Thursday, 9 November 2017

Volume 23 Tracks 11-16 - Babybird, Heavy Stereo, Pusherman, 60ft Dolls, 18 Wheeler

11. Babybird - Goodnight (Echo)

In the midst of all the hype around Britpop related artists at the time, Stephen Jones - aka Babybird - was an unusual and much discussed character. Issuing three LPs in 1995 and a further three in 1996, of which all but one were recorded on his home four-track recording studio, he represented a side of indie that was in danger of becoming forgotten amidst the flag-waving - innovative, intelligent, unusual and cutting ideas produced by mavericks on a low budget. In retrospect, many of his early records are patchy and perhaps too raw for their own good in places, but they were imaginative and even amusing in a way that the latest big releases often weren't.

Given the volume of press attention and late night radio play he was getting, an army of record company A&R employees began ringing Stephen Jones's phone, despite the fact that that almost all had sent him abrupt rejection letters a mere couple of years before. The first non-bedroom LP, "Ugly Beautiful", was the final result on Echo and allowed Jones to flesh out some of his ideas into bigger sounding productions.

"You're Gorgeous" was his biggest hit and remains the song that allows people to labour under the misapprehension that he's a one-hit wonder. In fact, "Goodnight" was a minor hit before that single broke through, and is arguably the better track. While a large part of the appeal of "You're Gorgeous" lies in its satirical, table-turning, gender based observational lyrics, "Goodnight" is driven by sharp hooks. From the atmospheric keyboard sounds in the opening bars through to the urgent, pressing guitar riff, it's actually a brilliant pop track married to particularly surreal lyrics about relationship frustrations. "Run me a bath, and plug me in/ I'm like a TV learning to swim" sings Jones at one point, which was much mocked at the time, but that may be because mid-nineties listeners expected wry observational lyrics or re-heated sixties cliches, not bursts of bizarre imagery.

To this day, "Goodnight" feels both extraordinarily commercial and yet strangely alienating and bitter. Babybird would slowly drift back underground with ever-decreasing sales for each successive album, but even Gary Barlow had to remark on Jones's keen pop sense when he was asked to review the 1999 single "Together Again" on a TV pop panel. "That's going to be a huge hit", he predicted confidently. It wasn't. It did get to number 22, though, which would be the last time Babybird ever entered the top thirty.

12. Heavy Stereo - Mouse In A Hole (Creation)

By now, most people had accepted that Heavy Stereo were not going to be rock stars, and they had begun to sink from view in the music press and on the radio. "Mouse In A Hole" sounds appropriate under the circumstances, being melancholic and lost sounding, meandering around various sixties styled melodies like the Small Faces at their most despairing.

It's not bad, actually, but it didn't sound like much of a single, and indeed it wasn't. Their fourth and final release, it failed to do what was needed for the group and give them a hit. It instead peaked at number 53, and they split up not long afterwards.

Gem Archer eventually joined Oasis, attracting interested stares in his local pub when he walked in shortly after joining forces with the Gallaghers. This led to the sadly departed comedian Sean Hughes commenting loudly: "He’s in here all the fucking time but until now he’s just been that cunt from Heavy Stereo".

13. Pusherman - The Aim Indeed (Ignition)

I caught Pusherman live in Portsmouth - the lead singer Andy Frank's hometown - in 1996, and they came across as a bunch of slightly bedraggled, decadent dudes producing sprawling, heavy but atmospheric songs. Like a slightly nastier and meaner version of The Verve, there was a darkness at the core of what they did. You couldn't imagine a member of Pusherman claiming they could go astral flying, they seemed much more likely to be the types to sell you drugs laced with Happy Shopper Vim that would make you think you could, before you keeled over helplessly.

Drugs were both in the group's name and a part of their lifestyle, with issues with heroin becoming increasingly problematic over time. "The Aim Indeed" doesn't hint at that, but is a peculiar mix of Britpop attitude and harsh psychedelia. It's threatening and arrogant while also being disorientating and complex, something the majority of the bands of the era didn't quite manage to do. Squeals of feedback meet heavy dub-styled basslines and snarling vocals, and I've only realised listening back to it now quite how out of sorts with the era it was.

The group received ecstatic press, but it all amounted to nothing and they soon disintegrated. The lead singer Andy Frank eventually died in 2008, aged 42.

14. 60ft Dolls - Talk To Me (Indolent)

"Talk To Me" is really 60ft Dolls at their snappiest and most straightforward, sounding for all the world like an early Jam track. Caustic, energetic and swinging, it's almost a pop song, but never quite finds a way of easing off enough to appease the Radio One pop kids.

Nonetheless, it was their biggest hit, reaching number 37, despite the fact that later singles "Stay" and the fantastic "Alison's Room" proved that the group were capable of writing songs with much more powerful hooks at their centre. Nowt as queer as the record buying public.

The group ceased activities after being dropped by Indolent in 1998, and lead singer Richard Parfitt went on to discover Duffy and help launch her career, as well as (somewhat unexpectedly) sessioning for Dido.

15. 18 Wheeler - Crabs (Creation)

18 Wheeler had been a long-standing signing of Alan McGee's, and were generally considered to be one of the outsider indie groups on Creation along with The Jasmine Minks and The Jazz Butcher - propped up by the charity and goodwill of the label rather than any expectation they would become mainstream artists.

By 1996 it seemed as if the band were having a change of heart, however, and were beginning to move from indie guitar noises to toy and experiment with Dance music sounds. "Crabs" shows how bouyant and anthemic they were at this point, combining Ravy Davy styled euphoric church organ sounds with crunching guitar noises and pulsing beats. In fact, it sounds not unlike the work of 21st Century baggy revivalists Swim Deep, creating the unusual effect of making 18 Wheeler sound far more current than almost any other group on this CD.

McGee got behind the group's change of direction with enthusiasm and pushed them with renewed vigour, even getting them to perform at the Labour Party Conference where they were incorrectly introduced by Tony Blair as "Wheeler 18". Despite all this, and despite a notable bump in their record sales, they never quite got noticed by the general public and were dropped by Creation not long afterwards.

They are perhaps most notable for being the group Oasis were supporting when Alan McGee first discovered them, so there's an argument to be made for the fact that they were indirectly responsible for that group's success.

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