999 – Homicide (1978, United Artists)
Why It’s Perfect: Take the melodic sense of tough ‘50s and ‘60s R&B, goggle at it through the bottom of a pint at the pub; then watch it strut about the place like Bon Scott, grinning cheekily at every moody tough around. That’s about the sound of Homicide, 999’s sole skin o’ the teeth entry on the UK Top 40 chart. Though the band is remembered, if at all, as part of the legendary late ‘70s UK punk scene, don’t come in expecting the Clash. Homicide isn’t the sound of a riot, white or otherwise, but of little kids playing power pop cops and robbers. I mean, at first blush it all sounds provocative enough to piss off the parents (“Guh-Good God honey, are these thugs advocating murder? We made little Graham promise us he’d be a good boy!”), but everything is laid on so wonderfully thick, from the squad car-cruising rhythm to the blaring police siren riff to the gleefully malevolent backing vocals. Like spiritual sibling Watching the Detectives (Elvis Costello), or Radio Birdman’s delicious Hawaii Five-O send-up Aloha Steve & Danno, Homicide looks to TV detective shows for a muse and for amusement. Vocalist Nick Cash may be in possession of a real rough punk snarl, but he punctuates his increasingly absurd commentary with a sort of beery aplomb that undercuts any sense of conviction:
“I’ll take your number, I’ll take it down!
What’s your address? I’ll write it down!
I’ll be in touch, so don’t leave town in a BIG BLACK CAR.”
It’s almost like sitting around with your friends poking fun at the gaping plot holes in a police procedural. Of course, I wouldn’t care about some random thirty-year old pisstake if it weren’t also a damned fine piece of pop songcraft. Guitarists Cash and Guy Days have a wonderful dynamic interplay, and Days could tear off a few mean licks when he wanted to. The pair find ways to accent and push off of the sparseness of the arrangement, filling in those gaps with a lot of off the cuff fucking around that somehow still sounds dead on. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, focus on the guitars next time you listen to the Stones’ ‘70s rockers; Keith Richards was (and, I suppose, is) the master of wandering just slightly off rhythm and having it still sound right. Homicide is a good deal more tightly played than most anything Richards has ever found himself involved in, but the link remains; when good, rough rock bands are on, they don’t just play a song straight. They find spaces for themselves to do what they do best as players, and then they deliver a take that seemingly could never be played exactly the same way again. And that, I think, is what lifts Homicide from clever, catchy jam to the upper echelon of its day. 999 fucking nailed it, and when you hear it, you just know.
Defining Moment: One of my favourite opening lines in any song: “I believe… in homicide! I rest my case.” Just a great gag that sets you up for all the other nonsense that goes on in this song. No one who is listening closely should be surprised when the song ends with Cash tearing apart the word “homicide” until it becomes a jumble of manic syllables. Within the context of the media, and by extension this song, that word never meant a thing anyway.
Other Great Songs by 999: 999 was started by a coupla veterans of the UK pub rock scene named Guy Days and Nick Cash (Fun trivia: real name Keith Lucas, used to run with Ian Dury in a pre-Blockheads act called Kilburn and the High Roads). When the hype started building around the Pistols and Damned, 999 were among those edgy pubbers who managed to capitalize on the zeitgeist via a streak of excellent singles. For anyone interested in nervy riff rock somewhere between Eddie & the Hot Rods and the Jam, minor classics like Nasty, Nasty, Emergency, Hollywood and Found Out Too Late will be just what the doctor ordered. More surprising, given their “one-hit wonder” status, is the quality of their early LPs, with 1978’s Separates (issued in the US as High Energy Plan) being for my money one of the best power pop records of the late ‘70s. Hell, a few album cuts from that one like Rael Rean and Tulse Hill Nights are better than some of the singles.