After two or three people insisted that I had to hear Radio 4, I stopped being coy and got my hands on a copy of their debut 7-inch EP on the respected Jersey indie label Gern Blandsten. After I gave it a spin, it was obvious why it was recommended to me. Wielding icy jagged guitars and dub bass lines, these lads were tapping into the rhythmic strain of post-punk music typified by protest-funk saboteurs like the Clash and Gang Of Four. The dark, edgy and literate club cuts that filled dance floors at British college discos are often forgotten in our revisionist “future’s so bright I got to wear shades” view of 1980s music. Radio 4 has made a single that would have sounded great on Radio 4, on the British dial alongside those bands I just mentioned. And although there are echoes of those artists and more in their sound, they are not recreating their record collection, they’re just making you listen to it a little.
For Valley Stream’s Anthony Roman, being at the vanguard of the Long Island musical underground is nothing new. From 1991 to 1996 Roman was a part of Garden Variety, one of the most loved local emo bands of the decade. Combining earnest melodies and angular arrangements, Garden Variety stood out in a scene whose bands frequently bludgeon pop songs to death. With GV, it seemed more as if they were fighting alongside theirs. Nevertheless, by 1996, with two acclaimed records already to their credit, they reached a point where change became a necessity. “We did this last tour with Into Another, who were this metal punk thing,” recalls Roman. “And we had been doing a lot of touring already, and it didn’t go well at all. We weren’t getting along as people, and just the fact that we were on this tour said that maybe we had worked ourselves into somewhat of a corner musically.” Rather than risking redundancy, Garden Variety called it quits.
Over the next two years Roman concentrated on selling music rather than making it, opening a record store on the top floor of West Hempstead’s Witches’ Brew café, the social hub of Nassau’s counterculture kids. While lattes percolated below, Roman was devising his own mix of ingredients for what would become Radio 4. He took particular inspiration from the eclectic sounds that rapidly evolved out of British punk in the early ’80s. “I don’t understand how things moved so fast. It’s amazing,” says Roman. “It’s like the film Urban Music War, it has all these shows, with one song from each band. And the bands that played together are much more varied than they are now. It’s like Magazine, Echo & the Bunnymen, Gang Of Four, Chelsea, UB40, The Specials, OMD. So it had all this reggae-influenced stuff, and dancey pop alongside punk rock. For some reason all these bands had an affinity for one another.” Coming out of an emo scene that to some degree recycles its dynamics, this artistic free-for-all offered liberation.
It wasn’t long before Roman recruited drummer Greg Collins and guitarist Tommy Williams to put Radio 4 on the air.
The EP itself still feels like emo. The angst-driven vocals and live-feeling recordings would still fit nicely on college radio alongside Fugazi or Jets To Brazil. But there is a new sort of energy to the songs, and there’s an anthemic sense of pop that feels fresh. “Beat Around The Bush,” the first song, establishes the ground rules: pulsing hooky bass line, tensely sparse guitar part and a lyrically indecipherable chorus that recalls the Jam at its impatient best. “(No More Room For) Communication” is the hit, linking a big bass line and beat to a chanty refrain that could have filled the floors at Paris New York back in the day. The icing is a brief, but perfect, Costello-esqe bridge that brings just the right amount of melody to the table. “The Program Repeats” emphasizes a dub reggae influence and establishes the mood remarkably well, considering the minimal use of effects. The three of them really sink (synch) into the groove and Anthony speaks his mind until he’s just about lost his voice. It’s punk rock for caffeine kids. They grasp the ritualistic importance of pop that old-school punks always got but that is lost on today’s almost prog-rock emo bands.
Alongside labelmates the World Inferno Friendship Society, Radio 4 is attempting to take its audience out of the mosh pits and onto the dance floor. It’s a risky move. American punk has never been as flexible or stylish as its British counterpart. However, in the midst of our end-of-the-millennium confusion, we need beacons, not followers. We need content and beats. Something to get you riled up. If you want to stare at the speakers, listen to Mogwai. If you want to get moved, then maybe it’s time for Radio 4.