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.