Sunday, 2 July 2017

Indie Top 20 Volume 18 Side One - Blur, Bjork, Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins, Carter USM

Formats: CD/ Double Vinyl/ Cassette
Year of Release: 1993

This volume is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the last ever "Indie Top 20" LP to be released on vinyl or cassette; or at least, so far as I can ascertain (if anyone knows better, please drop me a line). By the end of 1993, vinyl's days were considered to be numbered, and while the format limped on for a couple more years, the scarcity of original vinyl copies of albums like Pulp's "Different Class" or Blur's "Great Escape" will tell you how well they sold. "Indie Top 20" albums were never chart hits to the same extent as those records, and it's doubtful that the vinyl editions of the LP were even breaking the 1,000 units mark anymore. Beechwood can't be blamed for dumping the format at this point (and as for cassettes, they were becoming almost as unloved, and you couldn't listen to a double-play Indie Top 20 tape in a standard Walkman without the music slowing down with the drag of the compilation's weight anyway).

Secondly, the sleevenotes for this volume announce a huge change to the way the LPs were compiled in a passing fashion, almost in the hope their regular buyers won't notice. "Welcome to volume 18 of this series," they begin confidently, "where you'll find the likes of Elastica, Salad and Delicious Monster rub shoulders with the Modes, Bjorks, Pumpkins and Blurs of this maverick indie world. Let's face it, who gives a toss which label or distributor they release their records, so long as the emphasis is on damn good music?" This is a very interesting, "oh come on, get over it lads!" way of announcing a huge shift away from the founding principle of the series.

I do get how this happened. The situation with the indie charts at this point was rather ridiculous, with all kinds of "boutique" labels cropping up which were owned outright by major labels, and were often based in some dark and messy corner of their corporate tower block. Dedicated was a subsidiary of RCA, and regularly popped up in the indie charts. Virgin owned Hut (though in their defence, had a very hands-off approach, and allowed Hut to put out some really interesting and daring music). And Island Red was waiting in the wings, a label started by Island Records which just changed the corporate logo's colour and had their acts distributed independently so as to leap into the indie chart, where other signings such as Pulp or U2 were prohibited (no points whatsoever to Island for effort with their presentation, then, though you could argue they were rather more honest).

There's another side to this argument too, though. Chet and Bee's father Clive Selwood had very recently whined to the NME about the fact that his "Peel Sessions" records on Strange Fruit had been disqualified from the indie charts, purely because he had moved the company over to a new distributor. His voice was heard amongst a chorus of other elders in the industry complaining about the absence of a meaningful "alternative" chart where all their hip and happening bands could hang out with the likes of Huggy Bear and Aphex Twin. An alternative chart which, obviously, the BPI would have more oversight and control over, potentially leaving small bedroom labels without any media breakthrough moments, and maybe allowing groups like The Big Dish or Texas chart entries (possibly an exaggeration, possibly not - who knows what they envisaged?)

Both Selwood and his naysayers had relevant gripes, but the only sensible conclusion you can draw from this brouhaha - certainly in less than 10,000 words - is that "indie" had slowly become a victim of its own success. The majors had found a way of gatecrashing the party, and nothing would ever quite be the same again. And as for the "Indie Top 20" series, what it had set out to be, an honest guide to critically acclaimed but seldom heard music in the indie charts, it no longer was. This really marks the point that I saw the writing on the wall. If the "Indie Top 20" series had become a selection of all the biggest and best alternative music out there, then what made it different to the various leftfield compilation LPs the majors were sticking out? That's a question we may find ourselves referring back to more and more as we enter the twilight years of the series.

1. Blur - Chemical World (Food/ EMI)

And straight off the bat, here's EMI's first appearance on an "Indie Top 20" LP. It certainly wasn't Food Record's first showing, though - that occurred back on Volume Two in the days when it was a wholly independent label.

It's also Blur's first appearance, for obvious reasons, and it's tough to briefly summarise their career so far. Initially they were considered suspect by many critics and "indie kids", a group without "proper" indie credentials and an A&R man's wet dream. Good looking and confident, their earliest singles actually still stand up as marvellous slices of alternative pop. "There's No Other Way" crashlanded into the UK Top Ten unapologetically, and the band's energetic and cocksure live performances and charismatic photo shoots ensured that they were never going to be mistaken for another Chapterhouse or Moose. Damon Albarn's slightly tragic Frank and Walters haircut may have been a distinct minus point in their early days, but beyond that, they could barely put a foot wrong in terms of either sound or image. As the NME went to the trouble of pointing out, Blur were the indie band your average suited city commuter thought it was OK to like.

Then, following the success of their debut LP "Leisure", they returned with the new single "Popscene", a snarling three-minute outing which sounded nothing like their previous more psychedelically inclined moments, and instead resembled an early Teardrop Explodes single on amphetamines. It sounded fantastic, but landed at a time when the British record buying public were generally not interested in homegrown alternative sounds, and has subsequently been largely forgotten about outside of their fanbase (even by the band, who seem keen to disown it).

A long gap followed while the group developed their second LP "Modern Life Is Rubbish", which was supposed to have been produced by Andy Partridge of XTC - what I wouldn't give to hear a complete version of that LP - but he was given the heave-ho and replaced by Stephen Street for the final release. The band returned suited and booted in Mod gear posing with some dogs in the British music press, and without us fully realising it at the time, the future had arrived.

If "For Tomorrow", the first single off "Modern Life", sounded like a classic sixties single which had somehow been beamed into 1993 by mistake, "Chemical World" was greeted with brickbats from some quarters for "sounding like a rip-off of Suede". These criticisms have largely been forgotten now, but you can hear the basis for them - the swagger, camp vocalisations and sharp, angular guitar riffs do bear a faint resemblance to "Animal Nitrate" or "Metal Mickey". But besides those, chiming Beatlesy riffs are evident, a slightly Move-esque chorus, and even very faint traces of early Adam Ant in some of the overly pronounced  punkish cock-er-nee vocal inflections. The fact that music critics homed in on the one current and vogueish aspect to the sound highlighted Blur's overall problem - people still weren't convinced about their comeback chances and were treating them as yesterday's men and major label chancers.

In fairness, "Chemical World" has never been my favourite Blur single. "For Tomorrow" is a thing of optimism and beauty and staggeringly confident songwriting, whereas "Chemical World" feels cheaper and a bit more stilted and less effortless somehow, almost as if there's another aspect of the chorus they mislaid somewhere along the way. Still, it was strong enough to make minor commercial headway, and the group fell off the "at risk" register.

2. Bjork - Venus As A Boy (One Little Indian)

Bjork's journey from quirky cult indie singer in The Sugarcubes to coffee table "dance diva" felt incredibly unlikely at the time, though it's perfectly possible to see the joins if you look hard enough. From the funky impact of "Hit" to her work with 808 State to The Sugarcubes remix project, there was clear evidence that the idea of working with guitar-based groups making a new wave and post-punk inspired sound was appealing to her less and less.

Debut single "Human Behaviour" was a rattling, organic sounding single which crept into the lower reaches of the Top 40, whereas "Venus As A Boy" sounds exotic and bewitching whilst also channeling ideas found in the romantic frilliness of old torch songs. When Mike Flowers Pops covered this a couple of years later, it sounded more convincing as an easy listening standard than a lot of their other efforts.

Sadly, while Bjork could already be found in magazines like "The Face" looking amazing in photoshoots, and was developing a striking visual identity and an emerging mainstream presence, this and "Human Behaviour" barely scratched the consciousness of your average Woolworths shopper. "Venus As A Boy" bettered the chart presence of its predecessor by managing one week in the Top 30 at number 29, before quickly falling out of view again. Her album "Debut" had already been released by the time this single emerged, and had confidently entered the album charts at number three before immediately exiting the Top Ten the following week - Bjork had all the hallmarks of a cult artist appealing to a small but dedicated fanbase buying her product in the early weeks of its release.

All that would change thanks to two developments - firstly, "Debut" was a slow-burner of an LP which recovered its footing and began to hang around the top thirty for weeks on end, slowly accumulating sales throughout the summer of 1993 by word-of-mouth appeal. The release of her frankly startling collaboration with David Arnold, "Play Dead", also nudged the casual record buying public towards the LP, despite the fact that at first "Play Dead" wasn't even included in the tracklisting. Following that, Bjork became a singer that audiences far beyond indie kids and Face readers became aware of, an unusual and mainstream icon, known enough to be lampooned on episodes of "Spitting Image" singing along to Fax machines. Naturally, Bjork was the first person to point out that as someone who had previously played along with machines in various experimental combos, the "Spitting Image" sketch could hardly be considered satire but a kind of factual presentation of her inclinations.

(I'm not being allowed to embed the official video here, for some reason - if you want to see it, follow this link). 

3. Depeche Mode - Condemnation (Paris Mix) (Mute)

When writing about Depeche Mode singles from this period, it's important to remind yourself that they were all written by Martin Gore, and Dave Gahan had absolutely no hand in their construction at all. I say this for the simple reason that most of "Songs of Faith and Devotion" sounds almost uncomfortably personal, as if written from the perspective of an individual having a mental collapse or life crisis. Riddled with tales of temptation, guilt and suffering, it frequently sounds as if you're listening into a group counselling session organised by a Deep South church. What makes the LP compelling often isn't the craft of the songwriting - which was the case with the fantastic triad of "Black Celebration", "Music For The Masses" and "Violator", albums every home should have copies of - but the rawness of it all.

"Condemnation" is possibly the most uncomfortable moment of them all, sticking to a mournful southern blues structure, gospel vocals and Gahan pleading with the listener to understand his point of view so much that his voice actually cracks under the strain. "If you see PURITY as immaturity/ I don't sympathise" he spits. "If for kindness you substitute blindness/ please open your eyes". Even now, it's a faintly uncomfortable listen, a single which - and I hate to point it out - would undoubtedly have been highlighted as a key Depeche Mode moment had Gahan actually died from his drugs overdose.

As it stands, it's an unlikely moment in their singles catalogue, not really a very obvious 45 (despite its top ten placing) and - thank God - something which has not been tainted with a great deal of significance since. It sounds tortured and full of the stings of open wounds and vinegar, and the group would never really seem this anguished again. This guilty, neurotic and brooding, yes. Anguished, no.

Interestingly, the official video for this is nowhere to be found on YouTube.

4. Smashing Pumpkins - Today (Hut)

From Depeche Mode's angst to the Smashing Pumpkins with their cheeriest, happiest faces on. Whatever next? "Today" is the Smashing Pumpkins single even the band's haters (like me) have to grudgingly admit is a fine song, beginning with the pinging summer sunshine ice-cream van guitar intro and then thrashing around in a joyous, messy swamp of distorted pop sounds. The video picks up on the dominant mood of the sounds and utilises them brilliantly in the accompanying promo.

So popular was "Today" with alternative audiences at the time that Levi's Jeans wanted to use it in one of their commercials. The band refused, and the brand reverted to plan B and got some ageing session men in to record something similar. The group named themselves Stiltskin for the purposes of their record "Inside", and shot to number one, a position Smashing Pumpkins would never occupy in the British singles charts. There are those who mark Stiltskin's success as being "the death of grunge", the moment when the industry decided it could co-opt the sounds and imagery of the movement for commercial gain and plaid shirts could begin to be found in Marks and Spencers. I couldn't possibly comment.

5. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Lean On Me I Won't Fall Over (Chrysalis)

As the "Indie Top 20" series had now adopted a more inclusive approach, any bands who used to be on indie labels but were now on majors were welcomed back into the fold, and that included our old chums Jim Bob and Fruitbat here.

Carter USM were one of the most bafflingly successful groups of the early nineties, and their debut major label release "1992: The Love Album" shot to number one and spawned the peppy top ten hit "The Only Living Boy In New Cross". The band went from being cult indie sensations to proper pop stars (if rather geriatric ones by the standards of the time) and were hounded by tabloid press journalists looking for scoops on their private lives, and fan mail from troubled youths looking for advice and guidance.

"Lean On Me" takes the latter problem and turns it into a song, and it's a subject matter which would find less identification with the general public than their previous musings. It focuses its attention on the desperately troubled missives the pair were receiving in their mailbag, reflecting on suicide, criminality, and substance abuse. Essentially, it's like Eminem's "Stan" way before that moment, but instead of having a clear narrative it's unfocussed, guilty and disturbed sounding, a loose-fitting stream-of-consciousness rant about the people who had chosen to regard the unlikely figures of Jim Bob and Fruitbat as being personal saviours. Suffice to say, it's not a topic the public or even Carter fans easily found a way into, and while the pair sound sufficiently agitated and disturbed, a creeping bit of self-pity also slips into this song. "Why are these people bothering US?" seems to be the subtext, and while that's a perfectly valid question - there were surely many more professional people out there for dealing with personal problems - it's hard not to hear it as a gripe as well.   The pair are observing this chaos from the relative luxury of fame, and whatever their intentions behind the track, it sounds awkward. What could have passed as social commentary in 1991 sounds uncomfortably like a privileged complaint in 1993.

The song itself pales in comparison to their previous singles as well, and is a big, roaring mosh of a tune anchored by a slightly hooky but not particularly interesting riff. This really marked the beginning of a slow and steady demise for the group commercially, although they would release far better singles than this one before calling it a day.

Again, no official video on YouTube.

No comments:

Post a Comment