Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 2 Side 3 - Beatmasters/ Cookie Crew, The Beloved, The Chesterfields, Voice of the Beehive, All About Eve

1. The Beatmasters Featuring The Cookie Crew - Rok Da House (Rhythm King)

If it feels far too early to be talking about "Rok Da House", you're not completely mistaken - it was originally issued in July 1987 but only became a proper chart hit in January 1988 after constant club exposure kept the track alive and growing in popularity. So effectively, the Indie Top 20 series was getting access to a bona fide proper chart hit a few months early. I have no idea whether its presence had a knock-on effect on the compilation's sales during the dying months of 1987 before the track became properly commercially available again, but it surely can't have hurt.

Anyway, "Rok Da House" was considered quite unusual at the time in that it took the London Hip-Hop duo Cookie Crew and got them to front a House single. At that time, neither House nor Hip-Hop purists were usually favourable about the streams being crossed, and it was occasionally referenced as either a bold and brilliant move or an incredibly stupid one.

Indeed, whether it was actually fortuitous or damning for The Cookie Crew is open to debate. They had won a national rap championship and appeared in session on John Peel's show prior to this, and had a certain underground kudos - once "Rok Da House" became a massive Top 5 hit, though, they were pushed by record labels in an increasingly poppy direction they felt uncomfortable with, and they eventually quit in frustration.

From a purely selfish point of view, "Rok Da House" was an enormously uplifting single at the time, and still sounds like huge fun even today. The Beatmasters fill the track with endless dramatic effects, from stomping beats to synthetic fanfares and processed vocals, as well as a killer piano hook. It sounds attention-grabbing and engineered for success, which is why it's so surprising it sat underground for so long. While House music was becoming big chart news in 1987, a lot of it did bubble away for months before rising into the consciousness of the mainstream.

2. The Beloved - Forever Dancing (Flim Flam)

Arguably, The Beloved were unbelievably ahead of the curve here. By accident or design, many of the elements of "Forever Dancing" sound like the beginnings of Indie Dance, and when this was later compiled on to the first "Best of Indie Top 20" compilation LP sandwiched between The Soup Dragons "Mother Universe" and a New Order club remix, it sounded at home despite having been recorded years before either of them. Everything about the sound of "Forever Dancing" screams major-label-indie-dance-signings-of-1989... which, quite naturally, The Beloved later became.

In reality, Jon Marsh probably wasn't a seer so much as a person who drank from the same electronic dance pool as New Order, and was almost certainly looking to create dancefloor friendly pop hits, not cult indie tunes. "Forever Dancing", for all its foresightedness (accidental or otherwise) really isn't The Beloved at their finest, either - some of their later singles were rich with atmosphere or had tons of pop smarts, whereas this is a moody groove which sulks and struts along without really making any firm impression. Their sound is identifiably in place, though, and it would put them in very good stead in a couple of years time... just not in 1987. And for an indication of their early struggles, it's worth noting that absolutely none of their indie singles made the top ten of the indie charts, with "Forever Dancing" peaking at number 15, and the two singles preceding it only getting as far as number 22.

3. The Chesterfields - Ask Johnny Dee (Subway)

I can never decide if the opening lyrics to this song are pure genius or the most John Shuttleworthesque words ever committed to a modern release. "If you'd like to know what pop stars have for tea/ ask Johnny Dee!" trill the group, singing about the not-particularly-famous (and still active) music journalist of the same name. Certainly from Johnny Dee's point of view, the lyrics are probably marvellous, so that's one critic they had on side straight away. One would imagine a conflict of interests prevented him from reviewing the single.

"Ask Johnny Dee" is a gleeful piece of indiepop, and while you could easily imagine it occupying a key space in an early sixties British teen flick (doubtless with The Chesterfields playing in a kitchen or living room after declaring "Hey! I've got an idea for a song!" while Johnny Dee smiles and nods approvingly with a cup of tea in the background) it's so irrepressible that it's impossible not to love. And inevitably, with lines like "Do you want to know who's number one in our hearts, Johnny Dee?/ Yes Mr Pop at the top of our charts!" it's pretty damn certain that they weren't trying to get us to take them seriously.

Johnny Dee is also noteworthy to me personally for being the first music critic to write about my other music blog "Left and to the Back" in "The Guardian". It was a brief and fleeting mention which led to an enormous surge in its readership - so it's slightly odd to be writing about him in this context, but perhaps only right that I too doff my cap to the man.

As for the girl who plays the tambourine, please do get in touch if you're her. We've been waiting decades for an answer to her identity.

4. Voice of the Beehive - Just A City (Food)

Another David Balfe signing to Food Records, which only existed as an indie label for the briefest point in its history, and with its slogan of "Let Us Prey!" almost certainly never had ambitions to operate as an artist's co-operative.

Voice of The Beehive were formed by Californian ex-pats Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brook Belland, and also featured ex-Madness stars Mark Bedford and Daniel Woodgate in their ranks, so neither were they entirely fresh young naive faces coming to an independent label with a few tunes and no clues whatsoever. Not that any of this really matters in the grand scheme of things, and "Just A City" sounds like a convincing addition to the Paisley Underground fray, though I doubt it was ever referred to as such.

As soon as Food Records got what they really wanted, which was a major label marketing budget and distribution, Voice of the Beehive became much bigger players, scoring five Top 40 hits between 1988-91. I always got the sense that the general public and music critics alike didn't know quite where to place them - too pop to be truly alternative, too retro sounding and guitar-based to be eighties pop, they seemed to occupy an ill-defined and moderately popular space in the record racks alongside the likes of River City People and Del Amitri; fellow faintly retro guitar based acts who were neither particularly fashionable for the era nor remotely underground, but mantained solid enough fanbases to keep their heads above water for years without scoring any major top ten hits.

5. All About Eve - Our Summer (Eden)

And Side Three of Volume Two bows out having offered us four future Top of the Pops stars out of five possible tracks. From the moment All About Eve began putting out vinyl, though, there was a sense that they were never going to be underground for terribly long, and the only surprise to me is that they weren't bigger. Appealing to goths, hippies, twee indie-kids and Q readers alike with their earliest, paisley-patterned and carefree material, they grabbed hearts left, right and centre. In fact, when my Mum first heard me playing this from the very slab of vinyl I'm now staring at, she declared "Who's this? They sound really good!" and I ended up taping the track for her. She offered no opinions at all on The Chesterfields or Voice of the Beehive beforehand, who simply didn't pass the old grey whistle test (even The Chesterfields! For shame).

Having a lead singer like Julianne Regan harmed matters none. Her impressive voice harked back to long-lost warm folk rock stylings, a sound highly absent from the mainstream in the eighties. They combined with the group's considered arrangements to a powerful effect, and she possessed a very floaty, casual charisma too (a letter-writer to Record Mirror once announced his fantasies about going on picnics with her - a somewhat unusual thing to declare to the world, but you could just about understand his angle). It may not be easy for a band of their ilk to repeat the trick today, but they were definite cover stars of the era.

"Our Summer" is an early indie release which has their sound firmly in place already, and received a largely positive critical pass despite some clearly unfashionable mid-seventies influences shining through. Later when they signed to Phonogram, they would find mixed critical receptions emerging despite continuing to record much the same style of material. For a while in 1987, though, they could do little wrong.

I'm also bound by Article 38 of the retro music writer's "All About Eve clause" to point out the legendary "Top of the Pops" clip of "Martha Harbour" where... oh, I really can't be bothered to go on typing. Sorry. The kettle's just boiled.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 2 Side 2 - Close Lobsters, Flatmates, Pastels, Soup Dragons, Mighty Mighty

1. Close Lobsters - Never Seen Before (Fire)

If there was ever a band who were inappropriately cursed with the C86 tag - in Britain, at least - it was Close Lobsters. Rather like their labelmates The Blue Aeroplanes, their approach was considerably more quirky and arthouse than it was twee or shambling, and perhaps unsurprisingly they picked up a greater volume of critical appreciation (and airplay) in the USA than this country. It's very easy to imagine them being spun on college radio between REM, 10,000 Maniacs and Wall of Voodoo. I'm not trying to claim they sound the same, you understand, but it's possible to sense a shared aesthetic.

Sadly, the band never really sold huge amounts of records either here or in the USA, with their cult LP "Foxheads Stalk This Land" only reaching number 12 on the indie albums chart, and it was all over by 1989 (again!) They have recently reformed and have started gigging and occasionally releasing new material, and remain a strong cult act with many devoted fans preaching the gospel about their under-rated work.

"Never Seen Before" is a faintly peculiar brew and definitely an acquired taste. Jangly guitars collide with drawled vocals and beefy basslines, and they ultimately sound like nobody apart from themselves. The backwards tape playing at the end of the track is a lovely touch as well.

2. The Flatmates - Happy All The Time (Subway)

Back straight after Volume One, The Flatmates sound much sharper and more confident here. "I Could Be In Heaven" sounded slightly cheap and rushed, whereas "Happy All The Time" has all the hallmarks of something which might have been a hit had it been issued eight years previously. It's a thrilling little confection of 60s girl group sounds colliding with the dumb aggression of The Ramones, and the squeals and yelps throughout the single sound every bit as spontaneous and unplanned as Ray Davies' yelling on "You Really Got Me". It's the sound of a band totally thrilled to be getting their ideas down on tape, and that's a contagious feeling.

None of this would have the same effect if "Happy All The Time" weren't, as they say, a Tune. And it is. Like the best Indiepop, it has raw enthusiasm and a superbly hooky melody. These are the moments which make you want to form a band yourself. You feel like you could do it too, but tracks this deceptively simple and hook-ridden are actually harder to create than they seem.

3. The Pastels - Crawl Babies (Glass)

I've made a couple of slightly piss-taking comments about Stephen Pastel so far on this blog, but that's primarily because in the eighties he was a ridiculously unique (and quietly influential) character, and it's easy to parody lead singers who operate in a territory of their own making.

A friend of mine once briefly planned to start a series of cartoon strips called "The Adventures Of Stephen Pastel", during which some misfortune would always befall the boyish lead singer in the final frame. This could involve giving himself a migraine due to consuming too many sweets to getting one of his toys stuck up a neighbour's tree. "Och! Oh noooo! Not again!" he would exclaim, while staring wearily out at the reader. Inevitably, these never really got written purely because in those pre-Internet days, it would have been hard to find a place for them. And anyway, none of it was actually that funny.

One of these strip ideas, I seem to remember, featured Stephen Pastel rejecting a chocolate from a friend.

"Would you like a chocolate, Stephen?"
"No, I should not. They give me terrible migraines. A terrible, terrible banging in my head, and all for the sake of a coffee creme".

That's the reductive view you could take of him, and indeed The Pastels themselves; slightly sickly and precious children, forever stuck in pre-adolescence. That's definitely a line many music journalists took at the time. But, in truth, there was (and is) much more to The Pastels than that, and they're possibly one of the most unfairly maligned bands of the period. Whereas a great many of their travelling companions were self-consciously childish to no positive end, The Pastels often took the Syd Barrett approach of using childhood memories and activities as a desperate means of escape; or, as Stephen himself once said "Everything is fucked. Let's get back to the garden".

"Crawl Babies" is the noise of a band utterly nailing that doomed but child-like feel. "I wanna build her up, up as tall as a church" he sings hesitantly in the chorus, which is an odd line in itself. As tall as a church? Why not the Empire State Building, or the Post Office Tower? But no. Too urban, too dangerous. Churches tower over their immediate surroundings without being threatening. They're safe, holy places. Skyscrapers are the products of humans aspiring to something The Pastels cannot comprehend. So it's best to build someone up to high expectations within reasonable, non-threatening boundaries. Except...

The next line is "Just to watch her falling down" at which point he has a frantic dialogue with himself, "I just can't see her again/ I've got to see her again", he moans contradictorily. He's building a love affair and obsession out of nothing, out of ideas of what somebody could be, then terrifying himself with the stature of them, and backing off into isolation.

Frankly, "Crawl Babies" could be straight off a Syd Barrett solo LP - I was just getting into Barrett at the point I first heard this, and it triggered immediate associations for me - and some of the other lines are even peculiarly Barretty in a bleak post-Floyd way; "I go blind and my bones start to rust", for example. Doubtless the band would claim that Daniel Johnston was the actual reference point they were going for, but nonetheless, "Crawl Babies" has a very eerie sense of something not quite right within its hesitant, innocent delivery, whilst still carrying a marvellous and rather intricate melody - those guitar lines running towards the end of the track are beautiful, for example.

On the surface, you could call this twee indiepop, but no way is it just that. And The Pastels were certainly guilty of being twee at other points in their career, but "Crawl Babies" is a marvellous, full-bodied and beguiling single, and one of my favourites from the period.

4. The Soup Dragons: Head Gone Astray (Raw TV)

Mind you, this Soup Dragons track has an air of despondency about it, and a similar sense of childlike disappointment: "Climb a big tree to see what I can see/ But then find out that nothing's for free" sings Sean despondently. What was in the water at this point? Was the music press attention getting to these people, who until this point had lived in a world of flexidiscs and fanzines? (Though credit is due to Chet and Bee for seeing the possibility of sticking this after "Crawl Babies" in the track listing).

If "Hang Ten" was supersonic indiepop, "Head Gone Astray" is a bit more contemplative and jangly. It also gives clear pointers to where the Soup Dragons heads were at during this point in their careers - this has the Bellshill sound running through it like a stick of rock, and the band's roots are incredibly apparent. Eventually they would go careering all over the place with their sound, exploring strange T-Rexy indie-glam sounds with "Backwards Dog" and baggy with "I'm Free", but it's possible that if they'd held their nerve they could have developed this particular direction into something much more successful, akin to Teenage Fanclub's later achievements.

Ignoring the "What-ifs", "Head Gone Astray" doesn't make its strengths fully apparent on the first play, but does steadily worm its way into your affections with each subsequent listen. And releasing it straight after "Hang Ten" was a canny move - it certainly did a lot to cause critics and listeners to realise that they weren't just a thrashy indie band producing two-minute punk pop songs. Why, they could take faintly Byrdsian melodies and string them out to three-and-a-half minutes instead.

This was also the first song of theirs to chart in the "grown up" Gallup charts, albeit at a modest number 82. But for a band of their ilk in 1987, these achievements were rare and important. Suddenly, The Soup Dragons were music press cover stars and future bright hopes. No, really. This happened. I saw it. I was there.

5. Mighty Mighty - Built Like A Car (Chapter 22)

Mighty Mighty drop the polite, considered indiepop for this single and really let rip in the chorus, making it sound almost like a sixties garage band having a rave-up. Still, though, the stretched syllables in the vocals as the track begins are pure Morrissey, and root the band firmly in eighties territory.

"Built Like A Car" is a sturdy and confident sounding single, and yet another example of an indiepop group suddenly waking up and smelling the coffee and getting into a better recording studio to produce a brighter, leaner piece of work, perhaps in the expectations of bigger things. Of course, this is a serious problem for some purists of the genre who really see this period as the moment a lot of bands went off the boil, whereas I obviously disagree.

Whatever your thoughts, this was Mighty Mighty's biggest indie single, climbing to number 6 in the indie charts. Their career was shortlived, however, as they split the following year, sensing that the tide was already turning against their music. They weren't wrong. Things moved quickly in those days. 

Saturday, 27 August 2016

If A Blog Entry Is Written But Nobody Mentions It On Social Media, Does It Exist?

If you've been reading this blog and enjoying it so far - or even if you've hated every word, but just want to feel outraged and angry every single time I press the "publish" button - you can now be kept updated on Social Media.

The Facebook page is here, and will include any relevant blog updates, YouTube videos I find or have uploaded, and links to relevant news stories. It's not going to be a "noisy" experience, though (especially if Facebook have anything to do with it - you'll probably only actually see one update out of every five unless I throw them £100 every week).

There's a YouTube page of mine largely filled with Chart Show specialist (mostly indie) charts which has been around forever, and is definitely excellent background viewing material.

I'm also on Twitter with a general account here, where I do talk about music a lot and will keep everyone updated about new entries here and on the other blog "Left and to the Back", but don't be surprised if I veer off on to other subjects occasionally as well.

Oh, and there's Google Plus, if you're the sort of contrarian who mainly uses Google Plus. I met one once, and I was surprised.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 2 - Side One (Crazyhead, PWEI, Three Wise Men, Renegade Soundwave, Bambi Slam)

Indie Top 20 Volume II
Formats: Double Vinyl and Cassette

After the success of the cassette-only Volume one, a decision was clearly taken to join the adult music world and produce Volume two on both double cassette and double vinyl formats (no CDs were being issued yet, but as Now! and Hits were only just starting to get to grips with that format themselves, it's slightly silly to expect Indie Top 20 to have joined the digital audio revolution this early). The double cassette version - which I've never seen in the wild, but that's probably because I was never really looking for it - also came emblazoned with Melody Maker sponsorship across its sleeve, creating a partnership between the series and the IPC music magazine. The connection would become more cemented over the next few LPs.

Other than that, this slipped out on Clive Selwood's Band of Joy label in 1987, much like Volume One, but in terms of track selection shows a slight widening of variety. Indiepop remains very well represented, but also lurking in the grooves on offer here is British Hip-Hop, House music and Folk, and even - unexpectedly for an album so early in the series - arguably the earliest rumblings of the Indie Dance crossover. It still lacks the diversity of a Now or Hits compilation, but is less guitar orientated than you might initially expect.

It's also actually a very solid compilation, with not a single outright stinker in sight, and acts as a far better and more honest barometer of the independent music scene at this point in its history than many Double CD retrospectives and box sets which have emerged in more recent years. The simple truth is that while early Indiepop often sought to charm with its naiveté and amateurism, the more they gigged and recorded, the tighter most of the bands got, especially with their songwriting. For me personally, many of the bands who emerged from C86 and the numerous fanzine and gig networks in the mid eighties really found their feet and realised their potential in 1987. Suddenly, now they were under the media spotlight, the game got upped and some seriously good (and even great) singles emerged. But hey, if you'd prefer to listen to your early flexidiscs, don't let me stop you. It's all a matter of taste.

Let's pop the needle down on to the groove of side one, shall we?

1. Crazyhead - What Gives You The Idea That You're So Amazing Baby? (Food)

Side One of this compilation is uncharacteristically brutal, actually, and opens with Leicester's great Grebo hopes Crazyhead. Snapped up by David Balfe's (of Teardrop Explodes fame) Food label shortly before that very label ran to EMI for major label cash and distribution, Crazyhead were much feted at the time. Indeed, it's easy to hear that their cross-appeal was likely to be immense. One of the few groups of the period to confidently sit on both the Indie and Heavy Metal specialist charts without complaints from either parties, they played a raucous, rapid and noisy eighties approximation of garage punk, of which "What Gives You The Idea...?" is a fairly typical example. It's brash and dumb but FUN with it - and its inclusion here, track one side one, is indicative of the fact that it was a cult indie hit of some stature, climbing to number two on the specialist chart.

Crazyhead never did achieve mainstream chart success, however, and by 1989 they had been dumped by Food Records and ejected straight back into indie-land again, where they never really made the same kind of waves again.

While we're on the subject, there's probably a bigger debate to be had about whether Grebo was a genuine youth movement, a music press invention, a gang of predominantly Midlands groups who all just happened to be scruffs and all knew each other, or some combination of all three. Footage of the gigs these bands played during the period does show an army of fans dressed in combat gear and denim, some with greasy locks and partly shaved hair, but it's highly unlikely that any of them would have identified themselves as being part of a youth movement (most of the music was too bloody sardonic and silly to base your entire life around - Grebo probably wouldn't have come with many rules attached apart from "get pissed on Scrumpy"). Nor is it necessarily easy to create a clear line from the sound Crazyhead made, to Pop Will Eat Itself's beatbox obsessions, to the downright berserk Gaye Bykers On Acid. What most of those groups do have in common, however, is that they were so lacking in glamour that the Britpop era indie music press more-or-less tipp-exed over their contributions.

2. Pop Will Eat Itself - Love Missile F1-11 (Chapter 22)

Fellow Grebos Pop Will Eat Itself emerge here in a slightly different form from when we last met them on Volume One. While the metamorphosis from scratchy, treble-heavy indie-punk to an alternative British take on Rick Rubin produced Hip-Hop wasn't complete, the boys do rap for one segment of this track, and point the way for their future recordings.

This was an interesting choice of cover version for the Poppies as well. Sigue Sigue Sputnik's "Love Missile F1-11" had only been released the year before, and the group's attempt at cyber-futuristic rock and roll was largely savaged by the music press (and also public) who weren't willing to accept the record company hype. Pop Will Eat Itself actually beef up the original - which always was an unusually stark and minimal top ten hit - and plug the gaps with loud, thrashed guitars and a chugging riff where you would expect the electro loops to be. Whether you feel it sounds better for the treatment or not depends upon your feelings on Sigue Sigue Sputnik, but it was certainly a large indie hit.

3. Three Wise Men - Refresh Yourself (Rhythm King)

British Hip-Hop acts struggled horribly to make the same waves as their American counterparts in the eighties (and actually nineties as well) never really generating the same amount of sales, press or media exposure. The very idea of rappers having regional British accents was actually outright mocked during this period, and Hip-Hop artists in the UK found themselves having to confront the same prejudices that British Rock and Rollers had in the fifties.

Unlike many of the fifties artists, however, most British Hip-Hop acts were usually smart enough to realise that there was no point in adopting American accents and slang. The only way forward was to forge their own identity and talk about their own lives - and Three Wise Men certainly did that with "Urban Hell", a largely-forgotten 1986 single about the since-demolished North Peckham estate in London.

"Refresh Yourself" is an entirely different single, obviously, and perhaps less representative of their sound. Minimal sounding and lyrically simplistic, it's probably one of their most dated sounding pieces of work. For whatever reason, for the three years they were active the group only had three singles and one LP put out on Rhythm King records, after which time was called.

4. Renegade Soundwave - Kray Twins (Rhythm King)

Renegade Soundwave were also signed to Rhythm King to produce their own multi-faceted brand of electronic dance music, but eventually ended up moving to the parent label Mute after a series of "artistic" disputes.

"Kray Twins" hints at just how Rhythm King might have found them totally out-of-sorts with the rest of their roster. It's a seriously rambling, aggressive, frantic piece of work, taking in harsh, punchy, in-your-face samples, burbling electronic noises, sneering cockney vocals, and the periodic emergence of thrashed guitars. Despite the fact that the techniques used to create this single must have been absurdly primitive by today's standards, it actually doesn't sound dated in the slightest - elements even sound close to the minimal rantings of Sleaford Mods, admittedly without the political nous.

Then again, nor is "Kray Twins" necessarily representative of the rest of Renegade Soundwave's work. They would produce a lot of varied material throughout their careers, from the threatening chaos of this track to the pop suss of "Probably a Robbery", and the House dancefloor hit "The Phantom". They would probably be more at home on one of the many Dance compilations that littered the eighties, but future appearances on "Indie Top 20" also occurred. Long before the label "Indie-Dance" was thought of, Renegade Soundwave were probably one of the few true crossover artists of the mid-eighties period.

5. Bambi Slam - Don't It Make You Feel (Product Inc.)

Roy Slam, the lead singer of Bambi Slam (naturally) was a Canadian ex-pat who formed the group on British shores, in the process creating a band with - at the time, at least - an unusual array of influences. There's a clear American underground punk sound leaking through a lot of their work, but also beatbox loops and poppy hooks, combining to create a brew which sounds particularly of its indie moment.

"Don't It Make You Feel" is rough and ready, but melodically sounds as if it could have been written by a successful glam rock band in 1973 - almost everything about the track is catchy and insistent, like a past pop smash being dragged through a cheap recording studio by punk musicians.

The group generated plenty of excitement and became big enough news to be signed to Warner Brothers who released one LP of theirs, the eponymous "Bambi Slam" in 1988. By that time, however, everyone seemed to have lost interest and they were pushed aside in favour of the next trend. 

Monday, 22 August 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume One - Tracks 16-20 (Razorcuts, Flatmates, Talulah Gosh, Mighty Mighty, BMX Bandits)

16. The Razorcuts - Sorry To Embarrass You (Subway)

While there's been indiepop aplenty on this volume, this is the first example of sensitive, considered guitar jangling about being useless with girls. While records like this one became the subject of much scoffing and mocking amongst the confident Alpha A males at IPC Towers who felt entitled to a shag just because they'd once been in the same room as James Brown (either he of "Loaded" magazine fame or the legendary funkster), they did do something to capture teenage angst and hopelessness in a way that rock hadn't bothered to try since the early sixties. And more to the point, the tone had subtly shifted as the times changed.

My wife is keen to point out that a lot of rough and ready 60s Garage music (the indie of its day, if you will) is essentially "Sex Pest Rock", using Paul Revere and The Raiders "Let Me" as an example of how the recurring lyrical motif in the song is about one man's sense of sexual entitlement (though to be honest, it's such an enjoyably dumbass record that I think it disintegrates as soon as you try to analyse it in depth, like most slack-jawed Rock tracks of that nature.) What did the likes of The Razorcuts do? Gently announce their interest in a lady, then apologise profusely when it backfired. It's actually quite sweet and endearing in a way, and the lines "I'd rather talk some more/ than look into your eyes/ just waiting for the bell to ring/ so we can live our separate lives" could really easily have been sung by a sixties girl group about a boy - the flipping of the gender roles and the narrative here was almost certainly not a deliberate piece of artistic trickery, but the fact the observation can be made is at least really interesting.

The Razorcuts split up in April 1990 after two albums on Creation Records, but reunited for a one-off single on Sarah Records (where else?) under the name Forever People.

17. The Flatmates - I Could Be In Heaven (Subway)

Bristol's The Flatmates approached their indiepop sound with a much harsher, sandpaper edge to it, on occasion recalling The Ramones at their most Spector-obsessed or a messed up 60s Garage Girl group with bruised knees and menace in their eyes.

"I Could Be In Heaven" is perhaps the most weakly recorded of their singles, but through the lo-fi sound quality is a tune which would be typical of most of their offerings - a buzzing, effervescent love song which sounded like something somebody else should have written long ago. This was another minor indie hit peaking at number 18 on the chart that never really counted, but later releases would be better recorded and better realised, and reach more listeners in the process. The Flatmates failure to release a proper LP or capitalise properly on their early run of singles seems ludicrous now - they were often far better than many of their peers who were swept up by the major labels.

18. Talulah Gosh - Beatnik Boy (53rd and 3rd)

Another group whose finest moments were around the corner, "Beatnik Boy" was Talulah Gosh's first proper single (excluding a split flexidisc with the aforementioned Razorcuts) and is a bit too self-consciously twee for its own good in my opinion - but perhaps not yours. I'm not sure how much of an argument I can be bothered to have about this single.

More so than most groups of the period, Talulah Gosh worshipped at the holy church of Stephen Pastel and made a positive virtue out of childlike cutesiness to begin with - depending on your tolerance for such things, you will either find "Beatnik Boy" charming or utterly excruciating, but there's no question that the sound was overall very much their own. There were precious few groups prior to Talulah Gosh who pulled off a similar childlike sense of jollity and awe, but lots of imitators rushed through the gates afterwards, and their impact and influence can still be felt on alternative culture to this day, whereas most of the bands on Volume One of this series have struggled to maintain any kind of current cultural relevance.

19. Mighty Mighty - Throwaway (Chapter 22)

Rather like The Chesterfields, Birmingham's Mighty Mighty - initially, at least - brought Orange Juice inspired melodic pop to the forefront of their sound, eschewing arrogant rockisms for polite, considered pop and roll. On later singles they would sound slightly more developed, taking on a robust, angular beefiness on "Built Like A Car" and even trying a peculiar kind of indie baroque pop on "One Way", but "Throwaway" was an - erm - throwback to those good old early sixties guitar pop values.

"Like the bubblegum when the flavour's gone/ Why does love throwaway/ Well, those throwaway pop songs are all I play/ Can't you hear what they say?" the group ask, predating the philosophical musings of bloke-lit author Nick Hornby by a whole decade. Once again, I'm inclined to think that better things were to come from the group, but "Throwaway" sets out their stall neatly enough.

20. BMX Bandits - The Day Before Tomorrow (53rd and 3rd)

The BMX Bandits are responsible for one of the most jaw droppingly open, honest and beautiful songs about depression, "Serious Drugs". Like Bacharach being forced to muse on his prescription medication, there's very little anyone can take away from that one towering achievement.

So this, naturally, is my way of getting around to say that "The Day Before Tomorrow" is a strangely naive, shambolic piece of work which is clearly influenced by Daniel Johnston, but doesn't really possess the same degree of charm. It's not their strongest track by any margin imaginable, and it's a downright peculiar track to choose to close Volume One of "Indie Top 20" with. But there we are.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume One - Tracks 11-15 (New Order, Ghost Dance, Rose of Avalanche, Ciccone Youth, Chesterfields)

11. New Order - Turn The Heater On (Peel Session) (Strange Fruit)

While it might have seemed a bit rum to follow Joy Division's track with New Order's on this album, it does, to be fair, involve a flip of cassette sides first (remember we're still a long way from the CD era at this point). What waited for you on side two was actually something of a New Order obscurity, being a cover of reggae maestro Keith Hudson's song which was unissued on any of their B-sides or albums, being a John Peel session exercise only.

So could New Order have followed in the footsteps of UB40 in another life? Not really, but this is an exceptionally eerie, wintery dub excursion which had its heart in exactly the right place. Recorded solely due to the fact that it was one of Ian Curtis' favourite songs, New Order turn it into a unique tribute of its own, and create something beautifully atmospheric and filmic. While Hudson's original burbles along in a lively and summery fashion, New Order leave it to sprawl on the bare floorboards of a Manchester bedsit in January. It's the best kind of cover version, in that it's a total reinterpretation. That it's also a touching gesture makes it a bit more special.

12. Ghost Dance - The Grip Of Love (Karbon)

Enter Goth Rock into the fray. Goth was a funny old business back in the mid-eighties, receiving a very variable music press reception which appeared to operate along the following lines - Sounds viewed it more favourably than Melody Maker, who in turn viewed it much more favourably than the NME. So far as the NME seemed to be concerned, Goth was a deeply silly business only to be spat at, a game of Dungeons and Dragons for Bauhaus fans who were all old enough to know better. By the end of the eighties, of course, almost everyone had given up and began writing about Goth in mocking tones, if they wrote about it at all (many of the movement's biggest bands were utterly denied coverage by the turn of the decade).

Ghost Dance were much-feted among some sympathetic journalists and also within the movement itself, but ultimately never really broke through commercially. Unfortunate, as "The Grip of Love" certainly proved they had the pop chops to cross over under the right circumstances. It pounds along like a more leaden-footed version of mid-seventies Fleetwood Mac (has anyone actually investigated the influence mid-period Mac had on Goth Rock in the eighties? It seems more common than you'd suppose) but ultimately never drifts far from the chorus or central riff, clinging on to both like a small child terrified to break free of its mother's grip. The Grip of Love? Well, maybe. Perhaps that's the point they were trying to make.

This isn't the last we'll see of Ghost Dance on "Indie Top 20" (I told you, they were big news for awhile) and the next time we come to visit them, my opinions may actually surprise you, as they say on Upworthy. Or not, now I've let that huge plot spoiler out of the bag.

13. The Rose of Avalanche - Velveteen (Fire)

We seem to have entered a brief Goth Rock segment in the compilation, for while they later denied it utterly, Leeds' The Rose of Avalanche certainly had a goth following, and a distinctly dark, doomy air to most of their recordings.

"Velveteen" is a prime low-budget, indie approximation of an epic rock tune which in places vaguely predicts the riff from Guns N' Roses "Sweet Child Of Mine". Written about Nico of the Velvet Underground, a drum machine thuds and echoes its way through a slowly evolving guitar riff, and the drama slowly brews, sprawling across six minutes of hollering vocals and foreboding atmospherics.

Or, if you're anything like me, you'll actually find this single unspeakably dull. While it was considered a huge statement to make at the time, back in the days when everything Velvet Underground was the height of outsider sophistication, right now it sounds like a horrible plodding chore, with nothing much to say for its woebegone self. An artist like Scott Walker could do chorus-free character portraits across six minutes and make them sound fascinating - The Rose of Avalanche don't have the same dexterity with arrangements or lyrics, and this entire song is writing artistic cheques it cannot cash. There's no question that this was hugely significant at the time and highly regarded by many fans and critics, but for me it just doesn't cut it.

The next time we meet The Rose of Avalanche, however, I will be a lot more favourably disposed towards them - but epic, plodding rock statements of this nature are something I just lose patience with.

14. Ciccone Youth - Into The Groov(y) (Blast First)

Aka Sonic Youth and Mike Watt having a jolly good piss-around. Like a lot of Sonic Youth's attempts at side projects and experimentation, this starts off feeling so gleefully anarchic that you immediately want to rewind and listen to the whole thing again... but the fun palls quickly. "Into The Groov(y)" is a mutant Hip-Hop and punk celebration of all things Madonna, cutting huge holes in the original pop arrangement of "Into The Groove" until all that's left is a hollow, grinding structure predominantly driven by Watt's repetitive bass runs. Occasionally Madonna's original vocal (which I'm assuming they didn't get copyright clearance for) rises up into the mix to threaten to restore order, then evaporates away again, overpowered, giving up the ghost.

But there's no way on earth this was intended as any kind of serious artistic statement, and really, it's just supreme daftness, another in a long line of attempts to punkify and radicalise highly successful, slick pop music (If I wanted to be really controversial here, I might ask what the difference is conceptually between this and The Dickies). Often though, the problem with exercises like this one is they make you realise how solid and well constructed the original vision was, and by the time you get to the end, your main urge is to just put the original single on the turntable.

Sonic Youth do not appear on the "Indie Top 20" series again after this, which feels like a wasted opportunity.

15. The Chesterfields - Completely and Utterly (Subway)

Another very minor indie chart hit here, which held down the "all-important" number 16 slot in 1986. A gentle and merry track, it cowers and quakes in the presence of Sonic Youth immediately before it - and while Chet and Bee did eventually become dab hands at creating the running orders of "Indie Top 20" albums effectively, it has to be said that Volume One highlights that at this stage in the series, they were clearly not firing on all cylinders.

Yeovil's The Chesterfields were one of very many indie-pop bands of the era whose influences appeared to be somewhere between early sixties pop, The Monochrome Set and Orange Juice, while entirely lacking the groove and funk of the latter. Charm was their main selling point, and "Completely and Utterly" veritably nods and winks its way into your heart, despite trying to sound faintly cross with itself. "I am sick of situations... nothing's changed in donkey's years!" states lead singer Dave Goldsworthy, but it doesn't sound as if it's about anything crashingly important. I've always imagined it's probably about something mundane like the local bus service, but - within the context of indiepop - that's actually a compliment. It wouldn't do for The Chesterfields to try to be The Clash. And in any case, crowbarring the phrase "Nothing's changed in donkey's years" into a pop song, then delivering it in a polite voice, is a brilliant masterstroke.

Like many of their kind, The Chesterfields split in 1989. I can see I'm going to be typing "split in 1989" a lot whenever we cover indiepop bands (although a few brave souls limped on into the dawn of 1990). 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume One - Tracks 6-10 (Guana Batz, PWEI, Wedding Present, Blue Aeroplanes, Joy Division)

6. Guana Batz - Loan Shark (I.D.)

Anyone enjoying the "Top of the Pops" re-runs on BBC4 will be aware that the one aspect everyone tends to forget about the early eighties was the fifties rock n roll revival. Shakin Stevens and Matchbox were less credible and saccharine attempts to get back to quiffy basics, whereas the likes of The Straycats updated the sound with a modernised, hardened edge which still sounds compelling.

By the mid-eighties, the psychobilly movement was in full swing, and Guana Batz were the prime movers on the club scene, pulling in cramped sweaty crowds. Their crossover appeal was such that their albums regularly graced the top five of the indie charts, although a full-scale assault into the adult, mainstream charts never really occurred. The group remain active on the live circuit to this day.

I wish I could offer a reasonable perspective on "Loan Shark", but sadly this really isn't my bag. It's the last time any track of this nature would appear on the "Indie Top 20" series as well - rather like ACR on track one, it feels like one of the last representations of a movement which was slowly slipping back underground again.

7. Pop Will Eat Itself - Oh Grebo I Think I Love You (Chapter 22)

Way before they discovered The Beastie Boys, Hip Hop, samplers and dance music, Pop Will Eat Itself just created the kind of buzzsaw beery racket as heard above. Their punkish approach was actually surprisingly short-lived, with two releases slipping out which had a primitive, treble-heavy sound before their third, a cover of Sigue Sigue Sputnik's "Love Missile F1-11" (more on that soon) began to play with a much broader palette.

"Oh Grebo I Think I Love You" is likeably trashy but inessential, and it's hard to imagine that the group would have been remembered if they'd kept this sound up for much longer. It doesn't help that the idea of Grebo being a youth movement was over before it really properly began, so the daft novelty aspect of this track now seems lost to the mists of time.

8. The Wedding Present - You Should Always Keep In Touch With Your Friends (Reception)

There was a point in the eighties after The Smiths split when music journalists began forlornly hunting high and low for a group who could replace them as commercial British indie figureheads. During that slightly hysterical process, some incredibly unlikely names emerged - The House of Love, for example, who sounded so completely unlike The Smiths as to be irrelevant to all enquiries - but when The Wedding Present were name-dropped, it felt like a distinct possibility. Gedge's angst-ridden, lovelorn outsider lyrics, heavy use of common northern slang and phrases in his songs, the band's way with a jangly pop hook... well, why not? I suppose... if we must... erm...

Like some people sincerely believe that Jeremy Corbyn is a God-like, charismatic leader, there really was a point where people wanted to believe that David Gedge was the next Morrissey, because there were no other obvious options on the horizon. Sometimes, when a vacuum exists, you really have to cling on to any hope there is, however unlikely it seems.

At this point in their careers, they were a long way off being feted to such a degree, but the ingredients for what made them a briefly fantastic group are all present and correct in "You Should Always Keep In Touch With Your Friends", from the unwieldy title to the angst-ridden lyrics and simultaneously biting and jangling guitar riffs. Whereas later Wedding Present singles would show a pop sensibility the band have never really been given enough credit for, "Friends" meanders and mopes around indie-land with a scowl, and never quite reaches out in that way. But it's still a fine part of their back catalogue, and deserves a certain amount of respect.

9. Blue Aeroplanes - Lover and Confidante (Fire)

Bristol's Blue Aeroplanes, on the other hand, were almost destined to be a cult band from the off. Spoken word, poetic lyrics collided with angular guitar riffs, and they had a Russian interpretative dancer on stage with them throwing shapes to their music. Such arthouse behaviour was barely befitting a band who eventually ended up on a major label. Indeed, it's interesting to consider the fact that their Fire Records label-mates Pulp were considered oddballs at this point, when Pulp were actually already creating a few dark pop moments which were marginally more straightforward and less eccentric.

Still, "Lover and Confidante", while not being The Blue Aeroplanes at their best - that cheapo sounding recording flatters them not - does have a sharp guitar riff running through its core, and a fantastic central catchphrase in the chorus ("I can't talk to her so I'd like to talk about her") which sums up disturbing, obsessive love or lust more simply and effectively than most tracks of that era... but far better singles would follow.

10. Joy Division - Transmission (Peel Session Version) (Strange Fruit)

Now here's where we stumble across a strange anomaly. "Transmission" comes from entirely the wrong era to be on "Indie Top 20" at all, but Joy Division had recently put out a Peel Sessions EP on Strange Fruit records, of which this was a key track. It slipped safely inside the indie charts, and therefore qualified it for awkward inclusion here. The fact that Clive Selwood owned Strange Fruit records and presumably could cheaply and easily slip a big name band on to "Indie Top 20" through that outlet without much fuss was obviously also a huge incentive.

We don't really need to talk about "Transmission", of course. It's a bona-fide classic of its era, and while the Peel Session version lacks the depth and attention to detail of the studio release, the ideas still shine through. However, the placing of Joy Division straight after a run of scratchy, scrappy indie bands feels jarring and perplexing, and doesn't work as well as you'd suppose it might. There's nothing on this LP it sounds in good and easy company with, except perhaps the next track... and more on that later. 

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 1 - Tracks 1-5 (ACR, Half Man Half Biscuit, 1000 Violins, Soup Dragons, Erasure)

Indie Top 20 Volume 1
Formats: Cassette Only

This was the first Indie Top 20 release out of the traps, released in early 1987, somewhat eccentrically on cassette only. I presume the main factors in this decision were cost and the hope that the compilation would catch some of the shine that the previous year's cassette only NME C86 album had enjoyed, but even so... vinyl only releases were far more common in indie-land than ferric-only ones at this point, which were largely seen as the reserve of demo tapes, bedroom lo-fi enthusiasts and magazine freebies. This really was an understated entrance for the series, though the cassette still sold reasonably well.

Whatever the reasons, it was the first of only two Indie Top 20 LPs to slide out on Clive Selwood's "Band Of Joy" label (later home to Queen's "At The Beeb" compilation among other releases). Band of Joy seems like a faintly strange name for a label in itself, having once been the name of a band Selwood managed until Robert Plant stuck his oar in and claimed he held the rights to it. Was naming a record label after it a deliberate attempt to irritate the great one? We may never know.

And none of this, least of all Queen and Led Zeppelin, really has much to do with the goods on offer. Volume One of the series is a faintly mixed bag with some surprises here and there, but overwhelmingly focuses most of its attention on the scratchier and janglier guitar-led aspects of the indie scene at that point. If that seems narrow in its focus, it's worth remembering that you couldn't really pick up a non-glossy music magazine (or even Record Mirror) at this point without reading about cute young kids with fringes and "Woolworths guitars", such was the influence the C86 compilation and the rash of fanzines prior to it had upon the nation.  In retrospect, a lot of it - and I'll quite clearly opine on which aspects later - seemed like a retrograde reaction against modern pop, a conscious decision to return to pre-punk mid-sixties (and even, in some cases, early sixties) musical values. The likes of Stephen Pastel were an unquestionable influence on the child-like feyness of some of the material of this era as well, as he set off on a mission to rebel against the very idea of adulthood (stories abound with details of people catching Mr Pastel playing with a toy Action Man with parachute at parties).

The mid-eighties weren't an easy time for many young people to be alive, and if some people did react by turning to music that was based on low-budget, back-to-basics ideas, and did yearn for their childhoods which had passed, that possibly isn't surprising. If you wanted to make a case for C86 or indie jangle-pop or "shambling bands" being the mid-eighties austerity equivalent of fifties skiffle music combined with a punk DIY attitude, I suppose you probably could... but I'm going to resist the temptation to explore that idea now and just cut to the chase...

1. A Certain Ratio - Mickey Way (The Candy Bar) (Factory)

I'm struggling to think of any compilation series which opened for business with a less representative track than this. It's downright absurd. Manchester's A Certain Ratio started out in 1977 as a punk band, but by the time "Mickey Way" came out in 1986 they were a-slappin' and a-groovin' around the funky dancefloor. But before anyone exclaims "It's indie-dance before its time!", let's calm down. ACR may have been one of the earliest dance-orientated acts to play the Hacienda, but acid or baggy this isn't; rather, it actually sounds like early eighties post-punk funk with the awkward edges sanded down (and therefore, for me, a lot of the interesting aspects eliminated).

There's some enormously hooky disco riffs washing up throughout the near-six minutes of this track, and beefy basslines which are an absolute joy to play along to (I did used to play along myself sometimes) but contextually, the track feels like debris left along the indie shoreline from a previous moment in time. There wouldn't be another track like "Mickey Way" on the Indie Top 20 series again, and nor would such music frequently enter the indie charts in the future, although somewhat strangely this track did find its way on to "CD88 - The Best Of Indie Top 20 Volumes 1-5"... so clearly Chet and Bee had very high opinions of it.

2. Half Man Half Biscuit - Dickie Davies Eyes (Probe Plus)

Half Man Half Biscuit remain a going concern and have been around for so long that it's difficult to remember the fact that for a brief period in the eighties, their musings on popular culture ephemera and a slacker lifestyle actually felt solidly embedded into the C86/ twee-pop moment (and of course, they were on the C86 compilation too). The video for "Dickie Davies Eyes" would have made Stephen Pastel hoot with joy, watching a deflated, unshaven Nigel Blackwell amble around Liverpool playing with children's toys and machines while the public stared at him, bemusedly. Is there another video that sums up that strand of the indiepop era more effectively, whether it means to or not?

Brilliantly witty and sharp though they were (and are) - I'll honestly take Blackwell's observations on the working class human condition over John Cooper Clarke's any day of the month - there's a disturbing honesty and desperation that often cuts right through Half Man Half Biscuit's work as well, a sense that Blackwell isn't watching children's television because he has children or because he wants to, he's doing it because he's unemployed and there's fuck all else going on in his life. Only a doley stoner, over-exposed to having his television on during the daytime with the curtains drawn, would try to conflate the fictional town of Trumpton with recreational drug use (though similar observations would later become commercially commonplace at the dawn of "rave", possibly for similar but less transparently bleak reasons).

"Dickie Davies Eyes" was a huge indie single, but not really Half Man Half Biscuit's finest moment. There are some brilliant lines, not least "Brian Moore's head looks uncannily like London Planetarium", which later became the name of a football fanzine. For all that, though, the track marches at a funeral pace (complete with maudlin organ) through the debris of Blackwell's life and that of his (doubtlessly real) hippy stoner friends, and the angst and irritation feels all too legitimate somehow. "All the people who you'd romantically like to still believe are alive... are DEAD" he sneers harshly, bringing hippy dreams crashing down into the monochromatic mid-eighties as he wipes his snot on the arm of a chair. Honestly, I find this quite bleak listening.

3. Soup Dragons - Hang Ten! (Raw TV)

OK, now the compilation has suddenly found its pace, going from 20mph to 100mph in the space of one track change. The Soup Dragons later became brief baggy sensations with the huge hit "I'm Free", and for some indie purists forever blotted their copy-book as a result. I'm sure future generations are only aware of the group (if they're aware of them at all) due to their one opportunistic Rolling Stones cover with reggae toasting on it.

A shame, because some of their earliest singles are two-minute packs of dynamite, offering nothing remotely new - even at the time, when everyone wanted to sing their praises, the Buzzcocks comparisons were still all over the music press - but doing it in a very determined style. "Hang Ten!" in particular really sets the adrenalin racing, taking an enviably good pop hook and revving it to the max. Even the key change three-quarters of the way through seems excusable and effective, giving a track which already had an exhausting amount of energy behind it a second wind.

The Soup Dragons repeated the past much more than they ever invented the future, but nonetheless, had this been performed in a slightly different style and been released by The Pixies earlier in their career, we'd still be talking about it. A monster indie single of its era, and not for no reason. Its erasure from indie history is something of a shame. Oh, and talking of erasure...

4. Erasure - Sometimes (Mute)

"But Dave! Erasure aren't indie! Dave, I don't understand. Why did The Chart Show always play Erasure in the Indie Chart when Erasure aren't really indie IMO? They could have played My Jealous God instead! So why didn't they?!"

Well, my naive and well-intentioned floppy-fringed friend, let me tell you. Firstly, Erasure were on Mute, an independent label, and that was (and is) all it takes to qualify you for the indie charts. It wasn't a genre, it was a series of small distribution networks. And secondly, while Erasure were unquestionably a synth-pop outfit, they nonetheless had some appreciation from non-pop quarters, frequently getting played on Janice Long's show, for example - and prior to "Sometimes" they were also unexpectedly unsuccessful, with many of their singles only just earning a Top 100 place in the singles chart. That's probably how they also found their way on to "Indie Top 20" with this track. They were bona-fide grown-up chart stars at this point, but it hadn't always been thus.

Still, I loved this era of Erasure. It helps that my journey through music was a bit peculiar - I got obsessed with synth-pop for a period in my teens, so Erasure for me were just a continuation of my previous interests, sitting happily alongside lots of other bands I was just getting into. It felt mightily convenient to have them on the Janice Long show and the Chart Show indie chart alongside everyone else.

And, whatever your thoughts on whether they're a good fit or not, "Sometimes" is an absolute corker of a song, arguably their finest. It's only when listening to it with a fresh, critical pair of ears that you realise it's overloaded with thrilling fourishes, from that insistent, strumming guitar hook, to the dramatic instrumental break (perfectly dramatised on the video with a sudden downpour of heavy rain) and the frilly high-end synthesiser keyboard noodling before the beginning of the chorus. It demands you pay attention and love at least some of it, being overloaded with pop ideas, and that outpouring of creativity provided their first proper hit. Fair enough - though I'd argue it should actually have been a number one.

Erasure's stock seems to have fallen hugely in the last couple of decades, and more than any other group of that period, they seem to attract homophobic comments online, also being ridiculously tagged as a "gay group" rather than a band who actually have a diverse following. Indeed, it pains me to see that the video uploader here leaves the descriptive message "No homophobic comments please". It's 2016, but you'd never know it. There are so many sour, bigoted people online who need to piss off and find a party (and preferably an island) of their own somewhere.

5. One Thousand Violins - Please Don't Sandblast My House (Dreamworld)

Sheffield's One Thousand Violins felt like a name to drop at this time, but subsequent investigations prove that actually, they were never really indie chart big hitters. This was their biggest single by far, but it still only got as far as number 11 on the Indie Chart, and they never entered the indie top 10 at any point in their careers at all.

"Please Don't Sandblast My House", from its absurd title to its polite vocals and cheap but almost early Floyd-ish Turkish Delight keyboard hook (is that the same keyboard as Half Man Half Biscuit were using earlier, I wonder? Was there a cut price sale on them at Rumbelows?) feels like a slice of melodic sixties pop-art transplanted into the eighties. The chorus is also surprisingly potent, to the extent that you're left to wonder how this track has become less of an indie-pop staple in recent years.

One Thousand Violins wouldn't appear on the "Indie Top 20" series again after this, but would go on to release another five singles before giving up in 1989. Guitarist Colin Gregory would later go on to become a key member of psychedelic revivalists The Dylans in the early nineties, though, and that's not the last time you'll be seeing that name on this blog. 

Monday, 15 August 2016

Who Are "Indie Top" When They're At Home?

"You know that album you wanted for Christmas? Well, I have to say, I've been round and round looking for it. HMV, Our Price, Woolworths... I went everywhere, and nobody's heard of Indie Top. And your brother's been looking, he can't find anything by that band either. You don't half listen to some obscure things, we couldn't even get any albums by Indie Top in on order. Who the bloody hell are they?" - My Mum, sometime around 1987.

If you're a millennial who has been through your teenage years having access to music on demand online, it's going to be very difficult to understand just how tough things were in the eighties and early nineties if you wanted to hear anything other than chart music.

If you lived outside a major city in Britain, chances are you only had a few choices open to you on the radiogram for pop and rock - Radio One or BBC/ Independent Local Radio. All of these stations had very conservative playlists, and while daytime Radio One often got short shrift in the mid-eighties for playing more MOR and AOR than a youth-orientated station should have done, its choices were downright anarchic compared to most of the local stations. Their playlists were not only shorter and blander, they also appeared to change very infrequently, meaning on Essex Radio in particular (my hometown favourite) you seemingly had to wait for nearly a year for Boy Meets Girl's "Waiting For A Star To Fall" to budge an inch from your daily airplay diet. Now, I've nothing particularly against "Waiting For A Star To Fall" - it's frothy, joyous pop, and it probably sounded good the first thirty times I heard it. I just can't help it if the next two hundred plays pushed me over the edge. Familiarity breeds distress.

Nor would I really want to dismiss all pop music of the period, but if you wanted to hear something of a different flavour, you had only a few choices. One was to wait for evening Radio One when Janice Long or John Peel would come on air (and Peel was often shunted around the schedules and on LATE in the week for a lot of this period, which was a shitter if you had school in the morning and your parents used to check you actually had gone to bed - and mine were wise to my behaviour. I can't help but think that most of the people who claimed to listen to Peel religiously as teenage schoolchildren were perhaps more restricted than they're letting on). Another was to try and catch "The Tube" or the indie chart rundowns on "The Chart Show", or "Snub TV" for the brief period it existed. If you were really daring, you could actually read about non-mainstream bands in the music press and gamble some money on them if they sounded particularly good. Apart from that? Nothing.

And even when you did manage to hear some material that lit up your world, not only could the records be difficult to find in small-town Britain, when you did find them you couldn't possibly afford them all. Not on that paltry paper-round money you'd earned during the week. This was precisely the dilemma I regularly found myself in, until one day in the eighties I was fumbling through the indie compilations rack at my local HMV, and I stumbled on volume four of the "Indie Top 20" series. There, on one single slab on vinyl, sat a whole run of singles which had been on my wants list for some time (Wire's "Kidney Bingos", The Wedding Present's "Nobody's Twisting Your Arm", The Cardiacs "Is This The Life", The Shamen's "Knature of A Girl") plus some others I at least liked or was curious to hear. It retailed comparatively cheaply, and I rushed to the checkout with it under my arms. It started an addiction which would last until the mid-nineties.

This became problematic and faintly socially unacceptable after a time. The "Indie Top 20" series ended up being seen (certainly in my town, and judging by the letters pages of the music mags, beyond) as being a prissy and puritanical thing, the reserve of indie snobs who insisted that their primarily guitar-based alternative music was better than any other being made at that time. The run-out grooves of the albums frequently featured messages such as "Now... THAT'S... What... I Call Music!" across the four sides, cocking a very deliberate snook at the more affectionately remembered (and certainly more popular) mainstream compilation series on Virgin/ EMI. When Telstar issued an indie compilation LP in 1990 confusingly entitled "Rave", the windows of their offices became filled with bill-stickered Indie Top 20 posters in some kind of anti-major label protest. Series co-owner Chet Selwood insisted that it wasn't anything to do with him, and it was probably the actions of an irate fan of the albums who felt Telstar were encroaching on their territory (not a terribly convincing story, I have to say. Where would the fan have got all those advertising bills from? Robbed them from Selwood's offices without him noticing?)

It's important to remember that such hardline snobbery, ridiculous as it seems now, didn't emerge in a vacuum. People become entrenched and territorial in increasingly silly ways the more marginalised they feel their tastes are, until the battle lines become drawn along lines of "us versus the mainstream". It's an age-old story. Naturally, music historians are keen to point out that British indie during this period was actually often reactionary, retrograde and conservative compared to a lot of emerging Dance music, but it's important to remember that initially, a lot of that music also formed part of the indie chart and some of the earliest Indie Top 20 albums, not to mention the evening radio playlists. In fact, an entire volume entitled "Indie Top 20: House" emerged in the mid-eighties, though for reasons I found problematic at the time, and still find iffy now - we'll come on to that subject eventually on this blog.

If you were a real indie snob, of course, you bought all the records on vinyl with the allowance your lawyer/ accountant/ doctor/ dentist/ architect/ "quality stock" parents gave you, and had no truck with cut-price compilations. If you didn't come from that kind of background but still fancied having an elitist outlook, you could tell yourself that the "Indie Top 20" series dripped with authenticity anyway. If only you had known who was behind them. "Indie Top 20" initially seemed to present itself as a series created and compiled by enthusiasts, with its scruffy minimal sleeves and the liner note sign-off "compiled by Chet and Bee", two individuals too matey to bother with surnames. Chet and Bee, I always imagined, were probably a couple in their early twenties, maybe also ran a fanzine, were almost certainly students, and pulled together these albums with little more than a phone line and a notebook and pen, dealing with tiny indie labels around the country in a co-operative way. In reality, Chet and Bee were the son and daughter of music industry "mover and shaker" Clive Selwood, a man who had been a highly successful Marketing Director at CBS and Pye in the seventies. Selwood did have alternative kudos as well, acting as John Peel's manager and owner of Strange Fruit records, and also having had a history at the UK branch of Elektra Records and co-owner of the well-meaning Dandelion Records. Nonetheless, it's safe to say that Chet and Bee had a friendly ear to call on to give them marketing and sales advice and introduce them to key people, and perhaps weren't operating on the same level as some of the naive young hopefuls who ran the labels who featured on the series. Bee had even had her own Pye distributed single out in 1978, a cover of Sandie Shaw's "Girl Don't Come", which is now almost impossible to find.

Whatever our perceptions of the series now or the people behind it, it felt like one of very few lifelines to another world for me as a teenager, and while my fondness for it depleted with age - the older I got and the more money I had in the bank, the less important it became as a guide to alternative music - I still get a Proustian rush when I pull some of the earliest Indie Top 20 albums out of my record collection. I can remember exactly where I was when I bought most of them, sometimes even what I was wearing, and what I was looking forward to hearing at home. They were as big a part of my childhood as the Now albums are to some other people and as there's no blog available for them online, I thought I should make a start.

The rules will be simple. Each blog entry will either be one side of an Indie Top 20 vinyl LP, or, for ones which weren't issued on vinyl, five tracks taken in order. Any more than that and I'll get tired very quickly and you'll get bored. Each album will be taken in order of release, and there will be no illegal downloads up for offer here, with us falling back on YouTube or Spotify instead. Almost all of these tracks are still commercially available, so there seems to be no real point in offering them up to download for nothing.

Are you with me? Or am I talking to myself?