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The Subhumans' Timeless Hardcore Punk

The Subhumans are a political punk band from Britain who were first active in the 80s, but whose back catalog of six albums has now been re-mastered and released in the United States. Although the musical setting has changed dramatically from those days, the Subhumans sound more timeless than old hat.

The group proves that not all overlooked excellent music is a so-called lost gem — sometimes they're hidden in plain sight. The Subhumans were active from 1980 to 1985 and their records were never rarities, just very hard to find in the United States, where they never got much traction in their heyday. However, being vintage punks missed by the U.S. guarantees nothing — a UK group called The Adicts is by far the most long-lasting punk band with original members ... but that's the most interesting thing about them.

The Subhumans, on the other hand, will remind you why people were knocked out by punk in the first place. They deliver short, sharp shocks of fury and anguish, but like the best of the breed, they're angry in a funny way or funny in an angry way, as when they sing "Mickey Mouse is Dead."

In their first release, The Subhumans were an early example of British hardcore punk, a style that stripped the sound down to its basics in the manner of the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. The goal was to attract crusaders and purists, the only ones alive in a dead world of lies. The closest American parallel might be the group Minor Threat. The Subhumans' shouter Dick Lucas, guitarist Bruce Treasure, bassist Grant Jackson and a drummer known only as Trotsky hammered away at themes of mental disease, murder, oppression with every breath and love as a disaster. But they also offered a welcome British perspective with rants about class structure, work, money and the evils of meat in a song that ends with the perfect line: "It's the family butcher, lock up your family!"

The Subhumans hit a peak in 1982 with their first LP, The Day the Country Died, which is full of clever snaps of melody, rhythm and wit. Those who prefer the punk straight up should also check out the earlier Subhumans sides collected on the descriptively named EP-LP.

The Subhumans themselves began to defy one of the commandments of hardcore punk: They evolved and became more elaborate. There were a few dead ends and blind alleys, but The Subhumans wound up their first incarnation with the 1985 album Worlds Apart, their most varied and reflective, including sighs about apathy and ex-teenage rebels. It ends with "Powergames," a song by purists, all grown up to warn that purity itself is something to guard against.

The Subhumans have reunited a few times and are still semi-active today. Still, they did their best job of blowing down complacency as youths with brains on fire. In the 1990s, the roars of hardcore punk could sound dated. But by now, the commitment and conviction of The Subhumans sounds like a call to arms waiting to be heard again.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Milo Miles is Fresh Air's world-music and American-roots music critic. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix.