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Penetration - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 23 / 10 / 2015

Penetration - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to Pauline Murray from punk band Penetration about their reformation and 'Resolution', their first album in four decades

Penetration was one of the most original and overlooked bands of the 70’s punk movement. Their twin guitars, singer Pauline Murray’s brooding yet vulnerable vocals and their complex song arrangements made them one of the most distinctive acts of that generation. Formed in 1976 in the small former mining town of Ferryhill near Durham, the five-piece group, who took their name from an Iggy and the Stooges song, signed to Virgin Records the following year. They released a string of outstanding singles, including ‘Don’t Dictate’ (1977), ‘Firing Squad’ (1978) and ‘Come Into the Open’ (1979) and two albums, the much acclaimed ‘Moving Targets’ (1978) and the less well-received ‘Coming Up For Air’ (1979). Worn out by record company demands and excessive touring, the still young group(its members were still in their late teens or early twenties) split up within a month of the second album’s release in late 1979. Pauline Murray has, since then, maintained an on-off solo career and also owns and manages Polestar Studios, a Newcastle-based music rehearsal and recording studio which she first opened in 1990. While none of their singles charted and both albums ‘Moving Targets’ and ‘Coming Up for Air’ only reached the lower end of the Top 40 in the Album Chart, Penetration’s influence has continued to be felt on acts as diverse as the Cocteau Twins, Hazel O’ Connor and Morrissey, who in tribute to Murray and Penetration played ‘Don’t Dictate’ as part of a montage of songs in a film that he used to open dates on a stadium tour earlier this year. As far back as 2002, Penetration reformed to play occasional dates with original members Murray (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Robert Blamire (bass guitar, piano, backing vocals) on board. Their current line-up also consists of Steve Wallace (guitars, backing vocals), Paul Harvey (guitars) and recent recruit and former Buzzcocks member John Maher (drums), who joined the band last year. Now after a successful PledgeMusic campaign, they have released on their own Polestar label, a third album, ‘Resolution’. The album opens with ‘Instrumantra’, a stabbing, sinister instrumental out of which a wordless howl from Murray arises in its last few seconds and closes with the equally menacing ‘Outromistra’ over which she reads the opening segment of EM Forster’s grimly prophetic only Science Fiction story, ‘The Machine Wakes’. Other tracks include the soaring pop-punk of recent single ‘The Beat Goes On’ in which Murray warns against the dangers of becoming too fixated on the past; ‘Betrayed’, the chiming tune for which she does not conceal her fury at being let down on a huge scale and the anthemic ‘Guilty’. Surging with both musical and lyrical ideas, ‘Resolution’ acknowledges Penetration’s history and roots but on this first album in thirty-six years also finds the band moving convincingly forwards into this century. Pennyblackmusic spoke to Pauline Murray about the group’s reformation and ‘Resolution’. PB: When did you first decide to make ‘Resolution’? PM: We worked and geared up to it very slowly. We had reformed back in 2002 and while we have done quite a lot of shows between then and now it had been very much on an occasional rather than a full-time basis. We did two 7” singles, ‘Our World’ in 2008 and ‘The Feeling’ in 2009, both of which we recorded in our own studio. They were quite low-key when we put them out and so we were basically doing all the old set plus a couple of songs from the singles, ones that we would class as newer ones. We felt that we were getting stuck in the past. It was Rob‘s idea. He wanted to do the new album. I was very reluctant at first and a little bit frightened to do so - Better the past and all that and I was also concerned whether or not we would be able to do a good album that was up to the standard of the other two. Rob looked into PledgeMusic because an album is a much bigger commitment than a couple of singles financially and we launched that at the end of January. Then the counter just went round, and I thought, “Well, there is no way out of this. We have got to do an album now (Laughs).” PB: How many of the songs were written before January? PM: Not very many (Laughs). There were three tracks that we used, from the 7” singles, ‘Guilty’, ‘The Feeling’ and ‘Sea Song’, we had another song ‘Two Places’ which we had had for a little while but which we hadn’t done anything with. All the others were written after January. After we had launched the PledgeMusic campaign, I wrote ‘Just Drifting’ and then ‘Betrayed’ and then we began getting John Maher to come along to recording sessions. We started with the ones we knew, and so that was the first batch. We had the four which we had already written and those two, then we had to keep writing. Each time John came we did maybe four backing tracks. Then we got to the last lot of backing tracks and we didn’t even have anything written but we had a few ideas so we knocked those into shape while he was here and then I went away and wrote all the lyrics. I found writing the lyrics quite difficult. Other than the singles, I hadn’t really written for the band in a very, very long time and I had to try and find what the zone was. Eventually I went away for a few days and I came up with about eight sets of lyrics in eight days. I also did a few pieces at home before them. PB: ‘Resolution’ is recognisably a Penetration album yet it moves the band on. A lot of punk bands in particular come back and are unable to escape their pasts. Was that your main aim with this album, to move the band on and do something more creative? PM: I don’t think that we ever were a total three-chord punk band. We perhaps started off like that but we always used to push the envelope musically. Our albums were always more melodic and musical than what you would class as an archetypal punk band. We wanted to make a proper album and one that you listened to all of, rather than selected tracks here and there and we wanted it to have an introduction and an end. Musically we did whatever we thought was right for the songs and never put ourselves into making a punk album as such. We didn’t think, “Ooh, we have got make a punk album because we are a punk band and all of the fans will want a punk album.” I think that a lot of fans of the band were expecting that we would come up with something a bit more artful and thoughtful. PB: You were only together originally less than three years and only had minor hits. Yet you are now seen as one of the seminal bands of the 70s and one of the bands that stood out from the rest of the punk pack, because as you say you were trying to do something different. Do you think that it has taken until now for people to fully get Penetration? PM: There were a lot of things going against us. We weren’t from London, we were from the North East of England and I think that a lot of people just think of Northerners as not really knowing anything. We were dealing with a lot of elitism, so we were never really going to be a favourite on that score. It was also highly competitive back in the day. There were tons of bands around and a lot of them were very good bands, so it was quite difficult to stand out with all that other good stuff going on. We did however, do a hell of a lot of work in those three years. We really packed a lot into it and a lot of it was very intense work. I think as a result of that, a lot of people who saw us back then have remembered us. We have always had loyal fans who have really loved the band but obviously there are all those people who have never got the band because we were sometimes seen as a bit too rock or a bit too guitar-y or the fact that there was a female singer and some people treat that in a funny way. Whilst we were never one of the bands that got a lot of acknowledgment and recognition on one level, we were very well liked at another. We were there right from the very start of punk and I think because of those factors people are now beginning to re-evaluate and realise the part that we did play in it. We put a lot of energy into the punk movement. We were out there changing things and forging the way for other people. PB: Your second gig was in support of the Stranglers and your fourth gig was in London at the Roxy Club supporting Generation X. Within a year you had put out your first single ‘Don’t Dictate’, ‘Moving Targets’ followed relatively quickly after that. Do you think in hindsight that things moved too quickly for the band and that it was almost inevitable that like a lot of the bands during that period that you would burn out? PM: I think it is just as it was. The intensity at which we went at it was part of what the punk thing was. It wasn’t a scene which was meant by the very nature of its attitude to be around for a long time. We actually believed in what we were doing while a lot of people used it as a career move but we felt that we were true to something. In the first year, as you say, we did a lot of support gigs and we were new to it all. Within that year we had a guitarist leave. We had a line-up change twice. We had an album out which moved on massively from the first single and then by the time of the second album we had toured America and had reached burn out. I think that it was just so intense because it wasn’t going to last. We didn’t need to pace ourselves because we didn’t think that we were going to have a career in it. PB: ‘Coming Up for Air’ was very widely criticised at the time and you broke up within a month of that album coming out. It is certainly a flawed album but there are a lot of fine songs such as ‘Shout Above the Noise’ on it. How do you feel about it now? PM: I think that we made a really good job of it considering the circumstances that we were in at the time. We were under a lot of pressure to get that album recorded. It was within a year of that first album coming out. We never stopped touring. We never had time to write. We were touring America for five weeks. We had to get back from America to record the album. Half of it was written. Half of it wasn’t and we had a tour already booked to promote it. The pressure was enormous for that album. Looking back on it now, there are some really good songs on it and I certainly don’t think that it is a bad album. It is up to a standard that most bands wouldn’t get to. It has an energy about it. It is different from the first one. There is nothing to be ashamed of looking back on it. Most of us were just twenty years old when we recorded that album, I think that with all the pressure that was being put on us we did a good job with that album. PB: You have put ‘Resolution‘out on your label Polestar. Did you ever think about putting it out with anybody else? PM: There has been nobody else interested at all in the music business. Everything we have done we have done ourselves. That is fine because that is what is meant to be and we have been very much in control of ourselves. We did the first couple of singles through Damaged Goods, but with this one we did the Pledge campaign and we were very much out on our own with it. It was always going to come out on Polestar. During the recording, Proper Music, which is a big distributor, showed an interest in distributing it, but beyond that we have had absolutely no interest whatsoever from anyone in the music business. No one has offered to help and we are very wary of them anyway. PB: Is this something that you enjoyed? Having all this creative control with this release which perhaps you wouldn’t have otherwise had? PM: We have always had creative control with everything that we have done. That side of it is not the problem. It is as soon as you enter the music business and you enter the public domain that is when the problems start, and when you have record companies’ involvement, that is when you start to lose control. Musically I would say that we have always had control. We have never done anything musically that we haven’t had control of but when it has gone outside of us to a record company or whatever, that is when the control has disappeared. PB: You’re obviously avoiding it this time. Is that something that you are enjoying? PM: No, because it is a lot of work to do (Laughs). It is a huge amount of work. It makes you realise what the record companies do. We have had to do such a lot of work preparing this record for release. It has been a massive task. Rob had done a lot of it. It is really his project and he has done so much work for this record. I suppose at one level we are enjoying it to an extent, because if it does alright we will reap the benefits and at least when you are doing it yourself you know exactly where you are with things. PB: You have said about this album that you called it ‘Resolution’ because you had this feeling of completing a circle when making it? PM: That title ‘Resolution’ is not just about completing a circle. We chose to call it that because it means that you resolve to do something and when we pressed the button for the Pledge campaign we resolved to make an album, a new Penetration album. It ties in more with that. The word “resolution” also conjures up the image of resolution as in photography or clarity. ‘Resolution’ also does complete a circle though. The whole record is very circular and there are a lot of things that have linked this record back to the past in a funny sort of way. PB: Could you give an example of that? PM: The last track ‘Outromistra’ is a reading of ‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster, which we also did on a track called ‘Technology’ on our very first demo. I have also met people and reconnected with people from that time in a good way such as John Maher. PB: John Maher was in the classic line-up of the Buzzcocks with whom Penetration toured in the late 1970s. How much contact had you had with him in the years in between? PM: We hadn’t seen John since the early 1980s and then we reconnected with him at the end of last year. He had left drumming for many years but he had done a two date reunion with the Buzzcocks in 2012 and had also been working with another Manchester band called the Things. Rob got in touch with him and asked if he would like to come and drum for us. PB: ‘Beat Goes On’ features Fred Purser who was in the original band in the 70s and was briefly in the group when it got back together in 2002. Why did he just make a guest appearance on this album? PM: When we got back together in 2002, it was instigated by Neale Floyd, who was the guitarist and Gary Smallman, the drummer. I didn’t think that I would ever reform Penetration. I was never interested in it. I had turned my back on the music business in 1981 and didn’t want to do it at all but I could never escape it. I would bump into people who would say, “Aren’t you in Penetration?” It would just follow me around like a ghost, so when they suggested it I thought, “Let’s have a look at it and see what I think.” We did have a rehearsal with all five of us, Fred as well, but Fred immediately said that he was too busy. He runs a recording studio and said straightaway that he couldn’t do it. Neale was living in London and he didn’t turn up. He liked the idea of doing it but he didn’t like the reality of it. Gary did join the band and then left a few years ago. We have always been friends with Fred. We don’t see a lot of him but he lives in Newcastle and his recording studio, which is a really good studio called Trinity Heights, is also in Newcastle. Rob wanted to involve Fred because Fred played on those first two albums and he felt that he would have a good angle on how we wanted to do the guitars on the new album. We wanted to keep that link there with the past and how we recorded it. Rob had a really clear idea of how he wanted to record it so we did the drums and the bass in our studio, Polestar Studios, some of the guitar was done at Fred’s and quite a lot was done at ours. Then we went back to Fred’s and I did the vocals at Fred’s and then Fred mixed it. PB: A lot of your lyrics, such as those on ‘Betrayed!’ and ‘Guilty’, are ambiguous. You are not sure, for example, what the betrayal is on ‘Betrayed!’ and whether it is a moral, political or romantic betrayal, and again on ‘Guilty’ you are left guessing what the person is actually guilty about. Was that a conscious decision? PM: Yes, it is just the way I write. ‘Betrayal!’ was a general thing about the state of things and a world in which we have been lied to by governments. People don’t know what is going on and you do feel like you have been betrayed and you haven’t been told the truth. However, it links into any type of situation in which the person who is betraying you keeps a lot of secrets and tells a lot of lies. ‘Guilty’ was written a while ago and is about someone who has committed a crime. There is a line on there - “Your mother loves you/Yes, it is true.” Your mother may love you but if you have committed a crime you are on your path and there is nothing that anyone can do to help you out. I think all my lyrics are like that though, you are never quite sure what their meaning is exactly and you can put your own meaning there. PB: The album cover was designed by Vaughan Oliver of 4AD fame. Is it true that you were at school with him? PM: Yeah, I was in his art class (Laughs) and Rob was in one of his classes as well. He is the same age as us. He was in the same year as us at school. It is a link with the past again which once more takes us into the present. PB: What other plans do you have for the future? PM: We have got some live dates coming up very, very soon. There are only three, the reason being that John Maher lives in the Isle of Harris so it is really difficult to get him down. We did a recording of the Buzzcocks’ ‘I Don’t Mind’, we are going to record a few more cover versions and put those out for Record Store Day in April. We are also going to line up some more dates for next year. I don’t think we will be coming up with another album straightaway though. PB: Is that a plan though? To ultimately do another album? or is that just too early to say? PM: It is too early to say. I don’t think that we will do one really quickly because we want to push this one. I am probably going to do some of my own stuff next. I started doing acoustic shows last year. I have got a totally new set of songs that aren’t Penetration. I am probably going to carry on writing some of my own things and doing some recording of my own in the meantime. I am not sure how quickly we will put another Penetration album out. It depends how this one does. If it does okay, we will have the finance to think about that. PB: Do you see your own album coming out next? PM: Possibly. I am thinking about how I want it to sound. I would like to record it acoustically, just me and my acoustic guitar but I am also thinking about doing it electronically. I am not sure yet. I will be doing that along with Penetration. PB: Thank you. Photographs by Ian West

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