The Rezillos – Can’t Stand the Rezillos (1978)
The Rezillos – Can’t Stand the Rezillos (1978)
I’ve never really qualified as a punk. Not in any meaningful way at least. I started becoming engrossed in the world of music in the late nineties/early aughts, which is a really bad time to start doing that. There are some albums that you can point to as being worthwhile, but as a middle school kid I wasn’t going to wise up to groups like Bonnie “Prince” Billy or the Avalanches. Most of the musical landscape I was exposed to consisted of post-grunge backwash, angsty nu-metal, and bubblegum pop. The pickings were indeed slim. But there was one genre of music I could really get behind as a dumbass suburban teen in the late nineties: pop ska punk. I came across pop ska punk the honest way: by playing a Tony Hawk Pro Skater demo disc I got ordering a large pizza from Pizza Hut and listening to “Superman” by Goldfinger about three-hundred times. From there it was a torrid Napster affair downloading the greatest hits of such luminaries as Fenix TX, Lucky Boys Confusion, and Riddlin Kids. And while this made me an undeniably very cool and not at all the paragon of corporate co-option and cultural regurgitation, I was decidedly not punk.
Punk has always been tricky for me. It functionally served as a refuge for the disenfranchised youth stuck in the gears of the capitalist machine, yet maintained a notorious amount of gatekeeping within its ranks as time went on. I get it in a sense. The major label mavens I was into at the time like Blink 182 and Sum 41 were so blatantly “for profit” endeavors that even with a similar musical style, old school punks would naturally chafe at their existence. Also, punk is inherently laced with skepticism, and for good reason. The world is indeed fucked most of the time. However, I am always skeptical of a movement that professes non-conformity, but then demands regimented devotion to a style and aesthetic.
Like most things in life, I blame Malcolm McLaren for this. Punk used to be just a bunch of junkie hustlers playing sped up rock n’ roll in the ghoulish squalor of seventies New York. Then McLaren sold a mutated, fashion-forward bill of goods to post-industrial collapse Britain, and the rest was history. The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle, much like the Shitty Beatles that would follow, wasn’t just a clever name. This has only become more egregious as time has gone on. It’s gotten to the point where there are countless pieces of media featuring liberal arts kids with trust funds arguing if putting pineapple on pizza constitutes a manifestation of the “punk ethos”. Hell, the fucking Dead Kennedys tweeted their support for a Republican Senator just a few months ago, and there’s at least three things wrong with that statement. It’s a real “you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” situation.
However, it would be disingenuous to discount the effect that punk’s diaspora had on music. The subsequent punk scenes created through a combination of grassroots word-of-mouth and crass marketing spawned dozens of memorable bands across the world. From Black Flag and the aforementioned Dead Kennedys in California to the criminally overlooked Radio Birdman and the Saints from Australia to the wild Guitar Wolf and Teengenerate out of Japan, just to name a few. But it was in the U.K. where punk really began its worldwide expansion, and the bands to come out of that scene are the stuff of legend. The Sex Pistols and the Clash were the marquee bands for sure, but the U.K.’s contribution to punk extends far beyond these two groups. Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, Crass, X-Ray Spex, The Vibrators, The Damned, Discharge, Rudimentary Peni… the list goes on. Which brings us to the Rezillos.
The Rezillos are an interesting outlier in the history of punk for a number of different reasons. Formed by students from the Edinburgh College of Art in 1976, the group shared little in common with any of the U.K. bands I just listed. Their tone wasn’t snotty, nihilistic, or overly political like many of their contemporaries, but rather a more lighthearted, B-movie kitschy approach. The group also didn’t crib the repurposed dirtbag chic of their U.K. peers, instead opting for the sartorial kitsch of the nascent new wave scene in Britain. They even get lumped in as a new wave act from time to time, but outside of the fashion, I really don’t hear it in their music. It’s likely due to the fact that their guitarist/main songwriter Jo Callis (aka Luke Warm) went on to join the Human Fucking League (!) and even co-wrote “Don’t You Want Me” (!!!). Before doing research for this review, I had no idea that this was the case. Every time I get burned out on research, something like that always seems to crop up.
In all honesty, this is something I probably should have known already, but the Rezillos occupy this strange place in my brain. It’s like they are on their own weird island in my mind, stuck out of time like Billy Pilgrim almost. That’s probably because of how their discography shook out. They released their first album Can’t Stand the Rezillos in 1978. They released their second album Zero in 2015. For the longest time, they were this incredible one album wonder, like the Monks or the Exploding Hearts, and that gave them this incredible air of mystery that could, you know, be easily unspooled had I bothered to investigate any further.
But I think the thing that made them stand out the most to me was Fay Fife, their co-lead vocalist alongside Eugene Reynolds. There were certainly other punk/punk adjacent bands fronted by women, Debbie Harry, Poly Styrene, and Ari Up being the most prominent examples, and I really enjoy how different each of these women were from one another. They certainly stood out compared to their male counterparts in that respect. In the case of Fife, I think that the Rezillos would still be a pretty good band without her on vocals, but they would probably not be a great band. Beyond her incredible charisma, she has some really on-point fashion choices. It’s somewhere between Kate Pierson from the B-52’s and a John Waters extra on the spectrum of 50’s throwback kitsch, and it is fucking excellent. I also really enjoy her Scottish lilt that occasionally shines through her typical punk exuberance. It brings a different dimension to the group that distinguishes them from their contemporaries even further.
The group itself bopped around the U.K. for about a year-and-a-half, quickly gaining traction through extensive touring and impressive singles like “Can’t Stand My Baby”, before signing with Sire Records in 1977. This was when Sire was at the peak of their powers more or less, with the likes of Talking Heads, The Ramones, and The Dead Boys on their roster, so this was a pretty big deal. Their debut record, and subsequentially only record for thirty-eight years, Can’t Stand the Rezillos was released July 21st, 1978. The album actually reached #16 on the U.K. Albums Chart, and their single “Top of the Pops” went to #17, which kind of surprised me to be honest. The album has also gone on to achieve some critical acclaim, with Mojo naming it #50 on their Top 50 Punk Albums of All-Time in 2003.
(Side Note: this list is one of the worst “best of” lists I have seen in a while. Legitimately half of this list is straight up post-punk albums by groups like Public Image Ltd., Devo, Joy Division, and Pere Ubu just to name a few. Never Mind the Bollocks is predictably and wrongly at #1. Rocket to Russia is #35. Marquee Moon at #32, which, if it’s going to be on there, is WAY too low. Same with Suicide at #36. Bad Brains is at #44, and it is Rock Against Light not their self-titled record. In Utero of all fucking albums comes in at #40. It’s borderline offensive how botched this thing is.)
As time has gone on, this has slowly evolved into one of my “feel good” records, and I mean that both in the sense that it’s a really great album and that I can just leave this record on and listen to it straight through. That might seem innocuous enough to most people, but ever since I was a kid, I would compulsively hop from CD to CD because of my inherent restlessness. Then I got an iPod and things really went to hell. So, I really appreciate an album that can maintain a strong level of interest throughout, and in the case of Can’t Stand the Rezillos, they’re doing it with a rather straightforward formula. This is most definitely not a Bran Van 3000 situation where every other song is a completely different genre. Like many punk albums of the era, there isn’t a lot of musical variation from track to track on Can’t Stand the Rezillos. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like Los Angeles-era X if they were less dire and sang about flying saucers instead of hit-and-run murders. You still have that sneering punk attitude, but there’s a playfulness to these tracks.
One of my favorite examples of this comes from their biggest commercial hit, “Top of the Pops”. “Top of the Pops”, as you could probably ascertain, is a knowing jab at the legendary British music show of the same name. It was basically what American Bandstand was to the U.S. if you aren’t familiar, which makes it a prime target for punk ridicule. Except… Well… They actually appeared on Top of the Pops to play “Top of the Pops”. Not since Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show getting on the cover of Rolling Stone due the success of their song “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone’” had there been such a musical ouroboros. However, being shot for television, the band performances on Top of the Pops were absolutely not live. Rather, it was this weird, retrospectively unnatural pantomimed performance that everyone just rolled with for the most part. However, that’s asking for trouble when you ask a bunch of punks to fake it for the sake of good TV. Case in point: here is their admittedly fun performance of the song on the show in 1978. You’ll get what I mean at about the :50 mark.
So, yeah, that’s Angel Paterson knowing there was going to be a drum breakdown on the recorded track, and just saying “Fuck it”. Excellent stuff right there.
I really enjoy the interplay between the two lead vocalists. It’s essentially a 50-50 split between Reynolds and Fife, and each brings something enjoyable to the table. Fife has this punchy, emotive style that hits like a flurry of jabs on songs like “Flying Saucer Attack” and “Top of the Pops”. It’s like she’s in danger of shaking to pieces out of nervous energy at any given time. Reynolds on the other hand has this nasally growl that feels both normal in a punk setting, yet incredibly difficult to pin down as I’m trying to describe it. The best approximation I can give is “little imp demon doing an impression somewhere between Wolfman Jack and Buster Poindexter”, and even that feels off. Maybe a U.K. punk version of the lead singer of that garage band the Rats from the 1960’s? I don’t know. What I do know is that it rules and I love it.
There’s a lot to love on this record for sure. The old joke is that people played in punk bands until they learned how to play their instruments, and I think that’s a bit harsh. There were tons of “technically proficient” musicians in punk, and the Rezillos are definitely one of them. Jo Callis is an excellent guitar player, and Paterson and saxophonist-turned-bassist William Mysterious more than hold up their end of the deal. More importantly, these are just fun songs, pure and simple. “No” is a ripping take on the standard teenage punk disaffection and rebellion you see throughout punk’s history. On the other end of the spectrum, you can see their art school backgrounds peeking through on “(My Baby Does) Good Sculptures”. Usually when a band hints at their art school history, I tend to roll my eyes a bit, but this song is just too likeable. As Reynolds sings about how he loves his partner for her ability to shape things out of mud and carve wood, and less so for her “pouting lips” and “curvy hips”, I cannot help but crack a smile. “I Can’t Stand My Baby” has this wonderful jittery, frenetic energy, as does the album’s awesome closer “Bad Guy Reaction”. Honestly, a lot of these songs have this prickly, staccato vibe to them that I tend to respond to more than most, the best of which being “Flying Saucer Attack”. I have a pretty sizeable list of favorite album openers shuffling through my head: “Heave Ho” by Cows, “Farewell Transmission” by Magnolia Electric Co., “Follow the Leader” by Eric B. and Rakim to name just a few, and “Flying Saucer Attack” is right up there. I adore Fife’s vocal performance on “It Gets Me”. She can turn on a fucking dime from rapid fire blasts to weird flourishes to truly lovely singing. “2000 A.D.” and “Cold Wars” provide a decidedly Rezillos spin on traditional punk nihilism with great results.
These songs are excellent, but I’ve neglected to mention the covers on this record. Can’t Stand the Rezillos features three cover songs, and with the album only containing thirteen songs, I would normally balk at the idea of having so many covers on your record. However, the Rezillos have an uncanny knack for not only doing incredible covers, but also mixing up their approach to each song. The album features two classic “British Invasion” covers done with varying levels of reverence. The first is a moderately punked up, gender swapped version of the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over”, with Fife assuming the role of the titular Clark. It’s a fun little foot-stomping send-up done pretty by the book. The same can’t be said for their cover of the ultra-saccharine “I Like It” made famous by Gerry and the Pacemakers. While this sounds the closest to the source material of the three covers, this can only be described as an extended piss take. The overly exaggerated and goofy histrionics really highlight just how absurdly maudlin the track is when filtered through a sarcastic punk lens. However, the best of these covers, and indeed perhaps the best track on here, is “Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight”. This song is easily the most obscure of the three. In fact, it took me years to realize that this was a cover song, as it feels so naturally punk that I never thought to question it. Even more insane is that this is a Fleetwood Fucking Mac song. Now, I should clarify that this is not the Rumours-era gauzy witch, cocaine, and marital acrimony Fleetwood Mac as seen in this clip below:
No, this is very early blues rock Fleetwood Mac. Not only that, but this song was a B-side to their 1969 song “Man of the World” that they recorded under the assumed name Earl Vince and the Valiants. The original is the slack-ass honky-tonk song with guitarist Jeremy Spencer doing this half-hearted Elvis impersonation. That is definitely not what the Rezillos version sounds like. The Rezillos version of the song is this fucking unbelievable blast of high-energy punk full of sneering vocals dripping with gleeful malice. With all respect to Fleetwood Mac, this is the canon version of this song. It’s honestly kind of hard for me to think of an instance where the cover band eats the original band’s lunch to this degree, because even songs like “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, “All Along the Watchtower”, and “Nothing Compares 2 U” were taking from already great songs. The Fleetwood Mac version is incredibly middling and the Rezillos version is one of my favorite punk songs of all-time. The closest I can think of would be something like the Z-Rock Hawaii cover of “Bad to the Bone” because George Thorogood is fucking terrible and Z-Rock fucking rule, but that’s about all I got right now.
This album pretty much signaled the end for the band. Reynolds and Fife, who were romantically linked at this point, were at odds with the rest of the band on creative differences. Four months after Can’t Stand the Rezillos was released, the band decided to split up. Reynolds and Fife formed the copyright skirting group “The Revillos”. Callis and Paterson formed the band Shake, which went nowhere, before Callis eventually ended up in the aforementioned Human League. The Rezillos have reformed and disbanded several times over the past forty years, but nothing since has hit the height of that initial run. It’s a shame because that original lineup had such incredible potential. The vocals of Fife and Reynolds combined with Callis’ incredible guitar work made for some truly special music. Like I said up top, I’m not much of a punk per se, but damn if this isn’t one of my favorite punk albums ever.
For more longform discussions on albums, check out our post about the 1997 album Glee by Bran Van 3000.