At age 13, I encountered my first bootleg: a murky cassette of a Nirvana performance from 1988, seemingly recorded from a toilet stall in the building next door. Over the years, I've counted myself fortunate to have had this early experience because it made me realize that fidelity has nothing to do with whether music is good or not. Accepting hiss, fuzz, and echo as tonal qualities in their own right and retuning the ears to accept them opens one up to a wider universe of sound. In the case of This Heat, noise feels integral to what they do, therefore on Live '80-'81 it would seem perverse to yearn for crystal clear clarity or to not find enjoyment in how the audio quality warps the songs.
Recorded on cassettes at six cities over ten months, there's been visible care taken with the LP's editing, and it's impressive that these rough sources merge into what feels like a single performance. As one would expect, This Heat relinquished the mad scientist vibe that the studio's capabilities afforded them. In its place is a rock band calibrated to live venues' demands so, while the music still twists and turns dramatically, the result is a lot more organic. "Horizontal Hold" opens up with a speaker shuddering barrage that relents for barely a moment before we're whipped through the pugnacious rock of "Paper Hats". Low audio fidelity has the fun effect on "S.P.Q.R." of reducing the band's vocals to a burble of soccer crowd chanting punctuated by barks of "we are all Romans!". There's a similar vibe later on "Music Like Escaping Gas", where the instrumental has the simmering darkness of a witch's cauldron with the band murmuring incantations.
The record is four songs in before "Triumph" releases the band's grip on your jugular and lets you catch a breath, its wood-block and kazoo ensemble swaying drunkenly forward into a baleful moan of "triumph of the will." For rarity hunters, the thrills here are the "Aerial Photography" and the rather brief minute-and-a-half of "The Rough with the Smooth", both of which featured on the band's 1976-1977 demo tape, which has only ever been released on a cassette in Yugoslavia. Even half-a-decade after its composition, it's intriguing that the former still sounds vestigial and semi-improvised, while the latter has a weird sing-along knees-up jauntiness that would never have fit on This Heat's rather intense albums.
Throughout the set, This Heat ably demonstrate why they remain such a unique phenomenon. Again and again, it's possible to catch a hint at one or another of the cutting-edge musical currents of the time – no wave, post-punk, industrial – but the band are steering a lone course, never at the mercy of any of those tides. "Makeshift Swahili" finally encapsulates its title concept, the idea of a jerry-rigged language, to its fullest potential. Reducing the lyrics to a series of guttural shrieks and yells, the words are rendered indistinguishable and, brilliantly, the air of abandon becomes ecstatic, especially over the punchy hi-hat heavy drumming and muscle-clenched strumming.
This satisfying live LP finishes in style with back-to-back highlights. First, "Twilight Furniture" weaves a lattice of driving drum patterns then decorates it with a spider's web of chords, everything benefitting from relatively strong separation allowing each instrument, and the voice, to stand out strong. Plunging into a wash of sampled strings, that sound extends into the introduction of "Health and Efficiency", which is exactly the kind of hyped-up, amped-up, head-nodding, foot-tapping, pure rock catharsis that any crowd could desire. It's both kind and wise of the band to send a listener away with their hottest song – in all its multi-sectional, ramshackle glory – ringing in the ears.
Across their available discography – two albums, two EPs, the BBC sessions, and this live LP - and for all their reputation for harnessing chaos, what strikes me most strongly is the precision of This Heat. The caution visible in what they've chosen to release has led to a back catalogue with few weaknesses and a reputation that has endured. That same intensity and attention likely explain why – in total – six years of work yielded a tight 30 or so compositions. It's a testament to how in control Charles Hayward, Charles Bullen, and Gareth Williams were, and to the extremes of talent and intelligence they brought to bear on their music.