The latest Cherry Red compilation focuses on the peak years of UK Power Pop and New Wave
The long-running UK label Cherry Red routinely turns out great box sets that focus on a particular genre or era.
Even so, Kids on the Street (subtitled UK Power Pop and New Wave 1977 — 1981) qualifies as a true aural treat. Ostensibly a sequel to their 2019 Harmony in My Head box, Kids is, if anything, even better. Of course it helps if you’re enamored of the New Wave era (as this writer is!). Like Harmony in My Head, this box is divided into three discs. There’s colorful cover art and informative liner notes from UK music scribe David Wells, and the whole thing is housed in a convenient clamshell box. The description “Power Pop and New Wave” is, admittedly, a bit deceptive. New Wave, not unlike “postpunk,” was a banner term that encompassed several genres that sprung up during and after the punk rock explosion of the late ‘70s. One of these genres was power pop — a phrase that, according to legend, was originally coined by Pete Townshend. Essentially, power pop was considered pop that wasn’t wimpy: an appealing combination of melody and muscle. It was also more of a commercial prospect than punk had been (although the majority of songs on this box set didn’t really trouble the charts!).
Not surprisingly, most of the bigger names are included on Disc One. Some of those include Elvis Costello (“Accidents Will Happen”), The Pretenders (the still stunning “Talk of the Town”) and XTC (“Towers of London”). But there are plenty of other highlights. Disc One leads off with the box set’s title track, The Stiffs’ boisterous “Kids on the Street.” You also get Bram Tchaikovsky (best known for the wonderful hit “Girl of My Dreams”) and a few more punk-oriented acts like The Stranglers and The Damned.
To these ears, Disc Two is actually the best of the three. The Jam’s “Boy About Town” kicks things off and is followed by several other bands (Squire, The Circles, The Vandells, Secret Affair) that were part of the early ‘80s UK mod revival. It only gets better from there, with selections by The Vapors, The Jags and The Distractions (more on them momentarily). There’s also a song by The Rich Kids, the band that bassist Glen Matlock formed after leaving the Sex Pistols. And the disc closes (at 27 tracks!) with “Love’s Melody” by The Searchers — one of the few original British Invasion bands who got a new lease on life when New Wave hit.
If Disc Three is a bit of a letdown, that’s only a relative statement. The Motors’ oft-included “Dancing the Night Away” is up first and is followed by songs from The Soft Boys, The Records and Penetration, among others. Toward the disc’s end, you’ll also find Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, both of whom were part of the burgeoning psychedelic scene in Liverpool. There are also some interesting obscurities to be found; the box’s final track, “When the Lights Are Out,” is by The Dummies, a band that Slade bassist Jim Lea launched in 1979.
Given the case, Kids on the Street is a must for fans of power pop and UK music historians alike. Well done, Cherry Red!
And now, notes on a few of the selections by band members…
Most people associate The Vapors with their 1980 tune “Turning Japanese.” While that was their one American hit, the fact is, New Clear Days (the disc it was included on) is tremendous from beginning to end. In the UK, the album spawned some lesser hits including “Waiting for the Weekend,” a great song that is included here. “We actually recorded two versions of [that song],” remembers Vapors bassist Steve Smith. “One for the New Clear Days album and then a re-recording when it was decided it should be a single. Production was again by Vic Coppersmith–Heaven, with the main difference being the addition of a brass section and a slightly quicker tempo. We also did a video for it where we were shown working in a garage in Camden Town London.”
As a side note, The Vapors reunited several years ago with three of the original four members. Together — their first studio outing in 39 years (!) — arrived in 2020.
VIDEO: The Vapors “Waiting For The Weekend”
The Jags are remembered in America (if at all) for 1980’s “Back of My Hand,” which was a minor hit. In the UK, the single actually went Top 20 and the band performed on Top of the Pops. Critics were quick to write The Jags off as Elvis Costello impersonators, which was not entirely fair. Sure, there was a vocal resemblance between Costello and Jags frontman Nick Watkinson. But it’s worth mentioning that there were a lot of people at the time (Joe Jackson, Scott Wilk, Steve Cummings of The Sports, Clive Gregson of Any Trouble) who also sounded like the erstwhile Mr. McManus. Moreover, The Jags’ two studio albums prove that they had quite a few tricks up their sleeve.
“The second single, like the second album, is the Holy Grail for any band trying to extend their career past the 15 minutes of fame,” says Jags bassist Steve Prudence. “’Woman’s World’ peaked at 75 on the UK charts in February 1980 and was subsequently not released as a single anywhere outside the UK. The lyrics to the song were regarded as misogynistic, which lost the Jags a lot of female fans. The issues of misogynistic content was not really what we were thinking at the time. The songs were motivated by [the] heartbreaks we all experience as young people!”
Prudence adds, “I am really pleased that ‘Woman’s World’ is finally being included on a compilation CD because there was more to the Jags than the one chart single.”
VIDEO: The Jags’ “Woman’s World”
Though marginal from a commercial standpoint even in the UK, The Distractions — who hailed from Manchester — were definitely critics’ darlings. Their sole studio album from back in the day, Nobody’s Perfect, was a diverse disc that included 13 originals and one cover. “Leave You to Dream,” the song included on the Kids box, was one of the gentler moments on Nobody’s Perfect. Guitarist and main songwriter Steve Perrin explains, “‘Leave You To Dream’ [was] an unambiguous love song. I’ve been asked by a couple of journalists why it wasn’t chosen as a single but by that time, I think people were looking for something a bit more hard edged. If we were to record it again I’d want to change the arrangement but, purely as a song, I think it stands up pretty well.”
As for the Manchester scene of the late ‘70s, Distractions drummer Alex Sidebottom tells me, “We played with quite a few of the bands on the [box set]. We did a 35-date tour in 1980 with The Members which was fun! Manchester in the late ‘70s [and] early ‘80s was a pretty rundown place. The pubs closed at 10:30 and the Thatcher government was destroying what industry there was left. There was a vibrant music scene, though. Punk had faded but places like The Russell club and Eric’s in Liverpool (which we played many times) had some amazing bands on. The Pretenders, The Cramps, Talking Heads, The Specials, Joy Division, Simple Minds, The Police and loads more all played at The Russell club.”
Adds Perrin, “If you think about the original punk scene in NYC, it was actually a collection of quite different bands: The Ramones, Patti Smith Group, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads. Yes, they knew each other and played together but they sounded quite different. The Manchester scene was a similar sort of thing. There’s not that much sonic similarity between Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division and The Distractions but we all knew each other, hung out together and played on the same bills.”
VIDEO: The Distractions “Leave You To Dream”
The Records are considered power pop royalty — and for good reason. Their 1979 hit “Starry Eyes” remains a classic of the genre and two of their three studio albums are pretty much flawless. “Girl,” the song featured on the Kids box, was taken from their eponymous debut (titled Shades In Bed in the UK). Drummer and lyricist Will Birch — now a respected music journalist in his own right — says, “My memory of ‘Girl’ is that John [Wicks]’s tune preceded my lyric. [It] was usually the other way round. We thought of it as our ‘Cheap Trick moment.'”
AUDIO: The Records “Girl”