The midweek snow had come as something of a surprise to me. Sure it was the middle of January and yes it had been bloody freezing standing at the bus stop the previous few mornings but snow? I just wasn’t prepared for that. After all I’d only been living in my new house for two weeks, moving in during the first week of 1994. I was still getting my bearings, finding out which bus took me to town and out to work again, and which bus took me around the estates I didn’t want to see, especially in the dark at 6pm. So far I had discovered the most important places in my new home town – the record shops. Our Price on Commercial Street had all the regular releases you would expect from a mainstream retailer. Diverse Music was hidden behind the market next to GM Music (double win – look at records then pop next door to drool over guitars) and was a superb independent record shop (and still is, and long may it continue). Roxscene was at the back of the Kingsway Shopping Centre, a very seventies development which was already down at hell, as was the shop itself which was slowly closing down. But Hitman Records was interesting, a place to hang out and flick through the racks of CDs, checking out the bargains and oddities. The day before the snow I had bought “Blood Music” by Chapterhouse from Hitman and had played it that night. Yeah it was OK and had its moments but was nothing special. I taped the bonus CD “Pentamerous Metamorphosis” ready for the next day’s bus journey to work. It was the Chapterhouse album reimagined and remixed by Global Communication, about whom I knew very little. But it was a free CD so nothing to lose.
So I woke up to snow and was slightly freaked out. I very much doubted the usual bus I caught would make it up the hill of Ruskin Avenue – and I was right – so slid down to the bus stop on Risca Road and waited and hoped. There was very little traffic and the roads were still patchy white, while the pavements were pretty much pristine – deep and crisp and even and beautifully white. It’s a huge thrill to place a footprint in the snow, at whatever age. Finally a bus came along and I settled down with my new tape, which I had been listening to since I left the house. It fitted the day and the journey well, starting quietly and slowly rising in intensity. I was happy to be on a bus, relatively warm and moving towards work. And then the bus stopped. The driver admitted that the road was impassable and we would have to make our own way into town.
Which was slightly difficult as I had no idea where we were. I looked around for any landmarks I may recognise from my limited journeys around Newport but was pretty much lost. Everyone else was walking down hill so I just followed them, still listening to the tape. After half an hour I was somewhere I knew – the town centre – and headed for the bus station for my next bus to work. Luckily there were no problems with that as the journey was on Newport Road and I arrived in work about two and a half hours after leaving my home. There I found a skeleton staff as everyone else was struggling through the snow and by eleven am the whole office was closed down to allow people time to get home. So I struggled back to town and ended up walking home, still listening to that tape, and getting home around 3pm, a wasted day. But I’d listened to “Pentamerous Metamorphosis” about three times which is why that album always reminds me of snow.
By that weekend the snow was still around which was a pain in the arse. I wanted to get out, go somewhere different and eventually decided to visit Cwmbran, the closest town to Newport. I’d never been there before and had a vague impression it may have some record shops. So I slid down the hill to the bus stop again, caught a bus into town then walked to the train station for a train which took me to Cwmbran. Only I hadn’t the faintest idea where I was once I left the train station. I was disorientated by the snow, and wandered around lost looking for signs which may lead me to the town centre. I didn’t think to ask anyone though – far too shy. After half an hour of wandering I accidentally found the town centre, awash in icy slush. Now Cwmbran is an odd place, a “new town” built up during the 50s and 60s to provide housing for mine workers in the south eastern valleys in South Wales, a town built around a million roundabouts (as I would discover when I learnt to drive there a decade later) and the shopping centre was built in the late 60s. It seemed like a rabbit warren that day, I was so lost but somehow managed to find some record shops so I was happy and lost.
The best record shop that day was Apple Stump, hidden upstairs in the shopping centre. Don’t go looking, it’s no longer there. A dark hideaway, racks and racks of CDs and tapes and LPs and singles everywhere. I settled down to a half hour of browsing and ended up flicking through a box of random 12″ singles on the floor. I came across a single in an intriguing sleeve, a picture of what looked like a cliff face with different shades of rock on display. It caught my eye, as did the fact it had no words on the front. I turned it around, the sleeve picture faded into what looked like water in an ocean, the picture still dominant and a small strip on the left hand side saying very little – the band name Pacific, the song title “Shrift” and “A Creation Recording”. The sleeve looked more Factory than Creation. I only knew one Pacific song but liked that one song so took a chance, as the 12 inch was only 99p… Actually I bought both copies that Apple Stump had, just in case it turned out to be brilliant. Then I continued to wander around Cwmbran, trying desperately to look like I knew where I was going, getting lost looking for the train station again and struggling back home in the dark with a nice haul of records (and maybe we’ll get to one or two of those other records another time).
So who and what exactly were Pacific? Well I didn’t know that much about them at the time. I knew one song of theirs – “Jetstream” had appeared halfway through Creation’s classic “Doing it for the kids’ compilation of Summer ’88 and the song stood out like a sore thumb there. While most of the bands and songs on that iconic compilation were various shades of indie jangle (mostly GOOD indie jangle too), there were only two songs which used any kind of 80s technology – drum machines, sequencers, samplers. “A complete history of sexual jealousy parts 17 – 24” by Momus was like a jilted Pet Shop Boys (and there were people who at the time said it was the theme song for my life), but “Jetstream” was something else. There’s found radio broadcasts, gentle acoustic guitars, a rattle of a drum machine and a peculiar string arrangement over a mid tempo beauty of a song. And Michael Heseltine speaking in the House Of Commons before a brief trumpet solo. This was definitely not a typical Creation Record. So what would this single I’d just bought be like?
“Shrift” is a three song EP, the title track on one side and two other songs “Autumn Island” and “Mineral” on the reverse. The label states that the title track is produced by John A Rivers, always a trademark of quality. It starts with a grand sweep of a string section moving slowly around a set of four chords with a church organ in the background. After a minute, these drop away to be replaced by sampled orchestra hits, crashing drum machines and frantic sequencers. This is definitely not a typical late 80s Creation Record, but a typical late 80s pop song. Cellos soar and finally a male voice sings words that seem like glimpses of a bad day – “So when garlands slip off your life.. punch drunk a day late…” before bursting into a joyous chorus where a female voice joins in. The female voice then gets a verse to herself, an intriguing few lines which add to the peculiar state of affairs – “The lovers leap in front of the cars, you thought you’d left but woke up to find things as they were”. What the hell is going on? Then a trumpet solo while tympani drums crash. Back to the male voice for more verses, then a trumpet led fanfare / breakdown and a perfect line of lyric – “As if I wasn’t weird enough…” And the song keeps building, there’s the crescendo around the five minute mark where you think the song should logically end but doesn’t. Finally the string arrangement brings the song to a close around seven minutes and then there’s a minute of space talk, which is a recording of NASA transmitting Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass to the Apollo 8 mission which circled the moon around Christmas 1968. Overall eight minutes long and a real synth pop beauty.
Flip to side two of the EP for two songs. “Autumn Island” is an instrumental based around acoustic guitar arpeggios – slightly reminiscent of early Felt – but with a minor key air of melancholy, aided by simple string synths in the background and the occasional Ofra Haza style vocal sample. The piece establishes it’s mood, there’s a few embellishments like the occasional trumpet blast and more quiet chimes and synthesisers, but all very subtle. And it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.
“Mineral” starts with a minute of water noises – a waterfall, some splashing in sensurround stereo before a sequencer a slightly disquieting series of notes, again melancholy and minor key, lots of delay and echo on the simple pattern. Then the waterfall drops out allowing the listener to concentrate on the sequence, and there’s nothing else here, just the echoing synth, before transferring the sequence to a piano, emphasis on the bass notes, still dark and haunted before sampled ‘cello is joined by a real string section, adding to the unease. It really is sad music, uncomfortable and slightly sinister. And then it just stops.
I looked back at the record. It definitely said it was recorded in 1988. Sure there were probably other people making synthetic pop records like a cut price Pet Shop Boys around then, but nobody was making dark beatless instrumentals like the b-sides. And for this to be issued on that bastion of indie tradition Creation Records… And this band performed at the Doing It For The Kids gig in London that August? Maybe this was the start of Creation moving towards being a dance music label? Jump ahead to 1990/91 and Alan McGee is blissed out on E, Primal Scream have got their groove going thanks to Andrew Weatherall and the “Keeping the faith” dance compilation is one of the coolest collections to have. Maybe that’s a bit of a jump, too much conjecture but it makes sense to me.
And that Apollo 8 recording leads me somewhere too. In the back of my mind I had a memory of reading an interview with Pacific, when this single was released back in the early months of 1989. The mainstream music press ignored it, but the oddball music magazine Offbeat devoted a column of one page to them. It mentioned that Apollo recording, the incongruous nature of being in space and having the world literally at your feet and having Alpert’s music – the height of uncool (or so it seemed) – being piped up as entertainment. Sadly I didn’t have the interview to go back to but remembered a few details, how Pacific was a trio, how they were mixing orchestral instruments with samplers and drum machines, and that’s about it. That may well have been the only press they ever got.
So on that snowy Saturday I span the disc over and over again and marvelled at my humble discovery. Did anyone else know about this little gem? Was there anything else by them? Luckily the insert to the Creation Soup compilations gave a clue in the discography, Pacific had made an album called “Inference” though it was just a compilation of their two singles. I wanted to find this album. I kept my eyes peeled.
A few months later I had found Rockaway Records, the record stall upstairs in Newport market, a strange place affiliated with TJs, the legendary live venue by the cenotaph with enough stories written about it. I was flicking through their racks one afternoon after work, not even sure whether I would find anything. I saw this strange album sleeve, a dark picture which I still don’t really understand. Intrigued I turned it over, and it said “Inference”. This was the album I was searching for. True enough it compiled their two EPs but this was what I had been searching for. Handing over the £3.99 (yes the price is still on the sleeve now) I hurried home to hear this. And was slightly disappointed. The version of “Shrift” which kicked off the album was a four minute edit, losing entire verses and most of the best parts of the song. “Autumn island” and “Mineral” were as perfect as ever. Flipping to side two, “Barnoon Hill” sounded like the Lotus Eaters, lots of rapidly strummed acoustic guitars, that wandering ‘cello, some sequencers and drum machines and lyrics about “The dark side of happiness”. Marvellous stuff. “I wonder” was more of the same, very indie pop with touches of trumpet and ‘cello, a male female duet with another great lyric – “I’d like to gather up all the wrong things that I’ve done and send them back to the person I knew who had none”. “Henry said” was the female singer sounding like Tracey Thorn over a gentle bed of acoustic guitars and sighing ‘cello – listening now it sounded like a precursor to some of Blueboy’s quieter moments. Then finally “Jetstream” which sounded just as odd and out of place in 1994 as it did in 1988.
As time passes, Pacific felt like a little secret project that nobody really remembered that much about. I would put songs onto compilation tapes for people and they were charmed. I found that “Shrift” fitted nicely in mixes between “Looking from a hilltop” and “Missing the moon”. I put “Mineral” on the end of a compilation for a girlfriend and she said it reminded her of her holiday in Ibiza the previous year. And I still kept looking for the CD of “Inference”. In 2005 I found it, in the Oxfam music and book store in Cardiff, just wandering in after a day’s shift on the phones on the way home, amazed to see it there in the rack, bouncing to the cash desk, telling the assistant “I’ve been searching for this for ten years”, like they cared. Shoving the CD into my Walkman for the train home, grinning like an idiot when the full version of “Shrift” appeared at the end of the CD… happy bunny.
So what did become of Pacific? There isn’t a lot of information on the net about them. A few blog posts sharing out of date links to the singles. Someone confusing them with a 90s supergroup featuring John McGeogh. And yet the main person behind Pacific continues to produce music, that gentleman being Dennis Wheatley and he now records under the name of Shrift. Well that makes sense. There’s music on Spotify and available in record shops and it’s very nice indeed.
I’ve reached the end of this tale. I still love Pacific and included “Mineral” on the Goldfish Radio b-sides podcast. “Shrift” still sounds like it should have been a hit single. And it just pops up sometimes. A few days ago the Everything Indie Over 40 Twitter account posted “Shrift” in their “Posting Randoms From The Creation Catalogue” and that’s what prompted this post. It’s not important to you…
“Go ahead with the music, but be advised the fidelity was low and the volume too high…. (music comes through)… that’s good!”
Next time – so why is “Statues” by OMD one of my favourite songs ever?