Although now long defunct, the UK rock band Play Dead were one of the most under rated bands of the 1980’s independent music scene. Fusing rock, funk and post-punk influences, the band first formed in the Banbury area during late 1980, the initial members being vocalist Robert Hickson, Re Vox (real name Barry Turnbull) on guitar, bassist Peter Waddleton and Mark Smith (aka ‘Wiff’) on drums. Swiftly signing to Fresh Records, their debut single ‘Poison Takes A Hold’ was released in June 1981. Re Vox departed the band shortly afterwards and was replaced by Oxford based guitarist Steve Green, who performed on the follow up record ‘TV Eye’ (not the Stooges song) which appeared in October 1981. These two strong releases brought the band to the attention of legendary UK disc jockey John Peel, for whom they recorded their first national radio session in January 1982.
A cruel and unfortunate blow halted the band’s progress at this critical juncture with the collapse of Fresh Records and it was over a year later that the band re-emerged, now signed to Jungle Records, sounding stronger and more powerful than ever with the disco/metal classic ‘Propaganda’. A six track mini-album ‘The First Flower’ followed, to significant critical and popular acclaim and both these releases- as well as a new EP ‘Shine’ which appeared later in 1983- broke the Independent Top 20 charts and remained fixtures for months afterwards. Extensive UK touring, including a high profile nationwide support slot to post-punk legends Killing Joke, further solidified the band’s reputation.
Switching labels again- this time to Clay Records- the band entered its most fertile and successful period releasing four EPs (‘Break’ ‘Isabel’ ‘Conspiracy’ & ‘Sacrosanct’) a full length studio album (‘From The Promised Land’) as well as a live album & video (‘Into The Fire’). Again, these were all Independent Chart hits and the band also became a popular live attraction, eventually winning an appearance on national TV music show ‘The Tube’ in December 1984.
Work on a new album, made with cult German producer Conny Plank, commenced in the summer of 1985 and the result (titled ‘Company Of Justice’) showed a much more mature and divergent approach. With strong hints of the Hansa Studios sound and the addition of frequent electronic enhancements, this album and the progression it showed seemed to be the stepping stone for the band to use to come out from the underground and significantly broaden their appeal. However after touring in support of the album in Europe and the UK between August and December 1985 the band announced, during early 1986, that they had decided to split. A final EP ‘Burning Down’ was released posthumously shortly afterwards.
Play Dead’s career only lasted five years, 1980-85. But during those occasionally turbulent years, some remarkable music was made. While the passage of time has not been kind to much music of this era, most of Play Dead’s repertoire is still exciting and vital today. There are suggestions of funk metal, alt metal and electronica within it, years before those genres became popular. Even in the retro conscious twenty first century, the band has never been popularly lauded for its achievements and Play Dead remain one of the best kept secrets of the 1980s.