Sunday, 26 February 2017

Volume 12 Side 4 - Catherine Wheel, Moose, Levitation, Miranda Sex Garden, KLF

1. Catherine Wheel - She's My Friend (Wilde Club)

Great Yarmouth's Catherine Wheel were often regarded somewhat sniffily by the indie kids who sulked around my particular corner of the college common room. If My Bloody Valentine were the unquestionable innovators of shoegazing, and Ride had the melodic aggression and Slowdive the woozy pastoral atmospherics, Catherine Wheel felt a bit plastic and commercialised for some. The fact that the lead singer Rob Dickinson was the cousin of Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson and they signed to a major label as quickly as they could caused suspicious eyebrows to be furrowed too.

Truth be told, though, I genuinely liked - and like - the fact that Catherine Wheel brought a much lighter, frothier sound to the scene at this point in time. Compared to My Bloody Valentine some of their singles are effectively the early nineties equivalents of Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men", but for what it's worth, I love that single too. I enjoy it when pop collides with more underground ideas.

"She's My Friend", their debut single, enters the fray cautiously without too much in the way of frilly melodies. It's heavy on distortion and effects pedals, and has a sledgehammer guitar riff running through its core, but the sweet and pie-eyed nature of the vocals lift things up and stop them from becoming too rockist. It's seductive and psychedelic, seeming to have one foot in the shoegazing scene and the other in the recent Madchester past. It's closer to Blur's "She's So High" than My Bloody Valentine's "To Here Knows When".

We'll be meeting Catherine Wheel again and will have another chance to discuss them, but what is notable about the group is how they managed to forge a career way past that of any of their contemporaries, issuing their final LP in 2000 and even managing a string of mid-placed Top 75 singles until that point. Cult success in America and a willingness to adapt their sound as times moved on both acted in their favour.

2. Moose - Jack (Hut)

"We almost laughed..." "Jack" introduces itself abruptly on your stereo with the vocals, the rest of the band jumping in as if lead singer Russell Yates has surprised them with his sudden need to burst into song. The rest of the track swirls and snarls itself into a state of giddiness while Russell's indifferent delivery makes him sound like the indie Bernard Black.

The term "shoegazing" was apparently coined based on what one live critic witnessed at an early Moose gig, where Russell sellotaped the lyrics to some of the group's songs on the floor and sang most of the set with his head bowed, motionless. It wasn't meant to be a badge of approval, and indeed the term was thrown around somewhat disparagingly to start with before it became considered a "movement". As an attendee of many of the gigs by groups we're going to encounter over the next few entries, I can verify the fact the fact that whatever the value of the recorded work, a lot of these bands were spectacularly tedious live, and had tendencies to regard acknowledging audiences as being an unnecessary extra task. If you didn't have a full-time job and saved up money to go and watch bands play live as often as you could, it stuck in the craw when you effectively witnessed a rehearsal on stage behind an invisible glass wall. Some groups were far worse than others - and we'll get on to that - but in general, the scene didn't really make you feel as if it was a great time to be alive and of legal age to be let into gig venues. At least at the height of C86, there was some comradeliness with the other groups on the scene. At this point, the bands were often shambolic and aloof with it, which brought a frostiness to the party nobody really wanted. (The Manic Street Preachers bemoaned the scene's lack of obvious stars. Personally, I'd have just settled for more David Gedges or Andrea Lewises who actually possessed the ability to communicate something to an audience).

I never did catch Moose live, however, and only have rather critical live reviews to go on. On vinyl, they often packed a punch and delivered some of the movements more touching ballads as well. If Tindersticks had changed direction completely and reported to their local guitar shops to purchase a variety of effects pedals, there's a chance they might have ended up sounding a lot like Moose - sombre, reflective, a bit fragile but also giddy sounding. "Jack" rattles along confidently but has small, almost unidentifiable drops of moody Country music in its bones too - and as Moose's career went forward, they would begin to emphasise that aspect of their sound more.

For now, though, they were the quintessential cult shoegazing band, issuing critically praised records very few people actually bought.

3. Levitation - Nadine (Ultimate)

Strange as it may sound now, The House of Love were expected to be one of Britain's most successful alternative rock bands at the tail end of the eighties. Nobody talked about how it might happen, and everyone assumed it just would. Their early singles "Destroy The Heart", "Christine" and "I Don't Know Why I Love You" were all bordering on genius, and with Guy Chadwick's gift for weaving haunting and moody melodies and Terry Bicker's talent for creating unexpected and enchanting fretboard work, they seemed certain to go a very long way.

Sadly, however, Bickers lived up to his surname and was the source of endless bickering in the group and apparently "erratic behaviour". His relationship with Chadwick in particular was notably tense. In the middle of one argument, he began chanting "Guy Chadwick is a breadhead!" repetitively while burning banknotes under the irate singer's nose. He was thrown out of the group not long after, for which Alan McGee berated a hurt and demoralised Guy in a phone call with the words "You're nothing without him! Do you understand me? Nothing!"

McGee may have been short on tact, but he wasn't wrong. While The House of Love recorded some good singles after Terry Bickers' departure, it was apparent that they were never going to scale any creative heights again. And Bickers, cut loose from the sensible framework of Chadwick's melodies, took the opportunity to form Levitation and go full-on batshit with an occasionally almost proggish noise. As is often the case with creative divorces, nobody really came out on top, least of all the record buying public who were given two "quite good" bands as opposed to one who might genuinely have occupied the space The Stone Roses instead squeezed into.

Levitation's output often walked a tightrope between sheer psychedelic nonsense (albeit often entertaining nonsense) and strokes of the familiar Bickers genius. Just when you thought the group were going to hold on to a promising riff and build a straightforward epic single, they had a tendency to veer off in bizarre directions, often guided by Bickers inventive guitarwork. That their output has become much loved by some isn't in dispute, but for me it often feels too indulgent to connect.

"Nadine" was the lead track off their debut "Coppelia" EP, and is one-and-a-half minutes of blissful, flowery contemplations almost worthy of Donovan with a subtle, almost sleazy easy listening brass backing and occasional outbursts of noise. Anyone thinking Bickers possibly had a shot of becoming some kind of indie king had their expectations destroyed almost as soon as this burst out over the airwaves of evening Radio One - it's likeable, but a truly baffling opening statement of intent. And so it would continue.

4. Miranda Sex Garden - Gush Forth My Tears (Mute) - vinyl and cassette only

Although it has to be said, Miranda Sex Garden were almost as baffling an inclusion to the indie pantheon as Levitation were. Originally consisting of a female trio of madrigal singers, their first LP "Madra" was entirely a cappella, and made the group sound like something John Peel might have signed to Dandelion Records circa 1973.

Instrumentation was introduced to their sound after that release, and while they played with a full paintbox of possible sounds - often incorporating industrial, electronic and ambient textures into their mix - they never quite fitted in anywhere. "Gush Forth My Tears" is one of their most commercial moments, and while the Internet is being no help at all, I'm fairly sure it was briefly used by British Airways on a television commercial which (provided I'm not having a total memory failure) boosted its visibility a lot further than relying solely on airplay might. It also has a twittering, insistent electronic production which at its best almost recalls some of Ann Dudley's work with Art of Noise. It's a genuinely beautiful piece of work which is unexpectedly touching in places, and could perhaps have become a minor hit had it received enough support at the time.

I caught Miranda Sex Garden supporting Spiritualized on tour around this point, and while my memory is weak for most live bands of this period (as we've established, many of them were dreary) I can still visualise that gig to this day. The sight of women clad in black singing madrigal songs to grinding guitar atmospherics is something you struggle to forget.

Perhaps inevitably, some of the members eventually moved on to form the Mediæval Bæbes who had considerably more success, selling hundreds of thousands of LPs with a traditional sound not always terribly far removed from Miranda Sex Garden's origins.

5. KLF - Last Train To Trancentral (Pure Trance Version) (KLF Communications)

Like most KLF singles, "Last Train To Trancentral" came in a number of styles, flavours and guises, some seemingly limited to a bare hundred or so white labels, others the subject of more substantial limited edition runs.

This, the original "Pure Trance" version of the track, was limited to 2,000 copies and was barely really noticed on its original release in March 1990. Unlike the original versions of "What Time Is Love?" or "3am Eternal", which were sparse, repetitious floor-fillers, this is much more melodic and ambient in tone, dropping much more intricate and fluid synthesiser sounds into the mix - at some points, in fact, it comes close to aping the most dinner-party friendly moments of Jean Michel Jarre without quite crossing the line into eighties frothiness (perhaps Guru Josh had been dripping advice into Drummond and Cauty's ears).

Despite its relative complexity, it does still sound very sparse up against the final Stadium House mix, which was arguably the KLF's peak achievement on 45, and also less atmospheric than the elements which were utilised on "Chill Out" a mere month before. In common with a lot of less familiar KLF remixes or versions of their best-known work, it's likeable and curious sounding, but ultimately just leaves you hungry for the real deal. "Last Train To Trancentral" in this form is a pleasant and enjoyable journey, but in other forms it scales mountains.

Still, in those pre-Internet days if you hadn't been fortunate enough to buy one of the 2,000 copies of the original version of this single, this volume of "Indie Top 20" was your only hope - and at the time, I was grateful for the chance to have this on vinyl in some shape or form.

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