Now that the “post-punk revival” has reached critical mass and we can safely declare it ever-so-over, it’s nice to know that as briefly as it lasted it managed to uncover a couple of great forgotten bands, and perhaps inspire the genesis of one or two new ones. Quite an accomplishment, really, when you consider that the transition from ‘edgy’ to ‘played-out’ occupied a little less time than a couple seasons of The O.C..
That might have something to do, of course, with our complete self-awareness, our up-to-the-millisecond cultural meta-criticism, and our inability to focus on anything for more than one or two… where was I? Oh, right. Welcome to the future—we were so over this whole post-punk thing before it even started. Well, good. So were Maximum Joy. In fact, to throw around the p-word (punk, not post) in the direction of this band is to miss the point entirely.
These guys (and gal) are about as punk rock as Herbie Hancock, King Tubby, Larry Levan and that naked chick who danced at all the Hawkwind shows. True, they sprung from the ashes of the semi-infamous Pop Group (which combined the confrontational aesthetic of punk rock with the avant-garde approach of Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle), but the only thing they seemed to have taken with them was an utter disregard for the conventions of rock music and a working relationship with the Y Records label.
More rooted in jazz than rock, Maximum Joy delved into all forms of groove-based music, from reggae to afrobeat to post-Miles fusion to proto-disco and so on. Interestingly, and quite unusually for the times, they did so not in the manner of the Clash (who absorbed the same influences into a rock context), but as musical dilettantes who desired nothing more than to see this whole ‘funky’ thing through to its apotheosis, along the way embracing as many different styles as possible.
Despite being white kids from Brighton, Maximum Joy sounded a good deal more pre-disco Kool and the Gang than post-disco Gang of Four, like an 80’s indie version of a 70’s jazz-rock or 90’s jam band. But what sets Maximum Joy apart from the handful of bands (A Certain Ratio in the UK, Konk from New York, maybe one or two others) they could be musically or stylistically compared to was the sheer exuberance with which they created their music.
You would have to be a total Scrooge not to get a rise out of the positivism, freedom, and electricity of this band’s playing—coupled with utterly, well, joyous sentiments (“Get into it!”) and a completely non-ironic celebration of life. Remarkably, this happened during a time in which even the most crossover-friendly acts carried with them a certain weight, darkness, and cynicism—Maximum Joy took the expected negativity of the whole late 70’s indie music scene, answered it, inverted it, and blasted it back out onto a hotbed of funky rhythms, free-jazz rooted improvisation, and a spacious but exciting instrumental framework on which the sparse vocals ride but do not dominate.
Unlimited (1979-1983) marks the first time the music of this relentlessly obscure band has been available on CD. Included are the majority of their 7″ and 12″ single tracks as well as about half of their sole LP. The liner notes are terse but informative (they sadly lack a discography—the one on discogs is fairly complete), and although I am not familiar with the original recordings, the quality of the CD transfer sounds pretty outstanding to me.
Nearly every track on here is a winner, but “Stretch” is the standout amongst the harder funk jams, a minor classic in the early-eighties NYC dance underground. Janine Rainforth’s vocals (“Don’t say maybe / Call me yes!” / “Pulsate! Pulsate!”) demand rather than request your enjoyment over a skanky bass, accompanied by Tony Wrafter’s trumpet, which travels between horny horns-style riffing and bursts of pure skronk.
The LP track “Where’s Deke?” is probably my favorite amongst the moodier, more downtempo numbers—a densely populated dub landscape of city sound effects, echoed-out horns, and spooky walking basslines. When bringing in “world” music influences, as on the afro-carribean “Silent Street,” or the Dennis Bovell-produced reggae of “Man of Tribes,” Maximum Joy exhibit a stylistic freedom rare in similar British acts, many of whom exhibited such a stilted take on imported sounds that the end results were more often cod-reggae than not.
“Man of Tribes” in particular is a standout, not just because Bovell joins in on vocals, but because it also shows Maximum Joy in critical mode—”Money dreams / Give you heartache / Let money be / No part of you and me”—which, typically, they turn into a wake up call (“People everywhere / Open your eyes if you dare”). This leads nicely into the final tracks of the disc: the modern-world manifesto disguised as funky afrobeat of “All Wrapped Up!” (“Before they dump you on the street / They ought to give you sharper teeth”), followed by “Dancing on My Boomerang,” a sweet, genre-traversing instrumental that exists in the previously undiscovered grey area between Don Cherry, Duane Eddy and Bow Wow Wow.
One of the axioms of our current reassessment of the state of late 70’s/early 80’s independent rock is that the era was concerned with dissolving barriers between rock and other genres of music, that the cultural exchange rate was free-flowing from all sides and that the rulebook had, for all intents and purposes, been discarded. While mostly a load of crock, it just happens to hold true in a few isolated cases. Happily, this is one of them.
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