No Exit - Songs from the Wilderness

Listening to this collection of songs from No Exit after a long gap is an odd experience for those of us who knew the band and followed them in the early eighties. On the one hand, the music evokes the place and time, and brings back to mind the feel of the period, in a way that pop music is so good at doing. On the other hand, the songs remain fresh and do not seem at all dated, particularly when compared with the chart-toppers of the era. Whereas today the songs of Duran Duran, China Crisis and their ilk seem locked into an ‘80s world of big hair and synthetic drums, the No Exit sound continues to refuse to conform to stereotype. Paradoxically, it may be the complexity and depth of their songs which denied the group material success in the eighties that makes their music so enjoyable twenty-five years later. Furthermore, the band’s inability to attract commercial backing, (and with it ‘trendy’ production and marketing). though immensely frustrating at the time, has left us with untainted, simple recordings which have a sincerity and freshness that makes them as good to hear now as they were a quarter of a century ago.

Music is always a product of the imagination of the songwriter and the interpretation of musicians, and both are inevitably informed by the world in which they live. This music, which was produced by young men in their early twenties in a turbulent time and place, was strongly influenced by its context. The landscape of Liverpool, (home of No Exit), at the time of these recordings was that of post-riots decay, dole, and despair so perfectly portrayed in Alan Bleasedale’s Boys from the Black Stuff and Frank Clarke’s Letter to Brezhniev. Thatcher had written-off the city as the embodiment of all she abhorred; a post-industrial wasteland populated by strikers, spongers, lefties and hooligans. As if to confirm her prejudice, a rabid Militant had control of the city council, ostensibly defending us from the excesses of Westminster Tories, but in reality bringing more pain to the city through belligerence and chaotic administration. Graffiti in Paradise Street in the city centre proclaiming: Cheap Heroin – Thatcher’s answer to unemployment suggested that the Government’s flagship policy of market de-regulation had rather different connotations in Liverpool. IRA bombs had brought fear and uncertainty to the British mainland and the news seemed to be dominated by confrontation and desperation. Across the country the winners in the Thatcher revolution (and the state itself) reacted to protest with intolerance and a level of brutality unseen since the General Strike. CND and the Greenham Common women were covertly filmed and infiltrated, and across the sea in Belfast the army was using surveillance cameras on pylons to watch over every inch of the city. 1984 was coming. The cynical orchestration and subsequent disintegration of the miners’ strike were defining events. Bloodshed at Orgreave, Bristol and Brixton hit the headlines, but grey lives eked out on the dole were crushing people far more insidiously and relentlessly than police batons and cavalry charges. On the world stage Reagan was fighting proxy wars with the Soviet Union in Central America and Afghanistan, and both sides were stockpiling nuclear missiles across Europe. But who cared… at least the Falkland Islands were still British.

No Exit were young men growing up against this backdrop, with all the emotions, ambitions and frustrations that so often find a creative outlet in pop music. They were ordinary boys who had gone to John Lennon’s old school, and been betrayed by the promise that if you keep your head down, get your exams and go to university then everything will fall into place. Well it hadn’t. They were on the dole or had dead-end jobs in a city without hope, and they felt cheated. They were also musicians at that most fleeting and precious stage, when newly honed technical ability is energised by the dynamic of creative partnership, and motivated by youthful optimism, self-belief and the example of others’ success. Into this potent mix was added their musical influences, lovingly absorbed over the preceding decade, courtesy of family, friends, and of course John Peel. No Exit was Graham Trust (songwriter, bass, vocals), Martyn Gilbert (guitar), Perry Leach (drums), later replaced by Colin McCormick. Their musical educations had ranged from The Messiah to The Motors; from Chic Corea to Chic via The Clash; The Doors to dub reggae; Bessie Smith to The Banshees; Kerouac to The Cure - and much, much more.

I first went to see No Exit practicing on a rainy Saturday afternoon in the late summer of 1981, a few months after the Toxteth riots, (having been invited to take some black and white photographs). Martyn and Graham were already friends of mine and I knew Perry, (as I had been a contemporary of his older brother at school). I was aware that Martyn could play the guitar, and I had heard a few predictably thrashy, caricature punk songs that he and Graham had recorded on a mono cassette recorder a year or so earlier, with a different drummer and vocalist. This did not prepare me at all for what I was to hear and see in ‘The Ministry’ rehearsal rooms that Saturday afternoon. The newly christened No Exit, formed a couple of months earlier, had a small repertoire of material, sung, (really sung), with conviction and style by Graham. (‘Hero’ was one of the songs I heard that day). Martyn’s guitar playing was a revelation. One minute it would be choppy and aggressive, the next, melodic and intricate, on occasion soaring into powerful, blues-inspired lead. Perry kept solid time and was an all-action drummer in the style of Blondie’s Clem Burke, working energetically to thump all of his kit and looking every inch the pop-star-in-waiting. Graham, whom I knew to be quiet and unassuming, had taken on another persona. To my amazement he really looked the part, playing his big bass with competence and attitude, chewing gum, singing and managing to smoke a Silk Cut all at the same time. Though the sound of the vocal PA was appalling, the snatches of lyrics I picked up made me want to listen to what he was singing about. Not only were the individuals good, for a group so inexperienced, (they had yet to play in front of an audience), their overall sound was remarkably mature, the songs being woven together with attention to the spaces between the music as well as to the sound itself. I was astonished, impressed and totally won over within 15 minutes. No Exit was the real thing. They had a gifted songwriter/vocalist, and a wonderfully versatile and creative guitar player who seemed intuitively to know how his guitar could best contribute to the mood of a song as well as to the melody. They had powerful and tight bass and drums, upon which the imaginative guitar and intelligent vocals were over-laid. Their songs all had interesting twists and turns, atmosphere, building tension and emotional crescendos. They had everything, but for me, best of all, they had authenticity. Their music was of our world, and No Exit’s influences and experiences were in common with my own. Furthermore their sound was unique. Their own. I had heard no other group that sounded like them, or who captured so well the desolation of the place and time, and the turmoil of our own lives. By the time of their first gig at Brady’s, (formerly Eric’s, the scene of much of our collective musical education and inspiration), in November of that year, I had become their manager (though in truth being permanently penniless rather limited my scope in that capacity). I kept the role for the lifetime of the group. I was also their friend and fan, (in which context being skint didn’t matter at all). I intend to keep these roles for life.

As the band went on to perform more gigs, their authenticity won the respect of fans who understood and appreciated their music. Graham’s performances continued to surprise those who knew him off-stage. He would be far too shy to ask a girl he fancied out for a date, yet he would stand up in a rough pub full of strangers and sing an achingly painful lyric with sincerity and vulnerability in the way that Thom Yorke of Radiohead would a decade later. Martyn was well-read, artistic and intellectual, and his guitar-playing was wonderfully creative and versatile, but it was Graham whose craft with language as well as melody gave No Exit their edge. He was unlikely to engage in a serious conversation about anything other than music or football, and he much preferred a joke to a discussion. However, the rest of us knew that like the subject of The Waterboys’ song The Whole of the Moon, Graham had real talent and insight. (Though we did not discuss this, and would never have told him to his face). He had pre-empted post-university disappointment and dole by quitting university in 1979 after only 6 weeks, getting a mundane but (relatively) lucrative office job while there were still some to be had. (He’d seen The Jam at college and jacked in his course, bought a bass and begun writing songs. Seriously). He may not have wanted to talk about it, but Graham’s evocative lyrics, menacing bass-lines and heart-felt vocals perfectly captured the underlying sense of betrayal that was so powerfully felt by all of us who cared to think about our lives/city/futures at that time. Supported always by Martyn’s elegant and empathetic guitar, Graham’s emotionally charged, (and sometimes faltering), vocal delivery genuinely articulated the mood of the time/place/individual long before The Smiths made angst de rigeur. (Check out ‘You Can’t Walk Away’, (vid) ‘In the Dark’ and ‘Wheels Within Wheels’ (vid) to get a real sense of what I mean).

Working with No Exit was a joy for me, even when it was painful. The opportunity to influence the fortunes of my new favourite band was one not to be missed. It was a roller-coaster ride, (which Graham describes in vivid and entertaining detail in his essay ‘A song-writer’s saga’, also on the website). Highlights were the dozens of blistering performances (in venues from working mens’ clubs to outdoor festivals), some good recordings, our enduring camaraderie (forged in ticket-selling expeditions and illicit fly-posting missions), and the satisfaction of pressing a record at Abbey Road and hearing a No Exit single being played on the John Peel show. There were plenty of disappointments, and every ‘up’ seemed to have a corresponding ‘down’, and vice versa. When drummer, Perry Leach, left the group before the release of the single (Casablancan Night/Anything You Say) in 1983, to follow what seemed like a more promising route to stardom as a percussionist, dejection at losing a good drummer was replaced with the elation of recruiting a fantastic new one. Colin McCormick brought the sophistication and techniques of jazz drumming to No Exit, adding complexity and a wonderful technical competence to the sound. (Listen to the live, outdoor recording of ‘Martyn’s Brain’ (vid) for proof of this).

This collection of songs comprises studio recordings; (recorded in primitive 16 and 8-track studios); home recordings (made on a portable 4-track cassette recorder), and tapes from mixing desks at live performances. The 11 songs capture perfectly the raw emotion and energy of No Exit, as well as their versatility, complexity and subtlety. The songs cover the whole 4 years of the band’s existence, reflecting their growth as musicians and consolidation as a performing unit over the period, as well as the development of Graham Trust as song-writer and vocalist. The title, Songs from the Wilderness, was first used for an earlier, shorter and rougher compilation of their material put together on a cassette near the end of the band’s lifespan in 1985. It was an apt though bitter choice because by that time No Exit felt like outcasts: from the record companies and gatekeepers of the music industry (who had studiously ignored them); from the Liverpool music scene (a close-knit and rather aloof clique of arty/druggy/trendy people, with whom they had little in common); and possibly even from the world in general. (Despite the fact that they had been gigging continuously for 4 years, or with hindsight perhaps because of that, No Exit seemed unable to attract the sort of buzz and momentum that would have made it uncomfortable for A&R people to continue ignoring them).  

Today the bitterness, like Thatcher, Militant, ‘The Ministry’, and our youth, is long gone. The final sting in No Exit’s tale is that today’s Songs from the Wilderness, painstakingly restored and digitally re-mastered for CD and MP3, delivers songs as fresh as the day they were recorded, freely, to anyone, anywhere who has access to a computer and a phone line. No Exit’s sound is intact, unadulterated by big production or the trappings of success. Could it be that their exile in the wilderness in 1981-5 was the price of their endurance? Listen to this music… it’s wonderful and would even be worth venturing back into Liverpool’s darkest days to hear. The good news is that now you don’t have to…

David Evans, December 2007