Paul Haig - Guitar & Vocals
Malcolm Ross - Guitar, Violin
David Weddell - Bass
Ronnie Torrance - Drums
My score of the week was finding this used copy of Josef K's entire recorded history for $5 at Soundgarden. I remembered reading about Josef K in Simon Reynolds' book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 in his chapter on Scottish postpunk bands, and I liked the song "Sense of Guilt," which Reynolds included on the import companion CD compilation to his book ("Sense of Guilt" also appeared on the 1987 Josef K reissue album Young and Stupid).
Watch Josef K play "Sense of Guilt."
So I took a chance - and I'm glad I did, because this is one of the great lost Scottish postpunk bands of that era. Josef K were an Edinburgh band on the otherwise Glasgow-based Postcard Records label ("The Sound of Young Scotland!"), though one that didn't make it as big as their roster mates Orange Juice or Aztec Camera. But they should have, as anyone listening to this CD will agree. The Josef K sound is cold, nervous and angular, awash with trebly, spasmotic guitars, synth pops, electronic drums and effects, over which singer Paul Haig's voice (or "existentialist croon" in Reynolds' words) alternates between Ian Curtis droning and skittish Tom Verlaine/David Byrne bleating.
And on a personal level, listening to this CD was like getting a musical snapshot of a particular sound I remembered well from 1980, when postpunk perched perilously on the precipice of pretension and preciousness. (As Positive Noise's Ross Middleton once quipped, “There is only one thing worse than being pretentious and that’s not being pretentious!”) They remind me not only of Joy Division, Bauhaus, Television, Talking Heads, Gang of Four and all those other reigning leaders of the smartypants indierock intelligentsia who wore long trenchcoats and/or overly serious demeanors (as if suffering from acid reflux), but even Baltimore's "New Wave" players of the time like Null Set, The Accused and N.E.M.B. (Non Erotic Male Bonding). (God knows I can certainly imagine Mark Renner of Boys In the River loving these guys, though he always was a Skids man first and foremost!)
In the wake of punk's collapse, it seemed that bands nixed the fast and furious for the nuanced and nerdy - creating music that had charms to sooth the proverbial savage breast. Frontmen started name-checking books and art, and guitars seemed get less aggro and more nervous and angular, screetchily cutting sharp corners as if strummed by architects instead of brutes. Reynolds describes Josef K's distinctive guitar sounds as follows:
Inspired by Talking Heads 77 and the brittle clangor of Subway Sect, Josef K tried to get their guitars to sound as "toppy" as they could. Says Ross, "It was just a matter of avoiding distortion and turning the treble up full. We liked playing really fast rhythms, and you needed a really sharp sound for those to work. Using distortion meant you'd lose the effect." Coiled and keen, barbed and wired, Ross's and Haig's guitars caroomed off the fastfunk groove churned up bassist Davy Weddell and drummer Ronnie Torrance. "In the very early days, it was just me playing guitar with Ronnie drumming up in his attic," says Haig. "Ronnie'ed always follow my rhythm guitar and we carried that on into Josef K. He'd never listen to the bass, like drummers are supposed to." The resulting "strange chemistry" between Torrance's all-out exuberance nd the abrasive flurry of the guitars gave Josef K their frenetic momentum.
Some fans see Josef K as yet another example of a great Scots band who (like early Orange Juice, The Fire Engines, and The Monochrome Set) set the template for Franz Ferdinand - in fact, FF are thanked profusely in the liner notes for their efforts in helping Entomology see the light of day. In fact, Josef K was actually discovered by Orange Juice's Steven Daly, who quit OJ for a while to start his own label, Absolute. In Edinburgh he met Malcolm Ross, who was then playing guitar in a group called TV Art (Ross: "We were called TV Art just 'cos we wanted to get the word 'Art' in there, and 'TV' for the modernity"), and convinced him to change their name to that of the protagonist in Franz Kafka's The Trial. Name-dropping an existential literature classic obviously appealed to Ross, who admitted, “We liked to read European literature and go to art exhibitions."
Indeed, books seemed to shape Josef K as much as music, and Reynolds cites not only the obvious Kafka influence but also Camus, Hesse, Doestoyevsky, and Knut Hamsun. They weren't alone, as Edinburgh became the home of a fledgling postpunk literatti scene.
"There was a certain period in Edinburgh when all the New Wave bands were into reading," Haig told Reynolds. "Davy Henderson from The Fire Engines, Ross Middleton from Positive Noise, Richard Jobson from the Skids, you'd always see them with a book in their pocket." As for himself, Haig admitted "Reading gave me so many ideas for lyrics. In those days I never thought about politics for one second, I was only trying to project thoughts about the human condition. Orange Juice were into a different kind of literature. Edwyn would be reading Catcher in the Rye while we'd be reading The Trial. That explains a lot about the difference between the bands!"
Josef K. would go on to form an alliance with Orange Juice, with the bands supporting each other on tours and sharing a similarity in sound and mission.
Like Orange Juice, Josef K had a a clean image (sharp, monochrome syuits from thrift stores) and a clean sound. Both groups shared a penchant for the cerebral side of American punk, groups such as Television, Pere Ubu, Talking Heads, the Voidoids...And, like Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, Josef K were considered (in Mark E. Smith's term) "New Puritans" - which was kind of like the "straight-edge hardcore" of its time. They frowned on drugs, drinking, and laddishness (though speed was OK, as it had Mod street cred!). - (Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again)
Mod's aesthetic of being alert and in control was also attractive for its fashion. "I was interested in the original mod movement," Rossi said. "That was an influence on us wearing suits."
But both Haig and Ross also shared a love for Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, the obligatory signposts for intelligent American art-rock.
"I first met Paul at secondary school aged twelve," Malcolm Ross recalled in Rip It Up. "All four of us were at Fir Hill. But me and Paul only became friends when we were leaving school. It was punk that made us into a tight clique. We were aware of each other before because we were all Lou Reed fans."
Haig claims he had a musical ephiphany at age 12 when he first heard “Walk on the Wild Side” on the wireless. "I sat next to my parent’s radiogram and I thought ‘this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.’ I went out and got the Velvets albums. I was also into Bowie very early on, from ‘Space Oddity.’ There was one fantastic music press cover story, Melody Maker probably - ‘Lou Bops Bowie Out’. They had a row in a restaurant and Reed punched Bowie. ”
But another obvious reference point for the young Scots was Joy Division. Josef K's second Postcard single "It's Kinda Funny" (May 1980) was a allegedly a response to Ian Curtis' suicide; indeed, its funereal, plodding bass and drum intro practically screams Joy Division.
Watch a fan-made music video for "It's Kinda Funny" that uses footage from Orson Welles' film The Trial (thus referencing Josef K, Welles, and Kafka all in one!).
Josef K's place in Postpunk History: It's Kinda Blurry
Ian Curtis' demise wasn't the only celebrity death to fascinate Haig, who wrote "Final Request" about the tragically short life of Marilyn Monroe ("All those pills you took, can never ease the pain").
Listen to "Final Request."
Etymology's 22-tracks represent the first time anything Josef K-related has been released across the Pond, with half of the tracks taken from Sorry for Laughing (a 1980 album that initially didn't make it past the test-pressing phase) and The Only Fun in Town (a 1981 album that featured some re-recordings of Sorry for Laughing material), while the remainder includes their early Postcard singles ("Radio Drill Time," "It's Kind of Funny"), a 1981 BBC session for John Peel - and a surprising cover of Alice Cooper's "Applebush" (from 1969's Pretties for You LP)!
Listen to Josef K's cover of "Applebush."
It would be redundant for me to review this disc track by track, because Stephen Trousse's Pitchfork review (12-15-2006) has already captured it so perfectly:
Somebody must have been telling lies about Josef K, because in the quarter-century since they splintered they've been so diversely mythologized, lionized, and revered you might believe there were actually four or five groups on Scotland's early 80s postpunk scene who just happened to share the same name. For starters there was the Postcard version, label boss Alan Horne's vision of the group as the neat Edinburgh spirit to spike the sparkling Glasgow pop of Orange Juice. Then there's Paul Morley's account (reprised in his sleevenotes here): If OJ were a New York band who formed in Glasgow, then JK were a Manchester band who'd been dislocated to Edinburgh-- troubled heirs of Joy Division, stylish peers of Magazine. Then, of course, there's the sharp-suited puritans you might read about in the works of Kevin Pearce, the mod missing link between the crooning Vic Godard and the shambling June Brides. And that's just a step away from the twee indie-pop slant: Josef K as the jagged romantics who essentially invented the Wedding Present. And more recently there's been the Franz Ferdinand angle: Josef K as the band who dreamt up the smartly spiky pop that married the stark expressionism of CBGBs to a suave Frank Sinatra sigh before the Strokes were even struck.
Domino have profited greatly from the success of this last invocation, so it's to their credit that they've issued this terrific 22-track introduction to Josef K-- remarkably, the first time the group's work has been properly available in the U.S. It takes us from the 1980s Postcard single "Radio Drill Time" through generous selections from the abandoned album Sorry for Laughing and the actual debut The Only Fun in Town, before concluding with their parting 1981 Peel Sessions and a strangely successful cover of Alice Cooper's "Applebush". In part, it's the misfiring brevity of their career-- barely two years from debut to farewell-- that encourages the proliferation of Josef K myth. Disbanded in their prime before they grew stale or flat, they still feel pregnant with promise, tantalizingly unfinished; like an actor cut down in youth, they've remained an irresistible lure to the imagination of pop romantics ever since.
On the two Postcard singles released in winter 1980 you can hear a young group trying to struggle out of the shadow of Joy Division, away from the post-punk abyss of Ian Curtis's suicide earlier that year. "Radio Drill Time" is an urgent, slightly gauche stab at a Martin Hannett soundworld, all martial drums, a reverbed scree of guitars, and startling electronic bleeps, with the usual suspects of JD iconography -- trance, radios, motorways -- rounded up one last time; as Paul Haig wails nervily, "it's the wrong place to start." "It's Kind of Funny", issued just two months later, shows real progress and the beginnings of a distinctive Josef K voice: Haig now croons swoonily of existential futility-- Sinatra meets Sartre via the Subway Sect-- while Malcolm Ross and the band hit on a groove like Tom Verlaine slashing through "Pale Blue Eyes".
But the real draw here are the six selections from Sorry For Laughing -- the debut album that should have been released at the start of 1981 as the momentum of The Sound of Young Scotland hype built to a head, but was instead mysteriously shelved, apparently after thousands of copies had already been produced. You could easily believe this was one of Horne's gloriously perverse, self-defeating bids for pop immortality-- an instant great lost classic (and a steady income stream from supposedly rare test pressings). More prosaically, it's possible that the group were intimidated by the furious energy and intensity brewing within fellow Edinburghers the Fire Engines and felt their recordings now seemed too prim, poised, and proper in comparison. As it survives, the album sees the group expanding into a kind of postpunk art rock: "Heads Watch" is a kissing cousin of Magazine's "Shot by Both Sides" while "Variations on a Scene" unfurls into a low-slung and slinky arrangement for piano, flute, and arcade game electronics. But it also suggests a possible New Pop future for the group, producing the kind of kosmische kabaret that kindred spirits the Associates were to take briefly and brilliantly to the top of the charts (as it happened, the closest we would get to this ideal was Propaganda's stately synth-pop cover of "Sorry For Laughing" in 1985).
The eventual debut, The Only Fun in Town, was recorded in six days in a Belgian studio in an attempt to capture their live clangor but released in July 81 to abysmal reviews from their most ardent fans: Morley wrote in the NME: "I am appalled…Josef K have cheapened themselves and cheated the world". Heard now TOFiT is certainly no disaster-- there's an unhinged vigor to "Fun'n'Frenzy" and "16 Years" that has proved incredibly influential over two decades of British indie-- but there's an inescapable falling off in intrigue, with all the mystery, wit, and languor reduced to bright, brittle blasts of alienation.
This most abstemious of groups was to split within the year, after a taste of the promotional treadmill beat any remaining idealism out of them: Haig to an intermittently fascinating solo career on the dark side of the croon, Ross to a more commercial incarnation of Orange Juice, and Weddell and Torrance to join a youthful Momus in the Happy Family.
Post-split, Ross not only joined Orange Juice, but and also spent some time with Aztec Camera, while Haig's solo career branched off into disco-funk experimentaion; he eventually ended up working with artists like Alan Rankine, The Associates' Billy Mackenzie, Cabaret Voltaire, and Mantronix.
Along with Fire Engines, Orange Juice, The Associates, Altered Images, Scars, Simple Minds, Aztec Camera, and Cocteau Twins, Josef K were truly standouts of the "Sounds of Young Scotland" postpunk era. And though they lasted a scant two years from start to finish, there was nothing watered down in their driving sound, which Allmusicguide's Andy Kellman likened to "brief, spastic shards of over-caffeinated post-punk with skittish vocals on the verge of spinning out of control."
"Having virtually no ancestors (bar a trace of Television and the VU), Josef K fittingly left no progeny (unless you count the June Brides)," Reynolds reflects, considering Josef K's standing in postpunk history. "But these reissues will ensure that JK will "forever drone."
Or as Trousseau concludes, "The cover and insecty title of this anthology alludes to the source of the group's name in Kafka, but also carries an elusive allusion to Manny Farber inventing Termite Art back in 1962: "the concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it …forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin."Entomology is exemplary termite art: A brief moment and a handful of songs that have burrowed industriously through the soil of the last twenty years, while so many white elephants have fallen ponderously away, and now finally come triumphantly to light.
*** More Josef K Videos/Music:***
Listen to "Radio Drill Time."
Watch/listen to "Sorry For Laughing."
Listen to "Variation of Scene."
Listen to "Chance Meeting."
Listen to "Crazy To Exist."
Listen to "Drone."
Listen to "Fun 'n' Frenzy."