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The Membranes

+ {Sensuround} + {Goldblade}

Although formed in 1977 by Fleetwood-born John Robb and Mark Tilton while as Sixth Form students at Blackpool College, and inspired by the onset of punk-rock, The MEMBRANES never really got going until the early 80s. The ethos of DIY punk at the core of the pair’s ideals, Mark bought his guitar from a junk shop, while John built his own custom-made bass from a scrap piece of wood. Not quite punk-skiffle, but as close as one could imagine, when they had to bang metal dustbin lids for drums/percussion, a subsequent cash flow helped with finding a real sticksman, Martin “M.P.” Kelly, and a bona fide singer Martyn Critchley. Personnel changes had saw Critchley move on (Robb and Tilton now shared vocal duties), while Kelly brought keyboards and a WASP synthesizer to the table; the drummer in place was 13 year-old Coofy Sid (Coulthart).
Without a record deal, Robb and his fanzine Rox would help finance Vinyl Drip Records and the dispatch of a various artists 7-inch, `Blackpool Rox E.P.’; the track `Ice Age’ appearing alongside others by SECTION 25, The Kenneth Turner Set and Syntax. The MEMBRANES gained instant street-cred later in 1980 via their flexi-disc 45, `Flexible Membrane’, which comprised two tracks, `Fashionable Junkies’ and `Almost China’.
Fast-forward 12 months, the “harder-edged”/softer-toned platter `Muscles’ (a maxi-single) was Vinyl Drip’s seventh release, although this was Kelly’s swansong, superseded by Steve Farmery when the previous single was reprised and revamped for Rondelet Records in May ‘82. Salivated over by both the music press and R1DJ John Peel, the track’s cult success secured the band another release by way of follow-up, the `Pin Stripe Hype E.P.’, featuring four FALL-meets-JOSEF K-esque songs: `High St. Yanks’, `Funny Old World’, `The Hitch’ and `Man From Moscow’.
Steve’s tenure was brief, however, when the group (now Manchester-based) reverted to a 3-piece and signed to Criminal Damage Records for late 1983’s CRACK HOUSE {*6}. Not featuring the subliminal blast of cacophonous noise that was `Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder’ (a Festive 50 fave), the 6-strong mini-LP fully displayed Robb’s ability for subhuman wailing together with the band’s talent for generating bass-crunching sonic chaos – `Kafka’s Dad’ and `Myths And Legends’, challenging listens to say the least. 1985 kicked off with the `Death To Trad Rock’ EP, containing a re-recording of the latter song and led out by the pounding, brain-numbing `Shine On Pumpkin Moon’, one of their heaviest works to date.
All-rounder Stan Batcow duly joined when Tilton decided his hearing was important; the latter remained co-producer and part-time member until he joined The Creepers (led by MARC RILEY); sole vocalist Robb was now on guitar. The MEMBRANES augmented their unholy racket with bleating sax on 1985’s THE GIFT OF LIFE {*6}, their first and only effort for Alan McGee’s Creation label; check out `I Am Fish Eye’ and `Mr. Charisma Brain’. The reason for Robb and Co’s swift exit was a mix up with a billing that had left original headliners The MEMBRANES (and frustrated followers) third in line to The PASTELS and SLAUGHTER JOE (Foster).
On the back of 1986 single, `Everything’s Brilliant’, further personnel changes seemed to blight the band at every turn; Wallas Terror moved into Stan’s berth for In Tape Records (Homestead in the States) release, SONGS OF LOVE AND FURY (1986) {*6}. Marked by guest appearances from Tim Hyland (sax), Nick Brown (violin, guitar), Ted Chippington (vocals), Keith Curtis (guitar, bass) and Noel Kilbride (guitar), one had to seriously think if songs such as `Everyone’s Going Triple Bad Acid, Yeah’ were autobiographical.
It looked increasingly possible that with Robb’s career in music journalism, The MEMBRANES might gradually fall by the wayside. But not yet. With the aforementioned Nick and Keith (the latter from A WITNESS) added full time, the group were credited on Past Caring with PIG BROS, while a deal on Germany’s Constrictor imprint added to their appeal overseas. Meanwhile, back in England, Glass Records (home to NIKKI SUDDEN) released the weird and wonderful `Time Warp 1991 (Long Live Trad Rock)’ – but in 1987!
Of spiritual heirs BIG BLACK, the Steve Albini-produced KISS ASS GODHEAD (1988) {*6} surfaced on both sides of the Atlantic; its best bits hatched from `Tatty Seaside Town’ (a semi-classic up there with “Spike M…”), `Love Your Puppy’, `Electric Storm’ and a re-construction of HENDRIX’s `Voodoo Chile’. Over the years, Robb and Co had covered `Penal Landscape Gardener’ (DEAD KENNEDYS), `Ice Cream For Crow’ (CAPTAIN BEEFHEART) and `Angie’ (The ROLLING STONES).
With bassist Paul Morley on bass (not Wallas), 1989’s disappointing TO SLAY THE ROCK PIG {*4} was to be The MEMBRANES’ parting shot album; a cover of THAT PETROL EMOTION’s `Big Decision’ their final 45 in 1991. Robb became enmeshed in the emerging dance culture with techno trio SENSUROUND. Alongside unknowns Adam Piper and Patrick Simons, and augmented on their first of two singles, `Blind Faith’, by vocalist Tracey Carmen (of Mind Body And Soul) plus Greg Wilson (DJ), there was little evidence of airplay or interest. The group’s spring 1993 follow-up, `When I Get To Heaven’, featured fresh guests Debbie Stephenson and Katie Goddard on vocals and Paul Hemmings on guitar. These tracks were a million miles musically from The MEMBRANES.
One of the country’s more respected music scribes, Robb went on to pen an acclaimed biography of The STONE ROSES as well as fronting rock’n’roll-soul-punk renegades, GOLD BLADE. Along with Keith Curtis (again!), future BONE-BOX members Jay Taylor and Rob Haynes (plus percussionist Wayne Simmonds), they kick-started their campaign in 1996/97 with the `Soul Power’, `Black Elvis’ and `Strictly Hardcore’ singles; the latter a Top 75 entry. Reverting to punk type-face (think early CLASH, ANGELIC UPSTARTS and the spirit of ’77/’78), GOLD BLADE had more in common with the genre than yer GREEN DAY clones from across the pond. Albums HOME TURF (1997) {*6} and DROP THE BOMB (1998) {*5} were followed by a period of inactivity.
GOLDBLADE (check no space!) next appeared in 2002 when Robb, Curtis and Haynes enlisted percussionist Martin “The Martian” Gray, plus guitarists Johny Skullknuckles and Pete G.O.R.G.E.O.U.S. (aka Byrchmore) – ex-NIGHTINGALES – to perform on third and fourth sets, DO U BELIEVE IN THE POWER OF ROCK N ROLL? (2002) {*6} and “REBEL SONGS” (2005) {*4}; Gray departed shortly afterwards. Home to a thousand and one twilight punk acts, Captain Oi! Records also unleashed the mighty MUTINY (2008) {*6} set, as GB went from Glastonbury and Reading Festivals to overseas in St. Petersburg.
Once a punk always a punk, John Robb would appear in many a rockumentary about the genre; his knowledge second-to-none in that field – and more! Without Skullknuckles (replaced by Andy Taylor), GOLDBLADE landed back on British shores from exotic climes such as Beijing, Algiers and Serbia to issue 2013’s MEMBRANES-esque THE TERROR OF MODERN LIFE {*5}. Pursued by the fun-time ACOUSTIC JUKEBOX (2014) {*5} – a genre-busting re-vamp revision of their best-bits – it looked to be the final nail in the coffin for the fruitless GOLDBLADE.
Having regrouped for an All Tomorrows Parties one-off in 2009, John Robb, Pete Byrchmore and Rob Haynes were always threatening to make The MEMBRANES their main concern; a 7-inch single in 2013, `The Universe Explodes Into A Billion Photons Of Pure White Light’, missed by all but their main disciples until it re-entered the equation as the mind-blowing opening salvo on the trio’s 2015 comeback set, DARK MATTER / DARK ENERGY {*8}. A 14-song “cycle-delic” of manic proportions that made PiL sound decidedly kindergarten, the set’s highlights were the explosive `Do The Supernova’ and The POP GROUP/BIRTHDAY PARTY-ish `21st Century Man’. Spoiled intermittently by sparks of “Dark Matter” black holes that fused kraut-rock with SPIRITUALIZED-styled polyrhythms, the ‘Branes went OTT dub-mental by way of the Lydon-ish 9 minutes of `In The Graveyard’. Clocking in at a whopping 68 minutes, the album was one that could be explored in fits and bursts, but not all at once. Shine on Barking Robb!
© MC Strong/MCS 1999-2003/GRD series // rev-up MCS June2015

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