Sunday, 26 March 2017

Volume 14 Side Two - Dr Phibes & The House of Wax Equations, The Sugarcubes, Catwalk, Wonky Alice, Th'Faith Healers





















1. Dr Phibes and The House of Wax Equations: Hazy Lazy Hologram (50 Seel Street)

"Dr Phibes and The House of Wax Equations are based in Liverpool and signed to 50 Seel Street records. Fronted by Howard King Jr, Dr Phibes will go a long way. Do not be surprised if they soon get scooped up by a major record company and go on to have enormous commercial and critical success".

How unfortunate, but not unusual. The music press really were all a little mad for this psychedelic group in the early nineties, and there's no question at all that a lot of their work had a searing, almost frightening power to it other groups simply couldn't manage. "Hazy Lazy Hologram" is like being stoned and disorientated at a party while someone (Howard King Jr) forcefully lays matters on the line to you, wide eyed and dictatorial. It's not, if the truth be told, much of a song in the traditional sense of the word - the entire track is held together by sheer force of atmosphere, energy and personality. No easy feat, and something a lot of the shoegazing bands of the period were really missing; a dark and magnetic force at their hearts.

The major labels really didn't come knocking, though, perhaps realising that there was a limited market for this kind of thing, and the group never really did manage to build on the profile this high-climbing indie chart track afforded them. By 1995 they had split, and in 1997 Howard King Jr was charged with the murder of his mother and sentenced to life imprisonment at Caernarfon Crown Court. In other words, a swift reunion to capitalise on the presently burgeoning indie nostalgia circuit may be rather unlikely.



2. The Sugarcubes - Hit (One Little Indian)

"'Hit' is The Sugarcubes seventh single for One Little Indian and is featured on their third album 'Stick Around For Joy' which is their best collection of tunes since the release of their 1988 million selling debut album 'Life's Too Good'. The Sugarcubes are one of the most refreshingly innovative bands around at the moment".

First off, I find it slightly unbelievable that "Life's Too Good" sold a million copies globally, but I suppose the group did have a cult following across a large number of countries, and anything is possible. I'm surprised that stat isn't paraded around more frequently if it is true, though.

As for "Hit", it was the subject of much mockery from unimaginative and witless music critics at the time, all of whom seemed to say "Given their track record, the title seems like wishful thinking, eh readers?!" Needless to say, the group had the last laugh, and it did turn out to be their solitary British chart hit. While I doubt it was designed to be such - you got the impression that The Sugarcubes never really gave a shit about storming up the singles chart - "Hit" has a neatness, catchiness and fluidity to it most Sugarcubes singles lack. Even Einar's interjections are kept to a bare minimum.  With its funky guitar backing, taut rhythms and Bjork's pleading, imploring vocals, it's one of the group's strongest pieces of 45rpm work, and its dancefloor friendly nature hinted that their lead singer's future  potentially lay in other areas. Her work with 808 State ("Oops") showed that she could sound dazzlingly brilliant against electronic and dancefloor backdrops, and clearly lightbulbs began flashing above her head. The Sugarcubes were not long for this world.

In truth, there was a widespread perception that the group hadn't completely fulfilled their initial promise anyway, and by the time of their final album "Stick Around For Joy", public interest was waning despite the fact that "Hit" was their "breakthrough" moment (and still seems to be the only Sugarcubes song any UK radio station is actually interested in playing). The smell of fresh new pastures must have been tempting for everyone involved.



3. Catwalk - Damascus (Dedicated)

"Catwalk is made up of Chris Roberts and a shifting nucleus of contributing musicians. After winning the GLR demo clash for a record number of consecutive weeks, they were signed by Dedicated. 'Damascus' is 'a pulsating passion play about love, hate, revelation and mermaids', which is featured on Catwalk's debut 45 which came out in January".

Ah, Gary Crowley's demo clash and the good old days of Greater London Radio (one of the country's most under-rated radio stations at the time). You can almost imagine Crowley falling off his chair with excitement at all the new sounds flooding into the station, talking on air at high speed in block caps and buzzing his nut off at the possibility of finding the next big thing. For some of us in the early nineties, Crowley was the closest we got to a religious evangelist, except he was pushing lots of scratchy Camden indie bands rather than God.

For all their apparent popularity with London radio listeners, though, Catwalk were a short-lived proposition who only managed one more single after this one ("Ballerina") before Dedicated gave them the heave-ho. It's not massively surprising. "Damascus" is slick and smooth, with the kind of pulsating backing Depeche Mode wouldn't have deemed inappropriate a few years prior to its release - but it clings on to that central riff for dear life, relying on it to pull the entire song through. It's polished and accomplished, and a bit dirty and sassy with it, but lacks spark, personality or surprises. It actually sounds like a song built around an improvised studio jam performed by very competent and able musicians, closer to a U2/ Eno joint session than alternative rock. I can't hate it or object to it, but for me it's completely inessential.



4. Wonky Alice - Caterpillars (Pomona)

"Wonky Alice are a four piece who are causing quite a stir in the North West at the moment. 'Caterpillars' is taken from their debut EP for the Pomona label 'Insects and Astronauts'. The band recently recorded a Radio 5 session for Mark Radcliffe and have supported World of Twist. Wonky Alice are definitely a band to watch out for in future".

Stop with these inaccurate predictions, please! Do you see how much we were all scrabbling around in pop's great lucky dip barrel desperately looking for our new saviours at this point, readers? For verily, we lived in a time where our hopes and dreams were placed with such characters as Dr Phibes, Wonky Alice, Russell out of Moose and Loz from Kingmaker, and yea, they did not deliver, for Miles Hunt was the chosen one and so he would be crowned until Britpop came to our sacred isle.

Rochdale's Wonky Alice were a truly eccentric bunch to place any faith in, though, with perhaps the most appropriate band name of them all. Wobbly, ske-wiff riffs rambled around dispassionate vocals and elastic basslines, creating a noise which was utterly uncommercial but which nonetheless hinted towards an inventive and possibly bright future for the band. This was like the more angular moments from the C86 years returning with a vengeance - but in reality, and perhaps entirely predictably, the group could only manage a small cult following.

"Caterpillars" is odd, sharp and interesting, but very difficult to actually love.



5. Th'Faith Healers - Reptile Smile (Too Pure) - vinyl and cassette only

[I own the CD having sold my vinyl copy of this album some years ago, so unfortunately don't have the sleevenotes that went with this track.]

There again, Th'Faith Healers really up the ante. With rumbling basslines, spiralling, spindly riffs, taunting, irritated vocals and screeches of feedback, "Reptile Smile" is threatening without actually being aggressive. It's a jittery, impish screech of a record, underproduced as hell, and couldn't give a fig whether you like it or not.

The group had a sizeable cult following around London at the time, and were renowned for powerful live performances which some friends of mine still speak about today. I didn't witness them live, but on record it's possible to get a sense of that energy and unpredictability - "Reptile Smile" is ragged and pithy, and difficult to ignore.

The group would eventually split in 1993 after two LPs, and Tom Cullinan would later go on to be a key player in Quickspace.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Indie Top 20 Vol 14 - Lush, Moose, Revolver, Mercury Rev, Throwing Muses

Format: Double LP (plus bonus 12" single), CD, Cassette
Year of Release: 1992

This was the beginning of a very brief revamp for the "Indie Top 20" series, which saw it rebadged as "Independent 20". The volume number was not specified on the sleeve (a quick look at the spine and the TT014 catalogue number was the only way you would know if you'd been out of the country or in a coma for some time). We were instead treated to a random and seemingly unrelated image to tell the volumes apart - in this case, some pelicans. Later volumes would include a water slide, and a picture of some smiling children on a day out. Don't ask me why. Presumably this was some kind of attempt to go a bit 4AD/ Factory with the series design and present some sleeves which were a little artier.

The sleevenotes returned too, and were a little less half-arsed this time around.

On vinyl this was a hugely expensive purchase at the time. It came with glossy inner sleeves and a "free" bonus twelve inch single (which mostly consisted of demos and studio doodles, and I honestly don't want to review separately) but I winced at the price tag which was far higher than usual.

The volume also coincided with British independent music hitting a creative and commercial trough. I had a friend at this time who would regularly correct my statement "This has been such a bad year for music" with the answer "Dave, every year is a good year for music". His logic was simple. Whether I knew it or not, good music was being released or played all the time, and even if one year was a particularly fallow period for new sounds, there would still be plenty of brilliant old music I hadn't discovered yet. Fair points all, but for the purposes of this blog, Volume 14 really coincides with a period where the alternative scene seemed to mostly slink back apologetically to the underground.  Bands playing in small bars and groups issuing singles with wrap-around Xeroxed sleeves in polythene bags got more press and late-night airplay than they could have seriously imagined possible. Unlike C86, though, many of the groups were underground punk dinmakers. Nothing wrong with that, and there are some fine noises to be had here - but in many cases, some of these groups we'll be discussing were one-trick ponies who will never feature on the series again.

It's a peculiar LP and I must admit, probably one of my least favourites in the series. It's a very, very good snapshot of the kind of bands you would hear performing in dingy venues with overflowing urinals in late 1991 and 1992, but perhaps inevitably, lots of it fails to stand up to repeated listens.

1. Lush - For Love (4AD)

"Since their formation in 1988 and the release of the first mini-LP "Scar" in 1989, Lush have had to develop under the spotlight of the nation's music media. The 'For Love' EP and the recent Guthrie produced album 'Spooky' have proved beyond a doubt that Lush have been worthy of the attention which has been paid to them over the past three years".

In many respects, Lush kicking off the LP creates the impression that little has moved on since Volume 13. "For Love", though, is a peculiarly fragile little record, with a delicate wind-up music box melody and frail vocals. Here, Miki Berenyi's voice veers strangely close to that of the woman who sang the theme tune to the sit-com "Dear John" - an absurd style, but the high-pitched hushiness of them is well-suited to a song about the naiveté of adolescent romance.

Of all Lush's singles, even the later "Britpop" efforts, "For Love" feels strangely unrepresentative of the group. It's gently reflective and faintly satirical, and presents itself as a piece of fey contemplation on teenage love while biting hard with a noticeably feminist angle if you listen hard enough. "Happy just to be a prize/ Happy just to see his smile" suggests servitude, and choosing the role of the "girlfriend" as a secure badge of identity rather than genuine romance. It's easy to miss that through the chiming prettiness of it all, though.

"For Love" is a rather strange moment in Lush's catalogue, but not an unlikeable one.



2. Moose - Last Night I Fell Again (Hut)

"Moose shot out of musical obscurity in the early part of '91 with the release of their 'Jack' EP on the Hut label. 'Cool Breeze', their second EP, quickly followed and established Moose still further as an important and exciting new band. 'Lsat Night I Fell Again' is featured on their third EP 'Reprise' which sees Moose in a more melancholic mood. Do keep an eye on Moose as they have the talent to produce something rather remarkable in the future".

With its incessant shimmering backing and despairing, hungover sounding vocals, "Last Night I Fell Again" does indeed catch Moose at their moodiest, with their usual love for psychedelic effects pedal twiddling sidelined slightly for a lovelorn feel. While it was tempting for many critics at the time to write the group off as being another shoegazing band, time and more releases would prove that they actually had considerably more talent than that. Also tucked away on the "Reprise" EP is a track many consider to be their finest moment, the heartfelt ballad "This River Will Never Run Dry" - a full six minutes of jangly guitars, and fragile vocals singing of romantic commitment. "I wanna marry in the morning/ with the sunlight in our eyes/ I'm always near/ This river never will run dry" Russell Moose declares to a steadily building, innocent melody. It's one of those moments indie bands excel at where conventional mainstream groups often fail - sometimes you need imperfection, a cheap sounding guitar, and a wobbled vocal note to bring home how cracked but special the blessed ordinariness of life can be.



3. Revolver - Don't Ever Leave (Hut)

"Revolver emerged in '91 as the torch bearers of new order in independent music. They soon signed to Hut and have released two critically acclaimed singles to date. The first, 'Heaven Sent An Angel', silenced those journalists who claimed the band were just hype. The following 'Crimson' EP which 'Don't Ever Leave' is taken from, is a collection of tender tracks which prove that Revolver will definitely be a force to be reckoned with in the months and years to come".

Whatever. To be honest, few things fill me with less hope than the declaration "Here's something from a Revolver EP which isn't the lead track", and in this case that wouldn't be remotely unreasonable of me. "Don't Ever Leave" is four minutes of heavily distorted bass noises, DIY wooden box drum patterns, and woe-filled vocals. Full credit to the group for taking things in a much less obvious direction and experimenting with the possibilities of sound in an unpredictable way, but the song itself is so simplistic that no amount of lo-fi sonic shenanigans can save it. The initial, elephant-thudding, mocking three-note riff dominates throughout, making for a deeply dreary listening experience, and it's a blessed relief when the damn thing is finally over.



4. Mercury Rev - Car Wash Hair (the bee's chasing me) Full Pull (Mint Films/ Jungle)

"Mercury Rev are a six-piece from Buffalo, New York who took the independent music scene by storm in '91 with the release of their 'Yerself Is Steam' LP. They have been compared to various bands such as Sonic Youth, Pink Floyd, Jane's Addiction and Butthole Surfers. 'Car Wash Hair' was their debut single which earned Mercury Rev a Melody Maker single of the week".

"Car Wash Hair" had the distinct advantage of sounding very little like any of the other bands being thrown at us in late 1991. Simultaneously psychedelic, mellow, ponderous and preposterous, it recalled the post-summer of love comedown noises of obscure sixties American psychedelic bands. Few bands had ever entered the fray with such a damaged sounding record - "Car Wash Hair" sounds like the product of a group who have already enjoyed their fair share of hallucinogenic drugs and are now freaking out in Studio Three trying to record their final flop album in a fried and tragic state. The pinging radar noise throughout sounds like a hint that the group are looking for life - something, anything tangible to cling on to.

It's a fine piece of work, obviously. A fluttering, steadily building piece of soft beauty which never quite falls over into total chaos, however much it threatens to. Mercury Rev would eventually reach success with a more conventionally epic sound, but this single indicates that their beginnings were almost entirely grounded in a frail and occasionally frightening kind of psychedelia. There was a slight sense that they didn't quite know what they were doing, but the whole thing worked out fine anyway. It's a thrill to hear the group walk the tightrope successfully.



5. Throwing Muses - Not Too Soon (4AD)

"Over the past six years Throwing Muses have been one of the most consistent bands to have come out of America. Signed to 4AD in '86, they have released a total of four EPs, one mini LP and four full length albums. 'Not Too Soon', taken from '91's "Real Ramona" LP, was written by Tanya Donelly who has since left the group. Both Tanya and the Muses are currently recording LPs for release this autumn".

Perhaps inevitably, "Not Too Soon" ends up sounding more like Tanya Donelly than most Throwing Muses tracks here, and - intentionally or otherwise - appeared to act as a showcase for her forthcoming work with the group Belly. While Hersh was always popularly regarded as the eccentric and creative genius within the group, her stepsister Donelly was often left to flounder somewhere in the background - doubtless a frustrating situation for someone with bags of talent of her own (and a very separate personality with an arguably more conventional charisma attached).

"Not Too Soon" is immediate evidence that Donelly could cope by herself. A killer riff is matched by her growling vocal force, and the tracks bursts into life from the first split second, Tanya snapping the track wide open with the words "She... colourblind, tired eyes..." while the Muses weave their magic behind her. The pounding drums and somewhat absurd, inarticulate chorus reveal that we're still very much in their territory, but this is nonetheless an oddly catchy and compelling single.

With Belly, Donelly would go on to become a mainstream media figure for awhile, and scored a number one LP in the British Charts with her debut LP "Star". Seldom have individuals breaking away from groups had so much success and acclaim so quickly on their own.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Volume 13 Side Four - Pale Saints, Dodgy, Pierre Étoile, No-Man, Cath Carroll





















1. Pale Saints - Porpoise (4AD)

Another unusual track choice for "Indie Top 20", "Porpoise" was the second track off Pale Saints' "Flesh Balloon" EP. Far better known was their cover of Nancy Sinatra's "Kinky Love" which graced the same record and received rather more airplay than shoegazing bands were used to, bursting out of evening transistor radios and "The Chart Show". This shouldn't be altogether surprising, since it was a dreamy, rich and detailed cover which bought the original into the technicolour early nineties - a final number 72 chart position barely seems like a just reward for the band's efforts.

"Porpoise", on the other hand, is an atmospheric instrumental lead by an unexpectedly cheap Casio keyboard riff (my ears immediately identified that it's the same Casio keyboard we used to have cluttering the stock cupboard at my comprehensive school). If it sounds like it belongs anywhere at all, it's as part of the backing music that Channel 4 used to use on their testcards in the early eighties. That's not actually meant to be a cutting criticism, since some of the things they included were melodic but with very peculiar production flourishes and edges (Bob Morgan's "Fool In Love" is a fantastic example) but it feels out of kilter with the times. That beefy bassline and those shimmering guitars do give it a 1991 datestamp, but the rest seems to be begging for a home in a KPM library music vault somewhere.

Still, it makes for an interesting piece of music which showed Pale Saints could operate outside their shoegazing comfort zone very easily. As to whether it's the finest piece of music they've ever produced, well, obviously not. It's a likeable curiosity and little more.



2. Dodgy - Summer Fayre (Bostin)

Well, here we are. I'm going to stick my neck out and say that this is the first instance of Britpop on the "Indie Top 20" series. Of course, there are mitigating factors to my claim. Firstly, The Boo Radleys have already featured, but their music at this point is barely recognisable from what it became circa "Wake Up!". Secondly, of course, nobody was using "Britpop" as a description for any music at this point (And you could be doubly mean and try to engage me in a debate about whether St Etienne do or don't qualify).

Still, though, absolutely all the stereotypical ingredients, for better or worse, are in this 45, to the extent that it could almost be a parody. That chirpy, retro sixties chorus. Those shuffling, bouyant rhythms. The cheeky vocals which almost seem to come accompanied with a wink. The determined return of fussy basslines and twiddly guitar solos. It sounds as if it should have a brass section as well, but presumably the budget didn't stretch to that. It really is absolutely bloody uncanny.

My curiosity was tweaked by this song, and I went to see Dodgy live when they came to play my town around this time. The audience in the small club just seemed bemused in general, and the band struggled to connect despite their best efforts. My gig-going companion was moved to comment "Well, I quite like the elements of The Who they've incorporated into their sound" but therein lay the problem. Very, very few indie or alternative groups were mining classic rock and pop in quite the way Dodgy were at this point, and they were peculiar anomalies on the gig circuit. Neither fully-fledged Rock, nor ethereal indie, nor grunge, they seemed like "Your Dad's record collection" being pushed through the bodies of young men from Birmingham (not literally, that would be painful).

In time, this would work in their favour enormously, although it's notable that they've never been given much credit for being ahead of the pack. In 1991, however, it meant releasing records on their own label (Bostin) and waiting for everyone else to wake up to their charms.



3. Pierre Étoile - In The Sun (Rough Trade)

Following the demise of Galaxie 500, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang decided to release the last few songs they had written together on Rough Trade, with no real intentions of trying to turn the duo into an ongoing concern. "In The Sun" was the sole effort under the Pierre Étoile moniker, which is even more fragile than a lot of Galaxie 500's work. Stripped back to a basic drum backing, a strummed guitar, and hushed vocals, this has a decidedly demo quality about it, which obviously isn't unexpected given the circumstances.

The pair commanded enough of a cult following at this time that this release was relatively big news in indie circles, but it's been largely forgotten since. It's actually very pretty but unfinished sounding, as if we've been given permission to listen to a campfire session the pair were having - it's the kind of twee indie you feel an urge to listen to last thing while having a cheeky nightcap drink.

Shimmy Disc took over the reigns and persuaded the duo back into the studio after this release, and a vast number of records have followed under the more simplistic Damon & Naomi banner. Those works are a bit - though admittedly not enormously - fleshed out from this original low-key vision.



4. No-Man - Mahler (One Little Indian)

This is probably one of my favourite No-Man tracks, combining slowly looping Dance rhythms to hushed vocals and rather precious classical violin solos. Despite its quiet approach, it possesses a strange and slightly disturbing drama, as if relaying to the listener a distant memory of a doomed relationship. "I shouted out and called your name but you were hiding in the trees" could be a sweet childhood memory, or a metaphor for something altogether less reassuring. The song ends on the lines "The ascent to your heaven... I can't stand them laughing at us" before the tune collapses into ambient atmospherics, which also breaks the tranquility slightly and hints at an undisclosed darkness.

It's also deftly arranged, with the violin lines never once seeming unnecessary or overly flowery. In all, it's a beautiful soundscape which manages to create intrigue, drama and even bursts of elation across its six minutes. The problem is, it's also the sort of song you can't begin to write about without sounding truly pretentious - No-Man's sound and identity is actually slightly pompous, so as soon as you start to try and untangle all the various elements, you end up just getting trapped by the delicate, sticky web they've woven until you become part of their world. The bastards.



5. Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (Factory)

Cath Carroll was already an indie veteran by this point, having been the lead vocalist in Miaow, who featured on the C86 compilation and were later signed by Tony Wilson to Factory Records. Whereas Miaow's sound was skittish and almost jazzy at times, by this point Carroll had moved on to a slicker, more commercial sound.

"Moves Like You" has none-more-1991 pop dance beats as its backing, very subtle Acid House squelches, and Carroll's smooth, sultry vocals. It sounds like the airy, slick, celebratory pop you might hear on a commercial FM radio station on a late night cab ride home. Breathe deeply and you can almost smell the pine air freshener.

Despite this, it wasn't a hit, even though you suspect Tony Wilson had designs on its success. I also don't intend my descriptions of it above to be entirely negative. "Moves Like You" has a beautiful late night sassiness to it that makes it an effective and enjoyable slice of pop, albeit one that feels faintly jarring in the context of this LP. Should it have been a hit? No. I suspect it lacked enough of a powerful chorus or drive to really be a breakthrough single, sounding more like something an established artist would put out as the second or third single off a successful album. Cath Carroll's voice does a lot to suck you into the single, but it's not enough to push the track to the next level.

Cath Carroll works as a writer first and foremost these days, though has occasionally been enticed back into the studio to work with other bands on their projects, having recently worked with Trembling Blue Stars and The Hit Parade.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Volume 13 Side 3 - Pixies, Spitfire, Babes In Toyland, Smashing Pumpkins, Pooh Sticks





















1. Pixies - Planet of Sound (4AD)

Pixies drummer Dave Lovering has been known to perform occasional magic shows at rock festivals and other events - though I must admit that I haven't been following his solo career closely enough to get a keen grip on where most of his bookings come from. (Well look, you don't expect me to research absolutely everything, do you?)

He performed his magic show at an early All Tomorrow's Parties festival once, and a friend of mine approached him to ask when he began this rather unusual performing sideline. His reply was simply: "When my band started making shit records".
"Ah! Trompe Le Monde!" replied my friend, but didn't get another answer.

"Trompe Le Monde" is the Pixies LP which tends to get the most stick. Is it a bad album overall? Not really. There are some solid moments there, and it's by no means an out-and-out failure. Is it a bad LP by Pixies standards? Unquestionably, yes. It was an unfortunate situation for the band. They had been an overwhelming inspiration for the biggest emerging names of 1991, not least Nirvana, and yet they chose this precise period to lose many of the touches that made the so unusual and appealing. Instead of getting some kind of payback for their groundwork, they received critical brickbats.

"Planet Of Sound" was the first single off the album, and in typical form for this time, it's a hollering beast of a brief record which is all sound and fury and not particularly eccentric. The angular riffs are gone, and the rock and roll noise pollution dominates completely. On the first few listens, that was enough to make "Planet Of Sound" seem impressive - it's a spray of cold water and a slap to the face, a song which is so damn loud and aggressive across its two minutes that initially you can't tear yourself away. Unlike "Debaser", though, it stands up to fewer repeat plays, because while that track had fascinating riffs and intricate little diversions, there's not much else going on with "Planet of Sound". It is what it is. It's one big Frank Black dominated howl.

The end of the band was nigh, and Frank Black would drift off to a solo career while Kim Deal made The Breeders a full-time concern, but it's not for no reason that most of the band's LPs are still raved about and played fanatically to this day. "Trompe Le Monde" was just an unfortunately sloppy kiss goodbye.

As for the music they've made since reforming, it is in my opinion better than "Trompe Le Monde" but not as good as their earliest work, but some of it is still pretty damn compelling - but that's all way outside the timeline we're talking about on this blog.



2. Spitfire - Superbaby (Eve)

Spitfire were a curious group who never seemed to achieve a real breakthrough moment, but always seemed to be with us throughout the nineties. Eventually deemed to be part of the NME's "New Wave of New Wave" movement alongside the likes of S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men in 1994, when that collapsed and most of the other groups either died off or were subsumed into Britpop, Spitfire continued their own path despite widespread indifference. And I do mean indifference - they performed a gig at my University in the mid-nineties and lost the audience who began to talk among themselves, which caused the lead singer Jeff Pitcher to tell us we were "all a bunch of cunts!" Clearly he forgot the cardinal rule that you should never berate an audience who are otherwise busy ignoring you.

Spitfire were also slightly unfortunate with their drummers, losing one talented member, Justin Welch, to a fledgling Elastica.

Really though, Spitfire sat awkwardly in any period of the decade, sounding like a snarling, bluesy garage rock band rather than chirpy Britpoppers or sharp New Wave revivalists. "Superbaby" proves this, bringing particularly 1969 sounding guitar licks against clattering basslines and vocals dripping with attitude. Like the sound of mod-rock just as mods grew out their fringes and got interested in Led Zeppelin and the blues, it's got a drive and energy that can be very enticing if you're in the right mood, but wasn't really what the kids of 1991, or 1994 or 1995 were really looking for. They would have been better off emerging around the point of the New Rock Revolution in the noughties, at which point they could have cleaned up. Timing is everything, kids.



3. Babes In Toyland - Handsome & Gretel (Insipid)

Courtney Love has made much of the fact that while she has become a mainstream media figure, Babes In Toyland lead singer Kat Bjelland ("who was my main rival!") has largely returned to the underground. Love has generally tried to paint this situation as an unjust one she feels slightly concerned about, but in reality, I suspect there's a feeling of smug triumph behind it too. After all, back in the day the pair really weren't terribly keen on each other.

So much was this the case that there were continual media rumours that "Handsome and Gretel" was in some way about Courtney. And was it? Well, it's very difficult to tell. It's filled with very explicit insults, such as "My name is Gretel, yeah/ I've got a crotch that talks/ It talks to all the cocks", but they could be about anyone. No clues are offered. It's teenage schoolyard level fury, a stabbing finger pointing in the direction of a hated female figure, and it's utterly impossible to clearly identify who that is. It's snotty and brattish stuff.

With its stabbing bass lines and cackling laughter, it's a two minute taunt, an onslaught. I listened to it a lot at the time, but now it strikes me as the kind of thing that seems fascinating, threatening and foreboding when you're a teenager, not so much when you're a grown adult - that or the sheer shock of it has a very limited impact. No question that Babes In Toyland were hugely influential and deserve some kind of payback, though. The inspiration they gave the Riot Grrrl movement alone can't be understated.



4. Smashing Pumpkins - Siva (Hut)

Now I'm in trouble. The simple truth is, I generally can't abide Smashing Pumpkins, from their pretentious pseudo-profound lyrics to their Classic Rock leanings. They always seemed like a rather worthy and dull mainstream Rock group who had somehow entered the playlists of alternative club DJs and alternative radio stations by stealth. I also briefly shared a flat with someone who was obsessed with the group, meaning that I heard Billy Corgan screaming "THE WORLD IS A VAMPIRE!" from a bedroom stereo most mornings and evenings - there's nothing like being forced to listen to a group you don't like much to really breed contempt for their work where shrugging indifference might otherwise have existed. (In fact, even if something is clearly amazing work, over-exposure can lead to boredom - for similar reasons in completely different accommodation sharing with another obsessive, it was years before I could ever listen to Jimi Hendrix again).

But I'm undermining the group more than a bit by failing to acknowledge that, compared to many grunge acts of the era, they did possess quite a varied spread of influences, taking in shades of goth rock, industrial, and blues into the mix. While a lot of the other big names of the period practiced sincerity and "Keep Music Live" styled prissy purity, the Pumpkins did at least benefit from Corgan's varied listening tastes.

Not that you'd know any of this from "Siva". It's mostly a heavy blues-rock grind, broken only by the tinkling gentleness of its middle section, which brings a few unexpected twee moments to an otherwise prowling monster of a track. It's not much, but it's an early indication that Smashing Pumpkins were slightly different from their peers.

These days, of course, Billy Corgan has been one of the few rock stars to speak out vocally in favour of Donald Trump, adding "Social Justice Warriors are like the KKK" and talking about "Fake News". I always knew there was something wrong with that boy.



5. The Pooh Sticks - Young People (Cheree)

Swansea's Pooh Sticks were so C86 it almost hurt in the mid-eighties, and in fact they were usually almost certainly taking the piss. With tracks like "I Know Someone Who Knows Someone Who Knows Alan McGee Quite Well", they were almost a cheeky parodical take on the British underground.

By 1991, however, they had moved their attention to powerpop, and seemed to be approaching it from an equally affectionate and light-hearted angle. "Young People" takes the endearing cuteness of their sound and tacks it on to super-sugary rock and roll, creating a noise somewhere between The Archies and Cheap Trick, never quite tilting the balance in favour of one extreme or the other. They don't sound completely comfortable in their new environment - some of the vocals in particular still have a very indiefied tortured yelp to them, rather than a rock swagger - but that somehow adds to the overall effect.

It's this period of their career, rather than their earlier twee work, which lead them to cult success, and while I don't pick it up to listen to it very often, it's always a charming burst of sunshine when I do. It's sweet and almost over-reaching bedroom mirror rock and roll, something the early nineties was sorely lacking in and indeed, we're little better off in that respect today.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Volume 13 Side Two - Catherine Wheel, The Telescopes, Moose, Spiritualized, Midway Still






















1. Catherine Wheel - Shallow (Wilde Club)

Their last single before rushing off to cash the banker's cheques offered to them by Fontana, "Shallow" was proof that Catherine Wheel had the pop chops to justify the jump away from the indie sector. While "Shallow" edges dangerously close to Ride sonically, the chorus is pure bliss, and the song itself shows no weaknesses at all, charging full-throttle through numerous elated and masterful guitar riffs on its way. "Heaven Sent An Angel" it isn't, being a pleasing tapestry of ideas which occur so quickly that it's initially impossible to realise quite how much is going on in a mere few minutes.

Following this, their career on Fontana was full of mixed fortunes. While they managed to maintain a small and loyal fanbase in the both the US and the UK, they consistently seemed on the brink of success rather than actually breaking through. Singles were released, all of which only just missed the Top 50, only to quickly disappear again. Their sound moved with the times, becoming much heavier and more rock orientated by the mid-nineties, but by 2000 it was all over. Compared to almost every other act of this era, they had a strange, dogged persistence, never giving up even when the scene around them shifted. Indeed, their lifespan went beyond the duration of the "Indie Top 20" series itself; an impressive achievement, but they seem doomed to remain a footnote in any alternative rock story.



2. The Telescopes - Flying (Creation)

The Telescopes had always had a slightly shoegazey sound to their work, of course, and in many ways could have been regarded as one of the earliest groups (along with Pale Saints) to appreciate that a broader listening public awaited for a dense, hypnotic noise. "Flying", though, really pulls things up a notch or two, feeling truly disorientating (still more so when you watch the impressively suitable video) and whooshing past in a rush of sonic mayhem. The sitar overload also indicates that late sixties psychedelic influences were at play, and the whole thing truly soars - appropriately, given the title.

Despite all this, and despite the fact that they had shunted over to Creation Records where a higher profile should surely have been expected, there was a sense that The Telescopes were beginning to become marginalised at this point, and by the tail end of 1992 they would cease to exist. It's impossible to put your finger on quite what they were doing wrong, and really they should have had a head start over their travelling companions - but rather like The Pale Saints, they felt strangely sidelined by the media.



3. Moose - Suzanne (Hut)

"Suzanne" really continues in a similar stylistic vein to "Jack" on "Volume 12", except rather like The Telescopes, Moose really pull out all the stops here to make the track a psychedelic blur. "She walks all over me/ I can't take it from her!" sings Russell, while the band's tune gets locked in the roar of a sonic wind tunnel. The track rattles and canters along to its inevitable chaotic death.

As a single, this got quite a few critics hot under the collar and caused some to revise their expectations of the band's success. The video got "Chart Show" exposure, they were observed being particularly chummy with Blur, and it was felt that perhaps a corner was being turned. In reality, Moose were far too maudlin and self-indulgent (albeit often in an interesting way) to truly vault into the mainstream, and "Suzanne" was and remains an interesting moment where a rather unlikely group became the subject of speculation. Startlingly, the Virgin subsidiary Hut Records didn't lose complete faith in them until 1992, meaning we'll be hearing more from them.



4. Spiritualized - Run (Dedicated)

Fuelled by a cheeky (and credited) steal from JJ Cale's "Call Me The Breeze", "Run" is actually a very repetitive, primal number by Spiritualized's usual standards - their previous single, a version of Lou Reed and John Cale's "Why Don't You Smile Now", took the rough simplicity of the original and turned it into a grandoise epic, whereas "Run" is a bluesy, foggy jog through rock's back pages, and the psychedelic elements do very little to disguise that.

Still, it's an enjoyable few minutes, and while the group had clearly yet to become the Class A gospel preachers of the indie circuit, it shows that a lot of headway had been made by Jason Pierce since parting company with Spacemen 3. Already, a unique and identifiable sound was starting to lock into place, and broader appreciation was theirs for the taking.



5. Midway Still - I Won't Try (Roughneck)

Midway Still represent the idea of forgotten early nineties indie heroes so well that one person even named a blog after them. "Because Midway Still Aren't Coming Back" was the title of one of the earliest online mp3 blogs dedicated to deleted and largely disregarded British nineties indie, and was obviously a bookmark in my web browser's menu bar.

Oddly though, Midway Still sounded far more like an imported American underground rock act than the low-budget Kent boys they actually were. "I Won't Try" is evidence of this, with its almost Lemonheads styled power-pop chorus, rough and ready guitar work, and drawled vocals. Their debut album "Dial Square" would be produced by Sonic Youth dial twiddler Don Fleming, cementing their transatlantic sound still further.

Looking and sounding as if they'd fallen off the back of a Greyhound bus fresh from Seattle did the group little harm in terms of media coverage initially, and almost certainly boosted their profile far higher than it otherwise would have gone at any other period - but they never quite rose above their underground status, and became a near-permanent fixture on the Camden club and pub scene in the early nineties. In fact, almost all vaguely "grungey"/college rock styled British groups failed to find much appreciation on their own shores, a peculiar cultural anomaly which I still struggle to make sense of. Given the fact that they were able to tour here with greater ease and regularity and were also available for media appointments at the drop of a hat, you'd have thought at least a few British grunge-styled acts would have broken through, but success proved elusive (unless you count the artificial one hit wonders Stiltskin, that is...)

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Volume 13 Side One - Stone Roses, Teenage Fanclub, Revolver, Chapterhouse, Slowdive

Year of Release: 1991
Formats: Double LP/ Cassette/ CD

We're about to enter a brief period of thin gruel for the Indie Top 20 series, and I'm unsure how much of that could be blamed on the series new compiler Tim Millington, or the state of the British music scene at the time.

For make no mistake, the spotlight was largely off British guitar based music at this point, even here at home. Grunge was beginning to slowly pull itself out of its mouldy cigarette butt infested bed, and within a matter of moments it would become the dominant alternative cultural force in the UK. But it's not as if our homegrown bands were putting up any kind of a fight - our assortment of uncharismatic shoegazing bands and faintly miffed indie pub bands just didn't carry the same alienated cultural message. Indie Dance could realistically have promised us some more goodness, but The Stone Roses were embroiled in a long-lasting legal dispute and unable to record, and the Mondays had largely gone to seed. Without those two lynchpins being active, the scene buckled and weakened.

There are some fantastic tracks on "Volume 13", but there's also more to criticise than usual, and I'm afraid the contents do accurately reflect my memories of this period. Things started to get interesting again quite quickly - though it felt like an age to live through it - but for the next couple of LPs, we're going to find ourselves struggling slightly.

Also, it's hardly an important point, but this is possibly also one of the worst sleeves for any LP in the series. It looks more like a flyer advertising the opening of a new local organic greengrocers than anything else. As Tony Barron of Reeves and Mortimer's "The Club" sketches might have said: "Pears are irrelevant to concept of indie hits".

1. Stone Roses - I Wanna Be Adored (Silvertone)

The first track, straight off the bat, is from a group who had been inactive for some time at this point, embroiled in a legal battle with Silvertone Records which would ensure they didn't release any new product until 1994. Putting this two year old track right at the front of the LP rather than an exciting new band or a big sound from an established indie group does, it has to be said, feel a bit desperate.

Still, it wasn't as if it hadn't only recently charted. "I Wanna Be Adored" was the first single released without the Roses permission, plundered from their debut LP in the hope that Silvertone could make some more money out of the group while they "relaxed". At the time, we had no idea whatsoever that it would be the first of many plundering missions the label undertook, and within months "Waterfall" and a shockingly bad edit of "I Am The Resurrection" (where the group sounded as if Reni had been replaced by a toddler thumping on some shortbread tins and a cowbell) would also be singles, followed by remixes of "Fools Gold", a B-sides compilation, an A and B-sides collection, a Remix album, and on and on it went. Given that they were only on Silvertone Records for one LP and a small brace of singles, it's staggering just how much the label managed to stretch and repackage the contents of their vaults.

Of all the releases, "I Wanna Be Adored" felt the most excusable, partly because it had already been issued as a 45 in the USA, and partly because the UK B-side "Where Angels Play" had never been officially released until this point. So for our money, we got a very pretty, delicate B-side in return for not terribly much money, and few people had any gripes about it.

We're not here to discuss "Where Angels Play", however, but its evergreen A-side which has become something of an alternative FM anthem in the years since. It was actually the oldest Stone Roses song to find a place on their debut LP, having been a feature of the group's live set since their earliest days, and as such is slightly uncharacteristic of the rest of the contents. As a first track it's a bold bark of intent and its slow, steady build does an exciting job of preparing you for the rush of the rest of the first side, but it's hard to imagine it being anywhere else on the album and fitting in comfortably. The dark, echoing basslines it opens with still have an epic gothy tone to them, and feel like something The Mission could have written. John Squire's chopping and chiming guitar spins things back into a more Roses orientated direction, but even then there's a strange, echoing, rockist darkness to the track the rest of the LP largely avoids. Even "Shoot You Down" is brighter and bolder sounding than this, and altogether less cavernous.

Still, it was and remains one of the group's more appreciated tracks, and crossed over to audiences they may not otherwise have reached. In Essex, I noted with interest that stray bar-dwelling goths could be persuaded to sway about a bit to "I Wanna Be Adored" in a way they wouldn't do for "Waterfall" and certainly not "Fools Gold".
"I do like that track of theirs," an older Siouxsie and the Banshees fan said to me once. "You know, 'I Wanna Be A Dog'".



2. Teenage Fanclub - Star Sign (Creation)

Teenage Fanclub had by this point established themselves as the Great Hopes of British Alternative Rock, which was a pity as the group lacked the hunger and ambition to really compete on the global stage. When the group also signed with Geffen in America, they could probably have celebrated in any location they chose - in reality, they signed the contract in their local fish and chip shop. And so it would continue.

One listen to "Star Sign" is enough evidence for why everyone was getting so excited, though. It's a pounding, punching piece of rock music with a Byrdsian melody upfront and Big Star styled guitar lines behind, sounding as bright and hopeful as Slade at their most optimistic and as heavy and hard as the US grunge bands rising up at this point. In fact, it sounds as if it should have been an enormous hit outside the indie charts, so rammed is it with chiming hooks - but for some reason it only settled at number 44.

The B-side was a bizarre and popular cover of "Like A Virgin", and mutterings emerged from critics and label bosses alike about a huge album the band were about to release. By the end of the year, "Bandwagonesque" would become a much-wanted Christmas gift for indie kids everywhere. My copy got played to death and still sits on my shelf today, occasionally pulled down for relistening, and I can recall visiting the houses of friends and acquaintances and seeing their copies sat by the side of the stereo as well. For an LP which only climbed as high as Number 22 on the national charts, it seemed to be everywhere in my social group for awhile. Sadly, while the group have sustained moderate success to this day, a release of theirs would never be greeted with that kind of mania again.



3. Revolver - Heaven Sent An Angel (Hut)

Revolver had it all. Press. Endless features on "The Chart Show" and evening radio. A contract with Hut, who were essentially just a boutique label reporting to Virgin Records. And yet not a single one of their records, to the best of my knowledge, entered the national Top 100.

This either has to be considered extremely unfortunate or a symptom of the group's mediocrity, and I'm afraid in my opinion it's the latter. Revolver looked and sounded the part, being a bunch of cute kids big on atmospheric guitar soundscapes. They had the major label backing. What they lacked were tunes which stood out from the pack in any way whatsoever.

Debut "Heaven Sent An Angel" is probably their finest effort, yet still sounds like something which consists entirely of an admittedly good guitar riff the group were clearly in love with, vocals which follow the guitar line very closely, some atmospheric meandering, and nothing else. It's early nineties indie at its laziest and most generic, and it's staggering that anyone took it seriously. It's also absurdly tough to write about - there's so little of interest actually going on here that it's impossible to find much to say at all. I can only conclude that Revolver were a jammy bunch of buggers in the right place at the right time who failed to capitalise successfully on their luck.



4. Chapterhouse - Precious One (Dedicated)

That said, Chapterhouse were responsible for one of the worst gigs I attended during the period - 45 minutes of men flicking and thrashing their long hair around to bits of effects pedal fiddling as they desperately struggled to approximate the sounds they had created on vinyl. They came back out for an encore even though nobody was much enthused about them doing one.

Fortunately, they're not so bad on your stereo, and in fairness to them they were playing at a club with  a horrible PA the one time I saw them. Somewhat bafflingly, though, "Precious One" is taken from the popular "Mesmerise" EP, whose lead track provided them with their largest hit. Presumably the rights to obtain that were too expensive?

"Precious One" is a soft and buttery track which has a similar blissful quality to their club staple sound "Pearl" without having the same amount of drive. It does sound like a quintessential example of the shoegazing sound in retrospect, being filled with layers of intricate detail and a distinctly foggy, hallucinogenic feel. It's never going to be hailed as the group's defining moment, but as a mere B-side it proved that some of the early hype Chapterhouse experienced wasn't totally unreasonable. After all, if they were throwing songs away which were this luxurious, they must have had moments of pure genius up their sleeves.



5. Slowdive - Catch The Breeze (Creation)

In case you were wondering, Volume 13 really proves that mid-1991 was Peak Shoegaze - the scene was utterly overrun with pie-eyed groups singing about being hypnotised, or watching dolphins, or flying about, or feeling the breeze against their faces. Honestly, anyone would have thought there was a huge fucking Donovan festival going on that year or something.

Slowdive were highly inspired by My Bloody Valentine and were also signed to Creation Records alongside them. Unlike MBV, though, Slowdive didn't experiment on their audiences to ascertain the psychological effects of extreme decibels, or record anything as occasionally terrifying as "Loveless". Most of their music was ponderous, deeply stoned sounding, and rich on atmospherics. "Catch The Breeze" isn't their finest single in my view - we'll catch up with that later - but does give a firm impression of where the group were at stylistically. Tumbling Nick Mason-esque drum patterns meet gentle melodies, Rachel Goswell's angelic, breathy vocals, and a closing melody which constantly reaches for some kind of blissed euphoria.

If you were being unkind, you could argue that (here in particular) they were an indiefied Clannad at best. Then again, if you were the Manic Street Preachers, you would argue that they were "worse than Hitler", which is harsher still. Certainly, there was something slightly retrograde and lacking in modernity about Slowdive - interviews revealed a band from comfortable backgrounds who had very little to say for themselves, and musically they sounded like a cosy, fuzzy sonic duvet at a time when Britain was a somewhat troubled country. If you're wondering why shoegazing bands from very middle class backgrounds were so frequently derided at the time, you have to understand their position in the context of the times, and also the backgrounds of many of the music journalists criticising them. Against the Poll Tax riots and a decade of seemingly unending and occasionally outright spiteful Conservative rule, they seemed docile and complacent, content with their position in the world. While they were hardly all emerging from the Thames Valley and other Home Counties areas to soundtrack some kind of enforced medication time, to many music journalists who had been versed on punk rebellion, they seemed uncomfortably close to an indulgent hippy past we were supposed to have been "saved" from. These all seem like ridiculous reasons to criticise a group's music in retrospect, possibly because they are.

In reality, a lot of material they recorded has stood the test of time extraordinary well, and perhaps sits more comfortably in the present day than it did in 1991. "Catch The Breeze" may not have been asking much of the listener other than to take a chill pill, but that's hardly much of a sin, and it still sounds sumptuous in places, which is what actually matters. We can hardly be expected to spend every minute of our waking lives being furious at the world, can we? (Cut to: Rik the People's Poet glaring furiously at my words on a computer screen and hissing "Hippy!").