Singles and Sessions 1979-81
Kill Rock Stars
hat post-punk revival in full: the reverb-drenched mumbling of insecure quasi-goths! The incessant caterwauling of tone-deaf disco-punks! Smug British art students in crap charity-shop suits singing songs about girls! Load of fucking nonsense, ennit? Still, if you're going to hear the phrase "Gang of Four" once every eight seconds for several years you might as well grudgingly concede that it lead to increased interest in some of their noteworthy contemporaries. Delta 5 arose from the same rather fraught Leeds scene as them and the Mekons—all three attending Leeds University and cross-pollinating members during their early stages—but never quite got the legacy they deserved.
This is perhaps partly because their first and only album, the so-so See The Whirl, arrived in 1981 at a point where several original members of the band had left and the boundless creative energy that typified their early singles was somewhat diminished; thankfully this collection largely deals with those singles and their B-sides, appending some BBC sessions and live tracks (along with an interesting Greil Marcus essay and plenty of photos). Of course, this was back in the golden years where people actually bothered to write half-decent B-sides, so your overall package is pretty consistent without a hint of barrel-scraping.
As far as their context within this fabled Leeds Scene, it's (for once) fair to say that Gang of Four are probably their closest counterparts, with similarly skronky guitars and fractured funk bass attack (strengthened considerably by a second bassist). Lyrically though, Delta 5's songs are mostly less explicitly political in tone; tending to focus more closely on the details of personal interaction (or inexorably doomed attempts at it) than Gang of Four's bigger-picture accounts of capitalism-induced alienation. Both certainly share a similarly derisive attitude to the Love Song, but Delta 5 didn't so much reject the concept as devote themselves to making a mockery of it.
The nature of the band's lineup reflects their egalitarian, anti-rock star stance, with two men and three women juggling instruments and vocal duties as necessary. The women, Ros, Bethan, and Julz, do the lion's share of the singing, frequently all at once, sounding like some leftist art-punk hive-mind spouting a stream of comically intimidating barbs in clipped, unadorned tones. The cold-hearted rejection of "Mind Your Own Business," their best known song, is probably the extreme in that respect, while "You" comes close with a string of amusingly petty, almost quaint accusations such as "who took me to the Wimpy for a big night out? YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU!"
At times the over-the-top emotional detachment gives way to genuine resentment, such as the sullen claim in "Try" that "you don't want to understand, you want me to agree with you...you want to hear echoes." Like the "listen to the distance between us" mantra in "Mind Your Own Business", the recurring theme appears to be the apparently hopeless, unresolvable differences between two people. Similarly, "Colour"—a complaint about the stagnant music scene that sonically resembles a more bass-heavy take on the psychedelic pop course The Teardrop Explodes were embarking on at the time—opens with the line "just what is he crooning at, that overrated crooner," but concludes with the marginally less humorous "my blood will run red if I blow a hole in my head, then you'll see that I'm in colour."
It's often said that the austerity and tension of a lot of Brit post-punk reflects the bleak climate of the time—widespread unemployment, the lurch to the far right, the nagging threat of having your head stoved in by a Nazi skinhead—and that's certainly the case here ("it's just a feeling in the back of the neck...and a shadow behind walked with him"). At the same time these songs are shaped by their environment, though, there's also a sense of determination to transcend it and offer it a loud "fuck off" in a posh voice. Where Gang of Four seemed to alternate between downcast resignation and impotent anger, Delta 5's finest moments have a sort of inspired, infectious vigour shining through the pessimistic veneer. There are lots of vocal melodies and guitar lines here that are more pretty and graceful and y'know, hook-like than you'd expect from this type of stern punk-funk, but there's a part in "You" that embodies their appeal in particular, when the typical skronk-bash guitar solo has its spotlight promptly stolen by a chorus of ludicrously high-pitched whooping that just sounds like gloriously carefree pop music despite itself.
They may not have translated this exuberance into the idyllic several-album career that you might think they deserved—much like magnesium ribbon or an insane fictional android, they burned briefly but very brightly—but for a short while the Delta 5 embodied the promise of the post-punk ideal to the full, and this is about as good a document of it as you could ask for.