Sunday, 28 August 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 2 Side 2 - Close Lobsters, Flatmates, Pastels, Soup Dragons, Mighty Mighty

1. Close Lobsters - Never Seen Before (Fire)

If there was ever a band who were inappropriately cursed with the C86 tag - in Britain, at least - it was Close Lobsters. Rather like their labelmates The Blue Aeroplanes, their approach was considerably more quirky and arthouse than it was twee or shambling, and perhaps unsurprisingly they picked up a greater volume of critical appreciation (and airplay) in the USA than this country. It's very easy to imagine them being spun on college radio between REM, 10,000 Maniacs and Wall of Voodoo. I'm not trying to claim they sound the same, you understand, but it's possible to sense a shared aesthetic.

Sadly, the band never really sold huge amounts of records either here or in the USA, with their cult LP "Foxheads Stalk This Land" only reaching number 12 on the indie albums chart, and it was all over by 1989 (again!) They have recently reformed and have started gigging and occasionally releasing new material, and remain a strong cult act with many devoted fans preaching the gospel about their under-rated work.

"Never Seen Before" is a faintly peculiar brew and definitely an acquired taste. Jangly guitars collide with drawled vocals and beefy basslines, and they ultimately sound like nobody apart from themselves. The backwards tape playing at the end of the track is a lovely touch as well.

2. The Flatmates - Happy All The Time (Subway)

Back straight after Volume One, The Flatmates sound much sharper and more confident here. "I Could Be In Heaven" sounded slightly cheap and rushed, whereas "Happy All The Time" has all the hallmarks of something which might have been a hit had it been issued eight years previously. It's a thrilling little confection of 60s girl group sounds colliding with the dumb aggression of The Ramones, and the squeals and yelps throughout the single sound every bit as spontaneous and unplanned as Ray Davies' yelling on "You Really Got Me". It's the sound of a band totally thrilled to be getting their ideas down on tape, and that's a contagious feeling.

None of this would have the same effect if "Happy All The Time" weren't, as they say, a Tune. And it is. Like the best Indiepop, it has raw enthusiasm and a superbly hooky melody. These are the moments which make you want to form a band yourself. You feel like you could do it too, but tracks this deceptively simple and hook-ridden are actually harder to create than they seem.

3. The Pastels - Crawl Babies (Glass)

I've made a couple of slightly piss-taking comments about Stephen Pastel so far on this blog, but that's primarily because in the eighties he was a ridiculously unique (and quietly influential) character, and it's easy to parody lead singers who operate in a territory of their own making.

A friend of mine once briefly planned to start a series of cartoon strips called "The Adventures Of Stephen Pastel", during which some misfortune would always befall the boyish lead singer in the final frame. This could involve giving himself a migraine due to consuming too many sweets to getting one of his toys stuck up a neighbour's tree. "Och! Oh noooo! Not again!" he would exclaim, while staring wearily out at the reader. Inevitably, these never really got written purely because in those pre-Internet days, it would have been hard to find a place for them. And anyway, none of it was actually that funny.

One of these strip ideas, I seem to remember, featured Stephen Pastel rejecting a chocolate from a friend.

"Would you like a chocolate, Stephen?"
"No, I should not. They give me terrible migraines. A terrible, terrible banging in my head, and all for the sake of a coffee creme".

That's the reductive view you could take of him, and indeed The Pastels themselves; slightly sickly and precious children, forever stuck in pre-adolescence. That's definitely a line many music journalists took at the time. But, in truth, there was (and is) much more to The Pastels than that, and they're possibly one of the most unfairly maligned bands of the period. Whereas a great many of their travelling companions were self-consciously childish to no positive end, The Pastels often took the Syd Barrett approach of using childhood memories and activities as a desperate means of escape; or, as Stephen himself once said "Everything is fucked. Let's get back to the garden".

"Crawl Babies" is the noise of a band utterly nailing that doomed but child-like feel. "I wanna build her up, up as tall as a church" he sings hesitantly in the chorus, which is an odd line in itself. As tall as a church? Why not the Empire State Building, or the Post Office Tower? But no. Too urban, too dangerous. Churches tower over their immediate surroundings without being threatening. They're safe, holy places. Skyscrapers are the products of humans aspiring to something The Pastels cannot comprehend. So it's best to build someone up to high expectations within reasonable, non-threatening boundaries. Except...

The next line is "Just to watch her falling down" at which point he has a frantic dialogue with himself, "I just can't see her again/ I've got to see her again", he moans contradictorily. He's building a love affair and obsession out of nothing, out of ideas of what somebody could be, then terrifying himself with the stature of them, and backing off into isolation.

Frankly, "Crawl Babies" could be straight off a Syd Barrett solo LP - I was just getting into Barrett at the point I first heard this, and it triggered immediate associations for me - and some of the other lines are even peculiarly Barretty in a bleak post-Floyd way; "I go blind and my bones start to rust", for example. Doubtless the band would claim that Daniel Johnston was the actual reference point they were going for, but nonetheless, "Crawl Babies" has a very eerie sense of something not quite right within its hesitant, innocent delivery, whilst still carrying a marvellous and rather intricate melody - those guitar lines running towards the end of the track are beautiful, for example.

On the surface, you could call this twee indiepop, but no way is it just that. And The Pastels were certainly guilty of being twee at other points in their career, but "Crawl Babies" is a marvellous, full-bodied and beguiling single, and one of my favourites from the period.

4. The Soup Dragons: Head Gone Astray (Raw TV)

Mind you, this Soup Dragons track has an air of despondency about it, and a similar sense of childlike disappointment: "Climb a big tree to see what I can see/ But then find out that nothing's for free" sings Sean despondently. What was in the water at this point? Was the music press attention getting to these people, who until this point had lived in a world of flexidiscs and fanzines? (Though credit is due to Chet and Bee for seeing the possibility of sticking this after "Crawl Babies" in the track listing).

If "Hang Ten" was supersonic indiepop, "Head Gone Astray" is a bit more contemplative and jangly. It also gives clear pointers to where the Soup Dragons heads were at during this point in their careers - this has the Bellshill sound running through it like a stick of rock, and the band's roots are incredibly apparent. Eventually they would go careering all over the place with their sound, exploring strange T-Rexy indie-glam sounds with "Backwards Dog" and baggy with "I'm Free", but it's possible that if they'd held their nerve they could have developed this particular direction into something much more successful, akin to Teenage Fanclub's later achievements.

Ignoring the "What-ifs", "Head Gone Astray" doesn't make its strengths fully apparent on the first play, but does steadily worm its way into your affections with each subsequent listen. And releasing it straight after "Hang Ten" was a canny move - it certainly did a lot to cause critics and listeners to realise that they weren't just a thrashy indie band producing two-minute punk pop songs. Why, they could take faintly Byrdsian melodies and string them out to three-and-a-half minutes instead.

This was also the first song of theirs to chart in the "grown up" Gallup charts, albeit at a modest number 82. But for a band of their ilk in 1987, these achievements were rare and important. Suddenly, The Soup Dragons were music press cover stars and future bright hopes. No, really. This happened. I saw it. I was there.

5. Mighty Mighty - Built Like A Car (Chapter 22)

Mighty Mighty drop the polite, considered indiepop for this single and really let rip in the chorus, making it sound almost like a sixties garage band having a rave-up. Still, though, the stretched syllables in the vocals as the track begins are pure Morrissey, and root the band firmly in eighties territory.

"Built Like A Car" is a sturdy and confident sounding single, and yet another example of an indiepop group suddenly waking up and smelling the coffee and getting into a better recording studio to produce a brighter, leaner piece of work, perhaps in the expectations of bigger things. Of course, this is a serious problem for some purists of the genre who really see this period as the moment a lot of bands went off the boil, whereas I obviously disagree.

Whatever your thoughts, this was Mighty Mighty's biggest indie single, climbing to number 6 in the indie charts. Their career was shortlived, however, as they split the following year, sensing that the tide was already turning against their music. They weren't wrong. Things moved quickly in those days. 

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