The birth of DIY and how The Desperate Bicycles went and did it.
by Dan Selzer
originally published, issue #5, 2005

In early 1978, 42 British fans ventured into their local shops where major label punk singles from the Clash and the Pistols sat side by side with the first wave of independent records from the Buzzcocks, the Fall, and others. There they found a record with a picture of a broken bicycle on the front and their own names written on the back following this descriptive text:

The Desperate Bicycles were formed in March 1977 specifically for the purpose of recording and releasing a single on their own label. They booked a studio in Dalston for three hours and with a lot of courage and a little rehearsal they recorded “Smokescreen” and “Handlebars”. It subsequently leapt at the throat. Three months later The Desperate Bicycles were back in the studio to record their second single and this is the result. ‘No more time for spectating’ they sing and who knows? They may be right. They’d really like to know why you haven’t made your single yet. “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it” (the complete cost of “Smokescreen” was 153 pounds). The medium may very well have been tedium but it’s changing fast. So if you can understand, go and join a band. Now it’s your turn….

The call had gone out at the end of that first single released on their own Refill Records (RR1): “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it!” The aforementioned 42 were the names of people who had written the band or written John Peel after hearing “Smokescreen” on the radio. “I’m sick of telling people that they’re capable too / they don’t want to believe me and there ain’t just a few / all are insecure,” sang vocalist/lyricist Danny Wigley on the follow up single “The Medium Was Tedium” (RR2), which featured that commanding chorus mantra again, “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it!” Flip the record to its B-side, “Don’t Back the Front,” with its chorus, “No more time for spectating / Tune it, count it, let it blast / Cut it, press it, distribute it / Xerox music’s here at last!” and DIY is born. It may have been The Sex Pistols and The Ramones that taught a generation that anyone could be in a band, but it was The Desperate Bicycles that taught them they could put out their own records.

Were there 42 bands immediately pressing their own slabs of excited outbursts? Maybe not from those names, but a survey of the late ‘70s British scene is filled with artists who heeded the call. Scritti Politti, The Swell Maps, and The Television Personalities are three of the more celebrated post-punk bands to admit The Desperate Bicycles as a primary influence. Less celebrated were the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of “DIY” bands around the UK and the world that followed, self-recording their amateurish to brilliant output and self-releasing it on hand-stamped 7”s with hand-printed sleeves. In a fascinating paper by one Paul Rosen, found online, there appear these statistics: In 1978 Zigzag magazine listed 231 indie labels in their Small Labels Catalogue. By 1980, this number had risen to 800. Could all of these labels release records as cheaply as The Desperate Bicycles? DJ John Peel, one of the Bicycles’ key supporters, thought 153 pounds was “an amount any band could afford if the bass player sold their motorbike and the rest of the band robbed a few telephone boxes.” The Bicycles also managed to save some money by pressing the same two songs on both sides of their first two singles, requiring only one master plate, as opposed to the usual two. This is both efficient and practical, because when you wear out the grooves on one side, you can simply flip the record over and start again.

The DIY scene became as associated with a certain sound as it was with its means, as people focused less on the quality of songwriting/playing and more on the seemingly shambled quality of The Desperate Bicycles product and their DIY message. The music was more immediate than anything heard on either the big releases of the day or the home recorded/home released singles that followed in its wake. The low fidelity and rough, energetic playing made people think The Bicycles were another scrappy, crappy, wanna-be band, though further listens reveal the excellence of these musicians, their melodic pop music and emotive, literary lyrics. The style created by the original line-up of bassist Roger Stephens, organist Nicky Stephens, drummer Dave Papworth, and vocalist Danny Wigley created a model for thousands of basement and garage bands. Wheezing combo organ and a drummer that sounds like he is hitting cardboard boxes would be the template for a new wave that wasn’t interested in the retro-rock of mainstream or the avant-garde ambitions of most post-punk. The priority was the song itself and getting it out there as quickly and efficiently as possible. Soon DIY became a political statement rather than a last resort, as bands released their own music not because nobody else would, but because they could. The creative and political autonomy afforded by the DIY movement became a badge of honor. Before The Bicycles, the idea that you could make your own record and get it into stores worldwide was unfathomable, but they went ahead and did it themselves, and distributors like Rough Trade were born to help spread this music worldwide.

The influential first two Desperate Bicycles singles were followed up by New Cross, New Cross, a six-song EP (RR3). On this release the trebly 60’s organ was replaced with the sparse sounds of scratchy guitar, beautifully played fretless bass, and the incessant pounding of a small drum kit, with Wigley’s verbose lyrics hoisted up front. Songs evoked blue-collar England, the concerns of the housewife, the ecological benefits of bicycles over cars, and what to do in case you were arrested. The EP sounds like it was recorded in the band’s front room, but the songwriting is at a level well beyond that of most DIY bands. Upon this release, it becomes clear that Danny Wigley was one of the great poets of the UK punk revolution.

Their fourth 7”, Occupied Territory/Skill (RR4), continued the band’s obsession with self-reliance while pushing their sound to ambitious new heights. The cover is simply a blank form to be filled out as an “application for single release” for a record label, with the band’s name and info printed over it in red. When I asked bassist Roger Stephens if I had a promo copy, he responded, “The Occupied Territory art is of a piece (the ‘standard’ studio form was specially designed as part of the original artwork) and you do not have a promo copy. We made a point of never promoting our records other than by reviews and airplay (John Peel almost exclusively in the UK) and, it would seem, word of mouth.” The A-side, “Occupied Territory,” opens with acoustic guitar, pastoral bird sounds, and vocals, eventually giving way to a low-fi, full electric band chorus. The song dispels any doubts as to whether The Desperate Bicycles are a scrappy band or ambitious avant-garde art-band with a capital “A,” with its almost Kinks-like exercise in nostalgia and unique production. Should their initial message possibly be forgotten, the B-side, “Skill,” brings it back quite clearly, atop an irresistibly driving, garage post-punk sound: “You don’t need skill, just the interest / You don’t need skill, just the desire / The interest and desire to do what you believe it / encouragement is real if it’s believed in / Well I’d be sad if you said to me / I’ve got nothing new to say to you / you’ve convinced yourself and others too / there’s nothing you can do.”

At some point during these last few singles, Dan Electro had joined on guitar, Roger Stephens had left, Nicky Stephens moved from organ to bass, and Jeff Titley replaced drummer Dave Papworth. With this lineup, The Desperate Bicycles finally released an LP, Remorse Code (RR6). Here the recording sounds more professional, the playing more restrained, and on first listen, one may confuse it for just another fine entry in the post-Joy Division, British post-punk/new wave annals. Nevertheless, like New Cross, New Cross, the focus is less on muddled DIY quality and aggression and more on song-craft. The songs are witty and real. While most of their contemporaries were dealing with more ambitious, seemingly poetic (read: pretentious) subject matter, The Desperate Bicycles took on more personal subjects. Songs address the difficulty of turning ten years old, the dilemma of overanalyzing oneself, sarcasm, birthdays, and my favorite, “Natural History,” wherein “amateur historians” concoct reasons why the “good old times” were better, to which Wigley answers by singing, “I don’t want to be a fossil.”

It may have been The Sex Pistols and The Ramones that taught a generation that anyone could be in a band, but it was The Desperate Bicycles that taught them they could put out their own records.

In what might have been an attempt to shake the public perception of an inept DIY goof band, The Desperate Bicycles released what would be their final cut in 1980. Grief is Very Private b/w Obstructive and Conundrum (RR6) is a three-song 7” with no sleeve, only a label featuring pictures of the band looking very serious. The three songs are performed on guitar, bass, piano, and stylophone (the cheap electronic music toy made popular on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”), and were about as catchy as avant-garde music could be. Had these songs perhaps fallen on the right ears, The Desperate Bicycles could have found a new audience and career as one of the best experimental bands of the ’80s, however their lack of mention in the history books leads one to view the release as a last gasp.

Another sleeveless single was released around that same time, recorded by The Desperate Bicycles but under the name The Evening Outs and featured no art other then a single red stamp with a picture of a phone and the song titles. “Channel” is a very noisy electronic experiment in spoken and screamed word, while the flipside “Stammer” is a spoken word piece about stuttering and language over some free jazz-style bass and drum playing. Historian Johan Kugelberg claims that The Evening Outs “puts that no wave stuff to shame, really.”

Little is known about what happened after these releases. There was a cassette by a band named The Lonely Ghosts that supposedly involved members of Desperate Bicycles, and another band called Tiny Town with a similarly rumored involvement. Guitarist Dan Electro’s name appears on a DIY 7” called “Day Shift,” although his was hardly a unique pseudonym. Finally, Peel Sessions have circulated among collectors which feature interesting versions of “Smokescreen,” “Skill” and “Sarcasm,” as well as the otherwise unreleased “Teacher’s Prayer,” a fantastic post-punk song. The DIY legacy of The Desperate Bicycles continues to grow as the band has continued to refuse any license of their music for release on CD. When questioned on the matter, original DB bassist Roger Stephens responds fittingly by saying the band would do it themselves if they decided it was a good idea. “One thing that would sway us would be the thought that we could still have a positive influence, maybe encourage someone to take control of some part of their life—by musical means perhaps, but not necessarily,” says Stephens. Since then, rumor has it that other members have been contacted though no agreement has been made, therefore there is not, as yet, any forthcoming CD to report.

When I first heard The Desperate Bicycles on a bootleg that opened with “Smokescreen,” it leapt at my throat and the rest of me. I had no idea what they were singing about, but the urgency of their playing and the poignant vocals impacted immediately. Before I knew anything about their history, I could feel it. Two songs, both on the same side, totaling exactly three minutes, ending with the phrase, “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it!” The Desperate Bicycles lead by example, and their lesson is just as relevant now as it was 27 years ago. With today’s easy access to technology and likeminded individuals, DIY record making is even easier and cheaper than it was in the ‘70s, and somewhere The Desperate Bicycles would really like to know why you haven’t pressed your single yet. Now it’s your turn… “Go and do it!”;

Thanks to Roger Stephens, Johan Kugelberg, Chuck Warner, and Lauren Podis.

by Swingset Magazine on 6/14/2012 in Features | Tags: , , , , , ,