Year of Release: 1991
Volume 11 is a seriously odd compilation, consisting largely of up-and-coming bands who never quite arrived at their intended destinations and lesser-remembered, mid-ranking tracks by known names.
"Indie Top 20" as a series did occasionally put out LPs where the hit-to-miss ratio leant more towards "miss" than usual, and it often seems to be for a mix of reasons. For starters, one of the jobs of the series was to introduce us to new talent in the hope that these acts would at the very least become cult heroes. Their tracks would sit on the LPs alongside press darlings and established indie acts. Overall, the series usually did an uncanny job of getting a tricky balance right, but when trends were changing or the tide was going out against alternative music, they sometimes responded in a very confused fashion.
Volume 11, then, seems to have been released on the assumption that indie-dance would remain big news throughout the whole of 1991, when in reality people were starting to turn their backs and move on. This wasn't an unreasonable response on Beechwood Music's part, and they were far from alone in getting things wrong. The IPC music press also took punts on all manner of groups using shuffling beats and funky rhythms who failed to make any real headway, to the extent that readers wrote into their letters pages to openly mock them. Every movement has its crunch point when almost all the vaguely relevant acts get snapped up, and that's usually the moment it also all turns sour.
To understand how all parties managed to get it so particularly wrong, you have to remember that the timelines for baggy were unexpectedly short (by my reckoning at least) rivalling late sixties psychedelia for overground brevity. It rose into the mainstream in 1989 and had largely dipped back under again by the end of '91, causing many major labels to check the contracts of all the bands with wah-wah pedals and organs they'd only recently signed up. On a personal level, this was hugely frustrating for me. Not only was I managing to sneak inside alternative nightclubs just as the music was changing from an exciting mix of danceable sounds back into dreary rock orthodoxy, but I had local friends and friends-of-friends in indie-dance bands who were the toast of the regional press and had A&R interest one minute, then were suddenly abandoned by everyone the next (and you have to remember that bands Down South were much slower to jump on the Groovy Train). I can clearly remember being told enthusiastically "You'll love this new local band My Life Story! They sound a lot like James!" Jake Shillingford would obviously move house, look for new musicians in a new location, and have better luck later on in the decade. Only those willing to reinvent themselves would live to fight new battles another day.
I got to witness the harsh luck and unfairness that could befall perfectly good bands at a very young age. A number of strong demos by promising bands were washed out to sea on the incoming tide of shoegazing and grunge, and there's probably a perfectly respectable series of rarities compilations somebody could squeeze out of the scene if they were so minded. There was a sense - on my part at least - that the party had ended before its natural moment.
Regardless of this, Volume 11 was also a landmark LP for two other reasons - it was the last to feature the familiar vertical Indie Top 20 logo along the left-hand side of the sleeve. It was also the last to be compiled by Chet and Bee. Whether that was because Volume 11 had a lower strike rate than other LPs and they felt it was now time to hand the reigns over to someone else, or for other reasons, I know not.
That said, the differing range of styles on offer between Volume 11 and 12 isn't as sharp or as notable as you'd expect, and a number of acts managed to cling on a while longer - but the times they were a-changin, and a-changin fast.
Don't let what I've said above put you off reading about Volume 11, though. There's some very good, and some highly unusual stuff on offer here, even if some of it is so completely obscure that it does look as if I'm going to have to do some vinyl rips for you all again for the first time since Volume 3. Grrr.
1. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (Rough Trade)
"Glorious, energetic, witty guys, who happen to write great tunes with terrific lyrics. Watch them explode in '91" - Jonathan King, The Sun.
The quote above says it all. While I don't remember Carter responding to their recommendation in the Soaraway Sun with quite the same level of indignation that Cabbage did a few weeks ago, it was indicative that by this point, they were no longer those two funny shouty men with a drum machine from the London pub circuit. They were a serious proposition.
Even with Jonathan King's recommendation, though, I suspect that a few of us (me included) couldn't quite believe that Carter would ever be more than a cult band. They neither looked or sounded the part, had a noticeable disrespect for the mainstream, wrote harsh lyrical observations on all number of awkward topics, and quite frankly weren't an easy sell. But rise up they did, signing to Chrysalis Records, releasing a number one LP, rugby tackling Philip Schofield live on national television, inspiring outraged tabloid newspaper headlines, many reeking of bullshit (headlines about their secret South London "swanky pads" turned out to be false, as if anybody hadn't guessed that in the first place) and... essentially, living a life with all the benefits and trappings of pop stardom. That this has become largely forgotten by the media in the years since means I almost feel as if I'm spinning younger or non-UK readers a ridiculous yarn. Indeed, my Canadian wife struggles to believe me when I try to emphasise how big Carter were for a brief period, which is probably why I seem so defensive now. It's become a habit.
"Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere" was not their breakthrough single, however, and is actually probably one of the most uncommercial releases of their indie label period. Not only does the entire song seem to hang on a very doomy, dramatic and gothic five-note keyboard riff, it's also about alcoholism, attacking the misleading advertising of the alcohol industry in the process.
You don't need me to tell you that this isn't very rock and roll. While I could point to any number of examples of rock and popular music embracing and celebrating the allure of the alcoholic beverage - right down to Rolf Harris's "Nick Teen and Al K. Hall", for God's sake - very, very few songs have been released underlining the pitfalls and dangers, highlighting the vomit and the sleaze underlying the Martini cocktail lifestyle. "Try agrophobic, schizophrenic, paranoid attacks of panic!" snarls Jim Bob, "Or epileptic fits of laughter 25 million mornings after!"
While the track never quite set indie club dancefloors alight in the way "Bloodsport For All" or "Sheriff Fatman" managed, it apparently caused numerous recovering alcoholics to write to the pair thanking them for the song, with Jim Bob recently claiming that it was responsible for more mail than anything else they wrote. It remains a rare example of an anti-alcohol song in the rock canon, certainly outside of the straight edge scene anyway.
The sound of singing drunks at the start of this track also elicited an immediate response from my mother at the time. "What's that you're listening to?" she asked. "It sounds exactly like the drunks I used to hear in Stockwell when I was trying to get to sleep at night". So there you have it. My mum was referring to a council estate in Stockwell, and by doing so, was rubber-stamping this track as having an authentic working class South London soundtrack.
As for Carter's other work - sadly, we will be spending some time away from them after this, and when we next meet them, it will be when they're travelling in the opposite direction down towards the dumper.
2. My Jealous God - Pray (Rough Trade)
"Poignantly pretty, 'Pray' is a blissful bitter-sweet trance dance, an effortless groove and supremely natural" - Ian Gittins - Melody Maker.
My Jealous God's wah-wah guitar infested "Everything About You" emerged in 1990, and instantly shook up indie club dancefloors and caused a lot of major label A&R reps to begin tapping their wallets along to the groovy rhythms. Here was a band who were clearly bound for greatness. They were promptly groomed for stardom and released the follow-up "Pray" on Rough Trade to higher expectations while everyone watched excitedly.
Their chips were promptly pissed on by the combined effects of the financial problems Rough Trade were experiencing and the waning influence of indie-dance on the mainstream, and "Pray" did not get much attention outside the indie ghetto. The band would still jump ship to Fontana Records to release the rather Blurrish and actually really very good "Easy" as a major label debut, followed up with a reissue of "Pray" - but neither charted and they were dropped without an album ever seeing the light of day.
To be brutally frank, the fact that "Pray" is absolutely nothing special may also have been a factor in its muted reception. It's a slick and poppy piece of work with a somewhat middle-of-the-road production, sounding like a halfway house between Beats International and Blur, but having none of the hooks of the former or any of the charm, awkward edges or innovation of the latter. Why it needed to be released twice, apart from perhaps the fact that it sounded vogueish and accessible, is a mystery. It's not awful, but nor can I find anything to enthuse about here. One of those singles the word "Meh" was invented for.
Do check out "Easy" and "Everything About You", though - both show that My Jealous God were capable of better, and are enough to make me wonder about what that missing LP might have been like.
3. The Bridewell Taxis - Spirit (Stolen)
"...is Leeds' Bridewell Taxis third single from 1990, out on their own Stolen label, an album is scheduled for release soon!"
The Bridewell Taxis were another bunch of likely pop stars who were somewhat unfairly lumped in with the baggy scene. In fact, their influences were incredibly disparate and never short of interesting, seemingly taking in Northern Soul (unlike their funky rivals), indie-punk and even epic seventies rock as well as the baggy rhythms of the day. Their solitary trombonist was a typically lo-fi and indie approach to injecting a soulful sound into their jagged grooves, and the cheap keyboard sounds combined with that to produce a noise that wasn't big budget, but was at the very least identifiable and unique - something which couldn't have been said for many of their contemporaries.
"Spirit" is a particular favourite of mine, sounding too rigid and uptight to actually be funky, but nonetheless having a powerful, intense driving force cutting right through its core - it's mean, pinch-faced and demanding whilst also feeling somehow empowering and groovy. I used to play this constantly on my college radio show, broadcast live in the common room to about fifteen disinterested people.
The instrumental chorus to "Spirit" also wasn't intentional, but was apparently put in place as the lead singer Mick Roberts was so drunk after a two-day drinking binge that he couldn't remember what the actual words for the chorus were. Perhaps he should have listened to the advice in Carter's "Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere" a bit more closely.
Incidents such as these seemed to typify the band's slightly dazed and troublesome approach, with criminal incidents, confused highs, drunken brawls and near-death experiences featuring heavily in their careers (perhaps most ridiculously of all, Mick Roberts was once arrested for stealing carpets from the Hilton Hotel in Leeds). They were due to sign to Chrysalis Records shortly after "Spirit" picked up a lot of mainstream media attention, but the label were put off by a shambolic drugged up live performance they witnessed from the band, and swiftly opted to sign the safer, and now largely forgotten, Poppy Factory.
You can't call such incidents "bad luck". The Bridewells were clearly a band who could have had a shot at a lasting career if they hadn't been such a wayward bunch - but then again, without that edge to their personalities, would they have sounded as abrasive as they did? Whatever the facts, and however many hypothetical avenues we want to explore, they were the closet this period came to producing a Dexys Midnight Runners, albeit without any of the manifestos or control freakery - just pure chaos.
4. New Fast Automatic Daffodils - Fishes Eyes (Play It Again Sam)
"When is a Manchester band not a Manchester band? When their name is New Fast Automatic Daffodils! Hard-boiled dub funksters with a surrealist edge (ooer) on true unpigeonhole-able form" - Good Times Magazine.
Following "Big", "Fishes Eyes" was really a continuation of the New Fads speciality - long, loose, funky and shuffling post-punk funk sounds with strangely barked slogans over the top. In this, lead singer Andy Spearpoint chants the phrase "The fishes eyes will watch your lies" repeatedly, which was apparently inspired by an unknown person posting a dead fish through his letterbox with a note simply stating that fact attached to it.
There was a sneaking sense that the New Fads were a bit like a semi-comatose Pigbag, rambling away and improvising this nonsense off their addled cuffs, but as with "Big", their singles were really highly enjoyable. "Fishes Eyes" manages to squeeze enough riffs, diversions and funky beats across its seven minutes to not make it seem like a chore, and there's a distinctly threatening, paranoid air to the track as well which adds a lot of spice to the mix. They were frequently baffling, but never boring.
5. Flowered Up - Phobia (Heavenly)
"Apples and pairs, but where's the stairs? What's yours!"
Flowered Up's progress was regarded by a few critics as being thwarted by this single. While "It's On" was uptempo and insistent, "Phobia" is a bit dark and chilly by comparison, and is also a strangely clever composition for a group some were trying to write off as punkish urchins. It contains numerous instances of meandering instrumental breaks, noodling guitar work and faintly awkward arrangements, proving that they weren't quite as rough around the edges as they would perhaps like to have been perceived. There's a fussiness and fiddliness to these grooves very few other tracks on this LP contain.
For all its curiosities and strengths, though, it does have to be said that "Phobia" isn't much of a single. It's a perfectly good track in its own right, but it lacks the immediacy and impact of "It's On", and as a result saw their chart fortunes decline as this only just managed to reach Number 75 in the national charts. What it did prove to listeners, however, is that this was a band who weren't just Mondays-apeing chancers. They were more playful and had a much firmer identity of their own than that.
"Phobia" would also be their last indie single before they ran into the arms of London Records, where they produced the legendary epic single-come-music-video-come-short-film "Weekender" - a "Quadrophenia" for the baggy generation, if you will, and yes, I am about the hundredth person to say that - the cult LP "A Life With Brian", the Clash-inspired Top 40 hit "Take It", and a much more innovative and lively mix of sounds than their earliest critics might have suspected they were capable of.
Sadly, brothers Liam and Joe Maher died from drugs overdoses in 2009 and 2012 respectively, meaning a revival or reformation of the group will never happen. They remain definitively tied to the early nineties era, and some would argue deserve a more serious reassessment than they have so far been afforded.