Sunday, 29 January 2017

Volume Eleven Side Three - Charlatans, Teenage Fanclub, Pale Saints, Welfare Heroine, The Shamen

1. The Charlatans - Then (Dead Dead Good/ Situation Two)

"Excellent follow-up to their hit earlier in the year. Outstanding, a massive hit that should establish Northwich's finest as a major band".

It wouldn't have been illogical to expect another juddering piece of catchy organ-driven indie as a follow-up to the hugely successful "The Only One I Know", but "Then" took people by surprise in 1990. While it was still a bit of a smash by indie standards - number 12 in the national charts isn't really to be sniffed at - it has a despairing dream-like quality to it, sounding like the soundtrack to someone's slow-motion meltdown.

It is beautiful for all that, though, and the misty, blurry sound to this showed that there was far more to The Charlatans than foot-tapping retro pop. In "Then", they had also managed to create a piece of atmospheric indie which, while not being overly similar to the likes of Ride, Lush or Slowdive, certainly had a similar tripped-out, steadily building ethereal nature at its roots.

Frustratingly, despite the fact that it was a reasonably big seller at the time by indie standards, "Then" is very infrequently heard on the radio now, with programmers tending to skim past all the post-"Only One I Know" singles until they get closer to their more upbeat Britpop revival material ("Weirdo" occasionally excepted). This does the group a disservice, as they're much more versatile than they've generally been given credit for. Three singles down the line, and they'd already managed to show us three very unique sides to their personalities.

2. Teenage Fanclub - God Knows It's True (Paperhouse)

"Jack Black - it's good for singing, guitaring, and playing the drums." - Don Flemming

This remains one of my favourite Teenage Fanclub tracks. It sounds amazing from the first second - starting off with that buzzing guitar riff, then steadily building to a clattering, pissed off anthem of betrayal, it's the halfway house where the moody melodies of "April Skies" era Mary Chain meet with American underground rock and Big Star. From the sulking chorus right up to the basic but marvellous guitar outro, it feels oddly effortless and yet wonderfully constructed. If anyone had dismissed Teenage Fanclub as being a scratchy indie band, this was the point at which they would be proven wrong - and things would get better and more powerful over the coming years.

The group were about to up sticks and sign to Creation in the UK and Geffen in the US, and while they never quite achieved the commercial wonders many predicted (it's often forgotten that circa "Bandwagonesque", they really were regarded as possible future stars) a string of acclaimed albums and moderate hits would ensure that their legacy would be the envy of many of their peers. Staying respected and relevant twenty-five years down the line is arguably preferable to stadium success followed by rapid burn-out.

3. Pale Saints - Half Life Remembered (4AD)

"Gustav Holst is the horse's mouth in whose saliva we take our baths".

If "Sight Of You" had been maudlin, "Half Life Remembered" is disorientating and slightly frightening, from its strange video featuring dated psychedelic effects and an overload of custard, pasta and beans and dentistry related nightmares, to the track itself - airy vocals meeting a vaguely threatening and malevolent melody. "It's eating you away, and some will never know its taste" we're informed, while ambitious drum patterns smash around and angelic female vocals coo along.

To all intents and purposes, "Half Life Remembered" really is Pale Saint's equivalent of "White Rabbit", and is so obviously about hallucinogenic matters that it would have been banned in a less enlightened age. While psychedelic ideas were incredibly prevalent in this period through the noises of both the so-called Madchester bands and the shoegazing stars, this really was unbelievably explicit. When they're not twanging away in an early sixties style, even the guitar riffs veer close towards sitar-mimicking scales in places. Far out, man.

But it's unbelievably good. It could make the mistake of spanning ten minutes and repeating its best ideas endlessly, but instead, for four and a half minutes, it's an interesting and ever-evolving piece of wonky pop that explores every possible melodic nook and cranny.

The Pale Saints always were one of the more interesting and inventive groups in the so-called shoegazing movement, which makes it strange that they appear to be less raved about during the present revival.

4. Welfare Heroine - Cry - Blood (Dub) (Non-Fiction)

"It's hopelessly sad, hopelessly lonely, probing, while always attempting optimism... but already I can feel tears pricking my eyelids, more of an emotion than a song".

A real oddity of the period, "Cry - Blood" mixed Gregorian monk chanting with a post-punk dub sensibility. While it was released slightly before Enigma's "Sadeness" which unexpectedly rose to Number One in the early part of 1991, its subsequent credibility has nonetheless probably been slightly damaged by the obvious similarities.

Nonetheless, it's an incredibly uncommercial slice of minimalism which finds its groove early on and remains firmly locked into it. The shuffling rhythm is pure 1990, it's only the deep dub basslines and faintly jazzy riffs which make it sound outside of anything else being produced at this point.

Welfare Heroine consisted of NME journalist Dele Fadele - so the fact the track earned an NME single of the week is slightly suspect, to be frank - Dave Egan and Ian Jones. Like their labelmates The Honey Smugglers, they were very quickly dropped from Fiction's slightly half-arsed Non-Fiction subsidiary label after a couple of singles and left to fend for themselves.

5. The Shamen - Oxygen Restriction (One Little Indian)

"A sub bass collision with techno pop minimalism... but Teutonic it ain't"

The Shamen's unbroken run of tracks on the "Indie Top 20" series starts at Volume Three and ends right here, and it's been possible to track their evolution right through that period, from politically outspoken psychedelic guitar noiseniks to disco biscuit spiritualists. Seldom has one band changed their style so much and so recognisably in such a short space of time.

By this point, the group were poised to take on the world. "Oxygen Restriction" was a track on their LP "Entact" and was not actually released as a single, so it's hard to hear the commercial chops they had developed; but if you were in any doubt, "Ebeneezer Goode" wasn't terribly far around the corner.

As for "Oxygen Restriction", it is indeed a stripped back and bare piece of techno which judders by at a mid-tempo without leaving an enormous impression. It seems to have been dropped on to "Volume Eleven" of this LP to take advantage of The Shamen's rapidly growing reputation at this point. And perhaps, of course, it would have been a horrible pity to have left them off the tracklisting, since they had been such mainstays until this point.

By Volume Twelve, however, we will find ourselves doing without them.


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Volume Eleven Side Two - Honey Smugglers, Cud, Rig, Upholstered Eldorados, Iggy Pop, Moonflowers

1. The Honey Smugglers - Listen (Non-Fiction)

"A bad trip burnout, it's an acid splash that justifies the existence of the southeast. Like swimming in treacle."

If I were to lean towards one record which proved that a lot of southern bands simply boarded the baggy express too late, it would probably be this one. It's the first case for the defence, to which there can surely be no justifiable answer. "Listen" is just wonderful - beginning with an ominous, low atmospheric hum, the droning of an organ, a creeping bassline and a shuffling rhythm, it slowly builds into a furious and almost jazzy pean to defiance, possibly against insurmountable pressures. "Listen!" begs lead singer Chris Spence. "It's just the sunset glowing/ doesn't mean your life is fading/ no it's just the day unfolding". Perhaps the liner notes above hit the nail completely on the head by suggesting it may even be about a bad trip burnout. The track pleads desperately, possibly trying to persuade itself as much as anyone else.

Whatever our interpretation of it, it remains one of the finest indie singles of that unique little period. Dynamic sounding, epic, scaling and strangely soulful without once seeming pretentious or preposterous, it deserved to be huge but never broke through. Fiction Records got cold feet, dropped the group, and even when they managed to sign a new deal with Ultimate Records they never quite had the same profile or momentum ever again.

Years later, Dom Joly would give this track a home on the soundtrack of his "Trigger Happy TV" series, possibly one of the most honourable gestures he's ever made. It really didn't deserve to languish in obscurity, and the fact that it has now become one of the main "go-to" obscure nineties indie tracks every blogger says they love (other contender for the title - Bang Bang Machine's "Geek Love") is perhaps some consolation to a group who could achieved a lot more.

2. Cud - Magic (Imaginary)

"Here we find the original recording of 'Magic' from Cud's acclaimed second LP 'Leggy Mambo'. Stockport and Farsley reworkings of this track, care of Messrs. Creffield, Nagle and Nagle are featured on their current 45 release".

Cud became cult indie sensations in 1989 with their eccentric debut LP "When In Rome Kill Me", a concept record about a sly old cad of a murderer, complete with acted interludes between the tracks. "Only (A Prawn In Whitby)" from that LP (apparently about a real-life incident where the vegetarian Morrissey was caught dining on seafood in that town) became popular enough with the indie crowd at the time to score a place in the top twenty of Peel's Festive Fifty. It's an utter corker of a track, actually, with its buzzy folky fiddliness colliding bizarrely with an early Roxy Music feel, like Brian Eno being parachuted into the Oyster Band. It sounded like little else in 1989, and still seems incredibly angular to this day.

By the point of the release of this single, however, Cud had adopted some of the shuffling rhythms of their immediate peers, and "Magic" is probably closer to "Love Is The Drug" than "Virginia Plain" if we wanted to continue the Roxy comparisons (and I don't feel we necessarily should). It's a slick and finely oiled little single which sounds as if it could have been a hit had it been performed by another band with a greater profile in another era. Snaking, subtle and seductive grooves are the order of the day, and for five minutes you too can believe that Ilford's finest indie sensation (after Louise Wener) Carl Puttnam was the nineties greatest loverman.

Cud would go on to ink a major label deal, but in reality the chequebooks came out arguably too soon. Their flamboyant thrift shop style and quirky seventies-inspired grooves would actually have made a lot more sense at the height of Britpop, and while numerous attempts were made in the music press to make them stars - with the feeble invention of the "Lion Pop" genre being perhaps the most memorable - they remained appreciated only by a select crowd, with their most well-known singles achieving only modest low Top 30 places. Their LP "Asquarius" sits on my shelf at home and remains one of the most commented on records I own by friends, however, with many exclamations of "Oh fantastic! You own THAT one!" Their moment for reappraisal may well be overdue.

3. Rig - Moody 'Live' (Sub Rubber) - vinyl and cassette only

" taken from Rig's 'Moody' white label, their first single following their debut release 'dig' on the now-demised Cut Deep label. The track was originally recorded by ESG and produced by Martin Hannett in 1980, but don't worry about it".

Well, here we have it. Arguably one of the most obscure tracks ever to find a slot on the "Indie Top 20" series, a record which has fallen so utterly by the wayside that I've had to upload it to YouTube myself just now.

Rig were one of the many bands of the era to be touted by the inky music press who went on to sell very few records indeed. After "Moody" was put out as a limited pressing white label, the group moved on to the Charlatans-affiliated Dead Dead Good label, where they managed two other singles ("Big Head" and "Spank") which also failed to attract much interest.

As for "Moody", it's a slow, minimal and dark piece of funk complete with wah wah guitars and metronomic, thudding rhythms. It's about as uncommercial as indie-dance ever got, not due to the presence of any wild experimentation, but because of the absolute minimalism of the idea. It's rich in atmosphere, but ultimately low on hooks or even energy, being just one big thudding, groovy grey sulk committed to 12" single.

If that's your kind of thing, you might love this. I, on the other hand, have to admit that it leaves me rather cold, moving neither my feet, heart or mind. It feels like it needs to be sped up.

The original, on the other hand, is (like a lot of ESG's work) brilliantly urgent sounding, and well worth your time.

4. Upholstered Edlorados - I Wanna Talk Like Iggy Pop (Box 52) - vinyl and cassette only

"Vocals Helen Shaw (lead vocalist on last summer's "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Powerjam). Keyboards by Andy Stennet (formerly founder member of Freeeze who had top 10 hits with "Southern Freez" and "IOU"). Produced and mixed by Andy Stennett and Barry Durdant-Hollamby who have had 30 releases in the last 18 months under various different pseudonyms including Hard Times, Sound Of The Underground, Elle, Bam, Colours, Powerjam, etc."

This is the one and only time Iggy Pop features on the "Indie Top 20" series, and the reasons are thoroughly absurd. Absolutely all the lead vocals for this track were culled from an edition of Radio One's Roundtable where he was a guest reviewer of the latest singles releases, and the lyrics are simply found snippets of conversation where Pop frequently bemoans the state of pop. Possibly my favourite moment in the whole song is when Helen Shaw tries to "sing along" to his studio chatter, to fantastic comedic effect.

This was something of a cult club hit at the time, and obviously a one-off for all concerned - Iggy loved the track and gave it his blessing, but obviously didn't work with the individuals behind it in any other capacity, and they in turn presumably moved on to whatever their next DJ/ studio project was. Musically, it's a bit of a treat too - its early nineties, baggy-ish groove ensured that it worked on the dancefloors of some of the more open-minded "proper" clubs as well as out there in the sticky cider-stained floors of indieville.

While copies of this seem relatively easy to come by these days, and it clearly sold moderately well, it's become one of those long-forgotten novelty dance records which most people have forgotten about. But I think we'd all do very well to remember....

5. Moonflowers - Get Higher (Heavenly)

"We dig your earth".

Amidst the ecstacy based revelry of the early nineties, the spectre of the Festival/ Free Party Band promptly rose up again out of nowhere, as if the biggest hippy excesses of the late sixties and early seventies had been reactivated by an evil scientist. Endless amounts of groups toured the country in transit vans, pulling into the next official or unofficial festival or free party to play to the latest gang of travellers and hairies, as well as pulling up outside small Camden gig venues and squats to treat the rest of the public to their noise.

Some of these bands were rustic and folk influenced (The Levellers), some were naive, shouty, shambolic and actually fucking unbearable despite their best intentions (Back To The Planet), others performed strangely psychedelic techno-inspired noises, and others, like The Moonflowers, seemed to be an amalgamation of anything they'd accidentally hoovered through their ears on their travels through life. It has to be said, while some of the music emerging from the crusty movement was more agitated and faintly depressing than energising, The Moonflowers had both a jazzy and funky edge to a lot of their work. There's a sense of playfulness about it which was somewhat absent from a lot of the music of this period. You suspect that the main thing they were interested in was getting an audience to have a ridiculous and memorable time, rather than rise to the level of legends or magazine cover stars.

"Get Higher" is sweet and relatively simple, and sounds alarmingly Madchester at times, and also pulls on the traditions of seventies funk very effectively. Here, they almost sound like a particularly stoned, backwater English hippy version of Sly and the Family Stone.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Indie Top 20 Vol 11 - Side One - Carter USM, My Jealous God, Bridewell Taxis, New FADS, Flowered Up

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

Volume 11 is a seriously odd compilation, consisting largely of up-and-coming bands who never quite arrived at their intended destinations and lesser-remembered, mid-ranking tracks by known names.

"Indie Top 20" as a series did occasionally put out LPs where the hit-to-miss ratio leant more towards "miss" than usual, and it often seems to be for a mix of reasons. For starters, one of the jobs of the series was to introduce us to new talent in the hope that these acts would at the very least become cult heroes. Their tracks would sit on the LPs alongside press darlings and established indie acts. Overall, the series usually did an uncanny job of getting a tricky balance right, but when trends were changing or the tide was going out against alternative music, they sometimes responded in a very confused fashion.

Volume 11, then, seems to have been released on the assumption that indie-dance would remain big news throughout the whole of 1991, when in reality people were starting to turn their backs and move on. This wasn't an unreasonable response on Beechwood Music's part, and they were far from alone in getting things wrong. The IPC music press also took punts on all manner of groups using shuffling beats and funky rhythms who failed to make any real headway, to the extent that readers wrote into their letters pages to openly mock them. Every movement has its crunch point when almost all the vaguely relevant acts get snapped up, and that's usually the moment it also all turns sour.

To understand how all parties managed to get it so particularly wrong, you have to remember that the timelines for baggy were unexpectedly short (by my reckoning at least) rivalling late sixties psychedelia for overground brevity. It rose into the mainstream in 1989 and had largely dipped back under again by the end of '91, causing many major labels to check the contracts of all the bands with wah-wah pedals and organs they'd only recently signed up. On a personal level, this was hugely frustrating for me. Not only was I managing to sneak inside alternative nightclubs just as the music was changing from an exciting mix of danceable sounds back into dreary rock orthodoxy, but I had local friends and friends-of-friends in indie-dance bands who were the toast of the regional press and had A&R interest one minute, then were suddenly abandoned by everyone the next (and you have to remember that bands Down South were much slower to jump on the Groovy Train). I can clearly remember being told enthusiastically "You'll love this new local band My Life Story! They sound a lot like James!" Jake Shillingford would obviously move house, look for new musicians in a new location, and have better luck later on in the decade. Only those willing to reinvent themselves would live to fight new battles another day.

I got to witness the harsh luck and unfairness that could befall perfectly good bands at a very young age. A number of strong demos by promising bands were washed out to sea on the incoming tide of shoegazing and grunge, and there's probably a perfectly respectable series of rarities compilations somebody could squeeze out of the scene if they were so minded. There was a sense - on my part at least - that the party had ended before its natural moment.

Regardless of this, Volume 11 was also a landmark LP for two other reasons - it was the last to feature the familiar vertical Indie Top 20 logo along the left-hand side of the sleeve. It was also the last to be compiled by Chet and Bee. Whether that was because Volume 11 had a lower strike rate than other LPs and they felt it was now time to hand the reigns over to someone else, or for other reasons, I know not.

That said, the differing range of styles on offer between Volume 11 and 12 isn't as sharp or as notable as you'd expect, and a number of acts managed to cling on a while longer - but the times they were a-changin, and a-changin fast.

Don't let what I've said above put you off reading about Volume 11, though. There's some very good, and some highly unusual stuff on offer here, even if some of it is so completely obscure that it does look as if I'm going to have to do some vinyl rips for you all again for the first time since Volume 3. Grrr.

1. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (Rough Trade)

"Glorious, energetic, witty guys, who happen to write great tunes with terrific lyrics. Watch them explode in '91" - Jonathan King, The Sun.

The quote above says it all. While I don't remember Carter responding to their recommendation in the Soaraway Sun with quite the same level of indignation that Cabbage did a few weeks ago, it was indicative that by this point, they were no longer those two funny shouty men with a drum machine from the London pub circuit. They were a serious proposition.

Even with Jonathan King's recommendation, though, I suspect that a few of us (me included) couldn't quite believe that Carter would ever be more than a cult band. They neither looked or sounded the part, had a noticeable disrespect for the mainstream, wrote harsh lyrical observations on all number of awkward topics, and quite frankly weren't an easy sell. But rise up they did, signing to Chrysalis Records, releasing a number one LP, rugby tackling Philip Schofield live on national television, inspiring outraged tabloid newspaper headlines, many reeking of bullshit (headlines about their secret South London "swanky pads" turned out to be false, as if anybody hadn't guessed that in the first place) and... essentially, living a life with all the benefits and trappings of pop stardom. That this has become largely forgotten by the media in the years since means I almost feel as if I'm spinning younger or non-UK readers a ridiculous yarn. Indeed, my Canadian wife struggles to believe me when I try to emphasise how big Carter were for a brief period, which is probably why I seem so defensive now. It's become a habit.

"Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere" was not their breakthrough single, however, and is actually probably one of the most uncommercial releases of their indie label period. Not only does the entire song seem to hang on a very doomy, dramatic and gothic five-note keyboard riff, it's also about alcoholism, attacking the misleading advertising of the alcohol industry in the process.

You don't need me to tell you that this isn't very rock and roll. While I could point to any number of examples of rock and popular music embracing and celebrating the allure of the alcoholic beverage - right down to Rolf Harris's "Nick Teen and Al K. Hall", for God's sake - very, very few songs have been released underlining the pitfalls and dangers, highlighting the vomit and the sleaze underlying the Martini cocktail lifestyle. "Try agrophobic, schizophrenic, paranoid attacks of panic!" snarls Jim Bob, "Or epileptic fits of laughter 25 million mornings after!"

While the track never quite set indie club dancefloors alight in the way "Bloodsport For All" or "Sheriff Fatman" managed, it apparently caused numerous recovering alcoholics to write to the pair thanking them for the song, with Jim Bob recently claiming that it was responsible for more mail than anything else they wrote. It remains a rare example of an anti-alcohol song in the rock canon, certainly outside of the straight edge scene anyway.

The sound of singing drunks at the start of this track also elicited an immediate response from my mother at the time. "What's that you're listening to?" she asked. "It sounds exactly like the drunks I used to hear in Stockwell when I was trying to get to sleep at night". So there you have it. My mum was referring to a council estate in Stockwell, and by doing so, was rubber-stamping this track as having an authentic working class South London soundtrack.

As for Carter's other work - sadly, we will be spending some time away from them after this, and when we next meet them, it will be when they're travelling in the opposite direction down towards the dumper.

2. My Jealous God - Pray (Rough Trade)

"Poignantly pretty, 'Pray' is a blissful bitter-sweet trance dance, an effortless groove and supremely natural" - Ian Gittins - Melody Maker.

My Jealous God's wah-wah guitar infested "Everything About You" emerged in 1990, and instantly shook up indie club dancefloors and caused a lot of major label A&R reps to begin tapping their wallets along to the groovy rhythms. Here was a band who were clearly bound for greatness. They were promptly groomed for stardom and released the follow-up "Pray" on Rough Trade to higher expectations while everyone watched excitedly.

Their chips were promptly pissed on by the combined effects of the financial problems Rough Trade were experiencing and the waning influence of indie-dance on the mainstream, and "Pray" did not get much attention outside the indie ghetto. The band would still jump ship to Fontana Records to release the rather Blurrish and actually really very good "Easy" as a major label debut, followed up with a reissue of "Pray" - but neither charted and they were dropped without an album ever seeing the light of day.

To be brutally frank, the fact that "Pray" is absolutely nothing special may also have been a factor in its muted reception. It's a slick and poppy piece of work with a somewhat middle-of-the-road production, sounding like a halfway house between Beats International and Blur, but having none of the hooks of the former or any of the charm, awkward edges or innovation of the latter. Why it needed to be released twice, apart from perhaps the fact that it sounded vogueish and accessible, is a mystery. It's not awful, but nor can I find anything to enthuse about here. One of those singles the word "Meh" was invented for.

Do check out "Easy" and "Everything About You", though - both show that My Jealous God were capable of better, and are enough to make me wonder about what that missing LP might have been like.

3. The Bridewell Taxis - Spirit (Stolen)

" Leeds' Bridewell Taxis third single from 1990, out on their own Stolen label, an album is scheduled for release soon!"

The Bridewell Taxis were another bunch of likely pop stars who were somewhat unfairly lumped in with the baggy scene. In fact, their influences were incredibly disparate and never short of interesting, seemingly taking in Northern Soul (unlike their funky rivals), indie-punk and even epic seventies rock as well as the baggy rhythms of the day. Their solitary trombonist was a typically lo-fi and indie approach to injecting a soulful sound into their jagged grooves, and the cheap keyboard sounds combined with that to produce a noise that wasn't big budget, but was at the very least identifiable and unique - something which couldn't have been said for many of their contemporaries.

"Spirit" is a particular favourite of mine, sounding too rigid and uptight to actually be funky, but nonetheless having a powerful, intense driving force cutting right through its core - it's mean, pinch-faced and demanding whilst also feeling somehow empowering and groovy. I used to play this constantly on my college radio show, broadcast live in the common room to about fifteen disinterested people.

The instrumental chorus to "Spirit" also wasn't intentional, but was apparently put in place as the lead singer Mick Roberts was so drunk after a two-day drinking binge that he couldn't remember what the actual words for the chorus were. Perhaps he should have listened to the advice in Carter's "Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere" a bit more closely.

Incidents such as these seemed to typify the band's slightly dazed and troublesome approach, with criminal incidents, confused highs, drunken brawls and near-death experiences featuring heavily in their careers (perhaps most ridiculously of all, Mick Roberts was once arrested for stealing carpets from the Hilton Hotel in Leeds). They were due to sign to Chrysalis Records shortly after "Spirit" picked up a lot of mainstream media attention, but the label were put off by a shambolic drugged up live performance they witnessed from the band, and swiftly opted to sign the safer, and now largely forgotten, Poppy Factory.

You can't call such incidents "bad luck". The Bridewells were clearly a band who could have had a shot at a lasting career if they hadn't been such a wayward bunch - but then again, without that edge to their personalities, would they have sounded as abrasive as they did?  Whatever the facts, and however many hypothetical avenues we want to explore, they were the closet this period came to producing a Dexys Midnight Runners, albeit without any of the manifestos or control freakery - just pure chaos.

4. New Fast Automatic Daffodils - Fishes Eyes (Play It Again Sam)

"When is a Manchester band not a Manchester band? When their name is New Fast Automatic Daffodils! Hard-boiled dub funksters with a surrealist edge (ooer) on true unpigeonhole-able form" - Good Times Magazine.

Following "Big", "Fishes Eyes" was really a continuation of the New Fads speciality - long, loose, funky and shuffling post-punk funk sounds with strangely barked slogans over the top. In this, lead singer Andy Spearpoint chants the phrase "The fishes eyes will watch your lies" repeatedly, which was apparently inspired by an unknown person posting a dead fish through his letterbox with a note simply stating that fact attached to it.

There was a sneaking sense that the New Fads were a bit like a semi-comatose Pigbag, rambling away and improvising this nonsense off their addled cuffs, but as with "Big", their singles were really highly enjoyable. "Fishes Eyes" manages to squeeze enough riffs, diversions and funky beats across its seven minutes to not make it seem like a chore, and there's a distinctly threatening, paranoid air to the track as well which adds a lot of spice to the mix. They were frequently baffling, but never boring.

5. Flowered Up - Phobia (Heavenly)

"Apples and pairs, but where's the stairs? What's yours!"

Flowered Up's progress was regarded by a few critics as being thwarted by this single. While "It's On" was uptempo and insistent, "Phobia" is a bit dark and chilly by comparison, and is also a strangely clever composition for a group some were trying to write off as punkish urchins. It contains numerous instances of meandering instrumental breaks, noodling guitar work and faintly awkward arrangements, proving that they weren't quite as rough around the edges as they would perhaps like to have been perceived. There's a fussiness and fiddliness to these grooves very few other tracks on this LP contain.

For all its curiosities and strengths, though, it does have to be said that "Phobia" isn't much of a single. It's a perfectly good track in its own right, but it lacks the immediacy and impact of "It's On", and as a result saw their chart fortunes decline as this only just managed to reach Number 75 in the national charts. What it did prove to listeners, however, is that this was a band who weren't just Mondays-apeing chancers. They were more playful and had a much firmer identity of their own than that.

"Phobia" would also be their last indie single before they ran into the arms of London Records, where they produced the legendary epic single-come-music-video-come-short-film "Weekender" - a "Quadrophenia" for the baggy generation, if you will, and yes, I am about the hundredth person to say that - the cult LP "A Life With Brian", the Clash-inspired Top 40 hit "Take It", and a much more innovative and lively mix of sounds than their earliest critics might have suspected they were capable of.

Sadly, brothers Liam and Joe Maher died from drugs overdoses in 2009 and 2012 respectively, meaning a revival or reformation of the group will never happen. They remain definitively tied to the early nineties era, and some would argue deserve a more serious reassessment than they have so far been afforded.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Best of Indie Top 20

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

"The Best of Indie Top 20 is a celebration of the rise and rise of independent music over the last three years. Many of the singles chosen are the bands' first important cross-over hits. Music that is so often described as specialist or provocative, but soon proves to become the mainstream taste; establishing new styles and genres.

First released in '87, The Indie Top 20 series has also gone from strength to strength, released 3 times a year as the definitive guide to independent music on double LP, cassette, CD and video. 

Beechwood music is fiercely proud of its independence and by making these albums available and generating much needed funds for all the bands and record labels concerned, we hope that we are helping independent music to continue its growth through the nineties."

Unlike CD88 which was really an attempt to bring large chunks of "Indie Top 20" into the digital age, this was a dual celebration; both of the series itself, which was by now ten LPs deep and available in most record stores, and the independent scene in general. At the point of Volume One's release, three short years before, being "indie" often meant cheap black-and-white record sleeves, John Peel airplay, low production values, and cultdom. By now it really could mean anything - any of the above, or the colossal success of the Mondays and the Roses, or even the full-fat independence of the KLF, issuing platinum records (or records limited to runs of 5 copies) on their own label without external interference.

There's a tendency to believe that this all happened very suddenly as a result of the baggy phenomenon, but that's an over-simplification of things. The independent sector went through several key moments from the late seventies onwards, some of them likely to get greater nods of approval from people reading this blog than others. Firstly, the emergence of punk and the DIY ethic in the late seventies (or, if not the actual emergence of the DIY ethic, then certainly the broader acceptance of it) opened considerable doors for anyone wanting to start a label. Then the first stirrings of mainstream chart success in the early eighties boosted the coffers and made siding with Rough Trade or Pinnacle seem like a realistic option - and those successes included Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Keith Marshall, and, er, Renee and Renato (who are a hugely unacknowledged factor as the first ever independently distributed Christmas number one, unthinkable a mere few years before. You don't have to actually like "Save Your Love" to understand its impact in boosting Pinnacle's reputation as a distribution body who could actually get records into all shops, not just the Small Wonders and Probes of the UK).

C86/ Indiepop boosted the profile of the independent sector yet again, rapidly followed by the commercial success of House music (which the major labels were slow to see the potential of), Stock Aitken and Waterman's PWL label, then indie-dance. The independent sector took a huge number of gambles the likes of EMI, RCA and CBS were frequently unwilling to place their bets on, and while that often led to sales in the hundreds rather than top ten success, it also sometimes highlighted the failures of the institutionalised corporate thinking of others, especially as the eighties came to a close. Indie labels were closer to the ground and the owners were normally punters themselves, a close part of the scene they celebrated. This enabled them to see the potential in anything from a popular club white label, to a bunch of fey indie kids, to an Australian soap opera star.

As a celebration, "The Best of Indie Top 20" emerged at the right time, looking backwards over the terrain the sector had climbed and taking stock. Sadly, it also landed a mere few months before their distributor Rough Trade's demise, leaving Chet and Bee (and their father Clive Selwood) scrambling to get hold of all their stock from Rough Trade's warehouse before the bailiffs got their hands on it. Clearly all wasn't sunshine and roses in indie-land - not at Rough Trade, in any case, where a fortune had been lost on a computer system that didn't work properly and paying rent on expensive properties.

Moving away from business difficulties, the contents of this album are interesting and presumably a compromise in places. The absence of The Stone Roses is odd. They were the big success story of the last couple of years, and presumably weren't included due to rights issues. James are also AWOL, as are My Bloody Valentine. There was also little space for big names who were independent-by-distribution-but-not-by-"style", such as Erasure or KLF or The Cookie Crew. No mention of old-school indie-pop success stories like The Primitives and The Darling Buds, either - clearly Beechwood didn't want to waste too much time looking backwards over their shoulders at artists who hadn't also had a role in defining the present (hence The Beloved's "Forever Dancing" appearing here yet again, for the third time. It had already featured on "Volume Two" and "CD88").

Carefully compiled and sequenced, "The Best of Indie Top 20" sold more copies than any other "Indie Top 20" compilation before or since. It hung around the official Compilation Charts for weeks amassing sales, had television adverts voiced by someone who sounded suspiciously like Craig Charles declaring loudly "It's soooound!", and could be picked up in WH Smiths or Woolworths easily. This is the LP which acted as an introduction to the series for many, and no doubt boosted its profile considerably. A few average tracks aside, it's also pretty difficult to fault. It does an incredibly good job of summing up the heady days of 1989-90 in particular.

It also features one surprise bonus track in the form of Carter USM's "Bloodsport For All", which we'll discuss when we come to it. An odd choice, as "Sheriff Fatman" was by far their more iconic single at this point, but mine is not to reason why.

We've discussed all the other tracks already, so please click on the relevant links if you want to re-read what I said about them first time around.

1. Happy Mondays - 24 Hour Party People (Factory) (Volume 3)

2. The Farm - Stepping Stone (Produce) (Volume 9)

3. The Charlatans - Indian Rope (Dead Dead Good) (Volume 9)

4. Inspiral Carpets - Joe (Cow) (Volume 7)

5. Soup Dragons - Mother Universe (Big Life) (Volume 9)

6. The Beloved - Forever Dancing (Flim Flam) (Volume 2)

7. New Order - Round & Round (Club Mix) (Factory) (Volume 9)

8. The Shamen - Pro>Gen (One Little Indian) (Volume 9)

9. Paris Angels - All On You (Perfume) (Sheer Joy) - (Volume 10)

10. Flowered Up - It's On (Heavenly) - (Volume 10)

11. Front 242 - Headhunter (Play It Again Sam) - vinyl and cassette only - (Volume 6)

12. Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus (Mute) - (Volume 8)

13. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Bloodsport For All (Rough Trade) - bonus track

"Bloodsport For All" saw Carter return to their popular theme of a man's life in the army and the hype not quite living up to the reality. "How very hackneyed" you might think, but in reality a number of horror stories were beginning to be slowly drip-fed to the press at this time, focussed on bullying, and even (by the time we reached the late nineties) mysterious deaths at places like Deepcut barracks. Clearly it wasn't just Government-defined enemies some soldiers were fighting, but also psychopathic enemies within their own ranks.

The single's lyrics can't resist the usual Carter onslaught of tabloid headline puns, but are nonetheless actually quite savage, highlighting the bullying racism which was rife in the armed forces  ("While we're on the subject I've been called a spade/ single-filed in public/ with my privates on parade/ I hope my feet go flat/ before I hang myself").

Combined with that unflinching criticism of army life, "Bloodsport For All" has a sledgehammer glam rock rhythm, a pulsing synth bassline and a fierce energy to it despite its mechanised rhythm section. The final minute builds itself into the kind of frothing fury last heard on their cover version of "Rent", and on the original seven-inch version you could just about hear the screeching conclusion of guitars being thrown to the floor in the final audible section of the fade-out, like a private tantrum you could only hear if you pressed a glass to the wall of their studio.

I'm a sucker for the unsubtle trucker rhythms of glam at the best of times, and this always was one of my favourite Carter USM tracks.  By taking the foot-stomping of the mid-seventies and adding it to a military march criticism of the modern army, they created a very macho, muscular sounding record which nonetheless undermined the message sent out to the country by the military's PR campaigns. It's far from perfect - most Carter records of this period have a clunky, sticklebrick production I find harder going in the present day than I ever did at the time - but it climbed to Number 48 in the national charts, and showed the group were poised for a mainstream breakthrough. And all this despite "Bloodsport For All" being subjected to a Radio One ban due to the Gulf War "sensitivities" of very early 1991.

14. Pixies - Monkey Gone To Heaven (4AD) - (Volume 7)

15. Dinosaur Jr - Freak Scene (Blast First) - (Volume 7)

16. Spacemen 3 - Revolution (Fire) - (Volume 6)

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

18. Birdland - Sleep With Me (Lazy) - vinyl and cassette only (Volume 9)

19. Loop - Arclite (Situation Two) - vinyl and cassette only - (Volume 8)

20. The Sugarcubes - Regina (One Little Indian) - (Volume 8)

21. The Sundays - Joy (Rough Trade) - (Volume 9)

22. The Heart Throbs - Dreamtime (One Little Indian) - (Volume 9)

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Indie Top Video Take Five - Carter USM, Eat, Thee Hypnotics, Shack, KLF

Year of Release: 1990

The next instalment in the Indie Top Video series was downright odd, if you want me to be honest, readers. An unexpected plethora of bonus tracks (four, or five if you count the different version of "What Time Is Love") even though there were plenty of tracks from Indie Top 20 Volume 10 they could have got perfectly respectable videos from.

The most notable omission here is The Farm's "Groovy Train", which was the biggest hit on Volume Ten, closely followed by the bizarre absence of the Inspiral Carpets. The Darkside are also missing, as are The Family Cat... either some rights issues were going on with this particular VHS edition, or all concerned decided to rationalise the track listing a bit.

Quality visuals clearly weren't everyone's prime concern, as some joker obviously thought the slow-motion video for The Pixies "Velouria", arguably one of the worst music promos known to humankind, was worthy of inclusion.

Anyway, let's turn down the lights, pull out some sickly sweet cornershop popcorn and one of those giant tins of Faxe beer we all used to guzzle (or I did, anyway) and ponder the contents.

1. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Rubbish (Big Cat) - bonus video

Jim Bob once quipped (in the liner notes to their Greatest Hits LP "Straw Donkeys") that the only reason they were keen to issue "Rubbish" as a single was to force their fans to enter record stores and ask for their new single, which was rubbish... because it was.

A likely story, I think. "Rubbish" is as catchy as hell, complete with its Game-n-Watch synthetic intro, its sample overload (including John Peel) and its almost skiffle-styled chorus. On this occasion, it's not especially clear what the boys are waffling on about, though. "I'm underage and uninsured/ on the High Road to Domestos/ Chloraflouracarbon Lord/ Asbestos Lead Asbestos" Jim Bob snarls, quoting the ingredients list of detergent bottles and World Domination Enterprises song titles in one breath for no clear reason at all.

It's a piece of bin-kicking, hook-ridden punk rock, though, and while it never caught indieland's imagination as much as "Sheriff Fatman", they clearly weren't going to disappear on us. An "ITV Chart Show" slot opened up for them with this single, and while nobody thought pop stardom beckoned for the band, they surely and steadily reached more people.

2. Eat - Psycho Couch (Non-Fiction) - bonus video

Ange Dolittle, lead singer of Eat, is one of indie's stalwarts. From Eat to Weknowwhereyoulive (consisting largely of ex-Wonder Stuffers) to Big Yoga Muffin, he trod the boards with a number of outfits and led them with an icy assurance. Both the press and fellow musicians seemed to talk about him as if success was assured, but in the end Eat remained a cult concern, and one dogged by inter-band tensions and bad luck.

"Psycho Couch" received single of the week in the NME and got voted a "Miss" on the revamped, Jools Holland hosted "Juke Box Jury" - mixed fortunes, but you can't fault the level of exposure. It's an odd, decidedly psychedelic single, and one which didn't seem to belong in 1990 or indeed any other time. A rock and roll bassline meets an almost gothic atmosphere and rattling drums to sound faintly threatening, slightly eerie, rather unusual and crucially unlikely to break through.

The video was partly animated and while not as luxurious or detailed as Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer", nonetheless showed that a lot of effort was being put into breaking the band. It's not available on YouTube, but you can see it on MTV's site, along with what must surely have been a very reluctant cover of "Summer In The City" (which also did nothing for them).

Eat recently reformed in 2014 and have resumed their careers, even issuing a new single "She Cries Flowers" in 2016.

3. Pixies - Velouria (4AD)

4. The Telescopes - Precious Little (Creation)

5. Spiritualized - Anyway That You Want Me (Dedicated)

6. Thee Hypnotics - Half Man Half Boy (Situation Two) - bonus video

A slow, snaking, bluesy groove dominates "Half Man Half Boy", making Thee Hypnotics sound a tiny bit more commercial than on previous "Indie Top 20" outings - though really, all these things are relative.

Press for Thee Hypnotics was ecstatic at this point, and not just the traditional sniffy scribes at Melody Maker and NME, but also Kerrang as well. The indie kids at IPC towers saw the group as being the modern heirs to The Stooges distorted riff and roll, whereas Kerrang journos just saw them as a furiously dirty and thrilling live rock band. At this point, Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes could also be heard singing their praises.

Unfortunately, far from being a crossover band uniting both the floppy-fringed and the greasy-haired, they really remained a cult concern.

7. The Charlatans - The Only One I Know (Situation Two)

8. Mock Turtles - Lay Me Down (Imaginary)

9. Shack - I Know You Well (Ghetto) - bonus video

Liverpool's Shack are often talked about as being the group that slipped through the net - the band who should have been absolutely massive in the early nineties but barely had a sniff of success. Certainly, they were firm favourites among critics, who gushed forth endless superlatives about their classic tunesmithery.

They were certainly dogged by bad luck, like an enormous amount of bands featured on "Indie Top 20". The master tapes for their finest work of this period, the LP "Waterpistol", were destroyed in a recording studio fire. Their producer left behind a DAT recording of it in a hire car, which took weeks to track down and recover, only for their label Ghetto - which had been largely coasting on the minor success of The Lightning Seeds for some time - to go bust.

"I Know You Well" was a standalone single which didn't end up on that LP, but is a mellow, shimmering piece of sixties inspired pop with a marginal amount of wonkiness on its side as well. That rushing, distorted merry-go-round sound which occurs at the beginning of the track and halfway through feels like the gentle slide into the darkest recesses of your couch after one joint too many, while the main melody spins around your head. And indeed, a spliffy fog did often hang around Shack's music - nothing at all wrong with that, and they were far from being the only offenders, but the contemplative introspection of their work would actually be better suited to the tail-end of the decade. Perhaps it's not too surprising that they had their biggest critical and commercial success in 1999 with "HMS Fable", then, way outside the timelines of this blog.

10. Sp!n - Scratches In The Sand (Foundation)

11. Paris Angels - Perfume (Sheer Joy)

12. Flowered Up - It's On (Heavenly)

13. Saint Etienne - Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Heavenly)

14. The Shamen - Make It Mine (One Little Indian)

15. KLF - What Time Is Love (Live At Trancentral) (KLF Communications) - bonus video

Or the KLF's big breakthrough moment. "Doctorin' The Tardis" had been broadly (and incorrectly) dismissed as a novelty single by many, and at the time you would have been forgiven for believing that they were destined to never be much more than situationist pranksters.

That would be foolish of you, though. While their debut LP "1987 What The Fuck Is Going On" is messy and more of a statement than a coherent piece of work, the follow up "Who Killed The Jams" showed that they understood how to create pop music as well (and perhaps the key pointer towards a more overground future was their largely forgotten 1987 Christmas single "Downtown", which I've written about on my other blog).

The Pure Trance original of "What Time Is Love" was a minimal piece of work which, while highly regarded at free parties, was never going to be a hit by itself. This Stadium House version (though nobody was was really calling it that at this point) was something else. Building on the foundations laid by Bomb The Bass, Coldcut and S-Express in mixing pop music with House music, it then scales new heights. The original central riff for "What Time Is Love" was a delicate affair, but for the "Live at Trancentral" version it sounds like it's being blasted through a hundred tannoys at once. It becomes a clarion call to dance, combining with Acid House squelches, a confident if slightly Daisy Age-ish rap from MC Bello, and pounding rhythms... even from a present-day viewpoint, it still sounds staggering.

There were DJs and fellow journeymen at the time who accused the KLF of "selling out" after hearing this, feeling that they'd spoiled the original Pure Trance vision they'd created and written a monstrous pop song with the main riff. Utter piffle, I'd say. I owned the "What Time Is Love Story" compilation before this version saw the light of day, and while the original is powerful, outside of the context of a club or a party it loses a lot of impact. The "Live At Trancentral" version takes the main riff, turns it into a chorus, and creates something incredibly muscular and hi-fi friendly in the spaces available. Even the audience roars are a magical element, making you feel as if the rave has suddenly arrived in your bedroom, while the ambient astronaut samples keep you floating long after the song has finished. In short - it's majestic. Very few songs manage to translate the magic of a hedonistic night out to the stereo at home, but this does it with unbelievable assurance.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Volume 10 Side 4 - Pixies, Jesse Garon & The Desperadoes, Teenage Fanclub, Telescopes, Carter USM

1. Pixies - Velouria (4AD)

" taken from Pixies fourth LP 'Bossanova'".

"Velouria" is a strange one, by general standards at least. It comes crashing through your stereo speakers like an epic rock tune at first, scaling a mountain-face like David Lee Roth at his keenest, but constantly gets distracted on its way. It seems to be constantly building towards some grand anthemic chorus, only to deliver Frank Black's barked shout of "Velouria! My Velouria!" It beckons you forward with one hand, then pushes you away with the other.

It's still a strangely beautiful record, though, from those scaling, powerful verses right down to the Kim Deal vocalised outro. It's slightly unpredictable form also creates something a damn sight more interesting than your bog-standard piece of FM rock, twisting and turning around to ensure there's more to draw you back than the obvious initial hooks. Truly horrible and pointless video, though, which looks more like a "Chart Show" home-brew effort than an official product.

This was the group's first Top 40 hit in the UK, peaking at number 28.

2. Jesse Garon and The Desperadoes - Grand Hotel (Avalanche) - Vinyl and Cassette Only

"Shine on Patrick Magee, shine on! Ceadh mile failte."

Mmm. As a teenager, I found the references to the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing in this song exhilarating and hilarious, and considered it a true piece of punk rock. Now it feels uncomfortable - a key indication, if any were needed, that we get less flippant about these artistic gestures as we get older. Also, it perhaps shows how politically divided Britain was in 1990, with bilious and murderous hatred being targeted at those who weren't on the correct side of the left-right divide from a variety of sources, and never mind anyone else who might happen to be caught in the firing line. Ladies and Gentlemen, those were the days, and we're set to recreate those days...

Jesse Garon and The Desperadoes were actually old-school Scottish indie-poppers from the mid-eighties who seemed rumly out of place with the rest of Volume Ten's offerings. That said, "Grand Hotel" sits neatly enough next to "Velouria" with its abrasive sound and angelic female backing vocals. It's also a total headrush of a track, scruffy and scuzzed up but ferocious and full-on - an innocent slice of C86 this isn't, obviously.

It was also an unusual Indie Top 20 track in that it wasn't a big seller at the time, even in indie terms, and one EP later (the "Hold Me Now" extended play issued in November 1990) and the group would be no more. Its appearance on this compilation was the first time I was ever made aware of it. Even the Daily Mail's feathers clearly weren't ruffled by its existence, and it seemed to slip under a lot of people's radars. The eighties had been filled to the brim with furious, stabbing and occasionally controversial left-wing records or even anarcho-punk records - the steady flow would continue into the nineties until John Major's government was at its absolute weakest, but interest post-Thatcher began to deplete quite rapidly. The Family Cat's B-side "Bring Me The Head Of Michael Portillo" is the most recent example I can think of, but there may be others which you good readers can think of...

3. Teenage Fanclub - Everything Flows (Paperhouse)

"Teenage Fanclub are going to be as big as The Ronettes hairdos, the Beaverbrook Foundation and Van Gogh's sunflowers".

And the Scottish fuzziness and scuzziness continues. "Everything Flows" is a ballad hiding under a fog of grungey guitars. It's melancholy, snail-paced and yet slightly noisy too. Lyrically it's confused and vague - "I think about it every day/ but only for a little while/ and then the FEELING" sings Norman Blake. Enough said, obviously.

"Everything Flows" feels like waking up in the middle of the night from a dream about an ex, alone, and with a sleep-fogged brain, knowing that your past decisions perhaps weren't the wisest, and not certain that you're any more sure-footed in the present day. It ends with distorted guitars swimming all around the mix, never once picking up the pace or offering a clear resolution. It's beautiful in a horribly disconcerting way. Perhaps unsuprisingly, it was wildly popular with John Peel listeners and did indeed do a lot to launch Teenage Fanclub outside of their existing cult following.

4. The Telescopes - Precious Little (Creation) - Vinyl and Cassette Only 

"Obsession always was one of the most terrifying of human emotions. It's when the noise stops that you silently start to scream." - Melody Maker

We're on side four of Volume Ten of "Indie Top 20", and is that... can that... can that really be a contribution from Creation Records? Well, switch my knickers! Apart from contributing the video to Tangerine's "Sunburst" to one of the Indie Top Videos, they had avoided the series like the plague until now for reasons known only to Alan McGee.

Of course, "Precious Little" is a piece of distorted, sinister and not entirely reassuring noise about love, or perhaps as the Melody Maker scribe pointed out, obsession. Had it been written for my benefit, I think I would have been a bit worried. You could quite easily give the lyrics and the melody to a twee girl with an ukulele in the present day (note to anyone reading - please don't do this) - it certainly starts appropriately enough with "Precious little look outside the sea crashes for you" - but The Telescopes, being The Telescopes, ramp up the volume and turn it into a threatening, obsessive attack, not a simple love song.

It's not their finest single, in truth, but it's certainly never short of being interesting. Stick it on in the company of friends, and witness the silence afterwards.

5. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine - Rent (Big Cat)

"I've been waiting half of the twentieth century for my housing benefit so that I can pay my rent, I am pissed off" - Fruitbat.
"I like the Pet Shop Boys and I'm more than happy to make them a little bit of cash to help them out, stuff the Poll Tax" - Jim Bob.

The second cover version on Volume Ten takes the same approach of taking the basic template of the original but completely transforming it. Or, if your views of this are unfavourable, it might feel actually as if Carter simply scrawled childishly and furiously all over the Pet Shop Boys original melody with a variety of Crayola crayons.

Obviously, The Pet Shop Boys version of "Rent" was largely deemed to be about male prostitution (subsequently denied by Neil Tennant in recent years) something I doubt either Jim Bob or Fruitbat would have been terribly successful at. Perhaps because of that, rather than due to a deliberate misunderstanding, they seem to have made it about paying the rent in general and turning into a screaming punk assault. It starts calmly enough with a gentle (if cheap) synthesiser pulse, then slowly begins to rumble like a volcano before exploding into a disconnected, screaming rant about the contents of DSS forms.

An unpopular view started to form approximately around this time that Carter were like a rather punkish take on very late Pink Floyd - and when I say "late Pink Floyd", I very much mean the Roger Waters dictatorship years. Initially that might sound ridiculous, until you surf away and listen to "Not Now John" and hear similar spittle, samples, swearing, despair and melancholy rolled into one ball, just with much more careful production values (and classier backing vocals and more saxophones). Even the epic war ballads on "The Final Cut" with their tinkling pianos bore vague similarities to the likes of Carter's take on "The Impossible Dream". Whatever your general view, "Rent" here sounds truly hilarious at first, then weirdly gripping thereafter. It's a marvellous tantrum of a cover.

It was the flipside to their single "Rubbish" rather than an A-side, obviously, so its inclusion here is a bit strange. Clearly either the band or Beechwood Music deemed it more worthy, but I'm glad I got to hear it when I did.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Volume Ten Side 3 - Inspiral Carpets, Charlatans, The Darkside, Spiritualized, Family Cat

1. Inspiral Carpets - She Comes In The Fall (Mute)

"This is moody and miraculous with a lovely walking on air melody, but then the organ farts in again and firmly stops them becoming stellar".

I first heard "She Comes The Fall" in its Peel Session guise, and loved it - in typical Inspirals fashion, it was a stirling piece of garage pop, but this time with added flourishes. Barging its way into your mind with almost aggressive verses while the chorus turned you over and rubbed your belly with its sweetness, it also added marching military drumbeats and carefully plucked guitar lines to its arsenal.

The "Life" LP version later on wasn't much different. A bit beefed up, maybe, but pleasing and one of the highlights of a now frequently ignored piece of work.

Then this, the single version, was... well, it was as if the band had travelled back in time, gone to the Sound Techniques studio with Joe Boyd, and played with all the toys in there one merry afternoon. That should make the 7" version an absolute triumph, but oddly it sounds gimmicky and distracting instead. It swirls, honks, echoes and whooshes all over the shop while everyone gets over-excited pressing the "special buttons" in the studio, and it ends up smacking of a poor sixties parody rather than a carefully executed radio edit. It places almost alarming attacks of psychedelia where they feel uncomfortable; those howling electronic sirens during the instrumental break, for example, almost utterly ruin a top drawer Clint Boon performance.

None of this silliness can completely murder the song, of course, which remains strong enough to withstand the assault, but I'll still always reach for the LP version over this.

2. The Charlatans - The Only One I Know (Dead Dead Good)

"The Only One I Know, a track blessed with wah-wah guitar and a hammond organ swirling around a pure hypnotic groove" - Sounds.

"The Only One I Know" was a shock. Firstly, to anyone who hadn't been following The Charlatans closely at this point, which I must guiltily confess I hadn't, something as brightly poppy as this didn't seem possible. "Indian Rope" was slightly psychedelic and meandering, not catchy, bouncy and bouyant.

Secondly, even after I heard it, my first appreciative thought was "That might even get into the Top 40 if it's lucky". The fact that the single then soared into the top ten and could even be caught being used as backing music on keep fit programmes was above and beyond my expectations. It briefly made The Charlatans seem like a serious threat to the Mondays and the Roses - if they could keep this sort of jolly rhumba racket going, who knew what else would be in store?

"The Only One I Know" is so much a part of alternative rock's heritage now that it's actually difficult to take any number of steps back and look at it afresh. The first time I heard it, I adored the bittersweet chorus and those swooping, high basslines, but over the course of thirty or forty listens found myself ground down by one of the main hooks, the repetitive squawking keyboard line, which follows you around throughout like a flock of nagging geese. Like a lot of hook-heavy pop, its instant appeal does eventually become a mild irritant.

For all that, though, I've never once found myself needing to turn the radio off or leave the dancefloor for the bar when it comes on. Two singles in, The Charlatans had managed to pull the enviable (and certainly very profitable) trick of writing an ageless alternative pop tune. This is their "Reward", their "Echo Beach", or their "Birdhouse In Your Soul". It didn't necessarily typify their output, which as we'll see was actually rich and broad, but it did become a very powerful beacon to people who may never have otherwise got to hear the rest of their work - and they'd easily avoid becoming one-hit wonders.

3. The Darkside - Waiting For The Angels (Situation Two)

"an irresistable, etherial psychedelic pop song from the darkside, a trio from the centre of England".

Yet another group who splintered out of the dissolution of Spacemen 3, The Darkside were essentially the other members minus Peter Kember (who would create Spectrum) and Jason Pierce (Spiritualized). Perhaps somewhat inevitably, they were the least successful offshoot of them all, but that's not to say that they didn't create some music of note.

"Waiting For The Angels", for example, is dark, brooding, faintly psychedelic and - while not much of a single, if the truth be told - does slowly and lazily unveil a certain majesty across its playing time. There are mild similarities between this and The Charlatans' next single "Then", mainly around the mood and the bassline, which are surely just a vague coincidence.

The band managed two studio albums before giving up the ghost in 1993.

4. Spiritualized - Anyway That You Want Me (Dedicated) - Vinyl and Cassette Only (for some mad reason)

(no sleevenotes were provided for this track).

Talking of which... it's staggering the way ex-members of Spacemen 3 managed to colonise volumes of "Indie Top 20", and in this case, they're living right next door to each other.

In 1990, opening your new band's career with a cover version of a Troggs single was considered an incredibly suspect thing to do, whether the end result was any good or not. Nothing really says "Actually, we're a bit stuck for ideas" as much as a sixties cover. Jason Pierce seemed to have Brexited out of Spacemen 3 and now didn't have a clue what to do. And yet...

The original "Anyway That You Want Me", if you want to take the time out to listen to it, is a very spindly, pale, uncertain little fawn of a pop song, closer to The Velvet Underground at their most stumbling and unsure than a scaling psychedelic song. And Spiritualized took it and made it mighty, creating an ambitious cover akin to Nilsson's reinterpretation of Badfinger's slightly scrappy "Without You". Crashing, heavy-handed Troggs chords still form the foundations of the song, but surrounding them are a wealth of orchestral flourishes and wailing guitars - it's not a cover so much as a total reconstruction, and it's hard to imagine why anybody would prefer the original. If it can be criticised at all, it's for the overlong ending which tries to be agreeably hypnotic but just becomes blandly repetitious. The single wouldn't have lost much by having 30-45 seconds trimmed off it, and indeed at the time I often found myself skipping to the next track on this LP early.

Obviously, when it comes to Troggs ballads that needed a bit more work, Wet Wet Wet hit what some would call the "paydirt" with "Love Is All Around".

5. The Family Cat - A Place With A Name (Bad Girl)

"The Family Cat present, for your delectation and delight, their second single of 1990. So crank up the gramophone, roll back the carpet and get down to 'Place With A Name'".

"Listening to Leonard Cohen, though heaven knows why", begins this track, a viewpoint that sums up a common human dilemma. We depress ourselves with heavy folk singer-songwriter fare from the sixties when what we probably actually need is some Northern Soul.

"A Place With A Name" is a short, sharp, likeable piece of indie rock which failed to really present The Family Cat as much of a force for the future, but was a distinct improvement on the disappointment of "Remember What It Is That You Love". It lacks the scuffed up aggression of "Tom Verlaine" but replaces it with a lot of sweetness - the brightness was turned up on The Family Cat's world at this point, and that's a side of them that would make itself known on future singles too.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Volume 10 Side 2 - Flowered Up, Field Mice, Saint Etienne, Mock Turtles, Sp!n

1. Flowered Up - It's On (Heavenly) 

"Beds not boxes - don't forget kids, conservation is survival".

Storming seemingly out of nowhere, though actually emerging from Camden Town (and rather than being a band who were based there, they had proper backgrounds in Camden - blimey) Flowered Up were a press sensation in 1990. Even if every review had to mention the fact that they were "London's answer to The Happy Mondays", there was still nothing but admiration for their raw indie-dance sparkle. While baggy had been filled to the brim with comfortable middle-class bandwagon jumpers tacking funky rhythms on to their fey indie tunes, Flowered Up were the proper southern deal - rough round the edges, rebellious, a tad eccentric, and with some mightily good tunes too.

"It's On", their opening salvo, seemed a bit cursed, though. It's first taste of national mainstream television exposure was on the "ITV Chart Show", where a sound fault rendered Liam Maher's vocals largely inaudible. Then, in error, Heavenly Records sent the rather unvarnished demo version of the track to Beechwood for inclusion here. There was nothing wrong with it as such, but it wasn't as good as the finished single, and it certainly wasn't what we wanted or expected to hear. (I believe, but have no proof, that later pressings of Indie Top 20 Vol 10 might have corrected this error. Certainly, "The Best of Indie Top 20" used the right version).

In its true form, "It's On" was a hypnotic and powerful piece of dirty indie-funk, using panpipe sounds, harsh punk vocals and wailing guitars to unlikely combined effect. It's odd, complex enough and powerful enough that it still stands up now. In the video, their obligatory Bez-type character Barry Mooncult - a man who was a glazier before the band formed, and became a glazier again when they split up - grooves away with a giant flower around his bonce, in a manner that would become their visual trademark.

Feted as the next big thing, their debut LP possibly landed a bit too late to generate the impression it might have done had it been ready to go in 1990, but cult stardom was theirs for the taking. We'll meet them one more time, so our story doesn't quite finish here.

2. The Field Mice - Triangle (edit) (Sarah)

"Full length version appears on the 'Skywriting' mini-LP (Sarah 601)"

I seem to have vague recollections of bone-idle journalists declaring this to be a case of baggy bandwagon jumping from Sarah heroes The Field Mice, which of course was bollocks. For one thing, anyone who thought The Field Mice solely specialised in fey jangle-pop hadn't been paying proper attention. For another, "Triangle" has a woebegone electronic pulse to it which more closely resembles early New Order at their moodiest than, say, Flowered Up before them.

Filled with high-pitched Hooky basslines, electronic twitters and sweeping synth sounds, as well as faintly buried vocals, "Triangle" is a raw, mid-paced reflection on singledom which was never going to get many feet on the dancefloor. Piling and layering on different riffs and ideas across its hypnotic brand of budget electronica, this track is constantly evolving and never boring in the way a lot of this early nineties work often could be. Ideally, it also would have gained The Field Mice a bit more attention, but in the end it barely registered outside the usual audience who tended to hear their work. They seemed destined to become a quintessential cult indie act.

3. Saint Etienne - Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Heavenly)

"A Neil Young song lovingly reconstructed by two ardent fans from suburban London. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs claim to gain inspiration from 'Elvis Presley, our loving parents, and drugs". They are currently working on an album provisionally titled 'Foxbase Alpha" which is due in the New Year".

At this particular point in time, Saint Etienne were envisaged as being a group with no fixed lead singer - hence Moira Lambert acts as the vocalist for this track rather than Sarah Cracknell. Therefore, you could argue that this was a single issued before the proper "group" had completely formulated it's "line-up" (if such old-fashioned rock terminology could ever be easily applied to Saint Etienne).

Whatever the details, this is staggering - one of the few examples I can think of where a cover version  is so powerful that it becomes impossible to return to the original. Looped keyboard lines, a throbbing, prowling bassline and atmospheric washes meet Lambert's yearning vocals, and it sounds unbelievable that somebody didn't think of this years before. As a cover, this would have been equally effective as a disco track in the mid-70s or early eighties. In 1990, as indie-dance took a brief hold over everyone, it felt impossibly powerful, Young's angst being just as applicable to moody indie-kids with baggy clothes as it was to earnest hippies in 1970.

Somewhat surprisingly, it only got to number 95 in the National Top 100 on this release, and a slightly underwhelming number 39 on re-release. It did give Saint Etienne a flying start, however, and ensured they were watched closely by the press from this point forwards.

Note the appearance of the Tufnell Park "Go Home Bible Mike" graffiti in the video as well, which would later loan itself to the title of a Fatima Mansions album track.

4. Mock Turtles - Lay Me Down (Imaginary)

"The Mock Turtles are the best pop group in Britain" - John Harris - Sounds 4/8/90

If Manchester's Mock Turtles are remembered for much these days, it's writing "that song" "Can You Dig It" which was a number 18 hit in 1991 and featured heavily on Vodafone adverts in 2002. Oh, and for the fact that lead singer Martin Coogan is Steve Coogan's brother, and that the character of "Saxondale" is apparently partly based on him.

And if "Lay Me Down" is remembered for anything at all, or at least remembered by the dirtiest of pub quiz hosts who enjoy trick questions, it's for being the single that "Can You Dig It" originally nestled on the B-side of. Originally conceived as nothing more than a quickie number to occupy the empty space, and penned in a matter of moments, Coogan failed to see its potential, and certainly Beechwood Music missed a trick here by not giving it a track listing instead of "Lay Me Down" (they weren't always averse to including B-sides, as we'll see).

All this is deeply unfair on the A side, though, which may be more subtle than its more famous flipside, but is nonetheless a marvellous track. Another prowling bassline meets gorgeous atmospheric guitarwork and Coogan's hushed, delicate vocals to produce a piece of slick neo-psychedelia. It was clearly never going to sell tons of copies, but it's a beautiful wash of sound which many a 2016 neo-psych band would be delighted to write - it's also audible proof that the "atmospheric" work of the forthcoming shoegazing movement was present during the baggy period as well, and may even have done a lot to usher it in.

The Mock Turtles were yet another Manchester band who signed to a major label in 1991 who then seemingly didn't know quite what to do with them. Given the sizeable hit status of "Can You Dig It", you would expect that the label were given rock-solid foundations to build on, but the bouyant follow-up single "And Then She Smiles" fell outside the national top 40, and the LP "Two Sides" sank without trace. That, really, was that.

5. Sp!n - Scratches In The Sand (Foundation)

"A psychedelic cocktail of the sublime, beautiful, angry and sad, Sp!n, as the name suggests, create a deliriously exhilirating sound in hypnotic motion. They have been described as shameless pirates and freeloaders, 'purveyors of bliss-orientated pop' (Dave Simpson - Melody Maker) and of 'playing wildly electric, mesmerising pp that brooks no boundaries' (Stuart Maconie - NME)"

Though if you want aborted promise, this lot take the prize. Hyped as likely glory-boys, their careers spiralled out of control after this single was released when lead singer Lee Clark handed in his letter of resignation, unhappy with the record company's handling of their work. A mere day after that, the group were involved in a road crash which sent bass player John Mason into an eleven day coma. All the press superlatives were washed away in the wake of the chaos and they rapidly became forgotten men.

"Scratches In The Sand" actually sounds very ahead of its time now, and while some feeble attempts were made in 1990 to categorise them as "baggy", it's a much harder, more brittle and downright less funky proposition than that. T Rex styled elements burst through (the "Do you want me like a lover?" lines sound utterly glam) and the whole thing simmers with attitude. With this, you could possibly argue that Britpop landed four years too early.

That's not as daft as it sounds, either. Members Steve Mason and Matt James would later pick themselves up and dust themselves down and recruit Martin Rossiter as their next lead vocalist, and begin a new band called Gene together. More on that lot much, much later - but while Rossiter brought thoughtful and considered lyricism and emotive vocal stylings (and not to mention some success) to the mix, I can't help but wonder what Sp!n might have become under the right circumstances. There's an abrupt rudeness to "Scratches In The Sand" that points towards something very different and potentially thrilling not far down the road.