Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 7 Side One - Pixies, Stone Roses, They Might Be Giants, Wire, Throwing Muses

Format: Double LP/ Cassette/ CD
Year of Release: 1989

If Volume 6 seemed scattershot and chaotic in its all-encompassing journey through indieland, Volume 7 doesn't really do much to restore order - but then again, why should it? The notion that the Indie Charts had predominant trends at certain times in its lifespan is true, but the shoegazing moment had its crusty scene running alongside it, the Britpop movement its Trip Hop, and the baggy/ Madchester movement had grunge alongside it (or at least the most successful howls of American alternative rock and punk as it bled straight into grunge).

There's a dominant myth that's been doing the rounds for decades now that Grunge emerged out of the shadows like some kind of murderer in the night and killed off the indie-dance heroes in British society. It's a myth I've probably privately contributed to many conversations myself, purely because it's such a convenient narrative. In reality, the late eighties and early nineties were an incredibly tolerant, diverse time for music, a time when you could go to your local alternative nightclub, sip on an overpriced pint of something truly objectionable, and listen to artists as diverse as The Stone Roses, Sly and the Family Stone, The Aphex Twin and Mudhoney. I should know, because I was there. It's only really when The Stone Roses went on a long, extended hiatus and The Happy Mondays lost the plot that things changed and the focus narrowed. Nirvana hitting the British music scene like a plaid rucksack filled with bricks at a time when not much else was going on inevitably had a significant impact.

But that's for us to think about later. For now, we're about to enter one of the most diverse, fascinating and occasionally perplexing eras in British alternative music. A time when anything went, but also indie music started to sell in quantities high enough for there to begin to be a noticeable mainstream impact. The videos got slicker, the production got better, the marketing more advanced... and far be it for me to court controversy by suggesting that the monstrous sales of Dance twelve inch singles and Stock Aitken and Waterman records may have given distributors a shot in the arm, it probably is the truth.

1. Pixies - Monkey Gone To Heaven (4AD)

"What more can be said about the Pixies". 

A highly apt liner note that remains a good point to this day.

With a mighty crash of five opening notes, "Monkey Gone To Heaven" heralds the moment when Pixies became a huge deal in the UK. The year before, "Gigantic" had been a massive track in the alternative clubs and even reached Number 90 in the national charts, but "Monkey" was truly inescapable in certain circles. The gloomy black and white promo video dominated the Chart Show indie chart for months, and Frank Black's world finally met with the public at large... a world of UFOs, surfing, Christianity, South America, and whatever else his brain was hoovering up at any given time.

"Monkey Gone To Heaven" still sounds extraordinary, and it remains perplexing that Ivo Watts nearly  turned the band down for being "too normal". Compared to many 4AD signings they may have admittedly been less ethereal or atmospheric, but where the very worst of those acts sounded little better than Clannad fans performing in a backyard shed, Pixies took rock and roll to some unpredictable places. While "Monkey Gone To Heaven" is supposed to be an environmental protest song (with various chunks of religious imagery seeping in along the way) the lyrics are so stripped back and scattershot that it could be dismissed as nonsense. Yet when Frank Black brilliantly howls "If the devil is six... then GOD IS SEVEN!" it could also be taken straight from a Black Sabbath LP, so trad is the idea.

Pixies ripped, clawed and tore at the fabric of rock music and the culture that surrounded them, and sounded so fresh and yet so familiar when they arrived that it was powerful beyond measure, like Proper Rock music distorted through exhausted dream sleep. Their blend of cultural influences and references could have turned out naive and messy, but there's a masterful control taking place in their work at an enviably early point. While we may have casually regarded them as American eccentrics at the time, their approach slowly became absorbed by other more successful acts from their home country... not least the quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic being applied to the verse/chorus structure, and the belief that early seventies hard rock wasn't an embarrassing corner of music history to be pilfering from.

And let's not ignore the fact that Kim Deal's basslines, which always sound as if they're being played with the thickest plectrum in the world, also added a huge amount to their sound.

2. The Stone Roses - Made Of Stone (Silvertone)

"Let's call them The Stones - no-one will get confused" - Sounds - 15th July 1989

It's very, very telling that the liner notes for both Pixies and The Stone Roses are tremendously half-arsed, almost as if everyone involved knew there was no point in expanding on the pre-existing narrative.

But let's not get too carried away here. That liner note may conveniently fit the idea that The Stone Roses were universally adored from the moment "Sally Cinnamon" first fell into the world, but it's not how I remember things at all. Rather, it seemed suspiciously as if the comparison the Sounds journalist was making to The Rolling Stones had been taken out of jokey context to prove a point the band wanted to make.

The simple truth is that while The Stone Roses and their manager Gareth Evans were keen to tell anyone that they were the most important group in Britain (if not the world) surprisingly few people believed them initially. Record Mirror ridiculed the entire situation by referring to their much-reported Manchester gig attendance figures and stating "Manchester City get more people in, and we're not putting them on our front cover either". The NME gave the debut LP 7 out of 10 and almost (but not quite) dismissed it as a nice enough psychedelic pop pastiche. Much history has been rewritten around The Stone Roses since because music journalists were caught with their trousers down - many still had all their money riding on The House of Love as being alternative rock's next big dominant force. The Roses seemed like a parochial, retro irrelevance, and who needed John Squire as a guitar hero when you could have Terry Bickers? (Though to be fair, both can be astonishing guitarists in very different ways).

That's not to say that "Made Of Stone" wasn't viewed as an exceptionally good single by most, but perhaps it's not really been given enough credit even since for its relative richness and complexity. Starting with a truly beautiful interwoven guitar and bass line, Ian Brown's hushed vocals then enter and begin singing what appears to be a surreal, lyrically drifting ballad about the righteous death of a wealthy scoundrel.

I'm possibly stretching comparisons to breaking point by saying this, but if you spin back to Volume Four of "Indie Top 20" and listen to Wire's "Kidney Bingos", there are clear and unacknowledged parallels in the approach, from the delicate prettiness of the interwoven guitar and basslines to the soft, surreal and yet actually very political lyrics, followed by a unifying anthemic chorus. The over-arching concept of The Stone Roses debut album was the 1968 French student riots, from the sleeve right through to many of the contents, seemingly wishing that similar values would transport themselves into a Thatcherite 1989. Wire's "A Bell is A Cup Until It Is Struck" was similarly very agitated and dystopian in a similarly blissed and calm way. It's highly doubtful the two bands ever even listened to each other, much less took influence from each other, but the fact that parallels can be drawn gives a significant hint towards the dominant mood of the times. The Poll Tax riots were just around the corner, ecstasy was everywhere, and among the youth of the country there was a significant kickback, a sense once again that the times could be changed and certain forces could be overthrown.

Of course, The Stone Roses may have been lyrically oblique, but they were still less lyrically baffling than Wire. Even with one listen of "Made Of Stone", it's possible to hear that it's clearly a song with a revolutionary darkness at its heart. "I'm standing warm against the cold/ now that the flames have taken hold/ at least you left your life in style" brings to mind a Porsche in flames in a riot-strewn Manchester street, and an unprivileged Ian Brown toasting marshmallows on the funeral pyre of a millionaire.

The chorus is so anthemic against this comparative menace that it did cause a few of the band's critics to take shot. John Peel sneered on his 1989 Festive Fifty countdown "Well, I can see that's got a certain sing-a-long factor..." Like many, he refused to do a u-turn on his original dismissive approach to the group, but I insist... they weren't just some kind of retro rock band.  They plucked a wide array of influences from the family tree of rock music before coming up with something engagingly different and relevant. They may have obtained the services of John Leckie as a producer for the album, knowing that his work on XTC's "Dukes of Stratosphear" was authentic psychedelic pop, but not a single track on "The Stone Roses" sounds exactly like an equivalent piece of 1967 era music.

Critics might argue, of course, that "Made Of Stone" does sound a bit like Primal Scream's "Velocity Girl", and I'll pass on discussing that one.

It's also tempting to pass on discussing the fact that the national chart peak of "Made Of Stone" on its first release was number 90. It hung around the indie top ten seemingly forever, of course, notching up a slow trickle of sales across the entire year, but the band were not big players in any sense. Time, a more sympathetic press, and the power of word of mouth would all work in their favour very, very soon, until the dam very suddenly broke.

3. They Might Be Giants - Ana Ng (One Little Indian)

"Ng is one of the most common Vietnamese names in the New York telephone directory - that's where the name came from. The song, however, is a love poem to an imaginary woman on the opposite side of the globe. It was the Number 1 college radio song in the USA; displacing U2. The video was a big MTV hit. The LP has sold over 200,000 copies in the US".

Clang, cla-clang, clang... ca clang clang, clang clang.... Ana Ng announces itself like a piece of music being played by a stammering robot trying to negotiate its way around an electric guitar. Of all the singles released by They Might Be Giants, it's probably one of the more accessible despite its quirkiness, taking a fairly complex lyrical conceit and peppering it with some very sharp, emotionally resonant observations, with lines like "I don't want the world - I just want your half" punctuating the clever-dickery of the "everything sticks like a broken record" gag.

There's an overwhelming sense that the single isn't as smart as it wants to be, though, and the band spend more time on attempted profundities than they do on the arrangement. By the time the track is due to close, the constant, nagging repetition of the chorus sounds uncomfortably like an idea without a firm conclusion.

4. Wire - Eardrum Buzz (Mute)

"Wire are criminally undersung - Eardrum Buzz is another of Wire's Hole-In-One, Inch-Perfect singles. A product of sheer draughtsmanship in the tradition of "Dot Dash", "I Am The Fly" and "Map Reference". If Wire weren't so good at this, they might have had a hit by now. But no matter". - Melody Maker

And if "Eardrum Buzz" couldn't become a hit single, you had to wonder what on earth Wire could produce that would be. Of course, it wasn't.

Alongside "Outdoor Miner", it represented the closest they came in their careers, though. Enjoying television and radio airtime, "Eardrum Buzz" was essentially jagged but excessively catchy synth-pop styled through the band's well-developed art-punk approach. Much more unashamedly Pop than anything they had issued prior to this point, it's polished and scrubbed within an inch of its life.

"Eardrum Buzz" is the Wire single a lot of Wire fans pretend to dislike or disapprove of. Subtlety isn't its strong suit. Rather than gently weaving its way into your brain, it approaches with a sledgehammer and demands squatter's rights. The lyrics are also almost sub-sixties psychedelia in their infantilism, with the chorus of "Zee zee zee zum zum/ buzz buzz buzz in the eardrum" dropping things down to almost "Fee fi fo fum" levels.

For all that, however, it's a burst of sunshine and a total joy. Had it been a huge hit, its ubiquity may have become trying; on the cultish lower-reaches-of-the-Top-75 status it managed, however, it's a private pleasure and nothing at all like a guilty one. And hey, it was still a bigger hit than The Stone Roses "Made Of Stone"...

5. Throwing Muses - Dizzy (4AD)

"Dizzy was released as a double A side single along with "Santa Claus" in March 1989. It is also to be found on the group's third full-length album Hunkpapa".

When we last encountered Throwing Muses on Volume Three, the noise was akin to an antagonised, hysterical racket in a rural henhouse. By comparison, "Dizzy" was a shock, another song from an unlikely source that sounded like it wanted to be a hit. While the verses combine flashes of poetic travelling imagery and almost crash into chaos, the chorus is pure late sixties/ early seventies Americana pop. It's hardly Lobo's "Me And You And A Dog Named Boo" - in fact, it may still be millions of miles away from that - but it's not impossible to reimagine "Dizzy" as a huge, overproduced stadium hit from another era.

It still remains one of the key tracks people most readily associate with Throwing Muses to this day, and while it may have just dropped short of getting mainstream attention, there's no reason why it shouldn't have achieved it.


  1. Excellent as ever. One point you may have missed on "Eardrum Buzz" - at the time Philip Schofield said it was the worst song he'd ever heard. Not sure of the context where he heard it or where he said it, but I remember his comment being mentioned a lot whenever the song was played on the radio.

    1. I had no idea he ever said that! (That or I knew once, but had managed to entirely forget about it).

      Ah, Schofield. How can "Eardrum Buzz" be the worst song you've EVER heard? I suspect the earworm factor it has might have grated on his nerves a lot.