Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Merry Christmas

I'm going to take a slight break from this blog for a bit now, partly because I've got a lot of other things to do at the moment, and partly because experience has taught me that updating blogs over Christmas week is a Total Bloody Waste Of Time As Nobody Reads The New Entries. Just as you're probably not reading this now. Are you?

So let's rest for awhile, friends, and return here early in the New Year. I started this blog in August, and we're now up to Volume 10, having cut our way through over two hundred tracks already. We've still got 13 more albums, three Best Ofs and another two VHS compilations to cover, so there's lots up ahead of us.

If you fancy getting your Christmas party going with an old-school indie swing, the Spotify Indie Top 20 Playlist contains most of the tracks we've covered so far.

And if you want to get me a Christmas present... well, I know it's rude to talk about what you want, but tell your friends about this blog. If you've got a blog or website of your own, link back to this. If you're on social media, give it a mention. If neither applies, feel free to tell people anyway. The vast majority of any blog's traffic comes through referrals these days, so if you want me to feel a bit more motivated to keep this blog fresh, speak up if you're enjoying what I do (and huge gratitude and thanks is obviously due to the people who already have).

I hope you all have a great Christmas and Santa brings you an elusive copy of "Indie Top 20: House" down the chimney. 

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Indie Top 20 Vol 10 - Side One - The Farm, The Shamen, Paris Angels, KLF, Renegade Soundwave

Year of Release: 1990
Formats: Double Vinyl/ Long Play Cassette/ CD

The trials and tribulations of Beechwood Music continued unabated throughout 1990. The launch of Volume 9 of the Indie Top 20 series had, as we've discussed before, been disrupted by distribution issues. And the launch of Volume 10 saw an unexpected rival emerge in the form of the as-seen-on-TV mass-marketed compilation experts Telstar Records. They rushed out the freaky-dancing flavoured LP "Rave" at almost exactly the same time as "Indie Top 20 Volume 10", and was there a lot of crossover between the two tracklistings? Why yes, there was.

In direct response, a peculiar act of sabotage happened at Telstar's headquarters. Staff emerged one morning to find that their office had been plunged into semi-darkness by the appearance of fly-posters for "Indie Top 20 Volume 10" glued all over the windows. Beechwood Music denied responsibility and put the blame squarely on "fans of their series" - highly dedicated fans who also had access to quality printing machines, the graphic design masterplates of the latest Indie Top 20 sleeve and lots of glue, I'll bet. Telstar chose not to get the police involved and put the activity down to Christmas hi-jinks that had got out of hand, adding that "it's good to have a bit of competition over the period". The free publicity certainly can't have hurt either party...

In the end, "Rave" easily won out in the sales wars, and that's not surprising. It was a cheaply, sloppily produced piece of vinyl with the tightest microgrooves known to man meaning you had to crank the volume right up to get anything much out of it, but it was cheap. And for all that, it did actually contain some odd surprises. The Blue Aeroplanes, for example, and Ocean Colour Scene (in their baggy incarnation) and The Wicked Things, who released records on their own label and hardly anybody had ever heard of. In fact, they're not even on YouTube to this day.

As you can tell, I abstained from this great Indie Compilation War and bought copies of both albums like any good diplomat would. Telstar's effort is far poppier and features a bigger hit single quota, but "Indie Top 20 Volume 10" feels better overall. As we'll now see.

1. The Farm - Groovy Train (Terry Farley Mix) (Produce)

"Forget the music. These boys have got the most practical clothes I've ever seen" Harry Cross.

(You can, if you want, read some of the below entry in the voice of Alan Partridge).

Not long after I started attending sixth form college, I got myself involved in the college radio station.  I briefly ran a very naive and ramshackle little show with a friend of mine, and to try and drum up some interest in it, we decided to run an end-of-year Festive Fifty styled poll of the student's favourite groups and solo acts. We approached people in the common room and during breaks to get them to give us their top three artists of 1990.

This exercise taught us a lot about teenage music tastes in South East Essex at this time (and also that walking around with a pen and notepad asking people their favourite bands made you seem like a dork at best or a sex pest at worst, but hey, most of us on college radio were definitely dorks). Firstly, more young people appreciated Phil Collins in 1990 than any NME, Melody Maker or even Smash Hits poll would ever have told you. He finished at around number twelve picking up lots of nods from deadly serious, usually faintly unfashionable youths who couldn't have given a shit that they weren't supposed to like him (if it had been an anonymous poll, I'd have been interested to see if his standing improved further still). Paul Simon managed to nudge in at number twenty by the skin of his teeth. And The Farm? They won overall. Aced it. They were the college's favourite band of 1990.

We were flabbergasted at the time, but looking back there were other factors afoot. We were asking people not long after the hugely appreciated "All Together Now" had been released, a record both my friend and I actually fancied taking a bet on being that year's Christmas Number One (especially after we added up the poll results). Also, The Farm were proving to be one of indie's great crossover bands. Most indie groups and their fans, even at this point, seemed aloof, judgemental and ever so slightly weird to the Henry and Wendy Normals of Britain, who didn't like loud guitars or skinny kids with floppy fringes on drugs. The Farm, on the other hand,  were happy-go-lucky football supporting Scousers with cheeky grins on their chops and ordinary clothes and haircuts who also happened to be making some very voguish noises. Not only would they gain appreciation in my little corner of the world, but Smash Hits readers would award them "Best Indie Group" at their Poll Winners Party as well.

"Groovy Train" was, of course, their big breakthrough moment, making number six in the National Charts. Featuring a nagging and squeaky guitar riff, shuffling beats, and faintly pissed off lyrics about a haughty lady, it does sound unbelievably of its moment. When an indie-dance crack into the mainstream emerged in 1990, they rushed through it with gusto and threw everything they had at the wall, seeming like a family-friendly version of the Happy Mondays who probably wouldn't try to sell you drugs if they bumped into you at a nightclub. Even the chorus here is gloriously, piss-takingly cynical. "She says: Get on get on get on get on get on/ the groovy train" indeed, although from this distance it does seem as if Hooton was trying to get a rise out of baggy's biggest fashion victims.

In the end, though, The Farm are one of many groups throughout history to prove that when you're the mainstream pop flavour of a fleeting indie/ alternative zeitgeist, history tends to forget you and classic pop stations just don't play you all that much. For all its success at the time, "Groovy Train" is very seldom heard these days, whereas "Step On" and "Kinky Afro" remain inescapable by comparison.

It would have been good to get further chances to discuss The Farm again purely to get under the skin of why their demise throughout 1991 was so incredibly swift, despite releasing one of their finest singles in "Love See No Colour" - but they don't feature on "Indie Top 20" again after this.

2. The Shamen - Make It Mine (One Little Indian)

"Continually slotted in the same genre as The Happy Mondays, The Beloved, The Stone Roses and other indie-dance crossovers - The Shamen, like they did with "Pro-Gen", take it one step further with "Make It Mine"". 

The Shamen really were entering an effervescent period of their careers at this point. "Pro-Gen" was all brassy melodies and excessive lyrical positivity, and "Make It Mine" ups the ante, taking neon Housey keyboard riffs and loud, distorted guitars and managing not to make them sound mismatched. "Jesus Loves Amerika" this isn't.

"Make It Mine" is one of those peculiar singles which sounded way more punchy and almost dangerous in 1990 than it does now. At the time, this seemed like a unique proposition, whereas after the likes of EMF and Jesus Jones poked into the pop charts, it began to feel somewhat sterile. It's important to try to remember that The Shamen did a lot of this stuff first, though, and were incredibly quick to pack the guitars away into their cases and lock them away in storage before the sound became outmoded.

3. Paris Angels - All On You (Perfume) (Sheer Joy)

(No sleeve notes were provided for this track).

It's been suggested by people far wiser than me that the early nineties indie-dance phase is ripe for a carefully compiled "Nuggets" styled compilation or box set. The theory goes that there was an explosion of creativity, energy and passion during the brief period which owed a debt to, but also acted as a progression beyond, the late sixties psychedelic era.

And it's indeed odd the way the "baggy era" has been condensed in rock history to the obvious names (Roses, Mondays, Charlatans, Inspirals) when so many other groups released astonishing pieces of work outside of the Top 40. The careers of the also-ran bands, much like their sixties cousins, may mostly have been confined to one or two dynamite 45s and one very patchy LP, but those sticks of nitroglycerin created some of the happiest nights of my life.

"Perfume", whether you like it or not, was absolutely huge among a certain crowd at the time. Big enough that there were a couple of instances of Paris Angels graffiti at my sixth form college (probably inked by the same person, to be fair) and that it was a constant alternative club staple. But unlike so many 1990 singles, it still sounds unbelievable. From that cheeky "What Time Is Love" inspired loop to the jangling guitars and the epic, soaring, choral female backing vocals it absolutely soars. It's the sound of young kids with access to huge record collections digging through the debris to cherry-pick the finest noises and finally come up with something that sounds utterly contemporary - the Ian Curtis styled drone of the male lead vocals balances brilliantly with the angelic backing of Jayne Gill to create something really bittersweet, something which is every bit as much "indie" as it is "dance".

Even the video manages to present the band as a bunch of garage-based urchins who just happened to have stumbled on a magic formula - smirks and grins all over their faces as the track builds and explodes into dancefloor bliss. Sadly, they never would sound this fantastic again, and a subsequent LP for Virgin Records - released just as the sunset emerged for the whole indie-dance genre - failed to completely live up to expectations. But for "Perfume", I'm completely happy to give the group a lifetime pass. It may have happened by accident rather than design, but it's a staggering, towering piece of work, and one I still return to a great deal.

4. The KLF - What Time Is Love? (Echo & The Bunnymen Mix) (KLF Communications)

"The KLF first released the original version of this track in November 1988 when it was virtually ignored. In March 1990 they played three dates with the new look Echo & The Bunnymen after which The Bunnymen went into the studio to rework the track for posterity".

Ah yes, the "new look" Echo & The Bunnymen. That would be the McCullochless incarnation absolutely everyone has ever forgotten existed, as McCulloch sodded off to form Electrafixion, another band whose impact on popular culture was somewhat negligible.

Still, this reimagining of "What Time Is Love" proved that the band's darkest days did at least produce one source of light. Filled to the brim with backwards guitars, sitar loops, tabla rattling and mystical samples, WTIL was given an unexpectedly old-school psychedelic reworking. Even if the nature of the track becomes trance-like in an old school 1967 way rather than a modern capital "t" Trance way, it acted as a perfectly valid gateway between the droning pop of the sixties and modern Acidic sounds, showing that there was a common lineage whether anyone (apart from Steve Hillage) wanted to acknowledge it or not. They even threw in the goose noises from Pink Floyd's "Bike" at the end to really labour the point.

Ultimately though, would I rather listen to the original? Definitely. In fact, there are even better remixes of "WTIL" out there than this, the Hendrix-riddled "Techno Gate" mix of the track on the original track's B-side being  but only one example. The Echo & The Bunnymen mix of this is a curiosity rather than a superior version, but that didn't stop Telstar from also giving this version a place on their "Rave" LP as well. After all, I suppose - why try to grab sales from fans of one band when you could earn sales from two?

5. Renegade Soundwave - Biting My Nails (Bassnumb Chapter) (Mute)

"A pulse-quickener of a beat, weird dub particles and stray radiation waves from dying satellites, all collide in an effect like a sharp intake of crystal meth."

I'm not sure who those sleeve-notes came from, but Renegade Soundwave sometimes did have a faint whiff of Super Hans about them... so odds-on it was one of the group.

That aside, "Biting My Nails" is a minimal and bass-heavy, robotic and almost threatening sound. It would later be souped up for use in the Nintendo console adverts, showing that while the single itself remained relatively underground, it had a slick modernity about it which loaned itself well to "the kids". It still sounds bossy and threatening even now, but all without losing any appeal - while The Shamen et al may have been punching their fists in the air, Renegade Soundwave were still a bit sinister and devilish in comparison.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Indie Top Video Take Four featuring Family Cat

Year of Release: 1990

And the VHS version of Indie Top 20 rolled on ahead, getting increasingly difficult to find stocked in the likes of HMV and Our Price, but there nonetheless, refusing to give up the ghost.

There's really not terribly much to say about Volume Four of this enterprise, as it only contains one bonus video for a track we haven't discussed elsewhere - but let's plough ahead. Links to the other tracks we've already talked about are provided as well.

1. Soup Dragons - Mother Universe (Big Life)

2. The Farm - Stepping Stone (Produce) 

3. Revenge - Pineapple Face (Factory)

4. The Shamen - Pro-Gen (One Little Indian)

5. New Fast Automatic Daffodils - Big (Pias)

6. Finitribe - Monster In The House (Mute)

7. Family Cat - Remember What It Is That You Love (Bad Girl) - Bonus Track

Well, here we are - the solitary bonus track on "Take Four" of the Indie Top Video series is a really rather unremarkable little treat, a single which was in and out of the Indie charts so quickly it honestly barely registered with me at the time.

The Family Cat were still riding on the strong goodwill of their debut single "Tom Verlaine", and "Remember" is a rather plodding stadium chant of a track, consisting of one chorus, some instrumental riffage and very little else. As the band's career progressed, they would start to use anthemic choruses with greater frequency, as we'll witness on "Steamroller" when we get to it. "Remember" feels like a dry demo run for those tracks, and while there's power in them there guitars, it sounds like a faintly agreeable plodder of a B-side rather than something which should have been given top billing.

Given that it's the only moment we'll be talking about on this compilation, I feel slightly guilty and irritated with myself that I can't find anything to say apart from that. Sorry. Leave a comment if you want to offer more appreciation or analysis, but I'm calling this a misfire.

8. Wolfhounds - Rite of Passage (Midnight Music)

9. Birdland - Sleep With Me (Lazy)

10. See See Rider - She Sings Alone (Lazy)

11. AC Marias - One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing (Mute)

12. Heart Throbs - Dreamtime (One Little Indian)

13. Lush - De-Luxe (4AD)

14. The Sundays - Joy (Rough Trade)

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Side 4 - The Sundays, See See Rider, Galaxie 500, AC Marias, Lush

1. The Sundays - Joy (Rough Trade)

"...Equally as important for giving style back to the independents as putting integrity back into the mainstream". NME, Jan '90

The Sundays emerged in a blaze of publicity in early 1989. In those days, the inky music press were still obsessed with finding "the next Smiths", and alongside the likes of Wedding Present and The House Of Love, The Sundays were deemed to be prime contenders. Debut single "Can't Be Sure" stayed atop the indie charts for what felt like the whole winter season, dripping with delicately jangled guitar lines and Harriet Wheeler's expressive and almost folksy vocal stylings. It then topped John Peel's Festive Fifty for 1989.

So far, so incredible. The trouble is, The Sundays were damned on two fronts - not only has their work-rate been consistently sloth-like (their debut LP didn't emerge until 1990) but they were also signed to an ailing record label which was about to go belly-up. "Joy" seemed to have been slated as their follow-up to "Can't Be Sure", and had a video made to accompany it, but beyond white labels no copies have ever turned up. Given that it received airplay and television exposure, the only plausible explanation is that Rough Trade's precarious circumstances were to blame for its non-release.

"Joy" is actually a beautiful track, rich with an incredibly wintery and mournful atmosphere, but it doesn't sound like a single. It probably would have edged its way into the Top 40 purely by dint of the group's status had it been granted a release, but it's a strange atmosphere-piece to be considered as a 45.

Following Rough Trade's collapse, The Sundays would move on to Geffen and we won't see them on Indie Top 20 again. Suffice to say, they remained a cultishly successful act until their demise in 1997, consistently selling tens of thousands of records to their fanbase while never quite managing to reach out beyond that core group.

2. See See Rider - She Sings Alone (Lazy)

"Stumbling and sliding through a morass of sexual sophistication with S as a central cypher in the iconography of See See Rider"

Though if you want tangles with misfortune, See See Rider take the cake. Much-touted at the time, within moments of "She Sings Alone" receiving favourable reviews, members Stephen Sands and May Rock Marshall were involved in a motorcycle accident which rendered them inactive for an extended period. By the time they returned a whole year later with new material, other members had buggered off and they were forced to reacquaint themselves with the gig circuit all over again with a new line-up.

While 1990 has often been noted as being an absurdly generic year for British alternative rock, with baggy beats and wah-wah guitars seeming to work their way on to every other record, See See Rider did stand out. The moody vocals of Lewis Chamberlain and May Rock Marshall created an unholy alliance, the gravelly imperfections of the former combining with the disappointed sourness of the latter like some kind of nineties indie Hazelwood and Sinatra. "She Sings Alone" truly soars as well, the guitar lines continually building throughout the record until they're almost scraping the sky.

Whatever hopes anyone had for the band, it's hard to imagine them ever being huge, and in the end only two singles emerged - this and "Stolen Heart" in 1991. "She Sings Alone" did show vague signs of commercial promise when it entered the UK Top 100 at Number 99, however. This might not sound like much, but even in 1990, a showing on the official Gallup chart was a huge deal for an indie band, and a sign that the real world was waking up to them. With better fortune on their side, it's possible greater things could have been achieved.

3. Galaxie 500 - Blue Thunder (Rough Trade) - vinyl and cassette only

"...is the sound of a storm brewing, oppressively, in the eventide." Everett True, Melody Maker, 27/1/90

Thanks for that, Everett. Though the sound of the storm brewing was possibly also Rough Trade's imminent bankruptcy, which brutally impacted on Galaxie 500's lives, forcing them to bid for the rights to their own albums back at an auction.

"Blue Thunder" stems from the band's later period, but it's fair to say that throughout their careers they were deeply divisive, with many listeners and critics feeling that their approach was too shambolic to be worthy of praise. Others, however, adored their naive approach and saw parallels between them and the Velvet Underground and also other current indie twee artists.

What very few people seem to have commented on - at least from memory - is how redolent of Neil Young "Blue Thunder" is in places, with even Dean Wareham's fragile vocals edging close towards the great man at times. It's threadbare and brooding stuff, but actually astonishingly powerful despite its delicate framework.

"Blue Thunder" seemed to come in two versions, an acoustic version and a version with a honking saxophone sprawling all over it. My vinyl copy of "Indie Top 20" is fully saxed up, but I've heard talk that other pressings apparently aren't. If there's a good reason for this, I'm damned if I know it.

4. AC Marias - One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing (Mute)

"...This is lovely... AC Marias "One Of Our Girls" is marvellous, revelling in melancholy and loss just so them big ole ice guitars can come a-rolling in one mo' time". David Quantick, NME

A.C. Marias was the adopted stage name of occasional Wire video director and collaborator Angela Conway. She's joined on this track by Bruce Gilbert of Wire, Barry Adamson of the Bad Seeds and Rowland S Howard of The Birthday Party.

It seems unfair to point it out, but "One of Our Girls" is incredibly Wiry, right down to that precise, metronomic rhythm track and those ringing guitar lines. Gilbert co-wrote it, and clearly had a huge hand in its production, and while Wire's days on Indie Top 20 really finished on Volume 8, this track acts as a nice coda.

Innocent, delicate, melancholy and faintly choral, this is a ghostly little single which really didn't sell in enormous quantities, but sounds oddly of its time despite the heavy involvement of the indie elder gentry. The vocals actually pre-date the early nineties Rave single habit of putting innocent, pie-eyed female vocals over looped rhythm tracks, and make it sound like a spooky precursor to a lot of commercial electronic music.

5. Lush - De-Luxe (4AD)

"Lush's first single reached number 53 in the Gallup chart in March".

And really, this was it. The rude young interloper to the baggy beat party. Without a trace of funky drummer samples or Dance remixes, Lush achieved more with their debut release than many new artists on major labels were managing at the time. They single-handedly proved that the market for fresh new alternative music was far bigger and broader than anyone supposed, and you didn't have to be dancefloor friendly just to chart in the "real world". That would have an impact on the scene as a whole (though Ride's debut January release was also a similar event).

Lush were self-confessed naifs at the time, which is staggering when you consider the richness on offer here. This isn't a bunch of Talulah Gosh soundalikes fumbling their way around their instruments - "De-Luxe" has innocence and abrasion in spades, as well as a peculiar arrangement which never quite reaches any kind of traditional chorus but swaps between two distinct elements - the almost folk-rockish melodies of the "I've been waiting on the slide" part, and the very slight chorus beginning with "Inside of me". The vocal interplay between Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson also resembles something akin to "Scarborough Fair", giving an actually quite abrasive track a very haunted, ancient atmosphere. It holds you glued to the stereo by the force and beauty of its detail alone.

I'll be rude enough to suggest here that Lush were very often an imperfect band, producing large numbers of album tracks and even singles which never quite gelled. "De-Luxe" was a storming single for the group to announce themselves with, though, and almost couldn't have been bested. This is how to make an entrance.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Side 3 - Carter USM, Fatima Mansions, Wolfhounds, Birdland, Heart Throbs

1. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Sheriff Fatman (Big Cat)

"Carter's driver Terry, says 'Jim Bob and Fruitbat, I hate them, with their whacky names, pig awful guitars and that poxy tape machine, boring the pants off everyone with their stupid little songs about South London of which this one is probably the worst'". 

At this point in their careers, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine - or Carter USM as they would often eventually be known for the sake of brevity, by themselves and everyone else - were not big news. Jim Bob and Fruitbat's previous band, the mediocre and under-achieving Jamie Wednesday, had recently collapsed, leaving them with the choice of either forming a new band or plodding around the gig circuit as a duo using drum machines and tapes for backing.

This would be an unusual decision now, and was made even more unusual back then due to the sheer volume of unfashionable covers duos littering backstreet boozers. With names like Double Take, Two's Company and Two In A Bed, they used to entertain weary working class punters with drum machine and synthesiser festooned covers of rock classics such as "We Are The Champions", using their duo status to circumnavigate the tricky venue licensing issues surrounding full groups. Most were a frustratingly naff interruption to a nice night out in the pub, and weren't credible outfits. The year was no longer 1981, and drum machines and backing tapes being used by bands with loud guitars wasn't deemed a radical or interesting move, just a messy compromise. A similar stance being adopted by a band with original material seemed like an odd move.

Carter USM were also slightly aged gentlemen by 1990 indie standards and made a brash, decidedly unMadchester noise. Suffice to say that nobody expected much from them after their second single "Sheriff Fatman" picked up some attention, and it's cultish indie chart action really did seem like a one-off hurrah which would never be repeated again, never mind built upon.

What many of us reckoned without was how sharp and witty Carter could be. While their puns, observations and playful rhymes about life in London feel familiar now - so familiar that when I lived in South London a year ago, I could barely go outside for five minutes without getting a Carter earworm - it's worth listening again with a fresh pair of ears. "Sheriff Fatman", for instance, takes on slum landlords with a biting wit, like Soft Cell's "Bedsitter" transplanted into the brains of some demented Grebos. With its military stomp, synthetic brass fanfares, and dirty donking electro-bass lines, it also manages to sound unique - though whether it's a unique sound that works for every listener is obviously up for debate.

"Sheriff Fatman" is still one of the songs that defines the Carter legacy, and would become a proper hit once it was re-released on a major label in 1991. For now, though, they were regarded somewhat cautiously as being a novelty. I mean, how could this possibly last? But it did. And one really would have hoped that the subject matter of "Fatman" would seem quaint by now, but sadly it seems more relevant than ever.

2. Fatima Mansions - Blues For Ceaucescu (Kitchenware)

"...A bruising riff, declamatory remarks, wah-wah overload, the lot - definitely a contender for single of the year" Dele Fadele, NME

This definitely sounded like the moment Fatima Mansions finally found their true purpose. While they were never a very generic band at any point in their career - many critics have pointed out that they often sounded like three different acts in the space of one song - the material most people remember is the sonic thuggery of the LPs "Valhalla Avenue" and "Lost In The Former West".

"Blues for Ceaucescu" is arguably the first and finest example of the band's demented fury. Fixing on one repetitive, hypnotic and heavy blues riff, it kicks, stomps and thrashes around, using the then-recent execution of Ceaucescu to lyrically sprawl around tales of corruption in both the East and West. Seemingly taking its cues from the Bertolt Brecht quote "Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again", the track even gently and cautiously hints towards child sex abuse cover-ups among the high and mighty at Kincora Boys' Home in Northern Ireland. "God, I love living in a DEMOCRACY!" splutters Coughlan disbelievingly. (See, some people were talking about this stuff way before the present decade...)

It's coming up for Christmas now as I'm typing this. Every Christmas in Romania, many people sit down to watch old footage of Ceaucescu being executed, and cheer. Every time I hear this track, I tend to find myself thinking about that. When I've discussed this with other people over the years, they've found it hard to digest. In Great Britain at least, it seems to be considered rather rude to not wait a day or two until someone's passing before you speak the truth about them, no matter what misery they might have inflicted on people during their lifetimes or how many people they may have sent to their deaths. Watching videos of them dying at Christmas is utterly beyond most people's comfortable comprehension.

We're lucky enough to have grown up in a country where most of us haven't been oppressed to the same degree as the Romanians, but "Blues for Ceaucescu" is a fantastic and tremendously cathartic noise in that it reminds us that there are people out there who would be quite willing to go that far if the opportunity arose - that power-hungry psychopathy is always there, waiting for a crack to open where it can infuence or manipulate society unchecked. And the track sounds magnificent, too. Relentless, pounding, minimal and yet very effective. One of my favourite singles of 1990 - no question.

3. Wolfhounds - Rite Of Passage (Midnight Music)

"'Rite of Passage' is about the sights you have to lower to hold down a job, and having dreams beyond the weekend and that job. A bigger sound, bigger ambitions. We are now campaigning against the Rates of Passage."

This is perfectly partnered with "Blues for Ceaucescu" in the track listing. Beginning with a sample of Joey Ramone burbling on about no subject known to man (but if you didn't know, you probably wouldn't know) it continues to introduce discordant guitar riffing, furious vocals, and a strangely minimal chorus. Trashing about the place, it lacks the anthemic feel The Wolfhounds had treated us to on previous outings, instead feeling more experimental and jarring.

Not that any of this makes it a bad track at all. On first listen it seemed (to my teenage ears) to be a bit too much to take, but subsequent revisits delivered a lot. It's so sprawling and unconventional that there's an interesting moment around every corner, and it hinted towards much better things to come from the band.

Forthcoming releases such as the LP "Attitude" showed that they were indeed moving on from their scratchy indie beginnings and developing a darker, more savage sound. Eventually though, the band would cease and Dave Callaghan would take that bleakness to the dub-indie outfit Moonshake who released some equally excellent recordings. We'll get our chance to discuss them eventually. 

4. Birdland - Sleep With Me (Lazy)

"Birdland's reckless rock rampaged into the charts with this scintillating slice of singalong sex" Rave Magazine.

This was indeed Birdland's big Top 40 debut, entering the Sunday chart rundown at number 32. In reality, though, there was barely a person around who genuinely still thought the group were the next big thing. Birdland never could top the unbelievable punk thrash of their debut "Hollow Heart", and "Sleep With Me" is actually a pretty baffling slide into mid-paced rock and roll. The swagger of Jagger and Richards runs right through its heart, but there's something a bit lead-footed about it all. The Stones swung, but Birdland steadily bang and stomp here.

There are far better Birdland singles out there than this one, which makes it unfortunate that it turned out to be their solitary minor hit. Despite that, it has enough attitude and a strong enough hook to be better than some of the indie-dance singles of the same era which received a more favourable critical reception. 

5. The Heart Throbs - Dreamtime (One Little Indian)

"... a band who epitomise all that is groovy and good in the female-fronted serious guitar scene. Over the last two years they have produced some of the most articulate and impassioned singles to emerge from the indie charts" ID

I'm offering that sleevenote above without comment. Sisters Rose Carlotti and Rachel DeFreitas were siblings of the unfortunate and deceased Pete DeFreitas of Echo & The Bunnymen, and were a powerful and seering contribution to the music scene at the time. Often overlooked when people go back over the history of nineties indie, they were nonetheless a surprisingly big deal to begin with, and had a sharp feminist angle to their work. Their second album "Jubilee Twist", for example, was named after a martial combat technique for attacking male genitalia.

The single "I Wonder Why" - never featured on Indie Top 20 - is probably one of the better examples of their hard edged guitar pop from this period. "Dreamtime" is much more atmospheric and world-weary, and perhaps gives an inaccurate impression of the more popular work they tended to produce.

It's a good single, mind you, and one which picked up on enormous volumes of college radio airplay Stateside. Awash with airy synthesisers, moody guitarwork and delicate but impassioned vocals, I played this often in my bedroom at the height of summer, watching the sun go down outside in the late evening. It felt nigh-on perfect, and it still feels somewhat majestic now. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Volume 9 Side 2 - The Shamen, New Order, McCarthy, Finitribe, Nitzer Ebb

1. The Shamen - Pro Gen (One Little Indian)

"Play this loud in a very dark room and little green men will come and beat you on the side of your head with silver hammers shrieking 'Let us in, let us in, we have some good sounds for you'. Fast, furious and sometimes a mite frightening, "Pro Gen" makes all the right moves in the right places." Record Mirror

Also known as "Move Any Mountain", "Pro Gen" tickled the belly of the Top 75 in 1990 before becoming a huge Top Five hit on its re-release in 1991. Really, it's the song that moved the group away from the cultish fringes and into the big league, containing Mr C a-waggin' his finger as he rapped twenty-to-the-dozen, lots of pristine, fanfaring synths, and killer beats.

Opinion will inevitably be divided on which period of the group's work stands up the best, their early neo-psychedelia, their mid-period Hacienda-flavoured Indie Dance, or the well fed years. I would argue somewhat cautiously that all those periods had something to offer, but that "Pro Gen" seems ever so slightly unexciting in retrospect. The repetitious chorus of "I can move, move, move any mountain" wanes very quickly, and the rest rings out confidently but lacks depth, edge, wit or bite.

Still, at the time this certainly felt like a bold and significant single, and many predicted a hit for The Shamen. They were right - it just wouldn't break through in 1990, that's all.

2. New Order - Round and Round (Club Mix) (Factory)

(In an interesting move, Beechwood Music provided no sleeve notes at all for this track)

By the time "Indie Top 20 Volume 9" came out, "Round and Round" was already old hat - a 1989 release by New Order which charted lower than anticipated (Number 21) and was promoted by a somewhat rubbish video of lots of female models pulling seductive, amused or innocent faces, the kind of idea even George Michael would have considered for three seconds, then rejected. It's untimely appearance here is probably for two reasons; the fact that the Club Mix fits the baggy mood of the 1990 era, and also to pull in punters with a big indie name. Well, at least it wasn't with an old Peel Session track this time.

"Round and Round" is a curiously understated pop track on an otherwise magnificent album. Always sounding faintly underpowered and underwritten, it sits on "Technique" like a faintly catchy afterthought amidst a sea of mournful ballads and blissed out Ibiza infused indie. Either "Vanishing Point" or "Mr. Disco" would have been better second singles, and even if "Run" had been shunted up the release schedules to occupy an earlier space it might have made more sense.

Still, we can't sit here all day rewriting history, and this was launched into a faintly indifferent world in 1989. Even a "quite good" New Order single from this period is good enough, obviously, and "Round and Round" is mellow, twittery and funky, and manages to slowly charm its way into your heart and cause your feet to tap. But that's all I can find to say about it...

3. McCarthy - Get A Knife Between Your Teeth (Midnight Music)

"The title comes from a cover of an Anti-Bolschevik pamphlet of the 1920s. It showed a crazed and hairy savage with a knife between his teeth who was presumably preparing to stab a respectable citizen to death. He represented what reactionaries believed a revolutionary communist to look like".

When my grandchildren come round on a Sunday and ask me the question "Tell me pops - when was Peak Baggy? And how did we know it had happened?", I usually pop a Werther's Original buttered candy sweet in their mouths and tell them "Why, it was when McCarthy, an underground Marxist indie band from Barking who had been on the C86 compilation, added wah-wah pedals and dancefloor friendly beats to their final single".

Because it happened! It did! And the fact that I don't have any children, never mind grandchildren, doesn't make the rest of what I've told you any less true. Somewhat strangely, they got away with it without a single cry of "Bandwagon Jumpers", though that's largely aided by the fact that "Get A Knife Between Your Teeth" is a fine little single. For all the wah-wah action and pumping rhythms, it's still melodically and lyrically a typical McCarthy record, and there's not an obligatory rapper in sight. Tim Gane sounds as rattled but sweetly voiced as ever, and the chorus punctuates everything with a determined message.

There's no question it was one of 1990's more unusual releases, however, and while nothing was ever said, one wonders if it might be a factor in the group's split and Gane's subsequent Stereolab experiments (more on which much later on). "Knife" swaggers in a way that his music never really did before or since this point, and if he felt uncomfortable, nobody would have been surprised.

He certainly wasn't technically proficient enough to handle it at this point. Apparently another studio helper had to operate the wah-wah pedal for him while he played, as he had no clue how to do it. For shame.

4. Finitribe - Monster In The House (One Little Indian)

"If you've seen the Finitribe live, you start to understand what their records are all about. Being almost cabaret in a housey sort of way, they come on stage dressed in bowler hats, looking like something out of A Clockwork Orange." Rave Magazine

Indeed, there were people who seriously thought Finitribe were The Future in 1990. Taking the traditional format of a group and putting on image-consious live shows to promote their Dance sounds, they knew the power of making their presence felt before The Prodigy came along.

On the great timeline of Indie-Dance (and certainly Dance music in general) they are but a blip, but around the point of "Monster" a seismic rumbling of promise could be felt. The track is an eerie, menacing piece of work, taking a similar semi-ambient tack to The Shamen's "Omega Amigo" but adding gothic drama to the mix. It's like a bad mid-summer dream, or a slightly ropey high in the middle of a derelict warehouse. The vocals alternately whisper, mock and fearfully announce "A thing like this could warp his mind!" then loop around the circuit again as the keyboards gently play a sinister and simplistic melody.

I still really like this track, actually, and possibly appreciate it more now in 2016 than I did at the time. Its slow, ambient pace and cool mean it hasn't dated much at all, unlike many of the uptempo barnstormers of the day, and it utilises a very simple idea exquisitely well.

Finitribe are often famed for featuring Chris Connelly in their early line-up, who left the group in 1988 to join Ministry. Later Finitribe tracks did have an industrial edge to them too, but "Monster" is an uneasy kind of bliss in comparison.

5. Nitzer Ebb - Lightning Man (Mute) - Vinyl and Cassette Only

"...It's thoroughly menacing, schizophrenic and possibly the only genuinely confusing record of the week. Quite marvellous, all things considered". Caren Myers, Melody Maker.

Nitzer Ebb really were rather industrial, on the other hand, and recently reformed in 2007 to continue their unfinished business.

"Lighting Man" combines brassy razzle-dazzle fanfares with gritted teeth vocals, snarled threats and squelching synthesiser lines, and is a very irate and confusing piece of noise indeed. What it's so agitated about is anyone's guess, but this is what the harsher end of electronic music sounded like in 1990 - jabbing and taunting rather than blissed out and grooving.

Nitzer Ebb built a large following for themselves throughout the early nineties and almost had a reputation as being the "other" band hardcore Depeche Mode fans liked. They have a loyal cult following to this day.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Indie Top 20 Vol 9 - The Farm, Soup Dragons, Revenge, New Fads, The Charlatans

Format: CD/ Double Vinyl/ Long play cassette
Year of Release: 1990

As Madchester, baggy or indie-dance (call it what you will) boomed, and so-called hopeless indie groups started to make chartbound sounds, the Indie Top 20 series shifted away from monochrome. Just as in the late sixties, at the height of psychedelia, television broadcasts snapped from shades of grey to glorious technicolour, so too did the sleeves of our favourite compilation albums at the peak of ecstacy tab ingestion.

"But Dave, everyone watches the telly, hardly anyone was buying Indie Top 20 albums by comparison, so your analogy seems at best a bit stretched".

Fair enough, sport.

But still, the fact that the series was beginning to introduce colour and gloss to its sleeves indicated an increased confidence on Beechwood's part. After all, if The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, The Charlatans and even the bloody Soup Dragons could all have proper chart hits, there was absolutely no reason why they couldn't clean up themselves with neat anthologies of the best alternative sounds of each season.

Sadly, Volume 9 launched with massive distribution problems and more than a little bit of drama. Elements of the Cartel distribution network went under around the same time of its release (Rough Trade itself would go bust in early 1991) and left shedloads of undistributed albums in its warehouse in the process. Some copies trickled out into the real world, but in Southend where I lived, Volume 9 only emerged on cassette initially, and that was in Woolworths of all places. A month or two later, huge promotional displays for the emergent LP and CD copies appeared in Our Price, with Beechwood presumably trying to make up for the unsatisfactory initial launch.

Once I finally got a copy, this actually became one of the LPs of summer 1990 for me, more cherished and played than many "proper" studio albums of the year. The other records I played to death at this time, if you're interested, were The Stone Roses' debut, KLF's "Chill Out", and Pink Floyd's "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn", all appreciated while the sun endlessly blazed outside. The fact that I'd happily list all three of these albums somewhere in my top twenty records of all time may say more about the memories they bring back for me than the actual contents, but I'll never be able to know for sure. I'd just finished school, Sixth Form college loomed ahead, and the future was uncertain, but could hardly be any worse. I was in as positive a frame of mind as any hormonal teenager possibly could be.

I did nothing that summer. Well, I say nothing - I bought some special "mystery bargain packs" of 7" singles from Golden Disc in Southend and then used most of the awful contents as frisbees in a local park with a friend. I got my GCSE results (good) and celebrated with a tin of Special Brew in the very same park before going to bed with a headache (you could drink tins of super strength lager in the park as a teenager in those days without anyone calling the police or tabloid newspapers running headlines about it). But you don't need to have money or do things when the future is an open book, the rush of possibilities is exciting enough. "Oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go" as Paul McCartney once sang.

And anyway, the bands I liked were finally getting into the charts and were sure to sell millions and become the next Beatles, England were likely contenders for the World Cup trophy and were sure to win (I almost never watched football, but even I couldn't ignore the games at this point) and I was certain to go to college and make new friends and meet new girls who were certain to overlook my acne-ridden awkwardness and fancy me... Man, what a time to be alive and sixteen years old too. My vision of the close future was nowhere near correct, of course, but I wasn't to know that.

If I over-rate any of these songs or have an overly rosy view of the groups concerned, forgive me.

1. The Farm - Stepping Stone (Product Inc)

"The indie-dance movement reaches its highest point yet with Farley mixing the Scouse urchins into blistering immortality". Record Mirror.

Oh no it bloody doesn't. If the "high point" of the Indie-Dance movement, which included singles which are still played on the radio regularly today, was this lot's lumpen droning cover of a Monkees track, then clearly the high point of Glam Rock was Mud's cover of "Living Doll". We're in some peculiar parallel universe here, folks.

The Farm had been doggedly pushing their wares on to a largely disinterested public since 1984 before "Stepping Stone" emerged, and were so disregarded prior to that that the "Indie Top 20" series saw fit to entirely ignore them. Nonetheless, 1990 was their moment. A group of scruffy, likeable lads who were football fans who also spoke out against hooliganism, wore Italia 90 tops, tacked dance beats on to their newest records, seemed as if they might be dropping pills... they were none-more-1990. If they couldn't make it then, they never would.

The Suggs and Farley produced "Stepping Stone" was an odd single to be their break through moment, though. Ambling, twittering and fumbling around for a groove while Peter Hooton dourly sang the lyrics in a disinterested fashion, it's not so much a cover version as a total deconstruction. Sadly, it forsook the hooks, aggression and relentless adrenalin of the original, and replaced them with the energy of a hungover Sunday morning. I still get requests for The Monkees "Stepping Stone" when I'm DJ'ing. Nobody has troubled me for The Farm's version once, and I don't ever expect them to.

The only half-interesting observation I can make about this single is that one of the samples from it, the wicked cackling woman's laugh, appears to have been taken from Clifford T Ward's demo of the cult psychedelic classic "Path Through The Forest" (later recorded by The Factory). It's either that or they're both sampling from the same source, because the sound is absolutely identical. This is even more fascinating to me as a fan of the psychedelic era, as Cliff's demo didn't actually re-emerge until a few years ago. Was a member of The Farm sitting on it all this time? Answers on the back of an envelope, please.

2. The Soup Dragons - Mother Universe (Big Life)

"Mother Universe is taken from the album 'LoveGod'"

There had "always been a dance element to their music", of course (insert picture of Jimmy Hill here) but The Soup Dragons really took a sudden turn at the traffic lights at this point. They'd moved on from their spiky, snappy mid-eighties sound to swing their baggy pants about with singles like this one.

While "I'm Free" was their big breakthrough moment, "Mother Universe" set the stage for them, and is arguably the less tacky single, sounding more natural and having enough of an old school Soup Dragons sound about it. Melodically, "Mother Universe" could have slotted into their old world, but the beats, the clean, sharp keyboards, and the swaggering chorus make it sound like a potential pop hit.

It's not their finest moment, however, and I doubt even the most hardened fan would place it in their top five best Soup Dragons songs. Really, it's the classic case of some vogueish production gloss making a passable tune sound far better than it is. In the cold, hard light of post-baggy 2016, it sounds pretty irrelevant.

3. Revenge - Pineapple Face (Factory)

"When I saw them live they were just like a load of brickies farting around with guitars and synthesisers they'd found, and that was the good bit, let's hear no more about them. Hopefully their tombstone is being carved already".

The sleeve doesn't attach attribution to the above quote, but you'd have to hope it didn't come from Tony Wilson or the offices of Factory Records - although you never know. Revenge were effectively Peter Hook's project away from New Order, and did receive a relentless barrage of abuse from the media for being a waste of the bearded one's time, with many critics arguing they were just a substandard version of his main band.

Interestingly, I actually quite like (without "loving") a lot of Revenge's work, and consider them to have been quite unfairly maligned at the time. Tracks like "Big Bang" and "Seven Reasons" were certainly better than most Factory Records product being issued at this time, and "Pineapple Face" is also a fine - if slightly meandering and rootless - piece of work.

Filled to the brim with Italo-House piano work, juddering beats, low and prominent basslines and a twitchy groove, "Pineapple Face" does admittedly sound like an obscure New Order track undergoing a radical remix, but it gets your feet moving and your pulse increasing. There were bigger things to be outraged about in 1990, and many of them received an overload of praise from IPC critics. It was almost as if they just didn't like Peter Hook much.

4. New Fast Automatic Daffodils - Big (Playtime)

"...are from Manchester, but amid the freaky dancing melee, they've kept their identity and kept their cool. Scratchy guitar, pulsating basslines, and a psychedelic daffodil splurge on the cover, "Big" is the final piece in the New Fast Automatic Daffodils jigsaw" - Steve Lamacq, NME.

With their silly name, home made music videos and slightly uncool image, the New Fast Automatic Daffodils - hereafter referred to as the New Fads, as most of us called them at the time anyway - weren't really taken terribly seriously.  More so than even some of the most shambolic C86 bands, they smacked of a group of people indulging a hobby that went slightly too far.

Whatever the truth of the situation (and I suspect that like most groups, they were actually very hungry for some kind of success) their material has actually aged far better than many of their peers. Those fat, chunky basslines, effects-laden vocals and funky rhythms actually recall Post Punk, making elements of their work comparable to ESG, Public Image Limited, or a very, very laidback Out On Blue Six. Had the New Fads been around in 1982 their records would have sold in the same quantities, and they could probably have pulled off the same trick in 2004 as well, just as quirky indie dancefloor grooves became The Thing again.

"Big" is a tad overlong, but still manages to maintain a slightly doomy yet funky air for the entire playing time. The wailing instrumental noises throughout also loan it a slightly exotic feel, though not enough that you can ever genuinely believe that anyone involved was born more than five yards from the borders of Manchester.

5. The Charlatans - Indian Rope (Dead Dead Good)

"Undoubtedly the darlings of the society mag Cheshire Life, The Charlatans stuff you inside their kaleidoscope and fling you in time to the days when The Doors seemed as dangerous as the Vietnam War - an excellent first single". James Brown, NME, 20th January 1990

The Doors reference above is telling. "Indian Rope" seems to hark back to Tim Burgess's fairly recent time in the garage revival group The Electric Crayon Set, and is really a piece of sixties retromania. There are no funky grooves or Peter Hook styled basslines here, and instead the single has an almost Alan Price styled organ break, some bare, basic drum patterns, and an airy, tranquil vocal.

None of this stopped the record from selling well (in an indie sense of the word "well") across a number of months, although for a period it seemed as if the group had emerged from nowhere and were startlingly faceless. "Indian Rope" had no video, the sleeve contained only blurry and indistinct photos of Tim Burgess, and for a period I thought they might actually be some sixties group re-emerged in disguise.

"Indian Rope" laid down the foundations for their future success - which was explosive following this single - without giving away all their best tricks early on in the game. A good, solid track which brings back all sorts of happy memories for me, I nonetheless highly doubt anyone would regard it as being one of their best singles. Much greater things were to come.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Indie Top Video Take 3 - Distant Cousins and Tangerine

Year of Release: 1990

Sorry to disappoint you good Ladies and Gentlemen, but "Take Three" of the Indie Top Video series really doesn't contain that much unheard material. It takes its cues almost entirely from the Volume 8 album, leaving us with only a couple of exclusive titbits. Still, marketing the videos and records in this combined way surely made a hell of a lot more sense to everyone.

There's a distinct decrease in the number of shite videos made by groups titting about with camcorders as well, which can only be a good thing.

1. Inspiral Carpets - Move (Mute)

2. Dub Sex - Time Of Life (Scam)

3. Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus (Mute)

4. Spacemen 3 - Hypnotized (Fire)

5. James - Come Home (Rough Trade)

6. KLF - Kylie Said To Jason (KLF Communications)

7. The Shamen - Omega Amigo (One Little Indian)

8. Kitchens of Distinction - Elephantine (One Little Indian)

9. Wire - In Vivo (Mute)

10. Distant Cousins - You Used To (Ghetto) - Bonus Video

Oho! Now we're in highly curious territory. While Distant Cousins hailed from Manchester and were often lumped in with that "scene", in reality they produced a sophisticated and intricate blend of soul and pop, and possibly arrived a few years too late with their sound.

"You Used To" is probably one of their finest moments, filled to the brim with moody string arrangements and itchy, jazzy little touches to the rhythms and piano lines. It's much more suited to a long post break-up weeping session in the back of a taxi in the small hours of the morning than some Hacienda dancefloor action. As such, it feels more like the sort of moment you would find on a K-Tel "Night Moves" compilation than "Indie Top 20".

None of this makes it a bad record in the slightest, though, and it's certainly one of the most carefully crafted pieces of work to emerge on an indie label in 1989. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Ghetto Records collapsed the group made a jump to Virgin and tried their luck with this single yet again in 1992 - but when it and other singles flopped all over again, they gave up and called it a day.

11. Tangerine - Sunburst (Creation) - Bonus Video

And here we have it, folks - the first ever Creation Records release to make its presence felt on anything related to the Indie Top 20 series (though we'll have a longer wait before we get to a proper compilation LP or CD with Creation product on it).

The main member of Tangerine was Mark Dumais, who had previously been a member of Crash with Kurt Ralske before the latter moved on to form (or create) Ultra Vivid Scene. Left on his ownsome, Dumais created the altogether poppy and more synthetic Tangerine and released one solitary single (this) and album before calling it a day. At the point of release "Sunburst" enjoyed strong evening airplay and an appearance on BBC2's "Snub" programme, so the fact that no further singles were released seems somewhat baffling in retrospect. Two factors may have combined to create the situation - Creation were often in precarious financial states during this period, and may have simply found the sales of both records too weak to bother continuing with any promotion. In addition to this factor, Dumais had AIDS and his health would deteriorate so badly that he passed away in May 1992, a mere few years after "Sunburst" emerged.

Looking back on it now, "Sunburst" is actually a supremely joyous piece of synthetic indie-pop, sounding like a blissed out and doped up Stock Aitken and Waterman protege wobbling down the stairs in a pie-eyed state. It's everything skewed pop in the indie sector was and still could be, if it wanted to. Creation released some truly horrendous records in the late eighties and very early nineties, many of them by bands who would never be heard from again, but this is far from being an obscurity to apologise for.

12. Loop - Arclite (Situation Two)

13. The Telescopes - To Kill A Slow Girl Walking (What Goes On)

14. Thee Hypnotics - Earth Blues (Situation Two)

(Sorry Chaps - I don't have the video for this one, and it doesn't seem to be up on YouTube either).