Sunday, 22 October 2017

Indie Top 20 Volume 22 Tracks 16-20 - Garbage, Mansun, Done Lying Down, Supermodel, Perfume

16. Garbage - Subhuman (Mushroom)

Garbage's early career would probably have passed me by if it hadn't been for an unusually thick, heavy package arriving through my letterbox one day. Wondering whether it was a new record or an elaborate dirty bomb sent by the rugby boys in the university Conservative society, I opened it gingerly only to find a 7" single in a metal sleeve. I quickly glanced at the accompanying press release and learned that this was the latest project of Butch Vig, Nirvana's producer.

I was intrigued and attracted by the sleeve design, but I put it to one side in my listening pile anyway, among the lower priority singles. I actually wasn't a fan of Nirvana's "Nevermind" and assumed that this was likely to be another slice of American angst-rock. Contrary to the popular rock narrative, the rusty old grunge tap didn't just stop flowing out of respect after Cobain's death. All the worst second-division stragglers who had been picked up by record labels in 1993/4 continued to play to audiences of left-over hairies in every provincial town. I would get sent a brace of singles by new plaid-shirted bands every single week, and the vast majority were below par.

When I finally did put "Vow" on the turntable, though, I can remember every detail of where I was and how it made me feel. From that shimmering, disorientating opening to the messy effects-laden rush of guitars, to the fierce, gasping chorus, it sounded like an amalgamation of all the pop ideas I had loved growing up and was listening to at the time. The updated electronic twittering of "Virginia Plain", the insouciant pop stylings of Blondie, the soundscapes of Curve and the hard slap of the best, most aggressive bits of American college rock. I still love "Vow" dearly and while you never hear it played or talked about anymore, it's probably my favourite Garbage single.

As Garbage's career became more prominent, I began to develop a harmless post-adolescent crush on Shirley Manson, in common with thousands of others at the time. It wasn't just that she always looked spectacular in videos and photo shoots and was a charismatic frontwoman, it was also that she seemed incredibly complex and opinionated, and was usually on the right side of any given debate. All my friends picked up on my childish fancy and knew about it, and it seemed innocent enough. What could possibly go wrong? Well...

There is stuff in life that's simply not supposed to happen if you live in an unglamorous and ordinary town. Your weird daydreaming fantasies are not meant to become realities. When you're in Netto buying emergency toilet roll, for example, Renee Zellweger is not supposed to turn up in the same aisle looking for boxes of Mr Bloo toilet freshening blocks. When catching the ferry to Gosport to do a filing and data entry temp job, Zooey Deschanel is not supposed to be there as well on some kind of "underwhelming British waterways" jaunt. These aren't scenarios you should have to prepare for or think through in advance. Famous people are supposed to live in their own context, in their own world (back in the mid-nineties, I ran into the comedian Steve Punt on the steps of the Tate Gallery, and found even that faintly unreal at the time. What was he doing outside the television set looking all big?).

So while drinking in a very ordinary Portsmouth student pub, it's something of an understatement to say that I was somewhat taken aback when Garbage walked in. They were playing at the nearby Guildhall and seemed to be in need of cheap food and refreshment. Butch Vig strolled up confidently to the bar to get a round in, and returned to their table where Shirley Manson still had her hooded jacket on, seeming quite desperate to be ignored. A silence descended around my pub table. Everyone seemed to expect me to do something, for some reason. There was an unspoken but particularly sadistic glee in the air.

An energetic, over-enthusiastic, eccentric (and much loved) middle-aged Mancunian English Literature lecturer with a penchant for wearing seventies jackets was baffled by the fuss.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"Garbage have just walked in", I said.
"What? Is someone causing trouble?"
"No, GARBAGE the group. They're quite popular at the moment".
"Oh! Fantastic! I collect autographs of famous people, young man, I'll go over and have a word!"

"Eh, hello!" he apparently told them. "A young man over there told me you're very famous. In fact, he said you were Garbage, and I told him not to be so damn rude! Then he explained you were actually a very popular group. Please could I have your autographs for my collection? I collect autographs, you see."

They obliged, to which he continued "He's a top journalist at the NME, I'll have you know, and he'll probably want a word with you later on".

This wasn't true. It was an absurd claim and an absolute lie which would have been rumbled by everyone in seconds. Nonetheless, all my friend's eyes were on me, and everyone seemed to expect me to act on this ruse. So I did what anyone else would do in my position. I pretended I had to be somewhere else quite urgently and left the pub. To be honest, besides feeling under pressure I was also weirded out by the absurdity of it all.

So I never did meet Shirley Manson - if I had, perhaps I could give you a better ending to that shaggy dog story - but I followed Garbage's career closely and felt that they remained one of those bands who seemed to be inspired by a huge brace of ideas but had no obvious peers. Managing to attract fans from a wide cross-section of the music world, their popularity seemed partly bouyed up by the fact that they wrote damn good pop songs when they wanted to ("Stupid Girl" being the pinnacle of their achievements in that respect) but also that the multitude of influences they carried with them acted as a beacon to so many different people. You were as likely to rub up against a Sisters of Mercy fan at a Garbage gig as you were someone who loved Pulp or Nirvana.

Their second single "Subhuman", however, is probably one of my least favourites, and that's why I've dodged talking about it until the final furlong here. Whereas their other work succeeds by seamlessly incorporating lots of seemingly conflicting ideas, "Subhuman" is a pretty straightforward slice of threatening industrial rock. Listenable, enjoyable, but so far away from their best work that it's a huge pity this will be the only time we'll have a chance to discuss the band.

But anyway, you know the rest. And I still have that copy of "Vow" in my record box about four feet from where I'm presently typing this, and no, it's not for sale.

17. Mansun - Take It Easy Chicken (Sci Fi Hi Fi)

While Mansun's later material caused them to become an enormo-cult group with some very strange and obsessive fans, their earliest singles slipped out on their own label and were the stuff of frothing magazine reviews and late night radio play, but not a lot of attention or success.

I have to admit that at this point of their career, I didn't quite "get" them. Both this and the low-key follow-up single "Flourella/ Skin Up Pin Up" seemed more about the force of their personalities than the ideas they had. Squalling guitar riffs met Draper's drawled vocals, and while it was indie-rock with attitude, everything they produced just seemed like a slab of sneering noise - like glam without the spaces, or punk rock without the rawness. These early singles were relentless and didn't play with a very broad sonic palette.

Nonetheless, that turned out to be exactly what some people were looking for, and the pied pipers of Mansun busily toured the country picking up more and more fans as they went. After the success of the "Attack of the Grey Lantern" LP, it all eventually built up to the magnificently mad "Six" LP which I have to be in the right mood to listen to, but was certainly one of the most daring releases of the post-Britpop period.

18. Done Lying Down - Chronic Offender (Immaterial)

Done Lying Down seem to have slipped out of the history books of indie and alternative music, which is odd and unfair. Solid John Peel favourites and a constant press presence in the nineties made them seem, for a brief period, like the most prominent underground punk band on the circuit. They also managed to predate the sounds which would appeal enormously to skate-kids later in the decade.

"Just A Misdeameanour" was probably their finest and most appreciated single, but "Chronic Offender" gives you a strong sense of their power as well. It's a firestorm of a record with fat, beefy basslines and sudden eruptions of fury. Sophisticated it isn't, but the adrenalin on offer here acts as a fair indication of what you would have experienced at one of their many club gigs.

19. Supermodel - Penis Size and Cars (Fire)

Yet another group in this segment of the compilation who make me feel as if I'm reviewing an edition of "Snakebite City" rather than "Indie Top 20". Supermodel were a proudly lo-fi group from Staines who produced a multitude of records on miniscule budgets. Having more in common with the emerging sounds of the likes of Urusei Yatsura than the biggest acts of the day, they signposted a direction the indie scene would eventually take once Britpop flagged out.

"Penis Size and Cars" is two minutes of punchy noise, cheap but very potent indeed. Their live gigs were impressive enough to earn them many enthusiastic reviews, with Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds being so charmed by their racket he offered them a support slot on a tour.

Theaudience later covered this track as a B-side, proving that respect came from plenty of other quarters too.

20. Perfume - Yesterday Follows You (Aromasound)

Once again, Perfume prove here that weaving a web of considered, moody guitar led melodies didn't necessarily sell records in the mid-nineties. "Yesterday Follows You" creeps and drifts along like a subtle piece of mod rock, complete with shimmering freakbeat guitars in the chorus. The ghost of Steve Marriott was probably listening with interest (and just as he recorded parts of "The Universal" in his back garden, Perfume here seem to have shot the video in a back garden instead).

Jo Whiley apparently also appears on this record on "handclap" duties, which I'd be willing to bet is her only session credit ever. Rumours that Steve Lamacq played fingerbells on their debut LP have unfortunately not been confirmed as yet.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Volume 22 Tracks 11-15 - Dubstar, The Charlatans, Verve, Ruby, Belly

11. Dubstar - Stars (Food)

While I've been writing this blog, I've occasionally encountered tracks I haven't properly listened to for years, which give me an enormous proustian rush. Memories of places, times, drunken nights, and songs leaking out of Argos purchased clock radios in the morning in cheap rented rooms... these almost overpower the songs themselves. I was slightly surprised to find that "Stars", which was eventually Dubstar's biggest hit, was one of these tracks. It feels like something which was absolutely everywhere for six months, then nowhere at all, forever locking it to a specific time in my life.

The group's first LP "Disgraceful" was a steady and constant seller throughout 1995, peaking at number thirty in the album charts but hanging around forever. It attracted a diverse audience, with pop listeners, Dance music fans and indie kids alike having copies tucked away in their CD collections, and "Stars" did an enormous amount to help its status. Filled with the same dark, late night winter atmosphere as Sneaker Pimps "6 Overground", the track is subtle and slippery, and moody as fuck. Sarah Blackwood's vocals manage to be both sweet and bleakly agitated ("for my life, my God I'm singing") and it's actually a rather brilliant piece of pop music. The Pet Shop Boys at their most despondent are a better reference point for Dubstar here than any of their peers on the indie circuit.

Sarah Blackwood has been a continued presence on the music scene since thanks to her involvement with the cultishly successful Client, but I can't help but wonder if "Disgraceful" deserves a thorough reissue treatment. It was a constant, misty background presence throughout 1995 and deserves better than to sit in the cut-price CD section of Fopp Records.

12. The Charlatans -  Just Lookin' (Beggars Banquet)

The Charlatans resurrection into the mainstream of British rock and pop continued with "Just Lookin", which was a modest hit in 1995. Most of their material at this time consisted of straight ahead groovers which could just have easily been recorded by The Rolling Stones or The Faces in the early seventies. All of these lacked the moody, psychedelic nature of their earliest material, but it was impossible not to be charmed by the force of it all. Tim Burgess's grinning visage in the video for "Just Lookin'" says it all - they were a group in love with the sounds they were making and the swagger of their ideas, and only too happy to jettison their darker side for awhile.

Within a year, they would be back in the top ten again, the only early nineties baggy band to actually gain ground during the Britpop era rather than drift away into cultdom or irrelevance.

13. The Verve - On Your Own (Hut)

By the point of their third album "A Northern Soul", The Verve's transformation from psychedelic warriors into a band producing records of epic, classic moodiness was complete. While huge critical acclaim was on their side, sales surprisingly weren't - this is astonishing, given that all the other components which eventually made them enormous seemed to be in place. In particular, "History" from the LP sounded like it should have been an easy top ten hit. It was due to these failings on Hut and Virgin's part that Liam Gallagher apparently swore at a Virgin executive at a corporate do, sneering at him that he "couldn't even fucking break The Verve".

I have to wonder if it was entirely Hut or their parent company Virgin's fault, or other forces were to blame. "On Your Own" was a minor hit at the time, but its threadbare moodiness sounds distinctly un-1995. At this point, the Britpop knees-up was still ongoing, and hadn't quite given way to the subtle, epic melancholy which would dominate the later part of the nineties. The Verve often sounded wonderful and worthy, and "On Your Own" is a prime example of how touching they could be, but it didn't really cut through to the public's consciousness amidst the noise and pandemonium. Soon, all that would change and "Urban Hymns" would go on to be one of the biggest selling albums of all time in Britain.

14. Ruby - Paraffin (Red Snapper Mix) (Creation)

Lesley Rankine has been on this blog once before, albeit under a different guise and making an incredibly different noise. Silverfish were snappy, squatty Camden punks who briefly bullied the indie scene in 1993. Ruby, on the other hand, were a trip-hop project who slipped out almost unnoticed, despite some airplay and unlikely appearances on programmes such as "Later With Jools Holland" (where Silverfish were almost certainly never going to end up).

The original version of "Paraffin" is an atmospheric and vaguely threatening piece of work. The Red Snapper mix included here is jazzy, complex, and unbelievably good. Jittering and winding its way around the original melody, it showed there was considerably more to Lesley Rankine than thrashed guitars and the Camden underground - this is sophisticated and fascinating work which really should have been appreciated more at the time than it was.

I wish I knew where my copy of the Ruby LP "Salt Peter" had disappeared to. I owned both that and the remix LP this stemmed from, and they seem to have gone walkabout in the countless house moves I've undergone since.

15. Belly - Seal My Fate (4AD)

While Belly's status had slipped somewhat since their LP "Stars" had reached number one on the album charts in 1993, they remained a much-loved group among those who hadn't quite abandoned all American alternative music at the height of Britpop.

The wonderful "Now They'll Sleep" became their biggest UK hit in 1995, reaching number 28, and "Seal My Fate" managed to worm its way into the Top 40 as well. Epic, sweeping and featuring one of Tanya Donnelly's most convincing vocal performances, it comes dangerously close to the kind of commercial rock peddled by Alanis Morissette later in the decade, without quite losing its rougher or more unusual edges. It was the group's last single before breaking up, and it's difficult not to regard this as being an odd decision - if they had chosen to taken a break and reconvened a couple of years later, there's every possibility Belly could have become a much bigger act.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Volume 22 Tracks 6-10 - Ash, The Wannadies, Powder, Heavy Stereo, Intastella

6. Ash - Kung Fu (Infectious)

The anarchic, roaring stomp of "Kung Fu" felt like the moment Ash stopped being a fringe cult concern or a teen punk fanzine act, and began to scream through the speakers of evening radio like a serious proposition. It's a full-throttle delight, feeling chaotic enough to sound like a possible accident, but craftily hooky enough to cause listeners like me to suspect that the group were on their way up to bigger and better things.

It feels shorter than its allotted two-and-a-half minutes somehow, seeming like a peculiar minute-long rush of ideas all flashing past each other in an overwhelming fashion. It's not a work of melodic sophistication, as some of their later singles would try to be, but it lives up to its subject matter by feeling like several well-aimed chops to the body.

7. The Wannadies - Blister In The Sun (Indolent)

A somewhat odd inclusion on the compilation, this. It featured as the Swedish indie-pop sensations  flipside to the "You and Me Song", and seems to be another example of Beechwood picking a B-side over the more appreciated main track. A cover of the Violent Femmes song, it manages to jettison a lot of the charming lo-fi scrappiness of the original and replace it with a hard, rocking edge. For many listeners, that will probably cause it to lose an enormous amount of its original appeal - for me personally, it tightens up some of the original ideas and gives it a sheen which can potentially feel more appealing depending on what mood I'm in.

For such a cultish song, "Blister In The Sun" seems to have been covered by every bedroom boy or girl with a spare acoustic guitar and been on every advert and trailer on Earth now. In 1995, though, it was still a reasonably respectable, niche underground track before the floodgates burst open.

As for The Wannadies, they were huge in their native Sweden but never quite managed to have the major success predicted for them in the UK. A scattering of respectable but moderate chart positions later, they finally split up in 2009, but occasionally regroup for one off shows. While a lot of mid-tier Britpop bands around this period released cynical and plastic sounding bouncy songs with advertising jingle melodies, The Wannadies had a more intricate pop craft at their centre which was actually very welcome at the time, and there's no question they deserved at least a couple of bigger hits here.

8. Powder - Afrodisiac (Parkway)

Powder (often the group the entire Internet splutters "WHO?!" about whenever the BBC repeat their "Britpop Now" programme) were a peculiarly ever-present band throughout 1995. Signed by the PR gurus Savidge and Best to their Parkway label and fronted by Pearl Lowe, there were deeply held suspicions among some listeners that the band were mere "scenesters", hyped beyond measure and given opportunities above their rightful station. Lowe hit back by saying that they were signed by Parkway because they were "too uncommercial" to be on a major.

Unfortunately, I must admit to being one of the cynics. Powder are responsible for one of the most awful live music reviews I've ever written - awful in the sense that I absolutely lambasted the group and also awful in that, as with many scathing reviews, it reflected worse on me than the group themselves. I've long since shredded it in shame, but the irritation I felt around Powder had been building for some time, and peaked with a live show which was essentially a competent, pedestrian presentation of basic punk ideas delivered with smug arrogance and self-belief. Pearl Lowe strutted and pranced around, grinning from ear to ear, while delivering songs like "Afrodisiac" which sounded suspiciously similar to a lot of unsigned band demos I'd been hearing around the same time. Staring aghast at the band right at the top of the gig bill, I couldn't understand why them, or why now. 1995 wasn't short of chancers, of course. Menswear were often regarded as the top criminals in this respect, but what's often been overlooked since (even by some of their members) is that Menswear actually had at least three or four good tracks to their name. Powder didn't.

Listening to "Afrodisiac" again now, I still find myself cringing and getting increasingly angry when I hear the "It's a wrap/ take it back/ do ya feel crackerjack" chorus. Glued together in a mend-and-make-do fashion and then presented as the next big noise, it feels hollow - neither adrenalising, nor imaginative, nor witty, it's just another slice of slightly disappointing indie stomp.

Of course, far from brimming over with smugness and confidence, we've all since learned that Pearl Lowe ended up with serious drug addiction issues during this period. Sometimes it's difficult to remember that the stage persona in front of you is not necessarily the person as they really are, and nor does it reflect their self-belief or general state of mind at the time. Pearl Lowe's later musical work was also far more considered and much less scrappy than this, and Powder never really did make a proper album - so getting hot under the collar about their shortcomings really was a waste of my and everyone else's time.

9. Heavy Stereo - Sleep Freak (Creation)

Heavy Stereo were unfortunate enough to get signed to Creation right at the point when the music press were treating Alan McGee - aka The Man Who Signed Oasis - as an A&R guru who knew exactly where the action was. Getting news and gossip column inches purely on the basis of being the label's hottest new property, they were never really given a fair hearing, with opening expectations being far beyond reasonable.

When I first listened to "Sleep Freak" myself, my reaction was one of pure disappointment that the group clearly weren't the next big thing. As time wore on, however, its incessant glam stomp and power-driving chords won me over. In common with a number of other groups at this point, it half-inches ideas from a variety of sources, most notably T Rex and John Lennon's "Instant Karma", but manages to present something which sounds punchy and relatively fresh.

Heavy Stereo would never become proper contenders, and sure as hell weren't the "next Oasis", but frontman Gem Archer would later join the line-up of that band, which seems like a pretty reasonable runner-up prize.

10. Intastella - The Night (Planet 3)

Intastella had been around since the baggy era, and at the height of that movement were as critically acclaimed as many of their better known peers. Fronted by the confident, glitzy and glamorous Stella Grundy, tracks like "Dream Some Paradise" were minor club hits, but not big enough for their parent MCA Records, who were quick to drop them when baggy died.

The group are genuinely worthy of greater investigation if you haven't bothered already, and I'm saying this mainly because this cover of the Frankie Valli Northern Soul classic is a total misfire, and we won't get the chance to discuss them again. The original is filled to the brim with brassy flourishes, a rich atmosphere, creeping basslines and dramatic vocals, which are here replaced with a somewhat minimal electronic backing and slightly laissez-faire sounding vocals. Reduced to the basic kernal of its ideas, the band unfortunately "lose more than they found" and reduce it to a pulsing stomp - it's a good example of how a fantastic song can lose almost all of its appeal once its arrangement is radically altered.

Nonetheless, it acted as the group's fourth Top 75 entry, reaching number 60. They also continued until 1997, outlasting many of their peers.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Volume 22 Tracks 1-5 - Boo Radleys, Echobelly, Sleeper, Julian Cope, Teenage Fanclub

Format: CD/ cassette
Year of Release: 1995

The sleeve design of "Indie Top 20" changes again, this time to incorporate some subbuteo players on a bright green background. If the earliest volumes emerged with images of paper clips and thick-rimmed NHS glasses, the final volumes spluttered out with lots of retro and lad-mag friendly pictures of reassuring boyhood things. The final "Best Of" volume would (as we'll see) use tankards of ale on its sleeve, and Volume 23 toy racetrack cars. You can read into this whatever you like, but if the first LPs seemed to brag that indie music operated on the outskirts and predicted the future, the final ones seemed to be trying to tell us that indieland was a post-modern world of colourful old ideas belched back up as pop ate itself - music to relive your childhood fantasies to with your best drunken chums.

And that really depended on where you were looking, of course. There were numerous bursts of awkward psychedelia and seering bits of indie lo-fi creeping their way into the top ten indie chart by 1995, besides the stuff Chris Evans was happy to play on his Radio One breakfast show. Instead of trying to compete with the numerous major label funded indie compilations around at this point, Beechwood could have chosen to plough their own furrow by hoovering up a lot more of the critically acclaimed Peel and Evening Session bands who weren't making as much mainstream noise. The kids with hairgrips and duffle bags were back (back! Back!) and growing in number - now might have been a good time to differentiate and go back to basics. Other labels like Fierce Panda were beginning to push forward in this respect.

Sophisticated, intricately arranged alternative music was also alive and well thanks to the growing stature of the likes of Tindersticks, Jack, My Life Story, and shortly Divine Comedy - there was an entire Scott Walker/ Nick Cave/ French orchestral pop inspired division of indie which got plenty of press at the time, but barely seems acknowledged as any kind of nineties development now (if you haven't heard Jack, by the way, do yourself a favour and buy their first two LPs now). None of these bands would ever find their way on to the series.

Volume 22 is the penultimate "proper" Indie Top 20 LP, and is something of a compromise, filled to the brim with mostly mid-table commercial indie rock, only some of which flies. Certainly from an historical point of view, though, a lot of it has become fascinating since, but it creates an unreliable picture of the scene as a whole, and smacks of desperation. My singles box at home felt far more exciting in 1995 than this.

1. Boo Radleys - Wake Up Boo (Creation)

And with a big fat parp, the Radleys open things in a celebratory fashion. "Wake Up Boo" has become many things to the group since - an albatross and a regular royalty cheque chief among them, I suspect - and it's also become one of the most overplayed songs of the era, to the extent that trying to listen to it afresh is near impossible. Shortly after its release its jolly brassiness soundtracked Radio One Roadshows, adverts for Virgin Radio, BBC preview footage, sports footage and plenty of other things besides. Listening again, though, my first thought is that the opening bars of the single always did sound like library music which could be entitled "Celebratory Music For An Evening Quiz Show", so the fact it became a media backing track as well as an effervescent, ever-present piece of genuinely appreciated chart music shouldn't be that surprising.

While critics at the time made inevitable comparisons to the Beach Boys, "Wake Up Boo" doesn't sound a jot like anything Brian Wilson would have made, even in his earliest days. Its foot-kicking, vocal harmony infested jolliness resembles The Four Seasons at their most sprightly if anything, and the band confessed that they actually came up with the idea for the record after listening to Take That's version of "Could It Be Magic". Really, this is the group trying to write a pop hit after years of being a cult concern, and finding they were in a position to pull it off.

There was so much goodwill towards the Boos at the time that nobody resented them for trying to earn a reasonable living, and I think that possibly lead to "Wake Up Boo" getting a free critical pass it doesn't entirely deserve. Lyrically vague and scattershot - explanations vary, some arguing it's supposed to be about two lovers, one in some kind of LSD trip love affair with the world, the other dour and cynical, others that it's about the change from summer to autumn - and filled to the brim with the plastic bounce of a cheap Woolworths football, it's easy to tire of. It's very much an indie group's idea of what a pop song sounds like; all skip and froth and no conflicting emotional pull (the "Death of summer"/ "You have to put the death in everything" aspect makes it sound as if they tried to cover that base, but lacked the experience to pull it off, and as such it glides past almost unnoticed.) In short, "Could It Be Magic" performs the job much more satisfactorily, having a bit of groove and swagger in its hips. If you're in the wrong mood, "Wake Up Boo" can be a charmless caffeinated stomp by comparison, the noise of the office optimist screaming "Mor-NING!" loudly in your face.

It also put the Radleys in a difficult position. Listening to Radio One one day, I overheard a Roadshow host talking to a small nine year old girl. "We've got the Boo Radleys here today, do you like them?" he gushed. "No!" snapped the petulant girl immediately, clearly unwilling to spend the next six months being mocked by her schoolfriends. "Wake Up Boo" served a purpose and raised the group's profile to incredible heights, but the group didn't look or behave like pop stars (or even want to spend the rest of their careers writing pop songs) and were ill suited to the long-term task. Future singles from the number one parent LP "Wake Up" (a more diverse and satisfying work than you'd realise from the choice of singles alone, actually) performed better than their previous 45s, but none reached the top twenty, with the follow-up "Find The Answer Within" struggling to number 37 as it remained overshadowed by their previous release. You could have choked on the dust the group threw up while running back to the drawing board.

2. Echobelly - Great Things (Fuave)

Echobelly, on the other hand, released something that sounded like "an ambitious media studies graduate's CV set to jolly music", as one particularly harsh critic dubbed "Great Things" at the time. Again, this single makes the cardinal error of believing that a combination of effervescence and optimism, plus the magical ingredient of self-belief, equals pop heaven. It usually doesn't, and pop songwriting is often a far more complex business than that. It yearns, doubts and questions and wonders even at its most million-selling, recognising that most listeners are equally complex, and need those twists and ambiguities to hang on to.

"Great Things" sounds like nothing so much as an overlong advertising jingle for Sonya Madan's personal credentials. The spirit of optimism which shone on the 1995-6 period allowed stuff like this to appear acceptable, but the cold, harsh light of 2017 makes it feel faintly absurd. You wrote an indie-pop song bullet-pointing your personal aspirations? WHY? Even Courtney Love would balk in disbelief at that. Like a lot of Echobelly singles, this feels quaint beyond measure now.

3. Sleeper - Vegas (Indolent)

Conversely, I enjoy "Vegas" way more now than I did at the point of its release. It's easy to write this off as being another sketchy character-portrait, but unlike "Inbetweener", it has a real darkness and warmth to its heart. Leaning back on the standard mid-life crisis "now or never" tale of a man who believes he can become a star, it could choose to be gently mocking, but it's oddly tender instead. Doubtless Sleeper had come close enough to defeat themselves to touch this story with the respect it deserved.

This time, the arrangement drops in yearning string patterns which recall the likes of Welsh melodramatists Jack while never quite taking that route full-on - it instead pulls in two directions, with Wener's vocals frothing over her protagonist's career change, while the group keen and pull the song in a less optimistic direction. The message is clear. The poor old sod is doomed, a deluded and over-excited soul set up to fail. He's probably not going to even get laid in Las Vegas, much less become the next Tom Jones there.

When she wanted to, Louise Wener could actually do this sort of thing exquisitely well. "Vegas" is double-edged and detailed in a way that "Wake Up Boo" and "Great Things" utterly struggle to be, despite being less of a hit in the process (it crawled to number 33 at the time, a comparative flop if weighed up against their later, bigger hits). There's both Britpop kitsch and irony as well as a beating heart somewhere in here, and at this stage in the compilation, that comes as some relief.

Regrettably, though, at least some of this song - not least the occasional cry of "bingo" - seems to have inspired the awful "Bingo" by Catch some years later, often deemed to be the point at which Britpop officially died.

4. Julian Cope - Try Try Try (Echo)

And thank all the pagan deities for Copey. By this point in his career, some suspected him of being in a second slump. The first occurred in the eighties after the Teardrop Explodes demise, the second after he was dropped by Island for being "too old" (apparently) and found himself on the somewhat unfortunately named indie label Echo, just shortly before the Bunnymen themselves were getting back on their feet again.

His debut LP for that label "20 Mothers" is uneven, but when it peaks, it reveals the singer at his most immediately powerful. "Try Try Try" is a yearning cry relating to a family dispute which is far from "The Living Years" or "No Son Of Mine", instead taking the idea down to a bluesy accessibility. Driven by the grinding organ chords in the background, "Try Try Try" sees Cope thrash out in frustration and hopelessness, before taking the track to one of his most furiously simple but effective choruses since "World Shut Your Mouth". It was Radio One playlisted and his first minor hit in some years, meaning that his brief stint on Echo wasn't entirely a bad thing. By the time the game was up in 1996, though, he became a much more marginal figure in rock music, issuing music on his own Head Heritage label as well as writing a number of brilliant books.

Cope really should be up there with Mark E Smith or Nick Cave as a constant and major figure in British alternative music, and I sense that only his own lack of willingness to fully engage with the so-called "industry" at large stands in the way.

5. Teenage Fanclub - Sparky's Dream (Creation)

From the almost universally acclaimed return-to-form LP "Grand Prix", "Sparky's Dream" really does sound like The Fannies had lost the indie scrappiness that (usually charmingly) littered their earliest LPs and had honed their sound to something very close to perfect 70s power pop.

"Sparky's Dream" is both fantastically performed and engaging three-minute FM rock, something you find yourself doubting is in any way melodically original, checking the chord patterns for cribbed riffs as it goes. The group were really firing on all cylinders by this point, and still manage to launch great new music to this day. If the "Indie Top 20" series were still a "thing", they'd still be on there, checking in faithfully from Volume 10 to Volume 88.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Volume 21 Tracks 16-20 - Blaggers ITA, Pop Will Eat Itself, Wolfgang Press, Ween, The Cramps

16. Blaggers ITA - Thrill Her (With A Gun) (Damaged Goods)

Blaggers ITA were originally an underground punk band with close ties to the anti-fascist movement who steadily rose to prominence as the cold realities of early nineties Britain bit. Harsh and hard-edged, they nonetheless gradually evolved to incorporate a danceable element to their sound, and found themselves on Parlophone from 1993-94. Opinionated and uncompromising, it doesn't feel like much of an exaggeration to say that it felt as if they'd gatecrashed the mainstream of the music industry. This afforded them some truly memorable moments on television (not least their appearance on "The Word") and mainstream exposure bands of their ilk tended not to usually get.

Naturally, this couldn't and didn't last. Frontman Matty Blagg allegedly punched Melody Maker journalist Dave Simpson in the face after Simpson had stated that in his opinion, Matty could never reform his fascist past. This followed a press interview where Matty revealed that he had once been involved in the racist group British Movement prior to being converted to left wing politics while in prison. Following this incident, press and record label support eroded and the group were essentially treated as lepers.

It would be tempting to debate the whys and wherefores of the incident, and whether fascists can ever truly "reform" - in my view, they can - but since the situation was never legally resolved at the time, it seems foolhardy to start examining the wounds again from twenty years distance. We're really not going to get the answers we want.

"Thrill Her (With A Gun)" was released on Damaged Goods shortly after the group were dropped by EMI, and still managed to perform convincingly in the indie charts. Filled with "Blockbuster" styled police sirens, samples, shuffling rhythms and husky vocals, it features the group sounding even more Clash influenced than usual - or should that be Big Audio Dynamite influenced? - and cuts a dramatic chase. The EMI era line-up of the band fell to pieces not long after this, but it's proof that they had a genuine, street savvy edge the vast majority of posturing indie bands lacked.

17. Pop Will Eat Itself - Familus Horriblius (HIA WYG mix) (Infectious)

And God knows why PWEI are back on this volume, since their final single had long since been released, and this particular track originally appeared on the flip side of "RSVP" in 1993. Clearly somebody at Beechwood thought the group were still a big enough pull to be worth including in the tracklisting.

It's an interesting remix of the track, but it's not really any way to say goodbye. It's a squelchy, throbbing, tribal sounding version which probably went down a storm at various crusty squat parties at the time, but sounds strangely dated and quaint now. From it, though, it is just about possible to hear the origins of Bentley Rhythm Ace emerging, who would go on to push their way close to the forefront of British big beat culture.

As for PWEI, the group had been weaving their spell throughout the alternative scene since Volume One, and their resilience is something to wonder at, but by 1995 their time was up.

18. The Wolfgang Press - Going South (4AD)

And this was also Wolfgang Press's last hurrah. "Going South" is a sleazy sounding piece of shuffling, organ-driven funk which is just about groovy enough to persuade limbs towards the dancefloor - but that's possibly the problem. Whereas their previous material had contained angular and challenging post-punk influences, this is really just the work of another indie band who had found some sensual disco albums in the local charity shop and decided to cop all the best riffs. Nothing about it sounds vital or essential, and unsurprisingly, it didn't do much to expand the group's existing audience.

The group's last LP, the appropriately titled "Funky Little Demons", is seldom hailed by anyone as a prime moment, and the group disappeared without trace not long afterwards.

19. Ween - Voodoo Lady (Flying Nun)

Ween are a prime example of a cult indie band who split audiences completely down the middle. In a manner similar to Cardiacs - while sounding absolutely nothing like them - their awkward, whacked-out and occasionally absurd or sarcastic takes on rock and country music have caused many projectiles to come hurtling their way from angry live audiences. Far from putting them off their stride, this hostility seems to have fanned the flames for the group, who have gone on to gain appreciative cult audiences seemingly in every port in every country.

As for me, I'm afraid I'm firmly in the camp who doesn't quite get what they're trying to do or indeed why they're trying to do it - but then again, I never got on with Frank Zappa either. "Voodoo Lady" is probably the moment they enjoyed their biggest success in the UK (though their country records "Piss Up A Rope" and "You Were The Fool" came close) and is a staccato piece of jerky, lo-fi rock which recalls Devo being unexpectedly booked to do a session on "MTV Unplugged". It's a deeply divisive single, and one which may or may not have been an influence on The League of Gentleman's comedy glam number of the same name. Who on earth could say?

20. The Cramps - Ultra Twist (Creation)

The garage rock and roll of The Cramps feels as if it's been around forever, and indeed the group only split in 2009. Alan McGee's love of the group ensured that they had a presence on Creation Records in the mid-nineties, where they did nonetheless feel faintly out of place.

"Ultra Twist" features the group doing what they always did, with no shortage of aplomb. There are no shocks or surprises here, and their slamming, bluesy and slightly camp grooves still manage to feel faintly subversive. Nonetheless, their presence here is strangely anomalous - had they been placed next to Guana Batz on Volume One of "Indie Top 20", nobody would have been surprised. But how many people really bought this compilation in 1995 partly because The Cramps were in the tracklisting?

We didn't have the phrase "heritage acts" to describe groups like The Cramps in the mid-nineties, and if we'd tagged them as such I'm sure it would have been met with some mild violence, but nonetheless they were a twenty-year old group with a loyal audience who really weren't interested in compilations focussing on new indie bands. Their presence here acted a gentle reminder to youthful naifs that they still existed, but probably didn't win many new converts to their twisted cause.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Volume 21 Tracks 11-15 - Whiteout, Supergrass, Ash, 60ft Dolls, Bandit Queen

11. Whiteout - Jackie's Racing (Silvertone)

"Da-vid!" cried my mother in disbelief when she heard me listening to this, "have you started listening to seventies teenybop stuff now?!"

I - sort of - get where she was coming from on this, and can also completely understand why Tim Millington chose to place it next to Ride's "I Don't Know Where It Comes From" in the tracklisting. Both have a wistful, breezy seventies styled pop production, although I suspect Whiteout were using The Faces rather than the Bay City Rollers as their sonic template.

It wasn't just my Mum who wanted Whiteout's guts for garters, either. The music press were bafflingly savage towards the group, frequently focussing on their very young age and inexperience as reasons to attack them, while praising Supergrass for precisely the same characteristics on the other hand. Some of Whiteout's material was a whirlwind of energy, the likes of "Detroit" in particular rivalling Oasis's earliest work for attitude and force of personality (indeed, Whiteout co-headlined a tour with them).

"Jackie's Racing" was Whiteout's peak mainstream moment, and is perhaps atypical of the rest of their output, but is nonetheless a solid pop song with many fantastic melodic flourishes and twanging guitar work. With its lyrics focussed on a girl (played by actress Caroline Catz in the video, later of "Doc Martin" fame) enjoying her "kicks" and "teenage fun" who "wears tight clothes that don't quite fit", it's hard to take the song overly seriously or get emotionally involved in it. However, its bouyant innocence does act as a tonic, and it acts as one of those all-too-rare examples of a very young band being able to communicate their enthusiasm and zeal in an infectious way.

Whiteout never did really become properly famous, though, even at the height of Britpop when everything should have been in their favour. Their debut album "Bite It" (which bizarrely left off many of their best known singles) received a muted critical and commercial reception. Singer Andrew Caldwell left the group not long after its release, and their follow-up LP "Big Wow" in 1998 failed to attract much attention. They rank as one of the era's most bafflingly marginal groups.

12. Supergrass - Caught By The Fuzz (Parlophone)

Speak of the devil... Most of Supergrass last appeared on Volume 16 of this series as The Jennifers, a rather naive teenage indie band who could on occasion sound slightly like Whiteout at their most wistful. By the time "Caught By The Fuzz" emerged, however, it was clear that they had morphed into a group of some wit and ferocity.

I don't intend to sound disparaging when I say that I laughed my head off when I first heard "Caught By The Fuzz". It sounded like a group of naughty seventeen year old boys trying to write lyrics like a wittier, more interesting version of Jimmy Pursey while Keith Moon played drums in the corner. A small part of me doubts that "Caught By The Fuzz" was ever supposed to actually be as amusing as it turned out. The frantic, panicked delivery of Gaz's vocals suggest that it was originally written as a cathartic exercise after he had his collar felt (he has confirmed that the lyrics were based on true experience) which only seem amusing if you're sufficiently removed from the situation. His delivery of "Who sold you the blow/ WELL IT WAS......... NO-ONE I KNOW!" and "if only your father could see you now!" create little visual snapshots of an eighties teenage kitchen sink drama shown on Channel 4 in the early afternoon. The music behind them, on the other hand, is so pile-driving and determined it sweeps you along effortlessly.

It would have been easy to dismiss Supergrass as some kind of NWONW one-single wonders were it not for the flipside to this, "Strange Ones", which appeared largely unchanged on the number one "I Should Coco" LP. There was clearly much more to the group than punkish melodrama about being caught with naughty cigarettes, and while the group always did have a penchant for playful silliness (as "Alright" would later prove) that's often caused them to be overlooked by casual listeners who have failed to absorb some of their more mature, developed and occasionally psychedelic work. Without exaggeration, Supergrass were one of the last truly great bands to emerge during the Britpop rush, as their superb debut LP and follow-up "In It For The Money" both go to enormous lengths to prove.

13. Ash - Uncle Pat (Infectious)

More teenagers with attitude. Prior to this moment, Ash were mostly known for their heads-down, no-nonsense punk approach, with debut single "Jack Names The Planets" having both a determined amphetamine charge to its sound combined with fluffy, innocent almost nursery rhyme melodies.

"Uncle Pat" is much more laidback and sombre in its tone, but can't quite shake the innocent edge the band had until this point, with simple, chiming guitar lines and marching rhythms. Focusing on the tale of a recently departed relative, it seems like a slightly personal and melancholy moment for the band which acts as an innocent garage-punk prayer rather than something to excite audiences on the national pub circuit.

Ash would obviously go from strength to strength from this point, gaining benefits from Britpop and continuing into the late nineties as a group who enjoyed a certain degree of popularity among provincial rockers and the kind of skate-punk kids you saw in the local shopping centre every weekend. They remain a going concern to this day, even if their star has waned somewhat in the present decade.

14. 60ft Dolls - Happy Shopper (Townhill)

Unlike most of the bands we've dealt with on this entry, at least one member of 60ft Dolls had something of a significant previous history. Lead singer Richard Parfitt had previously been involved in the eighties mod group The Truth as their bass player, and had even had a prominent stint in the largely unknown Welsh mod group The Colours. The latter had a ripping and largely unknown single out in 1983 called "The Dance", which can be heard over at my "Left and to the Back" blog.

Whereas The Colours and The Truth tended to have a bit of a swing about their work, 60ft Dolls tended to favour a rough, tearing aggression, and that can clearly be heard in "Happy Shopper". It junks anything approaching a groove overboard and instead sounds like a furious, murky hybrid of NWONW and grunge ideas.  Whereas 60ft Dolls would release some great singles - "Alison's Room" and "Stay" among them - "Happy Shopper" is unfortunately a track that, to me at least, is a giant tantrum which comes and goes without leaving any major impression. Doubtless this sounded wonderful live, and as a single it has energy to spare but no real stand-out hooks or defining characteristics.

15. Bandit Queen - Give It To The Dog (Playtime)

Bandit Queen were formed in 1992 by vocalist Tracy Godding, who had previously been a member of the almost entirely forgotten early nineties baggy group Swirl (who, for what it's worth, featured on another Beechwood indie compilation "Forever Changing", but never found a place in this series).

Despite their presence on the roster of the relatively low-key and cash-strapped Playtime label, Bandit Queen clearly had the budget to swamp regional music journalists with promo records and CDs of their work and also tended to feature in numerous fanzines throughout this era. Mainstream music press appreciation was harder to come by, however, and the group seemed to forever be "bubbling under" - the subject of many brief live reviews but no interview spreads.

"Give It To The Dog" is a walloping piece of fat, distorted, heavy riffola which owes slightly more to the American underground than the dominant trends of 1995, though, and it's possibly not surprising they failed to find a way through. For all that, it's an interesting listen and Godding's vocals have a compelling force of personality, giving the track an edge it might otherwise have lacked.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Volume 21 Tracks 6-10 - Radiohead, AC Acoustics, Spiritualized, Suede, Ride

6. Radiohead - My Iron Lung (Parlophone)

Acting as the first single from the legendary "The Bends", it would be tempting to revise history and suggest that "My Iron Lung" was a hotly anticipated and much loved single on its release. In fact, the reception it received got Thom Yorke's goat so much that he could barely contain his contempt for music critics during promotional duties. In one audio interview I was sent by a PR company to promote the single's release, Yorke was asked "It is quite similar to 'Creep' isn't it?"
"Yes!" Yorke is heard to splutter sarcastically. "It has guitars and drums on it! It's exactly like 'Creep'!" (you have to wonder why he gave everyone bait by including the sneering lyrics "This is our new song/ just like our last one/ a total waste of time" then).
Elsewhere, he sneers about how all the music magazines are basically "comics" who changed their minds on a weekly basis as to whether Radiohead were any good or not.

Throughout the interview - sent out to regional journalists for promotional purposes so they could grab key soundbites to publish, unbelievably - there's no sign whatsoever that Yorke thinks they're about to release their pivotal LP. It's a faintly detached and vinegary sounding interview which just makes the group sound like a pile of rank outsiders, or worse still, a group of privileged EMI signed Oxford boys who dearly wished to be as credible as an American underground combo like Dinosaur Jr.

I don't think many people thought much more than "Oh" when the single finally emerged. It's a piece of claustrophobic angst which could quite easily have fitted on to "Pablo Honey" without any issues, sounding more like a continuation of their bitter peans on that LP. Only the rough, very underground sounding discordant guitar riffs which emerge throughout sound like something a bit more daring might be stirring in the group's ranks. It doesn't even have an arty, expensive looking promotional video as their later singles all would.

When it was finally released in March 1995, "The Bends" was a slow-burning album, spending one week at number 6 before crashing out of the top ten and then spending weeks on end bobbing up and down the Top 75. It took over a year to re-enter the top ten again, and the first few singles weren't hailed much outside their fanbase. By the time "Street Spirit" was issued in February 1996 and went straight in at number five, however, a watershed moment occurred, and the group were suddenly being hailed as "the next U2" (though somewhat interestingly, The Bluetones entered the charts above them at number two in the same week and were hailed as "the next Stone Roses". 1996 was obviously, if nothing else, a big year for predicted next big things). If you weren't paying very close attention, the fact they had become huge emerged on you in a moment of shock.

While it's been rather over-exposed and heavily imitated in the years since, there's little doubt that "The Bends" was a masterstroke, and that's understating the case by some margin. "My Iron Lung" is possibly one of the weakest tracks on the album, and a strange choice for the first single. The only thing that can possibly be argued in its favour is that it sounds like a continuation of their previous ideas, a bridge between the old and new, and therefore less of a jarring prospect than "Just", "High And Dry" or "Fake Plastic Trees" might have proven to be.

7. AC Acoustics - Hand Passes Plenty (Elemental)

Glaswegians AC Acoustics initially emerged as underground dinmakers, before easing off a little to produce more intricate sounds which surprised listeners with their considered and slightly experimental nature rather than jolting them.

"Hand Passes Plenty" is a particularly mellow excursion into their mid-nineties catalogue, hanging for so long on a central acoustic riff that it feels impossible to believe it will ever progress. It does, however, eventually finding unexpected sliproads off its main route to get distracted by. It's a single that feels strange and otherworldly without actually doing anything terribly unusual, seeming to jab you in the shoulders with faintly absurd diversions just when you feel you've settled into the womb-like environment it initially offers.

AC Acoustics would continue until 2003 before splitting up, proving themselves to be a durable cult band on the way, but one who were too esoteric to become successful, even in the particularly forgiving mid-nineties.

8. Spirtualized Electric Mainline - Let It Flow (Dedicated)

"Let It Flow" indicated that Spirtualized were blossoming into something far beyond their basic psychedelic roots. Their previous "Electric Mainline" EP left you in little doubt about that, of course, with its four tracks managing to sprawl from lush, rich psychedelia to minimal electronic ambience. This, however, felt like a more powerful hint to their future direction.

"Let It Flow" absorbs primitive electronica, gospel, the excesses of seventies rock, and the angst of mid-nineties indie to create something which is a surprisingly rich tapestry given its very minimal melodies. Hypnotic and shimmering, just as you think you've got the hang of its direction, it taunts you with another element.

The group's rise from cult act to the late nineties go-to group for spliffheads everywhere was so slow and steady that by 1997, it just seemed as if everyone living in a houseshare with three other people, a cat, a light fog of smoke and the perma-whiff of oven-ready pizza had always been listening to them. Never favourites for daytime radio play at any point in their careers, Spiritualized built on their initial post-Spacemen 3 cult following steadily, building on their ideas from one LP to the next until eventually, hardly anyone seemed to be able to ignore them.

9. Suede - The Wild Ones (Nude)

Do my eyes deceive me, or has a bona-fide Suede A-side managed to find its way on to an "Indie Top 20" compilation? And not just any A-side at that, but one of their finest.

One of the most frustrating things about Suede's post-debut album state possibly isn't that it lead to the loss of Bernard Butler, but the strange manner in which they deigned to grace us with their presence again, damning everything with awkwardness. "Dog Man Star" may not have been an album with many obvious singles on it, but the psychotic glam howling of "We Are The Pigs", with its "Peter Gunn" styled horn section and chorus of "We are the pigs/ we are the swine" was an enormous and vaguely unsatisfactory red herring. In my mind I've always had an alternative version of events, which saw them return with "The Wild Ones" as their comeback single, managing to release something that not only appealed to their fanbase but to a much broader audience in the process. I frequently fantasise that it would have changed everything.

Brett Anderson's voice nearly shakes the room when it introduces itself here, sounding like he's auditioning for a new stage musical about the lives of the Righteous Brothers. From there, the track builds, keeping many of the usual Suede lyrical cliches intact but knotting them together with something altogether more relatable and straightforward - the story of a departing lover. "The Wild Ones" is eerie and spine tingling, with faint callbacks to songs such as "Johnny Remember Me" in its bones (is it a coincidence that Anderson is wandering around on the moors in the promotional video? Or that I know at least one person who seems to think the song itself is somehow about death?) but also an astonishingly perfect piece of songwriting. The first time I heard it, I was immediately convinced that it's entire melody must have been stolen from somewhere else, because there was something so familiar about it, something that seemed buried deep within my subconscious - but there are no obvious comparisons. The song's themes, pace and even production echo back to classic ballads from previous decades, but the track itself has its own distinct feel and melody.

"The Wild Ones", while being a song entirely about a love affair that might have been, is also one of the most frustrating non top ten hits I can think of, and begs many "if onlys" itself. Brett Anderson was apparently sorely disappointed with its commercial performance, and out of everything in their catalogue, it's surely the single most due a film soundtrack opportunity to bring it back into the public eye. It's too glorious to go to waste.

10. Ride - I Don't Know Where It Comes From (Creation)

"I Don't Know Where It Comes From" enters seeing Ride sounding like some kind of early seventies studio group, marrying a jangly sixties melody to a distinctly polished, almost bubblegum arrangement. Initially, it's hard not to get the urge to put the theme from "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads" or an Edison Lighthouse single on instead.

Eventually though, the song builds itself up into a slightly chilled and folksy pop affair, having a breeziness to its arrangement a lot of Ride singles completely lacked. Of course, had this been a debut single by a new group, it's completely impossible to imagine it attracting any attention at all, and by this point there was a sense that Ride were coasting on their previous glories. Nonetheless, the sunshine bursting through the track, despite the gloomy lyrical conceits, does make it likeable.

By this point, the group were on their last legs and bickering about their creative direction. Their final album "Tarantula" would be tossed off in 1996 and widely regarded as one of the biggest disappointments of the decade, to the extent that no member of the band can be bothered to defend it to this day. Their 2017 comeback has provided them with a golden opportunity to put things straight.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Volume 21 - Tracks 1-5 - Oasis, Sleeper, Echobelly, Cracker, Perfume

Formats: CD, Cassette
Year of Release: 1995

Well, here we are, slap bang in the middle of the nineties. I almost thought we'd never get here. Let's take a look around and breathe the air, shall we? It does all look a bit different, feel a bit different. John Major is still the Prime Minister, but the Conservative Party's hold seems shaky to say the least, and by '95 Labour were a rapidly rising political force. A mere two years ago, people had been talking about the far right starting to worm their way into British politics, now a bigger question mark hung over whether a stale, confused, beleaguered right wing could actually hang in there at all.

In turn, Britpop was now no longer a fantasy belonging to Select magazine journalists, but a commercial reality. The so-called losers of British music, the fey indie kids with floppy fringes, were now a dominant force. EMI, Phonogram, Warners and others had their pens poised over many a freshly printed contract for indie bands they passed over a mere few years before (Stephen Jones of Babybird frequently talked about his old rejection letters with relish, noting A&R reps who once rudely snapped "Write a middle eight, and we'll think about it, and even then probably only think about it". Many were now begging him to sign on the dotted line).

But hold on, look again. There's a little sour-faced cynic barking from the back who wants to say something to us. There's always one, isn't there? It's not Luke Haines this time, though. What's... what's that the little squirt is saying? His voice seems so thin, pathetic and reedy. Oh, typical. He's saying that Tony Blair is actually a very centrist politician with some particularly lukewarm ideas, and he's not going to transform Britain, just tinker a bit around the edges. His next words are almost drowned out by booing from the Labour supporters, who are shouting that we have to let Labour into power without questioning any of their ideas at this crucial stage, and shutting up would be the best course of action, as Tony Blair is actually playing a complicated game of political chess and none of the more right-wing things he's said are going to be Labour policy will actually become Government policy in practice. Right on. Oh, hang on... he's also trying to say that Britpop is also a chimera, a watered down version of the original ideas behind indiepop in 1986, and that if we allow it to go too far, it will become one big Union Jack waving wankfest filled with anthemic laddish songs and not one ounce of outsiderdom or oddness. His voice raises. "Do you actually want to be barged out of the way on the dancefloor while the rugby boys dance to Pulp's Common People?" he asks. The boos get deafening.

Take a step back. Tap your heels together several times. Breathe again. We're back in 2017. We've cut away from the bit where I approach the man in question, laugh at him, and tell him to be quiet about Blair and Britpop, both of which are unquestionably good things. I find that too embarrassing and not at all in keeping with my present personality and beliefs.

In truth, though, I did find 1995 to be a period of almost overpowering optimism. It was a fantastic time to be young, and to feel that a lot of the ideas you had spent your short adult life arguing on behalf of were finally starting to seem relevant. Not just politically, but also musically too. It's only as a grown man with years of bitter experience behind me that I realise that actually, things weren't quite as they seemed, and the celebratory party was going to be rather brief. Ignoring mid-nineties politics completely, which is an incredibly complicated argument to have (though did have an impact on music and culture in general) Britpop itself could often be rather dull and formulaic in places, especially by the time we got to 1996, and it was often the material that got caught in its slipstream that tended to be most interesting. In a similar manner to how anything weird and wonderful tended to get signed to bemused major labels in the late sixties, so the mid-nineties saw all manner of unexpected candidates get major deals. I interviewed Euros Childs of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci in early 1995, and tried to suggest they'd be with a major label within the year. I was told not to be ridiculous. A year later, they were (it didn't really work out, but to be fair, I didn't actually predict that it would).

At the commercial peaks, there were also several names who really mattered. Blur were frequently fantastic. Pulp were spellbinding. Oasis were damn good. New names were emerging, such as Supergrass, who were clearly also going to be around for a long time. In many respects, we had won the argument. And the indie charts... well, we all watched them avidly when they turned up on "The Chart Show" on Saturday mornings as always, but we weren't necessarily asking whether Oasis had got to number one in the indie chart. We wanted to know if they had gone top ten in the national charts.

The "Indie Top 20" series was beginning to lose its grip at this point. Phonogram were on the verge of launching the "Shine" series, featuring a ton of alternative artists the "Indie Top 20" series both was including and couldn't really afford to include, and it retailed at a lower price. EMI were about to launch the "Greatest Album In The World... Ever!" series for a similar purpose. Beechwood were being squeezed out of the picture. They had to compete, but how could they?

We're drawing close to the end now. Sometimes the cost of winning the argument is that everyone else with more money and power runs away enthusiastically with your ideas, and you no longer have a vital place left in the debate.

1. Oasis - Live Forever (Creation)

If anyone had any doubts about Oasis's abilities, they were utterly swept to one side by the time "Live Forever" emerged. It was the first sign that Noel Gallagher did far more than write attitude-drenched pieces of indie rifflola like "Supersonic" or "Shakermaker", and could actually write anthems.

The track opens with the metronomic clicking of Tony McCarroll's incredibly simplistic drumming, which ill prepares you for the mountain the track itself is going to scale. The guitars chime in, and Liam's voice hollers out, defiant. So far, it sounds like an incredibly good Las track with a mid-sixties backbeat, but also powerful, aware of its scruffy post-punk place.

Then the chorus arrives, and suddenly you're swept along on blissful ideas which wouldn't have been out of place on a Stone Roses or Paris Angels track back in 1989 or 1990. It's both ridiculously cocksure and yet slightly aware that its central focus is hope, not telling the listener things as they truly are. When Liam delivers the line "Baby, I just want to fly/ Wanna live I don't wanna die", he clearly knew Noel wasn't battling with Leonard Cohen for finely crafted lyrical ideas. But if you listen closely, there's a keenly different pronunciation of the word "die" to the rest of the words - it's almost spat out in disgust. Then, as the song surges forward, it changes key and tone completely towards the final minute and sounds less hopeful, as if each line actually has a question mark on the end. "We're gonna live forever?" asks Liam.

I know. I'm reading a colossal amount into a popular Oasis song, which you're not supposed to do. But the way the song is constructed is very canny and clever. It's not just a simple anthem, it also moves forwards, and melodically seems to encompass a wide range of emotions. Nobody actually believes they're going to live forever. It's a feeling you get a few times in your life, when a moment seems so astonishing that absolutely anything seems as if it could be possible, including your own immortality. But moments have to fade. The peaks in life either continue and become the new normal, with their own unique trials and tribulations or previously unforeseen pitfalls, or they fade away. The final descending chords always make me feel as if "Live Forever" is crashing back down to earth in a way that a track like Echobelly's "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" wouldn't dare or bother to do.

I spent the summer of 1994 working in a data entry job, typing people's names and addresses into a bank's marketing spreadsheet for seven hours a day. "Live Forever" may have only got to number ten in the charts - which seems ridiculous in retrospect - but I knew Oasis were more than just the next Suede in commercial terms when everyone in the office yelled "Oasis are on Radio One now!" whenever the track got played. People rustled in their bags for their portable radios and headphones. Something was changing. Everyone was starting to listen now.

We won't meet Oasis again on this blog, but summarising the rest of their career here seems a bit pointless. You already know what comes next.

2. Sleeper - Inbetweener (Indolent)

Sleeper's first proper hit single was also a very predictable event, with some music journalists, such as Caitlin Moran, going as far as to call it a piece of classic British songwriting to be reckoned with alongside any of the greats you care to name. Uh-huh.

As discussed on Volume 20, Sleeper's move to more commercial waters was blameless but slightly cynical nonetheless. Sensing the axe hanging over their careers if they couldn't write at least a couple of bona-fide hits, Wener began crafting the catchiest riffs and melodies possible to ensure she wouldn't end up back on the scrapheap. "Inbetweener" is, it has to be said, proof that she could pull it off, but it's far from their finest hour.

A bit like Blur's "Parklife", the verses all have a jogging, matter-of-fact pace to them, like a person humming their way through a to-do list, but unlike "Parklife" it lacks wit or absurdity. "She's shopping for kicks, got the weekend to get through/ keeping the rain off her Saturday hairdo" it begins, setting the tone for the rest of the song. Throughout, we are heavily signposted towards a woman who is merely making do with things - most certainly her present boyfriend, and probably other aspects of her life as well. The chorus is like a nagging friend staging an intervention, and is much more epic in its style. "What kind of A to Z would get you here?" it asks. It's clear we're at a turning point in the unfortunate person's life, and "Inbetweener" acts as a soundtrack to that halfway house, the chiming chorus of common sense bursting through the humdrum verses. The trouble is, I find the verses quite irritating, very middling, matter-of-fact and la-di-da. They make their flat, weary emotionally exhausted point, but once that's sunk in (after the first listen) they seem increasingly as if they're marking time, acting as blank little incidental buffers between the chorus's burst of sunshine.

Wener's views on the grey dullness of suburban life were also coloured by her childhood experiences of growing up in Gants Hill... which is where I'm typing this blog entry right now. I was born in the same hospital as Louise Wener, and due to various differing paths in our life stories, I didn't end up having pop success and moving to Crouch End (though to be fair, she deserves it more than me). Gants Hill forms part of Ilford, a strange area which can't quite make up its mind what it wants to be. A local newspaper recently conducted a poll to ask whether residents believed they lived in London or Essex. The results were almost 50/50. As you walk around, you can see that contradiction everywhere - it's tremendously ethnically diverse (unlike, say, Canvey Island or Clacton) and urban looking. Then you pass a neon-advertised karaoke night, and a bar boasting of "Eighties sounds tonight!" and feel as if you're way out of the city and close to the coast. It's a complex and frequently absurd area, with its own peculiarities, conflicts and eccentricities - another ex-resident Simon Amstell nailed some aspects of those more effectively on "Grandma's House", a series which was littered with in-jokes. You can only consider Ilford outright dull if you're looking out for glamour, famous people or movers and shakers. They're about twenty minutes up the Central line, which is no distance whatsoever (although I appreciate that psychologically it may feel like a hundred miles away).

Damon Albarn also grew up in Essex, and was another keen supporter of the "life of the dull commuter town nobody" narrative. Problematically, I happen to think that striving to better yourself and rise above the herd rather than work with your given community is a very Essex idea and aspiration in itself, in whatever form it takes. The area is littered with working class and lower middle class people who grabbed the opportunities afforded to them in the seventies and eighties and flew with them, looking over their shoulders and laughing at their old school friends as they left. The financial districts of Central London are littered with such people to whom the scoffing insult "Losers!" has become acceptable conduct. By writing sketchy lyrics about the "little people" from a loftier, more enlightened perspective, it could be argued that some Britpop stars were actually doing exactly the same as their old curtain-twitching neighbours who felt "rather sorry for Angela at number 26, in her scruffy dress going to a job she really hates". I feel closer culturally to Wener and Albarn than probably any other pop stars of this era, and yet there are moments when both make me feel uncomfortable. They remind me of the worst bits of my own personality I had when I was much younger. This may not be your problem, but there's a strong chance it stops me from enjoying some of their work as much as I should.

I have much less of a problem with Jarvis Cocker's observational lyrics, perhaps partly because he was much less close to home geographically speaking, and also partly because he genuinely, passionately rooted for the people he wrote about. His voice used to yelp and crack in protest about their missed opportunities, pitting them against a society that had ill-treated them. "Inbetweener", by comparison, wears a smile on its face and has the emotional pull of a short "real life" piece for a weekly gossip magazine. You get the impression Wener doesn't like anybody in the song much at all - they're primarily described by their failings ("he's nothing special/ she's not too smart") and the take-home message seems to be "Thank God tonight it's them instead of you". It's a catchy pop song, but nobody can accuse it of having a great deal of warmth.

3. Echobelly - Close.... But (Fauve)

"Close.... But" is a downright strange little single, in that it actually has a very jerky, almost XTC-esque rhythm pattern behind it, and manages some very unexpected frills, jolts, twists and changes. All the way through, Sonya's voice hiccups, hollers, sighs, soars and generally performs gymnastics worthy of a slightly more subdued Kate Bush.

As I've typed all that, I've realised something that doesn't make sense. Despite all the above, the song doesn't once manage to sound like anything other than a fleeting, inoffensive noise. It somehow disguises its oddness through its well-produced, mid tempo pace, and slips through the net as a daytime radio possibility rather than an evening radio certainty. All this would be fine if, while doing so, it didn't also end up sounding slightly unremarkable and unmemorable. If there's a hook or a compelling reason to put this on again, I really can't find it. Pass.

As it turned out, most of the public passed on this as well, and it didn't manage to come even close to charting within the Top 40.

4. Cracker - Low (Virgin)

Cracker were briefly enormous news in the USA, and this single had a strong cult following both over here and there. It's a brooding piece of epic alternative rock, with noodling, angsty chords and biting vocals. Unlike Smashing Pumpkins or Stone Temple Pilots, it stops itself short of histrionics and gets right to the point, which acts very much in its favour. This track has a bite to it, and a memorable hook - I was amazed to find myself humming along to it almost immediately after the first note, despite not having heard it for years.

Unfortunately, it remains the song Cracker are most known for, and they didn't manage to write follow-ups which had the same impact. They remain an active cult group in the USA, but their work had never had the light of the mainstream shining on it since.

5. Perfume - Lover (Aroma Sound)

Leicester's Perfume were one of those rare Britpop era groups who managed a degree of press acclaim and daytime radio airplay, and yet somehow still managed not to peek over the wall of the Top 40. Their biggest single, the much played "Haven't Seen You", had to settle for a number 71 chart place.

Much more than that raucous track, "Lover" sounds as if it should have found more widespread public appreciation. Filled with swooping, wailing vocals and a continually evolving melody, it's almost a little bit too perfect for its own good, sounding somewhat close to an early eighties construction from a psychedelic post-punk group like Wild Swans or an indie-fied piece of Eastern European rock, rather than a simple, joyous pop sound. It's possibly for this reason that it failed, acting as far too much for the time-pressed punter to take in. It was remixed and reissued in 1997 with a string section, which I actually prefer (though their fans tend to be quite sharply dismissive of it). It still achieved nothing, though.

Perfume wouldn't appear on another "Indie Top 20" album, but Universal Records saw fit to include them on the "Britpop Story" three CD set when it was issued in 2009, proving that someone, somewhere still remembered the fact that they partly soundtracked the era, even if their sales statistics were unimpressive compared to many of their peers.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Indie Top 20 Vol 20 - Stereolab, Drugstore, Cranes, Pale Saints, Frente!

16. Stereolab - Ping Pong (Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks)

It's somewhat absurd yet fitting that Stereolab's most known single is a chirpy paean to the flaws of capitalism. To a series of almost easy listening organ chords and a skippy melody, Laetitia sings observations such as "It's alright 'cause the historical pattern has shown/ How the economical cycle tends to revolve/ In a round of decades three stages stand out in a loop/ A slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more". It's like a melody from "The Sound of Music" retooled to teach the kids about Marxist principles.

I have to confess that despite its ubiquity (certainly compared to other Stereolab tunes, anyway) it's not my favourite piece of work of theirs. Whereas other singles they issued were often pieces of sprawling minimalism with subtle details emerging listen after listen, the first impressions you get from "Ping Pong" are really all there is. That said, as a piece of subversive political pop, it's a deeply sarcastic and scathing piece of work, slowly burrowing Marxist earworms into the brains of innocent teens and children everywhere.

17. Drugstore - Starcrossed (Honey)

Drugstore were an astonishing live band I frequently caught live during this period. They were fronted by the strangely spacey, starry, charismatic singer Isabel Monteiro, who on one occasion mopped tears from her eyes while the audience applauded, and I wasn't entirely sure if she was joking for effect or not.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Drugstore's music was frequently slow, woozy and delicate, but her vocals ensured that every song packed an enormous punch too. "Starcrossed" is filled to the brim with fuzzy guitars, stripped back drum patterns, then topped off marvellously by her dreamy yet somehow piercing voice. On vinyl the intimate, emotional pull of what they managed to achieve as a live band could occasionally be lost, and I don't think this track is any exception - but it still feels like being smothered by a beautiful, soft sonic duvet. Albeit one whose colour scheme possibly makes your eyes go a bit funny.

Isabel relocated to her home country Brazil in early 2015, effectively finishing the band, who had otherwise remained a going concern until that point. However, she remains active as a singer and musician over there.

18. Cranes - Shining Road (Dedicated)

Portsmouth's finest returned with something which was as close as the group came to sounding full of beans. Filled with fuzzed up guitar lines and galloping rhythms, "Shining Road" sure as hell isn't Britpop, but it's closer to pop than the band usually stepped. The faint sense of unease that usually seeps through the band's music overpowering any other intentions is also gone, replaced by something almost optimistic.

Not quite, though. Alison Shaw's parting lines, after singing about seeking out bright city lights and travel, are "And is it all because of you?/ Every time I look at you/ If I look back never mind/ Just don't worry, I'll be fine". I lived in Australia for a year myself - leading the "blogosphere" to get very confused when I first launched "Left and to the Back" and assume I was Australian - and the people I met on the way were mostly a joyous bundle of drunken energy, but there were always a few who didn't like the question "What made you decide to come here?" I nearly caused a woman I met to burst into tears when I asked this innocent question, and after that, never asked anyone again.

The road is frequently a very tempting and, in the modern world, simple response to disappointment, mourning or heartache, the "shining" alternative to dealing with the immediate mess around you. In the novel "Billy Liar", the main character is warned by his mother "You can't run away from your problems, you know. You just pack them into your suitcase and take them with you". In the end, he chooses not to take that way out, although he has very little to lose. "Shining Road", though, is one of the few tracks I can think of that genuinely spells out the doubt and personal anguish behind that route taken and the dazzling fantasy of a relocated city life.


19. Pale Saints - Fine Friend (4AD)

Pale Saints purists tend to reject this era of the group as being almost an irrelevance. The original lead singer Ian Masters had upped sticks, and Meriel Barnham was now fully in the spotlight. Gone were Ian's frail choirboy vocals, and Meriel replaced them with something richer and more self-assured. 

Not only did this did have an impact on the group's sound, but the psychedelia of their previous work had now been largely replaced by a much moodier, more organic sound. It hasn't escaped the ears of many listeners just how similar "Fine Friend" is melodically and stylistically to Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You", and that really can't be disputed. This sounds like the work of a group who had absorbed a lot of new influences and undergone a total reinvention.

Much as I do find this single genuinely haunting and beautiful, and perhaps unfairly overlooked as a result of the purists, I can't say that I prefer it to their earliest work. It's not surprising that they disintegrated not long afterwards, having moved on to something which failed to ignite the imaginations of most critics or indeed fans, nor resulted in any improved commercial standing. 

20. Frente! - Bizarre Love Triangle (Mushroom)

Australia has always been filled to the brim with groups who have managed to make enormous waves in their home country and in New Zealand, but failed to create much of an impact further afield. Some are truly wondrous - the situationism and satire of TISM (aka This Is Serious, Mum) doesn't always translate easily to British shores, but is hilarious and effective. Then there's the likes of Master's Apprentices and their sixties/ seventies blues rock, or er, Lubricated Goat who released the album "People With Chairs Up Their Noses".

Anyway, Frente were something of an alternative folk-pop sensation in Australia in the nineties, producing one platinum LP over there in the form of "Marvin The Album" in 1992. We British were first introduced to them via the wonders of the soap opera "Home And Away", where they seemed to be crowbarred into the script for weeks on end, with endless declarations of "Heeeeey, are you guys going to see Frente toniiight?" while their latest single also played on the Summer Bay cafe radio, just to really hammer the point home about how hip and happening they were. 

Asides from snatches of music on "Home And Away" and a guest appearance, most people in this country didn't really pay the group much heed until they issued this skeletal, quickie cover of New Order's single. It's brief, sweet and a pleasant listen, but really no more than that. Clearly not everyone agrees with me, however, as it reached number 76 in the UK charts and number 49 in the US Billboard Hot 100, a truly astonishing achievement for such a niche idea. 

In retrospect, it's entirely possible to look at this cover of "Bizarre Love Triangle" and see it as pre-empting the acoustic or ukulele inflected covers which have saturated television advertising in the last 5-10 years. It's a very similar approach - take a known, credible track and turn it into something homespun and folksy with sweet, heartfelt vocals on top. Sadly for Frente, nobody wins any prizes in pop for being the first through the thicket, and the track didn't even break through in a significant way in their home country, remaining a fringe concern for sad indie kids.