Mai Mojoverhead
Muscles of Joy, 2012 image courtesy of Muscles of Joy

1 International Women’s Day March 1982

In a black-painted former city centre warehouse turned venue in Liverpool, called, oddly enough, The Warehouse, The Raincoats are singing a traditional Latin-American folk song a cappella. The song is the encore to a set honed in the wake of the all-female trio’s (plus assorted male and female drummers) previous two albums of lo-fi Ladbroke Grove squat-rock with a lyrical feminist bent, their self-named 1979 debut, which features an even more gender-bending take on The Kinks’ song ‘Lola’ than the original, and its smoother, more world-beat-inclined 1981 follow-up, ‘Odyshape’.

A live cassette recorded in New York, The Kitchen Tapes, will follow a year later, and a final album, Moving, in 1984, before The Raincoats fall prey to whatever things bands fall prey to. It will take more than a decade for Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain to bring The Raincoats into the spotlight once more. Tonight, however, with Gina Birch, Ana Da Silva and Vicky Aspinall lined up side by side at the front of the stage, it’s all harmony.

The Raincoats are followed by a poetry set from Bradford performance poet Joolz (Denby), with the more stridently abrasive mixed-sex sounds of The Au Pairs. As a show of strength of various shades of what a couple of decades later would be dubbed post-punk, the collective grasping of a radicalised DIY aesthetic is an inspiration. Especially at a time when another woman, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, would shortly be launching her face-saving defence of the Falkland Islands from Argentina that would effectively usher her Conservative government into a landslide second term a year later.

At Liverpool Warehouse, however, amidst a hand-me-down stew of fudge-fingered benefit-gig scratch-funk-reggae sisterhood, it’s the simple faltering purity of The Raincoats three voices joined as one collective body in a language not of its own that is most affecting. It’s honest, heartfelt, and done simply for the joy of it.

2 Thirty years on

On a Sunday night in late November 2011, in the basement of a former church in Glasgow’s West End, Muscles of Joy are launching their eponymous debut longish-playing record. The merchandise stall is selling vinyls and tote bags. Nothing unusual there, until you get closer. Off to one side, in the venue itself, there’s a screen showing looped animations throughout the evening. Support band Palms feature Sinead, former manic front-woman of Divorce, who has calmed down a bit since the split (but who got the kids?), and are awash with messy garage-band attitude and cool.

Muscles of Joy itself is a seven-strong all-woman body of song producing a concentrated chorale that’s untutored and instinctive, even as it’s performed with near military discipline, like a series of well-rehearsed chants and mantras for a ritual that’s both primitive and out of time, yet, like the vintage frocks the band wear, disarmingly, beguilingly, bang up to date. The musical backdrop to the layered harmonies is full of hypnotic repetitions pulsing through the passed-round array of accordion, melodica and ornate-looking percussion instruments that leave plenty of space between breaths that suggest that silence is a rhythm, too. Beyond this raging calm, the music occasionally erupts into busy flurries of pounding fury.

One of the songs played by the septet is a Venezuelan folk piece called ‘Field Protest’. Accompanied by home-made marching machines, it sounds both fierce and fragile. Physically, it looks like everyone on-stage is doing a shift down at the steamie, singing their way through the washing, drying and folding. Similarly performed in a language not of its own, Muscles of Joy’s acquired invocations channel some umbilical link to a shared past with another song performed three decades before. If the Latin-American folk-song The Raincoats sang was its call, ‘Field Protest’ is Muscles of Joy’s response.

3 Between The Raincoats and Muscles of Joy

Somewhere in-between The Raincoats and Muscles of Joy came Riot Grrrl and Chicks on Speed; Madonna, Girl Power and Lady Gaga too. Before, during and after were Maggie Nicols (nee Nichols), Julie Tippetts and Voice, the male/female vocal quartet formed by Nicols and Tippetts with Phil Minton and Brian Eley in 1975, releasing an eponymous album a year later. Of The Raincoats’ peers, The Slits, Kleenex/Lilliput, The Au Pairs, Delta 5, Lora Logic, Young Marble Giants, Linder of Ludus, occasional Flying Lizards vocalist and future professor of punk Vivien Goldman and others mentioned in Helen Reddington/McCookerybook’s 2007 book,The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era, are all in the Muscles of Joy mix.

Muscles of Joy’s gynaecologically-inclined name not only recalls a coyer, but somehow more empowering take on The Slits, but also looks to Throbbing Gristle as a life-giving flesh-and-blood bed-fellow. Tellingly, Muscles of Joy supported Ari Up’s reignited Slits at its last ever Glasgow show in 2010 prior to Up’s untimely death several months later. The recent reappearance on the live scene of former Slit Viv Albertine suggests that particular flame is ongoing..

All of which, somehow, consciously or otherwise, has gone some way to influence, not just Muscles of Joy, but a fecund network of Glasgow-based female artist/musicians beyond them who put their voice at the centre of their practice. Aileen Campbell, Cara Tolmie, Sue Tompkins and Hanna Tuulikki are all more than averse to shouting out loud one way or another. Susan Phillipsz, of course, was heard but not seen on the banks of the Clyde at Glasgow International 2010, then later at the Turner Prize, before reimagining the One O’ Clock Gun with her own voice at Edinburgh Art Festival 2012. Campbell is a member of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, who worked and recorded with Edinburgh-born Nicols at the annual GIO festival. Nicols will appear at GIO’s tenth anniversary festival in November 2012.

4 Line-up

Muscles of Joy formed organically out of a loose-knit series of social and creative connections that in part grew out of The Parsonage, the ever-multiplying Glasgow-based community choir populated by many connected with the city’s artistic life.

At time of writing, Muscles of Joy are Anne-Marie Copestake, Esther Congreave, Katy Dove, Leigh Ferguson, Victoria Morton, Jenny O’Boyle and Ariki Porteous. Sophie Macpherson and Charlotte Prodger were previously members, with Congreave the most recent to join. All by varying degrees are accomplished visual artists (including Ferguson’s international renown as a hairdresser), often with an interest in performance.

Musically, Ferguson previously played with Copestake and Morton (and Janis Fyfe Murray and some-time Simple Minds/Echo and the Bunnymen guitarist Gordy Goudie) in 5 Pce Horsefamily.

Most telling of all the connections between members of Muscles of Joy, perhaps, is a film made by Anne-Marie Copestake in 1999, and shown alongside Victoria Morton’s solo show at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, in 2010. One of several films made by Copestake of artists visiting Glasgow, in it, Morton interviews Chicks on Speed, the post Riot Grrrl international network of artists who, alongside a cottage industry of zines, badges and other bespoke DIY paraphernalia/merchandise, imagined and manufactured themselves as a band before becoming a real life touring and recording entity. A Muscles of Joy gig was arranged at Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh to coincide with Morton’s Inverleith House show.

5 The Album

Whether any of this matters in the make-up of Muscles of Joy is debatable. Either way, in the flesh, they are unavoidably part workshop-style collective, part art/scene super-group. More significantly, live, they are one of the most quietly provocative prospects around—a raw, well-drilled and hypnotic experience of unfettered mouth music that probably didn’t give the band its name. The Muscles of Joy experience is a primal one, their implied roundelays almost mediaeval.

On record, Muscles of Joy are a different prospect. Musically, without the visual and the physical spectacle of marching machines and seven or eight different personalities united in the sort of rapt, unified and fragile concentration that human error can shatter with a bum note. For those unfamiliar with the Muscles of Joy oeuvre, it’s a harder, stiffer, more impenetrable listen.

Clocking in a couple of minutes over half an hour, it opens with a rudimentary bass intro straight out of the Au Pairs’ back catalogue, before accelerating with full-throttle stabbing synths, skew-whiff percussion and a series of calculatedly guttural moans into a glorious if somewhat disarming cacophony as calling card. This is Room of Our Own, a Woolf-referencing statement of intent that might make some sensitive listeners very afraid indeed. The nine-minute Water Break-It’s-Neck sounds initially more contemplative, part domestic nursery rhyme, part sleepified lament pulsed ever so gently into crashing life by insistently wheezy accordion as the tide seems to roll in and out of earshot, it becomes a working and walking song, the collective incantations of which threaten to run away with themselves. ‘Field Protest’‘s martial stomp ups the ante even more, all the way to the end of side one in what sounds like a mass rite of strength through, well, joy.

Second side opener ‘Coins Across His Hips’ is pure Au Pairs / Delta 5 punk-funk mutant disco, thrusting away at the body politic with the sort of abandon that nouveau 1981 NY acts like Friends, whose single, ‘I’m His Girl’ is one of the sassiest records of the year thus far, and New Zealand band Opposite Sex, are working towards with more seductively mainstream fashionista appropriations and interpretations. ‘Swan Shape’ sounds like the Christmas Carol ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ interfered with by a washing-machine guitar, while album closer ‘Interchangeable Letterset’ opens with the prodding repetitions of a Philip Glass chorale before darting off into a myriad of directions. “It grows into the shape of the thing that you want”, are the record’s final, softly-spoken words of unaccompanied wisdom before a sudden hush takes hold.

Like the Muscles of Joy live spectacle though, the Muscles of Joy record isn’t just about the music. With every one of the 500 outer and inner record sleeves hand-crafted by the band/artists at Dundee Contemporary Arts’ print workshop, the end result is several bespoke works of art in one, all wrapped around each other in some cut-out shape, world-turned-DayGlo harmony. Every copy, then, like the tote bags, is a limited edition of one. Lest any of these become scratched, tattered or torn, the whole package comes with a free CD of the album so you never even have to put the needle on it to get into the groove even once.

6 Out There

Since their record launch, Muscles of Joy have embarked on their first international dates in America, first at a gallery in Boston where Victoria Morton exhibited before the band finished up playing at the New Museum Theatre in New York’s now gentrified Bowery district.

Also from an art-school background, The Raincoats too played New York towards the end of 1982. This was in an augmented line-up at multi-form art-space, The Kitchen, one of whose trustees was Laurie Anderson. A bare bones recording of the show would later be released on cassette as The Kitchen Tapes on the underground-championing Reach Out International Records (ROIR), and would reveal a looser-knit, altogether funkier Raincoats than on the studio recordings. The Raincoats American shows were sparsely attended, and the band was on its last legs. The band may have found their voice, but no-one was listening.

It’s been a different story so far for Muscles of Joy. Since their own Stateside sojourn, they’ve become a bona fide working band. Having already supported the Slits and Lydia Lunch, they continued in that vein via dates with Factory Floor, Veronica Falls and tUnE-yArDs.

Muscles of Joy even made it onto the long list of the inaugural Scottish Album of the Year Award. A possibly mass-produced CD-only edition of the album was put on sale to coincide with the occasion, and MoJ supported former Gussets singer Heather’s new band, called rather wonderfully in this nouveau Jubilee year, HRH. Muscles of Joy never made it to the Scottish Album of the Year short-list, but, in refreshingly eclectic company as they were, were the most out there of all the nominees by far.

Not that other activities have been curtailed in any way. In February, Muscles of Joy combined forces with composer and Luke Fowler collaborator Stevie Jones to provide a live soundtrack for the screening of Anne-Marie Copestake’s film, And Under That, which won the 2011 Margaret Tait Award.

In March, Sophie Macpherson took part in The Voice is a Language, a film and performance event curated by Isla Leaver-Yap for Tramway, Glasgow and restaged at Tate Modern, London.

And as part of Glasgow International 2012, the band were included on Everything Flows, an EP released by Patricia Fleming Projects. The record featured nine Glasgow-based artists and bands who cross over between the city’s art and music scenes. As well as Muscles of Joy, the record features Ross Sinclair, David Sherry, Raydale Dower’s Tut Vu Vu project, Life Without Buildings featuring Sue Tompkins, Douglas Gordon with Chicks on Speed, Tony Swain and Mark Vernon’s Hassle Hound project, Douglas Morland in his Fall-referencing Older Lover guise and Rob Churm’s band, Gummy Stumps.

A second screening of And Under That took place in August alongside Tait’s only feature film, Blue Black Permanent, as part of Glasgow Women’s Library’s celebration of Tait at the CCA in Glasgow. The same month, Muscles of Joy played live at Summerhall, the sprawling arts lab which has transformed the old Royal Dick Veterinary School, as part of Edinburgh Art Festival’s Art Late shindig. Since then, silence. Until now.

7 Segue

Two new pieces by Muscles of Joy, ‘Insl’ and ‘Segue’, form part of Some Songs Side By Side, a box set compilation documenting a series of snapshots of Glasgow’s fecund, music scene in 2012. Released on 3 December, this three-way initiative between leading left-field venue Stereo Café Bar, Re:Peater Records and the Watts of Goodwill label (which released the Muscles of Joy album).

Some Songs Side By Side features eight bands spread over 2 × 12” vinyl LPs and, as with the Muscles of Joy album, a CD. Like any record, it is an attempt to capture the fleeting nowness of a moment in time, before things change and move on. In its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, time-capsule-like intent, the box also contains a series of new, strictly black and white artworks by the likes of David Shrigley, Tony Swain and Mark Baines, and a 16 page booklet featuring contributions by the artists and a text by writer, lecturer and former Belle and Sebastian manager John Williamson.

Following on from its own album, the two Muscles of Joy contributions sound initially like more of the same, but denser, and, on ‘Insl’, at least, funkier. If the song’s opening vocal sounds abrasive, the bass, cow-bell and violin sounds underpin the counterpointing harmonies with a jauntier stride before the tempo slows again in what, in a primitivism that resembles original New York punk-funk trio, ESG, is a re-mix away from seriously hitting the dance-floor. Segue is a more abstract, lullaby-like construction that puts wooden flute mysticism and percussion at the heart of a textured babble that slowly fades into the ether like gossamer.

While ‘Insl’ and ‘Segue’ wouldn’t sound out of place on the album, it would also be too much, too exhausting a listen. Heard on Some Songs Side By Side alongside seven other acts, however, including Palms and other all-female acts Sacred Paws and The Rosy Crucifixion, the two tracks are allowed to breathe. It’s akin to ‘Autosuggestion’ and ‘From Safety To Where?’, the two Joy Division songs recorded at sessions for their 1979 debut album, Unknown Pleasures, but which were only initially released on Earcom 2, a three-band compilation released by the Edinburgh-based post-punk label, Fast Product, who also knew a thing or two about packaging art as object.

Beyond ‘Insl’ and ‘Segue’, the future of Muscles of Joy is unclear. Co-ordinating seven people, each with busy artistic lives outside the band, to be in the same room at the same time can’t be easy. Perhaps having a song called ‘Segue’ is as good a summing up as any.

8 Launch

Back at the album launch last November, the gig gets underway. Hi, Mum!”, says one of the band from the stage at Oran Mor, sounding charmingly like a self-conscious kid in a 1970s talent contest, before self-consciousness was blown away by reality TV. Hi, Mum as well!”, another picks up, as they might with a line or a harmony.Another says she’s wearing her granny’s dress. Let’s hear it for mums..”, goes the mantra. “Let’s hear it for grans…”If they’d been talking about The Raincoats and everyone who went before them, it couldn’t have been more special.

Neil Cooper is a writer and critic Muscles of Joy is available on the Watts of Goodwill label now. Some Songs Side By Side is available from 3 December. Muscles of Joy play as part of Mono’s 10th anniversary birthday bash on 16 November 2012 with Franz Ferdinand, RM Hubbert, JD Twitch, Veronica Falls (DJ set) at Mono in Glasgow

The audio recording, which features Cooper reading ‘Muscles of Joy—No-One’s Little Girls Shouting Out Loud’ interspersed with tracks from the Muscles of Joy album, was made in April 2016 as part of ‘Voicing the Archive‘; an installation of readings from MAP’s archive at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop (April – August 2016) and Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow (May – November 2016), presented as part of Footnoting the Archive. Proceeds from the recording were donated to Maggie’s Centres in honour of Katy Dove.