Acting as a time capsule that reveals the underground music climate of London during the mid 80's, the re-issue CD of "The Big Wheel" by Stress, not only offers insights into the economic frustrations that influenced those musical sensibilities, but has proven prophetic in its assessment of what civilization's future would bring. Coming off the punk thrust of the late 70's and into the New Wave's explosion of artistic perspectives, this collection of period DIY recordings speaks to the confines of British youth during the Thatcher years, and exposes a connection between the mechanisms of those hardships and the misrule of today.
Adventuresome but never over cooked, the music of Stress is built on memorable and solid rhythmic structures of drum machine and sequencer conversations interwoven with Alan Rider's engaging bass guitar lines. Subsequent workings of gothic keyboards, sampled sounds, and tape loops provide the atmospheric backdrops for Phil Clarke's raw, rebellious, and head turning vocal summarizations of social dissatisfaction. Never crowded, the chemistry between the two musicians is as sensitive as it is raucous, and as out front as it is subversive.
With a declarative opening, Clarke's lyrics to the title track "The Big Wheel," cry out to disobedient heroism within working class ethos to break the shackles of industry. Arming his listeners with the notion that industry is actually the commodification of human beings, he sings of one who starts off willing to take a stand against "The Big Wheel," but in the end is easily defeated by his own greed. The inference being that each of us in our own way makes a deal with industry, and the combined sum of all of us making those deals enables corporate tyranny. Socialist at the least, and Marxist at the max, the scenario reflects the theory of "commodity fetishism" straight out of the pages of "Das Capital." In order to appreciate the assertion's bold artistic bravery, it is important to place it in the context of the anticommunism cold war politics of the day.
Next up, is the experimental instrumental "Elizabeth Selwyn" which references a character from the 1960 Hammer-esque horror film, "The City of the Dead" (a.k.a. "Horror Hotel"). Sentenced to burn at the stake in Massachusetts during 1692, samples of her cries and snippets from the film overlay a mosaic of sequencer and tribal toms immersed in call and answer. Dark and danceable, the roots of Goth music came from recordings like this, where a fascination with the occult, and an attempt to appropriate it into a subculture, found its rallying point around underground bands transmitting the same reverence. Fueled by the leanings of antiestablishment fervor, the composition communicates a tense and edgy psychology that loosely parallels the persecution of being a witch with that of being persecuted as a social outcast.
Without a doubt the CD's most rememberable track is "Get The Most," a gritty and catchy youth anthem built on a narrative of two young social opposites reconciling the handcuffs of their economic mobility. Musically, its Gang of Four meets early Depeche Mode, with the underlying message being resentment of the choices and opportunities afforded their generation. The sequencer progression and chorus are simply unforgettable, and will work its way into any aficionado's heart. Again and again, the theme of where unbridled corporatism is, and will take us, is repeated on this CD. Tracks like "Slaves to the Beat," "Siege Economy," and "Fist Comes Down," all address the limitations and inequities of Tory mismanagement during the era. Well packaged and pieced together, the six original tracks from the 1985 vinyl mini LP and seven bonus tracks supply enough material to get a glimpse of what Stress were all about. Add mastering by Attrition's frontman and impresario Martin Bowes, and you have one very credible and fun historical document.
The responsibility of any serious artist is to say something about the times in which they live via the conversation their work creates, so that years after the fact those inferences, criticisms, and or commentaries act as a social barometer for the viewer, or in this case the listener. Stress have not only painted a veritable portrait of the time in which this music was conceived, but in doing so have said something about the world in which we live in now. Revealing where our troubles have come from, they have been able to shine a light on today's unseemly truths.