Sunday, 23 July 2017

Volume 18 Side 4 - Swervedriver, Salad, Cranes, Family Cat, Chumbawamba, Credit To The Nation

1. Swervedriver - Duel (Creation)

While a lot of the initial buzz surrounding Swervedriver was starting to die down by this point, they managed to retain a lot of affection on the live circuit, and were even managing to gain cult status in the USA - an unusual feat for a lot of British bands at this point.

"Duel" sticks to their usual format of stoned, chugging rock and roll riffola until suddenly, a rampslide into a bright, breezy, sunny pasture emerges in the form of the chorus, which manages to combine the rock raunchiness of Hendrix with the jingle jangle morning of The Byrds. It's an interesting and strangely beautiful single, but not one that was ever likely to result in the band progressing any further. It was the last single of theirs to chart within the UK Top 75, and from this point forward they would slowly slide from view.

Their American audience held them in good stead, though, and ensured that their final LP "99th Dream" was released on New York's Zero Hour Records after Creation Records lost interest. 

They recently reformed in 2015.

2. Salad - Kent (Waldorf)

Few bands got as frosty reception when they emerged as Salad. If there was one over-riding golden rule of the early nineties indie circuit, it was that rich kids and celebrities fronting groups should not be tolerated. Performing alternative rock was, after all, a serious business with artistic integrity and an outsider status at its forefront, not anything glamorous. Heaven forfend. 

Marijne Van Der Vlugt of Salad, then, was an MTV Video Jock and a model, who had experienced some considerable success at the latter job and remained very visible as the former. Well heeled and incredibly striking looking, she seemed as if she more rightfully belonged in Vogue magazine as opposed to having her music played on evening Radio One. Salad really seemed like a successful person's dalliance or hobby at first, not something with any long-term viability. 

It didn't help that their early singles were not actually particularly great. Those aren't my words, either, they're the words of their press officer who phoned me at home in an attempt to drag me out to review one of their mid-nineties gigs. "Honestly, they're amazing now," I was reassured. "I know they used to be shit, but they've really developed". (And reader, I went to see them live and they were indeed fantastic, but I've never had such a strange phone call from a press person since).

"Kent", issued on their own Waldorf label, is a scratchy, basic sounding little single which shows the band had nailed their sound effectively by this point - Marijne's bluesy, teasing, taunting vocals are in place, as is the angular riffage - but it sounds like an early demo from a band who haven't quite got around to writing any significant songs yet. The rhythm section in particular seems a bit clubfooted here, and there's an awkwardness to the group which would dissipate quite rapidly. For now, though, this is merely an OK moment. 

3. Cranes - Everywhere (Dedicated)

Dedicated and Beechwood both managed to mess up here, listing the Cranes track "Jewel" on the tracklisting of the LP, while including "Everywhere" instead. So far as I'm aware, this mistake wasn't remedied on any future pressings, so I'm treating "Everywhere" as the official selection.

Whereas most Cranes tracks have an unsettling and uncomfortable air, "Everywhere" is altogether happier in its skin, though these things are all relative. Hanging its lot on a simple acoustic chord progression and Alison Shaw's hushed but strangely child-like vocals, it's otherworldly without utilising the kind of doomy, thundering chords the group often enjoyed. This track therefore dodges the sound that might have had small children running out of Our Price screaming in fear, but doesn't really sound any more "ordinary" for it - it still sounds quite unlike anything else being issued at this point. 

4. Family Cat - Airplane Gardens (Dedicated)

Meanwhile, Crane's labelmates The Family Cat continued to plough their own particular cultish furrow, though with "Airplane Gardens" they may actually have produced one of their finest moments. Starting with a two-note keyboard riff then gradually progressing into a monstrous, epic chorus, it sounds exactly like the group they wanted to become. Gone are the rough edges, but also gone are the kind of trucker's key changes and banner-waving Rock School excesses of "Steamroller". 

Instead, there's a Julian Cope-esque air to this one, a righteous fury (though about what it's hard to say) and a slightly mystical feel. When I first bought this compilation, I surprised myself by continually playing this, long after I'd tired of many of the other tracks.

It also marked a slight turning point in The Family Cat's attitude, as they became slightly more savage and openly political in the press. One of their future singles "Goldenbook" had a B-side entitled "Bring Me The Head Of Michael Portillo", and they took adverts out in the music press consisting of nothing but the title of that track and a telephone number people could ring. If you phoned the line, you heard a voice softly telling you "He's so arrogant, get rid of him", followed by the coo-ed vocal line "You won't lose much sleep tonight". 

The Family Cat were finally moving on from being an archetypal spit and sawdust indie group and visiting some dark and interesting places. In time, it would almost bring them success - their final two singles only narrowly missed the UK Top 40 - but in BMG's opinion, that was probably too little, too late, and they ceased activities in 1994. 

5. Chumbawamba & Credit To The Nation - Enough Is Enough (One Little Indian)

At the time, this was the political anthem in studentville and indieland. 1993 was a bleak year for British politics, with a weak Conservative Government, the BNP gaining popularity and racist attacks regularly occurring around East London and other areas. (Well, at least we don't have the BNP on the rise at the moment, I suppose... small mercies).

Chumbawamba had at this point spent a long period as political agitators, releasing records with titles as telling as "Smash Clause 28" and "Pictures Of Starving Children Sell Records". They were never subtle, but many of their records had an undercurrent of commerciality - the concept of becoming Crass and making a din to back up the ferocity of their political leanings often didn't seem as appealing to them as journeying back to the folksong traditions of coherent narratives and memorable choruses. Their live shows were also often utterly lacking in subtlety, with costume changes, cheap backdrops and call and response interplay with the audience making the affairs seem a bit like a left-leaning student drama society pantomime. However, they got their radical messages across to a surprisingly large audience. 

Over in the other corner for this single sat Credit To The Nation, ostensibly Matty Hanson aka MC Fusion working under a group name. His debut single "Call It What You Want" had sampled Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and caused thousands of plaid shirt wearing teens up and down the country to go racing towards the dancefloor, only to groan and sit back down again when they realised it was "That bloody Hip Hop record" (I never tired of laughing at this). Credit To The Nation burst on to music scene with cries of "unity!" and asked for greater tolerance between black and white people - steadily, though, their political message became sharper and more targeted, and Hanson eventually lost favour with the NME when he (quite reasonably) suggested in a rival publication that their selection criteria for interviews and articles in the magazine could be considered racist. (It's pretty clear that, even to this day, the NME don't really seem to have anything we could refer to as a "diversity agenda". There again, they barely seem to have much of a music-orientated agenda at the moment).

"Enough Is Enough" should have been an enormous meeting of minds, and was obviously regarded as being so at the time. It was the number one track in John Peel's 1993 Festive Fifty, and was played endlessly in alternative or indie clubs - but there's something a bit tepid sounding about it these days. The "Give the fascist man a gunshot" lines feel weak and crowbarred in, and the central chorus is arguably one of the weakest slogans Chumbawamba ever came up with ("Open your eyes, time to wake up/ Enough is enough is enough is enough" doesn't really say anything at all. We all know what it means and what it's referring to, of course, but it's not exactly something you'd feel inspired to daub on a protest banner).

There's a sense that we sorely needed a political anthem in 1993. Britain felt somewhat grey, broke and locked in stasis, and the only people getting any joy out of it seemed to be the knuckle draggers thriving on the ill-feeling. Very few people stepped forward to make the necessary noise, however, and I can't help but feel that we clutched "Enough Is Enough" to our bosoms because it was the best candidate on offer. For all its popularity at the time, though, it's surely an unusual example of a  Festive Fifty number one hardly anybody plays anymore. 

I prefer "Liar Liar" by Captain Ska meself - though that's not especially great either. 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Volume 18 Side 3 - Boo Radleys, Delicious Monster, Chapterhouse, Curve, Sugar

1. Boo Radleys - Wish I Was Skinny (Creation)

It's been discussed surprisingly infrequently since, but The Boo Radleys' "Giant Steps" was a monstrously critically acclaimed album in 1993, sometimes seeming to be spoken about in the same breath as the work of Brian Wilson or Miles Davis. From apparently nowhere, the Do Badlys had risen in stature to become Gods of slightly experimental indie rock.

As I've mentioned before, there were clear signs in their earlier releases that changes were brewing in the band, and a new-found maturity was already apparent by the point of the "Boo Up" EP. While I've always been a fence-sitter where "Giant Steps" is concerned - I seem to remember being one of the only people in one of my social groups at the time who was slightly agnostic about it, which was a bit awkward - there's no question that it was one of 1993's most interesting (if uneven and slightly bloated) releases. It's the sound of young men knee-deep in their record collections, taking psychedelic drugs and having a creative spree, and occasionally hitting the bullseye.

"Wish I Was Skinny" isn't especially representative of the rest of the album, being a spindly and simple sounding release about male insecurity, with its ponderous plucked guitar lines and mournful trumpet adding to the subject's mood well. Like Brian Wilson, whose "Don't Worry Baby" was one of the earliest songs about a man needing reassurance from a woman, the Radleys were taking steps here which struck chords with lots of ordinary, podgy, spotty young men who were never going to be considered macho or glamorous. I used to actually have a couple of friends who considered this to be their anthem, one even playing it at his birthday party (Yeah, we really knew how to have fun in those days).

It's simple, pretty and very effective, and the video was actually filmed in the Radleys old comprehensive school and showed them being kicked around and bullied. They seemed to be representing themselves very honestly as complete outsiders, ugly ducklings who loved music and wanted to share their ideas with us. In a world filled with preening peacocks, their straightforwardness was welcome to everyone who probably enjoyed hanging around the local record shops on a Saturday more than they did a night at the club later that evening. Later on, their schtick could on occasion be slightly cloying - we won't get to discuss "From The Bench At Belvedere", but that's just as well, as it's an exercise in self-indulgent sentimentality - but for now, it was finely measured.

2. Delicious Monster - Big Love (Flute)

If "Snuggle" on the last LP was brief and rip-roaring, "Big Love" really shows off the songwriting chops the group had by this point. "Big Love" is a luxurious sprawl with chiming guitars, sensuous vocals and a considered arrangement. Rachel Mayfield appears to be suggesting that she can't get no satisfaction, and this is one part pean to love and lust, another part subtle comment on the role of women as objects of desire in society - at least, that is, if I'm reading it correctly.

It's a very yearning track, though, and even if it was possibly a bit too subtle to be a breakout mainstream hit, it was certainly critically acclaimed and performed well on the Indie Chart. It also proved that Delicious Monster were a multi-faceted band who could cope with subtlety and weave intricate melodies just as much as they could deliver raucous indie sounds.

More on them soon, hopefully.

3. Chapterhouse - We Are The Beautiful (Dedicated)

The old shoegazing scene was largely dead by this point. The groups had either proven their creative superiority and been elevated above and beyond the tag (My Bloody Valentine, The Boo Radleys) or they were now being mocked or, worse still, ignored. Chapterhouse returned in 1993 with a strange new determination, though. Their comeback single "She's A Vision" exuded an adult poppiness which had been lacking from their previous efforts, sounding strangely close to a "Seeds of Love" era Tears For Fears. At the time, the record label claimed that it had actually been a proper Top Five hit in Portugal, but I've found nothing online to verify that claim (press releases really should be verifiable sources, but over the years I've found they're often the stuff of wild exaggeration and fantasy).

"We Are The Beautiful" bares a bit more of a resemblance to the Chapterhouse of old, but is still a polished, shining, sleek Ferrari gliding along the psychedelic pop highway. None of that slick production can really hide the fact that the song itself is a bit uninspiring, though, offering nothing of any real substance. Even the chorus, which is presumably supposed to be a rallying cry, sounds limp. This would be their final single, and there would be silence from the band until they briefly reformed again in the late noughties.

4. Curve - Missing Link (Anxious)

That said, lots of groups seemed to be dropping like flies at this point. Our dear friends Curve, once the future of British Alternative Rock, were beginning to seem emotionally fragile. Their tour to support their second studio album "Cuckoo" was apparently beset with personal problems, and by the time it was over, so were the band. A split was announced, and the only single to be released from the platter was "Missing Link" (unless we count the extremely rare and barely promoted "Superblaster").

For a band who had a very clear, solid identifiable sound of their own in the build-up to their first album, Curve were now starting to blend in a little. "Cuckoo" is actually a much better LP than critics gave it credit for at the time, but nonetheless the buzzing synthesiser sounds of "Missing Link" resemble numerous Euro-industrial bands who were doing the rounds at this point, and the dramatic, urgent delivery of the chorus resembles Annie Lennox more than ever. Curve were still producing compelling material, but they were losing their own unique aura.

The split wouldn't be permanent and they would be back in 1998 with the album "Come Clean" - but certainly from the point of view of our timeline, it's all over for them. Of all the groups we've discussed, they're one of the main ones I feel possibly could have achieved something enormous if only a few slightly different turns had been taken. The fact that Garbage, who we'll come on to eventually, clearly owed a small debt to their sound showed that what they were producing wasn't in itself uncommercial.

5. Sugar - Tilted (Creation)

Frantic and psychotic sounding, "Tilted" gets the bit between its teeth and never lets go, thrashing and pounding away until the neurotic chorus arrives, which utilises a similar rising, stretching chord pattern to Magazine's "Shot By Both Sides".  It's an exhausting listen, this, but one which featured in a wide variety of year-end "best of" polls (even if that seems unlikely now).

Sugar had recently returned with their mini-LP "Beaster", which was highly acclaimed and shot the band straight into the National Top Ten. It caused Bob Mould to apparently ring his friends in America and brag about how high he was in the British charts. It was an unfortunately short-lived period of mainstream success, and within a year Sugar would return to being a largely cultish concern, but it felt justified at the time. Husker Du had spent years dealing with disinterested record labels and low sales, becoming key influences on grunge without much in the way of financial reward. Sugar righted that wrong for a brief period, and gave Bob Mould commercial recognition he had never previously enjoyed. It certainly didn't hurt that he was also writing some of his finest material too.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Volume 18 Side 2 - Pop Will Eat Itself, Elastica, Verve, Teenage Fanclub, Kingmaker

1. Pop Will Eat Itself - RSVP (Infectious)

Since their last appearance on "Indie Top 20", Pop Will Eat Itself had "enjoyed" a fairly long but fractious stint with RCA. It was clear from the beginning that their relationship with the major label wasn't ideal. Not long after their debut RCA album "This Is The Day... This Is The Hour... This is This!" was released, Clint Mansell could be heard complaining in fanzines that the band's chances of bigger success had been ruined by a series of cock-ups followed by weak excuses at the label. RCA seemed confused by how to market the group, they felt, and had given up trying.

The group's relationship with them still managed a total of three studio LPs and one compilation before they were dropped at exactly the same moment their single "Get The Girl, Kill The Baddies!" smashed into the UK top ten. This peculiar achievement by both band and label caused them to be named as the first ever unsigned group to appear on "Top of the Pops" - until the same claim was made for Bis a number of years later (who, to be fair, did at least have absolutely no major label marketing budget or previous history on their side).

The more indie-friendly quarters of the British music press had a field day speculating what all this meant. Had RCA actually just done something incredibly stupid? Were Pop Will Eat Itself dumper-bound, or ascending towards something greater? The answer,  in the end, was neither - they would remain with the same status they always had. Somewhat unusually for a group who haven't been given much consideration since, they had a core and dedicated fanbase, and the high number nine chart placing for "Get The Girl" was down to the combined fluke of strong first week sales for them and a slow sales week across the rest of the board. They still had yet to achieve a top ten album, therefore still hadn't made any "real" money for their corporate employers.

While you would normally expect an unsigned band with a top ten single to cause a bidding war, the majors were therefore somewhat sniffy about rescuing PWEI, and they ended up back in Indieland, this time on the newly formed Infectious label. "RSVP" was their 1993 debut there, and it shows the group moving back towards a harder, edgier, guitar-led noise. Its chant-a-long chorus was memorable, the relentless noisiness of it very much in vogue with the grunge and industrial sounds edging into the mainstream, and it allowed them another one of their many minor Top 40 hits (seriously - count them). They even managed to get the twins from the Australian TV soap "Neighbours", Gillian and Gayle Blakeney, to appear in the video (who had been in the band The Monitors in the early eighties, as my other blog Left and to the Back will testify).

You could actually sympathise with major label's confusion about how to market the group, though, if such a dilemma did indeed exist. They continually sold modest volumes of records to the same bunch of dedicated fans for years without really gaining new converts or inching much further forwards. Attempts had been made to market them as "Britain's answer to the Beastie Boys" initially, then as an Indie-Dance group, then as a band who could crossover to Kerrang or Metal Hammer readers - none of these really stuck, and they sat in no-man's land appealing to their own gang of Grebo oddballs.

2. Elastica - Stutter (Deceptive)

As the old superstars of British indie found themselves being kicked off major labels or falling out of favour, so the arrogant and dashing new breed emerged. One thing that's often forgotten about Elastica is that they were a fledgling group when the first wave of publicity hit them, having only played a small number of gigs. Justine Frischmann was absurdly savvy and had a clear idea in mind of how the group should look and sound before they even put out their first single, of course - but even so, it's surprising how well they dealt with the media furore.

I caught them live supporting Pulp at the Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms in 1993, and there was a palpable buzz in the room, and a slightly unexpected one considering they were only the support band (at this point, Pulp had yet to achieve a Top 40 hit, so their support bands were seldom groups about to dominate popular culture). A handful of fanzine-writing teenagers scurried to the front of the room, chatting excitedly with pens and notebooks in hand. As the group took the stage, one was heard to ask Donna "Did you like the photos I took?" to which Donna nodded somewhat distractedly.
"She said she liked them!" said the young photographer shamelessly, brimming over with excitement. "Did you hear that, she said she liked them!"
What the fuck was going on? Who were these people? I mean, I'd seen them in the NME and heard them on the radio, but...

Then the group began to play and... they sounded quite good. They sounded very much like what they were - a band with a probable future who had yet to develop a commanding live presence. Justine seemed confident and effortlessly cool, but only in the same way as lots of wealthy Hampshire types at my university.  I was starting to meet people born into wealth for the first time in my life, and at that point I couldn't see much difference between Justine's aloof, airy mutterings between songs and the distant poshness of some of my fellow students. Looking back on early interviews, it's apparent that she was incredibly intelligent, witty, cheeky and sparky in her own relaxed and casual way, but none of those personality traits were apparent on-stage yet.

Donna, on the other hand, seemed far more interesting, appearing born into her particular insouciant, punkish and vacant role in the group.

The debut single "Stutter", however, was two minutes of almighty and wonderful noise about the problems of drunken erectile dysfunction. At the time, the press bracketed the group in with the short-lived and under-achieving "New Wave of New Wave" scene, which tried to rally support for a raffish punk revival on Britain's somewhat underwhelmed gig circuit. Elastica were the only one of those groups to really go on to first division success, and if we're going to round up the best "NWONW" singles ever (though it's hard to understand why we'd bother) "Stutter" would almost certainly be number one. It's a commanding great treble-heavy, adrenalised rush which sounds like all the best elements of the late seventies era tied to the back of a Transit van and dragged along the road by a rope. Scuzzy, dirty (in every sense of the word) but so energising it's impossible not to listen to when it comes on the radio to this day, it actually sounded like the start of something big, brash and new, whereas the likes of "I Just Want To Kill Someone" by S*M*A*S*H (to give another NWONW single as an example) sounded like a reprisal of old ideas recreated to please ageing IPC journalists.

I didn't know it at the time, but in the space of one evening, I'd witnessed two groups with distinct identities both pointing different ways forward for British music, and both being correct. Britpop would prove to be a slightly bigger, broader tent than it's been credited for in recent years.

3. Verve - Slide Away (Hut)

And then there was Verve, of course, who with "Slide Away" provided Oasis with a future song title (or did they?) and arguably paved the way forwards for some of the mid-nineties indie sound. The melodrama of the song arrives through a thick pea-souper smog of effects pedal laden guitars, but the song still has a fussiness and fragility to it that would be sledgehammered out of the way by most of the new breed.

There will be those who disagree, but I personally find "Slide Away" a bit too directionless and woebegone to completely hit home. It's a big old meandering noise about nothing very much, and caused some people to wrongly assume the band had totally lost their footing. On the contrary, future releases would show they were actually beginning to find their way - commercially, at least.

4. Teenage Fanclub - Norman 3 (Creation)

Taken from their "underachieving" self-produced album "Thirteen", the pathetic number of views "Norman 3" has had since being uploaded to the Fannies official YouTube account certainly points towards opinions about this single being mostly negative or at best indifferent. In fact, many music journalists almost wrote the group off after "Thirteen" was released, feeling that whatever opportunities they had, they'd managed to lazily waste away with a mediocre follow-up album to a widely acknowledged cult classic.

That's needlessly harsh, though. "Norman 3" is the group at their most straightforwardly sweet, combining powerpop melodies with a slow, lazy wallowing in the emotions that surround the early stages of a love affair. "Yeah! I'm in love with you!" the chorus announces bouyantly, and it's incredibly simple and dumb but entirely relatable. It's not the group's finest moment, but catch it at the right moment on an early Spring day, and it will worm its way into your heart.

5. Kingmaker - Queen Jane (Chrysalis)

Few bands epitomise the slightly half-arsed politicised edge of early nineties indie more than Kingmaker. Released during a period when casual racism and fascism seemed on the upswing in Britain - though it all seems like a fairly harmless family row over Sunday dinner compared to the present day - "Queen Jane" paints portraits of disillusioned far right sympathisers, though fails to make particularly coherent or cutting points as it does so. It's clearly trying to make a clear and angry satirical point, but feels too scattershot and incoherent in its aims. "Oliver's Army" it isn't.

Musically, "Queen Jane" saunters along nicely, but also fails to deliver anything that might make it memorable or impactful. It swings by having made its snarling complaint, and within thirty seconds your mind is on to something else entirely. The late Conservative wilderness years of the early nineties probably did need a relevant political soundtrack of some kind, but God knows we deserved better than this.

Kingmaker had been hyped as one of the frontline indie groups of the early nineties, but as the decade progressed were struggling to maintain critical support. Their records all sold moderately well, but their sound clearly owed a debt to groups whose success was beginning to wane. When Suede supported them on tour, one highly critical review ran with the headline "Diamonds and Dogshit" (It made it quite clear, if you needed to be told, that Kingmaker were the "dogshit" in the evening's entertainments). Another tour of theirs featured Radiohead in the support slot. If nothing else, through accident or design they showcased two of the more influential nineties group on their tours, while failing to make any serious cases for themselves.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Blur - Chemical World (Food/ EMI)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Smashing Pumpkins - Today (Hut)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, no official video on YouTube.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Volume 17 Side 4 - The Fall, Cornershop, Madder Rose, Mint 400, Miranda Sex Garden

1. The Fall - Why Are People Grudgeful? (Permanent)

It feels odd that we've ploughed through 17 Indie Top 20 compilations now and not once managed to discuss The Fall. Odd, but technically correct, that is. While The Fall were arguably one of the earliest groups to achieve cult success without going anywhere the ink of a major label contract, by the mid-eighties they were on the Warner Brothers-affiliated Beggars Banquet, then jumped from there to Phonogram. By the time the "Indie Top 20" series started, then, they were about as "indie" (in the true sense of the word) as Big Country.

The early nineties weren't a kind period to cult bands, though, and like That Petrol Emotion on Side 3, they found themselves booted away from the financial certainties of a major label and on to the smaller Permanent Records - who were still distributed by BMG, but we'll let that pass (Beechwood obviously did).

This is also one of the only periods of The Fall's career where it's possible to get a sense of concessions being made to record labels, or at least some bait being dangled to put the group in a more sure-footed position. Their "Infotainment Scan" LP was demo'd while the band were without a deal and seems to have been partly developed almost as a sweetener to interested labels. It's a fantastic album and possibly my favourite Fall LP, just because it contains all the awkward hard edges, scattershot lyrics and wry observations you'd expect, but it also pulses and shines. Moments like their cover of "Lost In Music" and "A Past Gone Mad" throb with dance-friendly rhythms, making the group almost sound like a replacement for the by now completely washed up Happy Mondays (who, of course, used The Fall as a starting template for their sound).

Their cover of the reggae track "People Grudgeful" by Sir Gibbs - actually a bit of a dis in the direction of Lee "Scratch" Perry - takes the weary and frustrated skank of the original and beefs it out beyond belief, adding distinctly African sounding guitar work, punching bass drum sounds, and unashamedly commercial, Essex-friendly techno noises. It's rare to use a phrase such as "It's a banger!" in relation to a record by The Fall, but it really is, and while it may not have seen the same chart action as their other slight hits "Victoria" and "There's A Ghost In My House", it's far better, bigger and shinier than either of them. There's also little doubt that it helped nudge the group into the Top Ten album charts for the first and last time in their careers. These were the finest times of our lives...

2. Cornershop - Trip Easy (Wiiija)

Initially, it was far easier to fall in love with the idea of Cornershop and what they represented than their earliest records, which were faintly confused sounding and very lo-fi. While it seems to have been largely forgotten since, people from Asian backgrounds were deeply unrepresented in British popular culture before the early nineties (though Sheila Chandra briefly broke through as a musician and personality - see my other blog here) to the extent of being almost invisible. Cornershop were spurred into existence by some of the misguided drivel Morrissey had begun uttering at this point, and felt like a positive reaction against both his little Englander rhetoric and the under-acknowledged lack of diversity within the music industry, as well as the sickening inroads the BNP were making into politics at this point.

Their early singles, while shot through with irritation, sarcasm and knowing references and in-jokes, weren't really particularly distinguished from numerous other low budget agitprop groups of the period. Their psychedelic use of sitar droning did set them apart slightly, but many of the records sounded like what they were - the punkish noise of a very new group who hadn't fully formulated all their ideas yet.

Of all their singles and EPs from this period, "England's Dreaming" is the only track where the noisy chaos actually sounds thrilling and ever so slightly dangerous. Somewhat bafflingly, Beechwood bypassed that one for this compilation and skipped on to the next track off the "Lock Stock & Double-Barrel EP", "Trip Easy". As the title suggests, it's one of their dronier, more psychedelic outings, shimmering naively in a distinctly low budget way, never quite setting out what it achieves to do during its very brief run time. Like The Jesus and Mary Chain attempting an equivalent of "Their Satanic Majesty's Request", it's a nice idea on paper but not something that quite works on your turntable. You could argue that the tracks of theirs which utilise the sitar are effectively reclaiming it back from the middle class hippies who had cynically used the instrument in their work, but there are no significant leaps forward here.

In time, Cornershop would produce some brilliant and fully realised singles and albums. Their lo-fi years definitely hinted towards that possibility, but nobody was ever fully sure if they would still be an active concern after 1993 was over, never mind a group who would eventually reach number one in the "proper" charts.

3. Madder Rose - Beautiful John (Seed)

New York's Madder Rose were immense John Peel favourites in 1993 (and beyond) and actually produced some of the era's most intricate, yearning and beautiful singles. "Car Song" and "Panic On" from their major label years in 1994 saw dirty, exhausted country rock meet the youthful angst of indie, sounding all the better for it.

"Beautiful John" kicked up the dust a lot more, however, and seemed to be celebrating the rugged masculinity of John Wayne and other similar figures (and not Peel himself, as some listeners may have suspected). It's a lazy, hazy, light hearted stroll through American Western mythology which was wildly appreciated by critics and listeners alike in 1993, but seems rather slight now, particularly in comparison with some of the group's later material.

The group signed to Atlantic Records and continued on their journey until 1999, when dwindling interest caused them to unplug their guitars and move on.

4. Mint 400 - Natterjack Joe (Incoherent)

Oh. Yes, this lot... Mint 400 were (apparently) a very loud and seering live band, and when grunge was at its peak, were briefly deemed one of Britain's great hopes. A succession of critically slated releases greeted with general public indifference soon saw them swept to one side within a matter of months, though, and they have been largely forgotten since (they don't even have their own Wikipedia page, for shame).

"Natterjack Joe" has teeth and a very doomy air, and snaps away for six minutes about nothing in particular. It makes precisely the right noises, but also sounds fairly indistinguishable from the numerous unsigned UK alternative rock groups who shouted a lot with Home Counties accents and cluttered up the local gig circuit at this point. While more successful groups of this ilk managed to kick you in the gut or shove you sideways by their force of personality, Mint 400 occasionally sound as if they're play-acting, and the production here is hollow and unflattering.

To this day their output is not without its fans online, but I genuinely can't see a broader reassessment of their work occurring any time soon.

5. Miranda Sex Garden - Sunshine (Abrasion Mix) (Mute)

We last met Miranda Sex Garden on Volume 12, and now they're back with what can only be described as some madrigal singing combined with primitive drum patterns and frantic indie guitar chords. It hadn't been attempted often before, and it's possibly reasonably safe to assume it won't happen again.

The ensuing racket genuinely works uncannily well, though. While the mix-and-match approach may seem like a contrived attempt to get the moody indie kids on board with some youth-unfriendly Radio Three styled ideas, I caught the group live during this period and they appeared in their element. Dressed like posh, moody goths, they grinned from ear to ear at the noise they were creating - at least, when they weren't glowering intensely - and generally put on a brilliant show, giving the appearance of being much more than an unusual and rather marginal band.

As stated previously, the core elements of the band would have considerably more success later on in The Mediæval Bæbes, where a return to the more traditional elements of their sound would be marketed to an older audience of Sunday glossy supplement readers.

Was this scrapyard video an inspiration for the numerous bits of Chart Show indie chart visual filler during the later years of that show's life, I wonder?

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Volume 17 Side Three - Slowdive, Frank Black, Hole, That Petrol Emotion, Mega City Four

1. Slowdive - Alison (Creation)

By 1993, whatever initial buzz there had been around Slowdive had almost entirely waned. The press were largely scornful, sales were weak, and despite going "ambient techno" at the end of the year in an incredibly successful and convincing way, they were done for, limping on until 1995 but barely registering in the public's consciousness (though I'm sure in a parallel universe somewhere, they did manage to successfully reinvent themselves as a techno outfit).

That's annoying, because "Alison" is probably the finest single they released, an incredibly mature piece of work which left their earliest trippy-hippy offerings in the dust. For once, their sound isn't altogether sure of itself, and a menace creeps into "Alison" which isn't immediately apparent, but the more you listen to it, the more it's there, like a previously unnoticed shadow in the corner of the room. Focusing all its attention on a woman whose "messed up world still thrills me", the track's hazy production then envelopes itself around the chorus, where the lines "Alison, I said, we're sinking/ But she lies and tells me she's just fine" suddenly reveal discontent and disquiet. The tune warps its way around this idea, portraying a druggy tranquility masking something wrong with the lives of the protagonists. For all its apparent blissed euphoria, there's a clear wobble to this single's stride.

It's all very ambiguous, of course, and that makes it all the more compelling. Throughout the years I've listened to this single, I've invented a multitude of possible scenarios for the couple in the song, and I'd have hated the band to spoil any story - assuming there is one - by being explicit (Elbow attempted something on very similar lines with their single "Powder Blue", but it lacked the same subtlety and mystery).

Had Slowdive been bouyed up enough by critics and their record label to carry on through right the mid-nineties, there's a slight possibility they'd have become an "important" band in the way we now consider Radiohead or My Bloody Valentine to be "important". Indifference from all sides blasted away any hope of that, however.

2. Frank Black - Hang On To Your Ego (4AD)

Who could forget how excited we were by Frank Black's solo career after the demise of Pixies? His early releases were the subject of much press and public (or at least indie kid) curiosity, and... well, without wanting to be entirely dismissive, unfortunately most of us did tend to go running further towards The Breeders section in our local record stores. In some cases that was rather dismissive, as large chunks of his solo work actually stand up. In the case of others, we'll have to cough politely.

With "Hang On To Your Ego", it's actually completely impossible to understand what on Earth he was trying to accomplish. As a cover version of a much-loved "Pet Sounds" track it almost sounds like a stabbing piss-take. Brian Wilson's original idea is peppered with lots of analogue synthesiser bleeps and boops, and an almost early Seventies Chicory Tip styled rhythm. Lawrence out of Felt/ Denim probably loved this, but it was an utterly baffling single to most of us, albeit one which sounded like fun for the first few spins.

3. Hole - Beautiful Son (City Slang)

Comparisons are probably unnecessary, but I always preferred Hole to Nirvana. Nirvana were the slick, acceptable face of grunge, whereas Hole had such a creeping air of menace about them at this point that some of their tracks almost pinned you to the wall. This was obviously helped by the fact that Courtney Love's force of delivery and character was so intense. Whatever you think of her as a person, or where her career has gone since, her complex character and huge ego left an impact on every record and live show.

Hole's work was littered with strange, disturbing imagery as well, not least this single's line "You look good in my clothes/ I can feel you where the doctor goes" which sits uneasily with all the menacing chords around it. While the track was written about Kurt, that doesn't stop the idea from being any less strange.

However, the crucial difference between Hole and other groups of the era like Babes In Toyland was their ability to combine those warped moments with sudden bursts of melody or other subtle emotions - in this case, the line "You're barren, like me" at the end. Whereas their rivals screamed and shouted for two minutes, kicking up hell along the way, Hole dropped their guard and showed their underbelly just often enough to provoke more interest.

4. That Petrol Emotion - Detonate My Dreams (Koogat)

Northern Ireland's That Petrol Emotion felt as if they had been around forever at this point. Featuring The Undertones' lead guitarist Brendan O'Neill and beginning their recording career in 1986, most of their records up until this point had been issued on major labels, with the band earning themselves contractual stints with both Polydor and Virgin.

After their time with Virgin also resulted in no hits whatsoever and only a cult following to speak of, they retreated to release their final LP "Fireproof" on their own Koogat label. While the group tried to downplay the move as potentially positive in that it would allow them more creative freedom, inevitably it couldn't last, and they split up not long afterwards.

This is frustrating, as "Detonate My Dreams" is one of their finest moments. Sounding as if they had taken at least some of their cues from the Manic Street Preachers, it sees the band edging towards a rockier, more anthemic sound without losing a shred of their original darkness and edginess. It's filled to the brim with a sparky energy and a defiant attitude, and could have perhaps actually performed better commercially with some major label support. But it was too late for that now... and as a result, this is probably one of their most unjustly under appreciated singles.

5. Mega City Four - Iron Sky (Big Life)

Mega City Four were the Transit van workhorses of the early nineties indie scene, building a sizeable cult following not through major critical acclaim or radio airplay (though Peel loved them) but through their willingness to seemingly play every single smalltown toilet heading north up the UK - then do it all again on the south road back to their native Farnborough again.

"Iron Sky" wasn't their strongest single from this period. The jangly sixties pop of "Stop" and the power pop melodies of "Shivering Sands", both minor Top 40 hits, would be better examples. Nonetheless, it does typify their sound and possibly explain their appeal. They were a straightforward, punkish, meat-and-potatoes band who favoured simple, catchy songs with moody, angsty lyrics. Their music enjoyed a very minor second wave in the mid-nineties as some of the baggy trouser wearing skate kids picked up on their sound, finding it compatible with a number of the poppier US punk bands who were finally emerging on UK record store racks.

The band broke up in 1996, but the careers of lead singer Wiz and bass player Gerry Bryant continued for awhile afterwards in the group Serpico. Sadly, Wiz developed a blood clot on his brain and passed away in December 2006.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Volume 17 Side Two - Suede, The Auteurs, Kinky Machine, Delicious Monster, Cranes

1. Suede - The Big Time (Nude)

By this point, Suede had achieved what many considered to be impossible in 1993. An alternative band with guitars (and not a hint of a dance remix to help them along) had become a major act, splashed across the front pages of both music magazines and the Sunday supplements. When invited to appear on the Brit Awards to perform live, they played a faintly imperfect but very spirited and edgy take on "Animal Nitrate" while Brett Anderson bashed his microphone against his bottom.

"Animal Nitrate" hit the top ten and Suede seemed to have occupied the same cultural position as The Smiths or The Stone Roses prior to them - they were the token indie band in the mainstream, the act everyone rooted for on a Sunday evening, waiting to hear on the radio if their release had come straight into the top ten, or even edged it to number one.

Suede's position as the Kings of Indie was cruelly brief compared to many of their predecessors, though. This was for a variety of reasons, not least that their success helped to usher in a whole wave of other skinny kids with guitars, and they would find themselves having to share media space with Blur, Oasis, and Pulp et al rather than being the main focal point. On top of that, they lacked the populist touch of many of their emerging rivals. Their Brit Awards performance highlights that - it feels faintly eccentric and threatening somehow, designed to make it feel as if the event had been gatecrashed by outsiders. It's clearly not an attempt to win over the Henry and Norma Normals watching, it's a clarion call to any suburban oddballs in the country who may not have been touched by Suede's ideas yet.

Nestling on the B-side of "Animal Nitrate" was this, "The Big Time", which showcased another side to Suede that was frequently being overlooked. A weary ballad about a hidden-away, closeted homosexual lover to a famous person, it's melodically simple but achingly effective, utilising a song structure not entirely dissimilar to some of Scott Walker's efforts on "Scott 3". It's the sound of weary, repressed, burden-bearing England, but rather than crudely painting its central character as a desperate caricature, it sounds emotionally vivid and deeply personal - an alternate take on Twinkle's "Golden Lights" with way more exhaustion and baggage.

It also pointed a possible way forward for Suede. Later on in 1993, they appeared on television performing an acoustic version of what some mooted might be their next single, "Still Life". Rather than the thumping, angular razzle and dazzle of "Animal Nitrate" or "Metal Mickey", it sounded plain, beautiful and broken. "Dog Man Star" would be a bit fuller and richer than that, but it wouldn't sound any more upbeat. It was almost as if Suede were walking away from the very sound they had helped to popularise and becoming a more complicated group.

2. The Auteurs - How Could I Be Wrong (Hut)

The Auteurs emerged from the ashes of the cult C86 group The Servants, and were one of the original bundle of groups the word "Britpop" was used in relation to. Select magazine ran the headline "Yanks go home!" in April 1993, and listed them alongside Suede, St Etienne, Pulp and - er - Denim as among the new wave of British groups likely to transform our fortunes both at home and abroad.

Lead singer Luke Haines' scabrous biography "Britpop and My Part In Its Downfall" is dark and hilarious, acting as a decadent rock and roll take on "A Confederacy of Dunces" stylistically. Throughout, Haines continually portrays himself as a worldly, erudite man with a foul temper and sharp tongue surrounded by vain opportunists and idiots paddling in the shallow end of culture. He'd bloody hate this blog.

While the book makes for fantastic reading, it also serves to underline what, for me, has always been a weakness with The Auteurs records. Haines' personality - or, at least, his public image - is bitter, aloof and detached, and that cuts through every single record. There's a sub-zero feel to a lot of what the group did, even playing with provocative lyrical ideas without any clear conclusions, archly sneering at listeners who might be disturbed or shocked (interestingly, Haines recently confessed that as a parent, he would now find songs like "Unsolved Child Murder" difficult to write or perform, which suggests he's more interested in shocking other people than exploring ideas or elements of his own psyche he feels uncomfortable with. I'm not entirely condemning this, I just find it interesting).

Regrettably, "How Could I Be Wrong" is possibly one of their weakest early singles too, hanging everything on a slight melody and a world-weary plodding tempo. It sulks along without leaving behind much impression, the only real point of interest being the mismatch between the lyrics and the song's overall mood - "The stars are brighter/ are lighter/ than they have been for years" Haines sings, part hushed, part exhausted and weary, before following it up doubtfully with "How could I be wrong?" It's the sound of a man who can't quite believe his luck and wants to whisper about his good fortune for fear of jinxing it, certain that the large cheque he's just been given to cash will bounce. Even the drumbeats afterwards are ponderous rather than celebratory.  Given The Auteurs eventual standing in the grand scheme of things, it's unfortunately appropriate.

3. Kinky Machine - Supernatural Giver (Lemon)

The West London based Kinky Machine were cult favourites on the live circuit, and it could be argued have become rather ignored scene-setters for Britpop. Releasing singles with clear glam rock and classic pop influences, they were out of step with grunge in 1991 when they formed and had largely lost momentum by the time the first winds of change emerged in their favour.

Still, elements of "Supernatural Giver" ended up being used as introductory music for MTV's regular "120 minutes" alternative music slot, and climbed to Number 70 on the national charts. It's a swaggering piece of Bolan boogie, really, a stomping, barnstorming slice of retro which is a total delight to listen to, but at the time paled in comparison to developments elsewhere. While the likes of Suede and Pulp were pocketing elements of the past and analysing and reshaping them for the future, Kinky Machine were too close to seeming like a cut-and-paste tribute.

Lead singer Louis Eliot later re-emerged in the group Rialto, who were far more accomplished and produced some of the most unfairly overlooked singles of the post-Britpop comedown period, not least the epic "Untouchable" which, had it been released a few years before 1998, would have been enormous. But I digress.

4. Delicious Monster - Snuggle (Flute)

I have a conflict of interest to declare here. The lead singer of Delicious Monster Rachel Mayfield is a friend, and I contacted her relatively recently to ask if she'd mind talking a bit about this era of her life. Had I planned things out a bit better, of course, I'd have contacted her months ago in preparation for this entry, but it slipped my mind, and as a result I don't yet have her input.

So then, I'll present you the facts I know about this track for now, and we'll hopefully come back to it in the near future to talk about it in more depth. The group were from Birmingham and signed to Flute Records, who were an offshoot of Beechwood Records who released the "Indie Top 20" LPs. Critically acclaimed to an incredible degree to begin with, they scored singles of the week in the NME and Melody Maker, and were also regular needle-time darlings of late night Radio One.

"Snuggle" highlights the conflicting elements in their sound brilliantly - the track introduces itself to you as a cooing, delicate and seductive thing, before suddenly, and without much warning, becoming demanding and abrasive. Rachel's vocals are completely up to the challenge, twisting and turning effortlessly into a variety of different emotions, beckoning the listener forward with one hand before kicking them across the room with the next demanding howl.

It's a thrilling and brief single, but while the group were continually tipped for bigger things, they never quite found a way forward into the mainstream and remained a cult indie group, constantly scoring indie chart entries while never quite crossing over.

More on them soon, hopefully.

5. Cranes - Adrift (Dedicated)

No matter what changes in popular culture buzzed around them, the sound of Cranes remained the same as it ever was. "Adrift" is as disturbing and eerie as ever, but lyrically mixed in with ideas about the complexity and unpredictability of a love affair, telling us: "down, down the river we go/ holding on for dear life/ to the last stick of the raft" before clarifying: "we're like a boat drifting/ in a lonely sea/ and I start to cry".

It's not life-affirming stuff, this, acknowledging that even in the most compatible relationship there are threats, challenges and isolation, with the only comfort being that there are two people in peril rather than just one. It's not a beautiful listen at all, but as ever it does occupy its own unique creative space, and probably because of that the band's cult following would sustain them for a long time into the future.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Volume 17 - Side One - Depeche Mode, Inspiral Carpets, Saint Etienne, Pulp, Verve

Formats: CD, Double LP, cassette
Year of Release: 1993

This is by far the oddest Indie Top 20 sleeve of all, looking rather like a continuity slide for a BBC Television children's programme. (Tim Worthington was the first to point out to me on Twitter the odd way in which the "Independent 20" LP sleeves often look like continuity slides, but this one really takes the cake).

It's one of the best albums in the series, though. I bought this one and played it close to death at home, before it followed me to university later in the year and got spun morning, noon and night as the soundtrack to my earliest months in that new place. I do have to confess that some kind of nostalgia may cause me to over-rate this LP, but the tracklisting tells no lies - there may not be a cohesive strand or dominant musical style throughout, but it does contain some absolute corkers, including some high John Peel Festive Fifty entries for that year.

This was also the very last Indie Top 20 LP to only contain music from independently distributed labels. After this point, Indie got treated as a musical genre by the series. If you're a purist, you could therefore argue that this was the last "proper" Indie Top 20 LP. More on that particular subject and my feelings on it when we get to that point, though.

1. Depeche Mode - I Feel You (Mute)

Depeche Mode's supposedly harder sound and rougher image was actually an enormous shock to many people in 1993, not least a friend-of-a-friend who lived in Basildon near Dave Gahan's parent's house and still glimpsed him on his occasional visits. Gahan's new face fuzz caused him to yell from an upstairs window in a horrified voice: "Dave, why have you grown a BEARD, you twat?" (If this makes Dave Gahan's life sound a bit like Vince's in "15 Storeys High", that might not be inaccurate. Possibly everyone's life in Basildon is a bit like Vince's in "15 Storeys High". Somewhat bizarrely, the main character's full name is also Vince Clarke).

Rude though this person's outburst may have been, I'm inclined to partly agree. Depeche Mode were (and are) one of the world's best electronic bands - their sudden bout of grungey self-consciousness around this point is one of the only times they've swayed to the dominant forces of fashion around them, and as such was a disappointing move.

Musically, though, "I Feel You" may be somewhat distorted and growly, but it's not a million miles away from their last hit with 'Proper Instruments' "Personal Jesus". Driven completely by one repetitive blues riff and some shunting railroad rhythms, it's arguably one of the simplest singles they ever recorded. Dave Gahan's performance manages to convey the lustful message in numerous different ways, though, from subtle and seductive murmerings to downright RAWK hollering, and while this song isn't overtly commercial, it does go to prove that he had become an incredible frontman who could sell any song to the listener. Radio One happily playlisted this without any questions being asked.

Sadly, this would also prove to be a period of disorder and disarray for the group, where endless touring and decadence took its toll on Gahan's health and frayed the nerves of other members. Sometimes there's not a lot to be said for being given the grown up's keys to the dressing up box and cocktail cabinet of rock and roll, as Tommy Vance probably never said.

2. Inspiral Carpets - How It Should Be (Mute)

That said, all was not happiness and light in the Inspiral Carpets world either. While so far as I know none of them were taking speedballs recreationally, "How It Should Be" was a new single, not available on any LP, which failed to enter the Top 40. It was the first fresh Inspiral Carpets track not to be a proper hit since "Move", released on their own Cow label in 1988.

That's not entirely surprising. "How It Should Be" is a fierce sounding single which almost harks back to their stripped back garage days, but it's not an obvious 45, sounding more like something which might be buried halfway through an LP. "You're just a nail I can hammer home/ This is how it is and how it should be!" chants Tom Hingley obsessively, while Clint Boon's keyboards swirl all over the shop. It's a mite psychotic sounding, and it was never going to capture the general public's imagination.

These days, it's a likeable curio in the back catalogue, not to be found on any studio LP (presumably left off their fourth platter "Devil Hopping" either due to the poor public response to it, or because it was only ever supposed to be a standalone single). It's a nice burst of noise I like to return to every now and then, but I doubt it would appear in any list I'd make of Top 30 Inspiral Carpets tracks (should I have the inclination to make one) and at the time it felt like a slightly questionable release, a sign the group might be going off the boil.

In the comments on YouTube, someone is getting quite rattled and insisting that the Inspirals ripped the tune for this off him. I can only vaguely hear what he's talking about, but even if his accusations are true, it hardly seems worth bothering the group with a lawsuit over lost royalties. "The Inspiral Carpets stole my idea to produce one of their biggest flops!" is hardly going to gain you much money or push your career any further forward.

3. Saint Etienne - You're In A Bad Way (Heavenly)

And this is an absolute gem. It sounds as if it could have been written and issued in any year from 1966 to 1993, containing the shuffling basslines and digital sheen of a modern 1993 single, but also the deceptively simple sounding chiming melodies and conciseness of a mid-sixties girl-pop track. There's a slight sneer about the central lyrical message - "Don't you know that crew cuts and trainers are out again?" Sarah Cracknell asks the object of her affections - but it's backed up with promises to lift the badly dressed man out of his rut.

The lyrics also mention Bruce Forsyth on the Generation Game, bringing to mind instantly a terrible 9-5 life with solo quiz show watching in the early evenings being the only form of numbing light relief. In doing so, it does actually effectively evoke those shite moments of your life where you temporarily drift off-radar, leaving the television on in the evenings for company, working a job where your colleagues are indifferent to your presence. We've all been there, and probably all wished for a Sarah Cracknell (or her nearest male equivalent) to emerge and promise a definite shift in the routine.

"You're In A Bad Way" still rates as one of the group's finest tracks to me, being near perfect pop - fluid, seamless, with every melody line and element feeling completely effortless. It's one of their biggest hits, and it feels like it could have been a hit at any point in pop history.

4. Pulp - Razzmatazz (Gift)

But then this ups the ante. "Razzmatazz" was greeted with confusion by a few (but admittedly not many) critics at the time for being a 'somewhat depressing' follow-up to "OU" and "Babies". Somehow, the idea had got into some people's heads that Pulp were now some kind of kitsch funtime party band with lots of quirky songs about sex. "Razzmatazz", on the other hand, was actually bloody spiteful.

Throughout, Jarvis points his elongated index digit savagely at an ex-girlfriend and bombards her with insults. Some are childish playground taunts ("The trouble with your brother/ he's always sleeping with your mother" is the actual opening line) others are disturbing home truths. The line "Started getting fatter three weeks after I left you/ Now you're going with some kid/ who looks like some bad comedian" is particularly cutting (and some would argue misogynistic, though the blog "Freaks, Misshapes, Weeds" does a very good job of explaining that away).

In the end, we're given the impression of someone whose life has completely gone awry, in a similar but much more tragic way than the individual in "You're In A Bad Way". Whereas he had a routine to cling on to, the woman in "Razzmatazz" is clearly having an absolute chaotic crack-up - "Your mother wants to put you away" clearly hints at that. This is the noise of someone hectoring an old partner who has completely gone to pieces in his absence.

Well, I say that... but is it really? "Freaks, Misshapes, Weeds" explains that the lyrics "use empathy as a weapon" which is a fantastic description, but to me there's always been a little bit more to it than that. The exaggerated high drama of the single has never wholly convinced me that it's just a piece of straightforward observational spite about one person's misfortune. What it actually sounds like is the noise of someone exaggerating or possibly even imagining or fantasising how badly off an ex partner is without them. It's suspiciously like the words of one jilted, frustrated lover ranting to his friends in the pub and convincing himself that the life he's left his old lover with is pathetic, an endless round of cheap chocolates, weight gain, early nights and ugly boyfriends. Some of the above may be correct, but all of it? I've always thought it's just a scenario the singer desperately wants to believe is true. There's just too much fury between the lines for me, and an overload of spite. The end impression I'm left with is of someone who is just as tormented and screwed up as his ex. Perhaps they should get back together again. It's clearly what he wants, even if he can't quite bring himself to admit it, though the line "I was lying when I asked you to stay" comes damn close to revealing the truth behind the situation.

This is the kind of dark, layered nastiness you would expect to find in a single by The Auteurs, so it's not altogether surprising to learn that it's Luke Haines's favourite Pulp single.

Musically though, "Razzmatazz" is much busier and more complicated than the lyrics might have otherwise let it be. Full of bright synth lines and dramatic interludes, and soaring, almost Gloria Gaynor styled pieces of melodrama and defiance at the end, it's another piece of expertly produced pop. Indie bands - and God knows that Pulp were at one point one of the most low-budget, mend-and-make-do indie groups ever - were now getting incredibly good at this. This packs plenty of drama and so many little flourishes and detours into one song without ever feeling forced or unnatural that it's a marvel. I would also have to say that it's probably my favourite Pulp single, and one that's undeservedly tucked away behind their more obvious anthems.

5. Verve - Blue (Hut)

In which Verve manage to invent those particularly smoky, hazy, guitar overloaded tracks Oasis ended up specialising in a few years down the line. Disorientating, dizzy, psychedelic and riddled with then-unfashionable backwards drum sounds, "Blue" feels more like a representative soundscape in places than a traditional verse/chorus/ middle eight song. Rather than soaring upwards, Ashcroft sounds particularly rattled, paranoid and agitated here.

Verve hadn't broken through to the mainstream yet, and this sure as hell wasn't going to push them up over the line, but "Blue" is still thought of by fans as being a fine early single. I must admit, though, I find it rather messy sounding, inconclusive and dull. Each to their own.