1. The Sugarcubes - Birthday (Icelandic Version) (One Little Indian)
When this was released in 1987, the initial response could only be described as enthusiastic bewilderment. It wasn't that anyone in the position to promote it (music journalists or late night DJs) disliked it, more that they didn't understand how to describe it or put it neatly into context with anything else that was happening at the time.
Partly for that reason, I suspect, The Sugarcubes ended up becoming a band-come-tourism-campaign-for-Iceland, with almost every announcement, review, interview and Chart Show fact box referring to the fact that they came from a remote, frozen island with the same "population as Camden Town". A place hardly anyone visited, where music made strange ethereal noises and television only broadcast for three hours every day. The only way to describe "Birthday" in a way that might have made it saleable or caused it to make any sense to the time-pressed observer was to make it sound like an exotic cultural phenomenon occurring in some strange, faraway place.
Trouble is, as anyone who has become acquainted with Iceland or its music scene since fully understands, "Birthday" isn't really typical of anything happening there, or indeed anywhere else. Sure, music journalists compared the band to the Cocteau Twins at this point, and there's no question that there's an influence at play, but even so... those whining, weeping guitars, chiming bells, ponderous percussive elements, and Bjork's echoing, sky-reaching howling combine to create something actually really very creepy. The word "beautiful" has been occasionally used to describe the single, but it's not a well sounding record to my ears; it reaches, it surges, it staggers, it collapses like a yearning ballad being played from a vinyl record on a boat at choppy seas.
The video, screened on "The Chart Show" more times than I can sensibly count, adds to the sense of unease. The background picture is Bjork dancing and singing in an empty room with a darkened window. The foreground shot zooms in and out of Bjork's face, and as it zooms in she becomes pixellated like a Crimewatch video of a witness talking about a heinous murder. It's cheap and basic, but it again gives the impression of something slightly more sinister.
Bjork later referred to this as a "tasteless pop song", clarifying: "It’s a story about a love affair between a five year old girl, a secret and a man who lives next door. The song’s called Birthday because it’s his fiftieth birthday... I was always changing my mind about what the lyrics should be about. I had the atmosphere right from the start but not the facts. It finally ended up concentrating on this experience I remembered having as a little girl, among many other little girls’ experiences. It’s like huge men, about fifty or so, affect little girls very erotically but nothing happens . . . nothing is done, just this very strong feeling. I picked on this subject to show that anything can affect you erotically; material, a tree, anything.”
Which doesn't really clarify anything concretely, except to say that from the foundations up (the premise, the overall sound, the delivery) "Birthday" is consciously awkward, naive and confused, reaching for past emotions it can't get to or explain, and seems to want to unnerve the listener with its ideas.
I have my own particular memories of being five years old which relate tangentially to this record: My parents used to have an old 1960s stacking record player in the corner of our front room which was as big as a cupboard and contained a large number of old singles in its compartments. I used to regularly plough through the singles and stack them on the central spindle, spinning Fats Domino, The Beatles, The Animals, Ray Charles and other classic records of that era. On occasion, the stacking process wouldn't work, and a record would drop and as it span, would slip and slide against the label of the one beneath it, causing the melody to create a slightly discordant, wobbly noise. I hated this. It caused me to run from the room crying out to get help, I found it so unsettling.
To this day, I still have a stronger gag reflex than most around music which feels unsettled and faintly discordant (and not, crucially, heavily discordant) in a similar way (so it's lucky we won't have to discuss My Bloody Valentine much). It causes me to admire the way "Birthday" was put together rather than actually outright enjoy it.
But whatever I think, or reflexively feel - this single launched Bjork outside of Iceland and created a fascinating and unique pop star who remains an inspiration to many, and you could argue it was even the first pivotal step towards putting Iceland on the tourist map, giving the country more glossy magazine and newspaper coverage in Britain and beyond than it had enjoyed since the Cod Wars. If The Sugarcubes caused you to pull the Atlas from your parent's bookshelf and look further north than usual, you weren't alone. Maybe it was the start of the nation being patronised as being weird, quirky and out-there, when in reality it's no weirder or quirkier than any island nation - but that's the price everyone paid.
"Birthday" itself was never a conventional hit, but hung around the bottom of the National Top 100 across the whole of Autumn 1987, and ended up selling 50,000 copies - more than many "proper" chart hits.
2. Throwing Muses - Cry Baby Cry (4AD)
"Cry Baby Cry", on the other hand, isn't much more settled than "Birthday", sounding like an agonised country record performed in sheer panic by some musicians held at gunpoint. "He moved me and the chains changed!" yelps Kirsten Hirsch in a way that's one part joy, the other part total fear, while the band chug along rapidly behind her.
It's a deranged sounding single which has a rawness later Throwing Muses releases wouldn't necessarily possess. As the years rolled on, they discovered ways to decant their angular sound into more poppy structures, whereas "Cry Baby Cry" is almost all sharp edges. As an introduction to the band, it's interesting but not particularly accessible.
As a teenager, I actually thought this was probably what a band would have sounded like if Sylvia Plath had been a lead musician rather than a poet. Full marks for being a pretentious boy, then, but I'm going to put that comment here anyway because there's still a slight ring of truth about it for me. It has the same driving energy combined with disquieting ideas.
"You're wrong, Dave, and you're a pseud. Comparing bands to Sylvia Plath, honestly, you're not 14 anymore".
You're probably right, but I can't help it.
3. My Bloody Valentine - Strawberry Wine (Lazy)
And after all that, we get My Bloody Valentine at probably their most "normal". In their earliest days, MBV were usually regarded as being a sideshow in Indiepop quarters, a fey, merry group with some syrupy sixties ideas in their veins. That's an undeservingly simplistic view, as you can actually hear some of what would eventually make them significant here - the mix is much more interesting than anything, for example, The Pastels would be bothered to create. Feeling set on one constant droning mid-point, with the coo-ing backing vocals dominating and faintly buried lead vocals, it sounds faintly blurry, out of focus and claustrophobic. Something was already starting to happen, even if the details hadn't been fully fleshed out yet.
"Strawberry Wine" also sounds like a psychedelic folk song booted into the laps of an indie group, having a faintly otherworldly quality as a result. This is bit parts Indiepop, Shoegaze and early Incredible String Band at the same time.
Of course, if anyone had been played "Birthday" and "Strawberry Wine" back to back at the time and been asked which group would go on to make widely critically acclaimed and groundbreaking albums with their recording studio experiments, I still doubt the answer "My Bloody Valentine" would have cropped up much. Hindsight is a funny thing.
4. The Wedding Present - Anyone Can Make A Mistake (Reception)
This starts with high-powered guitar jangling, then revs its engine and speeds off, leading one critic of the time to comment: "The Ben Johnsons of indie take off around the track so fast they go straight past any tune".
That's a bit unfair, actually. "Anyone Can Make A Mistake" has become slightly sidelined in the Wedding Present's catalogue, but it's actually a brilliant little single, combining some superbly melodic, growling guitar riffs with an unstoppable energy. Even at this point before they signed to RCA, you can hear that their future would include "Kennedy" - "Anyone..." contains very similar elements in its sound.
Bigger and better things were to come in terms of exposure for the group, however, and this single acted as their last to sit outside the official UK Top 100. (Until they went "down the dumper" again, anyway).
5. Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart (Peel Session) (Strange Fruit)
And here we are again, discussing a classic track everyone knows, dating from well before 1987, purely because it was on a Peel Session EP and entered the indie chart as a result.
This time, though, at least the track is more than marginally different from the finally released single version, and in my view actually better. Some might see this as sacrilege, but the Peel Session version adds more beef to Peter Hook's clattering basslines and the driving percussion, giving the track a sense of drama it didn't eventually have. Of course, other people believe that this destroys the sense of atmosphere the song later had - it's entirely a matter of taste.
The Peel Session EP climbed to number three on the indie chart, and number 98 on the Offical Top 100.