Liverpool, England was a hip place to be in the early 80's. Quickly following Manchester's lead, Liverpool's scene, centered around Bill Drummond's Zoo label, produced some wildly talented, original bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, who became household names. Others, like the Wild Swans, were relegated to cult obscurity. But what sets the Wild Swans apart is the fiercely rabid cult following that grew around their lone early 80s single, "Revolutionary Spirit." Web searches turn up gushing praise from old-fart New Wavers who hold this single close to their hearts, and Bill Drummond cites it as "the best track Zoo ever produced." But for 20 years, your only chances of finding this rarity were to stumble upon an out-of-print Zoo compilation or locate the elusive single itself. Luckily, it's finally been preserved on CD with 2 discs full of previously unreleased BBC Sessions, demos, and live cuts.
This isn't quite the same Wild Swans who's good but slightly over-produced melodic pop you probably heard on your local alternative radio station in 1988. This is the sound of four young, angsty, drugged-out hipsters banging out impassioned pop with a blurry energy like there's no tomorrow. Produced in a fit of extra-curricular activity by Bunnymen drummer Pete de Freitas (who also played drums on it), the single perfectly captures their intense, naïve youthful energy. Crucial to the sound is guitarist Jem Kelly's intricate, melodic, shimmering style; a bit like Richard Lloyd's artsy, English cousin, or Robin Guthrie on speed. Paul Simpson's dramatic singing adds to the desperate urgency. "Revolutionary Spirit," with its lush verses and stunning, driving chorus, perfectly embodies what the pop end of English post-punk was all about; bold, romantic, wildly catchy, artful, moody, and played with a sense of urgency only early 20-somethings can conjure. The b-side, "God Forbid," is just as riveting, with a similarly surging energy and beautiful, melodic hooks. The verses' upbeat pop and infectious guitar melodies (copied ad nauseam by every C-86/twee band that ever existed) contrast the dramatic, dark, pummeling chorus. Whether you get this music or not, there's no denying its seminal impact, even on 3rd generation indie-pop kids who probably never heard it.
Contributing to "Rev. Spirit's" cult mystique is the youthful, DIY naivety of its production. Clearly not a seasoned producer, de Freitas accidentally mixed the single in mono and recorded the levels way too "hot", resulting in audible distortion in the songs' louder sections. Adding insult to injury, de Freitas took the master tapes to New York on a US Bunnymen tour to have them remixed, and lost them (to this day they've never surfaced). Renascent unearthed a test pressing of the single and digitally re-mastered it, eliminating some of the distortion. They also included the stereo remixes from NY (that somehow made it back home), which, despite improved sonic clarity, lack the unique urgency of the original.
So, was there enough good material to justify a 2-disc compilation? The first disc, containing everything they did around the time of "Rev Spirit," is pretty consistent. Several tunes reach the highs of the single, like "The Iron Bed," "Flowers of England," and "Now You're Perfect," - all soaring and beautiful, with Kelly's sparkly, hands-on-fire lead-melodic guitar, Simpson's melodramatic singing, and their trademark bruising drums. Even the flanger-laden instrumental filler "Thirst" is fairly engaging.
Disc two loses steam, but still its moments, like the Peel Sessions and demos recorded in '86 after the band returned from a lengthy hiatus. "Northern England" and "Now and Forever" were re-recorded for their '88 LP "Bringing Home the Ashes," but the slightly rough, stripped-down versions here might be more appealing since they contrast "Ashes'" slick production. Disc 2's second half rounds up early live tracks played by the original line up, which although energetic and well-played, suffer from bootleg quality sound. The live stuff isn't essential to me, but I'm sure someone out there is drooling all over it. Disc 2 ends with a boombox recording of the band in rehearsal, hashing out a new, pre-vocals tune.