In 1980, Young Marble Giants stripped post-punk down to its minimalist core
“Well, it’s quite commercial, I suppose. Anything melodic is commercial. It’s the whole business of writing short songs and being non-boring. All those songs you’re meant to think ‘Oh!’ straight away.“ – Stuart Moxham, taken from a 1981 interview with Everett True
In 1981, I changed schools, which meant I had to make some new friends. There was Marc, a budding alcoholic who – to my eternal gratitude – forced me to buy The Idiot and Lust For Life on one of our shopping expeditions. Then there was Peter and his friend, whose name is now lost to history, both of whom traveled in from New Jersey. They had a band, so of course we hit it off. Their devotion to The Who was unparalleled, approached only by their love for The Jam. In short, they were young Mods making up their own forgotten story in the suburbs.
During one visit, we were doing that thing where you try to impress each other with unfamiliar records and my exhibit A was the latest (and last) release under the name Young Marble Giants, the Testcard E.P. I listened happily as the walking bass line and roller-rink organ of “This Way” went through their paces, followed by melancholy acoustic chords of “Posed by Models” and “The Clock,” accompanied in each case merely by bass and what sounded like a metronome. When the needle lifted at the end of the side, Peter looked at me, literally askance, and said: “Anybody could do that.”
I was young and inexperienced in critical discourse so instead of saying, “Ah, but nobody has,” I think I sputtered something, “Yeah, but it’s so simple and cool…” One lesson I learned that day was not to take musical soul mates for granted, because they’re hard to find. The other lesson was that I should have introduced them to Young Marble Giants with a song featuring the main element missing from the Testcard E.P., wonderful as it is: the voice of Alison Statton.
Credited simply as “Voice,” Statton’s performance on Young Marble Giants single – and singular – album, Colossal Youth, is the thing that turns what might just be a collection of nifty sounds into an implacable classic. That most of the songs were written by guitarist/organist Stuart Moxham also makes it one of the greatest acts of ventriloquism since Lou Reed penned “I’ll Be Your Mirror” for Nico. Whether Statton was singing, “I’ve been hurt before/Sorrow knocking at my door” (“Brand-New-Life”) or “Now I’m a neurotic/My business spasmodic” (“Music For Evenings”) I’ve never doubted that she meant every word.
“You write the gaps as much as the music.” – Philip Moxham
Colossal Youth has some other things in common with The Velvet Underground’s debut, including its unusual instrumentation. But where VU employed viola and a non-standard drum kit as distinguishing factors, Young Marble Giants used a homemade drum machine, rinky-dink organ, melodic bass, and choppy propulsive guitar (not unlike Ric Ocasek’s rhythm guitar in The Cars) as the main building blocks. These were artistic choices driven by a negation of the wall of guitars that defined punk by 1978. Stuart and his brother Phil Moxham, who played bass, were also lucky enough to have a cousin, Pete Joyce, with the skills to build a drum machine. Statton was more than just a “voice,” too, driving the direction of the group toward her taste for what she described as, “less urgent, quieter music – less “masculine” sounds, if you like.” It also must be said that her untrained voice would have been easily overwhelmed by more conventional instrumentation.
When it came to making Colossal Youth, the trio effectively had two chances to get it right, recording many of the tracks and some other songs as demos that were later released as an album called Salad Days. Besides shedding some of their more abstract numbers like “The Man Shares His Meal With His Beast” and “Hayman,” the final recordings, made over five days at Foel Studios in Wales, expose how the indifferent sound of the demos could have sunk the project. Fortunately, they had earned the backing of Rough Trade, giving them a chance to do it right in a decent studio.
Even at Foel, with Rough Trade waiting, the idea was to produce themselves so they could realize their iconoclastic vision without compromise. But considering their lack of studio experience, much credit for the final result had to go to Dave Anderson, Foel’s owner, who engineered the sessions. The precision with which he captured the sounds of the players – whether the glide of Stuart’s hand across the strings or the exact touch of Philip’s pick on the steel-wound bass strings – is all the production that was required. After the final mixes were done, Anderson asked for co-production credit, which he received.
“When we were finished doing all the mixes, we turned all the lights out and listened to it really loud. It was all I could do to stop crying.” – Stuart Moxham, 1981
By the lights of indie bands, Colossal Youth was a smash hit when it was released 40 years ago this month. Perhaps primed by Young Marble Giants’ appearance on the BBC, it sold fast, amassing 27,000 copies in the UK in the year after it came out. Here across the pond, we had to wait a bit, our anticipation fueled by the inclusion of “Final Day,” their last single with Statton, on Rough Trade’s Wanna Buy A Bridge compilation. Among my circle, Colossal Youth, became an instant classic when we finally heard it. The quiet insistence of the music combined with Statton’s relatable vocals set a new benchmark for what was possible in a post-punk universe.
The look of the album, too, had the perfect blend of iconic and slapdash, from the side-lit band photos by Patrick Graham (paging Robert Freeman) and the well-considered logo to the Letraset typography. As far as I can recall, critical reception was good, with the exception of Robert Christgau, who called them “robot folkies” and gave them a begrudging “B.” But if any album was designed for the long tail, it’s Colossal Youth, and its stock has been ever on the upswing in the ensuing decades. Some of the universal embrace might have been enhanced by the mystery generated by the band’s quick demise, with interpersonal issues and “musical differences” leading them to call it quits by early 1981. And it didn’t hurt when Kurt Cobain named it one of his top 50 albums, his devotion leading to a stunning cover of “Credit in the Straight World,” on Hole’s Live Through This.
While Courtney Love’s storming take revealed how sturdy a Young Marble Giants song could be, their legacy is more to be found in quieter realms, such as early Belle & Sebastian, or more idiosyncratic ones, like Any Other City by Glasgow band Life Without Buildings, which came out in 2001 and was reissued to some acclaim in 2014. More recently, there’s Dry Cleaning, who put out two exciting EP’s in 2019, with the talk-singing of their vocalist Florence Shaw pulling the thread of Colossal Youth ever closer to our time.
When it comes to the later careers of Statton and the Moxham brothers, none of them have come close to the achievement of Colossal Youth. Somewhat ironically, though Stuart made claims to artistic dominance, those of us looking for more things that felt like Young Marble Giants found many pleasures in the early singles of Weekend, Statton’s band, which presciently blended indie-folk, café jazz, and bossa nova. But I wouldn’t hold their meandering trajectories, which included a few reunion shows in the 2010’s, against them. Many artists with far more extensive discographies would envy the laurels on which the Moxhams and Statton have been safely resting.
As for me, I don’t have those New Jersey friends anymore, but I’ll always have this band and their sole album, as unyielding in their beauty as the Ancient Greek kouri that gave them their names. Just as sailors to Athens gazed in awe at those enormous sculptures, may sonic adventurers continue to discover the wonders of Young Marble Giants and Colossal Youth for decades to come.
Note: invaluable background gained from the notes by the great Simon Reynolds included in the 2007 Domino reissue.