What do Generation X, The Buzzcocks and The Cult all have in common? Well, apart from being some of the best British bands of the late 70s and early 80s, all of them had members who have also been in punk band Chelsea. The overlooked and often unappreciated London group are turning 40 this year and to celebrate, they’ve put together a three-disc compilation of their first nine albums – from 1979’s self-titled debut to their 2005 effort, Faster, Cheaper and Better Looking.
Formed in 1976, the band’s initial (but brief) line-up consisted of vocalist Gene October, guitarist William Broad (who later found greater success under the pseudonym Billy Idol), bassist Tony James and drummer John Towe. However, it was after only a few gigs that Idol, James and Towe left the group to form Generation X. Chelsea’s ever-changing line-up may well have been one reason why the band experienced such limited success, despite the popularity and influence of their unemployment-tackling debut single ‘Right to Work’. Another reason might be that they released their debut album in 1979, when punk was just a smouldering ember rather than the raging inferno it was in ’77. This anthology, then, is a celebration of what could have been.
The first of the anthology’s three discs contains the band’s first three albums: Chelsea, Alternative Hits and Evacuate. Their 1979 debut album ticks all the punk debut boxes – scrappy power chords, vitriolic lyrics and a passionate cover of a reggae classic (Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ in this instance). While this was a solid foundation for the group, it was their next two albums where things started getting really interesting. While considered by some to be an aggressive street-punk band, 1980’s Alternative Hits and 1982’s Evacuate contain serious melody, with Chelsea sounding almost like a stylish hard-rock band at times. Songs on the former like ‘Urban Kids’ and ‘The Loner’ incorporate catchy, shout-along choruses to help get the urban kids and loners on board with their ideas, with ‘Right to Work’ also finding a place on the group’s second effort which added real substance to the album’s style. Their third album, 1982’s Evacuate, was even more musically varied than the previous album and has a much greater post-punk sound in addition to the band’s fiery punk. The hypnotic and tom-heavy ‘Tribal Song’ shares some similarities with PiL, ‘Last Drink’ is a catchy amalgamation of pop and hard rock, and ‘War Across the Nation’ is an aural onslaught with all the burning passion of the band’s debut and feels like a rush, even by punk’s standards.
Disc 2 captures the band in the mid to late 80’s, containing 1985’s Original Sinners, 1986’s Rocks Off and 1989’s Underwraps. The band’s constantly rotating line-up through this period may actually have worked in Gene October’s favour here as each of these albums really do have their own individual sound. Original Sinners is heavily tinged with psychedelic influences, especially the psych-folk of ‘Amazing Adventures’ and the incredible ‘Valium Mother’ which sounds like a cross between The Rolling Stones and The Stranglers at their poppiest. While very different to anything Chelsea have done before, the album is surprisingly strong if given enough time. Continuing with the theme of the Stones is 1986’s Rocks Off (where even the title seems like an overt reference to Jagger and co.) which contains not one but two covers of the band. The first is the joyous rush of ‘Street Fighting Man’ and the second, a bonus track, is a punky take on the classic ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. Chelsea clearly have a knack of picking good songs to cover, but maybe expanding their scope a bit would feel more rewarding. Fortunately, there are enough good original songs on show too. Picks include the contemplative and spacious ballad ‘Fools Paradise’ and the blues knees-up of ‘Hard-Up Baby’. The final album on Disc 2 is Underwraps from 1989 and it’s like a retrospective look-back at punk – opening with a solid cover of The Clash’s ‘Somebody Got Murdered’ and ending with a live blues jam with Topper Headon himself on drums. Throughout the rest of the album are more deceptively rich pop harmonies hidden underneath the jagged punk guitars. Sadly, for every catchy pop-punk song like ‘Nice Girls’, ‘Life of Crime’ or ‘Fool’, there’s a bizarre head-scratcher like ‘No Respect’ – effectively a John Lydon-esque rant of wannabe-Ruts lyrics over a digeridoo track. Yes, really. Underwraps is probably the weakest of the three albums here, mainly because of its inconsistent nature.
Disc 3 contains three albums from the 1990’s and 2000’s, starting with 1993’s The Alternative. It’s a surprisingly upbeat and melodic effort, mainly because if Chelsea were still as angry as they were in ’77 people would just find the act tiresome. Even punk’s never-say-die’s had to adapt to survive, and luckily for everyone they did. While not as drastically different musically as Original Sinners or Rocks Off, the pop-sensibilities give it a (slight) radio-friendly, pop-punk type of sound. Highlights include the opening title track and Nic Austin’s Skids-influenced guitars on ‘Weirdos in Wonderland’. 1994’s Traitor’s Gate starts pretty inauspiciously with one of the most unnecessary drum solos I’ve ever heard, sounding like someone switching a keyboard to ‘drum-kit’ setting and trying to play a solo via that medium. It manages to be clunky, contrived and out of time in the space of about 4 seconds. Thankfully, the song and the whole album get significantly better, actually feeling a lot angrier and more vital than The Alternative. The aforementioned opener ‘Streets of Anarchy’ has a gloomy 80’s feel hidden deep within and ‘S.A.D’ is the punkiest thing they’ve done in years. Once you get rid of the silly rock clichés (the drum solos, the random pick scrapes etc) you have yourself another solid album deep into the band’s back-catalogue. The final album is 2005’s Faster, Cheaper and Better Looking and, while it suffers slightly from inconsistent song qualities, there are definitely strong points. ‘Sod the War’ is Gene October back at his angry best and ‘45RPM’ is an impassioned lookback at how punk used to be. An interesting perspective from a man who could easily be sneery about its current state but chooses to appreciate the golden days instead. In its extensive list of bonus tracks we also find two more strong early Clash covers – ‘I Fought the Law’ and White Riot’. Most interestingly though, the main riff of the opening track ‘Living in the Urban UK’ sums up the album and the band perfectly. While hardly ground-breaking, it’s still highly potent and definitely has the power to turn a few heads.
This extensive celebration of one of Britain’s most overlooked punk groups captures all the highs and lows of a career that has been incendiary, influential and anything but predictable. While many of the ex-members gained greater notoriety in bands after Chelsea, it’s nice that people can finally see where it all began for them. A must buy for any punk fan.