Category Archives: Fifty Debut Albums

Debut Albums #36 – #40

At last the end is nigh. The final five albums from my debut album list. Yes I know it’s forty not fifty, I can’t count. Sorry. Anyway, let’s press on, I’m sure you’ve been on the edge of your seats waiting…

“The United States Of America” – The United States Of America

I’m not old enough to remember “The Rock Machine Turns You On”, the first cheaply priced sampler album issued by CBS in 1968. Well I’m not old enough to remember it at the time, but at some point around 1982 a copy of the LP somehow ended up in my brother’s record collection. I think my mother found it for him in a charity shop where she worked and thought he might be interested in it. He may not have been that interested at the time, but looking back on the track listing the LP does hold pointers to music that both he and I would end up listening to later on in our lives. It’s a very 1968 album, and a very CBS ’68 album – there’s Dylan in John Wesley Harding mode, Simon and Garfunkel doing “Scarborough Fair”, Al Kooper gets in there with Blood Sweat and Tears, the Byrds drop by for the oceanic “Dolphin’s smile”, “Time of the season” before it became a hit… But there’s oddities too, and looking back suddenly a few songs make sense. As in “So that’s why I recognised ‘Can’t be so bad’ and ‘Sisters of mercy’ and ‘Turn on a friend’ when I heard them…”. I don’t think my brother played the album many times, but even back in the early 80s I remembered that ridiculous song with clanging noises and screeching violin about a wooden wife. That kind of song you don’t forget in a hurry.

Jump to the late 90s – ’97 or thereabouts – and I spot “The United States Of America” on LP and CD in Diverse Records I examine the sleeve on the LP, it looks a very ’68 CBS LP sleeve – all the lyrics on the back in the same manner as “Bookends”, but I pick up the CD instead. I suppose my interest had been piqued by “Love song for the dead Che”, the debut single by Northern Picture Library back in October ’93 which was a cover version of a song from this LP. I didn’t know much more about the band but I was going through a phase of listening to as much odd music issued by CBS in 1968 and this fitted that bill perfectly.

The United States Of America were the brainchild of Joseph Byrd, an attempt to bring radical ideas – political satire, electronic instrumentation, avant-garde experimentation – into mainstream music. It all must have sounded very revolutionary when it was released in early 1968, but then revolution was in the air that year – everyone thought it would happen sooner or later. I’m not going into the socio-political side of things here – there’s been enough books about that over the years and I’ve read quite a few of them – but purely in musical terms, this album was its own revolution. There were no electric guitars at all, just bass guitar, drums, electric violin and a range of primitive synthesisers and effects – ring modulators, oscillators and more. And then there was Dorothy Moskowitz as lead singer, her voice alternately soft and harsh – a counterpart to Grace Slick in Jefferson Airplane.

The opening of “The American metaphysical circus” wasn’t inspiring – a collage calliopes and barrel organs and marching bands for almost a minute, then creeping into the sound picture is a strange unearthly noise like a buzzing bee, then the song starts – slow and careful, bass and drums and keyboards and vocals while in the distance peculiar noises echo. And with each verse’s pass, the female vocal – so calm and serene – changes, different effects each time it’s clearly an homage to “Being for the benefit of Mr Kite”, yet is far more sinister – the chorus runs “And the price is right, the cost of one admission is your mind”. And as the music rises, the words get submerged into the rising clanging of the electronics. Finally the song collapses back into fairground music. Very odd. “Hard coming love” starts like a typical late 60s US psych raver – blaring keyboards, pulsing rhythm section, a lead guitar seemingly searing through the song. Only it’s a distorted keyboard, and after a minute it all drops down to quietitude – Moskowitz is alluring, talking about love but meaning something else – the song stops and the synths rise to the occasion, so to speak. Dirty and hard. “Cloud song” is a gentle drum-free drift, as befitting such a title – it sounds very sixties but decidedly modern too. “The garden of earthly delights” is more hip 60s groove music, the lyrics full of drug references or war references – so many mushrooms! And the song is smothered in those typical ‘let’s see what a synth can do’ noises, but it’s fabulous psych rock and the lyrics could almost predict the rave generation – “dancing by night dying by day”. To close the side is “I won’t leave my wooden wife for you, Sugar” – all clangs, fuzz bass and satire. “You make me feel twenty five again” sings Byrd and you really don’t believe him. A glimpse of a typically perfect American family life.

Side two begins with chanting in Latin before “Where is yesterday?” kicks off, with queasy sliding strings and gentle descending music and lots of echoing vocals. Unease again – “Shadows on the pavement but no bodies do you find”. It passes the time until “Coming down” kicks the door down. This is more prime psych rock – fuzz bass, charging drums, frantic tambourine, odd synth noises and a perfect drug lyric, full of what now sound like cliches but probably sounded really clever at the time – “Reality is only temporary”, “A trip that doesn’t need a ticket or a bed”. As it dies away in an explosion, “Love song for the dead Che” fades in gently, swooning strings and keyboards and a strange lyric which is heartfelt and gentle. “Stranded in time” always annoyed me, the staccato strings were very “Eleanor Rigby” but are out-of-phase so sound HORRIBLE (this is producer David Rubinson’s fault, it’s an effect he used all over Moby Grape’s debut LP for those unearthly harmonies – and if you’re thinking “What about Moby Grape’s debut?” Well we’ll get to that at another point soon enough), and the song veers from the string quartet to waltz time rock band back and forth while being another critique of straight society… “The American way of love” starts as another conventional song (unless you listen to the sordid lyrics) before rocketing into some strange areas, electric violins through fuzzboxes, space noises, discordant strings then a second section about “California good time music”, sunshine pop with a pervy twist, finally into a grinding section where all manner of craziness comes in – sections from the previous nine songs are spun in as found sounds and collaged into a daydream nightmare as the whole album replays before your ears before a loop of “How much fun it’s been” repeats endlessly. It’s a bit “Revolution 9” and a bit like “Track for speedy freaks” which closes Blossom Toes’ debut LP which crams their entire LP into one minute of confusion.

And that’s the end of the album and effectively the end of the band. Byrd made a second album under the name Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies, confusingly titled “The American Metaphysical Circus” before heading back to academia. Moskowitz moved over to join Country Joe and the Fish and well the revolution never happened and the revolutionaries certainly weren’t on Columbia.

But.. This LP turned out to be more influential than a lot of other albums of the era. The mix of rock instrumentation with electronics was highly innovative and set the groundwork for any number of bands who integrated the two together. It was odd hearing the LP in ’97 because it sounded quite up to date, the influence upon Stereolab and Broadcast was obvious. And Portishead too (thanks Marcello). It’s now regarded as a forward looking classic and that’s the way it should be. Get past the dated lyrics and it’s a total blast.

“Bringing home the ashes” – The Wild Swans

In the mid 80s the Wild Swans were spoken about as if they were a magical dream, a mirage which briefly appeared, made a perfect record then disappeared again. As soon as I read Mark Cooper’s “Liverpool Explodes!” book which mentioned them, I knew I had to hear their one single. In late ’85 I was lucky enough to buy a bootleg tape of “To the shores of Lake Placid”, the Zoo Records compilation, which the kind bootlegger had added both sides of the Wild Swans’ single at the end of the tape. “Revolutionary Spirit” and “God forbid” were as special as I had hoped. A year later I found a copy of the single in a secondhand store for only £2 and snapped it up immediately. Then in the Autumn of ’86, Strange Fruit Records issued their first batch of Peel Session 12 inch EPs – including the Wild Swans’ session from June ’82. I didn’t buy it then but found the cassette of it (in a bizarre plastic case…it seems the cassette version is quite rare, it’s not mentioned on in a bargain bin in Virgin in Sheffield in early ’88, and if I remember correctly I bought it alongside an Editions EG label compilation from 1981 and “Arrival” by Abba, all for 99p each. That Wild Swans session always reminds me of Spring in Sheffield, the sun starting to warm up the mornings, getting drunk and sleeping on floors on the wrong side of town, then bleary bus rides into the city centre for lectures.

One of the unexpected side-effects of the Peel session being issued was that the Wild Swans reformed, made a new album and played some gigs. When I found that they were playing Sheffield Poly (as support act for the Mightly Lemon Drops) I was ecstatic and quickly snapped up tickets. Sadly on the night the sound was typical support band mush, all midrange noise and not a lot else. I recognised their current single “Young Manhood” as the set opener, and “Revolutionary Spirit” was the closer but the rest was just noise. And they completely ignored Simon and me down the front shouting “No bleeding” at them. And the Mighty Lemon Drops were shit too. Anyway, I finally bought the LP “Bringing home the ashes” when I found a copy (it was a bit hard to find for some reason) and played it a lot, not just because I liked it but because…


Because it’s a bit bloody bland. It took me a lot of listening to identify which songs were which. It’s a very late 80s production job. Lots of big drums, the latest keyboard sounds (which now date it horribly), but the real problem is the lack of dynamics. The music is great, absolutely wonderful – but there’s no lift for the choruses, nothing to make the listener sit up and take notice which makes the album sound homogenous, safe and uninteresting. Which is a shame as the songs deserve better.

“Young manhood” was their ‘comeback’ single and works well as a statement of intent for the LP, a bit of a Northern Soul stomper,a list of things Paul Simpson doesn’t believe in, while the guitars chime – nice one note guitar solo. But it refuses to soar. “Bible dreams” is more remembrance of friendships and lives changed, but already the problem of the album is evident – there’s not enough variety within the songs, all spritely and brisk but nothing to distinguish them from each other. “Bitterness” and “Archangels” could be the same song – great background driving music I suppose. These songs deserve better, so much better. God I feel bad about this LP, I wish it was better. “Northern England” is slower, slightly. There’s too many simple chord changes from C to F and the like, not enough surprise. Side two just carries on like side one too. Great songs all – “Whirlpool heart”, “Mythical beast” – but ruined by the production. I should point out that Simpson’s croon is perfect and his lyrics are wonderful depictions of growing up and facing adulthood. But I so want the fog to lift off these songs. For something different to happen.

Finally it does.

The closing track is called “The worst year of my life”. It’s slower, it’s based around a drum machine and high chiming guitars. And it’s different, beautiful, honest and a little bit scary because it could be me. If any song touched a nerve with me, it was this one. “There’s no golden future, just an open wound there”. God that hurt.

(I’ve only just realised the drum machine pattern is the same as “Bluerings” by Microdisney, also recorded and released around the same time Make of that what you will)

After this LP, the Wild Swans ceased to exist as a functioning band, Simpson made a second LP under the name with various Liverpool legends like Ian Broudie, Chris Sharrock and Ian McNabb, but the bizarre bubblegum pop never got issued here and then Simpson retreated into Skylab. And that was that. The essential Wild Swans can be found on the “Incandescent” compilation of their 81 – 82 material. “Bringing home the ashes” could be so much better. An opportunity wasted. Shame.

“Uh! Tears Baby (A Trash Icon)” – Win

As I write this in the first week of September, there is a lot of attention on my home town of Newport. By the end of this week 150 world leaders will be attending the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Hotel. That means David Cameron, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and all the rest of them will be here in my home town. Well…Kind of… The Celtic Manor was previously best known for being the venue of the Ryder Cup in 2010, when the world’s golf loving celebrities all turned up here. And it was odd hearing stories of Will Smith and his family eating in the Harvester on Malpas Road and that kind of thing. But this summit is very different to that. These are powerful people so the security is high – there’s police from all over the country in attendance, there’s ten foot high security fencing around the hotel and other buildings and there have been police helicopters flying over Newport day and night. But the security fencing is mainly around Cardiff – the capital city ten miles down the M4 where some meetings and meals are taking place – and has been causing traffic chaos for weeks as it has been deployed and this has caused some confusion in the media. From CNN and BBC to the Guardian, the media is under the impression that it’s taking place in Cardiff and it isn’t. Fair play to Newportians from Mayor Matthew Evans (never thought I’d mention him on Goldfish, hi there…) to members of GLC, they’ve done their best to promote Newport as the venue. But still Cardiff gets the security which leads to the thought that the world leaders won’t be setting foot inside the city itself, only seeing the hotel and little else. Actually no, it turns out that since I wrote this Obama and Cameron are going to visit a school ‘in Wales’ (it’s all they’re saying for now) on Thursday morning. I’d rather have the school inspectors in… Anyway, all this activity comes at a time when Cameron boosts (if that’s the right word) the country’s threat level to severe, implying that a terrorist attack is imminent. While everyone’s in my hometown. Great. I only mention this because I was listening to “Uh! Tears Baby” by Win last night and it struck me that while the music is dated the lyrics are still pertinent and relevant. But we’ll get to that soon enough…

Win are now seen as a footnote in Davey Henderson’s biography – a gap between the Fire Engines and Nectarine Number Nine – but at the time they felt like a big deal. I first came across them playing “You got the power” on “The Tube” in the autumn of 1985 and loved the song. It also turned up in an advert for McEwans lager around the same time (thanks again Marcello). I didn’t buy the single until it was reissued in 1986 in a double 12 inch with their previous single “Unamerican broadcasting”, both on Swamplands Records, the label set up by Alan Horne after Postcard, and home to James King, Memphis and Paul Quinn. “You got the power” had quite a provocative sleeve – a baby holding a Cadburys Flake with a blue background. Hmm….nevermind. Anyway, there were more singles and finally the album “Uh! Tears Baby” was issued in 1987 on London Records who had taken over Swamplands.

And much success was expected. Only it didn’t happen. Already by 1987 Simon Reynolds was mentioning Win as failures in one of the essays later collected in “Blissed Out” – “Win lost!” he stated. They were entryists, trying to subvert from within the pop system, but by not having an entry into the charts they had already failed, according to Reynolds. Was that really the case?

The album opens with a bright blast of guitar before the jogging rhythm of “Super popoid groove” starts. A massed chorus sing the – ahem – chorus “What I want is a super popoid groove, it’s the type of sort of thing that just makes you want to move”. Awkward already. The song was originally a ‘slagging’ of Duran and Spandau but became a celebration of the tackiness of great pop – “chewing gum for the ears, a dashing young valium to soften the fears”. It bounces along nicely, and reached a heady number 63 in the charts. “Shampoo tears” is another bright (failed) single and indicates that the world is cruel and there’s no protection from a high rate of infection… Is Henderson talking about something else here? (Yes). Back in the mid 80s the biggest threat to life was either heroin or AIDS, and Henderson knew a lot about the former – there was a lot of it in Scotland at the time. (By the way I feel like an imposter writing this by the way, this is a very Scottish record and I’m Welsh so can’t quite pick up the nuances but I’ll do my best. Apologies to Scots reading this). “Binding love spell” is about..well.. Love I suppose. “Un-American broadcasting” is a more polished rerecording of their debut single, and the sharp funk edges have been smoothed away, and the Speak and Spell games make less sense too. But lyrically the anti-American sentiment is still strong. “Turn your ABC into any language…turn your ABC into propaganda…”. “Hollywood Baby Too” is a bit of a glam stomper – there’s definitely a bit of “All the young dudes” in there – but lyrically dismisses the Hollywood dream factory. “Empty holsters” is slower and deeper, taking pot shots at America in general and gun culture. (I could be wrong about all of this, mind) but comes across like T’Pau while Carol Decker pops outside for a quick ciggie break.

“You got the power” is bright and brash but hides a powerful message – “You got the power to generate fear, you got the power to censor what is real…”. Is that the media, or the government? That such a song sneaked onto TV through an advert for lager must have amused Henderson. “Charms of powerful trouble” is Prince doing Bolan, and feels troubled itself – those vocal chants are unsettling – “Just one thing I don’t want to dream of – J Edgar Hoover and his poisoned doves”??? “It may be a beautiful sky tonight but it’s only a shelter from a world at risk” is little more than the title but is as uneasy in its skin as the previous song. A brief vocal reprise of “Charms” leads to the final song “Baby Cutting”. Big tribal drums and more unease musically and Henderson whispering threats, half the time inaudible but very scary – all the unease in the previous songs is unleashed here. “Like a baby cutting the heads off flowers, here she comes…”. Do they mean Maggie? “She will double your money…”. Of course this was the era of privatisation of British Gas, she oversaw all that…

I played the album a lot when I bought it in late ’87 and though I didn’t understand it much (and I don’t now – see previous paragraph) I felt it was a special record. There were important thoughts hidden in the music which was typically mid 80s – brash, bright, shiny… (A quote from a Japanese website on this album says it all – “The debut, Uh! Tears Baby (A Trash Icon), featured danceable rhythms, sunny vocal harmonies, glossy synths. This record actually grooved”). But people didn’t get it. I lent a tape of it to a friend in Sheffield and he said it sounded like Wham! and dismissed it. Win would move to Virgin Records, create another bubblegum pop gem in “Freaky Trigger”, still have no hits, play one of the shortest shows I saw at the Leadmill (after five songs Henderson apologised that all their machines had broken down and the band left the stage, never to return) and that was Win’s career over and done. I lent my CD of “Uh! Tears Baby” to a friend in college in ’91 and never saw it again, a decision I would regret when the CD started selling for silly money on Ebay. But I did find another copy a few years back in a charity shop and listening to it was like getting reacquainted with an old friend – quite tearful in places.

Does the LP relate to NATO? No not really. But it’s only a shelter for a world at risk.

“Neil Young” – Neil Young

I would expect that most readers of Goldfish know who Neil Young is. Buffalo Springfield, Crazy Horse, Crosby Stills Nash and Young… But back in 1993 I didn’t know that much – they were just names, I didn’t know the music. That changed when I borrowed “Decade” from Cardiff library. I taped it without listening to it and the next morning my father drove me to work from Penarth to Newport as he was on his way to Swindon. The tape started playing and we were both gobsmacked as great song followed great song. Admittedly we both got confused when “Broken arrow” started with a pisstake of “Mr Soul” which we’d only just heard. But where had all this music been all our lives? I started picking up Neil Young LPs that year and found a few favourites along the way – my personal favourites were “Zuma” and “After the goldrush” and I really didn’t take to “Harvest” at all. I think my brother discovered Young’s music around the same time, so we all ended up swapping favourites and hunting for bootlegs… Actually there’s a funny story there… A certain record shop was selling the 4 CD “Rock’n’roll Cowboy” set and my father went in there to buy it and they refused to sell it to him, thinking this middle aged bearded gentleman in a suit was a plant to catch them selling boots. He told me about this and as I was known to the staff as a regular customer I went in there the next day and asked for the same set, bought it and explained that the gentleman wanting to buy it the day before was my father. Oh how they laughed, just as you are now. Sigh.

Anyway, let’s have a look at Young’s debut LP cunningly entitled “Neil Young”. It was recorded during 1968 and initially released at the end of that year to be withdrawn, remixed and reissued early in ’69. The reason for this is because it was originally mixed and issued using some ‘fancy’ stereo to mono processing which made it sound awful. The album was made in the immediate wake of Buffalo Springfield falling apart, and there are links to Young’s songs from their second album “Again”, notably some arrangements and production by Jack Nitzsche. But Young claimed that he disliked the experience of recording ‘alone’ and moved away from the sound of this album quite radically with “Everybody knows this is nowhere”.

But that’s jumping ahead. The LPI starts with a pleasant country trot of an instrumental called “The emperor of Wyoming”, full of twanging guitars and a sweeping string section. Nice but unexpected. “The loner” sees Young setting himself up as an outsider to everything – surely he’s writing about himself here? Lots of delicious fuzztone guitar and creamy organ (did I just say that? Sorry), but from time to time this strange string arrangement drops by with little bursts of fuzz guitar. What’s all that about? “If I could have her tonight”…ah I suppose I should mention that when I first heard this LP in the summer of ’93 I was still crushing on someone and the songs have relevance from that. “All of a sudden she was on my mind…” Ha yes indeed. A hope of love, and the guitars jangle and chime quite gorgeously here. “I’ve been waiting for you” is more of the same, Young looking for a woman to save his life… Those little piano figures and the descending organ swells… Love this song, and then the guitar solo rises up from nowhere! It’s very post-psychedelic, in a good way. “The old laughing lady” harks back to “Expecting to fly”, but is quietly spooked, and after a few minutes of the music swelling up and down it finally strikes you – it sounds like a track from David Axelrod’s “Songs of Innocence”. But then it’s the same players – Carol Kaye on bass, Earl Palmer on drums. Check those drum snare fills and rolls. But the song is spooked as hell, those strings are uneasy and the female backing vocals are in pain.

Side two starts slow and uneasy – “String quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill” leads into “Here we are in the years”, a supposedly relaxing homage to relaxing in the sun, chilling out in the country… And hang on, where did that Moog come from amongst all the arpeggio guitar chime? “What did you do to my life?” is another lovelorn mid-tempo beauty, lots of vibrato and fuzztone guitars and echoing backing vocals. “I’ve loved her so long” is in the same category as “The old laughing lady” and sounds even more like David Axelrod, the vibes and electric piano and string arrangements. Those backing vocals are unsettling too. There’s such a melancholy mood across the whole side as it drifts by. Finally “The last trip to Tulsa” is mainly Neil and his acoustic guitar singing a very Dylan-esque travelogue, lots of dread there too. Very quotable lyrics too. Not quite “Desolation Row” though.

In the end, this album was the most logical direction for Young from Buffalo Springfield but not really right for him and he found the Rockets – his own Rolling Stones, as he called them – and was invited into Crosby, Stills and Nash and the rest is history. He was lucky to be on Reprise Records at the point where they were letting artists experiment with their music – it wouldn’t happen today. But as it is, “Neil Young” isn’t as bad as he makes out. For a start, both Bowie and the Pixies have covered songs from this LP, which is odd. And there’s a lovely innocence about the love songs which is striking. And more than anything, it sounds like Neil Young fronting late 60s Axelrod. What’s not to love?

“Colossal Youth” – Young Marble Giants

There have been plenty of candidates for ‘the worst year of my life’ (do you see what I did there?) but 2007 is still the freshest in my memory. I lived through 2007 with two massive storm clouds hanging over me – both of my own making and both would lead towards my Aspergers diagnosis the following year. This has made writing about music from 2007 very difficult – I was hoping to include “Fourteen autumns and fifteen winters” by The Twilight Sad in the previous blog post but listening to it brought back so many memories of Spring ’07 that I found it impossible. It’s a great album, you should listen to it, but I can’t yet. That album alongside “Sky blue sky” and “Never hear the end of it” and “Out to sea”… Can’t listen to them. That’s just how Spring ’07 was for me. House husband driven quietly nuts by too many dirty nappies, too much CBeebies and too much time on my hands. Thank you sorry.

But the Autumn of ’07 was… Not a lot better to be perfectly honest. But at least I was working. I’d started a job in July for A Major Internet Provider, working in their call centre doing technical support over the phone. If you had a problem you’d ring me on a premium rate number and I’d try to sort you out within the twenty minute limit imposed by OFCOM. Want to set up an internet router? Simple, just type in on Internet Explorer. (See, that number is burned into my memory). Got an email jamming your inbox? I’d go in and sort it out. (During my time there I did this for the drummer for Dodgy and the actress Jenny Seagrove – she was lovely, especially when I rang her back on her mobile to tell her I’d sorted it out). But the job was hard work, the shift pattern was crap – I was often on 2pm to 10;30pm, the call centre was a shit hole (and they admitted it), the managers were ogres who would scream at you if you took time off-line to go to the toilet… It was a great laugh.

And in the Autumn of ’07 the first of the two storm clouds broke. I was in the dog house to put it politely and it felt like the end of the world, in a tiny way. The second storm cloud would still hang around for a few months… Actually about a month later the second cloud kinda exploded but the repercussions wouldn’t be felt for a while. But it all got a bit embarrassing and strained and oh I hated my life at the time. And it was all my fault. Every shift at the call centre would start with a long email composed to the only person I could confide in and knew what was going on and they were probably horrible to read now. I’d sit at a computer hating the job and hating myself and hating everything in the whole wide world. I would spend every break time standing by the A48 watching cars hurtle past me with “I feel like going home” by Yo La Tengo playing on my walkman. That’s a special song – slow and sad, strange guitar noises behind the piano, heart stopping chord changes… Then…

“Sometimes late at night while running from the rain. Running from the voices filling up my brain, now I wish they’d leave me alone and let me be to go off on my own”

And on that word “own” there is such a BEAUTIFUL heartwrenching chord change… And then a slightly unsettling instrumental coda. I’d head back into the call centre wiping the tears out of my eyes.

And I bought “Colossal Youth” by Young Marble Giants at this exact point.

I had almost bought “Colossal Youth” many times before. Back in 1986 I almost bought it during the summer but picked up “Here comes everybody” by The Wake instead. In the summer of ’91 I almost bought it again from Our Price when the CD reissue came out, but I bought “Funeral at the movies” by Shudder To Think instead because it was cheaper. Now in 2007 those lovely people at Domino Records had reissued it in a three CD version with EPs and Peel sessions and I’d read about it in “Rip it up and start again” so I took the plunge, not quite knowing what to expect.

I probably wasn’t expecting it to be so minimal. The drum machine is tinny and tiny, the guitar and bass playing is mostly cliche-free spindly post punk. There’s occasional organ too, hinting sometimes at the sounds Robert Wyatt would make. And there was Alison Statton – blankly singing words “as if she’s at a bus stop” (as YMG guitarist Stuart Moxham said once). But in this quiet music there was a lot of power.

I really don’t want to go song by song through the album because it’s a bit pointless. It’s skeletal, there’s huge spaces in the music to find your own thoughts inside, and that’s precisely what I did. I lost myself within the album, picking up lines and words from songs that were relevant to what was happening. No song outstays its welcome, it makes its point then stops. Even the instrumentals work, providing breathing space within the album. “Eating Noddemix” seems more relevant now in our multi channel multi media world. There is a typically 1980 sense of dread within the muslc, too – the unspoken fear of impending destruction. “NITA” scared me though – “You’re haunting me because I let you” was not what I wanted to hear. In fact that song brings back memories I’d rather forget. Actually so does “Music for evenings”. Why exactly am I listening to this? It’s all coming back, dark drives home, hiding in corners of the call centre where I could be alone… Oh and my car’s engine stopped working too, didn’t it? I drove to work for a 2pm start, parked at the top car park, went to move it on my first break and after 50 yards the engine imploded and I had to push it down the hill to park it up, then had to wait for the shift to end at 10:30 to call a recovery vehicle. I did ask management if I could leave early but they told me to sod off. They were nice like that.

So yes *Colossal Youth” was a relevation to me. It also sounded like the kind of music I was trying to make in 1985. Indeed if I had accepted the offer of two female schoolfriends to sing for me during the spring of that year then “808 days” may have sounded like this album. But it didn’t. And no you can’t hear it. “Wind in the rigging” has just started and I feel autumn’s chill in my bones all over again.

And there you go, the end of the line. Thanks for reading, thanks for your patience, and thanks for your support. As Captain Sensible once song I’m glad it’s all over.

Next time – Totally psyched, or how I learned to search through the rubble.

Debut Albums #31 – #35

Yes I know… I wasn’t going to do any more of these for a while but what the hell, here goes. Five more favourite debut albums from the list…

“Blondertongueaudiobaton” – The Swirlies

In the summer of 1993, this LP received a rave review in Melody Maker. It said words to the effect of “Ever wished that My Bloody Valentine hadn’t progressed straight from ‘Isn’t anything’ to ‘Loveless’?”. Which was a heretical statement for 1993 – progress was everything back then. Anyway, a review like that piqued my interest and even though I hadn’t heard a single note of their music I decided to buy “Blondertongue…”. Only I didn’t. I went into Spillers Records in Cardiff and bought the wrong CD, I bought “What to do about them” which was a mini-LP compilation of singles and oddities – even a song straight from a flexidisc. I still loved it, especially songs like “Upstairs” and “Chris R”. It felt like they had a grounding in jangle pop – which is why the “Sarah Sitting” debut EP was issued on Slumberland Records. After a few days of soaking up the early Swirlies, I went back to Spillers and bought what I was supposed to buy in the first place.

The Swirlies – at the time anyway – were a four piece band from Boston who created their own brand of music they called ‘chimp-rock’. Strangely the page on chimp-rock on Wiki goes straight into the lo-fi page. I remember reading about them in fanzines – there was something to do with kittens but it’s a long time ago. But that MM review was right – if MBV had made an LP in 1989 it would have sounded like “Blondertongue…”. But whereas MBV songs surge with noise, the Swirlies’ songs stop and start, sometimes jangle, and sometimes take so many left turns that you end up back where you started from.

For instance, the first thing I did with the CD was tape it for my journeys to and from work. But what I didn’t realise was that songs would flow into each other all the time so without having a CD player to judge where tracks start or finish (or a banded piece of vinyl) I couldn’t understand how the first few songs on the album worked. ‘Bell” has a lot of the clangour of detuned Sonic Youth but with sweet boy girl harmonies on the chorus, but heads off through tempo shifts and changes around the three minute mark before returning to the original riffs at half speed. “Vigilant always” is similar, swerving back and forth, but has little injections of words from time to time, and again after four minutes of swerving returns to its origins. Throughout the record, there’s lots of tremelo arm action on the guitars, lending the music a woozy quality – best heard on “Her love just washed away”, a languid ballad. If you could call it a ballad. Well, it’s slower. There’s nothing quite so out-there as “All I need” or “No more sorry”, and the wall of noise isn’t their only trick, and there’s enough variety to keep you listening. Admittedly I have no clear idea what any of the songs mean, but that’s never stopped my enjoyment.

My personal favourite songs appear towards the end. “Tree chopped down” could be any early 90s US indie band (that means you, Pavement) but ducks and dives around its melodies so beautifully, and also features an absolutely peerless use of the word ‘f***’ – as in “But I’ve got to get the f*** away from you’… “Wrong tube” is almost sweet, lots of unison boy girl coo-ing, jangling guitars but that opening line… “Here we are without our clothes…”. Oh. Still, glorious pop-ish melodies, lots of grinding bending guitars, a bit playful – a really good album on the whole. A lot of people prefer their second album (something about “They wasted their youth blah blah blah” can’t be bothered to look it up) but I definitely prefer “Blondertongueaudiobaton”.

Oh, and the CD label was ridiculously rude too. 😎

“It’ll end in tears” – This Mortal Coil

Considering how much I love the music of Cocteau Twins I find it odd that I haven’t mentioned them much on Goldfish. I only heard them properly once I started listening to John Peel during the summer of ’84. I knew “Pearly dewdrops drops” from it being a minor hit single, and I knew the band received rhapsodic reviews from the music papers I read but the first time the Cocteaus clicked was their autumn 84 Peel session – “Pepper tree”, “Peep-bo” (“Ivo”), “Otterley” and “Wischt” (“Beatrix”). If anything it was that final song that clinched it for me. It sounded like a dance from a grave, some strange instrument making those sounds… I was given “Treasure” for Christmas in ’84 (alongside “Step Forward” by Portion Control and “Hatful of hollow”) and loved it, the whole album just sounds like Christmas for me.

In the run up to Christmas, Peel ran his annual Festive 50, and this was the first one I listened to – tape set on pause, as ever. The tape of course is in my attic but looking at the run-down I know which songs I taped, and I was pleased to see songs I loved in there – “Bias Binding” by Yeah Yeah Noh, “Dirty” by Hard Corps, ‘Upside down” by the Jesus and Mary Chain. Songs from “Treasure” were dotted amongst the list, but there were two songs by This Mortal Coil in there too – one sung by Liz Fraser. And I’m sure I’d probably heard “Song to the siren” by then too, either on Peel or elsewhere on the evening shows on Radio One.

Now I’d love to say how cool I was at this time and that I bought “It’ll end in tears” around that time. But the truth is I didn’t. My friend Nigel did though, and I remember hearing it at his house during the mid 80s. See, Nigel was cooler than me – he’d actually been out on a date with R, my huge mid 80s crush. Sorry Nige! He was also a bit more of a goth – I can remember records by Sisters of Mercy and the Leather Nun being played at his house, though these might not have actually belonged to him. But Nigel definitely had “It’ll end in tears” and we would swoon hearing Liz Fraser’s voice amongst other things. But no, I didn’t buy “It’ll end in tears” until early 1987 so I wasn’t that cool. I did buy “Filigree and shadow” on the day it was issued in late ’86, and I have a distinct memory of sitting in a classroom in college pouring over the lavish sleeve. But I certainly wasn’t cool enough to know all the original songs either. I knew the names but not the actual music.

So what of “It’ll end in tears” itself? I don’t need to tell you that at this point This Mortal Coil come across as a 4AD supergroup – there’s appearances by all three Cocteau Twins, alongside members of X-Mal Deutschland, Colourbox, Modern English and Dead Can Dance. But there’s also other non-4AD elements – Howard Devoto and Gordon Sharp provide vocals, and it could be said that Sharp’s keening voice is as important to the LP as Fraser’s. And let’s not forget the string arrangements by Martin McCormick and Gina Ball which are perfect throughout.

(But what about the MUSIC?)

Gawd, I hoped you wouldn’t ask that…

(Oh go on, give it a go…)

Oh alright then.

The problem for me is that… For some of the cover versions, these songs feel definitive. As I didn’t know the originals at this point, these are the first versions I heard so for me they are the best. I know that sounds awful but… Oh Lord I’m going to sound like a grumpy old man here… Back in the mid 80s, these songs weren’t readily available to hear. You didn’t see “Sister Lovers” or “Starsailor” in record shops, they were swapped on tapes, knowledge passed from those ‘in-the-know’ to others. In a way This Mortal Coil helped to bring the music of Alex Chilton and Tim Buckley to a new generation and showed that the ‘year zero’ attitude of punk was a myth, there was great music from the sixties and seventies that was (at the time) yet to be fully discovered.

(Yes yes, very canonical, but you’re still not talking about the MUSIC!)


OK then.

“Kangaroo” is clearly never going to be as wracked as the original, but makes it glacial and graceful – removing the deliberate destruction of Big Star’s version. “Song to the siren”… No words necessary for that one. Perfect. “Holocaust” isn’t that different from the original, Devoto’s voice is a perfect fit for the song. “FYT” sounds very dated, a very 1984 “We’ve got a sampler” instrumental, like a gothic Art Of Noise. “Fond affections” is quite lovely – those sampled choirs are straight out of the Cocteaus’ “From the flagstones” era – and very different to the Rema Rema original which is very post-punk and spiky and shouty. Quite a transformation really. “The last ray” is a very Cocteaus-esque instrumental, heavy beats and lots of Simon Raymonde’s distinctive throbbing bass. “Another day” is difficult really, it is a beautiful song in this version and Fraser sings it carefully, and the string arrangement is lovely but … Well you know the rest. Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel did this on a TV special – that’s rather good too. Actually the original is quite similar, just remove the acoustic guitar really. Move along. The medley of “Waves become wings” into “Barramundi” is very oceanic and drifts nicely. I do have a soft spot for the multiple guitars and synth melodies of “Barramundi” while “Dreams made flesh” is like a second cousin (understandably) to Dead Can Dance’s “Carnival of lights” – another song Peel played a lot that winter. “Not me” comes as quite a shock at this point – it’s an unreleased Colin Newman song, recorded as a demo for his debut LP “A-Z” (and why aren’t I writing about that LP? Sod it I will do it another time..). “Not me” is a conventional wall of guitars two chord chugger, nothing wrong with that but it sounds out of place here. And that’s a Casio VL-tone playing the melody at the end. “A single wish” is a delicate ending to the album – gentle piano, guitar harmonics, DX7 bells (there’s a lot of DX7 on this LP which dates it too). Very nice.

(That wasn’t worth waiting for)


Anyway, “It’ll end in tears” feels like a summary of that era of 4AD, the next This Mortal Coil LP wouldn’t have so many 4AD acts but for me “Filigree and shadow” was a better album, even if it was sprawling and expansive and just as dated by the technology used. I must admit that I never really got on with “Blood”, maybe I need to go back to it at some point. But I do enjoy “It’ll end in tears” a lot, and if you want a 45 minute experience of This Mortal Coil, it’s the place to go.


“Ticket to the dark” – Troy Tate

Troy Tate is one of those bit players on the periphery of pop music. Google him and you’re more likely to discover the Smiths. Look on Spotify and again the Smiths appear. But he was involved in some great music – not just with other bands but also under his own name.

He first emerged in early 1981 when he became guitarist for The Teardrop Explodes. Julian Cope’s band was on the verge of a commercial breakthrough with their first hit single “Reward” but they’d lost guitarist Alan Gill through sheer far-out behaviour, and Cope took the chance to sack keyboard player Dave Balfe too, move himself off bass guitar to become lead singer and hire new musicians for guitar, keyboards and bass. In his memoir “Head on” Cope writes of how he and drummer Gary Dwyer took hits of acid while watching people audition and hired musicians if they were bearable. But he does say he liked the way Troy Tate clanged his guitar. Tate had previously played with a group called Shake who made two singles but this was the big time. Within weeks he was on Top Of The Pops alongside the rest of the band. During the chemical excesses of 1981, Tate acted as a buffer between Cope and Dwyer and the other new members of the band and one wonders at what he saw on the road. In the meantime his guitar shone brightly – from the electric sitar solo of “Passionate friend” to the extended live jamming on “The culture bunker” and “Sleeping gas” to the more subtle arpeggios of “And the fighting takes over” (for which he wanted a writing credit – Cope refused).

While all this was happening Tate was also signed to the Why-Fi label as a solo artist and issued a handful of singles during the 81-82 period of his membership of the Teardrops. Also there were two songs issued on “To the shores of Lake Placid”, a compilation on Zoo Records, under the name The Turquoise Swimming Pools. This was a studio band made up of Dave Balfe, Troy Tate and Hugh Jones, recording songs by Balfe at Rockfield Studios during the summer of ’81 when Balfe was out of the Teardrops. The two songs “The Winds” and “Burst Balloons” are moody and full of melancholy. I can never really tell if Tate is singing – it sounds like him but could be Balfe (admittedly I’ve never heard Balfe sing) but those defeated cries of “Oooh how can we soldier on?” are heartwrenching. Tate’s solo singles from this time utilised musicians he knew – Balfe on kayboards, Rolo McGinty on bass (he was one of the many bass players in the Wild Swans) and Virginia Astley on backing vocals – she was in the Ravishing Beauties alongside Nicky Holland and Kate St John and was also signed to Why-Fi. The key songs from these singles eventually found their way onto Tate’s debut LP.

By the middle of ’82 Cope was intent on destroying the Teardrops, even though the early months of the year had seen them playing some wonderful gigs. With Balfe back in the lineup and new bass player Ronnie Francois they were shit hot live, and Tate’s guitar could soar and scream through anything. (See “Rachael built a steamboat” for evidence of how great this line-up was). After two massive gigs supporting Queen at Milton Keynes bowl in early June, Cope sacked Tate and Francois… I just realised that the episode of Pop Quiz with Tate on it (broadcast 12th June) was taped before that obviously. Tate went straight from Teardrops to fronting Fashion for a few months while Dee Harris sodded off to join Rick Wright in Zee (why do I know this stuff? I’m not researching any of this – I KNOW this much useless information). Anyway. Tate was now a free agent after Fashion and signed to Rough Trade for another solo single in early ’83 “Love is…” Is the only Troy Tate record available on Spotify and one of the b-sides – “I’m mad” – is an odd little gem.

But it was through the Rough Trade connection that Tate came to produce the first album by a new band signed to RT – The Smiths. The whole album was recorded during the summer of ’83 but was rejected before any final mixes were prepared, it seems. There have been all sorts of rumours regarding why the album was rerecorded – the one I believe the most is that Tate was concentrating too much on Marr’s guitars than Morrissey’s vocals, which is why a lot of the songs that have leaked out unofficially only have guide vocals. One song was issued at the time, “Jeane” became b-side to “This charming man” and shows that Tate had better ideas on layering guitars than John Porter had on the rerecorded debut, which sounded drab, flat and tired.

Still, Tate bounced back from that disappointment to sign to Sire Records and issued his debut album “Ticket to the dark” during the summer of 1984. I didn’t buy it at the time but I bought it second hand from Kellys in Cardiff market early in ’86 as I was on my Teardrop Explodes kick at the time. I’m jolly glad I did, though it took me a while to get my head around the album.

This wasn’t helped by the opening track “Party”. It’s a sprawling 6 minute number anchored around a simple bass and drum pattern, then on top there’s madly strummed acoustics, synthethic noises, clangs, people laughing, and Tate sings a series of odd lines, like a collection of snippets from conversations at a party… Totally unconnected lines, overlapping each other, he’s trying to connect but failing … “You read the papers? I read the papers too… Let’s talk about more important subjects…” Non-sequitors abound – “Will I have my trousers on when they drop the atom bomb?”. What does it mean? “There’s a million things I want to say…” Tate sings at the end. Go ahead…

“Thomas” is a more conventional pop song, and was a single in early 84 – I remember Morrissey treating it kindly as guest reviewer in Melody Maker. A remembrance of an old friend seen at a station, but written in a subtle way that you may miss the sentiment – or the message – even during the last verse. “Love is…” is a gorgeous pop song, all hooks and synths and airy twelve string acoustics – but the melancholy chorus hurts, as do the words – a moment of understanding that an affair is ending. In a perfect world a hit single. “Winning team” is peculiar – Tate is advocating the joys of pushing ahead, taking each day in your stride, it’s a bit of a yuppie anthem, he’s trying to be Bowie vocally. But he doesn’t sound convinced by what he’s singing – he sings “You’ll reap the benefit” so cynically. “All the way up” is another hyper 80s production, synth horns, slap bass, gated drums, and on the surface it’s more optimism but halfway through it falls apart – “Let’s spend a night in the city. Missed the last train”, and it goes all jazz for some reason. Part of me HATES how tacky it is, but another part of me ADORES this song. Oh well. End of side one

“Factory girl (whip crack away)” provides a similar start to side two as “Party” did to side one – ie, a long song full of odd noises, strange words, music in and out of focus, sections of completely unrelated music, and Tate sings and shouts – “Set me free!”, “Whip crack away”… But the chorus is compulsive and tuneful. Halfway through Tate mumbles “I’m glad of this protection, you know I need this sense of belonging”. Quite. Bizarre but great. “Safety net” is a little tale of crossing borders. “House of the new breed” is slower and more considered, lots of bass and drums and space and contrapuntal keyboards and guitars, though what Tate is singing is kind of disturbing – “Watch the skeleton clotheshorse as his teeth fall out”. Then towards the end, Tate finally does some guitar tricks like he did on “Like Leila Khaled Said”. “Lifeline” was an old recording from ’82 and features Balfe on keyboards and sounds a bit Teardrops-y, but has a kind of restless skank to it, very moody and dark. (That was a single?). Finally “I’m not your toy” is sharp and defiant, a good ending. Tate’s fed up with someone – “You live your life like a bad TV play” – but there’s real hurt in this song – “I will meet you with your clothes ripped and torn, and you’ll wish you never were born…you with your lying eyes”. It’s my favourite song from the album, probably because it actually sounds heartfelt. It also reminds me in places of Channel 4 music and “Sleepless night” by the Kinks – but I doubt anyone else hears that one. (Can I get away with saying I like the sepulchral mood of side two of “Sleepwalker” here so my brother doesn’t notice?).

“Ticket to the moon” didn’t do much but Sire believed in Tate enough to allow him to make a second solo album and after that… Well who knows? He just faded into the background. I have no idea what he’s doing now and it’s not exactly a mystery like Lewis or anything… His LPs aren’t high on anyone’s lists for reissuing. Still there is a very fine website here with full downloads of both albums and single tracks and even gigs. Help yourself.

“Mudflat Joey” – Tse Tse Fly

Tse Tse Fly were from Leeds, they formed in 1988 and I first became aware of them when they were the first support act (alongside Moonshake) on the Wedding Present’s December 92 tour which I saw in Cardiff. In reality, the Weddoes could never compete with Moonshake who were at their absolute peak then and played a superb tightly coiled set. Tse Tse Fly made an impression on me too that night, they sounded like distant cousins of two bands from Wetherby who were just starting to make an impression – Boyracer and Hood.

The next I heard of the band was when Cherry Red issued a 7 inch EP by them alongside an EP by Prolapse. I must admit I’ve not heard the “Fledgling” EP in full for years but know that the first song on side two was brilliant. It was also produced by Richard Formby, a name I knew from the credits on The Telescopes’ records – actually searching on Spotify has found “Brad”, the song on side two of the EP and it’s as great as I remember it being.

The following year Tse Tse Fly issued the “Scaffolding” EP which was the six minute title track and three b-sides. That title track set their style perfectly – throbbing trebly bass, stop start rhythms, mixed male / female vocals, clipped guitars. At the 2:15 seconds mark the song abruptly stops and restarts as an instrumental, repeating an insistent riff over and over as guitars squall over the top. And at 2:51 it cuts to a live feed of the recording for one iteration of the riff before returning to the main song. “That’s a very This Heat thing to do” I noted in my diary and expected good things from their album.

“Mudflat joey” arrived a month or so later. “M1” starts slowly with quiet but malevolent guitars twinkling before the whole band bursts into life, frantic drums, that trebly bass again and vocals that have a Northern sharpness. There’s the female vocalist talking in the background and I’ve just noticed her saying “I’ve always been so scared of the lorries”. Jump cut into “Jonah” – a pulsing synth chord leads into more distorted guitars powered by a slightly skewed motorik beat and it stays resolutely on one chord for two minutes, and when it does change chord it comes as a shock. “Talk to me” is a more traditional song though the lyrics are…enigmatic to say the least, more clipped guitars and an urgent rhythm. “Dog-eared” is slower, brushed drums, whispered vocals, hushed guitars, still a feeling that something will explode but it doesn’t. A drum break leads into “On purpose”, almost a swing rhythm and more Velvets downstrum guitars but it doesn’t overstay its welcome by finishing around the one minute thirty mark. “Lido” is mid tempo and features a rumbling bass guitar pulse at the end, and is probably my least favourite song on the album.

Side two kicks off with “Roo mole suit” (yeah, quite) which sounds like “Talk to me”‘s noisier cousin and features two seconds of gorgeous harmonised guitar which stops abruptly, as if they didn’t really want to do it. “Itchy” is louder and more like a Boyracer song but again only lasts a minute and a half, and as it fades out on a sustained distorted guitar note a drum machine kicks out a four on the floor bass drum, and then an alternate future reveals itself. “Some day soon” is like nothing I’d heard at the time and nothing I’ve heard since. The bass drum pulses, a bass guitar follows it, on one side a distorted guitar sustains notes, on another side a clean guitar repeats a small single note riff, keyboards and sequencers pulse away, a shipping broadcast can be heard, the female vocalist speaks strange words, more layers are built up over its six minutes length, and after five minutes everything is slowly obliterated by one last noisy guitar and as the song fades out it’s back to normal for the last three songs – “Non-ferrous” is like “Dog-eared”, “Kitchen” is a minute long thrash and closer “Hogwash” tries to be epic but can’t really pull it off. It’s not bad, but after “Some day soon” everything is a bit of a let down.

What happened to Tse Tse Fly after this album? Two of them joined one of their previous members in the Wedding Present and the band effectively finished. It was a bit of a shame because there are some great moments on the album, if you like noisy guitar with an edge. But for “Some day soon” I will never forget them – it’s a song I can return to over and over again and still pick up new details every time. That song is like a future that was unexplored by the band or anyone else and absolutely marvellous. Did anyone notice? No. Does anyone care? Not really. Still, it’s a pleasure to see the album appear on Spotify so the whole thing’s going on the playlist.

“Ultra Vivid Scene” – Ultra Vivid Scene

Sometimes I buy records on trust. I trust the label, I trust the reviewer, I trust a friend’s judgement, I trust my own knowledge to guide me to something I might like. What’s odd about “UVS” (because I’m not going to write Ultra Vivid Scene all day) is that I can’t really remember why I bought it. It was towards the end of 1988 that I bought the album – on cassette – and I have no recollection of whether it was through reviews or the cover artwork (I do like a good toothbrush) or it being on 4AD. There is a possibility that I’d seen “The mercy seat” video on “Snub” or “Rapido”. But whatever reasons, “UVS” appeared in my life just when I needed it.

I’ve mentioned previously that the end of 1988 were dark days, but there were a few albums I bought then which transcended the darkness. One was “Bummed” by Happy Mondays, this was the other. At this point UVS were a one man band – Kurt Ralske – and this wasn’t quite an indie album. When I read “Blissed out” a few years later Ralske came across as an intellectual trying to create meta-pop from his influences, but I never really saw that. Maybe because I’m not an intellectual – I just took the music and lyrics at face value.

“She screamed” kicks off the album nicely. A spirited thrash of a song, lots of feedback screams in the background, the song is apparently about someone’s first experience of MDMA – “when she ate half a nightmare she could see in the dark”. “Crash” is both a tribute to Ballard’s book and Ralske’s previous band, he sounds quietly pleased to be dying – “You can crash me if you like”, it’s another viewpoint to “There is a light that never goes out”. “You didn’t say please” is a mid tempo grinder, and Ralske sounds like he’s enjoying dominating someone, it’s a bit fey and camp – when he sings “Exercise is good for you, so come on – hup two hup two” its more Carry On Marquis De Sade than anything else. “Lynn Marie #2” is superior indie pop, chiming guitars and soaring melodies. “The mercy seat” is immense – tons of fuzz, deliberately slow drums, a mix of sex and religion in the lyrics. (Odd that Nick Cave would issue his own song called “The mercy seat” in the same year). “The dream of love” is a lovely (?) side closer – starting quiet and drowsy, stumbling around before reaching a quietly powerful climax. (It was this song I seem to have ripped off on “Purity”)

“Lynn Marie #1” is like an inverse to “#2”, the guitars swapped for Suicide-y synths. Then side two drifts through some gorgeous hazy songs – “It isn’t real”, “The whore of God”, “Bloodline” – which tend to merge into an ocean of mumbles, organs, gentle washes of guitars. I’m not demeaning these songs, I absolutely love ’em to bit, every one of them. They have an aura of narcotic bliss about them. (That sounds very Simon Reynolds) “How does it feel?” comes as a shock – loud and fast to shake the system up, then “Hail Mary” is a slow closer, broken drum machines, crackling cables. A wonderful record.

I played “UVS” all the time in Sheffield, and even lent it to a friend or two. One very perceptive person said to me “If you ever made a proper record, I bet it would sound like this” and he was absolutely right. Times have changed and I don’t feel like I did back then, but I still play this LP often. Of course their second LP “Joy 1967 – 1990” was just as good, if slightly different but their third LP “Rev” was a serious disappointment to me at the time – too organic, too rocky, too obvious. Maybe I should go back to it. But those first two UVS LPs are it for me.

Next time – five more LPs to complete the alphabet. But that’ll be in a couple of weeks. In the meantime I’ve done a Spotify playlist for this blog post. I hope it works as this is all new to me. Enjoy!

Fifty Debut Albums – the full list

Due to the fact that I shouldn’t be writing anyway because I’m supposed to be on a summer break, I’m now publishing my full list of fifty debut albums. As regular readers will know I’m up to number 30, but due to a cock up on the counting front the list I was working from only had 40 LPs on it. So I’ve bumped it up with LPs I’ve already written about here at Goldfish or will write about eventually, one way or another.

So here’s the full list.

The graveyard and the ballroom – A Certain Ratio
Come from heaven – Alpha
69 – AR Kane
Hex – Bark Psychosis
Please Please Me – The Beatles
If wishes were horses – Blueboy
A walk across the rooftops – Blue Nile
One year – Colin Blunstone
Colourbox – Colourbox
Kontiki – Cotton Mather
Lo and behold – Coulson Dean McGuinness Flint
If I could only remember my name – David Crosby
The fantastic expedition of Dillard and Clark
Lost souls – Doves
The return of – The Durutti Column
Crocodiles – Echo and the Bunnymen
Crumbling the antiseptic beauty – Felt
Fleet foxes – Fleet Foxes
76;14 – Global Communication
Story – Honeybus
Euphoria – Insides
Oxygene – Jean Michel Jarre
The Only Fun In Town – Josef K
Tangerine dream – Kaleidoscope
The gentle art of conditioning – Lower
Shot forth self living – Medicine
XYZ – Moose
Begin – The Millennium
All we could do was sing – Port O’Brien
No less the trees than the stars – Purple Ivy Shadows
Radar Bros – Radar Bros
The Bridge – Robert Rental and Thomas Leer
Present tense – Sagittarius
Quique – Seefeel
Judee Sill – Judee Sill
Paul Simon – Paul Simon
Spoonfed Hybrid – Spoonfed Hybrid
Switched on / Peng! – Stereolab
Jaguar – The Sweetest Ache
Blondertongueaudiobaton – The Swirlies
It’ll end in tears – This Mortal Coil
Ticket to the dark – Troy Tate
Her Handwriting – Trembling Blue Stars
Mudflat Joey – Tse Tse Fly
Fourteen autumns and fifteen winters – The Twilight Sad
United States Of America – United States of America
Ultra Vivid Scene – Ultra Vivid Scene
Neil Young – Neil Young
Colossal youth – Young Marble Giants

Like I said, alphabetical order by artist. If anyone really wants me to finish this project then I will. But at the moment I’m a bit exhausted in writing and annoyed at criticism and fed up with the whole process. So if you see an album on the list and think “I’d like to see what Rob has to say about that” then please let me know on here or on Twitter (@durutti74).

Thanks for listening and reading and being supportive. I’m off on holiday now. See you in September.

Debut Albums #26 – #30

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 twenty six to thirty

“Quique” – Seefeel

It felt like Seefeel emerged fully formed when they issued their initial EPs in the summer of 1993. I was interested by what I’d read about them, plus they were on Too Pure – another label I trusted thanks to Stereolab and Moonshake – and I always suspected they took their name from a line in “Celeste” by The Telescopes, though I’ve never seen that clarified anywhere. Their first EP “More like space” was like Mike Oldfield brought into the 1990s with “Time to find me” as the standout song – soft cooing female vocals, harsh drum machine beats and drifting synthesised chords with little bursts of feedback amid the noise and crackle. The second EP “Pure impure” was more developed, “Plainsong” and “Moodswings” were near perfect and “Milky starshine” was over ten minutes of drift. The main selling point of the EP were three remixes carried out by The Aphex Twin who had expressed an interest in what Seefeel were doing.

“Quique” was released just before the end of 1993 in amongst a flurry of great albums, some of which I’ve written about it stood out simply because it was so different. It fell between so many stools – it wasn’t indie, it wasn’t dance, it wasn’t ambient but it was a little bit of all of those genres. It’s difficult to describe really… Sounds have no logical source, they are edited and looped and filtered, drum patterns are regimental and change incrementally, the bass is pulsing and deep, dropping out into vertiginous freefall, vocals are just additional sounds. It’s definitely a post-“Loveless” sound, abstracting My Bloody Valentine’s ideas to a further level, less about the power of noise and more the power of small changes within repetition. (I keep thinking Terry Riley here). There’s some industrial clanging on “Polyfusion”, drones hovering in mid-air throughout “Industrious”. “Imperial” is percussion free sound shaping… The latter half of the album gets better. The version of “Plainsong” is more propulsive than the single version. “Charlotte’s mouth” is almost normal – the sounds being almost recognisable as guitars, Sarah Peacock’s vocal is almost a conventional vocal, but there’s big gaps in the music, strange surges. “Through you” sounds like it was recorded in a wet and dank cave, the acoustics all dark reverb. “Signals” is five minutes of closing sound. But the best song is “Filter Dub” – sounds being bent, a lazy rhythm, a dub-like bass line (for once the bass is the melodic focus of a track) and guitars swooning and arcing like doves in a courting ritual. Sounds stupid? Yes. Sounds lovely? Yes.

“Quique” would be the last record Seefeel made for Too Pure, in 1994 they moved to Warp Records which would feel like a logical home for them. In February ’94 I saw them live supporting Cocteau Twins in Cardiff – a wonderful pairing. My main memory of Seefeel live was the enormous wash of sound and the bass player swinging his guitar by its strap on his little finger. And I bought the white label 12 inch of alternate mixes of songs from “Quique”. Bet that’s worth tuppence now. Seefeel moved further into abstraction but still made lovely records, but “Quique” catches them at the perfect point between songcraft and loopcraft. It also makes an excellent soundtrack to painting and decorating, which is why I’m listening to it today while painting the spare bedroom. 😎

“Spoonfed Hybrid” – Spoonfed Hybrid

Pale Saints didn’t feel quite the same as any of the other shoegazing bands they were lumped in with. For a start, they had existed for some time – I remember their name cropping up in the demos page of the short lived “Underground” magazine in early 1988 when they sounded like the Wedding Present. Well, they were from Leeds. And they were named after a quite obscure Eyeless In Gaza song, which was intriguing enough. They could make a glorious racket when they wanted to – “She rides the waves”, “Babymaker” and “Holding back the apple” were ample evidence of that – but there was always an off-kilter side to them, odd time signatures, peculiar song structures and odd dynamics. They also had a delicate side – see “A deep sleep for Steven” or “Neverending night” or “Shell”.
And more than anything they could be unsettling – see “The colour of the sky”, an extra track on the “Half life” EP. Yes they could be sweet (Ian Masters’ choirboy vocal style saw to that) but they could be sour as well – the “Flesh Balloon” EP in ’91 summed them up well. “Hunted” built up layers of dread in 5/4 time. “Porpoise” was a six minute instrumental. “Kinky love” was a sweet cover of a Nancy Sinatra song and “Hair shoes” was a shimmering heat haze of guitars (and you can draw a line from that song’s instrumental siren melody through “King of the rocket men” by The Clouds to “Karma Police”). So they weren’t quite in the same boat as the Thames Valley boys and girls – no wonder their second album “In ribbons” had a message inscribed in the run-out groove – “Scene but not herd”. Ouch!

In 1993 Ian Masters took his skewed sense of pop craft and choirboy voice away from Pale Saints, teamed up with Chris Trout from AC Temple and created Spoonfed Hybrid, a studio concoction who would issue one album on the 4AD subsidiary Guernica. (It was released on the same day as “Euphoria” by Insides on the same label). But I didn’t buy it until Wednesday 5th January. This was my last day of living in Penarth with my parents before the big move to my new house in Newport. Everything was packed and ready to go, we’d hired a van to move everything the next day, I just needed something to listen to which would take my mind off being nervous. All my hifi was packed away so I took my newly purchased CD / radio / cassette ghetto blaster out of its box, dug out my headphones and listened uneasily in bed that night.

“Heaven’s knot” starts with a stereo noise darting left and right, as it will do throughout the song. The song is more structured and precise than any Pale Saints song – tightly sequenced – but Masters sings like an angel with a halo of wordless vocals behind him. Those wordless vocals will be a trait throughout the album. Not sure what he’s singing about, but once a series of descending guitar solos start appearing in harmony who cares. Good opening. “Naturally occurring anchors” is a seemingly simple song – acoustic guitar and voice – made extraordinary by the complex layering and switching of guitar sounds – I counted about fifteen different sounds and treatments and they flick between sounds and across the stereo spectrum within a strum of a chord in some places (The song credits read Iain McKinna as “King of Mutes” – a feat of mixing desk dexterity in those days). The song closes with a descending string section, which is mirrored by the introduction to “Tiny planes”, a mid tempo song based around “queasy cellos” and clockwork percussion. Again Masters sings in enigmas – “Tiny planes fluttering against my skin… The noises of their wings excites me still” – but what the hell, the music is rich and peculiar. “Stolen clothes” starts with washes of twelve string acoustics and tablas, it sounds idyllic until you concentrate on the words which Masters sings gently “Whisper to me, hear all my fears… I’m finally beginning to grow”. Is he saying Pale Saints was holding him back? “Wash away these terrors of mine”. Some strange things are happening. “Lynched” is an uneasy take on jazz, a double bass maintains stability while strange guitar chords strum into a background of radio noise, the song is cut through with sudden bursts of noise. “1936” has a rhythm track not unlike chirping crickets, with multiple pianos holding the music together. Masters sings of “Dreams and their lies” before a section of kettle drums, marimbas and a chorus of wordless Master choirboys, then zithers and a feedbacking guitar, followed by a jazzy piano solo. None of these individual elements make sense outside of the songs but together they work perfectly.

“Getting not to know” is the most Pale Saints-like, a swirling guitar figure and a raucous chorus but there’s still more wordless Masters choirboys in the background, and the end is intriguing – an ascending guitar solo followed by a slow half tempo descent as two synth notes slide downwards. Most odd. “Somehow some other life” is built up around repeated piano patterns – it feels very systems music – and Masters putting the past behind him – “Farewell to all the things you love so dearly, several skies you felt part of”. A peal of bells and kettle drums lead forward amid a swarm of ebow guitars. “A pocketful of dust” is the fulcrum for the whole album – the only song sung by Chris Trout rather than Ian Masters – and the words are now clearer, a relationship falling apart, a love triangle…some of the words are horribly painful (especially this week). “Ecnalubma” (try it backwards) comes as a moment of relief – turning the pulse of “Heaven’s knot” into an instrumental. Finally “Boys in zinc” feels like an emotional conclusion, slow chimes and strings, it almost feels Christmassy, more odd words, stately like a hymn, then after a crescendo a little guitar turns around, stops and starts, and a choir of Masters appears at the end, cooing sweetly, but the song ends on a dischord. It’s worth listening to “Eva” from Butterfly Child’s debut LP “Onomatopoiea” (released around the same time) which sounds very similar in style and music to “Boys in zinc”. Intriguing.

That first listen reflected how uneasy I was that night before I moved out. Once the move was complete and I was in my house alone the first thing I did was dig out the same ghetto blaster and play “Spoonfed Hybrid” to christen my house. Four years later it was the last record I played in that house and the first I played in the house I live in now. At the time the album was released it was uneasily lumped into the initial stirrings of post-rock – the aforementioned Seefeel, Bark Psychosis, Insides alongside Butterfly Child, Pram, Disco Inferno and others. There wasn’t much to link these bands’ musics except a forward thinking attitude to technology and atmosphere. Listening now, Spoonfed Hybrid sound like a form of psychedelia – playful yet pensive, a music for the mind. And if I move house again, it will be the last album I play at the old house and the first at the new house. It has to be done.

“Switched on” – Stereolab / “Peng!” – Stereolab

What constitutes a debut album? The obvious answer is “the first album issued by an artist”. But what if the first album issued by an artist is a collection of previously released singles? The number of times I have seen “The First Three EPs” by The Beta Band in debut LP lists… But it’s tricky with Stereolab because…well… “Switched on” was only supposed to be for the French market and a few copies were issued in the UK, and “Peng!” was issued about a month after “Switched on”… So what the hell, I’ll pick them both together.

The first I heard of Stereolab was when Peel started playing “Super-electric” in September ’91. It was the first time I’d heard a band take on board the motorik pulse of Neu! and La Dusseldorf and make something new out of it. I’d picked up the old Krautrock LPs in the mid 80s and felt like I was the only person who loved “Hallogallo” and “Rhienita”. But Stereolab loved it too. I loved “Super Electric”, all the layers of vocals and guitars and organs, especially that really loud dirty organ that threatens to overload the song around the four minute mark. So I kept an eye out for Stereolab and picked up “Switched on” a week or so before I started at the Stats Office – I probably bought it for my birthday. The album didn’t sound like a bunch of singles and b-sides, it was consistent and wonderful. “Doubt” was a 60s pop dream, the two versions of “Au grand jour” complemented each other, “High expectations” was a different kind of melancholy – “Do you really want to love someone who does not love you?” – I wish I’d listened to those words. , It felt like Stereolab had found a new way to make two or three chords sound different. It wasn’t shoegazing, it wasn’t indie, it was their own sound based on their influences. But the lyrics were something else – I didn’t really understand them, but they made me want to investigate books, learn more, learn French, be a more rounded person, they had far more knowledge and I felt like they were trying to pass that on in one form or another. But I didn’t read my books, I just enjoyed the music. That’s how shallow I am.

As “Peng!” was issued in late June 92 it may well have been the first album I bought with my first Stats Office pay packet. It certainly sticks in my mind as being there alongside “She’s a superstar” by Verve as the earliest records I bought in that ‘new era’. I’d read the Melody Maker review which stated that it sounded like they hadn’t used a mixing desk (that’s a paraphrase, I don’t subscribe to Rock’s Back Pages) so that sounded good. It wasn’t quite like that… “Super falling stars” had no drums, just guitars strumming, bass and droning organs but a lot more layered vocals. There were typical motorik songs like “Orgiastic” and “Peng! 33”, but there were experiments too – “K-stars” was built on a backwards loop of drums and organ, and had a quite gorgeous coda… (Listening to the lyrics, is this song about the Situationists in Paris, those Durutti Columnists who “just drifted”?). “You little shits” had a stilted rhythm pattern, like limping towards heaven. “The seeming and the meaning” was a pop hit waiting to happen (I put it on a mix tape for Lucianos bar and the barman loved it, even if he thought it was by Lush). You know it’s really easy to type things into Google like “Enivrez-vous” and finding it’s a Baudellaire poem. I feel really dim sometimes – why did I not know this stuff at the time? I bet Nicky Wire knew that. Sigh. “Stomach worm” was indie Status Quo and nowhere near as bad as that sounds. “Surrealchemist” is another percussion free drift of rhythm guitar and organ. And again the lyrics were intriguing, sometimes like an argument, sometimes like a lecture, but always interesting. Or in French. It did sound very upfront – not a lot of effects, not a lot of artifice – but that was probably deliberate too.

So which is the debut? Take your pick, they’re both rather good. Neither is Stereolab’s masterpiece – take your pick from “Transient random noise bursts…” or “Mars Audiac Quartet” or “Dots and loops” or “Emperor tomato ketchup” or… But as early indicators for their style, they are both near-perfect.

“Jaguar” – The Sweetest Ache

During the spring of ’91 I was catching up with Sarah Records, buying two or three singles each week. If there were multiple singles by one artist I’d buy them together, so I was buying St Christopher singles one week, Another Sunny Day the next week… I picked up Sarah 36 and Sarah 39 together because they were both by The Sweetest Ache and had similar sleeves. Sarah 36 was “If I could shine” b/w “Here comes the ocean” and sounded like a typical Sarah band, the a-side was quite nice with groovy organ and an insistent guitar line while the b-side showed more dynamics – loud to quiet and back again. A good start. Sarah 39 was more subtle – “Tell me how it feels” sounded drowsy and love-lorn, a boy girl duet on the edge of falling asleep while “Heaven scented world” was an acoustic ballad, just guitar and voice, bookended by backward noise. (I spun these backwards to find it was “Close my eyes” by Ride – a band the single’s sleeve notes slagged off!). So both good singles, lots of potential.

In May that year Sarah issued a third Sweetest Ache single – “Sickening” / “Everlasting”. This was a step forward for the band and they sounded a lot more confident. “Everlasting” was a jangly beauty with a positive spirit while “Sickening” was moodier, real pain in the words and vocal – “All I find is wasted time and an endless flow of all your sickening false promises”. A month or so later I saw a flyer for a Sarah Records Night up in the valleys – St Christopher and the Sweetest Ache up in Pentre. Sadly I saw the flyer two days after the gig itself. I was a bit gutted. From the summer onwards, a forthcoming album called “Jaguar” was promised in the Sarah leaflets, and it was finally released in Spring ’92. In the meantime there were more promises – the first two Watercolour Records singles in late ’91 promised a Sweetest Ache single coupling “Selfish” and “Hideaway”.

Finally…I bought the album. After months of misery on the dole I’d landed a job at the Stats Office so my parents gave me fifty quid to celebrate and I dashed to the nearest record shop to buy all the records I’d missed during the previous months. So that was “Secondhand clothes” EP by Moonshake, “Adrenaline” EP and “Everything’s alright forever” LP by Boo Radleys, “Going blank again” LP by Ride, “In ribbons” LP by Pale Saints and “Jaguar”. That night my parents had our friends Janice and Clem over and they mentioned my purchases. “Oh let’s have a look” said Clem, I passed them over to him and he perused each sleeve as if he was taking in every detail before passing them to his wife. After examining each record, they looked at me and said in unison “Never heard of any of them, Rob!”

In amongst all the shoegazing around it, “Jaguar” felt special and slightly different. In my diary at the time I would rave about the ‘purity’ of the sound, the lack of distortion, the clarity of it all. I must admit I play “Jaguar” a lot more frequently than any of the other records I bought that day. As much as I love all those records, this album is the one I return to the most.

It opens in a most uncharacteristic way with “Briaris”. Organ chords, a gentle wash of cymbals rising like waves, acoustic guitars, a pulsing bass drum and a female vocal – a friend of the band named Louise. Pure and clear – “All good things must come to an end, throw your caution to the wind”… The chorus rises with the addition of bass guitar, the singer is double tracked in harmony now. This sounds like love – “Take that sadness away, spending days of joy together”. Then the middle eight rises – “Fade away, no more sadness…”. Like it’s that easy. Then the song fades out as she sings “I will take your sadness away”. Again, like it’s that easy. For months I’d been in the depths of despair without a job, now I had one… Was that the answer to all my problems? Would it cure the blues? “Capo” follows, Simon Court is back on lead vocals. Two minor chords on acoustic guitar, and a truth or two. “I’ll be honest with myself, it makes all the difference, it all hurts less that way if it all goes wrong some day”. Oh dear, here comes the rain again. “Surround myself with emptiness, commit myself to loneliness”. The music is melancholy, string synth chords rising for the sun, little guitar licks, tom tom rolls like impending doom, bass guitar wandering everywhere, but the root notes (can I just state the bass playing on this LP is totally unpredictable and wonderful), then at three minutes the clouds clear, a new chord change and a sax solo brightens the skies. A former Melody Maker writer once stated on Twitter that “Capo” was the purest example of what Sarah Records did. He may have been right. “She believes” is a full band performance but feels oddly weightless – the bass is acting like a lead guitar. There’s a lot of ‘feelings” here – initially the female in the song can “feel the hurt drift away” and later a litany of feelings overwhelm her – “Feel the love feel the pain feel the sea feel the sky feel the heart feel the mind… Still not sleeping”. The climax is almost too much, the drums stop rolling and go motorik, organs rise and fall, guitars solo – but there’s no distortion, no overdrive. It’s just so perfectly clean and pure. “More than this” is more doubtful, Court is trying to persuade someone – “Trust in me please, there’s one more move to make” – while guitars arpeggio and tambourines are shaken impatiently. “Tell me reasons maybe, understanding is an art for me, face to face with ugliness, there must be more than this”. Sometimes you wish someone would tell you this. End of side one.

“Don’t be coy, let feelings run – forget who knows, enlighten me” sings Court at the start of the title track. Is this a continuation of the conversation from the last song? But the chorus is more forceful – blaring organ and harsh drums and – finally – distorted guitars as Court implores “I never meant to push too hard but these things kill me”, stretching these final words out. “Standing hopeful on the edge”? Is he trying to stop someone jumping off a building, or expecting a new surge of optimism? It’s never made clear. And the music rises and falls, there’s a lovely instrumental middle eight before the harsh chorus comes in, Court repeating “These things kill me” over and over again, so impassioned, as things get raucous, waves of noise, a bit of a rave up then the song suddenly stops and returns backwards. Rewrite the past? Maybe I think too much. “Bitterness” moves through a lovely chord change with added backwards guitar chords, then Court sings “Lately feeling confusion about all the things I want and need”. Some things never change. Nothing makes sense to Court, but the music swirls sweetly. “Failing every nervous move I make”, mysteries and strangeness – sorry to say that these feelings never leave you. Never ending. “Climbing” finds Court in a more positive frame of mind and the music reflecting that – light strums of acoustic guitar over spritely drums and bass. Court isn’t listening to the cruel voices, he’s seeing clearer, yet there’s a spoken section which sounds like a diary entry reciting deep dark thoughts Yet Court is still thinking positive – “I won’t succumb to that again, I’m lying sore and empty – maybe we’ll see”… Hope in despair, hope in love, hope in someone else. As the song fades out and the music dashes for some kind of resolution Court repeats “I’m seeing clearer” like his life depends on it. “Selfish” closes the album in a similar manner to “Journey’s end” closes Brighter’s “Laurel” LP – soft arpeggios and gentle music. Court sings “Another day and I have no-one but myself to understand my twisted thoughts”. Back to bad thoughts? But there’s something else – “Somewhere inside, there’s another place to be, my unselfish hideaway”. And it’s all in the mind. And we’re back to “There’s a place” on “Please please me”, the retreat into insularity, into the mind, into thought. Is that the answer? Depends on the question.

“Jaguar” received no reviews in the music press, or if it did they passed me by. The Sweetest Ache were never interviewed by the Melody Maker or NME either. Later in 1992 they issued a single on Watercolour – not the songs promised but a delightful cover of Honeybus’ “I remember Caroline” backed with “Brown fox”, a seven and a half minute thriller – more dark thoughts as the music quietly prowls and Court is more worried than ever – “I taste one more time your bitter poisoned love” – and the latent agression building throughout explodes then dims down again. Simmering until it boils over again, too much pain, too much crying. It’s all too much. A remarkable song.

The next single issued by the band was on the American label Sunday Records in early 1993. “A new beginning” is a gentle acoustic drift, but Court is still not happy – “I am blinded by lies, can you hear me?”. The other side “Sweet soul sister” is odd, at the time it sounded different, a traditional rock song, typical rock guitar licks, nobody was doing this kind of thing except Delta – the former Sea Urchins. But now it sounds like a cross between “Give out” era Primal Scream and “Don’t look back in anger”. Hmm. At this point Court left the band and they recorded a second album “Grass roots” for Vinyl Japan, a record so anonymous and boring that I can barely remember it, and then split up. Various members have been in bands around the Swansea area – Shooter, The Milestone Band – and eternal thanks to Wally at The Beautiful Music for digging for information and music about these bands. “Jaguar” though is special. I keep saying that about everything. You must be so bored with me by now.

Next time – nineties noise, eighties pop, misery and heartbreak- lots of misery and heartbreak.

Debut Albums #21 – #25

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 twenty one to twenty five

“Begin” – The Millennium / “Present Tense” – Sagitarrius

By 1967 Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher were unhappy with their existence. Sure they were both producers in LA, creating albums by the Byrds, the Association, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Chad and Jeremy and more. But they wanted artistic freedom. They knew which way the musical wind was blowing. Usher had worked with Brian Wilson back in the early 60s – they wrote “In my room” together – and they had both moved on a long way from surf music. In late 66 Usher recorded “My world fell down” (an already exceptional song by the Ivy League) with the cream of his LA studio buddies – Glen Campbell sang lead, Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnson are in the chorus vocal mix, the Wrecking Crew provided the backing – and presented it to his record company Columbia as a new group called Sagittarius. They loved it, issued the single and in 1967 it reached the Hot Hundred without a group to promote it. Columbia were eager for an album, so Usher started to create one, enlisting Boettcher to help.

Boettcher had his own problems. He had guided the early albums by the Association, adding musique concrete noise to their harmony pop sound before falling out with them, or being sacked. There were also issues over songwriting – Boettcher claimed to have written their hit “Along comes Mary” but was stung out of royalties by Tandyn Almer. There were scores to be settled, songs which had to be sung. Boettcher had created his own band the Ballroom who had recorded an entire LP for Warner Brothers which was never issued, and he was working towards creating a new seven piece band called the Millennium. Usher’s request came at the right time – Boettcher agreed to work on Sagittarius, the Millennium signed to Columbia too and worked on the Sagittarius LP, before moving to their own LP while utilising some of the Ballroom recordings. Everybody was happy. “Present Tense” was issued in July 1968, followed a few months later by “Begin”. Great success was expected – “Begin” was the most expensive album recorded by Columbia at the time – but both LPs sold less than 50,000 copies at the time. Usher left Columbia and recorded a second Sagittarius LP for his own label (which I wrote about last year), the Millennium split up after one more single leaving their talented members to solo careers and other groups like Crabby Appleton, and the two LPs were lost, forgotten or treasured by the few who owned them.

By the mid to late 90s there had been a resurgence in interest in so-called sunshine pop or soft pop, and Mojo magazine had featured both LPs in their “Hidden Treasures” page. Sundazed reissued “Present tense” on CD with bonus tracks, Creation’s Revola arm issued “Begin” and I bought both CDs within a few months of each other in 1998 – “Present Tense” from a record fair in Newport around March and “Begin” on a trip to London with my fiance towards the end of the year.

“Present Tense” is the lighter of the two albums, there’s more emphasis on orchestration, harps and harpsichords and less emphasis on guitars, but there’s a lot to enjoy on the album. Side one can slide past in a dreamy mid-tempo haze of pizzacato strings, phased organs and lush harmonies – I always thought the rising and falling string figure on “Song to the magic frog” was an homage to “The dangling conversation” but I could be wrong. These are many Boettcher’s songs and his sweet breathy singing style suits the material. “Glass” comes a shock then – a mass of effects, Indian instruments, submerged vocals. Quite psychedelic then. “Would you like to go?” is apparently about the Monterey Pop festival, but taking the piss – “Where prophets play electric guitars” indeed. Side two is more varied – “My world fell down” is remixed into stereo and loses its sound effects (a request from Clive Davis, it seems) while second single “Hotel Indiscreet” (co-written by James Griffin before he joined Bread) lost its section of Firesign Theatre noises. “I’m not living here” is Boettcher settling scores, as is “Musty dusty” – a mellotron heavy remembrance of childhood, apparently co-written with Albyn but mysteriously not credited to him. Finally Usher takes control of his project, writing and singing the closer “The truth is not real”. This is perfect psychedelia, swirling organs, heavy bass and drums, lots of phasing and effects while Usher whispers of “rejecting truth because you’re out of phase”. A great closer.

If “Present tense” is sunshine-orch-pop then “Begin” is sunshine-power-pop. Not surprising considering the Millennium contained five singer songwriter guitarists. Boettcher was one of the first people in America experimenting with 16 track recording on this album, running two 8 track tape recordings side by side and it sounds like every one of those 16 tracks was filled with sound, sometimes it works and sometimes it can be overwhelming. Side one opens with an instrumental “Prelude” where a sweet harpsichord figure is smashed to smithereens by a hugely compressed drum beat – inventing Big Beat in a flash – then segueing into “To Claudia on Thursday”, an evocation of a lazy summer’s day. Side one is consistent even if the sound quality is lacking sometimes – all those overdubs – and has some delightful late 60s pop songs on it. Side two however is far superior. “It’s you” is powerful guitar pop, a protest against authority and the older generation disguised as a love song. “Some sunny day” adds some pedal steel to the mix, while “It won’t always be the same” promises secrets being revealed. “The know it all” is an uptempo pounder with distorted guitars and Hugh Masakela’s frenzied trumpet blast, with lyrics about past lives. Are they trying to make a point? “Karmic Dream Sequence #1” is a huge song with a strange edgy yet serene atmosphere (which would be replicated on “Where the geese go” by Verve) – backwards screams, celestes, a wash of guitars and whoever is singing sounds distinctly like Robert Plant at his most gentle. (Of course Plant was a huge fan of Californian late 60s rock). After four minutes, it all gets strange – more backwards sounds, kotos, reverb and wind noises. All topped off with a brief snatch of the “Prelude” harpsichord at the end. And it gets better again. “There is nothing left to say” brings all the semi-religious aspects of the music into focus – “the time is gonna come when we’re gonna lead the way, you’ll be shown the way and shown the time, we’ll only need to go…” – while the music is a rich mix of Leslie-toned guitars, pianos and aeriated backing vocals. Quite stunning. “Anthem” is a bit of a laugh to close the album, tribal drumming, wild phasing, silly “CTA 102” voices and a chant of “Columbia Columbia… C…B…S” just to annoy the label.

Both LPs are wonderful, similar but different. Neither were praised at the time but are now regarded rightly as classics.

“No less the trees than the stars” – Purple Ivy Shadows

Back in the day I collected record labels. Sometimes I even wrote to them and ordered records directly from them. Sometimes their mail order was so crap that I never received anything in return (I’m looking at you Fluff Record of Loughborough, I presume that Hula Hoop LP got lost in the post then). In the early and mid 90s there were numerous indie labels I’d know and look out for – Sugarfrost, Heaven Records (run by the Fat Tulips), A Turntable Friend, the aforementioned Fluff (who issued Boyracer’s debut single alongside early records by Hood), Bus Stop Records from America, Summershine Records from Australia and Watercolour Records which were based in Ironbridge in the industrial Midlands. It was the latter which was most interesting as they didn’t have one set style of music, they were quite eclectic within the genre. Their main band was The Field Trip who were are strange mix of mod and space rock (pretty sure Sonic Boom produced some of their singles), but they issued some wonderful little seven inchers – the Lean-To’s “Soapscum” EP, an odd fanzine and flexi package by the Snowbirds, the Sweetest Ache’s Honeybus cover…

Some of these songs were compiled onto a CD called “Self Portrait” which would be Watercolour’s final release at the end of 1993 alongside a few new songs. There were two songs on the CD I hadn’t heard from a Watercolour single I didn’t buy until early 94, both by the American band Purple Ivy Shadows. “Cathedral Forests” and “At Eleven” both start quietly then gradually increasing in complexity with lots of delayed guitars coming to a crescendo around the five minute mark. This type of indie shoegazing was very much in fashion – a similar style was used by The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, and there were two wonderful singles by Fur on Che Records in this vein. But Fur disappeared as did EOST and I presumed Purple Ivy Shadows had as well. I was very surprised when I saw an advert in ’97 for a PIS LP issued on Slow River Records in the UK. I hunted it down and bought it alongside its sister EP “Under and OK” in a Manchester Music and Video Exchange shop later that year.

I was probably expecting more of the same – echoes, delays, oceans of reverb. I didn’t get it. Instead I was given crystal clear acoustic guitar strums, some nicely overdriven electric guitars, songs which took diversions when I least expected them, odd time changes and lyrics I would still be puzzling over for years to come. Did I care? Absolutely not. I adored it. “Pawtucket” is a fine opener and there’s some odd lyrical ideas – “What are you doing with the sun?” – and some interesting stop-start twists. “Feeble” tumbles around in 6/8 time, while “Rebuilding the ancestral statue” is an odd motorik jam – typewriters, clanging percussion, atonal horns, lots of guitars and strange words – “Plans are not politicals…” Then a strangled cry of “UUUU-niversal”. Very odd. The songs continue in this vein – falling off sideways when you least expect them, peculiar lyrical conceits – “You are a blue mountain” – references to books or films. “Roadwise blood” is the culmination of this, strange time signatures, guitars tumbling over themselves, three overlapping vocals not aiding understanding, leading to a raucous clangour of a chorus. End of side one.

I’d like to say side two is easier to understand but it isn’t. “Sustance” is a more straightforward opener which is almost logical, possibly about self-destruction – “You can be a good athlete and hurt yourself, you can be a good soldier and shoot yourself in the foot”. “She wouldn’t have it” is short but unsettling, especially when huge waves of distorted guitars and drums take over the song at the end. “Stairs” is so similar in tempo, rhythm pattern and key to “Carly Simon” by Insides that I often mix them up in my mind, I really should do a mash up of the two songs. (“No, please don’t!” I hear you cry). “Dancefloor shiny under junky” is another two chord jam and yes that is a very odd title. Then it all goes really good. “No health” has more chiming guitars and stop start rhythms but a sudden melodic sense only hinted at before, then rises to a chorus of “The second I feel great comes a week when I have no health anymore” – then some lovely George Harrison-esque guitar peals to close the song. Finally “A space is needed” returns to their shoegazing past, in a way. A simple three chord guitar riff is strummed through echo and reverb, organ and bass is added, tentatively, drums are hit occasionally, the whole band seem to be warming up, working around the riff, this goes on for ninety seconds, bursts of feedback, slide guitars… Then a drummer kicks in with a offbeat waltz, the whole band drop in and link together, the song moves upwards for about thirty seconds before falling apart again, everyone dropping out and returning to that one guitar riff and droning organ echoing into space.

I loved the album and played it to other people but nobody really liked it. Were the structures too odd? Wasn’t it melodic enough? Maybe it’s one of those records that gets made and then disappears. Purple Ivy Shadows made a few more LPs but none were issued in the UK, it became harder to find them as time passed but luckily they are all available on Bandcamp if you feel the need to investigate. Give them a listen, I’d love to think I’m not the only person out there who loves them.

“Radar Bros” – Radar Bros

This LP was mentioned amongst Melody Maker’s Top 50 LPs of 1996 which was odd because I’d not really noticed them writing about it. But there it was, looking strange in the list. When I saw it reduced in Diverse a few months later I bought it, played it once or twice at bed time – always the best time to absorb new music – and fell asleep to it. I kept trying to listen to it, I kept falling asleep. Over and over again. What was peculiar was that I would wake up to hear the closing track, think “That was good” then switch off the CD player and fall into a really deep sleep.

I knew I had to hear the album properly so put it onto tape and took it on my bus journeys. It didn’t do very well as the soundtrack for the journey to work, and whenever I played it on the journey home I would still fall asleep, often leading to me falling forward and banging my head on the seat in front of me (I’m not making this up, you know). Eventually I found it was the perfect soundtrack to the late night bus journeys from my girlfriend’s house back to mine. I managed to stay awake for the whole album and it finally made sense to me.

You see “Radar Bros” is slow-core. I’d not really come across the term or any of the music before. Reading the page on “slowcore” on Wiki “the music of slowcore artists is generally characterized by bleak lyrics, downbeat melodies, slower tempos and minimalist arrangements”. So far so good. But the Wiki page also mentions that nobody liked the term and nobody used the term which is odd. Antecedants – Galaxie 500 and American Music Club. Pioneers – Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon. Wiped out by the end of grunge. So Radar Bros didn’t really fit into a genre which didn’t really exist by the time they started. Hmm. Radar Bros are what Jim Putnam did next after leaving Medicine, if you ignore Maids Of Gravity (I know, it’s gonna be hard to ignore them but you’ll try, won’t you?) They were a trio of guitar, bass and drums and played slowly and quietly, with occasional keyboards and lots of space around the music. It could be said that there was nothing new in their sound – trios had been playing slow and spacey since Free – but Radar Bros established their style and they stuck to it.

So how does the debut album sound? Slow, quiet, miserable. The songs merge into each other on initial listens, only becoming distinct entities after about ten or more plays. The lyrics are generally downbeat and pessimistic when they are not riddles. Admittedly the first few tracks really do drag a lot and I’m not surprised I fell asleep by the fifth song. “Supermarket pharmacy” really is as soporific as any product from that pharmacy. Too many songs open with a roll on the tom toms, or a slow guitar chord.

God this record is depressing.

Thankfully it improves. “We’re over here” is positively spritely compared to what has come before it, and the song is actually really good, an interesting riff, lots of guitar interplay, they actually sound awake, but I still have no idea what the words mean. “Too wasted for community”? But it doesn’t drag and the added radio noises keep my interest. “Hey that can’t be all of me?” – if you say so. “Distant mine” builds up nicely to a loud conclusion. “This drive” seems to be about failing mid 90s technology – “Too much time behind the monitor today – my disc drive is dead” – and has quite sweet harmonies, and could pass for a sleepy Crazy Horse if you squint hard enough. And finally the closer is worth slogging through the rest of the album for. “Goddess” is five minutes of total wonder – a riff so easy you wonder why nobody else thought of it, a melody actually worth singing, a performance on the edge of drowsy and some lovely guitar solos. Not just a solo though – Jim sings it too. “Da dum…da da dum…” while he plays it, like Neil Young crossed with George Benson. Absolutely wonderful.

I’ve probably not inspired anyone to listen to this LP. It is hard work – very hard work to be honest – but it is worthwhile to get to “Goddess”. Or just find that song on the internet somewhere and listen to it instead.

“The Bridge” – Robert Rental and Thomas Leer

In 1984 I heard a strange single on the radio, it picked up a decent amount of airplay on the local radio station to ingrain itself into my mind. The song was “International” by Thomas Leer. It was an unusual sound – all synthesised but with a swing and an almost oriental bent melodically, and the lyrics sounded straightforward but had hidden depths – something about poppies being harvested? – all sung in a lovely Scottish burr of a voice. I bought it and loved it. A month or so later my favourite magazine Electronics And Music Maker had an interview with Leer (it also had an article on Cocteau Twins I think) where he talked about his career from his debut single “Private Plane” in 1978 through to his Cherry Red singles and album up to his major label debut LP “Scale of ten”. He also demonstrated his abilities on the Fairlight CMI which he kept in his flat.

A few months later I saw an album called “Business Unusual”, a compilation of singles issued by independent labels during 1978 to 1979, compiled and issued by Cherry Red Records. It had “Private Plane” on it, and “Paralysis” by Robert Rental which looked interesting. I wanted that LP, and eventually found a copy during the summer of ’86. “China’s Eternal” by the Tights turned out to be a lost classic of arty post punk. In the meantime I picked up “Paralysis” by Robert Rental from a record fair in Beaconsfield (don’t ask) and loved it, then at the start of ’86 I found “The Bridge”, the only album combining the talents of Leer and Rental together.

“The Bridge” is an album of two halves. Side one is pop songs, side two is more expansive. The album was recorded quickly “at home” during two weeks in the summer of ’79 on an eight track recorder with a hired mixing desk which had previously been used by Paul McCartney (according to the E&MM interview it was full of moss from his Scottish hideaway – making me wonder if it was involved in the creation of “McCartney II”. Hmm). Side one kicks off with “Attack Decay” – frantic primitive synth sequences, white noise bursts, barely audible vocals from both Leer and Rental Melodic but intense. “Monochrome Days” is a distant cousin to Rental’s “ACC” (b-side of “Paralysis”), halting guitar riffs over synthetic percussion and bass blasts. But it sounds like a pop song. “Day breaks night heals” is more synthetic, pulsing and beating against each other. Again it sounds like pop music. “Connotations” is moodier, and brings to mind the kind of music the Radiophonic Workshop would create for “The boy from space” or other “Words and pictures” type programmes for schools and colleges. “Fade away” is six minutes of synth blurts, noise and random shouting – “This video is broken!”.

Side two is something else. The majority of the music was built up in loops using the methodology shown on the reverse of Eno’s “Discreet Music” – a tape loop delay system. Or Frippertronics perhaps. The music is more ambient and experimental then. “Interferon” is the most obviously looped piece, building in intensity from an industrial start to something quite beautiful and startling. “Six AM” is aptly named, capturing that pre-dawn mood well – flickering street lamps, a sense of dread or paranoia. “The hard way in is the easy way out” features the voices of John Lydon and Joan Collins when they appeared together on a revival of “Juke Box Jury” (and yes I just had a look at it on Youtube) and is a bit unsettling while “Perpetual” is strange, synths bubbling, vocal tones stretched out, very haunting indeed.

What is odd is that the album sounds like a future that never quite happened. There’s a feeling in the music, within the timbres of the synths, a general greyness of tone, a lack of polish, a lack of high-end EQ even… It suited the time, it feels like 1979 to me. It sounded like ancient history amid the shiny digital mid 80s synth pop that was dominating the radio at the time. It is a beautiful time capsule of how futuristic synth pop could be made in a flat in London, and it is a great shame that neither Leer or Rental had much success – indeed Rental made one more single on Mute before disappearing. At least Leer had a career through his solo records and his collaboration with Claudia Brucken in Act and is still making music now. But “The Bridge” is a wonderful record, well worth your time.

Next time – Noise, heartbreak, skewed mid 80s pop and more of the same

Debut Albums #16 – #20

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

Debut Albums #11 – #15

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 eleven to fifteen

“The Fabulous Expedition Of Dillard and Clark” – Dillard and Clark

I love Saint Etienne. Not just for their music (which is enough reason as it is) but also for how inclusive they are. Like all proper music fans, they want everyone to come along and join in with the trip, to hear the old music they love and the great new discovery they’ve just found in some dusty charity shop. They are pop fans and there’s no snobbery in their veins. This is also why Bob Stanley’s book “Yeah Yeah Yeah” was such a good read – Bob loves pop and wants to hip you to his favourites along the way.

Why am I going on about Saint Etienne when I should be talking about Dillard and Clark? Because in the autumn of 2005 I bought a double mix CD called “The Trip: Created by Saint Etienne” which opened my eyes to a ton of great stuff. I’d bought the Tom Middleton “Trip” mix CD a month or so before and that was amazing, the first disc a cool mix of disco and new wave (and the theme from “Picture Box” as a hidden track!!), the second a more downtempo mix including a few 70s kiddies favourites alongside Harpers Bizarre, the Dudley Moore Trio, Dorothy Ashby and Vangelis. (A few years ago I heard this CD being piped into a sauna at a health club I was visiting – it fitted perfectly). Anyway I got the Saint Etienne disc and devoured it. The first disc was cool enough – some Northern Soul, disco, American theme tunes. But disc two was something else. Just look at the track listing – Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, The Left Banke, Ice, Tim Hardin… soft pop and soft psych, melancholy and gorgeous. Just listening to it all now brings back memories of those days. Obviously records by Queen Anne’s Lace and Orpheus were going to be hard to find but the one song by Dillard and Clark led me to buying a CD with both their late 60s albums on it within a few days.

“The fabulous expedition of Dillard and Clark” was recorded and issued in late ’68. Doug Dillard had left his brothers in the Dillards to their own bluegrass country synthesis. Gene Clark had left the Byrds with his own melancholy heart and had left CBS after a failed solo LP. Dillard and Clark combined their immense talents, surrounded themselves with sympathetic players from the LA scene and made a quiet gem of an album for A&M – also home to the Flying Burrito Brothers, so someone there was on the country rock pulse.

It opens with “Out on the side”, like a gentle Dylan song – all Al Kooper organ fills, lots of guitars and gentle drums, but with Byrds style harmonies. And Gene Clark is singing like a sad angel. “She darked the sun” is more traditional country, all fiddle and mandolin, while “Don’t come rollin'” is Dillard’s show piece, fast and breezy but the words have a post-hippy sentiment… “We can have love and peace if we want, it’s a state of mind, no more”. So far so straightforward – country or rock. Then the two start merging. “Train leaves here this mornin'” is slower and is a list of mistakes – bad contracts, being in the wrong place, strange parties – but Clark and the other musicians sing and play with such warmth and love, it sounds like they are just sitting in a circle playing for themselves. (A song so great not even the Eagles can ruin it). “With care from someone” sounds like it’s lifting chunks from the verse of “A taste of honey” (that descending bass and ascending melody) but resolves into a joyous harmony chorus. “The radio song” adds an electric harpsichord to the instrumental mix and is full of heartache. “Git it on brother” is more traditional country but “In the plan” is questioning existence and deep thoughts while the closing “Something’s wrong” harks back to Clark’s childhood and innocence and compares it to his current existence which is found wanting, all the while the music matches these thoughts, lots of minor chords and sad melodies.

It’s difficult to listen to “The fabulous expedition of Dillard and Clark” without hearing how much other music sounds like it, from the Eagles onwards through other Californian country rock and It must have been mindblowing hearing it in 1968 when such a country rock cross-over was far from the mainstream. (Indeed a worthwhile comparison point is “Roots” by the Everly Brothers.). It may have sold poorly at the time but by golly it was influential.

“The Return of the Durutti Column” – The Durutti Column / “The Graveyard and the Ballroom” – A Certain Ratio

It’s a few days after Christmas, 1985. My family are in Cardiff looking around the sales, hoping for bargains. I don’t find any, but I do find two cassettes instead – they may be full price but I don’t care, I’ve got Christmas money to spend. And the tapes look so interesting… Big cardboard boxes covered in fabric – one in blood red, the other in deep blue. Both have a simple font on the front with the band name, the album title in italics and the catalogue number. One is Fact 14c, the other is Fact 16c. I buy them both.

I’ve written about “The return of the Durutti Column” already (go on, you know you want to read my Toppermost again) so I don’t need to convince you of its greatness again. As I only knew “Without Mercy” and “Say what you mean…” It was quite a revelation, such simple beauty. And inside that red box was a piece of sandpaper with the credits printed onto it. Perfect. But “The graveyard and the ballroom” was something else.

For a start it was a reissue of ACR’s first album from early 1980 which was half studio and half live, and only available as a cassette in a pouch. I’d seen the name mentioned in Record Collector and loved the combination – graveyard and ballroom can only mean death disco. I didn’t realise it was referring to the Graveyard Studio and the Electric Ballroom. Inside was a card with the credits on one side and a picture of the original cassette on the other, inside an orange plastic pocket. It looked stylish, cool and very very clean.

As for the music… The studio side was amazing. I couldn’t understand how it had been recorded on a four track, there seemed to be lots of echoes and reverbs on different instruments. How the hell did Martin Hannett produce such sounds? The snare drum was tuned high but was loose too, a unique sound. The drums and bass carried the funk, while guitars were trebly and jangling and sharp, and Simon Topping’s words were very odd, flailing flesh, crippled children, being anonymous in death, not typical. There were odd noises too from some kind of primitive synth or effects box, alongside wah-wah guitar which was not “Shaft” at all. It all sounded like they were struggling to play but that added to the fun. I totally loved it. All the songs were great but “Flight” stood out. For a start it was so spare – single bass notes, guitars playing muted chords, so much space. And the words were great – implying so much with so little. The studio side ended with “Strain”, stopping and starting over and over again.

The live side repeated some of the songs from the studio side but that didn’t hurt. “All night party” had been their drumless debut single but now it had Donald Johnson’s funky drums giving it more propulsion. “Choir” and “Flight” were more expansive live, and there’s song they would never return to again. But more than anything there’s a humour that isn’t apparent elsewhere. As the drum intro to “The Fox” starts, Topping laughs “That sounds like Joy Division, doesn’t it?” Later he sings the opening line of “Disorder” at one point before giggling. It’s a side you don’t expect from a Factory band and makes it all the more human. Loud trebly sparse funk. Wonderful. I would cycle to school and back singing songs from it for months to come. What higher praise is needed?

“Crocodiles” – Echo and the Bunnymen

By the Autumn of 1985 I’d heard enough Teardrop Explodes – both albums and a load of b-sides – to know I loved them. Maybe I should give their arch enemies Echo and the Bunnymen a go? For some reason I actually did the decent thing and started listening to a band’s records in the order they were released. So in October ’85 I bought a cassette of “Crocodiles” from the record shop within Debenhams in Cardiff. It had two extra tracks on it, after all…

“Crocodiles” is a good mix of bright and dark. The music is trebly and sharp, Will Sargeant’s guitar could cut your hand off if you let it, Les Pattinson’s bass is steadfast – not as ‘in your face’ as Peter Hook’s bass lines, but harder tougher and the rock the music is built on. Pete De Freitas’ drums kick like angry mules. And Ian McCulloch sings like… Himself.

“Going up” fades in with odd noises, scratching guitars and sonar beeps before the whole band come in properly – propulsive and harsh, Mac already plotting his own greatness – “If we should pull the plugs out on all our history” – before the band rock into the distance. Normally at this point on the cassette would be “Do it clean” but a peculiarity meant my tape played “The puppet”, a failed single. It sure as hell wasn’t “Do it clean”. “Stars are stars” jangles along but always reminded me of something else I could never put my finger on. “Pride” is choppier and better, about family jealousy, though mentioning “Peter” and “Julie” could be digs at Mac’s former members of the Crucial Three (though Julie was the name of Mac’s sister, also the subject of “Passionate Friend”). “Monkeys” is chime and menace and the earliest Bunnymen song, and the most hemmed in of Pete De Freitas’ performances. “Crocodiles” is taken at breakneck speed and hurtles to its illogical conclusion. End of side one.

“Rescue” was the first song written with De Freitas in the line up and also the first song not produced by “The Chameleons” (Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe) – Ian Broudie is at the controls here. Whatever Drummond and Balfe may be or become, at this point they weren’t the greatest producers in the world and both “Crocodiles” and “Kilimanjaro” (recorded straight after “Crocodiles” at the same studio) are thin productions, lacking in what can only be called ‘balls’. “Rescue” is more muscular and shows some lingering doubts already – “If I said I’d lost my way…” – “Is this the blues I’m singing?” – which would develop by the time of the third Bunnymen album. But here the guitars actually chime and it sounds great. “Villiers Terrace” sounds like a cool place to be, everyone sounds out of it. Both the Bunnymen and the Teardrops recorded “Read it in books” twice and this version is by far the worst – the version on the b-side of the Zoo single of “Treason” is my preference. “Pictures on my wall” is great, leading into “All that jazz” which is mean and threatening – all those barricades and fist shaking. A very late 70s lyric. “Happy death man” is a good closer – atonal piano over the top, even if it does have the Teardrop horns. “Like to keep things dark” – yeah I still recognise that feeling. It grooves along, and fades out into “Going up” coming back in. A nice touch. A nice opener, but buying “Heaven up here” two weeks later showed their real potential. I think “Crocodiles” suffered from being issued amongst a wealth of great albums – “Closer” was issued around the same time and let’s face it, everything will suffer in comparison to that album. But at least “Crocodiles” still turns up on proper best debut lists.

“76:14” – Global Communication

I have been listening to this album for just over twenty years (I bought it on the day it was issued – June 1st 1994 – and it was in the card wraparound sleeve, the velcro’s a bit worn now…) and still I don’t know the ‘names’ of the songs. But is that surprising? After all the titles are just the length of each track. It’s not the kind of thing you’d talk about down the pub – “Oh that song ‘8:07’ is so great…”

Again I might be cheating calling it a debut album… The first I heard of Global Communication was when I bought “Blood Music”, the second and last album by Chapterhouse. It had a free CD with it – “Pentamerous Metamorphosis” – which was the Chapterhouse LP ‘reworked by Global Communication’. And not long after that I bought “A collection of short stories” by Reload from late ’93 which was Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton who were Global Communication and Jedi Knights and E621 and oh it gets confusing. So was “76:14” a debut album? Well it’s my rules…

The album itself is all instrumental, mainly downtempo, synth washes, simple melodies building up layer by layer. There’s percussion sometimes, slightly harsh industrial synth hits, or a clock ticking, or sonar bleeps. It is an admirable late night listen on headphones, though more often than not I would find myself nodding off. I suppose that’s a compliment. “7:35” is more uptempo, leading into what can only be called a tribute to Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a real train” in “8:07” and “5:25” (or “Maiden voyage” as it was called when it was issued as a single) Then it all slows down again and the closing “12:10” takes choral voices into somewhere deeply chilled – like “1/2” from “Music for Airports” in an echo chamber. Very nicezzzzzzz. Oh sorry I just nodded off again.

The whole idea of no titles was to allow your mind to paint its own pictures and Global Communication encouraged people to write in with their thoughts and impressions. I remember reading at the time how a primary school teacher played it to her class and they wrote about it and sent it back to them. There’s even a very primitive website address on the sleeve – I wonder if it still works? I used the album myself as a functional piece of music – when my son was very young I would play the album to get him to sleep, the gentle tick tock of “14:31” would always ease him off gently into a snooze, but it was often difficult not following him.

It’s been odd watching how this album has become a classic over the years because at the time I never saw it happening. Yes it was great and a favourite album, but compared to the other fantastic music being issued around the time it was just one of many great albums. Maybe it was just a high water mark for this sort of music – from here chilled music would either head into trip-hop territory or towards more ambient and experimental areas. Twenty years on, this album feels as dated as any Orb album but I still return to it, still explore the textures and feelings, still fall asleep towards the end.

Maybe that’s not such a compliment after all.

Next time – Five more debut albums, including an album I would be surprised if any reader knows (or cares) about.

Debut Albums #6 – #10

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 six to ten.

“A Walk Across The Rooftops” – The Blue Nile

It’s hard to write about a record like “A walk across the rooftops” without sounding like an idiot. But that’s not really stopped me before. I’ve written about “Isn’t anything”, after all….

I first heard “Tinseltown in the rain” in the spring of ’84, it was a regular part of Annie Nightingale’s playlist. I didn’t see any reviews of the single or album but the name kept popping up – Andy McCluskey of OMD mentioned the Blue Nile in interviews, and if it was good enough for him then it was good enough for me to invest in a copy. Admittedly it took me a while – I ended up with a second hand copy towards the end of 1985. To which the obvious response is “Someone sold their copy? FOOLS!”. This album was a real word-of-mouth record when that actually meant word of mouth. But it was a record that you got to know, that rewarded repeated listens, that won you over so much that you felt you had to pass the secret knowledge on to somebody else.

“A walk across the rooftops” is a magical record. Not a note is out of place, there’s sparse electronics, occasional orchestral surges, piano ballads, pop songs… It feels like a tour of Glasgow, the home town of the three members of the band. I’ll admit it now I’ve never been there but listening to this LP I can imagine it – the fountains and cathedral bells. it’s a record full of love – for people, for each other and for their home town. In a way it’s a thirty seven minute love letter to Glasgow. “Tinseltown in the rain” is a night in a cheap disco, finding love in a hopeless place, the guitar and string arrangement aping Chic but creating something special of their own. “From rags to riches” could be the story of the city struggling to regenerate itself (compare with Simple Minds’ “Waterfront”). “Easter parade” is heart-stopping. “Heatwave” is airless and sticky. “Automobile noise” is one of my favourite album closers of all time, sounding like it was recorded in an underground car park – hot and humid, metallic clangs in the distance, but motionless and cool too.

And I’ve not even mentioned Paul Buchanan’s voice. What control, what passion. Not in a typical soul singer way but his own unique way. His “Do I love you? (Pause) YES I love you!” during the middle of “Tinseltown…” makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The album is full of vocal moments like that, “Easter parade” for a start…

The BBC would like you to think the world revolves around Glasgow at the moment with the Commonwealth Games. I’d love to see the Blue Nile play “Tinseltown in the rain” at the closing ceremony, it would be absolutely perfect.

“Colourbox” – Colourbox

“Play some more of that – that Colourbox stuff…”

An American voice drawls the line, as a distorted guitar reels off a crazy phrase, cut off by drum machines and sequencers chattering at a high Beats Per Minute, this is manic, this is “Manic II”, this is getting ahead of myself….

The first Colourbox I heard was Peel playing “Fast Dump”, the b side of their “Say You” single, during the summer of ’84. It sounded like the other electro tracks he was playing (cuts from the Streetsounds “UK Electro” LP by Foreveraction, who turned out to be Dj Greg Wilson, Andy Connell from A Certain Ratio and Martin Jackson from Magazine, heading towards Swing Out Sister). But I noticed it enough to write it in my diary to one to remember. During the summer of ’85 Colourbox appeared on the cover of Melody Maker to promote their debut album, issued in July that year. I bought it while on holiday in Yorkshire on the day it was issued – HMV Leeds actually – and I wanted an early copy as it came with a free album, which would turn out to be essential.

The main LP itself is terrific. After a genteel piano instrumental to lead off, it cuts to the thrilling rock / dance collage of “Just give ’em whiskey”, drum machines pounding, guitars rocking out, and a multitude of speech samples from “Westworld”, “The prisoner”, “2001” and a peculiar interview with Joan Collins (“Sex makes your skin glow and your eyes sparkle”!) Then cut to the lilting reggae sway of “Say You”, then powerful pop ballad “The moon is blue”, then soulful pop of “Inside informer” all highlighting the vocals of Lorita Graham. Side two is just as eclectic, frantic former single “Punch”, sophisticated pop of “Suspicion”, a great medley of “Manic” and “You keep me hanging on” (a year before Kim Wilde’s near identical hit version) closing with the moody ballad “Arena”. It’s a quick trawl through pop styles in the mid 80s and a great listen. Note that the crazed guitar solos on “Manic” are played by William Orbit.

Then there’s disc two. “Edit the dragon” is another rock dance collage, fast cuts to match the sound of martial arts samples, “Hipnition” has a cool swing while “We walk around the streets” is Hale and Pace. Yes indeed. Quickly cutting to a remix of “Arena” which is almost as good as the first version. Side two of this disc (side 4 according to the inner sleeve) works as a side long suite, kicking off with “Manic II”, a remix of “Manic” which stretches the song to over six minutes, including some lovely passages of just pure sequencer showing how the song is built up, then into “Fast dump”, covered in samples and noise (including the sound of a ZX Spectrum program taoe being loaded) and finally “Sex gun” where the backing track of “Just give ’em whiskey” gets a new vocal from Graham. It’s a great side of music, and only available on the first 10,000 copies of the LP and the cassette tape – the CD edition missed it entirely even though there was room for it. (Thankfully it was restored to its rightful place on the comprehensive Colourbox box set that was issued a few years ago)

So Colourbox’s debut is a great sign of the times electro pop soul sampledelic album. It points the way to a hip hop future – and Colourbox had a part in that future through their involvement in “Pump up the volume” by MARRS. But the most remarkable point about the Colourbox LP is that it was issued on 4AD records, home to ethereal gothic types like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Dif Juz and X Mal Deutschland. Not your typical 4AD record then, but still very fine.

“Kontiki” – Cotton Mather

It was “My before and after” which did it. It was on one of those numerous free CDs that came with Uncut every month, usually they go straight to the back of the cupboard after one listen (certainly the amount of them that turn up at the charity shop indicates I’m not the only one who does this). But that song was different, and the accompanying five star review in the magazine meant I was soon hurrying upstairs to Paul K’s office (we were both in the Stats Office, y’know – me down in Forms Production and him in IDBR maintenance) telling him “Listen to this! Read this! ORDER THIS ALBUM!”. He agreed and from there “Kontiki” became the soundtrack of summer 1998.

It was the real fag end of Britpop, The Verve were the biggest band in the country having sold out all their psychedelic grooviness to become Richard Ashcroft’s backing band (and yes I could write about.”A storm in heaven” but it’s not on my final list), Oasis were still huge with their wall of noise Beatles pastiches, and indie guitar music was in another doldrums. “Kontiki” was a breath of fresh air.

OK so leader Robert Harrison has a Lennon-esque twang to his voice and there are hints of “Revolver” in the crunchy guitar tones but it’s not obviously derivative. It’s just prime power pop almost all the way with light psychedelic touches here and there. It sounded home made in the nicest sense – songs have little extra bits appended on the end, as if they’d be recorded over some old songs of theirs. There’s conventional pop songs like “Password”, “She’s only cool” and the aforementioned “My before and after”, jammed with melody and interesting turns of phrase. There’s a few woozy turns like “Private Ruth” and the slowly speeding “Aurora Bori Alice”, showing a psychedelic edge. Then there’s the huge blast of guitars and drums on “Church of Wilson” – “I’m an acolyte of the mighty Church of Wilson” – presumably Brian not Harold. “Vegetable Row” is the kind of song that should soundtrack a hundred Hollywood teen summer smashes. Best of all are the slower moments. “Spin my wheels” is a lovely song built on acoustic guitars and a bed of harmonies, while “Lily dreams on” is a gorgeous romantic drift of a song. The whole album packs about fifteen songs into forty minutes, which is the antithesis of the “fill all eighty minutes” ethos of the time. Over fifteen years on, this album still sounds great – not retro, just fresh. Worth a listen. I’d hope.

“Lo and behold” – Coulson Dean McGuinness Flint

The great thing about having a book full of record reviews – such as Robert Christgau’s “Rock Albums Of The 70s” – is that you can flick through and find a review of an album you’ve never heard and make a mental note of it, then months or years later find the album in a bargain bin and it turns out to be a bit of a classic. This is the case with “Lo and behold”. Only it took about twenty or more years for me to find the album, and it was well worth it.

I’m slightly cheating by calling “Lo and behold” a debut album. It’s certainly the debut album by the conglomerate of performers listed, but Tom McGuinness and Hughie Flint had been together in Manfred Mann back in the sixties and had a few hits on their own (with the help of Gallagher and Lyle) in the early 70s) while Dennis Coulson and Dixie Dean had also been on the music scene for years. After Gallagher and Lyle had departed from McGuinness Flint after their second album flopped, the newly christened foursome headed into a studio in London in early 72 with Manfred Mann (“The world’s most sensible Dylan nut” according to Xgau’s LP review here) as producer. The final magic ingredient in “Lo and behold” is Bob Dylan.

For this album is a collection of cover versions of his songs, and not just the usual classic songs which get covered regularly. These were songs which had been copyrighted between 1963 and 1971 but not officially issued by Dylan himself. So there’s early protest songs mixed in with songs from “The Basement Tapes” (which were still three years away from official release by this point). Even now trying to locate the Dylan versions of these songs on Spotify there’s gaps – “Sign on the cross” and “Rocks off” are still not released by Dylan, other songs are found on “The Witmark Demos” or an unreleased live LP from 63 or a collection of recordings for “Broadside” magazine. I shall point out here that Clinton Heylin’s book “Revolution in the air” which details every Dylan song (released and otherwise) up to ’73 helped me understand this album a lot better.

So that’s the background. What’s the album actually like? Absolutely wonderful. “Eternal circle” is a good start, sounding like a Byrds out-take, while “Lo and behold” is a travelogue in the jaunty style of the Band – an acceptable comparison point and they add more melody than the Basement Tapes version. “Let me die in my footsteps” is defiant in word and music – building from droning guitar and tablas into something more folky. “Open the door Homer” is a personal favourite, playful and freeflowing, with a great coda. “Lay down your weary tune” starts all choral before building up in layers of melody and sound. God, what lyrics! A song about the power of music. Still astounds me now, and obviously the source of “Strength of strings” (after all, the Byrds did record it themselves). “Don’t you tell Henry” is a laugh, jug band music, are they taking the piss out of Mungo Jerry? And that “Hot love” lift at the end? Love it. “Rocks off” is a slow bluesy crawl, “The death of Emmett Till” is a heartbreaking lyric, and one must wonder how this can happen.. “This song is just a reminder…”. “Odds and ends” rocks and rolls with humour – nice lift from “Dizzy miss Lizzy” – while closer “Sign on the cross” is heartfelt gospel with a wild rav e up at the end and again one wonders why the song has never been officially released – maybe it’s actually too honest and close to the bone. A great album, and I’m told by my brother that when he saw the Manfreds live recently (an amalgamation of various ex-members of Manfred Mann) they played some numbers from the album. A great and little known album.

(Note to people saying “Tiny Montgomery”? “I wanna be your lover”? Those were b-sides added to the CD reissues, and both fine songs indeed, especially the latter which again apes T.Rex)

“If I could only remember my name” – David Crosby

Put aside any preconceptions of David Crosby you may have – the cliche of a freak flag flying hippy, the freebasing drug addled car crashing crazy, the ecological warrior – and there’s still the music. It turns out he was right about a lot of things anyway, but ain’t hindsight great? But the music…. His songs with the Byrds were always the most questing, adventurous and questioning – “What’s happening?!?!”, “Draft morning”, “Lady friend”, “Triad”, “Everybody’s been burned”… Come on folks, he deserves a free pass just for that one song. Then in Crosby Stills and Nash (and Young) there was the righteous paranoia of “Almost cut my hair”, the past lives of “Deja Vu”, the glorious atonal drift on “Guinevere”… If Crosby had maintained that standard of music throughout the seventies he’d be even more of a legend than he already is.

“If I could only remember my name” was his debut solo album released in 1971 and featuring a cast of just about anyone famous in California in that time. There’s numerous members of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana on the songs, alongside Joni Mitchell and both Graham Nash and Neil Young – Stephen Stills only turns up as a character in one of the songs. It could have been a dreary album of interminable jamming, but it’s is far from that. Yes the songs do go on a bit, but there’s always direction and purpose and reason.
“Music is love” – a rare Crosby / Nash / Young collaboration – is a gentle opener, the three men harmonising well over multiple twelve string guitars repeating the title’s mantra, then around 2:30 Young adds some spooked vibraphone (compare with “I believe in you”) and the words change – “Everyone’s saying that music’s for fun”. But this isn’t born out by what comes along. “Cowboy movie” is mainly the Grateful Dead backing Croz while he explains about the bizarre love triangle within Crosby Stills Nash and Young which would lead to their falling out. It grooves nicely. “Tamalpais high (at about 3)” is a gentle breeze of a song, massed Croz harmonies over a jazzy backing. “Laughing” is a total classic, acoustic guitars bright as the sun, Croz searching for something, anything, comfort, getting it wrong, only finding it in a child’s laughter – it’s an allegory for the Maharishi apparently. Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel at the end is divine. “What are their names?” begins like a casual jam – Garcia and Young trading guitar licks as the rest of the band rev up, before a choir of Croz’s friends sing about the men who run the countries. Still relevant today. “Traction in the rain” glistens with autoharp and guitars and Croz at his dreamiest and most thoughtful. “Song with no words” is more luscious ba-ba-ba music and ended up on many of my mixtapes. “Orleans” is spooky, multitracked Crosbys singing a traditional song with only a guitar accompaniment. Finally the album gets totally spooked, “I swear there was somebody there” is incredibly eerie, barely eighty seconds of Crosby’s most anguished vocal tones echoing into the distance.

Some people didn’t get the album at the time – again Christgau was particularly scathing – but this is an album that has grown in stature as the years have gone by, time has been kinder to this than a lot of early 70s music. What initially sounds indulgent becomes hypnotic over repeated listenings. This album’s a grower – definitely not an instant classic, but give it time to seep in and it will alternately charm and spook you.

Next time – another five albums. It might be a while as I’m going on holiday but I’ll see what I can do…

Debut Albums #1 – #5

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 one to five.

#1 – “Come From Heaven” by Alpha

There was a period during the late 90s when record fairs were full of promo CDs of albums for a couple of quid. It felt like the record industry was throwing tons of crap at the wall and hoping a minuscule amount of it would stick. Those record fairs would end up being rich pickings for me – I ended up with some great albums amongst the dross, I’d pick a title or band because the name sounded interesting or I might have read about them. That’s how I found little gems like The Willard Grant Conspiracy and The Liquor Giants (if “Every other day at a time” had been their debut, I’d sure as hell be writing about it here). It’s also how I ended up with “Come from heaven” by Alpha.

I knew about Alpha from an advert I’d seen in one of the music papers for the Melancholik label, run by Massive Attack. I had picked up their debut single “Sometime later” – again from a bargain bin, this time Diverse Records’ £1 cd singles box. (We’ll come back to that box on a later instalment). I had liked the single and the b sides, it was definitely in the post Portishead orchestral trip-hop vibe. And they were from Bristol. And it turned out that one of them (Corin Dingley) had helped out on the production and engineering of Secret Shine’s debut LP “Untouched”. So..worth a punt for three quid.

The first few times I listened to “Come from heaven” I really didn’t get it. Sure it was a pleasant enough record to put on at bedtime and fall asleep to (again, this may end up a theme) but nothing jumped out and grabbed me. Then one day I felt like crap in work, full up with a cold and barely able to concentrate. I went home sick, stopping off at the pharmacists long enough to buy some sort of Contac 400 “Night and day” cold relief tablets. I headed home, took a tablet, lay on my bed and shoved “Come from heaven” on. Whatever was in those tablets must have been pretty strong because I felt light-headed and woozy almost instantly. I didn’t feel better, I just felt like I didn’t give a shit about my cold any longer. And as the drugs kicked in the album started to make sense to me.

The album is built around looped samples from multiple sources – a bit of Percy Faith Orchestra here, a Dusty Springfield there, Michel Legrand’s soundtrack to “Le Mans”… All scratchy vinyl, a dab of melody here and there, sub-bass blurts and orchestral arrangements that are subtle but lovely. The vocals are handled by three singers – Wendy Stubbs, Martin Barnard and Helen White – all sound drowsy and half-awake which adds to the general downtempo nature of the record. “Sometime later” is an early highlight – brooding and slow, but building in intensity as it progresses before Barnard finally explodes as the orchestra rises in pitch – “Hold the sun down, hold the moon down, leave me the rest…”. “Delaney” is a duet between White and Barnard, taking alternate verses, almost conversational, the loop falling over itself. If anything I prefer Barnard’s vocals on the album as a whole, he sounds more involved somehow. It’s not perfect throughout – “Slim” is a bit too much Portishead-by-numbers – but overall for a summer’s day strung out on cold cures it was great. It maintains its mood throughout its sixty eight minutes. Could it lose a few of those minutes? Of course it could – just because a CD could hold up to eighty minutes of music, it didn’t mean everybody’s debut album had to fill every minute. Have I mentioned how much I love “Firefly” towards the end of the album? No? I know there was probably some grand concept by putting a different version of “Sometime later” at the end of the album with Stubbs’ vocal instead of Barnard’s…

Like I have already said, this is not “My favourite debut albums”, just debut albums I think are worth a listen. For sunny days like today, this is worth putting on in the background.

#2 – “Sixty-Nine” by AR Kane

I missed A.R.Kane at the time, and I mean completely missed them. I was aware of their existence through reading the music papers religiously every week, but I didn’t hear them on the radio or see them on TV (did they do any TV? I doubt it). They were just a name that the Melody Maker writers raved about during the late 80s. I just bleeped them out, that’s all.

Jump to the summer of 1993 and I borrow a copy of Simon Reynolds’ book “Blissed Out” from Cardiff library and devour it from cover to cover. Can these records be that good? Reynolds saved his highest praise for A.R.Kane and their first few singles and their debut LP “69”. I thought I should hear this music, see what it’s like. Obviously the records aren’t available in normal record shops – their label Rough Trade records regularly went bust in those days – so I had to scour second hand record shops. I took a trip to Bristol mainly to recreate the pictures on the Sarah Records labels 21-30 – the Severn Beach railway line – and ended up in Plastic Wax, a record collecting shop I’d frequented for nearly ten years (I’d first been there in early 84, buying early OMD singles). It was there I found “69” by AR Kane on tape. It wasn’t my ideal format but at least I could listen to the album on the train journey back to Penarth. As I sit down on the train leaving Temple Meads I slot the tape in and press play.

“Crazy blue” starts like an almost normal song, wandering bass, choppy guitar chords, congas and some sweet(ish) singing about everything going crazy. So far so normal. Then the chorus comes in, drums drop in from nowhere and these amazing guitar chords radiate across the stereo spectrum, rich in harmonics, a sumptuously lush sound while the bass gets untethered and wanders crazily up and down octaves. Back to the verse again and now it sounds more dub-like – echoing rim-shots, spaces in the music. And the chorus bursts back in with those radiant guitars again. And the singing isn’t forceful or declamatory, it’s lazy and swooning – “When I think of you, everything goes crazy”. That sounds like real life to me. But those guitars, and that bass. Good opener. “Suicide kiss” starts with a repeated bass line and a stop start drum pattern and the singer knows something’s falling apart – “The writing’s on the wall”, “This is not another sob story”. . Tension builds, on the second verse walls of distorted guitars join in, just one chord all the way through. Then after the second chorus, screaming single notes of feedback enter and the drums start going mental, ricocheting off against each other as more and more shards of noise join in until the whole song collapses on itself, the drums stumble to a halt and the guitars feed back endlessly. The bass guitar starts again and now all hell has broken loose, guitars all over the place, Alex Ayuli almost shouts to be heard above the cacophony, and the song stops dead – like a tape cut, or a suicide.

By now I’m loving this album. I can see why the critics loved it. The next song is “Baby milk snatcher” – obviously a reference to Mrs Thatcher “the milk snatcher” who stopped free school milk in the mid 70s. (As an aside, I still get an instant memory rush if I drink milk at room temperature, I’m back in primary school in Leeds drinking milk out of a tiny glass bottle through a straw – the milk was never chilled in those days). This song is more dub-wise, a heavy bass, echoes and spaces, but with huge waves of guitars in the way. And it sounds kind of sexy too – “baby suck seed slow slow slow”. And it’s at this point the train blasts into the Severn Tunnel, the carraige goes dark, the windows rattle and it’s a most perfect moment. “Scar” is more minimal – a lightly strummed guitar, some odd lyrics, echoed drum shots, more space. “Sulliday” on the other hand is just too much. Even now I don’t understand it – it’s a collection of moments and sounds, each unrelated to each other, all engulfed within an ocean of reverb. No melody to speak of, words that wander in and out, just oddness. The only equivalent I’ve come across is “Dreaming at rain” by Eyeless In Gaza, which is a seven minute improvisation in the middle of an otherwise song based LP. End of side one. Turns tape over, watches the sun stream through the windows.

“Dizzy” defies convention. While there’s a cello in the foreground and everything feels normal on the surface, Ayuli’s lyrics are slightly queasy – “Dizzy, like when the blood runs away” – and dip in and out. Someone’s having fun at the mixing desk. And in the background there’s strange screaming and guitars going supernova, but never overpowering the song itself. Odd. “Spermwhale trip over” is the song that sounds most like their antecedents the Cocteau Twins, a drum machine taps gentlly, a bass plays a prominent role, guitars circle around each other, but there’s again a sense of space that the Cocteaus never had. And again whispers in the background – “I love you forever”. It’s delicious and beautiful. “The sun falls into the sea” was the song that Reynolds went nuts over the most – something like “It sounds like they are playing a whale’s rib cage”. How could it live up to that? But by golly it does! The first two minutes drift in quietly, guitars sparkle in strange hues, a waves of harmonics, then the lightest percussion, bass wandering around, vocals like crushed hearts, a soprano sax, all in this beautiful reverbed cavern of sound. I had heard nothing like it then, and I’ve heard nothing like it since. “The madonna is with child” is built around a repeated piano pattern which sounds quite threatening, and AR Kane throw every trick they have at the song – sky kissing feedback arcs, multiple twinkles of harmonics, and it all makes sense. And there’s a feeling of loss too in the words and music, if the previous two songs were loved up and blissed out, this is more about the turmoil, the falling out. The album closes with “Spanish quay (3)”, an instrumental reprise of what has already been. And that’s it. I loved it, and hunted high and low to find it on vinyl and CD, being one of the few albums I own on all three formats.

A stunning debut album featuring more innovation in sound and ideas than most bands create in their entire careers. There’s a gleeful sense of playfulness – a “what if?” mentality to working in a recording studio that works every time. It’s an album I can return to over and over again and still find new details within it. I’ll probably keep saying “this isn’t a best debut albums list” but frankly “69” IS one of the best debut albums ever. Full stop.

#3 – “Hex” by Bark Psychosis

“Hex” is the sound of an unfamiliar town as a cold winter turns into a slightly less cold spring. Dark nights, catching buses which take odd turns into housing estates I have no idea about, feeling uneasy, paranoid – where ARE we going? I don’t recognise this street, can everyone see the panic on my face? I’d only been living in Newport for a month or so, slowly settling into my new house. I didn’t know the town, only how to catch a bus in to the bus station and a bus out to work. If anything happened differently I was lost. One day it snowed and all the buses stopped, I tried to walk to work and got completely lost and ended up having to ring in to work from a call box to admit defeat and say I wasn’t coming in. My parents brought my cat Bez to live with me and he hated it – he missed his three feline playmates in Penarth, he didn’t like being stuck inside the house all the time and spent most of his days sat on top of my wardrobe miaowing at me. He went back after a week. It wasn’t that easy for me.

And “Hex” is that sound. I’d bought the single “A street scene” on 10″ red vinyl and loved it, and I bought “Hex” on the day it was issued, Valentine’s Day 1994. Not that I had a valentine that year. When lovers everywhere indulged in meals and chocolates and huge inflated prices for roses, I spent the night listening to the new Bark Psychosis album. It’s not a conventional rock album – it was after all the album that gave rise to Simon Reynolds’ term “post-rock” – but it is mainly played out on conventional instruments. It is possible it was recorded meticulously and sequenced in places using whatever now-primitive technology was available at the time, but it all sounds natural. It doesn’t sound synthetic at all. There’s lovely tremelo guitar, bass and drums, piano sometimes in chords and patterns, sometimes just notes. The music ebbs and flows naturally, quiet to loud to quiet, the drums are brushed rather than hit hard, spaces in the music… And Graham Sutton’s whisper of a voice telling secrets and truths – “It’s gonna work out anyway”, “You turn my world upside down”, “And that’s the biggest joke of all”. Highlights? “A street scene”, the closest thing to a hit single, the song exploding in noise before slowing gradually to a crawl. The late night drive around town of “Big shot”. Then the closing two songs. “Eyes and smiles” flows from one section to another, that guitar pattern, cymbals keeping time, occasional bass, keyboards like a sunrise, moving across eight minutes of logic and beauty, rising to a crescendo as the musicians slowly increase the pressure, the drums swing around, the bass juts in, wild Miles Davis style trumpets blatt in, the levels increase and Sutton finally lets loose, shouting “And you’ve got to go on!”. After that – no more words. “Pendulum man” is a nine minute drift of guitars and synth washes, making the most of the echoes in the church being used to record the album. A great closer, relieving the tension building up to that point.

So turn off the lights, watch the night fall with the curtains open and let “Hex” weave its magical spell. Try not to get lost.

#4 – “Please please me” by The Beatles

If the past is a foreign country then music is the passport.

It’s Spring 1963 and Anne is just turning fifteen years old. Is she interested in boys? Probably. There’s a few older boys who she might fancy but nothing serious, not yet, nothing to distract her from studying for her CSEs and O level exams, but they’re still a year or so away. But what does interest her is this new music coming out of Liverpool. She’s probably heard it on Radio Luxembourg and “Saturday Club” on the Light Programme. It doesn’t sound like anything else around, the staid and boring music in the charts that passes for rock’n’roll. No, this sound young, fresh, exciting – it SPEAKS to her, it’s her generation talking to her. There’s lots of new groups around and she notices them all, noting the names of the bands and their songs. She’ll write to the local paper and say that it’s not just the Beatles who are making waves, there’s other bands – like the Merseybeats. A week later after the letter is published the manager of the Merseybeats turns up on her doorstep, getting suspicious looks from her parents, offering her a chance of a lifetime – a chance she’ll reject. There’s exams and life to live yet. And quite frankly, the Merseybeats aren’t really as good as the Beatles.

She buys the singles and after saving she buys the Beatles’ debut album “Please please me”. She imagines her future self being “just seventeen” in “I saw her standing there”. She doesn’t quite recognise all the adult emotions within “Anna (go to him)” but she does understand the emotion in John Lennon’s voice during the middle section – “All of my life I’ve been searching for a girl…”. She hopes someone will write a letter to her like “PS I love you”. She hopes someone will whisper “Do you want to know a secret?” in her ear. She gets a thrill each time she dances to the wild rave up “Twist and shout” in her bedroom in the little terraced house she lives in. This is music for her.

She’ll go to see the Beatles at the Capitol Theatre in May, with Roy Orbison in support. She goes along with her friend David, who is older. He’s played her his LPs, the music of his youth – Elvis, Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly – but again it’s a different generation, even though these acts are clearly hugely influential on the Beatles. Does she scream at the concert? Possibly. There is a feeling rising around this band, a hope for the future… But for now just dance and sing along and enjoy the moment while it lasts. Pop music is so transient, they could be forgotten in eighteen months. Anne places the stylus back to the opening song, hears Paul McCartney counting off “1…2…3…4” and they’re off again.


It’s 1975, Anne and David have been married eight years now. 1966… Seems like a long time ago now. They spent a few months in London through David’s job in the GPO, that’s something to tell the children – living in London in 1966! Whenever Anne sees the opening credits of “Georgy Girl” it always reminds her of that time. Young and free spirited, and in London! Anne and David were married in September that year before going to London, then moved around through David’s job, there were two sons – the first in late ’67 and the second in ’69. And now the whole family listens to the cassettes of the Beatles albums whenever they travel around the country, visiting Cardiff or on holidays. Everyone enjoys the Beatles tapes, it crosses boundaries of age, unites the family. The youngest son may have his own problems with his eyes but he really loves his music. David buys him a book about the Beatles – a “Story of Pop” book which glosses over the harder to understand parts of their story – and he devours it, wanting to know more information about the songs and the music. David borrows “Yellow Submarine” from the library and the youngest son sits in the garden listening to “Only a Northern Song” on his little cassette player. What the hell? But he seems to recognise something in the music which gives him comfort, which makes him happy. Does he understand it? Who knows….


Whenever I hear “Please Please Me” it always makes me think of those long car journeys. There’s some quality in the sound, the sound of youth, the sound of a fresh start, the sound of incipient freedom. The simplicity of the music, the band playing together… When I was young I didn’t recognise it as anything other than the Beatles – I didn’t know about cover versions, I didn’t know the source of “Baby it’s you” and “A taste of honey”. I just knew it was good. It was only years later – probably as a teenager – that I listened harder, and realised that the whole album hangs on one song – “There’s a place”. Because the place they are singing about isn’t a physical place to escape to – away from the pressure of life and love and parents and work and children and everything, away from when it all gets on top of you. The “place” is the mind – and time stands still – “and there’s no time when I’m alone”. Of course there’ll be “No sad tomorrows” too – the future is assured. And yet the music is bright and breezy. this was early 1963, it had to be. Brian Wilson was six months away from writing his own introspective tribute to inner retreat from pressure “In my room”. But “There’s a place” is so significant to me anyway because it promises so much within its verses and choruses, all over within two minutes. It feels to me like justification for internalisation – see, somebody else thinks like this, it must be ok. I love the whole album, of course I do, I’ve known it all my life. The sound of that echo chamber as the songs on side two progress, it’s the sound of coming home – physically (the end of the journey) and figuratively. Of course it is also the start of the journey – the distance from “Please please me” to “Abbey Road”, and all the passengers that the Beatles brought along with them. This, you see, is why I’ve resisted writing about the Beatles – it’s personal. It’s probably the same for everyone, and that’s the magic of their music. Just put the LP on and imagine that fifteen year old girl dancing to it in 1963, and realise that’s over fifty years ago and we’re still listening to it now. That’s an important debut album.

(Thanks Mum)

#5 – “If wishes were horses” by Blueboy

In the sleeve note to “Honey Sweet” by Secret Shine (Sarah 61? January 92?) whichever one of Matt or Clare wrote along the lines of “We’re more excited about a debut album by Blueboy than the millionth single by the Field Mice” and I could only agree. By that point I’d only heard the first Blueboy single and that had been good enough. Issued in a batch of three singles with “Half-hearted” by Brighter and “After years” by Secret Shine during the autumn of ’91, “Clearer” shone out like a beacon. Quietly melodic, so subtle I completely missed the political subtext of anti-Clause 28 for a while, it was great and the b-side “Alison” sounded like a long lost artefact from a strange meeting of Durutti Column and Dislocation Dance circa 1982. It was that good. I had high hopes, only to be raised by hearing Blueboy’s second single “Popkiss”. Peel played it, I taped it, I played it over and over that night, writing in my diary the next day “PROMISE FULFILLED” (yes I wrote it in capitals), before I’d even heard the b-sides. “Popkiss” was HUGE, guitars churning, the rhythm section holding back and Keith Girdler singing his heart out, proud of what he is. Then… THEN… Drum rolls galore, more guitars gallumping over the horizon, a chord change or two to die for, and oh is that me dancing? Really? Well throwing my limbs around in a random way anyway. And when it all gets a bit Status Quo at the end and really rifftastic? Bloody brilliant.

So of course I was excited about the debut album “If wishes were horses”, released at the end of the summer of 1992. That title after all had resonance with me – it’s a song on “Can’t help falling in love” by Andy Williams, part of the heartbreaking medley on side two. First shock when buying the album – a list of members, there’s five of them? A proper band! Great. “Candy bracelets” has sweet boy girl harmony vocals hiding a tale of sex, loss of innocence and regret, while the guitars cascade around the lithe and supple rhythm section. “Cloud babies” is acoustic guitar and cello and voice and that’s enough to break my heart. Those chord changes, the melody, the words… “I’ve known people sell their soul for a chance to see their own stupid face if there is love… A guitar and that alone sounds like heaven is my friend…I have seen the face of God”… You know this looks stupid on paper, you just need to hear it. If it wasn’t for “A winter’s dawn” turning up then “Cloud babies” would have been song of the year in ’92. “Too good to be true” is just voice and jazzy guitar, again words cutting through, a manifesto of positivity, relishing the difference between worlds. “Fondette” cuts even harder, over music which sounds like the bastard son of Freddie Phillips’ “Chigley” music, Gemma recites words that are as relevant today as then. “That’s right, get on with your life, get a good CV…” Remember, this is a band who appeared on the front of the WAAAH fanzine with a sign saying “F*** this government to bits”. From one useless Conservative government to another, things have not improved. Sigh. “Sea horses” is light relief, back to the full band, twee but happy – “Don’t sigh, don’t cry, there’s more to me than you think”! A great performance. “Clear skies” is jazzy again, going a bit early Aztec Camera in places, Gemma sings of two different views on life. “Happiness and smiles” was the song that ended up on mixtapes, slower and sadder, this song makes me think of the people and the times of Autumn ’92 – “Is it like this? Is it happiness and smiles?” Of course it isn’t. Layers of guitars and bass and cellos add to the melancholy. “Amoroso” is a fine finale, the full band again, God knows what Girdler’s singing about but that chorus shines – “Leaves are falling, mountains crumbling, she’s in love with a memory”… Then after two verses the band rock out for the last three minutes, well as much as Blueboy rock out. It’s wonderful. Utterly wonderful…

Of course I can’t leave it there. I’ve probably mentioned it but I’ll say it again. I headed up to Manchester in November ’92 to stay with my brother in Stockport and see two gigs on consecutive nights – Julian Cope at Manchester Uni and a Sarah Records night at the Swinging Sporran. Andy didn’t want to join me on the second night… So I found my own way there, got in way too early, sat watching Brighter and Blueboy soundcheck, Matt finally asked me to pay for entry, I almost bought Harvey Williams a drink, someone asked the soundman to tape the gig, Boyracer were short and loud and punky, Blueboy were immensely good – I stood at the side of the stage looking longingly at Harvey’s red Gibson 335 guitar, they played a few acoustic numbers to start – Keith and Paul on stools, then more of the band entered, playing unrecorded songs like “Stephanie” and “A gentle sigh” and “Air france”, then rockier songs at the end… “Popkiss” was incredible, big smiling from ear to ear music, then closing with “Amoroso”, Keith grabbing a red Strat to add to the guitar chaos at the end… Then I had to leave to catch the last train to Stockport so I missed Brighter, but chatted to Clare and bought two t-shirts which got worn out through wearing them with pride… A fabulous night. The set list is inside the sleeve of “If wishes were horses”, you know..

Next time – more debut albums I expect… You’ll soon get sick of me, I promise.