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A psychedelic punk classic
on January 14, 2001
First and best of the three albums recorded by the original Deviants lineup, Ptooff! is capable of sharply polarizing attitudes. To a number of ex-Swinging London cognoscenti (see Jonathon Green's Days In The Life) the Deviants remain a byword for musical incompetence; even their former manager, Steve Sparkes, recently dubbed Ptooff! "the worst record in the history of man." In hindsight, though, the Deviants were simply a decade ahead of their time, their alleged "ineptitude" making perfect sense in light of Punk's back-to-basics ethos. There's a large dollop of justice in Mick Farren's claim that, along with the MC5 and the Stooges, the Deviants had more to do with the way rock developed than the likes of Ten Years After. Led Zep they weren't, but who'd want them to be? (Paul Rudolph, apparently, but that's another episode.)
Ptooff!'s significance lies as much in the manner of its making as in its music. Mick Farren, anarchist, hustler, underground writer and sometime doorman at London's groovy UFO club, puts together a shambolic R&B band called the Social Deviants. By dint of persistence and massive drug ingestion the band overcomes opposition from those among the cognoscenti who like their freakouts on the mellow side, and becomes something of a fixture on the London scene. Eschewing the standard music-biz route to getting a record out, Farren persuades a whacked-out hippie son of a millionaire to put up the cash for an album. Mercifully free of any record company pressure to make "product", and fuelled by even more drugs and the will to attempt radical sonic experiments, the band parlay their technical limitations and studio naïvete into a flawed masterpiece of Zappaesque garage psychedelia.
(The band further challenge established music-biz practice by distributing Ptooff! themselves, even seizing control of the means of packaging by paying street hippies with enough amphetamines to keep them up all night wrapping the disc into its glorious multi-foldout pop-art sleeve.)
This salutary tale - of imagination and do-it-yourself fervour wresting control of a popular art form from the commodifying clutches of the music industry - would in 1977 come to serve as a blueprint for the indie tendencies of punk. Its ramifications continue to this day: that obscure techno/dance outfit working out of the basement of the café round the corner from your apartment, making CDs and artwork on primitive MIDI lashups and pirated software, can trace its lineage back to Ptooff! and the Deviants.
Enough of the sociology lecture, already - what's the music like? Imagine early Who and Stones filtered through a musique concrete scrambler and supercoded with oblique hippie satire, and you're getting there.
The band's R&B roots show through most clearly on the first track proper, "I'm Coming Home", an urgent, sinister blues groove, Farren all strangulated lustful menace, building to an explosive climax which recalls uncannily the Ron Asheton fuzz-wah panzer-guitar incursion on the Stooges' 1969. A true case of parallel evolution. Rumour that the Deviants used this song as an extended thrash during their stage shows makes one salivate for a contemporary live bootleg.
"Charlie" is a throwaway jogalong boogie replete with Farren narrative which prefigures some of his later fictional mutated-Wild West themes. The case for the Deviants' "incompetence" comes nearest to being made here. Not that there's anything wrong with it, really - just that, with contemporaries like the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac and a hundred others already mining the blues seam, you better be pretty hot instrumentally if you're gonna stand out. The Deviants aren't, and don't.
"Child Of The Sky" is an acoustic ballad with recorder accompaniment, rather cute in its own way but somewhat out of place on this record. So's "Bun", a mock-Tudor instrumental included as a show-off for Cord Rees's solo guitar.
Things start to get seriously interesting on the last three tracks. "Nothing Man" is a collage of multilayered treated percussion, electronic noise and tape loops framing disembodied lyrical snatches, reminiscent of the Velvets' "Murder Mystery" and very close to the kind of stuff Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle would be putting out ten years down the line.
"Garbage" is a real oddity, a stop-start rummage through rock's dustbin of used riffs, more electronic noise, probably the first vomiting ever committed to vinyl (thereby sealing the Deviants' punk credentials!) and harmonica interjections from Mick which must surely rank as the most perfunctory inter-stanza harp on record since Bob Dylan first crawled into a studio. Is it a comment on the disposability of pop? A swipe at the band's detractors?
Finally, "Deviation Street", a mindbending psychedelic variant on the "Louie Louie" riff interspersed with feedback, sinister poetry, Beatlemania screams, a glorious "Speed - speed - speed - speed" hookline (who needs veiled drug allusions when you got the Deviants?) which eventually mutates into a panoramic soundtrack tour through the lower depths of Swinging London, sampling Bo Diddley and Jimi Hendrix en route.
The original sleeve of Ptooff! contained a quote, allegedly from Plato (it ain't in the standard translations) but attributed to Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs: "When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake." The Deviants set up a tremor which was hardly noticed in their own time, but which still resonates down the years.