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.



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