I’m writing about fifty debut albums which I like and you may like or may want to hear. They are in alphabetical order from A to Z and are in batches of five albums. These are albums sixteen to twenty
“Story” – Honeybus
A short tale. It’s the early 90s and my family are on a short break in Stratford-Upon-Avon, seeing David Troughton in “The Venetian Twins” at the RSC, a play so funny that I can’t physically stop laughing at one point. We are staying in a lovely Bed and Breakfast which serves the best full English breakfast I’ve ever had. During the long drive home we all decide we’re fed up with whatever music is being played on the cassette player. Somebody asks me “Haven’t you got some Honeybus, Rob? That’ll be nice. ” I dig around, find my tape of their only LP “Story” and pass it forward. The tape plays. A voice says “Give us a note Pete” followed by the sound of a string section tuning up. The first song starts, gentle drums, guitars keening, then a voice sings “She used to laugh, she used to laugh at me…”. The tape is abruptly stopped, ejected and thrown back at me. Someone says “I’m not surprised she laughed at you” and another more ‘acceptable’ tape is found for the journey.
Honeybus.. “I can’t let Maggie go”… Nimble bread… One hit wonders in 1968…Did they make an album? Really? What else is there to say?
Honeybus were soft-rock, lots of guitars and harmonies and orchestral arrangements, probably a harpsichord somewhere, an oboe probably over there – like a British version of the Left Banke. Their early singles on Deram made little impact in ’67 – except that the second “Do I still figure in your life? was covered by Joe Cocker on his debut album (probably the Denny Cordell connection). But the third single “I can’t let Maggie go” was a huge hit, as joyous as a walk on a spring morning with the one you love. But the hit caused pressure – the lead singer and songwriter Pete Dello wanted the band to be a studio only act but the hit meant live performances where they couldn’t reproduce the rich sound of the records. Dissatisfied, he left the band and everyone assumed Honeybus were over. The other members had different ideas, carried on, issued a few singles and finally issued their debut album “Story” in 1970, produced by Ivor Raymonde – known for writing and arranging for Dusty Springfield amongst many other talents. I bought a CD of it when See For Miles reissued it in the early 90s and loved it. But why did I love it?
Because the album is soft pop heaven. It even sound quite indie pop in places too. It’s a typically late 60s record, but not over ambitious. There’s no heavy concept, no extended soloing, no tricky time changes. If heard in the wrong context (like a car journey on the outskirts of Stratford-Upon-Avon) it probably sounds wimpy as hell. There’s the occasional string arrangement, lots of harmonies, acoustic guitars strumming gently, nothing outlandish. The album is consistent too – the lyrics paint small vignettes of life and love, gentle political comment, tales of country boys and high class ladies, remembrance of loves past and hopes for future loves.
Highlights? The sighing opener “Story” is great- “Have you seen the light that she keeps within her eyes when she looks your way?” says so much. “Black mourning band” is a jaunty song of death. “Fresher than the sweetness in water” is pure refreshing pop (and was covered by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci in the mid 90s). “Ceilings #1” is almost country rock with a message. “Under the silent tree” is as close to psych rock as they get, twisting mellotrons and distorted guitars. “She said yes” is one of the ultimate “Hurrah, I’ve got a girlfriend” songs (see what I mean about it being indie pop?) “How Long” is wonderful chiming guitar rock but also shows a problem on side two of the album- the mixing leaves a lot to be desired on this song and “She’s out there” – vocals side, instruments right side, it’s more 1964 than 1970. But it’s forgivable – maybe they ran out of money. Who knows? The album is full of little gems, even The Sweetest Ache sweetly covered “I remember Caroline” for a single on Watercolour Records in 1992.
But nobody noticed, it was ignored, Honeybus split up and it was only many years later people realised what a lovely little LP they had made. Shame. Don’t let this lovely music be ignored any longer.
“Euphoria” – Insides
Friday 3rd December 1993
It’s her last day in IT and I’m quietly having panic attacks. Will I ever see her again? I have devoted so much time and effort (not to mention songwriting) on her and it’s all been for nothing. I don’t know her, she doesn’t know me. What am I doing? Why am I wasting so much time on her? Should I say something? That morning I sneak a camera into my bag, determined to somehow get a picture of her. How do I do that without looking weird? I look weird enough as it is. Her department hold a leaving party for her in the office next to mine, I can hear every dishopnest word being spoken – she hated it there and made it known she wanted to move on. Naked ambition? What do I know – I know nothing about her.
She carries out a final shift on the help desk in the room opposite my seat. My door is open, so is hers. I could walk across the corridor and talk to her. I could proclaim my affection for her. But instead I quietly pop in and shyly wish her well. Then when I’m back at my seat and she’s relaxing in hers – feet up on the desk, not looking – I take the chance and quickly take a photo. Not even sure if it will come out. Nobody notices, least of all her. (The photograph will become the sleeve for the third volume of “Honest and worthless”, a three tape compilation of my musical highlights from 1985 to 1994. The logic is each volume has a picture of the main inspiration on it – vol one has school, vol two has the Railway pub, vol three has her. The tapes are in the possession of one of the readers of this blog, not me). At the end of the day I leave the office thinking sad thoughts – is this the last time I see her, or speak to her, or anything? What I need now is a distraction.
My journey home that night inevitably takes a detour into Spillers Records. Music is after all a good distraction. I look through the little cardboard CD sleeves (Spillers don’t actually put CDs on their racks, they photocopy the sleeves onto 6 inch square cardboard – you have to admire their dedication to stopping people stealing stock) and come across “Euphoria” by Insides, an album I was interested in after a rave review in Melody Maker. I look at the sleeve, the track listing… There’s a song called “Distractions”. Perfect. I’ll have it.
I play the album at home that night. I play it again and again and again. I play it walking to the Railway and back again after a few drinks. I play it as much as I can to distract from the thoughts in my head. And slowly the songs assemble their parts like a jigsaw. Each song is built from patterns – electronics, bass guitar, electric guitar – that circle around each other like systems music. At first it all sounds random, it makes no sense – time signatures seem skewed and wrong. But each song has its own logic, builds up or drops down again. The music alone would make this a great album.
And then there’s the vocals. The words are sung (and presumably written) by Kirsty Yates, who also co-wrote the music with Julian Tardo. Yates has a breathy intimate voice, speak-singing, not forcing the words out in a declamatory way, letting them slip out of her mouth. And the words…oh the words. Sexy, intimate, scary, literate, totally unfiltered… It is the inner most thoughts of someone who doesn’t truly understand relationships. So that’s me there. The words are unique and they are sung into the listener’s inner ear so sweetly, even if the sentiments are far from sweet. Each song has its own unique style but it’s all washed in a deep blue reverb, throughout the album. “Walking in straight lines” has one of the best opening lines ever – “Thanks for waiting, I’ll start now”. Fine… “Relentless” has seemingly random sequences pulsing away while Yates sings “It’s time to say goodbye…”. Yes indeed. “Yes” is the most conventional, almost jazzy, just bass and drums and guitars while “Skykicking” builds up in layers and layers over seven minutes, reaching an ecstatic peak as Yates is drowned out by everything around her. It’s intensely personal, but strangely universal – should someone be saying these things? And how come I think these things too? Does this mean it’s not just me who feels this confused by the thought of relationships? The whole album is perfect. Just don’t ask me to describe it better than that.
I return to work on Monday not expecting to see her. But I do, at lunchtime. She ignores me. Life goes on. “What do you think about when you’re lonely?”
“The Only Fun In Town” – Josef K
In December 1991 I started to work two days a week at the Oxfam charity shop in Penarth. One of my neighbours was the manager there so a good word was put in for me, after all I had been on the dole for four months and no jobs were on the horizon, it was something to do and something to fill in a gap on my CV. I worked on Saturday mornings and Tuesday mornings and loved it. Saturdays were busier and I usually had a second till set up to serve the hordes of customers. Tuesdays were quieter and I was on the till with a lovely older lady, we used to have a huge amount of fun there. In fact having a ‘young man’ in the shop was an enormous novelty amongst the generally pensioner age workforce at the store. But I loved every minute of my time at Oxfam, so much so that even once I started working in Newport from June ’92 I still did Saturday mornings at Oxfam until I left Penarth in ’94.
And what has this got to do with anything, least of all a debut album by a Scottish group on Postcard Records released in 1981? Well obviously I didn’t have a lot of money at the time so every record was precious. I only bought two CDs between January and April ’92 – “Spooky” by Lush and “Sorry for laughing” / “The only fun in town” by Josef K. “Spooky” has been conspicuous in its absence from all the “best debut albums” lists I’ve been reading on Twitter – probably because Robin Guthrie’s production suffocated the songs in much the same way it did on “Ignite the seven cannons”. Odd because his production on their “Mad Love” EP had been perfect. “Spooky” still had its moments – “Monochrome” was a perfect album closer… ENOUGH LUSH!
So the only new music (new to me, that is) I listened to obsessively was the Josef K CD. “Sorry for laughing” was meant to be their debut album in 1980 but was pulled at the test pressing stage for being too clean and bright, so “The only fun in town” was recorded quickly as a replacement, sounding more live and punk. I put the albums on either side of a cassette and played them over and over, anywhere I walked I had Josef K playing on my walkman. For three whole months. It was great. I was trying to decide which of the two albums I preferred, and after much listening and pondering I chose “The only fun in town”. It soundtracked almost every moment of those three months, but the days I remember are the deep winter days in late January. There was a heavy snowfall and I ended up walking to Oxfam and back through snowdrifts, then a day or so later a fog descended and smothered Penarth. Again I walked through it all – snow at my feet, wrapped in a thick winter coat, gloves and hat and scarf on to keep warm, a fog so deep I could barely see a metre ahead of me, with Josef K’s angst ringing in my ears. “It’s kinda funny”? Not really. More like “A dreadful winter, listen(ing) to noise…”
What jumped out at me about Josef K when I started listening was the guitars. Yes they were scratchy, yes they were trebly, yes they were frantic… But the way they were played and the chord shapes and patterns was beyond my comprehension. I was – and still am – a competent guitarist at this point but I really couldn’t work out whether the two guitars were using alternate tunings or strange chord fingerings to achieve the discords in the songs. And then there’s the songs – mostly frantic dashes, the drums and bass struggling to keep up with the guitars. And the words are typical post-teenage angst, sung in a kind of yelp by Paul Haig which registered with me – this man knew truthes from his hard life so far and was sharing them with me. Phrases leapt out of the maelstrom – “there’s so many pathways that lead to the heart”, “So I’ll disappear through a crack in the wall”, “Everyone in our town walks around to test the air”… The ten songs were wonderful across the board, but some stood out. I loved the atmosphere on “It’s kinda funny”, the chiming of the guitars in the instrumental middle of the song. “Citizens” had a skitterish funk feel. “Sorry for laughing” was frenetic and strangely joyful. A song about being disabled, it comes across as being sympathetic yet stressed out – “Sorry for laughing – there’s too much happening”. Angst had never sounded nervier, edgier, more terrified of living – that made sense to me that winter. Whenever I listen to “The only fun in town” I’m back in the fog and the snow – literally and metaphorically.
“The Gentle Art Of Conditioning” – Lower
1997 was a miserable year for reasons I won’t go into, but there was some good music discovered and / or released that year. Maybe I’ll write about “Sound of lies” by the Jayhawks at some point, especially now it’s been reissued with “I hear you cry” rightfully restored at the album’s close (it was on the promo copy I had then disappeared on regular copies). But towards the end of the year I bought a single which would suit my feelings completely. It was hiding in the Diverse Records CD singles bargain bin – a sleeve of a snail crawling along a cut throat razor. A song called “Life’s so slow” by a band called Lower. Interesting. There was another single called “All change” by the same band. Bought them both for 50p each. It turned out “All change” was their debut single and was OK, but “Life’s so slow” was far better – it fitted the sleeve image, shall we say?
I kept an eye on the bargain bins for other Lower singles and lo and behold they turned up there over time. “Second best” came between the two singles I had, while in early 98 they issued two more singles “Sink or swim” and “Crime satellite”. All excellent, and some good b-sides. All bought for less than a pound. Then Lower went on tour and played in Le Pub in Newport. The venue had just had a refit and Lower were the first band to play there when it reopened, and my band the Cloud Minders were going to be the second band two days later. Only it turned out neither of us played. Lower turned up, looked at the stage and said “This venue’s too small for us, mate” and refused to play. And our drummer broke his wrist on the morning of our gig so we had to cancel (we still played there twice in the following years – great venue). There was supposed to be an album issued around this time called “The gentle art of conditioning” issued in ’98, I never saw a copy on a record shop but did find a promo CD of it at a record fair that year. £3. So I bought the band’s entire output for less than £8.
Lower were a five piece British rock band and very much of their time. You could call their music post Radiohead pre millenium tension music. It’s indie rock with a grumpy viewpoint. Look at the song titles – “Low Jesus”, “Second best”, “Machines for living in”, “Stuck on self destruct”. It gets loud and shouty, it gets quiet and moody. It was nothing new and nothing special at the time, everyone was looking for the new Radiohead and eventually people found it in Muse. But while the album in one sitting can be a bit wearing – there’s only so many times you can listen to “this alienation’s killing me” – in small doses it can be quite wonderful. All four singles are great (and it’s worth noting that the album versions are all slightly different to the single versions – I like bands that do that) and there’s one or two stunning songs. The best is “In semi-conscious” – moody verses then a rocking chorus – “What more do you want? The water’s safe to drink, just sterilise your mouth with bleach. What more do you need? The air is breathable but filtered through Salbutamol.”. It concludes with a round of vocals singing “You don’t turn round you don’t look down” which remind me of nothing less than New Musik at their best (and that’s meant as a compliment). An unheard gem of a song. Closing the LP with “Life’s so slow” is perfect too. After all the high tempo wall of noise, it’s good to hear something slower and moodier – and the slow build to a tape cut close is a nice idea (even if it hadn’t already been done on “I want you (she’s so heavy)” or “Timeless”). Oh and if you do happen to have the CD, note the credits state “Tracks 0 – 12” so pause the CD at the start and rewind. And the sleeve itself is rather good. These people understood packaging.
Of course nobody really noticed which is why nobody’s heard of them. Lower were signed to Coalition Records – which was what happened when Warners bought half of PWL Records, so the rest of the label’s output is very odd – from Apache Indian to Sarah Brightman to Jools Holland to Userei Yatsura – and clearly they had no idea how to promote an indie rock band. So after the general faliure of “The gentle art of conditioning”, the band disappeared into the bargain bin in the sky. I wonder where any of them are now. I hope that whatever or wherever they are, they’re a bit happier than they were in 1998.
“Shot Forth Self Living” – Medicine
It starts with someone talking, then a distorted guitar starts, holding one note as the guitar’s timbre is filtered and changed slightly, a wah-wah pedal is rocked gently perhaps – harmonics shearing off it at odd angles – but the note is sustained. At 53 seconds a bass enters, alternating between two notes – a root and a fifth – at a minute exactly drums thump out a pattern, medium paced. And the guitar note is still going on, the bass oscilates on those notes, the drums pound away past the two minute mark, unswerving unchanging thump noise thump noise is anything going to happen? At 2 mins 30 seconds the bass is allowed to slide to a note and the song actually starts, the note turns into an ascending and descending melody, the bass plays over it, more noisy guitars enter and singing – words of fatalistic affairs sung so slightly – “What’s the use in getting angry over me? One more year and we’re history”. And the avalanche of noise guitars continues to pour over the song, until around the seven minute mark they just drop away for the final verse, the song ends on a long feedback note at 8 minutes and 50 seconds.
What a way to open an album!
“Shot Forth Self Living” was the debut album by Medicine, an American noise pop / shoegazing five piece band led by Brad Laner on guitars, vocals and keyboards but also featuring Jim Putnam on guitars and Beth Thompson on vocals. The LP was issued in September 1992 on Creation Records and was trumpeted as America’s answer to My Bloody Valentine. I could see the similarity but each band had their own aesthetic but it’s bloody hard to think about that now. Medicine had pop songs swathed in noise. Not an original concept by 1992 – not even for America. But it was different enough to capture my attention at the time and regular readers to the blog will know I was in need of fatalistic songs about love in the autumn of ’92 (see many other posts).
“Shot forth self living” then is nine pop songs covered in horrendous noise. “Aruca” has Laner and Thompson cooing together over a dance beat and the sound of a chainsaw. “Five” and “Defective” sound more conventional, almost psychedelic. “A short happy life” is a crawl through molasses, where Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel guitar is fucked up so much by Laner’s studio tinkering that Kleinow cried at the aural desecration. “Sweet explosions” is perfectly named, sugary sweet with a dangerous heart. “Miss Drugstore”…amazingly I once saw an episode of “The Clothes Show” where a Milan catwalk had “Miss Drugstore” playing as the models paraded the latest clothes. Different times… Don’t forget that around this time “The Clothes Show” (a Sunday late afternoon fashion show on BBC1) interviewed J Mascis about grunge fashion. Yep. J Mascis on Sunday afternoon TV. I nearly choked on my crumpet. Anyway, Medicine made a great debut album, the melodies stick, the noise hurts, the words are painful – what’s not to love?
Sadly Medicine couldn’t keep up the intense noise to pop ratio – Jim Putnam left to plough his own furrow and gradually Medicine got worse. “The buried life” is great but the third LP was dire… Still, great debut!
Next time – more obscure rubbish nobody cares about except me. And maybe one or two albums you may have heard.
UPDATE 02/08/14 – Due to a cockup on the counting front, it seems my list of 50 debut albums only has 35 albums. I’ll bump it up to 40 and provide an appendix of links to other blog posts where I’ve written about debut albums… Whoops, sorry etc