Postpunk is pretty much dead, killed off by alternative music. But in its heyday, about a decade ago, one of several active postpunk eddies washed up an outstanding little band called Big Flame. The Manchester-based trio lasted only three short years, recorded less than 40 minutes of music, and went largely unrecognized in the States before burning its eager wick right out. But while it was around, Big Flame proved that rock music can benefit from thought, skepticism, integrity, and ethics, in addition to the more instantly consuming qualities of anger, energy, and fire.
Big Flame integrated self-reflection and intellection into the substance of their songs. Then they set the whole mess ablaze, cutting a panoply of antipop slogans with slashing-machete guitar and precise stop-time rhythm bombs. Like some of the very best mid-80s British postpunk groups, Big Flame unleashed its attack on pop through a small label called Ron Johnson Records. Plenty of the label's bands--the Shrubs, Jackdaw With Crowbar, the Noseflutes, Splat!, and Twang--are still in need of CD reissuing. The only Ron Johnson band to make a small peep in the industry at large was Stump, who disbanded shortly after their initial big-label flop, A Fierce Pancake. Now Chicago's own upholders of independent ideals, Drag City Records, have done today's alternative industry a favor it probably doesn't deserve by reissuing everything Big Flame ever released. Rigour 1983-1986 is a labor of love; it took around four years to put out and comes packaged complete with all the original graphics, lyrics (some handwritten), and, as with each Big Flame release, bits of encouraging or provocative propaganda. These include, for instance, a hysterical creation-myth broadside proclaiming that Big Flame was Wham's original backing band.
Typical of the group's modus operandi is the "statement of intent" that opens Rigour's liner booklet. Big Flame was a band that used PR as a platform for manifestos. They did this not to capture a jolt of reactionary juice from the press but out of what seemed to be genuine optimism and enthusiasm for mixing do-it-yourself music and personal politics. In this statement, drummer Dil, guitarist Greg, and bassist/vocalist Alan (who needed last names, anyway?--though for the record they were David Green, Gregory O'Keeffe, and Alan Brown) made several unusual vows: they'd release only three-song, seven-inch records (no filler for these guys!); they'd only play short live sets, but at absolute top intensity (audiences get bored after a half hour, they figured); they'd play music without commercial compromise and write lyrics without cliches (anyone who caught them at this was encouraged to write and berate the band); their music would be activist, political, and motivational ("radical and anticomplacency," they called it). Such a purist bent no doubt contributed to Big Flame's brevity; similarly principled bands like Australia's much-missed Feedtime and Switzerland's Kleenex also had undeservedly short runs. In fact, few bands in the postpunk diaspora--Dutch anarchists the Ex and fellow Mancunians the Fall come to mind--manage to keep the iron red-hot for long at all.
Listening to Big Flame's five fantastic singles and the material from their one 12-inch mini-album Cubist Pop Manifesto, several influences are undeniable. Like many groups after Joy Division, Big Flame set the vocals back in the mix, making them swim along with the other sounds rather than float on top. On early songs like "Sink," "The Illness," and "All the Irish (Must Go to Heaven)," Alan sings with the same passionate distemper as Mark Stewart did with the Pop Group (talk about a band in need of a good retrospective compilation!), and there are sometimes mumbling, partly in-sync voices lurking in the background, as there were on many of Stewart's paranoiac gems. Big Flame is aggressive, propulsive, and rhythmically explosive, but resolutely ungroovy and unfunky, whereas the Pop Group sometimes made forays into JBs or Meters territory. Big Flame liked to change rhythms several times in the course of a two-and-a-half-minute song. For example, "Cuba!" starts out with a clumsy riff, a sucker-punch tactic before the group dives headlong into the maelstrom with a blistering guitar part and tandem bass-drum lock-and-load. "Man of Few Syllables," however, just goes straight for the artery, cauterizing it on contact.
Big Flame's other, perhaps more forthright, point of reference is Gang of Four, particularly from the period of their classic album Entertainment! Both bands had a certain raw guitar; crisp, high-strung drumming; and overall volatility. And Alan was apt to break into anthemic singsong in the same way Jon King did. The lyrics to a Big Flame number like "Why Popstars Can't Dance" (stuttered answer: "guilty feet have got no rhythm") could have come right out of the Gang of Four songbook. But Big Flame set the tempo and energy knobs higher, made the attack more ripping and brutal than the more methodical Gang.
When was the last time a band wrote about themselves like this: "Success for Big Flame would be to break into this downward spiral and show that there is an alternative which does not insult you, rip you off and shit on you. If we can influence people to get up and do something, to provide that spark of inspiration and enthusiasm to promote change, then, despite how many records we've sold, we will have succeeded in our aims and will be well happy....And, when it gets to the stage where we're not doing what we want to, then that's it, we'll have served our purpose. Hopefully by then there'll be better bands than us who will have the same idea, and be willing to promote it."
The alternative music industry doesn't encourage its worker bees to consider their life span finite or to maintain such a pass-the-torch mentality. As with mega-popstars, success for alternative musicians is taken to mean endless possibilities. The successful band is eternal, even if pathetic: witness the way that Dinosaur Jr. increasingly seems like the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. Big Flame burned bright, hot, and fast. They weren't concerned with staying alive, they just wanted an alternative that didn't shit on you.