Sunday, 30 October 2016

Indie Top Video featuring New Order, Darling Buds, Birdland, McCarthy, They Might Be Giants, Oyster Band

Format: VHS
Year of Release: 1989

Hot on the tails of the CD88 compilation - indie music on a digital format, whoever would have thought it? - came "Indie Top Video", which brought together sights as well as sounds from Volumes 1-6 of the series.

Though this again was something of a lie. Not only did no videos whatsoever feature from volume one or two of the series, there were also five non-canon "bonus tracks" nestled amongst the fifteen vids, and one track which wouldn't emerge until Volume Seven of the CD/vinyl/cassette format.

Not that it really mattered, and not that I ran to Our Price demanding my money back. "Indie Top Video" was fantastic viewing for those of us who wanted to see videos of some our favourite tracks in full, especially those "The Chart Show" had rudely skated past during the Indie Chart rundowns. And "The Chart Show" clearly had an enormous influence on this tape as well, as prior to each song commencing a flashing "Play" logo emerged. Fortunately, they didn't trouble us with any "Stop" and "Rewind" nonsense, though.

Beechwood didn't handle this release themselves, and looked towards the mighty powerhouse of EMI to take on the manufacturing and distribution. Their Picture Music International arm handled it, meaning that when you started the tape you were introduced to the same charming and whimsical animated logo and music that greeted you whenever you pressed play on a "Now That's What I Call Music" VHS compilation. It was hard to know what to make of that, really.

While this Indie Top Video sold enough copies to climb into the national Music Video Top 20 - which seems like an astonishing achievement given the relative obscurity of a lot of the contents - subsequent tapes sold less and less well, and the series failed to get beyond six editions. We'll take a look at each in order when they occur on our timeline and discuss the tracks that don't appear elsewhere, providing a link back to the others that do.

1. New Order - Fine Time (Factory) - Bonus Track

Straight off the bat, here's our first bonus track, and it doesn't get much better than this. "Fine Time" caused a flurry of both panic and speculation at the point of its release. Being the first track off New Order's "Technique" LP, its frantic Acid House rhythms and full-on collision of dancefloor ideas made some think that the band were going to return with a fully fledged House LP. Of course, they didn't - and in fact, while "Technique" may be a wonderful album, it's actually much more subdued and moody in places than it's widely given credit for.

Still, "Fine Time" constantly ricochets around in such a manner that you do have to wonder what the band were on when they came up with it. The central keyboard riff is never far away, but across only a few minutes we're also treated to Peter Hook's bad Barry White impersonations, stammering vocals and guitar lines, loud, dominant whooshing effects, acid house squelches and a fantastically simple and pretty melodic guitar line at the end. It's supremely hyperactive, and you get the sense that once the group had built the basic foundations of the track and nailed the hook, they went wild taking every popular Ibiza idea they'd heard and throwing it in the blender alongside it. The result is something so impatiently itchy sounding that you want to be dragged along with it. You're never entirely sure where it's going or what the point is, but it throws everything it's got in your direction. It is unbelievably huge fun.

The video is no "True Faith", but is an absurd festive promo about the surreal and faintly disturbing adventures of one boy and his aggressive looking Jack Russell terrier. I didn't know what to make of it at the time, and I'm afraid I still don't now. Even when the track climbed to Number One on the Chart Show indie chart, they failed to play it, for reasons I've always found hard to understand (druggy imagery? Dated Christmas imagery? Just plain "being faintly disturbing"? Who knows?)

2. The Shamen - Jesus Loves Amerika (Moksha)

3. Pop Will Eat Itself - Def Con One (Chapter 22)

4. A Guy Called Gerald - Voodoo Ray (Rham)

5. The Darling Buds - It's All Up To You (Native)  - Bonus Track

I always felt that his was probably The Darling Buds' strongest moment. Released prior to them signing to a major label and becoming steadily smoothed over, "It's All Up To You" still has a hard, abrasive edge beneath Andrea's double-tracked choirgirl vocals. It also contains a killer rumbling bassline and lovely Ramones styled guitar solo from Harley Farr, and like some of the finest Indiepop feels like Phil Spector's girl group ideas meeting with the best punky sounds.

"It's All Up To You" did make some of the hype feel justified, and it was impossible not to wish the best for the band - but the Epic years delivered very little success, and by the early nineties I bore witness to them in a very Spinal Tap situation, sitting in a corner of Southend's HMV waiting for people to come up to get copies of Darling Buds records signed. I thought about buying one just for the sake of saying hello to the group and getting some of their inkwork on a copy of their record, but I was short of money that day and badly wanted to buy a copy of something else, so I didn't. To be fair, it's unlikely that my life would have been wildly changed by such an event. And anyway, I probably would have nervously stammered a lot in front of Andrea Lewis.

6. Wedding Present - Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now? (Reception)

7. Birdland - Hollow Heart (Lazy) - Bonus Track

Within a few singles, Birdland went from being the saviours of British music to a standing joke, leading the Manic Street Preachers to nervously protest "We're not the next Birdland!" to any journalist who would listen. In fact, that was one of the last things Richey Manic said to Steve Lamacq before carving "4 Real" into his forearm. Imagine that - you feel so strongly that you might be going down the same career path as another group that you're driven to such a violent act (this, I realise, glosses over Richey's problems perhaps inexcusably for the sake of a semi-joky aside, but there is nonetheless a grain of truth to it).

You can hear what the original fuss was about here, though (and I've also met more than one person who has insisted that Birdland were staggeringly good live). "Hollow Heart" is hyperactively brilliant, with everything taken at a breakneck speed. The cymbals hiss and crash constantly (I've seldom heard this much white noise coming from a drummer) the guitar lines are riddled with dumb, simple hooks, the vocals seep attitude - it's just fantastic in a primitive, slack-jawed way. This is garage punk at its very best, the only question it begged at the time was whether the band had the creativity or imagination to deliver more greatness across an LP or even whole career. The eventual answer was "no".

Still, just as we didn't ask The Kingsmen for another "Louie Louie", there's no reason at all (beyond record company expectations) that we should have demanded Birdland create another hundred or so "Hollow Hearts". This is the distinct sound of a group shooting out their finest moment from the barrel first, and rather than condemning them for that, we should still acknowledge that it was a pretty spectacular moment.

8. Cardiacs - Is This The Life (Alphabet Business Concern)

9. Danielle Dax - White Knuckle Ride (Awesome)

(A bit confusing, this - "White Knuckle Ride" wouldn't appear on the Indie Top 20 series until Volume 7. So as not to mess around with the structure of these entries too much, we'll be discussing it  when we come to talk about that LP).

10. Fields of the Nephilim - Preacher Man (Situation Two)

11. Loop - Collision (Chapter 22)

12. Christian Death - Church Of No Return (Jungle)

13. McCarthy - Keep An Open Mind Or Else! (Midnight Music) - Bonus Track

Prior to entering a Krautrock inspired Moogy wonderland with Stereolab, Tim Gane fronted left-wing indiepop firebrands (TM) McCarthy. Their approach to political polemic was unorthodox and challenging, presenting all their lyrics in prose format with Tim squeezing them to fit around the simple pop melodies. Often too, they would adopt the style of someone else's tedious right-wing diatribes and set them to a chirpy melody to expose their arrogance, contradictory nature and stupidity - "The Home Secretary Briefs The Forces of Law and Order" is a good example of this. ("We don't believe in violence! Those who use guns to kill in cold blood, they deserve all they get, they deserve all they ask for. So when you catch them pump them all full of lead, tear them limb from limb. It will be okay! For the law will be on your side!")

"Keep An Open Mind Or Else!" follows a similar tack, sung from the perspective of a person who believes themselves to be reasonable and right-thinking, but who simply cannot or will not engage with political arguments coherently and pushes away any facts they're presented with. To be frank, it hasn't dated one jot and actually probably feels even more applicable now in these social media times. It begins as an order to calm, rational debate being sung in a reasonable tone ("You should always try and see another person's point of view. You should never think that you know everything!") before descending into impatient, aggressive verbal carnage ("I don't believe in facts! No, I just believe in me. Argue, I don't care! Would you like your face smashed in?") And that, my friends, is just another Sunday night on Twitter, and even an eerie precursor to the Stewart Lee line "You can prove anything with FACTS". Times may change, but the patterns of conversation never really do.

"Keep an Open Mind" is backed with a truly sumptuous melody as well, like a trashy, harsher take on The Byrds, delicate backing vocals and fantastic hooks permeating the track. It probably is McCarthy's best moment, and is an unexpectedly pretty and melodic musing on pointless political discourse. Further proof (if it were needed) that political songs don't all have to sound like Crass or The Clash.

14. They Might Be Giants - They'll Need A Crane (One Little Indian) - Bonus Track

I've never much cared for They Might Be Giants. A few tracks aside, their material has always sounded far too much like the work of people who enjoy their own jokes too much. I made the mistake of buying the LP "Flood" back in my youth, and became desperately angered and annoyed with it within three listens. This was back in the days where buying an album probably meant one less night out for me that week, and it wasn't just that I hated much of the LP, it was also that I couldn't remove it from my brain afterwards either. Everything felt like a Sesame Street educational jingle sung by a New Wave Bert and Ernie. In fact, please don't make me dissect that LP again when there's no need. The songs! They're coming back to me!

"They'll Need A Crane" is proof that the band did have a sensitive and considered side, though, as the track takes a very considered look at a collapsing relationship. This verse alone is both witty and familiar: "Don't call me at work, no no/ the boss still hates me/ and I'm just tired/ and I don't love you anymore/ and there's a restaurant we should check out where/ the other nightmare people like to go/ I meant nice people, baby wait/ I didn't mean to say nightmare..."

Other than that, "Crane" is a simple and catchy shuffle through one relationship's wasteland. It's a shame they couldn't be this thoughtful and personal more often.

15. Oyster Band - New York Girls (Cooking Vinyl)

The Oyster Band went through a period of being both music press favourites and Radio Two "Folk On Two" stalwarts for a confusing point in the late eighties, and that's even more bizarre when you consider the fact that they were initially just Fiddler's Dram (of "Daytrip to Bangor" fame) recording and performing under another name. The original purpose of the alternate name was for the Oysters to act as a dance band for specific live shows and events, before eventually the Fiddler's Dram moniker was jettisoned entirely.

Given the success of The Pogues around this time, there was no reason why another folk group couldn't have broken through, and indeed The Oyster Band were probably one the finest examples of the genre at that point. "New York Girls" has just enough of a rough edge to set them apart from the competition, and it's impossible to sit still while this rattles along. The fiddle player alone deserves a gold medal for speed.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Volume 6 Side 4 - Bradford, Sandie Shaw, Parachute Men, Colorblind James Experience

1. Bradford - Dodging Around In Cars (Village)

"...lazy bastard fumbles funk concerning itself with one afternoon of a misspent youth".

Not really too sure of the point behind including this track on the series. "Skin Storm" had been featured on the CD88 compilation, and "Dodging Around In Cars" was merely the third track on that single, the "extra twelve inch single B-side". And it sounds like it, too... full credit for giving Bradford a tiny bit of extra exposure, but this, a piece of meandering funkiness about teenage driving hi-jinks (a slow and smouldering rethink of the concept behind Madness's "Driving In My Car", if you will) is unremarkable and probably did them few favours.

Nice wah-wah work, though. We'd be hearing more and more of that particular pedal over the next few years.

2. Sandie Shaw - Nothing Less Than Brilliant (Rough Trade)

"the new Sandie Shaw single; succulent, tantilising, rich, beguiling, a bargain at the price and very highly accomplished. A sweeping loop of a record which lies somewhere in between The Cocteau Twins, The Smiths and Raymonde but sounds refreshingly GORGEOUS for all that. Mature pop, vintage wine, send me a kiss and I'll make you my own. Single of the Season". Melody Maker, Everett True.

Ah God, now we're in business! While I'd usually be inclined to take Everett True's hype with a lorry-load of salt - he's been known to rave about both genuinely worthy contenders and barely fleshed out crayon doodles of pop songs - in this case, he was absolutely on the money. "Nothing Less Than Brilliant" involved Shaw hopping back into the recording studio with her old songwriting buddy Chris Andrews, and the pair emerged with one of the finest singles either would produce. Sounding unbelievably 1988 and indiefied from a pair whose career peaks actually occurred in the sixties, it really should have been an enormous comeback single. As it turned out, it wasn't. And it wasn't again when Virgin reissued it to promote a "Best Of" CD in 1994, even though the fair sixties-favouring winds of Britpop should have been behind her at that point.

That's appallingly unjust. "Brilliant" is one of the finest examples of passionate, jagged guitar pop of the era, far better than her Morrissey and Jesus and Mary Chain penned tracks from the same period. Fizzing over with verve, defiance and a towering chorus, the track is pushed further towards genius by Shaw's performance. She throws in some Morrissey styled hiccups and howls as a nod to the new generation, but there's a force of character in her performance which shows this was far from the young, insouciant Sandie delivering a sulky rehearsal of "Long Live Love" for Top of the Pops. She sounds alive and demanding to be noticed, and the lyrics back those feelings up. This is the kind of performance age and experience make possible.

It's unfortunate that Sandie Shaw's comeback LP "Hello Angel" was riddled with song contributions from the press darlings of the time. This proves that she (and Chris Andrews) really didn't need them, and "Brilliant" should have been the lead comeback single.

And what of Chris Andrews, you may ask? What else had he been doing around this time? Well, amongst other things, penning the theme and incidental pieces of music for "The Chart Show" on Channel 4, as a matter of fact.

(Late edit to allow for one more additional fact - it's Chrissie Hynde playing harmonica on this as well). 

3. The Parachute Men - Sometimes In Vain (Fire)

"Flying jackets and bootlace ties. Sunglasses, sideburns, buttondown shirts. Stripes, shades, scarves, loud guitars. A floatdown, a freefall. From Leeds, The Parachute Men brandish an intuitive talent for non-nonsense passionate guitar rock underwired with acoustic country threads".

It's an unfortunate consequence of the track sequencing that the fuzzy, emotional performance of The Parachute Men immedately follows Sandie Shaw. Unfortunate because it's also a bit blooming good too, but is somewhat overshadowed.

No matter. I've never been able to make up my mind whether the production of "Sometimes In Vain" is blurry and muddy sounding to deliberately convey the confused anguish of the track's subject matter, or just because they were in a low-cost studio and that's all they could manage. It does work well, though, whether by accident or design - chiming guitar licks almost smother Fiona Gregg's vocals so she sounds appropriately lost, and the track has a very peculiar, almost Bronte-esque melodrama to it which is unbelievably effective. This is sixties styled pop laced with an eighties darkness; as soon as the organ kicks in towards the end, you know you're not dealing with a standard piece of tossed off indie-pop. "Sometimes In Vain" is ambitious and atmospheric as well as having the kind of hooks Shaw would have deemed solid in 1966.

4. The Colorblind James Experience - Considering A Move To Memphis (Fundamental)

"The Colorblind James Experience is a six member rock and roll band whose diverse instrumentation allow the group to sound like anything from a traditional country band to a demented small town orchestra".

There's plenty of silliness in pop's history books, of course - The Firm's "Star Trekkin" would be a prime example of that, funny for one listen, not worthy of your attention much after that. Then there's epic, ambitious silliness, which "Memphis" is. Nearly seven minutes of clearly ironic spoken word musings on Memphis by the singer "Colorblind" James Charles Cuminale. He dreams, somewhat pathetically, of a low-rent relocation ("It worked for Elvis Presley/ Why can't it work for me?") and his ramblings are combined with jazzy arrangements which, according to what segment of the song you're listening to, can sound like morning hotel breakfast bar muzak or flamboyant mod jazz (with vibes, of course). Or on occasion, both at once.

Like the work of other Americans with one eyebrow ironically raised, such as They Might Be Giants or Ween, this is definitely an acquired taste and will irritate as many people as it thrills. But the lyrics are effortless dreamy optimism (they even make getting a job washing up in a restaurant sound amazing) and the band are totally swept along by the merriness and ludicrousness of the idea. I swear at some moments you can even hear suppressed laughter.

The Colorblind James Experience were from Rochester, New York, but found greater success in the UK following John Peel exposure here. Somewhere in their work, you can sense a mentality that may have struck a strong chord with long-standing listeners of his. The sophisticated but daft humour behind "Memphis" doesn't exactly owe a direct debt to the Bonzo Dog Band, but it's in the same underpopulated pop parish of humorous songs with meat on their bones. You can return to this often, and it doesn't stop putting a smile on your face nor become melodically tedious.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Indie Top 20 Volume 6 - Side 3 - The Shamen, Front 242, A Guy Called Gerald, Screaming Trees, James Taylor Quartet

1. The Shamen Vs Bam Bam - Transcendental (Desire)

" of those intriguing fusions of differing musical styles that resulted in a classic dance track. Bam Bam; one of the first major innovators of the Chicago House scene, and The Shamen; a burgeoning UK indie band, collaborated on one of Desire Records' first and most successful recordings. You may never hear the like again!"

Or actually, we most certainly would. I remember creating a retrospective C90 compilation cassette of Baggy/ Madchester music for someone while I was at university, and I put "Transcendental" very close to the start of side one, feeling that while it's seldom acknowledged as such, it's actually a pivotal release. You can sense from the gushing liner notes above that it was seen as a significant moment for some people at Beechwood Music too, and indeed others beyond - suddenly, dance music remixes of indie tracks were no longer 12" single space fillers, with the drum breaks and instrumental sections puffed out to extend the run time. Suddenly, they could be huge and relevant records in their own right.

This is a tricky case to argue, though. For every one person who argues that "Transcendental" broke the mould, another might state the case for some of the Happy Mondays early recordings, or even some of the odder Balearic records (such as those by unlikely candidates The Woodentops). As always with movements in popular culture, it's very difficult to pin the change on some precise moment or tipping point.

Nonetheless, "Transcendental" is a fabulous early Shamen record, and one which is scarcely given any consideration these days. The original track, from the LP "In Gorbachev We Trust", was pleasing in a subdued, acidic (in squelchiness and grooviness rather than bitterness) way, but never sounded like a single. Bam Bam's remix of it pumps it up harder than a freshly inflated Spacehopper, slamming rhythms all over the place and sounding positively euphoric. Rather than sounding like a remix, it feels like what it was always supposed to become, with the original album version sounding like a mere demo in comparison.

I still prefer it to a lot of their later output, and it really needs to be reconsidered not just as an important and game-changing release for The Shamen, but also arguably one of the key moments when suddenly the club dancefloor and the indie chart could meet without a disaster occurring. From this point on, nothing much would be the same - until the early nineties, anyway.

As for the baggy compilation cassette I pulled together, the woman I made it for lost interest in me and never got hold of it. Oh well. I'm sure there's an idea for a Sarah Records song in there somewhere.

2. Front 242 - Headhunter (Play It Again Sam)

"Front 242 are now. They're Euro and they're in your face! It's time to make up your mind. You're either for them or trampled under foot.
"The Studos Brosos melo makos". 

Some interesting track sequencing here - from forward thinking Indie House hybrids to industrial. Front 242, like their PIAS labelmates The Young Gods (on Side 2) were a huge deal throughout most of Europe already at this point, but were only just beginning to make inroads into the British charts.

"Headhunter" is a very cold and threatening little single, which does have a certain nagging dancefloor action going on, but in a very rigid, staccato way, typical of the entire genre. The snarled lyrics and the sheer minimalism of the arrangement mean you're either going to respond to this with excessive enthusiasm or be left slightly cold - to me, this always felt like it wanted to be a poppier track than it actually became. The chorus almost melts into something altogether warmer and radio-friendly, before they realise how close they've come and descend into harshness again. It beckons you forward only to push you away again. It's compelling but never once feels welcoming.

Their influence on the popularity of industrial music in the UK and USA really cannot be understated, however, and Front 242 felt like a key gateway band. "Headhunter" is just the start of that process.

3. A Guy Called Gerald - Voodoo Ray (Rham)

"One of the hottest tracks in the New York clubs - mixes by Derrick May & Frankie Knuckles; emerging from America. Gerald's influences range from Sun Ra to Edward Barton. Rham's most successful record to date. Gerald is from Manchester.
"Keep it abstract" - Gerald, March '89

It would probably have made more sense to follow "Transcendental" with this track, but no matter. "Voodoo Ray" was another huge, important release (for as much as you can place "importance" on anything in music). Hanging around the Dance Music chart, Indie Chart and the National Charts seemingly for the best part of an entire year, it's persuasive hypnotism charmed even the shyest of feet on to the dancefloor, and it remains a respected disc of its era even now.

Making a lot out of very little, it twitters and jiggles its way along, adding occasional flourishes and absurdly throwing Derek and Clive samples into the mix for no clear reason. And no, I'm not spouting nonsense here - the "Voodoo Ray" element stems from the "Bo Dudley" sketch from "Derek and Clive Live", as does the shout of "Later!" (The proof is here if you need it). It's lucky for everyone that Gerald didn't opt to sample them screaming expletives instead...

The relevance of "Voodoo Ray" to the post-House "Indie Top 20" series might be debated further, were it not for the fact that shortly around this time, it was becoming not uncommon to hear this kind of music in the more forward-thinking clubs. As I've already hinted, the times they were a-slowly changin'...

4. The Screaming Trees - Tangiers (Native)

"This incredible dance dream that takes you somewhere nice to do it - so do it!"

No, no, not THAT Screaming Trees! This lot had absolutely nothing to do with the American grunge band at all, despite what other websites might claim; although establishing firm facts about this band is enormously challenging and tricky - much more than most of the bands to appear on Indie Top 20, they appear to have fallen off the radar in incredible style.

"Tangiers" was their very last single for Native Records before they opted to rename themselves Count Zero, and straddles the genres of Industrial and Dance and Synth-pop in quite a daring way. This single sounded huge enough to cross over in a big way, but once "The Chart Show" had screened the video, that seemed to be the end of its mainstream exposure. A shame, because "Tangiers" sounds like a possible future being explored - one where the new Ibiza-influenced rhythms of New Order, the aggression of Front 242 and the nagging melodic hooks of Depeche Mode all combined to huge effect.

To this day, I have a huge soft spot for the track, and feel enormous regret that something so potent seems to become completely commercially unavailable. For five minutes, this sounded like a wonderful and very 1988 pop moment.

5. The James Taylor Quartet - Blow Up (Re-Elect The President)

"Inspired by the organ jazz of Jimmy Smith, former Prisoner James Taylor experimented at revitalising a series of old sixties TV and film theme tunes. Blow Up was the first - raw, aggressive and sparkling, it captured Peel's attention. Sessions followed, as well as an appearance in his Festive Fifty". 

And why wasn't this track sequenced next to Inspiral Carpets "Butterfly" on Side One? Questions, questions... so many questions.

This is an evergreen cover of the Herbie Hancock penned film theme which was only very recently reissued as an Acid Jazz single due to public demand, and remains popular at various retro and Acid Jazz leaning club nights. Groovy in a very 1967 way, and exquisitely delivered, it seems to have usurped the original theme completely as the version of choice - a huge accomplishment for a cover. The original, however, is far more laidback, jazzy and smooth than this, so from a club perspective perhaps it's not surprising.

The track is both behind and ahead of its time on this LP. The Prisoners were an eighties approximation of a garage/ mod band whose moment in the underground spotlight seemed to have faded slightly by this point, as the public turned their heads to the future and not the past. However, the shuffle and swagger and the electric organ grooves here also pointed very definitely towards a certain strand of Baggy/ Madchester acts who also slowly morphed out of the Paisley patterned underground - The Charlatans being a prime example (whose lead singer Tim Burgess was originally in a band called The Electric Crayons, themselves named after the sixties Rubble compilation LP "The Electric Crayon Set") and The Inspirals being a significant other. There were many elements just waiting to add their particular shade to the sonic palette we were about to experience... but we'll have to wait awhile to see the full effects on this blog.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Volume 6 Side 2 - Christian Death, Young Gods, Spacemen 3, Rapeman

1. Christian Death - This Is Not Blasphemy (Prophet/ Jungle)

"This track is taken from the single 'What's The Verdict/ Blasphemy' which does not appear on any album"
'If you get the feeling you're living in the last days and are drawn by the charms of darkness and the macabre, perhaps it's time for Christian Death' - Chris Levevski, Propaganda Magazine.

When I started the blog "Left and to the Back", I quickly realised that I didn't actually get any thrills whatsoever from either listening to music I found awful, or writing about its usually obvious failings. I get the feeling that some music writers genuinely do love lambasting the drab and the dire and leap towards every opportunity, but I'd rather not spend too much time thinking about why something is shit. There's far too much unrecognised greatness out there, and that's really where I usually want my energy to be focused towards (there are exceptions, though - bad novelty records are always fun to write about).

We last encountered Christian Death on Volume 5, and I spent a long time talking about why their music doesn't work for me. This track is, in my opinion, even worse than the last one - nearly five full minutes of bluesy histrionics, howling and chest-beating backed with doomy guitars. More than that, I really can't be bothered to say. Sorry.

Fortunately, I won't have the job of analysing the output of this band again, since this was their last appearance on the series.

2. The Young Gods - Pas Mal (Play It Again Sam)

"European Sonic Architects are building songs of love and desire with instant fusion of heavy guitars and chrome. Future? - Present!"

The contributions made by the Swiss to the European music scene are really rather slight, but The Young Gods managed to reach far beyond their home country's borders. Almost amazingly, when David Bowie was asked about which groups influenced his "Outside" LP in 1995, he named them immediately.

"Outside" is one of Bowie's finest LPs, often overlooked by non-fans due to its mid-nineties release date. "Pas Mal", sadly, offers little hints of the complexity of the ideas found on that album, though it does easily display a similar kind of eerie menace. Sharp, choppy and metallic, it makes its point and goes, leaving a very large mark on the way. The silence between this track and the next feels almost threatening.

3. Spacemen 3 - Revolution (Fire)

"Sweetly, simply put, Spacemen 3 are the only English band that I'd walk the sea to piss on" - Byron Coley, Forced Exposure.

"Revolution" is altogether less brief. Spacemen 3's music later became much more psychedelic, but this is harsh and heavy garage stuff, opening with the pared back guitar riff which dominates the entire track, then a long, ranting political diatribe. "Well, I'm through with people/ who can't get up their ass/ to help themselves/ change this government" they roar. "I suggest to you/ That it takes just five seconds.../ to realize/ that the time is right/ to start thinkin' about/ a litt-le.... REVOLUTION".

Needless to say, this sounded absolutely incendiary and amazing to me as a fifteen year old, whereas now I find myself thinking "What revolution should we have, Kember and Pierce, and how should we do it? What are we protesting about, the right for you to have fun, or for a fairer society, or is it about something specific like exiting the EU? Or all three? Specifics are very important before I start filling various milk bottles with petrol. And who will lead us after the revolution? Will it be you, Kember, or you, Pierce? I don't know if I'm interested in allowing you to negotiate trade deals or things like that, you see, because you were daft enough to sign to Fire Records, so that is a point of concern".

But really, "Revolution" is a very traditional rock and roll howl of rage whose vague targets feel typical of psychedelia and garage rock, and the riff that sandwiches the rant at either end of the track does feel like standing in front of a jeering crowd, or a roaring jet engine. A deep, deep shame about those horribly weedy drum sounds, though, which could have added more aggression and beef to the track if they'd been produced more effectively.

Do I sense a Suicide influence creeping through yet again, incidentally? Certainly though, the main riff itself could be attributed to The MC5's "Black to Comm".

4. Rapeman - Bud(d) (Blast First) (Included on vinyl versions of "Indie Top 20" only)

"Bud(d) is a sad song about two old men, one named Bud and one named Budd, hence the brackets. Budd was a filthy politician who blew his brains out at a press conference, an act that was at once poetic, noble and greedy. Bud was a pleasant, modest man whose life was as beautiful and sad as any man's. He left a touching physical legacy, a legacy that some people disregard or trample over in a search for transient flashiness.
Rapeman existed 10/13/87 - 1/25/89 we hope you liked what we did".
Quote from Steve Albini - March '89

To begin by stating the obvious, the group name Rapeman caused Albini endless grief, most notably in the UK where he was greeted with placards and picket lines at gig venues from angry feminists. The name itself was derived from Japanese comic books with graphic rape scenes in them, but many politically inclined people felt, despite Albini's right-on punk credentials, that it was an insensitive and inflammatory name for a band. (My wife would like me to talk more about this, as I'm sure would some other readers. Let's just say I don't approve of the band's name and leave it at that, because there's really nothing new to add to the argument). 

Many years later, of course, the song "Rape Me" by Nirvana emerged and a similar debate swelled up all over again.

Pushing all that to one side, "Bud(d) "is a complete one chord-wonder of a track which steadily builds up doom and menace. Taking quotes from the politician's final speech and scattering them liberally throughout the record, it's always felt like a soundtrack to Budd Dwyer blowing his brains out in front of assembled journalists, the thudding monotony of his initial dreary and rambling speech giving way to something darker and more disturbed, dramatic and panicked.

Unlikely as it seems, this track climbed to number 2 in the UK indie chart. Albini would eventually go on to become a very heavily in-demand producer and performer in Shellac, whereas Sims went on to join The Jesus Lizard.

At nearly seven-and-a-half minutes long, for reasons of space this track was left off the CD version of "Indie Top 20" and only made it on to the LP and cassette.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Volume Six - Wedding Present, Snapdragons, Rose of Avalanche, Wolfhounds, Inspiral Carpets, Suicide, Loop

Format: Double LP/ Cassette/ CD
Year of Release: 1989

If Volume 5 was a strange and occasionally rather drab buffet of art-rock and indiepop, you can hear the stirrings of something different emerging in Volume 6 if you strain your ears...

It's not that this LP deviates much from the course we've been on so far, but there are mavericks pulling ever so slightly at the steering wheel - The Shamen emerge almost completely transformed as an indie-pop-House hybrid, The Inspiral Carpets stick their heads over the wall for the first time, and A Guy Called Gerald drops by to entertain us with a seriously huge crossover track.

All these things were indicative of what indieland would become, whereas many of the other artists on this LP represent the last puff of smoke of the old guard. While The Wedding Present would be too good to be deathless and would move on to greater success on RCA, a lot of the other acts from their particular C86 era would cease to be relevant in the mainstream media very shortly.

That does make Volume 6 one of the more compelling and varied listens, though, as all kinds of sounds emerge out of the chaos, from clattering industrial noises to indiefied synth-pop, to 60s garage throwbacks... there's a clear sense here that nobody truly understood which way the wind was blowing yet. Or at least, Chet and Bee didn't.

Once again, I've included the liner notes for reference.

1. Le Cadeau De Mariage/ The Wedding Present - Pourquoi Es Tu Devenue Si Raisonable? (Reception)

"The ferret goes from strength to strength" - David Gedge, March '89

"Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?" was the Wedding Present's last single on Reception records before they signed to RCA records and became regular Top of the Pops fixtures.

Driven by an almost folk-rock rhythm - those dabblings with Ukrainian folk music make more sense when you think of their earlier records in that context - "Reasonable" is a solid record, but lacks the aggressive drive and the emotional impact of their earliest singles. Moreover, the need for a French language version of the track (sang by Gedge in rather questionable French with definite Yorkshire vowels) has never been fully explained - were the group going nova across the Channel, I wonder, or was it just an experiment?

The more popular English language version reveals that this is a song about a lover's tiff, and while the lyrical snapshots of the argument are well observed ("No-one can change that much in three days!" "It's not yours to take back!") it's a bitter, biting sulk of a track, and as such feels like neither one thing nor the other. There's a certain lack of drama here, and it's probably because Gedge is, for once, the person wearing the boot. The lyrics are clearly informing us that he's refusing to get back together with the lady, rather than vice versa - and as such, it's hard to get too emotionally involved with the sentiments expressed. They wrote better choruses than this one as well.

Still, none of this stopped the record from climbing as high as Number 42. RCA would take over and push them over the line and into the world of early evening television. This felt like an odd victory at the time, even if each TOTP appearance probably did little to convert any New Kids On The Block fans who might have been watching.

2. The Snapdragons - The Things You Want (Native)

"...against abuse to women, anti-anti-feminism. James' pouting/ plaintive vocals seduce your ears with tastefully thrashed and plucked guitar and an imaginative and grooving rhythm".

With a stomp and a twang, Leeds' The Snapdragons arrive on Indie Top 20 and then completely disappear again. Relative latecomers to the indiepop party, they were rather big news for five minutes in late 1988 before the tide very obviously turned.

"The Things You Want" is actually a confident and punchy single with plenty to offer, and got regular bedroom spins from me at the time. It packs a lot into two-and-a-half minutes, from the thudding and driving hook, to the Blue Aeroplanes-esque trumpet lines at the tail end. Truthfully, though, it does feel as if it could have been released three years before, and it's impossible not to wonder what the group could have achieved if they hadn't been so late to the party.

Interesting indie fact - the drummer Pel Riccardi went on to join Utah Saints.

3. The Rose of Avalanche - The World Is Ours (Avalantic) 

"If you like Bros - you'll love these lads!"

The Rose Of Avalanche emerge on the series for the second and last time, and actually manage to get to the point this time around. Unlike "Velveteen", which yearned and yawned and sprawled itself across twelve inches like a woebegone actress having a bad night's rest, "The World Is Ours" is a surprisingly concise and moody strut of a record. The guitars twang, the chorus is subtle and grows in stature with subsequent listens, and while it was never going to lead them on to greatness, "The World Is Ours" did prove that they weren't simply a "goth rock" band.

The group would continue on their own Avalantic record label until 1990, never quite scaling their mid-eighties peaks again, but certainly managing to please a loyal fanbase.

4. The Wolfhounds - Rent Act (Midnight Music)

"There are thousands of homeless people in this country, particularly in and around the Capital. This government persistently passes laws to keep it that way".

Plus ca change. The UK has never really managed to grasp the issue of homelessness since the eighties, and rising rent and property prices are only making the issue worse - so The Wolfhounds howl of protest here was really only indicative of what would become a much bigger problem (and we would have struggled to believe it could get worse at the time).

"Rent Act" is an incredibly good single as well, starting with some psychedelic atmospherics (possibly a studio tape being rewound and put through an echo effect) and gradually building and building into a righteous piece of fury. While many bands of their ilk contented themselves with thrashing out a general message of protest, The Wolfhounds were actually capable of considered songcrafting beneath the noise - "Rent Act" has so many pleasing elements, from the chugging verses, to the soaring guitar beneath the chorus and the panoramic middle eight. All ensure that the song starts off as a pissy protest and grows into something quite majestic and emotive. There's nothing slick or smooth about "Rent Act", but it's also about as far from Crass as you can get.

5. Inspiral Carpets - Butterfly (Cow)

"A Peel favourite, their latest single, taken from the Trainsurfing EP, available on Cow Records".

Hello Madchester. Except perhaps, not really. While The Inspiral Carpets played fellow horsemen of the baggyocalypse along with the Roses, Mondays and Charlatans, at this stage nobody really had them pegged as being part of any dominant movement as such (though to be fair, most journalists were taking The Stone Roses even less seriously at this point). While Manchester bands were beginning to attract stronger press attention, the Inspirals were still being talked about in terms of being a garage rock revival act. To my ears, they also sounded faintly like early Barry Andrews era XTC at this point.

"Butterfly" confirms that. There's nothing funky or dancey here. It's really all faintly quirky mid-sixties melodies, a squeaky organ and rude, distorted guitar lines. They also don't have Tom Hingley on lead vocals at this point, instead utilising the vocal powers of Stephen Holt, who would very shortly depart to form The Rainkings (one wonders whether he regrets that decision now...)

Still, it isn't that much of a leap from this to the material on their debut "Life" album, and only the rough edges give the game away. "Butterfly" also shows that they could pen a powerful chorus along with the best of their travelling companions... even if nobody expected them to become an act who would go on to shift hundreds of thousands of records. I mean, come on, they were hardly The House of Love or The Darling Buds, were they?

6. Suicide - Rain of Ruin (Chapter 22)

"Back after what seems like an eternity but is actually only ten years. Suicide prove that absence makes the heart grow fonder, whilst at the same time showing numerous young pretenders how to do it!"

What young pretenders could they have been referring to, I wonder? And is one of them coming up shortly?

Suicide were a group who barely need any introduction, but whose harsh minimalism alienated swathes of the public in their heyday. Talked about almost as the seventies equivalent to The Velvet Underground, Alan Vega and Martin Rev arguably invented the idea of the electronic music duo, and possibly planted the seeds of some of the ideas later to be found in industrial rock and goth rock to boot, not to mention proving to be an influence on acts as diverse as The Jesus and Mary Chain and MIA. Absolutely critically slated in their day, Suicide's popularity rose enough for them to reform in the late eighties and be given a hero's welcome, and their stature has only grown since (this is an over-simplification of the facts, of course, as Suicide did gain some critical and commercial ground in the early eighties - The Quietus' tribute to Alan Vega following his death helps to fill in some of the blanks).

"Rain of Ruin" isn't much talked about now, but felt like a significant event of a single at the time, being given even more press inches and raves than Wire's comeback received a couple of years previously. It also showed that Suicide weren't really interested in going anywhere especially new. "Rain of Ruin" is much more sparse, bare and hypnotic than any of their influences managed to be, holding your attention through the sheer drone of persistence and Vega's hiccuping sub-Elvis vocals. Whatever ideas they may have given other musicians, in the end there were very few other groups out there who sounded exactly like Suicide - they were entirely their own deal.

7. Loop - Black Sun (Chapter 22)

"From the LP 'Fade Out', Loop take the blow torch and petrol cans to music and deliver their most powerful single yet".

It would be tempting to compare "Black Sun" to Suicide's output, but honestly, you can hear the difference. Loop don't really sit still, and while the foundations for "Black Sun" are a near-perfect doomy bassline, the band constantly pile new ideas on top of it across five minutes - a shimmering psychedelic guitar effect here, a wailing solo there, a rattling drumbeat elsewhere... so this feels more like a slowed down, doped up take on krautrock than an out-and-out Vega tribute.

It's also their finest single to my ears, feeling delightfully hazy and foggy and incredibly addictive. As soon as those riffs and drones slowly disappear into a tunnel at the track's end, you feel instantly compelled to return the stylus to the start of the track again. Five minutes of this never feels like quite enough, and while it might seem like an unlikely Indie chart number one now, this made serious sense at the time.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

CD88 - including Crazyhead, Bradford, Sweet Honey In The Rock

Format: Double Vinyl/ Cassette/ CD
Year of Release: 1988

Following on from Volume 5 of the Indie Top 20 series emerging on CD came this - CD88, a compilation of tracks from Volumes 1-5, many of which were being made available on compact disc for the first ever time.

CD88 is a rum entry in the Indie Top 20 catalogue in that Beechwood occasionally relabelled it as "CD88 - The Best of Indie Top 20 Volumes 1-5" on the promotional inner sleeves of their other albums. In truth, I don't know that it is a "Best of" as such - for a start, it features four bonus tracks that appear nowhere else in the series. Rather, I think that Beechwood Music realised that there was a gap in the market for lots of much loved indie obscurities being made available for the first time in a digital format.

The vinyl version was labelled "CD88 - The Vinyl" and the cassette version "CD88 - The Tape", and it was noticeable that neither of these lingered around record store racks for very long, whereas the CD remained an ever-present force in the Indie Compilations section. Indeed, it was actually the first ever CD I bought.

Almost all of these tracks have been reviewed on this blog before, but "CD88" was also the first Indie Top 20 album to include liner notes about each track, provided by either music critics, the bands or the bands record labels/ PR department. I've included them below for reference, and also given a quick sniff of a review to the bonus tracks. If you want to read what I originally said about each track, simply click on the relevant link.

1. All About Eve - Our Summer (Eden)

"Our Summer" - the living testament to our sparking the fire of peace and love in the '80s, which we now know as Acid-Folk... can you feel it?" - quote from the band.

2. Cardiacs - Is This The Life (Alphabet Business Concern)

"This single was taken from the Cardiacs successful album 'A Little Man and A House and The Whole World Window'. It stayed in the Indie Charts for 4 months and 'crossed-over' to daytime Radio 1, subsequently entering the Gallup Top 100"

3. Fields of the Nephilim - Preacher Man (Situation Two)

"Albums available: 'Dawnrazor' '...shudders with self-important, bristling energy: an epic, an unashamedly slavering colossus of a disc' - Sounds, 16.5.88
'The Nephilim' ' fascinating, disturbing, and utterly magnificent' - Record Mirror, 3.9.88

4. Danielle Dax - Cathouse (Awesome)

"Unanimously voted Single of the Week by the nation's music press, this number one indie-seller turns rock, pop and glam into a unique blend of sex, metal and mayhem for the 80s, proving beyond doubt that when it comes to 'Guitar Wars' Dax leaves those leather boys gasping at the starting line".

5. Crazyhead - Baby Turpentine (Food) - Bonus Track

"Flat 2, 37 Springfield Road, Leicester, 1986 - chopping down next door's fence to keep warm in front of the epileptic television."

Here's the first bonus track out of the bag. "Baby Turpentine" pretty much picks up where "What Gives You The Idea..." left off on Volume Two, making an unholy racket about nothing in particular. The guitars make an old school rock and roll row (dig that descending and rising fifties double bass styled bassline) the vocals scream, and it sounds like full-on garage rock with a slightly hairy eighties twist.

Given that groups making this sort of noise are all over the Internet these days, it might feel faintly peculiar to remember that we really did get quite excited about this at the time. What innocent days.

As stated on the other entry where we mention this bunch of unmentionables, Crazyhead's subsequent career on EMI was something of a flop, and they quite quickly fell out of relevance, but not before throttling us from both our stereos and from blazing live performances on the gig circuit.

6. The Wedding Present - Nobody's Twisting Your Arm (Reception)

"...surprised everyone by shooting into the Gallup chart at no. 46 and showed that the 'George Best' LP was no fluke".

7. The Soup Dragons - Hang Ten! (Raw TV)

"...became an absolute classic Indie hit single, staying at Number one in the Indie Charts for weeks. Taken from the album 'This Is Our Art'".

8. Rose of Avalanche - Velveteen (Fire)

"The pulsating twilight world of teardrops, mist and mystery, bad company and the illicit thrill of good lovin' gone bad mixed with guitars turned up full blast, all transport you to the furthest edges of the psychedelic firmament in a song that'll take you to heaven and back with the most beautiful girl in the world beside you."

9. Half Man Half Biscuit - Dickie Davies Eyes (Probe Plus)

"Two years on and the jokes and the punchlines are entirely familiar but somehow, like Monty Python, it's the sort of inspired, satirical humour that bears repeating time and time again without losing it's edge and appeal. Poking fun at TV 'celebrities', bringing inner city problems to 'Watch With Mother', extracting the urine from all and sundry (themselves included) with all the dry wit for which Merseyside is so justly famous". Q - September '88.

10. Michelle Shocked - Fog Town (Cooking Vinyl) - Bonus Track

"Taken from the now legendary 'Texas Campfire Tapes' LP which shot to number one on the indie charts in January '87, despite being recorded on a Walkman at Kerrville festival by Cooking Vinyl boss Pete Lawrence for the cost of a tape and a set of batteries".

You know what, readers, I can't find an audio link for this one online, and since Michelle Shocked seems to control her presence online quite tightly, I'm not going to bother to risk incurring her wrath by uploading anything myself. You know how it is. And also, I respect her desire as an artist and creative force to maintain control over her own affairs without the interference from external etc. etc. etc....

If you're curious, "Fog Town" is inevitably a very stripped back, acoustic live track, which struts along moodily and has a claustrophobic, despairing air throughout. Rather like "If Love Was A Train" on volume two, there's an earnestness and worthiness to this which will either repel or appeal to listeners. Certainly at the time, it felt as if her work and presence was a refreshing antidote to the over-produced luxury of eighties pop - in these days where talented acoustic performers can be found at every open mic night in just about every town, however, some of that novelty has perhaps diminished.

11. The Chesterfields - Ask Johnny Dee (Subway)

" still the most appealing slither of sublimeness, it remains a mystery why someone didn't write it aeons ago" - Record Mirror.

12. Wire - Kidney Bingos (Mute)

"Wire specialise in wistful, immaculately crafted avant-songs... it's good to know that Wire have lost none of their taste for the lyrically absurd or their talent for a jolly little tune. The single 'Kidney Bingos' consisted of a string of nonsense-words (although it was probably meant to be rather meaningful) and the album continues in this merry vein" - Record Mirror.

13. Bradford - Skin Storm (Village) - Bonus Track

"This track was the single; receiving a great deal of media interest as Morrissey was quoted as saying of their 'Lust Roulette' track: 'Lust Roulette practically almost made me cry" - Morrissey, Summer '88.

The curse of Morrissey strikes again. With an almost tedious inevitability, every artist the bequiffed one recommends inevitably suffers the near total indifference of the general public, and Bradford, while briefly tipped for success, were no exception.

That's actually a pity, as he had a bit of a point in this case. Mixing soulful vocals with considered and frequently touching lyrics and delicate indie arrangements, Bradford could be a stunning listen when on form. "Skin Storm" really is an example of the band at their peak, a scaling ballad which really could be covered by just about any mainstream pop star or folk performer and still sound affecting - to the extent that I'm surprised it hasn't been.

Still, Morrissey had a stab at it later on on the flipside of "Pregnant For The Last Time". Bradford themselves signed to Sire before being dropped by that label. They then moved to Stephen Street's Foundation label, but success continually eluded them, and the plug was pulled in the early nineties.

14. Sweet Honey In The Rock - Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto (Cooking Vinyl) - Bonus Track

"This five piece all female accapella outfit from Washington DC deliver the goods on this powerful live recording taken from the album 'Breaths... The Best Of' which rode high in various independent charts in Autumn '87. Billy Bragg has also recently covered this track on his LP".

This may well have ridden high in numerous independent charts, but really, I'm sure a great many folk, jazz and reggae albums also had their moment in the sun there - they never appeared on Indie Top 20, so why did this, a gospel track? Only Chet and Bee know.

"Chile Your Waters..." is an a-cappella track which spits out words like "oppression" a lot, and sounds exactly as you'd expect it to. There's a meanness and a definite vitriol to this one despite the limited arrangement, and it's impossible to doubt its righteousness and passion, but it sinks in immediately and definitely on the first listen, and return visits pay very few extra dividends.

Sweet Honey In The Rock remain much loved in the USA, being awarded at the Grammys and generously given a great deal of airtime elsewhere. They are also probably one of the only bands to have a sign language interpreter as a member. At the point of its release, their "Best Of" probably seemed unusual and refreshing in the UK - but really, the group are an institution at home, where they're among the absolute leaders of their genre. Their inclusion on "Indie Top 20" is as absurd as sticking a Miles Davis or Johnny Cash track halfway through.

15. A Certain Ratio - Mickey Way (The Candy Bar) (Factory)

"Taken from their album 'Force", 'Mickey Way' was ACR's last release before leaving Factory Records. Now signed to A&M worldwide, the next album is planned for release early in '89". 

16. Ciccone Youth - Into The Groovy (Blast First)

"...also known as Sonic Youth, in their most rabid Madonna worship frenzy. 'Into The Groovy' was a surprise club and chart hit, it featured Firehose's Mike Watts on frantic bass. 'Into The Groovy' is included on a Ciccone Youth album called The White(y) Album, due for release Jan '89".

17. The Beloved - Forever Dancing (Flim Flam)

"Seriously minimal, minimally serious. Free at last".

18. The Shamen - Jesus Loves Amerika (Moksha)

" a blistering attack on that country's fascist, fanatical, fundamentalist "Christians" - ie - those who wish to transform us into a race of right-wing, brain-dead, bible quoting robots.
Musically, the beatbox groove is harder than ever before, overlaid with frenzied, psychedelic mandolin-like guitar and some of the most righteous samples yet to be heard on disc".

19. Pop Will Eat Itself - There Is No Love Between Us Anymore (Chapter 22)

"The Poppies present another song about love and hate. Remixed from their debut album 'Box Fenzy'. Still available in all good and not so good record shops".

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Indie Top 20 Vol 5 Side 4 - Darling Buds, Talulah Gosh, Sugarcubes, Another Sunny Day, Swans

1. Darling Buds - Shame On You (Native)

Ah memories, misty water coloured memories, of the way we were... it sounds almost unfathomable now, but The Darling Buds were an incredibly big deal around this time, featuring in the "Great Hopes for 1989" section of many a music magazine at 1988's tail end. Bursting out of Newport way before Cool Cymru was dreamt up, and fronted by the very blonde and pretty Andrea Lewis with the moody, smouldering Harley Farr on guitar, they looked the part, sounded spiky and could clearly pen a catchy ditty. Whatever could go wrong?

As always with this question, it's difficult to give a precise answer, really, but they never quite hit the same heights as the rather similar Primitives, never mind The Stone Roses or even The Wonder Stuff. "Shame On You" makes some hints as to why - sharp and sparky the whole affair might be, but there's actually very little to set the band apart from their indiepop compatriots apart from presentation. It zips along in one big rush but doesn't sound in any way significant, cheeky, snappy little lines like "Of all the things you could have said/ you had to say 'let's go to bed'" aside.

Away from all the hype, though, it is possible to admire the track's sheer driving force and sassiness. And in fairness to the band, they had better tracks up their sleeves, albeit none strong enough to really push them into the frontline of pop.

Overall, though, another group for the "Not quite as good as The Flatmates" file. And once The Darling Buds of May became a major hit television series, their name became faintly absurd too, rather than them seeming like another indie band named after an old tome.

2. Talulah Gosh - Bringing Up Baby (53rd & 3rd)

Some unintentionally cruel track sequencing here. 1989's great hopes are followed by a group who had largely fallen into irrelevance in the music press by this point. At one particularly fruitful, fresh post-C86 point, you couldn't even pick up a copy of the glossy Record Mirror without reading about Talulah Gosh, but by the end of 1988 eyes had turned elsewhere.

It's not overly surprising, really, because while the music press love to champion fresh new faces and underdogs for a year or two, they tend to lose patience and wander off if the act either remains resolutely underground or just plain doesn't break through. Talulah Gosh were clearly in the former camp - despite the enormous strides they had made by the time we last caught up with them on Volume Two, they remained on a tiny indie, always sounded charmingly amateurish (or irritatingly so, depending on your point of view) and continued writing songs about subject matters which were never going to resonate with the broader public. "Bringing Up Baby", for example, seems to be partly based on a 1938 Katherine Hepburn film of the same name. I've never seen it, but it's apparently a "screwball comedy", which makes the slightly melancholic air and detachment of the song feel rather strange. It seems more likely that this is about an ordinary couple desperately imagining themselves to be like Hepburn and Cary Grant in the film.

It's a sweet, lonely, fragile little song which sounds like the band beginning to explore more interesting depths, but their final single "Testcard Girl" was just around the corner, and that would be the end of that. Like The Flatmates before them, there would be no album, although Amelia Fletcher, Mathew Fletcher and Peter Montchiloff would re-emerge in Heavenly, who became full-on indiepop legends with a much more rounded, tougher style. "Atta Girl" in particular highlights how much their lyrical and musical approach would build on the Gosh foundations.

Fun Indiepop fact - In 2014 Amelia Fletcher was awarded with an OBE for her services to Competition and Consumer Economics.

3. The Sugarcubes - Deus (One Little Indian)

"Birthday" was such a beguiling single that there was a period spent wondering how on earth The Sugarcubes would follow it up. Most journalists predicted a Cocteau Twins styled career, consisting of atmospheric, wobbly songs with disorientating lyrical content. It didn't happen. "Birthday" was a complete one-off, and the follow-up single "Cold Sweat" was an aggressive, almost threatening single about sexual intercourse.

We won't get a chance to discuss that one here - a shame, because it's probably one of the more under-rated singles in their catalogue, forever referred to as a "disappointing follow-up" for not being another "Birthday". Third single, "Deus", on the other hand, did get space on "Indie Top 20" and is different yet again, being a piece of laidback, loping funkiness about a God figure who forces people to have baths upon meeting them. "He was not white and fluffy!" complains Einar about the deity before him. "He just had sideburns and a quiff!"

Musically, the track has chiming guitars and a polished finish - it sounds like laidback, FM, adult pop, with only Bjork's vocal acrobatics and Einar's bizarre interjections skewing it in stranger directions. The group once claimed in an interview that it had been designed to be a French pop hit, in what was widely regarded to be a slightly sarcastic comment to a typically parochial British journalist who enquired about when they were going to have a "proper" hit in the UK charts. However, it may have had some truth behind it. From my parent's house in sub-suburban Southend, you could clearly pick up French and Belgian radio, and "Deus" definitely got on there alongside all the middle-of-the-road pop hits of the day.

In the end, though, it had to content itself with a number 51 placing in the UK and not a great deal anywhere else (apart from, presumably, their home country). I'd also argue it's not the finest single in the band's catalogue - it's enjoyable but the inventiveness begins and ends with the lyrics, and the band were at their best when they all really pushed the boat out. You could imagine elements of "Deus" being given to The Police to use as a backing track, which isn't something you could easily say of most of their other output. Still, if nothing else it showed they had baffling versatility.

4. Another Sunny Day - I'm In Love With A Girl Who Doesn't Know I Exist (Sarah)

Whenever a music journalist seeks to skewer the output of Sarah Records with their case for the prosecution, "I'm In Love With A Girl Who Doesn't Know I Exist" is normally first on the list. And why in hell not, I suppose? This, really, is a mere minute-and-a-half of sparsely recorded guitar plucking and musing on unrequited love, the musical template for weak, fragile young souls with tea-stained Sartre books from the library in their satchels that they're never actually going to read. AmIrite?

Not really. While I can't get geared up for this single in the manner that a lot of Sarah aficionados can, its economy of style and folksy melody are significant plus points. There's an awful lot going on within not much time, in a manner that the best sixties folk rockers managed but very few cult indie figures did.

Lyrically, of course, it's as simplistic as anything ever produced by a hair metal band, if not more so - it has delicate sensitivity in buckets, but Harvey Williams (the main driving force behind ASD) despairs "I could speak to you, you could speak to me/ Oh but it will never happen, what will be will be", which besides being startlingly lazy writing also underlines adolescent romantic idealism. He's in love with a girl who doesn't know he exists, purely because her dialogue with him has been non-existent. All she's aware of is that occasional intense gaze across the playground, which is getting more and MORE intense and uncomfortable by the day... pack it in, Harvey. She probably fancies a boy in the year above anyway.

As I pointed out in my entry about The Razorcuts, though, swap the gender roles around in the song to the more traditional "I'm In Love With A Boy Who Doesn't Know I Exist", and the creepiness and hopelessness somehow fades away. Which is maybe at least half the point.

5. Swans - Love Will Tear Us Apart (Jarboe vocal) (Product Inc)

New Yorkers Swans are usually known for piercing, grinding experimental rock, and tend to repulse as many people as they attract. Their 1988 cover of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" marks a sudden and surprising change of style. Rather than overload the song with harsh, eardrum threatening guitar noises, they handled it with respect and care, recording two versions. One, the Michael Gira sung version, was so close to the original as to be of questionable worth. This, sung by their keyboardist and co-vocalist Jarboe, takes a different tack.

Jarboe seems to interpret the song as a spiritual, hollering the words to a minimal keyboard backing. It sounds at times agonised, other times resigned, sweeping upwards before falling earthbound moments later.

It's ambitious despite its simplicity, and is a worthy reinterpretation, but it's not something I return to very often. It certainly showed that "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was a powerful piece of songwriting which could stand up to all manner of arrangements, but nothing new unveils itself after the first listen here. It does, however, act as a downbeat, sombre and calm resolution to Volume 5.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Now On Spotify

I've set about creating a Spotify playlist of all the available Indie Top 20 tracks.

Each time a new blog post goes live, I will - as quickly as I can! - add the relevant tracks on to the playlist, until in the end we'll probably have a mammoth playlist that lasts longer than a week, featuring artists from The Vaselines to Veruca Salt to Northern Uproar. Your parties will never be the same again.

What's interesting so far is just how many fairly big-hitting tunes are missing from the service. So while you might halfway expect The Soup Dragons to be in denial about their somewhat punkier past (though God knows why) it's amazing to see that "Rok Da House" isn't available. And the New Order and Joy Division Peel Sessions tracks are conspicuous by their absence, so I've tried to make up for it as best I can by including the proper studio versions instead.

Anyway, enjoy. It's a warts-and-all jukebox to accompany the blog. 

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Indie Top 20 Vol 5 Side 3 - Pop Will Eat Itself, The Shamen, Wolfhounds, Sea Urchins, The Vaselines

1. Pop Will Eat Itself - Def Con One (Chapter 22)

We've been through five Indie Top 20 albums so far, and Pop Will Eat Itself have featured on every single one. This does perhaps underline how prolific the band were at this point, but also highlights how much of a big deal they were too, featuring all over the music press and radio waves. Never universally critically acclaimed - they were truly despised by some critics, in fact - they nonetheless tapped into a strange demand for loud, sample-heavy, hip-hop inspired indie-rock.

This feels strange looking back. "There Is No Love Between Us Anymore" aside, none of these tracks feel vital or exciting today, and most seem rather too clunky for their own good. "Def Con One" is neat enough with its Twilight Zone samples and Motown drum breaks, and perhaps not as clumsy as some of their output, but there's nothing in it that screams "great hopes of the Midlands".

The chorus of "Big Mac fries to go/ gimme Big Mac and fries to go" apparently originated from a nightmare a band member had about the group doing an advert for McDonalds for some spare cash, thereby costing them their credibility. It's a cheeky hook making light of a ridiculous (and unlikely) scenario, a neat try at beating the devil to the punch, and the track as a whole is entertaining - but never anything more than that. There's a goofiness about early PWEI which is often endearing, but sonically they were always lagging slightly behind many of their compatriots. It's worth noting that at this point The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, aka the KLF, had already released "Who Killed The Jams" and were about to explore Trance and Ambient House, and The Shamen were also about to take to Dance Music like ducks to water. PWEI were instead dancing around to the Twilight Zone theme and chanting about Big Macs.

My mother turned out to be the best critic for "Def Con One", sticking her head through my bedroom door in 1988 to ask incredulously: "Are you listening to Adam & The Ants these days?!" And it did sometimes feel as if PWEI had based their entire early careers on the widely derided "Ant Rap", so full points to her there. She should have had her own column in the NME.

2. The Shamen - Jesus Loves Amerika (Moksha)

"Jesus Loves Amerika" is an angry, irritated stab at American television evangelists and US culture and society in general. "Jesus loves Amerika!" they tell us "But I don't love neither!"

The group were highly politicised at this point, entitling their latest (actually pretty good) album "In Gorbachev We Trust", but there's still not much excuse for this attempt at soapbox ranting. "Yeah, these are the men who put the right in righteous/ Such hypocrisy, stupidity is truly out of sight, yes" they inform us, which does rather undermine any sensible point they're trying to make through forced rhyme. Really chaps... even Duran Duran are blushing in the corner.

There probably are a decent set of lyrics to be written about TV evangelists, but they're not to be found here, and nor can they be found in Phil Collins' "Jesus He Knows Me". For what it's worth, The Shamen just about dodge the Christian Death Adolescent Silliness award by having a half-decent tune beneath their bile, which contains the usual shimmering guitars, sledgehammer beatbox rhythms, and some actually very effective and sickening samples. The Shamen didn't need to highlight the bigotry and smug piousness of these men when their own words speak for themselves, and actually act as some of the most effective inclusions on the single.
By the time we next meet The Shamen, though, their metamorphosis will be complete, and if "Jesus Loves Amerika" sounds like the last gasp of a group due to head off in an entirely new direction, it's because it is.

3. The Wolfhounds - Son Of Nothing (September)

While they were featured on the C86 compilation, Romford's The Wolfhounds were among the more abrasive acts on the cassette who weren't really common-or-garden indiepop. "Son of Nothing" is evidence of that, containing one of the few examples I can think of a furious sounding wah-wah pedal.

Heavily politicised and often somewhat marginalised as a result of their ferocity, The Wolfhounds nonetheless issued a brace of punchy indie singles throughout the eighties, any one of which is worth tracking down. Unlike many bands of their ilk, their work retained an underground punk ethic whilst also containing interesting and mature songwriting. While their travelling companions thrashed and bashed their way through the issues of the day, The Wolfhounds surprised with their often dextrous way with a melody.

4. The Sea Urchins - Solace (Sarah)

It's somewhat peculiar how all the releases on Sarah Records get lumped in with the "twee" tag when in reality, the output of the label was quite diverse. "Solace" by The Sea Urchins is proof of that - this is really under-produced and slightly underheated garage psychedelia. The vocals wail and harmonise like The Gibb Brothers on "Have You Heard The Word", overloaded guitar solos buzz around the room like aggravated wasps, and the whole thing sounds like a sixties demo or outtake.

I can't be alone in thinking that the budget production and distorted elements get in the way of the song breaking through in places, though - I've always had the impression that if "Solace" had actually been given a more sympathetic studio treatment, it could be close to early Primal Scream. But it's also the needles-into-the-red garden shed sound to this single that sets it apart. Very few other bands aping this sound at the time were quite so rough and ready, or so aggressively dreamy.

"Solace" is still very highly regarded as a Sarah Records release today, proof that it was much more than flavour of the month at the point of Volume 5's release.

5. The Vaselines - Dying For It (53rd and 3rd)

The Vaselines couldn't be talked about at a later date without being tagged as "one of Kurt Cobain's favourite bands". "Dying For It" was the single which clearly locked the band close to his heart, as nestling on the flip side were two tracks, "Molly's Lips" and "Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam", which would later be covered by Nirvana.

In a sense, Beechwood missed a trick by not including either of those songs on the compilation and instead opting for the obvious A-side, but who could ever have known the significance of either at the time? "Dying For It" is certainly the most full-on of all the choices available, being distorted and throttling as opposed to twee indie-pop. Once again, it's proof that whatever C86 did or didn't do, it certainly can't be blamed for encouraging a sea of jangly bands to emerge over the hills - the harder, rougher edges of it actually inspired emerging grunge bands too.

Eugene Kelly has gone on record as saying that he's "never made any money except for Nirvana royalties" which have allowed him to obtain a mortgage. It does seem to me as if more successful groups should also cover the work of the underground people they admire.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Volume 5 Side 2 - Danielle Dax, Joy Division, Loop, Christian Death, Nick Cave

1. Danielle Dax - Cat-House (Awesome)

"Baby baby you're my heart's desire/ got my engine going and my pants on fire".

Seldom did a track in 1988 burst out of your stereo with a sexual statement of intent as direct as that. This phase of Danielle Dax's career is truly fascinating, because while you can reference its gothic edge as well as the glam and faintly psychedelic elements, the simple truth is that it's old fashioned rock and roll sass on a low budget as well. The honking one-note sax riff here hints to that, but so too does - and I almost dare not say this - the almost Meatloafian tail end to the verses just before the chorus kicks in. And if you don't think that kind of camp, biker rock element exists in "Cat-House", just listen to the way Danielle sings "He's the one with my magic key/ knows my road from A to Z" and try to imagine Cher singing it in biker gear. Far fetched? I rather thought not.

So "Cat-House" is ultimately camp, silly, trashy, hard-edged and sassy all at once, and was a much bigger deal at the time than you'd possibly imagine, despite the fact that a lot of elements of it seemed faintly out of step with everything else in 1988. A big part of that is down to the chaos of the chanting chorus,  which sounds incredibly "alt" even if the surrounding elements of the track aren't always so, and the fact that Danielle sells the song incredibly well. That so many people expected her to become a fully fledged pop star should probably surprise nobody.

"Cat-House" was a significant track for her, and paved the way for her to be signed to Sire in due course - but we'll be coming across her one more time before then.

2. Joy Division - She's Lost Control (Peel Session) (Strange Fruit)

We all know how this one goes, don't we? I mean, don't we? So too, I think, do we understand the inspiration for the track, and the fact that after "Love Will Tear Us Apart" it's arguably one of Joy Division's most important songs.

Interestingly, the Peel Session version of this track really doesn't contain a great many differences from the final studio version, bar the absence of the faintly disorientating echo effect which permeates through "Unknown Pleasures". It has an added grit and harshness to it, and the guitars are much more at the forefront, but basically all the main elements of the track were clearly in place.

The "Substance" compilation of Joy Division singles and pivotal tracks had not long been issued at this point, along with the re-release of "Atmosphere" with its Corbijn directed video. This meant that Beechwood clearly could have legitimately included "Atmosphere" on this compilation as a very recent large indie hit, but obviously didn't. Whether this was due to Factory Records not coming up with a favourable enough deal, I don't know - although it is notable that Factory singles crop up relatively infrequently throughout this series, which does suggest that the label clearly didn't have as sympathetic a relationship with the series as other indies at the time (except Creation, which has been utterly absent from the series all the way along so far).

3. Loop - Collision (Chapter 22)

Harsh, minimal and grating, Loop were a surprisingly big deal in the late eighties for a band so awkward. Sounding faintly like Suicide with distorted, effects-laden guitars instead of synths at times, or the most shimmering, three-chord, droning psychedelia, they were certainly a unique prospect. Comparisons with The Jesus and Mary Chain were inevitable, but Loop could never (or at least, would never) have written "Some Candy Talking" or "April Skies" - compared to Loop, JAMC were The Reynolds Girls, pure Top of the Pops fodder.

"Collision" is a lovely drone as well, which if sped up a bit more could easily be as contagious as the most nagging krautrock tracks.

Loop would continue to make their presence felt until 1990, after which point they split.

4. Christian Death - Church of No Return (Jungle)

Oh please no. Please don't make me listen to this again. It's just so fucking silly.

Christian Death began life in 1979 under the guiding hand of Rozz Williams, who eventually left the group in 1985 to pursue more experimental paths. The lead guitarist Valor Kand took control, and as a result there are fans of the group who argue that all post-85 material is null and void, in the way that some Pink Floyd fans believe that post-Waters material (or even post-Barrett material) is not "proper Floyd".

Whatever, I'm not here to debate the line-up difficulties of the act, of which they had many. What I'm here to do is consider this track, which, if you strip away the lyrics and the band's presentation, is basically very camp seventies glam rock with gothic undertones. A darker version of The Sweet, to be precise, with an air raid siren in place of the police siren at the start of "Blockbuster". Kand's vocals are also very Rocky Horror, which layers campness on top of pre-existing campness.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with any of this - I love The Sweet, in fact, and will happily have loud arguments with anyone who tells me I'm wrong for doing so - but in common with the failings of a lot of the worst Goth Rock acts, you're left with the impression that Christian Death think they produced something mind-blowingly significant with this one, that the theatricality of it and its references to original sin and the church's quaint views on fornication add up to a Big Statement... but unlike Danielle Dax on track one, it's far, far too pleased with itself to make an impression.

Perhaps I'm just far too British, and was brought up in far too atheistic a family, to give a shit about this single. If I were a teenager just beginning to have my first doubts about my faith, and the hypocrisy of organised religion, I can imagine that Christian Death would potentially feel like a lighting bolt, but to me at the time in 1988 - and indeed now - they just seemed quaint, signposting obvious things loudly like a drunk old man in the local pub (though to be fair, the drunk old man in the local pub wasn't big on tight leather outfits).

Another lesson to learn from this one is that, just as horror films lose their impact if there's a grisly death every 15 seconds, controversy from rock bands is at its best when it happens suddenly and fleetingly in the space of one song. When groups layer loaded gesture on top of loaded gesture, it begins to seem comic, as each idea fights for its own space. Subtlety can be a wonderful, wonderful thing, and Christian Death are all about grand gestures introduced with flashing neon signs - really, this couldn't be less my kind of thing if it tried.

5. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "The Mercy Seat" (Mute)

Come to think of it, this track could very easily have fallen on that particular sword as well, but it somehow falls short of doing so. A big reason behind this is that it's such a rush of ideas - the listener is being asked to step into the mind of a prisoner about to be put in an electric chair, and the sheer rattling pace of the track means that so many of the lyrics (frequently brilliant) get missed until possibly the third, fourth, fifth or even tenth listen.

The lines "Christ was born into a manger/ And like some ragged stranger/ He died upon the cross/ Might I say it seems so fitting in its way/ He was a carpenter by trade" could be satirical and mocking if read one way, or resigned about the sheer ridiculousness of the world if taken another. That's the difference between lyrical poetry and big, self-conscious rock gestures - the former requires the listener to do some of the work, some of the untangling.

At the time, I thought "The Mercy Seat" was a truly fantastic single, taking a subject which could so easily have been mishandled and successfully hitting its marks. The way the different verses and ideas interrupt and break the flow, the way the song is basically one very simple, rattling melodic idea stretched to breaking point, and the carefully weighted drama of it all... it seemed genius. These days, I still like the track, but return to it relatively infrequently. Partly it's because it reveals its full hand melodically very early on, and becomes very familiar very quickly, and also partly I suspect because it's strongest lyrics are front loaded, and I'm more interested in lines like "Those sinister dinner deals/ The meal trolley's wicked wheels/ A hooked bone rising from my food/ And all things either good or ungood" than the dramatic flourishes of "Into the mercy seat I climb/ My head is shaved, my head is wired/ and like a moth that tries/ To enter the bright eye/ I go shuffling out of life/ Just to hide in death awhile".

But in the end, Cave's attempts at bringing macabre subject matters into rock music have always been fascinating, owing a debt to country or folk storytelling rather than sledgehammer shock-and-awe techniques. Johnny Cash covered this, and I was surprised when I first found out - but quickly realised that actually, it made total and absolute sense.

And minimal it may be, but the melodic framework of the track is hypnotic, and locks you into its ideas without escape. Turning your head and looking away is impossible.