Penetration: The Virgin Years

Four-disc box set from County Durham’s premier new wavers in their late-70s prime.

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Inspired by Iggy, Patti and the Pistols, Penetration were punk’s leading break-out act from the north-east of England. NME even christened them the “Durham contingent”.

They only lasted three years, but their charismatic singer Pauline Murray and her bass-playing partner Robert Blamire enjoyed a fertile post-punk second act, working with producer Martin Hannett and his group The Invisible Girls. Penetration recently re-formed to release their first album in 36 years, and this handsome box set collects their slender late-1970s archive in a deluxe four-disc archive.

The sole essential disc here is Penetration’s 1978 debut Moving Targets, which finds a sweet balance between punk’s adrenalised howl and the arty sci-fi futurism of new wave. Murray channels both Debbie Harry and Poly Styrene on the power-pop janglers Lovers Of Outrage and Life’s A Gamble.

Meanwhile more sonically ambitious tracks such as the sinewy Movement and the gloriously sloppy Too Many Friends already show a shift away from three-chord blast towards the kind of avant-funk, reggae-rock terrain explored by post-punk innovators PiL.

The bonus tracks here are all short, sharp shock singles from the same era, including the proto-femme punk classic Don’t Dictate. Although Moving Targets was a modest hit, its sequel, Coming Up For Air, was less warmly received. Recorded in 1979 with U2 and Simple Minds producer Steve Lillywhite, it has more texture and polish than its predecessor, but less bite.

That said, it still contains a handful of gems, from the churning, chiming, vaguely New Order-ish Shout Above The Noise to the revved-up oddity Challenge, which builds from a dystopian spoken-word lyric into a hair-metal axe-hero splurge. Among the bonus tracks is a dynamic live version of Vision, all clattery blasts and proto-grunge lurch.

Ground down by touring and the lukewarm reception for Coming Up For Air, Penetration split in October 1979. Race Against Time was a posthumous retrospective of demos and live tracks, mostly inessential but peppered with a certain rough charm. A raw, breathy, gloriously off-key cover of Patti Smith’s Free Money stands out among the live material.

The fourth disc here collects together the band’s BBC radio sessions, including an In Concert show. Again, hardly indispensable, but the Beeb’s in-house mix lends these songs a taut, gleaming crispness that sounds refreshingly timeless. That new wave modernist aesthetic never gets old.

FINAL VERDICT: 710

Stephen Dalton

Stephen Dalton has been writing about all things rock for more than 30 years, starting in the late Eighties at the New Musical Express (RIP) when it was still an annoyingly pompous analogue weekly paper printed on dead trees and sold in actual physical shops. For the last decade or so he has been a regular contributor to Classic Rock magazine. He has also written about music and film for Uncut, Vox, Prog, The Quietus, Electronic Sound, Rolling Stone, The Times, The London Evening Standard, Wallpaper, The Film Verdict, Sight and Sound, The Hollywood Reporter and others, including some even more disreputable publications.