Playing live, the Membranes attract a small crowd of mostly Anglophile punk rock obsessives and local scene makers looking for a buzz, most of them somewhat familiar with the Membranes' particular brand of assaultive music. After taking the stage to little or no fanfare, the bands plows through maybe a dozen or so songs, each one noisier and faster than the one before. Needless to say,
ain't for everyone. For those with a more traditional, tuneful approach to rock and pop, the cacophony offered up by this trio from Blackpool, England will feel like a brick to the noggin. It doesn't always work -- a session with these yobs can be strident and monotonous, but in spite of their near total disregard for the pop music and all that goes with it,
manage to make some muscular, noisy, and thoroughly enjoyable pop music.
Anchored by bassist/guitarist/vocalist John Robb
, who also published a punk zine called Rox, the Membranes
began recording in the early '80s creating dissonant, rhythmically forceful song shards that were a noisy antithesis to new wave pop. In fact, had their records been more widely circulated, it's not unreasonable to think that the Membranes
would have mentioned in the same breath as Gang of Four or the Mekons
(interestingly, the Mekons Jon Langford befriended and produced the Membranes
). It wasn't until 1985 that the band released an EP entitled Death to Trad Rock, a howling chunk of extreme noise damage with a jackhammer backbeat that lived up to its title. It didn't make them pop stars (not that they wanted to be) but it did make them the underground band of the moment, and the attendant notoriety got them a spot on the hip indie label Creation. The resulting LP, humorously titled The Gift of Life
was even more intense and incoherent. Crashing, bashing, screaming, and yelling are a definite room clearer, there's hardly a moment on the record that isn't abrasive and confrontational. This willful defiance has its moments, but it's a hard slog. This hurricane of noise rock became the Membranes' calling card for the rest of their career, which ran until roughly the early '90s. They would abruptly switch gears and record something totally unexpected, such as the tuneful, synth-driven EP Everything's Brilliant (produced by Jon Langford), or their best record, 1988's Songs of Love & Fury. It was no surprise that on their last U.S. release, Kiss Ass...Godhead, a return to the furious noise of The Gift of Life
, they worked with then-Big Black noisemeister and all-around cranky underground rock guy Steve Albini
. These days, Albini is producing Robert Plant
and Jimmy Page
, as for the Membranes
, they remain an interesting, albeit minor, part of the story of British post-punk. It should be mentioned that the most consistently wonderful thing about Membranes' records was the artwork of Simon Clegg -- where is he now?