1. Saint Etienne - Nothing Can Stop Us Now (Heavenly)
When we last met Saint Etienne on volume 10, most listeners probably had a sense that they were going to be another here-today gone-tomorrow bedroom DJ act who only had one or two good ideas in their system. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" was an extraordinary cover, but one which could easily have been a happy pop accident.
"Nothing Can Stop Us Now" clearly indicated that Wiggs and Stanley had equally bold, big ideas in their arsenal. Using the (uncredited) intro to Dusty Springfield's "I Can't Wait Until I See My Baby's Face" as its central hook, it somehow ends up sounding like it belongs to 1991 but every era prior to that, too. The sample itself may stem from 1967, but the way it's utilised here makes it sound as if it originated from a piece of bouyant, optimistic mid-seventies disco (puffing flutes alongside funky grooves were, after all, the staples of dancefloor monsters like "Do The Hustle"). Throughout, Sarah Cracknell's vocals sound part indie, part Debbie Harry - as their career progressed her voice would find softer, subtler tones, occasionally oddly akin to Jackie Lee, but here it's pure sass.
Throughout, the creeping bassline and swinging rhythms make you feel as if you're strolling down a city street with the sun on your face listening to Philly soul. It's a beautiful ball of influences and ideas which never fails to lift me up a little, and ensured that Saint Etienne became a key group to watch; while they were never really considered Britpop (except in very early Select magazine articles about that movement) there's no question that their early nineties releases used retro influences in an intelligent and successful way which laid the foundations for that scene to emerge.
2. Candyland - Fountain Of Youth (non-fiction)
While they seemed to be marketed as an indie-dance act, there was something very fishy about Candyland. Those strident, slickly produced grooves, chiming keyboard noises and soulful vocals didn't really make them sound 'indie' so much as the rightful heirs to Living In A Box's success, only with Housier beats tacked on. And obviously, "Non-fiction" was the subsidiary label to Fiction Records, who were in turn part of the Polydor group.
I don't really want to start an argument with any musicologists about how 'alternative' this sound is or isn't, but "Fountain Of Youth" certainly sounded like a possible pop hit in waiting, which might be how the group found themselves sneaking on to radio playlists and programmes like "Wogan" to promote the single. Filled with swagger and House-styled keyboard riffs, it makes the right moves and has exactly the right production for a mainstream 1991 smash, but ultimately isn't enough of a Tune. It had enough oomph behind it to nudge into the National Top 75 - though only just, at number 73 - but the fact that it's a single hardly anyone ever talks about today (if they even actually remember it) is rather telling.
When the Non-Fiction label (ostensibly created to break new bands) was wound up as a project, Candyland were moved over to the main Fiction Records label, where they staggered on until 1993 - but this was their biggest selling single.
3. New Fast Automatic Daffodils - Get Better (PIAS)
Everyone's favourite lo-fi baggy arthouse creatures employed the services of Martin Hannett for this single, and it became one of his last commercially issued productions. The original video (not available in full online) features a bedraggled and disturbed looking Hannett being ferried around a studio in a wobbly and unstable shopping trolley, an experience he apparently didn't want to go through and found terrifying - numerous friends of his have come forward since and said that the treatment of the video directors and band towards him was both disrespectful and ghoulishly mocking at this final point in his life.
In the group's defence, it's possible they had no idea at all how uncomfortable Hannett was or how close he was to death (after many years of drug abuse he was clearly not a sharp or happy individual anymore, but he was still an in-demand producer with a lot of other work in the pipeline). They did, however, talk about how he managed to 'decommercialise' this track, resulting in something which sounded closer to an album track than a single.
There's no question that "Get Better" has dimensions to it that were non-existent on previous New Fads recordings. The swooping guitar noises, the fact that the driving rhythms are pushed front-of-centre, the way the vocals sound agitated, battling with the other elements around them - it is actually exactly what you'd expect a Hannett produced New Fads single to sound like, so quite what they expected is anyone's guess. For all that, though, while "Big" and "Fishes' Eyes" had space and air between their grooves, and stretched out contentedly, "Get Better" is claustrophobic and panicked sounding.
It's not either party's greatest work, but it is something I'm glad I got to hear. It also signposted a possible road the New Fads could have journeyed down as the Baggy Party came to a close - but their next big moment of exposure came with the single "It's Not What You Know" which bemoaned their marginalised status over the occasional chops of angrily thrashed guitars.
4. Bridewell Taxis - Don't Fear The Reaper (Stolen)
Bridewell Taxis had numerous fantastic and under-appreciated singles in their catalogue, so the fact the only other track of theirs we're going to discuss besides "Spirit" is this cover of the Blue Oyster Cult classic is unfortunate. Indeed, even at the time music critics were quick to cock a snook at this single, feeling that an indie take on the cowbell-infused track wasn't something anybody had actually ordered. However - whisper it - I actually quite like this version.
It came out at a point where many indie bands were scoring rogue hits with covers of classics, the biggest smash of which was undoubtedly Candy Flip's shameful "Strawberry Fields Forever", a record which does get raved about online now, but frankly I don't care if I never hear it again. It was increasingly being seen as an opportunistic move, an attempt to launch whole careers off the back of other people's good work which, as it happened, very seldom actually paid dividends.
Then there's the minor issue of the tastes of the early nineties - "Don't Fear The Reaper" was, as cover version choices go, inadvisable. Most bands at the time were idly whacking on funky drummer loops and wah-wah guitar to bog-standard covers of sixties classics to gain psychedelic cool points. The excesses of seventies adult rock hadn't really been explored yet, for the simple reason that music critics were still surprisingly sniffy about that era.
Given these walloping great facts, then, you could be forgiven for wondering what the case for the defence actually is. Primarily, I would argue that "Don't Fear The Reaper" is actually a really good song, but Blue Oyster Cult's original version of it has multi-tracked vocals so limping, anaemic and lifeless they sound like two lovers committing suicide by slowly drowning in porridge. Suffering from the worst kind of clinical seventies over-production, there's no emotion in the rendition at all, and a lot of nastily fussy guitar lines far too high up in the mix (and if you're reading this and shaking your head, you should probably be aware that I'd be happy to throw even worse insults at some album Pink Floyd did called "Dark Side of the Moon").
What The Bridewell Taxis did was create something which is definitely rougher, with squeaking organs where the guitars would normally be, a slightly harder, more agitated vocal, and some brilliant subtle use of brass which reminds me of the Salvation Army band on a weekend. It's a much more pleasing version which is more foggy and autumnal, but still manages to add some grit into the mix. And well... you can't deny that the driving riff was always a good one to start with.
Your mileage may vary, however, and you may feel that the ghostly sounding Blue Oyster Cult original sounds faint and defeated because that's precisely how it's supposed to sound. Public opinion would obviously be on your side.
As for the Bridewell Taxis, they collapsed not long after this single, and a new line-up emerged under the name of The Bridewells - but by that point, the momentum had been lost.
5. The Hoovers - Mr. Average (Produce) - vinyl and cassette only
Back when I had a college radio show in Essex absolutely nobody listened to, I sent my details off to a variety of record companies in the hope of blagging advance promo copies of singles, which everyone completely ignored apart from bands on local labels. No surprises there, then. Amazingly, though, Liverpool's The Hoovers - who were signed to The Farm's Produce label, and doubtless got my details after I tried to flatter The Farm by telling them they were my college's favourite band as proved in a scientific poll - regularly got in touch. Not with promotional copies or even TDK cassettes of their work, though, just small fanzines chronicling their lives and activities, and occasionally hand-written letters asking for on-air plugs. It was a lovely piece of grass-roots indie promotion which revealed a band with a sense of humour who didn't really have the budget to produce anything more ambitious. I was left with the notion that if I ever met The Hoovers, I'd probably like them as people - and that's not a bad impression to leave rookie DJs and promoters with. So many bands are ghastly little shits, after all.
Unfortunately, "Mr. Average" is really nothing special. Lyrically mocking the life of a nine-to-fiver, it has a beefy, confident rhythm section, but lacks anything distinctive, exciting or memorable otherwise. The song managed to pick up John Peel airplay and the group received positive reviews in the music press at this time, so obviously bigger and better people than me disagreed with my assessment, but the track has since become so obscure that I've had to upload it to YouTube myself.
This single featured on the band's "Tied Up and Tickled" LP which was released in 1992, but that became the band's final release.