Poison Girls

[Persons Unknown/Statement (Orchestral) sleeve]"Persons Unknown/Statement (Orchestral) 35 year anniversary deluxe 12" edition" (Single, 2015)

All The Madmen Records

A word of warning: This review contains references to the extremely volatile social/ political situation and ideas relevant to the UK (and possibly only London) in the period of 1979/80, which are now so distant and complex that they require far more space than I can possibly devote here to satisfactorily explain them. I’d like to think that you don’t need a grounding in the anarchist/ punk milieu of the time to make sense of this review (or enjoy the record). 

The original 1980 release of the Persons Unknown/Bloody Revolutions split 7” single with Crass could convincingly be argued to be the moment of conception for the rough beast we have come to know as anarcho punk (anarchopunk?, anarcho-punk? anarcha-punk?– even the very coinage of the term is up for dispute), raising funds as it did to set up what eventually became the Wapping Autonomy Centre, which served as both crucible and breeding ground for the then-nascent scene forming around the ideas propagated by PG and, of course Crass. 

I sure the various members of PG are heartily sick of forever being yoked to the Epping Forest commune-ists, but it’s almost inescapable given that they shared an ideological approach, innumerable gigs, a record label and even a postcode for several years. To my mind though, Poison Girls were always the better band. While (certainly early) Crass were essentially just “rage/rage/RAGE/RAGE/(ART)”, Poison Girls touched on isolation, lust, doubt, fear and a host of other human vulnerabilities, rooting their work in the personal rather than just the political. 

I bought Crass’ The Feeding Of The 5,000 and Poison Girls’ Hex on the same day from Small Wonder, and while I loved the adrenaline rush of Feeding at the time, with the benefit of hindsight, of its 17 songs, 5 are great, 4 are good-ish and the rest almost unlistenable. Hex however, is 8 songs all of which are still great (with the spine-chilling Bremen Song being a work of stone-cold genius), and you could make a similar argument regarding the merits of Stations of the Crass and Chappaquiddick Bridge respectively. 

With that lengthy preamble out of the way, let us turn at last to the matter at hand. The packaging is lovely, with the artwork and design by Bernhardt Rebours/ Bernard Chandler (erstwhile Poison Girls bassist who also designed a lot of Poison Girls’ original covers, as well as Conflict’s It’s Time to See Who’s Who and all UK Decay’s covers from Sexual onward), being based on the artwork from the original Small Wonder/Xntrix pressing of the Hex 12”, which is one of my favourite punk graphics ever. It comes complete with lyrics, info insert and an A2 poster featuring a restored set of 48 badge designs from 1980, which your humble correspondent helped bring to fruition*

It’s pressed on 180g heavyweight vinyl (in a pleasantly trend-bucking moment, it’s plain black), and as I have a battered copy of the original 7” release I can actually give some idea of the difference in sound the re-mastering and 12” format has made (while trying to take into account the patina of clicks, scuffs and general surface noise that 35 years and frequent plays have deposited on this historical artefact) that the sound is a lot fuller on the new 12”.

Persons Unknown originally suffered from the patented Crass Records 'loads of top-end to make sure it doesn’t sound like a ‘rock’ record' production job, which to be fair is pretty difficult to undo with just a re-master (as opposed to a remix), and to be honest, I wouldn’t want it to sound radically different anyway. The new version reveals depths that the 7” pressing (or perhaps a sucession of cheap shitty record players) had kept hidden until now, but doesn’t really muck about with the overall sound. Which is all to the good, as I like my trebly drone to sound like a trebly drone, thanks. Persons Unknown is an immensely powerful record, and although I don’t think it’s their best work (the afore-mentioned Bremen Song wins it for me), it’s certainly their most well known, and I must have heard it several hundred times. So well do I know it, that I almost don’t hear it anymore. And when you do sit down and actually listen to it, you realise what an odd record it is. 

Starting with the rising tone of a calibration sweep**, it moves into a simple phased guitar riff with what sounds like a short wave radio tuned between stations and a touch of synthesiser mixed in, then builds mass as the other instruments and the vocals kick in. It powers along, becoming denser and denser as instruments are layered on top of one another, before coming to what appears to be a stop around the five minute mark; then moving into that most notpunk of things – an extended instrumental coda. Lasting a good two minutes, this features a synthesised bass rumble, duelling guitars and a simplified version of the opening guitar riff played on keyboard until a slow fade finally brings matters to a close. This final section could almost be defined as prog rock if it wasn’t for the relatively simple structure underpinning the (I’m assuming) improvised flourishes. But what makes the song is the lyrics, and singer Vi Subversa’s delivery of them. Her voice is warm and smoky, but with a passionate edge that means there’s an angry, desperate quality that slides into a harsh, broken register at times. 

In a deceptively simple conceit*** inspired by the infamous ‘Persons Unknown’ conspiracy trial, Subversa highlights the invisible connections between such seemingly disparate groups as “Pimps and economists, royalty and communists, rioters and pacifists”, and make the point that “We are all Unknown Persons, not only to the authorities, but to each other” (to quote the original 7” sleeve notes), that we are all “Hiding in shadows” condemned to living death by an all-consuming system, and that “Habits of hiding soon will be the death of us/Dying in secret from poisons unknown…”. 

Above all though, it’s compassion that defines the song, with its acknowledgement of “The lonely who long for persons unknown” and the final lines “Flesh and blood is who we are/Flesh and blood are what we are/Flesh and blood is who we are/Our cover is blown...” It’s a heartfelt appeal to individualism and solidarity; for all of us to break through the barriers that keep us unknown - to each other, and more tellingly - ourselves. Its power rests in its immediacy, communicating more about the human impulses which drive anarchist theory and practice in a seven minute burst of sound than any textbook could ever manage. 

Statement (Orchestral) is a re-recording of the song that came as a flexi-disc with initial quantities of the Chappaquiddick Bridge LP, and I’m afraid that although this version is a fuller, richer arrangement, it lacks the abrasive power of the austere original. Appropriately enough, it’s split into three distinct ‘movements’, using brass and strings to fill in the spaces left vacant in the previous recording of the song. As the name suggests, the lyrics are a statement addressed to the listener - condemning the physical, psychological and environmental damage inflicted by the system, but using poetic, nightmarish imagery a million miles away from the (sub) standard 'Stuff is Bad' discourse so prevalent among the less imaginative recesses of the scene.

Heralded by a fanfare that features a snatch of Anarchy in the UK, the first section keeps the guitars low in the mix and lets the classical instrumentation carry the riff, before a brief bridging section features disembodied voices intoning “There are no words for us/No words”. A more conventional band set-up powers through a sped up middle section featuring slightly amended lyrics, followed by another bridge featuring the “No words” refrain, and a more successful end passage where the ‘band’ elements are significantly louder in the mix, which together with the brass and strings, take up an insistent, percussive rhythm that grips the listener in a way that the previous ‘movements’ failed to do. No song that features lyrics of the calibre of “I reject the system that turns bodies of my own sweet flesh/Into monsters of iron and steel and war/And turns the hands of my children into robot claws” and “Only a curse, leaps like blood from my throat” can ever be easily discounted, but I found myself wondering what a neo-classical arrangement by In The Nursery might make of it (or for that matter, how Ministry circa Psalm 69 would have handled the guitar driven asceticism of the original version). 

Notwithstanding the above, it goes to show that Poison Girls were never content to do the expected, and if this orchestral version of Statement is not entirely successful, it’s not for want of trying. It has a haunting quality, and carries a power which stays with you long after the final desperate cry of “Waste…waste…waste…” has faded into the ether. 

There has been much said recently of the parallels between the current political situation and that of the early ‘80s and the concomitant relevance of the political ideas expressed by the anarcho punk movement. I think these arguments are simplistic in the main, but in a time when the Class War activist Lisa McKenzie can be tried for conspiring with ‘Persons Unknown’ because someone on a demonstration they were at put a sticker on a window, when religious fanatics vent their insane rage on gig-goers and planned parenthood clinics, when presidential candidates propose that all Muslims should be ‘monitored’ as a matter of course, when the West’s response to a terrorist attack is to rain death onto a country already devastated by years of civil war; when rampant capitalism has caused such damage to the environment that our very existence as a species is threatened, yet we still grind blindly on to oblivion, the anger, sorrow and pain expressed in these songs (and hundreds like them) seem like the only sane response. 

10/10 for the A side, 7/10 for the B side (giving an average of 8.5/10), with an extra point for the design/ packaging bringing the average back up to 9.5/10

*Modesty forbids and in-depth description of the trials and tribulations of this mammoth task, but aficionados of graphic design and whining self-pity are directed to the Kill Your Pet Puppy site where you can pore over my tale of heart breaking toil at your leisure. 

** Thanks Pete! 

*** I fondly imagine that like many classic songs (Black Sabbath’s Paranoid or UK Decay’s Unwind for example), Persons Unknown was written in almost less time than it takes to play, and I don’t want to know about it if I’m wrong.

Nick Hydra (January 2016)