Year of Release: 1988
Volume 5 was a significant issue for the series, being the first ever Indie Top 20 LP to come out on Compact Disc - finally, the digital age had reached Beechwood Music, and listeners could (if they chose) listen to all manner of underproduced indie groups in high quality sound. Some of them had never even had releases on CD before. Marvellous. WERE WE NOT MEN?
Of course, I never owned this album on CD myself (or not until much, much later on when I chanced upon a second hand CD copy for £2). I didn't have the kind of money necessary for a CD Player at this point in my life, still listening to all my records on the turntable of a Saisho stereo unit my brothers bought me for Christmas. So whatever revolution this represented, it entirely passed me by.
I can distinctly remember this being a Christmas present too, at the tail end of 1988 - and I was delighted when I ripped the wrapping paper off and found this double vinyl LP waiting for me. When I finally played it at home, though, I was struck by what a gloomy sounding record it is compared to any of the previous volumes. There are obvious exceptions, but this is overwhelmingly a contemplative, moody record as opposed to a varied buffet. Despite the fact that Indiepop was a bit of a busted flush at this point and the music press had largely moved on to other concerns, it appears to be in denial about that fact, probably containing the highest number of slightly shambolic, vaguely twee, low budget bands since Volume One.
There's some good moments on the album, but no really great ones (in my opinion) and some downright baffling inclusions. Perhaps in this halfway house, this motorway travel tavern sleepover between Indiepop and Indie Dance, a slight loss of focus could only be expected. But you may well disagree as we travel through the tracks:
1. Robert Lloyd & The New Four Seasons: Something Nice (In Tape)
Robert Lloyd, normally lead singer of Brummie indie group The Nightingales (victims of endless lazy and slightly inaccurate "They're Birmingham's answer to The Fall!!!" music press reviews) and one of the heads of indie Vindaloo Records was well known as a scene stalwart. Behind numerous cult indie classics with wiry, angular guitar noises, once The Nightingales split in 1986 he clearly decided that his solo career would veer in a more pop orientated direction. The false group name Robert Lloyd & The New Four Seasons was created for this very purpose (and very quietly and quickly dropped again to become plain old "Robert Lloyd", presumably when someone got antsy that the actual Four Seasons would take legal action. Somewhere on a cutting room floor, perhaps this was even a subplot in the "Jersey Boys" film - "I cannot believe da noive of this Nightingales guy").
"Something Nice" proved Lloyd could clearly have a pop career if he wanted and had enough of a tail wind behind him. It's a stomping, bold, brassy and incredibly catchy track lyrically focused on some kind of mid-life crisis. "I get scared that something nice will fly by", Lloyd panics. "Every time I'm ill I think I'm dying" he clarifies later on, "every time I'm sad I feel like crying/ this is the state I've got myself in". For all that, this propels along in a strident, chirpy, almost festive fashion, sounding like a hit Edwyn Collins never had.
This received a strong amount of evening airplay on Radio One, and ensured that the ears of A&R staff at Virgin Records pricked up. Doubtless hoping for a whole album of glossy alternative pop, he was signed to the label and released the "Me and My Mouth" LP and the rather ace single "Funeral Stomp" which utterly and undeservedly stiffed. Virgin dropped him, and there would then be nothing much from Lloyd until The Nightingales reformed in 2006.
2. Wire: Silk Skin Paws (Mute)
We last met Wire on Volume 4, with the fantastic "Kidney Bingos". "Silk Skin Paws" also emerged from the LP "A Bell Is A Cup..." and despite being a brilliant track in its own right didn't seem as obvious a single. A gloomy, atmospheric pean apparently about bankers throwing themselves out of windows, it's again rich with atmosphere, chiming guitars and icy synths.
As an LP, "A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck" created a short-lived wave of renewed critical focus for Wire, and there was a feeling that while they never truly achieved everything they could have done (in terms of sales) in the seventies, perhaps now was their time. Mute apparently hoped that they would eventually at least match their levels of success on EMI, and perhaps even usurp them. They were not without their famous supporters, either - David Bowie was even spotted buying a copy of their CD in HMV on Oxford Street.
Wire always were an awkward bunch of sods, though. A lot of their material in the eighties was sublime, but as time wore on some of their projects became either successfully or unsuccessfully experimental, and baffled critics and sometimes on occasion fans. The largely forgotten LP "It's Beginning To And Back Again" was a live-in-the-studio reimagining of other tracks of theirs, often so distanced from the originals that only the lyrics gave the game away - it's a great listen in places, actually, once the disorientation wears off. On the other hand, the "Drill" project, consisting entirely of different versions of the same song, was just completely fucking silly. An appearance from the group on an American chat show performing the track underlines their stubbornness hilariously. What would a band like Wire do with a prime time TV slot? Be as aggressively inaccessible as possible, obviously.
For Wire fans like me, this brief period is as thrilling as it is frustrating. In my opinion, the band should be on the tip of anyone's tongue when the subjects of punk or art-rock are raised, and should have managed at least one bona-fide hit, but they seem to have remained a cult act who never managed to prove their worth to a wider audience. Tracks like "Silk Skin Paws" and "Kidney Bingos" prove that even during their less fashionable, non punk scenester phase, they were more than just an arty, angular act - they were great songwriters as well. It's a shame that's talked about so infrequently.
3. New Order - Dreams Never End (Peel Session Version) (Strange Fruit)
Volume Five of Indie Top 20 is the very last time we'll be hearing New Order and Joy Division Peel Session tracks. Thank the Lord for small mercies. It's not that I don't like their work, it's just that they were clearly given slots on the albums as bait to floating voters in Our Price, and all their efforts date from a period years before the release date of these LPs. Therefore, putting them into meaningful context for the purpose of this blog is impossible.
"Dreams Never End" is a bizarre track in New Order's canon in that Peter Hook is given the mic rather than Bernard Sumner, and it makes a strange difference to the sound. His braying voice bears a slight resemblance to Andy Partridge of XTC here (even though it's probably trying to ape Ian Curtis) and almost in sympathy, the band clatter and jangle behind him. It's one of the least New Ordery sounding New Order tunes ever.
Despite this - or perhaps because of this - there's nothing remotely essential about it at all, and it's a curio rather than anything else. If New Order fans were asked to contribute to a poll of their finest work, I highly doubt "Dreams Never End" would be a prime entry unless Hooky himself rigged the contest.
4. King Blank - Blind Box (Situation Two)
As we trawl through the volumes of Indie Top 20, we're going to encounter a number of slightly baffling bands who have since been mostly forgotten, but were critically fancied for about two or three weeks in their given year. King Blank are the most obvious example so far, though I have no recollection at all of them being music magazine cover stars - I just have hazy memories of some complimentary gig reviews and the odd positive nod.
There's no way I can possibly be kind about this track, unfortunately. I lived in a small town in Essex at this point, and occasionally our local gig venue would put on a local groups gig bonanza, highlighting all the up-and-coming talent in the area. Tickets would be about £5, and you could stand all night and watch indie, rock and alt-rock talent from the regional Sunday leagues. Without exaggeration, there was always at least one band who sounded like King Blank on every bill. They would have the same bluesy swagger, the same raw sound, and similar vocals delivered through gritted teeth. None of them ended up with record deals.
King Blank, on the other hand, did, and I've never fully understood that. There's nothing exceptional occurring here at all, and the song constantly tries to bear its teeth and attack, but couldn't sound more staged and less threatening if it tried, like an amdram English take on the harder edges of the American underground. The production of the whole thing is so hollow and skeletal it also feels like it would collapse if you prodded it for long enough.
After one LP, "The Real Dirt", the group went their separate ways and guitarist Nigel Pulsford became one of the founding members of nineties grunge legends Bush, ironically becoming one of the few British bands to become hugely successful in America during that decade. King Blank give no hints away that this would ever be the case.
5. Quireboys - Mayfair (Survival)
Another truly baffling addition to the LP. The Quireboys eventually became far more successful than King Blank, of course, being a much-fancied old-school boozy rock group in the vein of The Faces. Renowned for their raucous live gigs, they gave the national scene a raw, balls-out sound it had clearly been missing for a long time by the late eighties. While they were never fashionable as such, they certainly beat Primal Scream to the Southern boogie punch bowl on a number of occasions as well.
Despite being on an indie label at this point, they really didn't have a keen indie following, attracting the long-haired denim wearing boys and girls much more keenly. They sound unbelievably out of place on this compilation as a result, like total gatecrashers.
"Mayfair" is a neat track, though, sounding like a lost piece of 1973 rock and roll. Stemming from a period when Ginger of The Wildhearts was a member of the group, it seems so authentic that you could possibly even fool someone by telling them that it's an out-take from a much more legendary band - and that bar-room piano and those growling vocals are expertly handled. It's not really surprising that their time in indieland would be limited, and EMI stepped in to sign them fairly swiftly, giving them a number two hit album in "A Bit Of What You Fancy" in the process. A long career in the limelight seemed assured, but disappointing sales of the follow-up "Bitter Sweet & Twisted" put paid to that idea and their demise was cruelly swift.
They've since undergone some line-up shuffling and reformed a couple of times, and remain active to this day.