Before we get too far into this, I would just like to say that I love writing these Lost Albums pieces. They are a great chance to revisit a much loved album that, for whatever reason, seem to have been overlooked. Some lost albums were commercially successful at the time of their release but, over the years, seem to have disappeared off the critical radar while others were largely ignored by the record buying public.
Dalek I Love You’s debut album, Compass Kum’pas, falls very firmly into the latter category. It never bothered the charts and is still largely unknown, but those who love it really love it.
And with good reason, Compass Kum’pas is a wonderful, beautiful thing. It is eccentric, unconventional and willfully odd, but its strange charms and beguiling execution make it one of post-punk’s genuine masterpieces.
Dalek I Love You were far from conventional, with a fluctuating line-up and an inbuilt avoidance of conformity. The only time I saw them play live was at the Futurama 4 festival in Deeside, where they chose not to play on the main stage to a few thousand music fans and opted instead to play behind a net curtain in the venue’s foyer.
They were initially formed as part of Liverpool’s reaction to the punk explosion and the vibrant and essential post-punk scene that sprang from it. Key players Alan Gill and Dave Balfe were part of the punk bands Mister Mackenzie and Radio Blank, before tiring of the musical limitations that were quickly becoming apparent and looking to expand their musical horizons.
The name came about when Balfe wanted to use the name The Daleks while Gill favoured calling the band Darling I Love You. A compromise fused the two names together, gifting the world one of the strangest and best names in post-punk.
Balfe soon left for more successful pastures, leaving Gill to become the epicentre of the band and its only constant member. Indeed, he was sometimes its only member. But this is not to minimise Balfe‘s essential contribution to the band’s early days, he is essential to this story.
Other members came and went, notably Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, who later went on to form Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Gill himself would soon leave to join The Teardrop Explodes, but he would be back.
As a regular at the Eric’s matinee shows, the name Dalek I Love You was one that we saw frequently on the club’s flyers but, frustratingly, they never played a daytime show. As a result, they became something of an enigma to us, a great name that remained tantalisingly beyond our grasp.
The first record of theirs I heard and then bought was actually their third single, Destiny (Dalek I Love You), which came out in 1980. It was a relatively poppy, relatively straight forward affair that fitted in well with what was going on at the time. It was a catchy, slightly odd record but contained nothing surprising beyond that really. It certainly didn’t seem to hint at what was to come on their debut album which followed shortly afterwards.
When it came, Dalek I Love You’s debut album, Compass Kum’pas, stood out for being odd, and in the anything goes post-punk world of 1980, that is saying something.
There was an amateurish charm to it that perhaps glossed over the willful dada-ist statements that it made. Dalek I displayed a deconstructed approach to their own songs, as if they were inquisitive children, dismantling things to see how they worked and then not quite knowing how to put them back together again, and having a few bits left over that were quietly disposed of.
The word ‘rockist’ was much in vogue at the time, coined by Pete Wylie and referring to habits and cliches that were used by those involved in making hoary old rock music. Such rockisms were to be avoided in the new post-punk world and that is much in evidence here, with mild, unaffected vocals, minimal instrumentation and a lack of any kind of musical grandstanding. This gave Compass Kum’pas a fresh, mildly revolutionary feel.
This felt like music anyone could make.
Except they couldn’t, Compass Kum’pas is the work of strange minds gleefully ignoring rules and conventions. This is music that only Alan Gill could make.
One reason that might explain the album’s lack of commercial success is that, in a very Dalek I move, they split up as it was released and so it had to go out into the world without any accompanying gigs, interviews, etc.
The album starts off as it means to go on, quietly with The World. A lone keyboard plays a single note refrain before the drums and vocals come in. But of course, this burst of musical activity is not what you would expect. The drum kit here consists of a bass drum and snare, no high hat, no cymbals. There is also a hint of castanets.
There is guitar too in this song, but when it comes, it is played without any other backing. In fact it is rare for more than two instruments to be played together throughout Compass Kum’pas.
Gill’s vocals sound completely unaffected, but this is the heart and charm – they may know how other bands may do things, but this is not something Dalek I want any truck with; it is a deliberate rejection of any agrandisement or supposed proficiency. It instantly sets Dalek I apart, a view that is backed up by the music that accompanies these vocals and positions Gill as an shining ingenue in a grimy post-punk world.
This does not mean that the song itself is forgotten or consigned to a back seat, Dalek I write songs that are so catchy they lodge in your head for years and decades to come.
Gill breaks the fourth wall as he tells us “This is a song about the world” before singing about Russian spies under the bed and imparting life lessons. The song fades out as Gill changes his intro to tell us that “That was a song about the world.”
Next song 8 Track features a muffled, skewed piano that sounds like a warped record (remember them?) When the song kicks in it is immediately apparent that Compass Kum’pas has an excellent production, courtesy of Chris Hughes, who would go on to perform similar magic for Tears for Fears and Peter Gabriel, before joining Adam and the Ants as second drummer Merrick.
For the most part, 8 Track follows the pattern of only having two instruments playing at any one time. Guitar and drums carry the verses, with the guitar dropping out when keyboards are needed. There are moments when the guitars, drums and keyboards play together, but this is counterbalanced by the absence of a bass guitar and sections that contain nothing but handclaps and vocals.
Next up is the single Destiny (Dalek I Love You) mentioned above which, while being completely wonderful, stands out as an odd track on the album due to it being by far the most conventional track Dalek I have. It is till odd enough that the verses feature just voice and keyboards, but the rest of the song has a full band playing and a relatively song structure. That said, it is as glorious slice of post-punk pop as you are likely to hear in a month of Sundays and the chorus of “we’re going to change the world” is a declaration of self belief for the new generation.
As if to reassure its listeners that this brief venture into convention is not to be continued, the next song is the beautiful and haunting A Suicide.
Songs about suicide are not uncommon, but this is the only one I have ever heard that goes up to and beyond the point of death itself. It is emotional and affecting, something that is increased by the sparse instrumentation. A Suicide drips in angst and I can vividly remember it resonating in my teenage mind as I sat alone in my bedroom listening to it on repeat.
Gill neatly conveys the confusion of adolescence and fledgling relationships as he sings, “Sometimes I want you right up close to me, then I want you far away you see. I don’t know why, I can’t explain, but I can’t stop what’s happening.” The dependence and intensity of these relationships is summed up as he says “I sit at the wall, waiting for you to call. I’ve got nothing to look forward to” and a thousand teenage hearts break in recognition.
Again, the instrumentation suits the song perfectly, being mostly a solitary keyboard. Drums punctuate the song here and there and again consist of just bass and snare. The sparse music fits the subject matter perfectly and makes us focus on the lyrics.
The end, when it comes, takes place in the bathroom with a cut. This is where most lyricists would leave it, but Gill goes further, detailing the end; “Fall, backwards I fall and bleed on to the wall”
The song finishes with the repeated refrain “This is the end” before a solo piano slowly comes to a stop as the life ebbs away from the song’s protagonist. Even now, after all these years, listening to this still brings a tear to the eye.
The immediate question that now faces Compass Kum’pas is how to follow such a song. Gill has the perfect answer, as The Kiss follows a deliberately short gap and starts with a positively jaunty vocal telling us, “Wasn’t it me who said how nice it would be to be dead? Well I’ve changed my point of view and I thought felt I should inform you” It is the perfect antidote at the perfect time, a brief and much needed emotional uplift.
Trapped is an off kilter classic that mixes near silent passages with uplifting choruses. Again the drums are minimal, I don’t think there are any cymbals played on the whole album.
Two Chameleons is an album highlight, an ultra-catchy featuring some very Teardrop Explodes guitar work and a spartan keyboard line. We actually have bass guitar on this track, but it comes in only infrequently and play few notes. It is a mark of Gill’s songwriting skills that he can turn the phrase “I know you want me to chameleon” into a chorus of irresistible longing. I am reminded of Young Marble Giants, who seem to share a similar distrust of excess instrumentation.
Freedom Fighters is another jaunty pop nugget and was unsurprisingly chosen as another single and again reminds us of Teardrop Explodes and sounds like a lost New Romantic classic.
Dalek I’s cover of The Kinks’ You Really Got Me tells us much about the band’s mindset and it is easy to imagine the older generation covering their ears with cries of “Is nothing sacred?” The answer in the post-punk times was of course a resounding “No!”
Regarded as a proto-rock classic and perhaps the first heavy metal record, Dalek I strip all the machismo out of the original and turns it into an almost effete, toytown version. In doing so they make explicit the post-punk rejection of the rock rule book.
Mad is another disjointed and pared down song where the instruments seem to take turns to play, while Gill sings of his conviction that the world has gone mad, the everyone but him is out of step. The upbeat vibe continues with Good Times and it’s bouncy, bubbly vibe.
We’re All Actors takes reggae is a template, but transposes it to Dalek I’s own instrumentation and approach. Heat shows off their experimental edge, with backwards guitar and dub effects creating a song that seems both innocent and menacing at the same time.
Compass Kumpas finishes with that most unexpected of things, a Dalek I epic. Missing 15 Minutes build over its five minutes 43 second run time, making it the longest song on the album by some distance, with most of the others clocking in at under three minutes.
It all starts innocently enough, with a typewriter picking out a rhythm, but soon enough a keyboard bass line and delayed guitar lines are added, making this perhaps the middle ground between U2 and the New Romantics.
Again, we actually have a full band playing together making this stand out like a flash of light in a partially lit room. It seems Dalek I can do rock when they want to, even if they do insist on doing it their way.
Missing 15 Minutes is almost an instrumental and is a song of two parts. Once the rock dial has been turned down, it wanders into a scarce tune over-layered with movie sound clips for part of the song before it returns to it’s guitar driven roots before fading out.
This would appear to be a classic Dalek I move, confounding us by removing what has been the main part of the songs so far, the vocals, to finish on an odd note. We would expect nothing less.
Compass Kumpas may remain in the margins and it may not be able to lay claim to being a hugely influential album, but then this was never its aim. What it is is a hugely fascinating snapshot of an era when the rules were being rewritten and the past put under a microscope. It is a album of enormous charm and intelligence and a record that those who get it will never forget.
To play it now is to revisit the mind of that teenager in his bedroom, looking for connections and finding it in the grooves of this incredible record.
We’re going to change the world indeed.