Sunday, 29 October 2017

Indie Top 20 Volume 23 Tracks 1-5 - Suede, Boo Radleys, Northern Uproar, Sleeper, Blur

Format: CD/ Cassette
Year of Release: 1996

Well, here we are at the final leg of our journey. Even hardcore "Indie Top 20" collectors like me had largely lost interest in the series at this point, for a whole variety of reasons. Growing up probably played a huge part, but the purpose the series originally served - being at the forefront of alternative music trends and bringing you tunes you just couldn't easily and cheaply obtain elsewhere - had long since lost its currency. During Britpop, and indeed even post-Britpop, alternative music was everywhere.

By 1996, XFM was one year away from its London launch, Radio One was daytime playlisting the likes of Helen Love and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, and almost everyone had an indie album in their collection somewhere. I realised I was no longer surprised by anything anymore when my brother  - who spent a large chunk of the eighties listening to Shakatak in his car - asked me if I'd heard Space's new album yet.

Then there was "Shine", a cheap and enormously popular indie compilation series put together by Phonogram, which eventually sprawled across two CDs per volume and was surprisingly diverse in its selections. It would never have given Rancho Diablo or Christian Death the time of day, but it did allow many more interesting rising stars space.

The sleeve to Volume 23 gives no clues about the closedown of the series, though the Melody Maker sponsorship is clearly absent. The inlay card on the CD clearly states "we'll be back in a few months", but they never were. The will obviously wasn't there. Beechwood had bigger fish to fry by this point, and were issuing Dance music compilations and tribute LPs which mostly sold in greater quantities (and in the case of the former, were probably cheaper to put together) than "Indie Top 20", and while the label wouldn't have existed without what was once their flagship series, I suspect hard business was beginning to take over from mere sentimentality. By the end of the nineties, Beechwood had a staff force of 75. It was all a far cry from the debut "Indie Top 20" cassette with its scruffy grey inlay.

For all the disappointment that comes with the finality of the series, this is actually a really good compilation which combines the familiar (Suede, Blur, Boo Radleys, Sleeper) with the comparatively obscure but wonderful (Octopus, Orange Deluxe, Urusei Yatsura). It also accurately reflects the back-end of Britpop in 1996, when Pulp, Blur and Oasis were all either on a break or about to embark on one, and some of the more reflective, interesting, acerbic or psychedelic groups who began to cut through in their absence. The party was almost over, but as is often the way, some very interesting people were left hanging around by the half-full bottles of booze.

1. Suede - Trash (Nude)

When Bernard Butler left Suede, the vast majority of fans and idle onlookers assumed that the group were doomed. There was a widely held belief that the Butler and Anderson songwriting partnership was a game of equals, and both would flounder if left alone. It wasn't uncommon to read the accusation that Suede continuing without Butler would be akin to The Smiths carrying on without either Morrissey or Marr.

When seventeen year old Richard Oakes auditioned and successfully took Butler's place, it seemed as if the band were having a joke at our expense, or were perhaps going to do one final end-of-pier "Best Of" tour with their young fan before sodding off forever. Whatever the future held, it was clear that songs like "Sleeping Pills" and "The Wild Ones" were not in it. Very few of us actually had high hopes for their comeback single "Trash", but begrudgingly listened to its debut on evening radio anyway.

On the first listen, "Trash" actually sounded slightly perplexing. Saddled with a high-end treble filled mix, Anderson's wavering dalek vocals, and a leaden glam thump, it sounded like "Metal Mickey" being sucked through a wormhole in space. It was clearly a product of Suede, but a brash one that chose to forget "Dog Man Star" had ever happened. Having evicted Bernard Butler from the shared creative house, it was as if they'd invited an impressionable local teenager in to raid the drinks cabinet, cranked up some catchy seventies glam rock albums, and decided to paint the town red.

That made "Coming Up", their third album, tremendously likeable. For those of us who enjoyed their earliest barnstormers and felt the urge to listen to them perhaps more frequently than we wallowed in the moody sprawl of "Dog Man Star", it offered contrasting possibilities. It also resuscitated their commercial fortunes, while showing that their sense of provincial melancholy hadn't completely abandoned them with tracks like "By The Sea" and "Picnic By The Motorway".

It all went a bit wayward after "Coming Up", of course, but "Trash" reminded everyone that besides producing extremely ambitious albums, Suede were also masterful at straight-ahead, fizzing pop.

2. The Boo Radleys - What's In The Box (See Watcha Got!) (Creation)

On the other hand, The Boos had clearly decided that trying to be pop stars wasn't working out, and had retreated back into their old ways. While both "What's In The Box" and "C'mon Kids" were given ample airplay by Radio One and a heavy push by Creation Records, they didn't follow "Wake Up Boo" into the top ten. The group retreated into experimentation, and in doing so pre-empted the next moves of Britpop behemoths like Blur and Pulp, who would return with very different, less accessible noises in 1997.

"What's In The Box" is a mighty piece of work, though, filled with the hurricane force of The Who at their most psychedelic (which, as you might recall, also didn't pay huge commercial dividends for that band either). Screeching and roaring its way from your stereo, it's heavier and much more leaden than the band had ever been, while also retaining some of their earlier shoegazing wooziness. From its piledriving entrance to its sudden abrupt end, you can't help but feel invigorated by the whole thing. If I have a criticism at all, it's probably that its lack of subtlety meant that a month of playing it was enough for me - once the shock of the song's force becomes familiar, there's nothing new to uncover.

Their album "C'Mon Kids" was an odd pick and mix selection of psychedelic whimsy combined with heavy guitars, tape effects and sudden, sharp changes of tempo and mood. While it only reached number 20 in the album charts, Radiohead were apparently startled enough by it for it to have a subtle influence on the "OK Computer" sessions. The band would never regain their commercial fortunes, though there are moments on their final LP "Kingsize" that could have clinched that for them had they not been on the verge of disintegration at its point of release.

3. Northern Uproar - From A Window (Heavenly)

And really, when bands began to edge away from the more people-pleasing aspects of Britpop, you could argue that new bands like Northern Uproar were the very things they were backing away from. As unsubtle as the Pistols and as anthemic as Oasis, NU were guitar-based lad's music as its most obvious and indelicate. "From A Window" is all power chords, sneering and fist punching, sounding strangely like the work of some of the beefier flop glam rock bands of the mid-70s from this century's perspective.

Live, Northern Uproar were actually a very powerful proposition, filled with the kind of cocky arrogance only a gang of teens with guitars and strong tunes can have. On record, some of that impact got lost, and their eponymous debut LP - which some suspected would be enormous - had to content itself with a number 22 chart placing.

While the lead guitarist Jeff Fletcher was struck by a lorry and tragically killed in Stockport in 2014, the group remain a going concern, and released their latest LP "Hey Samurai" in 2015.

4. Sleeper - Sale Of The Century (Indolent)

Once you get past the intriguing and slightly psychedelic intro, "Sale of The Century" is, unfortunately, Sleeper at their most obvious, filling in most of the necessary boxes on your Britpop bingo card. Tacky daytime/ early evening television reference? Check. Very sugary, overpowering chorus? Check. Sense of Wake Up Boo styled optimism, just a few rungs down from Katrina and The Waves at their most euphoric? Check. Congratulations, you have won an ironic teasmade. You can pick it up on the door right next to the pile of retro Adidas tops. Have a nice life.

Louise Wener is smart enough to include small lyrical fragments of doubt and introversion in the track, of course - the line "How long til reason makes us small again?" is clearly the work of someone who has been here before, and realises that no love affair can make you feel supernova forever - but while this is one of the group's more popular outings, it underwhelms me on repeat listens. Even on the first play you sensed where the song was headed before it even got there, and it feels like the end result of a "how to write a top pop song" weekend workshop. Spin back to "What Do I Do Now" to hear the group achieve much bigger wonders both lyrically and musically, but managing to produce a lesser hit in the process.

None of this stopped Sleeper from being big news in 1996, though, producing glossy videos and widely played hits which made them far more publicly recognisable than some of their more credible peers.

5. Blur - Charmless Man (Food/ EMI)

Success was clearly disturbing Damon Albarn at this point, and he reacted to the situation by producing two singles which clearly owed a debt to The Kinks during their "Lola Versus Powerman" period. That LP savagely bit the hand which fed - or perhaps more accurately, fed in an inequitable way - and mocked the disinterested and self-serving nature of the clueless label suits who surrounded the group.

Blur's opening salvo in this vein was obviously "Country House", which openly mauled the bothersome owner of Food Records, David Balfe, who very few musicians appear to have a good word to say about (If you want to get past the needling, mocking "Country House" and get a flavour of the man's personality in detail, Julian Cope's biography "Head On" is merciless). "Charmless Man" appears to be less about a specific individual than a brand of anonymous media type, with Albarn sneering "Educated the expensive way/ he knows his claret from his beaujolais".

While the track has a similar rollicking, sarcastic knees-up feel to "Country House", it's actually not as cruel or savage, and lyrically feels a bit sketchy. A lot of the unresolved half-rhymes in the lyrics stick out like sore thumbs and and make them feel like a first draft in places. Melodically, it could also be a cynical Sleeper track were it not for Graham Coxon's buzzing, malfunctioning robot guitar licks throughout, which brilliantly soundtrack the charisma-free breakdown of the individual in question.

And really, this is how Blur excelled over many of their rivals during the period. Even at their poppiest and most obvious, it was possible to find abrasion, bite and awkwardness in the mix, which made them considerably more interesting than whoever had scored Chris Evans' single of that particular week. By 1997, those experimental and lo-fi elements would really find a stronger voice in "Blur", and while the leap from "Charmless Man" to "Beetlebum" feels enormous, both are very clearly the work of the same band with the same anxieties, frustrations and foibles.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Best of Indie Top 20 Volume Three

Format: CD/ Cassette
Year of Release: 1996

A full seven LPs on from the last "Best Of Indie Top 20" LP, Volume Three was slightly tardy in its arrival and arguably a bit slow to cash in on peak Britpop mania by the time it landed. Public interest in the series was clearly waning at the point this was released, and I suspect it primarily acted as an attempt to compete with the many major label alternative rock compilations which were replete with big names and very few obscurities. If it reminded people of the series existence in the process, that was obviously going to be no bad thing.

Due to the long timespan it covers, there are some interesting choices on here which lead to Pop Will Eat Itself (again) slugging it out with Sleeper, while Inspiral Carpets cross the streams with Echobelly. The fact Oasis don't seem to have a place would suggest that the band had become too massive for Beechwood's wallet.

As a summing up of the heady years leading up to Peak Britpop, it's a fair assessment, with some pleasing track choices. It's also brave enough to acknowledge some of the lesser hitters like Perfume, though perplexingly it doesn't include a single track from Volume 17, probably one of my favourites in the series.

In summary, then, it is what it is, and there's not much new you can say about something that offers nothing we haven't discussed already. As always, I've included links back to the tracks included here so you can read my original information about them.

1. Blur - Chemical World (Food/ EMI)  - volume 18

2. The Charlatans - Can't Get Out Of Bed (Beggar's Banquet) - volume 19

3. Sleeper - Inbetweener (Indolent) - volume 21

4. Elastica - Stutter (Deceptive) - volume 18

5. Ash - Uncle Pat (Infectious) -  volume 21

6. Supergrass - Caught By The Fuzz (Parlophone) -  volume 21

7. Echobelly - I Can't Imagine The World Without Me (Fuave) - volume 20 

8. Perfume - Lover (Aromasounds) - volume 21

9. Garbage - Subhuman (Mushroom) - volume 22

10. Sugar - Changes (Creation) - volume 16

11. Pop Will Eat Itself - RSVP (Infectious) - volume 18

12. Boo Radleys - Lazarus (Creation) - volume 20

13. Transglobal Underground - Protean (Nation) - volume 20

14. Spiritualized - Let It Flow (Dedicated) - volume 21

15. AC Acoustics - Hand Passes Plenty (Elemental) - volume 21

16. Radiohead - Creep (Parlophone) - volume 19

17. Suede - The Wild Ones (Nude) - volume 21

18. Inspiral Carpets/ Mark E Smith - I Want You (Mute) - volume 20

19. Lush - Hypocrite (4AD) - volume 20

20. Gigolo Aunts - Where I Find My Heaven (Fire) - volume 19

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Indie Top 20 Volume 22 Tracks 16-20 - Garbage, Mansun, Done Lying Down, Supermodel, Perfume

16. Garbage - Subhuman (Mushroom)

Garbage's early career would probably have passed me by if it hadn't been for an unusually thick, heavy package arriving through my letterbox one day. Wondering whether it was a new record or an elaborate dirty bomb sent by the rugby boys in the university Conservative society, I opened it gingerly only to find a 7" single in a metal sleeve. I quickly glanced at the accompanying press release and learned that this was the latest project of Butch Vig, Nirvana's producer.

I was intrigued and attracted by the sleeve design, but I put it to one side in my listening pile anyway, among the lower priority singles. I actually wasn't a fan of Nirvana's "Nevermind" and assumed that this was likely to be another slice of American angst-rock. Contrary to the popular rock narrative, the rusty old grunge tap didn't just stop flowing out of respect after Cobain's death. All the worst second-division stragglers who had been picked up by record labels in 1993/4 continued to play to audiences of left-over hairies in every provincial town. I would get sent a brace of singles by new plaid-shirted bands every single week, and the vast majority were below par.

When I finally did put "Vow" on the turntable, though, I can remember every detail of where I was and how it made me feel. From that shimmering, disorientating opening to the messy effects-laden rush of guitars, to the fierce, gasping chorus, it sounded like an amalgamation of all the pop ideas I had loved growing up and was listening to at the time. The updated electronic twittering of "Virginia Plain", the insouciant pop stylings of Blondie, the soundscapes of Curve and the hard slap of the best, most aggressive bits of American college rock. I still love "Vow" dearly and while you never hear it played or talked about anymore, it's probably my favourite Garbage single.

As Garbage's career became more prominent, I began to develop a harmless post-adolescent crush on Shirley Manson, in common with thousands of others at the time. It wasn't just that she always looked spectacular in videos and photo shoots and was a charismatic frontwoman, it was also that she seemed incredibly complex and opinionated, and was usually on the right side of any given debate. All my friends picked up on my childish fancy and knew about it, and it seemed innocent enough. What could possibly go wrong? Well...

There is stuff in life that's simply not supposed to happen if you live in an unglamorous and ordinary town. Your weird daydreaming fantasies are not meant to become realities. When you're in Netto buying emergency toilet roll, for example, Renee Zellweger is not supposed to turn up in the same aisle looking for boxes of Mr Bloo toilet freshening blocks. When catching the ferry to Gosport to do a filing and data entry temp job, Zooey Deschanel is not supposed to be there as well on some kind of "underwhelming British waterways" jaunt. These aren't scenarios you should have to prepare for or think through in advance. Famous people are supposed to live in their own context, in their own world (back in the mid-nineties, I ran into the comedian Steve Punt on the steps of the Tate Gallery, and found even that faintly unreal at the time. What was he doing outside the television set looking all big?).

So while drinking in a very ordinary Portsmouth student pub, it's something of an understatement to say that I was somewhat taken aback when Garbage walked in. They were playing at the nearby Guildhall and seemed to be in need of cheap food and refreshment. Butch Vig strolled up confidently to the bar to get a round in, and returned to their table where Shirley Manson still had her hooded jacket on, seeming quite desperate to be ignored. A silence descended around my pub table. Everyone seemed to expect me to do something, for some reason. There was an unspoken but particularly sadistic glee in the air.

An energetic, over-enthusiastic, eccentric (and much loved) middle-aged Mancunian English Literature lecturer with a penchant for wearing seventies jackets was baffled by the fuss.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Garbage have just walked in", I said.
"What? Is someone causing trouble?"
"No, GARBAGE the group. They're quite popular at the moment".
"Oh! Fantastic! I collect autographs of famous people, young man, I'll go over and have a word!"

"Eh, hello!" he apparently told them. "A young man over there told me you're very famous. In fact, he said you were Garbage, and I told him not to be so damn rude! Then he explained you were actually a very popular group. Please could I have your autographs for my collection? I collect autographs, you see."

They obliged, to which he continued "He's a top journalist at the NME, I'll have you know, and he'll probably want a word with you later on".

This wasn't true. It was an absurd claim and an absolute lie which would have been rumbled by everyone in seconds. Nonetheless, all my friend's eyes were on me, and everyone seemed to expect me to act on this ruse. So I did what anyone else would do in my position. I pretended I had to be somewhere else quite urgently and left the pub. To be honest, besides feeling under pressure I was also weirded out by the absurdity of it all.

So I never did meet Shirley Manson - if I had, perhaps I could give you a better ending to that shaggy dog story - but I followed Garbage's career closely and felt that they remained one of those bands who seemed to be inspired by a huge brace of ideas but had no obvious peers. Managing to attract fans from a wide cross-section of the music world, their popularity seemed partly bouyed up by the fact that they wrote damn good pop songs when they wanted to ("Stupid Girl" being the pinnacle of their achievements in that respect) but also that the multitude of influences they carried with them acted as a beacon to so many different people. You were as likely to rub up against a Sisters of Mercy fan at a Garbage gig as you were someone who loved Pulp or Nirvana.

Their second single "Subhuman", however, is probably one of my least favourites, and that's why I've dodged talking about it until the final furlong here. Whereas their other work succeeds by seamlessly incorporating lots of seemingly conflicting ideas, "Subhuman" is a pretty straightforward slice of threatening industrial rock. Listenable, enjoyable, but so far away from their best work that it's a huge pity this will be the only time we'll have a chance to discuss the band.

But anyway, you know the rest. And I still have that copy of "Vow" in my record box about four feet from where I'm presently typing this, and no, it's not for sale.

17. Mansun - Take It Easy Chicken (Sci Fi Hi Fi)

While Mansun's later material caused them to become an enormo-cult group with some very strange and obsessive fans, their earliest singles slipped out on their own label and were the stuff of frothing magazine reviews and late night radio play, but not a lot of attention or success.

I have to admit that at this point of their career, I didn't quite "get" them. Both this and the low-key follow-up single "Flourella/ Skin Up Pin Up" seemed more about the force of their personalities than the ideas they had. Squalling guitar riffs met Draper's drawled vocals, and while it was indie-rock with attitude, everything they produced just seemed like a slab of sneering noise - like glam without the spaces, or punk rock without the rawness. These early singles were relentless and didn't play with a very broad sonic palette.

Nonetheless, that turned out to be exactly what some people were looking for, and the pied pipers of Mansun busily toured the country picking up more and more fans as they went. After the success of the "Attack of the Grey Lantern" LP, it all eventually built up to the magnificently mad "Six" LP which I have to be in the right mood to listen to, but was certainly one of the most daring releases of the post-Britpop period.

18. Done Lying Down - Chronic Offender (Immaterial)

Done Lying Down seem to have slipped out of the history books of indie and alternative music, which is odd and unfair. Solid John Peel favourites and a constant press presence in the nineties made them seem, for a brief period, like the most prominent underground punk band on the circuit. They also managed to predate the sounds which would appeal enormously to skate-kids later in the decade.

"Just A Misdeameanour" was probably their finest and most appreciated single, but "Chronic Offender" gives you a strong sense of their power as well. It's a firestorm of a record with fat, beefy basslines and sudden eruptions of fury. Sophisticated it isn't, but the adrenalin on offer here acts as a fair indication of what you would have experienced at one of their many club gigs.

19. Supermodel - Penis Size and Cars (Fire)

Yet another group in this segment of the compilation who make me feel as if I'm reviewing an edition of "Snakebite City" rather than "Indie Top 20". Supermodel were a proudly lo-fi group from Staines who produced a multitude of records on miniscule budgets. Having more in common with the emerging sounds of the likes of Urusei Yatsura than the biggest acts of the day, they signposted a direction the indie scene would eventually take once Britpop flagged out.

"Penis Size and Cars" is two minutes of punchy noise, cheap but very potent indeed. Their live gigs were impressive enough to earn them many enthusiastic reviews, with Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds being so charmed by their racket he offered them a support slot on a tour.

Theaudience later covered this track as a B-side, proving that respect came from plenty of other quarters too.

20. Perfume - Yesterday Follows You (Aromasound)

Once again, Perfume prove here that weaving a web of considered, moody guitar led melodies didn't necessarily sell records in the mid-nineties. "Yesterday Follows You" creeps and drifts along like a subtle piece of mod rock, complete with shimmering freakbeat guitars in the chorus. The ghost of Steve Marriott was probably listening with interest (and just as he recorded parts of "The Universal" in his back garden, Perfume here seem to have shot the video in a back garden instead).

Jo Whiley apparently also appears on this record on "handclap" duties, which I'd be willing to bet is her only session credit ever. Rumours that Steve Lamacq played fingerbells on their debut LP have unfortunately not been confirmed as yet.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Volume 22 Tracks 11-15 - Dubstar, The Charlatans, Verve, Ruby, Belly

11. Dubstar - Stars (Food)

While I've been writing this blog, I've occasionally encountered tracks I haven't properly listened to for years, which give me an enormous proustian rush. Memories of places, times, drunken nights, and songs leaking out of Argos purchased clock radios in the morning in cheap rented rooms... these almost overpower the songs themselves. I was slightly surprised to find that "Stars", which was eventually Dubstar's biggest hit, was one of these tracks. It feels like something which was absolutely everywhere for six months, then nowhere at all, forever locking it to a specific time in my life.

The group's first LP "Disgraceful" was a steady and constant seller throughout 1995, peaking at number thirty in the album charts but hanging around forever. It attracted a diverse audience, with pop listeners, Dance music fans and indie kids alike having copies tucked away in their CD collections, and "Stars" did an enormous amount to help its status. Filled with the same dark, late night winter atmosphere as Sneaker Pimps "6 Overground", the track is subtle and slippery, and moody as fuck. Sarah Blackwood's vocals manage to be both sweet and bleakly agitated ("for my life, my God I'm singing") and it's actually a rather brilliant piece of pop music. The Pet Shop Boys at their most despondent are a better reference point for Dubstar here than any of their peers on the indie circuit.

Sarah Blackwood has been a continued presence on the music scene since thanks to her involvement with the cultishly successful Client, but I can't help but wonder if "Disgraceful" deserves a thorough reissue treatment. It was a constant, misty background presence throughout 1995 and deserves better than to sit in the cut-price CD section of Fopp Records.

12. The Charlatans -  Just Lookin' (Beggars Banquet)

The Charlatans resurrection into the mainstream of British rock and pop continued with "Just Lookin", which was a modest hit in 1995. Most of their material at this time consisted of straight ahead groovers which could just have easily been recorded by The Rolling Stones or The Faces in the early seventies. All of these lacked the moody, psychedelic nature of their earliest material, but it was impossible not to be charmed by the force of it all. Tim Burgess's grinning visage in the video for "Just Lookin'" says it all - they were a group in love with the sounds they were making and the swagger of their ideas, and only too happy to jettison their darker side for awhile.

Within a year, they would be back in the top ten again, the only early nineties baggy band to actually gain ground during the Britpop era rather than drift away into cultdom or irrelevance.

13. The Verve - On Your Own (Hut)

By the point of their third album "A Northern Soul", The Verve's transformation from psychedelic warriors into a band producing records of epic, classic moodiness was complete. While huge critical acclaim was on their side, sales surprisingly weren't - this is astonishing, given that all the other components which eventually made them enormous seemed to be in place. In particular, "History" from the LP sounded like it should have been an easy top ten hit. It was due to these failings on Hut and Virgin's part that Liam Gallagher apparently swore at a Virgin executive at a corporate do, sneering at him that he "couldn't even fucking break The Verve".

I have to wonder if it was entirely Hut or their parent company Virgin's fault, or other forces were to blame. "On Your Own" was a minor hit at the time, but its threadbare moodiness sounds distinctly un-1995. At this point, the Britpop knees-up was still ongoing, and hadn't quite given way to the subtle, epic melancholy which would dominate the later part of the nineties. The Verve often sounded wonderful and worthy, and "On Your Own" is a prime example of how touching they could be, but it didn't really cut through to the public's consciousness amidst the noise and pandemonium. Soon, all that would change and "Urban Hymns" would go on to be one of the biggest selling albums of all time in Britain.

14. Ruby - Paraffin (Red Snapper Mix) (Creation)

Lesley Rankine has been on this blog once before, albeit under a different guise and making an incredibly different noise. Silverfish were snappy, squatty Camden punks who briefly bullied the indie scene in 1993. Ruby, on the other hand, were a trip-hop project who slipped out almost unnoticed, despite some airplay and unlikely appearances on programmes such as "Later With Jools Holland" (where Silverfish were almost certainly never going to end up).

The original version of "Paraffin" is an atmospheric and vaguely threatening piece of work. The Red Snapper mix included here is jazzy, complex, and unbelievably good. Jittering and winding its way around the original melody, it showed there was considerably more to Lesley Rankine than thrashed guitars and the Camden underground - this is sophisticated and fascinating work which really should have been appreciated more at the time than it was.

I wish I knew where my copy of the Ruby LP "Salt Peter" had disappeared to. I owned both that and the remix LP this stemmed from, and they seem to have gone walkabout in the countless house moves I've undergone since.

15. Belly - Seal My Fate (4AD)

While Belly's status had slipped somewhat since their LP "Stars" had reached number one on the album charts in 1993, they remained a much-loved group among those who hadn't quite abandoned all American alternative music at the height of Britpop.

The wonderful "Now They'll Sleep" became their biggest UK hit in 1995, reaching number 28, and "Seal My Fate" managed to worm its way into the Top 40 as well. Epic, sweeping and featuring one of Tanya Donnelly's most convincing vocal performances, it comes dangerously close to the kind of commercial rock peddled by Alanis Morissette later in the decade, without quite losing its rougher or more unusual edges. It was the group's last single before breaking up, and it's difficult not to regard this as being an odd decision - if they had chosen to taken a break and reconvened a couple of years later, there's every possibility Belly could have become a much bigger act.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Volume 22 Tracks 6-10 - Ash, The Wannadies, Powder, Heavy Stereo, Intastella

6. Ash - Kung Fu (Infectious)

The anarchic, roaring stomp of "Kung Fu" felt like the moment Ash stopped being a fringe cult concern or a teen punk fanzine act, and began to scream through the speakers of evening radio like a serious proposition. It's a full-throttle delight, feeling chaotic enough to sound like a possible accident, but craftily hooky enough to cause listeners like me to suspect that the group were on their way up to bigger and better things.

It feels shorter than its allotted two-and-a-half minutes somehow, seeming like a peculiar minute-long rush of ideas all flashing past each other in an overwhelming fashion. It's not a work of melodic sophistication, as some of their later singles would try to be, but it lives up to its subject matter by feeling like several well-aimed chops to the body.

7. The Wannadies - Blister In The Sun (Indolent)

A somewhat odd inclusion on the compilation, this. It featured as the Swedish indie-pop sensations  flipside to the "You and Me Song", and seems to be another example of Beechwood picking a B-side over the more appreciated main track. A cover of the Violent Femmes song, it manages to jettison a lot of the charming lo-fi scrappiness of the original and replace it with a hard, rocking edge. For many listeners, that will probably cause it to lose an enormous amount of its original appeal - for me personally, it tightens up some of the original ideas and gives it a sheen which can potentially feel more appealing depending on what mood I'm in.

For such a cultish song, "Blister In The Sun" seems to have been covered by every bedroom boy or girl with a spare acoustic guitar and been on every advert and trailer on Earth now. In 1995, though, it was still a reasonably respectable, niche underground track before the floodgates burst open.

As for The Wannadies, they were huge in their native Sweden but never quite managed to have the major success predicted for them in the UK. A scattering of respectable but moderate chart positions later, they finally split up in 2009, but occasionally regroup for one off shows. While a lot of mid-tier Britpop bands around this period released cynical and plastic sounding bouncy songs with advertising jingle melodies, The Wannadies had a more intricate pop craft at their centre which was actually very welcome at the time, and there's no question they deserved at least a couple of bigger hits here.

8. Powder - Afrodisiac (Parkway)

Powder (often the group the entire Internet splutters "WHO?!" about whenever the BBC repeat their "Britpop Now" programme) were a peculiarly ever-present band throughout 1995. Signed by the PR gurus Savidge and Best to their Parkway label and fronted by Pearl Lowe, there were deeply held suspicions among some listeners that the band were mere "scenesters", hyped beyond measure and given opportunities above their rightful station. Lowe hit back by saying that they were signed by Parkway because they were "too uncommercial" to be on a major.

Unfortunately, I must admit to being one of the cynics. Powder are responsible for one of the most awful live music reviews I've ever written - awful in the sense that I absolutely lambasted the group and also awful in that, as with many scathing reviews, it reflected worse on me than the group themselves. I've long since shredded it in shame, but the irritation I felt around Powder had been building for some time, and peaked with a live show which was essentially a competent, pedestrian presentation of basic punk ideas delivered with smug arrogance and self-belief. Pearl Lowe strutted and pranced around, grinning from ear to ear, while delivering songs like "Afrodisiac" which sounded suspiciously similar to a lot of unsigned band demos I'd been hearing around the same time. Staring aghast at the band right at the top of the gig bill, I couldn't understand why them, or why now. 1995 wasn't short of chancers, of course. Menswear were often regarded as the top criminals in this respect, but what's often been overlooked since (even by some of their members) is that Menswear actually had at least three or four good tracks to their name. Powder didn't.

Listening to "Afrodisiac" again now, I still find myself cringing and getting increasingly angry when I hear the "It's a wrap/ take it back/ do ya feel crackerjack" chorus. Glued together in a mend-and-make-do fashion and then presented as the next big noise, it feels hollow - neither adrenalising, nor imaginative, nor witty, it's just another slice of slightly disappointing indie stomp.

Of course, far from brimming over with smugness and confidence, we've all since learned that Pearl Lowe ended up with serious drug addiction issues during this period. Sometimes it's difficult to remember that the stage persona in front of you is not necessarily the person as they really are, and nor does it reflect their self-belief or general state of mind at the time. Pearl Lowe's later musical work was also far more considered and much less scrappy than this, and Powder never really did make a proper album - so getting hot under the collar about their shortcomings really was a waste of my and everyone else's time.

9. Heavy Stereo - Sleep Freak (Creation)

Heavy Stereo were unfortunate enough to get signed to Creation right at the point when the music press were treating Alan McGee - aka The Man Who Signed Oasis - as an A&R guru who knew exactly where the action was. Getting news and gossip column inches purely on the basis of being the label's hottest new property, they were never really given a fair hearing, with opening expectations being far beyond reasonable.

When I first listened to "Sleep Freak" myself, my reaction was one of pure disappointment that the group clearly weren't the next big thing. As time wore on, however, its incessant glam stomp and power-driving chords won me over. In common with a number of other groups at this point, it half-inches ideas from a variety of sources, most notably T Rex and John Lennon's "Instant Karma", but manages to present something which sounds punchy and relatively fresh.

Heavy Stereo would never become proper contenders, and sure as hell weren't the "next Oasis", but frontman Gem Archer would later join the line-up of that band, which seems like a pretty reasonable runner-up prize.

10. Intastella - The Night (Planet 3)

Intastella had been around since the baggy era, and at the height of that movement were as critically acclaimed as many of their better known peers. Fronted by the confident, glitzy and glamorous Stella Grundy, tracks like "Dream Some Paradise" were minor club hits, but not big enough for their parent MCA Records, who were quick to drop them when baggy died.

The group are genuinely worthy of greater investigation if you haven't bothered already, and I'm saying this mainly because this cover of the Frankie Valli Northern Soul classic is a total misfire, and we won't get the chance to discuss them again. The original is filled to the brim with brassy flourishes, a rich atmosphere, creeping basslines and dramatic vocals, which are here replaced with a somewhat minimal electronic backing and slightly laissez-faire sounding vocals. Reduced to the basic kernal of its ideas, the band unfortunately "lose more than they found" and reduce it to a pulsing stomp - it's a good example of how a fantastic song can lose almost all of its appeal once its arrangement is radically altered.

Nonetheless, it acted as the group's fourth Top 75 entry, reaching number 60. They also continued until 1997, outlasting many of their peers.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Volume 22 Tracks 1-5 - Boo Radleys, Echobelly, Sleeper, Julian Cope, Teenage Fanclub

Format: CD/ cassette
Year of Release: 1995

The sleeve design of "Indie Top 20" changes again, this time to incorporate some subbuteo players on a bright green background. If the earliest volumes emerged with images of paper clips and thick-rimmed NHS glasses, the final volumes spluttered out with lots of retro and lad-mag friendly pictures of reassuring boyhood things. The final "Best Of" volume would (as we'll see) use tankards of ale on its sleeve, and Volume 23 toy racetrack cars. You can read into this whatever you like, but if the first LPs seemed to brag that indie music operated on the outskirts and predicted the future, the final ones seemed to be trying to tell us that indieland was a post-modern world of colourful old ideas belched back up as pop ate itself - music to relive your childhood fantasies to with your best drunken chums.

And that really depended on where you were looking, of course. There were numerous bursts of awkward psychedelia and seering bits of indie lo-fi creeping their way into the top ten indie chart by 1995, besides the stuff Chris Evans was happy to play on his Radio One breakfast show. Instead of trying to compete with the numerous major label funded indie compilations around at this point, Beechwood could have chosen to plough their own furrow by hoovering up a lot more of the critically acclaimed Peel and Evening Session bands who weren't making as much mainstream noise. The kids with hairgrips and duffle bags were back (back! Back!) and growing in number - now might have been a good time to differentiate and go back to basics. Other labels like Fierce Panda were beginning to push forward in this respect.

Sophisticated, intricately arranged alternative music was also alive and well thanks to the growing stature of the likes of Tindersticks, Jack, My Life Story, and shortly Divine Comedy - there was an entire Scott Walker/ Nick Cave/ French orchestral pop inspired division of indie which got plenty of press at the time, but barely seems acknowledged as any kind of nineties development now (if you haven't heard Jack, by the way, do yourself a favour and buy their first two LPs now). None of these bands would ever find their way on to the series.

Volume 22 is the penultimate "proper" Indie Top 20 LP, and is something of a compromise, filled to the brim with mostly mid-table commercial indie rock, only some of which flies. Certainly from an historical point of view, though, a lot of it has become fascinating since, but it creates an unreliable picture of the scene as a whole, and smacks of desperation. My singles box at home felt far more exciting in 1995 than this.

1. Boo Radleys - Wake Up Boo (Creation)

And with a big fat parp, the Radleys open things in a celebratory fashion. "Wake Up Boo" has become many things to the group since - an albatross and a regular royalty cheque chief among them, I suspect - and it's also become one of the most overplayed songs of the era, to the extent that trying to listen to it afresh is near impossible. Shortly after its release its jolly brassiness soundtracked Radio One Roadshows, adverts for Virgin Radio, BBC preview footage, sports footage and plenty of other things besides. Listening again, though, my first thought is that the opening bars of the single always did sound like library music which could be entitled "Celebratory Music For An Evening Quiz Show", so the fact it became a media backing track as well as an effervescent, ever-present piece of genuinely appreciated chart music shouldn't be that surprising.

While critics at the time made inevitable comparisons to the Beach Boys, "Wake Up Boo" doesn't sound a jot like anything Brian Wilson would have made, even in his earliest days. Its foot-kicking, vocal harmony infested jolliness resembles The Four Seasons at their most sprightly if anything, and the band confessed that they actually came up with the idea for the record after listening to Take That's version of "Could It Be Magic". Really, this is the group trying to write a pop hit after years of being a cult concern, and finding they were in a position to pull it off.

There was so much goodwill towards the Boos at the time that nobody resented them for trying to earn a reasonable living, and I think that possibly lead to "Wake Up Boo" getting a free critical pass it doesn't entirely deserve. Lyrically vague and scattershot - explanations vary, some arguing it's supposed to be about two lovers, one in some kind of LSD trip love affair with the world, the other dour and cynical, others that it's about the change from summer to autumn - and filled to the brim with the plastic bounce of a cheap Woolworths football, it's easy to tire of. It's very much an indie group's idea of what a pop song sounds like; all skip and froth and no conflicting emotional pull (the "Death of summer"/ "You have to put the death in everything" aspect makes it sound as if they tried to cover that base, but lacked the experience to pull it off, and as such it glides past almost unnoticed.) In short, "Could It Be Magic" performs the job much more satisfactorily, having a bit of groove and swagger in its hips. If you're in the wrong mood, "Wake Up Boo" can be a charmless caffeinated stomp by comparison, the noise of the office optimist screaming "Mor-NING!" loudly in your face.

It also put the Radleys in a difficult position. Listening to Radio One one day, I overheard a Roadshow host talking to a small nine year old girl. "We've got the Boo Radleys here today, do you like them?" he gushed. "No!" snapped the petulant girl immediately, clearly unwilling to spend the next six months being mocked by her schoolfriends. "Wake Up Boo" served a purpose and raised the group's profile to incredible heights, but the group didn't look or behave like pop stars (or even want to spend the rest of their careers writing pop songs) and were ill suited to the long-term task. Future singles from the number one parent LP "Wake Up" (a more diverse and satisfying work than you'd realise from the choice of singles alone, actually) performed better than their previous 45s, but none reached the top twenty, with the follow-up "Find The Answer Within" struggling to number 37 as it remained overshadowed by their previous release. You could have choked on the dust the group threw up while running back to the drawing board.

2. Echobelly - Great Things (Fuave)

Echobelly, on the other hand, released something that sounded like "an ambitious media studies graduate's CV set to jolly music", as one particularly harsh critic dubbed "Great Things" at the time. Again, this single makes the cardinal error of believing that a combination of effervescence and optimism, plus the magical ingredient of self-belief, equals pop heaven. It usually doesn't, and pop songwriting is often a far more complex business than that. It yearns, doubts and questions and wonders even at its most million-selling, recognising that most listeners are equally complex, and need those twists and ambiguities to hang on to.

"Great Things" sounds like nothing so much as an overlong advertising jingle for Sonya Madan's personal credentials. The spirit of optimism which shone on the 1995-6 period allowed stuff like this to appear acceptable, but the cold, harsh light of 2017 makes it feel faintly absurd. You wrote an indie-pop song bullet-pointing your personal aspirations? WHY? Even Courtney Love would balk in disbelief at that. Like a lot of Echobelly singles, this feels quaint beyond measure now.

3. Sleeper - Vegas (Indolent)

Conversely, I enjoy "Vegas" way more now than I did at the point of its release. It's easy to write this off as being another sketchy character-portrait, but unlike "Inbetweener", it has a real darkness and warmth to its heart. Leaning back on the standard mid-life crisis "now or never" tale of a man who believes he can become a star, it could choose to be gently mocking, but it's oddly tender instead. Doubtless Sleeper had come close enough to defeat themselves to touch this story with the respect it deserved.

This time, the arrangement drops in yearning string patterns which recall the likes of Welsh melodramatists Jack while never quite taking that route full-on - it instead pulls in two directions, with Wener's vocals frothing over her protagonist's career change, while the group keen and pull the song in a less optimistic direction. The message is clear. The poor old sod is doomed, a deluded and over-excited soul set up to fail. He's probably not going to even get laid in Las Vegas, much less become the next Tom Jones there.

When she wanted to, Louise Wener could actually do this sort of thing exquisitely well. "Vegas" is double-edged and detailed in a way that "Wake Up Boo" and "Great Things" utterly struggle to be, despite being less of a hit in the process (it crawled to number 33 at the time, a comparative flop if weighed up against their later, bigger hits). There's both Britpop kitsch and irony as well as a beating heart somewhere in here, and at this stage in the compilation, that comes as some relief.

Regrettably, though, at least some of this song - not least the occasional cry of "bingo" - seems to have inspired the awful "Bingo" by Catch some years later, often deemed to be the point at which Britpop officially died.

4. Julian Cope - Try Try Try (Echo)

And thank all the pagan deities for Copey. By this point in his career, some suspected him of being in a second slump. The first occurred in the eighties after the Teardrop Explodes demise, the second after he was dropped by Island for being "too old" (apparently) and found himself on the somewhat unfortunately named indie label Echo, just shortly before the Bunnymen themselves were getting back on their feet again.

His debut LP for that label "20 Mothers" is uneven, but when it peaks, it reveals the singer at his most immediately powerful. "Try Try Try" is a yearning cry relating to a family dispute which is far from "The Living Years" or "No Son Of Mine", instead taking the idea down to a bluesy accessibility. Driven by the grinding organ chords in the background, "Try Try Try" sees Cope thrash out in frustration and hopelessness, before taking the track to one of his most furiously simple but effective choruses since "World Shut Your Mouth". It was Radio One playlisted and his first minor hit in some years, meaning that his brief stint on Echo wasn't entirely a bad thing. By the time the game was up in 1996, though, he became a much more marginal figure in rock music, issuing music on his own Head Heritage label as well as writing a number of brilliant books.

Cope really should be up there with Mark E Smith or Nick Cave as a constant and major figure in British alternative music, and I sense that only his own lack of willingness to fully engage with the so-called "industry" at large stands in the way.

5. Teenage Fanclub - Sparky's Dream (Creation)

From the almost universally acclaimed return-to-form LP "Grand Prix", "Sparky's Dream" really does sound like The Fannies had lost the indie scrappiness that (usually charmingly) littered their earliest LPs and had honed their sound to something very close to perfect 70s power pop.

"Sparky's Dream" is both fantastically performed and engaging three-minute FM rock, something you find yourself doubting is in any way melodically original, checking the chord patterns for cribbed riffs as it goes. The group were really firing on all cylinders by this point, and still manage to launch great new music to this day. If the "Indie Top 20" series were still a "thing", they'd still be on there, checking in faithfully from Volume 10 to Volume 88.