Review Summary: As a whole, “From the Cradle to the Grave” is remarkable, and a must-have album for punks attempting to understand the origins of their ideologies and why a lot of their musical catalog sounds the same.
The Subhumans (UK) are notorious for their placement on the backs of punk rock leather jackets worldwide. Their first album “The Day the Country Died” is widely regarded as a punk rock classic. However, the Subhumans rarely receive attention for their second LP masterpiece “From the Cradle to the Grave.” I blame its lack of popularity on the success of their first LP, its lack of accessibility (you have to look for this one), and a similarly titled film starring Jet Li and DMX. Though it is not too well known, it is very difficult for me to regard “From the Cradle to the Grave” as anything less than spectacular. The blueprint for this album details one side of the LP with nine crashing, haunting discharges of punk rock, with the second side containing an incredibly engaging 17-minute title track. As a whole, “From the Cradle to the Grave” is remarkable, and a must-have album for punks attempting to understand the origins of their ideologies and why a lot of their musical catalog sounds the same.
To say that this album brings out Dick Lucas’ cynical side is an understatement. You may even call his actions uncharacteristic in his attacks against the average, callow punk follower with “Waste of Breath.” Lucas’ vocals give an impression of a British, freestyle-rapping punk, who rhymes “You paint your leather jacket but it comes off in the rain/The more you cut your hair, the more it grows again…//It’s the story of your life/And the end of it’s your death/And everything that’s in between is just a waste of breath.” However, I find that his accusations against the common punk (that I am sure does not bother to affirm their beliefs beyond the music they listen to) were well placed and were designed primarily to educate rather than alienate. This is a common theme throughout the album, where Lucas vents anger – with the pessimistic “Rain” and the inescapable doubt surrounding “Where’s the Freedom"” and “Us Fish Must Swim Together” – but resolves that the problem is either inherent to the system in place or can be solved with sufficient effort.
Musically the album is a decent leap forward in the Subhumans’ prowess. For crying out loud, they begin the album with an instrumental, identified on the album’s packaging simply as a musical note. The first track does well to set the tone for an album that incorporates brief guitar solos and very dynamic drumming. They take risks. “Us Fish Must Swim Together” begins with a lingering guitar introduction fitting for bandaleros and vaqueros, before charging into repetitive guitar and melody much more appropriate for a punk description, tracing mankind’s evolution to its apparent inevitable destruction unless for possible intervention. The beginning of “Wake Up Screaming” immerses you into a nightmare with its dreary guitar effects and Lucas’ howls. Focusing on fitting the mood of each song seems to have been a high priority for the Subhumans on this album, as almost every chord seems to fall into place very well.
I mentioned the 17-minute title track, but not nearly in enough detail to convey how captivating and mesmerizing it is to give it a listen. The only similarities that can be drawn between this track and lengthy efforts by NOFX and Crass are that they exist in the scope of punk rock. The track is an impressive outline of life from birth to death, done with musical ingenuity and lyrical creativity. The musical stops on a dime, vilifying lyrics, and the harsh realization that so many individuals will blindly follow a governmental system perpetuated to abuse the common individual by making them nothing more than a tool in their shed are all vital components to this masterpiece. If you find it a tired theme, at least it does not imitate, but rather originates (with a release date of 1984) the widely held beliefs of the intelligent punk rocker.
Collectively, each side of the album works in a very cohesive manner, pervading many punk ideals and carrying a distinct musical style. I do not qualify the album as essential as “The Day the Country Died,” though I do strongly believe that a punk who professes their beliefs be very aware of this album. It is a lesson in punk rock as clear as crystal. You will likely be shocked that “From the Cradle to the Grave” has been a relative obscurity for so long, and surely will not regret its purchase.