1. Oyster Band - Polish Plain (Cooking Vinyl)
Good God, The Oyster Band, you're not quite The Pixies or The Stone Roses... such minimal sleevenotes will do you little favours at this stage.
Still, "Polish Plain" is actually one of the better slices of the late eighties folk-rock revival. On one occasion while I was playing it, my wife walked in and asked if it was an American college radio track from the same period, or possibly even REM. It's not, but the guitar lines and some of the vocals do recall eighties alt-pop from the period, though the cat-gut being scraped and skriddled so effectively towards the end screams "Folk on Radio Two". In other words, this is a very neat crossover single indeed, and one which brought folk music to the attention of larger audiences.
It's also a far cry from the bands origins as Canterbury based chartbusters releasing "Daytrip to Bangor", and a damn sight less irritating. "Polish Plain" is rich with both energy and atmosphere, and conclusively proved that modern British folk music had plenty of life left in it beyond its seventies heyday.
2. The Men They Couldn't Hang - Rain, Steam, Speed (Silvertone)
"These guys are good, and if you think they only do Pogues impressions The Men They Couldn't Hang offer far, far more than that" Time Out - 1st March 1989
... and further proof, if proof were needed, comes in the form of track two. The Men They Couldn't Hang were at the point of being considered folk-punk stalwarts at this point, their excellent debut release "The Green Fields of France" having had considerable exposure (and a number one indie chart position) in 1984.
"Rain, Steam, Speed" is nothing like as maudlin as that World War One tribute, however, being a pounding, beating track about Isambard Brunel's often ill-fated railway construction workers. The final verse makes the message utterly clear: "Soon they'll build a tunnel under England through to France/ Will it make the tide run quicker? Will the flow of trade advance?/ Underneath the ocean there is limestone, chalk and sand/ But coming up through the virgin rock will be a human hand". It's a brilliant and incredibly well written track about the industrial revolution and - much like "Green Fields of France" - the exploitation of humans for the benefit of others.
The Men They Couldn't Hang remain active today, but we won't be encountering them on "Indie Top 20" again.
3. The Man From Delmonte - "My Love Is Like A Gift You Can't Return" (Bop Cassettes)
"It's Morrissey in short trousers; it's Anthony Newley behind the bike sheds; and it's that nutter off Playaway making a bid for indie fame....."
Infamously managed by a pre-success Jon Ronson (who also directed the video below) The Man From Delmonte were actually a Manchester band with their heads firmly in the indiepop era - no electric organs, funky drummer beats or ecstacy tablets for these chaps, thank you, they were happy enough to tend their catchy sixties melodies instead. Fronted by the effervescent Mike West, who was the son of Australian author Morris West, they oozed a carefree uncool which was as thrilling to some indie pop-pickers as it was alienating to others.
"My Love Is Like A Gift" is a goldmine of catchiness from start to finish, cramming in so many melodic and lyrical hooks that it edges closer towards Herman's Hermits than more credible sixties influences. For all that, it's a fine single, and while it was never going to reverse the emerging trends of the time or storm the National Charts, it was going to offer listeners missing the incessant melodic chirpiness of the likes of The Housemartins something to enjoy.
Hilariously, The Man From Delmonte's output was indeed regularly inspected by staff at the food company Delmonte to ensure that it did not tarnish the reputation of the brand. The group were never asked to cease and desist, which can only mean that The Man From Delmonte said "yes" to The Man From Delmonte.
4. Inspiral Carpets: Joe (Cow)
"Inspiral Carpets third single, and first for their own Cow label; went straight into the Indie Charts at number one: Cool as F**k!"
It's worth noting that this is also the first Inspiral Carpets single with Tom Hingley on lead vocals, and expanded significantly on the group's popularity.
"Joe" is a significant step up. The opening funky drum rhythms are the first obvious concession that the group were making towards baggydelic trends, but the rest of the track is actually quite overblown psychedelia with Clint Boon's keyboard work stuck right at the forefront. With its disorientating, giddy merry-go-round organ riff, screeching and almost improvised sounding organ work and Hingley's impassioned ranting about a Manchester tramp, it's actually a very strange single to become so massive (even in an indie sense of the word) in 1989. And huge it was, emerging as the number one best-selling single on the year-end indie chart (ahead of The Roses, The Happy Mondays, The Pixies and others besides).
Still, the thundering and driving bassline and funky rhythm patterns give the track incredibly solid foundations to build on, and it remains a compelling listen to this day. The Inspiral Carpets would release increasingly conventional songs as their career progressed, and become fairly serious contenders in the mainstream charts right up until their split in 1995.
5. The Wolfhounds - Happy Shopper (Midnight Music)
"An innocuous pop song with obnoxious anti-consumerist lyrics. Not actually about the cheap food chain, but their lawyers seemed to think so".
Indeed. The Happy Shopper chain had form for being quite threatening towards indie bands who appeared to be mildly dismissive of their products. Foreheads In A Fishtank released their own single "Happy Shopper" around the same time, which also attracted legal attention - though to be fair, that particular single did also involve the lead singer screaming "Oh God! Who BOUGHT THESE BISCUITS?" so you could see their point of view.
The Wolfhounds aren't quite so ridiculous or provocative. Their "Happy Shopper" is, as stated, a very simple and brief anti-consumerist statement, which is disappointing by the band's usual standards. It's less than two and a half minutes of distorted guitars and lyrics stating the obvious about capitalism and fashion. It's enjoyable enough, but sounds like a B-side or a demo rather than a fully fledged single. Never mind Happy Shopper, the Man From Delmonte's nose might have turned if they'd managed to drag him into the argument.