Caught by the River

Winter of Discontent

2nd February 2023

Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ latest compilation for Ace Records is the sound of smelly lifts, soggy chips and sticky carpets, writes Cally Callomon.

A new compilation on Ace by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs that continues the series of many others. The sleeve comes dressed in a suitably drab greyish brown on which is a photo of the famous graffiti once sprayed on a wall as one entered Paddington Station when commuting by rail, you know the one that starts ‘same thing day after day…’ and goes on to suitably illustrate and chide the working week, particularly for those trapped in a sweaty suburban train awaiting signals to turn green or platforms to become free. Yes 1980. Yes today.

Younger readers may be surprised to learn that there have been several Winters Of Discontent, and though Shakespeare may lay claim to the order of those three words, one doesn’t have to look too far back to see such times. This particular feast settles on the early 1980s. The discontent came in many forms, not least musical. In 1976 the band Wire had already set about driving out as many references to ‘rock’n’roll’ as they could. Whilst fellow punk rockers built their year zero on an abhorrence of prog, a few hardy souls regaled against the tepid rock ‘n’ roll replacements of singalongaClash, Sex Pistols and The Damned by attempting to re-invent music entirely, perhaps by retreating to its primary ur-form. 

Whilst many a rough ‘new wave’ edge was smoothed out into a skinny-tie wholesome pop pudding by career-minded musicians like Costello, Blondie and The Police, a few regional underlings took their cues from earlier American pioneers such as Pere Ubu, Television and notably the guitar antics of Robert Quine in The Voidoids. Quine was from Akron Ohio, an industrial heart that also gave us the clearly off-kilter Devo (I could mention The Residents here — okay, I will). Quine may have been a fine guitarist but, as with Neil Young, he could make it sound as if he wasn’t. 

And so, with virtuosity left by the roadside, expression was embraced over mere technique, and this welcome well-timed new compilation is chock full of ardent ambitious non-musos. Though The Desperate Bicycles may have been a touchstone for so many here, others simply formed a band, forgot three chords, adopted a stupid name, recorded a few songs, stuck them out on a cassette; a  local compilation or, at best, seven inch vinyl, and then went on to further education, split up, and became the sort of history that was mined by the Messthetics Compilations in the USA which did for the late 1970s what Pebbles did for 1966 American Garage. Those adopted stupid names? Do we remember that older uncle who visited and said ‘good name for a band, that’ any time three words collided? Did he think all bands ought to be called The Aluminium Hamburger? (chuckles quietly to himself). Well here we have Fatal Microbes; Karl’s Empty Body; Thin Yoghurts; Performing Ferret Band; Androids Of Mu; The Digital Dinosaurs; Human Cabbages; The Door And The Window…hmm, good name for a band that. There’s more, lots more, 24 tracks of more.

Their career peak came in the form of two John Peel plays (though The Fall, also included here, may have got just a few more). It’s ironic that Swell Maps don’t get a direct look-in here as even they in their obscurity were obviously considered too mainstream for this collection. Their influence runs through many a track especially when you realise that, like Swell Maps, these acts were trying really hard. Yet there’s no studied under-rehearsed tweeness, awkward attempted shyness or ersatz amateuristics here, this is the real deal, the awkward younger sibling of the career punk elders, filled with earnest love and ambition but sounding like your favourite fleeting Youth Club band only without the nostalgia such a thing may imply. 

This is the sound of smelly lifts, soggy chips, studios with mattresses on the walls, sticky carpets, Double Diamond, Curly Wurlys, Bonce Bouncers, Clackers, Woolworths guitars, Broadway drumkits, Reveille, wonky Letraset, Kalkitos, 10 Number Six, and Bovril at half time. And that’s just one song.

Dickies fans need not apply, there’s nothing clever, clever about any of this, in this world of discontent it was considered better to reinvent the wheel rather than remaining a mere spoke.


‘Winter of Discontent’ is out now on Ace Records.