Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Volume 13 Side 3 - Pixies, Spitfire, Babes In Toyland, Smashing Pumpkins, Pooh Sticks

1. Pixies - Planet of Sound (4AD)

Pixies drummer Dave Lovering has been known to perform occasional magic shows at rock festivals and other events - though I must admit that I haven't been following his solo career closely enough to get a keen grip on where most of his bookings come from. (Well look, you don't expect me to research absolutely everything, do you?)

He performed his magic show at an early All Tomorrow's Parties festival once, and a friend of mine approached him to ask when he began this rather unusual performing sideline. His reply was simply: "When my band started making shit records".
"Ah! Trompe Le Monde!" replied my friend, but didn't get another answer.

"Trompe Le Monde" is the Pixies LP which tends to get the most stick. Is it a bad album overall? Not really. There are some solid moments there, and it's by no means an out-and-out failure. Is it a bad LP by Pixies standards? Unquestionably, yes. It was an unfortunate situation for the band. They had been an overwhelming inspiration for the biggest emerging names of 1991, not least Nirvana, and yet they chose this precise period to lose many of the touches that made the so unusual and appealing. Instead of getting some kind of payback for their groundwork, they received critical brickbats.

"Planet Of Sound" was the first single off the album, and in typical form for this time, it's a hollering beast of a brief record which is all sound and fury and not particularly eccentric. The angular riffs are gone, and the rock and roll noise pollution dominates completely. On the first few listens, that was enough to make "Planet Of Sound" seem impressive - it's a spray of cold water and a slap to the face, a song which is so damn loud and aggressive across its two minutes that initially you can't tear yourself away. Unlike "Debaser", though, it stands up to fewer repeat plays, because while that track had fascinating riffs and intricate little diversions, there's not much else going on with "Planet of Sound". It is what it is. It's one big Frank Black dominated howl.

The end of the band was nigh, and Frank Black would drift off to a solo career while Kim Deal made The Breeders a full-time concern, but it's not for no reason that most of the band's LPs are still raved about and played fanatically to this day. "Trompe Le Monde" was just an unfortunately sloppy kiss goodbye.

As for the music they've made since reforming, it is in my opinion better than "Trompe Le Monde" but not as good as their earliest work, but some of it is still pretty damn compelling - but that's all way outside the timeline we're talking about on this blog.

2. Spitfire - Superbaby (Eve)

Spitfire were a curious group who never seemed to achieve a real breakthrough moment, but always seemed to be with us throughout the nineties. Eventually deemed to be part of the NME's "New Wave of New Wave" movement alongside the likes of S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men in 1994, when that collapsed and most of the other groups either died off or were subsumed into Britpop, Spitfire continued their own path despite widespread indifference. And I do mean indifference - they performed a gig at my University in the mid-nineties and lost the audience who began to talk among themselves, which caused the lead singer Jeff Pitcher to tell us we were "all a bunch of cunts!" Clearly he forgot the cardinal rule that you should never berate an audience who are otherwise busy ignoring you.

Spitfire were also slightly unfortunate with their drummers, losing one talented member, Justin Welch, to a fledgling Elastica.

Really though, Spitfire sat awkwardly in any period of the decade, sounding like a snarling, bluesy garage rock band rather than chirpy Britpoppers or sharp New Wave revivalists. "Superbaby" proves this, bringing particularly 1969 sounding guitar licks against clattering basslines and vocals dripping with attitude. Like the sound of mod-rock just as mods grew out their fringes and got interested in Led Zeppelin and the blues, it's got a drive and energy that can be very enticing if you're in the right mood, but wasn't really what the kids of 1991, or 1994 or 1995 were really looking for. They would have been better off emerging around the point of the New Rock Revolution in the noughties, at which point they could have cleaned up. Timing is everything, kids.

3. Babes In Toyland - Handsome & Gretel (Insipid)

Courtney Love has made much of the fact that while she has become a mainstream media figure, Babes In Toyland lead singer Kat Bjelland ("who was my main rival!") has largely returned to the underground. Love has generally tried to paint this situation as an unjust one she feels slightly concerned about, but in reality, I suspect there's a feeling of smug triumph behind it too. After all, back in the day the pair really weren't terribly keen on each other.

So much was this the case that there were continual media rumours that "Handsome and Gretel" was in some way about Courtney. And was it? Well, it's very difficult to tell. It's filled with very explicit insults, such as "My name is Gretel, yeah/ I've got a crotch that talks/ It talks to all the cocks", but they could be about anyone. No clues are offered. It's teenage schoolyard level fury, a stabbing finger pointing in the direction of a hated female figure, and it's utterly impossible to clearly identify who that is. It's snotty and brattish stuff.

With its stabbing bass lines and cackling laughter, it's a two minute taunt, an onslaught. I listened to it a lot at the time, but now it strikes me as the kind of thing that seems fascinating, threatening and foreboding when you're a teenager, not so much when you're a grown adult - that or the sheer shock of it has a very limited impact. No question that Babes In Toyland were hugely influential and deserve some kind of payback, though. The inspiration they gave the Riot Grrrl movement alone can't be understated.

4. Smashing Pumpkins - Siva (Hut)

Now I'm in trouble. The simple truth is, I generally can't abide Smashing Pumpkins, from their pretentious pseudo-profound lyrics to their Classic Rock leanings. They always seemed like a rather worthy and dull mainstream Rock group who had somehow entered the playlists of alternative club DJs and alternative radio stations by stealth. I also briefly shared a flat with someone who was obsessed with the group, meaning that I heard Billy Corgan screaming "THE WORLD IS A VAMPIRE!" from a bedroom stereo most mornings and evenings - there's nothing like being forced to listen to a group you don't like much to really breed contempt for their work where shrugging indifference might otherwise have existed. (In fact, even if something is clearly amazing work, over-exposure can lead to boredom - for similar reasons in completely different accommodation sharing with another obsessive, it was years before I could ever listen to Jimi Hendrix again).

But I'm undermining the group more than a bit by failing to acknowledge that, compared to many grunge acts of the era, they did possess quite a varied spread of influences, taking in shades of goth rock, industrial, and blues into the mix. While a lot of the other big names of the period practiced sincerity and "Keep Music Live" styled prissy purity, the Pumpkins did at least benefit from Corgan's varied listening tastes.

Not that you'd know any of this from "Siva". It's mostly a heavy blues-rock grind, broken only by the tinkling gentleness of its middle section, which brings a few unexpected twee moments to an otherwise prowling monster of a track. It's not much, but it's an early indication that Smashing Pumpkins were slightly different from their peers.

These days, of course, Billy Corgan has been one of the few rock stars to speak out vocally in favour of Donald Trump, adding "Social Justice Warriors are like the KKK" and talking about "Fake News". I always knew there was something wrong with that boy.

5. The Pooh Sticks - Young People (Cheree)

Swansea's Pooh Sticks were so C86 it almost hurt in the mid-eighties, and in fact they were usually almost certainly taking the piss. With tracks like "I Know Someone Who Knows Someone Who Knows Alan McGee Quite Well", they were almost a cheeky parodical take on the British underground.

By 1991, however, they had moved their attention to powerpop, and seemed to be approaching it from an equally affectionate and light-hearted angle. "Young People" takes the endearing cuteness of their sound and tacks it on to super-sugary rock and roll, creating a noise somewhere between The Archies and Cheap Trick, never quite tilting the balance in favour of one extreme or the other. They don't sound completely comfortable in their new environment - some of the vocals in particular still have a very indiefied tortured yelp to them, rather than a rock swagger - but that somehow adds to the overall effect.

It's this period of their career, rather than their earlier twee work, which lead them to cult success, and while I don't pick it up to listen to it very often, it's always a charming burst of sunshine when I do. It's sweet and almost over-reaching bedroom mirror rock and roll, something the early nineties was sorely lacking in and indeed, we're little better off in that respect today.


  1. When the Smashing Pumpkins first emerged I thought they were as dull as anything. Listening back to Siva now I think it's as dull as anything. But Mellon Collie and the Temple of Shadows of My Mind in the Dark is about as amazing as a triple concept album about going to bed could realistically be.

    And Trompe Le Monde's my favourite Pixies album.

  2. I KNEW someone was going to say that about Trompe Le Monde! Though I must admit I thought someone was more likely to give me a virtual thick ear for praising their more recent output (which I genuinely do really like).

    I've been so over-exposed to the Smashing Pumpkins now, and so put off by Corgan's subsequent idiotic waffle, that I think there's zero hope for me where they're concerned. I'm happy to admit that I quite like the next track of theirs we'll discuss, though.