There must be a better life

In the summer of 1991, Creation Records was doing everything it could to keep itself from bankruptcy. One of their bands was still recording an album that had started the year before, or maybe the year before that, and would allegedly cost the label a quarter of a million pounds. In the meantime another of their headline bands was struggling to get their singles in the charts even though they were defining their times as best as anyone could define 1991 – a strange year of fads and fashions and underground eruptions and left-field cross-overs and Jesus I spout some crap sometimes. Creation needed money to bankroll its two major bands – My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream – while they both completed albums expected to change the world in the Autumn of 1991. The only thing Creation could do was exploit its own back catalogue. Alan McGee knew there were collectors who would buy anything on Creation – he even alluded to it on the minimal sleevenotes to the 1985 “It’s different for domeheads” compilation (something about “No need to be gobbing around collectors’ zips”?). So Creation made a load of compilations – some of their newer artists (“A palace in the sun”), some of their older artists (“Once around the fair” compiling The Loft’s meagre output) and five volumes of “Creation Soup” – compiling (just about) all the singles from CRE 001 to CRE 050. They got a fair minded review in the Melody Maker around October 91, a crucial issue for me that reviewed “Glass Arcade”, “The WAAAH cd”, “For Keeps” and had a full page Field Mice interview. It’s in my attic somewhere. But money was tight for me around that time so I limited my purchases to what was absolutely necessary – and those three albums were all absolutely necessary to me that Autumn. I was on the dole for the first time after three years of wasting time and money trying to get through higher education, through which my only success was staying alive. However I applied for jobs and hoped for the best. In April 92 I had two interviews on consecutive days – at BT in Cardiff and the CSO in Newport. I was really wound up about the BT interview – it was where I had worked for the previous summer and where my father had worked for many years – and of course was a nervous wreck and failed the interview miserably. I felt like the CSO interview the next day had no pressure compared to the BT interview and was wonderful. I was positive and eloquent and performed well. Two weeks later I had a letter from BT saying “No thanks”, then a few days later a letter from the CSO saying “Welcome aboard!”

So in June 1992 I started working as a computer programmer for the Central Statistical Office – what is now the Office for National Statistics. I was working in the Newport office while still living in Penarth, a few miles on the other side of Cardiff. I was travelling about 80 mins per journey to get there – a walk from home to Penarth train station, a train to Cardiff then a bus from Cardiff towards Newport. There was of course no downside of this – I had time to strap on my headphones and dive into music for over two hours a day, and money to be able to buy whatever I fancied.

I was part of a group of sixteen new recruits in the IT department and we were trained in two batchs of eight – I was in the first group who started in June, and the second group started in July. On their first day we all got together and nervously said hello to each other. Two things struck me on that day. The first thing was “Blimey, that bloke looks just like Neil Finn from Crowded House”. The second thing was “Blimey, that woman is different…I think I fancy her.” It all went downhill from there. Many years later I would discover I have some kind of attachment fixation as part of my Aspergers where in new situations I fixate on someone and obsess over them. Now I know that I do it, I recognise it and dismiss it but at the time I suddenly fell into a whirlpool of emotions. Once all our training was complete we all went into our roles in different areas, I worked in the department who handled producing the inquiry forms and I generated data analyses on small firms for a gentleman in the Manpower building in Sheffield – which I always found amusing as a few years earlier I had climbed a twenty foot street light outside that building when I was very drunk. I wrote and ran programs in COBOL to analyse the data as required then needed tons of 5 and a half inch floppy discs to send the results up to him. This woman – who I will call M – was working for the IT Support department, running the help desk, sorting out problematic machines, providing discs and other consumable products for those who wanted them. I would sit with my back to the door which would open to the corridor the other side of which would be the helpdesk phone room and M would be sat there for half a shift each week and I would be sitting there finding reasons to turn around and look at her or gaze at her or even go over across the corridor to ask her for discs to send to Sheffield. Did she know I was crushing on her? She probably knew something was going on, with me mooning around her all the time. She hung out with her training friends and I thought they were all weird, but then I was the one who would speed walk around the perimeter of the building during lunchtimes with headphones on playing music as loud as possible.

And what music was I listening to? Well we’re into the early Autumn of 92 when all this kicked off so I was playing “Shot forth self living” by Medicine whose noisy angst fitted my mood nicely. I was dipping my toes into indie singles bought on spec – “That looks interesting, I’ll have that” – which lead to debut singles by Boyracer and Hood on Fluff Records, plus “This accurate pain” by Razorblade Smile and singles by White Town and Lorelei. There was a single that Melody Maker raved about called “Creep” that reflected my situation too – “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo…” Yes I am thanks for reminding me. I got the cd single of that and their previous “Drill” EP. The first Red House Painters album was as slow and desperate as I felt half the time. There were new singles and albums on Sarah Records, an Orchids b-side “I was just dreaming” hit so many nerves it was almost painful to hear – “And d’you know she almost smiled?”, “Popkiss” and “If wishes were horses” by Blueboy, “The first star” by The Harvest Ministers… Oh and there was “Scott”, “Scott 2”, “Scott 3” and “Scott 4” – Fontana reissues that were unspeakable, too many heart stopping moments, particularly on “Scott 3” which tore my heart out and strung it on a line. Oh and there was “Understand” by Brian – heartbroken ballads like “You don’t want a boyfriend” and “Time stood still” sounded like my life. And “Mad scared dumb and gorgeous” by Because and “XYZ” by Moose – “I’ll see you in my dreams” being fatalistic and the title track screaming “Why? Why?” while guitars arc-ed in the air through a sea of reverb.

But more than anything I was listening to Creation Records. I had picked up the first two CD volumes of “Creation Soup” for six quid each in September 92 and absorbed their contents. Yes The Legend was as abysmal as I’d read about, there were silly little ditties by The X Men and Les Zarjazz but there was some stuff that knocked me sideways. The Jasmine Minks singles sounded vital and urgent, I loved the psychedelic drift of “Flowers in the sky” by The Revolving Paint Dream, The Pastels were more brutal yet more gentle than I anticipated, The Bodines and The Loft had great guitar interplay and words that mattered. But what struck me most were the songs by Biff Bang Pow! Everything I’d read in the music press indicated that BBP were a ‘hobby band’ – Alan McGee’s poor excuse for a band, the records wouldn’t be issued if he didn’t run the label and all the rest.

Their debut single “50 years of fun” was a Byrdsy jangle about the end of a working life but the b-side “Then when I scream” was slower with a great Farfisa organ solo and it showed promise. The second single “There must be a better life” was far far better. A simple four chord change, a Northern Soul beat, chiming twelve string guitars and Alan swearing and shouting “LOVE ME!!”. How could I not love it? It became the soundtrack to so many journeys and headphone walks, me spitting the words out. I was so impressed with the song that I combined it with “Up the hill and down the slope” by The Loft and “Million tears” by The Pastels (and a little bit of “Does this hurt?” By The Boo Radleys) and wrote my own song for M called “A million words” which mentioned her name eight times.

So I wanted more Biff Bang Pow! Around the end of October I visited my brother in Stockport for a few days, mainly for two concerts – Julian Cope at Manchester University and a Sarah Records night with Brighter and Blueboy in the Swinging Sporran the next night. I was thrilled to finally meet Matt and Clare who I’d been writing to for over two years. The gigs were good too. And of course I scouted round all the record shops – Piccadilly Records, Eastern Bloc and Vinyl Exchange. It was in the latter I bought a CD with “Pass the paintbrush honey” and “The girl who runs the beat hotel” on it – the first two BBP albums. “Pass the paintbrush honey” wears its influences literally on its sleeve – an 60s Vox amp and semi acoustic guitar, and a cat sitting on them. It’s only eight songs and zips past in barely twenty minutes, a blur of twelve strings and heartbreak. There’s not much to say about that album – side one has “There must be a better life” and it goes downhill from there – not that it is a bad album but it starts on such a high note it can only go in one direction, but “Love and hate” sounded vicious to me and “Wouldn’t you” was a laugh.

But the meat of the cd was “The girl who runs The Beat Hotel”. Now I knew nothing about The Beat Hotel except as a phrase – and that’ll teach me to not read enough books because I just looked it up on Wikipedia and I should have known about that really. But it’s a nice image – though not strictly accurate by the look of it. Talking of nice images – this album cover is one of my favourites, which is why it is my profile picture on Twitter (and props to those who’ve tweeted back saying “I love that album”). The album starts with “Someone stole my wheels” and the agenda is set – Farfisa organs, lots of reverb and lovelorn words, and lots of “ba ba baa” choruses. “Love’s going out of fashion” is desperate and vasciliates between love and hate and wanting and not wanting as much as I did then. I mean, I could just be thinking this album is great because it soundtracked (and reflected) the times and emotions I was experiencing while I was crushing on M, and really it might just be crap. But I have listened to this album over the last week more than any other and it still captures those feelings and memories, and yet is still very good musically. Most of the time anyway. Side one swings from classic song to classic song – “She never understood” has the wonderful line “I don’t realise what she means to me” and more swirls of organ and 12 strings, “He don’t need that girl” spoke to me…side two has a wonderful song called “The happiest girl in the world”, all brushed drums and guitars playing Major Seventh chords and a girl – Christine Wanless, of Revolving Paint Dream – singing. She also sings “If I die”, a fatalistic love song – “If I die on the way to see you, would you care? Would you blink an eye?”. Oh yes this album spoke to me so much. OK there’s a five minute psychedelic ‘wig out’ with backwards guitars, and an uncharacteristic surf instrumental to end the album but when it’s good it’s fabulous.

I wanted more, but first of all I bought volumes 3 to 5 of “Creation Soup” before anyone else did. Volume 3 veered from ridiculous (Five Go Down To The Sea, The Moodists) to sublime within a few minutes. There’s that fabulous ’86 run of singles – “Love’s going out of fashion”, “Almost prayed”, “Ballad of the band”, “Velocity girl” and best of all “Cold heart” by The Jasmine Minks which was so different to their other singles but was just as powerful, as was the b-side “World’s no place” – “I’d love to write songs about flowers and holding hands walking through summer fields, but the world’s no place for a romantic today”. All these words resounding through me. Volume 4 wasn’t quite so impressive but did have “I will die with my head in flames” with the first few seconds in stereo as it should be (it was in mono on “Bubblegum perfume” and “Stains on a decade” and “Absolute classic masterpieces vol 2”), but Volume 5 really opened my eyes and ears. OK so you had to sit down with the cd case and reprogram the track listing to make the b-sides sit with the singles but it was worth it.

First off – Baby Amphetamine, McGee’s attempt to be a pop svengali. I remember reading the NME article at the time and thinking it was a stupid idea and I certainly didn’t hear it on the radio. Listening to it in 1992 it seemed like an ancient relic, someone trying to do hip hop and getting it seriously wrong. But it apparently kickstarted The JAMMs when Bill Drummond heard it in the Creation office so has a small place in history. Next up the first two House Of Love singles. Now here’s a bit of an admission. I didn’t get The House Of Love at the time. I thought they were Mary Chain classicists and missed them completely. In fact I missed almost everything interesting happening in 1988 (except for MBV, Happy Mondays and acid house – the advantage of being within walking distance of Sheffield Leadmill) due to having my own difficulties to deal with, so it was only when I borrowed “Blissed out” from Cardiff Library in 1993 that I realised what I should have been listening to that year instead of what I was listening to and then spent the next few years hunting for AR Kane records in second hand shops. But it was Creation Soup 5 that piqued my interest in the House of Love because the two singles and b-sides showed a lot of promise – I adored “Flow” and “Plastic”. The Emily EP was strange – I knew one song from “Doing it for the kids” and there are people out there who believe Emily were one of the great post C86 bands, but I didn’t really see it, the singer was too vague in pitch for me. The two Blow Up EPs also showed promise – covering garage classics “125” and “I won’t hurt you” showing their intent, and a thrown away b-side called “Wish” was two minutes of gorgeous melody and wistfulness which they would expand into four minutes of beautiful build up on their long forgotten debut album “In watermelon sugar” (nice Brautigan reference). Finally there were all five songs from Felt’s “Final resting of the ark” EP, which I’ll get around to another time, suffice to say it’s wonderful and this was the only place you could get all five songs on cd.

But the general atmosphere of all the songs on the cd struck me the most. There was a lot of reverb, a lot of guitars, a lot of wistfulness, a dreaminess, a gentility across the board (ignoring Baby Amphetamine of course) and I remember reading an interview with McGee in “Strange Things” magazine in early ’88 about how Creation nearly closed in ’87 because nobody was buying the records and it was only Biff Bang Pow and Felt that kept the label going. That seemed to be the atmosphere of the music on volume 5 – a strange devil-may-care attitude, odd records which would hardly lead to great careers, and this is all shown in one of two singles not on this volume – “Even though” by Clive Langer (CRE 042 to all your trainspotters out there), a one-off single by the legendary producer (and former Deaf School member) with Steve Nieve on keyboards and Tom Morley on drum machine which makes me wonder whether it was just something Langer had recorded years ago which he asked McGee to issue. It’s a lovely ballad and quite unlike the Creation template sound. So that’s how Creation was in ’87.

After that little spree of Creation back catalogue I carried on in November with the Biff Bang Pow catalogue, all of which was still available on CD in Virgin in Cardiff, all with price tickets marked at £12.25 with a date of 01/04/91 showing the date that VAT was raised from 15% to 17.5%. Thanks to that useless Major government which drifted aimlessly through the early 90s. So three more CDs – “Oblivion” from ’87 and “Songs for the sad eyed girl” from ’89 on one cd, then “Love is forever” from ’88 and “Me” from ’90. I absorbed these through November and again they influenced the music I was making. Let’s look at these albums in order.

“Oblivion” was issued later in ’87 than “Beat Hotel” and is a cleaner more concise album. There’s still the same swing between love and hate across the songs – it’s mentioned explicitly in “Seven seconds to heaven” – but there is happiness and hope too, within “In a mourning town” and “Baby sister”. “She’s got diamonds in her hair” is a joyous romp, in love with the thought of love. “The only colour in this world is love” may feature the first wah-wah guitar on a Creation Record. As the record progresses it gets darker – a new recording of “Then when I scream” turns the original inside out, brushed drums, whispered vocals, tension building but never releasing. “I see the sun” is just huge twelve string acoustic chords in a halo of reverb, murmured vocals and a solitary sustained guitar solo – again an influence on my music in that I ripped off the entire arrangement for “Nowhere near enough” only I did two contrasting guitar solos. Finally the building tension is released on the album’s conclusion “I’m still waiting for my time”. A sharp snare kicks off and a Neil Young style lead guitar part snarls and the band race out of the traps, McGee spits venomous lyrics and you’re not sure what exactly he’s been expecting but he’s pretty well pissed off that it hasn’t happened yet and the flagellating finale of “I don’t matter, I don’t matter much” touched a nerve with me. It’s the most convincing performance on the album and set the template for what was to come next.

1988’s “Love is forever” is a strange album. Not because it is that different in style from their previous albums but because almost all the vocals are covered in so much reverb that they are almost unintelligible. This was deliberate – I read an interview with McGee for BBP’s next album where he said he was embarrassed by the words he was singing so submerged them with reverb – it seems the reverb is set to “wet” with no “dry” signal to make them understandable. Indeed it could be said to have influenced My Bloody Valentine’s “Isn’t anything” where reverb is used almost as an additional instrument. It should also be noted that it was around this time that MBV supported BBP and McGee had a revelation that they were “the British Husker Du” and signed them up.

So apart from the reverb, how is the album? Well… At the time I wasn’t that fussed on it. I felt the reverbed vocals made it a pain in the arse to listen to and understand, and I really struggled to enjoy it. Still I have a distinct memory of stumbling out of a friend’s house after a heavy night in November ’92 and walking home to this album and it made perfect sense to my alcohol addled brain. To be honest I like it more now than I did then. “Miss California Toothpaste 1972” is a great opener (and a brilliant song title) and “She paints” is a lovely pop song. Then the reverb kicks in and the tempo slows and the acoustic guitars come out and it becomes unintelligible. “She haunts” had pride of place in the middle of the “Doing it for the kids” compilation from 88 and therefore was the first BBP I heard but it wasn’t the best introduction to the band – a friend of mine insisted it was the worst song he’d ever heard. It does go on a bit. In an interview I saw with McGee around this time he said the songs were about his bitter divorce and falling in lovc with someone else so presumably there’s the love / hate relationship again in these songs. “Ice cream machine” is like a less frantic rewrite of “I’m still waiting for my time” and features McGee singing “In my world of books and films…” which was a line he used on “She shivers inside” from “The beat hotel” LP. The real surprise is “Electric sugar child” which jumps out of the speaker on waves of distorted guitars, atonal guitar solos and an impassioned screaming vocal from McGee. It makes you wonder how much influence MBV had on him at the time – there isn’t that much else on the UK indie scene that rocks that hard. (I’m quite expecting a barrage of responses saying “You didn’t mention this…”). Certainly the eponymous sophomore Primal Scream album (“eponymous sophomore”??? Urgh!!! How about ‘self-titled second album’ instead?) didn’t rock as hard as this. The album gets downbeat towards its close – “Startripper” seems to tell a hanger on to sod off and “She went away to love” is despairing. And that’s where the regular album ends, but I had the CD which had two extra tracks.

Now until a few days ago I thought these two extra tracks were from a free single which came with the album, which Creation were doing around the time – they did it that with the House of Love’s debut and The Weather Prophets’ Creation LP and “Isn’t anything” so I just assumed…until I looked it up on discogs.com and they are extra tracks from the “She paints” single. So why am I going on about them? Because one of the two songs is fucking Godlike. The two songs are rerecordings of older BBP songs but with Christine Wanless singing. “It happens all the time” (originally the b-side of “Love’s going out of fashion”) is a gentle two chord drift with lots of chiming celestes. “The beat hotel” on the other hand… The original was just McGee and a twelve string guitar, but this is a full band performance and it sounds absolutely divine – the two electric guitars entwine around the melody, they twinkle and shine like some perfect 60s dream of pop heaven. It’s a completely gorgeous performance all round and one of the highlights of the band’s career.

What happened next with Biff Bang Pow is what (supposedly) happened to everyone in 1988 – they got loved up. The next BBP album was “Songs for the sad eyed girl”, seven songs of acoustic beauty, with no drums and just a handful of percussion along the way. McGee’s voice is now clear and not submerged in reverb, he wants these words to be heard. In an interview at the time he claimed he’d been inspired by taking ecstasy and sitting in parks listening to Nick Drake. And of course love. It wouldn’t be BBP without love. McGee was still being cut up by an old relationship but was also immersed in a new one. “She kills me” is almost a manifesto – “I’m impossible – can you see? I’m deplorable – can you see? I’m unbearable – all I want is love in other words”. God these words were MY manifesto. The song slowly builds with more vocals piled on – “All I want is some love”… “The girl from Well Lane” is just McGee and his guitar, but he sounds absolutely desperate to communicate his confusion – “What more can I say?” – there’s such passion in the performance. McGee wants love more than anything and that resounded with me. The whole mini-LP could be a template for what I was recording, only my songs weren’t as eloquent in their pain as his. “I look at my life, I look at my lifestyle, there’s lines on my face, there’s lines on my back…” The version of “Someone to share my life with” is sparser and more in touch with melody than the TV Personalities’ original but they both share the same need for emotional stability. The whole album maintains its mood and works well.

The last BBP album was issued in 1990 without any fanfare and quietly sank without trace. It was called “Me” but the subtitle was more accurate – “More songs for the sad eyed girl”. Some of the songs continue the theme of the previous album – the opening “My first friend” is short and sweet, the following “Miss you” starts as a series of whispered confessions over minimal chords and slide guitar but builds into a mass chorus of “There’s only one thing worth living for and that’s love” and “Song for a nail” shows he still hasn’t got over his previous relationship yet. But side two drags in the middle – “Lovers” and “Guilt ridden” don’t go anywhere interesting and the album ends with a mass singalong which isn’t as powerful as it’s meant to be. And that was the end of Biff Bang Pow. Maybe McGee had expressed everything he needed to, or felt the band had run out of steam, or maybe he started to take his label more seriously, or who knows. Certainly nobody seemed to care that the band was finished, I don’t remember seeing anything in the music press about it at the time. There haven’t been any calls for the band to reform or play their classic albums again, in fact they are barely mentioned at all – a footnote in McGee’s career trajectory from Mary Chain to the Scream to MBV to Oasis. As far as I can tell there’s no fan sites on the web, little discussion on their work, very little regard is paid to them and it’s a shame because some of Biff Bang Pow’s music was fantastic and they have been forgotten. For what they meant to me at the time, I will always love them.

Postscript #1

In December 1999 I travelled to London to see a rare live performance by Bob Wratten under his Trembling Blue Stars guise. It took place at the Notting Hill Arts Club which Alan McGee would make the base for his Death Disco club a few years later, and for a wide-eyed Welsh boy a trip to the Big City was a thrill. I hung out at MVE in the afternoon and saw Harvey Williams emerging from the back room laid down with lots of vinyl – he was DJing that evening as well as playing a support set. At the venue my friend and I enjoyed the opening set by The Clientele and Harvey’s set and were grooving on Harvey’s between set music choices – some great indie tunes and 60s sunshine pop. On the way back from the bar I passed the DJ booth and saw a familiar sleeve with flowers on and heard a well loved intro – it was “The happiest girl in the world” from “The girl who runs the beat hotel”. I looked over to Harvey and shouted “I love this song!” And Harvey smiled back and shouted “So do I!” He then played the Godlike version of “The beat hotel” too. That was a good night and it was nice to know someone else loved BBP.

Postscript #2

And what about me? Well I wrote five songs about M and recorded them as the “Candlelight Ecstasy Romance” EP in November ’92. It won worldwide acclaim and global sales in the excess of ten million. Actually I made five copies and distributed them around my friends. I carried on obsessing over M for another eighteen months, even once she’d moved to another far away part of the office – I’d still see her lunching with her friends. . I also moved offices into the same room as M’s friend who looked like Neil Finn and after various conversations about music, and after he had heard my “Songs about girls” LP from August ’94 (and yes I was still writing songs about M at this point) we sort of mutually decided to form a group together which became The Cloud Minders. And some of the songs about M became staples of our set, not least “A million words” which turned into a stomping rock monster. He also told me that M thought I was a “space cadet” but harmless. He also pointed out that obsessing over M was futile as she was ‘batting for the other side’. And sometimes around September ’94 I wrote two final songs about M and moved on from her to the ‘girl’ who would eventually become my wife.

If you are at all interested (which I doubt you are) in the “Candlelight Ecstasy Romance” EP I have written a page about it here with Soundcloud links to the songs.

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2 thoughts on “There must be a better life

  1. So many things I remember here and much that I’ve learned for the first time, even after all these years. Nice one.

    Am I allowed to say that Neil Finn is aging better than his doppelganger and is a far better guitar player, but they both rock out and vocally it’s a dead heat?

    Too late… 🙂

  2. BBP’s Acid House LP (with the hand-sprayed sleeve) is something I would run back into a burning house for. I had to use a fair bit of cunning to retrieve it from an ex-girlfriend in the summer of 1989.

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