1. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Sheriff Fatman (Big Cat)
"Carter's driver Terry, says 'Jim Bob and Fruitbat, I hate them, with their whacky names, pig awful guitars and that poxy tape machine, boring the pants off everyone with their stupid little songs about South London of which this one is probably the worst'".
At this point in their careers, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine - or Carter USM as they would often eventually be known for the sake of brevity, by themselves and everyone else - were not big news. Jim Bob and Fruitbat's previous band, the mediocre and under-achieving Jamie Wednesday, had recently collapsed, leaving them with the choice of either forming a new band or plodding around the gig circuit as a duo using drum machines and tapes for backing.
This would be an unusual decision now, and was made even more unusual back then due to the sheer volume of unfashionable covers duos littering backstreet boozers. With names like Double Take, Two's Company and Two In A Bed, they used to entertain weary working class punters with drum machine and synthesiser festooned covers of rock classics such as "We Are The Champions", using their duo status to circumnavigate the tricky venue licensing issues surrounding full groups. Most were a frustratingly naff interruption to a nice night out in the pub, and weren't credible outfits. The year was no longer 1981, and drum machines and backing tapes being used by bands with loud guitars wasn't deemed a radical or interesting move, just a messy compromise. A similar stance being adopted by a band with original material seemed like an odd move.
Carter USM were also slightly aged gentlemen by 1990 indie standards and made a brash, decidedly unMadchester noise. Suffice to say that nobody expected much from them after their second single "Sheriff Fatman" picked up some attention, and it's cultish indie chart action really did seem like a one-off hurrah which would never be repeated again, never mind built upon.
What many of us reckoned without was how sharp and witty Carter could be. While their puns, observations and playful rhymes about life in London feel familiar now - so familiar that when I lived in South London a year ago, I could barely go outside for five minutes without getting a Carter earworm - it's worth listening again with a fresh pair of ears. "Sheriff Fatman", for instance, takes on slum landlords with a biting wit, like Soft Cell's "Bedsitter" transplanted into the brains of some demented Grebos. With its military stomp, synthetic brass fanfares, and dirty donking electro-bass lines, it also manages to sound unique - though whether it's a unique sound that works for every listener is obviously up for debate.
"Sheriff Fatman" is still one of the songs that defines the Carter legacy, and would become a proper hit once it was re-released on a major label in 1991. For now, though, they were regarded somewhat cautiously as being a novelty. I mean, how could this possibly last? But it did. And one really would have hoped that the subject matter of "Fatman" would seem quaint by now, but sadly it seems more relevant than ever.
2. Fatima Mansions - Blues For Ceaucescu (Kitchenware)
"...A bruising riff, declamatory remarks, wah-wah overload, the lot - definitely a contender for single of the year" Dele Fadele, NME
This definitely sounded like the moment Fatima Mansions finally found their true purpose. While they were never a very generic band at any point in their career - many critics have pointed out that they often sounded like three different acts in the space of one song - the material most people remember is the sonic thuggery of the LPs "Valhalla Avenue" and "Lost In The Former West".
"Blues for Ceaucescu" is arguably the first and finest example of the band's demented fury. Fixing on one repetitive, hypnotic and heavy blues riff, it kicks, stomps and thrashes around, using the then-recent execution of Ceaucescu to lyrically sprawl around tales of corruption in both the East and West. Seemingly taking its cues from the Bertolt Brecht quote "Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again", the track even gently and cautiously hints towards child sex abuse cover-ups among the high and mighty at Kincora Boys' Home in Northern Ireland. "God, I love living in a DEMOCRACY!" splutters Coughlan disbelievingly. (See, some people were talking about this stuff way before the present decade...)
It's coming up for Christmas now as I'm typing this. Every Christmas in Romania, many people sit down to watch old footage of Ceaucescu being executed, and cheer. Every time I hear this track, I tend to find myself thinking about that. When I've discussed this with other people over the years, they've found it hard to digest. In Great Britain at least, it seems to be considered rather rude to not wait a day or two until someone's passing before you speak the truth about them, no matter what misery they might have inflicted on people during their lifetimes or how many people they may have sent to their deaths. Watching videos of them dying at Christmas is utterly beyond most people's comfortable comprehension.
We're lucky enough to have grown up in a country where most of us haven't been oppressed to the same degree as the Romanians, but "Blues for Ceaucescu" is a fantastic and tremendously cathartic noise in that it reminds us that there are people out there who would be quite willing to go that far if the opportunity arose - that power-hungry psychopathy is always there, waiting for a crack to open where it can infuence or manipulate society unchecked. And the track sounds magnificent, too. Relentless, pounding, minimal and yet very effective. One of my favourite singles of 1990 - no question.
3. Wolfhounds - Rite Of Passage (Midnight Music)
"'Rite of Passage' is about the sights you have to lower to hold down a job, and having dreams beyond the weekend and that job. A bigger sound, bigger ambitions. We are now campaigning against the Rates of Passage."
This is perfectly partnered with "Blues for Ceaucescu" in the track listing. Beginning with a sample of Joey Ramone burbling on about no subject known to man (but if you didn't know, you probably wouldn't know) it continues to introduce discordant guitar riffing, furious vocals, and a strangely minimal chorus. Trashing about the place, it lacks the anthemic feel The Wolfhounds had treated us to on previous outings, instead feeling more experimental and jarring.
Not that any of this makes it a bad track at all. On first listen it seemed (to my teenage ears) to be a bit too much to take, but subsequent revisits delivered a lot. It's so sprawling and unconventional that there's an interesting moment around every corner, and it hinted towards much better things to come from the band.
Forthcoming releases such as the LP "Attitude" showed that they were indeed moving on from their scratchy indie beginnings and developing a darker, more savage sound. Eventually though, the band would cease and Dave Callaghan would take that bleakness to the dub-indie outfit Moonshake who released some equally excellent recordings. We'll get our chance to discuss them eventually.
4. Birdland - Sleep With Me (Lazy)
"Birdland's reckless rock rampaged into the charts with this scintillating slice of singalong sex" Rave Magazine.
This was indeed Birdland's big Top 40 debut, entering the Sunday chart rundown at number 32. In reality, though, there was barely a person around who genuinely still thought the group were the next big thing. Birdland never could top the unbelievable punk thrash of their debut "Hollow Heart", and "Sleep With Me" is actually a pretty baffling slide into mid-paced rock and roll. The swagger of Jagger and Richards runs right through its heart, but there's something a bit lead-footed about it all. The Stones swung, but Birdland steadily bang and stomp here.
There are far better Birdland singles out there than this one, which makes it unfortunate that it turned out to be their solitary minor hit. Despite that, it has enough attitude and a strong enough hook to be better than some of the indie-dance singles of the same era which received a more favourable critical reception.
5. The Heart Throbs - Dreamtime (One Little Indian)
"... a band who epitomise all that is groovy and good in the female-fronted serious guitar scene. Over the last two years they have produced some of the most articulate and impassioned singles to emerge from the indie charts" ID
I'm offering that sleevenote above without comment. Sisters Rose Carlotti and Rachel DeFreitas were siblings of the unfortunate and deceased Pete DeFreitas of Echo & The Bunnymen, and were a powerful and seering contribution to the music scene at the time. Often overlooked when people go back over the history of nineties indie, they were nonetheless a surprisingly big deal to begin with, and had a sharp feminist angle to their work. Their second album "Jubilee Twist", for example, was named after a martial combat technique for attacking male genitalia.
The single "I Wonder Why" - never featured on Indie Top 20 - is probably one of the better examples of their hard edged guitar pop from this period. "Dreamtime" is much more atmospheric and world-weary, and perhaps gives an inaccurate impression of the more popular work they tended to produce.
It's a good single, mind you, and one which picked up on enormous volumes of college radio airplay Stateside. Awash with airy synthesisers, moody guitarwork and delicate but impassioned vocals, I played this often in my bedroom at the height of summer, watching the sun go down outside in the late evening. It felt nigh-on perfect, and it still feels somewhat majestic now.