The Mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled

Curio of the month is On Guard (HORN OF PLENTY hop1), a record credited to (The) Mudguards. It’s the first item on UK label Horn of Plenty, which is the successor body to Vittelli – a tiny London label which put out but two vinyl LPs, one of them the excellent London Sound Survey item. Mudguards were an underground duo operating in the UK through the 1980s, musically a rather “difficult” moment in this country when angular post-punk was pretty much running out of steam and giving up the ghost to shiny pop idols like Wham, Nick Heyward and Spandau Ballet. Mudguards self-released one LP Western Cultural Noise on their own Cheapsound label in 1984. Today’s release is not that LP, but it contains seven unreleased tracks from 1983 to 1988, all of them DIY pieces recorded at home, many struggling to rise above cassette tape quality in terms of audio fidelity. In fact at first spin I thought it was an obscure cassette release, rescued from oblivion. Don’t you love it already? I do.

Can’t find out much information about Mudguards; they followed on from another equally obscure combo called The Cultural Inheritance Society, whose name is likewise unknown outside of photocopied zines of the period. Their names were Nelson Bloodrocket and Reg Out, perhaps carrying on the tradition of punk alias names from The Sex Pistols and Crass. Indeed bands like Crass, or Rudimentary Peni, might be perceived as their antecedents; (The) Mudguards had an explicitly political agenda, and every track here is a protest song or doomy anthem of angst lamenting the state of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, knitted up with equal amounts of bile reserved for Ronald Reagan, who was getting his own share of flak from the angry American hardcore bands of the time. While the liner notes by Jonny Cash-Converter list a long litany of complaints, including the Falklands war, civil unrest, strikes, Greenham Common protests and the Poll Tax, not all of these subjects are comprehensively covered by the songs and tunes of Bloodrocket and Out. One of the most direct critical statements I can find is the ‘Property Land’ song, a spiteful dig at property developers and commercial land-grabs (a problem still blighting the UK today, only now it’s far worse). The opening track ‘Any Old Irony’ is also loaded with political barbs, but the targets are slightly concealed under a veneer of snide satire. There’s one song that detourns a children’s record to nauseating effect, inverting the innocence of a birthday party song to point up what mindless, obedient sheep the populace can be. However to my mind the most successful blast of protest is ‘Theme from The Big Trigger’, and that’s got no lyrics at all. Occupying about half of side two, it’s a grim slab of industrial bleakness realised with nasty synths and drum machines, and in its abstract tones you could visualise grey vistas showing every degree of urban horror from derelict housing estates to decaying factories. I suppose this is as close as Mudguards came to Throbbing Gristle, not that I’d know…

I’m not really sure if it makes sense to evaluate this powerful work exclusively in terms of “music history” in any case. Mudguards were more of an agit-prop art thing than career rock stars; they borrowed from unlikely sources such as “Music Hall, skiffle, drinking songs and broadsides”, rather than post-punk or art-rock albums by the latest NME cover darlings; they preferred home-made equipment and noisy devices to “proper” guitars; and their points of interaction were more likely to have been in an anarchist squat rather than on stage at a venue in Camden. All things considered, perhaps it’s no wonder they haven’t shown up on the radar much with this kind of genuinely uncompromising stance, defiant and proudly steeped in working class traditions, and pointing out the fundamental hypocrisies and inequities of society at a time when the common expectation was that we should all be safely at home watching Torvill & Dean on the telly and listening to Haircut 100 records. That anger still holds good today, and On Guard makes for a very uncomfortable listen. It’s also evidence of a time when we still had traces of a critical streak in our underground music, people who were prepared to confront society’s issues head-on; now all we have is smug latte-drinkers with smartphones, imagining they can cure the world’s problems with soundbites and hashtags. Mastered by Graham Lambkin – I mention this as fans of The Shadow Ring will clasp this LP to their forlorn hearts – and adorned with disquieting collage artworks by Mudguards. Raw outsider art at its most challenging, this is a truly unique release and is bound to get under your skin. Edition of 260 vinyl copies. From 19th October 2018.