Direction Reaction Creation crams their entire studio output onto four discs, with a fifth CD full of unreleased material. The first four discs are sequenced in rough chronological order by release date, so any singles released ahead of time throws off the flow of some of the albums proper. Still, the set just has to begin with both sides of the “In The City” single, and you can’t complain when their first two albums fit onto the first disc, along with the rare “Carnaby Street” B-side.
Disc two presents the build-up and aftermath of All Mod Cons. We can hear the growing pains in the B-sides “Aunties And Uncles (Impulsive Youths)”, “Innocent Man” and “The Night”, before they hit their stride with a string of excellent singles. This disc ends with “The Eton Rifles” (and its B-side, “See-Saw”), which takes something away from disc three, devoted to the remainder of Setting Sons and Sound Affects—plus, hello hooray, “Liza Radley”. That’s three strong discs in a row, and since we’re one of those who didn’t love The Gift, disc four doesn’t get as much play, particularly with the 12-inch single version of “Precious” taking up six precious minutes, and the un-Jam-like covers issued as B-sides.
All of disc five is previously unreleased, so you still have to hold onto Extras. Most of this disc are studio demos of songs recorded better later, though a “So Sad About Us” that predated the first album is pretty tight. “Worlds Apart” and “Walking In Heaven’s Sunshine” are otherwise unheard tracks, “Rain” a carbon copy of the Beatles’ track, “Dead End Street” a piano rendition of the Kinks song, and another demo of “A Solid Bond In Your Heart” provides an up conclusion.
Some of the tracks have already appeared on Dig The New Breed or Live Jam, but such canonical repetition can be forgiven. Three B-sides came from the 1977 show, so it’s good to have “Bricks And Mortar” (pronounced “moe-uh” each of the three times it appears in the set, one of which segues into “Batman Theme”) and their covers of “Back In My Arms Again” and “Sweet Soul Music” in context.
The first voice you hear is that of John Weller, Paul’s dear departed dad who roadied for the band and introduced every gig. Particularly through the first five shows, the band is tight, democratic and gracious. A horn section creeps in on the fifth, providing a transition to the keyboards and backup singers added for their final shows. The Wembley gig, one of several from the last days of the band, was recorded well, but the guitar and bass are off pitch with each other—one of the pitfalls of playing arenas instead of theaters or clubs.
Sure, some songs appear in multiple renditions (some as many as three and two in four), and the title had already been used in the ‘90s for a tribute album, but Fire And Skill is a worthy, and long overdue bookend to this terrific band’s career. In the absence of a reunion, it will stand.