999: 999: The Albums 1977-80 (Captain Oi!)

In  the annals of the first generation of British punk rock, talent and ability took second place to sincerity and determination. It was a natural reaction against the slick, overproduced and bloated rock music scene that dominated the times, as well as the soulless pop and disco trends. Anything over three or four minutes was considered too long, and anything possessing more than the traditional guitar/bass/drums/vocals combo reeked of effort and was not to be trusted. Unfortunately, that punk aesthetic resulted in a lot of crap. Fortunately, it also resulted in a handful of groups who quietly produced superior music and records that still delight.

London–based 999 definitely fell into the latter camp,  building an enjoyable discography yet not quite attaining the larger success they deserved. Lead vocalist Nick Cash possessed a snotty snarl as was the fashion, yet his jagged singing voice possessed just enough melody that made his style quite appealing. They formed in late 1976, and a few months later self-released their first single, “I’m Alive,” a fun blast of punk rock that quickly gained them critical acclaim.  It also quickly earned them a major label record deal, with a delightful follow-up single, “Nasty! Nasty!,” serving as both a proper introduction to the young band . Their third single, “Emergency,” would propel them into the lower half of the charts and served as a precursor to their self-titled debut album, which appeared in March 1978.  As exciting as their early singles were, 999 proved a bit more tentative. Such numbers as “Your Number Is My Number” and “I’m Alive” are quite exciting, but overall the album feels a bit undercooked, as many quickly-recorded debut albums often are.

As they were a young and hungry band, they wasted no time on their second album, the Martin Rushent-produced Separates appearing six months after their debut.  Though only a moderate commercial success, Separatesis considered to be the band’s strongest effort, with “Homicide” the band’s most successful and highest charting single. The rest of the album is taut and energetic, a blast of youthful swagger and catchy anthemic melodies. It’s absolutely not hard to hear the connection between “Let’s Face It” and “High Energy Plan” and the pop–punk sounds of American Music in the 1990s. That’s not surprising, either; shortly after the album’s release, the band launched its first of many forays into touring the United States, building themselves a reputation in the underground scene simply through hard work and showmanship. (It didn’t hurt that they were a superb Live act, as captured on the mini album The Biggest Tour in Sport, which is found on the bonus material disc in this set.)

Their third album, The Biggest Prize in Sport, appeared the following year, and though it did not break new ground and was not quite as successful as its predecessor, it was still an enjoyable collection of well-executed songs. Nick Cash’s song writing and singing abilities were definitely improving with time, and the band’s relentless touring schedule only made their music tighter. Unfortunately, their British label was not happy with the lack of success, and soon the group moved on. Naturally, after so much work and effort for seemingly so little reward, and the band temporarily split after the release of its 1981 album, Concrete.

Don’t feel too bad for the band, though; they would reunite a year later and release new material, creating a regular routine of activity followed by dormancy that continues on to this day, and with practically the same band for nearly 40 years. 999: The Albums 1977-80 is an essential collection of one of the more underrated but quietly superb bands from the original punk rock era.

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