1. Danielle Dax - Cat-House (Awesome)
"Baby baby you're my heart's desire/ got my engine going and my pants on fire".
Seldom did a track in 1988 burst out of your stereo with a sexual statement of intent as direct as that. This phase of Danielle Dax's career is truly fascinating, because while you can reference its gothic edge as well as the glam and faintly psychedelic elements, the simple truth is that it's old fashioned rock and roll sass on a low budget as well. The honking one-note sax riff here hints to that, but so too does - and I almost dare not say this - the almost Meatloafian tail end to the verses just before the chorus kicks in. And if you don't think that kind of camp, biker rock element exists in "Cat-House", just listen to the way Danielle sings "He's the one with my magic key/ knows my road from A to Z" and try to imagine Cher singing it in biker gear. Far fetched? I rather thought not.
So "Cat-House" is ultimately camp, silly, trashy, hard-edged and sassy all at once, and was a much bigger deal at the time than you'd possibly imagine, despite the fact that a lot of elements of it seemed faintly out of step with everything else in 1988. A big part of that is down to the chaos of the chanting chorus, which sounds incredibly "alt" even if the surrounding elements of the track aren't always so, and the fact that Danielle sells the song incredibly well. That so many people expected her to become a fully fledged pop star should probably surprise nobody.
"Cat-House" was a significant track for her, and paved the way for her to be signed to Sire in due course - but we'll be coming across her one more time before then.
2. Joy Division - She's Lost Control (Peel Session) (Strange Fruit)
We all know how this one goes, don't we? I mean, don't we? So too, I think, do we understand the inspiration for the track, and the fact that after "Love Will Tear Us Apart" it's arguably one of Joy Division's most important songs.
Interestingly, the Peel Session version of this track really doesn't contain a great many differences from the final studio version, bar the absence of the faintly disorientating echo effect which permeates through "Unknown Pleasures". It has an added grit and harshness to it, and the guitars are much more at the forefront, but basically all the main elements of the track were clearly in place.
The "Substance" compilation of Joy Division singles and pivotal tracks had not long been issued at this point, along with the re-release of "Atmosphere" with its Corbijn directed video. This meant that Beechwood clearly could have legitimately included "Atmosphere" on this compilation as a very recent large indie hit, but obviously didn't. Whether this was due to Factory Records not coming up with a favourable enough deal, I don't know - although it is notable that Factory singles crop up relatively infrequently throughout this series, which does suggest that the label clearly didn't have as sympathetic a relationship with the series as other indies at the time (except Creation, which has been utterly absent from the series all the way along so far).
3. Loop - Collision (Chapter 22)
Harsh, minimal and grating, Loop were a surprisingly big deal in the late eighties for a band so awkward. Sounding faintly like Suicide with distorted, effects-laden guitars instead of synths at times, or the most shimmering, three-chord, droning psychedelia, they were certainly a unique prospect. Comparisons with The Jesus and Mary Chain were inevitable, but Loop could never (or at least, would never) have written "Some Candy Talking" or "April Skies" - compared to Loop, JAMC were The Reynolds Girls, pure Top of the Pops fodder.
"Collision" is a lovely drone as well, which if sped up a bit more could easily be as contagious as the most nagging krautrock tracks.
Loop would continue to make their presence felt until 1990, after which point they split.
4. Christian Death - Church of No Return (Jungle)
Oh please no. Please don't make me listen to this again. It's just so fucking silly.
Christian Death began life in 1979 under the guiding hand of Rozz Williams, who eventually left the group in 1985 to pursue more experimental paths. The lead guitarist Valor Kand took control, and as a result there are fans of the group who argue that all post-85 material is null and void, in the way that some Pink Floyd fans believe that post-Waters material (or even post-Barrett material) is not "proper Floyd".
Whatever, I'm not here to debate the line-up difficulties of the act, of which they had many. What I'm here to do is consider this track, which, if you strip away the lyrics and the band's presentation, is basically very camp seventies glam rock with gothic undertones. A darker version of The Sweet, to be precise, with an air raid siren in place of the police siren at the start of "Blockbuster". Kand's vocals are also very Rocky Horror, which layers campness on top of pre-existing campness.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with any of this - I love The Sweet, in fact, and will happily have loud arguments with anyone who tells me I'm wrong for doing so - but in common with the failings of a lot of the worst Goth Rock acts, you're left with the impression that Christian Death think they produced something mind-blowingly significant with this one, that the theatricality of it and its references to original sin and the church's quaint views on fornication add up to a Big Statement... but unlike Danielle Dax on track one, it's far, far too pleased with itself to make an impression.
Perhaps I'm just far too British, and was brought up in far too atheistic a family, to give a shit about this single. If I were a teenager just beginning to have my first doubts about my faith, and the hypocrisy of organised religion, I can imagine that Christian Death would potentially feel like a lighting bolt, but to me at the time in 1988 - and indeed now - they just seemed quaint, signposting obvious things loudly like a drunk old man in the local pub (though to be fair, the drunk old man in the local pub wasn't big on tight leather outfits).
Another lesson to learn from this one is that, just as horror films lose their impact if there's a grisly death every 15 seconds, controversy from rock bands is at its best when it happens suddenly and fleetingly in the space of one song. When groups layer loaded gesture on top of loaded gesture, it begins to seem comic, as each idea fights for its own space. Subtlety can be a wonderful, wonderful thing, and Christian Death are all about grand gestures introduced with flashing neon signs - really, this couldn't be less my kind of thing if it tried.
5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "The Mercy Seat" (Mute)
Come to think of it, this track could very easily have fallen on that particular sword as well, but it somehow falls short of doing so. A big reason behind this is that it's such a rush of ideas - the listener is being asked to step into the mind of a prisoner about to be put in an electric chair, and the sheer rattling pace of the track means that so many of the lyrics (frequently brilliant) get missed until possibly the third, fourth, fifth or even tenth listen.
The lines "Christ was born into a manger/ And like some ragged stranger/ He died upon the cross/ Might I say it seems so fitting in its way/ He was a carpenter by trade" could be satirical and mocking if read one way, or resigned about the sheer ridiculousness of the world if taken another. That's the difference between lyrical poetry and big, self-conscious rock gestures - the former requires the listener to do some of the work, some of the untangling.
At the time, I thought "The Mercy Seat" was a truly fantastic single, taking a subject which could so easily have been mishandled and successfully hitting its marks. The way the different verses and ideas interrupt and break the flow, the way the song is basically one very simple, rattling melodic idea stretched to breaking point, and the carefully weighted drama of it all... it seemed genius. These days, I still like the track, but return to it relatively infrequently. Partly it's because it reveals its full hand melodically very early on, and becomes very familiar very quickly, and also partly I suspect because it's strongest lyrics are front loaded, and I'm more interested in lines like "Those sinister dinner deals/ The meal trolley's wicked wheels/ A hooked bone rising from my food/ And all things either good or ungood" than the dramatic flourishes of "Into the mercy seat I climb/ My head is shaved, my head is wired/ and like a moth that tries/ To enter the bright eye/ I go shuffling out of life/ Just to hide in death awhile".
But in the end, Cave's attempts at bringing macabre subject matters into rock music have always been fascinating, owing a debt to country or folk storytelling rather than sledgehammer shock-and-awe techniques. Johnny Cash covered this, and I was surprised when I first found out - but quickly realised that actually, it made total and absolute sense.
And minimal it may be, but the melodic framework of the track is hypnotic, and locks you into its ideas without escape. Turning your head and looking away is impossible.