Angelic Upstarts - Biography
Although often characterized as an Oi! band (or simply a skinhead band), South Shields’ Angelic Upstarts stood apart from their compatriots for a variety of reasons. They were overtly political, Geordies, and their music quickly evolved beyond the self-imposed confinements of punk. Over the years, members have come and gone with lead singer Mensi the only (almost) continual member through a series of break-ups and make-ups.
The band formed in 1977 in the Tyne and Wear County of northeast England, far from the maddening London crowd. They were led by singer Mensi (né Thomas Mensforth), a working class socialist who was initially joined by Mond (guitars), Steve Forsten (bass) and Decca Wade, (drums). Almost immediately, Forsten was kicked out over his drug habit after contributing to the self-released first single, 1978’s "Murder of Liddle Towers," a song about a real-life electrician who’d died from injuries sustained from a beating by the cops. After it was re-released nationally by Small Wonder Records, it got the attention of Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey who produced their subsequent single “I’m an Upstart” and their full-length debut, Teenage Warning (Warner Bros.). Far from just a collection of dour protestations, the songs balance seriousness with humor. It sold well, reaching #29 on the UK charts.
1980 saw the release of “Last Night Another Soldier,” “Out of Control,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and their second album, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place (Warner). It opened with the previous year’s single, “Never ‘ad Nothin’” and featured cleaner production and more pronounced melodicism throughout. Slightly less successful, it still nearly made the Top 40, reaching #54. However, that wasn’t a strong enough showing for their major label overlords and they were unceremoniously dropped. They were then signed to EMI.
Their next album, 2,000,000 Voices (1981 EMI), did better, reaching #32. It spawned several hit singles; “Different Strokes,” “England,” “I Understand,” and “Kids on the Street.” Their first live album, the imaginatively titled Live (EMI), reached #27. Although always plainly and outspokenly leftist, many National Front members were slow to realize that the band didn’t share their racist sensibilities. Violence at their shows increased as former fans attacked the band they had previously thought their compatriots.
The group recorded a set of songs that EMI didn’t like and refused to release. As a result, the band re-entered the studio in April. The results included “Never Say Die/We Defy You,” and “Woman in Disguise” which appeared on the slick Still from the Heart (1982 EMI). Here the band truly began to expand its sound, touching on dub and new wave as well as adding keyboards and horns. In the process, they pretty much abandoned their punk past if not its passion and sincerity. Nonetheless, EMI still weren’t pleased and the Upstarts were again dropped.
The fact that their new home was Anagram, part of Cherry Red (Felt, Eyeless in Gaza, The Monchrome Set), should indicate how far the Upstarts had moved beyond their origins. The album Reason Why (1983) and the singles “Not Just a Name” and “Solidarity” again incorporated reggae elements and occasionally added a folk tinge to songs that expanded their broad instrumental pallet. Before its recording, drummer Sticks Warrington had joined Cockney Rejects and the void was filled by several new, quasi-members, notably including Roxy Music’s Paul Thompson. It also turned up the fire that many had found missing from Still from the Heart and many consider it their best work. Nonetheless, shortly after its release the band split up.
In what would emerge as a pattern over the coming decades, the band reunited and released Last Tango in Moscow (Picasso) and the vaguely Magazine-sounding single “Machine Gun Kelly” in 1984. “Brighton Bomb,” released the following year, courted controversy by praising the IRA’s attempts to assassinate the UK’s Conservative cabinet. 1985 also saw a compilation, Bootlegs & Rarities (Dojo), and another live album, Live in Yugoslavia (Picasso). Power of the Press (1986 Gas), Brighton Bomb (1987 Chameleon) and Blood on the Terraces (1987 Link) were released in rapid succession to increasing indifference and the Upstarts broke up again shortly afterward.
The Upstarts reunited more briefly in 1988 to release some more live records, in this case, Live & Loud (Link) and England's Alive EP (Skunx). Another collection, Lost & Found (1991 Link) was released before another brief reunion in 1992, when they managed to release another studio album, Bombed Out (Dojo). Live in Lubeck 1989 (1994 Bay City) and Rarities (1997 Captain Oi!) followed. In 2001, they reunited once again, cutting two live albums, Live from the Justice League (TKO) and Anthems against Scum (Insurgence Records). Their first studio album in ten years was Sons Of Spartacus (2002 Captain Oi!/Insurgence Records) which led to their first tour in the US in twenty years. Four years later, Mensi announced his retirement from the band and replaced himself with Chris Wright, formerly of Crashed Out. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mensi rejoined the band the following year with a lineup that includes Stoker on bass, Hammond on guitar, Newton on guitar and Brett Mulvaney on drums. Though it’s likely the Angelic Upstarts will break-up again any day now, fans can take comfort in the likelihood that they’ll reunite again not long after and that even if they never write another song, there are sure to be live albums in the future.