Review Summary: Rock for anyone if they're willing. Fun and funny.
It would be easy to slam Sham 69’s silly name (taken from random graffiti on a football stadium) and sloppy sets of half-drunken Oi! anthems as an extremely poor man’s punk rock, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. For one, they certainly ARE very poor - wallet-wise, that is, certifiably street-cred as scruffly, down-on-their-luck British working class. Fortunately they are, however, very rich in spirit and energy. Secondly, they really aren’t very punk, if you define punk as dynamic, angry, political rock played fast (anyone into the Clash is spoiled I realized; once you get into them no punk, no music is ever the same. They raised the bar so high). Sham 69 is more of a rowdy bar band (or street band, once they’ve been kicked out of the bar) with slight gritty R&B tendencies (occasionally sitting down at the piano or picking up some brass) and shamelessly fond of huge, beer-mug chorus chants. They’re like a hangover the next afternoon from a great show the previous night; or the warm glowing embers of a crushed cigarette on worn pavement. They have some inner fire that they can only express when they’re loaded. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially when they do come through with some admittedly guilty pleasures. Perhaps best exemplifying their artistry, it’s fitting that Sham 69’s songs are assembled as a singles collection, because Sham never crafted solid, individual, memorable albums, and so their work is most fun heard this way – all the beef in one spot.
The Singles Collection assembles all of Sham’s singles from their heyday of the late 70s and very early 80s. Not surprisingly, their singles are also their best songs. Many of the tracks here light up the smoky pub haze to become flawed but charming classics. To any fan of rough rock, it’s the imperfections (bile-filled growls, non-existent production, clumsy playing, brutish ineloquence) that elicit a warm smile. There is no real intelligence here, no wit, no vast exploration of rock music, but instead just a bunch of bluesy friends trying to play out their feelings, a motive as minimalist as their malnourished skin-and-bones bodies and tattered clothes. They played as a way of getting through the bad times and celebrating the good ones. On the singles collection, Sham nicely balances both sentiments.
The collection starts off with some early, classic three-chord punk numbers: “I Don’t Wanna”, “Ulster”, and “Red London”. So raw are Sham 69 that most of the songs are indistinguishable from live tracks, possessing the low-tech make-do muffle and frenetic crackle of a live bar appearance (‘concert’ would be too bloody formal). Their fondness for getting whole crowds involved, studio choruses or not, becomes quickly apparent with “What Have We Got” and “Borstal Breakout”, then peaking midway with the catchy “Hurry Up Harry” (perhaps THE ultimate drunk publer). In between they stumble into a few classics with the dusty barn-buzzsaw of “If The Kids Are United”, the dumb but amiable answer to which is, “they will never be divided”. An absolute standout is “Hey Little Rich Boy”, a catchy, biting, confrontational track pitting Sham’s street gang against a dastardly, spoiled upper-class kid. Subtle they are not. And that is part of the glory of Sham: no-bull, no poetry, just saying exactly whatever the hell they wanted to. “No Entry”, inspired by the band’s denial into the US after getting caught with marijuana, effectively combines sharp humor and satire, particularly with a near-genius warped-guitar solo of “The Star Spangled Banner”, both a middle finger to and a critique of the ‘warped’ values of American society. That’s about as close as they get to politics. Most of the songs are more general warnings against conformity and the establishment, as on the seething “Questions and Answers”. As the collection winds down, so too seemingly does the band with “I Gotta Survive” and the quaint live cover (was that a burp?) of “With A Little Help From My Friends”, perhaps the most endearing part of which are the small crowd’s enthusiastic chants and claps as they finish. There’s also some burningly good riffage on the opening “Hersham Boys”. The band takes a different turn on the slower, well-intentioned “You’re A Better Man Than I”. Sham 69 had nailed their trademark formula towards the end of their prime, combining fast beats, solid riffs, and memorable, semi-meaningful choruses with the superb “Give A Dog A Bone”, “Tell The Children” and “Jack”. “Unite And Win” probably marked the point of no return with a keyboard-laden chorus that’s a little too blatantly fist-pumping, but it’s still a nice latter-day effort.
The Singles Collection is one of the best ways to experience Sham 69, one fiery number after another for more than twenty tracks. It’s not perfect because none of its songs are perfect, but then again none of its players are either and don’t aspire to be – and that’s awesomely refreshing. The human flaws, ferocious energy, and occasional drunken humor make up quite a potent, rollicking combination. They’re certainly no sham.