NoMeansNo's independent debut album, Mama, was for a decade the Holy Grail for punk record collectors. The initial pressing of only 500 copies had been snapped up locally, once the band started to tour, and then, inexplicably, the master tapes were lost and the independent pressing plant closed down -- it seemed the album was gone forever. The band ingenuously made a tape copy from an album, and sold it through their record label for a few years, but that was it. Its price among collectors skyrocketed, as the band's status among aficionados grew, mainly because of their incendiary live performances. Finally, in the late 1990s, a record store owner in Vancouver found the masters in the estate of the pressing plant, and returned them to the band. NoMeansNo, the least business-oriented band in punk rock, was at that time becoming increasingly estranged from their longtime record company, Alternative Tentacles, and had decided to leave Jello Biafra's label, simultaneously withdrawing all their masters and releases from public distribution. For almost two years they continued to play big sold out concerts all over Europe and Canada, without having a single title available in retail stores. Only NoMeansNo could get away with such a business decision and survive. Throughout their career NoMeansNo have refused to play suitor to record companies, even refusing to put A&R reps waving record deals on the guest list. It took a year to find acceptable distribution -- John Loder's Southern Distribution, founded by legendary iconoclasts Crass, became their new home. When it came time to relaunch their back catalog, John Wright's top priority was to remaster and release Mama which finally, in 2004, saw its debut CD release.
Remixed, with a bonus EP and video tracks, Mama is an intriguing embryonic work for the band. Brothers Rob -- a dishwasher at a local college, and John -- still living in his mother's basement -- perform as a duo, and their influences, technical prowess, and ambitions are clearly on display. Rob's bass playing is already superb, slippery and fast, always in the lead, while John hammers along, constantly adorning the tracks with clever, almost progressive, fills, changing velocity and style seamlessly. Gang of Four, Ramones, D.O.A., Stranglers, all show NoMeansNo's subtle influences in the arrangements and attack, as do Rush, King Crimson, or Madness. It's not exactly punk, or new wave, or even minimalist art rock; it exists in its own reality. Even from the cover art (an evil-looking Rorschach ink blot with the title Mama right above it), it is obvious that there is something a whole lot more to this band than just another middle class angst-fest -- the arrangements and performances are dense, hard; even the whimsical ("My Roommate Is Turning into a Monster," "Big Dick") have a robust fury in their delivery. It may be underwhelming compared to later work, and the lyrics not as well developed, but still has hints of Rob Wright's fascination with psychological paradoxes.
The bonus tracks on the CD are from a 1981 7" EP, "Betrayal, Fear, Anger, Hatred," and are relatively straightforward, with only the piano-based "More ICBMs" showing John's fascination with pop music. An early version of "Forget Your Life" is Rob's first exploration of a contrast he would later explore in the anthemic Victory, which is seemingly positive and upbeat but actually nihilistic; "Forget Your Life" is exactly the reverse. Hilarious, really. Finally, to make this release absolutely essential for NoMeansNo collectors, there are two ridiculously funny videos of the brothers on a Victoria television station, performing "Rich Guns" and "Forget Your Life." The performances are on a bare stage, and the brothers' visual presentation is obviously based on Kraftwerk, or Devo -- yes, it's the NoMeansNo robots! After releasing Mama, the band understood they needed another element in the mix, and added guitarist Andy Kerr to the lineup. The results, of course, were legendary: in next recording the You Kill Me EP and their masterwork, Wrong, they laid the groundwork for their long successful career, and earned a permanent place in the punk rock firmament.