Sunday, 25 June 2017

Volume 17 Side 4 - The Fall, Cornershop, Madder Rose, Mint 400, Miranda Sex Garden

1. The Fall - Why Are People Grudgeful? (Permanent)

It feels odd that we've ploughed through 17 Indie Top 20 compilations now and not once managed to discuss The Fall. Odd, but technically correct, that is. While The Fall were arguably one of the earliest groups to achieve cult success without going anywhere the ink of a major label contract, by the mid-eighties they were on the Warner Brothers-affiliated Beggars Banquet, then jumped from there to Phonogram. By the time the "Indie Top 20" series started, then, they were about as "indie" (in the true sense of the word) as Big Country.

The early nineties weren't a kind period to cult bands, though, and like That Petrol Emotion on Side 3, they found themselves booted away from the financial certainties of a major label and on to the smaller Permanent Records - who were still distributed by BMG, but we'll let that pass (Beechwood obviously did).

This is also one of the only periods of The Fall's career where it's possible to get a sense of concessions being made to record labels, or at least some bait being dangled to put the group in a more sure-footed position. Their "Infotainment Scan" LP was demo'd while the band were without a deal and seems to have been partly developed almost as a sweetener to interested labels. It's a fantastic album and possibly my favourite Fall LP, just because it contains all the awkward hard edges, scattershot lyrics and wry observations you'd expect, but it also pulses and shines. Moments like their cover of "Lost In Music" and "A Past Gone Mad" throb with dance-friendly rhythms, making the group almost sound like a replacement for the by now completely washed up Happy Mondays (who, of course, used The Fall as a starting template for their sound).

Their cover of the reggae track "People Grudgeful" by Sir Gibbs - actually a bit of a dis in the direction of Lee "Scratch" Perry - takes the weary and frustrated skank of the original and beefs it out beyond belief, adding distinctly African sounding guitar work, punching bass drum sounds, and unashamedly commercial, Essex-friendly techno noises. It's rare to use a phrase such as "It's a banger!" in relation to a record by The Fall, but it really is, and while it may not have seen the same chart action as their other slight hits "Victoria" and "There's A Ghost In My House", it's far better, bigger and shinier than either of them. There's also little doubt that it helped nudge the group into the Top Ten album charts for the first and last time in their careers. These were the finest times of our lives...

2. Cornershop - Trip Easy (Wiiija)

Initially, it was far easier to fall in love with the idea of Cornershop and what they represented than their earliest records, which were faintly confused sounding and very lo-fi. While it seems to have been largely forgotten since, people from Asian backgrounds were deeply unrepresented in British popular culture before the early nineties (though Sheila Chandra briefly broke through as a musician and personality - see my other blog here) to the extent of being almost invisible. Cornershop were spurred into existence by some of the misguided drivel Morrissey had begun uttering at this point, and felt like a positive reaction against both his little Englander rhetoric and the under-acknowledged lack of diversity within the music industry, as well as the sickening inroads the BNP were making into politics at this point.

Their early singles, while shot through with irritation, sarcasm and knowing references and in-jokes, weren't really particularly distinguished from numerous other low budget agitprop groups of the period. Their psychedelic use of sitar droning did set them apart slightly, but many of the records sounded like what they were - the punkish noise of a very new group who hadn't fully formulated all their ideas yet.

Of all their singles and EPs from this period, "England's Dreaming" is the only track where the noisy chaos actually sounds thrilling and ever so slightly dangerous. Somewhat bafflingly, Beechwood bypassed that one for this compilation and skipped on to the next track off the "Lock Stock & Double-Barrel EP", "Trip Easy". As the title suggests, it's one of their dronier, more psychedelic outings, shimmering naively in a distinctly low budget way, never quite setting out what it achieves to do during its very brief run time. Like The Jesus and Mary Chain attempting an equivalent of "Their Satanic Majesty's Request", it's a nice idea on paper but not something that quite works on your turntable. You could argue that the tracks of theirs which utilise the sitar are effectively reclaiming it back from the middle class hippies who had cynically used the instrument in their work, but there are no significant leaps forward here.

In time, Cornershop would produce some brilliant and fully realised singles and albums. Their lo-fi years definitely hinted towards that possibility, but nobody was ever fully sure if they would still be an active concern after 1993 was over, never mind a group who would eventually reach number one in the "proper" charts.

3. Madder Rose - Beautiful John (Seed)

New York's Madder Rose were immense John Peel favourites in 1993 (and beyond) and actually produced some of the era's most intricate, yearning and beautiful singles. "Car Song" and "Panic On" from their major label years in 1994 saw dirty, exhausted country rock meet the youthful angst of indie, sounding all the better for it.

"Beautiful John" kicked up the dust a lot more, however, and seemed to be celebrating the rugged masculinity of John Wayne and other similar figures (and not Peel himself, as some listeners may have suspected). It's a lazy, hazy, light hearted stroll through American Western mythology which was wildly appreciated by critics and listeners alike in 1993, but seems rather slight now, particularly in comparison with some of the group's later material.

The group signed to Atlantic Records and continued on their journey until 1999, when dwindling interest caused them to unplug their guitars and move on.

4. Mint 400 - Natterjack Joe (Incoherent)

Oh. Yes, this lot... Mint 400 were (apparently) a very loud and seering live band, and when grunge was at its peak, were briefly deemed one of Britain's great hopes. A succession of critically slated releases greeted with general public indifference soon saw them swept to one side within a matter of months, though, and they have been largely forgotten since (they don't even have their own Wikipedia page, for shame).

"Natterjack Joe" has teeth and a very doomy air, and snaps away for six minutes about nothing in particular. It makes precisely the right noises, but also sounds fairly indistinguishable from the numerous unsigned UK alternative rock groups who shouted a lot with Home Counties accents and cluttered up the local gig circuit at this point. While more successful groups of this ilk managed to kick you in the gut or shove you sideways by their force of personality, Mint 400 occasionally sound as if they're play-acting, and the production here is hollow and unflattering.

To this day their output is not without its fans online, but I genuinely can't see a broader reassessment of their work occurring any time soon.

5. Miranda Sex Garden - Sunshine (Abrasion Mix) (Mute)

We last met Miranda Sex Garden on Volume 12, and now they're back with what can only be described as some madrigal singing combined with primitive drum patterns and frantic indie guitar chords. It hadn't been attempted often before, and it's possibly reasonably safe to assume it won't happen again.

The ensuing racket genuinely works uncannily well, though. While the mix-and-match approach may seem like a contrived attempt to get the moody indie kids on board with some youth-unfriendly Radio Three styled ideas, I caught the group live during this period and they appeared in their element. Dressed like posh, moody goths, they grinned from ear to ear at the noise they were creating - at least, when they weren't glowering intensely - and generally put on a brilliant show, giving the appearance of being much more than an unusual and rather marginal band.

As stated previously, the core elements of the band would have considerably more success later on in The Mediæval Bæbes, where a return to the more traditional elements of their sound would be marketed to an older audience of Sunday glossy supplement readers.

Was this scrapyard video an inspiration for the numerous bits of Chart Show indie chart visual filler during the later years of that show's life, I wonder?

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Volume 17 Side Three - Slowdive, Frank Black, Hole, That Petrol Emotion, Mega City Four

1. Slowdive - Alison (Creation)

By 1993, whatever initial buzz there had been around Slowdive had almost entirely waned. The press were largely scornful, sales were weak, and despite going "ambient techno" at the end of the year in an incredibly successful and convincing way, they were done for, limping on until 1995 but barely registering in the public's consciousness (though I'm sure in a parallel universe somewhere, they did manage to successfully reinvent themselves as a techno outfit).

That's annoying, because "Alison" is probably the finest single they released, an incredibly mature piece of work which left their earliest trippy-hippy offerings in the dust. For once, their sound isn't altogether sure of itself, and a menace creeps into "Alison" which isn't immediately apparent, but the more you listen to it, the more it's there, like a previously unnoticed shadow in the corner of the room. Focusing all its attention on a woman whose "messed up world still thrills me", the track's hazy production then envelopes itself around the chorus, where the lines "Alison, I said, we're sinking/ But she lies and tells me she's just fine" suddenly reveal discontent and disquiet. The tune warps its way around this idea, portraying a druggy tranquility masking something wrong with the lives of the protagonists. For all its apparent blissed euphoria, there's a clear wobble to this single's stride.

It's all very ambiguous, of course, and that makes it all the more compelling. Throughout the years I've listened to this single, I've invented a multitude of possible scenarios for the couple in the song, and I'd have hated the band to spoil any story - assuming there is one - by being explicit (Elbow attempted something on very similar lines with their single "Powder Blue", but it lacked the same subtlety and mystery).

Had Slowdive been bouyed up enough by critics and their record label to carry on through right the mid-nineties, there's a slight possibility they'd have become an "important" band in the way we now consider Radiohead or My Bloody Valentine to be "important". Indifference from all sides blasted away any hope of that, however.

2. Frank Black - Hang On To Your Ego (4AD)

Who could forget how excited we were by Frank Black's solo career after the demise of Pixies? His early releases were the subject of much press and public (or at least indie kid) curiosity, and... well, without wanting to be entirely dismissive, unfortunately most of us did tend to go running further towards The Breeders section in our local record stores. In some cases that was rather dismissive, as large chunks of his solo work actually stand up. In the case of others, we'll have to cough politely.

With "Hang On To Your Ego", it's actually completely impossible to understand what on Earth he was trying to accomplish. As a cover version of a much-loved "Pet Sounds" track it almost sounds like a stabbing piss-take. Brian Wilson's original idea is peppered with lots of analogue synthesiser bleeps and boops, and an almost early Seventies Chicory Tip styled rhythm. Lawrence out of Felt/ Denim probably loved this, but it was an utterly baffling single to most of us, albeit one which sounded like fun for the first few spins.

3. Hole - Beautiful Son (City Slang)

Comparisons are probably unnecessary, but I always preferred Hole to Nirvana. Nirvana were the slick, acceptable face of grunge, whereas Hole had such a creeping air of menace about them at this point that some of their tracks almost pinned you to the wall. This was obviously helped by the fact that Courtney Love's force of delivery and character was so intense. Whatever you think of her as a person, or where her career has gone since, her complex character and huge ego left an impact on every record and live show.

Hole's work was littered with strange, disturbing imagery as well, not least this single's line "You look good in my clothes/ I can feel you where the doctor goes" which sits uneasily with all the menacing chords around it. While the track was written about Kurt, that doesn't stop the idea from being any less strange.

However, the crucial difference between Hole and other groups of the era like Babes In Toyland was their ability to combine those warped moments with sudden bursts of melody or other subtle emotions - in this case, the line "You're barren, like me" at the end. Whereas their rivals screamed and shouted for two minutes, kicking up hell along the way, Hole dropped their guard and showed their underbelly just often enough to provoke more interest.

4. That Petrol Emotion - Detonate My Dreams (Koogat)

Northern Ireland's That Petrol Emotion felt as if they had been around forever at this point. Featuring The Undertones' lead guitarist Brendan O'Neill and beginning their recording career in 1986, most of their records up until this point had been issued on major labels, with the band earning themselves contractual stints with both Polydor and Virgin.

After their time with Virgin also resulted in no hits whatsoever and only a cult following to speak of, they retreated to release their final LP "Fireproof" on their own Koogat label. While the group tried to downplay the move as potentially positive in that it would allow them more creative freedom, inevitably it couldn't last, and they split up not long afterwards.

This is frustrating, as "Detonate My Dreams" is one of their finest moments. Sounding as if they had taken at least some of their cues from the Manic Street Preachers, it sees the band edging towards a rockier, more anthemic sound without losing a shred of their original darkness and edginess. It's filled to the brim with a sparky energy and a defiant attitude, and could have perhaps actually performed better commercially with some major label support. But it was too late for that now... and as a result, this is probably one of their most unjustly under appreciated singles.

5. Mega City Four - Iron Sky (Big Life)

Mega City Four were the Transit van workhorses of the early nineties indie scene, building a sizeable cult following not through major critical acclaim or radio airplay (though Peel loved them) but through their willingness to seemingly play every single smalltown toilet heading north up the UK - then do it all again on the south road back to their native Farnborough again.

"Iron Sky" wasn't their strongest single from this period. The jangly sixties pop of "Stop" and the power pop melodies of "Shivering Sands", both minor Top 40 hits, would be better examples. Nonetheless, it does typify their sound and possibly explain their appeal. They were a straightforward, punkish, meat-and-potatoes band who favoured simple, catchy songs with moody, angsty lyrics. Their music enjoyed a very minor second wave in the mid-nineties as some of the baggy trouser wearing skate kids picked up on their sound, finding it compatible with a number of the poppier US punk bands who were finally emerging on UK record store racks.

The band broke up in 1996, but the careers of lead singer Wiz and bass player Gerry Bryant continued for awhile afterwards in the group Serpico. Sadly, Wiz developed a blood clot on his brain and passed away in December 2006.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Volume 17 Side Two - Suede, The Auteurs, Kinky Machine, Delicious Monster, Cranes

1. Suede - The Big Time (Nude)

By this point, Suede had achieved what many considered to be impossible in 1993. An alternative band with guitars (and not a hint of a dance remix to help them along) had become a major act, splashed across the front pages of both music magazines and the Sunday supplements. When invited to appear on the Brit Awards to perform live, they played a faintly imperfect but very spirited and edgy take on "Animal Nitrate" while Brett Anderson bashed his microphone against his bottom.

"Animal Nitrate" hit the top ten and Suede seemed to have occupied the same cultural position as The Smiths or The Stone Roses prior to them - they were the token indie band in the mainstream, the act everyone rooted for on a Sunday evening, waiting to hear on the radio if their release had come straight into the top ten, or even edged it to number one.

Suede's position as the Kings of Indie was cruelly brief compared to many of their predecessors, though. This was for a variety of reasons, not least that their success helped to usher in a whole wave of other skinny kids with guitars, and they would find themselves having to share media space with Blur, Oasis, and Pulp et al rather than being the main focal point. On top of that, they lacked the populist touch of many of their emerging rivals. Their Brit Awards performance highlights that - it feels faintly eccentric and threatening somehow, designed to make it feel as if the event had been gatecrashed by outsiders. It's clearly not an attempt to win over the Henry and Norma Normals watching, it's a clarion call to any suburban oddballs in the country who may not have been touched by Suede's ideas yet.

Nestling on the B-side of "Animal Nitrate" was this, "The Big Time", which showcased another side to Suede that was frequently being overlooked. A weary ballad about a hidden-away, closeted homosexual lover to a famous person, it's melodically simple but achingly effective, utilising a song structure not entirely dissimilar to some of Scott Walker's efforts on "Scott 3". It's the sound of weary, repressed, burden-bearing England, but rather than crudely painting its central character as a desperate caricature, it sounds emotionally vivid and deeply personal - an alternate take on Twinkle's "Golden Lights" with way more exhaustion and baggage.

It also pointed a possible way forward for Suede. Later on in 1993, they appeared on television performing an acoustic version of what some mooted might be their next single, "Still Life". Rather than the thumping, angular razzle and dazzle of "Animal Nitrate" or "Metal Mickey", it sounded plain, beautiful and broken. "Dog Man Star" would be a bit fuller and richer than that, but it wouldn't sound any more upbeat. It was almost as if Suede were walking away from the very sound they had helped to popularise and becoming a more complicated group.

2. The Auteurs - How Could I Be Wrong (Hut)

The Auteurs emerged from the ashes of the cult C86 group The Servants, and were one of the original bundle of groups the word "Britpop" was used in relation to. Select magazine ran the headline "Yanks go home!" in April 1993, and listed them alongside Suede, St Etienne, Pulp and - er - Denim as among the new wave of British groups likely to transform our fortunes both at home and abroad.

Lead singer Luke Haines' scabrous biography "Britpop and My Part In Its Downfall" is dark and hilarious, acting as a decadent rock and roll take on "A Confederacy of Dunces" stylistically. Throughout, Haines continually portrays himself as a worldly, erudite man with a foul temper and sharp tongue surrounded by vain opportunists and idiots paddling in the shallow end of culture. He'd bloody hate this blog.

While the book makes for fantastic reading, it also serves to underline what, for me, has always been a weakness with The Auteurs records. Haines' personality - or, at least, his public image - is bitter, aloof and detached, and that cuts through every single record. There's a sub-zero feel to a lot of what the group did, even playing with provocative lyrical ideas without any clear conclusions, archly sneering at listeners who might be disturbed or shocked (interestingly, Haines recently confessed that as a parent, he would now find songs like "Unsolved Child Murder" difficult to write or perform, which suggests he's more interested in shocking other people than exploring ideas or elements of his own psyche he feels uncomfortable with. I'm not entirely condemning this, I just find it interesting).

Regrettably, "How Could I Be Wrong" is possibly one of their weakest early singles too, hanging everything on a slight melody and a world-weary plodding tempo. It sulks along without leaving behind much impression, the only real point of interest being the mismatch between the lyrics and the song's overall mood - "The stars are brighter/ are lighter/ than they have been for years" Haines sings, part hushed, part exhausted and weary, before following it up doubtfully with "How could I be wrong?" It's the sound of a man who can't quite believe his luck and wants to whisper about his good fortune for fear of jinxing it, certain that the large cheque he's just been given to cash will bounce. Even the drumbeats afterwards are ponderous rather than celebratory.  Given The Auteurs eventual standing in the grand scheme of things, it's unfortunately appropriate.

3. Kinky Machine - Supernatural Giver (Lemon)

The West London based Kinky Machine were cult favourites on the live circuit, and it could be argued have become rather ignored scene-setters for Britpop. Releasing singles with clear glam rock and classic pop influences, they were out of step with grunge in 1991 when they formed and had largely lost momentum by the time the first winds of change emerged in their favour.

Still, elements of "Supernatural Giver" ended up being used as introductory music for MTV's regular "120 minutes" alternative music slot, and climbed to Number 70 on the national charts. It's a swaggering piece of Bolan boogie, really, a stomping, barnstorming slice of retro which is a total delight to listen to, but at the time paled in comparison to developments elsewhere. While the likes of Suede and Pulp were pocketing elements of the past and analysing and reshaping them for the future, Kinky Machine were too close to seeming like a cut-and-paste tribute.

Lead singer Louis Eliot later re-emerged in the group Rialto, who were far more accomplished and produced some of the most unfairly overlooked singles of the post-Britpop comedown period, not least the epic "Untouchable" which, had it been released a few years before 1998, would have been enormous. But I digress.

4. Delicious Monster - Snuggle (Flute)

I have a conflict of interest to declare here. The lead singer of Delicious Monster Rachel Mayfield is a friend, and I contacted her relatively recently to ask if she'd mind talking a bit about this era of her life. Had I planned things out a bit better, of course, I'd have contacted her months ago in preparation for this entry, but it slipped my mind, and as a result I don't yet have her input.

So then, I'll present you the facts I know about this track for now, and we'll hopefully come back to it in the near future to talk about it in more depth. The group were from Birmingham and signed to Flute Records, who were an offshoot of Beechwood Records who released the "Indie Top 20" LPs. Critically acclaimed to an incredible degree to begin with, they scored singles of the week in the NME and Melody Maker, and were also regular needle-time darlings of late night Radio One.

"Snuggle" highlights the conflicting elements in their sound brilliantly - the track introduces itself to you as a cooing, delicate and seductive thing, before suddenly, and without much warning, becoming demanding and abrasive. Rachel's vocals are completely up to the challenge, twisting and turning effortlessly into a variety of different emotions, beckoning the listener forward with one hand before kicking them across the room with the next demanding howl.

It's a thrilling and brief single, but while the group were continually tipped for bigger things, they never quite found a way forward into the mainstream and remained a cult indie group, constantly scoring indie chart entries while never quite crossing over.

More on them soon, hopefully.

5. Cranes - Adrift (Dedicated)

No matter what changes in popular culture buzzed around them, the sound of Cranes remained the same as it ever was. "Adrift" is as disturbing and eerie as ever, but lyrically mixed in with ideas about the complexity and unpredictability of a love affair, telling us: "down, down the river we go/ holding on for dear life/ to the last stick of the raft" before clarifying: "we're like a boat drifting/ in a lonely sea/ and I start to cry".

It's not life-affirming stuff, this, acknowledging that even in the most compatible relationship there are threats, challenges and isolation, with the only comfort being that there are two people in peril rather than just one. It's not a beautiful listen at all, but as ever it does occupy its own unique creative space, and probably because of that the band's cult following would sustain them for a long time into the future.