From failure to success

The Posies in the Nineties

One of the side effects of discovering Sarah Records was that it opened a whole new world to me. Admittedly it was a small world without much publicity or praise, and one which was generally sneered at by the mainstream music press, that is when they didn’t ignore it completely. But it was its own little underground. In the early 90s the initial buzz of the mid 80s fanzine / cutie culture exemplified by the C86 compilation was gone, replaced by a scene that revolved around Sarah Records and its acts. Spillers Records in Cardiff was my gateway into this scene – it sold fanzines, some with flexis and some without. As I mentioned before, I picked up the second issue of “WAAAH” fanzine in spring ’91 mainly for the Field Mice interview, and there were numerous flyers in there for records by bands I’d never heard of. One flyer was for two singles on Heaven Records, the “Ferensway” EP by the Fat Tulips and “Oh Dawn” by The Vicarage Garden. I was intrigued, and when I saw both singles turn up in Spillers during the summer of ’91 I bought them both. “Oh Dawn” was a standard jangle but the b-side “You that is” was terrific, while the Fat Tulips EP was half awful and half wonderful. In fast mode they could be anyone, three chords of fuzz and a girly singer. In slow mode they were far superior. “Goodbye” was a delicate ballad and “Ferensway” itself built up for very little to a really quite powerful and emotional crescendo – “In Ferensway there’s a light for every lost soul”. A flyer inside the Fat Tulips single advertised a Tulips demo tape so I sent off my cheque and forgot about it. The tape arrived six months later with a letter apologising and saying “I wouldn’t be surprised if you never buy anything from Heaven Records again”. They were wrong though.

When “The Waaaah! CD” was issued in the autumn of ’91 I bought it and loved almost all of it. There were some acts I knew already like the Fat Tulips, Field Mice, Strawberry Story – the bands didn’t help themselves with their names, did they? There were others which were new to me who I was impressed with like The Bedflowers and White Town (six years before their one hit wonder “Your Woman”). I wanted to know more and the insert said there should be a free fanzine booklet with more information, but my copy didn’t have it so I sent off to Richard Cutie-whoo (as he liked to sign his letters, much to my partner’s concern later) and received “Meet My Kittens”, packed full of information about these bands I’d never heard of. Richard also included loads more flyers, and a price list for Biscuits Distribution run by a chap called Steve Biscuit. This was the first place I’d seen “100,000 fireflies” by The Magnetic Fields mentioned, and I bought a few records from him along the way like “Aspidistra” by Pure – a bloody wonderful record, especially the b-side “Me and the almost beautiful girl”… This is what I loved about the scene, everyone was enthusiastic about the music, they wanted other people to have access to it and were happy to disseminate information. It was the same with fanzines – the enthusiasm poured through every page, every record was the best record ever, and sometimes they were right.

I bought loads of fanzines during that time – I even struck up a bit of a correspondence with Dickon Edwards, then author of “Stud Base Alpha” fanzine which is still now a fantastic read. Some fanzines had flexis which were sometimes great and sometimes infuriating. Waterbomb had a great issue with a Red Chair Fadeaway / Fudge flexi, and I immediately wrote to Tim Voss to get RCF’s LP which was odd psychedelic folk – not what I expected but still lovely. I also bought a fanzine called Precious which had a five inch flexi by the Fat Tulips, and it was a good read – the Heavenly interview is fascinating as it take place at the point where “Loaded” has been issued and Amelia is all… Actually let’s quote it.

Amelia; “…with Primal Scream, the new single (Loaded) proves to me that they’re a joke, I think it’s pure comedy but I suspect they may not think so.”

Q; “Bobby said last year he would never make a dance record because he couldn’t do it…”

Amelia: “Well he has now, it’s good too – but it’s still comedy…”

There were other interesting pieces in Precious, like comparing “A place called home” by The Orchids to having a hairdryer under your duvet, and articles about Honeybunch who I’d not heard of before and they turned out to be great. And there was a page about an album called “Failure” by The Posies. I’d never heard of them but they sounded right up my street. “A brooding beat smouldering in the breast, a song to the sky as the sunset struggles, its last rays a last stand on the horizon. You know the whole world would be against you if they could only remember who you were…wallow in self pity and tell yourself you never liked her anyway”. I added their name and the title of their album to my mental notebook of records to look out for, but I never saw it.

Jump to early Spring 1994. I have moved from Penarth to Newport and have found the wondrous independent record shop Diverse Music there, and regularly pick up records from there on the way home from work. Meanwhile in work the obsession with M is slowly fizzling out as another obsession with a lady named C brews. Everyone knows I like her. Everyone said I should ask her out. I saw her every day, I smiled shyly at her and she smiled back too. “From the friendly smiles that are prepared each morning…”. Could this be something? Then I noticed that Diverse had a copy of “Failure” on CD. So I put two and two together to make four. I’ll ask her out and if the answer is positive then…well I had no idea what happened then. But if the answer is negative then I’ll buy “Failure” as some kind of recompense because it sounds like it’ll help heal the wound that a “no” would cause.

So a few days later, I bought “Failure” on the way home from work and got home and headed straight for bed, put the cd on and clamped on my headphones. It had been a stupid idea, a daft idea, why would anyone care about me? It had all been pissing in the wind. But would “12 tracks of tinny guitarful pop” help?

Yes it could. There’s a bright shiny edge to the songs on “Failure” and a lyrical bent which certainly reflected my “trauma” – lovelorn, slightly bitter but still ready to keep looking. It was an album recorded as a demo in 1988 by the duo of singer / guitarists Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer before putting the band together, so it has a handbuilt quality that is quite charming. Guitars jangle, harmonies are occasional, the lineage of American power pop is invoked indirectly, the lineage of British 60s pop is also invoked, and it was with hindsight totally against the grain of what was happening in their hometown of Seattle in the late 80s. There is wordplay that is uncommon too – some of the lyrics are positively Morrissey-esque. Highlights include the Rickenbacker jangle and Beatle harmonies of “I may hate you sometimes”, “Paint me”‘s hints of colourful disquiet and “Compliment?” which really did sound like the inside of my head sometimes. And of course “Ironing Tuesdays” inspired a tradition of – well – ironing on Tuesdays. And I never did do that series on the blog, did I? Whatever – 12 songs of promise, tinny guitars and gentle heartbreak. Yes I quite liked the Posies. And I wondered what else they might have done since 1988. I knew there had been an album called “Frosting on the beater” in ’93 because it had appeared in Melody Maker’s albums of the year but I hadn’t heard it, or anything else by them.

A few months later in the early Autumn of ’94 I found the missing link from “Failure” to “Frosting…” Browsing through the sale racks of the Cardiff Megastore I found another Posies CD called “Dear 23” issued by DGC Records in 1990. So someone there had signed them up alongside Sonic Youth and Nirvana, but the cover didn’t make them look like grunge stars – in fact it made them look like Jellyfish. Still, the photo on the back of “Failure” had Ken and Jon with huge backcombed hair like they were attending a Robert Smith impersonators convention so maybe it was an improvement. The album itself was an improvement on “Failure” too – John Leckie’s production gave it a lovely post-Stone Roses / Dukes of Stratosfear psych tinge, the quality of the songwriting took a step forward, and it sounded like a band not a project. The songs were a little more grown-up than before too, dealing with relationships in a realistic way but still with a wry humour. “Dear 23” is a record I don’t play often enough, but when I do play it I wonder why I don’t play it more often. “My big mouth” speeds past with big harmonies and big chords, “Golden blunders” takes a slightly cynical view on marriage and parenthood hooked over a perfect three chord trick chorus. “Apologies” mixes “Abbey Road” guitar arpeggios with heartfelt lyrics of disappointment and begging for forgiveness (and has there ever been the phrase “nonsuch nomenclature” in a song before?). “Any other way” is superb – another relationship song, looking back on a failure. As the drums get thunderous and the guitars chime and a real rainstorm is slowly mixed in for dramatic effect, the final verse sums up the viewpoint perfectly.

“She left me alone, claiming we’d run out of things to fight about
I was crushed of course, but at least I’ve something I can write about
I guess I’m just some kind of malcontent
Who gets paid for having nothing good to say
And even though it doesn’t pay the rent
You know I wouldn’t have it any other way”

“You avoid parties” follows, an acoustic lament for someone’s decline into loneliness, there’s hints about what could be causing such pain to someone, and it is quite sympathetic to the cause. “Suddenly Mary” is their most pop moment, all Hollies harmonies and open stringed acoustic guitars, and lots of phasing on everything but the lyric is a dreamlike reverie on memory and relationships. Sadly the second side of the album follows the second half of “Failure” by not being as consistent as the first side. Both “Help yourself” and “Mrs Green” are cruel and callous songs during which I can only hope they are acting a pose. Even “Mrs Green”‘s attempts at jazziness and Macca-esque tunefulness can’t hide the bitter lyrics. “Everyone moves away” is twelve string acoustic whimsy of a high standard, and the closer “Flood of sunshine” is a welcome relief – for a start it actually sounds like a love song, a simple ascending chord sequence on acoustics (which actually reminds me of “Primitive Painters” by Felt) as Hammond organ and bass and drums join in and Ken sings quite heartfelt words of love, and it’s quite anthemic in an American indie “Hey Jude” kind of way. A Harrison-esque slide guitar arounf three minutes leads into a brief flurry of lead guitar from Jon, Ken reiterates the first verse before Jon takes over, with sky kissing guitar solos which ebb and flow with the backing. It’s the type of guitar wankery I should hate – and it is the kind of late 80s chorused lead guitar tone I despise – but I totally adore it, and it just goes on and on. And it could go on forever really.

Of course “Dear 23” has memories too… It was bought around the time when I was forming the Cloud Minders with Paul, so has lots of memories there. We were getting to know each other’s musical tastes and it was like the early days of any relationship – giving each other tapes of records we love – “You mean you haven’t heard of…?” He’d give me tapes of Redd Kross and Jellyfish, and had persuaded me that Crowded House were better than I’d thought (and he was right too – the last few songs on “Together alone” had taken my breath away). And I made tapes for him too, and remember passing him a silver Boots Chrome C90 with “Dear 23” on one side and “Radio City” by Big Star on the other. He looked it over and said “Hang on, does ‘Golden Blunders’ go like this?” and sang the first verse. Amazed I replied yes it does. “Ringo did that on his last album, that’s a brilliant song!”. Ringo Starr covers the Posies – well I never! I’m sure I ripped off “My big mouth” and wrote a song which was a facsimile of it, but I can’t remember what it was now. I’ll ask Paul and see if he remembers.

What’s unusual with the Posies’ LPs is that I bought them in the order they were released so noticed the natural progression they made. I picked up “Frosting on the beater” from a second hand shop in Newcastle while on holiday in Hexham in late September ’95. I had an inkling what it would be like as I’d seen a seven inch single on Siesta Records titled “This is not The Posies” a few months before. That was “Open every window”, a whirlwind of a song full of fury and power chords and very quotable lines – “At the back of your head is a life you despise full of tension and regret”. Fabulous song. “Frosting…” was a development from that song. The album was produced by Don Fleming and he brought the same clear headed sense of melodic fuzz that he had given “Bandwagonesque” a few years earlier (Teenage Fanclub were another discovery through Paul – I’d thought nothing of them until I really listened hard). Has there been a better opening trio of songs than “Dream all day” then “Solar sister” then “Flavor of the month”? As a statement of intent it is perfect, Ken and Jon ably supporting each other, the guitars are just on the right side of distorted, the band are tight and the melodies and harmonies are spot-on. And we’re not even going there on the album title, OK? Of course another development is that the songs aren’t so specific, the words are vaguer, more fleeting images than stories of bitter relationship fallouts and this helps – the cold and nasty nature of “Help yourself” is long gone. What some of the songs are about isn’t really clear, but they hurtle past at such velocity that I don’t care. As the album progresses the bubblegum fuzz disperses into something darker – starting from “20 questions” on side two with the introduction of a Deep Purple style Hammond organ for texture, then onwards to the quiet unease of “Lights out”. Here a ticking cymbal keeps time as electric guitars are stroked and coaxed into curious shapes, then martial drums kick in and the guitars implode and descend into strange keys they shouldn’t – and then repeat the process again from quiet to loud. The loud sections feel like a huge release, and someone is heard whooping for joy in the background. It’s the most grungey moment on the album. Darkness continues – “How she lied by living” is their “Needle and the damage done”, slowly hammering nails into a friend’s coffin who died from a heroin OD. Finally “Coming right along” is six minutes of just guitars crawling through treacle and the saddest vocal, Ken and Jon harmonise like half asleep angels and this song always makes me tear up. There’s a menace in this song – “Please be strong, you don’t know it but you’re coming right along” – and it seems to be describing someone’s nocturnal lifestyle, even the queasy guitar solo is evidence of a wasted life. Eventually the song closes with a repeated minor to major guitar chord change, repeating over and over.

So now I was up to date with the Posies, so I was a little excited to read a small paragraph in Melody Maker around Christmas ’95 about a new LP from them called “Amazing Disgrace”. It was due out in April ’96 with a UK tour to accompany its release. A friend knew someone at the record company so managed to get a pre-release tape of the album in March. Paul and I were very excited to have the album early and it was a battle for who was going to take the tape home first and I won. I remember dashing to the toilets on a break in the afternoon in work with my walkman and headphones and playing a few songs. I really couldn’t wait to hear them, and I did a tape to tape copy that night – and there was just enough tape on one side of the C60 to record Peel playing “Abba on the jukebox” by Trembling Blue Stars for the first time that evening (and playing it at 33rpm).

“Amazing disgrace” is hard to separate from the circumstances of how it come into my life, and therefore is tricky to write about. But hell I’ll have a go. “Daily mutilation” is louder and more grungey than previous Posies songs, and the hat tip to the Pixies’ “Wave of mutilation” is noticeable, but the guitars are now snarling and biting – that atonal guitar solo is something else. “Ontario” was the ‘hit’ demanded by the record company, subverted by some choice swearing. Clearly a dig at Neil Young’s “Helpless” – “Big birds flying overhead – who gives a shit?” – it’s still fun. But one wonders what kind of market the record company was hoping to sell this to. “Throwaway” – not going there. Too close to too many bones and touching too many nerves. A great song nevertheless. “Please return it” – at this point I started to wonder “Are Jon and Ken writing about each other here?”. I could be utterly wrong there. “When we live the life we live it’s never ours completely”? In the bridge they sing “There’s an upside? There HAS to be an upside” trying to convince themselves that it’s true. “Hate song” passes by with some silly noises and guests and fills a gap. “Precious moments” sounds more personal and is quietly intense, mellotrons and swimming guitars documenting a destroyed life – “A flood you can’t reverse”. “Fight it (if you want to fight)” again passes by on a wave of tunefulness.

“Everybody is a f”””ing liar” is a bitter tirade against hangers-on, journalists, record companies, and anyone else who brown-noses the band. It works too, the passion in the singing leaves you in no doubt they mean it, man. And yet they have a desire for “something higher”, some kind of purity in expression and communication. “World” is less frantic, and could be the closest the Posies come to a love song in their own terms. “Grant Hart” is a pitch perfect Husker Du tribute, capturing the thrill of the Du in words and sound. “Gotta turn up ‘Keep hanging on’ as if I had a choice” – too right! Shame it goes into “Broken Record” which seems to have little point or purpose. “The certainty” on the other hand is lovely and heart-rending, only guitars and voices with some mellotron – the divebombing mellotrons at the end of the song make my heart tremble. “Song #1” is my favourite Posies song ever and hence hard to pick apart. So many lovely moments, the Leslie-toned bass weaving around the song, the lyrics which are a conundrum of thoughts, the glorious yet daft chorus – “YES I understand you’re happy now, and I understand your hand-me-down towel…” (What? Hand me down towel????) “…better to be happy than to never know”. The curious middle eight with tick-tocking woodblocks. “With everything I say I mean it in the best way” – and a little bass commentary as if to say “Oh really?”. It just gets better and better for five minutes and fifteen seconds. Yes I understand. “Will you ever ease your mind?” is a throwback to their early days, all acoustic guitars and sweet Hollies harmonies. And those little guitar touches after the first chorus always remind me of “Laughing boy” by Julian Cope, which is odd because “Laughing boy” reminds me of “The rain song” by Led Zeppelin. A gentle end to a frequently violent and angry album then.

(See, I could write about it. Not particularly well but still…)

Then the Posies played at the Bierkeller in Bristol. The album’s release had been delayed by a few weeks so whereas it WAS meant to promote the album, it was now promoting nothing. Of course Paul and I went, managed to get a good spot by the side for the support band and waited. Support was from Kerbdog, an Irish trio who were very much grunge-by-numbers, at least from their set. The audience was sparse, hanging to the side of the walls of the venue, but there were three determined fans in green greatcoats slam dancing into each other to every song. It was most odd to see.

Then the Posies came on. Paul and I got straight to the front, halfway between Ken on the right and Jon on the left. They both had Orange amps, Ken was playing a succession of Fender Thinline guitars, Jon alternated between an Epiphone Sheraton and a red Gibson SG. I wanted those guitars, I really wanted them so much. In the end I got them too, well the Epiphone SG anyway, and my Sheraton is still my pride and joy (and I played “Silent night” on it today in the church nativity). But the gig itself… Most of the audience didn’t know the new material but Paul and I did, so we started shouting requests – both old and new songs. I called for “Open every window”, never expecting it to happen – and Jon looked down at me, said “Yeah let’s do it” and burst into it at breakneck speed. I was on a roll so I started calling for “Everybody is a f###ing liar”. Ken heard me, cupped his hand to his ear and said “What did you say?” To which Paul and I screamed “EVERYBODY IS A F###ING LIAR!” And he did it too. There were some heartstopping moments – “Coming right along” sent a shiver down my spine, “Any other way” was brutal yet beautiful. They invited some stagedivers to dance to “Broken record” which was odd. Ken threw his guitar around and for the encore bashed the drums for two minutes to let off some steam. It was a wonderful wonderful night. Afterwards I hung around, too shy to say anything, but Paul was brazen enough to find all four members in various places – backstage, toilets etc – and had them sign the pre-release tape insert. He chatted to Jon abouit the Ringo cover and other things, Joe and Brian were friendly but Ken was the hardest to locate for some reason. Anyway I hope the tape has pride of place in Paul’s house. That was a memorable night.

It all went quiet again in Posie land. One day in work in early ’98 Paul asked me if I wanted to use the internet in the little room where years before I had mooned over M as she had sat on the Network Support helpdesk – it now had a server in it and three PCs for surfing. This was my first time using the net so I had a little trouble finding anything, but as there was so little Posies news I did a search on them. I found their website with some shocking announcements – a solo LP by Ken, a new band LP “Success” back on the Popllama label which had issued “Failure” years beforeand a ‘farewell’ tour – they were splitting up. Orders were duly placed for both LPs and packages awaited eagerly, while still being in shock about the band curtailing their career.

Ken’s album “This sounds like goodbye” was an odd collection. Some songs were guitar based, sounding like home demos, such as “Your love won’t be denied” and “Here’s to the future”. Other songs like “Trans potato” were experiments in looping and sampling and noise making. There was a glacial version of Big Star’s “Take care” to close the album. “Success” is an intriguing collection of old and new songs – “Start a life” was a b-side from the “Frosting…” era, “Farewell typewriter” was the b-side of “Open every window”, “Every bitter drop” was originally recorded for “Amazing disgrace”… Ken Stringfellow’s weblog diary of the recording of “Amazing disgrace” was a fascinating read (it’s still there on the Posies website) documenting the difficulties of recording the album then getting it rejected by the record company, which I’m sure led them back to Popllama anyway. This seemed to be the case with a lot of DGC bands in the mid-90s – it happened to Sloan as well, which is why “Twice removed” – a classic power pop album – was their last major label album. But with the Posies the move back to indiedom helped, there’s a directness to “Success” and a lack of studio artifice. Some of the album is Posies-by-numbers – the middle section of “Placebo” and “Who’s to blame” is a let down – and turning “Start a life” into an electro song doesn’t really work, or letting it drag for five minutes doesn’t help. But the majority of the album is great. “Somehow everything” breezes past in waves of tunefulness, “Looking lost” and “Fall apart with me” are great songs… But there’s a noticeable lack of integration between Ken and Jon – a lack of harmony between them. Sometimes there will only be one of them singing an entire song which is a shame. But there’s still a few classic Posies songs here. “Grow” starts like a 70s power pop classic, all honeyed guitars and soft voices yet becomes a Posies classic. “You’re the beautiful one” has one of their cleverest lyrics – an entire chorus based on the keys of a typewriter! – and a wonderful sense of playfulness. “Every bitter drop” is a plaintive acoustic lament to an alcoholic friend and quite touching. The final song though – “Fall Song” – is strangely affecting for me, there’s something in the intimacy between the voices, the stream of images passing by and yes I suppose I felt a sadness that this was the last song by the band, in the same way I feel listening to side two of “Abbey Road” or “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” (I presume it’s only me on that one then?).

And that was it, a farewell tour and solo careers beckoned. Only it didn’t really happen like that. There were two live albums – a full band album and an acoustic Ken and Jon set – then a boxed set of out-takes, then an EP of new songs – and the song “Chain smoking in the USA” was as good as any of their other songs, a state of their union. Then a full band album in 2005, then another in 2010, not to mention touring their classic albums and I haven’t even mentioned the Big Star connections so… That 2010 album “Blood / Candy” was easily as good as any of their nineties work and was my joint favourite album of that year (the other album being “The Lost Star” by The Orchids – another resurrection as good as their previous work). And listening now…this album’s full of classic Posies and new directions too. Yes I should have played this album more too, you know. And sod it they’ve got a Suzuki Omnichord too. Sod it I want one of those! And for all their gigging around the world I’ve yet to see them again. Maybe I should try harder and get out more.
Maybe next year?

Next time – well it’s time for Christmas so I’ll have a little break for a few weeks and will return in the new year. But I make no promises, I might write something before then but don’t count on it. Have a merry Christmas and a happy new year and enjoy yourselves and thanks for all the support along the way.

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