GREAT LOST ALBUMS: Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls (#6 in an occasional series)
It began with Penetration. Ask your mother. But what she won’t tell you is what happened next. Shouldn’t have had that second Rohypnol. Anyway, once Wearside’s own first generation B-list punk™ combo had disintegrated in a messy cloud of acrimony, twiddly guitar solos and lack of sales of their weak second album, singer Pauline Murray and bass player/partner Robert Blamire found themselves out of contract and in a position where they could do whatever they wanted and a certain amount of interest would be guaranteed. Their ex-bandmates formed the Tygers of Pan Tang. Or they didn’t. Perhaps I made that up.
Following the precedents set by their near-contemporaries, Murray and Blamire might reasonably have been expected to have done one of two things. One was to buff up their existing act into shiny power-pop in an attempt to follow Blondie’s meteoric trajectory up, up and away out of the punk ghetto, a course the second Penetration album had seemingly considered before deciding that it didn’t really know how. The other was to go the Siouxsie route – more eyeliner, more flanger, more schlocky “mystique”, more fans in France. Murray had drawn comparisons to Siouxsie from the start, largely on the tenuous but at the time perhaps understandable grounds that both were women and apparently neither could sing – which would turn out to be wrong in both cases, at least the bit about the singing, and never more so than on our Great Lost Album here – so this would probably have been the bookies’ favourite, especially since it would have required substantially less musical invention, which wasn’t looking to be Penetration’s strong suit.
They did neither. And this, not the Rohypnol, is the real reason your mother won’t tell you what happened next, because what they did instead was so farsighted, such a brave and perfect example of lateral thinking that virtually nobody (including your mother, obviously, because “nobody” includes everybody) even knew it existed. I don’t think anybody, even those of us who loved it, appreciated at the time just how ridiculously good it was. To this day, Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls (1980) remains firmly off the syllabus. I haven’t researched this very hard – the internet was really invented so that people writing about pop music could stop wasting everybody’s time with statistics and get on with the important business of stating unsubstantiated opinions and making ad hoc connections, it had nothing to do with the militarisation of space at all – but it looks as if a couple of low-level CD reissues in the US is as close as this remarkable piece of work has yet come to digital immortality. Which is insane.
Murray and Blamire’s second genius move was to board a Cross Country service to the Rainy City and hitch themselves to the rapidly rising star of England’s own Mad Professor, Martin Hannett, the original King of Digital Delay, who at the time – though not necessarily to the extent that today’s version of history would have it – was deservedly being feted as the man who, with Unknown Pleasures, had taken Joy Division’s inchoate but mesmerising bluster and stripped it down to within an inch of its life before re-assembling it in a form that was still recognisably rock music yet was unlike anything heard before (although in its use of the spaces created by dispensing with superfluous instrumentation and the “spaces” created by various black boxes, Hannett’s technique owed a lot more to dub reggae than is commonly acknowledged).
“The Invisible Girls” was in fact originally the name for Hannett’s own band – a loose agglomeration of Manchester micro-luminaries that included Hannett himself, Buzzcocks drummer John Maher and bona fide genius guitarist Vini Reilly, who is possibly even more brilliant when playing in a non-Durutti Column style, just because you know he’s holding so much back. They had provided some art music for the Original Big Shot Rapper, John Cooper-Clarke (if you live in a British city north of the Wash and you don’t have Beasley Street on your iPod then you lack the basic tools to interpret your own experience of everyday life) but the collaboration with Murray and Blamire asks them to re-imagine themselves as a pop group for the 1980s, with absolutely no formula to follow except for the one that states you don’t want to sound like Blondie or the Banshees or the past.
And… fucking hell. Because Murray and Blamire’s first genius move was to dump all their rock baggage at Newcastle Central and write an album of pop songs. It’s true that none of them is the greatest pop song you’ll ever hear, although When Will We Learn and Dream Sequence can come close under favourable conditions, but there’s nothing much wrong with any of them, and in any case it doesn’t matter because this was made in 1980 and it sounds in many respects like it could have been made yesterday. By Ladyhawke, probably, although it’s a bit more like the future than her, a bit less Chrissie Hynde. The closest comparison is with Magazine’s The Correct Use Of Soap, with which it shares very distinctive production quirks, particularly in the drum sounds and those squeaky guitars. Murray’s album lacks that one’s lyrical bite – most things do – but it also lacks the curdly misanthropy and tedious boy introspection. I’d find it hard to say which was the better record, were it not for the fact that Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls is never talked about – you’ve got to love the underdog – and sounds way more like a blueprint for the proper, so grown-up that even kids bought it, pop music of the decade that followed it.
Really. These people invented the fucking Bangles, and god knows what other outlandish mutations, one grey fortnight in Manchester in 1979 or 1980. That’s as punk rock as you get. The fucking Bangles, like your mother, almost certainly never knew this record existed, but there it is – like the honest, hard-working, humble electron a fundamental of quotidian existence we’re not aware of until our attention is drawn to it. CD copies seemingly start from round about fifty quid, which would be perfectly reasonable if the money actually went to Murray and Blamire. These people dreamed up and second-guessed stuff that would go on to furnish an awful lot of awful people with beach houses in Malibu, and they probably never saw a penny from it.