Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Best of Indie Top 20 Vol 2

Format: Double LP, CD, Cassette
Year of Release: 1992

Beechwood surely expected another big pay-out from this compilation. Their previous attempt at an Indie Top 20 "best of" had been hugely popular and had taken the series into Woolworths and WH Smiths as well as HMV and Our Price. What was stopping the follow-up from continuing that run of success?

Times had changed, for one thing. If the first "Best of" had emerged during the "Second Summer of Love" and had chosen its track listing with the maximum of care, the follow-up fell into a world where alternative music was (temporarily) not the commercial force it had been  and was also a particularly messy salad of styles. Between volumes 11-15, shoegazing had arrived (and pretty much disappeared again by this point), grunge was a colossal force, and most of the rest of the scene consisted of Transit van sleeping, ever-touring forces like Senseless Things and Megacity Four. Oh, and Carter, who occupied some kind of weird outlier entirely by themselves.

Forging a cohesive compilation out of the best selling artists from this mess, and one which was likely to sell to a broad cross-section of the interested public, was always going to be a tough job. The net result doesn't flow as wonderfully as the first "Best Of" - the leap from Carter USM straight into Curve, then on to Suede at the start shows what Tim Millington was up against -  but it does do a good job of presenting the era's chaos in one package. The bizarre sleeve with its juxtaposed elements of different "Indie Top 20" cover designs actually mirrored that jumble of musical styles well.

Note also the heavy mining of tracks from Volume 13, which accounts for 8 of the 20 tracks, and the fact that Volume 14 is skated over quickly with undignified haste, though this is somewhat unsurprising.

There are a few key singles and artists of the period missing. Daisy Chainsaw's "Love Your Money" was a huge indie hit, but had already appeared on other rival major label "Unbelievable Trippy World of Indie, Wow It's A Freaky Dancing Rave With Guitars Man!" styled compilations, so possibly wasn't treated as a priority (and also, the group's popularity had seriously waned since its release). The Stone Roses are missing again despite "I Wanna Be Adored" being on Volume 13, but possibly seemed irrelevant due to their general inactivity throughout the period. The Sugarcubes "Hit" is absent, as are Throwing Muses, Pixies and The Charlatans (the last drops of baggy and indie-dance are given a very wide berth, actually, and I suspect Beechwood thought The Charlatans career was almost over). Beyond that, Millington does his best with the material available, and it's interesting to get a snapshot of what was deemed important in late 1992. The inclusion of Adorable and Suede on this compilation, for example, might have seemed like a wild assumption of continued success for both at this point - a display of faith which naturally only paid off in one case.

There's one peculiarity afoot, too. The compilation is nineteen tracks long, and early review copies included twenty tracks, with The Manic Street Preachers "You Love Us" present, which was promptly hacked out of the released version (the cassette copy does include Midway Still's "I Won't Try" in its place as a bonus track, though). Whether this was down to a rights issue or something else entirely isn't clear. If any Manics fans out there know why the track was pulled, do tell us.

Follow the links provided to see my original write-up of the tracks.

1. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (Rough Trade) - Volume 11

2. Curve - Ten Little Girls (Anxious) - Volume 12

3. Suede - My Insatiable One (Nude) - Volume 15

4. Teenage Fanclub - God Knows It's True (Paperhouse) - Volume 11

5. Chapterhouse - Precious One (Dedicated) - Volume 13

6. Slowdive - Catch The Breeze (Creation) - Volume 13

7. Verve - Man Called Sun (Hut) - Volume 15

8. Mercury Rev - Car Wash Hair (The Bee's Chasing Me) Full Pull (Jungle) - Volume 14

9. The Breeders - Do You Love Me Now? (4AD) - Volume 15

10. Spiritualized - Run (Dedicated) - Volume 13

11. Cud - Magic (Imaginary) - Volume 11

12. Adorable - Sunshine Smile (Creation) - Volume 15

13. Lush - For Love (4AD) - Volume 14

14. Levitation - Nadine (Ultimate) - Volume 12

15. The Boo Radleys - Kaleidoscope (Rough Trade) - Volume 11

16. Catherine Wheel - Shallow (Wilde Club) - Volume 13

17. The Telescopes - Flying (Creation) - Volume 13

18. Midway Still - I Won't Try (Roughneck) - Volume 13 - cassette only

19. Smashing Pumpkins - Siva (Hut) - Volume 13

20. Babes In Toyland - Handsome and Gretel (Insipid) - Volume 13

Also featured on promotional copies only: Manic Street Preachers - You Love Us (Heavenly) - Volume 12 

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Volume 15 Side 4 - Wolfgang Press, Moonshake, Spitfire, Daisy Chainsaw, Sultans of Ping FC

1. Wolfgang Press - A Girl Like You (4AD)

"The Wolfgang Press have been together now for the best part of a decade, in which time they have released a myriad of experimental work from the PiL influenced 'Burden of Mules' to last year's cover of Randy Newman's 'Mama Told Me Not To Come'. 'A Girl Like You' follows on from the success of their '91 'Queer' album".

Well, this is unexpectedly groovy and sultry - an indie take on Barry White, if you will, a short period before Pulp emerged to reinvent themselves as the bedroom activity obsessed indie disco kings.

"A Girl Like You" wasn't a hit and was generally missed by most people at the time, but its growling, seductive style completely pre-empted the tendency for other indie bands to mine the seventies for sexy disco influences. Unlike some of their overly ironic or musically inept peers, though, Wolfgang Press manage to create something that's so slickly produced that you could almost imagine it being a relic of that era. It's so smooth you could almost slip over and do yourself an injury on it. This is a work of admiring emulation rather than rude and slapdash parody.

2. Moonshake - Secondhand Clothes (Too Pure)

"Hailing from various corners of Hackney, Moonshake have quickly established themselves as one of the most innovative bands around. This, the band's second single, captures perfectly their experimentation with hip-hop beats and dub bass sounds and like its predecessor found its way into the upper reaches of the independent charts. Moonshake are a four piece consiting of Margaret Fielder on vocals and guitar, Dave Callahan vocals and guitar, John Frenelt on bass and Mig on drums. They will be releasing their debut LP on Too Pure in October '92"

And of course, Dave Callahan had previously been a member of Indie Top 20 stalwarts The Wolfhounds, who we've already discussed several times over. Moonshake retained his furious, agitated lyrical observations and vocal delivery, but pitched them against deep dub basslines and urban beats. The net result sounded like nothing we'd heard before - comparisons to Public Image Limited were perhaps inevitable, but Moonshake's ideas were much more rounded. The fury is there, but the attack is carefully directed with a calm but vengeful precision.

"Secondhand Clothes" begins like a relatively simple indie track, then gradually gets swamped with squally discordant riffs which almost resemble experimental jazz in places. The net end result is a song that slowly sucks you into its nightmare. "They smelt of ghosts... strangled all my hopes" sings Margaret Fielder about thrift store clothing, shortly before another sonic attack arrives. It's not a happy sounding record, but Moonshake produced unique and daring material which sat way outside the usual pigeonholes that most 1992 groups contentedly sat in. To me, this always sounded like an entirely appropriate and slightly frightening noise to have emerged from the rough edges of London society - and make no mistake, Hackney was ROUGH in those days.

3. Spitfire - Wild Sunshine (Eve)

"Spitfire wear tight back trousers and winkle pickers. They've got long hair and frightening confidence. They describe themselves as 'one of the most talented bands around at the moment'. The NME recently commented that Spitfire are 'sleek, fast and sexy'. Just remember, it's not the car, it's not the plane, it's the attitude".

"Wild Sunshine" does a very good job of continuing my theory that Spitfire simply landed at the wrong time - it's a wah-wah infested rock jam which speeds along like its life depends on it, kicking any doubters out of the way. Ocean Colour Scene were effectively still a baggy band at this point, but they'd have killed to have been riffing and rattling along in this determined a way five years later.

It is a track which demonstrates more "attitude" and instrumental prowess than songwriting skills, though, and it did sound slightly out of place in 1992. You can't fault Spitfire's execution - the drumming here in particular is utterly formidable - it's just they always sounded as if they were having a far better time than most listeners, wrapped up in their own noise, flicking the Vs merrily as they went along. As documented on here before, the one time I caught them live they furiously told the audience off for not enjoying their performance enough. That's proper rock and roll arrogance, folks.

4. Daisy Chainsaw - Pink Flower (One Little Indian)

"AC/DC, Bowie, Can, Dead Boys, Everly Brothers, Fugazi, The Gap Band, Hendrix, Iggy, Joy Division, Kinks, Lords of the New Church, Motown, No Means No, Orange Juice, Psychedelic Furs, Suzi Quatro, Rufus, Supremes, Temptations, Uriah Heep, Gene Vincent, Stevie Wonder, XTC, Young Gods, Tabitha Zu... with a list of influences this long and varied, Daisy Chainsaw can  be nothing else except out of this world".

Following "Love Your Money", there was an expectation that Daisy Chainsaw would continue having chart hits and eventually become a band with a large, devoted cult following. In reality, their work tended to be met with both critical derision and public confusion, and they quickly slipped back underground again.

"Pink Flower" is an example of where this problem arose from, being quite literally a song of two distinct halves - the treble-heavy uncomfortable thrash of the first part, sounding almost but not quite like "Love Your Money Part 2", rapidly followed by the disorientating and bewildered sounding post-punk ambience of the last two minutes. It's jabbering, psychotic, agitated sounding art-punk, effectively, containing as many child-like twists and turns as a Cardiacs single, and really wasn't something most indie kids felt ready for at this time.

Minor fame also seemed not to agree with the lead singer Katie Jane Garside, who slipped away after their debut LP "Eleventeen" to apparently "go into seclusion", leaving the group to release one more LP in 1994 - "For They Know Not What They Do" - with Belinda Leith on vocals instead. Later, various members would be reunited with their original frontwoman in Queen Adreena, but so far as the early nineties were concerned, their work rose up into the mainstream like a terrifying swamp hydra before disappearing just as suddenly again, leaving people with only baffled memories. Did it really happen, or was it all a dream? Oh it did. It really happened.

5. Sultans of Ping FC - Stupid Kid (Rhythm King)

" ...The Sultans follow-up to their mind-boggling debut single 'Where's Me Jumper', a pean to the horrors of losing one's best jersey at the discotheque. Their debut album will be released around September '92". 

Sounding like a cheeky Spitting Image parody of The Fall at their most absurd, "Where's Me Jumper" was hilarious for the first three listens but rapidly became very trying. How many times did your favourite indie club DJ finish the evening with its nonsensical, barking prattle? I think I counted thirty times with mine, and that's possibly a conservative estimate. No, I don't need to be reminded of how it goes, thank you. It's etched on to my memory like the five times table. Still, it was easy to dance to like an idiot by yourself, which could be a comfort at difficult moments.

Most people banked on Sultans of Ping being a joke band with only one idea to their name, but they were a surprisingly deathless force in the early nineties, continuing with a string of quirky singles which managed to land reasonably respectable Top 75 places. "Stupid Kid" is another piece of agitated adolescent observational comedy, this time focussed on pseudo-intellectual student youths who in reality have as much depth as an episode of "Made in Chelsea". "Oh yeah! I like your rounded glasses/ make you look real coooool/ make you look real CLEVER!" sneers Niall O'Flaherty sarcastically, before turning his attention to the other pretensions the girl on the end of his accusing finger has. Trouble is, the line "Most of all, you like men with big bodies" always sat uneasily with me, as if this were the most damning thing you could say about someone. Had the skinny indie star, perchance, been given the cold shoulder by the stupid but probably quite attractive kid on question, and was now throwing a bit of a tantrum about it?

Whatever was going on, this is two minutes of jabbing mockery, and isn't going to go down in the history books as being any sort of indie classic. For some of us born around the early seventies, though, it will remain almost as dominant a memory as their first single, partly due to the equally enthusiastic manner club DJs got behind it in our teens and early twenties. In retrospect, I have to wonder if my local DJ, upon seeing lots of teenagers on the dancefloor gibbering "La-la-la, la-la-la, yeah yeah, la-la-la" in unison, thought "What a bunch of pricks - I'm surely too old to be dealing with this bullshit?" And if he didn't, he probably should have. After all, what were any of us but stupid kids while dancing along to this two minute burst of punk noise? In fact, what were any of us but stupid kids in general? Perhaps Sultans of Ping were more insightful than we ever gave them credit for, beckoning us with one hand, then pointing and laughing at us with the other.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Volume 15 Side 3 - Levitation, Captain America, Midway Still, Family Cat, Wonky Alice

1. Levitation - World Around (Rough Trade)

"Levitation dive into a pool so deep they might never hit bottom, but they are sending back postcards from the edge that makes it sound like a weird and wonderful place to be".

"World Around" is a relatively accessible piece of work by Levitation's usual standards, laced with irate stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Had Billy Joel's can of Coke been spiked with a particularly powerful tab of acid prior to writing "We Didn't Start The Fire", he too might have come out with an agitated list of unconnected things such as "Running into brick walls sow's ears pitfalls covered with flies/ Green so green so paint the world green we've got a new machine/ it'll burn out your eyes!" But nobody tampered with his soft drink, so he didn't.

Really though, "World Around" consists on the one hand of bonkers, jagged, stream-of-consciousness ranting, then the comparatively blissful, twanging chorus on the other, and the two elements work incredibly well together. If Levitation were occasionally guilty of drowning in their own indulgences, "World Around" is proof that when they held back a bit and offered easy points of access, they actually could create mad and pleasurable pieces of progressive pop - this has it all, from an unexpected string section right through to hard, angular riffing.

There are even slight traces of Julian Cope around the edges of "World Around", and its manic power makes it compelling and exciting. Certainly, this is more enticing than anything House Of Love were churning out at the same time.

2. Captain America - Flame On (Paperhouse)

"After exploding on to the independent scene at the start of '92, Captain America have gone from strength to strength, despite almost being taken to court by C&A over the design of the front cover of their 'Flame On' single. Captain America are undeterred by all this trauma and look set to take the world by storm when their eagerly awaited long player is released towards the end of this year".

Cuh! C&A! D'yer remember them, eh? C&A! Clockhouse clothes, what were all THAT about? I shouldn't have thought they had enough money in their coffers to legally challenge even a Scottish indie band by this point, though - by 1992 they were doomed as a High Street clothing brand, and close to going under in the UK. Interestingly, though, you could at least buy tie-dye tops cheaply in their outlets by this point, just in case you wanted to pretend to be a Levellers fan while actually buying your clobber off the High Street.

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, Captain America. "Flame On" enters the fray with screeching Teenage Fanclub styled guitar riffs, but steadily throws itself in the mud and dirt. Low down grubbiness is the order of the day here, with Eugene Kelly's vocals groaning in the ditch alongside rough and ready guitar sounds.

It's actually been years since I've revisited this, and it's an incredibly pleasant surprise. Crashing cymbals chime in with pounding drums, a melancholic chorus meets propelling verses, and powerpop riffs meet distorted grungey guitars. It really shouldn't work, and should be a total mess, but the whole thing is a pleasing concoction and arguably the finest piece of work by Captain America (aka Eugenius). Like The Pastels trying to rock out, it stumbles and slips along down its own muddy path, kicking all obstacles out of the way in a dirty great huff - a furious sulk of a record.

3. Midway Still - Better Than Before (Roughneck)

"After the critical success of their first two EPs 'I Won't Try' and 'Wish', Paul, Jan and Declan took a brief holiday before launching themselves into the recording studio for their debut LP. After ten days in a London Docklands studio with the irrepressible Don Fleming, Midway Still produced the wonder that was 'Dial Square'. 'Better Than Before' became their third single in March 1992 and captured the boy's soulful cranked up pop at its best".

If "I Won't Try" and "Wish" showcased Midway Still's slightly moody, melancholic side, "Better Than  Before" saw them put their feet down on the accelerator to growl their way down the indie highway. It's the strongest single of the three, seeing them bouncing off the walls as soon as the chorus peeks into view.

In fact, the whole thing rushes along so urgently, pulling you along as it goes, that it's easy to miss that it's actually a simple, uncomplicated piece of work, akin to their other efforts. Midway Still obviously weren't going to do such a thing as "progress" or "mature" for their debut album "Dial Square", and had no desire to present themselves as anything than an uncomplicated, modernised take on rough and ready power pop, rather like The Lemonheads across the pond.

4. The Family Cat - Steamroller (Dedicated)

"Formed at the start of 1988, Family Cat are the band who seem to be living all their nine lives at once. Following a handful of critically acclaimed records and a change of record company, The Family Cat are finally on the edge of greatness. 'Steamroller' is their debut single on Dedicated and is featured on their debut full length LP 'Furthest From The Sun'. The Family Cat are definitely in 'The Purr...Suit of Excellence'".

This was a surprise, though all the signs were there that it was coming. Whereas their debut single "Tom Verlaine" was a charming, scratchy lo-fi exploration of a skint young relationship, and other singles were simple slices of indie rock, The Family Cat had always had a slightly showboating, anthemic element to their sound - "Remember What It Is That You Love" sounds, in retrospect, like a slightly clumsy attempt at that.

"Steamroller", though, is utterly unashamed, featuring sweeping guitar work, stomping rhythms, and the line "The Saints are playing at home today". It's far closer to eighties era Slade or Big Country than it is nineties indie rock. The chaps sound as if they've got their football scarves round their necks, their glittery DMs on their feet, and are fantasising about waving giant flags around an arena stage. This is so lacking in subtlety it's actually quite astonishing.

What's more surprising is that they do pull it off. This isn't entirely to my taste, but sounds like a possible hit single. The group sound muscular and unstoppable, powering their way through a fist-punching anthem as if a corner was being turned in their careers. It really wasn't, though. "Steamroller" made no commercial headway, and I have to wonder if all their fans really wanted or "got" it. It sounds more like a cunning ploy to break through to the mainstream on a new record label than an attempt to cling on to any indie credibility, but that's possibly not the case... it may simply be that with a higher production budget suddenly at their disposal, the group suddenly found themselves in a position to act out their lighters-aloft fantasies.

5. Wonky Alice - Sirius (Pomona)

"This is Earth calling Captain Wonky. You've really made the grade this time. 'Sirius' is a blinder which will see Wonky Alice orbiting your stratosphere any time now".

If their previous "Indie Top 20" appearance with "Caterpillars" was clean and jangly, if incredibly wobbly and capital "q" quirky, "Sirius" takes on a much darker post-punk sound infused with streaks of psychedelia. Rushed, frantic spy theme guitar riffs collide with pounding drums initially, but then the song veers all over the shop, taking strange atmospheric detours when you least expect them. As unabashedly psychedelic as Gorkys and Super Furry Animals were when they arrived a few years later, Wonky Alice unfortunately found themselves landing into a 1992 environment where being a bit trippy meant being very, very serious about your lysergic visions. The group instead opted to sing tunes about outer space and "cracking the genetic code". How sci-fi and uncool.

"Sirius" is a bit of a lost gem of this period, though. Like Pulp at their most space-age, the band verge very close to affectionate pastiche, as well as delivering a skipload of interesting ideas of their own. It sticks out like a sore thumb by the standards of this era, but there's a strong chance that if Wonky Alice had formed slightly later in the decade, they may have gained themselves a much larger and more appreciative audience.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Volume 15 Side Two - Verve, The Breeders, Kingmaker, Revolver, Spectrum

1. Verve - Man Called Sun (Hut)

"'The Stones at their most stoned' is a good point of entry as any to the wonderful world of Verve. 'There's an aura surrounding them, a real palpable bitch of an aura, that makes you feel like dogs in the presence of ghosts; you can feel it but you don't know what it is. Verve are gigantic'".

Verve - or The Verve, as we now know them due to a legal dispute with the jazz label of the same name, even though that still sounds utterly wrong to me - were a very big deal in 1992. They were the subject of frothing prose from almost every IPC inky magazine being printed, and there was tremendous pressure to acknowledge them as our new saviours.

By fluke rather than judgement, and just at the point where the hype began, I caught an early London gig of theirs at the Tufnell Park Dome, prior to their debut single "All In The Mind" being released. I noted that a critic being quoted on the flyer declared they had an "enormous" sound - "Like God falling down the stairs" - and waited excitedly for them to take the stage, preparing myself for a transcendental musical moment. Inevitably, it never came. The band crashed, thundered and noodled away while Richard Ashcroft fell to his knees and lifted himself up again with his arms raised multiple times over. An exhausted gig-going companion of mine found a chair by a table, and literally fell asleep during their set.

A minor freelance music journalist cornered us outside after the gig. "What did you think of that, eh?!" he asked, smiling from ear to ear, daring us to say anything negative. Another friend of mine, without batting an eyelid, said "Shit. Tedious hippy shit. I was close to falling asleep".
The journalist stormed off, went over to a crowd of young and pretty people he knew, pointed at us and could be heard to say "You know, it makes me SICK to the stomach when people can't recognise genius EVEN when they're in the same room as it".
We laughed at him. His friends sneered at us.

In retrospect, were Verve as bad on the night as we seemed to state? No. Problematically, though, they weren't as colossal as the press claimed, and I think we were reacting against the early hype. It was a bad time to be a long-haired dreamer in an indie group. We had Terry Bickers, Spiritualized, lots of shoegazing bands, and more droning crusty groups than the circuit could cope with, so there was plenty of competition. Indeed, I was very much a devotee of Spiritualized at this point in my life, catching all the live shows of theirs that I could - what struck me at the Dome was that the Verve didn't seem as if they'd earned their critical plaudits. By comparison, they didn't make you feel transported. They just seemed like a bunch of cocksure hairies who had taken some mushrooms once. Note - the key word here is "seemed". First impressions count for a lot and linger for a long time.

Debut single "All In The Mind" landed and really wasn't worth getting your knickers in a twist about. "I was born to flyyyy - flyyyy - pretty high!" sang Ashcroft. "Oh, fuck off, move out and take your wind chimes with you", I replied. Nestling on the flip, however, was "Man Called Sun" which perhaps showed another side to the band I might not have been aware of at first. Sitting somewhere between Pink Floyd's "Set The Controls For The Heart of The Sun" and a Jim Morrison meditation, it's a soft, gentle, 3am car journey through life's B roads, filled with gentle swells of sound and jazzy riffs. It's like a heavy swig of codeine infused cough mixture, and really rather good. Genius? The sound of the future? No. Just rather good. If I hadn't felt bullied into liking Verve when they debuted, chances are I might have been more charitable towards them initially.

2. The Breeders - Do You Love Me Now? (4AD)

"Sex, astral projection, abortion, television, human nature, God and magic. These were just some of the themes handled in a jaggedly explosive anti-fashion on 'Pod', the 1990 debut album from The Breeders. Eighteen months on, The Breeders have taken time out from their globe-trotting rock 'n' roll careers to assemble some more garuulous guitar graffiti in the shape of an EP 'Safari'. 'Do You Love Me Now?' is one of the four tracks featured on the EP which reached number one in the British independent chart."

"Do You Love Me Now?" is a strange blip in The Breeders catalogue. Rather than being a slab of jagged aggression, it awkwardly sways along pleadingly, a drunken ballad to a departed loved one. "Come back to me right now!" begs Kim Deal. "Come on, come on, come on, you loved me before!" If it resembles anything at all, it's a slow grungey garage stagger through a Motown styled track - which is probably exactly what it was designed to sound like. The Breeders weren't a "girl band" in the traditional Doo wop/ Supremes (or even, heaven forfend, Bananarama) sense of the word, but this is the closest they got to sounding like one.

It's as human and imperfect as you'd expect. The drunken sounding distorted bass fuzz shows they weren't going for anything polished, but the yearning nature of the track is still very effective. It's actually a very strong piece of songwriting dragged down a back alley and scuffed up a bit. If you were told that it had been penned as a minor hit in the mid-sixties and The Breeders were merely covering it, it would be very easy to believe. In fact, even at the time I checked the songwriting credits for this very carefully indeed.

If anything, I suspect that the "Safari" EP made people realise that Pixies were far from solely dependant on Frank Black's talent - Kim Deal had bags to spare of her own.

3. Kingmaker - Celebrated Working Man (Sacred Heart)

"Outspoken, different, arrogant, spoiling for a fight, Kingmaker although signed to a major, represent an independent teen spirit so often squeezed mercilessly out of a young band in the industry's clutches. Expect a brace of foot-tapping, ear-burning, government-popping, mind altering EPs throughout '92 and beyond. These monarchs ain't abdicating just yet!" 

Kingmaker were indeed touted as an enormous band with a big attitude and a hugely promising future in 1992. Interesting, as they occasionally sounded like little more than an amalgamation of the ideas of all the alternative bands around them, with Miles Hunt's sneer and his snappier melodies pushed to the forefront. For as much as they sounded like a major label's idea of a hit indie band, however, they did show occasional sparks of an uncommercial racket early on. Their debut major label EP "Two Headed Yellow Bellied Hole Digger" featured a live track called "Pockets of St. Malachi" which rattled, screeched and bawled its way to a raucous conclusion. It sounded semi-improvised and furious.

Those kinds of ideas very rarely found themselves pushed to the forefront of Kingmaker's promotional campaigns, though, and what you tended to hear the most of - especially after their first LP - was swaggering early nineties styled indie-pop, with Loz Hardy's finger wagging proclamations on the state of modern Britain at the forefront. Their debut single "Celebrated Working Man" showcases some of this, but with its skiffle styled shuffling rhythms and its basic sloganeering, it's nothing ground-breaking or especially exciting. Chrysalis Records obviously thought otherwise, and signed the band not long afterwards.

[Sadly, "Celebrated Working Man" is unavailable online anywhere at present, being the subject of numerous copyright takedowns - so you may have to dig around a bit to actually hear it.]

4. Revolver - Venice (Hut)

"Revolver are back with their Ralph Jezzard produced 'Venice' which has a much harder edge to it than any of their previous work. All the tracks featured on 'Venice' highlight the fact that the band are moving in a progressive direction, they even bring a flash of inspiration to the old Strawberry Switchblade 'Since Yesterday'. All of Revolver's previous singles are now available on the import album 'Baby's Angry'. However, look out for their debut album which will be with us very shortly".

"Venice" is probably one of the most likeable of Revolver's songs, driven by an Eastern sounding guitar riff, pounding, crashing drums and throbbing basslines. While it does admittedly sound rather too close to Ride for its own good, it's certainly the most impressive Revolver track on the "Indie Top 20" series.

In similar with a lot of their other work, however, it does sound like one very simple idea stretched to four minutes - there's no verse/ chorus structure here at all, just the bare simplicity of one pleasing riff wandered around and prodded at with angry sticks.

5. Spectrum - How You Satisfy Me (Silvertone)

"'How You Satisfy Me' is the debut single from Sonic Boom's new band Spectrum. It achieved the coveted single of the week position in The Melody Maker and was described a 'a triumph of low fidelity'. Spectrum's debut album 'Soul Kiss' on Silvertone is Sonic's seventh, in one form of another".

Talking of simplicity, though, Sonic Boom really leans on a rough, honking keyboard garage riff for this one, which sounds like a fluttering piece of late-sixties pop on a small regional American label. If overlong - certainly longer than most singles of that era, anyway - it does do a lot with very little, though. Whooshing, phasing and roaring its way down the psychedelic highway, "How You Satisfy Me" is one part Archies styled candy-pop, another part acid-addled haze.

Unsurprisingly, the straightforward nature of this single failed to illicit as much as excitement as the activities of his old bandmate Jason Pierce in Spiritualized, but it did show that many of the elements of the old Spacemen 3 sound had worked their way into both groups.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Volume 15 Side One - Curve, Boo Radleys, Pale Saints, Adorable, Suede

Format: Double LP (Plus bonus 7" single), CD, Cassette
Year of Release: 1992

For better or worse, Volume 14 of the "Indie Top 20" series seemed to exist, for the most part, to remind us that the trashy, noisy edges of the underground punk movement and C86 had gone absolutely nowhere, and were in fact ever-present and always waiting to bob up to the surface whenever little else was happening in British independent music. Also, I suspect that during the closing months of 1991 and the first few months of '92, there was a temptation to prove to the USA that while they had grunge, we had a healthy punk and rock underground subculture of our own too.

Fair enough. "Volume 15", though, is an interesting one. While the harder edges continue to be present, we also witness - perhaps surprisingly early - the green shoots of English alternative pop (dare I say it, Britpop) beginning to poke through the fallow land. There are two artists on this compilation who would eventually influence and dominate British alternative rock, for better or worse, to unexpected degrees. Indeed, a slender but notable percentage of the new indie bands I get recommended by other music blogs still appear to owe a debt to one or other of them. Other groups appear here who tried to reintroduce glamour and chiming, euphoric melodies but failed, arriving too early for their own good (or perhaps, if you're being unkind, just not being competent enough for the task in hand) while you can hear slight transitions in the sounds other bands were making.

In all, "Volume 15" is a more rounded listen, focussing on the every nook and cranny of the indie scene. As such, it's less of an exhausting, intense journey, and all the better for it.

1. Curve - Fait Accompli (Extended, Extended, Extended Mix) (Anxious)

"...the single that preceded Curve's debut album 'Doppelganger' is so seductively heavy, one critic was moved to remark that it sounds like 'Deborah Harry colliding with Motorhead in a demolition derby'. As another critic said ten months ago, 'Curve are theoretical perfection come true'".

Is it just me, or is that "Deborah Harry colliding with Motorhead" line not particularly clever, and also hopelessly inaccurate? I can understand someone trying to claim that some elements of Blondie's sound had worked their way into Curve's cocktail, it's the rest of the analysis I struggle enormously with.

Anyway... "Fait Accompli" was Curve's "Top of the Pops" moment, and arguably the only real moment in their catalogue that sounded like it could have survived on daytime radio. The finely sculpted guitar noises and rumbling basslines continue, but there's a powerful Sisters of Mercy styled chanting chorus here, a rather traditional guitar riff acting as a memorable hook, and by their normal standards it's almost close to three-chord garage punk ("by their usual standards" is the key sentence there). Of all the early Curve singles, though, that makes it one of the easiest to tire of once the initial rush of excitement dies down. It's not as subtle or as slowly seductive as their other work.

The inclusion of the "Extended, Extended, Extended mix" here is also baffling, as like most extended mixes, it pads the idea out unnecessarily. The eighties and early nineties suffered from a record company obsession with padding out A-sides to breaking point on twelve inch singles, which on some very rare occasions - Robert Lloyd's "Something Nice", for example - was marvellous and added to the appeal, whereas on most others felt like an exercise in musical waffling. There's something genuinely thrilling about a three or four minute single packed to burst with ideas, so that each different element has only a few seconds to introduce itself and surprise you. Dean Garcia seemed to be a bit of a master of this most of the time. Ideas that are given eight or nine minutes to express themselves, however, tend to stretch and slob around lazily all over the place and outstay their welcome, and "Fait" is far too hooky and punchy to survive the treatment. The elongated instrumental sections are pure repetition and add little to the track.

As for the "proper" seven inch mix of "Fait Accompli", it did pull off the trick of making Curve sound like a group who could adapt their sound just enough so that it would be regularly heard on Mark Goodier's Sunday Top 40 rundown. Really though, it was a red herring, and a trick that would never be pulled off again.

2. The Boo Radleys - Lazy Day (Creation)

"1990 was the year in which Boo Radleys came stormin' out of their hometown in Liverpool with their debut mini LP 'Ichabod and I'. Within the blink of an eye the band were signed by Rough Trade and went on to release three EPs before leaving Rough Trade for Creation. Their first release for Creation was the 'Adrenalin' EP which the 90 second pop burst 'Lazy Day' is taken from. The stunning 'Everything's Alright Forever' album quickly followed which established The Boo Radleys as the inventive leaders of the post Valentine era".

Taking the polar opposite tack to Curve, then, The Boo Radleys take the Wire approach to songwriting and decide to give their ideas here only as much time as they need; ninety seconds, to be precise.

Beyond its brevity, "Lazy Day" doesn't on the surface display a great deal of progression. The vocals remain buried under a sonic duvet, the guitars buzz and thunder around like wasps trapped tightly under panes of glass, and it sounds like the usual MBV inspired lower league indie sound. It's the central guitar hook which essentially forms the chorus that hints towards a new movement in their sound, though - chiming, bright, optimistic and insistent, its like a small burst of sunshine burning off the fog of the rest of the song. It's not much to go on, but it proved that the band had other tricks up their sleeves and were diversifying both their listening habits and their approach. This would act very much in their favour over the coming years.

3. Pale Saints - Throwing Back The Apple (4AD)

"Pale Saints stand resolutely alone, indefinite, indefatigable, making strange and unforgettable noise in a sphere of their own creation. They're a mix of apparent contradictions, the bleak and the ravishing, but in their hands, it sounds as natural as breathing. Godsends with electric guitars".

"Throwing Back The Apple", too, is actually one of the Pale Saint's brightest and most immediate moments, throwing the angst and psychedelic disorientation overboard for a piece of laidback and slightly stoned but nonetheless peppy pop. Blissed out vocals meet elaborate webs of bright guitar noise, and the song has a brilliant ending where the guitar riffs rise higher and higher, making it sound as if the track is finally lifting off into orbit.

This turned out to be something of a last hurrah for the band, however, certainly in terms of media visibility. Following this single, they took a break of over two years, and by the time they returned the musical landscape, and their line-up, had altered so utterly that they struggled to be perceived as relevant by the music press. While "Apple" hints at far better things to come, in reality they were waving us a fond farewell - or certainly the original singer Ian Masters was, who departed during their quiet period.

4. Adorable - Sunshine Smile (Creation)

"After a handful of impressive gigs and an out of this world demo, Coventry's Adorable were signed up by the ever expanding Creation label. 'Sunshine Smile' became their debut single in May '92 and is a perfect illustration of the group's theory about the perfect song being somwehere between the sound (crystalline guitar lines collapsing into chaos) and the melody (simple but subtle)".

Ah, Adorable. Only the band Suede could have been. Famously, of course, Alan McGee saw Adorable supporting Brett Anderson's then unsigned band at a live gig, and against all expectations gave them a contract instead of the headlining act. He was briefly, therefore, the early nineties equivalent of the Decca A&R man who turned down The Beatles.

"Sunshine Smile" did present McGee's case incredibly convincingly, though, to the extent that it's possibly one the era's most under-appreciated singles. Opening with a clean, chiming guitar riff akin to The Stone Roses at their most powerful, then introducing a high-ended, hooky bassline before Pete Fijalkowski's groaning, post-punk vocals creep through, it takes the listener on a raging, twisting detour-riddled journey of joyous, sweeping psychedelia, full throttle distorted post-punk rock, and mellow romanticism. Rammed to the brim with ideas without ever once seeming difficult or inaccessible, it made the group seem like something British music had been missing since The Stone Roses went away for a long lie-down - arrogant, threatening, but soft and smooth around the edges too, as well as showing incredible songwriting prowess.

The group even looked cute, sneery, big-eyed and big-haired, and I felt fairly sure - correction, I had no reason to doubt - that they were going to be absolutely massive. Imagine being eighteen years old, having sat through a long period of American bands in jeans and plaid shirts telling you how depressed and screwed up they are, and suddenly this emerges. A record which tuned into the same ecstacy-addled euphoria as the Roses, but channeled it through furiously thrashed guitars, and spiky post-punk obsessions? It sounded like the best bits of my recent past and possibly a more forgiving, happier future. Even listening to it again now, I'm forced to find myself thinking "How is this NOT the debut single of an incredibly important, era-defining new band?"

But it wasn't. Sure enough, "Sunshine Smile" sold relatively well by indie standards, and generated enormous excitement in most media quarters, but the group really did never manage to top it, and once the initial hubris died down it became apparent that the group would even struggle to maintain cult popularity. Members of the group observed that by the time of the release of their debut LP "Against Perfection", which climbed to a disappointing number 70 in the charts, there weren't even any posters of the band on the walls of their record company. Adorable's career trajectory represents one of the most rapid rise-and-fall shots of all-time.

And that's deeply unfortunate, because "Sunshine Smile" deserves a place in most people's record collections and memories as an incredibly powerful pop nugget from the period. Irrespective of what they did next, or how effective their other material was, it felt as welcome as the the first bursts of sunlight on your arms on a Spring day.

5. Suede - My Insatiable One (Nude)

"The NME recently described Suede as 'a band worth becoming obsessed with'. They were totally correct in their assessment of a band who have exploded upon the UK music scene in a manner fitting to the new messiahs. 'Suede are truly a one-off; they defy current convention and through self-belief and songwriting genius they are redrawing the boundaries".

Suede, of course, were also lionised and deified by the IPC media within seconds of being signed to a label, but my immediate response was one of suspicion. Initially at least, while I enjoyed "The Drowners", I didn't - and still don't - regard it to be a truly exceptional single, and felt that something about the group was tremendously contrived. If that sounds judgemental and ridiculous now, I was probably just behaving like any well-trained teenager of my era. The kind of flamboyant theatricality Suede revelled in had been mysteriously absent from British guitar pop for years, and by this point seemed unnatural. I had grown up during a time where bands drew on earthy punk traditions to communicate their ideas, and didn't generally elevate themselves too highly above their audiences (baggy, in particular, had been filled to the brim with the idea that everyone was on the same trip at the same level together, though how true this actually was in reality is a big question). Suede, on the other hand, swept in like pre-punk Rainbow Theatre glam superstars, and I felt uneasy.

When "The Drowners" appeared on "The Chart Show", my Dad - not a Melody Maker reader, nor a keen listener of night-time Radio One - put his paper down, and loudly said "Who are these?! They're brilliant! They're really unique!"
Nervously, and actually fearing a repeat of the arguments I'd already had with friends, I replied "Well... they do sound a bit like Cockney Rebel, don't you think?"
"Only a bit!" he spluttered irritatedly and tutted. "I mean, they're clearly not Cockney Rebel, are they?"

I was even being lectured dismissively by my Dad about Suede. Fucking hell.

Suddenly I started to wonder if maybe I was wrong. This clearly wasn't just another piece of IPC hype, and the group clearly had the ideas, the influences and enough of a clue about how to assemble them together to both sound unique and appeal to a far broader audience. People at my college began travelling up to London and missing night trains home to see Suede in tiny venues. One of my friends returned, triumphant, with a tattered shred of one of Brett Anderson's shirts, which he had torn off after it had been thrown into the audience.

"Don't you wish you'd bothered to come with me?" he said smugly.

So I held back with Suede for awhile before throwing my pocket money behind them, and I do regret that now. I missed out on the frenzied nature of the earliest period of their rise to fame, which probably would have been astounding to witness.

"My Insatiable One" here is a B-side, but manages to sound totally unlike another cheap cast-off thrown in Beechwood's direction. In fact, it's more powerful than a number of the tracks that earned a place on the band's debut LP, with some brilliantly inventive, wonky, tragi-surreal lyrics ("On the escalataaa-h/ You shit paracetamol/ as the ridiculous world goes by" is one of my particular favourites) a classic, anthemic chorus, and some beautiful guitar lines wrapped in a rather plain package - the production here is rushed and hasty, but the song holds its own well enough to shine through spectacularly. The buzzing, abrupt ending was probably meant to sound edgy, but actually feels rather clumsy, and that's honestly the only thing I can find to criticise.

Suede and Adorable were both, in their own ways, signposts for possible directions British music could have taken after the American onslaught subsided, with Adorable having one foot in the very recent past while Suede had long arms reaching far beyond young memories. While Suede won the argument in the short-term, and rightly so, they didn't really persuade a posse of Butler and Anderson clones to rush through in their wake. More than that, they reignited arguments and ideas about what areas of inspiration British alternative rock could draw from, and how they could be twisted, styled and shaped into something that sounded modern and beyond the sum of its parts. Suede had broad and impeccable record collections, taking in everything from Bowie and The Smiths to Scott Walker and The Fall, not being afraid to co-opt ideas that had partly fallen out of favour and perhaps wouldn't commonly be regarded as working well together. That they mastered this approach so early on is actually nothing short of incredible.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Volume 14 Side 4 - Gallon Drunk, Daisy Chainsaw, Shonen Knife, Captain America, The Pastels

1. Gallon Drunk - Some Fool's Mess (Clawfist)

"Thundering out of London come Gallon Drunk, with this, their fourth single for Clawfist. This sexy little blistering baby ploughed the independent charts for two months and established the band as the slicked-back gentlemen of dynamic tunes. These righteous preachers released their debut LP in February. How can anyone go wrong with Gallon Drunk? After all, they do smoke their own!"

Gallon Drunk were yet another one of those indie bands you couldn't seem to escape in the media throughout 1992 and 1993, even being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1993 for their album "From The Heart of The Town". A peculiar mix of influences from twangy fifties rock and roll, through to The Birthday Party, blues, garage rock and sixties film soundtracks, they produced a unique cocktail which shook up the occasionally quite unadventurous and dour early nineties gig circuit.

"Some Fool's Mess" is probably their best known single, and highlights their strengths well - filled with drama and menace, it rattles along urgently, fuelled by a nagging, twangy guitar riff and discordant car-crash organ breaks. It's the theme to every gothic fairground nightmare, and hardly anybody else was making a noise like this in 1991.

The group remain active, and continue to have a keen live following, to this day.

2. Daisy Chainsaw - Love Your Money (Deva)

"Daisy Chainsaw are a London foursome whose debut 45 'Lovesick Pleasure' set the world alight in January of this year. Achieving airplay on daytime radio and crashing into the Top 40, Daisy Chainsaw are definitely going to be the surprise success of '92".

Careful with the use of the word 'definitely', Tim. "Love Your Money" was one of those wonderful moments which happen in music once in a blue moon - a self-released indie record which somehow managed to vault from the evening playlists on Radio One on to daytime radio, causing the likes of Simon Bates to declare that he had "discovered the new Transvision Vamp". The problem was, of course, that he hadn't. For starters, singer Katie Jane Garside really wasn't much of a Wendy James type (apart from the blondeness of her hair) and instead tended to lean towards a caricatured, childlike image. On stage, she seemed half-gleeful, half damaged, like a semi-starved child in her nightie scrabbling through the rubble of a house fire for spoils.

Also, while "Love Your Money" was a determined, full-throttle beast of a song, with its distorted, treble-heavy guitars and insistent chorus chant, a lot of the rest of their output was less straightforward and less radio-friendly. We'll come on to those moments eventually, but perhaps I should mention a packed live performance I saw at the height of their fame at a local club. There were two support acts that evening - one was a performance arts group who seemed to be following the Garside theme of worrying childlike imagery, featuring a woman with her hair in bunches and a vacant smile rattling away on an old-fashioned typewriter while being yelled at by a disturbed looking man. The other support were Sheep on Drugs, who chased the performance artists offstage like unwanted rodents when their turn in the spotlight came, with a yelled "Get the fuck off my stage!" And all this was before Katie Jane Garside emerged onstage babbling away with a rictus grin. I would genuinely struggle to recall the events surrounding other gigs I saw in 1992 in such detail, but moments like this are rare.

The baffled expressions from some audience members were also memorable, and it was clear that this was a group who were never seriously going to make a leap from the fringes to platinum success. They were weird and occasionally alienating - sometimes in a way that worked, and on other occasions in ways that appeared forced and faintly pretentious (the fact that Garside could sometimes be seen sucking on a child's milk bottle was, to be honest, a bit contrived and silly).

Brett Anderson, a member of a group nobody cared about called Suede, caught them live at around this time, and was moved enough to write "Metal Mickey" about Katie, but by the time it got released as a single he was strangely reluctant to reveal who his muse was. By that point, Daisy Chainsaw had largely disappeared back into the dark depths of the underground on the back of a slightly rough critical ride, and talking about being moved by their performances might have destroyed any credibility Suede had.

3. Shonen Knife - Space Christmas (Seminal Twang)

"Shonen Knife are three talented Japanese women whose debut 45 in the UK, 'Space Christmas', reached number one in the independent chart. After touring with Nirvana and Captain America, they are now attracting interest from Japanese, American and European record companies. Shonen Knife's 'Zany World of Animals, Sea Shells, Marshmallows and ice-cream' will be entering the lives of a lot more people over the coming months."

If Daisy Chainsaw were possibly, underneath the grime and the noise, trying to say something serious with their childlike approach - and I've never been able to quite make up my mind whether they were or not - Shonen Knife were just being absurd and playful. Their world of boiled sweets, ugly zoo animals, and bright primary colours combined with simplistic, garage punk riffs, and appeared to exist as part parodical pisstake (which, one suspects, was slightly lost in translation from Japan to the west) and part joyous adrenalin rush.

"Space Christmas" was a bemusing slab of festive vinyl which nonetheless set the group up as cult figures in the UK from that point forth. It's difficult to analyse its Ramones inspired approach to songwriting in any depth, and it would probably be foolish to do so - however, the naive frivolity of it makes it one of the best indie Christmas singles of the last twenty-five years. It's a world where Santa is dragged along in his sleigh by bisons and the arrival of Christmas Eve seems like a momentous occasion again. Many years later I would find myself spending Christmas Day in a traveller's hostel in New Zealand, and watching Japanese travellers experience a "western" Christmas for the first time, the song remained trapped in my head. Not all approached the wine and party poppers enthusiastically, though - one gentleman sat in the corner with his head in his hands and his wine untouched, and looked as if he was about to cry. Anyway...

4. Captain America - Wow! (Paperhouse)

"The rise of Captain America over the past few months has been quite amazing. Fronted by ex-Vaseline Eugene Kelly, they recently supported Nirvana on their British and European tour as well as releasing their debut EP for Paperhouse. At the moment they are working on their first album which on the strength of 'Wow!' promises to be something else".

I'll give Nirvana one thing, they really helped to increase the visibility of all kinds of marginal indie figures. Captain America, of course, would not remain Captain America for long - their name violated the copyright of the Marvel comics character, and they would soon find themselves relaunched as Eugenius.

On the surface, "Wow!" is really just the Vaselines sound beefed up and given a grungier edge. Whereas The Vaselines were often thrashy, trashy and spindly in their work, Captain America have a much more muscular approach. The DIY punk elements remain intact, though, and it's uncanny how easily a C86 artist could leap into 1991 and be embraced into the bosom of grunge without anyone complaining.

Critically, though, "Wow!" is a fairly basic, chugging piece of punkorama, and didn't really change anyone's lives.

5. The Pastels - Thru' Your Heart (Paperhouse)

"After a two year absence The Pastels are re-establishing themselves on the independent music scene. A cover of Daniel Johnsons' 'Speeding Motorcycle' was their first proper release since the 'Sittin' Pretty' album of 1989. 'Thru' Your Heart' was a Melody Maker single of the week and bodes well for their forthcoming album, 'A Truckload of Trouble'".

Bit of an error in the above description - 'A Truckload of Trouble' was a compilation rather than a bona-fide Pastels studio LP, and mostly consisted of previously released material (It is great, though).

Where Eugene Kelly managed to find appreciation from American grunge superstars, Stephen Pastel remained a somewhat underground figure, but that's not overly surprising. The Pastels didn't push down on their distortion pedals like angry truckers trying to get their destination at double-speed - they produced frequently naive, delicate and rainy singles with chiming melodies. Even in 1991, you could sense their mid-eighties roots showing through.

"Thru' Your Heart" is probably one of their finest singles, though. Had it been written or even covered by an artist wishing to push it in a slicker or more commercial direction, it could actually have been a hit. It's an unashamedly romantic and wistful ballad, filled with heart squeezingly good guitar lines, lyrical asides which seem to underline the preposterousness of romance and ballads in general ("You'd never let me/ But I'd die for you") and simple but incredibly effective songwriting. Progressing from start to finish in an effortlessly fluid way and packaged up as one neat, carefully bundled parcel of a tune in a heart-shaped box, it's The Pastels at their finest. It's also possibly the only track on this compilation I still listen to frequently, if I'm being honest.

And on that note, may I just say that I'm so glad this volume is done and dusted now. It's arguably the darkest and dingiest Indie Top 20 volume of them all, and while it's not without some good moments, it's incredibly difficult to listen to from start to finish.