Sunday, 12 November 2017

Volume 23 Tracks 16-20 - Urusei Yatsura, The Gyres, Sussed, TC Hug, Orange Deluxe

16. Urusei Yatsura - Phasers On Stun (Che)

17. The Gyres - Are You Ready? (Sugar)

18. Sussed - One In A Million (Dead Dead Good)

I'm going to take the unprecedented step of talking about these three tracks at once, for one very simple reason- there aren't any further issues of "Indie Top 20" after this, and therefore we won't be able to have a meaningful conversation about how the indie scene shifted after the Britpop dream died. These three tracks scream "1996" in very different ways - one marks what was regarded to be a possible way forward, whereas the other two are stuck at an obvious creative dead end.

Glasgow's Urusei Yatsura lead the charge here, and for a frightening moment in 1996 actually seemed like possible contenders. By this point, the IPC music press began sniffing around wondering where guitar-based music could possibly go next, and a number of journalists drew the obvious conclusion that there was nowhere left to go but back to "proper indie groups" releasing interesting rackets on tiny labels ("Isn't this where we came in?" you may rightfully ask). Hence groups like Kenickie, Bis, Tiger and Urusei Yatsura among others began to be given increasingly in-depth interviews and coverage. A great many of these groups are actually far better than their diminished modern-day reputations would suggest. Bis released some of the best New Wave/ Post-Punk styled teenage pop of the late nineties (if you haven't listened to "Eurodisco" in years, give it another spin right now) Tiger's "We Are Puppets" LP is uneven but utterly exhilarating and sweetly peculiar when it hits the mark, and Kenickie's material remains as sharp, witty and bittersweet as ever. None of these groups were ever likely to achieve much more than The Darling Buds and The Wedding Present did in 1989, never mind Oasis in 1995, but you can't blame music journalists for trying to swing British indie music in a younger, more spontaneous direction. As an amateur journo myself who got endlessly flooded with naff and cynical Britpop related products, I too was desperate for the wind to change direction by this point.

For awhile, it seemed possible that the underdogs might win. Tiger got a slot on breakfast television, Kenickie were quick-witted and comedic enough to get their faces on numerous peak time shows (especially lead singer Lauren Laverne, of whom little more needs to be said) and Urusei Yatsura actually got inside the Top 40 with "Hello Tiger". All these groups seemed to sell records and have a presence despite Britpop, but perhaps partly because of it too. The sudden rush of guitar-based groups making unusual noises entering the charts had confused the mainstream media enormously, resulting in a "sling lots of mud at the wall and see what sticks" attitude. This allowed them to climb into the bottom rungs of the Sunday Top 40 rundown in a way that The Chesterfields, The Blue Aeroplanes and Talulah Gosh would never have managed in the late eighties.

The rather modest success of Urusei Yatsura was heartwarming at the time. "Phasers On Stun" shows how ramshackle and anarchic they could be. Andy Partridge of XTC once spoke of his love of discords, arguing that a song could be made more interesting when "the ball doesn't quite go into the hole". "Phasers" is overloaded with these moments and the ball spins and ricochets all over the billiard table - the track spews chaos everywhere for two minutes, then pisses off abruptly without warning. Seeing "Phasers On Stun" at number one in "The Chart Show" indie chart on a Saturday morning felt unexpected and yet faintly thrilling. Its presence begged all sorts of questions - if this racket was possible at this level, then what else? And why would anybody care about Menswear or Heavy Stereo now?

Or, for that matter, latecomers The Gyres or Sussed, key hopefuls who seemed irrelevant almost as soon as they landed. Both banged their fists on the front door just as the entire Britpop party seemed set to decamp to seedy drug dens in Kings Cross, and desperately tried to keep the swing swinging. "Are You Ready" sounds horribly like enforced jollity, chugging along at an indifferent speed - God knows how many takes of this the group did, but it sounds as if it's the 97th and they're on their last legs. If the single had been released two years earlier with more vim in its veins, it might have been a serious contender, but it just sounds flabby here. Time for bed.

Sussed, on the other hand, were an Oasis indebted band who in the case of "One In A Million" had clearly heard "Definitely Maybe" and decided to "have a bit of that". There were tons of groups like Sussed around on the circuit in 1996 and 1997 (and even much later than that, in fact) all with sneering vocals and harsh, compressed guitar sounds. In this case, the track is zippy and zingy enough to increase your pulse a bit, but there's a similar sense of end-of-party desperation to the whole thing, and little to set them apart from their (by now) hundreds of peers.

So if you're still asking yourself the question "How come Bis, Urusei Yatsura, Kenickie and Tiger all got in the Top 40 and those young hopefuls The Gyres and Sussed didn't, despite their obvious commercial advantages?", now you have the answer.  With every expensive flop release that came out of the Britpop canon, it was becoming clear that we all had to move on somehow. And for awhile, it seemed possible that the lunatics might just take over the asylum.

19. TC Hug - I'm Doing Fine (Playtime)

The slightly lesser-hyped TC Hug show that it was still perfectly possible to create energetic, thoughtful and wistful summery melodies in the Britpop vein and sound better than pedestrian, though. "I'm Doing Fine" just bounces from start to finish, sounding as if it should be blasting from every car in the country. In terms of its overall sound, there's little to separate it from the hectares of other guitar pop based acts of the era, but it's still a neat and likeable piece of songwriting.

Sadly, the group couldn't quite climb into the mainstream with either this or their subsequent releases, and they've become somewhat sidelined in the years since.

20. Orange Deluxe - Andrex Puppy Love (Dead Dead Good)

And here we are. This is it. The last ever track in the "Indie Top 20" series. And it's not by a big name, or a future star, but by Orange Deluxe, a group formed from the ashes of cult baggy band Five Thirty.

Oddly enough, this slow, sweet and slightly tongue-in-cheek ballad does sound exactly like the last song of the evening, and given the group's relative obscurity (but nonetheless credibility among those "in the know") it seems like an appropriate way to finish everything. "Andrex Puppy Love" feels similar to the epic, sweeping songs the teenybop stars of the early seventies would treat us to, but with added sarcasm and a lighters-aloft indie chorus - I may be wrong, but I'm fairly sure the lyrics are referring to masturbation in a toilet tissue rather than True Lurve.

For all that irony and silliness, though, you too will struggle not to be at least slightly moved when the final chord is struck and the harmonised vocals end. Sometimes, even when the band is joking and using epic chords for ironic effect, it can still be moving if the context is right. It just so happens that this is an appropriate, melodically sweet moment to say goodbye.

Look. They've turned the club lights on, and it looks as if there's only a few of us left. We've just had the obligatory last slow song, but as usual, anyone who might have ended up dancing together went home to bed to enjoy each other's company a while ago. Only the truly desperate and the truly dedicated stay to the very end. 

It's very late, we're all greasy and sweaty looking and further from glamorous than we've been in a long while - come to think of it, are we getting lines around our eyes, do you think? - and this venue isn't as popular as it used to be. We stuck it out to the very end, and all we've got left now is this flop song going through our heads as we part from our friends to catch a taxi or jump on a night bus home. The solo journey is always the loneliest moment of the evening, the point where the great music has finished and is now just echoing around your brain, and the realities of the remaining weekend's banalities are dawning. At this hour, it might be possible to see the first milk floats whirr into action, or the first Post Office workers going to begin their shifts outside the depot. None of them know you, and probably none of them will ever have heard "Andrex Puppy Love". 

You don't know it yet, but you won't be back to this club. In two weeks time you'll hear the news they've had to turn their regular Friday indie evening into an Ibiza Party Night for the good of the balance sheet. This phase of your life is over, but sometimes that's for the best, however sad it feels. We can't all stay young and naive, constantly relying on the likes of Chet and Bee and Tim Millington to show us what's good and what isn't. Sometimes it's necessary to find your own path, your own way forward.

I'll be back shortly to produce one last entry summing up everything we've seen and heard. But then that really will be it. Night everyone. 

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Volume 23 Tracks 11-16 - Babybird, Heavy Stereo, Pusherman, 60ft Dolls, 18 Wheeler

11. Babybird - Goodnight (Echo)

In the midst of all the hype around Britpop related artists at the time, Stephen Jones - aka Babybird - was an unusual and much discussed character. Issuing three LPs in 1995 and a further three in 1996, of which all but one were recorded on his home four-track recording studio, he represented a side of indie that was in danger of becoming forgotten amidst the flag-waving - innovative, intelligent, unusual and cutting ideas produced by mavericks on a low budget. In retrospect, many of his early records are patchy and perhaps too raw for their own good in places, but they were imaginative and even amusing in a way that the latest big releases often weren't.

Given the volume of press attention and late night radio play he was getting, an army of record company A&R employees began ringing Stephen Jones's phone, despite the fact that that almost all had sent him abrupt rejection letters a mere couple of years before. The first non-bedroom LP, "Ugly Beautiful", was the final result on Echo and allowed Jones to flesh out some of his ideas into bigger sounding productions.

"You're Gorgeous" was his biggest hit and remains the song that allows people to labour under the misapprehension that he's a one-hit wonder. In fact, "Goodnight" was a minor hit before that single broke through, and is arguably the better track. While a large part of the appeal of "You're Gorgeous" lies in its satirical, table-turning, gender based observational lyrics, "Goodnight" is driven by sharp hooks. From the atmospheric keyboard sounds in the opening bars through to the urgent, pressing guitar riff, it's actually a brilliant pop track married to particularly surreal lyrics about relationship frustrations. "Run me a bath, and plug me in/ I'm like a TV learning to swim" sings Jones at one point, which was much mocked at the time, but that may be because mid-nineties listeners expected wry observational lyrics or re-heated sixties cliches, not bursts of bizarre imagery.

To this day, "Goodnight" feels both extraordinarily commercial and yet strangely alienating and bitter. Babybird would slowly drift back underground with ever-decreasing sales for each successive album, but even Gary Barlow had to remark on Jones's keen pop sense when he was asked to review the 1999 single "Together Again" on a TV pop panel. "That's going to be a huge hit", he predicted confidently. It wasn't. It did get to number 22, though, which would be the last time Babybird ever entered the top thirty.

12. Heavy Stereo - Mouse In A Hole (Creation)

By now, most people had accepted that Heavy Stereo were not going to be rock stars, and they had begun to sink from view in the music press and on the radio. "Mouse In A Hole" sounds appropriate under the circumstances, being melancholic and lost sounding, meandering around various sixties styled melodies like the Small Faces at their most despairing.

It's not bad, actually, but it didn't sound like much of a single, and indeed it wasn't. Their fourth and final release, it failed to do what was needed for the group and give them a hit. It instead peaked at number 53, and they split up not long afterwards.

Gem Archer eventually joined Oasis, attracting interested stares in his local pub when he walked in shortly after joining forces with the Gallaghers. This led to the sadly departed comedian Sean Hughes commenting loudly: "He’s in here all the fucking time but until now he’s just been that cunt from Heavy Stereo".

13. Pusherman - The Aim Indeed (Ignition)

I caught Pusherman live in Portsmouth - the lead singer Andy Frank's hometown - in 1996, and they came across as a bunch of slightly bedraggled, decadent dudes producing sprawling, heavy but atmospheric songs. Like a slightly nastier and meaner version of The Verve, there was a darkness at the core of what they did. You couldn't imagine a member of Pusherman claiming they could go astral flying, they seemed much more likely to be the types to sell you drugs laced with Happy Shopper Vim that would make you think you could, before you keeled over helplessly.

Drugs were both in the group's name and a part of their lifestyle, with issues with heroin becoming increasingly problematic over time. "The Aim Indeed" doesn't hint at that, but is a peculiar mix of Britpop attitude and harsh psychedelia. It's threatening and arrogant while also being disorientating and complex, something the majority of the bands of the era didn't quite manage to do. Squeals of feedback meet heavy dub-styled basslines and snarling vocals, and I've only realised listening back to it now quite how out of sorts with the era it was.

The group received ecstatic press, but it all amounted to nothing and they soon disintegrated. The lead singer Andy Frank eventually died in 2008, aged 42.

14. 60ft Dolls - Talk To Me (Indolent)

"Talk To Me" is really 60ft Dolls at their snappiest and most straightforward, sounding for all the world like an early Jam track. Caustic, energetic and swinging, it's almost a pop song, but never quite finds a way of easing off enough to appease the Radio One pop kids.

Nonetheless, it was their biggest hit, reaching number 37, despite the fact that later singles "Stay" and the fantastic "Alison's Room" proved that the group were capable of writing songs with much more powerful hooks at their centre. Nowt as queer as the record buying public.

The group ceased activities after being dropped by Indolent in 1998, and lead singer Richard Parfitt went on to discover Duffy and help launch her career, as well as (somewhat unexpectedly) sessioning for Dido.

15. 18 Wheeler - Crabs (Creation)

18 Wheeler had been a long-standing signing of Alan McGee's, and were generally considered to be one of the outsider indie groups on Creation along with The Jasmine Minks and The Jazz Butcher - propped up by the charity and goodwill of the label rather than any expectation they would become mainstream artists.

By 1996 it seemed as if the band were having a change of heart, however, and were beginning to move from indie guitar noises to toy and experiment with Dance music sounds. "Crabs" shows how bouyant and anthemic they were at this point, combining Ravy Davy styled euphoric church organ sounds with crunching guitar noises and pulsing beats. In fact, it sounds not unlike the work of 21st Century baggy revivalists Swim Deep, creating the unusual effect of making 18 Wheeler sound far more current than almost any other group on this CD.

McGee got behind the group's change of direction with enthusiasm and pushed them with renewed vigour, even getting them to perform at the Labour Party Conference where they were incorrectly introduced by Tony Blair as "Wheeler 18". Despite all this, and despite a notable bump in their record sales, they never quite got noticed by the general public and were dropped by Creation not long afterwards.

They are perhaps most notable for being the group Oasis were supporting when Alan McGee first discovered them, so there's an argument to be made for the fact that they were indirectly responsible for that group's success.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Volume 23 Tracks 6-10 - Ash, Octopus, Morcheeba, Collapsed Lung, Underworld

6. Ash - Goldfinger (Infectious)

Something very peculiar happened to Ash's output following the runaway success of "Girl From Mars". Their singles appeared to jump from being robust but noisy punk outbursts to something altogether more Pop. "Angel Interceptor" was the first sign of the wind changing direction, and is probably one of my favourite Ash singles of the lot - all dreamy backing vocals, punky thrashing and melodic meandering.

"Goldfinger", on the other hand, is just plain anthemic. So anthemic it would become a regular feature on all those "Best Anthems In The World!" and "Singalonganindiedownthepub!" compilations that littered the market throughout the late nineties and for half the noughties as well. A huge number five hit, it smoothed off a lot of Ash's rough edges and made them palatable to a wider audience, but somehow less interesting too. This doesn't rip the joint apart, choosing instead to take matters at a slow, considered, lighters aloft pace, with the biggest rock chorus they could muster.

Both this and the equally popular "Oh Yeah" set the group up for life, however, and they were still having Top 40 hits as recently as ten years ago. If "Goldfinger" is ultimately disappointing to me, I doubt they have many regrets about recording it.

7. Octopus - Your Smile (Food/ EMI)

A lot of alternative bands who were signed late in the Britpop goldrush suffered on two fronts - getting lost amidst the flood of similar sounding products on the market, and also suffering from the public's waning interest. While Britpop promotional displays remained right by the front doors of HMV branches everywhere, 1996 was a year in which the most acclaimed and successful bands of the period, Blur, Oasis and Pulp, were largely inactive. Even Supergrass only managed one single ("Going Out") during that year.

Record labels began to rely on their non-Premiership acts to keep the Union Jack flying, and while The Bluetones and Sleeper did a sterling job of continuing some interest, they weren't powerful or imaginative enough to generate the same enthusiasm as their leaders (though the music press played a powerful game, managing to convince even me that The Bluetones would be the new Stone Roses. They weren't, of course).

While Blur caught their breath and indulged themselves with cheese, booze and an assorted family pack of pharmaceuticals, their label Food signed the Scottish octet Octopus on the strength of a demo tape alone. Such events usually occur when a group is visually striking (Transvision Vamp) or so exceptional that a label wants to block any possible counter-bids or rival interest elsewhere. While Octopus were a reasonably handsome bunch, it's safe to say that it was their ideas Food were interested in. Named after the Syd Barrett song, Octopus leant towards the psychedelic pop end of the sixties music spectrum, and featured diverse instrumentation and richly woven songs, probably having more in common with Super Furry Animals or Julian Cope than most of the other groups they were saddled alongside.

"Your Smile" narrowly missed out on a Top 40 place, and still sounds wonderful. Filled to the brim with pizzicato strings, Beatles styled brassiness, backwards guitar and impressive pop songwriting, it should have been an enormous hit - and in fact, it's a track you can imagine storming the charts in either the late sixties or early to mid seventies. It's heartwarming and optimistic without being overly bouncy or twee, sounding like a pop symphony to soothe all battered souls everywhere. The video also recalls some of the prime pieces of late sixties pop cinematography, feeling like a lost "Magical Mystery Tour" outtake.

Octopus managed one album ("From A to B") before splitting up, but along with Animals That Swim should be hailed as one of the mightiest groups of the period who are nonetheless unlikely to be on the tip of anyone's tongues in the "Pointless" Britpop round. Despite this, "Your Smile" points one possible way forward everything could have gone if the public had wanted - away from catchy pop with observational lyrics, and towards intricate, polished popsike.

8. Morcheeba - Tape Loop (China)

Morcheeba weren't without psychedelic rock elements themselves initially, but these were usually pushed somewhere towards the back of the mix by the primary force of their trip-hop/ electronic influences. "Tape Loop" stems from the earliest period of their career when their sound hadn't quite been scrubbed and polished up for the mainstream yet, so subtle guitar licks and hypnotic grooves are the order of the day.

It's all perfectly OK in a loose, laidback, mid-tempo way, but there's nothing here screaming at the listener to regard Morcheeba as the most innovative group among their peers. With hugely popular later albums like "Big Calm", they'd reveal themselves to be the prime listening choice for "spiritually inclined" types on their way home from Ibiza or a festival. If you happened to find yourself following a bunch of well-spoken but hairy, beardy, beady types home from the club or pub for a late night bang on a bong, the chances are that LP was firmly ensconced in their CD player tray.

In 1996, though, Morcheeba were a faint curiosity, a group who were neither fish nor fowl and hadn't quite found their audience yet. Their appearance on "Indie Top 20" might seem baffling now, but it wouldn't have raised many eyebrows at the time.

9. Collapsed Lung - Eat My Goal (Deceptive)

Harlow's Collapsed Lung were a strange indie hip-hop group named after a particularly troubling medical condition. The crossover potential for the band was huge, but they seemed to find themselves forever touring around tiny venues in the UK to loyal cult audience of skate kids and leftover baggies.

The group had a particularly quirky sense of humour which possibly put the "serious" hip-hop fans off their work. If their name wasn't questionable enough, early track "Thundersley Invacar" set things off on the wrong foot by focusing on the problems of cruising for ladies in a three wheeled motor vehicle built for disabled people. "Eat My Goal", borrowing its title from an Alan Partridge outburst on "The Day Today", has a similar tongue-in-cheek frivolity to it.

It went on to become their only hit, entering the top 40 twice - once in 1996, and again in 1998, and has been used since on numerous adverts and computer game soundtracks. It's a huge slice of swaggering fun which didn't change the world or the music scene as we know it, but enlivened many parties or indie club nights just as the energy was waning. Not long after its 1998 re-release, the group dissolved.

10. Underworld - Born Slippy (Junior Boys Own)

Underworld were at this point already an enormously respected electronic duo, but "Born Slippy" provided them with their big breakthrough moment. Crossing over from their usual dance audience into the bedrooms of indie kids and pop listeners, "Born Slippy" is a somewhat rare example of a jarring piece of work finding mainstream acceptance, the polar opposite of Morcheeba's eventual success forged from melodic calmness. Streams of barked, overheard phrases from a Romford bound train journey join harsh, juddering beats, atmospheric washes and that persistent, chiming keyboard riff to create something which is actually tremendously uncommercial. Even The Fall's mid-nineties electronic work has more obvious hooks and coherence to it than this.

1996 was no stranger to jagged electronic sounds having a mainstream presence, of course - The Prodigy became absolute masters of that game - but whereas they had a charismatic frontman and an air of threat, "Born Slippy" is bit parts Eno ambience joining drunken disorientation and sharp, awkward angles. It's a testament to the power of the track that it not only crashed the charts and daytime Radio One, but also ended up in John Peel's Festive Fifty for that year.

Given that it was never really typical of many other sounds of the era, "Born Slippy" doesn't even sound particularly dated now. Its ubiquity is such that you do have to take a few steps back to remember just how odd it sounded on the first listen, though, and how thrilling too. Its appearance in "Trainspotting" may have helped it along considerably, but even without that moment, it felt enormous and truly fascinating.