I fell into John Peel and Eno simultaneously yet completely by mistake. It was towards the end of 1983 and I was twiddling around the dial one night and I hear Peel’s voice say “I thought I’d play a song from ‘Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy'” and proceed to play this quirky pop song like I’d not heard before. At the end of the song he adds “Well I wasn’t expecting that, I thought I was playing the other side of the album”. That song was “Burning Airlines give you so much more” and I only recognised the album title when he said it due to its appearance in a book my brother had from the late seventies compiled by Paul Gambacinni called “Two hundred best albums”, where he asked a load of music writers (from Roy Carr and Greil Marcus downwards) to list their top ten albums and then annotated the list. It was an interesting book and one I don’t think has been republished, not least because the writers and critics’ lists were placed at the end of the book with their comments so you could see which writers were more in tune with your own tastes. It was also interesting as it was compiled in 1977 so punk’s Year Zero mentality hadn’t kicked in, the only punk album was the debut by The Clash, and there was plenty of Supertramp on the list. But hell it was the first time I heard Eno and I was impressed and I sometimes wonder how I would have reacted had Peel played “Third uncle”. Over the Christmas period I got some Eno albums and that was a great direction.
But I didn’t really go back to Peel until the summer of 1984. No idea why, maybe it was just the right time for it to happen for me. I’m not sure what prompted me to listen in properly. Perhaps it was a session by The Smiths, or the Julian Cope session I mentioned previously. There were a lot of discoveries through Peel that summer – Cocteau Twins, Portion Control, Perfect Vision, Hard Corps, Quando Quango (whose contemporary ‘Atom Rock’ / ‘Triangle’ twelve inch became my first non-Joy Division / New Order purchase on Factory) and Microdisney. By now I was regularly taping sessions and songs like many others out there and was starting to regret the use of my Sanyo music centre’s tape deck. Not only did the play button (and hence record button) refuse to stay depressed unless I left a weight on it – I found my bicycle’s front lamp mechanism was the right shape and weight – but also once the Sanyo was warmed up the left channel would stop recording, ending up with session recordings in half stereo. (I was so used to the half stereo version of Microdisney’s late 84 session that it took me a while to get accustomed to the ‘real’ version when I bought their Peel Sessions CD six years later). Eventually I commandeered my father’s old JVC tape deck and connected it to the radio’s outputs and recorded on that instead,
Still amongst all these discoveries, two songs stood out. Unlike a lot of what I was listening to, this was far from electronic. It was simple scratchy guitar, pulsing bass guitar and pounding drums, with a sort of singer intoning over the top, clever words, dry humour and witticisms that I found endlessly quotable. The songs were “Cottage industry” and “Bias binding” and the group was Yeah Yeah Noh. Peel said this was their debut EP and they were from Leicester and on In-Tape Records and even writing those words I can hear Peel’s voice saying them. They certainly had my interest and I listened out for them. A second EP was issued later that year – “Beware the weakling lines” – but I remember I wasn’t so impressed by that. Maybe I was too young for it, as it’s about bar-room bores and I was still a few years away from that. YYN played as part of a Peel curated week of gigs at the ICA towards the end of the year, highlights of which he broadcast. However I didn’t tape their live set, even though I did tape the Perfect Vision and Hard Corps sets. (The other side of this tape was a Freur gig broadcast the same month where they played a number of songs from their second album which was never released in the UK and I hunted high and low for until I found a copy from the Netherlands in 1988). A few years ago I found that ICA set on the internet and it was interesting but not essential. YYN also did their first Peel session around this time which seemed to confirm their initial direction, though it did feature “Jigsaw”, a speedy thrash which pointed where they may be going. Their third EP “Prick up your ears” was far better though and sounded more organised and focused, both the title song and “Brown shirts” could be taken for pop songs, if you squinted at them hard enough. I found a tape from Christmas 84 Peel shows recently and there’s the great man professing admiration for them and other casual profundities.
For some reason I never bought those early EPs. I didn’t realise that I could. Cardiff’s best independent record shop (then and now) was Spillers Records but at the time I had barely scratched the surface of what was possible to be purchased there. For some reason it took me a long time to make the connection between the songs I’d hear on Peel or read about in the independent chart listings and the fact I could buy these records in Cardiff. Which is a damn shame because I was desperate for copies of “Upside down” and “Why does the rain” at the time. When I did work out the connection it was too late, but I did get all the EP tracks together when In Tape Records issued them as a mini album in early 85. So the songs make sense to me in that order and also there’s one or two songs that I never heard Peel play. For instance “Tommy Opposite” from the first EP is more clever wordplay than song (and on the subject of this song, around 1987 to 1988 the chain of Beefeater restaurants in the UK had a children’s food menu by the name of “Tommy Opposite” which I always thought meant someone in the Beefeater organisation was a Yeah Yeah Noh fan.). However the real eye opener was “Starling pillowcase and why?”. Whereas previous songs seemed to be swipes at society, this song’s basic backwards tape echo rhythm and drowsy repetition pointed a definite direction – a kind of suburban psychedelia, the dreams and tales of everyday life seen in a dayglo haze. The riff plays on and Derek Hammond sings his peculiar lyrics, almost always the same but changing small details as he goes along. Towards the end he loses his place and says “Where are we?” to nobody in particular, a moment I find as wondrous as when Tony France says “I”m lost” in “Five o’clock” by the Stockholm Monsters.
That mini LP compiling Yeah Yeah Noh’s early EPs was called “When I am a big girl” and seemed to draw a line under the first phase of the band’s development. They added a second guitarist and from hereon in they would get much more interesting.
In the spring of 1985 they recorded their second Peel session. For some reason on each of the three occasions the session was broadcast I managed to miss the first track “Crimplene seed lifestyle”, a song they’d recorded for a compilation album “Good morning Mr Presley” the previous year. The other three songs were essential. “See through nature” developed the psych influence and was alternately dreamy and urgent with great lyrics. “Temple of convenience” took the “La Banba” riff as the basis for a smart pop song. Best of all was “Another side to Mrs Quill”. It sounded like a lost 60s gem, this song really was the dreams of an everyday housewife, imagining an affair or even some attention from her husband. The lyrics were amazing, succinct yet enigmatic. I loved the song and the performance and couldn’t wait for new records. That session was part of the soundtrack of that summer, the tape got a real hammering.
In Autumn 85 Peel announced “A new single from those perfect popsters Yeah Yeah Noh is a bit of an event” and it was, for it was a new recording of “Another side to Mrs Quill”. The sleeve was dayglo green and purple with a psychedelic design and as many words as was possible to fit in. The song itself was not quite as good as the Peel version, losing a piano and gaining an euphonium and the “Magic Roundabout” mix was just phasing and reverb but it was a lovely package, the extra songs being “Penetration” – an old surf instrumental – and “Wendy’s in the woods”, a frantic dash with unsettling words (from which the line “When I am a big girl” came – referencing forthcoming songs would be a hallmark of the band). It augured well for their debut album in November.
I don’t remember Peel playing many songs off the album – entitled “Cutting the heavenly lawn of greatness” – at the time and maybe he was disappointed with it. There was some great songs on there like “Shortcut way to Saturday” about the tedium of office jobs, “Zoological gardens” which was as close as YYN came to a love song, and “Stealing in the name of the Lord” which was almost gospel. There was a pretty straight cover of “She said she said”. There were also rerecordings of older material too – “Starling pillowcase” became an oceanic wash of reverb and bass, “Prick up your ears” had a new urgency and hints of menace. However the production on the album seemed to drag it down – it was a wet Sunday afternoon of a record. The problem was most clearly shown by “See through nature”, which had been licenced from the BBC and whose production shone like a star amongst the other songs. A shame really. However the sleeve was wondrous – the inner sleeve had one side of lyrics and references (so now I knew that the lines at the end of “See through nature” were from a song called “My iconoclastic life” – a song I finally tracked down on Youtube last year) and a collage of lyrics, pictures, newspaper stories (and the first reference I had seen for Viz magazine – I should point out that had Freur’s 2nd album been released in 85 as it should have been, it would have had an even earlier reference, mentioning “Billy The Fish” in the song “Endless groove”). The sleeve notes also promised “Coming soon : Music for the time being”… At the time I didn’t buy the album, being more enthused over “Cupid and Psyche 85” at the end of 85, but I did buy it a year later.
At the end of 85 or possibly the start of 86, the song “Temple of convenience” was issued as a single. It was their most pop moment and the 7 inch EP had two new songs on it – another surf instrumental and the vibes-heavy “The time beings” which soundtracked my Spring nicely. The 12 inch had all these songs and more. Firstly a song allegedly found on a tape in a rehearsal room, a live version of The Beatles’ “Rain” by The Psychedelic Filbert. YYN said they had no idea who they were and neither did anyone else. Only a few years ago it turned out the Psychedelic Filbert were an early incarnation of perennial Food Records hopefuls Diesel Park West. The other side of the 12 inch was three versions of the song “Jigsaw”, first performed in their debut Peel session. The first version was mid tempo, chiming twelve string guitars and melody a-plenty, the second version an instrumental with samples of John Peel talking about the band, the band’s own songs and snippets of “She said she said”. Finally the third version was a huge clattering rush of drum machines, pops and pans and slide guitars ending on crazy piano and what sounded like an explosion. This was more like it, if YYN could do this they could do anything, or so it seemed.
In the Spring of 1986 Peel had another YYN session and I was poised over the pause button ready to record it. He then announced it was their final session, they were splitting up and doing a few final gigs. I was mortified, especially once I’d heard the session. “The super-imposed man” was pop as only YYN could do it, “Stealing in the name of the Lord” was a huge monster of gospel piano, girly vocals, handclaps and choppy soul guitar. “It”s easier to suck than sing” seemed to be about the band itself, especially as it merged into an updated version of “Cottage industry” which mercilessly ripped the piss out of everything, including themselves. Finally “Blood soup”, so wimpy on the debut album, was transformed into an eight minute monster, menacing, moody, samples of US broadcasts on nuke tests and a wonderful film sample at the close I’ve yet to find the source of – if anyone knows, please let me know. It seemed YYN could go in any direction they could choose and pull it off admirably but felt they could go no further.
I was indeed mortified, but not half as mortified as I was a few weeks later when a friend sat behind me in a Physics lesson sporting a Yeah Yeah Noh badge! I asked him where he got it from – “Oh I saw their final gig in Leicester this weekend” he said casually. Oh God I was so jealous, I’d never see them and someone from my class had. I sulked all day, as only a teenager can.
The final release by Yeah Yeah Noh would, logically enough, be an album compiling their three Peel Sessions issued in the Summer of 1986. Really, if you only need one YYN record in your life then this is the album for you. Great songs, great production, great track listing. Quite interesting sleeve notes too. Again this album was interweaved into my life in an odd way. The day I bought it was towards the end of August 86 on the day I passed an entrance interview of a private college in Cardiff to complete my A levels, as such it meant I wasn’t going back to the comprehensive school I had hated for so long, but also wasn’t going back to all my friends. Playing the album that afternoon, a typically balmy late Summer afternoon, the final track played and entered a lock groove, but I could see there was another uncredited track after it. I lifted the needle onto it and heard the acoustic guitars and vibraphones fade in, a melancholy descending melody, then the singing started “The end of summer, it came so soon…” The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, this was spooky, a new and lovelier version of “Zoological gardens” – but not owning “Cutting the heavenly lawn” at this point I didn’t know the song. The second verse starts – a female voice – “The end of summer it came so soon and now we have to go back to school..” and now tears are starting to well up in my eyes. How could they know? What is this song? The final verse reiterates the first with both vocalists singing and I’m gasping for breath, how could a song sum up all the bittersweet feeling flooding around my head so perfectly? Even now to hear that version sends me back there.
And that was the end of Yeah Yeah Noh. Cherry Red issued a compilation a few years ago, the band have reformed last year and have played some gigs and I still haven’t seen play. In only two years they travelled some distance musically and I’m glad they’re doing new material, just a shame Peel isn’t around to offer them a session. They’re still out there putting the fun back into being pretentious.
UPDATE 08/05/13 I’ve been told by the band themselves that they did a 6music session for Marc Riley last year. Makes sense, as they recorded for his label. And now I’m kicking myself all over again for missing it.