Sunday, 30 July 2017

Volume 19 Side One - Tracks 1-5 - Inspiral Carpets, Carter USM, Blur, The Charlatans, Radiohead

Formats: CD/ Cassette
Year of Release: 1994

Volume 19 is a somewhat odd entry in the "Indie Top 20" canon, in that it's the first one where you get a sense that neither Tim Millington (the compiler) or Beechwood Music (the label) understood the direction alternative music was going in. It fails to introduce one new act who would even go on to achieve cult significance, never mind anything else. If you wanted to be charitable you could offer the space afforded to Radiohead as an example of the series being ahead of the curve, but the 1993 reissue of "Creep" really doesn't count. The group had already been signed to EMI for some time, had a hit in America, and released their debut album by this point.

That's not to say that this is a bad compilation, and certainly the front end of it is stuffed with all kinds of goodies. It's just that 1994 was the year of Britpop emerging as a force for either good or ill, depending on your point of view, and the first "Indie Top 20" LP of the year completely failed to grasp or understand the change in the prevailing winds. Even at the time, this seemed like an odd release, and a sign that perhaps the series wouldn't be with us for much longer.

1. Inspiral Carpets - Saturn 5 (Mute)

When the teacher asked the boys and girls in my class "What do you want to do when you grow up?" I never hesitated to answer. "Astronaut", I replied. Then again, so did the boy sat next to me, Neil. And the curly-haired pompous voiced little boy Michael, an absurdly tall only child who knew everything about space, much more than the rest of us, and even had more books than us on the subject, actually. (When I imagine Michael now, he's wearing tweed and smoking a pipe, and looks about 65. He's also constantly on social media putting other people straight). The rest of the boys all wanted to be astronauts too. None of us had an original career in our brains. But why should we have? What else would you have wanted to be?

"Well, who knows what the future might bring?" my teacher replied sceptically, but we all knew. The future was space. We'd all either be visiting there or living out there, commuting to the moon and Mars and back in home for tea. I drew the Saturn 5 spaceship obsessively in my art book, perfecting its outlines, dreaming that one day I would travel on such a thing.

"David, Saturn 5 doesn't look like that!" Michael objected just loudly enough that the teacher could hear. I always drew Saturn 5 to look much more futuristic than it really was. Looking at Google images now, I can see it's a fairly typical looking rocket, but I drew it wider and flatter looking, like some kind of elongated metal flatfish. Who put that idea in my head? Who knows? I was only six. Still though, when I imagine "Saturn 5" now, I imagine my doodled representation of it rather than the rocket as it actually looked.

At that point in time, there were songs about the future and space on the radio, and they all sounded metallic, chromatic and faintly foreboding. Synthesisers and drum machines were usually at the forefront. We had all our eyes on the horizon towards a jet pack future. Fast forward to 1994, and I'm trying to become an adult, and suddenly The Inspiral Carpets were writing songs about the very spaceship that had fascinated me as a small boy. The Inspiral Carpets. A band with squeaky sixties electric organs and decidedly retro leanings. Being excited about the future had become a thing of the past, a fond memory in itself. Futurism was now nostalgia. "Eee, do you remember the days when we all thought the near future would be a lot more technologically advanced than it's turned out to be?"

"There's a popular misconception, says we haven't seen anything yet" sings Tom Hingley on this single, and it's clear that while there's a simple pop bounciness to it, it's infused with the feeling that the future we all dreamed for ourselves never quite materialised. "Monochrome TV, all the things that you ever represented to me/ take me once more, take me to heaven again".

I don't want to overanalyse "Saturn 5" too much. It is, at its heart, a very simple indie pop single, and I bet most people are able to appreciate it as such. By talking about it in such a tone, I run the risk of making myself sound ridiculous. When the group's brilliant drummer Craig Gill died last year, an online campaign was set up to get it back in the charts again, which I can only imagine was because it was seen as being one of the group's most accessible and uplifting songs ("This Is How It Feels" would have felt horribly inappropriate). It re-entered the Top 50, spending one week at number 48 in sympathy.

Trouble is, when others hear "Saturn 5" I think they just hear a sixties obsessed group of Oldham lads singing an uplifting Monkees-esque pop song about outer space. Fair enough, as that's undoubtedly correct. But I don't hear that. I hear something a bit hollow, something that at its heart feels that wondrous human achievements are a thing of the past, and from now on the biggest thing the human race can hope for is keep what we've got as intact as possible. From this point forth, if we're going to sing about a future in outer space we'll have two choices open to us - turn the vocoders and doomy synth pre-sets on ironically, or pound on Jetsons electric organs while singing "Woo-hoo-hoo" backing vocals.

"Saturn 5", then. It's not as depressing as "This Is How It Feels", but for some reason it does make me feel a hell of a lot more despondent.

It reached number twenty on its debut release in 1994, ensuring the group had a lifespan far beyond the baggy years, though regrettably "Devil Hopping" would turn out to be their last album.

2. Carter USM - Glam Rock Cops (Chrysalis)

Carter's fortunes, meanwhile, continued to decline. "Glam Rock Cops" is probably one of the duo's most recognised and appreciated singles, but was in itself a callback to former glories. The leaden glam rock beat pinned to the foundations of this single sounded strangely similar to the one used on "Bloodsport For All", one of their big breakthrough moments.

Lyrically, the track veers all over the road from the personal to the political, talking about South London street muggings to the group's own strange role in the music business. "You took it all from me/ My cheque book, my wallet/ my pride and dignity" rants Jim Bob one minute, before later observing "They put me in the spotlight, tied me to the stage/ the only thing I got right was to lie about my age".  So if there's a key theme running through the single at all, dignity seems to be it. Undignified street robberies, a government mugging the public by taking more public services away from them, and a possible confession that Jim Bob and Fruitbat were starting to feel a bit irrelevant as thirty-something pop stars. It's tied together very loosely as an argument about how doomed authentic political commentary in rock music is (or at least, I think that's the the common strand they're trying to wrap everything up with). Nobody's listening because nobody cares, and nobody cares because nobody else is listening anyway. It feels a tiny bit clumsy, though, and once again I find myself wishing the group had left themselves out of the argument.

Still, "Glam Rock Cops" is probably the last single in their canon to really sound like a possible hit, having a demanding keyboard clarion call and a defiant stride to its chorus, and a solid trucker's beat behind it. And it was indeed their last top thirty hit, reaching number 24. Times were changing, and Carter would have no real part to play in the new media vision.

3. Blur - Sunday Sunday (Food/ EMI)

And here the new boys are, bang on cue. The trouble is, "Sunday Sunday" is frequently taken at face value as some kind of Jamie Oliver styled roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding knees-up. The printed subtitle the track was given perhaps should have been underlined in red biro: "Legislated nostalgia - to force a body of people to have memories they do not actually possess".

As a single in its own right, "Sunday Sunday" isn't one of Blur's finest. It's an oompah ridden frolic and skip through an imaginary English Sunday landscape, doffing its cap to the ladies as it passes. As a statement, on the other hand, it's a very stinging pisstake, and worryingly prophetic in the way it highlights the ridiculous lengths mainstream British society (or perhaps more accurately, the media) will go to to glamourise and falsify its traditions, past and role in the world. "You meet an old soldier and talk of the past" sings Albarn proudly "He fought for us in two world wars/ And says the England he knew is no more". Remind you of anything you've read recently?

Having Blur rub up against Carter USM on this compilation starkly highlights the differing approach to politics and social commentary the old indie guard and the new Britpop heroes had. The scruffy, glamour-free authentic bunch of old took the angle of "Everything is wrong, and we're going to tell you exactly why with some witty rhyming couplets". Blur and their ilk took a more subtle approach, and you could argue that it was so subtle it went straight over the heads of at least half their  audience (you shouldn't doubt the fact that plenty of people in Blur's home county of Essex did take "Sunday Sunday" very literally, because I had petty arguments with them about it).

Is that irresponsible? Were Blur having their cake and eating it, appealing to future UKIP supporters and knowing students in the same breath? While it certainly didn't hurt them commercially in the long run, you can only consider their approach irresponsible if you also level that charge at every art-school band from the early sixties onwards (including The Beatles), most of whom also had their moments of being less than opaque and choosing to weave interesting narratives rather than issue dictums. For my taste, "Sunday Sunday" is a lot more cunning, biting and subversive than "Glam Rock Cops", even if it's not a Blur track I return to very often.

(Incidentally, Andy Partridge of XTC was the initial producer for "Modern Life Is Rubbish", and I've often wondered whether the Colin Moulding penned "Washaway" was an inspiration for "Sunday Sunday". It takes a very similar lyrical tack).

4. The Charlatans - Can't Get Out Of Bed (Beggars Banquet)

The Charlatans had been absent from the "Indie Top 20" series for some time by this point, last being seen on Volume 12 with "Happen To Die". I suspect that Beechwood felt that the group were rapidly becoming irrelevant, and didn't feel the need to give them space during their "wilderness years" (these things are relative, though - The Charlatans still remained reasonably popular during their post-baggy/ pre-Britpop slump years).

Of all the groups to adapt to changing styles, The Charlatans possibly had the easiest ride, and emerged more popular than ever. There always was a swaggering mod groove to their most popular singles, and an identifiable attitude. "Can't Get Out Of Bed" emphasises this, having a beery, pounding Faces styled groove at its foundations. Gone were the old-school Charlatans rhumba rhythms, and in their place was music to thrust your hips to.

To my ears, this is less interesting than "Then" or "Over-Rising", killing off any atmosphere or curious psychedelia for a bit of a stomp down the Marquee. Still, it saved the band's bacon, and ensured they survived as a force where most other groups of their era fell.

5. Radiohead - Creep (Parlophone)

I'm almost tempted to pass on this one. "Creep" has become such an iconic single now, and Radiohead such a colossus of a band, that attempting to pass any kind of pithy comment on it or them is doomed to failure. For a start, it's a huge red herring in the group's catalogue, a piece of lovelorn angst penned by a very young Thom Yorke about a woman he went to university with. No wonder he's faintly embarrassed by it now. Everything I've written along those lines is kept well away from public view (on the down side, nothing I wrote back then set me up for a long creative career).

Also, while Radiohead's reputation as being one of the era's most innovative and forward-thinking groups is seldom questioned, "Creep" did beg and borrow as shamelessly as Elastica. Leaning on elements of The Hollies "The Air That I Breathe" so much that the group were later forced to credit (and reward) that track's authors Hammond and Hazlewood, it's not a work of enormous originality. Even the clattering guitar lines were later revealed to be a studio accident.

What "Creep" did do, however, was provide an anthem for awkward youths and misfits everywhere. While the point may be skated around now, there's no doubt that it sold in the US to huge volumes of grunge kids, leading many of us (me included) to suspect that the group were no more than a passing angsty storm. Most of Radiohead's singles from this period were contorted, irritated balls of disgust, recalling Howard Devoto at his most direct as well as the likes of Cobain at their most incendiary. Only the US mix of "Stop Whispering", with its scaling, epic arrangement, pointed towards something more intricate, developed and astonishing around the corner.

"Creep" does serve its purpose bloody well, however - listening back to it now, trying to think about the first time I heard it, I feel just as uncomfortable as I did then. Unlike most of Radiohead's other material, it's piercingly direct. Yorke was a decidedly awkward looking rock star in 1993, and you felt and believed every word of the track primarily because he was delivering it. It also acted as a necessary development for the group. Prior to "Creep", Yorke appeared in press photos looking defensive and out of place, like a sulky, scolded geek. By the time it was released, he was regarded in a different light, and his role as a thwarted outsider rock star emerged (let's stop short of using the word "tortured" shall we, or I'll really have to jump out of the window in shame).

Problematically, I later ended up meeting a friend of the woman the track was directed at, and got to hear about the basis for the song - since then, I've never been able to listen to it without it being reminded of a series of adolescent soap opera anecdotes. Still, erasing those thought processes from my brain as best I can, it's hard to hear "Creep" as being anything other than the ultimate loser's anthem. The early nineties weren't short of those, but this towered above them all with an enormous, weighty crown on its head.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Volume 18 Side 4 - Swervedriver, Salad, Cranes, Family Cat, Chumbawamba, Credit To The Nation

1. Swervedriver - Duel (Creation)

While a lot of the initial buzz surrounding Swervedriver was starting to die down by this point, they managed to retain a lot of affection on the live circuit, and were even managing to gain cult status in the USA - an unusual feat for a lot of British bands at this point.

"Duel" sticks to their usual format of stoned, chugging rock and roll riffola until suddenly, a rampslide into a bright, breezy, sunny pasture emerges in the form of the chorus, which manages to combine the rock raunchiness of Hendrix with the jingle jangle morning of The Byrds. It's an interesting and strangely beautiful single, but not one that was ever likely to result in the band progressing any further. It was the last single of theirs to chart within the UK Top 75, and from this point forward they would slowly slide from view.

Their American audience held them in good stead, though, and ensured that their final LP "99th Dream" was released on New York's Zero Hour Records after Creation Records lost interest. 

They recently reformed in 2015.

2. Salad - Kent (Waldorf)

Few bands got as frosty reception when they emerged as Salad. If there was one over-riding golden rule of the early nineties indie circuit, it was that rich kids and celebrities fronting groups should not be tolerated. Performing alternative rock was, after all, a serious business with artistic integrity and an outsider status at its forefront, not anything glamorous. Heaven forfend. 

Marijne Van Der Vlugt of Salad, then, was an MTV Video Jock and a model, who had experienced some considerable success at the latter job and remained very visible as the former. Well heeled and incredibly striking looking, she seemed as if she more rightfully belonged in Vogue magazine as opposed to having her music played on evening Radio One. Salad really seemed like a successful person's dalliance or hobby at first, not something with any long-term viability. 

It didn't help that their early singles were not actually particularly great. Those aren't my words, either, they're the words of their press officer who phoned me at home in an attempt to drag me out to review one of their mid-nineties gigs. "Honestly, they're amazing now," I was reassured. "I know they used to be shit, but they've really developed". (And reader, I went to see them live and they were indeed fantastic, but I've never had such a strange phone call from a press person since).

"Kent", issued on their own Waldorf label, is a scratchy, basic sounding little single which shows the band had nailed their sound effectively by this point - Marijne's bluesy, teasing, taunting vocals are in place, as is the angular riffage - but it sounds like an early demo from a band who haven't quite got around to writing any significant songs yet. The rhythm section in particular seems a bit clubfooted here, and there's an awkwardness to the group which would dissipate quite rapidly. For now, though, this is merely an OK moment. 

3. Cranes - Everywhere (Dedicated)

Dedicated and Beechwood both managed to mess up here, listing the Cranes track "Jewel" on the tracklisting of the LP, while including "Everywhere" instead. So far as I'm aware, this mistake wasn't remedied on any future pressings, so I'm treating "Everywhere" as the official selection.

Whereas most Cranes tracks have an unsettling and uncomfortable air, "Everywhere" is altogether happier in its skin, though these things are all relative. Hanging its lot on a simple acoustic chord progression and Alison Shaw's hushed but strangely child-like vocals, it's otherworldly without utilising the kind of doomy, thundering chords the group often enjoyed. This track therefore dodges the sound that might have had small children running out of Our Price screaming in fear, but doesn't really sound any more "ordinary" for it - it still sounds quite unlike anything else being issued at this point. 

4. Family Cat - Airplane Gardens (Dedicated)

Meanwhile, Crane's labelmates The Family Cat continued to plough their own particular cultish furrow, though with "Airplane Gardens" they may actually have produced one of their finest moments. Starting with a two-note keyboard riff then gradually progressing into a monstrous, epic chorus, it sounds exactly like the group they wanted to become. Gone are the rough edges, but also gone are the kind of trucker's key changes and banner-waving Rock School excesses of "Steamroller". 

Instead, there's a Julian Cope-esque air to this one, a righteous fury (though about what it's hard to say) and a slightly mystical feel. When I first bought this compilation, I surprised myself by continually playing this, long after I'd tired of many of the other tracks.

It also marked a slight turning point in The Family Cat's attitude, as they became slightly more savage and openly political in the press. One of their future singles "Goldenbook" had a B-side entitled "Bring Me The Head Of Michael Portillo", and they took adverts out in the music press consisting of nothing but the title of that track and a telephone number people could ring. If you phoned the line, you heard a voice softly telling you "He's so arrogant, get rid of him", followed by the coo-ed vocal line "You won't lose much sleep tonight". 

The Family Cat were finally moving on from being an archetypal spit and sawdust indie group and visiting some dark and interesting places. In time, it would almost bring them success - their final two singles only narrowly missed the UK Top 40 - but in BMG's opinion, that was probably too little, too late, and they ceased activities in 1994. 

5. Chumbawamba & Credit To The Nation - Enough Is Enough (One Little Indian)

At the time, this was the political anthem in studentville and indieland. 1993 was a bleak year for British politics, with a weak Conservative Government, the BNP gaining popularity and racist attacks regularly occurring around East London and other areas. (Well, at least we don't have the BNP on the rise at the moment, I suppose... small mercies).

Chumbawamba had at this point spent a long period as political agitators, releasing records with titles as telling as "Smash Clause 28" and "Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records". They were never subtle, but many of their records had an undercurrent of commerciality - the concept of becoming Crass and making a din to back up the ferocity of their political leanings often didn't seem as appealing to them as journeying back to the folksong traditions of coherent narratives and memorable choruses. Their live shows were also often utterly lacking in subtlety, with costume changes, cheap backdrops and call and response interplay with the audience making the affairs seem a bit like a left-leaning student drama society pantomime. However, they got their radical messages across to a surprisingly large audience. 

Over in the other corner for this single sat Credit To The Nation, ostensibly Matty Hanson aka MC Fusion working under a group name. His debut single "Call It What You Want" had sampled Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and caused thousands of plaid shirt wearing teens up and down the country to go racing towards the dancefloor, only to groan and sit back down again when they realised it was "That bloody Hip Hop record" (I never tired of laughing at this). Credit To The Nation burst on to music scene with cries of "unity!" and asked for greater tolerance between black and white people - steadily, though, their political message became sharper and more targeted, and Hanson eventually lost favour with the NME when he (quite reasonably) suggested in a rival publication that their selection criteria for interviews and articles in the magazine could be considered racist. (It's pretty clear that, even to this day, the NME don't really seem to have anything we could refer to as a "diversity agenda". There again, they barely seem to have much of a music-orientated agenda at the moment).

"Enough Is Enough" should have been an enormous meeting of minds, and was obviously regarded as being so at the time. It was the number one track in John Peel's 1993 Festive Fifty, and was played endlessly in alternative or indie clubs - but there's something a bit tepid sounding about it these days. The "Give the fascist man a gunshot" lines feel weak and crowbarred in, and the central chorus is arguably one of the weakest slogans Chumbawamba ever came up with ("Open your eyes, time to wake up/ Enough is enough is enough is enough" doesn't really say anything at all. We all know what it means and what it's referring to, of course, but it's not exactly something you'd feel inspired to daub on a protest banner).

There's a sense that we sorely needed a political anthem in 1993. Britain felt somewhat grey, broke and locked in stasis, and the only people getting any joy out of it seemed to be the knuckle draggers thriving on the ill-feeling. Very few people stepped forward to make the necessary noise, however, and I can't help but feel that we clutched "Enough Is Enough" to our bosoms because it was the best candidate on offer. For all its popularity at the time, though, it's surely an unusual example of a  Festive Fifty number one hardly anybody plays anymore. 

I prefer "Liar Liar" by Captain Ska meself - though that's not especially great either. 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Volume 18 Side 3 - Boo Radleys, Delicious Monster, Chapterhouse, Curve, Sugar

1. Boo Radleys - Wish I Was Skinny (Creation)

It's been discussed surprisingly infrequently since, but The Boo Radleys' "Giant Steps" was a monstrously critically acclaimed album in 1993, sometimes seeming to be spoken about in the same breath as the work of Brian Wilson or Miles Davis. From apparently nowhere, the Do Badlys had risen in stature to become Gods of slightly experimental indie rock.

As I've mentioned before, there were clear signs in their earlier releases that changes were brewing in the band, and a new-found maturity was already apparent by the point of the "Boo Up" EP. While I've always been a fence-sitter where "Giant Steps" is concerned - I seem to remember being one of the only people in one of my social groups at the time who was slightly agnostic about it, which was a bit awkward - there's no question that it was one of 1993's most interesting (if uneven and slightly bloated) releases. It's the sound of young men knee-deep in their record collections, taking psychedelic drugs and having a creative spree, and occasionally hitting the bullseye.

"Wish I Was Skinny" isn't especially representative of the rest of the album, being a spindly and simple sounding release about male insecurity, with its ponderous plucked guitar lines and mournful trumpet adding to the subject's mood well. Like Brian Wilson, whose "Don't Worry Baby" was one of the earliest songs about a man needing reassurance from a woman, the Radleys were taking steps here which struck chords with lots of ordinary, podgy, spotty young men who were never going to be considered macho or glamorous. I used to actually have a couple of friends who considered this to be their anthem, one even playing it at his birthday party (Yeah, we really knew how to have fun in those days).

It's simple, pretty and very effective, and the video was actually filmed in the Radleys old comprehensive school and showed them being kicked around and bullied. They seemed to be representing themselves very honestly as complete outsiders, ugly ducklings who loved music and wanted to share their ideas with us. In a world filled with preening peacocks, their straightforwardness was welcome to everyone who probably enjoyed hanging around the local record shops on a Saturday more than they did a night at the club later that evening. Later on, their schtick could on occasion be slightly cloying - we won't get to discuss "From The Bench At Belvedere", but that's just as well, as it's an exercise in self-indulgent sentimentality - but for now, it was finely measured.

2. Delicious Monster - Big Love (Flute)

If "Snuggle" on the last LP was brief and rip-roaring, "Big Love" really shows off the songwriting chops the group had by this point. "Big Love" is a luxurious sprawl with chiming guitars, sensuous vocals and a considered arrangement. Rachel Mayfield appears to be suggesting that she can't get no satisfaction, and this is one part pean to love and lust, another part subtle comment on the role of women as objects of desire in society - at least, that is, if I'm reading it correctly.

It's a very yearning track, though, and even if it was possibly a bit too subtle to be a breakout mainstream hit, it was certainly critically acclaimed and performed well on the Indie Chart. It also proved that Delicious Monster were a multi-faceted band who could cope with subtlety and weave intricate melodies just as much as they could deliver raucous indie sounds.

More on them soon, hopefully.

3. Chapterhouse - We Are The Beautiful (Dedicated)

The old shoegazing scene was largely dead by this point. The groups had either proven their creative superiority and been elevated above and beyond the tag (My Bloody Valentine, The Boo Radleys) or they were now being mocked or, worse still, ignored. Chapterhouse returned in 1993 with a strange new determination, though. Their comeback single "She's A Vision" exuded an adult poppiness which had been lacking from their previous efforts, sounding strangely close to a "Seeds of Love" era Tears For Fears. At the time, the record label claimed that it had actually been a proper Top Five hit in Portugal, but I've found nothing online to verify that claim (press releases really should be verifiable sources, but over the years I've found they're often the stuff of wild exaggeration and fantasy).

"We Are The Beautiful" bares a bit more of a resemblance to the Chapterhouse of old, but is still a polished, shining, sleek Ferrari gliding along the psychedelic pop highway. None of that slick production can really hide the fact that the song itself is a bit uninspiring, though, offering nothing of any real substance. Even the chorus, which is presumably supposed to be a rallying cry, sounds limp. This would be their final single, and there would be silence from the band until they briefly reformed again in the late noughties.

4. Curve - Missing Link (Anxious)

That said, lots of groups seemed to be dropping like flies at this point. Our dear friends Curve, once the future of British Alternative Rock, were beginning to seem emotionally fragile. Their tour to support their second studio album "Cuckoo" was apparently beset with personal problems, and by the time it was over, so were the band. A split was announced, and the only single to be released from the platter was "Missing Link" (unless we count the extremely rare and barely promoted "Superblaster").

For a band who had a very clear, solid identifiable sound of their own in the build-up to their first album, Curve were now starting to blend in a little. "Cuckoo" is actually a much better LP than critics gave it credit for at the time, but nonetheless the buzzing synthesiser sounds of "Missing Link" resemble numerous Euro-industrial bands who were doing the rounds at this point, and the dramatic, urgent delivery of the chorus resembles Annie Lennox more than ever. Curve were still producing compelling material, but they were losing their own unique aura.

The split wouldn't be permanent and they would be back in 1998 with the album "Come Clean" - but certainly from the point of view of our timeline, it's all over for them. Of all the groups we've discussed, they're one of the main ones I feel possibly could have achieved something enormous if only a few slightly different turns had been taken. The fact that Garbage, who we'll come on to eventually, clearly owed a small debt to their sound showed that what they were producing wasn't in itself uncommercial.

5. Sugar - Tilted (Creation)

Frantic and psychotic sounding, "Tilted" gets the bit between its teeth and never lets go, thrashing and pounding away until the neurotic chorus arrives, which utilises a similar rising, stretching chord pattern to Magazine's "Shot By Both Sides".  It's an exhausting listen, this, but one which featured in a wide variety of year-end "best of" polls (even if that seems unlikely now).

Sugar had recently returned with their mini-LP "Beaster", which was highly acclaimed and shot the band straight into the National Top Ten. It caused Bob Mould to apparently ring his friends in America and brag about how high he was in the British charts. It was an unfortunately short-lived period of mainstream success, and within a year Sugar would return to being a largely cultish concern, but it felt justified at the time. Husker Du had spent years dealing with disinterested record labels and low sales, becoming key influences on grunge without much in the way of financial reward. Sugar righted that wrong for a brief period, and gave Bob Mould commercial recognition he had never previously enjoyed. It certainly didn't hurt that he was also writing some of his finest material too.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Volume 18 Side 2 - Pop Will Eat Itself, Elastica, Verve, Teenage Fanclub, Kingmaker

1. Pop Will Eat Itself - RSVP (Infectious)

Since their last appearance on "Indie Top 20", Pop Will Eat Itself had "enjoyed" a fairly long but fractious stint with RCA. It was clear from the beginning that their relationship with the major label wasn't ideal. Not long after their debut RCA album "This Is The Day... This Is The Hour... This is This!" was released, Clint Mansell could be heard complaining in fanzines that the band's chances of bigger success had been ruined by a series of cock-ups followed by weak excuses at the label. RCA seemed confused by how to market the group, they felt, and had given up trying.

The group's relationship with them still managed a total of three studio LPs and one compilation before they were dropped at exactly the same moment their single "Get The Girl, Kill The Baddies!" smashed into the UK top ten. This peculiar achievement by both band and label caused them to be named as the first ever unsigned group to appear on "Top of the Pops" - until the same claim was made for Bis a number of years later (who, to be fair, did at least have absolutely no major label marketing budget or previous history on their side).

The more indie-friendly quarters of the British music press had a field day speculating what all this meant. Had RCA actually just done something incredibly stupid? Were Pop Will Eat Itself dumper-bound, or ascending towards something greater? The answer,  in the end, was neither - they would remain with the same status they always had. Somewhat unusually for a group who haven't been given much consideration since, they had a core and dedicated fanbase, and the high number nine chart placing for "Get The Girl" was down to the combined fluke of strong first week sales for them and a slow sales week across the rest of the board. They still had yet to achieve a top ten album, therefore still hadn't made any "real" money for their corporate employers.

While you would normally expect an unsigned band with a top ten single to cause a bidding war, the majors were therefore somewhat sniffy about rescuing PWEI, and they ended up back in Indieland, this time on the newly formed Infectious label. "RSVP" was their 1993 debut there, and it shows the group moving back towards a harder, edgier, guitar-led noise. Its chant-a-long chorus was memorable, the relentless noisiness of it very much in vogue with the grunge and industrial sounds edging into the mainstream, and it allowed them another one of their many minor Top 40 hits (seriously - count them). They even managed to get the twins from the Australian TV soap "Neighbours", Gillian and Gayle Blakeney, to appear in the video (who had been in the band The Monitors in the early eighties, as my other blog Left and to the Back will testify).

You could actually sympathise with major label's confusion about how to market the group, though, if such a dilemma did indeed exist. They continually sold modest volumes of records to the same bunch of dedicated fans for years without really gaining new converts or inching much further forwards. Attempts had been made to market them as "Britain's answer to the Beastie Boys" initially, then as an Indie-Dance group, then as a band who could crossover to Kerrang or Metal Hammer readers - none of these really stuck, and they sat in no-man's land appealing to their own gang of Grebo oddballs.

2. Elastica - Stutter (Deceptive)

As the old superstars of British indie found themselves being kicked off major labels or falling out of favour, so the arrogant and dashing new breed emerged. One thing that's often forgotten about Elastica is that they were a fledgling group when the first wave of publicity hit them, having only played a small number of gigs. Justine Frischmann was absurdly savvy and had a clear idea in mind of how the group should look and sound before they even put out their first single, of course - but even so, it's surprising how well they dealt with the media furore.

I caught them live supporting Pulp at the Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms in 1993, and there was a palpable buzz in the room, and a slightly unexpected one considering they were only the support band (at this point, Pulp had yet to achieve a Top 40 hit, so their support bands were seldom groups about to dominate popular culture). A handful of fanzine-writing teenagers scurried to the front of the room, chatting excitedly with pens and notebooks in hand. As the group took the stage, one was heard to ask Donna "Did you like the photos I took?" to which Donna nodded somewhat distractedly.
"She said she liked them!" said the young photographer shamelessly, brimming over with excitement. "Did you hear that, she said she liked them!"
What the fuck was going on? Who were these people? I mean, I'd seen them in the NME and heard them on the radio, but...

Then the group began to play and... they sounded quite good. They sounded very much like what they were - a band with a probable future who had yet to develop a commanding live presence. Justine seemed confident and effortlessly cool, but only in the same way as lots of wealthy Hampshire types at my university.  I was starting to meet people born into wealth for the first time in my life, and at that point I couldn't see much difference between Justine's aloof, airy mutterings between songs and the distant poshness of some of my fellow students. Looking back on early interviews, it's apparent that she was incredibly intelligent, witty, cheeky and sparky in her own relaxed and casual way, but none of those personality traits were apparent on-stage yet.

Donna, on the other hand, seemed far more interesting, appearing born into her particular insouciant, punkish and vacant role in the group.

The debut single "Stutter", however, was two minutes of almighty and wonderful noise about the problems of drunken erectile dysfunction. At the time, the press bracketed the group in with the short-lived and under-achieving "New Wave of New Wave" scene, which tried to rally support for a raffish punk revival on Britain's somewhat underwhelmed gig circuit. Elastica were the only one of those groups to really go on to first division success, and if we're going to round up the best "NWONW" singles ever (though it's hard to understand why we'd bother) "Stutter" would almost certainly be number one. It's a commanding great treble-heavy, adrenalised rush which sounds like all the best elements of the late seventies era tied to the back of a Transit van and dragged along the road by a rope. Scuzzy, dirty (in every sense of the word) but so energising it's impossible not to listen to when it comes on the radio to this day, it actually sounded like the start of something big, brash and new, whereas the likes of "I Just Want To Kill Someone" by S*M*A*S*H (to give another NWONW single as an example) sounded like a reprisal of old ideas recreated to please ageing IPC journalists.

I didn't know it at the time, but in the space of one evening, I'd witnessed two groups with distinct identities both pointing different ways forward for British music, and both being correct. Britpop would prove to be a slightly bigger, broader tent than it's been credited for in recent years.

3. Verve - Slide Away (Hut)

And then there was Verve, of course, who with "Slide Away" provided Oasis with a future song title (or did they?) and arguably paved the way forwards for some of the mid-nineties indie sound. The melodrama of the song arrives through a thick pea-souper smog of effects pedal laden guitars, but the song still has a fussiness and fragility to it that would be sledgehammered out of the way by most of the new breed.

There will be those who disagree, but I personally find "Slide Away" a bit too directionless and woebegone to completely hit home. It's a big old meandering noise about nothing very much, and caused some people to wrongly assume the band had totally lost their footing. On the contrary, future releases would show they were actually beginning to find their way - commercially, at least.

4. Teenage Fanclub - Norman 3 (Creation)

Taken from their "underachieving" self-produced album "Thirteen", the pathetic number of views "Norman 3" has had since being uploaded to the Fannies official YouTube account certainly points towards opinions about this single being mostly negative or at best indifferent. In fact, many music journalists almost wrote the group off after "Thirteen" was released, feeling that whatever opportunities they had, they'd managed to lazily waste away with a mediocre follow-up album to a widely acknowledged cult classic.

That's needlessly harsh, though. "Norman 3" is the group at their most straightforwardly sweet, combining powerpop melodies with a slow, lazy wallowing in the emotions that surround the early stages of a love affair. "Yeah! I'm in love with you!" the chorus announces bouyantly, and it's incredibly simple and dumb but entirely relatable. It's not the group's finest moment, but catch it at the right moment on an early Spring day, and it will worm its way into your heart.

5. Kingmaker - Queen Jane (Chrysalis)

Few bands epitomise the slightly half-arsed politicised edge of early nineties indie more than Kingmaker. Released during a period when casual racism and fascism seemed on the upswing in Britain - though it all seems like a fairly harmless family row over Sunday dinner compared to the present day - "Queen Jane" paints portraits of disillusioned far right sympathisers, though fails to make particularly coherent or cutting points as it does so. It's clearly trying to make a clear and angry satirical point, but feels too scattershot and incoherent in its aims. "Oliver's Army" it isn't.

Musically, "Queen Jane" saunters along nicely, but also fails to deliver anything that might make it memorable or impactful. It swings by having made its snarling complaint, and within thirty seconds your mind is on to something else entirely. The late Conservative wilderness years of the early nineties probably did need a relevant political soundtrack of some kind, but God knows we deserved better than this.

Kingmaker had been hyped as one of the frontline indie groups of the early nineties, but as the decade progressed were struggling to maintain critical support. Their records all sold moderately well, but their sound clearly owed a debt to groups whose success was beginning to wane. When Suede supported them on tour, one highly critical review ran with the headline "Diamonds and Dogshit" (It made it quite clear, if you needed to be told, that Kingmaker were the "dogshit" in the evening's entertainments). Another tour of theirs featured Radiohead in the support slot. If nothing else, through accident or design they showcased two of the more influential nineties group on their tours, while failing to make any serious cases for themselves.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Indie Top 20 Volume 18 Side One - Blur, Bjork, Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins, Carter USM

Formats: CD/ Double Vinyl/ Cassette
Year of Release: 1993

This volume is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the last ever "Indie Top 20" LP to be released on vinyl or cassette; or at least, so far as I can ascertain (if anyone knows better, please drop me a line). By the end of 1993, vinyl's days were considered to be numbered, and while the format limped on for a couple more years, the scarcity of original vinyl copies of albums like Pulp's "Different Class" or Blur's "Great Escape" will tell you how well they sold. "Indie Top 20" albums were never chart hits to the same extent as those records, and it's doubtful that the vinyl editions of the LP were even breaking the 1,000 units mark anymore. Beechwood can't be blamed for dumping the format at this point (and as for cassettes, they were becoming almost as unloved, and you couldn't listen to a double-play Indie Top 20 tape in a standard Walkman without the music slowing down with the drag of the compilation's weight anyway).

Secondly, the sleevenotes for this volume announce a huge change to the way the LPs were compiled in a passing fashion, almost in the hope their regular buyers won't notice. "Welcome to volume 18 of this series," they begin confidently, "where you'll find the likes of Elastica, Salad and Delicious Monster rub shoulders with the Modes, Bjorks, Pumpkins and Blurs of this maverick indie world. Let's face it, who gives a toss which label or distributor they release their records, so long as the emphasis is on damn good music?" This is a very interesting, "oh come on, get over it lads!" way of announcing a huge shift away from the founding principle of the series.

I do get how this happened. The situation with the indie charts at this point was rather ridiculous, with all kinds of "boutique" labels cropping up which were owned outright by major labels, and were often based in some dark and messy corner of their corporate tower block. Dedicated was a subsidiary of RCA, and regularly popped up in the indie charts. Virgin owned Hut (though in their defence, had a very hands-off approach, and allowed Hut to put out some really interesting and daring music). And Island Red was waiting in the wings, a label started by Island Records which just changed the corporate logo's colour and had their acts distributed independently so as to leap into the indie chart, where other signings such as Pulp or U2 were prohibited (no points whatsoever to Island for effort with their presentation, then, though you could argue they were rather more honest).

There's another side to this argument too, though. Chet and Bee's father Clive Selwood had very recently whined to the NME about the fact that his "Peel Sessions" records on Strange Fruit had been disqualified from the indie charts, purely because he had moved the company over to a new distributor. His voice was heard amongst a chorus of other elders in the industry complaining about the absence of a meaningful "alternative" chart where all their hip and happening bands could hang out with the likes of Huggy Bear and Aphex Twin. An alternative chart which, obviously, the BPI would have more oversight and control over, potentially leaving small bedroom labels without any media breakthrough moments, and maybe allowing groups like The Big Dish or Texas chart entries (possibly an exaggeration, possibly not - who knows what they envisaged?)

Both Selwood and his naysayers had relevant gripes, but the only sensible conclusion you can draw from this brouhaha - certainly in less than 10,000 words - is that "indie" had slowly become a victim of its own success. The majors had found a way of gatecrashing the party, and nothing would ever quite be the same again. And as for the "Indie Top 20" series, what it had set out to be, an honest guide to critically acclaimed but seldom heard music in the indie charts, it no longer was. This really marks the point that I saw the writing on the wall. If the "Indie Top 20" series had become a selection of all the biggest and best alternative music out there, then what made it different to the various leftfield compilation LPs the majors were sticking out? That's a question we may find ourselves referring back to more and more as we enter the twilight years of the series.

1. Blur - Chemical World (Food/ EMI)

And straight off the bat, here's EMI's first appearance on an "Indie Top 20" LP. It certainly wasn't Food Record's first showing, though - that occurred back on Volume Two in the days when it was a wholly independent label.

It's also Blur's first appearance, for obvious reasons, and it's tough to briefly summarise their career so far. Initially they were considered suspect by many critics and "indie kids", a group without "proper" indie credentials and an A&R man's wet dream. Good looking and confident, their earliest singles actually still stand up as marvellous slices of alternative pop. "There's No Other Way" crashlanded into the UK Top Ten unapologetically, and the band's energetic and cocksure live performances and charismatic photo shoots ensured that they were never going to be mistaken for another Chapterhouse or Moose. Damon Albarn's slightly tragic Frank and Walters haircut may have been a distinct minus point in their early days, but beyond that, they could barely put a foot wrong in terms of either sound or image. As the NME went to the trouble of pointing out, Blur were the indie band your average suited city commuter thought it was OK to like.

Then, following the success of their debut LP "Leisure", they returned with the new single "Popscene", a snarling three-minute outing which sounded nothing like their previous more psychedelically inclined moments, and instead resembled an early Teardrop Explodes single on amphetamines. It sounded fantastic, but landed at a time when the British record buying public were generally not interested in homegrown alternative sounds, and has subsequently been largely forgotten about outside of their fanbase (even by the band, who seem keen to disown it).

A long gap followed while the group developed their second LP "Modern Life Is Rubbish", which was supposed to have been produced by Andy Partridge of XTC - what I wouldn't give to hear a complete version of that LP - but he was given the heave-ho and replaced by Stephen Street for the final release. The band returned suited and booted in Mod gear posing with some dogs in the British music press, and without us fully realising it at the time, the future had arrived.

If "For Tomorrow", the first single off "Modern Life", sounded like a classic sixties single which had somehow been beamed into 1993 by mistake, "Chemical World" was greeted with brickbats from some quarters for "sounding like a rip-off of Suede". These criticisms have largely been forgotten now, but you can hear the basis for them - the swagger, camp vocalisations and sharp, angular guitar riffs do bear a faint resemblance to "Animal Nitrate" or "Metal Mickey". But besides those, chiming Beatlesy riffs are evident, a slightly Move-esque chorus, and even very faint traces of early Adam Ant in some of the overly pronounced  punkish cock-er-nee vocal inflections. The fact that music critics homed in on the one current and vogueish aspect to the sound highlighted Blur's overall problem - people still weren't convinced about their comeback chances and were treating them as yesterday's men and major label chancers.

In fairness, "Chemical World" has never been my favourite Blur single. "For Tomorrow" is a thing of optimism and beauty and staggeringly confident songwriting, whereas "Chemical World" feels cheaper and a bit more stilted and less effortless somehow, almost as if there's another aspect of the chorus they mislaid somewhere along the way. Still, it was strong enough to make minor commercial headway, and the group fell off the "at risk" register.

2. Bjork - Venus As A Boy (One Little Indian)

Bjork's journey from quirky cult indie singer in The Sugarcubes to coffee table "dance diva" felt incredibly unlikely at the time, though it's perfectly possible to see the joins if you look hard enough. From the funky impact of "Hit" to her work with 808 State to The Sugarcubes remix project, there was clear evidence that the idea of working with guitar-based groups making a new wave and post-punk inspired sound was appealing to her less and less.

Debut single "Human Behaviour" was a rattling, organic sounding single which crept into the lower reaches of the Top 40, whereas "Venus As A Boy" sounds exotic and bewitching whilst also channeling ideas found in the romantic frilliness of old torch songs. When Mike Flowers Pops covered this a couple of years later, it sounded more convincing as an easy listening standard than a lot of their other efforts.

Sadly, while Bjork could already be found in magazines like "The Face" looking amazing in photoshoots, and was developing a striking visual identity and an emerging mainstream presence, this and "Human Behaviour" barely scratched the consciousness of your average Woolworths shopper. "Venus As A Boy" bettered the chart presence of its predecessor by managing one week in the Top 30 at number 29, before quickly falling out of view again. Her album "Debut" had already been released by the time this single emerged, and had confidently entered the album charts at number three before immediately exiting the Top Ten the following week - Bjork had all the hallmarks of a cult artist appealing to a small but dedicated fanbase buying her product in the early weeks of its release.

All that would change thanks to two developments - firstly, "Debut" was a slow-burner of an LP which recovered its footing and began to hang around the top thirty for weeks on end, slowly accumulating sales throughout the summer of 1993 by word-of-mouth appeal. The release of her frankly startling collaboration with David Arnold, "Play Dead", also nudged the casual record buying public towards the LP, despite the fact that at first "Play Dead" wasn't even included in the tracklisting. Following that, Bjork became a singer that audiences far beyond indie kids and Face readers became aware of, an unusual and mainstream icon, known enough to be lampooned on episodes of "Spitting Image" singing along to Fax machines. Naturally, Bjork was the first person to point out that as someone who had previously played along with machines in various experimental combos, the "Spitting Image" sketch could hardly be considered satire but a kind of factual presentation of her inclinations.

(I'm not being allowed to embed the official video here, for some reason - if you want to see it, follow this link). 

3. Depeche Mode - Condemnation (Paris Mix) (Mute)

When writing about Depeche Mode singles from this period, it's important to remind yourself that they were all written by Martin Gore, and Dave Gahan had absolutely no hand in their construction at all. I say this for the simple reason that most of "Songs of Faith and Devotion" sounds almost uncomfortably personal, as if written from the perspective of an individual having a mental collapse or life crisis. Riddled with tales of temptation, guilt and suffering, it frequently sounds as if you're listening into a group counselling session organised by a Deep South church. What makes the LP compelling often isn't the craft of the songwriting - which was the case with the fantastic triad of "Black Celebration", "Music For The Masses" and "Violator", albums every home should have copies of - but the rawness of it all.

"Condemnation" is possibly the most uncomfortable moment of them all, sticking to a mournful southern blues structure, gospel vocals and Gahan pleading with the listener to understand his point of view so much that his voice actually cracks under the strain. "If you see PURITY as immaturity/ I don't sympathise" he spits. "If for kindness you substitute blindness/ please open your eyes". Even now, it's a faintly uncomfortable listen, a single which - and I hate to point it out - would undoubtedly have been highlighted as a key Depeche Mode moment had Gahan actually died from his drugs overdose.

As it stands, it's an unlikely moment in their singles catalogue, not really a very obvious 45 (despite its top ten placing) and - thank God - something which has not been tainted with a great deal of significance since. It sounds tortured and full of the stings of open wounds and vinegar, and the group would never really seem this anguished again. This guilty, neurotic and brooding, yes. Anguished, no.

Interestingly, the official video for this is nowhere to be found on YouTube.

4. Smashing Pumpkins - Today (Hut)

From Depeche Mode's angst to the Smashing Pumpkins with their cheeriest, happiest faces on. Whatever next? "Today" is the Smashing Pumpkins single even the band's haters (like me) have to grudgingly admit is a fine song, beginning with the pinging summer sunshine ice-cream van guitar intro and then thrashing around in a joyous, messy swamp of distorted pop sounds. The video picks up on the dominant mood of the sounds and utilises them brilliantly in the accompanying promo.

So popular was "Today" with alternative audiences at the time that Levi's Jeans wanted to use it in one of their commercials. The band refused, and the brand reverted to plan B and got some ageing session men in to record something similar. The group named themselves Stiltskin for the purposes of their record "Inside", and shot to number one, a position Smashing Pumpkins would never occupy in the British singles charts. There are those who mark Stiltskin's success as being "the death of grunge", the moment when the industry decided it could co-opt the sounds and imagery of the movement for commercial gain and plaid shirts could begin to be found in Marks and Spencers. I couldn't possibly comment.

5. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Lean On Me I Won't Fall Over (Chrysalis)

As the "Indie Top 20" series had now adopted a more inclusive approach, any bands who used to be on indie labels but were now on majors were welcomed back into the fold, and that included our old chums Jim Bob and Fruitbat here.

Carter USM were one of the most bafflingly successful groups of the early nineties, and their debut major label release "1992: The Love Album" shot to number one and spawned the peppy top ten hit "The Only Living Boy In New Cross". The band went from being cult indie sensations to proper pop stars (if rather geriatric ones by the standards of the time) and were hounded by tabloid press journalists looking for scoops on their private lives, and fan mail from troubled youths looking for advice and guidance.

"Lean On Me" takes the latter problem and turns it into a song, and it's a subject matter which would find less identification with the general public than their previous musings. It focuses its attention on the desperately troubled missives the pair were receiving in their mailbag, reflecting on suicide, criminality, and substance abuse. Essentially, it's like Eminem's "Stan" way before that moment, but instead of having a clear narrative it's unfocussed, guilty and disturbed sounding, a loose-fitting stream-of-consciousness rant about the people who had chosen to regard the unlikely figures of Jim Bob and Fruitbat as being personal saviours. Suffice to say, it's not a topic the public or even Carter fans easily found a way into, and while the pair sound sufficiently agitated and disturbed, a creeping bit of self-pity also slips into this song. "Why are these people bothering US?" seems to be the subtext, and while that's a perfectly valid question - there were surely many more professional people out there for dealing with personal problems - it's hard not to hear it as a gripe as well.   The pair are observing this chaos from the relative luxury of fame, and whatever their intentions behind the track, it sounds awkward. What could have passed as social commentary in 1991 sounds uncomfortably like a privileged complaint in 1993.

The song itself pales in comparison to their previous singles as well, and is a big, roaring mosh of a tune anchored by a slightly hooky but not particularly interesting riff. This really marked the beginning of a slow and steady demise for the group commercially, although they would release far better singles than this one before calling it a day.

Again, no official video on YouTube.