Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Volume 8 Side 4 - Sonic Boom, Loop, The Telescopes, Thee Hypnotics

1. Sonic Boom - Angel (Silvertone) - Vinyl Only

Sadly, I have the CD edition of "Indie Top 20 Vol 8" and therefore don't have the sleevenotes for this epic, nine minute long track, which was clearly left off the CD version for reasons of space. If anyone knows what they are, please enlighten me and I'll add it above.

Nonetheless, on vinyl and cassette versions of the LP, this track gave Sonic Boom two bites of the royalty money cherry, after "Hypnotised" on Side One. Perhaps it's safe to conclude that if you really, really hated Spacemen 3, and Sonic Boom in particular, this compilation was going to contain two major let-downs.

The only thing that sets "Angel" apart from the shimmering, heat-haze psychedelia of "Hypnotised" is its relative minimalism. Beginning with what sounds uncannily like a basic click track and a very simplistic guitar line, "Angel" gradually climbs a monumental hill before hitting a mournful church organ and gospel influenced vocals at the end. Proof positive that the "spiritual" element of Spacemen 3 was by no means entirely Jason Pierce's trademark (though he apparently helped out on this track) "Angel" really howls as it moves with its head bowed down the old gospel road.

Lyrically, the track appears to be a tribute to a recently deceased friend, but there's little information available on who it might be, or why this track didn't feature on a standard Spacemen 3 album. It's unsafe to assume, but it seems fairly likely that this was simply a very personal record for Peter Kember.

2. Loop - Arc-Lite (Chapter 22)

"Arc-Lite captures the noise of a motorbike chain deep in swampland and revving into the red, a frictional mesh of metal and rock that won't rub down. Like nothing on earth and out of this world" - Melody Maker 2.12.89.

Melody Maker's journalists and critics sometimes wrote some absolute tosh about records, but that's one of the best summaries of the sound of "Arc-Lite" I think I'm ever likely to read, and no, I can't top it across a few paragraphs.

In the same way that The Kinks "You Really Got Me" had a churning great stop-start primal riff at its very foundations, "Arc-Lite" is the pounding, crashing Suicide-influenced late eighties vision. From the booming, chugging drums to the howled, distant vocals, seemingly lost in a wind-tunnel, this is simultaneously brutal and hypnotic, and certainly an acquired taste.

The video was played on "The Chart Show" and featured Loop standing around with their long manes of hair in the wind near the then-derelict land at the London Docklands. Both the video and the song remind me of a distant time when the visual and musical landscape of London was entirely different - brash rather than flash, with lots of rubble and hard edges. How far we've come since. Or not, as the case might be.

3. The Telescopes - To Kill A Slow Girl Walking (What Goes On)

"...is like a sarcastic approach to religion. Well, not so much religion as people who easily led, y'know, people in a flock looking for a shepherd, people who don't think for themselves looking for a new Messiah all the time" - Steve Lawrie, Feb '90.

With an opening of ear-splitting white noise created seemingly by the entire band thrashing on their instruments, "To Kill A Slow Girl Walking" continues with a swaggering riff and sneering vocals, only to punctuated by more white noise at regular intervals. It's a thrilling burst of arrogant rock and roll which has one foot in Loop's world, another in the land of the MC5 and The Stooges.

The Telescopes would later steadily become more psychedelic and were even occasionally tagged as part of the Shoegazing movement, but "To Kill" shows that there was a roughness and a rawness to their sound as well which very few of those bands had in the early nineties. This has stood the test of time unbelievably well, and still manages to sound extraordinary.

4. Thee Hypnotics - Earth Blues (Situation Two)

"Throws The Who and the early Stones together and adds a rare sense of soul. Thee Hypnotics blast the blues into the nineties!"

Raw, ragged and furious, "Earth Blues" doesn't feature any kind of progression in the sound Thee Hypnotics had when we last encountered them, but is a reliable continuation of their scuzzed up garage noise. What's thrilling about is that it sounds so incredibly spontaneous. There's no sense that the group aren't hanging the whole performance together on a frayed piece of rope, and at its best, that adrenalised feeling a band has when they're playing free and loose can be very contagious. "Earth Blues" isn't a neat, structured piece of songwriting, but it's the sound of some strong musicians tearing the place up. Nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Volume 8 Side 3 - Sugarcubes, Kitchens of Distinction, Fatima Mansions, Wire, Field Mice, Pale Saints

1. The Sugarcubes - Regina (One Little Indian)

"Four, Five, Six, Seven... and Bjork suddenly bursts alight, trilling, preening, calling, beckoning, the scarlet ethereal voice hitting the topmost notes with a heart-stopping clarity, the jiggering rhythm folding across her shoulders" - Melody Maker. 

The pop world hasn't been overburdened with songs penned in tribute to columnists who write for evening newspapers, but The Sugarcubes corrected that matter in 1989 with "Regina". Of course, being The Sugarcubes, the topic of the song was no ordinary woman, being an Icelandic columnist who mainly wrote about the achievements of her neighbours and said very little about the news at all, and their praise to her is occasionally eccentric and rather blurry in its aims. At one point Einar screams "I really don't like lobster!" in a manner usually reserved for political protest songs.

Business as usual back at the Bad Taste camp, then, although rather like the last time we met the group with "Deus", there's a slickness and poppiness to this track which barely matches the lyrics or indeed Einar's demented ramblings. The track clops along at an even pace, and the chorus is a simple, trilled refrain of "Oh oh, Regina!" which threatens never to end in the last minute of the track. The net result is that once the novelty of the sheer absurdity of the lyrics and the subject matter fades, you're left with very little to get excited about.

The album "Regina" stemmed from, "Here Today Tomorrow Next Week" is widely regarded to be a sophomore slump effort, and the fact that "Regina" acted as the lead single from it didn't bode well.

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

"....hail from Tooting, South London, which is on direct route southwards to Timbuktu. Really. The band form two years ago after a chance encounter at the frozen food section of Safeway in Streatham!"

As the baggy movement began to gather pace and indie-kids started shaking their fringes and imaginary maracas on the dance floor to an assortment of Mancs singing to funky drummer beats in hushed tones, Kitchens of Dinstinction actually began to seem even more out of sorts than they were when they first arrived. For all that, "Elephantine" was possibly their biggest sounding single yet, with a huge yet disconcerting chorus. The track overall lacked their usual dependency on effects pedals and atmospherics and instead launches itself headlong into something approach a traditional tune, albeit one filtered through some peculiar prisms.

Perhaps due to the epic nature of the chorus, "Elephantine" did give the band their biggest indie chart hit yet, but their popularity would never rise much above cult indie appreciation.

3. Fatima Mansions - Only Losers Take The Bus (Kitchenware)

"Fatima Mansions is that very rare thing, a sound that sounds like nothing so much as itself" - 20/20
"The hungry, incredulous 'Only Losers Take The Bus' is perfect" - NME

Microdisney split up following the undeserved failure of their last album "39 Minutes", an unorthodox and astonishing album which featured fierce anti-Thatcherite lyrics backed with smooth Steely Dan styled arrangements and backing vocals from Londonbeat on session duties. The Londonbeat boys apparently sorely objected to getting in the studio to croon along to lines such as "There's nothing wrong with the young would-be rich/ That a head full of lead would not cure" but happily took their paycheque anyway. The record company Virgin didn't see the point of the entire affair, dropped Microdisney, and the group collapsed in disarray.

Lead singer and lyricist Cathal Coughlan wasted absolutely no time in forming a new band, and Fatima Mansions were the swift result. He was out of the traps so fast that, unfortunately, their first mini-LP "Against Nature" did still bear hallmarks of the Microdisney sound on a few tracks, containing familiarly brooding Scott Walker-ish ballads. Among those, however, were also pounding social rants ("The Prince of Caledonia he drives a diesel van/ When he's peddling skag in Hamilton/ He's a reality man!") and perhaps more unusually, Stock Aitken and Waterman styled indie-disco, slightly akin to Robert Lloyd. The group's lack of identity at this point confused more punters than it delighted, and their early work remains relatively overlooked to this day.

The first single "Only Losers Take The Bus" is most definitely remembered, however, being a thunderous, rattling juggernaut of a track, filled with Cathal spouting obtuse lyrics with a righteous fury and demanding, angular guitar riffs. Inspired by Margaret Thatcher's declaration that anyone aged 30 or over who still takes a bus has failed at life, some of the other lines - "Get these dead bodies off my race track!" in particular - hint towards a surreal attack on individualistic, self-centered Conservative values.

Musically it gave few clues about the fury the group were about to unleash on the world, instead hinting that their future lay in quirky indie rock - but nonetheless, it was far from ignored by the press, who were there to wave their flags enthusiastically from the sidelines.

4. Wire - In Vivo (Mute)

"Those masters of uncompromising melody do what they bloody well like (once more). Another slice of unholy Ecstacy on vinyl".

For all the talk of Wire being uncompromising, "In Vivo" really marks the final moment of an uncharacteristically poppy phase for the group. From the release of "A Bell Is A Cup" onwards, a clear sense was beginning to emerge that Wire were now a peculiar but faintly commercial group. "Eardrum Buzz" was proof positive that they could pen in an infuriatingly catchy track, and "Kidney Bingos" and "Silk Skin Paws" showed they could play their grown-up punk associates equally well at the "atmospheric adult pop" game. After this, though, Wire would become much more jarring and experimental.

"In Vivo" offers slick, catchy riffs sliding into an anthemic chorus, and while it never truly puffs its chest out, it's still a comparatively trad single by Wire's normal standards, with barely a sharp edge or unexpected twist or turn to be found. For those reasons, I find it possibly the least interesting of their Mute singles - and the fact it sold less well than many of them possibly indicates that the public felt the same way.

That's not to say it's bad, mind you. There very rarely ever was such a thing as a bad Wire single, and "In Vivo" is bold and shiny enough to be among the finer tracks on "Volume 8". It just doesn't excel.

The album this came from (provided you didn't own the vinyl copy) was "IBTABA", or "It's Beginning To And Back Again", which consisted almost entirely of reimaginings and reconstructions of other recent Wire songs, with the group often pulling the structures to pieces and building songs up again completely from their basic foundations. Frequently regarded as a substandard album in their catalogue, it was actually the first Wire long-player I ever bought, and I initially didn't understand what it was, believing all the tracks on it to be the original versions. When I backtracked later on, I actually thought the true original versions on "A Bell Is A Cup" were inferior, a view I've subsequently revised in some but absolutely not all cases. I still believe that (for example) the moody acoustic take of "Public Place" is the definitive version. "IBTABA" is definitely worth tracking down, but it may take a little bit of adjusting to get used to the parallel universe versions of the tunes on there.

5. Field Mice - If You Need Someone (Sarah)

"Taken from the double 7 inch EP 'The Autumn Store'".

While it's tempting to argue that The Field Mice were a huge cult band at the time, their subsequent influence on bands such as Belle and Sebastian means that their name is even more likely to be uttered by indie kids these days than it was in 1989. Indeed, a compilation of their work "Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way?" released in 1999 sold more copies than anything released during the group's lifetime.

It would also be tempting to argue that the fey, ponderous approach "If You Need Someone" takes is typical of the group's output, but they actually played around with a wide variety of sounds, as future "Indie Top 20" appearances will prove. There's no question that it's something of a stereotypical Sarah Records release, however - dripping with wide-eyed teenage romance, sensitive promises, buttery guitar lines and plodding drum patterns, it's an indiepop Valentine's card to all women with duffle coats and cute bangs everywhere. And I actually have to confess that as a grown man, I find it slightly tough to get anything out of - this is a dream of a love affair written through the prism of boyish innocence, and it's a pretty listen, but not a very emotionally engaging or inspiring one. Unlike some of their other output, if you created an acoustic version of this and got a female vocalist to take the lead, nobody would really notice anything was up if you put it on a pet food advert in the present day. A strength or a weakness (or a sign that my true vocation lies in soundtracking adverts)? You decide.

6. Pale Saints - Sight Of You (4AD)

"This, the first to benefit from the band's jigsaw theory of song A songwriting pregnant with meaning".

WHAT?! Did "Indie Top 20" get that piece of blurb from a bad translation of a Hungarian music press review?

Anyway, "Sight Of You", from their "Barging Into The Presence Of God" EP, was such a huge track at the time that it hung around the Indie Top 10 seemingly forever, and featured in the final 10 of John Peel's 1989 Festive Fifty.

Along with the work of My Bloody Valentine, there's an arguable case to be made for it being one of the first "shoegazing" tracks as well. The droning organ, buried and cherubic vocals, and finally the sheer wall of guitars that hits you at the track's end seem to predict the emergence of sonic atmospherics rather than funky beats. That bassline, which almost appears to be leading the melody in places rather than anchoring it, obviously owed a bigger debt to Peter Hook, however.

Given the relative success of the track at the time, it's slightly surprising that it's heard so infrequently now, and also that Pale Saints failed to really build on it. Subsequent singles - more on those when we get to them - are actually much more adventurous and interesting in my opinion, but the group's appeal never did become as large as their early promise seemed to indicate. "Sight Of You" really should be regarded as one small element in their career rather than their crowning glory, but it's possible that the group paid the price for arriving with a certain type of noise far too early.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Volume 8 Side 2 - James, A Guy Called Gerald, KLF, Alien Sex Fiend, The Shamen

1. James - Come Home (Rough Trade)

"Strengthened for the future. The nineties might see James pissing on the likes of Stone Roses and The House of Love, freaking out the Happy Mondays and filling the gap left by The Smiths. Don't let the new James pass you by" - Mix Mag, December 1989.

Mix Mag? Mix Mag?! But yes indeed, "Come Home" was James in their most loose-fitting clothes, flirting with piano bashing House riffs, frantic rhythms and angst-ridden lyrics. There was a whiff of desperation about all of this - "If 'Sit Down' can't be a hit", seemed to be the logic, "then we really have to keep up with the times and release a truly current sounding single".

Unlike a good many releases of this ilk, though, "Come Home" sounds fantastic to this day. Whether the band were chancing it or not becomes an irrelevant question next to the sheer force of the track. Tim Booth's vocals kick in immediately with the none-less-party-friendly line "It's that time again when I lose my friends/ go walkabout - I've got the bends from PRESSURE". Once again, for the second release in a row, the group prove themselves to be masterful at producing singles with tremendously conflicting emotions. The strength of the overheated drumming and busy guitarwork on "Come Home" powers through the doubt and angst and creates something fidgety, desperate to shake off its angst through dancefloor activity.

Once again, it was not a "proper" hit, but they'd sod off to a major label very shortly afterwards and return revitalised and actually quite massive. By the time their next LP fell on to the release schedules, Baggy was almost a memory and they had reinvented themselves as an adventurous bunch of stadium rockers. Nothing wrong with that per se, but I still wouldn't have minded hearing what a Rough Trade produced album would have sounded like in early 1990. Like its predecessor "Sit Down", the re-released version of "Come Home" just didn't cut it in quite the same way.

2. A Guy Called Gerald - Hot Lemonade (Rham)

"Rham Records follow up to 'Voodoo Ray'. Hot Lemonade is the title track of Gerald's LP - Remixed by Youth".

"Voodoo Ray" was such an almighty TUNE during this period that any follow-up A Guy Called Gerald released was going to be living in its shadow, and that unfortunately proved to be the case. While his previous release continued to be played in clubs and bought in record shops, "Hot Lemonade" was greeted with a baffled reception and is largely forgotten today.

Of all the follow-up singles to HUGE TUNES I can think of, it is perhaps one of the most confusing. To a series of euphoric dance rhythms, clarion calls and atmospheric, chilled synth twiddling, a man and a woman with Italian accents talk endlessly and deliriously about the delights of a beverage known as Hot Lemonade. "I just love... de bubbles... and the shhhhhhhhhhhhh!" they explain, imitating the fizzing sound of a drink being poured. "I..... I neeed Hot Lemon-aaade!" Of course, many people pointed out that "Hot Lemonade" is also slang for urine, and the sexual undercurrent behind the track may be about water sports.

Where you stand on this depends entirely on your general temperament for absurd monologues occurring over the top of club tunes. Personally, it's one of those tracks I've never quite bored of. There's an unreal, almost disturbing atmosphere throughout the whole thing, and if you heard this at your local warehouse party while ripped to your very tits on a pill, it might cause you to doubt your sanity. At home, however, it's a delightful and fascinating mix of ideas which shows more daft adventure than "Voodoo Ray" ever did. And at the very least, the spirit of Derek and Clive could be said to be running between the two very comfortably.

3. The KLF - Kylie Said To Jason (KLF Communications)

"We wore our Pet Shop Boys infatuations brazenly on our sleeves while we recorded this track and we are proud of it. As for Kylie & Jason, the lyrics are not some attempt at a clever critique on our current soap idols".

"Kylie Said To Jason" was the KLF's follow-up single to "Doctorin' The Tardis", a track the pair would claim was carefully crafted to be a number one shortly after it reached the top in the UK (although this sounds a piece of fanciful retrospective thinking). It too was supposed to follow the single into the charts and provide them with some more money to finish their long-awaited film "The White Room" and rescue them from 'the jaws of bankruptcy', but in the end it failed to even get into the Top 100. 

Shortly after its failure, however, a series of limited edition Trance records cut by the pair began to pick up play at clubs and at numerous free parties and 'raves' around the country. After capitalising on this credibility by remixing and reproducing some of the tracks with the aim of getting them to chart, their careers skyrocketed into the major league, and platinum discs, Brit Awards and critical acclaim followed. Unfortunately for the poor, maligned "Kylie Said To Jason", however, it was a mere piece of Pet Shop Boys aping pop which would have been poorly received by the underground groovers and shakers at the time, and as a net result it never appeared on "The White Room" album (despite having a place in the early rough tracklistings) and was never re-issued anywhere officially. 

This is all rather sad, as "Kylie Said To Jason" probably is one of the finest records the KLF shoved out. It is as sarcastic in its tones as it is surreal, reeling off lists of Antipodean stereotypes whilst keeping a bouncing Europop beat running behind. That it didn't catch on and ride the zeitgeist of all things "Neighbours" that dominated at the time may have been due to the fact that the whole affair didn't make much sense to anybody apart from KLF fans. There are no repetitive catchphrases to be had, no obvious jokes, and no use of whacky samples. It's even subtly catchy rather than poleaxing listeners with its reference points, and has a sudden diversion during the outro which is both thoughtful and pleasing. It breaks more or less every single rule for novelty success, then, where "Doctorin' The Tardis" could not be seen to fail.

Despite - or more likely because of - the above, it's been one of the KLF singles I've returned to most frequently. The Pet Shop Boys would have killed to have turned out something like this, and while it  may stand out like a sore thumb in the middle of the rest of their catalogue, it's sodding great, and really should be heard by everyone, not just fans of the KLF.

As for the "White Room" film, it was never properly finished, though rushes exist online of the "exterior" elements of the script. In places, it feels like a truly beautiful long-form music video, so we're not necessarily worse off than we might have been.

4. Alien Sex Fiend - Haunted House (Anagram)

"A classic fiendish dance thrash especially remixed by Youth from Brilliant and scratched over by DJ Cesare from Gee Street Records".

Goth Dance? Whatever next? In fairness, there was always a dance element to Alien Sex Fiend's Gothic rock, with them happily indulging in dub remixes, samples and uptempo and camp doom and gloom. Therefore, a remix by Youth wasn't such a ridiculous step into the unknown.

"Haunted House" was a slightly hollow and dated sounding track for 1989, though, sounding like a bedroom-produced Art of Noise rip-off. There's nothing here worthy of greater praise or analysis than that.

Alien Sex Fiend, of course, enjoyed a long history on both the Goth scene, the National Top 100 and the indie charts, being a cult band with a seriously dedicated following. In a reduced state with only a couple of the original members left, they remain a going concern.

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

"This single became a club classic from The Shamen. Their musical style has progressed from psychedelic high energy guitar rock to an edgy pop with far more rhythmic feel inspired by the House, Hip Hop and EDM sounds they have absorbed since moving down south a year ago. They continue to move Phorward".

And really, this is the point the band truly arrived. "Omega Amigo" wasn't a proper hit single, but is an almost impossibly blissed piece of electronic dance music, like finding an oasis of calm amidst a seething mass of frantic activity. The central chorus, if it could be called that, is really just a continually stretching, reaching and watery keyboard riff, while Colin Angus assures the listener "Omega Amigo for you, I will always have time". A pulsing, plucking, gentle and busy riff dominates the rest of the track.

Like "Pacific State" by 808 State from around the same period, "Omega Amigo" is a gently stroking hand on the brow amidst a sea of hedonism, an oasis of calm amidst the delirium. I still think it's one of the finest singles the band ever released.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Indie Top 20 Vol 8 - Side One - Inspiral Carpets, Dub Sex, Depeche Mode, Family Cat, Spacemen 3

Format: Double Vinyl, CD, Cassette
Year of Release: 1990

As a new decade dawned, and Guru Josh uttered "Nineteen nineties... time for the Guru... ooh ah ooh uh!" for us all to nod serenely, one might have expected sweeping changes from the team at Beechwood Music. In reality, Volume 9 would see a huge change in the design and visibility of the series, whereas Volume 8 looks like more of the same and really is.

There's not much to fault here, actually. Hideous public convenience shaded green sleeve aside, it continued to contain the most relevant indie acts and eccentric relative outsiders - Peel perennials and IPC flavours-of-the-month alike.

Indie-Dance was now starting to become a seriously huge deal, and just about any indie band was slapping out dance remixes of their singles - even The Wonder Stuff, who released a single called "Who Wants To Be The Disco King" in 1989 then came up with a dance remix of "Circlesquare" in 1990, without a hint of embarrassment. Volume 8 of the series does hint towards that tendency ever so slightly, but its focus on the dying months of 1989 means we're not quite in the midst of Baggygeddon yet. But that's coming. Oh, it's most definitely coming.

1. Inspiral Carpets - Move (Cow)

"Move showed that Inspiral Carpets were quite capable of appealing to a wider audience than anybody thought. It reached number 49 in the Gallup chart on their own label".

To me, "Move" feels like the start of the Inspiral Carpets finishing the business of being garage-pop retroheads and into the realms of creating much more slickly produced, considered singles. Whereas earlier tracks nodded towards old Pebbles compilation LPs and scratchy old film clips of Question Mark and The Mysterians (one of their early cassettes even included a cover of "96 Tears"), from this point forward they would attain a similar melancholy gloss to The Stranglers.

Their progress towards the National Top 40 was actually greeted somewhat guardedly by the press. On the one hand, the NME in particular wanted Manchester bands to succeed and gain a larger profile, but the Inspiral Carpets weren't rebellious outsiders like The Roses and The Mondays. These were rather plain, shaggy looking men with a workmanlike attitude, not ex-drug dealers or would-be revolutionaries. They appeared to slip through the net quietly without everyone's permission - The Boomtown Rats to The Stone Roses' Sex Pistols and The Mondays' Clash, if you will. They would never quite be forgiven for their insolence.

That's a bit ridiculous, though. The Inspiral Carpets were becoming very good songwriters indeed, and that's apparent on "Move". With a swirling, faintly psychedelic instrumental break but with much more emphasis placed on the moody autumnal hooks elsewhere, it's a track that proves the band not only could take things to the next level, they almost certainly would. It still sounds like a detailed and involving slice of pop to this day, and is one I still regularly play (unlike most of the rest of Side One here).

2. Dub Sex - Time Of Life (Scam)

"Tough times. Many thanks to Alison, Martin, Edward 'Wood' Barton, Chris 'Remix' Nagle, Phil 'Beard' Korbel and Dat 2 Dat. Looking forward..."

Manchester's Dub Sex were around at the birth of the Hacienda and the baggy movement, and were widely regarded as one of the city's most favoured bands, only to be rudely sidelined just as everything went stellar around them. While other bands soundtracked parties, Dub Sex had a doomy post-punk sound which felt like part of Manchester's past rather than present or future. Rather unfortunately, the Indie Top 20 series only gave them space for their last ever single, and the sleevenotes above act as a rather unfortunate epitaph.

"Time Of Life" probably isn't their greatest moment, either. Slamming, clattering, and kicking its way around like a stroppy teenager, it establishes its main mood early on then never really progresses much. There are better examples of their work on YouTube if you take the time to surf around -this really does sound like the towel being thrown in by comparison. Still, future Indie Dancers the New Fast Automatic Daffodils did sound as if they owed a small debt to some of Dub Sex's ideas.

3. Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus (Mute)

"It's nice to see Depeche Mode back where they belong, breeding discontent, shitting over all else in their devout intent, huge fun".

"Personal Jesus" was, of course, a huge breakthrough single for Depeche Mode in America, and is frequently cited as being one of their key tracks. It's just... it's just... as a fan, it really doesn't cut it for me. Not only is it very atypical of the rest of their output, its incessant Duane Eddy styled twanging and stomping feels like four men from Essex attending a fancy dress party in old school rock and roll gear. A lot of silly fun for five minutes, but the post-party snapshots wouldn't be something anyone should want pasted on to the cover of their biography.

Inspired partly by religious phonelines in the USA and the book "Elvis and Me" by Priscilla Presley, it's also one of the most American sounding recordings the otherwise distinctly European group produced. A mere few years before they were holed up in Berlin, now they appeared to be on horseback riding through the prairie and dreaming of Gracelands.

In the end, it feels as if "Personal Jesus" is the favourite Depeche Mode track among non-fans of the band. As it was the lead single off "Violator", I instantly supposed the game was up and the band were now going to descend into some weird mid-Atlantic, guitar-based compromise. That luckily proved not to be the case, but this is still something I tend to skip on "Violator" whenever I want to listen to the LP.

4. Family Cat - Tom Verlaine (Bad Girl)

"For John, Fred, Jelb and Kev. Five loveable hits from the sticks. Fore runners of the Manchester scene, inventors of Acid House and instigators of the Roving Sweeping System 1989... WAS"

I think they're being a bit sarcastic, readers.

Yeovil's Family Cat were never more or less than common-or-garden indie noiseniks who steadily, over time, honed their craft into something much more epic sounding. Subsequent years have been a bit unkind to their output, turning a blind eye to their presence in the indie charts and national music press, and also frequently ignoring the fact that they more-or-less discovered fellow Yeovilian Polly Harvey (who delivered backing vocals on their single "Colour Me Grey").

In fairness, the scratchiness of "Tom Verlaine" is probably one of their finest moments, and the slicker they became the less interesting they got. "Verlaine" is a touching tribute to youthful love spent in pubs listening to cult artists, and supping beer together. It struck a chord with John Peel audiences as it inevitably would, and became their most significant moment.

They clung on to the Indie charts like determined limpets for many years afterwards, though, meaning this isn't the last time we'll be discussing them.

5. Spacemen 3 - Hypnotized (Fire)

"Single of the week in ALL music papers which has not happened since Prince's "Kiss".
'The Spacemen's latest its positively Ethereal, a Velvet Underground sounding blend of rotating guitar  and organ, a shimmering happy love song from Rugby's finest' - Sounds, July '89".

If "Revolution" on Volume 6 was an agitated call-to-arms about some vague cause or other, "Hypnotized" is drowning in hallucinogenic chemicals, with vocals sounding as if they're emerging deep from a shagpile carpet on the floor. It oozes out of your stereo, builds slightly, then slops and slides on the floor fizzing slightly as it goes.

Oddly, I have no memory of ever thinking of it as a significant musical moment - certainly not to the extent that the music press salivated about it - but it is an impressive psychedelic track, even managing to incorporate saxophones in a way that sounds measured and appropriately considered. The long fade section in particular could have been recorded by any number of legendary sixties "heavy" acts, and while "Hypnotized" plays, it's impossible to really get worked up about anything. Admittedly though, if you're in the wrong frame of mind it can occasionally be rather yawnsome at almost six minutes long.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Indie Top Video Take Two - Stone Roses, Lightning Seeds, Kitchens of Distinction, James, Bradford, Parachute Men, Fuzztones, Wolfgang Press

Year of Release: 1989

After the success of Indie Top Video Take One - which managed something none of the vinyl and CD editions of Indie Top 20 had delivered so far, which was to get into the official charts (or official national video charts, at least) - the arrival of "Take Two" was inevitable.

As with the preceding volume, though, it was a weird mix with lots of material which had never had any previous relationship with the "Indie Top 20" series. This time tracks which had recently appeared on "Volume 7" got the lion's share of space, but plenty of others were unrelated. This creates the same interesting situation as before, giving us a brace of non-canon tracks (or, more accurately, videos) which we might not otherwise get a chance to discuss.

"Take Two" would be the last VHS cassette to really go overboard on the bonus items. By the time of "Take Three" in a few months, a relatively normal service kicks in with each video focussing predominantly on tracks from the preceding Indie Top 20 album.

1. Stone Roses - She Bangs The Drums (Silvertone) - Bonus Video

This is a staggering opening song combined with a truly abysmal video. The original release of "She Bangs The Drums" was issued with a promotional film from the school of "Why did anyone ever bother when a still photo would have done the job just as well?". Around about this time, the jovial consumer affairs programme "That's Life" began stalking a Manchester film director who was accused of making dreadful promo films for local bands, but as The Stone Roses managed to produce this themselves, in the process creating something of an even lower quality, clearly there were worse options around. The promo features bleached out, blurry clips of the band arseing around the studio while slices of lemons occasionally appear on screen. It's actually just a few seconds of home video footage slowed down and plastered with vaguely arty effects. Anyone who pulled out the VHS tape from the player at this point, threw it across the room and returned to HMV to demand their money back could probably have been forgiven.

Still, never no mind, because as tracks go this is undoubtedly one of The Stone Roses' finest. What's interesting about "She Bangs The Drums" is that the indie scene had been predominantly filled with mournful, reflective minor key musings on life, love and everything for many years. It would be fair to counter that argument by mentioning that many of the indiepop tracks which burst on to the scene in 1986 had a jangly, celebratory edge to them, even if the lyrics weren't always sunny side up (The Housemartins "Happy Hour" would probably be the commercial zenith of this) but almost all of them sounded slightly uncertain in tone, and "She Bangs The Drums" is both euphoric and robust. This doesn't sound like a cheery, cheeky melody to get you through the day, it sounds invincible, fit to shield you from the worst things in life for months. It's about finding a soulmate so suitable and perfect, that the relationship feels like a halo encircling your whole life - and if you couldn't do that (and of course, I couldn't - I was a meek and defensive little 15 year old when this came out) then the song could act like a rubber ring around your waist, keeping you afloat. Or, to put it another way, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" this isn't. The first time I heard "She Bangs The Drums" I literally leapt for joy. I didn't know it, but I needed this in my life.

The guitar solo frequently backed football match highlights on the television, an unthinkable situation for an indie track a mere year or two before. While it's a simple and highly effective piece of work from Squire, the violent trucker's gear change of the key that follows it - unforgivable in most circumstances - actually works well, giving the song a powerful lift which feels almost impossible.

Of course, the central chorus, and in particular the line "There are no words to describe the way I feel" could have been cunningly striking a chord for numerous ecstacy users, but also harked back to the adrenalin soaked speediness of sixties mod culture articulated in The Who's "I Can't Explain". Not entirely inappropriate, as Pete Townshend had already tried to poach The Stone Roses drummer Reni when the group supported him at a gig in London.

In short, "She Bangs The Drums" is perfection, and stands up as well today as it did in 1989. It's become almost fashionable to deny that the band's first album is actually any good, but that's a ridiculous stance. It's a masterpiece, and this single is one of the highlights.

2. The Lightning Seeds - Pure (Ghetto) - Bonus Track

Way before Ian Broudie was mostly known for being the unofficial songwriter for the England World Cup Squad, his project (never really a proper band) The Lightning Seeds released chiming, reflective and shiny indie tunes which were actually brilliantly crafted. Purchased by both nerdy indie kids and their chunkier cousins who were more interested in having something nice to listen to in the car on the way to football practice, Broudie meshed the worlds of classic indie harmonies with eighties FM pop incredibly successfully.

The first LP, "Cloudcuckooland", emerged on the indie label Ghetto (unlike their other major label releases later) and "Pure" was the only hit single on it. This feels unjust. Besides "Pure", the LP contained "All I Want", later a minor solo hit for Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles, and "Joy", either of which would have been at least small Top 40 hits in a sane world. Given the fact that Broudie later enjoyed success with other singles of a similar calibre on major labels, it's tempting to blame the label, or their distribution, or both.

As for "Pure", Bill Drummond - who was once a member of Big In Japan with Broudie - accurately described it as a modernised "Windmills Of Your Mind". Backed with an effective but minimal parping trumpet riff, a whimsical backing occasionally worthy of Art Garfunkel, and Broudie's delicate vocals, it seems soft and overly fey on the surface, but later lines like "And now you're crying in your sleep/ I wish you'd never learned to weep" tell a different story. The line "feelings not reasons can make you decide" also feels uncertain to me - is this about the heart ruling the head and turning an otherwise orderly life upside down? At the time, Broudie wouldn't be drawn.

"Pure" was an easy top twenty hit, which from the moment it was Radio One playlisted sounded destined to be.

3. Inspiral Carpets - Joe (Cow)

(Already covered a few entries back if you follow the link, of course, but I just wanted to get another bitchy comment in about the low quality of music videos from Manchester groups at this point, and question why Beechwood and PMI felt so tempted to put these videos so high up the tracklisting. "Joe" is just more arsing about with camcorders so far as I can see).

4. The Men They Couldn't Hang - Rain, Steam Speed (Silvertone)

5. Wire - Eardrum Buzz (Mute)

6. Kitchens of Distinction - The Third Time We Opened The Capsule (One Little Indian) - Bonus Track

Tooting's Kitchens of Distinction never quite managed to climb beyond cult status. Emerging not long after the equally cultish The Chameleons had split, the two bands were completely unrelated in terms of personnel but sounded similar enough to raise eyebrows at the time.

"The Third Time We Opened The Capsule" isn't one of the group's strongest singles, but nails their sound very precisely to the mast. Effects-laden guitars swirl, Patrick Fitzgerald's vocals holler commandingly, and it's a giddy, disorientating affair which bears little relation to a lot of the other music being released at the time. In the long run, this would doom the group to a marginalised status, but they remain an invigorating band to return to.

7. The Man From Delmonte - My Love Is Like A Gift You Can't Return (Bop Cassettes)

8. James - Sit Down (Rough Trade) - Bonus Track

No, not that version of "Sit Down", which was one of the biggest selling singles of 1991. This original Rough Trade version of the track was a small, contemplative affair on one man's inability to fit in. While the hit version sounds like the supporters of Manchester United screaming from some coach windows while piling down a motorway, the original is Tim Booth lost in the corner of a scruffy bar, quietly considering his role in the world.

It's brilliant, in fact. The song itself manages to sound both frail and anthemic, with a constant push and pull between the gentle and doubtful vocals and ponderous piano lines and the confident, euphoric guitar playing. It's a song that wants to pull itself from despair and into daylight, and towards the end it even sounds like Booth is desperately trying to convince himself. In that halfway house state, it feels more human, more real, less barnstorming and militaristic. It's clearly the superior version of the song, which it makes it all the more stunning that it's presently unavailable to buy (and has been for many years).

The video, directed by Manchester artist, poet and eccentric Edward Barton, is simple and touching as well, featuring a ragbag of lost and lonely looking individuals and scruffy yet cheery dogs shuffling about a studio. Unusually, it wasn't screened on British television due to a Musician's Union ban caused by the drummer whacking a log with drumsticks, which broke some official rule about musicians miming on misleading instruments. That didn't seem to prevent the clip from being commercially released in this form, though, giving many people the first ever chance to see it in full.

Both James and Rough Trade were apparently disappointed when this single only managed to climb as high as number 77, but it wouldn't be long before the group were back on a major label and making a much bigger and more commercial racket.

9. Bradford - In Liverpool (Foundation) - Bonus Track

Perhaps aided by a boost in funds and production expertise by joining Stephen Street's Foundation label, "In Liverpool" is a much more fleshed out version of Bradford's early vision. Plucked orchestral strings join Ian Hodgson's powerful vocals to create a ballad to both a woman and a city that sounds majestic. It's still the usual mix of soul and faintly maudlin indie introspection which spiced all their other singles, and while it's not strong enough to be a key breakthrough single, it perhaps could have gained more recognition than it did at the time.

The video is simple, but presents two key things which date it immediately - an unmodernised Liverpool (they're really over-emphasising the derelict and abandoned aspects, actually) and a none-more-eighties female star with frizzy bleached blonde hair, a bright red dress and lipstick. It makes me feel sorely nostalgic, while at the same time questioning what exactly for. Episodes of "Watching", probably.

10. The Parachute Men - Leeds Station (Fire) - Bonus Track

"Leeds Station" became a legendary single in indie circles for one key reason in 1989 - Fire Records began a minor but rather daring skirmish with BBC Radio One over their refusal to put it on the daytime playlist. The central accusation seemed to be that the song was as strong as other guitar-pop records the station had playlisted over the preceding six months, and it was only being locked out of mainstream exposure due to the fact that it was on a minor record label.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, no headway was made, and "Leeds Station" remained unheard unless you were a nighttime listener to Wonderful Radio One. I'm now going to court controversy and suggest that this actually probably wasn't the harshest decision the station has ever made. When you consider that it was difficult to hear bands as mighty as The Stone Roses, James, and even Depeche Mode on daytime radio during the incredibly conservative late eighties, it seems a little rich to assume that "Leeds Station" cuts the mustard above all those. It's a catchy ditty to the band's hometown, but it's far from their strongest track, and has a chorus that seems to be trying a tad too hard to sound anthemic without reaching anything like the same heights as (for example) "Sit Down".

Nonetheless, it was an interesting battle, and it's not impossible that it did cause the station's controllers to briefly reflect on the fairly unvaried diet listeners were getting. During 1989, Radio One had already had potshots taken at them as a dated, aged station through The Reynolds Girls "I'd Rather Jack", and possibly didn't need to be shielding themselves from bullets in the indie sector as well. While I highly doubt "Leeds Station" hastened the arrival of the Matthew Bannister era, it's another piece of evidence that Radio One's time as Fab FM was beginning to look limited. All everyone had to do was keep the arguments going, and eventually cracks would appear.

Strange confession time - partly inspired by the "Leeds Station" war, I wrote a letter to the powers-that-be at Radio One asking them to put considerably more effort into their playlists, including a wider range of music. I did also suggest that perhaps they could introduce a phone poll programme where listeners could suggest their favourite current tracks and give an indication of what they wanted to hear most. Pure coincidence I'm sure, but not long afterwards such a show did launch on the station, albeit for a brief period.

11. The Fuzztones - Nine Months Later (Situation Two) - Bonus Track

The Fuzztones are a New York garage revival act, clearly among the many such bands "Indie Top 20" was having a very short-lived love affair with. When you stop to consider the fact that The Inspiral Carpets were beginning to make very serious headway with what sounded like psych-garage revival noises, and other such acts were generating serious IPC press, you have to wonder if some people were hedging their bets not on "Indie-Dance" but a full-blown fuzzed up R&B throwback sound.

Whatever the motivation behind including this, "Nine Months Later" has a fairly mean, almost Animals styled chorus and some neat spiralling guitar and organ work throughout, but is hardly the cream of the revival crop. It's a self-consciously swaggering single, really, and lead singer Rudi Protrudi pulls some very Colin-Gregson-out-Bad-News pouts and poses in the video as if to remind us of the fact.

12. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Mercy Seat (Mute)

13. Wolfgang Press - Raintime (4AD) - Bonus Track

More mean, deep basslines, honking goose-like horns, rattling rhythms and rambling, beatnik vocals -"Raintime" is quite simply Wolfgang Press being themselves very effectively, without smudging or expanding on their existing template.

The group would continue into 1995 enjoying cult success in both the UK and USA, before accepting they had run their course and splintering in different directions.

14. The Sugarcubes - Regina (One Little Indian)

....and once again... this track actually features on the next volume of "Indie Top 20", volume 8. We'll deal with it when we get to that point. 

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Volume 7 Side 4 - The Pastels, Lunachicks, Thee Hypnotics, Danielle Dax, Nick Cave

1. The Pastels - Baby You're Just You (Chapter 22)

"Over five minutes of Love, Pain, Dedication and Guitars, taken from five years of the same."

No matter what else happens or happened in the rest of the music world, The Pastels carried on trucking away, in a manner that some critics and listeners find endearing and others downright infuriating. Back in the late nineties, an NME critic explosively slated their work by arguing that nothing in their world ever changed one jot, "and they still hide behind the sofa when Mr Tuneful Singing rings on their doorbell!"

So it was, and so it shall be. The day The Pastels suddenly release an album of polished rock and roll FM radio numbers will be the day the Planet Earth gets sucked into some peculiar, reality-warping vortex where Morrissey records TV adverts for Burger King and Ellie Goulding refuses to ever make an advert again and instead releases a series of three vinyl-only experimental EDM albums with Boards of Canada. Unsurprisingly, then, "Baby You're Just You" could have easily been released immediately after "Crawl Babies" on Volume Two, and we'd be none the wiser. There's no sense of time having passed or the indie scene having moved around them, and unlike many of their old C86 companions, The Pastels would get away with it and retain their cult following.

"Baby You're Just You" is as maudlin and downbeat as "Crawl Babies", actually, featuring Stephen Pastel's mournful vocals and a funereal organ in the background. Just like the best cult punk records, though, it's fragility and the occasional stumbles it takes are a huge part of its appeal. It's a limping, human record and it sounds lovely, though on a personal level I have to be in the right frame of mind to listen to this one, whereas I can pop "Crawl Babies" on the stereo at any time and get some enjoyment out of it.

2. Lunachicks - Sugar Luv (Blast First)

"Russ Meyer's vision brought to life with guitars in their hands and havoc in their hearts".

Lunachicks were around before Riot Grrrl was a commonly used phrase in the punk underground (and possibly even used at all) much less the mainstream, and while what they produced wasn't particularly politicised and seemed to be much more about sheer punk noise for the hell of it, they're ahead of the pack here in terms of sound.

"Sugar Luv" is, of course, simple, fast, furious, and ridiculous. Sounding like it was pulled together in one take, possibly drunk, it's the sound of music colliding into the furniture and falling over itself until something pokes someone's eye out. Lunachicks were never, ever going to be a mainstream proposition, but the fat, rumbling chaos here sounds amazing for the first five or six listens. It probably helps if you're a teenager, though.

The band have been inactive since 2001.

3. Thee Hypnotics - Preachin' & Ramblin' (Situation Two)

"From the twelve-inch single 'Justice In Freedom', the classic debut on Situation Two, Thee Hypnotics take the righteously charged guitar rock of the late 60s into a new dimension."

What is it with garage revival bands and their insistence on using "Thee" at the start of their names? It is, I suppose, a good signifier at the very least. If a band poster appears in your town with a name like Thee Espadrilles, you know without even having to bother to read further that they're going to be giving you scuzzed up R&B or Rock and Roll through vintage valve amplifiers. If they didn't, explanations would surely be owed and refunds due.

Thee Hypnotics, naturally, never disappointed the world with misleading branding and were a powerful force in reviving ancient rock sounds to a new generation. The A-side "Justice In Freedom" is actually a fine, fine track, but "Preachin' & Ramblin'" isn't so bad either, sounding like a full-on MC5 excursion into bluesy chaos. It's so authentic sounding that you could trick someone who wasn't clued up to the band's work into believing that it was a genuine sixties artefact.

In the case of bands like Thee Hypnotics, there will always be naysayers who argue that they're doing nothing to progress rock music, and that self-consciously mining the past is pointless. However, there's always going to be an audience who just want to hear the overpowering noise of this stuff, and indeed, I would count myself among their number. I don't eat, sleep and breathe this music, but I occasionally appreciate a bit of full-throttle garage rock and roll and words like "revolution" being thrown around as if they're confetti, and Thee Hypnotics are deservedly respected for their output in this area. Chaos seldom sounds this righteous.

4. Danielle Dax - White Knuckle Ride (Awesome)

"White Knuckle Ride was written about the Hungerford massacre, as a vitriolic comment on both that and the Manson murders of the late 60s, highlighting the ludicrous gun laws which allow such events to continue."

It's not as explicit as suggested above, of course. "White Knuckle Ride" actually sounds like swaggering rock and roll surrounded by a few buzzwords on first listen, and caused my father to comment "Oh, delightful" in a sarcastic voice when he first heard it. He saw the video and believed that Danielle Dax was actually using the popular slang (of the time) for masturbation.

There is a suggestive, sexual edge to the track, which I would imagine was supposed to highlight the media glorification of violence; the way the John Wayne figure with the loaded gun is always seen a desirable, Alpha A male figure. Beyond that, its lyrical intent isn't clear - unless you're told - and away from the central message, "White Knuckle Ride" is just Danielle launching herself into a straightforward rock song again, and doing a fantastic job of it. Of all the tracks she released during this era, it sounds the most fully realised. The hammering piano lines and "Peter Gunn" styled horns meet with a killer chorus, and just as you think you're completely immersed in what she's doing, it's all over. (Nearly) three minutes of pop perfection.

This would be Danielle Dax's last single before signing to Sire Records. There she treated the world (at the record company's behest) to her rather tepid version of the Beatles "Tomorrow Never Knows" and probably ending up being marginalised to an even greater extent than when she was issuing material on her own label. You can safely add her to the ever-growing list of mysterious people who signed to major labels who had no idea what to do with them.

5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Deanna (Mute)

"Deanna is a song you can almost imagine coming out loud from a car window. Huge in a raucous 'truly devil-may-care' way - it is one of the best songs of '88".

More chaotic rock and roll, delivered in Nick Cave's inimitable style. Deanna was apparently a girl from Melbourne who Mr Cave was rather keen on, and his obsession explodes all over this song like it's just been confessed for the first time. It forcefully springs from his mouth like some kind of emotional vomiting.

Rather like the previous track, "Deanna" also strikes a strange partnership between sex and death, with many of the lyrics referring to "murder plans" and acts. "I come knocking with my toolbox and my stocking!" declares Nick ferociously, and he probably did as well.

This is equal parts Screaming Lord Sutch's "Jack The Ripper" and "My Sharona" - a driving, demanding chant colliding with something downright dark and wrong. In the end, though, it only ends up sounding like something Nick Cave could have produced.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Volume 7 Side 3 - Dinosaur Jr, Wolfgang Press, The Shamen, Ultra Vivid Scene, Perfect Disaster

1. Dinosaur Jr - Freak Scene (Blast First)

"Err... Yeah, Umm well no I suppose".

Sharp, jagged, and with feedback leaking from its every orifice, "Freak Scene" was an utterly amazing racket to land in the UK indie charts in 1988. Unlike many previous releases by Sonic Youth or Swans or Big Black, this wasn't just a pure adrenalin rush of noise, though - rather, this had some cunning pop craftsmanship in its bones.

Rather like Pixies, Dinosaur Jr clearly had diverse pre-punk record collections, and "Freak Scene" is all the better for it. From that fantastic distorted guitar solo to the key lyric of "Don't let me fuck up will you/ cos when I need a friend it's still you", it's pure goodness, and caused a number of snotty and punk-influenced British bands to quiver in fright at what might now expected of them.

In truth, though, Dinosaur Jr never really did release a better single than this, so their audience never rose much beyond cult level. Had they managed to sustain the sheer head-rush of "Freak Scene" (and actually get along with each other) there's every possibility they'd have been as big as The Pixies.

2. The Wolfgang Press - Kansas (4AD)

"The previously unavailable video mix. A version of Kansas appears on their new LP 'Birdwood Cage'. Surely the best video of the year/ decade".

Well, so far as the video is concerned, at least we now know where Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer got the idea for Action Image Exchange from...

The Wolfgang Press had been active since 1983, and "Kansas" still has fat wobbly streaks of post-punk running through its core, from the staccato Talking Heads styled delivery of the vocals right down to the fat and fruity bassline. Given the way that such musical trends had fallen out of fashion by 1989 only to be forcefully resuscitated halfway through the last decade, elements of the track actually sound surprisingly current.

Despite the fact that "Kansas" is rather unexpectedly and agreeably funky, there's nothing happening here you would feel the urge to phone your friends about. It's nice enough, but that really is it.

3. The Shamen - You Me & Everything (Moksha)

"Adrian Mole on acid".

The last time we bumped into The Shamen, they were breaking new ground with Bam Bam's remix of "Transcendental" on Volume 6. "You Me & Everything" isn't quite a step back, but there's something incredibly treble-heavy about the production and the Acid House squelches feel somewhat tacked on. Whereas "Transcendental" sounded utterly perfect in its remixed form, this feels like a catchy indie chorus in desperate search of some decent House beats which never properly arrive. The guitars in the mix sound very smothered and gratuitous as well, only there to prove that the track definitely had its feet in both the Indie and Dance camps.

I tend to think of "You Me & Everything" as being the last uncertain moment in The Shamen's canon before their output became unbelievably confident and, as we probably said at the time, banging.

4. Ultra Vivid Scene - Mercy Seat (4AD)

"Edited version of the remix! Never before on record. A version of The Mercy Seat appears on their eponymous LP. Ultra Vivid Scene currently undertaking some dates in the US".

Blissed out, fuzzy Velvet Underground and psychedelic influences permeated through Ultra Vivid Scene's records - not unlike a rather more slickly produced Pastels, actually - but "Mercy Seat" is probably one of their most gothic and despondent sounding singles. From the clanging bell of doom which recurs throughout the track like a constant motif, to the lyrics which seem to suggest that death by the electric chair might be one way "to bring a new day", it's not a cheery proposition.

Nonetheless, the track can't help but pull through some beautiful, blissful psych noises out of the bag, and these rescue it from its otherwise faintly pretentious doominess. The ahhing female backing vocals (on the remix), chiming bells and seductive chorus allow it to rise above its unpromising beginnings, and become the usual Ultra Vivid Scene slice of slightly scuzzy prettiness.

The video for the bonafide 7" version even managed to pick up ITV "Chart Show" airplay at the time.

5. The Perfect Disaster - Time To Kill (Fire)

"The Perfect Disaster's album Up includes this single. "Up" is a musical see-saw of emotions. Lyrically, it's a deceptively simple new draft of the existentialist's handbook but rhythmically it's a filthy, swarming slab of rock 'n' roll fury. Raw power".

Indeed, with its distorted and twangy riffs, angry buzzing basslines, and drawled vocals, this is Rock and Roll in the very traditional sense of the word. A garage production and ballsy, bluesy feel predominates here, and unlike a great many other artists producing work of this nature at the time, this slouches along in an assured yet slow and lazy way.

Perfect Disaster had been around on the indie scene since 1984, and rather like The Wolfgang Press were generally regarded as being stalwarts at around this point. Their last LP "Heaven Scent" was only one year away, so by the time the Indie Top 20 series got around to covering them, they were near the end of the road.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Volume 7 Side 2 - Oyster Band, Men They Couldn't Hang, Man From Delmonte, Inspiral Carpets, Wolfhounds

1. Oyster Band - Polish Plain (Cooking Vinyl)

"It's Fab!!!"

Good God, The Oyster Band, you're not quite The Pixies or The Stone Roses... such minimal sleevenotes will do you little favours at this stage.

Still, "Polish Plain" is actually one of the better slices of the late eighties folk-rock revival. On one occasion while I was playing it, my wife walked in and asked if it was an American college radio track from the same period, or possibly even REM. It's not, but the guitar lines and some of the vocals do recall eighties alt-pop from the period, though the cat-gut being scraped and skriddled so effectively towards the end screams "Folk on Radio Two". In other words, this is a very neat crossover single indeed, and one which brought folk music to the attention of larger audiences.

It's also a far cry from the bands origins as Canterbury based chartbusters releasing "Daytrip to Bangor", and a damn sight less irritating. "Polish Plain" is rich with both energy and atmosphere, and conclusively proved that modern British folk music had plenty of life left in it beyond its seventies heyday.

2. The Men They Couldn't Hang - Rain, Steam, Speed (Silvertone)

"These guys are good, and if you think they only do Pogues impressions The Men They Couldn't Hang offer far, far more than that" Time Out - 1st March 1989

... and further proof, if proof were needed, comes in the form of track two. The Men They Couldn't Hang were at the point of being considered folk-punk stalwarts at this point, their excellent debut release "The Green Fields of France" having had considerable exposure (and a number one indie chart position) in 1984.

"Rain, Steam, Speed" is nothing like as maudlin as that World War One tribute, however, being a pounding, beating track about Isambard Brunel's often ill-fated railway construction workers. The final verse makes the message utterly clear: "Soon they'll build a tunnel under England through to France/ Will it make the tide run quicker? Will the flow of trade advance?/ Underneath the ocean there is limestone, chalk and sand/ But coming up through the virgin rock will be a human hand". It's a brilliant and incredibly well written track about the industrial revolution and - much like "Green Fields of France" - the exploitation of humans for the benefit of others.

The Men They Couldn't Hang remain active today, but we won't be encountering them on "Indie Top 20" again.

3. The Man From Delmonte - "My Love Is Like A Gift You Can't Return" (Bop Cassettes)

"It's Morrissey in short trousers; it's Anthony Newley behind the bike sheds; and it's that nutter off Playaway making a bid for indie fame....."

Infamously managed by a pre-success Jon Ronson (who also directed the video below) The Man From Delmonte were actually a Manchester band with their heads firmly in the indiepop era - no electric organs, funky drummer beats or ecstacy tablets for these chaps, thank you, they were happy enough to tend their catchy sixties melodies instead. Fronted by the effervescent Mike West, who was the son of Australian author Morris West, they oozed a carefree uncool which was as thrilling to some indie pop-pickers as it was alienating to others.

"My Love Is Like A Gift" is a goldmine of catchiness from start to finish, cramming in so many melodic and lyrical hooks that it edges closer towards Herman's Hermits than more credible sixties influences. For all that, it's a fine single, and while it was never going to reverse the emerging trends of the time or storm the National Charts, it was going to offer listeners missing the incessant melodic chirpiness of the likes of The Housemartins something to enjoy.

Hilariously, The Man From Delmonte's output was indeed regularly inspected by staff at the food company Delmonte to ensure that it did not tarnish the reputation of the brand. The group were never asked to cease and desist, which can only mean that The Man From Delmonte said "yes" to The Man From Delmonte.

4. Inspiral Carpets: Joe (Cow)

"Inspiral Carpets third single, and first for their own Cow label; went straight into the Indie Charts at number one: Cool as F**k!"

It's worth noting that this is also the first Inspiral Carpets single with Tom Hingley on lead vocals, and expanded significantly on the group's popularity.

"Joe" is a significant step up. The opening funky drum rhythms are the first obvious concession that the group were making towards baggydelic trends, but the rest of the track is actually quite overblown psychedelia with Clint Boon's keyboard work stuck right at the forefront. With its disorientating, giddy merry-go-round organ riff, screeching and almost improvised sounding organ work and Hingley's impassioned ranting about a Manchester tramp, it's actually a very strange single to become so massive (even in an indie sense of the word) in 1989. And huge it was, emerging as the number one best-selling single on the year-end indie chart (ahead of The Roses, The Happy Mondays, The Pixies and others besides).

Still, the thundering and driving bassline and funky rhythm patterns give the track incredibly solid foundations to build on, and it remains a compelling listen to this day. The Inspiral Carpets would release increasingly conventional songs as their career progressed, and become fairly serious contenders in the mainstream charts right up until their split in 1995.

5. The Wolfhounds - Happy Shopper (Midnight Music)

"An innocuous pop song with obnoxious anti-consumerist lyrics. Not actually about the cheap food chain, but their lawyers seemed to think so".

Indeed. The Happy Shopper chain had form for being quite threatening towards indie bands who appeared to be mildly dismissive of their products. Foreheads In A Fishtank released their own single "Happy Shopper" around the same time, which also attracted legal attention - though to be fair, that particular single did also involve the lead singer screaming "Oh God! Who BOUGHT THESE BISCUITS?" so you could see their point of view.

The Wolfhounds aren't quite so ridiculous or provocative. Their "Happy Shopper" is, as stated, a very simple and brief anti-consumerist statement, which is disappointing by the band's usual standards. It's less than two and a half minutes of distorted guitars and lyrics stating the obvious about capitalism and fashion. It's enjoyable enough, but sounds like a B-side or a demo rather than a fully fledged single. Never mind Happy Shopper, the Man From Delmonte's nose might have turned if they'd managed to drag him into the argument.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 7 Side One - Pixies, Stone Roses, They Might Be Giants, Wire, Throwing Muses

Format: Double LP/ Cassette/ CD
Year of Release: 1989

If Volume 6 seemed scattershot and chaotic in its all-encompassing journey through indieland, Volume 7 doesn't really do much to restore order - but then again, why should it? The notion that the Indie Charts had predominant trends at certain times in its lifespan is true, but the shoegazing moment had its crusty scene running alongside it, the Britpop movement its Trip Hop, and the baggy/ Madchester movement had grunge alongside it (or at least the most successful howls of American alternative rock and punk as it bled straight into grunge).

There's a dominant myth that's been doing the rounds for decades now that Grunge emerged out of the shadows like some kind of murderer in the night and killed off the indie-dance heroes in British society. It's a myth I've probably privately contributed to many conversations myself, purely because it's such a convenient narrative. In reality, the late eighties and early nineties were an incredibly tolerant, diverse time for music, a time when you could go to your local alternative nightclub, sip on an overpriced pint of something truly objectionable, and listen to artists as diverse as The Stone Roses, Sly and the Family Stone, The Aphex Twin and Mudhoney. I should know, because I was there. It's only really when The Stone Roses went on a long, extended hiatus and The Happy Mondays lost the plot that things changed and the focus narrowed. Nirvana hitting the British music scene like a plaid rucksack filled with bricks at a time when not much else was going on inevitably had a significant impact.

But that's for us to think about later. For now, we're about to enter one of the most diverse, fascinating and occasionally perplexing eras in British alternative music. A time when anything went, but also indie music started to sell in quantities high enough for there to begin to be a noticeable mainstream impact. The videos got slicker, the production got better, the marketing more advanced... and far be it for me to court controversy by suggesting that the monstrous sales of Dance twelve inch singles and Stock Aitken and Waterman records may have given distributors a shot in the arm, it probably is the truth.

1. Pixies - Monkey Gone To Heaven (4AD)

"What more can be said about the Pixies". 

A highly apt liner note that remains a good point to this day.

With a mighty crash of five opening notes, "Monkey Gone To Heaven" heralds the moment when Pixies became a huge deal in the UK. The year before, "Gigantic" had been a massive track in the alternative clubs and even reached Number 90 in the national charts, but "Monkey" was truly inescapable in certain circles. The gloomy black and white promo video dominated the Chart Show indie chart for months, and Frank Black's world finally met with the public at large... a world of UFOs, surfing, Christianity, South America, and whatever else his brain was hoovering up at any given time.

"Monkey Gone To Heaven" still sounds extraordinary, and it remains perplexing that Ivo Watts nearly  turned the band down for being "too normal". Compared to many 4AD signings they may have admittedly been less ethereal or atmospheric, but where the very worst of those acts sounded little better than Clannad fans performing in a backyard shed, Pixies took rock and roll to some unpredictable places. While "Monkey Gone To Heaven" is supposed to be an environmental protest song (with various chunks of religious imagery seeping in along the way) the lyrics are so stripped back and scattershot that it could be dismissed as nonsense. Yet when Frank Black brilliantly howls "If the devil is six... then GOD IS SEVEN!" it could also be taken straight from a Black Sabbath LP, so trad is the idea.

Pixies ripped, clawed and tore at the fabric of rock music and the culture that surrounded them, and sounded so fresh and yet so familiar when they arrived that it was powerful beyond measure, like Proper Rock music distorted through exhausted dream sleep. Their blend of cultural influences and references could have turned out naive and messy, but there's a masterful control taking place in their work at an enviably early point. While we may have casually regarded them as American eccentrics at the time, their approach slowly became absorbed by other more successful acts from their home country... not least the quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic being applied to the verse/chorus structure, and the belief that early seventies hard rock wasn't an embarrassing corner of music history to be pilfering from.

And let's not ignore the fact that Kim Deal's basslines, which always sound as if they're being played with the thickest plectrum in the world, also added a huge amount to their sound.

2. The Stone Roses - Made Of Stone (Silvertone)

"Let's call them The Stones - no-one will get confused" - Sounds - 15th July 1989

It's very, very telling that the liner notes for both Pixies and The Stone Roses are tremendously half-arsed, almost as if everyone involved knew there was no point in expanding on the pre-existing narrative.

But let's not get too carried away here. That liner note may conveniently fit the idea that The Stone Roses were universally adored from the moment "Sally Cinnamon" first fell into the world, but it's not how I remember things at all. Rather, it seemed suspiciously as if the comparison the Sounds journalist was making to The Rolling Stones had been taken out of jokey context to prove a point the band wanted to make.

The simple truth is that while The Stone Roses and their manager Gareth Evans were keen to tell anyone that they were the most important group in Britain (if not the world) surprisingly few people believed them initially. Record Mirror ridiculed the entire situation by referring to their much-reported Manchester gig attendance figures and stating "Manchester City get more people in, and we're not putting them on our front cover either". The NME gave the debut LP 7 out of 10 and almost (but not quite) dismissed it as a nice enough psychedelic pop pastiche. Much history has been rewritten around The Stone Roses since because music journalists were caught with their trousers down - many still had all their money riding on The House of Love as being alternative rock's next big dominant force. The Roses seemed like a parochial, retro irrelevance, and who needed John Squire as a guitar hero when you could have Terry Bickers? (Though to be fair, both can be astonishing guitarists in very different ways).

That's not to say that "Made Of Stone" wasn't viewed as an exceptionally good single by most, but perhaps it's not really been given enough credit even since for its relative richness and complexity. Starting with a truly beautiful interwoven guitar and bass line, Ian Brown's hushed vocals then enter and begin singing what appears to be a surreal, lyrically drifting ballad about the righteous death of a wealthy scoundrel.

I'm possibly stretching comparisons to breaking point by saying this, but if you spin back to Volume Four of "Indie Top 20" and listen to Wire's "Kidney Bingos", there are clear and unacknowledged parallels in the approach, from the delicate prettiness of the interwoven guitar and basslines to the soft, surreal and yet actually very political lyrics, followed by a unifying anthemic chorus. The over-arching concept of The Stone Roses debut album was the 1968 French student riots, from the sleeve right through to many of the contents, seemingly wishing that similar values would transport themselves into a Thatcherite 1989. Wire's "A Bell is A Cup Until It Is Struck" was similarly very agitated and dystopian in a similarly blissed and calm way. It's highly doubtful the two bands ever even listened to each other, much less took influence from each other, but the fact that parallels can be drawn gives a significant hint towards the dominant mood of the times. The Poll Tax riots were just around the corner, ecstasy was everywhere, and among the youth of the country there was a significant kickback, a sense once again that the times could be changed and certain forces could be overthrown.

Of course, The Stone Roses may have been lyrically oblique, but they were still less lyrically baffling than Wire. Even with one listen of "Made Of Stone", it's possible to hear that it's clearly a song with a revolutionary darkness at its heart. "I'm standing warm against the cold/ now that the flames have taken hold/ at least you left your life in style" brings to mind a Porsche in flames in a riot-strewn Manchester street, and an unprivileged Ian Brown toasting marshmallows on the funeral pyre of a millionaire.

The chorus is so anthemic against this comparative menace that it did cause a few of the band's critics to take shot. John Peel sneered on his 1989 Festive Fifty countdown "Well, I can see that's got a certain sing-a-long factor..." Like many, he refused to do a u-turn on his original dismissive approach to the group, but I insist... they weren't just some kind of retro rock band.  They plucked a wide array of influences from the family tree of rock music before coming up with something engagingly different and relevant. They may have obtained the services of John Leckie as a producer for the album, knowing that his work on XTC's "Dukes of Stratosphear" was authentic psychedelic pop, but not a single track on "The Stone Roses" sounds exactly like an equivalent piece of 1967 era music.

Critics might argue, of course, that "Made Of Stone" does sound a bit like Primal Scream's "Velocity Girl", and I'll pass on discussing that one.

It's also tempting to pass on discussing the fact that the national chart peak of "Made Of Stone" on its first release was number 90. It hung around the indie top ten seemingly forever, of course, notching up a slow trickle of sales across the entire year, but the band were not big players in any sense. Time, a more sympathetic press, and the power of word of mouth would all work in their favour very, very soon, until the dam very suddenly broke.

3. They Might Be Giants - Ana Ng (One Little Indian)

"Ng is one of the most common Vietnamese names in the New York telephone directory - that's where the name came from. The song, however, is a love poem to an imaginary woman on the opposite side of the globe. It was the Number 1 college radio song in the USA; displacing U2. The video was a big MTV hit. The LP has sold over 200,000 copies in the US".

Clang, cla-clang, clang... ca clang clang, clang clang.... Ana Ng announces itself like a piece of music being played by a stammering robot trying to negotiate its way around an electric guitar. Of all the singles released by They Might Be Giants, it's probably one of the more accessible despite its quirkiness, taking a fairly complex lyrical conceit and peppering it with some very sharp, emotionally resonant observations, with lines like "I don't want the world - I just want your half" punctuating the clever-dickery of the "everything sticks like a broken record" gag.

There's an overwhelming sense that the single isn't as smart as it wants to be, though, and the band spend more time on attempted profundities than they do on the arrangement. By the time the track is due to close, the constant, nagging repetition of the chorus sounds uncomfortably like an idea without a firm conclusion.

4. Wire - Eardrum Buzz (Mute)

"Wire are criminally undersung - Eardrum Buzz is another of Wire's Hole-In-One, Inch-Perfect singles. A product of sheer draughtsmanship in the tradition of "Dot Dash", "I Am The Fly" and "Map Reference". If Wire weren't so good at this, they might have had a hit by now. But no matter". - Melody Maker

And if "Eardrum Buzz" couldn't become a hit single, you had to wonder what on earth Wire could produce that would be. Of course, it wasn't.

Alongside "Outdoor Miner", it represented the closest they came in their careers, though. Enjoying television and radio airtime, "Eardrum Buzz" was essentially jagged but excessively catchy synth-pop styled through the band's well-developed art-punk approach. Much more unashamedly Pop than anything they had issued prior to this point, it's polished and scrubbed within an inch of its life.

"Eardrum Buzz" is the Wire single a lot of Wire fans pretend to dislike or disapprove of. Subtlety isn't its strong suit. Rather than gently weaving its way into your brain, it approaches with a sledgehammer and demands squatter's rights. The lyrics are also almost sub-sixties psychedelia in their infantilism, with the chorus of "Zee zee zee zum zum/ buzz buzz buzz in the eardrum" dropping things down to almost "Fee fi fo fum" levels.

For all that, however, it's a burst of sunshine and a total joy. Had it been a huge hit, its ubiquity may have become trying; on the cultish lower-reaches-of-the-Top-75 status it managed, however, it's a private pleasure and nothing at all like a guilty one. And hey, it was still a bigger hit than The Stone Roses "Made Of Stone"...

5. Throwing Muses - Dizzy (4AD)

"Dizzy was released as a double A side single along with "Santa Claus" in March 1989. It is also to be found on the group's third full-length album Hunkpapa".

When we last encountered Throwing Muses on Volume Three, the noise was akin to an antagonised, hysterical racket in a rural henhouse. By comparison, "Dizzy" was a shock, another song from an unlikely source that sounded like it wanted to be a hit. While the verses combine flashes of poetic travelling imagery and almost crash into chaos, the chorus is pure late sixties/ early seventies Americana pop. It's hardly Lobo's "Me And You And A Dog Named Boo" - in fact, it may still be millions of miles away from that - but it's not impossible to reimagine "Dizzy" as a huge, overproduced stadium hit from another era.

It still remains one of the key tracks people most readily associate with Throwing Muses to this day, and while it may have just dropped short of getting mainstream attention, there's no reason why it shouldn't have achieved it.