Sunday, 6 August 2017

Volume 19 Tracks 6-10 - Suede, Depeche Mode, Bjork, Saint Etienne, Stereolab

6. Suede - My Dark Star (Nude)

Another Indie Top 20 compilation, another Suede B-side. With just about any other group of this period, this would seem like being short-changed, but "My Dark Star" sat as the third track on the twelve inch format of the sprawling and mediocre "Stay Together". While that single did provide Suede with their first top three hit, it really was a triumph of hype and expectation over substance on that occasion. There are fans of the group who applaud it for its drama and excess, but I'm afraid I'm not among their number, and I can't even remember the last time I voluntarily sat down to listen to it.

"My Dark Star", on the other hand - which surely didn't give David Bowie any ideas towards the end of his career - is yet another one of Suede's pieces of understated but highly effective songwriting. A pulsing drone punctuates the chorus, providing an exotic, almost psychedelic feel, while Butler's fretboard work is pleasantly ambitious rather than bombastic. Along with Anderson's brilliant, impassioned vocals, this creates yet another flip side which could quite have easily sat comfortably on the tracklisting for "Dog Man Star" instead. The only thing standing in its way is a subtle but powerful sense of optimism which the album in general lacked.

7. Depeche Mode - In Your Room (Zephyr Mix) (Mute)

And with a distorted mechanical roar and some chiming guitars, the Butch Vig remix of the rather more electronic album track bursts into view. Given Gahan's precarious state of health at this time and poor internal relationships within the group, there were some - video director Anton Corbijn in particular - who speculated that this might be Depeche Mode's last ever single.

It's certainly the end of their capital "r" Rock phase, with electric guitars never featuring so prominently again on any future Mode singles. Still, Butch Vig does an incredible job of making the synthetic and analogue elements of the track work in tandem with each other, complimenting the sound rather than battling it out for dominance. It's almost a complete deconstruction. The use of meaty beats and a full palette of guitar effects here predate his later work with Garbage, and turn a song which originally sounded like a middling album track into an interesting and exciting piece of work packed with dynamics. It's one of the few examples I can think of where a Depeche Mode remix has actually improved on the source material.

Aided by an elaborate, collectible multi-CD package, it climbed to number eight in the charts then rapidly slid down again, and has become a somewhat forgotten part of the group's catalogue since. Third or fourth singles from albums usually fare badly in the collective consciousness, and it's often for good reasons - in this case, however, I can't help but think that a lot of people might be missing out. If they had split up after this release, it seems almost certain that it would have had a stronger impact and we'd hear a lot more of it now.

Depeche Mode's future adventures occur outside the timeline for this blog, so this is the last time we'll be discussing them.

8. Bjork - Violently Happy (Massey Mix) (One Little Indian)

"Violently Happy" was also the fourth single to be plucked from "Debut" - or the fifth, if you count the fact that "Play Dead" was made available as a bonus track on some versions - and at the time it seemed peculiar that anyone would have bothered. "Violently Happy" in its original guise is pulsing and minimal, never moving far from its simple root riff. While working within the context of "Debut", it really doesn't sound like much of a single, though the use of Bjork in a faintly unusual "padded cell and scissors" video helped it get a lot of MTV exposure in Europe at least.

The Graham Massey mix pumps things up quite a bit, though, turning the track into a banging, didgeridoo backed war dance. Again, it's not necessarily a view that would be shared by her fans, but it repeats the trick of the previous track on this LP by adding a vast array of colour, adventure and dynamics to a previously rather simple piece of work. I far prefer it to the original and wouldn't be at all surprised if a lot of clubbers bought the CD to own this version rather than the 7" edit.

9. Saint Etienne - Pale Movie (Heavenly)

While Pete Wiggs has described this song as a "bit of a failure" since, this almost sounds like Saint Etienne at their shiniest and poppiest. Stick petroleum jelly in your ears and ram your head under a pillow while this plays, and you could almost convince yourself that it's one of Geri Halliwell's Spanish sounding singles given a bit more depth and drama. "La Isla Bonita" for the indie-kid set, if you will.

Of course, that's a very simplistic overview, and in fact the song has a lot more going on than that. The lyrics in particular are beguiling and fascinating, moving from fairly bog-standard observations like "He's so dark and moody/ she is the sunshine girl" to "In the bed where they make love / She's in a film on the sheets / He shows dreams like a movie / She's the softness of cinema seats" almost effortlessly. Like The Pet Shop Boys before them, Saint Etienne were at this point taking commercial, electronic pop sounds to considered, intelligent and occasionally beautiful or interesting places. Some critics at the time debated whether their ambition was their undoing at this point, with the NME in particular noting that "Pale Movie" was lyrically too unusual and considered to be a proper pop hit in 1994. That's a tad cynical, but they did turn out to be correct - it managed one week in the top thirty at number 28, a respectable enough showing for an indie group, but a lot less than the track deserved.

According to an unverified source on Wikipedia, it did apparently get to number one in the Lebanon, though. I very badly want this to be true, so I'm going to call it a fact unless anyone can prove otherwise.


10. Stereolab - French Disko (Duophonic)

The last time we heard Stereolab on "Indie Top 20", they were embryonic and sandpaper rough. While by the point of the "Jenny Ondioline" EP - from which "French Disko" stems - they remained addicted to minimal drones combined with trilling, cheery calls to a socialist revolution, by now they seemed to have fleshed out their ideas beyond the straightforward template of "Lo Fi". The title track "Jenny Ondioline" was a startling and breathtaking piece of work which recalled the minimalism and the relentless and addictive nature of the best krautrock whilst also having a strange, rushing and shimmering identity of its own.

"French Disko", on the other hand, is close enough to Pop. Laetitia Sadier sings something very close to a nursery rhyme about continuing involvement in political action through difficult times. "Though this world's essentially an absurd place to be living in/ it doesn't call for total withdrawal" it begins, before eventually reaching the chorus's key clarion call of "La Resistance!" A luscious, chiming guitar melody repeats throughout, and the analogue synths bubble and squeak beneath. Never has the idea of political engagement sounded so joyous and hopeful, so downright thrilling.

Stereolab's cult status was pretty much sealed at this point, and they spent the next decade as the go-to group for often different strands of the record-buying public - fans of psychedelia, krautrock, twee indie, shoegazing, and even exotica found something to admire in the band, and while they never truly rose overground, they became an example of an old-school "indie" group with clearly defined ideals and principles who survived healthily during the commercial onslaught of Britpop.

No YouTube video for this, I'm afraid (unless you count a live appearance on "The Word") so Spotify will have to be your friend in this instance.


  1. I think you could argue that Barrel of Gun and Useless were quite guitar heavy DM singles. In Your Room sadly marked the end of the Alan Wilder at least as well as being a fantastic single.

    1. You could, but I think the Zephyr mix was the last Depeche Mode single to give them such prominence. ("Useless" runs it damn close though, admittedly).

      And yep, I'm afraid to say that after Alan Wilder's departure, they never felt like quite the same band again. There are those who disagree with me, and I'm really happy for them - but the run of LPs from "Black Celebration" to "SOFAD" is one of pop music's finest to my ears.