and Swell Maps and while they have received due credit in various articles on the UK indie scene for their ethics, the music has often been overlooked and they remain something of an enigma.

It’s impossible to quantify the effect a band like the Desperate Bicycles had on what was to follow. When I first became aware through the likes of Crass and Rough Trade Records of bands releasing their own records through choice rather than ‘not being good enough’ to be on EMI/A&M, I was completely unaware of the Desperate Bicycles and remained so as I discovered more and more great bands on indie labels. Everything has to start somewhere though and the Desperate Bicycles saw something in the then new punk scene that most others up until that point hadn’t; the inspiration to truly ‘do it yourself’, and made it a central part of what they subsequently did. That DIY ethic is now taken as a given but it’s roots can be traced back to the first single by this great, unheralded band.

Over the years the band members have apparently refused various offers to reissue their back catalogue. Luckily though, just about everything they recorded can be found via artist Derek Erdman’s website:

Desperate Bicycles singles, LP and more

A good article on the seventies/early eighties UK indie/DIY scene is here. More Bicycles info can be found here and here.

1 comment:

dave p said...

I don't think it's fair to say the early indies were just playing the majors' game - it was bands' obsession with big contracts and fans' willingness to see their idols sell out that put them in that position.

But the Bicycles were the real deal, as shown by their belief today that people should be making their own music rather than listening to them(!) And staggeringly good music it was too... Smokescreen, Product, Paradise, Skill - all classics.

Incidentally, Derek's still missing two songs from the band's Peel session, and their Channel/Stammer 45 as The Evening Outs. So if anyone can supply those, please get in touch here or via Derek's site.