Album #5: Penetration – Coming Up for Air

  • Released: 1979
  • Origin: Ferryhill, County Durham, England
  • Label: Virgin
  • Best Track: Shout Above the Noise

My fifth hitherto undiscovered album of the year is the first one so far that’s more than a year old, and is inspired by Chris Packham’s Forever Punk documentary shown on BBC Four on Friday night. It’s well worth a watch if you’ve got an hour to spare, and Packham is a national treasure as far as I’m concerned!

I’m familiar with most of the major bands from the first wave of British punk in the late 1970s – certainly enough so that if you mention one of them, I could probably reel off the names of a few singles and albums. Penetration are a bit on the periphery of my knowledge though – I had heard the name but knew nothing about them. Packham, however, cites them as one of the pivotal bands of his youth, especially the song ‘Shout Above the Noise’, which he says carries a message that has resonated with him throughout his life.

That song opens Coming Up for Air, and what an opener it is. It’s a song that deserves more of a place as a go-to example of a punk anthem than it has. It’s ahead of its time in a way – the production is rather thick and the second guitar does its own thing in a way that you don’t often hear in ’70s punk, leading me to think it wouldn’t have been out of place in the Britpop scene a good 15-20 years later.

The lyrics, while nothing groundbreaking, are direct and rallying. The song has a celebratory tone rather than one of anger and bitterness, and its message remains as relevant today as it was then, with lyrics like ‘Feast your eyes upon the fools who follow the leaders without thought’. These were young people talking about being out of step with their older peers, yet the teens and early-twenties Penetration were speaking to back then are now in their fifties and sixties, and themselves at odds with the youth of today on matters like politics and the environment.

It’s probably fair to say it’s comfortably the best track on the album. The songs that follow it are by no means bad, but none quite hit me with as much force. I gather ‘Come Into the Open’ is a fan favourite with its memorable chorus, and I like the speedy blitz of ‘Killed in the Rush’ and the somewhat post-punky verses of ‘What’s Going On?’.

Some other tracks are a bit forgettable, and I’ve read that the album was fairly poorly received, leading the band to break up shortly after its release until they reformed in 2001. I’ve given their 1978 debut Moving Targets a quick blast and perhaps that would have been a better starting point.

Nonetheless, I’m glad I’ve discovered this band, and Pauline Murray seems a fantastic frontwoman, even today going by footage. What I take from this experience is the reminder that while outsiders might view punk as yobbish and obnoxious, it’s actually more about belonging and even compassion. Punks and hippies are not as different as they like to think they are.

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