The first wave of British punk was overrun with smart kids from upper-class backgrounds playacting at being working-class yobs. (The Clash did this first, and did it better than practically anyone.) But Sham 69 was different; every bit as thick-headed and provincial as the band sounded, Sham 69 took a perversely populist pride in its lack of musical or intellectual sophistication. If there's a point where British punk began to evolve from smart, edgy bands like the Sex Pistols and the Adverts into beer-soaked Neanderthals such as the Exploited and the Anti-Nowhere League, Sham 69 marks the spot, and while its first album, Tell Us the Truth, is the band's strongest work, the album also shows that most of Sham 69's flaws were in plain sight from the start.
Side one of Tell Us the Truth was recorded live, and it's inarguably fascinating as an anthropological document, capturing the Cockney yob in his native environment, complete with football chants and a spontaneous chorus of "Knees Up, Mother Brown." Jimmy Pursey's communication with his audience is inarguably impressive, and some of the songs have a good head of straight-ahead energy (especially "Borstal Breakout"), but the sound is thin and the band seems to have a hard time getting into fifth gear. The studio side actually sounds more impressive; the performances are tighter, Dave Parsons' guitar benefits from a bit of double-tracking, and Pursey sings more than he hectors. But Pursey was already starting to sound a bit pompous, and time has not been the least bit kind to songs like "I'm a Man I'm a Boy" and "Hey Little Rich Boy," which for all their sincerity don't say anything dozens of other bands haven't said better.
Tell Us the Truth sounds passionate, belligerent, and kinda dumb, but that's an improvement over Sham 69's later work, where the band sounds overblown, strident, and really, really dumb. The 2000 CD reissue features two bonus cuts, including a studio version of "Borstal Breakout."