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.