Music consumption seems to be diverging into two directions. To the right we have streaming, where complex algorithms turn you onto new bands, but also move you so quickly from one song to the next that it’s hard to remember what you’ve heard or like without keeping your trigger finger on the Shazam button. To the left, we have the audiophiles who have been bucking the “physical media is dead” trend by snapping up pricey slabs of vinyl or expanded deluxe editions on CD.
Reissue specialists like Edsel, Rhino, and Cherry Red Records are dramatically upping their audiophile game by delivering gorgeous box sets that either give you the deep oral history of one band or album, or a Master’s level discourse on a particular scene, time, or genre.
For the past decade, I’ve been schooling myself via a rich series of Cherry Red box sets. Full disclosure, I’ve been able to hear advance streams of a few of these titles, but most always pre-order the physicals direct from Cherry Red or Amazon so that I can savor their high gloss liner notes and lossless audio files for years to come.
Sets focusing on the ‘Madchester’ scene (Manchester — North Of England 1977-1993), Shoegaze (Still in a Dream 1988 – 1995), indie guitar pop (Scared to Get Happy) and Goth (Silhouettes And Statues) look and read like works of literature and look damn fine sitting atop your CD wall or on their own bookshelf. It’s best not to binge or consume their contents in an instant. I tend to pop the discs in my car stereo and pretend I’ve traveled back in time and space to listen to live John Peel shows on the BBC or my beloved Cleveland and Tampa college radio stations — this time, static free. As I read along to the rich content in the books, I often find myself hopping online to learn even more about the bands or songs that strike a chord.
Burning Britain: The Story of UK Independent Punk (1980-1983)
This week, Cherry Red Records releases their latest opus, Burning Britain: The Story of UK Independent Punk (1980-1983). The 4-disc, 114-track set does for the second wave of punk — dubbed the UK82 scene — what their 111-track 2016 box set, Action Time Vision, did for Brit punk’s first wave (1976-1979). By focusing exclusively on what was happening in the Mother Land and leaving US acts like The Ramones, Blondie, The Dead Boys and others for another box set at another time, the Cherry Red series can dive extremely deep and dredge up loads of treasure including dozens of tracks that are seeing the light of day on CD for the very first time.
The punk genre, a rebellion against the political and musical establishments of the day, is now beyond 40 years old; it pre-dates what now qualifies as classic rock (Pearl Jam, Creed and Nirvana) by more than two decades. And yet, with each new era, punk regains its vitality as new kids get woke to what’s happening and need a way and a place to fight back.
Burning Britain includes a forward by Ian Glasper, author of the book that inspired this set’s name; he admits right off that he was too young to catch the first wave of UK punk, including The Sex Pistols, The Damned and The Clash. ”The beauty of punk has always been that it’s exactly what you want it to be,” he writes. ”It can be a righteous call to arms for political activists, it can be a frenzied few hours pogoing the night away to your favourite band, it can be a way of sticking two fingers up at your parents and/or the establishment, it can be a way of expressing yourself when no one wants to hear what you’ve got to say, and it can be a rallying cry for misfits, outsiders, the misunderstood. It’s all these things and more.”
Whether your punk rock jam includes the wide swath of popular acts today like Anti-Flag, 5 Seconds of Summer or Against Me!; Blink 182, Green Day and Rancid who rose in the 90’s; or you’re old enough to remember the punk and hardcore scenes in the 70’s and 80’s, there’s a ton of great music to discover here. Like other sets in this series, the discs are mounted inside a full-color 64-page book that includes single artwork, gig flyers, pictures, buttons and bios on every featured band and single.
These types of box sets tend to be limited run affairs, so get your hands on a physical copy while they’re in stock and affordable. Other acclaimed punk rock sets like Rhino’s No Thanks! The 70’s Punk Rebellion and Burning Ambitions: The History of Punk are out of print and fetch top prices online.
And once you’re completed your master’s class in UK punk rock, why not expand your horizons?
Revolutionary Spirit: The Sound of Liverpool 1976-1988
This 5-disc, 100 track collection is a guided townie tour the city that gave us The Beatles; it documents what happened after the Fab Four were long gone and the legendary Cavern nightclub was turned into a car park. You may graze the track listing and spot a few bands you know — Echo and the Bunnymen, OMD, Dead or Alive, The Teardrop Explodes — and let’s just say, the fewer songs and bands you know, the more you’re going to get out of this experience.
Buried deep in the vault come one-off singles that will change your life, including many you probably heard before on left of the dial college radio stations decades before you could Shazam the speakers to figure out what the hell you were listening to. Every band has a story, and they’re all told in vivid detail within the 55-page booklet.
Get Into This UK recently reviewed the set and interviewed many of the participants to create a digital extension of the booklet that is as essential as the booklet itself.
With Manchester and Liverpool covered, one can hope Cherry Red has set its sights on Sheffield, Leeds, or Birmingham next. In the meantime, with any luck, we’ll see the latest in their NME C86 series that imagines what the influential indie rock cassette series and related music scene would have sounded like had it continued. C-87 and C-88 were rich sets, so here’s hoping C-89 is right around the corner.
To The Outside of Everything: A Story of UK Post Punk 1977-1981
This Cherry Red box erases the metropolitan turf lines and explores the underground Post Punk movement that swept through the UK and took over the world. It continues the label’s rich niche explorations of the mod revival (Millions Like Us), experimental electronic music (Close to the Noise Floor) and new psychedelia (Another Splash of Color).
The 111-track “Outside” experience begins with a lengthy and insightful essay by NME’s Neil Taylor. As with all the other sets, the booklet is packed with single artwork, band photos, gig flyers, pin designs and the stories about every band and single within. It combines lesser-known singles by well known bands like Ultravox! (their crackling pre-Midge Ure single ”Young Savage” kicks off Disc One), Scritti Politti (”Skank Bloc Bologna”, featured here, is a far cry from dance floor smash ”Absolute”), The Danse Society (”Clock” appears in lieu if 80’s compilation standard ”Say it Again”) — and you won’t even recognize ”Squares and Triangles” as coming from future pop darlings Thompson Twins. Joy Division’s ”Transmission” might be the closest thing to a hit on the album — and that’s the beauty of this series — there’s a TON to discover.
Whereas Revolutionary Spirit celebrates the sonic diversity of one city in a certain place and time, Outside celebrates just how far and wide the term ”Post Punk” can reach and the impact it still has on today’s music scene. The Fall, represented here with ”Repetition” released records virtually non-stop until last year with the untimely death of front man Mark E. Smith in January.
As streaming continues to snowball in popularity, pop stars, stadium acts and hit singles will pretty much dominate the spotlight. These box sets play a vital role in archiving the musical political and cultural history of these movements; by bringing these long out of print songs and long forgotten bands back up from the basements and gutters and onto a high fidelity stage, a whole new generation can discover them and inspire new scenes of their own.