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. 

1 comment:

  1. Great start! The Soup Dragons track is thrilling.