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Delta 5's Edgy Post-Punk Resurrected

With its stuttery, loose-stringed bass line, disco-shuffling drums and interlocking girl-chanted vocals ("Can I have a taste of your ice cream/ Can I lick the crumbs from your table?/ Can I interfere with your crisis?"), Delta 5's 1979 single "Mind Your Own Business" was inextricably linked to a late 1970s northern English post-punk scene that spawned Gang of Four and The Mekons. But it was also utterly different, with its double-bass lineup, strong female presence and lyrics focusing on interpersonal rather than political struggles. The single, the band's only LP, 1981's See the Whirl, and in fact the whole Delta 5 catalog were, until recently, a kind of lost artifact for lovers of post-punk, long out of print, available only intermittently and at great cost on auction sites like eBay.

"I first heard them on the Rough Trade collection Wanna Buy a Bridge? from 1980, one of my all-time favorite albums, and loved 'Mind Your Own Business'," said Jason Gross, editor of the online magazine Perfect Sound Forever and a co-producer of Singles & Sessions: 1979-1981, the long-awaited reissue out now on Kill Rock Stars. Gross said he was drawn by "the forceful bass, the eerie layers of chanting voices, the abrasive guitars, the self-conscious lyrics."

Rescued From Obscurity

Rough Trade, though, had no plans to make Delta 5's work available beyond the compilation, preferring to focus on developing new acts instead of mining its catalog. "It wasn't until the last few years that Kill Rock Stars got Kleenex/Liliput and Essential Logic back in print," said Gross, who co-produced these reissues as well. "I'd been wanting to do this for a while, but I think there's been a recent surge of interest in post-punk with a lot of indie bands paying tribute to them: The Rapture, Radio 4, Franz Ferdinand, etc."

Gross' magazine set the process in motion with an interview of bass player Ros Allen. Allen was receptive to the idea of a reissue, and other band members including guitarist Alan Riggs and Kelvin Knight were as well. "KRS honcho Slim Moon (who I had worked with closely on Kleenex and Essential Logic) might have been the one who suggested that we also do Delta 5, especially since there hadn't been any good collection of their material," writes Gross in his blog yeweiblog.blogspot.com/. "Also, it helped that Erin [Donovan, his co-producer] was keen on the project — she has boundless enthusiasm that was a huge help when we kept hitting roadblocks."

One of those obstacles was that there were no existing master tapes of any of Delta 5's output. The music on Singles & Sessions was remastered from the best-quality vinyl that could be found and supplemented with radio recordings from BBC shows Delta 5 had done in their heyday. The reissue includes 16 songs, comprising three singles, three separate Peel sessions and a live recording from 1980 in Berkeley, California. The packaging, designed by Maria Tessa Sciarrino, incorporates a contemporary essay by Greil Marcus, reminiscences from Jon Langford and photos of Delta 5.

A Groundbreaking Band

Delta 5 came out of the Leeds, England post-punk scene, where bands formed and mutated like single-cell organisms in a Petri dish. In his liner notes for the reissue, Delta 5 contemporary (and sometime contributor) Jon Langford remembers that, "members of Mekons and Gang of Four... and other chums & crew often put together impromptu bands with names like 100 Flowers Bloom and Mekon Delta 4. Delta 5 came about in much the same way when The Mekons' original bassist Ros Allen and Mekons soundman Simon Best asked me to go down to the rehearsal rooms we all rented in Wharf Street (near Leeds Market) and play heavy metal/Hawkwind style power chords off the funk beats they'd been working on."

Drummer Kelvin Knight, interviewed by email, said that many of the elements that defined Delta 5 — unusual instrumentation, male/female mix, lyrical focus on relationships — arose without anyone thinking about them very much. The band formed when the three women in the band, Julz Sale, Ros Allen and Bethan Peters, were studying art at Leeds University, he explained, adding "Me and Al [Riggs] were studying beer and three chords at the time..."

In a world with plenty of all-female post-punk bands — The Slits, The Raincoats, Kleenex/Liliput and others — and even more all-male ones, Delta 5 stood out for its combination of yin and yang. "The lineup was never planned," Knight said. "It just worked out there were three women and two men. It never really occurred to us how unusual it was."

Similarly, the band's groundbreaking double-bass setup was not strategized or talked about; it just happened that way. Yet it allowed the band, already captivated by funk, dub and soul, to explore these complex and bottom-heavy styles. Alan Riggs, by email, remembered, "There were already two basses when I arrived. It made sense — one low-down dubby bass and one more toppy funk bass. [It gave us] variation and choices."

Like Gang of Four, Delta 5 chopped and blended a variety of influences in their skeletal sound, with the bass and rhythm drawing heavily on soul, funk and disco, particularly Funkadelic and Chic. Alan Riggs' staccato guitar sound, which closely resembled that of Andy Gill, came more out of James Brown's soul tradition, a debt he honors by stating, "James Brown has been an influence on just about everything because he is a genius."

He added, "I used to listen to Northern Soul — obscure 1960s and 1970s UK soul — the more obscure the better...We even did a cover of 'Actions Speak Louder Than Words' by Chocolate Milk."

Delta 5 were unusual in the Leeds scene for their skewed fascination with love — a topic more typical of pop than post-punk. As Greil Marcus' 1980 essay "Suspicious Minds" (first appearing in New West Magazine and adapted for the reissue's liner notes) observed, "They're post-punk love songs: the singers accept the inevitability of love but maintain their suspicions... Delta 5 continue the questioning of the love song without abandoning its form — but they fool with the form."

When asked about the lack of political content, Riggs wryly noted that "social and political issues are about relationships as well." But Knight went further, saying, "We had political standpoints and did support rock against racism and sexism campaigns. We just didn't feel the need to make those points again in our songs."

Delta 5 ended up being short-lived but influential. The band was only in existence for a few years and recorded only one full-length album, See the Whirl, in 1981. They broke up shortly after. Yet echoes of its jittery, stop-start sound can be found in all sorts of contemporary bands, from the marquee names like Franz Ferdinand and Maximo Park, to edgier female-centric bands like Erase Errata and the Rogers Sisters.

There are no plans for a Delta 5 tour, or for any new music. It's enough for original members Knight and Riggs that the band's original output is finally available again. "If people are picking up on our sound these days, that's great — very flattering," Knight said. "It would be nice if our work reached people who were not around the first time." — Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, February 22, 2006]

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