Smile Politely

Mississippi Records re-releases ‘80s classics

The Rats — s/t (Mississippi Records)

Animals + Men — Never Bought Never Sold: Singles + Demos 1979–83 (Mississippi)

Mississippi Records is one of those record labels that, depending on your musical sensibilities, can do no wrong (at least to date). Based out of a record store of the same name in Portland, Oregon, Mississippi Records is primarily a re-issue label. Most of the re-issues are legit, but some get into grey public domain, quasi-legal territory. Nonetheless, Mississippi Records are providing a great service to music lovers. In the past year, the label has re-issued or compiled some true musical gems, such as Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble’s The Malcolm X Memorial, Irma Thomas’ incredible lost deep soul record Irma Thomas Sings, the compilation of scary great rock’n’roll gospel titled Life is a Problem, and also a compilation of netherwordly 78s from around the world called I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore. Those are just a few, but hopefully you get the idea.

Careful attention is given to packaging, and generally an insert is included with a little information on the record. Did I mention it’s a vinyl-only label? No CDs or MP3s. There is, though, a message on one of the records letting the owner of the record know that it’s okay to tape, burn, or rip the music so more people can hear it. The label tries to keep records cheap and in-print, but in the process remains pretty low to-the-ground. In fact, they don’t even have an e-mail address, let alone a website. Also, the label definitely adheres to a do-it-yourself ethos. Two recent re-issues put out by Mississippi of the groups The Rats and Animals + Men clearly reflect the DIY ethic in each group’s music.

The Rats were a Portland-based group in the early ’80s featuring a pre-Dead Moon Fred and Toodie Cole. If there is a band that is the epitome of DIY, it’s Dead Moon. Between the mid ’80s and ’00s, Dead Moon recorded their music themselves, literally pressed their own records at home, and issued the records on their own Tombstone Records. Prior to The Rats, Fred was in the Lollipop Shoppe — a killer ’60s garage punk band primarily known for their song “You Must Be a Witch.” With The Rats, Fred — who played guitar and sang — enlisted his wife Toodie on bass and a drummer who went by Rod Rat.

The self-titled, self-released Rats album that originally came out in 1980 was also Fred’s successful jump from ’60s punk rock into the next punk era, albeit after the original mid ’70s American punk heyday. The sound is primitive, raw, and bassy. The lyrical content on a number of songs such as “World War III,” “Rat Race,” “Social Indigestion,” and “Panic on 39th” dealt with topical issues of the day. Other songs like “Teenagers,” “Until It Rains,” “It’s Too Late,” and “Secrets” are love- and life-themed songs. One can also hear the seeds of what was to come in Dead Moon a few years down the road.

As with Dead Moon, Fred and Toodie share vocal duties in The Rats. Both have an earnest delivery. When they sing together, as on “Can Never Go Back,” their voices have the same compelling quality that Exene Cervenka and John Doe had in X.

Prior to this re-issue, The Rats LP fetched big bucks with collectors. This LP doesn’t quite have the same name significance as, say, the No New York comp, but in another sense this record seems pretty relevant. The Rats were unique, as stated previously, in having a direct line from the ’60s punk era. The album is also representative of one of the ways punk splintered after the ’70s — in this case bringing back the nastiness of the ’60s garage sound into the modern day. A line can be drawn from The Rats to underground DIY bands today. The record also shows what was going on regionally prior to the national/international inner-connectedness of the modern music era. I imagine this record had the same relevance for music-loving Portlanders as The Vertebrats had in Champaign-Urbana.

Mississippi’s recent compilation by the English band Animals + Men, titled Never Bought Never Sold: Singles + Demos 1979-83, is a good companion piece to the Rats re-issue, because it’s representative of what was going on across the pond at the same time period. The bands that came after the first wave of UK punk bands — like The Clash, The Damned, Chelsea, The Buzzcocks, etc. — headed in different directions. For example, there were the generic, bone-head hardcore groups like The Exploited, GBH, or UK Subs; groups such as Crass and Discharge that took hardcore in a musically interesting and politically-driven direction; and then there were the bands broadly categorized as post-punk that includes Gang of 4, The Fall, Public Image Limited, and The Raincoats, to name a few. The post-punk bands drew from influences outside of standard rock’n’roll such as dub/reggae, kraut rock, R&B, and psychedelia. A number of these bands started out staunchly independent. They released their own records, booked their own gigs and created a network of like-minded DIY bands. Animals + Men were a part of that scene.

Whereas the Rats were bringing back the ’60s rock’n’roll basics, Animals + Men added rhythm as a primary ingredient. More specifically their sound drew equally from ’60s acts such as Link Wray and the Shangri-Las and early ’80s U.S. rhythm monsters like ESG and Liquid Liquid. Like their contemporaries Delta 5, Kleenex, or A Certain Ratio, bass is the lead instrument. The bass sound is simple, catchy, and slightly funky, and the drumming really brings in the R&B and funk quotient. The guitar work is more sparse, yet sounds big due to the bassier Link Wray surf-influenced playing. Think a slow, stripped down version of “Rumble.” At times, I also hear some similarities to The Vaselines, who wouldn’t start making music for another five years or so.

The first two cuts, “Don’t Misbehave in the New Age” and “Waiting for My Stranger,” are from 1979. The sound described above is present, but with a slight Siouxsie and the Banshees influence. Animals + Men’s signature sound begins with the third song, “I Never Worry”. This cut is a demo from 1982. Around this time Animals + Men changed their name to the Terraplanes and added a second vocalist and drummer. The new members account for the big drum sound and the Shangri-Las-influenced vocals of Susan Wells and Brenda Austin. Unlike the Shangri-Las, Wells and Austin sound like they’d rather flick their lit cigarette butts at you rather than play the passive girlfriend or victim roles which were often themes of Shangri-Las’ songs. In so many words: confident and defiant. The overall themes of Animals + Men tend to be personal/political takes on living in the depressed Thatcher-era England. Like Gang of Four’s songs, you can get down and think at the same time. The last song on side one, “Treasure of the Damned,” is another great big beat danceable number.

Side two also mixes recording from different years and line-ups. The second cut, “It’s Hip,” was originally released as a 45 B-side and cops the melody of Richard Hell’s “Blank Generation” a couple years before the Stray Cats lifted it for their “Stray Cat Strut.” The lyrics are a tongue-in-cheek send-up of what’s hip at the moment. Other stand outs on side two include “We Are Machines,” “You Excite Me Baby,” and “Headphones.”

Prior to the Mississippi re-issues, I was not aware of The Rats and Animals + Men. I definitely feel my record collection and musical knowledge have benefited from these records.

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