Sunday, 1 January 2017

Volume 10 Side 2 - Flowered Up, Field Mice, Saint Etienne, Mock Turtles, Sp!n

1. Flowered Up - It's On (Heavenly) 

"Beds not boxes - don't forget kids, conservation is survival".

Storming seemingly out of nowhere, though actually emerging from Camden Town (and rather than being a band who were based there, they had proper backgrounds in Camden - blimey) Flowered Up were a press sensation in 1990. Even if every review had to mention the fact that they were "London's answer to The Happy Mondays", there was still nothing but admiration for their raw indie-dance sparkle. While baggy had been filled to the brim with comfortable middle-class bandwagon jumpers tacking funky rhythms on to their fey indie tunes, Flowered Up were the proper southern deal - rough round the edges, rebellious, a tad eccentric, and with some mightily good tunes too.

"It's On", their opening salvo, seemed a bit cursed, though. It's first taste of national mainstream television exposure was on the "ITV Chart Show", where a sound fault rendered Liam Maher's vocals largely inaudible. Then, in error, Heavenly Records sent the rather unvarnished demo version of the track to Beechwood for inclusion here. There was nothing wrong with it as such, but it wasn't as good as the finished single, and it certainly wasn't what we wanted or expected to hear. (I believe, but have no proof, that later pressings of Indie Top 20 Vol 10 might have corrected this error. Certainly, "The Best of Indie Top 20" used the right version).

In its true form, "It's On" was a hypnotic and powerful piece of dirty indie-funk, using panpipe sounds, harsh punk vocals and wailing guitars to unlikely combined effect. It's odd, complex enough and powerful enough that it still stands up now. In the video, their obligatory Bez-type character Barry Mooncult - a man who was a glazier before the band formed, and became a glazier again when they split up - grooves away with a giant flower around his bonce, in a manner that would become their visual trademark.

Feted as the next big thing, their debut LP possibly landed a bit too late to generate the impression it might have done had it been ready to go in 1990, but cult stardom was theirs for the taking. We'll meet them one more time, so our story doesn't quite finish here.

2. The Field Mice - Triangle (edit) (Sarah)

"Full length version appears on the 'Skywriting' mini-LP (Sarah 601)"

I seem to have vague recollections of bone-idle journalists declaring this to be a case of baggy bandwagon jumping from Sarah heroes The Field Mice, which of course was bollocks. For one thing, anyone who thought The Field Mice solely specialised in fey jangle-pop hadn't been paying proper attention. For another, "Triangle" has a woebegone electronic pulse to it which more closely resembles early New Order at their moodiest than, say, Flowered Up before them.

Filled with high-pitched Hooky basslines, electronic twitters and sweeping synth sounds, as well as faintly buried vocals, "Triangle" is a raw, mid-paced reflection on singledom which was never going to get many feet on the dancefloor. Piling and layering on different riffs and ideas across its hypnotic brand of budget electronica, this track is constantly evolving and never boring in the way a lot of this early nineties work often could be. Ideally, it also would have gained The Field Mice a bit more attention, but in the end it barely registered outside the usual audience who tended to hear their work. They seemed destined to become a quintessential cult indie act.

3. Saint Etienne - Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Heavenly)

"A Neil Young song lovingly reconstructed by two ardent fans from suburban London. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs claim to gain inspiration from 'Elvis Presley, our loving parents, and drugs". They are currently working on an album provisionally titled 'Foxbase Alpha" which is due in the New Year".

At this particular point in time, Saint Etienne were envisaged as being a group with no fixed lead singer - hence Moira Lambert acts as the vocalist for this track rather than Sarah Cracknell. Therefore, you could argue that this was a single issued before the proper "group" had completely formulated it's "line-up" (if such old-fashioned rock terminology could ever be easily applied to Saint Etienne).

Whatever the details, this is staggering - one of the few examples I can think of where a cover version  is so powerful that it becomes impossible to return to the original. Looped keyboard lines, a throbbing, prowling bassline and atmospheric washes meet Lambert's yearning vocals, and it sounds unbelievable that somebody didn't think of this years before. As a cover, this would have been equally effective as a disco track in the mid-70s or early eighties. In 1990, as indie-dance took a brief hold over everyone, it felt impossibly powerful, Young's angst being just as applicable to moody indie-kids with baggy clothes as it was to earnest hippies in 1970.

Somewhat surprisingly, it only got to number 95 in the National Top 100 on this release, and a slightly underwhelming number 39 on re-release. It did give Saint Etienne a flying start, however, and ensured they were watched closely by the press from this point forwards.

Note the appearance of the Tufnell Park "Go Home Bible Mike" graffiti in the video as well, which would later loan itself to the title of a Fatima Mansions album track.

4. Mock Turtles - Lay Me Down (Imaginary)

"The Mock Turtles are the best pop group in Britain" - John Harris - Sounds 4/8/90

If Manchester's Mock Turtles are remembered for much these days, it's writing "that song" "Can You Dig It" which was a number 18 hit in 1991 and featured heavily on Vodafone adverts in 2002. Oh, and for the fact that lead singer Martin Coogan is Steve Coogan's brother, and that the character of "Saxondale" is apparently partly based on him.

And if "Lay Me Down" is remembered for anything at all, or at least remembered by the dirtiest of pub quiz hosts who enjoy trick questions, it's for being the single that "Can You Dig It" originally nestled on the B-side of. Originally conceived as nothing more than a quickie number to occupy the empty space, and penned in a matter of moments, Coogan failed to see its potential, and certainly Beechwood Music missed a trick here by not giving it a track listing instead of "Lay Me Down" (they weren't always averse to including B-sides, as we'll see).

All this is deeply unfair on the A side, though, which may be more subtle than its more famous flipside, but is nonetheless a marvellous track. Another prowling bassline meets gorgeous atmospheric guitarwork and Coogan's hushed, delicate vocals to produce a piece of slick neo-psychedelia. It was clearly never going to sell tons of copies, but it's a beautiful wash of sound which many a 2016 neo-psych band would be delighted to write - it's also audible proof that the "atmospheric" work of the forthcoming shoegazing movement was present during the baggy period as well, and may even have done a lot to usher it in.

The Mock Turtles were yet another Manchester band who signed to a major label in 1991 who then seemingly didn't know quite what to do with them. Given the sizeable hit status of "Can You Dig It", you would expect that the label were given rock-solid foundations to build on, but the bouyant follow-up single "And Then She Smiles" fell outside the national top 40, and the LP "Two Sides" sank without trace. That, really, was that.

5. Sp!n - Scratches In The Sand (Foundation)

"A psychedelic cocktail of the sublime, beautiful, angry and sad, Sp!n, as the name suggests, create a deliriously exhilirating sound in hypnotic motion. They have been described as shameless pirates and freeloaders, 'purveyors of bliss-orientated pop' (Dave Simpson - Melody Maker) and of 'playing wildly electric, mesmerising pp that brooks no boundaries' (Stuart Maconie - NME)"

Though if you want aborted promise, this lot take the prize. Hyped as likely glory-boys, their careers spiralled out of control after this single was released when lead singer Lee Clark handed in his letter of resignation, unhappy with the record company's handling of their work. A mere day after that, the group were involved in a road crash which sent bass player John Mason into an eleven day coma. All the press superlatives were washed away in the wake of the chaos and they rapidly became forgotten men.

"Scratches In The Sand" actually sounds very ahead of its time now, and while some feeble attempts were made in 1990 to categorise them as "baggy", it's a much harder, more brittle and downright less funky proposition than that. T Rex styled elements burst through (the "Do you want me like a lover?" lines sound utterly glam) and the whole thing simmers with attitude. With this, you could possibly argue that Britpop landed four years too early.

That's not as daft as it sounds, either. Members Steve Mason and Matt James would later pick themselves up and dust themselves down and recruit Martin Rossiter as their next lead vocalist, and begin a new band called Gene together. More on that lot much, much later - but while Rossiter brought thoughtful and considered lyricism and emotive vocal stylings (and not to mention some success) to the mix, I can't help but wonder what Sp!n might have become under the right circumstances. There's an abrupt rudeness to "Scratches In The Sand" that points towards something very different and potentially thrilling not far down the road.

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