A lot of the fun in being, or at least acting like, a music journalist is discovery. The most obvious form being the new and as yet unheralded band just getting started. The other, and sometimes the more satisfying, is the `rediscovered’ band from the past. I have had the exquisite joy of experiencing two of the finest rediscoveries of the year, both within a month of each other. The first was Dead Moon, a Northwestern band that has seemingly been around forever, but ever in obscurity. The second is Josef K, a band I was actually turned on to about a year ago when Scottish bands were seemingly coming out of the woodwork and namechecking the brief but bright Edinburgh foursome. After releasing a similar retrospective of their followers, Orange Juice, Domino now issues Entomology, a collection of the band’s best work, limited as it was.
Entomology is the study of insects, and the album’s cover features an image of a cockroach. This would be all be well and good, and even appropriate, were the band’s name ‘Gregor Samsa,’ instead of Josef K, but it’s close enough. You see, Gregor is the Kafka character who turned into a cockroach in the story, The Metamorphosis, while Josef K, the lead character in The Trial, is a pawn led only by fate, helpless to use any kind of free will. In retrospect, Josef K is the perfect name for this influential Scottish band as its members were quick to limit their own lifespan, claiming they were a `one album’ band, yet possibly not actually believing their own prophecy until it came true. Like a reverse echo, pun intended, their legacy and influence got bigger as time went on. In the last few years, nearly every Scottish band, and every angular post-punk guitar act that has come to prominence owes one big debt of gratitude to Josef K. One could easily make a chart, like a family tree or mafia hierarchy, which would find Josef K at the top, and a horde of bands from the last thirty years that would represent the capos and soldiers in their wake.
I don’t know that I could describe the music of Josef K as eloquently as Paul Morley, the former NME scribe who penned the liner notes, or that I wouldn’t be repeating any other review of this newly pressed treasure. Readers are likely to find the same adjectives used again and again in touting Josef K: anxious, jangly, brittle, tense, quirky yet danceable. Paul Haig’s vocals hover somewhere in the atmosphere between Ian Curtis and Ian McCulloch and a touch of Bowie, later intoned by another Paul, Mr. Banks from Interpol. Malcolm Ross’ guitar was hollow, tinny and spare, yet sharp and enticing. This all backed by bass and drums that could rival some of today’s most compelling dance tracks. They were arguably the most obscure band on the Postcard label after Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, but are now considered to be its most artful.
Their early 7-inch singles are featured first on the collection, all sounding as fresh today as they must have sounded avant-garde then. “Radio Drill Time” and “Final Request” are kinetic enough to rival Talking Heads and the Violent Femmes while “It’s Kinda Funny” is a tender and short breather between hooks. The next six tracks are from the scrapped debut album, Sorry for Laughing, rejected because of its focus on the driving rhythm section rather than the crisp guitars, somewhat the opposite of Raw Power. The album has since seen the light of day in the U.K. after a few reissues, but I was shocked to discover that Entomology is not only the first appearance of particular Josef K tracks in the US, but is the first release ever by the band to hit our shores!
Now we too can enjoy the excellent songs of Josef K including the Joy Division-esque “Endless Soul,” the Aztec Camera-like “Sorry for Laughing,” and 20 other tracks without the likes of which there might not have ever been a Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Interpol, Belle and Sebastian, Wedding Present or Trashcan Sinatras. I consider myself a big fan of Scottish culture, at least their modern culture. I love nearly every Scottish band, I dig the bagpipes and Irvine Welsh, absolutely love the accent (I could listen to Kelly Macdonald all day) and might even one day consider tasting Haggis. Josef K only solidifies my love of all things Scottish. As Mike Myers’ Stuart Rankin was fond of saying, “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!”