It’s very, very rare to come across a record as idiosyncratic, inimitable and iconic as Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth.
Consisting of brothers Stuart and Philip Moxam and vocalist Alison Statton, Young Marble Giants formed in Cardiff, Wales in 1978. Since it first dropped in early 1980, the intimate minimalism of their sole full-length release, Colossal Youth, has resonated with audiences around the world (including Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, The Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian and more). Now, over 40 years later, Domino Records is reissuing the record along with other odds and ends recordings and a live DVD of the band’s last-ever American show at New York’s Hurrah club in 1980.
Perhaps what makes Young Marble Giants such a fascinating and poignant act is the fact that they stood in such stark contrast with almost everything happening around them. Consumerism was on the rise, technology was advancing at a rapid rate, punk rock was writing a fiery manifesto of unabridged aggression — in the midst of all of this, three Welsh non-musicians sought to clear a space for a bit of quiet contemplation.
As tame and low-key as that may seem in comparison to the impassioned performances found in punk music, Colossal Youth is still a revolutionary piece of art. While it’s not ragingly loud, the album conveys a prominent and empowering sense of dissatisfaction. By stripping back the expected song-and-dance of pop music, the band illustrates the contradictions and shortcomings of our overstimulated world. In this regard, the impact of the record has only grown in the 40 years since it was originally written.
Similarly, the members of Young Marble Giants themselves have grown. After disbanding in 1980, the group went their separate ways, only to reunite periodically throughout the 2000s for a show here and there. Yet, the time apart has allowed them space to reflect on their original run and what it all meant. Last week, American Songwriter hopped on the phone with Stuart Moxam and Alison Statton to discuss Colossal Youth’s ruby jubilee, the impact it’s had and the legacy of the music they made all those years ago. Read our conversation below:
It’s been over 40 years since Colossal Youth came out — what’s it like to look back after all of this time?
Alison Statton: It feels like it’s gone very quickly, but a lot has happened in between as well. In some ways, the memories get kinda hazy. In other ways, I’ll listen to certain tracks and it feels like we recorded them just yesterday. Each time you look back from a different place, it gives you a new perspective. I guess that’s quite healthy, really.
Stuart Moxam: All of these entities reaching out to us and the comments that people have made on social media over the years… it’s all been totally amazing, really. From the very beginning, the music seems to have meant a lot to a lot of people.
AS: I don’t really follow the online stuff, to be fair. It’s not something that I’m really keeping up with. It has been amazing, though, just to see the reaction. When I heard that Domino was putting out this new release, I thought “Well, this kinda got reissued when Domino took it on [in 2007]… why are we doing it again? Surely everybody who wants the album already has it.” So, it’s been amazing to see that there’s still so much interest, especially with pre-sales and that kind of stuff going on.
SM: Totally, I felt the same way. In a way, it hasn’t really hit me yet that it’s been 40 years. It doesn’t feel like it, really.
How often do y’all listen to the old recordings?
AS: I hear it when it pops up on the radio. I listen to BBC Radio 6 Music and quite often a track will pop up randomly in the evening when I’m tuning in. It takes me by surprise because we never really made everyday radio tracks — even today, there’s so much music out there that’s absolutely terrific. So, it’s quite a surprise to hear Young Marble Giants pop up. I always hear it fresh, really. I don’t put the album on, but that’s when I listen to it.
SM: Well, it is music for evenings, Alison.
AS: Yes, exactly!
SM: I don’t listen to the radio. In the 40 years since the album came out, I’ll listen to it maybe once every two to three years, sorta out of curiosity. Of course, that’s apart from when we were gigging — when we had a couple gigs each year, I had to listen to and relearn songs.
AS: Yeah, that was the last time I actually played the album. We had these gigs coming up and I had to get familiar again with all of the arrangements and lyrics. I had to study it carefully, it wasn’t automatic anymore. That was the last time that I really put the album on.
SM: I should say too that since then, the old live videos have come to light. There are the ones that are being released with this reissue and there’s the one that was taken from somewhere in Canada… do you remember that gig we did, Alison? There were only acoustic bands and it was at a church with fold-out chairs?
AS: That was in Vancouver, I think.
SM: Yeah, that’s it! Have you seen the footage of that yet?
SM: Oh my God, Alison! I’m going to send you the link. It was so amazing to watch. It was near the end of our run — in fact, it might be the last gig we did before the final gig in New York. It’s just extraordinary. Talking about the memory of all of these songs, looking back at that video reminded me that I could never quite figure out some of the organ stuff. There are sections of that footage where I can see myself playing and I’m crossing my hands over themselves just to play the part! The problem is not being a musician, being completely self taught. There was no framework — I just have to listen to our records and try to approximate what we’d done. It was very simple anyway, there wasn’t anything ‘Tchaikovsky’ about it.
AS: I remember you crossing your hands like that!
Do you think that being “non-musicians” is what allowed y’all to make something so spacious, inimitable and timeless? To my modern ears, I’ve always loved how your music seems to stand in juxtaposition with the overstimulation of the world — it’s amazing how that juxtaposition has only increased over time.
SM: Yes, I do think so. That’s a really good way to put it — “overstimulation of the world.” That rings very true for this. I was born in 1955 — we grew up in a world where the atmosphere was that the world was our oyster. Anything was possible, things could be invented, there was always new stuff to be done. So, there was no question about whether you could be original or not — you could be original if you wanted to. Whereas now, my children have said to me “Oh, Dad, all the music of our generation is retro. There’s nothing new being made.” I think they’re right. Our generation was very fortunate because we got to be the first teenagers in Britain. That concept didn’t really exist before the ‘50s. We also had all of that fabulous music — pop singles from America, The Kinks and The Beatles and Dusty Springfield and all of that marvelous music. What do you think, Alison?
AS: Yeah, absolutely. In some ways, that’s where our stimulation was: listening to records, rather than downloading things. It was exciting to discover something, whether that be something we just picked up or something a friend showed you. There were a lot of new sounds coming through. But, that could be less to do with the time we were growing up and more to do with the fact that we’re older now. You’ve heard so much that everything you hear just relates to something else. So, it’s interesting that your children said that everything’s been done before, Stuart — I’ve always just thought it was because I’ve heard so much that I can compare and link new things to older things.
SM: In a way, it’s like the change from hunter-gatherers to supermarkets — we were still in the woods, coming across a batch of fruit hanging from a tree in the jungle, we had to search for and discover those things. Nowadays, you just go to the supermarket and it’s all wrapped in plastic for you.
Stuart, that reminds me of something you said in an interview in 2009: “We were on the cusp of a massive technological change in music.” Is that kind of what you’re alluding to?
SM: Yeah, but I didn’t realize it at first. All we had was vinyl and then cassettes hit the scene not long before we started up, really. My mom was a teacher, so she had the first computer I ever saw. She also had the second cassette recorded I ever saw. That’s what we used in the room — we used that cassette recorded for the backing tracks and the drum tracks. At the same time, my cousin Peter was in the band (he stayed with us until we got signed) and he had the first synthesizer that I had ever seen in the flesh. He had a little ring modulator and drum machine that he had made. All of those things contributed to what we did, but they were also the future. I remember that the big thing at the time was some sort of sampler that was coming out — bands like Yes could afford it but nobody else could, I don’t remember what it was called. Then, in the ‘80s you started to get sequencers and the digital stuff. It was a whole new world. I remember recording in 1981 and hearing that sequenzers were the next big thing. Sometimes I hear music today and think “Wow, that’s what I would’ve done.”
What did the songwriting process look like for Young Marble Giants?
SM: Well, when we decided to have a go at doing this group, I remember thinking to myself that I couldn’t really write lyrics. I wrote music on an acoustic guitar and some of the musical ideas were satisfying. But, I remember being attracted to the idea of writing for an imaginary group, rather than us. I didn’t really know what to do — I wasn’t very skilled, we hadn’t been playing for very long, I hadn’t done much writing. For me, I saw that band as my one chance to make it in life. It was massively imperative to me… even though I don’t think I ever communicated that to the rest of the band.
AS: Yeah, I just learned that from you right now. You just mentioned that you were writing for an “imaginary group” — I never realized that! I didn’t know where the songs came from, I thought they were very personal songs that you wrote and shared with us.
SM: Well, that’s true as well, but before we got into the groove, that’s what I was doing. Nobody’s ever heard the songs from ‘before,’ because they’re very grim. But, I don’t know if I even understood any of this at the time. The group itself was really my catalyst to write. Creating that distance in my mind is what made it possible. I was listening to new records all the time and was aware, to a degree, of what was going on musically. But, I didn’t feel like I had to compete with any of that stuff, I didn’t feel worried. That for three reasons: one, I was writing for an imaginary group. Two, Alison was the one who was going to sing it. Three, Alison’s a woman. So, I had three levels of separation between me and the song, which made it easier and more comfortable. The words are very personal, which is why it was easier to have someone else sing them. In my memory, what happened was that I was in a band with Phil and we felt that we had to do something extraordinary to be noticed. We talked a lot about the sound and the feel of the project. It couldn’t have been more important to me. I was 24, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life but I felt like I had to do something with it. To me, this band was it — it had to be the stepping stone of my life. As soon as I picked up a guitar, I knew that was the answer. But, we never talked about this at the time, we never talked about anything.
Did that lack of communication — and tension that resulted from it — influence the band’s sound?
SM: Totally, yes. The best review we’ve ever had was when somebody said “this is music for the congenitally repressed.” In a way, it is. Honestly, I would be exhausted after playing just one song live, it was so tense. We were not doing so many things — we were sorta denying ourselves a lot. We weren’t making everyone happy, we weren’t making them dance and sing along, we weren’t doing any of those conventional things. We didn’t do encores to begin with because that’s phony. The thing that really struck me, honestly one of the things I enjoyed the most about the band, was that we had this fantastic attitude. It was like a gang, and a gang always has its values and its attitudes. Do you know what I mean, Al? Do you remember that?
AS: Absolutely, I know what you mean. I can remember the discomfort of not meeting any of the expected, conventional needs of an audience. Especially when the audience didn’t quite know who they were coming to see. We didn’t do the encore, we didn’t make them dance — we made them be quiet because if there was more than one conversation going on in the audience you couldn’t hear the band. We didn’t play very loud! It was quite challenging for the audience, as well as for us. I do wonder sometimes if some members of the audience were as exhausted and tense as we were by the end of a show. We weren’t playing the game, we were just doing something that we’d listen to.
SM: Yeah, yeah. I also think that the huge tsunami of love and support that this record has gained is evidence that people really relate to it. There are a lot of people who feel the way we did. There are lots of people who are introverted and struggling, who hold the same values. So, I think that through our skeletal music, we spoke to that. At the same time, I think that the bones of our music was based on our knowledge of really great music. Stuff like church music (you can’t get much better than Christmas carols, really), showtunes and classical music. There was also the fabulous batch of ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s pop and rock. We knew what was good.
AS: Yeah, it was a lot about the space in the music, the ability to create an atmosphere. Because we were only doing what we wanted to do without doing the other, conventional, expected presentation stuff, I suppose that there was a sense of honesty. I’ve often said that we felt quite naked on stage, really. There wasn’t anything to hide behind, to hide our flaws and our lack of skill. None of us were skilled musicians and there was nothing there to soften that or cover it up. Yet, I think that honesty was something that a lot of the audience — including other musicians — could relate to. Though, I’m sure that to some greatly skilled musicians, it was horrendous.
Alison, I read that you were hoping to direct the band into making music that sounded “less masculine’ — what did you mean by that?
AS: Well, punk music had this rawness. It made people sit up and pay attention. I had been to various punk gigs and it was very exciting to be in that audience and feel that energy. It was very loud and it was quite aggressive. There wasn’t quite the space and the softness that I… well, to say “male/female” is probably not the right thing to say. There are a lot of men male musicians who make very soft music and there are plenty of women who really crank it up and blast it out. But, I suppose just looking at conventional energies, punk felt harder. I went to gigs and I appreciate what they had to offer, but it wasn’t my go-to in terms of how I wanted to perform and what I wanted to do. What I wanted was more space and softness, like Brian Eno’s albums, that sort of reflective spaciousness.
So, for my final question I want to backtrack a little bit and reference the fact that y’all continue to learn a lot about each other (like how Alliosn learned that Stuart saw the band as his path towards living a reward life… even though he was writing for an “imaginary band”). This seems to be a phenomenon that pops up in several of the interviews y’all have done recently. Considering that, do you ever wish that you had done more interviews back during your original run? Do you wish that you had communicated more with each other?
AS: From my point of view, it’s been great to actually learn more about who we were then. We were all young and with youth comes a certain amount of introspection, but you’re not always looking to understand your friends and bandmates and the folks around you. You’re a little locked-up in your own world with your fears and thoughts about what your life will hold. It was too easy to lock yourself into your own head without communicating. Having said that, I think there’s something about that lack of communication that added something huge to the music. It’s been interesting and good to reflect on that process as we get further down the line. There’s always something to learn — it’s been 40 years and today was the first time I’ve ever heard that Stewart was writing for an imaginary band! That’s fascinating! It’s great when you hear a little bit of what was going on. That really only happens in interviews because if we get together now we talk about everything except the band, we’d just talk about what’s happening now. So, it’s quite refreshing to me.
SM: It was a huge mountain to climb. We were a very confident group — we knew that we had something good, we knew that it worked. It was all based on going back to square one and saying “We don’t like instructions. We don’t like choirs and brass and strings. We just want to give you the absolute bones, the good stuff.” In a way, it was a very Cardiffian attitude. I’ll never forget this one story — I went to see Stevie Wonder once when he had just put a new album out. He was touring the new album, so he was mostly playing those songs and everyone was pissed off about it. Stevie got really pissed off and he sorta started berating the whole crowd, tens of thousands of people, because he wanted to play his new music and we just wanted to hear the hits. I think that attitude had a lot to do with how we made our music. Cardiff is a rough place in many ways, but it’s an especially rough place to play spacious, soft music. So, by going against the grain of everything people wanted, we were taking a huge risk, really. But, the audiences have proved us right. Their response has been fantastic.
AS: Well, there’s nothing hiding there. It’s clear. It’s interesting to think that I went on to be a chiropractor… I obviously just wanted to be with the bones.
Watch Young Marble Giants perform “Final Day” at their final American show at Hurrah in 1980 below: