Sham 69, Tell Us the Truth (06/29/78)

In 1977 the focus of  the British punk scene was strictly on 45s. With a little nerve and something resembling a song–an attitude might do–any group had a chance to make a mark. Independent labels, often one-shots, carried the news. Listening, you felt bands were putting all they had into their two minutes; it was as if they knew two minutes was all the time they’d ever get. As in the Fifties, the result wasn’t often artful, but the intensity was undeniable.

The last few months are proving that only a handful of the British punks will be able to make the shift from singles to albums. Like other bands, Sham 69 (who first recorded for the radical Step-For­ward label) is running up against the obvious, which isn’t to say necessary, limits of their buzz-saw musical form, and smothering in the small-mindedness of their concept. What you hear on Tell Unite Truth is a failure of imagination.

Sham 69 is explicitly political–everything the Clash has done, they do worse. There’s a fuzzy, automatic quality to the music and the slogans that are substituted for lyrics; what Sham 69 offers is a punk version of Sixties political folk music. Singer Jimmy (Sham) Pursey apes the vocal style of Joe Strummer of the Clash, but where Strummer often affects dumbness in order to make it clear that even those who sound dumb have ideas in their heads, Pursey’s railing implies that as long as one is on the right (that is, left) side, one doesn’t need ideas. This is not liberating.

Side one of Tell Us the Truth was cut live, and the spirit of the gig is somewhere between that of a pep rally and a protest march; you can’t tell if the backing vocals on “Ulster” or “Borstal Breakout” are coming from the band or the crowd. Fora few cuts, the record is exhilarating. Then it turns into a documentary. Sham 69 will shout that “George Davis Is Innocent” (Davis, convicted on circumstantial evidence of killing a cop, has long been a cause célèbre among the British left), but they won’t make you care either way.

Side two, from the studio, is no fun. It begins with a snatch of argument between a nagging working-class mother and her dole-queue son (Get a job!), declines into more slogans, skips across what sounds like Ian Hunter undergoing self-analysis in front of a mirror, and ends with what can only be called punk psychedelia–that, or simple desperation. Whatta we do now, mates?

Wait for the new Clash album.

And keep your eye on those 45s. Heard “Ca Plane Pour Moi” by Plastic Bertrand yet?

Rolling Stone, June 29, 1978

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