It's taken me nearly two fucking decades, but I get it at last. Back in April, 2000 I described Psychiatric Underground - the Ceramic Hobs first album - as being like one of those kid's drawings of a circus where everything happens simultaneously. This was in an issue of Sound Projector, and the best I could do was a diplomatic concession admitting that it's never going to be my favourite album of all time but isn't without a place in the universe; and this was a review of my second copy of the album. I gave the first one away having found it impenetrable, then felt guilty, bought a second one and tried my best to say something nice about it; although to be fair, I gave Psychiatric Underground a spin just the other day, and I still can't really find a way in, even though I now have a better understanding of why it sounds as it does.
Anyway, I kept buying the records, mainly because Straight Outta Rampton - the second album - was fucking great, and I was friends with a few of them, or friends of friends, and I suppose we were all part of the same gang. Both Stan and Simon did guest vocals on some of my own stuff, and I briefly performed live with them at some Mad Pride event; and yet only now, with the release of this - essentially a greatest hits compilation - have I understood what they were doing, and understood that specific element I always found weirdly fascinating and yet difficult to define. Every review I've thus far seen of Blackpool Legacy has praised Philip Best's choice of tracks, it being himself who arranged the selection with the benefit of both a sympathetic ear and an outsider's objectivity; and the praise is justified because this record is a revelation, disentangling the formerly impenetrable from psychotic roots and providing the sort of contrast which allows all to shine. Most of these tracks were familiar, and yet somehow everything sounds better, heavier, tighter, clearer, harder, sharper, faster, funnier, and scarier. Where once I had the feeling of trying to listen to Nurse With Wound and the Cramps at the same time, most of this hits with the terrifying clarity of the first Pistols album.
As the booklet makes quite clear, the Ceramic Hobs could never be mistaken for worthy rainbow-wigged bozos covering They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha; and in case you're still wondering, they were described somewhere or other as the last true punk band and have certain associations with the Mad Pride movement through a number of members being very much on the radar of the psychiatric industry. My favourite comparison has been Idwal Fisher suggesting they make the Butthole Surfers sound like REM, which they do.
Ceramic Hobs are not a scrappy bunch of achievers trying to claw their way up the respectability ladder in society. Not at all. On The Prowler, Simon Morris croons the line drinking every night on the taxpayer's money, and he means it. Rubbing the face of the same people's mindset in our economic useless eater status. Yes, we do get drunk on the taxpayer's money as much as we want. Never work. We'll take and take and take until you admit you want to kill us. We'll bite the hand that feeds.
Anyway, their sound is all over like a mad woman's shit - to once again paraphrase Sir Les Patterson - which, as I now appreciate, has been an invocation of the sensory overload experienced during manic episodes, for any of us who may have been down that road - or the first SPK album with tunes, if you prefer; and this is why you'll commonly hear what almost resembles rock music - a sort of Oi! country & western tinged with rockabilly - buried behind layers of tapes from the telly, interviews with murderers, kid's shows, atrocity mixed with innocence. The problem I had came from my assumption of this being mostly random bursts of psychiatric noise, whereas it's actually finely orchestrated and arranged towards very specific effects, so you need to understand what is going on, which is difficult when even the Hobs themselves aren't always certain.
I've been surprised at how much sense these songs make heard in this context - scary, funny, often haunting, and the sort of stuff which makes a grown man cry. If you've forgotten what music was supposed to do before they got hold of it, Blackpool Legacy serves as a very timely reminder.