999

OVERVIEW:

A fun late 70s pop punk group with a buncha catchy hooks. Though they weren’t the most unique band in the world,  not a lot of bands were able to balance pop and punk so effectively while retaining the melodic smarts of the former and the aggression of the latter. Lead singer Nick Cash’s high-pitched goofball delivery brings to mind more eccentric groups like Sparks and particularly Radio Stars, another obscure band reviewed on this site. I recommend the first four albums – the highlights of which would add up to a classic – but stay away from their mostly crappy later records.

THE ALBUMS:

999 *
Separates *
The Biggest Prize In Sport
Concrete
13th Floor Madness
Face To Face
You Us It!
Takeover
Death in Soho

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999  (1978)

A-

Fresh, aggressive, and brash – this is a prime piece of late-70s pop punk. The hooks kick, the band grinds and spurts, lead singer Nick Cash merges a weirdo Mael-y glam delivery with a spitting angry Johnny Rotten one, and everything flashes by at a perfectly presto punky pace. I’m not sure the band ever made a better album than their debut, and even if that’s a slightly arguable point, I’d have a hard time pointing people to anything else as an introduction to these guys. There’s an infectious enthusiasm on display here – these guys sound like they’re having way too much fun to be punks. That’s what separates this one from the rest of the catalog: the youthful exuberance in the delivery. There’s a lot of Buzzcocks in the sound at this point – minus the experimental bent. There’s nothing experimental about this record. It’s just hooky trashy pop punk, almost like The Dickies but less jokey. The one gigantic highlight on here is the single ‘Emergency,” with a chorus hook to die for and a ton of menacing grit in the performance. Singer Nick Cash sounds positively possessed on that track! Nothing else quite hits the level of that tune, but a lot of tunes come close. Catchy opener “Me and My Desire” has an early XTC feel, “Chicane Destination” is a super-charged punker with some awesome phrasing and lyrics, “Crazy” excellently merges an old school pub rock vibe with spastic punk energy. There’s also the short and turbo-speed “No Pity.” And the hilarious rave up “Direct Action Briefing.” It’s all good stuff, and even though some of the tracks fail to leave an impression on my soul (“Hit Me” “Nobody Knows”), they’re super fun and engaging while they’re playing. The album cruises by, and the band sounds confident and controlled throughout. I would recommend this record highly to any punk fan, but I imagine most rock and roll lovers will appreciate at least half of this material. A winner.

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SEPARATES  (1978)

A-

Dialing back on the loopy energy just a touch, the band delivers yet another tight and catchy set of what this time amounts to basically pure power pop. The tempos aren’t as nuts, and the production seems more thought out. I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression and say this album is more “mature,” but that’s a word I can imagine someone ELSE using! The record is also bit more consistent than the debut, though it lacks a peak as high as “Emergency.” It’s just a good and fun silly piece of rock and roll with a lot of memorable hooks and poppy energy. The album opens with one of the band’s biggest ever songs, “Homicide,” a more mid-tempo hard rock kinda track than anything we heard on the debut. It’s got a decent melody and some nice hooky moments, but the biggest appeal of the song for me in the tight forceful delivery. These guys mean BUSINESS! Next up is one of my favorites – “Tulse Hill Night” – with its super catchy “Just another…just another” refrain and a couple other exciting melodic twists and turns. NOT a punk song, though. Pop with a capitol P. “Real Rean” holds the same tracklisting spot as the debut’s “Crazy,” and fittingly it’s another entertaining amped up pub rock-style song with a 50s vibe. The rest of the album work on some level, but the boys REALLY kick my ass at the very end with the two concluding tunes. The penultimate track “Brightest View” employs one of those herky jerky new wave dance grooves to excellent effect – some fantastic guitar parts on there. And a great hook! Then the album concludes with the in your face “High Energy Plan,” clearly one of this band’s best and most aggressive anthems. It’s probably the best song on the record, and perfectly marries pop craft with punkiness. I feel like the catchier a punk song is, the less likely people are willing to call it “punk.” Let’s just say it’s rock and roll, and call it a day. I think a new listener would be perfectly fine with this record as an entry point to the band’s catalog – it’s short enough that if you put it on a disc with the debut, you’d get yourself the definitive 999 record.

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THE BIGGEST PRIZE IN SPORT  (1979)

B

An obvious step down, but not a particularly distressing one. The biggest problem for me here is a shift in sound from hyper-active pop punk to a dopier almost arena rock sensibility on a few tracks. It’s as if the band realized they were a bit too smart for their own good, and dumbed down an already silly sound to the point of total inanity. There are still some exciting moments on this record, but in general the hooks sound less sharp, the energy less brisk…AND there’s a new drum sound that hermetically seals things in an 80s new wave time capsule. The record is also incredibly slight, without much going on lyrically and barely any new ideas mixed into the 999 formula (save for that fist thumping element I mentioned earlier). The shows starts off nicely with one of the best tracks – “Boys In The Gang” – indeed, one of the “rawkers” that irk me, but certainly the prime one of the bunch. The song has a powerful singalong chorus, the band drives it hard, and there’s a killer guitar riff in the introduction sections. “Inside Out” comes next – no real melody on that, but it presents a dark punk atmosphere with success and chugs along with meanness. “Trouble” has a light punk-reggae feel that reminds a lot of Nick Lowe – catchy chorus, fun organ sounds, one of the album’s highlights for sure. The only other song that REALLY gets me going comes in the middle of side 2 – “English Wipeout” – with its very catchy surf-rock referencing chorus hook. I love how the band alludes to 60s surf music while still kicking complete angry ass. That’s another thing about this record: the band sounds older and meaner all over it. The goofy histrionics of the first two albums have given way to your more standard less quirky pissed off punk vibe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s just an early sign of the band’s eventual rot. Another sign: “Hollywood,” a decent cut that employs a disco-punk groove under some OK hooks. The band would eventually apply this sound to an entire record, which turned out to be a very ill-advised move. Moving on…”So Long” has an infectious jumpy Dickies-esque chorus hook. “Shake” rocks a fun “Wipe-Out” vibe…very 60s garage-y, with a neat tremolo guitar stab grounding the instrumental parts. Every other song on here works on some level, but they don’t stick with ya. That’s basically how I feel about the entire record. Pretty nice, nothing embarrassing, some good little moments here and there, but you’d be better off sticking to the first two.

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CONCRETE  (1981)

B+

This is the most underrated record the band ever released and a nice rebound from the dull “Biggest Prize In Sport.” Some of the dopey arena rock remains – both “Break It Up” and “Don’t You Know I Need You” might as well be hair metal tracks. They’re played with more nuance than we’d hear from a hair metal group – they’re more in the vein of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” but dumber and less catchy. The other problem spot? Two classic rock ‘n’ roll covers (“Little Red Riding Hood” and “Fortune Teller”). They’re both well performed, and the former allows Nick Cash to put on a cute rapist voice if such a thing could be said to exist, but I see their inclusion as a sign of exhaustion more than anything else. BUT——–the rest of the album nearly takes us back to the hooky glory of the first two records. The group pushes even further with the dance rhythm element introduced on the previous record, and the drum sound still irks me, but this record represents the only successful version of that 999-dancey hybrid. Case in point: “Mercy Mercy,” one of my all time favorite 999 tracks. The big pause during the pre-chorus could NOT be catchier (you’ll know what I mean when you hear the track). The thumping dance groove works great on that one, mostly because the melody is so inspired. Another giant melodic highlight – “Silent Anger” – a dark pop tune with a great Western-movie-esque chorus hook and a reggae bridge. Sweet dynamics on that one….the chorus really OPENS up the way it’s supposed to on a track like this. “That’s The Way It Goes” has one of the best and most rousing sing-along choruses in the catalog! I’m also fond of Hilarious closer “Public Enemy No. 1” very much reminds me of Sparks, which is always a good thing. The big “dance” track on here opens Side 2 – it’s called “Obsessed” and it’s a good deal better than most of the similar material the band would be shitting on us with their next album. That’s probably because it sounds more in the realm of post-punk grooviness a la Public Image Ltd., rather than unfocused 80s synth pop. Oh, there’s also the super weird and entertaining “Taboo,” perhaps the most overtly “experimental” and new wave-y track in the catalog up to this point. Whatever – it has a good hook! And that’s all I care about. This is the record to hear after the first two. It’s sloppy and uneven, but the high points kick my tush across the room.

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13th FLOOR MADNESS  (1983)

C+

“What on Earth were they THINKING?!” That was my reaction after first hearing this record, 999’s career killing 80s dance pop extravaganza. And yes, the band has indeed adopted a bizarre and unfocused form of groovy synth pop here. It’s not quite clear if they intended it to be a pure dance album, but they’ve almost entirely shed their old punky sound for an exceedingly lame and dated disco-funk-pop thing. I’m not sure why so many punk bands decided to shift their interests over to the dance floor – perhaps a lot of ’em were mostly just trendy fellas in the end. And obviously it worked for some of the groups. But this album reminds me of a lesser Big Audio Dynamite. Frankly, the album sounds atrocious – flimsy, limp, inorganic, and dorky. There’s practically no rockin’ energy on here at all, and I’m not in the least surprised this was greeted with a giant “boo!” upon its initial release. So while I can’t really get behind the record, and it certainly initiates the giant disappointment that is latter day 999, repeated listening has allowed me to push past the yucky surface and realize that…this record has hooks! Actually, if they had produced this in a more “normal” fashion, just played it as a straight pub rocky raver – dance rhythms included – it might have been a perfectly acceptable follow-up to “Concrete.” There were lots of grooves cropping up all over that earlier record, but it was still essentially a power pop album and the grooves still felt rock-related. HERE, the production neuters everything into synth pop mush. But a large handful of the tracks on this album might have soared with more forceful sounds. Take “Book Of Love,” for example. It’s got a decent verse hook, and a super catchy chorus. It’s corny as hell, almost insufferably so, but it might have been a decent track with some heavy guitars and sloppier energy. Same goes for the title track, one of the more “ska”-influenced tunes the band released. It’s got a fun sing-along chorus, but the production ruins it with silly sounding synths and a general disregard for “guts.” Nick Cash has altered his singing style quite a bit here – instead of high quirky punky Russell Mael-isms, he growls and whispers and speak-sings his way through a lot of this material. NOW…you may be asking yourself – do ANY of the dance songs work at face value, without us imagining them reverting back to the band’s original power pop/punk style? The answer is a mild yes. There are four songs here that work for me, though none of the four particularly floor me. The best of the bunch comes in the middle of side 2 – “Custer’s Last Stand” – which has a cool dark bass groove and a memorable pop chorus. The band sounds in total command of their dance craft on that one, though once again I have issues with some of the production choices. But that’s probably the only track from this record with which I’d feel comfortable “showcasing” the band to a stranger. Another minor winner: closer “Night Shift,” which is pure disco synth pop but I like the synth sounds and the changes. Earlier in the record we get the new wave synth funker “It’s What You Got,” which is a complete and utter rip-off of Prince’s much better “Controversy” whether 999 realized it or not. But the groove is fun (thanks Prince), and that low synth hook rules. Finally, “Don’t Want You Back” has some cool bass moments, a nice moody falsetto “ooh ooh ooh” chorus hook, and it doesn’t really embarrass me like some of the other tunes here. There are some horrifyingly abysmal tracks on this album (“Arabasque” “Good To See You”), but I’m comfortable saying that it’s a bit underrated. Faint praise, for sure, and hardly a recommendation. But it’s the last time the band ever shows any sign of hook-crafty power, and shouldn’t necessarily be considered a total travesty.

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FACE TO FACE  (1985)

D+

This is the first outright bad 999 record. The band had a decision to make after their unsuccessful and unloved “disco” record – forge ahead with the synth pop, revert back to pop punk, or push even further out in the unknown? I’m not even sure what they decided, as this just sounds like an ill-defined generic mess. It’s definitely more of a pop punk record than the previous album, but it’s not the same brand of hyperactive hooky power pop from the early days. Instead, it sounds more influenced by West Coast punk and points the way to the boring commercial “pop punk” sounds of the 90s and 2000s. The band seems to have lost their ability to rock, and Nick Cash sounds terrible on this! Maybe he’d lost his voice after years of snarling, or maybe it was drugs, or maybe depression, or maybe he was just trying out a new style – whatever the case, the vocals on this album make me cringe. About half this record is devoted to some of the worst music I’ve ever heard. I don’t even know what the band was trying to do with some of this schlock. Take the 2 minute “Maybe Someday.” I’m assuming it’s supposed to sound in the ballpark of one of the short goofy blasts of trash punk from the early albums (“No Pity” “So Long”). I don’t even know how to describe how bad and off that mark it truly is – but it has a lot to do with the drum and bass sounds, the too-slow tempo, and the horrible and horribly sung vocal melody. Then there’s the nearly 5 minute piece of garbage the band calls “Spiritual Independence.” With its sleazy dance groove, this one sounds like a “13th Floor Madness” leftover. But it has an atrocious melody, and the worst over-growled Nick Cash vocal performance I’ve ever heard. It sounds like something Gene Simmons would write for an 80s KISS record. “Vicious Circle” and “Lucy Dead” are similarly DOA throwaways. Oh, and dare I forget the other vomit-inducing 5 minute dance groover – “I Can’t Face It” – which might as well be called “We didn’t actually write a song, but listen to it for 5 minutes anyway sucker!” So why does the album not get an F? I pondered the idea at one point – it’s certainly one of the more unpleasant listening experiences I’ve had in a while. But the OTHER half of the album is more C-level material. The two best songs for me are “20 Years” and “This Is Just a Lie.” The former has by far the album’s catchiest and most epic chorus (“Alone again, along again, 20 Years!”) I can picture a contemporary pop punk group getting some mileage out of that hook at the Mall. (Though I must say that the hideous verse of “20 Years” might be one of the album’s worst moments). ‘This Is Just A Lie” sounds the more like the early albums than anything since the “Concrete” record – it doesn’t QUITE lift off for me, but it’s got a decent hook. The album’s second track “Black Sunshine” goes for a bouncy 60s garage pop thing, but it’s not an interesting enough hook to lend the song its own personality. Opening track “Hallelujah” has a verse that sounds shitty 80s corporate rock and a chorus that sounds like bad 90s mall punk. That should be sign enough for you that this album sucks. The band broke up after releasing it, only to re-form 8 years later for another couple records. But they’d never again access the simple catchy fun of their first run of albums.

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YOU US IT!  (1993)

C

After an 8 year break, the band returned with “guns a’ blazing.” I’m quoting an imaginary press release, but that’s exactly the sort of vernacular I can imagine the band’s publicist using when this was released. Because the band has completely dropped the dance pop and the mall punk of the previous two records – they’ve even dropped the quirky power pop of their early records. They’re now a generic old guy PUNK band, with all the trappings that implies. Less melody, more grit. Less quirkiness, more fist pumping. Lots of masculine gang unison “o” vocals. Call and response type crap. This is definitely a new more muscular sound for the band, and while I have major problems with the canned early-90s drum sound, it suits them far better than their corny dance one. Nick Cash has basically dropped his high-pitched manic schtick and settled on a more normal punk rock growl, but he seems to have recovered his powers a bit in the 8 year break after the abysmal “Face To Face.” He sounds more in command here. So that’s all well and good, but how are the songs? Well, when I first put this record on (expecting something pretty bad), I was floored by the quality of the first three tracks! Actual hooks! Real energy! They sound excited to be playing again! I was expecting a big comeback. But apparently the band was well aware what the best three tunes were here and they threw them all right up at the top. Because from track 4 on, there ain’t one good hook. All the songs sound the same. Tracks 3 – 15 present us with a big pile of generic old-man-rock mush. Let’s talk about the first three tracks, though. Opener “Black Flowers For The Bride” immediately showcases the angry straight-forward punk qualities of the new 999 – Nick Cash growls with total menace throughout, and although it’s lacking any sort of catchy pop melody, the song is nonetheless very convincing as a snarling punk assault. Scary too. Up next is the even better “(There’s No Glory In) Mary’s Story” which contains a catchy sing-along chorus hook and just rocks with authority. Shame about that horrible drum sound! And filling out the threesome is my sure favorite, “Signed Dangerous Of Hollywood,” a supercharged punk rave-up with a great Dead Kennedy’s-like chorus. It’s the best song the band put together since the “Concrete” album, and the only major highlight of their shabby latter period catalog. Are there any notable tunes on the rest of the album? Not really. The closest they get is the cute generic pub rocker “Big Fast Car” and the moderately engaging garage rocker “Deep In The Shadow,” which has the next best thing to a winning chorus after the opening 3 song run. Nothing on here strikes me as particularly BAD the way some of those “Face To Face” songs did, but that’s partly because they play it so safe this time. This is mostly just obvious garage-y punk stuff, and that’s not too hard to make sound “acceptable,” Maybe the band should have released an EP, or else worked a bit harder on things. The album is worth hearing for that opening run of tunes, but in the end it’s really just a big fat throwaway.

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TAKEOVER  (1998)

D+

Ouch. It’s 5 years later and the band dives even further into generic rave-up punk territory. Just look at some of these titles: “No Prisoners,” “Takeover,” “Jam Me Up,” “Pile Up.” We’re not dealing with fun and twisted power pop anymore, folks. This is dopey “rawk” music with not one quirky moment in any of its 15 tracks. The only thing this record has going for it is the attitude and menace, which is genuinely palpable on a few cuts. This is the most savage sounding album they’d ever made, and it SOUNDS better than the last three. I’m guessing no thought went into the production at all – there’s a “set up the microphones and let it rip” mentality here that serves this band well. But the material is dire. Just dire. Nothing catchy, nothing novel, nothing dynamic. A bunch of underwritten indistinct rockers with little personality or entertainment value. The album is only 35 minutes long, but I barely made it through one listen. I don’t care very much about even the best material on here. “Split Personality” seems like the only successful track. It has a fun garage rock chorus and a semi-decent guitar hook. “Salvage Mission” is OK. “Fit Up” is a truly intense little jolt of punk hysteria, even if it’s not much of a song. At least the band can ROCK again, after all that dinky crud on those mid-80s records. But even though they do indeed remember how to rock, this is an album full boring mediocre crap that I never want to hear again. So they can take their rock and shove it up the bungholes of the 999 fans left in their audience. I’ll be in the bar listening to some wimpy show-tunes with real hooks.

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DEATH IN SOHO  (2007)

C-

Nearly ten years later, the band released another generic old man punk album with barely any memorable moments. This one is also slave to some terrible ugly guitar tones – were these guys using “metal zone” guitar pedals? Some of the wannabe heavy tones are annoyingly canned and wimpy. Even though a decade has gone by, this is basically just “Takeover” part 2 – it’s got the same un-produced sound and mean punk attack. The tempos are often too slow to really pull of a believable old school punk thing, but the band at least sounds like they’re trying in that respect. Once again, Nick Cash is more of a growling punk guy rather than a wacky power pop guy. And once again, the song-writing is remarkably tossed off and boring. Like on the last two records, there’s far too much underwritten masculine gang-y punk unison crap and not enough smart pop melodies. However, I give this album the edge over its predecessor due to a small bunch of semi-decent cuts. The best tune by far is the catchy pop punk anthem “Last Breath.” It’s got the best chorus on the past two records by a large margin. Other minor winners include the short and scary evil punk tune “Horror Movie,” with a crazy yelping vocal performance by Cash, and the slightly quirky “Deep Peace.” The sing-along choruses of the final two tracks (“The Avenue” and “Bomb You”) generate a small amount of old school Clash-y punk energy without ever truly making their cases. But at least they’re fun – I can imagine them as rousing live tunes, even if they’re fairly obvious and generic on record. The rest of the record sounds pretty dull and same-y to my ears – it opens particularly badly with a run of totally indistinct songs (“Gimme The World” “The System” “Innocent”). The anti-establishment ideology of some of those tracks rings a bit false coming from old timers like these dudes – you can’t fight the system forever, fellas. Or at least – after a certain point, your fight seems a bit less believable in the context of a punk rock song. This album isn’t an embarrassment, but it’s not all that exciting either. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a gigantic fan or a completist – stick to the first four records with this band and you’ll be totally set!

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