999 – A punk rock anthology 1977 – 2020 (Captain Oi!)
Released May 13, 2022
Captain Oh! release a double CD of 999’s collected works spanning their output from 1977 to 2020. Nathan Brown celebrates the band as a high point of first-wave punk that refused to die.
999 are a group that is sometimes overlooked in early punk accounts, but whose impact is arguably more important than recognised. They were one of the brightest and fastest of the first wave of punk bands. Before “hardcore” existed, 999 was pushing the speed and style of punk in that direction. Maybe that’s why they’ve done particularly well in the United States. Just a few weeks ago, I noticed a member of Bikini Kill wearing a 999 shirt in some archival footage from the 1990s.
Nick Cash had one of the most excited and expressive voices of those early punk days. Like Tigger in the drainpipes, he bounced off the stereo and into your living room. Guy Days’ guitar buzzed and then moaned in solos somewhere between glam rocker and Chuck Berry on speed. Pablo Labritain and Jon Watson’s rhythm section was tight and dynamic – aggressive drum-killing punk riffs and words, big rambling wandering bass lines – the latter being a key ingredient of a good punk rock track.
The lead single I’m Alive sold 10,000 copies and was reissued when signed to United Artists (which is also home to Buzzcocks, Stranglers and previously Hawkwind and Laurel & Hardy). What an introduction to the band! It’s frenetic with stops and starts and a guitar solo that takes off like a rocket. Like the best songs of 1977, with the B-side Quite Disappointing, it denounces the boredom and constraints of normal 9 to 5.
To this day, the follow-up single Nasty Nasty is still one of my favorite singles to get in the mood for a night out. He crashes, sneers and threatens with his crowd chorus, then crashes again. The high-octane B-side No Pity (a clear precursor to hardcore IMO) made it a classic punk single.
My Street Stinks is another example of first wave punk. Sounding arrogant and abusive, with shrewdness he rails against the narrow-minded attitudes prevalent in mainstream society at the time. The phrase “And if you walked down my street they’ll hate you” summed up what most respectable people thought of punk rockers at the time – a festive badge of honor. Long before the anti-capitalist Buy Nothing days took off, there was the phrase “I can’t think for themselves.” See all the trash they buy. Money cannot change their way of thinking. Try it and ask yourself why”. In my opinion, My Street Stinks deserved to be the A-side, but Emergency was a bit more radio-friendly and became a staple.
Emergency is rivaled by the single Homicide in the radio friendly stakes and is for many people the archetype of the 999 song. lyrical content resulted in a ban by the BBC!
Along with an ability to knock out snotty punk tunes for young yobbos, 999 could write poppy punk songs to rival the less confrontational bands in the punk scene like Generation X or (later) The Members. Most people soften with age, and as punk waned, it’s worth noting that 999’s songs became slightly less obnoxious. There’s subtlety to the playing and a softer sound with a few stylistic elements borrowed from reggae that weave their way through. Same for the course at the time.
The early songs of the 43-45 year olds always sound very fresh and vibrant, so inevitably the focus is on the ‘glory years’ within this collection. However, around a quarter of the songs featured give some idea of what 999 has been up to since reuniting in 1991 after a hiatus of a few years, when Jon Watson was replaced by Arturo Bassick. It’s reminiscent of how before the current nostalgia boom, when nobody cared about punk, they fought their guts playing in small venues.
Disc 1 is truly all hits, with all early singles complemented by tracks like Chicane Destination, Titanic (Over) Reaction and Tulse Hill Night from the first 3 albums 999, Separates and The Biggest Prize in Sport. Disc 2 sheds light on what happened between 1980 and today, picking up with more Biggest Prize songs… and the Concrete album, plus a bunch of 80s singles. Two 60s covers stand out – Lil’ Red Riding Hood from Sam The Sham And The Pharoahs and Indian Reservation from The Raiders. They appropriate them, Little Red Riding Hood being very ironic. A similar twangy country cum-surf guitar was also featured on the Obsessed single.
The 80s songs are complemented by 4 songs from the 1993 album You Us It and two tracks each from 1998’s Takeover, 2007’s Death In Soho and 2020’s Bish! To hit! Displays! Mostly instantly recognizable as 999, there is some variety. 1993’s Crazy Crazy Crazy has a psychobilly sound while the two most recent tracks alternate between a heavily Ramones-influenced number (Shoot) and high-octane rock and roll based on a traditional 12-bar blues riff (The Pit and the Pentagon). Not a million miles from the band’s formative years.
The liner notes, largely based on an interview with Nick Cash, are informative but very entertaining at the same time. The play covers the formation of the bands and their early years to the present day, including their relative success in the United States and the notoriety they have managed to achieve.
As always with CD collections and reissues (as opposed to vinyl), the question remains who this collection of 40 double CDs is for. Probably not for the ardent 999 fan who probably has everything. For those replacing long-lost vinyl with a CD or youngsters exploring a new band, it covers 1977 through 2020 and is probably worth picking up for early singles alone. While Disc 1 shows 999 at their best and should satisfy those curious as to why this band’s logo still appears on punk rockers’ t-shirts, jackets and badges, Disc 2 demonstrates that they were just a flash in the pan, giving up after a few years – like so many bands in that first wave.
Long may the proliferation of 999 t-shirts and patches continue.
Available from Cherry Red
All the words of Nathan Brown. You can read more about Nathan in his Louder Than War archive here.