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.


  1. I really appreciate all your reviews of this series, takes me right back. I'm listening to the youtubes now, it could be Gary Crowley, GLR on a Sunday afternoon.

  2. Thanks Kev - I'm enjoying revisiting these tracks myself. 2016 has been a fairly grim year and there's no harm in a good wallow in the past now and then!

  3. A tiny pedantic correction: Tim Burgess's old band were called just The Electric Crayons, not The Electric Crayon Set (Northwich kid here). I have their single somewhere. Love the blog, by the way - had all these on vinyl but then stupidly sold them (for pennies) while a skint student. Keep up the good work :)

  4. That's a fair correction, sir. The Rubble LP is called "Electric Crayon Set" (I even have a copy in my collection) and Burgess's band were called The Electric Crayons, which sounds less good. I must have subconsciously improved on the band name over time...