Wednesday, March 2, 2011

March 2: Sham 69, "Borstal Breakout"

Artist: Sham 69
Song: "Borstal Breakout"
Album: Tell Us The Truth
Year: 1978

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In every style of music throughout the history of recorded sound, there has never been anything that could take the place of "real," authentic, and completely honest performances.  Perhaps best stated within hip-hop as "keeping it real," one can find examples from both sides of the spectrum across the biggest bands ever, and in many cases, once one hears the "real deal," those who are posing become far more obvious.  The timing of such actions cannot be pinpointed to a certain place in the wave of a musical trend, and even at the apex of popularity for a genre, it can often be impossible to discern the real from the fake.  This was clearly the case in the late 1970's, as the overflow of bands calling themselves "punk" created so many new subsets of the style that it is only after years had passed that one can figure out which bands fell into what category.  While the U.K. produced perhaps the most artificial and label-created punk band in history, the country was also responsible for the ultimate "working man's" punk act, Sham 69.  Though they were not as well known as many of the other bands of the era, they had far more "street cred" than their peers, and their music and attitude always made it clear that they saw themselves as being on the same level as their fans.  Their 1978 release, Tell Us The Truth, remains one of the most blistering recordings in history, and one can quickly understand why Sham 69 stand as such legends after hearing their unmatched classic, "Borstal Breakout."

The album as a whole was split into two distinct sides, with the first side being live recordings, and the second having studio work.  It is this duality that enables listeners to quickly gain a full understanding of the band, and this live version of "Borstal Breakout" perfectly captures the band in their element.  With the crowd quite prominent in the mix, listeners are transported to a small, dark pub, and the energy of that evening remains strong on the recording.  After Jimmy Pursey counts in the song, the band drops into the classic punk sound, led by the powerful sound from guitarist Dave Parsons.  The energy coming off his guitar is the very essence of punk rock, and one can feel the amazing tension he brings to the track.  Bassist Dave Treganna whips across the song, and there is a hardness to his playing that makes it stand out from his peers.  Again, the live element of the song becomes more clear in that there is a slight volume distortion in his playing, but it only adds to the overall feeling.  Rounding out the band is drummer Mark Cain, and the thumping of his kick drum is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the music on "Borstal Breakout."  One can almost feel it hitting the speakers in rhythm, and this raw, untouched sound is in many ways the ultimate punk rock tone.  The way in which the entire band slams through the song without letting up for a moment is nothing short of breathtaking, and there is no question why the band decided NOT to have a studio version of "Borstal Breakout" on the album.

Adding even more tot he overall raw and unrestrained feeling, vocalist Jimmy Pursey highlights the bite that the band had with his performance on "Borstal Breakout."  Clearly playing off of the crowds' energy, Pursey displays the "classic" U.K. frontman sound, and though he sounds similar to many of his peers, it is impossible to mistake his voice for any other person.  Much like the music, Pursey gives a very direct, unapologetic performance, and the urgency within his voice makes it easy to understand why the band's live shows were so legendary.  One can feel the bond he has with his fans, and it is this aspect that gives "Borstal Breakout" a mood unlike any other song from this era of punk rock.  There is a passion within the vocals of Pursey, and one cannot deny the feeling that the band plays as if they are "just fans" who happen to be the ones on stage.  It is this element that cements the difference between Sham 69 and a majority of their peers, as it is quickly apparent that they "live" the songs and style that they perform.  On "Borstal Breakout," one can also hear one of the more unique takes on something resembling a love song, and there is no other lyric in history quite like when Pursey sings, "I'm sitting in this cell for something I didn't do, and all I can think of is baby I think of you..."  This odd tale of breaking out of jail in the name of love is certainly distinctive, and the passion with which Jimmy Pursey delivers the words makes it feel as if he wrote the song after carrying out such a deed.

The combination of the raw sound of the band and the sharp vocals of Jimmy Pursey place "Borstal Breakout" into a category all its own, and the overall feeling one gets from this live recording has a charm and intrigue that cannot be denied.  Truth be told, this recording can even be seen as a historical document, as there are very few recordings that exist of such a small-scale show from that era.  The energy that is being created by the band and fans is impossible to not get caught up in, and his feeling only makes the song more impressive.  Though the sound is far more thin than what one finds on the studio side of Tell Us The Truth, it helps to give a far more accurate picture of the overall talents of Sham 69.  When compared to their peers, the band unintentionally exposes many other groups as posers, due to these other bands either being constructed by labels or having grown up in far more privileged environments.  Within their sound, one can feel the rough, working-class roots of the band, and this is why Sham 69 gained such a dedicated following.  It is due to this that one can point to the band as the pioneers of what is now called "street punk," and while many have tried to match their sound, the sheer force and energy of the group remains unrivaled.  The combination of uncompromising sound and a clear want to have the entire crowd involved can be seen as the trademark of Sham 69's sound, and everything that makes them such a pivotal band in the overall history of music can clearly be heard within their 1978 recording, "Borstal Breakout."

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