Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 3 - Side One - New Order, Depeche Mode, Leather Nun, Danielle Dax, PWEI, Motorcycle Boy

Indie Top 20 Volume 3
Format: Double LP, Double Cassette

Volume 3 of the Indie Top 20 series suddenly adopts a style which would last for years - the familiar Indie Top 20 logo has established itself along the left-hand side of the cover. That xeroxed "paper clip" would reoccur as a motif across the next few LPs too, and the Melody Maker sponsorship is now front and centre of all formats (dominating a goodly chunk of the sleeve here).

This was also the debut release on the newly formed Beechwood Music, presumably named after Bee and Ch(et) (Sel)wood, the driving forces behind the series. Beechwood would go on to release other LPs outside the Indie Top 20 series, eventually making more money out of the ever-fruitful Dance music compilation market. However, there were other odd excursions into Indie in their catalogue which didn't fit the rubric of the main series, and we might briefly explore those eventually in slightly less depth (please don't ask me to cover them in more depth, for Christ's sake).

This was also the start of the brief period Beechwood Music started giving titles to each album. Volume 3 is "War of Independents". It's not too clear what marketing purpose this served, and after a few of these sub-headers I suspect the idea got quietly dropped as a probable waste of time.

So what of the contents? Well, it's musically much more of a mish-mash, and you get a clear sense of the reign of indiepop fading away slightly and heads being turned towards different strands of "alternative music" which were less light and frivolous. In particular, several ground-breaking artists emerge for the first time, including two whose influence remains enormous, even though one of them still has their feet in the past at this particular point. Goth Rock remains hanging about the place as well, whiffing faintly of patchouli oil.

1. New Order - Truth (Peel Session) (Strange Fruit) 

If I were a cynic, I might argue that this track was placed right upfront to get people to buy the LP by mistake, accidentally believing that it might be New Order's recent huge hit "True Faith". New Order had recently worked with Pet Shop Boys producer Stephen Hague to create one of their finest pop moments, giving their chart career - actually somewhat patchy after "Thieves Like Us", although people seem to have forgotten that - a massive boost. The hugely memorable video featuring sinister primary coloured Michelin man type figures running around slapping each other up the face helped increase the exposure of the track tenfold.

"Truth", on the other hand, was a recently released but ancient New Order Peel Session track stemming from 1981, a point where their sense of identity was still rather incomplete. In short, they still sound rather like Joy Division here, only without one of the key elements. The drum machine and icy synths hint towards a clear future direction, though, and the track has the same cold eeriness that made "Turn The Heater On" such a compelling listen on Volume One.

It's a downright peculiar track to put upfront in the compilation for any other reason than the bankability of New Order's name, though. It's a quiet, despondent point of entrance.

2. Depeche Mode - Never Let Me Down Again (Mute)

If only this had been the opening track... now, I sense trouble ahead with this one. Depeche Mode haven't always been widely appreciated in the UK, and that's a source of enormous frustration for me. People tend to either take the view that they were a middle-of-the-road teen synth-pop band or stadium rock stars scaling unsubtle heights. These simplistic overviews ignore swathes of their output, which include magnificent pop - much of it unplayed even on oldies radio these days - and material which mongrelised pop with epic, scaling hooks with experimental industrial indie and political protest with superb attention to detail, right down to the sleeves and videos. It created a band of heroes across mainland Europe (and even the USA for a period); a group freely mentioned alongside other huge musical pioneers, while Britain often looked the other way.

In reality, most of their naive teen-pop output can all be found on the first LP "Speak and Spell". The alternative stadium rock God phase is mostly encapsulated on "Songs Of Faith And Devotion". Everything else is decidedly interesting, even at its worst. The band even toyed with Marxist and Communist imagery across two LPs, "A Broken Frame" featuring a peasant woman scything a field, "Construction Time Again" a workman with a hammer, raised proud and high up a mountainside. The lyrics on "Construction Time Again" were naive, like most early Mode, but clear - "Pipeline" called for wealth redistribution while playing with industrial soundscapes, the melodic "And Then" dreamed of erasing all existing structures and erecting society from scratch. "I'd prefer to think that things couldn't turn out worse" they sang wearily. The band banged their fists on the table in interviews and talked about the importance of the welfare state. Again, I insist - this all happened while you were asleep, although the central message of "Everything Counts" wasn't too ambiguous on "Top of the Pops" either.

And "A Broken Frame" may be their most derided LP, disliked even by the band themselves, but the spells of pop light and moody atmospheric shade make it feel twin-towned with OMD's "Dazzle Ships". An imperfect twin it may be, but it still has some stellar moments.

Moving forward to 1987, the band had already released their bona-fide classic LP (if you're reading this outside Britain) in "Black Celebration", and had followed it up with the less-good but still frequently startling "Music For The Masses". That was the LP which turned the suburban Essex boys into a stadium band, and created so much of the trouble and confusion ahead. "Never Let Me Down" is a beast, though, an absolute juggernaut of a single which oscillates between slapping industrial rhythms and an almost symphonic sounding chorus. At this point, Anton Corbijn had also got fully on board to produce all their videos, grainy Super 8 affairs laced with dream-like imagery which worked with the music almost perfectly. Everything was gelling.

"Music For The Masses" came in a sleeve featuring a glossy photograph of a huge red megaphone, presumably broadcasting the album to an abandoned piece of twilight countryside, a string of lights from a road in the distance being the only sign of life. Internal sleeve shots showed the megaphone up mountains or by lakes and canals - in my mind, the bash and clatter of "Never Let Me Down Again" was coming out of all of them. It's a truly great single, the sound of all the best and most interesting elements of the eighties rolled into one ball.

Is it indie? Of course. It was released on Mute, a label the band stuck by throughout everything, even when their distribution and pressing plant power wasn't all it could have been ("Just Can't Get Enough" had to satisfy itself with a number 8 chart position, when most people imagine it was a huge top three hit). Is it any good? Well, you're entitled to disagree. But if you do, you're wrong.

3. The Leather Nun - Lost and Found (Wire)

Given Depeche Mode's dress sense a couple of years prior to this point you could forgive Chet and Bee for following them with a Swedish band called The Leather Nun, but this song is somewhat overshadowed by what precedes it.

The Leather Nun were cult artists and early industrial stars who had been around a fair while, and had constantly courted controversy across Europe with lewd live shows and imagery. By the mid-eighties their reputation began to spread to America, and it seemed as if a major breakthrough would occur - but it didn't. And while the atmospheric "I Can Smell Your Thoughts" received some TV and radio exposure in the UK and pushed the band to new heights, "Lost and Found" did less well, and only reached number 35 in the indie chart. That's perhaps not overly surprising. The rigid groove of the track doesn't really go anywhere interesting, feeling like a graceless, stilted industrial kind of Swing. A baffling inclusion here, and one to skip.

The band soldiered on until 1995, but failed to find much success again after being without a record label from 1991 onwards.

4. Danielle Dax - Big Hollow Man (Awesome)

Southender Danielle Dax was a visual artist and ex-member of the experimental group The Lemon Kittens, and previous collaborator with Robert Fripp. Her first solo LPs continued to explore often harsh and challenging forms, but towards the end of the eighties changes began to emerge in her musical style and she rocked out in a slightly more conventional way.

Always having a striking appearance and to all intents and purposes looking and dressing like an iconic pop star, however ill-suited her temperament may have been for that role, it was probably all worth a shot. "Big Hollow Man" begins with a funky guitar riff which then collides into thumping drums and a forceful melody, part glam, part new wave, and ever so slightly threatening but worthy of constant repeated listening. A cheap but effective video earned her "Chart Show" exposure, and a new phase began - Danielle Dax the possible star, popping up on interview shows, Juke Box Jury, and magazines the length and breadth of the land.

It couldn't last, and it didn't last, but more on that eventually.

5. Pop Will Eat Itself - Beaver Patrol (Chapter 22)

Oh Good God. You see, my wife's theories about "Sex Pest Rock" - she keeps threatening to start a blog with that title, by the way - really are proven right here. "Beaver Patrol" was originally a sixties garage single by The Wilde Knights, and was self-consciously sleazy even by the standards of that period, but at least possibly had a ludicrous enough edge to be titterworthy rather than offensive. In the sledgehammer fists of Pop Will Eat Itself, it becomes a Brummie beer boy sexual harrassment anthem, though, far too heavy and Beastie Boys aping to be easily dismissed as an ironic joke. It received slatings from many quarters, taking the group by unpleasant surprise.

Ignoring the lyrical contents, though, "Beaver Patrol" at least set the template for their forthcoming "Box Frenzy" album, being a loud, proud, British indie approximation of the Def Jam rock/rap hybrid style. Looking back, it all seems faintly amateurish to say the least, but even the KLF's debut "1987 - What The Fuck Is Going On" from the same period also seems like a clumsy sticklebrick creation. This was a new dawn and new rules were emerging, and the public didn't much mind the feel of chaos to start with - "Beaver Patrol" edged PWEI that bit closer towards the grown-up official Top 75, and it wouldn't be long before RCA would arrive with a chequebook in their hands. Unthinkable stuff at the point of "Oh Grebo, I Think I Love You".

Oh, and despite the fact it wasn't a proper hit, "Beaver Patrol" was still quite popular with the teenage boys at my school. Well, it would be, wouldn't it.

6. The Motorcycle Boy - Big Rock Candy Mountain (Rough Trade)

Edinburgh's The Motorcycle Boy consisted largely of ex-members of Creation noiseniks Meat Whiplash, and only hung around indieland for this one single before jumping on board Chrysalis's boutique label Blue Guitar. By the time they finally issued their grown-up work in 1989, the public had largely lost interest, and it was all over before it had even really started.

"Big Rock Candy Mountain" is a pretty and melancholy single with a driving, chugging riff which occasionally sounds like a Flatmates record played at the wrong speed. It stormed to number two in the Indie Charts, the band became NME cover stars, and then there was silence for nearly two years and momentum was clearly lost. "Big Rock" was a damn fine single, but very much of its moment, and not quite good enough to stretch interest in the group to a degree where a long break would have no ill effects on their career.

The group subsequently split in 1990.


  1. This is a very rare one. I remember searching the shops at Piccadilly Circus looking for it. Hardly saw this anywhere about.

  2. I've got a feeling I bought this with a gift token at HMV at the time, but it does seem to crop up on ebay fairly infrequently (compared to the others) now. The one I struggled to get hold of the most was Volume One, which I think I only located a copy of about 4 years down the line, at a record fair.

    Volume 9 had huge distribution issues initially thanks to the collapse of Rough Trade, but I think they relaunched it a couple of months later. More on that when we get to it, I think!