Formats: Double Vinyl/ Long Play Cassette/ CD
The trials and tribulations of Beechwood Music continued unabated throughout 1990. The launch of Volume 9 of the Indie Top 20 series had, as we've discussed before, been disrupted by distribution issues. And the launch of Volume 10 saw an unexpected rival emerge in the form of the as-seen-on-TV mass-marketed compilation experts Telstar Records. They rushed out the freaky-dancing flavoured LP "Rave" at almost exactly the same time as "Indie Top 20 Volume 10", and was there a lot of crossover between the two tracklistings? Why yes, there was.
In direct response, a peculiar act of sabotage happened at Telstar's headquarters. Staff emerged one morning to find that their office had been plunged into semi-darkness by the appearance of fly-posters for "Indie Top 20 Volume 10" glued all over the windows. Beechwood Music denied responsibility and put the blame squarely on "fans of their series" - highly dedicated fans who also had access to quality printing machines, the graphic design masterplates of the latest Indie Top 20 sleeve and lots of glue, I'll bet. Telstar chose not to get the police involved and put the activity down to Christmas hi-jinks that had got out of hand, adding that "it's good to have a bit of competition over the period". The free publicity certainly can't have hurt either party...
In the end, "Rave" easily won out in the sales wars, and that's not surprising. It was a cheaply, sloppily produced piece of vinyl with the tightest microgrooves known to man meaning you had to crank the volume right up to get anything much out of it, but it was cheap. And for all that, it did actually contain some odd surprises. The Blue Aeroplanes, for example, and Ocean Colour Scene (in their baggy incarnation) and The Wicked Things, who released records on their own label and hardly anybody had ever heard of. In fact, they're not even on YouTube to this day.
As you can tell, I abstained from this great Indie Compilation War and bought copies of both albums like any good diplomat would. Telstar's effort is far poppier and features a bigger hit single quota, but "Indie Top 20 Volume 10" feels better overall. As we'll now see.
1. The Farm - Groovy Train (Terry Farley Mix) (Produce)
"Forget the music. These boys have got the most practical clothes I've ever seen" Harry Cross.
(You can, if you want, read some of the below entry in the voice of Alan Partridge).
Not long after I started attending sixth form college, I got myself involved in the college radio station. I briefly ran a very naive and ramshackle little show with a friend of mine, and to try and drum up some interest in it, we decided to run an end-of-year Festive Fifty styled poll of the student's favourite groups and solo acts. We approached people in the common room and during breaks to get them to give us their top three artists of 1990.
This exercise taught us a lot about teenage music tastes in South East Essex at this time (and also that walking around with a pen and notepad asking people their favourite bands made you seem like a dork at best or a sex pest at worst, but hey, most of us on college radio were definitely dorks). Firstly, more young people appreciated Phil Collins in 1990 than any NME, Melody Maker or even Smash Hits poll would ever have told you. He finished at around number twelve picking up lots of nods from deadly serious, usually faintly unfashionable youths who couldn't have given a shit that they weren't supposed to like him (if it had been an anonymous poll, I'd have been interested to see if his standing improved further still). Paul Simon managed to nudge in at number twenty by the skin of his teeth. And The Farm? They won overall. Aced it. They were the college's favourite band of 1990.
We were flabbergasted at the time, but looking back there were other factors afoot. We were asking people not long after the hugely appreciated "All Together Now" had been released, a record both my friend and I actually fancied taking a bet on being that year's Christmas Number One (especially after we added up the poll results). Also, The Farm were proving to be one of indie's great crossover bands. Most indie groups and their fans, even at this point, seemed aloof, judgemental and ever so slightly weird to the Henry and Wendy Normals of Britain, who didn't like loud guitars or skinny kids with floppy fringes on drugs. The Farm, on the other hand, were happy-go-lucky football supporting Scousers with cheeky grins on their chops and ordinary clothes and haircuts who also happened to be making some very voguish noises. Not only would they gain appreciation in my little corner of the world, but Smash Hits readers would award them "Best Indie Group" at their Poll Winners Party as well.
"Groovy Train" was, of course, their big breakthrough moment, making number six in the National Charts. Featuring a nagging and squeaky guitar riff, shuffling beats, and faintly pissed off lyrics about a haughty lady, it does sound unbelievably of its moment. When an indie-dance crack into the mainstream emerged in 1990, they rushed through it with gusto and threw everything they had at the wall, seeming like a family-friendly version of the Happy Mondays who probably wouldn't try to sell you drugs if they bumped into you at a nightclub. Even the chorus here is gloriously, piss-takingly cynical. "She says: Get on get on get on get on get on/ the groovy train" indeed, although from this distance it does seem as if Hooton was trying to get a rise out of baggy's biggest fashion victims.
In the end, though, The Farm are one of many groups throughout history to prove that when you're the mainstream pop flavour of a fleeting indie/ alternative zeitgeist, history tends to forget you and classic pop stations just don't play you all that much. For all its success at the time, "Groovy Train" is very seldom heard these days, whereas "Step On" and "Kinky Afro" remain inescapable by comparison.
It would have been good to get further chances to discuss The Farm again purely to get under the skin of why their demise throughout 1991 was so incredibly swift, despite releasing one of their finest singles in "Love See No Colour" - but they don't feature on "Indie Top 20" again after this.
2. The Shamen - Make It Mine (One Little Indian)
"Continually slotted in the same genre as The Happy Mondays, The Beloved, The Stone Roses and other indie-dance crossovers - The Shamen, like they did with "Pro-Gen", take it one step further with "Make It Mine"".
The Shamen really were entering an effervescent period of their careers at this point. "Pro-Gen" was all brassy melodies and excessive lyrical positivity, and "Make It Mine" ups the ante, taking neon Housey keyboard riffs and loud, distorted guitars and managing not to make them sound mismatched. "Jesus Loves Amerika" this isn't.
"Make It Mine" is one of those peculiar singles which sounded way more punchy and almost dangerous in 1990 than it does now. At the time, this seemed like a unique proposition, whereas after the likes of EMF and Jesus Jones poked into the pop charts, it began to feel somewhat sterile. It's important to try to remember that The Shamen did a lot of this stuff first, though, and were incredibly quick to pack the guitars away into their cases and lock them away in storage before the sound became outmoded.
3. Paris Angels - All On You (Perfume) (Sheer Joy)
(No sleeve notes were provided for this track).
It's been suggested by people far wiser than me that the early nineties indie-dance phase is ripe for a carefully compiled "Nuggets" styled compilation or box set. The theory goes that there was an explosion of creativity, energy and passion during the brief period which owed a debt to, but also acted as a progression beyond, the late sixties psychedelic era.
And it's indeed odd the way the "baggy era" has been condensed in rock history to the obvious names (Roses, Mondays, Charlatans, Inspirals) when so many other groups released astonishing pieces of work outside of the Top 40. The careers of the also-ran bands, much like their sixties cousins, may mostly have been confined to one or two dynamite 45s and one very patchy LP, but those sticks of nitroglycerin created some of the happiest nights of my life.
"Perfume", whether you like it or not, was absolutely huge among a certain crowd at the time. Big enough that there were a couple of instances of Paris Angels graffiti at my sixth form college (probably inked by the same person, to be fair) and that it was a constant alternative club staple. But unlike so many 1990 singles, it still sounds unbelievable. From that cheeky "What Time Is Love" inspired loop to the jangling guitars and the epic, soaring, choral female backing vocals it absolutely soars. It's the sound of young kids with access to huge record collections digging through the debris to cherry-pick the finest noises and finally come up with something that sounds utterly contemporary - the Ian Curtis styled drone of the male lead vocals balances brilliantly with the angelic backing of Jayne Gill to create something really bittersweet, something which is every bit as much "indie" as it is "dance".
Even the video manages to present the band as a bunch of garage-based urchins who just happened to have stumbled on a magic formula - smirks and grins all over their faces as the track builds and explodes into dancefloor bliss. Sadly, they never would sound this fantastic again, and a subsequent LP for Virgin Records - released just as the sunset emerged for the whole indie-dance genre - failed to completely live up to expectations. But for "Perfume", I'm completely happy to give the group a lifetime pass. It may have happened by accident rather than design, but it's a staggering, towering piece of work, and one I still return to a great deal.
4. The KLF - What Time Is Love? (Echo & The Bunnymen Mix) (KLF Communications)
"The KLF first released the original version of this track in November 1988 when it was virtually ignored. In March 1990 they played three dates with the new look Echo & The Bunnymen after which The Bunnymen went into the studio to rework the track for posterity".
Ah yes, the "new look" Echo & The Bunnymen. That would be the McCullochless incarnation absolutely everyone has ever forgotten existed, as McCulloch sodded off to form Electrafixion, another band whose impact on popular culture was somewhat negligible.
Still, this reimagining of "What Time Is Love" proved that the band's darkest days did at least produce one source of light. Filled to the brim with backwards guitars, sitar loops, tabla rattling and mystical samples, WTIL was given an unexpectedly old-school psychedelic reworking. Even if the nature of the track becomes trance-like in an old school 1967 way rather than a modern capital "t" Trance way, it acted as a perfectly valid gateway between the droning pop of the sixties and modern Acidic sounds, showing that there was a common lineage whether anyone (apart from Steve Hillage) wanted to acknowledge it or not. They even threw in the goose noises from Pink Floyd's "Bike" at the end to really labour the point.
Ultimately though, would I rather listen to the original? Definitely. In fact, there are even better remixes of "WTIL" out there than this, the Hendrix-riddled "Techno Gate" mix of the track on the original track's B-side being but only one example. The Echo & The Bunnymen mix of this is a curiosity rather than a superior version, but that didn't stop Telstar from also giving this version a place on their "Rave" LP as well. After all, I suppose - why try to grab sales from fans of one band when you could earn sales from two?
5. Renegade Soundwave - Biting My Nails (Bassnumb Chapter) (Mute)
"A pulse-quickener of a beat, weird dub particles and stray radiation waves from dying satellites, all collide in an effect like a sharp intake of crystal meth."
I'm not sure who those sleeve-notes came from, but Renegade Soundwave sometimes did have a faint whiff of Super Hans about them... so odds-on it was one of the group.
That aside, "Biting My Nails" is a minimal and bass-heavy, robotic and almost threatening sound. It would later be souped up for use in the Nintendo console adverts, showing that while the single itself remained relatively underground, it had a slick modernity about it which loaned itself well to "the kids". It still sounds bossy and threatening even now, but all without losing any appeal - while The Shamen et al may have been punching their fists in the air, Renegade Soundwave were still a bit sinister and devilish in comparison.