Pretty sure no one could have seen that one coming, right?
The year 1981 was definitely ripe with top-shelf punk records in Britain and the second generation of anarchopunk bands was steadily growing. The No doves fly here, Demystification, Demolition War and Neu Smell Ep's were all released in 1981 and many crucial bands were forming and learning how to play (or how not to play) their instruments and how to paint a banner with peace and anok symbols. I suppose I could have picked any one of these classic records and go for it. But I thought (kinda) long and (a little) hard and decided to select a little-known record from an obscure band that is almost never discussed and that I know virtually nothing about. Again, that is my idea of fun.
And let's introduce the subject with a very bold statement that only a pretentious twat like myself can genuinely believe in: had it been released on a London label, Waiting for World War III would be deemed an absolute classic record nowadays and you would see vintage anarcho fanatics wear Soldiers of Fortune shirts and have massive buttons on their vegan leather jacket. There, I said it and this is the gospel truth. Here is the thing though, SOF were not technically a British band in 1981. The band was indeed made up of three English punks but was based in Berlin where the lads squatted between 1980 and 1982, a fact that inevitably reminds one of B-Movie. I must admit that I pondered over the relevance of including a Berlin band in a series about British anarchopunk but the particular history of Soldiers of Fortune, especially the post-1982 period, is totally coherent with the context of the UK anarchopunk narrative without mentioning the fact that the members were punk squatters in one of the most politically and musically exciting cities in the eighties. Besides, after writing about a non-anarchist anarchopunk band with 6 Minute War, why not rave about an English anarchopunk bands from Berlin?
SOF was a trio that originated from Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk, a declining and reactionary resort town notorious for being the first one to have suffered an aerial bombardment in the UK during WWI (it was also severely bombed during the Blitz) and for the collapse of a bridge in 1845 that caused the death of 79 kids. Although its name sounds a bit funny (c'mon, let's face it, it does), Yarmouth looks like a pretty grim place to grow up in and the song "Small town sunday" is there to remind you of the reason why the band fucked off to Berlin when they had the chance. SOF lived in Squatting Heaven for two years, where they recorded this album in 1981 and the Stars/Autonomia Ep the following year, just before they moved back to England, London to be specific, where they went on squatting and got heavily involved in the anarchopunk scene. They notably played at the Zig Zag squat in late 1982 along with The Mob, The Apostles, Flux of Pink Indians and Omega Tribe.
To give you an idea of where the band stood in the grand story of British punk and of how active they were, here is a comment that was published on the excellent blog Nuzz Prowling Wolf, in a post about SOF's Ep (you can read it here):
"Actually the Soldiers were originally from Great Yarmouth, and consisted of two brothers, Ingmar on guitar and vo, and Roger on bass plus Trevor on drums. They moved to Berlin in 1980, and to London in '82 and helped set up the Kafe Kollaps squat bar in West Hampstead along with the Burn It Down collective, who then opened the Burn It Down Ballroom on Finchley Road in 1983 (Crass played the first gig, the Soldiers also played; The Mob were regulars) and the Glasshouse in Camden in 1984. The Burn It Downs also put on the first ever Class War benefit gig in 1984 (in what used to be the Camden Council housing offices just off Finchley Road) which was headlined by Poison Girls, helped set up the Ambulance Station in the Old Kent Road, supplied PA's for lots of squat gigs and joined with CopyArt in 1985. The Soldiers became a kind of Cult-lite in 1986, moved back to Berlin and stopped playing music."
(The person who commented was anonymous but, judging from the precision of the account, was clearly involved in that specific part of the London scene at the time. Who knows, perhaps someone close to "The Soldiers"?)
Anyway, in spite of the band's obvious commitment to the anarcho scene during their London years, they largely remain one of the best, as well as one of the most unknown, bands of the early 80's. One could venture that since their records had been released on small Berlin labels, they were not widely available in England, but apparently the Ep could still be found at SOF gigs after they came back from their Eastern stay. It is a bit of a mystery to me how that good a band never had the chance of a British pressing, or even just a tape version. Perhaps as a band, they were not really interested in doing so and preferred to focus on the present and on making things happen rather than on their past recordings? This would certainly be honourable but still deprived many local punks of their musical greatness. Because if Waiting for World War III had been released on Xcentric Crass Records or even on Bluurg Tapes, let me tell you that it would have drowned under an endless shower of praises.
I cannot remember exactly when I first bumped into SOF but it was definitely through a music blog (those things from a distant past). I liked the cover and decided to give it a go, expecting typical early German punk-rock or postpunk. First listening to the opening song was like a mystical moment, something akin to an epiphany, not unlike when I first heard Pro Patria Mori or when I first learnt how to snap my fingers a kid (the latter got me in detention at school but that's a completely different story). Not only was I in awe at the brilliance of the melody, but I was also astounded that such a great band playing exactly the kind of tuneful and melancholy Britpunk that I am so in love with could have escaped me. It was so good that it almost upset me. Why didn't anyone tell me about SOF? Where are my mates when I most need them? Needless to say that after that incident many a phone number was deleted from my repertoire.
SOF were certainly not your typically Crass-sounding snotty anarcho band. Actually, if you listened to the Lp without knowing SOF (and without paying much too much attention to the lyrics), you could think that the songs are taken from some unreleased session from a '77 band. The late 70's influence is strong in SOF and bands like The Adverts or The Boys (without the rocky vibe) do come to mind. I am also reminded of Ulster bands like Rudi or The Outcasts, of the punkier band of the mod revival even, and with several reggae-tinged songs, Stiff Little Fingers, The Ruts and even The Clash are not far off either (I am generally not one to toy with reggae or ska too much but when the songs are moody and if there ain't too many of them, I can be up for it). However, if SOF had that amazing tunefulness and sense of melody associated with the school of '77, they also had a distinctly moody vibe running through the album, which is most obvious in the band's postpunk and goth moments (like on the tribal "Totem" and the über-catchy trance-like "Voice of the Mysterons") but permeates the whole work, so that in the end the band was closer in terms of textures and intent to The Wall and Demob or - in the anarcho realms - to Naked and even Omega Tribe. A (post)punky re-adaptation of '77 tonalities if you will.
I know I overuse the words "tuneful" and "catchy" and the whole lexical field of melody far too much but honestly, and without the shadow of a doubt, SOF were one of the most inventive tune-oriented anarchopunk bands of their generation. Just listen to the bittersweet chorus of "Small town sunday", to the arrangements of "Sound and the fury" (the "Glory boys" break in this song is just fantastic and they only - and wisely - use it once), to the Killing Jokesque beats of "Totem", to the dark groove of "War drums", to the emotional simplicity of the reggae song "For the unknown soldiers"... The production is ace for the genre, not overdone and quite clear, all the songs being well-written enough not to need too fancy a sound. Although Waiting for World War III can be described as an old-school punk-rock album sonically (which it is), there is enough variety thanks to the addition of goth-punk and reggae to make it stand out, not only as a great collection of songs, but as a cohesive entity. Basically, a proper punk album in the noblest sense of the term with two underlying motives: an incomparable sense of a good tune and a bellicose melancholy.
There was no lyric sheet in my copy (Discogs says there was one though so a scan would be welcome) but since the boys actually sing (and they do good job at it, I wish more anarcho bands dared to sing these days...) you can understand all the words. Songs about boredom and unemployment in small-town England, Cold War paranoia, work and, of course, war and imperialism. My copy of the record has clearly seen better days (which means that it was played often, which is good, or that it was not properly stored, which is a fucking shame and should be severely punished, public hanging might be a little too harsh but flogging would be fine) and there are some loud crackles, especially on the reggae song now that I think about it. As mentioned, SOF also released an Ep in 1982, that is more postpunk-oriented but equally great and clearly deserves its entry in the much coveted 80's anarcho-goth canon.
The one thing I hate about this record is that, not only does the side A runs on 33rpm while side B runs on 45rpm, but they mixed up the labels so that it is always a bit of a mess to play...
This is the best British anarchopunk band you have never heard of.
The labels of Hell