Most casual observers could be forgiven for thinking that South Shields’ most famous/notorious band released little of note after their first three albums.
And while it’s true that fourth album Still From The Heart, released in 1982, was a huge mis-step, and saw them dropped by EMI, there’s still much to enjoy from their mid-period.
Most punk fans will probably have their debut Teenage Warning, follow-up We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, ‘difficult’ third album 2,000,000 Voices, and the 1981 live offering, which are gathered (together with the best-forgotten SFTH) in last year’s Captain Oi!/Cherry Red boxset The Albums 1978-1982.
But I’ll wager that not as many will have the six albums which make the follow-up set, The Albums 1983-91. They span five different labels, and come with a multitude of bonus material from the period, including non-album singles, B-sides, demos and live tracks.
The first disc is 1983’s Reason Why?, which marked a real return to form after the SFTH, which was trying too hard to change with the musical times. From opener Woman In Disguise onwards, Mensi and co offer an alternative to the anarcho-punk and thrash which were starting to dominate the scene.
They were always better musicians than people give them credit for, and their frontman one of punk’s most impassioned and political lyricists. It includes one of their finest moments in Solidarity – still a live standout today – as well as the reggae skank of the title track, the powerful spoken word piece Geordie’s Wife and the articulate streetpunk of 42nd Street.
The original 13 tracks are supplemented by 10 bonus cuts, including the excellent B-side Lust For Glory, and the non-album single Not Just A Name, as well as a clutch of demos.
By the time of 1984’s sixth album, Last Tango In Moscow, the band’s ever-evolving line-up had changed yet again, but it was another strong album, featuring the likes of the single Machine Gun Kelly, and the spoken word version of the traditional song Blackleg Miner. Again there are 10 bonus tracks added to the original 12, mainly rare studio demos, including the original I Won’t Pay For Liberty, which was much better than the knockabout I Think It Should be Free which made the finished album.
Disc three is the 15-track Live In Yugoslavia, which reads like a greatest hits, featuring classics such as Never ‘Ad Nothin’, I’m An Upstart and Who Killed Liddle Towers, as well as an incendiary cover of The Clash’s White Riot. Sadly there are no bonus tracks with this one, but it’s a good record of how the Upstarts in the mid-80s.
Next up is Power Of The Press, the band’s seventh studio album, originally released in 1987 – they were nothing if not prolific - at a time when punk was perceived by the mainstream media to be dead and buried. Ten bonus tracks are added to the original 10, which included revisits of I Stand Accused and Soldier, two tracks from the much-maligned Still From The Heart album, and they are much better without the overblown production.
The traditional offering here comes in the shape of Mensi’s rendition of Eric Bogle’s anti-war anthem Greenfields Of France, and there’s one bonus track, the controversial single Brighton Bomb, which was banned for its glorification of the IRA’s attack on Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet at their party conference in 1984.
Disc five is another controversial one, eighth album Blood On The Terraces, which was slammed in Parliament for allegedly glorifying football hooliganism. Yet no one batted an eyelid at the social commentary of Heroin Is Good For You, or their desecration of the Kenny Rogers country classic Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town. The seven bonus tracks here come from the Main Event, an infamous show at The Astoria in London in April 1988 which had to be abandoned due to a crowd riot just as the Upstarts were really hitting their stride.
Completing the set is 1991’s ninth studio album Bombed Out, where original guitarist Mond Cowie returns to the fold for the first time since Reason Why?, with the record sounding all the better for it.
Mensi nails his socialist colours firmly to the mast in Red Till Dead, and Proud & Loud, and tackles another controversial subject in Albert’s Gotta Gun, about a County Durham landowner who shot dead a council planning officer who tried to make him pull down a house he had built.
The album is presented in its original 10-track form, and little did anyone know that it was to be the band’s last new material for 10 years. The Upstarts have split and reformed so many times that probably even Mensi has lost count, but for anyone who missed their mid-period work, this boxset is well worth having. 8/10.