Sunday, 24 September 2017

Volume 21 Tracks 16-20 - Blaggers ITA, Pop Will Eat Itself, Wolfgang Press, Ween, The Cramps

16. Blaggers ITA - Thrill Her (With A Gun) (Damaged Goods)

Blaggers ITA were originally an underground punk band with close ties to the anti-fascist movement who steadily rose to prominence as the cold realities of early nineties Britain bit. Harsh and hard-edged, they nonetheless gradually evolved to incorporate a danceable element to their sound, and found themselves on Parlophone from 1993-94. Opinionated and uncompromising, it doesn't feel like much of an exaggeration to say that it felt as if they'd gatecrashed the mainstream of the music industry. This afforded them some truly memorable moments on television (not least their appearance on "The Word") and mainstream exposure bands of their ilk tended not to usually get.

Naturally, this couldn't and didn't last. Frontman Matty Blagg allegedly punched Melody Maker journalist Dave Simpson in the face after Simpson had stated that in his opinion, Matty could never reform his fascist past. This followed a press interview where Matty revealed that he had once been involved in the racist group British Movement prior to being converted to left wing politics while in prison. Following this incident, press and record label support eroded and the group were essentially treated as lepers.

It would be tempting to debate the whys and wherefores of the incident, and whether fascists can ever truly "reform" - in my view, they can - but since the situation was never legally resolved at the time, it seems foolhardy to start examining the wounds again from twenty years distance. We're really not going to get the answers we want.

"Thrill Her (With A Gun)" was released on Damaged Goods shortly after the group were dropped by EMI, and still managed to perform convincingly in the indie charts. Filled with "Blockbuster" styled police sirens, samples, shuffling rhythms and husky vocals, it features the group sounding even more Clash influenced than usual - or should that be Big Audio Dynamite influenced? - and cuts a dramatic chase. The EMI era line-up of the band fell to pieces not long after this, but it's proof that they had a genuine, street savvy edge the vast majority of posturing indie bands lacked.

17. Pop Will Eat Itself - Familus Horriblius (HIA WYG mix) (Infectious)

And God knows why PWEI are back on this volume, since their final single had long since been released, and this particular track originally appeared on the flip side of "RSVP" in 1993. Clearly somebody at Beechwood thought the group were still a big enough pull to be worth including in the tracklisting.

It's an interesting remix of the track, but it's not really any way to say goodbye. It's a squelchy, throbbing, tribal sounding version which probably went down a storm at various crusty squat parties at the time, but sounds strangely dated and quaint now. From it, though, it is just about possible to hear the origins of Bentley Rhythm Ace emerging, who would go on to push their way close to the forefront of British big beat culture.

As for PWEI, the group had been weaving their spell throughout the alternative scene since Volume One, and their resilience is something to wonder at, but by 1995 their time was up.

18. The Wolfgang Press - Going South (4AD)

And this was also Wolfgang Press's last hurrah. "Going South" is a sleazy sounding piece of shuffling, organ-driven funk which is just about groovy enough to persuade limbs towards the dancefloor - but that's possibly the problem. Whereas their previous material had contained angular and challenging post-punk influences, this is really just the work of another indie band who had found some sensual disco albums in the local charity shop and decided to cop all the best riffs. Nothing about it sounds vital or essential, and unsurprisingly, it didn't do much to expand the group's existing audience.

The group's last LP, the appropriately titled "Funky Little Demons", is seldom hailed by anyone as a prime moment, and the group disappeared without trace not long afterwards.

19. Ween - Voodoo Lady (Flying Nun)

Ween are a prime example of a cult indie band who split audiences completely down the middle. In a manner similar to Cardiacs - while sounding absolutely nothing like them - their awkward, whacked-out and occasionally absurd or sarcastic takes on rock and country music have caused many projectiles to come hurtling their way from angry live audiences. Far from putting them off their stride, this hostility seems to have fanned the flames for the group, who have gone on to gain appreciative cult audiences seemingly in every port in every country.

As for me, I'm afraid I'm firmly in the camp who doesn't quite get what they're trying to do or indeed why they're trying to do it - but then again, I never got on with Frank Zappa either. "Voodoo Lady" is probably the moment they enjoyed their biggest success in the UK (though their country records "Piss Up A Rope" and "You Were The Fool" came close) and is a staccato piece of jerky, lo-fi rock which recalls Devo being unexpectedly booked to do a session on "MTV Unplugged". It's a deeply divisive single, and one which may or may not have been an influence on The League of Gentleman's comedy glam number of the same name. Who on earth could say?

20. The Cramps - Ultra Twist (Creation)

The garage rock and roll of The Cramps feels as if it's been around forever, and indeed the group only split in 2009. Alan McGee's love of the group ensured that they had a presence on Creation Records in the mid-nineties, where they did nonetheless feel faintly out of place.

"Ultra Twist" features the group doing what they always did, with no shortage of aplomb. There are no shocks or surprises here, and their slamming, bluesy and slightly camp grooves still manage to feel faintly subversive. Nonetheless, their presence here is strangely anomalous - had they been placed next to Guana Batz on Volume One of "Indie Top 20", nobody would have been surprised. But how many people really bought this compilation in 1995 partly because The Cramps were in the tracklisting?

We didn't have the phrase "heritage acts" to describe groups like The Cramps in the mid-nineties, and if we'd tagged them as such I'm sure it would have been met with some mild violence, but nonetheless they were a twenty-year old group with a loyal audience who really weren't interested in compilations focussing on new indie bands. Their presence here acted a gentle reminder to youthful naifs that they still existed, but probably didn't win many new converts to their twisted cause.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Volume 21 Tracks 11-15 - Whiteout, Supergrass, Ash, 60ft Dolls, Bandit Queen

11. Whiteout - Jackie's Racing (Silvertone)

"Da-vid!" cried my mother in disbelief when she heard me listening to this, "have you started listening to seventies teenybop stuff now?!"

I - sort of - get where she was coming from on this, and can also completely understand why Tim Millington chose to place it next to Ride's "I Don't Know Where It Comes From" in the tracklisting. Both have a wistful, breezy seventies styled pop production, although I suspect Whiteout were using The Faces rather than the Bay City Rollers as their sonic template.

It wasn't just my Mum who wanted Whiteout's guts for garters, either. The music press were bafflingly savage towards the group, frequently focussing on their very young age and inexperience as reasons to attack them, while praising Supergrass for precisely the same characteristics on the other hand. Some of Whiteout's material was a whirlwind of energy, the likes of "Detroit" in particular rivalling Oasis's earliest work for attitude and force of personality (indeed, Whiteout co-headlined a tour with them).

"Jackie's Racing" was Whiteout's peak mainstream moment, and is perhaps atypical of the rest of their output, but is nonetheless a solid pop song with many fantastic melodic flourishes and twanging guitar work. With its lyrics focussed on a girl (played by actress Caroline Catz in the video, later of "Doc Martin" fame) enjoying her "kicks" and "teenage fun" who "wears tight clothes that don't quite fit", it's hard to take the song overly seriously or get emotionally involved in it. However, its bouyant innocence does act as a tonic, and it acts as one of those all-too-rare examples of a very young band being able to communicate their enthusiasm and zeal in an infectious way.

Whiteout never did really become properly famous, though, even at the height of Britpop when everything should have been in their favour. Their debut album "Bite It" (which bizarrely left off many of their best known singles) received a muted critical and commercial reception. Singer Andrew Caldwell left the group not long after its release, and their follow-up LP "Big Wow" in 1998 failed to attract much attention. They rank as one of the era's most bafflingly marginal groups.

12. Supergrass - Caught By The Fuzz (Parlophone)

Speak of the devil... Most of Supergrass last appeared on Volume 16 of this series as The Jennifers, a rather naive teenage indie band who could on occasion sound slightly like Whiteout at their most wistful. By the time "Caught By The Fuzz" emerged, however, it was clear that they had morphed into a group of some wit and ferocity.

I don't intend to sound disparaging when I say that I laughed my head off when I first heard "Caught By The Fuzz". It sounded like a group of naughty seventeen year old boys trying to write lyrics like a wittier, more interesting version of Jimmy Pursey while Keith Moon played drums in the corner. A small part of me doubts that "Caught By The Fuzz" was ever supposed to actually be as amusing as it turned out. The frantic, panicked delivery of Gaz's vocals suggest that it was originally written as a cathartic exercise after he had his collar felt (he has confirmed that the lyrics were based on true experience) which only seem amusing if you're sufficiently removed from the situation. His delivery of "Who sold you the blow/ WELL IT WAS......... NO-ONE I KNOW!" and "if only your father could see you now!" create little visual snapshots of an eighties teenage kitchen sink drama shown on Channel 4 in the early afternoon. The music behind them, on the other hand, is so pile-driving and determined it sweeps you along effortlessly.

It would have been easy to dismiss Supergrass as some kind of NWONW one-single wonders were it not for the flipside to this, "Strange Ones", which appeared largely unchanged on the number one "I Should Coco" LP. There was clearly much more to the group than punkish melodrama about being caught with naughty cigarettes, and while the group always did have a penchant for playful silliness (as "Alright" would later prove) that's often caused them to be overlooked by casual listeners who have failed to absorb some of their more mature, developed and occasionally psychedelic work. Without exaggeration, Supergrass were one of the last truly great bands to emerge during the Britpop rush, as their superb debut LP and follow-up "In It For The Money" both go to enormous lengths to prove.

13. Ash - Uncle Pat (Infectious)

More teenagers with attitude. Prior to this moment, Ash were mostly known for their heads-down, no-nonsense punk approach, with debut single "Jack Names The Planets" having both a determined amphetamine charge to its sound combined with fluffy, innocent almost nursery rhyme melodies.

"Uncle Pat" is much more laidback and sombre in its tone, but can't quite shake the innocent edge the band had until this point, with simple, chiming guitar lines and marching rhythms. Focusing on the tale of a recently departed relative, it seems like a slightly personal and melancholy moment for the band which acts as an innocent garage-punk prayer rather than something to excite audiences on the national pub circuit.

Ash would obviously go from strength to strength from this point, gaining benefits from Britpop and continuing into the late nineties as a group who enjoyed a certain degree of popularity among provincial rockers and the kind of skate-punk kids you saw in the local shopping centre every weekend. They remain a going concern to this day, even if their star has waned somewhat in the present decade.

14. 60ft Dolls - Happy Shopper (Townhill)

Unlike most of the bands we've dealt with on this entry, at least one member of 60ft Dolls had something of a significant previous history. Lead singer Richard Parfitt had previously been involved in the eighties mod group The Truth as their bass player, and had even had a prominent stint in the largely unknown Welsh mod group The Colours. The latter had a ripping and largely unknown single out in 1983 called "The Dance", which can be heard over at my "Left and to the Back" blog.

Whereas The Colours and The Truth tended to have a bit of a swing about their work, 60ft Dolls tended to favour a rough, tearing aggression, and that can clearly be heard in "Happy Shopper". It junks anything approaching a groove overboard and instead sounds like a furious, murky hybrid of NWONW and grunge ideas.  Whereas 60ft Dolls would release some great singles - "Alison's Room" and "Stay" among them - "Happy Shopper" is unfortunately a track that, to me at least, is a giant tantrum which comes and goes without leaving any major impression. Doubtless this sounded wonderful live, and as a single it has energy to spare but no real stand-out hooks or defining characteristics.

15. Bandit Queen - Give It To The Dog (Playtime)

Bandit Queen were formed in 1992 by vocalist Tracy Godding, who had previously been a member of the almost entirely forgotten early nineties baggy group Swirl (who, for what it's worth, featured on another Beechwood indie compilation "Forever Changing", but never found a place in this series).

Despite their presence on the roster of the relatively low-key and cash-strapped Playtime label, Bandit Queen clearly had the budget to swamp regional music journalists with promo records and CDs of their work and also tended to feature in numerous fanzines throughout this era. Mainstream music press appreciation was harder to come by, however, and the group seemed to forever be "bubbling under" - the subject of many brief live reviews but no interview spreads.

"Give It To The Dog" is a walloping piece of fat, distorted, heavy riffola which owes slightly more to the American underground than the dominant trends of 1995, though, and it's possibly not surprising they failed to find a way through. For all that, it's an interesting listen and Godding's vocals have a compelling force of personality, giving the track an edge it might otherwise have lacked.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Volume 21 Tracks 6-10 - Radiohead, AC Acoustics, Spiritualized, Suede, Ride

6. Radiohead - My Iron Lung (Parlophone)

Acting as the first single from the legendary "The Bends", it would be tempting to revise history and suggest that "My Iron Lung" was a hotly anticipated and much loved single on its release. In fact, the reception it received got Thom Yorke's goat so much that he could barely contain his contempt for music critics during promotional duties. In one audio interview I was sent by a PR company to promote the single's release, Yorke was asked "It is quite similar to 'Creep' isn't it?"
"Yes!" Yorke is heard to splutter sarcastically. "It has guitars and drums on it! It's exactly like 'Creep'!" (you have to wonder why he gave everyone bait by including the sneering lyrics "This is our new song/ just like our last one/ a total waste of time" then).
Elsewhere, he sneers about how all the music magazines are basically "comics" who changed their minds on a weekly basis as to whether Radiohead were any good or not.

Throughout the interview - sent out to regional journalists for promotional purposes so they could grab key soundbites to publish, unbelievably - there's no sign whatsoever that Yorke thinks they're about to release their pivotal LP. It's a faintly detached and vinegary sounding interview which just makes the group sound like a pile of rank outsiders, or worse still, a group of privileged EMI signed Oxford boys who dearly wished to be as credible as an American underground combo like Dinosaur Jr.

I don't think many people thought much more than "Oh" when the single finally emerged. It's a piece of claustrophobic angst which could quite easily have fitted on to "Pablo Honey" without any issues, sounding more like a continuation of their bitter peans on that LP. Only the rough, very underground sounding discordant guitar riffs which emerge throughout sound like something a bit more daring might be stirring in the group's ranks. It doesn't even have an arty, expensive looking promotional video as their later singles all would.

When it was finally released in March 1995, "The Bends" was a slow-burning album, spending one week at number 6 before crashing out of the top ten and then spending weeks on end bobbing up and down the Top 75. It took over a year to re-enter the top ten again, and the first few singles weren't hailed much outside their fanbase. By the time "Street Spirit" was issued in February 1996 and went straight in at number five, however, a watershed moment occurred, and the group were suddenly being hailed as "the next U2" (though somewhat interestingly, The Bluetones entered the charts above them at number two in the same week and were hailed as "the next Stone Roses". 1996 was obviously, if nothing else, a big year for predicted next big things). If you weren't paying very close attention, the fact they had become huge emerged on you in a moment of shock.

While it's been rather over-exposed and heavily imitated in the years since, there's little doubt that "The Bends" was a masterstroke, and that's understating the case by some margin. "My Iron Lung" is possibly one of the weakest tracks on the album, and a strange choice for the first single. The only thing that can possibly be argued in its favour is that it sounds like a continuation of their previous ideas, a bridge between the old and new, and therefore less of a jarring prospect than "Just", "High And Dry" or "Fake Plastic Trees" might have proven to be.

7. AC Acoustics - Hand Passes Plenty (Elemental)

Glaswegians AC Acoustics initially emerged as underground dinmakers, before easing off a little to produce more intricate sounds which surprised listeners with their considered and slightly experimental nature rather than jolting them.

"Hand Passes Plenty" is a particularly mellow excursion into their mid-nineties catalogue, hanging for so long on a central acoustic riff that it feels impossible to believe it will ever progress. It does, however, eventually finding unexpected sliproads off its main route to get distracted by. It's a single that feels strange and otherworldly without actually doing anything terribly unusual, seeming to jab you in the shoulders with faintly absurd diversions just when you feel you've settled into the womb-like environment it initially offers.

AC Acoustics would continue until 2003 before splitting up, proving themselves to be a durable cult band on the way, but one who were too esoteric to become successful, even in the particularly forgiving mid-nineties.

8. Spirtualized Electric Mainline - Let It Flow (Dedicated)

"Let It Flow" indicated that Spirtualized were blossoming into something far beyond their basic psychedelic roots. Their previous "Electric Mainline" EP left you in little doubt about that, of course, with its four tracks managing to sprawl from lush, rich psychedelia to minimal electronic ambience. This, however, felt like a more powerful hint to their future direction.

"Let It Flow" absorbs primitive electronica, gospel, the excesses of seventies rock, and the angst of mid-nineties indie to create something which is a surprisingly rich tapestry given its very minimal melodies. Hypnotic and shimmering, just as you think you've got the hang of its direction, it taunts you with another element.

The group's rise from cult act to the late nineties go-to group for spliffheads everywhere was so slow and steady that by 1997, it just seemed as if everyone living in a houseshare with three other people, a cat, a light fog of smoke and the perma-whiff of oven-ready pizza had always been listening to them. Never favourites for daytime radio play at any point in their careers, Spiritualized built on their initial post-Spacemen 3 cult following steadily, building on their ideas from one LP to the next until eventually, hardly anyone seemed to be able to ignore them.

9. Suede - The Wild Ones (Nude)

Do my eyes deceive me, or has a bona-fide Suede A-side managed to find its way on to an "Indie Top 20" compilation? And not just any A-side at that, but one of their finest.

One of the most frustrating things about Suede's post-debut album state possibly isn't that it lead to the loss of Bernard Butler, but the strange manner in which they deigned to grace us with their presence again, damning everything with awkwardness. "Dog Man Star" may not have been an album with many obvious singles on it, but the psychotic glam howling of "We Are The Pigs", with its "Peter Gunn" styled horn section and chorus of "We are the pigs/ we are the swine" was an enormous and vaguely unsatisfactory red herring. In my mind I've always had an alternative version of events, which saw them return with "The Wild Ones" as their comeback single, managing to release something that not only appealed to their fanbase but to a much broader audience in the process. I frequently fantasise that it would have changed everything.

Brett Anderson's voice nearly shakes the room when it introduces itself here, sounding like he's auditioning for a new stage musical about the lives of the Righteous Brothers. From there, the track builds, keeping many of the usual Suede lyrical cliches intact but knotting them together with something altogether more relatable and straightforward - the story of a departing lover. "The Wild Ones" is eerie and spine tingling, with faint callbacks to songs such as "Johnny Remember Me" in its bones (is it a coincidence that Anderson is wandering around on the moors in the promotional video? Or that I know at least one person who seems to think the song itself is somehow about death?) but also an astonishingly perfect piece of songwriting. The first time I heard it, I was immediately convinced that it's entire melody must have been stolen from somewhere else, because there was something so familiar about it, something that seemed buried deep within my subconscious - but there are no obvious comparisons. The song's themes, pace and even production echo back to classic ballads from previous decades, but the track itself has its own distinct feel and melody.

"The Wild Ones", while being a song entirely about a love affair that might have been, is also one of the most frustrating non top ten hits I can think of, and begs many "if onlys" itself. Brett Anderson was apparently sorely disappointed with its commercial performance, and out of everything in their catalogue, it's surely the single most due a film soundtrack opportunity to bring it back into the public eye. It's too glorious to go to waste.

10. Ride - I Don't Know Where It Comes From (Creation)

"I Don't Know Where It Comes From" enters seeing Ride sounding like some kind of early seventies studio group, marrying a jangly sixties melody to a distinctly polished, almost bubblegum arrangement. Initially, it's hard not to get the urge to put the theme from "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads" or an Edison Lighthouse single on instead.

Eventually though, the song builds itself up into a slightly chilled and folksy pop affair, having a breeziness to its arrangement a lot of Ride singles completely lacked. Of course, had this been a debut single by a new group, it's completely impossible to imagine it attracting any attention at all, and by this point there was a sense that Ride were coasting on their previous glories. Nonetheless, the sunshine bursting through the track, despite the gloomy lyrical conceits, does make it likeable.

By this point, the group were on their last legs and bickering about their creative direction. Their final album "Tarantula" would be tossed off in 1996 and widely regarded as one of the biggest disappointments of the decade, to the extent that no member of the band can be bothered to defend it to this day. Their 2017 comeback has provided them with a golden opportunity to put things straight.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Volume 21 - Tracks 1-5 - Oasis, Sleeper, Echobelly, Cracker, Perfume

Formats: CD, Cassette
Year of Release: 1995

Well, here we are, slap bang in the middle of the nineties. I almost thought we'd never get here. Let's take a look around and breathe the air, shall we? It does all look a bit different, feel a bit different. John Major is still the Prime Minister, but the Conservative Party's hold seems shaky to say the least, and by '95 Labour were a rapidly rising political force. A mere two years ago, people had been talking about the far right starting to worm their way into British politics, now a bigger question mark hung over whether a stale, confused, beleaguered right wing could actually hang in there at all.

In turn, Britpop was now no longer a fantasy belonging to Select magazine journalists, but a commercial reality. The so-called losers of British music, the fey indie kids with floppy fringes, were now a dominant force. EMI, Phonogram, Warners and others had their pens poised over many a freshly printed contract for indie bands they passed over a mere few years before (Stephen Jones of Babybird frequently talked about his old rejection letters with relish, noting A&R reps who once rudely snapped "Write a middle eight, and we'll think about it, and even then probably only think about it". Many were now begging him to sign on the dotted line).

But hold on, look again. There's a little sour-faced cynic barking from the back who wants to say something to us. There's always one, isn't there? It's not Luke Haines this time, though. What's... what's that the little squirt is saying? His voice seems so thin, pathetic and reedy. Oh, typical. He's saying that Tony Blair is actually a very centrist politician with some particularly lukewarm ideas, and he's not going to transform Britain, just tinker a bit around the edges. His next words are almost drowned out by booing from the Labour supporters, who are shouting that we have to let Labour into power without questioning any of their ideas at this crucial stage, and shutting up would be the best course of action, as Tony Blair is actually playing a complicated game of political chess and none of the more right-wing things he's said are going to be Labour policy will actually become Government policy in practice. Right on. Oh, hang on... he's also trying to say that Britpop is also a chimera, a watered down version of the original ideas behind indiepop in 1986, and that if we allow it to go too far, it will become one big Union Jack waving wankfest filled with anthemic laddish songs and not one ounce of outsiderdom or oddness. His voice raises. "Do you actually want to be barged out of the way on the dancefloor while the rugby boys dance to Pulp's Common People?" he asks. The boos get deafening.

Take a step back. Tap your heels together several times. Breathe again. We're back in 2017. We've cut away from the bit where I approach the man in question, laugh at him, and tell him to be quiet about Blair and Britpop, both of which are unquestionably good things. I find that too embarrassing and not at all in keeping with my present personality and beliefs.

In truth, though, I did find 1995 to be a period of almost overpowering optimism. It was a fantastic time to be young, and to feel that a lot of the ideas you had spent your short adult life arguing on behalf of were finally starting to seem relevant. Not just politically, but also musically too. It's only as a grown man with years of bitter experience behind me that I realise that actually, things weren't quite as they seemed, and the celebratory party was going to be rather brief. Ignoring mid-nineties politics completely, which is an incredibly complicated argument to have (though did have an impact on music and culture in general) Britpop itself could often be rather dull and formulaic in places, especially by the time we got to 1996, and it was often the material that got caught in its slipstream that tended to be most interesting. In a similar manner to how anything weird and wonderful tended to get signed to bemused major labels in the late sixties, so the mid-nineties saw all manner of unexpected candidates get major deals. I interviewed Euros Childs of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci in early 1995, and tried to suggest they'd be with a major label within the year. I was told not to be ridiculous. A year later, they were (it didn't really work out, but to be fair, I didn't actually predict that it would).

At the commercial peaks, there were also several names who really mattered. Blur were frequently fantastic. Pulp were spellbinding. Oasis were damn good. New names were emerging, such as Supergrass, who were clearly also going to be around for a long time. In many respects, we had won the argument. And the indie charts... well, we all watched them avidly when they turned up on "The Chart Show" on Saturday mornings as always, but we weren't necessarily asking whether Oasis had got to number one in the indie chart. We wanted to know if they had gone top ten in the national charts.

The "Indie Top 20" series was beginning to lose its grip at this point. Phonogram were on the verge of launching the "Shine" series, featuring a ton of alternative artists the "Indie Top 20" series both was including and couldn't really afford to include, and it retailed at a lower price. EMI were about to launch the "Greatest Album In The World... Ever!" series for a similar purpose. Beechwood were being squeezed out of the picture. They had to compete, but how could they?

We're drawing close to the end now. Sometimes the cost of winning the argument is that everyone else with more money and power runs away enthusiastically with your ideas, and you no longer have a vital place left in the debate.

1. Oasis - Live Forever (Creation)

If anyone had any doubts about Oasis's abilities, they were utterly swept to one side by the time "Live Forever" emerged. It was the first sign that Noel Gallagher did far more than write attitude-drenched pieces of indie rifflola like "Supersonic" or "Shakermaker", and could actually write anthems.

The track opens with the metronomic clicking of Tony McCarroll's incredibly simplistic drumming, which ill prepares you for the mountain the track itself is going to scale. The guitars chime in, and Liam's voice hollers out, defiant. So far, it sounds like an incredibly good Las track with a mid-sixties backbeat, but also powerful, aware of its scruffy post-punk place.

Then the chorus arrives, and suddenly you're swept along on blissful ideas which wouldn't have been out of place on a Stone Roses or Paris Angels track back in 1989 or 1990. It's both ridiculously cocksure and yet slightly aware that its central focus is hope, not telling the listener things as they truly are. When Liam delivers the line "Baby, I just want to fly/ Wanna live I don't wanna die", he clearly knew Noel wasn't battling with Leonard Cohen for finely crafted lyrical ideas. But if you listen closely, there's a keenly different pronunciation of the word "die" to the rest of the words - it's almost spat out in disgust. Then, as the song surges forward, it changes key and tone completely towards the final minute and sounds less hopeful, as if each line actually has a question mark on the end. "We're gonna live forever?" asks Liam.

I know. I'm reading a colossal amount into a popular Oasis song, which you're not supposed to do. But the way the song is constructed is very canny and clever. It's not just a simple anthem, it also moves forwards, and melodically seems to encompass a wide range of emotions. Nobody actually believes they're going to live forever. It's a feeling you get a few times in your life, when a moment seems so astonishing that absolutely anything seems as if it could be possible, including your own immortality. But moments have to fade. The peaks in life either continue and become the new normal, with their own unique trials and tribulations or previously unforeseen pitfalls, or they fade away. The final descending chords always make me feel as if "Live Forever" is crashing back down to earth in a way that a track like Echobelly's "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" wouldn't dare or bother to do.

I spent the summer of 1994 working in a data entry job, typing people's names and addresses into a bank's marketing spreadsheet for seven hours a day. "Live Forever" may have only got to number ten in the charts - which seems ridiculous in retrospect - but I knew Oasis were more than just the next Suede in commercial terms when everyone in the office yelled "Oasis are on Radio One now!" whenever the track got played. People rustled in their bags for their portable radios and headphones. Something was changing. Everyone was starting to listen now.

We won't meet Oasis again on this blog, but summarising the rest of their career here seems a bit pointless. You already know what comes next.

2. Sleeper - Inbetweener (Indolent)

Sleeper's first proper hit single was also a very predictable event, with some music journalists, such as Caitlin Moran, going as far as to call it a piece of classic British songwriting to be reckoned with alongside any of the greats you care to name. Uh-huh.

As discussed on Volume 20, Sleeper's move to more commercial waters was blameless but slightly cynical nonetheless. Sensing the axe hanging over their careers if they couldn't write at least a couple of bona-fide hits, Wener began crafting the catchiest riffs and melodies possible to ensure she wouldn't end up back on the scrapheap. "Inbetweener" is, it has to be said, proof that she could pull it off, but it's far from their finest hour.

A bit like Blur's "Parklife", the verses all have a jogging, matter-of-fact pace to them, like a person humming their way through a to-do list, but unlike "Parklife" it lacks wit or absurdity. "She's shopping for kicks, got the weekend to get through/ keeping the rain off her Saturday hairdo" it begins, setting the tone for the rest of the song. Throughout, we are heavily signposted towards a woman who is merely making do with things - most certainly her present boyfriend, and probably other aspects of her life as well. The chorus is like a nagging friend staging an intervention, and is much more epic in its style. "What kind of A to Z would get you here?" it asks. It's clear we're at a turning point in the unfortunate person's life, and "Inbetweener" acts as a soundtrack to that halfway house, the chiming chorus of common sense bursting through the humdrum verses. The trouble is, I find the verses quite irritating, very middling, matter-of-fact and la-di-da. They make their flat, weary emotionally exhausted point, but once that's sunk in (after the first listen) they seem increasingly as if they're marking time, acting as blank little incidental buffers between the chorus's burst of sunshine.

Wener's views on the grey dullness of suburban life were also coloured by her childhood experiences of growing up in Gants Hill... which is where I'm typing this blog entry right now. I was born in the same hospital as Louise Wener, and due to various differing paths in our life stories, I didn't end up having pop success and moving to Crouch End (though to be fair, she deserves it more than me). Gants Hill forms part of Ilford, a strange area which can't quite make up its mind what it wants to be. A local newspaper recently conducted a poll to ask whether residents believed they lived in London or Essex. The results were almost 50/50. As you walk around, you can see that contradiction everywhere - it's tremendously ethnically diverse (unlike, say, Canvey Island or Clacton) and urban looking. Then you pass a neon-advertised karaoke night, and a bar boasting of "Eighties sounds tonight!" and feel as if you're way out of the city and close to the coast. It's a complex and frequently absurd area, with its own peculiarities, conflicts and eccentricities - another ex-resident Simon Amstell nailed some aspects of those more effectively on "Grandma's House", a series which was littered with in-jokes. You can only consider Ilford outright dull if you're looking out for glamour, famous people or movers and shakers. They're about twenty minutes up the Central line, which is no distance whatsoever (although I appreciate that psychologically it may feel like a hundred miles away).

Damon Albarn also grew up in Essex, and was another keen supporter of the "life of the dull commuter town nobody" narrative. Problematically, I happen to think that striving to better yourself and rise above the herd rather than work with your given community is a very Essex idea and aspiration in itself, in whatever form it takes. The area is littered with working class and lower middle class people who grabbed the opportunities afforded to them in the seventies and eighties and flew with them, looking over their shoulders and laughing at their old school friends as they left. The financial districts of Central London are littered with such people to whom the scoffing insult "Losers!" has become acceptable conduct. By writing sketchy lyrics about the "little people" from a loftier, more enlightened perspective, it could be argued that some Britpop stars were actually doing exactly the same as their old curtain-twitching neighbours who felt "rather sorry for Angela at number 26, in her scruffy dress going to a job she really hates". I feel closer culturally to Wener and Albarn than probably any other pop stars of this era, and yet there are moments when both make me feel uncomfortable. They remind me of the worst bits of my own personality I had when I was much younger. This may not be your problem, but there's a strong chance it stops me from enjoying some of their work as much as I should.

I have much less of a problem with Jarvis Cocker's observational lyrics, perhaps partly because he was much less close to home geographically speaking, and also partly because he genuinely, passionately rooted for the people he wrote about. His voice used to yelp and crack in protest about their missed opportunities, pitting them against a society that had ill-treated them. "Inbetweener", by comparison, wears a smile on its face and has the emotional pull of a short "real life" piece for a weekly gossip magazine. You get the impression Wener doesn't like anybody in the song much at all - they're primarily described by their failings ("he's nothing special/ she's not too smart") and the take-home message seems to be "Thank God tonight it's them instead of you". It's a catchy pop song, but nobody can accuse it of having a great deal of warmth.

3. Echobelly - Close.... But (Fauve)

"Close.... But" is a downright strange little single, in that it actually has a very jerky, almost XTC-esque rhythm pattern behind it, and manages some very unexpected frills, jolts, twists and changes. All the way through, Sonya's voice hiccups, hollers, sighs, soars and generally performs gymnastics worthy of a slightly more subdued Kate Bush.

As I've typed all that, I've realised something that doesn't make sense. Despite all the above, the song doesn't once manage to sound like anything other than a fleeting, inoffensive noise. It somehow disguises its oddness through its well-produced, mid tempo pace, and slips through the net as a daytime radio possibility rather than an evening radio certainty. All this would be fine if, while doing so, it didn't also end up sounding slightly unremarkable and unmemorable. If there's a hook or a compelling reason to put this on again, I really can't find it. Pass.

As it turned out, most of the public passed on this as well, and it didn't manage to come even close to charting within the Top 40.

4. Cracker - Low (Virgin)

Cracker were briefly enormous news in the USA, and this single had a strong cult following both over here and there. It's a brooding piece of epic alternative rock, with noodling, angsty chords and biting vocals. Unlike Smashing Pumpkins or Stone Temple Pilots, it stops itself short of histrionics and gets right to the point, which acts very much in its favour. This track has a bite to it, and a memorable hook - I was amazed to find myself humming along to it almost immediately after the first note, despite not having heard it for years.

Unfortunately, it remains the song Cracker are most known for, and they didn't manage to write follow-ups which had the same impact. They remain an active cult group in the USA, but their work had never had the light of the mainstream shining on it since.

5. Perfume - Lover (Aroma Sound)

Leicester's Perfume were one of those rare Britpop era groups who managed a degree of press acclaim and daytime radio airplay, and yet somehow still managed not to peek over the wall of the Top 40. Their biggest single, the much played "Haven't Seen You", had to settle for a number 71 chart place.

Much more than that raucous track, "Lover" sounds as if it should have found more widespread public appreciation. Filled with swooping, wailing vocals and a continually evolving melody, it's almost a little bit too perfect for its own good, sounding somewhat close to an early eighties construction from a psychedelic post-punk group like Wild Swans or an indie-fied piece of Eastern European rock, rather than a simple, joyous pop sound. It's possibly for this reason that it failed, acting as far too much for the time-pressed punter to take in. It was remixed and reissued in 1997 with a string section, which I actually prefer (though their fans tend to be quite sharply dismissive of it). It still achieved nothing, though.

Perfume wouldn't appear on another "Indie Top 20" album, but Universal Records saw fit to include them on the "Britpop Story" three CD set when it was issued in 2009, proving that someone, somewhere still remembered the fact that they partly soundtracked the era, even if their sales statistics were unimpressive compared to many of their peers.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Indie Top 20 Vol 20 - Stereolab, Drugstore, Cranes, Pale Saints, Frente!

16. Stereolab - Ping Pong (Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks)

It's somewhat absurd yet fitting that Stereolab's most known single is a chirpy paean to the flaws of capitalism. To a series of almost easy listening organ chords and a skippy melody, Laetitia sings observations such as "It's alright 'cause the historical pattern has shown/ How the economical cycle tends to revolve/ In a round of decades three stages stand out in a loop/ A slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more". It's like a melody from "The Sound of Music" retooled to teach the kids about Marxist principles.

I have to confess that despite its ubiquity (certainly compared to other Stereolab tunes, anyway) it's not my favourite piece of work of theirs. Whereas other singles they issued were often pieces of sprawling minimalism with subtle details emerging listen after listen, the first impressions you get from "Ping Pong" are really all there is. That said, as a piece of subversive political pop, it's a deeply sarcastic and scathing piece of work, slowly burrowing Marxist earworms into the brains of innocent teens and children everywhere.

17. Drugstore - Starcrossed (Honey)

Drugstore were an astonishing live band I frequently caught live during this period. They were fronted by the strangely spacey, starry, charismatic singer Isabel Monteiro, who on one occasion mopped tears from her eyes while the audience applauded, and I wasn't entirely sure if she was joking for effect or not.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Drugstore's music was frequently slow, woozy and delicate, but her vocals ensured that every song packed an enormous punch too. "Starcrossed" is filled to the brim with fuzzy guitars, stripped back drum patterns, then topped off marvellously by her dreamy yet somehow piercing voice. On vinyl the intimate, emotional pull of what they managed to achieve as a live band could occasionally be lost, and I don't think this track is any exception - but it still feels like being smothered by a beautiful, soft sonic duvet. Albeit one whose colour scheme possibly makes your eyes go a bit funny.

Isabel relocated to her home country Brazil in early 2015, effectively finishing the band, who had otherwise remained a going concern until that point. However, she remains active as a singer and musician over there.

18. Cranes - Shining Road (Dedicated)

Portsmouth's finest returned with something which was as close as the group came to sounding full of beans. Filled with fuzzed up guitar lines and galloping rhythms, "Shining Road" sure as hell isn't Britpop, but it's closer to pop than the band usually stepped. The faint sense of unease that usually seeps through the band's music overpowering any other intentions is also gone, replaced by something almost optimistic.

Not quite, though. Alison Shaw's parting lines, after singing about seeking out bright city lights and travel, are "And is it all because of you?/ Every time I look at you/ If I look back never mind/ Just don't worry, I'll be fine". I lived in Australia for a year myself - leading the "blogosphere" to get very confused when I first launched "Left and to the Back" and assume I was Australian - and the people I met on the way were mostly a joyous bundle of drunken energy, but there were always a few who didn't like the question "What made you decide to come here?" I nearly caused a woman I met to burst into tears when I asked this innocent question, and after that, never asked anyone again.

The road is frequently a very tempting and, in the modern world, simple response to disappointment, mourning or heartache, the "shining" alternative to dealing with the immediate mess around you. In the novel "Billy Liar", the main character is warned by his mother "You can't run away from your problems, you know. You just pack them into your suitcase and take them with you". In the end, he chooses not to take that way out, although he has very little to lose. "Shining Road", though, is one of the few tracks I can think of that genuinely spells out the doubt and personal anguish behind that route taken and the dazzling fantasy of a relocated city life.


19. Pale Saints - Fine Friend (4AD)

Pale Saints purists tend to reject this era of the group as being almost an irrelevance. The original lead singer Ian Masters had upped sticks, and Meriel Barnham was now fully in the spotlight. Gone were Ian's frail choirboy vocals, and Meriel replaced them with something richer and more self-assured. 

Not only did this did have an impact on the group's sound, but the psychedelia of their previous work had now been largely replaced by a much moodier, more organic sound. It hasn't escaped the ears of many listeners just how similar "Fine Friend" is melodically and stylistically to Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You", and that really can't be disputed. This sounds like the work of a group who had absorbed a lot of new influences and undergone a total reinvention.

Much as I do find this single genuinely haunting and beautiful, and perhaps unfairly overlooked as a result of the purists, I can't say that I prefer it to their earliest work. It's not surprising that they disintegrated not long afterwards, having moved on to something which failed to ignite the imaginations of most critics or indeed fans, nor resulted in any improved commercial standing. 

20. Frente! - Bizarre Love Triangle (Mushroom)

Australia has always been filled to the brim with groups who have managed to make enormous waves in their home country and in New Zealand, but failed to create much of an impact further afield. Some are truly wondrous - the situationism and satire of TISM (aka This Is Serious, Mum) doesn't always translate easily to British shores, but is hilarious and effective. Then there's the likes of Master's Apprentices and their sixties/ seventies blues rock, or er, Lubricated Goat who released the album "People With Chairs Up Their Noses".

Anyway, Frente were something of an alternative folk-pop sensation in Australia in the nineties, producing one platinum LP over there in the form of "Marvin The Album" in 1992. We British were first introduced to them via the wonders of the soap opera "Home And Away", where they seemed to be crowbarred into the script for weeks on end, with endless declarations of "Heeeeey, are you guys going to see Frente toniiight?" while their latest single also played on the Summer Bay cafe radio, just to really hammer the point home about how hip and happening they were. 

Asides from snatches of music on "Home And Away" and a guest appearance, most people in this country didn't really pay the group much heed until they issued this skeletal, quickie cover of New Order's single. It's brief, sweet and a pleasant listen, but really no more than that. Clearly not everyone agrees with me, however, as it reached number 76 in the UK charts and number 49 in the US Billboard Hot 100, a truly astonishing achievement for such a niche idea. 

In retrospect, it's entirely possible to look at this cover of "Bizarre Love Triangle" and see it as pre-empting the acoustic or ukulele inflected covers which have saturated television advertising in the last 5-10 years. It's a very similar approach - take a known, credible track and turn it into something homespun and folksy with sweet, heartfelt vocals on top. Sadly for Frente, nobody wins any prizes in pop for being the first through the thicket, and the track didn't even break through in a significant way in their home country, remaining a fringe concern for sad indie kids.