Thursday, 29 September 2016

Volume 5 Side 1 - Robert Lloyd, Wire, New Order, King Blank, Quireboys

Format: Double Vinyl/ Cassette/ CD
Year of Release: 1988

Volume 5 was a significant issue for the series, being the first ever Indie Top 20 LP to come out on Compact Disc - finally, the digital age had reached Beechwood Music, and listeners could (if they chose) listen to all manner of underproduced indie groups in high quality sound. Some of them had never even had releases on CD before. Marvellous. WERE WE NOT MEN?

Of course, I never owned this album on CD myself (or not until much, much later on when I chanced upon a second hand CD copy for £2). I didn't have the kind of money necessary for a CD Player at this point in my life, still listening to all my records on the turntable of a Saisho stereo unit my brothers bought me for Christmas. So whatever revolution this represented, it entirely passed me by.

I can distinctly remember this being a Christmas present too, at the tail end of 1988 - and I was delighted when I ripped the wrapping paper off and found this double vinyl LP waiting for me. When I finally played it at home, though, I was struck by what a gloomy sounding record it is compared to any of the previous volumes. There are obvious exceptions, but this is overwhelmingly a contemplative, moody record as opposed to a varied buffet. Despite the fact that Indiepop was a bit of a busted flush at this point and the music press had largely moved on to other concerns, it appears to be in denial about that fact, probably containing the highest number of slightly shambolic, vaguely twee, low budget bands since Volume One.

There's some good moments on the album, but no really great ones (in my opinion) and some downright baffling inclusions. Perhaps in this halfway house, this motorway travel tavern sleepover between Indiepop and Indie Dance, a slight loss of focus could only be expected. But you may well disagree as we travel through the tracks:

1. Robert Lloyd & The New Four Seasons: Something Nice (In Tape)

Robert Lloyd, normally lead singer of Brummie indie group The Nightingales (victims of endless lazy and slightly inaccurate "They're Birmingham's answer to The Fall!!!" music press reviews) and one of the heads of indie Vindaloo Records was well known as a scene stalwart. Behind numerous cult indie classics with wiry, angular guitar noises, once The Nightingales split in 1986 he clearly decided that his solo career would veer in a more pop orientated direction. The false group name Robert Lloyd & The New Four Seasons was created for this very purpose (and very quietly and quickly dropped again to become plain old "Robert Lloyd", presumably when someone got antsy that the actual Four Seasons would take legal action. Somewhere on a cutting room floor, perhaps this was even a subplot in the "Jersey Boys" film - "I cannot believe da noive of this Nightingales guy").

"Something Nice" proved Lloyd could clearly have a pop career if he wanted and had enough of a tail wind behind him. It's a stomping, bold, brassy and incredibly catchy track lyrically focused on some kind of mid-life crisis. "I get scared that something nice will fly by", Lloyd panics. "Every time I'm ill I think I'm dying" he clarifies later on, "every time I'm sad I feel like crying/ this is the state I've got myself in". For all that, this propels along in a strident, chirpy, almost festive fashion, sounding like a hit Edwyn Collins never had.

This received a strong amount of evening airplay on Radio One, and ensured that the ears of A&R staff at Virgin Records pricked up. Doubtless hoping for a whole album of glossy alternative pop, he was signed to the label and released the "Me and My Mouth" LP and the rather ace single "Funeral Stomp" which utterly and undeservedly stiffed. Virgin dropped him, and there would then be nothing much from Lloyd until The Nightingales reformed in 2006.

2. Wire: Silk Skin Paws (Mute)

We last met Wire on Volume 4, with the fantastic "Kidney Bingos". "Silk Skin Paws" also emerged from the LP "A Bell Is A Cup..." and despite being a brilliant track in its own right didn't seem as obvious a single. A gloomy, atmospheric pean apparently about bankers throwing themselves out of windows, it's again rich with atmosphere, chiming guitars and icy synths.

As an LP, "A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck" created a short-lived wave of renewed critical focus for Wire, and there was a feeling that while they never truly achieved everything they could have done (in terms of sales) in the seventies, perhaps now was their time. Mute apparently hoped that they would eventually at least match their levels of success on EMI, and perhaps even usurp them. They were not without their famous supporters, either - David Bowie was even spotted buying a copy of their CD in HMV on Oxford Street.

Wire always were an awkward bunch of sods, though. A lot of their material in the eighties was sublime, but as time wore on some of their projects became either successfully or unsuccessfully experimental, and baffled critics and sometimes on occasion fans. The largely forgotten LP "It's Beginning To And Back Again" was a live-in-the-studio reimagining of other tracks of theirs, often so distanced from the originals that only the lyrics gave the game away - it's a great listen in places, actually, once the disorientation wears off. On the other hand, the "Drill" project, consisting entirely of different versions of the same song, was just completely fucking silly. An appearance from the group on an American chat show performing the track underlines their stubbornness hilariously. What would a band like Wire do with a prime time TV slot? Be as aggressively inaccessible as possible, obviously.

For Wire fans like me, this brief period is as thrilling as it is frustrating. In my opinion, the band should be on the tip of anyone's tongue when the subjects of punk or art-rock are raised, and should have managed at least one bona-fide hit, but they seem to have remained a cult act who never managed to prove their worth to a wider audience. Tracks like "Silk Skin Paws" and "Kidney Bingos" prove that even during their less fashionable, non punk scenester phase, they were more than just an arty, angular act - they were great songwriters as well. It's a shame that's talked about so infrequently.

3. New Order - Dreams Never End (Peel Session Version) (Strange Fruit)

Volume Five of Indie Top 20 is the very last time we'll be hearing New Order and Joy Division Peel Session tracks. Thank the Lord for small mercies. It's not that I don't like their work, it's just that they were clearly given slots on the albums as bait to floating voters in Our Price, and all their efforts date from a period years before the release date of these LPs. Therefore, putting them into meaningful context for the purpose of this blog is impossible.

"Dreams Never End" is a bizarre track in New Order's canon in that Peter Hook is given the mic rather than Bernard Sumner, and it makes a strange difference to the sound. His braying voice bears a slight resemblance to Andy Partridge of XTC here (even though it's probably trying to ape Ian Curtis) and almost in sympathy, the band clatter and jangle behind him. It's one of the least New Ordery sounding New Order tunes ever.

Despite this - or perhaps because of this - there's nothing remotely essential about it at all, and it's a curio rather than anything else. If New Order fans were asked to contribute to a poll of their finest work, I highly doubt "Dreams Never End" would be a prime entry unless Hooky himself rigged the contest.

4. King Blank - Blind Box (Situation Two)

As we trawl through the volumes of Indie Top 20, we're going to encounter a number of slightly baffling bands who have since been mostly forgotten, but were critically fancied for about two or three weeks in their given year. King Blank are the most obvious example so far, though I have no recollection at all of them being music magazine cover stars - I just have hazy memories of some complimentary gig reviews and the odd positive nod.

There's no way I can possibly be kind about this track, unfortunately. I lived in a small town in Essex at this point, and occasionally our local gig venue would put on a local groups gig bonanza, highlighting all the up-and-coming talent in the area. Tickets would be about £5, and you could stand all night and watch indie, rock and alt-rock talent from the regional Sunday leagues. Without exaggeration, there was always at least one band who sounded like King Blank on every bill. They would have the same bluesy swagger, the same raw sound, and similar vocals delivered through gritted teeth. None of them ended up with record deals.

King Blank, on the other hand, did, and I've never fully understood that. There's nothing exceptional occurring here at all, and the song constantly tries to bear its teeth and attack, but couldn't sound more staged and less threatening if it tried, like an amdram English take on the harder edges of the American underground. The production of the whole thing is so hollow and skeletal it also feels like it would collapse if you prodded it for long enough.

After one LP, "The Real Dirt", the group went their separate ways and guitarist Nigel Pulsford became one of the founding members of nineties grunge legends Bush, ironically becoming one of the few British bands to become hugely successful in America during that decade. King Blank give no hints away that this would ever be the case.

5. Quireboys - Mayfair (Survival)

Another truly baffling addition to the LP. The Quireboys eventually became far more successful than King Blank, of course, being a much-fancied old-school boozy rock group in the vein of The Faces. Renowned for their raucous live gigs, they gave the national scene a raw, balls-out sound it had clearly been missing for a long time by the late eighties. While they were never fashionable as such, they certainly beat Primal Scream to the Southern boogie punch bowl on a number of occasions as well.

Despite being on an indie label at this point, they really didn't have a keen indie following, attracting the long-haired denim wearing boys and girls much more keenly. They sound unbelievably out of place on this compilation as a result, like total gatecrashers.

"Mayfair" is a neat track, though, sounding like a lost piece of 1973 rock and roll. Stemming from a period when Ginger of The Wildhearts was a member of the group, it seems so authentic that you could possibly even fool someone by telling them that it's an out-take from a much more legendary band - and that bar-room piano and those growling vocals are expertly handled. It's not really surprising that their time in indieland would be limited, and EMI stepped in to sign them fairly swiftly, giving them a number two hit album in "A Bit Of What You Fancy" in the process. A long career in the limelight seemed assured, but disappointing sales of the follow-up "Bitter Sweet & Twisted" put paid to that idea and their demise was cruelly swift.

They've since undergone some line-up shuffling and reformed a couple of times, and remain active to this day.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 4 Part 2 Side 2 - 2 The Max, Groove, Smith & Mighty, Housedoctors

1. 2 The Max - "People of All Nations" (Republic/ Rough Trade)

Well, this is obscure. Not on YouTube or anywhere else, it seems (until I uploaded it just now) or even talked about anywhere else online... yet was clearly deemed significant enough at the time to get a space on this compilation.

It's easy to understand why this has since fallen down the cultural equivalent of a black hole, as it doesn't offer anything radically different to the sounds around it at the time, but the track is actually good enough to make me feel that's rather unjust. With its pounding House piano riff, throbbing and insistent bass line, bongos and "people of all nations dancing together" hook, it transports you straight to the dancefloor of the Hacienda, even though I couldn't honestly say with any degree of certainty it was actually played there.

Crucially though, the elements it contains can be found in just about any House track at that point in time, and it does suffer from being rather too indistinctive for its own good. If I ran an appropriate retro night, though, I might consider playing it there.

2. Groove- "Submit To the Beat" (Submission)

Much more minimal, "Submit To The Beat" is conversely considered to be something of a cult dancefloor classic of its era. And no wonder - it's created by Graeme Parke, a Hacienda DJ and future producer, Radio DJ, and all-round general legend.

The repetitive and effective bassline here is the driving force, the foundation of the track, and the little flourishes that emerge over the top periodically are pleasing and subtle rather than intrusive. If you wanted an example of the polar opposite approach to the sample-mania to be found on Side One of this LP, this would be it - this is spacey House with lots of room to breathe rather than hyper, trigger-happy material.

Graeme Parke remains a highly respected DJ, producer and mixer.

3. Smith & Mighty - "The Dark, Dark House" (Three Stripe)

Now, is it me or are bits and pieces of this (especially the bassline) clear precursors to the Sheffield techno sound? Doomy and menacing, "The Dark, Dark House" is part inspired by the "Twilight Zone" theme (without actually sampling it at all!) but clearly winds its own cavernous path without resorting to whackiness or cliche.

Smith & Mighty are Bristolians and Trip Hop pioneers, and the sound on offer here would have far-reaching consequences. A year on from this recording, their production of Fresh Four's "Wishing On A Star" would also lead to a particularly eerie and unlikely hit.

4. The Housedoctors - "Housedoctors (Gotta Get Down)" (Big One) 

I have "false memory syndrome" where The Housedoctors are concerned. I seem to remember they were everywhere for awhile and had more than a few singles out - but the Internet tells me I'm wrong. So either The Housedoctors are aliens and they abducted me at some point in the eighties and implanted the suggestion that they were significant into my brain, or I'm getting them mixed up with someone else. It's probably the latter, isn't it, readers?

Anyway, "Housedoctors (Gotta Get Down)" is another tastefully produced House release, keeping that pounding piano high in the mix but not letting it dominate. For all that, I don't get the impression that this is the best living room material in the world, and that it needs to be heard loudly in a club to get the best out of it - and while that may be true of many of the tracks here on "Indie Top 20: House", I'm getting the message much more clearly from this one. I need to be somewhere else other than a messy room in Ilford to be truly transported.

So, at the end of this experience, what have we learned? 

A) That an entire LP of House music is far harder for me to write about in a meaningful, contextual way than an entire LP of other Indie sounds, and my shortcomings are very apparent here.
B) That I get less click-throughs for writing about House music than anything else (time will tell if this is true or not, but I think I can predict that it will be)
C) That this LP was a very strange idea indeed, but that it did at least accidentally predict the future. The influence of House and Dance music in general would begin to make its influence felt on the indie scene, and changes were a-brewing which will only begin to make themselves feel apparent in a couple of "Indie Top 20"s time. While the House and Indie-guitar elements of the indie chart would co-exist as two slightly opposing forces for now, eventually they'd start breeding like rabbits... and the whole scene would begin to feel very different. For now, though... we shall have to return to base as if nothing really happened, like naughty teenagers sneaking back from an all-night party. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 4 Part Two Side One - S-Express, Twin-Beat, Gene and Jim, Coco Steel & Lovebomb

Indie Top 20 Volume 4 Part 2 - House
Format: Vinyl and Cassette 

Well, here we are... this is possibly the oddest release in the history of the "Indie Top 20" series, a complete anomaly which makes little sense from a 21st Century perspective.

From an eighties perspective, it's fairly easy to explain, even if the marketing of this release seems a bit questionable. The indie charts were flooded with House music at this point, and Chet and Bee were left with a clear choice - leave that music, often regarded as among the more groundbreaking of the era, off the albums and avoid disrupting guitar-based nirvana. Or alternatively, split Volume Four into two different parts and sell them separately, devoting Part One to "indie" as Melody Maker readers might have begun to understand the term, and volume two to House music. Melody Maker would then only sponsor Part One of volume 4 and everyone would be happy. I have no proof that these discussions were had and these particular plans hatched, by the way, but it seems logical enough.

As a result of the odd arrangement, this LP fell awkwardly between two stools, being a House compilation with a huge "Indie Top 20" logo down the side, possibly appealing to neither House nor stereotypical Indie kids as a result.

It's also early evidence of what would become a very long argument about what Indie meant or was. If Stock Aitken and Waterman and various House DJs were now dominating the Indie chart, was that "fair" or representative? Well, the question was really null and void - fairness didn't come into it, since the only qualifying factor for the chart was whether the music was distributed by a small independent distribution company. A certain hypocrisy often came out to play as well; people were quick to squeal angrily when Kylie Minogue hit number one on the indie chart, but stayed rather quiet when indie "sounding" bands signed to majors and trojan horsed their way into the chart on boutique imprint labels with distribution outsourced to Pinnacle or Rough Trade. By the mid-nineties, Island Records somewhat laughably set up Island Red Records entirely for this purpose. The only difference between Island product and Island Red produce was that the logo was red (logically enough) and the distribution was handled by an indie. Really, it was as if nobody was even trying to disguise the ploy by that point.

Meanwhile, back in 1988, here were eight House tracks which sprawled over the Indie chart happily, and did actually appeal to a lot of people (me included). This was also the first Dance Music compilation Beechwood released, and there would eventually be more - many, many more, in fact. On the other hand, dance music wouldn't feature on Indie Top 20 compilations much after this unless there was a clear crossover case to be made for it.

1. S-Express: "Theme From S-Express" (Rhythm King)

Well, here we are. "Theme From S-Express" was one of the biggest Dance music hits of 1988, an easy national number one which caught the imagination of House kids, older generations who adored classic soul, disco and funk, and even some psychedelic revivalists who enjoyed the vibe (although I think it's safe to say that they were a fairly small demographic, and played a tiny part in the record's overall success).

DJ, producer and remixer Mark Moore was highly acclaimed even before S-Express got off the ground. Beginning his career in the Mud Club (nothing to do with the glam rockers, obviously) and as a regular DJ at Heaven, he adopted a very liberal, devil-may-care playlist. This approach lead quite logically towards S-Express, who adopted elements of House music alongside then-unfashionable disco samples and a highly retro visual image.

Debut single "Theme from S-Express" entered the UK Top 40 rather uncertainly at number 25, before speeding up to number three the following week, then finally hitting number one. Dominated by an unashamed sample of Rose Royce's "Is It Love Your After", as well as samples from less obvious seventies club hits such as "Crystal World" by Crystal Grass (a record I personally am happy to own and still play) it oozed both populist familiarity and a slightly snobbish cool. The resulting cocktail was familiar enough to be loved by the General Public and liked by serious clubbers - though they may deny it now. It also still sounds great today, where many of its fellow travellers from the same era seem somewhat out-of-place. It's such a collision of influences and ideas that it can't be tied to a specific moment in time, with S-Express's kitsch imagery feeling as much a part of a 2016 Hipster Britain as an Acid House influenced 1988. By nodding to the past while they jumped on the wave of sample-heavy House music, S-Express were sly, smooth customers... though I doubt it was planned with quite as much precision as all that.

The group's creation really was largely artifice, though, despite Rhythm King operating on the budget of an indie label. Some of the members really contributed very little to the overall sound and were present mostly to dazzle with their visual image. In that sense, it's tempting to compare the way they presented themselves to a less caricatured, clubland version of ABC circa "How To Be A Millionaire", who in a very similar way had members who did little but inhabit a slightly kitsch, cartoony world.

While they may have arrived with a bang, S-Express faded quite fast. Their LP "Original Soundtrack" only reached number five in early 1989 when an absolute smash was anticipated, and 1991's follow-up "Intercourse" failed to chart at all. There are numerous explanations for that, not least the slight change of style to something more subdued between the LPs. In 1988, though, "Theme" was inescapable, and felt like the beginning of something huge. Given the sheer quantity of records since which have sampled seventies funk and disco classics, it probably was.

2. Twin-Beat: "Let's Pick Up The Pieces (And Make Some Music)" (Big One)

"Lady Penelope Speaking..." 
"We've got a hot one for you... can you take care of it?"

Ah yes. The earliest days of House music were rammed to the hilt with samples, and for whatever reason, no matter what else surrounded them, they were sometimes unapologetically daft, referencing things from the 60s and 70s because... well, I doubt anyone quite knew why they were doing it, but presumably when you're lost in the middle of a nightclub crowd, dancing with glee, references to your childhood pile on the pleasure. What better than to be reminded of those moments when you last felt at your most playful and carefree?

Some DJs and producers did it well, others crowbarred it in, and in 1988 you did feel that some people needed someone in the studio with them to scream "Enough with the fucking samples already! Lose at least ONE THIRD of them!"

Still, Twin-Beat aren't as guilty of overdoing it as some people on this LP (we'll come on to those in a minute) and clearly weren't courting credibility anyway. Those over-enthusiastic shouts and cries throughout and the sodding great sample of those hairy Scottish boogie boys The Average White Band ensure that they're begging for a crossover hit, not to be taken seriously by Face readers.

It was a crossover hit which wasn't forthcoming, obviously, and while I'm generally loathe to use the expression "This hasn't aged well", I do think it applies in this instance. That Whitney Houston inspired rhythm pattern in particular plonks it firmly in the late eighties, and it would be a brave DJ who attempted this as a retro-spin these days - the most obvious, sensible thing to do would be to play the original Average White Band track and leave this to one side.

3. Gene and Jim Are Into Shakes: "Shake! (How About A Sampling Gene?)" (Lovemuscle/ Rough Trade)

Here we go again with possibly one of the most egregious examples of samplemania, even boasting about its overload in the title. This was a big Ibiza spin at the time, but its tomfoolery feels incredibly tired now. The initial vinyl samples are charming and wouldn't be out of place on an Avalanches record, but the "Batcave" elements are yet another silly nod to Saturday children's television and make little sense in 2016.

The guitar noises and cries of "Shake!" also feel jarring and out of place, as if a local rock band have wandered in from next door to interrupt rather than contribute. You can see what the track is trying to do, and why it might even have worked at the time, but our expectations of records like this have sky-rocketed since - The Avalanches would have chopped all this together into something that formed a peculiar narrative, melding it into a coherent concept. Gene and Jim just drop the needle over some charity shop records they've found and expect us to be entertained. If it felt new and exciting at the time, it's arguably because it was (though only just) and there are moments where the track truly starts to feel propulsive rather than confusing and "random", but they happen fleetingly.

The video, meanwhile, has shades of Shoreditch hipsterism about it, which gives me pause for thought about how many of those elements were actually birthed in the late eighties. Sartorially at least, and with their vinyl buying habits, the pair were clearly ahead of the pack.

4. Coco, Steel & Lovebomb "The Sound of Europe Part One"  (Instant)

Now we're back in business. With a backbeat that almost (though not quite) resembles John Hawkins "Freestyle" (later sampled by Primal Scream for "Loaded") and a less busy, more freeflowing style, "The Sound of Europe" seems like the future of Dance music as it would become - and indeed, Coco Steel & Lovebomb would probably play more of a part in that than any of the other artists on this side of the LP.

Still, the sampling on display here is really risky, with instrumental segments of Imagination's "Body Talk" taking front and centre at various moments. These were the days when records were often released with heavy samples which failed to credit the original songwriters, and if they were hits, litigation was usually almost immediate. "The Sound of Europe Part One" obviously wasn't a hit, but it's near total disappearance since (I just had to upload the version below to YouTube) makes me wonder if it did come to someone's attention eventually.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 4 Part 1 Side Two - Wedding Present, Flatmates, Primitives, The Shamen, World Domination Enterprises, Pop Will Eat Itself

1. The Wedding Present - Nobody's Twisting Your Arm (Reception)

Well, this is it. This is the sound of a band with a style which was largely uncommercial at the time rising right up from the underground, and with an unbelievably good single. The yearning, lovelorn buzz and jangle of The Wedding Present's previous 7" efforts had been good, but nothing before really hinted at this - "Nobody's Twisting Your Arm" is just brilliant Pop. Pop with an abrasive edge, and pop that wasn't going to get played on Steve Wright In The Afternoon, obviously, but nonetheless, David Gedge was obviously on unbelievable form at this point.

Always known for taking common everyday sayings or phrases and trying to create hooks out of them, "Nobody's Twisting Your Arm" ups the commercial ante further by adding arrangement flourishes too, like that chiming piano, the female backing vocals, and not to mention one of the best choruses of their career. The opening lines "And when I called your house/ And your sister thought that I was somebody else" could have been given to a sulking, moping Jason Donovan for his latest hit if it weren't for the wobbly scansion in the second line. Try imagining "Nobody's Twisting Your Arm" performed in a synth-pop style. It isn't hard to do, as John Lennon never sang.

The track only just missed out on a proper national Top 40 place as a result, settling at the final position of number 46. It wasn't an Indie chart Number one either, resting somewhat unfortunately behind Kylie Minogue's "I Should Be So Lucky" on PWL, but perhaps that's only appropriate.

Things would change hugely for the band after this point. We'll meet them one more time before they sign to RCA, but there might be those who argue that this was actually their career pinnacle. I'm not too sure where I stand on that myself.

2. The Flatmates - Shimmer (Subway)

And this is probably my favourite Flatmates single as well, as the band suddenly throw feedback and jagged, harsher guitar sounds into the mix.  The lyrics are extra spiteful and biting as well, with spat out lines like "God knows what you've put me through" displaying a different facet to the band which just wasn't apparent on "Happy All The Time".

Sadly, it was also the beginning of the end for the group. One Janice Long Session EP would follow, and a final "proper" single in "Heaven Knows" in October 1988, before the game was up. They would reform in 2013 and release one more single, but are one of those frustrating indiepop acts never to have treated the world to a proper LP. Across seven inches, though, they were always a marvellous proposition.

3. The Primitives - Stop Killing Me (Lazy)

The Primitives are, you could argue, everything The Flatmates could have ended up becoming, and perhaps that's what they were trying to avoid. "Stop Killing Me" was released only a year before their RCA single "Crash", a top five smash which became the staple of school discos, with lots of caffeine-buzzing teens screeching "Shut! Shut your mo-outh!" in time with Tracy Tracy. Often regarded as one-hit wonders, they in fact managed a couple of years of moderate hit singles afterwards - no mean feat for a group of their ilk.

"Stop Killing Me" is an admirable and gutsy blast of three minute sixties pop with teeth, but in retrospect it's not worth getting overly exercised about. What's on display here could easily be found in countless other places being performed with a bit more of an edge and bigger hooks, but obviously it isn't their finest or most representative moment.

4. The Shamen - Knature of a Girl (Moksha)

"Christopher Mayhew Says" on Volume 3 was a fantastic psychedelic cacophony, but by the point of "Knature of a Girl" things had calmed down a little. The sledgehammer beatbox rhythms are still in place, and the shimmering effects (this time with added sitar styled noises) add a kaleidoscopic feel, but poppiness is beginning to rear it's head.

"Knature of a Girl" is still a long, long way from "Ebeneezer Goode" - so far it's almost mind-boggling, in fact - but the chorus here sounds close to the soon-to-be-born Jesus Jones, and you're left with the impression that the emerging wave of faintly rebellious but nonetheless commercial alt-pop groups probably owed The Shamen a debt. A debt, obviously, that neither side was keen to acknowledge by the time The Shamen were Boss Drummed up to the hilt.

5. World Domination Enterprises - I Can't Live Without My Radio (Product Inc)

Don't worry, readers, this one was an absurd release even at the time; a cover of LL Cool J's single with discordant, squawking guitar noises taking the place of any scratch mixing or indeed grooves. Apart from the fact that this version propels along with a bit more urgency, it's hard to understand why you'd need to own it instead of the original... nonetheless, it climbed to Number 8 in the indie chart, acting as World Domination Enterprises' biggest single ever.

The group were probably much more respected at the time for their cult single "Asbestos Lead Asbestos" which loaned its title to a later slice of Carter USM lyricism, and indeed had a cult following which ensured they were big news on the national gig circuit for awhile. "I Can't Live Without My Radio" is a baffling misfire, though, which only seemed radical at the time for the novelty of being a Hip-Hop track being retooled and reappropriated by English noiseniks. We were easily pleased by such things in those days.

6. Pop Will Eat Itself - There Is No Love Between Us Anymore (Chapter 22)

"There Is No Love Between Us Anymore" really is largely an instrumental track propelled along with scratch noises, interjecting samples and the occasional anguished cry of the title from Clint Mansell. That should have made it an utterly inappropriate single and something best left to the closing moments of the "Box Frenzy" LP, but in fact it showed that there was slightly more to the Brummie boys than leery, beery rapping and loud guitars. There's a neat patchwork quilt of ideas going on here, and a distinct dark mood, which showed that a creative and modern songwriting approach was apparent in their ranks - a point that probably needed to be made after two cover versions in a row.

Oddly, this does creatively sit somewhere between Public Image Limited and Big Audio Dynamite, the follow-up projects of two crucial punk figures, and the moody black and white video of two knackered parents loans it a sympathetic and considered edge the larks of the "Beaver Patrol" promo definitely didn't. ("It's restricted from playback on certain sites", say Sony. How dare I attempt to plug a bit of their adopted back catalogue on my blog, eh?)

Whatever the influences or the purpose behind the release of this, it did their prospects no harm and acted as their first ever official UK Top 75 chart entry, climbing to number 66. Far bigger success would also follow.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 4 Part 1 Side 1 - The Smiths, The Woodentops, Brilliant Corners, Wire, Cardiacs, Fields of the Nephilim

Indie Top 20 Volume Four Part One
Format: Single LP and Cassette

Now things are getting confusing. Volume 4 arrived in the shops in 1988 split into two distinct single LPs, Part One and Part Two, a bit like those old Ronco compilations from the early eighties except you couldn't buy one and get the other free.

Part One, "State of Independents", did not include the Indie Top 20 logo on its sleeve and in fact, I didn't even clock that it was part of the series when I first saw it in the racks. Part Two, on the other hand, seemed on the surface to be titled "Indie Top 20: House" and siphoned off all of the recent big-hitting House records which had buzzed around the Indie charts.

This seems like a completely bizarre approach, but there was a logic to it somewhere. Dance music was by now invading the Indie chart to the point where it was getting in the way of everyone's guitar-based pop fun, and that's what the NME and Melody Maker reading puritans buying Indie compilations probably wanted to hear. I, on the other hand, actually loved both music forms and would have been quite happy to own both LPs in one single gatefold sleeve. What I loved about the indie chart back then is that it was a wide open prairie for different sounds and frequently non-commercial ideas, not a ghetto for a specific kind of noise. I wanted to grab it all.

What we're seeing here, I suppose, is one of the earlier (though almost certainly not the earliest) attempts to treat indie as a genre rather than an abbreviation of the word "independent". For future releases, Beechwood would largely ignore Dance music, finding places only for crossover indie club hits. The beginning of the rot setting in? Well, not quite, perhaps just the end of the compilers Chet and Bee giving their audience material they just didn't want.

In any case, even bigger changes were around the corner which would threaten the mix-and-match approach of the early albums. Stock Aitken and Waterman were developing a little independent label called PWL which would send Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Pat and Mick soaring up the indie charts and national charts in 1988, and I doubt Beechwood could have afforded to include those artists in its series, even if Chet and Bee had actually wanted to... (though perhaps Pat and Mick could have been purchased in exchange for a few Hornby Railway gift tokens to Pete Waterman.)

As an ironic footnote to this charade, it's worth noting that Beechwood's bread and butter would later come from Dance music compilations, of which "House" was their first.

1. The Smiths - William, It Was Really Nothing (Rough Trade)

The Smiths solitary Indie Top 20 appearance is this brief burst of engagement ring angst, inspired by the fantastic novel and film "Billy Liar".

"William, It Was Really Nothing" sounds like a short Smiths B-side propelled into something much bigger and more significant by Johnny Marr's amazing guitar work. It's enough to make you yearn for the days the pair would actually work together, and the idea of The Smiths as a functioning unit - Morrissey's quips and vinegary asides in the lyrics meet intricate finger-picked guitar lines which truly soar.

Some entries ago we discussed the fact that The Wedding Present were deemed possible mainstream replacements for The Smiths after Morrissey and Marr had a parting of the ways in 1987. You can understand the logic slightly, but Gedge was never this sharp ("How can you stay with a fat girl who'll say 'Would you like to marry me, and if you like you can buy the ring'?") and Solowka, though an under-rated guitarist (often by Gedge himself) couldn't touch the detail on offer here. In time, journalists and fans alike would grow to realise that The Smiths were a one-off phenomenon who weren't going to be simply "replaced" culturally by anyone - even their individual component parts. And the world would continue spinning and we would move on to other things.

2. The Woodentops - You Make Me Feel (Rough Trade)

The world wouldn't really move on to The Woodentops, though, who at this point in their careers had already had a fair run on Rough Trade. At one point even selected by Smash Hits as possible future pop stars, in reality they were a cult act who managed to release some moderately successful LPs (1986's "Giant" reached number 36, and 1988's "Woodenfoot Cops On The Highway" managed a respectable enough number 48) but no major singles.

"You Make Me Feel" was a very rustic sounding record which was never very likely to reverse that general trend. Deeply warm and likeable, and having an intimate woodiness to its sound which only The Lilac Time came close to replicating at this point, it nonetheless sounded out of place with almost everything else occurring in 1988.

The group would find themselves unexpectedly relevant in Ibiza, though, with the track "Why" attracting Balearic DJ spins, which led to the band taking a much more dance-orientated direction. By accident I suspect rather than design, they were therefore early lights in the indie-dance movement - but you won't get a clear sense of that from this song.

3. The Brilliant Corners - Teenage (McQueen)

Business as usual for The Brilliant Corners, then, who return to the lyrical atmosphere of "Brian Rix" by singing about teenage lust going horribly, horribly wrong. "I'd like to make your bed and bring you cups of tea/ To wash your clothes and scrub your back/ But you won't let me!" wails Davey.

Complete with an almost sarcastic, mocking muted trumpet solo, "Teenage" again occupies an awkward halfway house between the jangle of The Smiths and the mocking acidity of Half Man Half Biscuit, and if some people considered the group to be having a laugh at their expense, that's possibly not too surprising. Despite that, their gift with pop melodies was often above and beyond many of their peers, and they possessed a longevity that many of their Indiepop chums didn't. This would allow them to continue releasing singles until as late as 1990, though by that point the fire had been snuffed out.

The Brilliant Corners feature irritatingly infrequently on retrospective indie compilations these days, which ignores the pulling power they had at the tail end of the eighties.

4. Wire - Kidney Bingos (Mute)

At this point, Wire had only recently reformed from their hiatus after being dropped by EMI at the end of the seventies. Their final album for that label, "154", is a classic of its era and all too often overlooked in favour of their earlier work. Far apart from that, the metallic, synthetic claustrophobia in its sound would later expand, unfold and breathe in their work for Mute in the eighties.

"The Ideal Copy" in 1987 was a fine comeback album, but 1988's "A Bell Is A Cup... Until It Is Struck" built on the template further and the metamorphosis felt complete. Tight, precise percussion met chiming guitars and cryptic lyrics, and another under-rated phase of their career began.

Always art-punks with the emphasis leaning heaviest on "art" (they were acquainted with Brian Eno before a proper punk scene even really broke) Wire were never afraid to be obtuse, and "Kidney Bingos" is probably one of the finest and most developed but potentially confusing singles they ever released. For years I falsely believed that the lyrics were created from cut-ups of tabloid newspaper headlines - the band have since revealed that it was actually about members of the public entering a national Bingo competition to win transplants on a denationalised, privatised health service. The satirical idea here seemingly is that you can dupe the public into voting for any repugnant idea and even have them enjoying it if you persuaded them enough. "Kidney Bingos/ Organ Fun!" Colin Newman coos melodically in the chorus, selling it to maximum effect.

The melody here is so sweet and seductive that the song actually is a beautiful piece of work on its own terms, whatever the underlying meaning. There's a depth here that keeps drawing you back, with each guitar line and atmospheric wash having its own appeal (and the outro in particular taking its own seductive "high high high/ low" path).

That their eighties work is so often ignored is criminal. This single is a finely sculpted jewel, and should be near the top of anyone's Wire listening list.

5. Cardiacs - Is This The Life (Alphabet Business Concern)

More art-rock? The Cardiacs possess an admirably large (and often defensive) fanbase, who will often tell you that the band are something that creeps into your brain when you least expect it. You will hear a song or two, or maybe an LP, and initially be confused or repulsed, but then, suddenly... quite without warning, and perhaps in the middle of the night... everything will click into place.

First things first. I'm not trying to be deliberately contentious, but I don't really buy the idea that The Cardiacs are an especially difficult band. Within the context of rock music they're certainly more challenging than most, but they're hardly an improv jazz act playing at the Vortex Club, utilising brass-scratching solos. Their music is usually clearly structured, and often overloaded with so many hooks and ideas that one listen isn't enough to appreciate them all, but it rarely ever becomes an assault.

Some of their best material is also pure genius. "Tarred And Feathered", for example, sounds like sixties music hall inspired psychedelia colliding with a Ronnie Hazelhurst quiz show theme before falling down some stairs, which is a good thing. While the band have attracted some needlessly unkind critics over the years, their influence on other groups has also been notable. Blur are huge fans, and it's easy to hear the fact that a Cardiacs without the more awkward elements could sound like something very close to the Colchester foursome.

Though oddly, "Is This The Life" is widely regarded as The Cardiacs at their most Pop, and sounds very little like Blur. Instead, it sounds like a post-punk band building a scaling, epic track from a discarded "Animals" era Pink Floyd guitar riff. Not for no reason did some people sneeringly call them "progressive punks". Still, it is actually bloody brilliant, screeching and meandering guitar solo and all. The drums pound, Tim Smith's vocals sneer, and the whole track sounds so downright confident that you had to wonder if a corner was being turned and the band were set to become commercial. Certainly, the track attracted daytime airplay on Radio One, almost unheard of for an indie band at this point, never mind the flaming Cardiacs.

In the end, their own label Alphabet struggled to keep up with the pressing demand, and by the time the single could have been a minor Top 40 hit, the moment had passed. The follow-up, a cover of The Kinks "Susannah's Still Alive" (which naturally DID sound more like Blur, albeit only by a tiny fraction somehow) was also easily accessible in a skewed pop way, but didn't really attract the same kind of attention, and before long The Cardiacs were back on the margins again.

These days, Tim Smith is unable to talk or walk after suffering a stroke, which is a huge loss to the music world, and I do hope he can make a full recovery and produce some more material again. Now more than ever, rock music needs "difficult" bands like The Cardiacs who piss critics off and baffle some of the public.

6. Fields of the Nephilim - Blue Water (Situation Two) 

And the Goth Rock party goes on. Other trends came and went, but the indie charts for most of the eighties saw black-clad men and ladies dropping by to spray some dry ice about the place, and the Indie Top 20 series had to acknowledge that continuation. Even at the turn of the nineties, it was nigh-on impossible to go out to alternative clubs without bumping into a fair number of goths. (A confession - I often found a lot of the women incredibly attractive, but they only mated with their own kind, and nothing could persuade me that the music was anything like good enough to base my life around. My teenage lust went unanswered. Well, not just in that particular respect, but most respects, to be fair).

Fields of the Nephilim were just about the only band I could imagine myself getting more enthusiastic about than mere grudging admiration, and "Blue Water" was the key entry point for me. Those Shadowsy, tremelo-arm manipulated guitar lines, the sense of Morricone soundtrack drama, the pure filmic nature of it all - this is never boring. Every time you think the band have exhausted the possibilities open to them, they find a new passage or avenue to filter the music down, a new dramatic flourish to add.

Never the most credible band even among the goth movement, and often swiped away as "Sisters of Mercy copyists", I'd say that dismissing their work as crabbily as that ignores the influences which clearly have nothing to do with Eldritch. Their post-apocalyptic visions (in both video and song form) are often incredibly silly, certainly, but as long as you're prepared to take them with a pinch of salt, there's bags to enjoy here.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 3 Side 4 - Sugarcubes, Throwing Muses, My Bloody Valentine, Wedding Present, Joy Division

1. The Sugarcubes - Birthday (Icelandic Version) (One Little Indian)

When this was released in 1987, the initial response could only be described as enthusiastic bewilderment. It wasn't that anyone in the position to promote it (music journalists or late night DJs) disliked it, more that they didn't understand how to describe it or put it neatly into context with anything else that was happening at the time.

Partly for that reason, I suspect, The Sugarcubes ended up becoming a band-come-tourism-campaign-for-Iceland, with almost every announcement, review, interview and Chart Show fact box referring to the fact that they came from a remote, frozen island with the same "population as Camden Town". A place hardly anyone visited, where music made strange ethereal noises and television only broadcast for three hours every day. The only way to describe "Birthday" in a way that might have made it saleable or caused it to make any sense to the time-pressed observer was to make it sound like an exotic cultural phenomenon occurring in some strange, faraway place.

Trouble is, as anyone who has become acquainted with Iceland or its music scene since fully understands, "Birthday" isn't really typical of anything happening there, or indeed anywhere else. Sure, music journalists compared the band to the Cocteau Twins at this point, and there's no question that there's an influence at play, but even so... those whining, weeping guitars, chiming bells, ponderous percussive elements, and Bjork's echoing, sky-reaching howling combine to create something actually really very creepy. The word "beautiful" has been occasionally used to describe the single, but it's not a well sounding record to my ears; it reaches, it surges, it staggers, it collapses like a yearning ballad being played from a vinyl record on a boat at choppy seas.

The video, screened on "The Chart Show" more times than I can sensibly count, adds to the sense of unease. The background picture is Bjork dancing and singing in an empty room with a darkened window. The foreground shot zooms in and out of Bjork's face, and as it zooms in she becomes pixellated like a Crimewatch video of a witness talking about a heinous murder. It's cheap and basic, but it again gives the impression of something slightly more sinister.

Bjork later referred to this as a "tasteless pop song", clarifying: "It’s a story about a love affair between a five year old girl, a secret and a man who lives next door. The song’s called Birthday because it’s his fiftieth birthday... I was always changing my mind about what the lyrics should be about. I had the atmosphere right from the start but not the facts. It finally ended up concentrating on this experience I remembered having as a little girl, among many other little girls’ experiences. It’s like huge men, about fifty or so, affect little girls very erotically but nothing happens . . . nothing is done, just this very strong feeling. I picked on this subject to show that anything can affect you erotically; material, a tree, anything.”

Which doesn't really clarify anything concretely, except to say that from the foundations up (the premise, the overall sound, the delivery) "Birthday" is consciously awkward, naive and confused, reaching for past emotions it can't get to or explain, and seems to want to unnerve the listener with its ideas.

I have my own particular memories of being five years old which relate tangentially to this record: My parents used to have an old 1960s stacking record player in the corner of our front room which was as big as a cupboard and contained a large number of old singles in its compartments. I used to regularly plough through the singles and stack them on the central spindle, spinning Fats Domino, The Beatles, The Animals, Ray Charles and other classic records of that era. On occasion, the stacking process wouldn't work, and a record would drop and as it span, would slip and slide against the label of the one beneath it, causing the melody to create a slightly discordant, wobbly noise. I hated this. It caused me to run from the room crying out to get help, I found it so unsettling.

To this day, I still have a stronger gag reflex than most around music which feels unsettled and faintly discordant (and not, crucially, heavily discordant) in a similar way (so it's lucky we won't have to discuss My Bloody Valentine much). It causes me to admire the way "Birthday" was put together rather than actually outright enjoy it.

But whatever I think, or reflexively feel - this single launched Bjork outside of Iceland and created a fascinating and unique pop star who remains an inspiration to many, and you could argue it was even the first pivotal step towards putting Iceland on the tourist map, giving the country more glossy magazine and newspaper coverage in Britain and beyond than it had enjoyed since the Cod Wars. If The Sugarcubes caused you to pull the Atlas from your parent's bookshelf and look further north than usual, you weren't alone. Maybe it was the start of the nation being patronised as being weird, quirky and out-there, when in reality it's no weirder or quirkier than any island nation - but that's the price everyone paid.

"Birthday" itself was never a conventional hit, but hung around the bottom of the National Top 100 across the whole of Autumn 1987, and ended up selling 50,000 copies - more than many "proper" chart hits.

2. Throwing Muses - Cry Baby Cry (4AD)

"Cry Baby Cry", on the other hand, isn't much more settled than "Birthday", sounding like an agonised country record performed in sheer panic by some musicians held at gunpoint. "He moved me and the chains changed!" yelps Kirsten Hirsch in a way that's one part joy, the other part total fear, while the band chug along rapidly behind her.

It's a deranged sounding single which has a rawness later Throwing Muses releases wouldn't necessarily possess. As the years rolled on, they discovered ways to decant their angular sound into more poppy structures, whereas "Cry Baby Cry" is almost all sharp edges. As an introduction to the band, it's interesting but not particularly accessible.

As a teenager, I actually thought this was probably what a band would have sounded like if Sylvia Plath had been a lead musician rather than a poet. Full marks for being a pretentious boy, then, but I'm going to put that comment here anyway because there's still a slight ring of truth about it for me. It has the same driving energy combined with disquieting ideas.

"You're wrong, Dave, and you're a pseud. Comparing bands to Sylvia Plath, honestly, you're not 14 anymore".
You're probably right, but I can't help it.

3. My Bloody Valentine - Strawberry Wine (Lazy)

And after all that, we get My Bloody Valentine at probably their most "normal". In their earliest days, MBV were usually regarded as being a sideshow in Indiepop quarters, a fey, merry group with some syrupy sixties ideas in their veins. That's an undeservingly simplistic view, as you can actually hear some of what would eventually make them significant here - the mix is much more interesting than anything, for example, The Pastels would be bothered to create. Feeling set on one constant droning mid-point, with the coo-ing backing vocals dominating and faintly buried lead vocals, it sounds faintly blurry, out of focus and claustrophobic. Something was already starting to happen, even if the details hadn't been fully fleshed out yet.

"Strawberry Wine" also sounds like a psychedelic folk song booted into the laps of an indie group, having a faintly otherworldly quality as a result. This is bit parts Indiepop, Shoegaze and early Incredible String Band at the same time.

Of course, if anyone had been played "Birthday" and "Strawberry Wine" back to back at the time and been asked which group would go on to make widely critically acclaimed and groundbreaking albums with their recording studio experiments, I still doubt the answer "My Bloody Valentine" would have cropped up much. Hindsight is a funny thing.

4. The Wedding Present - Anyone Can Make A Mistake (Reception)

This starts with high-powered guitar jangling, then revs its engine and speeds off, leading one critic of the time to comment: "The Ben Johnsons of indie take off around the track so fast they go straight past any tune".

That's a bit unfair, actually. "Anyone Can Make A Mistake" has become slightly sidelined in the Wedding Present's catalogue, but it's actually a brilliant little single, combining some superbly melodic, growling guitar riffs with an unstoppable energy. Even at this point before they signed to RCA, you can hear that their future would include "Kennedy" - "Anyone..." contains very similar elements in its sound.

Bigger and better things were to come in terms of exposure for the group, however, and this single acted as their last to sit outside the official UK Top 100. (Until they went "down the dumper" again, anyway).

5. Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart (Peel Session) (Strange Fruit)

And here we are again, discussing a classic track everyone knows, dating from well before 1987, purely because it was on a Peel Session EP and entered the indie chart as a result.

This time, though, at least the track is more than marginally different from the finally released single version, and in my view actually better. Some might see this as sacrilege, but the Peel Session version adds more beef to Peter Hook's clattering basslines and the driving percussion, giving the track a sense of drama it didn't eventually have. Of course, other people believe that this destroys the sense of atmosphere the song later had - it's entirely a matter of taste.

The Peel Session EP climbed to number three on the indie chart, and number 98 on the Offical Top 100.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 3 Side 3 - Cookie Crew, Hotline, Erasure, Ghost Dance

1. Cookie Crew - Females (Get On Up) (Rhythm King)

"Females" followed hot on the heels of the initial non-success of "Rok Da House", and climbed to number 78 on the national charts - a fairly big deal for a British rap act at that time. Seemingly focused on the slicker dressed female rappers with snobbier attitudes on the circuit, the pair put them on the straight and narrow: "Females, they wear a lot of gold/ be careful of them homeboys, because they're ten years old". Mmmm.

This is slick, sassy and smart, though sadly some of the sampled elements in it - most especially the "Yeah Woo!" sample - do datestamp it rather firmly in 1987. In the pair's defence, though, they weren't directly responsible for the fact that absolutely everyone, including Timmy Mallett, ended up using it.

After the success of "Rok Da House", The Cookie Crew became a steady mainstream presence for awhile, until it became clear that a pop life within the belly of the beast simply wasn't for them.

2. Hotline - Hellhouse (Rhythm King)

(Guess who just had to upload a YouTube video for this himself, as nothing seemed to be available?)

House music was huge news in both the national charts and the indie charts at this point, and Beechwood Music would have been fools to ignore the fact. It was seen as a vibrant and underground music form which was starting to change the way the music industry operated - pressed up by independent labels and distributed by either Rough Trade or Pinnacle, it succeeded and sold seemingly whether it picked up airplay or critical praise or not, with clubland dictating the end result. In fact, it usually sold in much greater quantities than your average Mighty Lemon Drops release, and sounded considerably less retro.

Did the kind of kids buying Indie Top 20 albums really care, though? That's a good question, and one Beechwood would have to grapple with in interesting ways by the time Volume 4 of the series rolled around. For now, though, "Hellhouse" sits slightly awkwardly between Erasure and The Cookie Crew here, and while it's a sturdy enough example of the genre, I doubt there are many people who would regard it as being an important or pivotal release - you get the impression that all involved with Volume 3 would have preferred the eternal 1987 indie number one "Pump Up The Volume" to occupy this space instead, but they couldn't afford the rights to it.

Having said that, listening to it again through good headphones for the first time in years, there's a corking groove to this one, sitting neatly between House music and mid-eighties funk. I didn't remember it being quite as good as this, and it's aged like a fine wine.  This is the kind of bass-heavy, complex, slowly evolving groove the retro-kids in the old school clubs are into now more than they were at the time, and while it might have sounded like neither fish nor fowl to me in 1987, now it seems like an incredibly effective piece of work. Or, to put it into context - it made me dance around my living room and I've got a bad knee. That's high praise at my age.

3. Erasure - Victim of Love (Mute)

Whether they could afford "Pump Up The Volume" or not, they clearly could afford the rights to Erasure again, although "Victim of Love" was a mere number 7 national hit for the pair. Falling back on one of Vince Clarke's subtle-as-a-sledgehammer choruses and an almost unfeasibly vibrant melody, it's strangely uplifting given the fact that its lyrics are about giving up on the idea of relationships. "I'm building a wall, every day it's getting higher" sings Bell happily. Please yourself, mate.

Erasure do not appear on the Indie Top 20 series again, which seems like an act of total denial, as the indie hits kept on coming. The reality seemed to be that their favour among indie kids had almost entirely waned by this point and they steadily became regarded as being "merely" a pop group. But, lest we forget, "merely" a pop group who produced "Drama", an overloaded piece of electro-gospel featuring The Jesus and Mary Chain shouting "Guilty!" in the background, the indie chart number one "Ship Of Fools", the Wheatus-covered "A Little Respect"... and even then, when they were truly, undeniably pop, they did it far better than most during their imperial phase. "Stop!" proved that without a doubt.

It's a shame, but not surprising, that we won't have the chance to discuss them again. Their absence from the series makes it feel as if they produced nothing else of note, when their ideas became much taller and mightier than this one. It's proof that when studying these LPs, we can't really treat them as being wholly reliable documents of what was or wasn't happening on the indie chart at any particular point.

4. Ghost Dance - Fools Gold (Karbon)

And no, this isn't an early version of the Stone Roses classic. Rather, "Fools Gold" is an epic Goth Rock tune which has been strangely overlooked by most people in the years that have followed. Discarding the basic strum and stomp of "Grip of Love" from volume one, it instead goes overboard and unveils something that sounds like classic rock - and genuinely so.

"Fools Gold" is a truly soaring anthem, whose exposure suffered slightly from being the second track on side one of an EP the band released. Track one "When I Call" may have felt more likely to pick up airplay, but "Fools Gold" gave a much stronger impression of the scope of the group's songwriting abilities. Chunky Goth Rock basslines meet with chiming guitars and the track gradually builds into an almighty chorus. Intricately produced and arranged, and with some killer guitar riffs at the tail end meeting with ex-Skeletal Family member Anne-Marie Hurst's powerful vocals, it really isn't terribly alternative or indie, to be truthful. Rather, it sounds like a band declaring to the world, and perhaps major labels in particular, that they have the skills in place to take things further.

Chrysalis raced forward to sign them, and another single "Down To The Wire" emerged in 1989, followed by an LP... but neither really delivered commercially on their promise. Internal tensions within the group ensured that far from realising their potential, they all but disappeared shortly afterwards.

Hurst occasionally performs with The Skeletal Family these days, but Ghost Dance seem to have been completely consigned to the past.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 3 Side 2 - Fields Of The Nephilim, The Shamen, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Happy Mondays, Brilliant Corners

1. Fields Of The Nephilim: Preacher Man (Situation Two)

Fields of the Nephilim emerged out of Stevenage like some post-apocalyptical newtown cowboys, and while such an opening sentence may sound very pretentious, that is largely the image they seemed to want to portray. Covered in dust (or flour, actually) with milky eyes, and a doomy gothic sound combined with some beautiful twangy Morricone inspired riffs, they were frequently dismissed as a daft concept, but on form they could actually create some beguiling sounding records. Elements of "Moonchild", for instance, sound like a lot of the post-rock inspired bands emerging today, with as much Joy Division in the mix as Sisters of Mercy.

Preacher Man was their second single, and while it was a key breakthrough moment for the group, compared to what came later it does sound a little less ambitious and dependent on some rather weighty riffs and repetition of doom-mongering lyrics about "contamination" and "radiation". When acting as the soundtrack to the video, it seems slightly more appealing, which makes me wonder which idea came first.

2. The Shamen: Christopher Mayhew Says (Moksha)

The Shamen may have found success as commercial purveyors of Dance Music, but way back when, they were actually a neo-psychedelic rock band who gradually introduced beatbox loops and samples into their particularly suspicious brand of mushroom soup. However, their debut LP "Drop" was quite straightforward compared to the post-LP release "Christopher Mayhew Says", which incorporates samples of the Labour/ Liberal MP Mayhew taking a mescaline trip while a film crew recorded him (which can be heard in its original form here).

The Syd Barrett inspired interstellar guitar screeching was certainly trad psychedelia, the hammering beatbox and thrashing guitars were not. Listen to this while on LSD, and your trip might not necessarily be a happy one. It's a collision of two worlds, the old and the new, which works in a unique way and acts a signpost to the future.

Of course, it wasn't completely without precendent. Gaye Bykers on Acid's "Nosedive Karma" from the previous year had a similar mix of psychedelia, samples and thrashed guitars. All these tracks signified the rise of left-field rock music melding with the ideas in Hip Hop and Dance music, albeit in a faintly clodhopping way... and The Shamen shifted direction with greater ease than most. Fewer groups could more easily claim "There's always been a dance element to our music" further down the line and genuinely mean it.

"Christopher Mayhew Says" sounded astonishing at the time too, certainly to this young listener. Heard for the first time on "The Chart Show", it sounded like an adrenalin packed cocktail of The Beatles, early Floyd, Grebo, the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, Sonic Youth, and God knows what else. Whether it sounds tamer now or not - and I'd guess that it almost certainly does - in 1987, it felt simultaneously confusing and exhilarating. The psychedelic pop revival was in full swing in London in small clubs in the mid to late eighties, but little of it sounded quite like this.

For his part, Mayhew continually insisted that he had enjoyed long, heavenly experiences outside our standard concepts of time while under the influence of mescaline. He passed away in 1997.

3. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry: Open Up (Situation Two)

More Goths, though they denied it until they were blue in the face, insisting they were more interested in art-punk and garage rock. Still, those growling vocals and incessant pounding rhythms would have made this a natural second track after the Nephilim (which makes me wonder why it wasn't placed there - did a bribe exchange hands?) Unlike that group, though, this is claustrophobic and minimal, locked in a wardrobe in a derelict house rather than wandering around in the American desert looking for mutants to dictate to.

Leeds' Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (briefly known as The Lorries for a time) were cult figures for what seemed like an endless amount of time, emerging in 1981 and continuing for ten years. Whether they saw themselves as Goths or not, they certainly attracted the right crowd, and it saw them through other changing fads and fashions. By the nineties, though, they had been dropped by Beggars Banquet (parent label of Situation Two) and it was all over.

Still, "Open Up" was single of the week in the usually rather goth-phobic NME, showing that certain critics favoured them.

4. Happy Mondays: 24 Hour Party People (Factory)

Now considered something of a classic in the band's catalogue, and loaning itself to the title of the film of the same name, "24 Hour Party People" pushed the Mondays outside of their usual audience in 1987 by appearing on "The Chart Show". Still though, its bow-legged, jagged funk rhythms and Ryder's stream-of-consciousness lyrics felt slightly like a hangover from post-punk at the time. It's easy to point at the track in retrospect and consider it the dawn of a brave new indie era, but back then nobody seriously thought Shaun Ryder was a future tabloid pop star. If anything, the Mondays were more commonly regarded as being a second division version of The Fall.

Still, "24 Hour Party People" is a confident and staggering single, and showed the group moving beyond their likeably ramshackle beginnings and into records with much more mainstream structures.  Ryder later claimed that the only reason the group didn't deal with strong choruses early in their career is "we didn't know how to write them". It certainly shows they'd moved on a long way from that point, if his claims are true. "Party People" is so laden with hooks it's hard to know where to point, though crucially none of them seem like chartbound sounds - certainly not by 1987's standards. The track has far too many sharp points and angles to easily slide into the Top 40, and only a slight sanding down of the group's sound and a gradual easing of tolerance to alternative ideas in the mainstream would begin to generate results.

5. The Brilliant Corners: Delilah Sands (SS20)

The Brilliant Corners actually took a slightly peculiar turn themselves on "Delilah Sands", although only relatively speaking. While most of their singles were chiming, brassy indiepop, "Delilah Sands" utilised surreal and faintly icky imagery ("I'd bite you if I had the teeth") and was altogether less strident.

When this was finally shown on "The Chart Show", my mother was moved to comment: "Who is this? Roxy Music? Whoever it is, I don't like it". A piss-poor guess on her part, really, but even a Radio Two listener of the 80s wouldn't have made the same mistake with "Brian Rix". None of this hurt The Brilliant Corners' "career" any, as "Delilah Sands" reached the Indie Top 10 with ease, but they'd be back to business as usual for future single releases.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 3 - Side One - New Order, Depeche Mode, Leather Nun, Danielle Dax, PWEI, Motorcycle Boy

Indie Top 20 Volume 3
Format: Double LP, Double Cassette

Volume 3 of the Indie Top 20 series suddenly adopts a style which would last for years - the familiar Indie Top 20 logo has established itself along the left-hand side of the cover. That xeroxed "paper clip" would reoccur as a motif across the next few LPs too, and the Melody Maker sponsorship is now front and centre of all formats (dominating a goodly chunk of the sleeve here).

This was also the debut release on the newly formed Beechwood Music, presumably named after Bee and Ch(et) (Sel)wood, the driving forces behind the series. Beechwood would go on to release other LPs outside the Indie Top 20 series, eventually making more money out of the ever-fruitful Dance music compilation market. However, there were other odd excursions into Indie in their catalogue which didn't fit the rubric of the main series, and we might briefly explore those eventually in slightly less depth (please don't ask me to cover them in more depth, for Christ's sake).

This was also the start of the brief period Beechwood Music started giving titles to each album. Volume 3 is "War of Independents". It's not too clear what marketing purpose this served, and after a few of these sub-headers I suspect the idea got quietly dropped as a probable waste of time.

So what of the contents? Well, it's musically much more of a mish-mash, and you get a clear sense of the reign of indiepop fading away slightly and heads being turned towards different strands of "alternative music" which were less light and frivolous. In particular, several ground-breaking artists emerge for the first time, including two whose influence remains enormous, even though one of them still has their feet in the past at this particular point. Goth Rock remains hanging about the place as well, whiffing faintly of patchouli oil.

1. New Order - Truth (Peel Session) (Strange Fruit) 

If I were a cynic, I might argue that this track was placed right upfront to get people to buy the LP by mistake, accidentally believing that it might be New Order's recent huge hit "True Faith". New Order had recently worked with Pet Shop Boys producer Stephen Hague to create one of their finest pop moments, giving their chart career - actually somewhat patchy after "Thieves Like Us", although people seem to have forgotten that - a massive boost. The hugely memorable video featuring sinister primary coloured Michelin man type figures running around slapping each other up the face helped increase the exposure of the track tenfold.

"Truth", on the other hand, was a recently released but ancient New Order Peel Session track stemming from 1981, a point where their sense of identity was still rather incomplete. In short, they still sound rather like Joy Division here, only without one of the key elements. The drum machine and icy synths hint towards a clear future direction, though, and the track has the same cold eeriness that made "Turn The Heater On" such a compelling listen on Volume One.

It's a downright peculiar track to put upfront in the compilation for any other reason than the bankability of New Order's name, though. It's a quiet, despondent point of entrance.

2. Depeche Mode - Never Let Me Down Again (Mute)

If only this had been the opening track... now, I sense trouble ahead with this one. Depeche Mode haven't always been widely appreciated in the UK, and that's a source of enormous frustration for me. People tend to either take the view that they were a middle-of-the-road teen synth-pop band or stadium rock stars scaling unsubtle heights. These simplistic overviews ignore swathes of their output, which include magnificent pop - much of it unplayed even on oldies radio these days - and material which mongrelised pop with epic, scaling hooks with experimental industrial indie and political protest with superb attention to detail, right down to the sleeves and videos. It created a band of heroes across mainland Europe (and even the USA for a period); a group freely mentioned alongside other huge musical pioneers, while Britain often looked the other way.

In reality, most of their naive teen-pop output can all be found on the first LP "Speak and Spell". The alternative stadium rock God phase is mostly encapsulated on "Songs Of Faith And Devotion". Everything else is decidedly interesting, even at its worst. The band even toyed with Marxist and Communist imagery across two LPs, "A Broken Frame" featuring a peasant woman scything a field, "Construction Time Again" a workman with a hammer, raised proud and high up a mountainside. The lyrics on "Construction Time Again" were naive, like most early Mode, but clear - "Pipeline" called for wealth redistribution while playing with industrial soundscapes, the melodic "And Then" dreamed of erasing all existing structures and erecting society from scratch. "I'd prefer to think that things couldn't turn out worse" they sang wearily. The band banged their fists on the table in interviews and talked about the importance of the welfare state. Again, I insist - this all happened while you were asleep, although the central message of "Everything Counts" wasn't too ambiguous on "Top of the Pops" either.

And "A Broken Frame" may be their most derided LP, disliked even by the band themselves, but the spells of pop light and moody atmospheric shade make it feel twin-towned with OMD's "Dazzle Ships". An imperfect twin it may be, but it still has some stellar moments.

Moving forward to 1987, the band had already released their bona-fide classic LP (if you're reading this outside Britain) in "Black Celebration", and had followed it up with the less-good but still frequently startling "Music For The Masses". That was the LP which turned the suburban Essex boys into a stadium band, and created so much of the trouble and confusion ahead. "Never Let Me Down" is a beast, though, an absolute juggernaut of a single which oscillates between slapping industrial rhythms and an almost symphonic sounding chorus. At this point, Anton Corbijn had also got fully on board to produce all their videos, grainy Super 8 affairs laced with dream-like imagery which worked with the music almost perfectly. Everything was gelling.

"Music For The Masses" came in a sleeve featuring a glossy photograph of a huge red megaphone, presumably broadcasting the album to an abandoned piece of twilight countryside, a string of lights from a road in the distance being the only sign of life. Internal sleeve shots showed the megaphone up mountains or by lakes and canals - in my mind, the bash and clatter of "Never Let Me Down Again" was coming out of all of them. It's a truly great single, the sound of all the best and most interesting elements of the eighties rolled into one ball.

Is it indie? Of course. It was released on Mute, a label the band stuck by throughout everything, even when their distribution and pressing plant power wasn't all it could have been ("Just Can't Get Enough" had to satisfy itself with a number 8 chart position, when most people imagine it was a huge top three hit). Is it any good? Well, you're entitled to disagree. But if you do, you're wrong.

3. The Leather Nun - Lost and Found (Wire)

Given Depeche Mode's dress sense a couple of years prior to this point you could forgive Chet and Bee for following them with a Swedish band called The Leather Nun, but this song is somewhat overshadowed by what precedes it.

The Leather Nun were cult artists and early industrial stars who had been around a fair while, and had constantly courted controversy across Europe with lewd live shows and imagery. By the mid-eighties their reputation began to spread to America, and it seemed as if a major breakthrough would occur - but it didn't. And while the atmospheric "I Can Smell Your Thoughts" received some TV and radio exposure in the UK and pushed the band to new heights, "Lost and Found" did less well, and only reached number 35 in the indie chart. That's perhaps not overly surprising. The rigid groove of the track doesn't really go anywhere interesting, feeling like a graceless, stilted industrial kind of Swing. A baffling inclusion here, and one to skip.

The band soldiered on until 1995, but failed to find much success again after being without a record label from 1991 onwards.

4. Danielle Dax - Big Hollow Man (Awesome)

Southender Danielle Dax was a visual artist and ex-member of the experimental group The Lemon Kittens, and previous collaborator with Robert Fripp. Her first solo LPs continued to explore often harsh and challenging forms, but towards the end of the eighties changes began to emerge in her musical style and she rocked out in a slightly more conventional way.

Always having a striking appearance and to all intents and purposes looking and dressing like an iconic pop star, however ill-suited her temperament may have been for that role, it was probably all worth a shot. "Big Hollow Man" begins with a funky guitar riff which then collides into thumping drums and a forceful melody, part glam, part new wave, and ever so slightly threatening but worthy of constant repeated listening. A cheap but effective video earned her "Chart Show" exposure, and a new phase began - Danielle Dax the possible star, popping up on interview shows, Juke Box Jury, and magazines the length and breadth of the land.

It couldn't last, and it didn't last, but more on that eventually.

5. Pop Will Eat Itself - Beaver Patrol (Chapter 22)

Oh Good God. You see, my wife's theories about "Sex Pest Rock" - she keeps threatening to start a blog with that title, by the way - really are proven right here. "Beaver Patrol" was originally a sixties garage single by The Wilde Knights, and was self-consciously sleazy even by the standards of that period, but at least possibly had a ludicrous enough edge to be titterworthy rather than offensive. In the sledgehammer fists of Pop Will Eat Itself, it becomes a Brummie beer boy sexual harrassment anthem, though, far too heavy and Beastie Boys aping to be easily dismissed as an ironic joke. It received slatings from many quarters, taking the group by unpleasant surprise.

Ignoring the lyrical contents, though, "Beaver Patrol" at least set the template for their forthcoming "Box Frenzy" album, being a loud, proud, British indie approximation of the Def Jam rock/rap hybrid style. Looking back, it all seems faintly amateurish to say the least, but even the KLF's debut "1987 - What The Fuck Is Going On" from the same period also seems like a clumsy sticklebrick creation. This was a new dawn and new rules were emerging, and the public didn't much mind the feel of chaos to start with - "Beaver Patrol" edged PWEI that bit closer towards the grown-up official Top 75, and it wouldn't be long before RCA would arrive with a chequebook in their hands. Unthinkable stuff at the point of "Oh Grebo, I Think I Love You".

Oh, and despite the fact it wasn't a proper hit, "Beaver Patrol" was still quite popular with the teenage boys at my school. Well, it would be, wouldn't it.

6. The Motorcycle Boy - Big Rock Candy Mountain (Rough Trade)

Edinburgh's The Motorcycle Boy consisted largely of ex-members of Creation noiseniks Meat Whiplash, and only hung around indieland for this one single before jumping on board Chrysalis's boutique label Blue Guitar. By the time they finally issued their grown-up work in 1989, the public had largely lost interest, and it was all over before it had even really started.

"Big Rock Candy Mountain" is a pretty and melancholy single with a driving, chugging riff which occasionally sounds like a Flatmates record played at the wrong speed. It stormed to number two in the Indie Charts, the band became NME cover stars, and then there was silence for nearly two years and momentum was clearly lost. "Big Rock" was a damn fine single, but very much of its moment, and not quite good enough to stretch interest in the group to a degree where a long break would have no ill effects on their career.

The group subsequently split in 1990.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 2 Side 4 - Michelle Shocked, Passmore Sisters, Blue Aeroplanes, Brilliant Corners, Talulah Gosh

1. Michelle Shocked - If Love Was A Train (Cooking Vinyl)

For the first time so far on this blog, I've come unstuck - the original version of this track is nowhere to be found on YouTube or Spotify. If you want to listen to the 1988 studio version, however, it's on Vimeo.

Her debut album "The Texas Campfire Tapes" was a seemingly very unlikely underground hit in 1987, although it actually adhered to a commercial pattern hopefully familiar to most of us by now. Recorded on a Sony Walkman while Michelle Shocked performed an impromptu set around a campfire at the Kerrville Folk Festival, it's not as ragged sounding as you'd expect, but is nonetheless raw. There are background noises in the mix on numerous tracks (including occasional vehicle sounds) but it did nonetheless do a great deal to document the intimacy of the performance and Shocked's strong delivery.

For every phase in popular music history where the dominant commercial noise is almost ridiculously slickly produced and heavily airbrushed pop and rock music, it seems that a handful of "authentic" acoustic artists gain major exposure as a conscious counterstrike, usually from members of the public and critics keen to show their support for "real music".  Whether it was intended to or not, "The Texas Campfire Tapes" seemed to mostly gain appreciation for the novelty of its "realness", and the fact that Michelle Shocked was very radically political in her day-to-day life also gave her an added edge, making her a valuable interviewee.

She was certainly a huge cult star for years afterwards in the USA and the UK, but a series of record company disputes ensured that after 1992, she was out on her own, producing her own material to continued, if slightly more subdued, success. She eventually became a born-again Christian and was accused of making homophobic comments live onstage ("Once Prop 8 gets instated and preachers are held at gunpoint and forced to marry homosexuals, I'm pretty sure that will be the signal for Jesus to come on back"). This in turn led to a rambling defensive debate on Piers Morgan's show, of all places.  From a Sony Walkman recording for an indie label to talking about your faith and prayer meetings on the Piers Morgan show... never let it be said that life doesn't take some damn unpredictable paths.

As for "If Love Was A Train"... it's deftly performed, brittle and rustic, but truly nothing outstanding, and I'd actually rather hear the synthetic joys of Erasure's "Sometimes" again. Clearly "the devil" has all the best tunes, eh? Meanwhile, up in heaven...

2. The Passmore Sisters - Every Child In Heaven (Sharp)

The Passmore Sisters had already been indie mainstays for years by this point, having formed in 1983 and issuing six singles to interest from late night radio (and especially John Peel). "Every Child In Heaven" has a peculiar Americana feel to it, totally out of sorts with the group's Bradford origins. It's probably one of the slickest pieces of pop the group ever produced, however, and sounds like it could have been a bargaining chip towards bigger things... but to no avail.

The group disintegrated later in the year, with bass player Howard Taylor and guitarist Brian Roberts joining The Hollow Men, who signed to Arista and achieved a greater deal of cult success in the process.

3. Blue Aeroplanes - Tolerance (Fire)

Like most of the acts we first stumbled across on Volume One who re-emerge here, The Blue Aeroplanes land with a more confident, coherent vision. "Tolerance" maintains the imaginative flourishes of "Lover and Confidante", but manages to sound bolder and more crafted in the process. In particular, the chorus here is nagging and effective, and the band's identity sounds fully rounded and finalised.

The group would eventually jump ship from Fire to Ensign Records, where they gained a bigger budget and more attention, but Top of the Pops never beckoned, meaning we never got to see an interpretative dancer frolicking around on BBC1 at 7:30pm while a sunglasses-wearing Gerard Langley delivered spoken word observations to an alt-rock backdrop. We could only but dream of such an occasion, unfortunately.

4. The Brilliant Corners - Brian Rix (SS20)

Rather like The Chesterfields, there was a distinct sense that Bristol's Brilliant Corners really weren't taking this business that seriously. They possessed a fine line in catchy tunes and daft wordplay, and "Brian Rix" is as sharp and witty as a Half Man Half Biscuit record, whilst having the jangle-pop richness and sweetness of a Smiths track.

"We fumbled around in front of the budgie/ she started to laugh/ what was so funny?" enquires singer David Woodward, before the chorus informs us "It's just you remind me of Brian Rix/ When you pull down your trousers it sends me in fits". This is one of the finest lyrical couplets indiepop has ever produced, and certainly one of the most enduring. The vision of the couple in a suburban living room awkwardly fiddling with their clothes is immediately apparent. Teen angst? The Razorcuts mope around it, whereas The Brilliant Corners trip over it unawares and turn it into an Ealing comedy.

Brian Rix, famed for his comedic farces, liked the single enough to appear briefly in the video for it (which confusingly uses a slightly stripped back version of the track - you can here the Indie Top 20 version here). Chart history wasn't made despite his helping hand, but the video appeared on "The Tube" and "The Chart Show" and further bolstered the band's reputation. This isn't the last time we'll be considering them on this blog.

5. Talulah Gosh - Talulah Gosh (53rd & 3rd)

Talulah Gosh in "selling out" shocker! The eponymous second single had a video, a reasonable production, a decent pop arrangement, and a needle-sharp chorus, and some of their fans felt their hearts sinking as a result. The feyness was still apparent, and the band had lost none of their identity at all - man alive, with words like "Talulah Gosh was a film star for a day/ Talulah Gosh was a top celebrity", they were clearly still in their own very pre-adolescent, bedroom dreamer lyrical mindset - but the whopping church organ climax to the tune almost seems sarcastic in the way it abandons their previous understatement so dramatically. (I do have to point out the obvious fact that this was just a big production compared to their last, though. I'm not claiming it was Tubular bloody Bells, and certainly there are elements of the band's timing here which are ramshackle, but not obtrusively or destructively so. It's charming rather than jarring).

Increased airplay, press and even television time followed, but it wasn't really to last. Whatever their actual intentions, Talulah Gosh were ultimately a short-lived prospect, but one who we will have the chance to discuss again one final time.

As for Indie Top 20 Volume Two, perhaps it's only appropriate that it should finish so dramatically. It rounds off a series of confident sounding recordings which seemed to promise a Proper Movement about to do Big Things and go beyond its relatively underground reach. Of course, a handful of exceptions aside, things didn't quite turn out that way.