Sunday, 24 September 2017

Volume 21 Tracks 16-20 - Blaggers ITA, Pop Will Eat Itself, Wolfgang Press, Ween, The Cramps

16. Blaggers ITA - Thrill Her (With A Gun) (Damaged Goods)

Blaggers ITA were originally an underground punk band with close ties to the anti-fascist movement who steadily rose to prominence as the cold realities of early nineties Britain bit. Harsh and hard-edged, they nonetheless gradually evolved to incorporate a danceable element to their sound, and found themselves on Parlophone from 1993-94. Opinionated and uncompromising, it doesn't feel like much of an exaggeration to say that it felt as if they'd gatecrashed the mainstream of the music industry. This afforded them some truly memorable moments on television (not least their appearance on "The Word") and mainstream exposure bands of their ilk tended not to usually get.

Naturally, this couldn't and didn't last. Frontman Matty Blagg allegedly punched Melody Maker journalist Dave Simpson in the face after Simpson had stated that in his opinion, Matty could never reform his fascist past. This followed a press interview where Matty revealed that he had once been involved in the racist group British Movement prior to being converted to left wing politics while in prison. Following this incident, press and record label support eroded and the group were essentially treated as lepers.

It would be tempting to debate the whys and wherefores of the incident, and whether fascists can ever truly "reform" - in my view, they can - but since the situation was never legally resolved at the time, it seems foolhardy to start examining the wounds again from twenty years distance. We're really not going to get the answers we want.

"Thrill Her (With A Gun)" was released on Damaged Goods shortly after the group were dropped by EMI, and still managed to perform convincingly in the indie charts. Filled with "Blockbuster" styled police sirens, samples, shuffling rhythms and husky vocals, it features the group sounding even more Clash influenced than usual - or should that be Big Audio Dynamite influenced? - and cuts a dramatic chase. The EMI era line-up of the band fell to pieces not long after this, but it's proof that they had a genuine, street savvy edge the vast majority of posturing indie bands lacked.

17. Pop Will Eat Itself - Familus Horriblius (HIA WYG mix) (Infectious)

And God knows why PWEI are back on this volume, since their final single had long since been released, and this particular track originally appeared on the flip side of "RSVP" in 1993. Clearly somebody at Beechwood thought the group were still a big enough pull to be worth including in the tracklisting.

It's an interesting remix of the track, but it's not really any way to say goodbye. It's a squelchy, throbbing, tribal sounding version which probably went down a storm at various crusty squat parties at the time, but sounds strangely dated and quaint now. From it, though, it is just about possible to hear the origins of Bentley Rhythm Ace emerging, who would go on to push their way close to the forefront of British big beat culture.

As for PWEI, the group had been weaving their spell throughout the alternative scene since Volume One, and their resilience is something to wonder at, but by 1995 their time was up.

18. The Wolfgang Press - Going South (4AD)

And this was also Wolfgang Press's last hurrah. "Going South" is a sleazy sounding piece of shuffling, organ-driven funk which is just about groovy enough to persuade limbs towards the dancefloor - but that's possibly the problem. Whereas their previous material had contained angular and challenging post-punk influences, this is really just the work of another indie band who had found some sensual disco albums in the local charity shop and decided to cop all the best riffs. Nothing about it sounds vital or essential, and unsurprisingly, it didn't do much to expand the group's existing audience.

The group's last LP, the appropriately titled "Funky Little Demons", is seldom hailed by anyone as a prime moment, and the group disappeared without trace not long afterwards.

19. Ween - Voodoo Lady (Flying Nun)

Ween are a prime example of a cult indie band who split audiences completely down the middle. In a manner similar to Cardiacs - while sounding absolutely nothing like them - their awkward, whacked-out and occasionally absurd or sarcastic takes on rock and country music have caused many projectiles to come hurtling their way from angry live audiences. Far from putting them off their stride, this hostility seems to have fanned the flames for the group, who have gone on to gain appreciative cult audiences seemingly in every port in every country.

As for me, I'm afraid I'm firmly in the camp who doesn't quite get what they're trying to do or indeed why they're trying to do it - but then again, I never got on with Frank Zappa either. "Voodoo Lady" is probably the moment they enjoyed their biggest success in the UK (though their country records "Piss Up A Rope" and "You Were The Fool" came close) and is a staccato piece of jerky, lo-fi rock which recalls Devo being unexpectedly booked to do a session on "MTV Unplugged". It's a deeply divisive single, and one which may or may not have been an influence on The League of Gentleman's comedy glam number of the same name. Who on earth could say?

20. The Cramps - Ultra Twist (Creation)

The garage rock and roll of The Cramps feels as if it's been around forever, and indeed the group only split in 2009. Alan McGee's love of the group ensured that they had a presence on Creation Records in the mid-nineties, where they did nonetheless feel faintly out of place.

"Ultra Twist" features the group doing what they always did, with no shortage of aplomb. There are no shocks or surprises here, and their slamming, bluesy and slightly camp grooves still manage to feel faintly subversive. Nonetheless, their presence here is strangely anomalous - had they been placed next to Guana Batz on Volume One of "Indie Top 20", nobody would have been surprised. But how many people really bought this compilation in 1995 partly because The Cramps were in the tracklisting?

We didn't have the phrase "heritage acts" to describe groups like The Cramps in the mid-nineties, and if we'd tagged them as such I'm sure it would have been met with some mild violence, but nonetheless they were a twenty-year old group with a loyal audience who really weren't interested in compilations focussing on new indie bands. Their presence here acted a gentle reminder to youthful naifs that they still existed, but probably didn't win many new converts to their twisted cause.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Volume 21 Tracks 11-15 - Whiteout, Supergrass, Ash, 60ft Dolls, Bandit Queen

11. Whiteout - Jackie's Racing (Silvertone)

"Da-vid!" cried my mother in disbelief when she heard me listening to this, "have you started listening to seventies teenybop stuff now?!"

I - sort of - get where she was coming from on this, and can also completely understand why Tim Millington chose to place it next to Ride's "I Don't Know Where It Comes From" in the tracklisting. Both have a wistful, breezy seventies styled pop production, although I suspect Whiteout were using The Faces rather than the Bay City Rollers as their sonic template.

It wasn't just my Mum who wanted Whiteout's guts for garters, either. The music press were bafflingly savage towards the group, frequently focussing on their very young age and inexperience as reasons to attack them, while praising Supergrass for precisely the same characteristics on the other hand. Some of Whiteout's material was a whirlwind of energy, the likes of "Detroit" in particular rivalling Oasis's earliest work for attitude and force of personality (indeed, Whiteout co-headlined a tour with them).

"Jackie's Racing" was Whiteout's peak mainstream moment, and is perhaps atypical of the rest of their output, but is nonetheless a solid pop song with many fantastic melodic flourishes and twanging guitar work. With its lyrics focussed on a girl (played by actress Caroline Catz in the video, later of "Doc Martin" fame) enjoying her "kicks" and "teenage fun" who "wears tight clothes that don't quite fit", it's hard to take the song overly seriously or get emotionally involved in it. However, its bouyant innocence does act as a tonic, and it acts as one of those all-too-rare examples of a very young band being able to communicate their enthusiasm and zeal in an infectious way.

Whiteout never did really become properly famous, though, even at the height of Britpop when everything should have been in their favour. Their debut album "Bite It" (which bizarrely left off many of their best known singles) received a muted critical and commercial reception. Singer Andrew Caldwell left the group not long after its release, and their follow-up LP "Big Wow" in 1998 failed to attract much attention. They rank as one of the era's most bafflingly marginal groups.

12. Supergrass - Caught By The Fuzz (Parlophone)

Speak of the devil... Most of Supergrass last appeared on Volume 16 of this series as The Jennifers, a rather naive teenage indie band who could on occasion sound slightly like Whiteout at their most wistful. By the time "Caught By The Fuzz" emerged, however, it was clear that they had morphed into a group of some wit and ferocity.

I don't intend to sound disparaging when I say that I laughed my head off when I first heard "Caught By The Fuzz". It sounded like a group of naughty seventeen year old boys trying to write lyrics like a wittier, more interesting version of Jimmy Pursey while Keith Moon played drums in the corner. A small part of me doubts that "Caught By The Fuzz" was ever supposed to actually be as amusing as it turned out. The frantic, panicked delivery of Gaz's vocals suggest that it was originally written as a cathartic exercise after he had his collar felt (he has confirmed that the lyrics were based on true experience) which only seem amusing if you're sufficiently removed from the situation. His delivery of "Who sold you the blow/ WELL IT WAS......... NO-ONE I KNOW!" and "if only your father could see you now!" create little visual snapshots of an eighties teenage kitchen sink drama shown on Channel 4 in the early afternoon. The music behind them, on the other hand, is so pile-driving and determined it sweeps you along effortlessly.

It would have been easy to dismiss Supergrass as some kind of NWONW one-single wonders were it not for the flipside to this, "Strange Ones", which appeared largely unchanged on the number one "I Should Coco" LP. There was clearly much more to the group than punkish melodrama about being caught with naughty cigarettes, and while the group always did have a penchant for playful silliness (as "Alright" would later prove) that's often caused them to be overlooked by casual listeners who have failed to absorb some of their more mature, developed and occasionally psychedelic work. Without exaggeration, Supergrass were one of the last truly great bands to emerge during the Britpop rush, as their superb debut LP and follow-up "In It For The Money" both go to enormous lengths to prove.

13. Ash - Uncle Pat (Infectious)

More teenagers with attitude. Prior to this moment, Ash were mostly known for their heads-down, no-nonsense punk approach, with debut single "Jack Names The Planets" having both a determined amphetamine charge to its sound combined with fluffy, innocent almost nursery rhyme melodies.

"Uncle Pat" is much more laidback and sombre in its tone, but can't quite shake the innocent edge the band had until this point, with simple, chiming guitar lines and marching rhythms. Focusing on the tale of a recently departed relative, it seems like a slightly personal and melancholy moment for the band which acts as an innocent garage-punk prayer rather than something to excite audiences on the national pub circuit.

Ash would obviously go from strength to strength from this point, gaining benefits from Britpop and continuing into the late nineties as a group who enjoyed a certain degree of popularity among provincial rockers and the kind of skate-punk kids you saw in the local shopping centre every weekend. They remain a going concern to this day, even if their star has waned somewhat in the present decade.

14. 60ft Dolls - Happy Shopper (Townhill)

Unlike most of the bands we've dealt with on this entry, at least one member of 60ft Dolls had something of a significant previous history. Lead singer Richard Parfitt had previously been involved in the eighties mod group The Truth as their bass player, and had even had a prominent stint in the largely unknown Welsh mod group The Colours. The latter had a ripping and largely unknown single out in 1983 called "The Dance", which can be heard over at my "Left and to the Back" blog.

Whereas The Colours and The Truth tended to have a bit of a swing about their work, 60ft Dolls tended to favour a rough, tearing aggression, and that can clearly be heard in "Happy Shopper". It junks anything approaching a groove overboard and instead sounds like a furious, murky hybrid of NWONW and grunge ideas.  Whereas 60ft Dolls would release some great singles - "Alison's Room" and "Stay" among them - "Happy Shopper" is unfortunately a track that, to me at least, is a giant tantrum which comes and goes without leaving any major impression. Doubtless this sounded wonderful live, and as a single it has energy to spare but no real stand-out hooks or defining characteristics.

15. Bandit Queen - Give It To The Dog (Playtime)

Bandit Queen were formed in 1992 by vocalist Tracy Godding, who had previously been a member of the almost entirely forgotten early nineties baggy group Swirl (who, for what it's worth, featured on another Beechwood indie compilation "Forever Changing", but never found a place in this series).

Despite their presence on the roster of the relatively low-key and cash-strapped Playtime label, Bandit Queen clearly had the budget to swamp regional music journalists with promo records and CDs of their work and also tended to feature in numerous fanzines throughout this era. Mainstream music press appreciation was harder to come by, however, and the group seemed to forever be "bubbling under" - the subject of many brief live reviews but no interview spreads.

"Give It To The Dog" is a walloping piece of fat, distorted, heavy riffola which owes slightly more to the American underground than the dominant trends of 1995, though, and it's possibly not surprising they failed to find a way through. For all that, it's an interesting listen and Godding's vocals have a compelling force of personality, giving the track an edge it might otherwise have lacked.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Volume 21 Tracks 6-10 - Radiohead, AC Acoustics, Spiritualized, Suede, Ride

6. Radiohead - My Iron Lung (Parlophone)

Acting as the first single from the legendary "The Bends", it would be tempting to revise history and suggest that "My Iron Lung" was a hotly anticipated and much loved single on its release. In fact, the reception it received got Thom Yorke's goat so much that he could barely contain his contempt for music critics during promotional duties. In one audio interview I was sent by a PR company to promote the single's release, Yorke was asked "It is quite similar to 'Creep' isn't it?"
"Yes!" Yorke is heard to splutter sarcastically. "It has guitars and drums on it! It's exactly like 'Creep'!" (you have to wonder why he gave everyone bait by including the sneering lyrics "This is our new song/ just like our last one/ a total waste of time" then).
Elsewhere, he sneers about how all the music magazines are basically "comics" who changed their minds on a weekly basis as to whether Radiohead were any good or not.

Throughout the interview - sent out to regional journalists for promotional purposes so they could grab key soundbites to publish, unbelievably - there's no sign whatsoever that Yorke thinks they're about to release their pivotal LP. It's a faintly detached and vinegary sounding interview which just makes the group sound like a pile of rank outsiders, or worse still, a group of privileged EMI signed Oxford boys who dearly wished to be as credible as an American underground combo like Dinosaur Jr.

I don't think many people thought much more than "Oh" when the single finally emerged. It's a piece of claustrophobic angst which could quite easily have fitted on to "Pablo Honey" without any issues, sounding more like a continuation of their bitter peans on that LP. Only the rough, very underground sounding discordant guitar riffs which emerge throughout sound like something a bit more daring might be stirring in the group's ranks. It doesn't even have an arty, expensive looking promotional video as their later singles all would.

When it was finally released in March 1995, "The Bends" was a slow-burning album, spending one week at number 6 before crashing out of the top ten and then spending weeks on end bobbing up and down the Top 75. It took over a year to re-enter the top ten again, and the first few singles weren't hailed much outside their fanbase. By the time "Street Spirit" was issued in February 1996 and went straight in at number five, however, a watershed moment occurred, and the group were suddenly being hailed as "the next U2" (though somewhat interestingly, The Bluetones entered the charts above them at number two in the same week and were hailed as "the next Stone Roses". 1996 was obviously, if nothing else, a big year for predicted next big things). If you weren't paying very close attention, the fact they had become huge emerged on you in a moment of shock.

While it's been rather over-exposed and heavily imitated in the years since, there's little doubt that "The Bends" was a masterstroke, and that's understating the case by some margin. "My Iron Lung" is possibly one of the weakest tracks on the album, and a strange choice for the first single. The only thing that can possibly be argued in its favour is that it sounds like a continuation of their previous ideas, a bridge between the old and new, and therefore less of a jarring prospect than "Just", "High And Dry" or "Fake Plastic Trees" might have proven to be.

7. AC Acoustics - Hand Passes Plenty (Elemental)

Glaswegians AC Acoustics initially emerged as underground dinmakers, before easing off a little to produce more intricate sounds which surprised listeners with their considered and slightly experimental nature rather than jolting them.

"Hand Passes Plenty" is a particularly mellow excursion into their mid-nineties catalogue, hanging for so long on a central acoustic riff that it feels impossible to believe it will ever progress. It does, however, eventually finding unexpected sliproads off its main route to get distracted by. It's a single that feels strange and otherworldly without actually doing anything terribly unusual, seeming to jab you in the shoulders with faintly absurd diversions just when you feel you've settled into the womb-like environment it initially offers.

AC Acoustics would continue until 2003 before splitting up, proving themselves to be a durable cult band on the way, but one who were too esoteric to become successful, even in the particularly forgiving mid-nineties.

8. Spirtualized Electric Mainline - Let It Flow (Dedicated)

"Let It Flow" indicated that Spirtualized were blossoming into something far beyond their basic psychedelic roots. Their previous "Electric Mainline" EP left you in little doubt about that, of course, with its four tracks managing to sprawl from lush, rich psychedelia to minimal electronic ambience. This, however, felt like a more powerful hint to their future direction.

"Let It Flow" absorbs primitive electronica, gospel, the excesses of seventies rock, and the angst of mid-nineties indie to create something which is a surprisingly rich tapestry given its very minimal melodies. Hypnotic and shimmering, just as you think you've got the hang of its direction, it taunts you with another element.

The group's rise from cult act to the late nineties go-to group for spliffheads everywhere was so slow and steady that by 1997, it just seemed as if everyone living in a houseshare with three other people, a cat, a light fog of smoke and the perma-whiff of oven-ready pizza had always been listening to them. Never favourites for daytime radio play at any point in their careers, Spiritualized built on their initial post-Spacemen 3 cult following steadily, building on their ideas from one LP to the next until eventually, hardly anyone seemed to be able to ignore them.

9. Suede - The Wild Ones (Nude)

Do my eyes deceive me, or has a bona-fide Suede A-side managed to find its way on to an "Indie Top 20" compilation? And not just any A-side at that, but one of their finest.

One of the most frustrating things about Suede's post-debut album state possibly isn't that it lead to the loss of Bernard Butler, but the strange manner in which they deigned to grace us with their presence again, damning everything with awkwardness. "Dog Man Star" may not have been an album with many obvious singles on it, but the psychotic glam howling of "We Are The Pigs", with its "Peter Gunn" styled horn section and chorus of "We are the pigs/ we are the swine" was an enormous and vaguely unsatisfactory red herring. In my mind I've always had an alternative version of events, which saw them return with "The Wild Ones" as their comeback single, managing to release something that not only appealed to their fanbase but to a much broader audience in the process. I frequently fantasise that it would have changed everything.

Brett Anderson's voice nearly shakes the room when it introduces itself here, sounding like he's auditioning for a new stage musical about the lives of the Righteous Brothers. From there, the track builds, keeping many of the usual Suede lyrical cliches intact but knotting them together with something altogether more relatable and straightforward - the story of a departing lover. "The Wild Ones" is eerie and spine tingling, with faint callbacks to songs such as "Johnny Remember Me" in its bones (is it a coincidence that Anderson is wandering around on the moors in the promotional video? Or that I know at least one person who seems to think the song itself is somehow about death?) but also an astonishingly perfect piece of songwriting. The first time I heard it, I was immediately convinced that it's entire melody must have been stolen from somewhere else, because there was something so familiar about it, something that seemed buried deep within my subconscious - but there are no obvious comparisons. The song's themes, pace and even production echo back to classic ballads from previous decades, but the track itself has its own distinct feel and melody.

"The Wild Ones", while being a song entirely about a love affair that might have been, is also one of the most frustrating non top ten hits I can think of, and begs many "if onlys" itself. Brett Anderson was apparently sorely disappointed with its commercial performance, and out of everything in their catalogue, it's surely the single most due a film soundtrack opportunity to bring it back into the public eye. It's too glorious to go to waste.

10. Ride - I Don't Know Where It Comes From (Creation)

"I Don't Know Where It Comes From" enters seeing Ride sounding like some kind of early seventies studio group, marrying a jangly sixties melody to a distinctly polished, almost bubblegum arrangement. Initially, it's hard not to get the urge to put the theme from "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads" or an Edison Lighthouse single on instead.

Eventually though, the song builds itself up into a slightly chilled and folksy pop affair, having a breeziness to its arrangement a lot of Ride singles completely lacked. Of course, had this been a debut single by a new group, it's completely impossible to imagine it attracting any attention at all, and by this point there was a sense that Ride were coasting on their previous glories. Nonetheless, the sunshine bursting through the track, despite the gloomy lyrical conceits, does make it likeable.

By this point, the group were on their last legs and bickering about their creative direction. Their final album "Tarantula" would be tossed off in 1996 and widely regarded as one of the biggest disappointments of the decade, to the extent that no member of the band can be bothered to defend it to this day. Their 2017 comeback has provided them with a golden opportunity to put things straight.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Volume 21 - Tracks 1-5 - Oasis, Sleeper, Echobelly, Cracker, Perfume

Formats: CD, Cassette
Year of Release: 1995

Well, here we are, slap bang in the middle of the nineties. I almost thought we'd never get here. Let's take a look around and breathe the air, shall we? It does all look a bit different, feel a bit different. John Major is still the Prime Minister, but the Conservative Party's hold seems shaky to say the least, and by '95 Labour were a rapidly rising political force. A mere two years ago, people had been talking about the far right starting to worm their way into British politics, now a bigger question mark hung over whether a stale, confused, beleaguered right wing could actually hang in there at all.

In turn, Britpop was now no longer a fantasy belonging to Select magazine journalists, but a commercial reality. The so-called losers of British music, the fey indie kids with floppy fringes, were now a dominant force. EMI, Phonogram, Warners and others had their pens poised over many a freshly printed contract for indie bands they passed over a mere few years before (Stephen Jones of Babybird frequently talked about his old rejection letters with relish, noting A&R reps who once rudely snapped "Write a middle eight, and we'll think about it, and even then probably only think about it". Many were now begging him to sign on the dotted line).

But hold on, look again. There's a little sour-faced cynic barking from the back who wants to say something to us. There's always one, isn't there? It's not Luke Haines this time, though. What's... what's that the little squirt is saying? His voice seems so thin, pathetic and reedy. Oh, typical. He's saying that Tony Blair is actually a very centrist politician with some particularly lukewarm ideas, and he's not going to transform Britain, just tinker a bit around the edges. His next words are almost drowned out by booing from the Labour supporters, who are shouting that we have to let Labour into power without questioning any of their ideas at this crucial stage, and shutting up would be the best course of action, as Tony Blair is actually playing a complicated game of political chess and none of the more right-wing things he's said are going to be Labour policy will actually become Government policy in practice. Right on. Oh, hang on... he's also trying to say that Britpop is also a chimera, a watered down version of the original ideas behind indiepop in 1986, and that if we allow it to go too far, it will become one big Union Jack waving wankfest filled with anthemic laddish songs and not one ounce of outsiderdom or oddness. His voice raises. "Do you actually want to be barged out of the way on the dancefloor while the rugby boys dance to Pulp's Common People?" he asks. The boos get deafening.

Take a step back. Tap your heels together several times. Breathe again. We're back in 2017. We've cut away from the bit where I approach the man in question, laugh at him, and tell him to be quiet about Blair and Britpop, both of which are unquestionably good things. I find that too embarrassing and not at all in keeping with my present personality and beliefs.

In truth, though, I did find 1995 to be a period of almost overpowering optimism. It was a fantastic time to be young, and to feel that a lot of the ideas you had spent your short adult life arguing on behalf of were finally starting to seem relevant. Not just politically, but also musically too. It's only as a grown man with years of bitter experience behind me that I realise that actually, things weren't quite as they seemed, and the celebratory party was going to be rather brief. Ignoring mid-nineties politics completely, which is an incredibly complicated argument to have (though did have an impact on music and culture in general) Britpop itself could often be rather dull and formulaic in places, especially by the time we got to 1996, and it was often the material that got caught in its slipstream that tended to be most interesting. In a similar manner to how anything weird and wonderful tended to get signed to bemused major labels in the late sixties, so the mid-nineties saw all manner of unexpected candidates get major deals. I interviewed Euros Childs of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci in early 1995, and tried to suggest they'd be with a major label within the year. I was told not to be ridiculous. A year later, they were (it didn't really work out, but to be fair, I didn't actually predict that it would).

At the commercial peaks, there were also several names who really mattered. Blur were frequently fantastic. Pulp were spellbinding. Oasis were damn good. New names were emerging, such as Supergrass, who were clearly also going to be around for a long time. In many respects, we had won the argument. And the indie charts... well, we all watched them avidly when they turned up on "The Chart Show" on Saturday mornings as always, but we weren't necessarily asking whether Oasis had got to number one in the indie chart. We wanted to know if they had gone top ten in the national charts.

The "Indie Top 20" series was beginning to lose its grip at this point. Phonogram were on the verge of launching the "Shine" series, featuring a ton of alternative artists the "Indie Top 20" series both was including and couldn't really afford to include, and it retailed at a lower price. EMI were about to launch the "Greatest Album In The World... Ever!" series for a similar purpose. Beechwood were being squeezed out of the picture. They had to compete, but how could they?

We're drawing close to the end now. Sometimes the cost of winning the argument is that everyone else with more money and power runs away enthusiastically with your ideas, and you no longer have a vital place left in the debate.

1. Oasis - Live Forever (Creation)

If anyone had any doubts about Oasis's abilities, they were utterly swept to one side by the time "Live Forever" emerged. It was the first sign that Noel Gallagher did far more than write attitude-drenched pieces of indie rifflola like "Supersonic" or "Shakermaker", and could actually write anthems.

The track opens with the metronomic clicking of Tony McCarroll's incredibly simplistic drumming, which ill prepares you for the mountain the track itself is going to scale. The guitars chime in, and Liam's voice hollers out, defiant. So far, it sounds like an incredibly good Las track with a mid-sixties backbeat, but also powerful, aware of its scruffy post-punk place.

Then the chorus arrives, and suddenly you're swept along on blissful ideas which wouldn't have been out of place on a Stone Roses or Paris Angels track back in 1989 or 1990. It's both ridiculously cocksure and yet slightly aware that its central focus is hope, not telling the listener things as they truly are. When Liam delivers the line "Baby, I just want to fly/ Wanna live I don't wanna die", he clearly knew Noel wasn't battling with Leonard Cohen for finely crafted lyrical ideas. But if you listen closely, there's a keenly different pronunciation of the word "die" to the rest of the words - it's almost spat out in disgust. Then, as the song surges forward, it changes key and tone completely towards the final minute and sounds less hopeful, as if each line actually has a question mark on the end. "We're gonna live forever?" asks Liam.

I know. I'm reading a colossal amount into a popular Oasis song, which you're not supposed to do. But the way the song is constructed is very canny and clever. It's not just a simple anthem, it also moves forwards, and melodically seems to encompass a wide range of emotions. Nobody actually believes they're going to live forever. It's a feeling you get a few times in your life, when a moment seems so astonishing that absolutely anything seems as if it could be possible, including your own immortality. But moments have to fade. The peaks in life either continue and become the new normal, with their own unique trials and tribulations or previously unforeseen pitfalls, or they fade away. The final descending chords always make me feel as if "Live Forever" is crashing back down to earth in a way that a track like Echobelly's "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" wouldn't dare or bother to do.

I spent the summer of 1994 working in a data entry job, typing people's names and addresses into a bank's marketing spreadsheet for seven hours a day. "Live Forever" may have only got to number ten in the charts - which seems ridiculous in retrospect - but I knew Oasis were more than just the next Suede in commercial terms when everyone in the office yelled "Oasis are on Radio One now!" whenever the track got played. People rustled in their bags for their portable radios and headphones. Something was changing. Everyone was starting to listen now.

We won't meet Oasis again on this blog, but summarising the rest of their career here seems a bit pointless. You already know what comes next.

2. Sleeper - Inbetweener (Indolent)

Sleeper's first proper hit single was also a very predictable event, with some music journalists, such as Caitlin Moran, going as far as to call it a piece of classic British songwriting to be reckoned with alongside any of the greats you care to name. Uh-huh.

As discussed on Volume 20, Sleeper's move to more commercial waters was blameless but slightly cynical nonetheless. Sensing the axe hanging over their careers if they couldn't write at least a couple of bona-fide hits, Wener began crafting the catchiest riffs and melodies possible to ensure she wouldn't end up back on the scrapheap. "Inbetweener" is, it has to be said, proof that she could pull it off, but it's far from their finest hour.

A bit like Blur's "Parklife", the verses all have a jogging, matter-of-fact pace to them, like a person humming their way through a to-do list, but unlike "Parklife" it lacks wit or absurdity. "She's shopping for kicks, got the weekend to get through/ keeping the rain off her Saturday hairdo" it begins, setting the tone for the rest of the song. Throughout, we are heavily signposted towards a woman who is merely making do with things - most certainly her present boyfriend, and probably other aspects of her life as well. The chorus is like a nagging friend staging an intervention, and is much more epic in its style. "What kind of A to Z would get you here?" it asks. It's clear we're at a turning point in the unfortunate person's life, and "Inbetweener" acts as a soundtrack to that halfway house, the chiming chorus of common sense bursting through the humdrum verses. The trouble is, I find the verses quite irritating, very middling, matter-of-fact and la-di-da. They make their flat, weary emotionally exhausted point, but once that's sunk in (after the first listen) they seem increasingly as if they're marking time, acting as blank little incidental buffers between the chorus's burst of sunshine.

Wener's views on the grey dullness of suburban life were also coloured by her childhood experiences of growing up in Gants Hill... which is where I'm typing this blog entry right now. I was born in the same hospital as Louise Wener, and due to various differing paths in our life stories, I didn't end up having pop success and moving to Crouch End (though to be fair, she deserves it more than me). Gants Hill forms part of Ilford, a strange area which can't quite make up its mind what it wants to be. A local newspaper recently conducted a poll to ask whether residents believed they lived in London or Essex. The results were almost 50/50. As you walk around, you can see that contradiction everywhere - it's tremendously ethnically diverse (unlike, say, Canvey Island or Clacton) and urban looking. Then you pass a neon-advertised karaoke night, and a bar boasting of "Eighties sounds tonight!" and feel as if you're way out of the city and close to the coast. It's a complex and frequently absurd area, with its own peculiarities, conflicts and eccentricities - another ex-resident Simon Amstell nailed some aspects of those more effectively on "Grandma's House", a series which was littered with in-jokes. You can only consider Ilford outright dull if you're looking out for glamour, famous people or movers and shakers. They're about twenty minutes up the Central line, which is no distance whatsoever (although I appreciate that psychologically it may feel like a hundred miles away).

Damon Albarn also grew up in Essex, and was another keen supporter of the "life of the dull commuter town nobody" narrative. Problematically, I happen to think that striving to better yourself and rise above the herd rather than work with your given community is a very Essex idea and aspiration in itself, in whatever form it takes. The area is littered with working class and lower middle class people who grabbed the opportunities afforded to them in the seventies and eighties and flew with them, looking over their shoulders and laughing at their old school friends as they left. The financial districts of Central London are littered with such people to whom the scoffing insult "Losers!" has become acceptable conduct. By writing sketchy lyrics about the "little people" from a loftier, more enlightened perspective, it could be argued that some Britpop stars were actually doing exactly the same as their old curtain-twitching neighbours who felt "rather sorry for Angela at number 26, in her scruffy dress going to a job she really hates". I feel closer culturally to Wener and Albarn than probably any other pop stars of this era, and yet there are moments when both make me feel uncomfortable. They remind me of the worst bits of my own personality I had when I was much younger. This may not be your problem, but there's a strong chance it stops me from enjoying some of their work as much as I should.

I have much less of a problem with Jarvis Cocker's observational lyrics, perhaps partly because he was much less close to home geographically speaking, and also partly because he genuinely, passionately rooted for the people he wrote about. His voice used to yelp and crack in protest about their missed opportunities, pitting them against a society that had ill-treated them. "Inbetweener", by comparison, wears a smile on its face and has the emotional pull of a short "real life" piece for a weekly gossip magazine. You get the impression Wener doesn't like anybody in the song much at all - they're primarily described by their failings ("he's nothing special/ she's not too smart") and the take-home message seems to be "Thank God tonight it's them instead of you". It's a catchy pop song, but nobody can accuse it of having a great deal of warmth.

3. Echobelly - Close.... But (Fauve)

"Close.... But" is a downright strange little single, in that it actually has a very jerky, almost XTC-esque rhythm pattern behind it, and manages some very unexpected frills, jolts, twists and changes. All the way through, Sonya's voice hiccups, hollers, sighs, soars and generally performs gymnastics worthy of a slightly more subdued Kate Bush.

As I've typed all that, I've realised something that doesn't make sense. Despite all the above, the song doesn't once manage to sound like anything other than a fleeting, inoffensive noise. It somehow disguises its oddness through its well-produced, mid tempo pace, and slips through the net as a daytime radio possibility rather than an evening radio certainty. All this would be fine if, while doing so, it didn't also end up sounding slightly unremarkable and unmemorable. If there's a hook or a compelling reason to put this on again, I really can't find it. Pass.

As it turned out, most of the public passed on this as well, and it didn't manage to come even close to charting within the Top 40.

4. Cracker - Low (Virgin)

Cracker were briefly enormous news in the USA, and this single had a strong cult following both over here and there. It's a brooding piece of epic alternative rock, with noodling, angsty chords and biting vocals. Unlike Smashing Pumpkins or Stone Temple Pilots, it stops itself short of histrionics and gets right to the point, which acts very much in its favour. This track has a bite to it, and a memorable hook - I was amazed to find myself humming along to it almost immediately after the first note, despite not having heard it for years.

Unfortunately, it remains the song Cracker are most known for, and they didn't manage to write follow-ups which had the same impact. They remain an active cult group in the USA, but their work had never had the light of the mainstream shining on it since.

5. Perfume - Lover (Aroma Sound)

Leicester's Perfume were one of those rare Britpop era groups who managed a degree of press acclaim and daytime radio airplay, and yet somehow still managed not to peek over the wall of the Top 40. Their biggest single, the much played "Haven't Seen You", had to settle for a number 71 chart place.

Much more than that raucous track, "Lover" sounds as if it should have found more widespread public appreciation. Filled with swooping, wailing vocals and a continually evolving melody, it's almost a little bit too perfect for its own good, sounding somewhat close to an early eighties construction from a psychedelic post-punk group like Wild Swans or an indie-fied piece of Eastern European rock, rather than a simple, joyous pop sound. It's possibly for this reason that it failed, acting as far too much for the time-pressed punter to take in. It was remixed and reissued in 1997 with a string section, which I actually prefer (though their fans tend to be quite sharply dismissive of it). It still achieved nothing, though.

Perfume wouldn't appear on another "Indie Top 20" album, but Universal Records saw fit to include them on the "Britpop Story" three CD set when it was issued in 2009, proving that someone, somewhere still remembered the fact that they partly soundtracked the era, even if their sales statistics were unimpressive compared to many of their peers.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Indie Top 20 Vol 20 - Stereolab, Drugstore, Cranes, Pale Saints, Frente!

16. Stereolab - Ping Pong (Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks)

It's somewhat absurd yet fitting that Stereolab's most known single is a chirpy paean to the flaws of capitalism. To a series of almost easy listening organ chords and a skippy melody, Laetitia sings observations such as "It's alright 'cause the historical pattern has shown/ How the economical cycle tends to revolve/ In a round of decades three stages stand out in a loop/ A slump and war then peel back to square one and back for more". It's like a melody from "The Sound of Music" retooled to teach the kids about Marxist principles.

I have to confess that despite its ubiquity (certainly compared to other Stereolab tunes, anyway) it's not my favourite piece of work of theirs. Whereas other singles they issued were often pieces of sprawling minimalism with subtle details emerging listen after listen, the first impressions you get from "Ping Pong" are really all there is. That said, as a piece of subversive political pop, it's a deeply sarcastic and scathing piece of work, slowly burrowing Marxist earworms into the brains of innocent teens and children everywhere.

17. Drugstore - Starcrossed (Honey)

Drugstore were an astonishing live band I frequently caught live during this period. They were fronted by the strangely spacey, starry, charismatic singer Isabel Monteiro, who on one occasion mopped tears from her eyes while the audience applauded, and I wasn't entirely sure if she was joking for effect or not.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Drugstore's music was frequently slow, woozy and delicate, but her vocals ensured that every song packed an enormous punch too. "Starcrossed" is filled to the brim with fuzzy guitars, stripped back drum patterns, then topped off marvellously by her dreamy yet somehow piercing voice. On vinyl the intimate, emotional pull of what they managed to achieve as a live band could occasionally be lost, and I don't think this track is any exception - but it still feels like being smothered by a beautiful, soft sonic duvet. Albeit one whose colour scheme possibly makes your eyes go a bit funny.

Isabel relocated to her home country Brazil in early 2015, effectively finishing the band, who had otherwise remained a going concern until that point. However, she remains active as a singer and musician over there.

18. Cranes - Shining Road (Dedicated)

Portsmouth's finest returned with something which was as close as the group came to sounding full of beans. Filled with fuzzed up guitar lines and galloping rhythms, "Shining Road" sure as hell isn't Britpop, but it's closer to pop than the band usually stepped. The faint sense of unease that usually seeps through the band's music overpowering any other intentions is also gone, replaced by something almost optimistic.

Not quite, though. Alison Shaw's parting lines, after singing about seeking out bright city lights and travel, are "And is it all because of you?/ Every time I look at you/ If I look back never mind/ Just don't worry, I'll be fine". I lived in Australia for a year myself - leading the "blogosphere" to get very confused when I first launched "Left and to the Back" and assume I was Australian - and the people I met on the way were mostly a joyous bundle of drunken energy, but there were always a few who didn't like the question "What made you decide to come here?" I nearly caused a woman I met to burst into tears when I asked this innocent question, and after that, never asked anyone again.

The road is frequently a very tempting and, in the modern world, simple response to disappointment, mourning or heartache, the "shining" alternative to dealing with the immediate mess around you. In the novel "Billy Liar", the main character is warned by his mother "You can't run away from your problems, you know. You just pack them into your suitcase and take them with you". In the end, he chooses not to take that way out, although he has very little to lose. "Shining Road", though, is one of the few tracks I can think of that genuinely spells out the doubt and personal anguish behind that route taken and the dazzling fantasy of a relocated city life.


19. Pale Saints - Fine Friend (4AD)

Pale Saints purists tend to reject this era of the group as being almost an irrelevance. The original lead singer Ian Masters had upped sticks, and Meriel Barnham was now fully in the spotlight. Gone were Ian's frail choirboy vocals, and Meriel replaced them with something richer and more self-assured. 

Not only did this did have an impact on the group's sound, but the psychedelia of their previous work had now been largely replaced by a much moodier, more organic sound. It hasn't escaped the ears of many listeners just how similar "Fine Friend" is melodically and stylistically to Mazzy Star's "Fade Into You", and that really can't be disputed. This sounds like the work of a group who had absorbed a lot of new influences and undergone a total reinvention.

Much as I do find this single genuinely haunting and beautiful, and perhaps unfairly overlooked as a result of the purists, I can't say that I prefer it to their earliest work. It's not surprising that they disintegrated not long afterwards, having moved on to something which failed to ignite the imaginations of most critics or indeed fans, nor resulted in any improved commercial standing. 

20. Frente! - Bizarre Love Triangle (Mushroom)

Australia has always been filled to the brim with groups who have managed to make enormous waves in their home country and in New Zealand, but failed to create much of an impact further afield. Some are truly wondrous - the situationism and satire of TISM (aka This Is Serious, Mum) doesn't always translate easily to British shores, but is hilarious and effective. Then there's the likes of Master's Apprentices and their sixties/ seventies blues rock, or er, Lubricated Goat who released the album "People With Chairs Up Their Noses".

Anyway, Frente were something of an alternative folk-pop sensation in Australia in the nineties, producing one platinum LP over there in the form of "Marvin The Album" in 1992. We British were first introduced to them via the wonders of the soap opera "Home And Away", where they seemed to be crowbarred into the script for weeks on end, with endless declarations of "Heeeeey, are you guys going to see Frente toniiight?" while their latest single also played on the Summer Bay cafe radio, just to really hammer the point home about how hip and happening they were. 

Asides from snatches of music on "Home And Away" and a guest appearance, most people in this country didn't really pay the group much heed until they issued this skeletal, quickie cover of New Order's single. It's brief, sweet and a pleasant listen, but really no more than that. Clearly not everyone agrees with me, however, as it reached number 76 in the UK charts and number 49 in the US Billboard Hot 100, a truly astonishing achievement for such a niche idea. 

In retrospect, it's entirely possible to look at this cover of "Bizarre Love Triangle" and see it as pre-empting the acoustic or ukulele inflected covers which have saturated television advertising in the last 5-10 years. It's a very similar approach - take a known, credible track and turn it into something homespun and folksy with sweet, heartfelt vocals on top. Sadly for Frente, nobody wins any prizes in pop for being the first through the thicket, and the track didn't even break through in a significant way in their home country, remaining a fringe concern for sad indie kids. 

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Volume 20 Tracks 11-16 - Pop Will Eat Itself, Ride, Sugar, Velvet Crush, Sleeper

11. Pop Will Eat Itself - Everything's Cool (Infectious)

There's a rumbling noise emerging... could it be a spot of distant thunder? No, it turns out it's just another one of Pop Will Eat Itself's late singles playing loudly on your middle-aged pink-haired neighbour's stereo. The group had begun their careers on Volume One of this series as a trashy, slapdash Grebo outfit with songs that sounded as if they'd been recorded on a budget of fifty pounds, then became a slightly lumpen indie/dance/hip-hop hybrid nobody took that seriously, then had slowly worked their way towards some minor, but nonetheless noticeable, underground credibility.

"Everything's Cool" is one part tribal rhythms and world music samples - so the placing next to Transglobal Underground on the tracklisting does make some sense - one part gut-churning, buzzsaw racket. Its predictions of a dystopian, riot-riddled future seemed faintly quaint and sci-fi in 1994, as if Clint Mansell had become an eccentric "The End Is Nigh" self-delcared prophet, but as I'm sat here listening again now, I'm slightly chilled by the record. PWEI were never lyrical geniuses as such, but what if this record and "Ich Bin Ein Auslander" proved they knew all along? We would be forced to re-write rock history before humankind's inevitable bedtime; PWEI 1, Morrissey 0.

Musically, parts of "Everything's Cool" sound slightly dated in their industrial churn and grind now, but the track still pins you to the floor by force. They were far, far better at this kind of caper than they were given credit for at the time, and while they quit the music industry on a creative high, it's a pity most people tend to remember the rather less interesting earlier material instead.

12. Ride - How Does It Feel To Feel (Creation)

This was the first time Ride had ever featured on "Indie Top 20", choosing instead to gallivant around on any number of major label "alternative rock" compilations like "Happy Daze". Sadly, while the group had produced a number of astonishing singles prior to this, "How Does It Feel To Feel" is just an unnecessary record.

The pop-art/ mod group The Creation (who Creation Records were named after) first issued this track in 1967, and two versions emerged. The UK single was a piece of relatively clean mod riffola, which fell on to the release schedules at least two years past the point where such things had become yesterday's news. The US single, on the other hand, was a searing mix of feedback, guitar abuse (the group used to occasionally play electric guitars with a violin bow to a discordant and noisy effect) and fizzing psychedelia. That version is one of the finest singles to emerge in the sixties, during a period where it wasn't exactly bereft of competition.

Ride seem to take the blueprint of the UK single for their cover version, and manage to produce something that sounds as good as neither the sanitised issue nor the towering US release. Really, it's a slice of pub rock which would have been better utilised as a B-side, if at all. The only good thing that could possibly be said about it is that it might have caused more listeners to investigate the original version. Let's not waste any more time thinking about it.

13. Sugar - Your Favourite Thing (Creation)

"Your Favourite Thing" is a surprisingly bright blast of rock music from Sugar, who prior to this point had been more popularly renowned for the darker, more frantic efforts. While the response to their debut two LPs had been ecstatic in the UK, by this point they were beginning to lose a bit of momentum, and no amount of sunshine was going to change things.

Sugar broke up not long after the third LP "File Under: Easy Listening" was released, and it's possible that the ongoing shifts and changes in musical tastes in this country caused Bob Mould to fall back underground, and he's one of the least deserved casualties if that's so. "Your Favourite Thing" proves that beneath the grease and grime of the average Sugar 45 lay a skilled songwriter with years of experience who could turn his hand easily to all manner of moods.

14. Velvet Crush - Hold Me Up (Creation)

Velvet Crush were a peculiar anomaly in alternative US rock, having had records released by the quintessentially English Sarah Records in the UK in an early incarnation as The Springfields. Eventually, the core members Paul Chastain and Rik Menck developed a power-pop sound and emerged as Velvet Crush. A cover of Teenage Fanclub's "Everything Flows" caught the ears of Alan McGee, and they ended up on Creation Records.

Sadly, despite their association with arguably the UK's most watched independent label at this point, their records didn't sell in huge numbers, and their 1994 LP "Teenage Symphonies To God" was their last for them.

"Hold Me Up" is bright and breezy, but given the sheer volume of competition from other groups making similar noises at this point (does anyone want to produce a definitive "early nineties Big Star inspired power-pop" compilation?) it's possibly not that surprising that it didn't break through. The UK press were strangely indifferent to the group too, not granting them the same amount of enthusiastic column inches they would for their labelmates. Nonetheless, they had enough of a cult global following to carry on in one form or another until 2004.

15. Sleeper - Delicious (Indolent)

Hard to fathom it now, but when Sleeper first emerged they were actually a rather spiky, jabbing little proposition of a band, their energy and drive matching the force of Louise Wener's softly spoken sarcastic observations in the British music press.

By her own confession, Wener's fear of the group being dropped and sinking into oblivion fired her resolve to start writing good old fashioned songs the milkman could whistle, and "Delicious" is probably the last example of the group sounding like they truly belonged in session on the John Peel show. At this point, a slight pop sensibility is coming into play, but it's an absolutely fantastic record for all that, which has hardly been on the radio since due to its lyrical content and the fact that it fits nobody's popular preconceptions about the band.

Three minutes of celebration about the joys of sex, "Delicious" is less graphic than it sounds - half the sauce is actually in the vocal delivery - and contains a line which according to Wener has frequently been misinterpreted. It should not be written or heard as "We should both go to bed until we make each other raw", but "We should both go to bed until we make each other roar". No, I don't believe her either. Still, "Delicious" is an exhilarating pop-punk rush about the drunken bump and grind of millions of lustful Saturday night drinkers everywhere, and uncannily manages to simulate the rush of desires and the - er - slightly dazed post-come comedown through its delivery.  It somehow also manages to be witty rather than trashy in the process.

It peaked in the British charts at number 75, with a lack of airplay possibilities perhaps restricting its success. It did, however, create enough gasps among the "chattering classes" at IPC to improve the group's standing in the media, building a higher platform for them to drop their poppier efforts from in future. As for the rest of us, we probably wouldn't hear a record like this again until Ida Maria's similarly rushing, exhilarating "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked" in 2008 - and even that didn't quite match it.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Volume 20 Tracks 6-10 - Gene, Inspiral Carpets, Mark E Smith, The Charlatans, Boo Radleys, Transglobal Underground

6. Gene - Be My Guide, Be My Light (Deceptive)

Gene last featured on volume ten of "Indie Top 20", peculiarly enough, albeit in their Martin Rossiter-less guise of Sp!n. If that group had an edge to them, Rossiter brought along the melodrama, and while Gene were often compared to The Smiths or Morrissey, the force of their instrumental delivery was occasionally more akin to sixties mod groups or even 70s pub rock bands.

"Be My Guide, Be My Light" doesn't particularly highlight that diversity in their sound, with Rossiter's hollering, woebegone vocals taking centre stage and the band trailing along behind, but it was the first single of theirs to chart within the UK Top 75, and became something of a favoured anthem at gigs from that point forward.

While the group were quickly lumped in with Britpop, there was a clear lyrical sensitivity to their work which certainly didn't bear comparisons with Oasis or Northern Uproar. "Be My Guide, Be My Light" appears to be about an evening's worth of drunken shenanigans, though, which doesn't do a great deal to back up my claim - but there's plenty of alternative evidence available.

7. Inspiral Carpets featuring Mark E Smith - I Want You (Mute)

If absolutely nothing else, "I Want You" is the song responsible for putting Mark E Smith on "Top of the Pops". His somewhat wayward performance resulted in Tom Hingley desperately trying to get him back on track lyrically, side-eyeing him in increasing desperation while Smith ambled around the stage plucking lyrical phrases from the track at random. "Right, OK... thank you boys", said a perplexed and typically dry Simon Mayo at the end, and the paths of Smith and BBC TV prime-time would never cross again. Frankly, it was somewhat miraculous that they ever did.

"I Want You" is also an absolutely rip-roaring track, sounding for all the world like The Fall at their most frantic featuring Tom Hingley of the Inspiral Carpets on guest vocals. It somewhat proves Smith's point that "if it's me and your granny on bongos, it's The Fall". It starts as it means to carry on with an enormous ramshackle juggernaut riff, then rallies along, incorporating some quality Smith-isms on the way. "The Dutch East India Company in the USA of A think they can fool/ with their sincere usury" seems to be about the American independent distribution company who he had clearly experienced difficulties with at some point, though God knows who "lost two stone in weight".

The song sticks doggedly to its chosen path, never really developing or choosing new roads. It's akin to a full-force naive sixties garage track in its approach, in total love with its own noise and poking a finger in the eye at the Inspiral Carpets usual considered tunefulness at this point in their careers. It went on to top the 1994 John Peel Festive Fifty, and no wonder. It also went on to reach number 18 in the UK charts, which was somewhat less expected under the circumstances. In all, it's one of the better tracks either party has been involved with, and it makes you wish they'd actually done a few more things together.

Sadly, this is the last time we'll be discussing The Inspiral Carpets or Mark E Smith on here. The former split up after being dropped by Mute Records, and the latter continued ploughing his way through numerous record labels and dozens of singles and LPs, but was just never featured on the series again.

8. The Charlatans - Jesus Hairdo (Beggars Banquet)

The Charlatans take a musical journey into the bluesy swamps of the American South. Though to be honest, elements of "Jesus Hairdo" sound similar to the theme to the long-forgotten Dave Lee Travis and Craig Charles starring action/quiz show "Go Getters", so perhaps they were actually taking a musical journey to Cheltenham to take a ride on a hot air balloon. Who knows?

"Jesus Hairdo" managed to join Primal Scream at the voodoo punch bowl at around the same time, and while it couldn't have sounded less like The Charlatans at their moody baggy peak, it did do a lot to show that the group were more than just a bunch of floppy-fringed blokes who belonged to another point of the nineties.

For my personal taste, "Jesus Hairdo" is one of the least pleasing Charlatans 45s, though. It's all bluesy jam and no bread, and a slightly odd choice for a single. That it failed to reach the Top 40 wasn't actually hugely surprising.

9. The Boo Radleys - Lazarus (Creation)

"Lazarus" appears on Volume 20 of "Indie Top 20" by dint of its reissue in 1994. This upsets the lineage of our discussions about the Boos somewhat, but it probably makes sense to start at the beginning - when "Lazarus" first emerged in 1992, it felt completely unexpected. While the group had developed their sound in leaps and strides prior to its release, there were elements to the track which had never really achieved such prominence before.

It begins with throbbing, echoing dub reggae noises before they collide into a mounful, surrendering trumpet clarion call, which would repeat itself throughout the track at regular intervals and act as the chorus. "I... I must be losing my mind" sings Sice through a crackly, treble-heavy treated vocal, "I keep on trying to find a way out/ there's no need you don't lock the door anymore". Eventually, the other group members join him, "ba ba baing" their way through his vocals like a Beach Boys tribute band drunk and walking in the wrong direction on the way home from the pub. Psychedelic elements twitter and stir their way in their background, and "Lazarus" becomes an incredibly afraid, lonely, lost  sounding record, but wonderful for it. Like The Factory playing "Path Through The Forest" meeting King Tubby meeting Guy Chadwick meeting The Beach Boys in some kind of ludicrous supergroup who could only exist on the continent known as the imagination, this is not what anyone expected. Oh, and Toni Halliday appeared in the video for reasons which were never completely explained.

That Alan McGee opted to give the single a second chance once their LP "Giant Steps" had become acclaimed isn't that surprising. If he expected a proper hit, though, he'll have been disappointed. "Lazarus" was far too unorthodox and mournful to wow daytime radio listeners, and it was left up to the latecomers and stragglers to support the reissue, along with the Radleys fans who wanted to pick up the remixes on the B-side (the Saint Etienne one is particularly ambient and worthy of investigation).

10. Transglobal Underground - Protean (Nation)

Since the whole "Indie Top 20: House" debacle, the series hadn't really gone out of its way to showcase independent dance music much, obvious exceptions such as A Guy Called Gerald aside. The appearance of Transglobal Underground here is something of a surprise, then, though their fusion of world music styles with dance music did make them a bit more of an IPC journalist's dream than a lot of the club music around in 1994.

"Protean" showcases why Transglobal Underground were so respected by so many different audiences. The different elements of their sound aren't lazily bashed together in the form of tossed-off ethnic samples, but fully incorporated into the work. "Protean" therefore sounds both unique and hypnotic, showcasing the fact that the euphoria surrounding communal, danceable music is a global phenomenon rather than a niche youth consideration. "Protean" twitters and shimmers along, sounding joyous and tranquil at the same time. It's hard to hear quite how it fits in with the rest of this LP, but it's nice to have it here.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Volume 20 Tracks 1-5 - Oasis, Echobelly, Lush, Veruca Salt, Tiny Monroe

Formats: CD/ Cassette
Year of Release: 1994

If Volume 19 seemed to express some of the confusion that existed in a pre-Britpop, post-Grunge liminal period, and filled itself with a big old jumble of styles and sounds, Volume 20 is a clear pointer. In fact, it's probably one of the closest volumes in the series to what the "Shine" or "The Greatest Album In The World... Ever!" series became. At almost every turn there's a pointer towards alternative stars of either middling or stadium-filling potential (though there are admittedly honourable exceptions and a few instances of arguable filler).

The Melody Maker sponsorship has suddenly returned out of nowhere as well, like a long-lost friend. Other versions of this LP with a differently ordered track listing have also apparently emerged, as documented on another very old Indie Top 20 chronicling website (which contains many spoilers if anyone is actually waiting to see what other surprises are in store). I've never seen such a copy myself, and nor does Discogs seem to document them, but if anyone has the rogue version, please let me know.

By the time this came out, I was the music editor of my university's magazine, a role I took far too seriously given that it was a scruffy, poorly designed paper barely anybody actually read (bar the "sportos" looking at the university match reports in the bloated sports section). The more effort I put into it, though, the more guest list places, singles and albums I was sent, meaning that by the time "Volume 20" emerged, my attitude to this series had become "Huh! Tell me something new, Grandad! I've already heard that band's next single!" It's at this point that new "Indie Top 20" releases stopped becoming records I bought within the first couple of weeks of their release, and often left on the record store shelf for months before buying. Of course, had Beechwood sent me any promo copies I'd have happily waxed on about them to the five readers who cared, but they were too thrifty and sensible to bother.

1. Oasis - Supersonic (Creation)

Oh Jesus. Where do I even begin? Track one, straight out of the traps, The Future (for the next few years at least, anyway). And if you think giving a completely new band like Oasis prime spot on this album was an obvious thing to do, I urge you to think again. While some journalists in the mainstream music press were convinced of their status as huge stars, there were plenty of other people who were cautious about their possible chances. The phrase "reheated baggy" was used a lot around Oasis by generally astute people like Justine Frischmann, who told her record label Deceptive not to bother investigating the band.

Her tag isn't necessarily as lazy as it sounds. The general public's first chance to hear the group came with a demo of "Cigarettes and Alcohol" slapped on to the NME cover mount cassette "The Mutha of Creation" in February. It sounded half-arsed and unimpressive, a limp piece of bar-room boogie worthy of any number of unimpressive ageing local bands I'd had the misfortune to watch that year. Liam Gallagher sounds as if he's doing guide vocals - they have no charisma or power behind them, and the trademark punk sneer he later adopted is absent. In retrospect, the fact that Alan McGee felt it was worth showing off to the public seems like a staggering piece of misjudgement. If, as he claimed, he knew he was sitting on the best band in Britain at that time, why the unflattering introduction? Did The Beatles introduce themselves to the world with free give-aways of their failed Decca audition tapes?

Then came a round of hysterically funny press interviews, and then the release of "Supersonic", which was a vast improvement on the "Cigarettes and Alcohol" demo but was (and is) good rather than great, surely? There are moments that sound thrilling - Liam's confident new vocal style, Noel's crashing guitar slides, the sheer bloody swagger of the thing. Still, though, go back to old recordings of bands like The Real People and Bedazzled (in particular!) - the latter of whom were brutally slagged in the music press for having the audacity to emerge at the tail end of baggy - and the sound Oasis finally emerged with was frankly not terribly far off. We may privately chuckle when pesky foreign types get confused about Britpop and place The Stone Roses and other assorted baggy bands into a long timeline in error, but it's an understandable mistake.

Still, while I strongly suspect that "Supersonic" would probably have climbed to number 94 in the charts before buggering off again if it had been released in 1992, it does pack such a punch that you're forced to stop and listen. Oasis did, seemingly within a matter of months, manage to change their sound into something that sounded slightly threatening, powerful and adrenalin-packed.

I was offered a guest list place for their gig at the Portsmouth Wedgwood Rooms, a 350 capacity venue. It probably speaks volumes about my laissez-fare attitude towards them at the time that, due to an impending exam the morning after, I sent someone else along to review the gig instead with his choice of plus one. The reports I got back were both mocking and confused, probably not helped by the fact that their support band were local progressive rockers Strange Attractor, a bunch who were perfectly good at what they did but couldn't have been a less suited choice if everyone involved had tried. We were surprised to learn that the supposedly vicious, dangerous Gallagher brothers were courteous, friendly and encouraging towards them on the night. Maybe they were pussy cats after all. Cuh! Imagine Damon Albarn even giving them the time of day, eh?

"You won't believe what the lead singer said after the gig as well, Dave!" one of the attendees told me. "'Right, now I'm off to pull some birds!' That's their credibility in the dustbin! Ha ha!"

They were different times, viewers. The 1993 intake of indie listening university students were largely right-on and really couldn't have predicted what lay ahead. Lad culture hadn't come back into fashion again yet. Oasis, at this point of time, felt like some kind of weird outlier to some of us, a quaint act reviving ideas from a mere few years before and attitudes from decades before that. Giggling up our sleeves at them seemed like the only course of action. "First they laugh at you...."

2. Echobelly - I Can't Imagine The World Without Me (Fuave)

There was clearly something in the air by mid-1994, though. Echobelly may have been collectively much more right-on and politically astute than the Gallaghers, but "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" was essentially lead singer Sonya Madden's celebration of her own ambition. This obviously has an entirely different context and layer of meaning when it comes from the lips of an Asian woman in 1994 at a point in time where the BNP were gaining political ground. However, it doesn't, as a whole, make the song itself particularly interesting or effective.

In fact, "I Can't Imagine The World Without Me" is essentially one big amphetamine rush whose lyrics sound incredibly contrived, as if a back-room Denmark Street songwriter penned them in 1963 to describe the sensations of teenagers. "And in this world we spin and shout/ We want it all we want it now/ They said 'oh shut your mouth/ You don't know what you talk about'" sings Sonya, not long before finishing the song by singing the word "me" multiple times over. To be honest, it would have been more interesting, and more hilarious, if she had just sung the word "me" throughout.

This pretty much sets the template for the worst elements of Britpop to come. A belief that self-belief is somehow an important or interesting message in itself, combined with a series of high speed, distorted riffs and copped Beatles elements (in this case, the Sgt Pepper styled horns and peculiarly out-of-place psychedelic spasm the group have halfway through). Echobelly produced some good singles, but by Christ, this wasn't one of them, and it actually seems more cringe-inducing with the passing of time. Horrendous video, too.

3. Lush - Hypocrite (4AD)

Lush lay accused of cynically adopting Britpop sounds towards the end of their existence, but the fact that "Hypocrite" can be placed next to Echobelly in this tracklisting and not sound like a jarring gear change is telling. In fact, the group had always "had a Britpop element to their sound", as it were, and "Hypocrite" is actually one of the finest examples.

Allegedly penned about a female friend in another Camden scene indie band at this time, "Hypocrite" is a hurt, agitated, spiky and occasionally spiteful rush of noise with Miki and Emma's vocal harmonies providing the only sweetener in sight. It's much more of a New Wave styled thrash than any of their previous singles, though "Deluxe" clearly had the same aggressive rush beneath its surface.

Bizarrely, 4AD took the decision to issue two Lush singles on the same day, this and "Desire Lines". The impact of both was diluted by this perplexing marketing decision, and neither broke through in quite the way it should have done.

4. Veruca Salt - Seether (Minty Fresh)

"Seether" hung around the indie charts seemingly for an entire season and remained an evening radio favourite, proving that while the times were changing, there was still a huge appetite for fresh American alternative rock at this point. "Seether" didn't really do anything particularly new - though it has considerably more zest and zing than the likes of Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins, sitting closer to Elastica on the treble-heavy punk thrash spectrum - but did strike an enormous chord with the indie kids on dancefloors.

Having an almost Ramones styled rock and roll simplicity to its structure and a nagging chorus, "Seether" was brilliantly naive and could probably only have emerged from a new, relatively inexperienced young band making their first tentative steps. Like a much needed kick up the arse and slap to the face, it still sounds strangely invigorating even now.

Formed in Chicago, Veruca Salt went on to release numerous albums, including one for the major label Geffen, and are still an active concern today. Their presence in the UK waned a little after their first LP "American Thighs", but their following the US remained strong enough to ensure that they remained a powerful cult band.

5. Tiny Monroe - Cream Bun (Laurel)

With this single, Tiny Monroe show a considerably more diverse set of influences than the last time we met them on Volume 19. Slowly awaking to life like an early Verve track with an eerie, stoned and foggy atmosphere, it doesn't take long before the guitars brickwall their way through your speakers with malevolent intentions.

"Cream Bun" is at least an interesting and incredibly meandering 45, though, with the big bold stripes of the chorus cutting between periods of black melancholy 3am pondering. I'm not convinced it completely works as a whole, and it's certainly incredibly hard to remember anything about the record an hour after the needle leaves the single's grooves - but it has a clear ambition many of their peers at the time clearly lacked.

Tiny Monroe would continue for another couple of years before releasing their solitary LP "Volcanoes", after which they called it a day.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Volume 19 Tracks 16-20 - Gigolo Aunts, Blue Aeroplanes, Compulsion, Pop Will Eat Itself, Rancho Diablo

16. Gigolo Aunts - Where I Find My Heaven (Fire)

The opening guitar lines of the theme from the nineties sitcom "Game On" - or the film "Dumb and Dumber" depending on your preferred reference point, since it was confusingly used in both - burst through loudly and confidently. From those opening bars right through to the end, "Where I Find My Heaven" sounds like an almost flawless pop song, rammed to the brim with bittersweet lyrics and bouyant but intricately woven melodies. At the time, my first thought was that this sounded like a single Teenage Fanclub could have released if they'd decided to pander just slightly to the mainstream.

What's truly surprising is how, despite its mainstream presence and clear potential, "Where I Find My Heaven" really wasn't the huge hit it could have been. On its 1995 reissue it managed one week in the Top 40 at number 29, then disappeared from view. The finger of suspicion in the UK's case probably points in the direction of Fire Records who never were terribly good at maximising the potential of their artists, but its failure on RCA in the US is truly baffling.

Gigolo Aunts had a long history as a band prior to this point, having their roots in the 1981 power-pop band Sniper. Therefore, they had already spent over a decade penning the kind of effortlessly memorable melodies much beloved of that genre. This makes comparisons with Teenage Fanclub somewhat unfair, since they had a considerable head start over that Scottish band.

"Where I Find My Heaven" remains their most known song, partly due to its mass media use, but the group had a strong cult following globally and managed to sustain their careers until 2002, when one final LP "Pacific Ocean Blues" was released. Despite the apparent finality of this, I absolutely wouldn't bet against a comeback tour of some kind.

17. Blue Aeroplanes - Broken & Mended (Beggars Banquet)

Why, hi there, Blue Aeroplanes! How's it going? Haven't seen you since Volume Two. I think we lost you back at the, uh, junction with the eighties and nineties when you signed a piece of paper in that huge glass building up there. What have you been up to? Oh, I see. So things haven't changed that much, then? You kept the Russian dancer, and you still have those, uh, super-piquant conversational spoken word lyrics? HEY, well I guess, uh, dig the consistency, yeah. [CHORUS]

There's something amazingly stubborn and determined about The Blue Aeroplanes, and what's more astonishing still is how long a career they've been allowed. It's perhaps a tribute to the patience record labels in the eighties and nineties had, however much they were derided at the time. If such a group were to be formed now, they would be saddled to a very small indie label with a limited budget, whereas the Aeroplanes had a cultish stint on Fire Records, followed by a major label deal with Ensign/ Chrysalis, then on to the independent powerhouse Beggars Banquet. All for a group who are almost one of the quintessential arthouse indie bands, whose only real hope of mainstream success would have been to accidentally write a song which made some kind of popular sense. 1990's indie dance remix of "...And Stones" came the closest to that, but still no cigar.

"Broken & Mended" isn't remotely similar to that record, and is effectively the group returning to basics. Jagged guitar work combines with almost beatnik vocal ramblings, and the whole thing slams around the room sharply. For all that, it's not their finest single, and while I can't quantify why this doesn't work as well as the likes of "Jacket Hangs" or "Tolerance" - the group appear to be operating to their own agenda, so it's hard to draw comparisons to anything or anyone else - it nonetheless isn't a track of theirs I feel compelled to return to often.

18. Compulsion - Mall Monarchy (One Little Indian)

Irish punk band Compulsion were actually a pretty big deal for a few months in 1994. Bracketed in with the NME created and frankly somewhat damp squibbish New Wave of New Wave scene, they also had an abrasive, distorted sound and pounding energy which made them palatable to the grunge kids. In another world, at another time, they might have been enormous.

"Mall Monarchy" appeared on the "ITV Chart Show" not once but twice, and received a healthy amount of evening airplay, but perhaps failed to launch the group in the manner expected. It's a snarling piece of work with a distinct anti-consumerist message, and sounds like the stuff of dreams for frustrated teenagers and adult anarchists alike. It's certainly more memorable than the material being offered to us by S*M*A*S*H at this particular point in time.

Unfortunately, it was all a bit of a dead end, and while "Mall Monarchy" is an unquestionable anthem, it would rapidly be usurped in the UK by other groups who wouldn't dream of using the word "mall" in a song lyric. Unless it was used in the context of "Pall Mall", that is.

19. Pop Will Eat Itself - Ich Bin Ein Auslander (Infectious)

The latter stages of Pop Will Eat Itself's career are often baffling. If their confused, hyper-random video for "RSVP" weren't enough to contend with, "Ich Bin Ein Auslander" was an unlikely anti-fascist racket which charted in the Top 40 in the UK and was showcased on the rather staid, beige, pensioner-friendly "Late Late Show" chat show in Ireland. Over on YouTube, there's a clip of the band on the programme looking utterly inebriated, miming over enthusiastically to the song with their faces wrapped in sellotape. It probably didn't even make any sense at the time either, though Gay "Bykers on Acid" Byrne does at least seem to agree with the song's sentiments (rumour has it that the programme's security personnel took a dimmer view of their antics).

While the song itself is no masterpiece, it does capture the group at their most angry and raucous, and reminds you that towards the end of their careers they were heading in an increasingly ferocious and politicised direction. It's hardly the most radical thing you'll hear today, but it is still, unfortunately, horribly relevant, and its defiance is a tonic.

The meshing of the band's electronic, Hip-Hop and sampling influences to this kind of firepower also works incredibly well - almost as if they only realised the group they wanted to be at the point of the original line-up's last album.

20. Rancho Diablo - Plan B (13th Hour/ Mute)

"Indie Top 20" featured a lot of obscure bands during its 23 volume run, but I'd be willing to bet that Rancho Diablo are high on the list of the least known and appreciated. Signed to the Mute subsidiary label 13th Hour, you have to wonder if the group were perceived as some kind of nineties version of Fad Gadget. Wobbly porno trumpet noises meet with thundering industrial basslines, wails of feedback and growled vocals to create something very unique sounding, but sadly not something that works even remotely for me. It's most certainly an acquired taste, and it's possible that their sinister sex dungeon funk might gain new fans after this blog entry goes out, but for me there's no easy point of entry.

Rancho Diablo's recorded career was brief and failed to last very long into 1995, but was proof that Mute's profits from Depeche Mode, Erasure, Inspiral Carpets and Nick Cave were being ploughed back into difficult projects that wouldn't have shamed the label in its earliest days. This seems like a very strange inclusion for the "Indie Top 20" LP, but I strongly suspect a "take Rancho Diablo, get Depeche Mode much cheaper" styled agreement is responsible for their presence here. That or the compiler Tim Millington was just a massive, and very unlikely, fan of their work.