Sunday, 26 March 2017

Volume 14 Side Two - Dr Phibes & The House of Wax Equations, The Sugarcubes, Catwalk, Wonky Alice, Th'Faith Healers

1. Dr Phibes and The House of Wax Equations: Hazy Lazy Hologram (50 Seel Street)

"Dr Phibes and The House of Wax Equations are based in Liverpool and signed to 50 Seel Street records. Fronted by Howard King Jr, Dr Phibes will go a long way. Do not be surprised if they soon get scooped up by a major record company and go on to have enormous commercial and critical success".

How unfortunate, but not unusual. The music press really were all a little mad for this psychedelic group in the early nineties, and there's no question at all that a lot of their work had a searing, almost frightening power to it other groups simply couldn't manage. "Hazy Lazy Hologram" is like being stoned and disorientated at a party while someone (Howard King Jr) forcefully lays matters on the line to you, wide eyed and dictatorial. It's not, if the truth be told, much of a song in the traditional sense of the word - the entire track is held together by sheer force of atmosphere, energy and personality. No easy feat, and something a lot of the shoegazing bands of the period were really missing; a dark and magnetic force at their hearts.

The major labels really didn't come knocking, though, perhaps realising that there was a limited market for this kind of thing, and the group never really did manage to build on the profile this high-climbing indie chart track afforded them. By 1995 they had split, and in 1997 Howard King Jr was charged with the murder of his mother and sentenced to life imprisonment at Caernarfon Crown Court. In other words, a swift reunion to capitalise on the presently burgeoning indie nostalgia circuit may be rather unlikely.

2. The Sugarcubes - Hit (One Little Indian)

"'Hit' is The Sugarcubes seventh single for One Little Indian and is featured on their third album 'Stick Around For Joy' which is their best collection of tunes since the release of their 1988 million selling debut album 'Life's Too Good'. The Sugarcubes are one of the most refreshingly innovative bands around at the moment".

First off, I find it slightly unbelievable that "Life's Too Good" sold a million copies globally, but I suppose the group did have a cult following across a large number of countries, and anything is possible. I'm surprised that stat isn't paraded around more frequently if it is true, though.

As for "Hit", it was the subject of much mockery from unimaginative and witless music critics at the time, all of whom seemed to say "Given their track record, the title seems like wishful thinking, eh readers?!" Needless to say, the group had the last laugh, and it did turn out to be their solitary British chart hit. While I doubt it was designed to be such - you got the impression that The Sugarcubes never really gave a shit about storming up the singles chart - "Hit" has a neatness, catchiness and fluidity to it most Sugarcubes singles lack. Even Einar's interjections are kept to a bare minimum.  With its funky guitar backing, taut rhythms and Bjork's pleading, imploring vocals, it's one of the group's strongest pieces of 45rpm work, and its dancefloor friendly nature hinted that their lead singer's future  potentially lay in other areas. Her work with 808 State ("Oops") showed that she could sound dazzlingly brilliant against electronic and dancefloor backdrops, and clearly lightbulbs began flashing above her head. The Sugarcubes were not long for this world.

In truth, there was a widespread perception that the group hadn't completely fulfilled their initial promise anyway, and by the time of their final album "Stick Around For Joy", public interest was waning despite the fact that "Hit" was their "breakthrough" moment (and still seems to be the only Sugarcubes song any UK radio station is actually interested in playing). The smell of fresh new pastures must have been tempting for everyone involved.

3. Catwalk - Damascus (Dedicated)

"Catwalk is made up of Chris Roberts and a shifting nucleus of contributing musicians. After winning the GLR demo clash for a record number of consecutive weeks, they were signed by Dedicated. 'Damascus' is 'a pulsating passion play about love, hate, revelation and mermaids', which is featured on Catwalk's debut 45 which came out in January".

Ah, Gary Crowley's demo clash and the good old days of Greater London Radio (one of the country's most under-rated radio stations at the time). You can almost imagine Crowley falling off his chair with excitement at all the new sounds flooding into the station, talking on air at high speed in block caps and buzzing his nut off at the possibility of finding the next big thing. For some of us in the early nineties, Crowley was the closest we got to a religious evangelist, except he was pushing lots of scratchy Camden indie bands rather than God.

For all their apparent popularity with London radio listeners, though, Catwalk were a short-lived proposition who only managed one more single after this one ("Ballerina") before Dedicated gave them the heave-ho. It's not massively surprising. "Damascus" is slick and smooth, with the kind of pulsating backing Depeche Mode wouldn't have deemed inappropriate a few years prior to its release - but it clings on to that central riff for dear life, relying on it to pull the entire song through. It's polished and accomplished, and a bit dirty and sassy with it, but lacks spark, personality or surprises. It actually sounds like a song built around an improvised studio jam performed by very competent and able musicians, closer to a U2/ Eno joint session than alternative rock. I can't hate it or object to it, but for me it's completely inessential.

4. Wonky Alice - Caterpillars (Pomona)

"Wonky Alice are a four piece who are causing quite a stir in the North West at the moment. 'Caterpillars' is taken from their debut EP for the Pomona label 'Insects and Astronauts'. The band recently recorded a Radio 5 session for Mark Radcliffe and have supported World of Twist. Wonky Alice are definitely a band to watch out for in future".

Stop with these inaccurate predictions, please! Do you see how much we were all scrabbling around in pop's great lucky dip barrel desperately looking for our new saviours at this point, readers? For verily, we lived in a time where our hopes and dreams were placed with such characters as Dr Phibes, Wonky Alice, Russell out of Moose and Loz from Kingmaker, and yea, they did not deliver, for Miles Hunt was the chosen one and so he would be crowned until Britpop came to our sacred isle.

Rochdale's Wonky Alice were a truly eccentric bunch to place any faith in, though, with perhaps the most appropriate band name of them all. Wobbly, ske-wiff riffs rambled around dispassionate vocals and elastic basslines, creating a noise which was utterly uncommercial but which nonetheless hinted towards an inventive and possibly bright future for the band. This was like the more angular moments from the C86 years returning with a vengeance - but in reality, and perhaps entirely predictably, the group could only manage a small cult following.

"Caterpillars" is odd, sharp and interesting, but very difficult to actually love.

5. Th'Faith Healers - Reptile Smile (Too Pure) - vinyl and cassette only

[I own the CD having sold my vinyl copy of this album some years ago, so unfortunately don't have the sleevenotes that went with this track.]

There again, Th'Faith Healers really up the ante. With rumbling basslines, spiralling, spindly riffs, taunting, irritated vocals and screeches of feedback, "Reptile Smile" is threatening without actually being aggressive. It's a jittery, impish screech of a record, underproduced as hell, and couldn't give a fig whether you like it or not.

The group had a sizeable cult following around London at the time, and were renowned for powerful live performances which some friends of mine still speak about today. I didn't witness them live, but on record it's possible to get a sense of that energy and unpredictability - "Reptile Smile" is ragged and pithy, and difficult to ignore.

The group would eventually split in 1993 after two LPs, and Tom Cullinan would later go on to be a key player in Quickspace.


  1. I zoomed in on the cassette version on Discogs, so here's the Faith Healers note:

    "Th' Faith Healers are a Camden based outfit signed to the exciting Too Pure label which is also home to PJ Harvey and Stereolab. 'Reptile Smile' is their third single which came out in November '91. The band have also recently recorded their second Peel session."

    ...not actually all that interesting, but there it is now.