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.