How to describe Ludus? They defy definition. Uncontainable. Uninhibited. Enigmatic. Dauntless. Deliciously impure, in every sense of the word. In 1978, Linder Sterling, the artist who designed Buzzcocks’ iconic ‘Orgasm Addict’ sleeve, founded the group with guitarist Arthur Kadmon. They never achieved the critical or commercial success of their peers, who also included Magazine and The Smiths. Listening to ‘The Damage’, though, you get the sense that that’s exactly the way they wanted things.
Released in 2003, the compilation consists of songs from EPs ‘The Visit’ and ‘Pickpocket’, albums ‘The Seduction’ and ‘Danger Came Smiling’, and three tracks recorded live at The Haçienda. It’s a remarkable album for the fact that it manages to be both astonishingly distinctive and peerlessly eclectic. Hear Linder’s voice once and you will know it anywhere. Rich and ethereal, it would almost certainly rank among the most recognisable British voices were she more well-known. Her music, meanwhile, dips in and out of punk, jazz and even pop, producing a truly avant-garde sound. She perfectly captures the mood of the late 20th century north – bold, bored, political, and fiercely resistant to restriction.
As Morrissey would later write in ‘Autobiography’, ‘[t]he music scene of Manchester [was] a dark thread of maleness’ and, the only frontwoman at the time to achieve any level of success, ‘Linder [walked] the line alone as the hunter of non-permitted dreams.’ Although far from effeminate, her lyrics are unabashedly female. ‘Little Girls’ tackles the dangers of growing up female in a world that demands that women attach themselves to men (‘you could sink, you might swim, you cut your throat if you run to him’), while ‘Breaking The Rules’ explore the limits and possibilities of gender and sexuality (‘girls in pink, boys in blue, sex intrudes, too many rules, too many fools following too many rules; so let us go further, let us now try: female plus female, male loving male, female plus female plus female plus female’).
Many songs on the album are eccentric, to say the least. In the opening track, ‘How High Does The Sky Go?’, Morrissey’s description of Linder as ‘nine-parts sea creature’ rings perfectly true, her wordless vocals comparable only to a siren song. Even more outlandish is ‘Howling Comique’, in which she laughs maniacally for just under two minutes to erratic instrumentals. Not all of the tracks on ‘The Damage’ are quite so esoteric, though. The album features a beautiful cover of Brigitte Bardot’s ‘Nue Au Soleil’, and ‘Let Me Go Where My Pictures Go’ and ‘My Cherry Is In Sherry’, while still undeniably offbeat, are catchy and airy, offering a sharp contrast to the majority of the album. All the same, the infrequency of such songs makes them feel as bizarre as the rest, feeding into the inventive tone of the compilation.
“Ludus” is a Latin word which refers to sport and play, and play they most certainly did. In one of the most shocking underground music events of the decade, Ludus performed at The Haçienda in 1982. Unimpressed by the club screening pornography and, being a staunch vegetarian, disgusted with the meat industry, Linder took it upon herself to make a statement on both. She constructed a dress out of offal, which, years later, Lady Gaga would imitate, offering no credit in return. Midway through ‘Too Hot To Handle,’ Linder tore the dress off to reveal a giant black strap-on and screamed for the remainder of the song. The audience, already wary thanks to the bloody tampons in ashtrays of offal which Linder left on the tables, jumped away from the stage, and Ludus were not invited to play at The Haçienda again.
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This infamous performance of ‘Too Hot To Handle’ is featured on ‘The Damage’, alongside recordings of the lively ‘Mirror Mirror’ and the unostentatiously feminist ‘Wrapped In Silence’ from the same concert. They offer a glimpse into what the live Ludus experience must have been like, then so utterly unprecedented. Their inclusion is a gorgeous addition to the album, bringing the collection vibrantly to life.
Make no mistake, Ludus are not for everyone. What some consider to be a delightfully novel approach to songwriting, others may well see as unsavory postmodern noise. Undeniably, though, Ludus deserve far more attention from musos and music historians. If nothing else, they’re long overdue credit for making their pure punk contemporaries seem tame and uninventive by comparison. For all her work with collage, Linder is a true original. If you enjoy experimental music, give her an hour and 12 minutes of your time. It’s well worth it.
Ludus recently produced a definitive compilation, ‘Nue Au Soleil’, out now via Les Disques de Crepuscule on iTunes and Spotify.