Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Volume 13 Side One - Stone Roses, Teenage Fanclub, Revolver, Chapterhouse, Slowdive

Year of Release: 1991
Formats: Double LP/ Cassette/ CD

We're about to enter a brief period of thin gruel for the Indie Top 20 series, and I'm unsure how much of that could be blamed on the series new compiler Tim Millington, or the state of the British music scene at the time.

For make no mistake, the spotlight was largely off British guitar based music at this point, even here at home. Grunge was beginning to slowly pull itself out of its mouldy cigarette butt infested bed, and within a matter of moments it would become the dominant alternative cultural force in the UK. But it's not as if our homegrown bands were putting up any kind of a fight - our assortment of uncharismatic shoegazing bands and faintly miffed indie pub bands just didn't carry the same alienated cultural message. Indie Dance could realistically have promised us some more goodness, but The Stone Roses were embroiled in a long-lasting legal dispute and unable to record, and the Mondays had largely gone to seed. Without those two lynchpins being active, the scene buckled and weakened.

There are some fantastic tracks on "Volume 13", but there's also more to criticise than usual, and I'm afraid the contents do accurately reflect my memories of this period. Things started to get interesting again quite quickly - though it felt like an age to live through it - but for the next couple of LPs, we're going to find ourselves struggling slightly.

Also, it's hardly an important point, but this is possibly also one of the worst sleeves for any LP in the series. It looks more like a flyer advertising the opening of a new local organic greengrocers than anything else. As Tony Barron of Reeves and Mortimer's "The Club" sketches might have said: "Pears are irrelevant to concept of indie hits".

1. Stone Roses - I Wanna Be Adored (Silvertone)

The first track, straight off the bat, is from a group who had been inactive for some time at this point, embroiled in a legal battle with Silvertone Records which would ensure they didn't release any new product until 1994. Putting this two year old track right at the front of the LP rather than an exciting new band or a big sound from an established indie group does, it has to be said, feel a bit desperate.

Still, it wasn't as if it hadn't only recently charted. "I Wanna Be Adored" was the first single released without the Roses permission, plundered from their debut LP in the hope that Silvertone could make some more money out of the group while they "relaxed". At the time, we had no idea whatsoever that it would be the first of many plundering missions the label undertook, and within months "Waterfall" and a shockingly bad edit of "I Am The Resurrection" (where the group sounded as if Reni had been replaced by a toddler thumping on some shortbread tins and a cowbell) would also be singles, followed by remixes of "Fools Gold", a B-sides compilation, an A and B-sides collection, a Remix album, and on and on it went. Given that they were only on Silvertone Records for one LP and a small brace of singles, it's staggering just how much the label managed to stretch and repackage the contents of their vaults.

Of all the releases, "I Wanna Be Adored" felt the most excusable, partly because it had already been issued as a 45 in the USA, and partly because the UK B-side "Where Angels Play" had never been officially released until this point. So for our money, we got a very pretty, delicate B-side in return for not terribly much money, and few people had any gripes about it.

We're not here to discuss "Where Angels Play", however, but its evergreen A-side which has become something of an alternative FM anthem in the years since. It was actually the oldest Stone Roses song to find a place on their debut LP, having been a feature of the group's live set since their earliest days, and as such is slightly uncharacteristic of the rest of the contents. As a first track it's a bold bark of intent and its slow, steady build does an exciting job of preparing you for the rush of the rest of the first side, but it's hard to imagine it being anywhere else on the album and fitting in comfortably. The dark, echoing basslines it opens with still have an epic gothy tone to them, and feel like something The Mission could have written. John Squire's chopping and chiming guitar spins things back into a more Roses orientated direction, but even then there's a strange, echoing, rockist darkness to the track the rest of the LP largely avoids. Even "Shoot You Down" is brighter and bolder sounding than this, and altogether less cavernous.

Still, it was and remains one of the group's more appreciated tracks, and crossed over to audiences they may not otherwise have reached. In Essex, I noted with interest that stray bar-dwelling goths could be persuaded to sway about a bit to "I Wanna Be Adored" in a way they wouldn't do for "Waterfall" and certainly not "Fools Gold".
"I do like that track of theirs," an older Siouxsie and the Banshees fan said to me once. "You know, 'I Wanna Be A Dog'".

2. Teenage Fanclub - Star Sign (Creation)

Teenage Fanclub had by this point established themselves as the Great Hopes of British Alternative Rock, which was a pity as the group lacked the hunger and ambition to really compete on the global stage. When the group also signed with Geffen in America, they could probably have celebrated in any location they chose - in reality, they signed the contract in their local fish and chip shop. And so it would continue.

One listen to "Star Sign" is enough evidence for why everyone was getting so excited, though. It's a pounding, punching piece of rock music with a Byrdsian melody upfront and Big Star styled guitar lines behind, sounding as bright and hopeful as Slade at their most optimistic and as heavy and hard as the US grunge bands rising up at this point. In fact, it sounds as if it should have been an enormous hit outside the indie charts, so rammed is it with chiming hooks - but for some reason it only settled at number 44.

The B-side was a bizarre and popular cover of "Like A Virgin", and mutterings emerged from critics and label bosses alike about a huge album the band were about to release. By the end of the year, "Bandwagonesque" would become a much-wanted Christmas gift for indie kids everywhere. My copy got played to death and still sits on my shelf today, occasionally pulled down for relistening, and I can recall visiting the houses of friends and acquaintances and seeing their copies sat by the side of the stereo as well. For an LP which only climbed as high as Number 22 on the national charts, it seemed to be everywhere in my social group for awhile. Sadly, while the group have sustained moderate success to this day, a release of theirs would never be greeted with that kind of mania again.

3. Revolver - Heaven Sent An Angel (Hut)

Revolver had it all. Press. Endless features on "The Chart Show" and evening radio. A contract with Hut, who were essentially just a boutique label reporting to Virgin Records. And yet not a single one of their records, to the best of my knowledge, entered the national Top 100.

This either has to be considered extremely unfortunate or a symptom of the group's mediocrity, and I'm afraid in my opinion it's the latter. Revolver looked and sounded the part, being a bunch of cute kids big on atmospheric guitar soundscapes. They had the major label backing. What they lacked were tunes which stood out from the pack in any way whatsoever.

Debut "Heaven Sent An Angel" is probably their finest effort, yet still sounds like something which consists entirely of an admittedly good guitar riff the group were clearly in love with, vocals which follow the guitar line very closely, some atmospheric meandering, and nothing else. It's early nineties indie at its laziest and most generic, and it's staggering that anyone took it seriously. It's also absurdly tough to write about - there's so little of interest actually going on here that it's impossible to find much to say at all. I can only conclude that Revolver were a jammy bunch of buggers in the right place at the right time who failed to capitalise successfully on their luck.

4. Chapterhouse - Precious One (Dedicated)

That said, Chapterhouse were responsible for one of the worst gigs I attended during the period - 45 minutes of men flicking and thrashing their long hair around to bits of effects pedal fiddling as they desperately struggled to approximate the sounds they had created on vinyl. They came back out for an encore even though nobody was much enthused about them doing one.

Fortunately, they're not so bad on your stereo, and in fairness to them they were playing at a club with  a horrible PA the one time I saw them. Somewhat bafflingly, though, "Precious One" is taken from the popular "Mesmerise" EP, whose lead track provided them with their largest hit. Presumably the rights to obtain that were too expensive?

"Precious One" is a soft and buttery track which has a similar blissful quality to their club staple sound "Pearl" without having the same amount of drive. It does sound like a quintessential example of the shoegazing sound in retrospect, being filled with layers of intricate detail and a distinctly foggy, hallucinogenic feel. It's never going to be hailed as the group's defining moment, but as a mere B-side it proved that some of the early hype Chapterhouse experienced wasn't totally unreasonable. After all, if they were throwing songs away which were this luxurious, they must have had moments of pure genius up their sleeves.

5. Slowdive - Catch The Breeze (Creation)

In case you were wondering, Volume 13 really proves that mid-1991 was Peak Shoegaze - the scene was utterly overrun with pie-eyed groups singing about being hypnotised, or watching dolphins, or flying about, or feeling the breeze against their faces. Honestly, anyone would have thought there was a huge fucking Donovan festival going on that year or something.

Slowdive were highly inspired by My Bloody Valentine and were also signed to Creation Records alongside them. Unlike MBV, though, Slowdive didn't experiment on their audiences to ascertain the psychological effects of extreme decibels, or record anything as occasionally terrifying as "Loveless". Most of their music was ponderous, deeply stoned sounding, and rich on atmospherics. "Catch The Breeze" isn't their finest single in my view - we'll catch up with that later - but does give a firm impression of where the group were at stylistically. Tumbling Nick Mason-esque drum patterns meet gentle melodies, Rachel Goswell's angelic, breathy vocals, and a closing melody which constantly reaches for some kind of blissed euphoria.

If you were being unkind, you could argue that (here in particular) they were an indiefied Clannad at best. Then again, if you were the Manic Street Preachers, you would argue that they were "worse than Hitler", which is harsher still. Certainly, there was something slightly retrograde and lacking in modernity about Slowdive - interviews revealed a band from comfortable backgrounds who had very little to say for themselves, and musically they sounded like a cosy, fuzzy sonic duvet at a time when Britain was a somewhat troubled country. If you're wondering why shoegazing bands from very middle class backgrounds were so frequently derided at the time, you have to understand their position in the context of the times, and also the backgrounds of many of the music journalists criticising them. Against the Poll Tax riots and a decade of seemingly unending and occasionally outright spiteful Conservative rule, they seemed docile and complacent, content with their position in the world. While they were hardly all emerging from the Thames Valley and other Home Counties areas to soundtrack some kind of enforced medication time, to many music journalists who had been versed on punk rebellion, they seemed uncomfortably close to an indulgent hippy past we were supposed to have been "saved" from. These all seem like ridiculous reasons to criticise a group's music in retrospect, possibly because they are.

In reality, a lot of material they recorded has stood the test of time extraordinary well, and perhaps sits more comfortably in the present day than it did in 1991. "Catch The Breeze" may not have been asking much of the listener other than to take a chill pill, but that's hardly much of a sin, and it still sounds sumptuous in places, which is what actually matters. We can hardly be expected to spend every minute of our waking lives being furious at the world, can we? (Cut to: Rik the People's Poet glaring furiously at my words on a computer screen and hissing "Hippy!"). 

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