Sunday, 1 October 2017

Volume 22 Tracks 1-5 - Boo Radleys, Echobelly, Sleeper, Julian Cope, Teenage Fanclub

Format: CD/ cassette
Year of Release: 1995

The sleeve design of "Indie Top 20" changes again, this time to incorporate some subbuteo players on a bright green background. If the earliest volumes emerged with images of paper clips and thick-rimmed NHS glasses, the final volumes spluttered out with lots of retro and lad-mag friendly pictures of reassuring boyhood things. The final "Best Of" volume would (as we'll see) use tankards of ale on its sleeve, and Volume 23 toy racetrack cars. You can read into this whatever you like, but if the first LPs seemed to brag that indie music operated on the outskirts and predicted the future, the final ones seemed to be trying to tell us that indieland was a post-modern world of colourful old ideas belched back up as pop ate itself - music to relive your childhood fantasies to with your best drunken chums.

And that really depended on where you were looking, of course. There were numerous bursts of awkward psychedelia and seering bits of indie lo-fi creeping their way into the top ten indie chart by 1995, besides the stuff Chris Evans was happy to play on his Radio One breakfast show. Instead of trying to compete with the numerous major label funded indie compilations around at this point, Beechwood could have chosen to plough their own furrow by hoovering up a lot more of the critically acclaimed Peel and Evening Session bands who weren't making as much mainstream noise. The kids with hairgrips and duffle bags were back (back! Back!) and growing in number - now might have been a good time to differentiate and go back to basics. Other labels like Fierce Panda were beginning to push forward in this respect.

Sophisticated, intricately arranged alternative music was also alive and well thanks to the growing stature of the likes of Tindersticks, Jack, My Life Story, and shortly Divine Comedy - there was an entire Scott Walker/ Nick Cave/ French orchestral pop inspired division of indie which got plenty of press at the time, but barely seems acknowledged as any kind of nineties development now (if you haven't heard Jack, by the way, do yourself a favour and buy their first two LPs now). None of these bands would ever find their way on to the series.

Volume 22 is the penultimate "proper" Indie Top 20 LP, and is something of a compromise, filled to the brim with mostly mid-table commercial indie rock, only some of which flies. Certainly from an historical point of view, though, a lot of it has become fascinating since, but it creates an unreliable picture of the scene as a whole, and smacks of desperation. My singles box at home felt far more exciting in 1995 than this.

1. Boo Radleys - Wake Up Boo (Creation)

And with a big fat parp, the Radleys open things in a celebratory fashion. "Wake Up Boo" has become many things to the group since - an albatross and a regular royalty cheque chief among them, I suspect - and it's also become one of the most overplayed songs of the era, to the extent that trying to listen to it afresh is near impossible. Shortly after its release its jolly brassiness soundtracked Radio One Roadshows, adverts for Virgin Radio, BBC preview footage, sports footage and plenty of other things besides. Listening again, though, my first thought is that the opening bars of the single always did sound like library music which could be entitled "Celebratory Music For An Evening Quiz Show", so the fact it became a media backing track as well as an effervescent, ever-present piece of genuinely appreciated chart music shouldn't be that surprising.

While critics at the time made inevitable comparisons to the Beach Boys, "Wake Up Boo" doesn't sound a jot like anything Brian Wilson would have made, even in his earliest days. Its foot-kicking, vocal harmony infested jolliness resembles The Four Seasons at their most sprightly if anything, and the band confessed that they actually came up with the idea for the record after listening to Take That's version of "Could It Be Magic". Really, this is the group trying to write a pop hit after years of being a cult concern, and finding they were in a position to pull it off.

There was so much goodwill towards the Boos at the time that nobody resented them for trying to earn a reasonable living, and I think that possibly lead to "Wake Up Boo" getting a free critical pass it doesn't entirely deserve. Lyrically vague and scattershot - explanations vary, some arguing it's supposed to be about two lovers, one in some kind of LSD trip love affair with the world, the other dour and cynical, others that it's about the change from summer to autumn - and filled to the brim with the plastic bounce of a cheap Woolworths football, it's easy to tire of. It's very much an indie group's idea of what a pop song sounds like; all skip and froth and no conflicting emotional pull (the "Death of summer"/ "You have to put the death in everything" aspect makes it sound as if they tried to cover that base, but lacked the experience to pull it off, and as such it glides past almost unnoticed.) In short, "Could It Be Magic" performs the job much more satisfactorily, having a bit of groove and swagger in its hips. If you're in the wrong mood, "Wake Up Boo" can be a charmless caffeinated stomp by comparison, the noise of the office optimist screaming "Mor-NING!" loudly in your face.

It also put the Radleys in a difficult position. Listening to Radio One one day, I overheard a Roadshow host talking to a small nine year old girl. "We've got the Boo Radleys here today, do you like them?" he gushed. "No!" snapped the petulant girl immediately, clearly unwilling to spend the next six months being mocked by her schoolfriends. "Wake Up Boo" served a purpose and raised the group's profile to incredible heights, but the group didn't look or behave like pop stars (or even want to spend the rest of their careers writing pop songs) and were ill suited to the long-term task. Future singles from the number one parent LP "Wake Up" (a more diverse and satisfying work than you'd realise from the choice of singles alone, actually) performed better than their previous 45s, but none reached the top twenty, with the follow-up "Find The Answer Within" struggling to number 37 as it remained overshadowed by their previous release. You could have choked on the dust the group threw up while running back to the drawing board.



2. Echobelly - Great Things (Fuave)

Echobelly, on the other hand, released something that sounded like "an ambitious media studies graduate's CV set to jolly music", as one particularly harsh critic dubbed "Great Things" at the time. Again, this single makes the cardinal error of believing that a combination of effervescence and optimism, plus the magical ingredient of self-belief, equals pop heaven. It usually doesn't, and pop songwriting is often a far more complex business than that. It yearns, doubts and questions and wonders even at its most million-selling, recognising that most listeners are equally complex, and need those twists and ambiguities to hang on to.

"Great Things" sounds like nothing so much as an overlong advertising jingle for Sonya Madan's personal credentials. The spirit of optimism which shone on the 1995-6 period allowed stuff like this to appear acceptable, but the cold, harsh light of 2017 makes it feel faintly absurd. You wrote an indie-pop song bullet-pointing your personal aspirations? WHY? Even Courtney Love would balk in disbelief at that. Like a lot of Echobelly singles, this feels quaint beyond measure now.



3. Sleeper - Vegas (Indolent)

Conversely, I enjoy "Vegas" way more now than I did at the point of its release. It's easy to write this off as being another sketchy character-portrait, but unlike "Inbetweener", it has a real darkness and warmth to its heart. Leaning back on the standard mid-life crisis "now or never" tale of a man who believes he can become a star, it could choose to be gently mocking, but it's oddly tender instead. Doubtless Sleeper had come close enough to defeat themselves to touch this story with the respect it deserved.

This time, the arrangement drops in yearning string patterns which recall the likes of Welsh melodramatists Jack while never quite taking that route full-on - it instead pulls in two directions, with Wener's vocals frothing over her protagonist's career change, while the group keen and pull the song in a less optimistic direction. The message is clear. The poor old sod is doomed, a deluded and over-excited soul set up to fail. He's probably not going to even get laid in Las Vegas, much less become the next Tom Jones there.

When she wanted to, Louise Wener could actually do this sort of thing exquisitely well. "Vegas" is double-edged and detailed in a way that "Wake Up Boo" and "Great Things" utterly struggle to be, despite being less of a hit in the process (it crawled to number 33 at the time, a comparative flop if weighed up against their later, bigger hits). There's both Britpop kitsch and irony as well as a beating heart somewhere in here, and at this stage in the compilation, that comes as some relief.

Regrettably, though, at least some of this song - not least the occasional cry of "bingo" - seems to have inspired the awful "Bingo" by Catch some years later, often deemed to be the point at which Britpop officially died.



4. Julian Cope - Try Try Try (Echo)

And thank all the pagan deities for Copey. By this point in his career, some suspected him of being in a second slump. The first occurred in the eighties after the Teardrop Explodes demise, the second after he was dropped by Island for being "too old" (apparently) and found himself on the somewhat unfortunately named indie label Echo, just shortly before the Bunnymen themselves were getting back on their feet again.

His debut LP for that label "20 Mothers" is uneven, but when it peaks, it reveals the singer at his most immediately powerful. "Try Try Try" is a yearning cry relating to a family dispute which is far from "The Living Years" or "No Son Of Mine", instead taking the idea down to a bluesy accessibility. Driven by the grinding organ chords in the background, "Try Try Try" sees Cope thrash out in frustration and hopelessness, before taking the track to one of his most furiously simple but effective choruses since "World Shut Your Mouth". It was Radio One playlisted and his first minor hit in some years, meaning that his brief stint on Echo wasn't entirely a bad thing. By the time the game was up in 1996, though, he became a much more marginal figure in rock music, issuing music on his own Head Heritage label as well as writing a number of brilliant books.

Cope really should be up there with Mark E Smith or Nick Cave as a constant and major figure in British alternative music, and I sense that only his own lack of willingness to fully engage with the so-called "industry" at large stands in the way.



5. Teenage Fanclub - Sparky's Dream (Creation)

From the almost universally acclaimed return-to-form LP "Grand Prix", "Sparky's Dream" really does sound like The Fannies had lost the indie scrappiness that (usually charmingly) littered their earliest LPs and had honed their sound to something very close to perfect 70s power pop.

"Sparky's Dream" is both fantastically performed and engaging three-minute FM rock, something you find yourself doubting is in any way melodically original, checking the chord patterns for cribbed riffs as it goes. The group were really firing on all cylinders by this point, and still manage to launch great new music to this day. If the "Indie Top 20" series were still a "thing", they'd still be on there, checking in faithfully from Volume 10 to Volume 88.

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