30 years ago, January 1982 – Play Dead’s first Peel session

Play Dead should have been much, much more successful than they actually were.  As I have mentioned my first proper gig, i.e. one that wasn’t the local goth/punk band in the local goth/rock pub/venue (so for us in Cheltenham that was the Screaming Dead at Charles’s Night Club) was Killing Joke supported by Play Dead at Digbeth Civic Hall, 30th July 1983.  

I was only 15 and in awe of Killing Joke but when Play Dead came on I was gob-smacked.  Now, hard-core Play Dead fans will hate what I am about to say, but, Play Dead were like the world’s best Killing Joke tribute band.  The songs were different, but the components were nearly all Killing Joke – tribal drums – check, chugging bass – check, arpeggiated, dirty, chorused guitar – check.  In fact it is really only the vocals which are different.

Now do NOT get me wrong.  I love Play Dead and this is not meant to be disrespectful.  In fact, I think Play Dead arrived just in time to pick up the slack as Killing Joke stumbled…  Let’s face it, 1983/4 saw Killing Joke release Fire Dances – not a bad LP, but not a great Killing Joke LP, the average Wilful Days, and the truly woeful Me or You? (fuck knows how this one got out).  Whereas Play Dead were releasing the majestic Shine, Break, Isabel, Sin of Sins and Conspiracy (and 1919 were releasing the equally amazing Cry Wolf), but, for some reason, Play Dead did not manage to capitalise on a clutch of outstanding records.

So it is thirty years agoJanuary 1982 and John Peel unleashes his first Play Dead session, containing the following tracks: 

  1. Propaganda
  2. Metallic Smile
  3. Pray to Mecca
  4. Effigy

The eagle-eyed will notice that only one of these tracks, Propaganda – potentially goth’s finest funk moment (Sounds called it “a combination of buoyant funk, blistering force, punk rawness and heavy metal dynamism”) – ever made to an official release (and please, BBC, release the three Play Dead sessions – we’ll pay!), and it seems that 1982 was to be a watershed for the band.  This session and everything before it, besides Propaganda, seems to be Play Dead phase one – and the band dismiss the work largely:

However, the band were less than happy with their first two singles, indeed about the record (TV Eye) all they had to say was “that record is nothing to do with us-we just blot it out of our minds completely!”.

Then arrived 1982, an awful year of enforced hibernation for the group following the untimely demise of Fresh Records. Propaganda, the third single had been recorded in April 1982, but didn’t surface until the following November, by which time a new recording contract had been signed with the Fresh-off-shoot Jungle Records.

Mike Hall, Spiral Scratch, November 1991

Propaganda is very cool.  It is more laid back and a touch slower and I think better for it.  The snare sounds like an electronic hand-clap, so presumably it was an electronic kit (usually coupled with real high-hats and cymbals).  The bass is really raw compared to the many studio versions and mixes, and it really appeals.

So what about the un-released tracks?  Metallic Smile has a really taught, almost Gang of Four-esque, funk feel (with a really dirty bass), but is let down by the half-time choruses.  Pray to Mecca is a bouncy, funk-lite thing, with the very Play Dead heavily delayed vocals(“pray to Mecca-Mecca-ecca-cca-ca”).  Couple this with a mal-nourished middle eight and this, like Metallic Smile is b-side material.

Effigy is an odd fish.  It’s a fairly slow song, and the staccato bass-lines in the verses really remind me of Bauhaus’s Double Dare, from their debut LP In the Flat Field – and that is one mind-blowing LP.  But, again, the half time choruses, as in the other tracks, allow the tension that the verses generate to dissipate.  Shame really.  Maybe couple Effigy and Metallic Smile’s respective fast bits together and you have a winner… who knows?

Play Dead should have been HUGE!


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