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Wire, Issue 235, September 2003, "Biting Tongues, After The Click"


The recent live reunion of 80s avant-funksters Biting Tongues' 'classic' line-up was an unnerving reminder of the intense wattage they generated onstage. This collection is only as intermittently electrifying as their live work but it's still an essential document, not to mention reproach to those pop historians who caricature 1980s music as all poodle-haired hedonism and daft Goth, airbrushing out the sort of harrowing and exhilarating undercurrent of which Biting Tongues, among others, were a part.

Formed in 1979 to provide a soundtrack for the film from which they took their name, Biting Tongues made their album debut two years later with Don't Heal. Although, as the frank sleevenotes confirm, it turned out slightly damp and flat in places, thanks to the 70s studio predilection for muffled, over-panelled 'dead rooms', Biting Tongues at least got to set out their stall. Obsessed with processed, scrambled and cut-up texts, vocalist (and current Wire contributor) Ken Hollings would deliver as terse, unsung prose, grim collages of imagery, which impinged on and tore through the fabric of the music the way sudden and disturbing events tear through the quilt of everyday life. Don't Heal was recorded in quick time to the random accompaniment of tapes of found sounds, superimposing another layer of chance.

Meanwhile, the group were picking other things out of the air. The way Howard Walmsley's tenor sax invoked the honking, preaching, atonal spirit of 60s free jazz loosely aligned them with contemporaries like James Chance, Blurt's Ted Milton, Cabaret Voltaire and Clock OVA, as did their inverted use of funk. Biting Tongues retained its structures and rhythms but replaced fatback hedonism with a more gristly foreboding in keeping with the tense, uncertain times.

What distinguished Biting Tongues, however, were future 808 Statesman Graham Massey's multi-instrumental virtuosity on guitar, clarinet, violin and keyboards, plus the group's determination to fly by the seat of their collective pants. With 1981's Live It, they had also learned to embellish their sound by whatever means necessary - the queasy, rising and falling metallic effect of "Denture Beach" is sourced from a wash tank, while "Dirt For 485" achieves its contemporary-sounding BlipHop effect by the simple expedient of clapping.

The group reached a zenith with 1982's Northern Lights and Libraville, from which the wailing "lyabhoone" and the immortal °Aair Care" are taken. Not unlike Pere Ubu, "44" posits a stark existential condition no one would even think to contemplate now: "I sleep alone now/I sleep on boards/I see the highway/But I don't travel."

After Hollings left in 1984 and a number of personnel changes, Biting Tongues' progress faltered. By the mid-80s they were highly proficient but lacking a context. With "Double Gold St Paul", they were effectively functioning as a chrysalis for Massey's 808 State.