Saturday, 18 February 2017

Volume 12 Side Three - Curve, Throwing Muses, Kitchens of Distinction, Buffalo Tom, Manic Street Preachers






















1. Curve - Ten Little Girls (Anxious)

While Curve emerged on the music scene seemingly from nowhere in 1991, both Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia had a long history. Both had previously played in the group State of Play together, who ran up a £100,000 debt producing two flop singles and a flop album for Virgin. Toni Halliday went off to attempt a solo career, which had a slightly higher media profile (though Record Mirror somewhat sniffily referred to her as "another pretty blonde in a leather jacket") but didn't really catch the public's imagination either. While her solo records weren't awful, they were also distinctly unmemorable, slick late eighties pop fare.

Given all the above, when Garcia and Halliday reunited for Curve in December 1989, nobody expected fireworks. Both had enormous talent, but neither had really successfully utilised it outside of a "session musician/ voice for hire" context, and certainly neither had managed to produce anything of particular note while working together. At the time, then, Curve were a huge shock. Toni Halliday re-emerged with jet black hair, pale shining foundation and thick mascara, fronting a rumbling juggernaut of Garcia's soundscapes. There were those who suspected the entire situation was contrived - a last-ditch attempt by two flop musicians in their late twenties to obtain credibility and a mainstream career by stealth. The fact they were signed to Dave Stewart's Anxious label did little to assuage these critics.

The first single "Ten Little Girls" doesn't sound as if it could possibly have been created in a cynical way, though. Garcia clearly took to the foundations of the track with an acute precision. It feels like a finely sculpted piece of industrial noise, smoothed and sanded into softer and more peculiar shapes. While other groups of the era tried to jar the listener with an onslaught of noise, "Ten Little Girls" contains a richness of detail. From the howls of feedback to the rattling rhythm track and rumbling basslines, to Halliday's varied and evolving lyrics and vocal contributions, it manages to feel aggressive and urgent without losing its impact forty or fifty listens down the line. Halliday's voice is also being used to brilliant effect here. Outside of a pop context, it's softness can be made to sound dangerous and threatening. Even the added rap, which was normally a horrible early nineties mistake on indie records, works well here, contributing an added aggression.

Curve became music press icons very quickly, appearing on numerous front covers, aided partly by the fact that Toni Halliday was (let's be honest) not unattractive. My teenage self was fascinated by her looks and neurotic lyricisms, as indeed was just about every heterosexual and bisexual boy at college.

Given all the above, the world should have been their oyster, but as we'll go on to discover, Curve's sound, while sounding fantastically new and startling at first, rapidly became familiar. And while they made frequently marvellous records, all were niche sounds which lacked obvious pop melodies and didn't sit easily on "Top of the Pops"; although they would eventually appear on that show.



2. Throwing Muses - Counting Backwards (4AD)

Next to Curve, Throwing Muses sounded almost conventional in this track sequencing, but obviously they're not. "Counting Backwards" is yet another example of them weaving a hook-ridden pop tune around a quirky and unusual structure. There are moments around the chorus where it almost finds a Talking Heads styled groove, only for the track to slide back into a tumbling rhythm pattern and peculiar howling guitar lines.

With each progressive LP release, the group were steadily reaching more people. When we first met them on Volume Three of this series with "Cry Baby Cry", they were a seriously cult concern, sounding rough around the edges and faintly out of step with the era. As time progressed, however, their eccentricity became a beacon for numerous fans who recognised that Kristin Hersh occupied an intelligent and uninhibited arthouse approach not easily found in late eighties and early nineties alternative music (outside of Sugarcubes records, anyway). They had few rivals, and "Counting Backwards" is an example of an immediately memorable single with beautiful spikes and angles attached. They were now moving away from the world of inky fanzines and into the glossy pages of Q magazine.



3. Kitchens of Distinction - Drive That Fast (One Little Indian) - vinyl and cassette only

With lyrics seemingly taking on the topic of the early stages of a love affair where the conditions and seriousness have yet to fully establish themselves, "Drive That Fast" is simultaneously joyous and paranoid sounding. Whooshing past in a giddy rush, it's elated one minute then cautious the next ("I would never wish this much on you") and the group are asked to keep up with Patrick Fitzgerald's dual emotional state.

It's a lovely take on those early feelings, and utilises a similar roar of guitar effects pedals and multi-tracked ideas to Curve on track one - meaning that this could have more ideally sat as track two. By the end, you're still not quite sure what the romantic conclusion is. The outro is giddy sounding, but sounds equally drunkenly paranoid as loved-up and excited. Fitzgerald sounds as if he has stepped on to a merry-go-round without really giving the option any forethought, and now it's spinning far faster than he expected - a thrilling ride, but if it stops suddenly, he'll be face-first into the gutter with cuts and bruises, and possibly worse if the landing is particularly poor. The thrill wouldn't exist without the danger, but the danger can never be completely eliminated from the thought processes.

While the lyrics are also a simple series of thoughts rather than philosophical musings on the condition, they do have a unique quality by considering the dangers faced by the other half. Quite unusually and generously for pop music, they recognise that two people are facing peril by another possible failed and demanding relationship, not just the singer. The concern expressed is distinctly un-rock and roll and lacking in decadence, and offers to protect the partner rather than view them as a complication.



4. Buffalo Tom - Fortune Teller (Situation Two)

Following the epic sludge of "Birdbrain", "Fortune Teller" was actually something of a let down. A piece of countrified lo-fi, it stumbles along its own particular dirt track occasionally bumping into grungey bits of fury and distortion on the way - but never once really making a coherent case for itself. It's only charm seems to lie in its slightly rugged innocence. Without much in the way of direction, a chorus, or an easily relatable theme, it lurches drunkenly from one segment to the next as if they're inconvenient obstacles and arguments. Frankly, a single it ain't. It's barely even a B side.

Future efforts would be considerably more rounded, and "Fortune Teller" seems to have been the moment Buffalo Tom waved goodbye to any underground roots they had to create better crafted records - and by the sounds of it, that wasn't a bad thing at all.



5. Manic Street Preachers - You Love Us (Heavenly)

"You Love Us" takes the thrilling rush of "Motown Junk" and marries it to a much poppier melody, edging the group that bit closer to the mainstream American rock sounds they admired. Still, while those fiddly, flashy guitar lines did initially seem irksome, "You Love Us" is almost the equal of their Heavenly debut, marrying ridiculous arrogance - whoever heard of a band demanding "You Love Us" in such a direct and obvious way and expecting to be taken seriously? - with an energy which sounds as if it tore the recording studio walls down.

While The Manics seemed surprised by the levels of vitriol spat at them from some quarters, they were clearly doing everything to create a clear dividing line between those who would these days be called "haters" and their fans. "You Love Us" acknowledges both their problem and their attraction with the hasty line "You love us like a holocaust!" and dares listeners to step forward into their camp. It seems like a spectacularly silly gesture, of course, because it is - but then it's tapping into the roots of rock and roll rebellion, only this time the "squares" were the university educated stoners listening to bands like Slowdive, while the hip Manics fans were teenage kids in search of something, anything, remotely glamorous which articulated their frustrations.

To cap it all off, the track finishes with an unashamed steal of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" riff, before spluttering suddenly into feedback and confusion and finally nothingness.

This is the last time we'll meet them for the purposes of this blog. After such a shameless display, they promptly signed on the dotted line with Columbia and got ready for superstardom. Far from achieving overnight multi-platinum success, though, the group would embark on a long and wearisome journey which destroyed one member and left the others sounding prematurely haggard and world-beaten by the time they reached the summit. Whether you prefer the young, spunky Manics, the early Columbia era Manics or the sombre but successful and well-fed Manics is, of course, a debate which has kept the group's forums aflame for many a moon, and one which is too complex to go into here... though I may as well add my ha'penny opinion into the mix by briefly saying that "Generation Terrorists" is one of the most disappointing LPs I've ever bought (even containing a neutered and inferior version of this track) and stacked up next to that, "Everything Must Go" is an absolute masterpiece, even if it reached a broader audience Manics fans felt less comfortable sharing air with.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Volume 12 Side Two - Saint Etienne, Candyland, New FADS, Bridewell Taxis, The Hoovers






















1. Saint Etienne - Nothing Can Stop Us Now (Heavenly)

When we last met Saint Etienne on volume 10, most listeners probably had a sense that they were going to be another here-today gone-tomorrow bedroom DJ act who only had one or two good ideas in their system. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" was an extraordinary cover, but one which could easily have been a happy pop accident.

"Nothing Can Stop Us Now" clearly indicated that Wiggs and Stanley had equally bold, big ideas in their arsenal. Using the (uncredited) intro to Dusty Springfield's "I Can't Wait Until I See My Baby's Face" as its central hook, it somehow ends up sounding like it belongs to 1991 but every era prior to that, too. The sample itself may stem from 1967, but the way it's utilised here makes it sound as if it originated from a piece of bouyant, optimistic mid-seventies disco (puffing flutes alongside funky grooves were, after all, the staples of dancefloor monsters like "Do The Hustle"). Throughout, Sarah Cracknell's vocals sound part indie, part Debbie Harry - as their career progressed her voice would find softer, subtler tones, occasionally oddly akin to Jackie Lee, but here it's pure sass.

Throughout, the creeping bassline and swinging rhythms make you feel as if you're strolling down a city street with the sun on your face listening to Philly soul. It's a beautiful ball of influences and ideas which never fails to lift me up a little, and ensured that Saint Etienne became a key group to watch; while they were never really considered Britpop (except in very early Select magazine articles about that movement) there's no question that their early nineties releases used retro influences in an intelligent and successful way which laid the foundations for that scene to emerge.



2. Candyland - Fountain Of Youth (non-fiction)

While they seemed to be marketed as an indie-dance act, there was something very fishy about Candyland. Those strident, slickly produced grooves, chiming keyboard noises and soulful vocals didn't really make them sound 'indie' so much as the rightful heirs to Living In A Box's success, only with Housier beats tacked on. And obviously, "Non-fiction" was the subsidiary label to Fiction Records, who were in turn part of the Polydor group.

I don't really want to start an argument with any musicologists about how 'alternative' this sound is or isn't, but "Fountain Of Youth" certainly sounded like a possible pop hit in waiting, which might be how the group found themselves sneaking on to radio playlists and programmes like "Wogan" to promote the single. Filled with swagger and House-styled keyboard riffs, it makes the right moves and has exactly the right production for a mainstream 1991 smash, but ultimately isn't enough of a Tune. It had enough oomph behind it to nudge into the National Top 75 - though only just, at number 73 - but the fact that it's a single hardly anyone ever talks about today (if they even actually remember it) is rather telling.

When the Non-Fiction label (ostensibly created to break new bands) was wound up as a project, Candyland were moved over to the main Fiction Records label, where they staggered on until 1993 - but this was their biggest selling single.



3. New Fast Automatic Daffodils - Get Better (PIAS)

Everyone's favourite lo-fi baggy arthouse creatures employed the services of Martin Hannett for this single, and it became one of his last commercially issued productions. The original video (not available in full online) features a bedraggled and disturbed looking Hannett being ferried around a studio in a wobbly and unstable shopping trolley, an experience he apparently didn't want to go through and found terrifying - numerous friends of his have come forward since and said that the treatment of the video directors and band towards him was both disrespectful and ghoulishly mocking at this final point in his life.

In the group's defence, it's possible they had no idea at all how uncomfortable Hannett was or how close he was to death (after many years of drug abuse he was clearly not a sharp or happy individual anymore, but he was still an in-demand producer with a lot of other work in the pipeline). They did, however, talk about how he managed to 'decommercialise' this track, resulting in something which sounded closer to an album track than a single.

There's no question that "Get Better" has dimensions to it that were non-existent on previous New Fads recordings. The swooping guitar noises, the fact that the driving rhythms are pushed front-of-centre, the way the vocals sound agitated, battling with the other elements around them - it is actually exactly what you'd expect a Hannett produced New Fads single to sound like, so quite what they expected is anyone's guess. For all that, though, while "Big" and "Fishes' Eyes" had space and air between their grooves, and stretched out contentedly, "Get Better" is claustrophobic and panicked sounding.

It's not either party's greatest work, but it is something I'm glad I got to hear. It also signposted a possible road the New Fads could have journeyed down as the Baggy Party came to a close - but their next big moment of exposure came with the single "It's Not What You Know" which bemoaned their marginalised status over the occasional chops of angrily thrashed guitars.



4. Bridewell Taxis - Don't Fear The Reaper (Stolen)

Bridewell Taxis had numerous fantastic and under-appreciated singles in their catalogue, so the fact the only other track of theirs we're going to discuss besides "Spirit" is this cover of the Blue Oyster Cult classic is unfortunate. Indeed, even at the time music critics were quick to cock a snook at this single, feeling that an indie take on the cowbell-infused track wasn't something anybody had actually ordered. However - whisper it - I actually quite like this version.

It came out at a point where many indie bands were scoring rogue hits with covers of classics, the biggest smash of which was undoubtedly Candy Flip's shameful "Strawberry Fields Forever", a record which does get raved about online now, but frankly I don't care if I never hear it again. It was increasingly being seen as an opportunistic move, an attempt to launch whole careers off the back of other people's good work which, as it happened, very seldom actually paid dividends.

Then there's the minor issue of the tastes of the early nineties - "Don't Fear The Reaper" was, as cover version choices go, inadvisable. Most bands at the time were idly whacking on funky drummer loops and wah-wah guitar to bog-standard covers of sixties classics to gain psychedelic cool points. The excesses of seventies adult rock hadn't really been explored yet, for the simple reason that music critics were still surprisingly sniffy about that era.

Given these walloping great facts, then, you could be forgiven for wondering what the case for the defence actually is. Primarily, I would argue that "Don't Fear The Reaper" is actually a really good song, but Blue Oyster Cult's original version of it has multi-tracked vocals so limping, anaemic and lifeless they sound like two lovers committing suicide by slowly drowning in porridge. Suffering from the worst kind of clinical seventies over-production, there's no emotion in the rendition at all, and a lot of nastily fussy guitar lines far too high up in the mix (and if you're reading this and shaking your head, you should probably be aware that I'd be happy to throw even worse insults at some album Pink Floyd did called "Dark Side of the Moon").

What The Bridewell Taxis did was create something which is definitely rougher, with squeaking organs where the guitars would normally be, a slightly harder, more agitated vocal, and some brilliant subtle use of brass which reminds me of the Salvation Army band on a weekend. It's a much more pleasing version which is more foggy and autumnal, but still manages to add some grit into the mix. And well... you can't deny that the driving riff was always a good one to start with.

Your mileage may vary, however, and you may feel that the ghostly sounding Blue Oyster Cult original sounds faint and defeated because that's precisely how it's supposed to sound. Public opinion would obviously be on your side.

As for the Bridewell Taxis, they collapsed not long after this single, and a new line-up emerged under the name of The Bridewells - but by that point, the momentum had been lost.



5. The Hoovers - Mr. Average (Produce) - vinyl and cassette only

Back when I had a college radio show in Essex absolutely nobody listened to, I sent my details off to a variety of record companies in the hope of blagging advance promo copies of singles, which everyone completely ignored apart from bands on local labels. No surprises there, then. Amazingly, though, Liverpool's The Hoovers - who were signed to The Farm's Produce label, and doubtless got my details after I tried to flatter The Farm by telling them they were my college's favourite band as proved in a scientific poll - regularly got in touch. Not with promotional copies or even TDK cassettes of their work, though, just small fanzines chronicling their lives and activities, and occasionally hand-written letters asking for on-air plugs. It was a lovely piece of grass-roots indie promotion which revealed a band with a sense of humour who didn't really have the budget to produce anything more ambitious. I was left with the notion that if I ever met The Hoovers, I'd probably like them as people - and that's not a bad impression to leave rookie DJs and promoters with. So many bands are ghastly little shits, after all.

Unfortunately, "Mr. Average" is really nothing special. Lyrically mocking the life of a nine-to-fiver, it has a beefy, confident rhythm section, but lacks anything distinctive, exciting or memorable otherwise. The song managed to pick up John Peel airplay and the group received positive reviews in the music press at this time, so obviously bigger and better people than me disagreed with my assessment, but the track has since become so obscure that I've had to upload it to YouTube myself.

This single featured on the band's "Tied Up and Tickled" LP which was released in 1992, but that became the band's final release.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Volume 12 Side One - The Charlatans, The Wendys, The Dylans, Spirea X, Spacemen 3

Year of Release: 1991
Format: Double LP/ CD/ Cassette

A new dawn. Volume 12 of "Indie Top 20" launched with a new sleeve design, a new compiler (Tim Millington, not Chet and Bee) and no individual sleeve notes for each track but beyond that, not the sense that much had changed. Despite having the mysterious Millington on editorial duties, any number of the acts on "Volume 12" would have slotted neatly on to a previous volume, so very little seemed to be afoot.

"Volume 12" is occasionally referred to as the LP with an overload of shoegazing acts, but in reality there's a broad enough mix here. A few baggy bands get to have their final moments in the sun too, and it's a fair reflection of what was going on during the strange summer of late period baggy and high water mark shoegazing. Grunge had yet to break through in any meaningful sense, and while that would in time go on to become "the enemy" of all self-respecting British indie bands - if you were Damon Albarn, anyway - most of the early 1991 outrage was directed at those blasted middle-class shoegazing bands, so much so that Nicky Wire was moved to comment that Slowdive were "worse than Hitler". Tsk. We didn't know we were born, I tell you.

1. The Charlatans - Happen To Die (Dead Dead Good)

While a one-sided promotional copy of "Happen To Die" does exist, in reality this was best known to the public as track four off their "Over-Rising" EP - an effort which had the altogether jauntier and bouncier title track as the first sound off the grooves, which would have made a much more convincing opening track here too.

"Happen To Die" begins with mournful organ chords, the usual distinctive, high ended Charlatans bass playing sound, and an unlikely announcement from Tim Burgess: "Don't give me that disease/ I can't find my way out". Oho. Like "Then", then, it's another example of the band at their darkest and moodiest, showing a sensitive and woebegone side that casual listeners of the group are probably barely aware exists.

There's a slightly weak production here, though, and the whole thing sounds as if it could have done with more time in the studio oven - while the bass runs and the rhythm patterns are enticing, the song itself never seems to quite scale the heights it should and almost feels like a live run-through in places. The ending in particular seems uncertain, awkward and as if the loose threads hadn't quite been tied up yet.

After this, the "Indie Top 20" series takes the confusing and inconvenient step of ignoring The Charlatans for some time, meaning we miss out on "Weirdo", the fantastic and largely forgotten "Me In Time", and "Tremelo Song", all of which knock "Happen To Die" into a cocked hat. So it goes.



2. The Wendys - Pulling My Fingers Off (Factory)

The Wendys were probably some of the most unfortunate bastards ever to grace the back-end of the baggy scene. Not only did these Edinburgh boys move to Manchester just as the scene started to fade, they also signed to Factory Records, who were in serious financial trouble at the time. I'm tempted to say that they might as well have recorded their debut LP "Gobbledygook" and left most of their copies on a garden wall somewhere - it probably would have had more exposure that way (to the elements if nothing else).

They've often been highlighted as Madchester failures since, but in fact a lot of their work has a very intricate atmosphere, a moody, chiming soundscape somewhere between The Roses and The Bunnymen. "Pulling My Fingers Off" is a great example, combining a jingle jangle melody with dark rhythm patterns and morbid, absurdist lyrics. It doesn't make an immediate impression, but over subsequent listens slowly worms its way into your brain, nagging away with its warm, intricate sound. The single that preceded it, "The Sun Is Going To Shine For Me Soon" is equally rich and rewarding.

Inevitably their goose was cooked when Factory died a death, and they've found themselves relegated to the footnotes of the era since - but they still had enough respect and enough of a following to reform in 1999 to release the "Sixfootwingspan" LP.



3. The Dylans - Lemon Afternoon (Situation Two)

I've been waiting a long time to write this entry. Way back in August, when I published the first ever proper entry on this blog, I wrote about Sheffield's One Thousand Violins. Guitarist Colin Gregory of that group joined The Dylans, who we are only just talking about now - six months later in blog time, but over four years in real time.

Like The Wendys, The Dylans frequently found themselves ducking critical flak for being a vaguely Madchestery band existing outside of a socially acceptable time period for that kind of noise, in much the same manner that provincial psychedelic pop groups releasing singles in late '68 and 1969 were often greeted with music press sneers.  Now that such considerations of what's a hot sound and what's not have faded away as we take a backwards view from our rear view mirrors, it's possible to have a more enlightened view of their work, and "Lemon Afternoon" is genuinely beautiful. Utterly Byrds inspired, unbelievably derivative, and very simple, naturally, but wonderful nonetheless. Taking a droning, repetitive riff, and layering innocent, luscious folk-rock vocals on top, it sucks you into its dreamworld instantly, the shimmering guitars and hypnotic rhythms causing you to jump on the nearest lilo and float downstream.

This is one of those tracks I still play at least a few times a year, and still enjoy hugely whenever the mood takes me. Had it been released a mere year or two before, there's a strong possibility it would have received a much more enthusiastic audience.

The Dylans abandoned their psychedelic sound in 1994 for a harder-edged rock sound, and promptly sounded more relevant but less welcoming. Elements of their 1991 noise, though, including this, "Godlike", "Planet Love" and "Mary Quant In Blue" are all well worth tracking down, and have a warmth and innocence that's immediately compelling.



4. Spirea X - Chlorine Dream (4AD)

Jim Beattie quit Primal Scream in 1988, and two years later Spirea X (named after a Primal Scream B-side he himself penned) were born, with the open ambition to completely outscore and out-perform Gillespie and company. But titter ye not, dear readers, for Primal Scream in 1988 were leather-trousered no-hopers putting out records which could only be fairly described as "quite nice in places, rather dreary in others". Anyone bailing from the group at that point in their careers clearly had fair reasons.

While Alan McGee was allegedly hurt that Beattie jumped to 4AD for Spirea X's material, in terms of success the group's performance didn't match their confidence and he probably saved himself some money. "Chlorine Dream" was an easy Indie Top 10 hit, though, and slots next to "Lemon Afternoon" fantastically well in terms of arrangement - it's another psychedelic, Byrdsian drone which drips atmosphere and warms the heart. Sadly, though, it's not quite as good and doesn't quite stand up to its nearest neighbour - which makes it a slightly cruel, if entirely logical, piece of track sequencing.

Spirea X would release one more single, then the LP "Fireblade Skies" which was critically well received, but didn't sell convincingly. 4AD dropped them in 1992, and they split up in response, leaving Jim Beattie to re-emerge in Adventures In Stereo.



5. Spacemen 3 - Big City (Fire)

By this point, Spacemen 3 were barely a functioning unit. Their final album "Recurring" was essentially a split effort, with Peter Kember taking on one half of the LP while Jason Pierce dealt with the other, making it sound like a "White Album" for the early nineties, with the reverse magnetic force of two egos pushing away from each other while the rest of the group did their best to deal with the situation.

"Big City" was a Kember effort inspired by his visit to a "Rave", and is essentially a very, very Spacemen 3 take on that House party sound. Which means that it's hypnotic as well as squelchy, and riddled with scaling, spiritual church organ sounds as well as incantations (kind of) to get on the dancefloor. It really sounds more like an early nineties take on krautrock than Acid House as a result, and while that may not have been the intention, it does still stand up as a result, whereas a lot of the earliest Acid sounds don't. If there's a problem with "Big City" at all, it's that it's full ten minute version feels unnecessarily lengthy, and could do with at least a few minutes trimmed off its running time. The video edit below is perfect (and this compilation could certainly have crammed an extra track on to its CD version if that version had been used instead).

After this single saw the light of day, Spacemen 3 effectively ceased to be, and Kember and Pierce walked off in different directions to have two very different careers. Kember would continue his droning psychedelic ambitions in Spectrum, whereas Pierce would continue forward with Spiritualized, amassing greater critical and commercial success on the way.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Indie Top Video Take Six (inc Cranes, Manic Street Preachers, No-Man) & Best of Indie Top Video

Year of Release: 1991

Unless someone can prove otherwise, I'm pretty sure that these were the last two videos issued in the "Indie Top 20" series. The idea was becoming increasingly unpopular and they were starting to get stocked in fewer places. As nice an idea as these VHS views into the world of independent music were, it has to be said that their appeal was somewhat limited and their novelty waned quickly. Bands on independent labels were generally not cash-rich (the likes of Depeche Mode and New Order aside) and their promo videos could occasionally be inventive, but were frequently basic afterthoughts, swiftly cobbled together moving images created with the half-hearted hope of getting a slot on Saturday morning TV or MTV's "120 Minutes".

Even I'd given up by "Take Six". As much as I love "Spirit" by The Bridewell Taxis, for example, and I think the band-made promo is a lovely example of what a group can produce under their own creative steam, it's hardly "True Faith". There was little point in spending money on buying these videos if I was only likely to watch them three times then never really look at them again.

The sales slump for these is most apparent when you consider the relative scarcity of "The Best of Indie Top Video", the companion piece to the best-selling "Best Of" album. Discogs doesn't list it, and it turns up on ebay extremely infrequently these days. So rare is it that I had to actually go fishing and ask reader Gareth Windbank (who has his own copy) what the tracklisting even was. Thanks to him for his help in putting this entry together. It has to be said that the contents explain its low sales - there are no bonus tracks at all and most of the contents had only recently been released on other Indie Top Video volumes.

The same rules as always apply to this entry. If it's a bonus video not featured on the main vinyl/ cassette/ CD series, I'll discuss it in more depth. If it's not, I'll link back to the blog entry the track relates to.

Take Six

1. The Charlatans - Then (Dead Dead Good)

2. My Jealous God - Pray (Rough Trade)

3. The Bridewell Taxis - Spirit (Stolen)

4. Pale Saints - Half-Life Remembered (4AD)

5. Teenage Fanclub - God Knows It's True (Paperhouse)

6. Carter USM - Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (Rough Trade)

7. Buffalo Tom - Birdbrain (4AD)

8. Cranes - I Hope (Dedicated) - bonus video

So the question of the day was: Were Portsmouth's Cranes really a shoegazing band, or a goth group who had somehow trojan horsed their way on to the indie circuit? Similar criticisms were hurled in the direction of Curve, who we've yet to discuss, but Cranes were wildly different to them. While Toni Halliday softly cooed her threats and warped ideas, Alison Shaw squawked and gurgled them like a small girl cornered by something unthinkable. Her vocal performances were such that even when the group were at their most delicate and intricate, they still managed to sound somewhat unsettling.

"I Hope" is particularly horrible in a fascinating way. Discords, pounding tribal drums and meaty basslines meet Shaw's vocals to make the whole thing sound haunted or infected. It's disturbing in a way that the likes of Sisters of Mercy of Fields of the Nephilim never managed to be with their epic sound, but I suppose the main question should be whether I actually feel I need to hear it ever again -  and I don't think I do.

Unlike many of either their shoegazing or goth cousins, their unique sound also seemed to place Cranes at an awkward dead end in terms of influence - unless we count the eerie and childlike nature of 2016's great hopes Let's Eat Grandma, with whom they share a few stylistic similarities.

As a post-script, I'll add that when I lived in Portsmouth I saw Alison Shaw walking towards me along Commercial Road once, didn't fully process where I knew her from, wrongly assumed that it was from some unidentifiable place in my social life, and smiled in what I hoped was a friendly way. She looked at me in a very confused fashion, scowled and then carried on about her business... and then it registered with me that I only knew her from copies of the NME and episodes of "The Chart Show". Oops.



9. Manic Street Preachers - Motown Junk (Heavenly) - bonus video

There were lots of us who weren't wholly convinced by the Manic Street Preachers early on. Steve Lamacq, for example, whose line of questioning perturbed Richey Edwards so much that he carved "4 Real" into his forearm to prove the group were the genuine article. Then, in the world outside the media, there were people like me who felt we were possibly being fleeced. This has become an inexcusable, unthinkable stance in the years since, and the revised history would suggest that we were all introduced to their genius and immediately bowled over.

What you thought of them probably depended a lot on how old you were, and how many of their influences you had already absorbed or rejected, and I really have to be clear about this - by 1991, a sloganeering male rock group festooned in make-up and fake leopardskin clothes was already, well... slightly suspect and distinctly out of step with the times. Small independent rock labels like FM and Music For Nations had already mass-marketed lots of UK smalltown glamorous rock and glam metal acts abroad, and while the Manics always were more intelligent, more broadly influenced and nuanced and less downright silly than either them or the cock rock acts, it was bound to sit uncomfortably with those of us who had already suffered years of torture. Let's just say that in 1990, if you turned up at your local niterie wearing make-up with carefully sprayed hair and a leopardskin coat and shades, nobody thought you were a fan of the Manics. Everybody would have assumed your interests lay with a glam rock band instead. That the band's fans now frequently dress like this and have managed to turn it into an instantly recognisable identifying factor is a testament to how huge and overpowering the Manics influence has become.

Second issue; the punk influences. Birdland had already tried this and failed to make an impact, and everyone had since moved on to different styles. It's hard to imagine this since they've been co-opted into rock's mainstream, but The Stone Roses were insurrectionary in an odd and different way, and in a manner that didn't involve barking slogans to three thrashed chords. They referenced ideas like the 1968 Paris riots in a nuanced and faintly surreal way, and splashed themselves with Pollock paint rather than spray-on slogans. Were they more literate than the Manics? No, but they were usually more imaginative.

And finally; the fact that the band were frequently feted as intelligent lyricists and erudite men, while quoting GCSE syllabus standards like Sylvia Plath in interviews, or widely acclaimed modern authors. They were tasteful and seldom mentioned anyone whose work was terrible, but at the time it seemed self-conscious, obvious, afraid to be too different or wrong, worried about potentially alienating a young audience with difficult ideas. In short, it seemed a bit calculated. It wasn't as if the early nineties lacked literate groups, intellectual gobshites or intelligent lyricists in any case. This was an age of Cathal Coughlan, Luke Haines, Nick Cave, even Mark E Smith... it didn't really need someone wearing glam outfits and quoting Plath. Did it?

So you could say I wasn't an instant convert to the Manics. I prodded at their work suspiciously with sticks. I took badly to the sheer self-importance of their proclamations, and the vulgar bullshit about recording a 16 million selling debut album then splitting up (I don't despise ambition, but come on, that's just an idle brag worthy of Donald Trump, only he would probably add "Then I'll invest and make serious money out of property"). But still... I had to admit that "Motown Junk" was an incredible force and an amazing single. An astonishing track with essentially not much at all behind it, to the extent that it's miraculous it actually holds together. The chorus hangs on one single chord and the chant of "Motown Junk!" continuously, before finding a second chord right at the last moment, releasing the pent-up tension instantly. The rest of the track is a furious thrash, an accomplished modernisation of punk, far superior to "Hollow Heart". Really, the Manics were closer to the destructive pop art of The Who than Birdland's beery, devil-may-care mayhem.

Lyrically it's less compelling than their later work. The line "I laughed when Lennon got shot" is clearly there just to grab attention, and "We live in urban hell/ we destroy rock and roll" at the end could have come from a 1977 punk B-side (and anyway, we all knew they didn't live in urban hell - they were from Blackwood). But it's a mish-mash of ideas, a montage of definitively Manics images, and as such a fine introduction, a clarion call, a torch beckoning bored, bookish suburban kids to its flame. A broad part of their appeal at the time seemed to be that the film the young Manics imagined they were living through inside their own heads was also an exaggerated visual idea shared by bored fantasising Home Counties kids, or teenagers in market towns in the middle of nowhere - the inauthenticity of it mattered little for as long as their fantasy visions meshed. Suede would later on present a differently seedy yet oddly glamorous dreamworld to a similar cult effect.

Me? I'd admire this at the time, but go back to my Fatima Mansions LPs, and the twisted journey of the KLF. The former seemed more literate and imaginative in their protest (but way less glamorous) the latter more exciting, unorthodox and unpredictable. Those two bands did a lot to get me through my teenage years in commuterville, whereas the Manics wouldn't really impact on me as much. But I couldn't look away either... and I do still own their first five albums, and my relationship with the group would become less doubtful and troubled as time went on.



10. Front 242 - Tragedy For You (RRE)

11. New Fast Automatic Daffodils - Fishes Eyes (PIAS)

12. Flowered Up - Phobia (Heavenly)

13. No-Man - Colours (Probe Plus) - bonus track

The vaguely uncategorisable yet frequently dreamy No-Man hailed from Hemel Hempstead, and combined funky or jazzy breaks with classical inspired violin lines, breathy vocals and a psychedelic feel. Proto-Trip Hop they weren't, however - they were more wistful and comfortable than that.

Like Porcupine Tree, No Man also weren't really much of a part of the baggy movement despite their blissed-out leanings. Rather, they were out on their own presenting a cosy, hushed, rural presentation of neo-psychedelia, one where you might find yourself tripping in a barn while Classic FM leaks out from your portable transistor radio.

"Colours" is a cover of the Donovan track and was released during a point when that man's reputation was enjoying a brief and seemingly yet-to-be-repeated revival. His daughter was in a relationship with Shaun Ryder, "Hurdy Gurdy Man" had been covered by the Butthole Surfers, and although comedians Trevor and Simon saw fit to pastiche his work on Saturday morning children's television -a baffling situation whose nearest modern equivalent would probably be children's entertainers parodying Tim Booth out of James today - that only seemed to increase his visibility still more. For a few moments in the early nineties, Donovan felt ever-present and almost contemporary.

Whether "Colours" works for you in this guise depends a great deal on whether you like the original, and to be honest, I don't very much. It's too much of a simplistic, rural, cornball Bob Dylan imitation, and even with beats and an added ambient atmosphere can't help but feel slight. There's no question that a lot of Donovan's work deserves to be dug up and taken seriously again, mind you - the proto-Nick Drakeisms of "Sunny Goodge Street" alone rank as one fuck of an achievement - but this isn't where I'd personally start, and No-Man can't save it.



14. Moonflowers - Get Higher (Heavenly)

And finally - "The Best Of Indie Top Video" looks like this:

1. The Farm - Stepping Stone (Produce)

2. The Shamen - Omega Amigo (One Little Indian)

3. New Order - Fine Time (Factory)

4. Soup Dragons - Mother Universe (Big Life)

5. The Charlatans - The Only One I Know (Situation Two)

6. The Sundays - Joy (Rough Trade)

7. Lightning Seeds - Pure (Ghetto)

8. Kitchens of Distinction - Elephantine (One Little Indian)

9. Eat - Psycho Couch (Non-Fiction)

10. Wedding Present - Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now (Reception)

11. Pop Will Eat Itself - Def Con One (Chapter 22)

12. Danielle Dax - White Knuckle Ride (Awesome)

13. Fields of the Nephilim - Preacher Man (Situation Two)

14. Loop - Collision (Chapter 22)

15. Carter USM - Bloodsport For All (Rough Trade)

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Volume Eleven Side Four - Front 242, Boo Radleys, Bleach, Buffalo Tom, Pixies






















1. Front 242 - Tragedy >For You< (RRE)

"Front 242 -Satisfying feelings and imagination, superseding the unity of body and mind. The single 'Tragedy >For You<' announced the release of the album 'Tyranny >For You<'".

Ooh, they're a bit riled. Front 242 make their first appearance on "Indie Top 20" since Volume Seven with a piece of dystopian industrialism that sounds like someone's kicked over a hive filled with battery-operated robot bees. Whatever they are. Unlike many of their contemporaries, however, Front 242 possess an ability to sugar the pill with various melodic fanfares and flourishes, each one sounding more welcome than the last. The track judders to a broken halt on one of them at the tail end, perhaps trying to prove to us that the ugliness will always win out.

"Tragedy >For You<" (and I quite like the over-emphasis on who the tragedy is being aimed it there) does get a tad silly in places, though, with lines like "I still feel disemboweled" and "The sore in my soul/ the mark in my heart/ her acid reign", even if the latter does sound as if it could have been adopted and used within a different context by Brett Anderson a couple of years down the line. Subtlety was not Front 242's strong suit, and in the end you can only enjoy this for what it is - a ferocious and threatening bit of electronic noise. It's really not everyone's bag, but whenever I revisit their work I always find myself enjoying it more than I thought I would.



2. The Boo Radleys - Kaleidoscope (Rough Trade)

"In fact 'Kaleidoscope', 'Aldous' and 'Swansong' are as crucial as anything made in the name of noise and beauty over the last two years" - Paul Lester - Melody Maker.

There's been a slightly unusual approach taken to The Boo Radleys back catalogue over the last fifteen or so years, which seems to take the view that anything they released before "Giant Steps" should be avoided as amateur adolescent doodlings. The band may have been largely to blame for this, making unflattering comparisons to their early work, but the music press didn't help matters much either. For a brief period, the NME mockingly dubbed them the "Do Badlys" on account of their limited commercial appeal and also the fact that they were the low budget also-rans of the shoegazing scene.

One listen to "Kaleidoscope", however, will prove to you that whatever goodness was apparent on "Giant Steps" had almost flowered during their Rough Trade years. Beneath the downright messy production here lies a sweet and seductive melody, growling guitars with beautiful riffs intertwining with each other, and a low budget psychedelic soup of swirling prettiness. It's easy to overlook this and "Everybird" while sifting through their canon, but both tracks could, with a few production tweaks, have equally happily sat on "Giant Steps" without anyone batting an eyelid.

This is their first appearance on the "Indie Top 20" series, and their peculiar career path also makes them the first Britpop band to appear on one of these compilations - although at this point, the noise they were making was such a far cry from the singles they put out in 1995 that it's safe to argue that this isn't the first appearance of any kind of Britpop "sound".



3. Bleach - Decadence (Way Cool) - Vinyl and cassette only

"...makes me think of jets streaming their way through clouds of white and grey, and of guitars imploding under their own power" - Everett True - Melody Maker. 

Far more than The Boo Radleys, Ipswich's Bleach were considered a proper, serious shoegazing proposition, a band who were likely to pick themselves up from the pub circuit to make all sorts of interesting unimaginable transcendent noises. Everett True faithfully sums up some of the early press gushings in his quote above. It really didn't work out as everyone expected. The band made all sorts of rum decisions such as rapping over shoegazing noises on "Shotgun", or splitting their 1992 album recording sessions into two LPs, "Hard" and "Fast", and while they were uncompromising, they were also quite a bit flawed. The Boo Radleys would develop and grow and experiment to a generally positive effect, whereas Bleach didn't really push the envelope so much as playfully doodle a bit around its edges.

Unlike a lot of the bands making similar noises at the time, Bleach did have a charismatic lead singer in Salli Carson, though, whose moody gaze peered from many a provincial gig venue's stage, making the group seem a bit more dark and mysterious than I suspect they really were.

As for "Decadence", I'm afraid I don't really get it. Under-produced, underpowered, immensely repetitious and held together by an unshifting and simplistic rhythm at its foundations, it really is a bit dull. They would go on to release better work, but from this, it's really hard to hear what all the early fuss was about.



4. Buffalo Tom - Birdbrain (Situation Two)

"...smears your ears and leaves your nose runny. A big cacophony with a buried melody and bountiful beat - delightful!" - Liz Evans, Raw. 

"Birdbrain" introduces itself with a bruising, almost glam rock, riff before the vocals bark in demandingly. If you thought they might be throwing away their strongest cards before the song really gets going, however, it carries on its goodness from there forth, holding its nerve and occasionally sticking its head into sunshine streaked melodies in the chorus.

Buffalo Tom were an odd group whose initial appeal appeared to lie in their associations with Dinosaur Jr and the American underground rock scene, but actually had some very trad rock ideas at their heart. While "Birdbrain" gnashes and grinds away, future singles such as "Tailights Fade" were seeped in an almost Springsteen-esque American melodrama, and it was this - rather than their slightly grungey leanings - which assured them a strong cult fanbase from 1990 until close to the end of the decade.

They even managed a top ten hit in the UK by default in 1999, with their unconventional cover of The Jam's "Going Underground", though it wouldn't be unfair to say that this almost certainly would have been lucky to climb so high had it not shared vinyl space alongside a Liam Gallagher cover of "Carnations" as well.



5. Pixies - Dig For Fire (4AD)

"Remixed from the LP 'Bossanova'"

While we're on the subject, while we know and love Pixies for their own particularly sharp-toothed barks of surrealism, they too occasionally showed a conventional edge. On "Doolittle" this was showcased by the almost Monkees-esque Saturday afternoon cheer of "Here Comes Your Man" - the track that got your parent's ears pricking upwards and saying "Ooh, who're these? They're good!" On "Bossanova" "Dig For Fire" takes a similar pop-rock tack, this time seeming like some kind of seventies Top 20 anthem. In fact, while I frequently struggle to get fans of the group to agree with me on this point, elements of the guitar runs veer close to the "If we ever get out of here" element of Wings "Band On The Run", something that was apparent to me on the very first listen and I've never been able to shift from my brain since.

"Dig For Fire" proved that Frank Black was actually a damn good songsmith, not just someone who could make a bloody fine and occasionally peculiar noise. It's a rollicking good listen, but unfortunately the stadium chant nature of the chorus causes its obvious charms - and it has many, including those chiming guitar lines and stomping rhythms - to wane more quickly than they would on most Pixies tracks. This is something I played to death in 1990, then didn't return to very often subsequently. Still, the thrills are there to be had for a while.