Sunday, 5 February 2017

Indie Top Video Take Six (inc Cranes, Manic Street Preachers, No-Man) & Best of Indie Top Video

Year of Release: 1991

Unless someone can prove otherwise, I'm pretty sure that these were the last two videos issued in the "Indie Top 20" series. The idea was becoming increasingly unpopular and they were starting to get stocked in fewer places. As nice an idea as these VHS views into the world of independent music were, it has to be said that their appeal was somewhat limited and their novelty waned quickly. Bands on independent labels were generally not cash-rich (the likes of Depeche Mode and New Order aside) and their promo videos could occasionally be inventive, but were frequently basic afterthoughts, swiftly cobbled together moving images created with the half-hearted hope of getting a slot on Saturday morning TV or MTV's "120 Minutes".

Even I'd given up by "Take Six". As much as I love "Spirit" by The Bridewell Taxis, for example, and I think the band-made promo is a lovely example of what a group can produce under their own creative steam, it's hardly "True Faith". There was little point in spending money on buying these videos if I was only likely to watch them three times then never really look at them again.

The sales slump for these is most apparent when you consider the relative scarcity of "The Best of Indie Top Video", the companion piece to the best-selling "Best Of" album. Discogs doesn't list it, and it turns up on ebay extremely infrequently these days. So rare is it that I had to actually go fishing and ask reader Gareth Windbank (who has his own copy) what the tracklisting even was. Thanks to him for his help in putting this entry together. It has to be said that the contents explain its low sales - there are no bonus tracks at all and most of the contents had only recently been released on other Indie Top Video volumes.

The same rules as always apply to this entry. If it's a bonus video not featured on the main vinyl/ cassette/ CD series, I'll discuss it in more depth. If it's not, I'll link back to the blog entry the track relates to.

Take Six

1. The Charlatans - Then (Dead Dead Good)

2. My Jealous God - Pray (Rough Trade)

3. The Bridewell Taxis - Spirit (Stolen)

4. Pale Saints - Half-Life Remembered (4AD)

5. Teenage Fanclub - God Knows It's True (Paperhouse)

6. Carter USM - Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (Rough Trade)

7. Buffalo Tom - Birdbrain (4AD)

8. Cranes - I Hope (Dedicated) - bonus video

So the question of the day was: Were Portsmouth's Cranes really a shoegazing band, or a goth group who had somehow trojan horsed their way on to the indie circuit? Similar criticisms were hurled in the direction of Curve, who we've yet to discuss, but Cranes were wildly different to them. While Toni Halliday softly cooed her threats and warped ideas, Alison Shaw squawked and gurgled them like a small girl cornered by something unthinkable. Her vocal performances were such that even when the group were at their most delicate and intricate, they still managed to sound somewhat unsettling.

"I Hope" is particularly horrible in a fascinating way. Discords, pounding tribal drums and meaty basslines meet Shaw's vocals to make the whole thing sound haunted or infected. It's disturbing in a way that the likes of Sisters of Mercy of Fields of the Nephilim never managed to be with their epic sound, but I suppose the main question should be whether I actually feel I need to hear it ever again -  and I don't think I do.

Unlike many of either their shoegazing or goth cousins, their unique sound also seemed to place Cranes at an awkward dead end in terms of influence - unless we count the eerie and childlike nature of 2016's great hopes Let's Eat Grandma, with whom they share a few stylistic similarities.

As a post-script, I'll add that when I lived in Portsmouth I saw Alison Shaw walking towards me along Commercial Road once, didn't fully process where I knew her from, wrongly assumed that it was from some unidentifiable place in my social life, and smiled in what I hoped was a friendly way. She looked at me in a very confused fashion, scowled and then carried on about her business... and then it registered with me that I only knew her from copies of the NME and episodes of "The Chart Show". Oops.

9. Manic Street Preachers - Motown Junk (Heavenly) - bonus video

There were lots of us who weren't wholly convinced by the Manic Street Preachers early on. Steve Lamacq, for example, whose line of questioning perturbed Richey Edwards so much that he carved "4 Real" into his forearm to prove the group were the genuine article. Then, in the world outside the media, there were people like me who felt we were possibly being fleeced. This has become an inexcusable, unthinkable stance in the years since, and the revised history would suggest that we were all introduced to their genius and immediately bowled over.

What you thought of them probably depended a lot on how old you were, and how many of their influences you had already absorbed or rejected, and I really have to be clear about this - by 1991, a sloganeering male rock group festooned in make-up and fake leopardskin clothes was already, well... slightly suspect and distinctly out of step with the times. Small independent rock labels like FM and Music For Nations had already mass-marketed lots of UK smalltown glamorous rock and glam metal acts abroad, and while the Manics always were more intelligent, more broadly influenced and nuanced and less downright silly than either them or the cock rock acts, it was bound to sit uncomfortably with those of us who had already suffered years of torture. Let's just say that in 1990, if you turned up at your local niterie wearing make-up with carefully sprayed hair and a leopardskin coat and shades, nobody thought you were a fan of the Manics. Everybody would have assumed your interests lay with a glam rock band instead. That the band's fans now frequently dress like this and have managed to turn it into an instantly recognisable identifying factor is a testament to how huge and overpowering the Manics influence has become.

Second issue; the punk influences. Birdland had already tried this and failed to make an impact, and everyone had since moved on to different styles. It's hard to imagine this since they've been co-opted into rock's mainstream, but The Stone Roses were insurrectionary in an odd and different way, and in a manner that didn't involve barking slogans to three thrashed chords. They referenced ideas like the 1968 Paris riots in a nuanced and faintly surreal way, and splashed themselves with Pollock paint rather than spray-on slogans. Were they more literate than the Manics? No, but they were usually more imaginative.

And finally; the fact that the band were frequently feted as intelligent lyricists and erudite men, while quoting GCSE syllabus standards like Sylvia Plath in interviews, or widely acclaimed modern authors. They were tasteful and seldom mentioned anyone whose work was terrible, but at the time it seemed self-conscious, obvious, afraid to be too different or wrong, worried about potentially alienating a young audience with difficult ideas. In short, it seemed a bit calculated. It wasn't as if the early nineties lacked literate groups, intellectual gobshites or intelligent lyricists in any case. This was an age of Cathal Coughlan, Luke Haines, Nick Cave, even Mark E Smith... it didn't really need someone wearing glam outfits and quoting Plath. Did it?

So you could say I wasn't an instant convert to the Manics. I prodded at their work suspiciously with sticks. I took badly to the sheer self-importance of their proclamations, and the vulgar bullshit about recording a 16 million selling debut album then splitting up (I don't despise ambition, but come on, that's just an idle brag worthy of Donald Trump, only he would probably add "Then I'll invest and make serious money out of property"). But still... I had to admit that "Motown Junk" was an incredible force and an amazing single. An astonishing track with essentially not much at all behind it, to the extent that it's miraculous it actually holds together. The chorus hangs on one single chord and the chant of "Motown Junk!" continuously, before finding a second chord right at the last moment, releasing the pent-up tension instantly. The rest of the track is a furious thrash, an accomplished modernisation of punk, far superior to "Hollow Heart". Really, the Manics were closer to the destructive pop art of The Who than Birdland's beery, devil-may-care mayhem.

Lyrically it's less compelling than their later work. The line "I laughed when Lennon got shot" is clearly there just to grab attention, and "We live in urban hell/ we destroy rock and roll" at the end could have come from a 1977 punk B-side (and anyway, we all knew they didn't live in urban hell - they were from Blackwood). But it's a mish-mash of ideas, a montage of definitively Manics images, and as such a fine introduction, a clarion call, a torch beckoning bored, bookish suburban kids to its flame. A broad part of their appeal at the time seemed to be that the film the young Manics imagined they were living through inside their own heads was also an exaggerated visual idea shared by bored fantasising Home Counties kids, or teenagers in market towns in the middle of nowhere - the inauthenticity of it mattered little for as long as their fantasy visions meshed. Suede would later on present a differently seedy yet oddly glamorous dreamworld to a similar cult effect.

Me? I'd admire this at the time, but go back to my Fatima Mansions LPs, and the twisted journey of the KLF. The former seemed more literate and imaginative in their protest (but way less glamorous) the latter more exciting, unorthodox and unpredictable. Those two bands did a lot to get me through my teenage years in commuterville, whereas the Manics wouldn't really impact on me as much. But I couldn't look away either... and I do still own their first five albums, and my relationship with the group would become less doubtful and troubled as time went on.

10. Front 242 - Tragedy For You (RRE)

11. New Fast Automatic Daffodils - Fishes Eyes (PIAS)

12. Flowered Up - Phobia (Heavenly)

13. No-Man - Colours (Probe Plus) - bonus track

The vaguely uncategorisable yet frequently dreamy No-Man hailed from Hemel Hempstead, and combined funky or jazzy breaks with classical inspired violin lines, breathy vocals and a psychedelic feel. Proto-Trip Hop they weren't, however - they were more wistful and comfortable than that.

Like Porcupine Tree, No Man also weren't really much of a part of the baggy movement despite their blissed-out leanings. Rather, they were out on their own presenting a cosy, hushed, rural presentation of neo-psychedelia, one where you might find yourself tripping in a barn while Classic FM leaks out from your portable transistor radio.

"Colours" is a cover of the Donovan track and was released during a point when that man's reputation was enjoying a brief and seemingly yet-to-be-repeated revival. His daughter was in a relationship with Shaun Ryder, "Hurdy Gurdy Man" had been covered by the Butthole Surfers, and although comedians Trevor and Simon saw fit to pastiche his work on Saturday morning children's television -a baffling situation whose nearest modern equivalent would probably be children's entertainers parodying Tim Booth out of James today - that only seemed to increase his visibility still more. For a few moments in the early nineties, Donovan felt ever-present and almost contemporary.

Whether "Colours" works for you in this guise depends a great deal on whether you like the original, and to be honest, I don't very much. It's too much of a simplistic, rural, cornball Bob Dylan imitation, and even with beats and an added ambient atmosphere can't help but feel slight. There's no question that a lot of Donovan's work deserves to be dug up and taken seriously again, mind you - the proto-Nick Drakeisms of "Sunny Goodge Street" alone rank as one fuck of an achievement - but this isn't where I'd personally start, and No-Man can't save it.

14. Moonflowers - Get Higher (Heavenly)

And finally - "The Best Of Indie Top Video" looks like this:

1. The Farm - Stepping Stone (Produce)

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

3. New Order - Fine Time (Factory)

4. Soup Dragons - Mother Universe (Big Life)

5. The Charlatans - The Only One I Know (Situation Two)

6. The Sundays - Joy (Rough Trade)

7. Lightning Seeds - Pure (Ghetto)

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

9. Eat - Psycho Couch (Non-Fiction)

10. Wedding Present - Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now (Reception)

11. Pop Will Eat Itself - Def Con One (Chapter 22)

12. Danielle Dax - White Knuckle Ride (Awesome)

13. Fields of the Nephilim - Preacher Man (Situation Two)

14. Loop - Collision (Chapter 22)

15. Carter USM - Bloodsport For All (Rough Trade)


  1. Always interesting to read about the accompanying VHS releases. I remember both of them being "reduced to clear" in KG Discs at the time. Mind you, they were still a tenner even at that. VHS didn't give you much bang for your buck in those days - three episodes of Doctor Who for £20?

    The Manics played a short Irish tour around the time of Motown Junk's release. They appeared in Waterford's Mansion House on 26 April 1991 and banged out a 25 minute set. It was pretty thrilling. The local record shop got about 20 people in the next day looking for the Motown Junk 12" - but the shop only had one copy.

    It was a busy weekend for the following night saw Morrissey return to live gigs at Dublin's National Stadium. Electric atmosphere but marred (ha!) by constant stage invasions from cardigan-clad fans.

  2. Yes - it's a big reason why I didn't buy all the Indie Top Videos. They were a luxury item, and I could often buy two LPs for the price of one of them.

    I've also been to see Morrissey live and witnessed the confident expressions on the security guard's faces - "This bunch of underfed waifs clearly aren't going to give us any issues tonight!" you can tell they're thinking - only to have their work seriously cut out by attempted stage invasions. I'd never try to get down the front for a Morrissey gig. Carnage, I tell you.