'Let It Take You There' is one of the comp's highlights, six minutes of spaced-out and infectiously upbeat post-punk funk à la ESG.
Maximum Joy, like Pigbag and Rip Rig + Panic, are part of the Pop Group's diaspora. One thing those groups do have in common is a fondness for horns, not just to punch up the sharp angles of their dub-mangled beat, but also to inch into jazz. But only Maximum Joy had Janine Rainforth, who played violin and clarinet, and gave them a voice that suggests a more generous comparison, like one of the Slits backed by the Gang of Four.
It is an interesting amalgam of sound and talent at hand here that would help to define the post-punk sound in Bristol – I think I could argue that Maximim Joy and the people around them would also help lead to the post-post-punk Bristol sound that lead to the creative and commercial successes of Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, Bjork’s debut album (she spent a lot of time in Bristol in the early 90s), and the reggae vs jazz sound of Bristol’s Jungle scene (see Roni Size’s Full Cycle label group and Reprazent)
The songs are also a time capsule of sorts, what with the rise of crushingly conservative politics under PM Margaret Thatcher, and the inner city race-riots and other more politcally motivated protests going on – Maximum Joy’s lyrics are about being conscious of the world around them and trying to stay positive in a time that made that more than a little difficult (just as applicable now as it was then)
Maximum Joy were the brainchild of vocalist Janine Rainforth and Tony Wafter, who were later joined by ex-Pop Group members John Waddington and Dan Catsis. The music is reminiscent of the Pop Group's groundbreaking work but delivered in a more accessible vein, taming the nastier elements.
Rainforth has a smooth, even alto that probably would have been singing British prog-folk 10 years earlier and trip-hop 10 years later. It even sounds pleasant when they run it backward at the end of 'White & Green Place', though she does get in a couple of blood-curdling screams that scared the shit out of my cats on 'Stretch (99 Version)'. The latter track plays like it's made out of rubber, with scratchy guitars chicken-strutting over Kev Evans' funky bass part and nasty sax interjections. Tony Wrafter's arsenal of wind instruments gives the band a lot of its flavor-- he plays his sax and trumpet nice and smooth to complement the neo-hippie lyrics of 'Searching for a Feeling', and he blows skronk all over the dub tracks.
Maximum Joy prove to be a far less sarcastically named band than the Pop Group - though they're far from sunny or optimistic, their music is stuffed with danceable grooves and bears a distinct lack of menace. It's not exactly pop; as melodic as it is, it's not usually very catchy, but it's bound to appeal to fans of post-punk's more jagged side. I can see fans of the Pop Group and early Shriekback loving Maximum Joy, as they fall about halfway between those other two bands.
There are sounds here which point the way towards Rip Rig and Panic and Pigbag, elements of funk, punk, reggae, dub, jazz and one of THE great rock screams of all time (possibly the best female scream ever) courtesy of lead vocalist Janine Rainforth. Yet it all hangs together to form a joyous, danceable groove entirely in tune with the mish-mash of influences musicians of the time were exploring.
On the track “Building Bridges”, Maximum Joy’s Janine Rainforth sings, “How do you feel about building a bridge / Between you and me / Between them and us?” A great deal of Maximum Joy’s output seems to deal with building bridges. Musically, the group’s use of complex percussion, horns, danceable bass lines, and overtly English female vocals built a bridge between the worlds of Afrobeat, reggae, avant-garde jazz, funk, and pop. On a personal level, the band built a bridge connecting musical luminaries like the Pop Group, Adrian Sherwood, Dennis Bovell, Nellee Hooper, and John Peel. The group came together in Bristol, England, in 1979 and besides Rainforth, included Tony Wrafter, Charles Llewelyn, John Waddington, and Dan Catsis. Llewelyn was a former member of Glaxo Babies, Waddington was formerly in the Pop Group, and Catsis and Wrafter had played in both bands. Later, they would be joined by Kev Evans, future super-producer Nellee Hooper, and Jeremy Hirsh.
The large and constantly evolving lineup meant that Maximum Joy had a lot of sounds at their disposal, including piano, violin, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, guitar, bass, and drums. The biggest weapons in the band’s arsenal, though, were simple imagination and creativity. In fact, Maximum Joy is an apt name for a group whose music is so joyous and delightful. It might be appropriate to call the group’s genre-bending blend of sounds “world music”, if that term wasn’t associated with so much boring music. Maximum Joy’s music is more exciting and adventurous than what passes for “world music” today, and is most aptly compared to the output of other experimental acts of the post-punk era such as the Pop Group, the Slits, Rip Rig & Panic, and New Age Steppers. Maximum Joy enjoyed a pretty good run in their day, too, recording some BBC sessions for legendary DJ John Peel, working with producers Dick O’Dell and Dennis Bovell, and having their recordings appear on the revered labels Y Records (distributed by Rough Trade) and 99 Records.
Unfortunately, the band’s numerous singles and lone album have languished in obscurity for most of the digital age. All that is changing, though, as the new Unlimited compiles Maximum Joy’s 7” and 12” singles and a sampling of tracks from 1982’s full-length Station MXJY (the entire album will be issued on CD in Japan in January 2006). While there is an infectious, adventurous spirit that flows through each of Maximum Joy’s songs, the tracks on the compilation are fairly diverse. The mid-tempo “White & Green Place” mixes jazzy sounds and Afro beats, while the drum-fueled workout “Dancing on My Boomerang” is downright frenetic. “In the Air” is pure joy, filled with exuberant vocals and upbeat saxophone breaks, and “Stretch” is a more rock-sounding track with shouted vocals, prominent guitar, and funky breaks. While both are instrumentals, “Simmer Till Done” is an ethereal piano-led track, while the more avant-garde “Where’s Deke?” recalls Adrian Sherwood’s sonic experiments.
Maximum Joy’s lyrics are no less inspirational than their music. “Don’t say maybe / Tell me yes!” Janine Rainforth shouts on “Stretch”. On “Searching for a Feeling” she warns of “So many people of the strange kind / Telling you just what to do with your mind” and declares, “You have gotta get up / Gotta get out / Gotta make the change / Bring it back to focus”. These declarations are simple and pure as the accompanying music is layered and multi-dimensional. The songs of Maximum Joy were forgotten gems, but thanks to the release of Unlimited, they can be rediscovered.
While their compatriots may have generated more attention, the rather more subtle Maximum Joy have perhaps worn rather more well
Janine Rainforth’s vision and vocals at this distance sets them apart, and maybe provide a more recognisable link to the leading players of the 90s Bristol creative renaissance
John Carney for Tangents Reviewing Unlimited
Seminal post-punk work by Maximum Joy -- a post-Pop Group combo with a sound to rival the dubby experiments of The Slits or ESG!
If you can only pick one jazz-influenced post-punk band to listen to make sure it is Maximum Joy Bob Moore