Live It is an unusual, occasionally beautiful record from a band that until now has been largely absent from celebrations of the era.
There’s nothing especially cinematic about the strange post-punk group Biting Tongues, which is ironic given that they initially came together to score the films of saxophonist-founder Howard Walmsley in 1979. Yet they have plenty of experimental verve and a freewheeling willingness to try anything. The band arrived at an interesting moment in the scene in their native Manchester, and their work sounds quite unlike anything else that was going on in the city at that time. In particular, their second album Live It, which was originally released in 1981 as a limited-release cassette, exhibits an artistic drive that few others in the Northern England post-punk scene could boast.
Perhaps the most distinct aspect of Biting Tongues comes from its founder. Walmsley’s saxophone announces itself on “Evening State” and remains ever-present throughout the rest of the album. Even when it isn’t playing, the skronk appears in different ways, as if Walmsley is continuing to speak through dissonant, upstroking guitars and synths. That may be the only thing about the album that one could call focused; otherwise, Live It is a swirling, jazzy odyssey performed at breakneck speed, a deliberately abstract collection of songs that keeps potential listeners at arm’s length.
If this album embodies anything about punk or post-punk, it’s in the spirit in which it was made. So much of Live It willfully ignores conventions about how pop music is written or assembled; from lyrics through structure, most songs here are the result of improvisation. Vocalist Ken Hollings delivers lines in “Reflector” and “After the Click” that mean very little in a literal sense, but he commits to the part of the agit-prop sermoner wholesale. The band, meanwhile, perform with the gusto of early punks but with the artistic spirit of No Wave or other deliberately obtuse artistic movements that came out of discarding established rules. Ironically, Biting Tongues sound the least inspired when they sound the most conventional, not because they’re bad at making straightforward post-punk but because they clearly sound like they’re holding themselves back.
Biting Tongues aren’t the sort of band that have mass appeal, even among fans of music from the era. The closest connection one could make to their contemporaries is maybe the jazzy tones of groups like the Durutti Column or A Certain Ratio, but even those groups prized structure and consonance in a way that doesn’t particularly interest Walmsley and his charges. There are few records like Live It; its mix of old and modern sounds combined with its creators’ willingness to experiment with form and instrumentation create something that seems far removed from its time and place.
Biting Tongues split up in 1989, when guitarist Graham Massey formed 808 State. Live It is an unusual, occasionally beautiful record from a band that until now has been largely absent from celebrations of the era. The album and the band deserve a wider audience, and one hopes this reissue leads to their rediscovery.