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UK’s Happy Refugees never fit in with the scene of early 80s British pop music and they knew it. They knew it when they wrote “As far as music is concerned it is almost an overwhelming embarrassment to be associated with it in any way” on the back sleeve of their first record. They knew it when they said “we play with a total disregard to a record buying public” in one of their rare appearances in the press. In the liner notes to this compilation they acknowledge their self-fulfilling prophecy, “We received little recognition and we were reticent to try and find it. Enthusiasm was vulgar to some extent…the band seemed to sit outside everything else that was going on, which of course is a good thing.”
The music they wrote and self-released can only be described as rock-and-roll. They liked Iggy and the Stooges and John Cale. They liked Richard Hell and the Fall. It was acceptable to like Joy Division, “but slavish enthusiasm was considered spooky and weird.” What they hated was heavy metal, goths, “long songs played in strange time signatures by fey bands with long hair” and all the bland music as the post-punk scene gave way to fashion bands aiming for the charts. That first record sleeve made their intentions clear; “I hope Happy Refugees can breathe a breath of fresh air with this record, not just because of the songs but also because it is no way produced with the infatuation of becoming a popstar.”
They wrote songs that were personal and honest. Production and musical chops were rough around the edges, but with 6 members at times, they had a full and layered sound. Scratchy guitars and incessant bass buoyed by a pounding piano created a post-punk jangle meets wall of sound bed for intensely raw songs about lost relationships and lost loved-ones. No matter how abrasive the sound gets, every song is filled with catchy and heartfelt hooks.
It’s hard to understand why a band this good didn’t find a home on Rough Trade or the like. A few years earlier perhaps they’d fit in better with the great DIY bands like Desperate Bicycles and Swell Maps (not exactly rock stars themselves). A few years later they might’ve been C86 superstars. Maybe they would’ve been stars in New Zealand. As it was, they slipped through the new pop era with only a self-released 7” and a “mini LP” to their name, and into cult legend.
For over 10 years Acute Records has presented obscure music to new audiences, but Happy Refugees may just be the most mysterious yet. They have said they always felt like they were waiting for their audience. It took 30 years but people are finally waking up. Being cited as a favorite of trendy new bands like Girls Names and Crystal Stilts was a start. With this release they’ll get at least some of the exposure they deserve.