Friday, May 15, 2015

Easter & The Totems : The Sum Is Greater Than Its Parts (Reissue)

Living in South East London I’m suprised I’ve not come across this band yet.  Sometimes things really are right under your nose and you don’t even see them.   Doing some background reading Easter & the Totems really seem to have been a cornerstone of underground music south of the river.  The group knocked out their first raw demos in 1981 called ‘Queen Menace Shock Six’.  Their self-styled ‘agit-pop’ was a search for balance between amphetamine driven rhythms, battering punk and melodic arrangements whilst experimenting with tapes and effects.  Album ‘Hip Replacement’ debuted this wrong-footed rock vision, made in 7 days when the band was still in their teens.  All in all Easter & the Totem would go on to release 3 albums and 3 singles in the 12 years they were active - all self-financed with no management, a hard grafting DIY effort.  The line-up fluctuated a little with Mike Barry Guitar/Vocals, Steve Mountain Drums/Vocals being core members, and John Diver, Time Stocker, Dave Pearton, Chris Richardson, Kevin Tweedy, Richard Morris, Neil Braddock all working in the band at different stages.

Rooted in a frustration with UK’s political situation in the early 1980’s, specifically holding an anti-Thatcher stance, Easter & the Totem drew from and gave a voice to the downtrodden working/lower classes of the time.   Coming from those backgrounds themselves and not really identifying with music around them either, Easter & the Totems had more than one reason to feel alienated.  Perhaps this spurred on their need to play in a band, and to make connections with likeminded people in the area.  Typically performing in Woolwich, Penge, Herne Hill, Catford and Crystal Palace they established a group of artists who would be known as Bromley Musicians Collective/South East London Musicians Collective.  They go on to organize gigs for each other and release records with a focus on giving support to victims of social injustices they identified around them.

Easter & The Totem recorded some tracks in Bromley Studios with Nigel Laybourne that had been going down well during these gigs.  ‘Distant Generations’ and ‘Acid Reign’ (both direct political songs about Thatcher) from this session would feature on ‘The Sum Is Great Than Its Parts’, originally released in November 1986.  This was a collection of material documenting their work to date released on Ideological Sounds (Barry’s label).  Its first pressing came in 500 copies featuring long time designer Bill Webb for album artwork, in 1997 Pinnacle reissued a further 500.  

So here we are with SS Record’s 2015 version of the album.  SS have actually had this up their sleeve since the early 90s after finding the album in the back room of a record store, having worn out their copy and worked for many years to get permission, SS got the go-ahead to give ‘Sum Is Greater Than It’s Parts’ a full reissue treatment.  ‘Acid Reign’ is a finely-spun pop number featuring sugary synths, wild rhythms and crispy guitar accompanied by melody driven vocals.  ‘Distant Generations’ is a florid post punk charge playing happy and sad off each other, in a way that might remind one of The Smiths.  ‘We Fade’ has a curious Death Rock feel to it, there’s something definitely darker and more dejected, just in how the scaling  guitars, numbed vocals and agitated synths carry through the track.

With the recent re-election of the Tories it’s an interesting time for this album to re-appear.  Easter & the Totem were true to their South East London roots never venturing far from home turf, getting stuck into supporting local communities and art projects. And I hope they would be happy to know people have picked up this mantle today, I can’t finish this post without highlighting a few collectives, labels and shops in the area worthy of your support:

And as for Easter & the Totems I’ll leave the summary to Mike Barry, “There was Mike Barry (age 18), Ian Self (age 18), and a Drum Machine. In those days, all you needed was a couple of long coats, a mutual love of the Fall and Joy Division, a pile of existential books, Kafka, Camus, Dostoyevsky, etc and some lager. They took their name from a Jackson Pollock painting. It was Summer of 1981 and the band was as rough as a bears arse.”  

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