The Festive Fifty of 1989 was a bit annoying – there seemed to be a lot of Stone Roses in there, and Pixies. I never really ‘got’ either of those two acts. I know I know… Stone Roses defined their generation blah blah indie meets dance blah blah Spike Island is our Woodstock blah blah. I was never impressed by them – my brother loved them and played the album to me and I just thought it sounded like the Byrds with a modern production. And when they got funky on “I am the resurrection” – well I’d take A Certain Ratio any day. As for the Pixies – they just didn’t gel for me. However there were a few interesting songs in the Festive Fifty. I’ve already mentioned how “The perfect needle” by The Telescopes was a great discovery, but there was another one. “And at number 26, there’s this.” Followed by a record I’d not heard before but thought was ok. “The first Sarah Record to make it into a Festive Fifty” the great man said at the end, adding “Of course I could be wrong and there could be seventeen before…” And then he moved on. A Sarah Record. I didn’t recognise it as being any different to any other Record but it planted a seed.
Time passed slowly, to quote someone else’s song. During the early Spring of 1990 a compilation tape was mentioned in Melody Maker which had two Durutti Column tracks and a demo of a new song by The Wake. Well it was new to me anyway. I duly sent a cheque off and a few weeks later “Spare a thought” dropped through the letter box. It had eight songs on it and I thouroughly enjoyed it. The Wake’s song was “Crush the flowers”, and was a lovely perky boy-girl duet expanding on the direction taken on their “Something…” EP from 1987. That’s selling it short really – it’s more of a conversation between Carolyn and Caesar – Carolyn offering hopeful advice and Caesar being more realistic. There were also two Durutti tracks seemed like a step back from what was on the “Vini Reilly” album from the previous year, until I checked the dates and found they were from 1983, and the unreleased “Short stories for Pauline” album. One of the songs was ok but the other – “Snowflakes” – was gorgeous, unlike anything he’d done before or since. A harp plays a lovely chord sequence while a simple snare drum pattern sounds in the background, and then Vini plays a totally outstanding guitar solo over the top, playing with and against his own delay pedals, and at one point generating an unearthly stream of notes, a sound he doesn’t use often but when he does it (on “The aftermath” or “It’s a bright and guilty world” for example) it makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. There were other songs on the tape but I gave them a cursory listen and forgot about them but I did go back and play another song – “There goes my train” by The Orchids. But I knew nothing about them or the other bands like Mousefolk or The Driscolls.
Summer 1990 saw me revisiting the 1989 Festive Fifty tape to find out what that interesting song was. It was “Sensitive” by The Field Mice and as I played the tape over and over I realised it was the kind of song I always wanted to hear. It sounded like the Wedding Present only far far better, that wall of guitars kicking in from time to time making my heart surge, and it sounded so perfect, like it didn’t want to – or wasn’t going to – stop. It rocked, wimpily. That was my kind of music. I wasn’t really listening to the lyrics but what I did hear made sense to me – “My feelings are hurt so easily”. And it was a Sarah Record. What was the significance of that name? I started to dig through my back issues of MM and NME looking for references. I found a single review of a record called “Skywriting” by The Field Mice in MM which was favourable, a grudgingly moderate review of the same band’s “Snowball” alongside The Orchids’ “Lyceum” in the NME from 89 and going further back to 88 a string of singles of the week for bands like The Sea Urchins, Another Sunny Day and The Springfields, all reviews written by one Bob Stanley. Looking through a Mancunian fanzine “M62” from late ’88 was also eye-opening. This fanzine was the first time the “Happy Mondays eating New Order’s cold Chinese takeaway from the bin” story was told and also the first time I’d seen the Stone Roses mentioned. It also had a “In – Out” for 1989. “In – Blast First Records. Out – Sarah Records”. While digging through my brother’s collection of magazines I found a copy of “Bucketful of brains” which had a feature on Sarah Records with a discography going as far as “Sensitive” which gave me more information than I’d located in any of the three main music papers. In an issue of Q magazine that summer it reviewed a compilation on Sarah called “Temple Cloud” which mentioned “Sensitive” and another new song by The Wake (wading through my MM’s I had totally ignored a single review in late 89 for “Crush the flowers” on Sarah). I knew I had to buy this record.
One hot Friday in early August I caught a train to Cardiff and hung out in Spillers Records checking out what was around. I flicked through the “Indie Compilations” LP rack and came across “Temple Cloud”. 16 songs for £3.99. Hmm. I also found “Beckett House”, an album by the same people who had issued the “Spare a thought” compilation, it had another new Durutti track, and other bands I’d not heard of, one of whom was called Brighter who appeared on “Temple Cloud” three times, and another was The Telescopes who I knew little of at the time. “Oh I’ll buy it another time” I thought to myself and put it back in the rack. Stupid decision – I should have bought them both. I’d never see “Beckett House” again and finally located a download of it a few years ago.
Still on that day I wandered home with 16 new songs, only one of which I knew. I remember I wanted to tape it ‘properly’ so asked my brother if I could use his new NAD system which he’d recently bought – he’d refused to have a CD player until 1990 believing they were ‘just a fad’. I listened to the opening song – “Yawn” by The Orchids – and was horrified to hear it jump in the middle so I pushed the stylus forward and set the tape recording from the second song – “Sensitive” – onwards. But I didn’t listen to it then, I knew I was going out that night – it was a Friday after all – so I’d save my first listen to the album until then.
It’s strange, writing this about the day seems to have brought back the feelings of that first listen. So I can remember the points on the journey to the Railway pub where the songs changed. “Sensitive” I knew and loved already, and it took me from Cherry Close to the junction of Plymouth Road and Raisdale Road. Crossing the road as “Carbrain” by the Wake kicked off. This was poptastic stuff, and a bit self-referential too – “And as the Wake track spin in your sore head…”. Over far too soon. “I don’t think it matters” by Brighter was a pleasant three chord jangle-fest and got me to the junction with Archer Road, then the sixties drums and guitars of “All of a tremble” by St Christopher kick in and I’m storming down the road. This song resonated most with me – “If it takes a million years then I will catch her” – and I couldn’t wait to hear what came next. I was nearly at the Railway now, so it was a tough decision – should I keep walking and listen to this album or go and see my friends? “Green” by Another Sunny Day sealed the Railway’s fate – my first exposure to Harvey Williams’ lovelorn heart and I loved it – “I know that he still loves you but I could love you better”. I kept walking into the town centre of Penarth, past the library and towards the one roundabout. “Darkest blue” by Gentle Despite brought on a slow melancholic air, lightly strummed guitars and long sustained single guitar notes and a wimpy vocalist. This was the sort of thing I should hate but I was loving it. “George Hamilton’s dead” by The Golden Dawn sounded like inept punk though and made me remember how creeped out I’d been by the end of George Hamilton IV’s “Evel Knievel” biopic years ago. By now I was pounding up Albert Road towards St Augustines Church, a place I would regularly escape to if I was fed up with the Railway or any other god forsaken public house in Penarth. “You should all be murdered” by Another Sunny Day kicked off as I reached the top and I sat on a park bench looking over Penarth Marina and towards Cardiff Bay – both very different then from what they are now – and grinned like a fool. Harvey Williams was telling me everyone who would be first against the wall if he ruled the world, and it sounded like my list too. I remained on the bench for “Inside out” by Brighter, the delicate acoustic guitars and gentle plaintive vocals hitting home too – “She told me to act my age”. I set off back down the hill as “If you need someone” by The Field Mice started, and that felt like what I wanted to say to people. All these songs seemed to be written from my heart. “These things happen” by Action Painting sounded like The Cure going acoustic. “You deserve more than a maybe” by St Christopher was more hopeful 60s guitar chime and “Song 6” – oh yes that song just confirmed everything I loved about these songs. It just said most men were sexist and horrible and as I approached the Railway I agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiments. I spent a boring night with my friends and played the rest of the album – admittedly only two songs – on the way home. “Can’t you tell it’s true?” by Another Sunny Day really did sound like my own recordings and “Noah’s ark” by Brighter sounded like a gentle apocalypse. I got home and played the whole album again. It may have been wimpy but it sounded perfect to me. And I got the opening track to play on my hifi and loved its half asleep nature and the skykissing delayed lead guitar part. I needed more of this music.
The following day was a Saturday so I headed into Cardiff to get some Field Mice records. In Our Price I found the peculiarly purple ten inch square of blankness that is the sleeve of “Snowball” and in Spillers I found beautifully clean Mondrian tribute that is the sleeve of “Skywriting”. I got them home and hurriedly played them both – with the tape recorder going. “Snowball” was first. It was a long time since I’d bought a ten inch record – thinking back it may have been OMD’s “Souvenir” single – but it’s a format I loved and was pleased to see Sarah produce something so unusual. The labels looked almost as blank as the sleeve which gave a nice sense of continuity. Four songs per side, that’ll do nicely. “Let’s kiss and make up” started with industrial grinding (not unlike the start of “I wanna be adored” actually) before a drum machine and one note sequencer pulse started the song. Guitar and bass was added and immediately two things struck me. Firstly – this didn’t sound like the sort of jingle jangle C86 stuff that Sarah Records had the reputation for. Secondly – it sounded like a cheap New Order. The high lying prominent bassline, the gentle roll of the sequencer, the bursts of guitar – it could be a slower demo for “Temptation”. Then the vocals enter, tentative and unsure, speaking apologies and explanations. Occasional snare drum tattoos and choppy guitar chords break up the song but there’s no resolution – were the singer’s pleadings heard? The next song could almost be heard as a reply – “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”. A piano figures repeats through the song and the singer still can’t believe what he’s hearing, someone’s dropping him and he’s upset about it, doesn’t want it to end. This sounds more like what a Sarah Record should be, jangling guitars and a little rush. The next song “End of the affair” was more downbeat, four acoustic chords circling around with one of those heart breaking chord changes and lyrics that sound conversational yet hurt deeply. “Once I needed you so, now I can’t stand being in the same room as you, can’t even stand the sight of you”. Of course there is a debt in this song to “Dive for your memory” by The Go-Betweens but it’s in a different league of intensity, of emotion. The listener has no idea whether this is something that the singer is saying to someone, or if it has been said to him. The pain was almost touchable as multiple voices come in and a kind of oboe enters it sounded like a stream of thoughts rushing around the rejected one’s mind. “Couldn’t feel safer” was more traditional jangling fare, and was about the security and comfort of love. Side Two kicked off with “This love is not wrong”, which was a nice jolly toe-tapper up to the very last line which explained the song. “Everything about you” was an attempt at “So you want to be a rock’n’roll star” but no less fine for that – its influence so barefaced it could almost be “You’re my drug” by The Dukes of Stratosfear. The lyrics again hinted at a purity of love, the first blossoms of affection – can there really be someone who likes “everything” about someone else? Surely it’s idealised? And at that point I was lovestruck enough to believe it. “White” starts with feedback fading in before an off kilter riff played on distorted guitars kicks in, the melody being played on the bass, very MBV in a way. Then the lyrics shocked me. “Time and again I dream about you, I haven’t seen you for so long…do you ever think about me? Where are you now? Wherever you are I hope you are happy and that life is being good to you”. As you will know if you are a regular reader of my blog (in which case thanks for your patience) that lyric would just about sum up how I felt about a number of members of the opposite sex by that point, all those unrequited loves I’d had. And The Field Mice had put it in a song! As if to prove the futility of those thoughts, the singing stopped and huge waves of distorted flanged guitar overtook the song. What a thrilling song, yet so close to my heart. The last song on the album was “Letting go” and it starts like – well – like a song by The Wake. A drum machine beats out a pattern, a high bassline sets the scene followed by polysynths playing block chords and some chorused guitar – so far so “Here comes everybody” – then the singer mumbles into an echo chamber and even now I still have no idea what the words are. But it sounded wonderful, and I loved it, especially when it dropped down to synth and bass then returned with waves of distorted guitar. A good album, when not being generic indie pop. I wondered what their other album could be like.
I took “Skywriting” out of its sleeve and marvelled at the vinyl. “Triangle” was on side one, the other five songs on the other side. Hmm, interesting. I dropped the needle on “Triangle”. It was a single note sequence again, like “Let’s kiss and make up” but now it had grown some balls, the drum programming and synth playing was superior, the bass was bouncing around octaves and there was a guitar jangling in the background. It’s in awe of “Blue Monday” a little but that’s no bad thing. This band knew their Factory Records obviously. Then fuck me the singing starts and hits the nail on my head AGAIN. I won’t quote the entire song though I could, but that last line – “Sometimes I go to bed thinking I’d love not to see the morning”. Yes and yes and yes. The song is effectively done by 3:30 but the drum machines and sequencers pulse on, building up slowly to something, dropping down again and returning with huge flanged distorted guitars and the bass guitar goes up and down like Hooky and it doesn’t want to stop and I don’t want to stop either, by this point I’m in total head nodding mode, feet dancing off the end of the bed. It drops down again then the bass and guitar return, little sampled voices fade in and out and still it goes on and on. Finally the drum machine drops out and everything slows comes to a standstill. Fan-bloody-tastic.
And side two?
“Canada” starts with synth chords and piano setting a scene before turning into an upbeat country shuffle. Let me repeat those last two words. “Country shuffle”. I bet the jangle purists hated it. Then the lyrics yet again echoed my life. (They must have echoed others’ lives too because I would often end up on Penarth sea front quoting this song to one of my drunken and inconsolably heart broken friends). The verses were straightforward enough but the chorus was a wonderful ascending series of chord changes while the singer spoke my love life back to me – “He doesn’t love you, I’m the one who loves you. You don’t love me, he’s the one you love”. Ha. Thanks for reminding me. “Clearer” was a more straightforward song but with a richness in the arrangement and recording and placement of different counterpointing guitar parts that even if the lyrics were pretty minimal, the whole song worked beautifully. And there’s a sort of trumpet playing. The way everything dropped in and out of the arrangement was wonderful. “It isn’t forever” faded in on a bed of synth chords, drum machine and angular guitar chords. Oh and some morse code. And some harsh snare drums too. The words show the singer going from love to obsession – “I’m crazy about you” – and as the song progresses the feelings that can’t be said are expressed musically, a resounding snare roll and vicious slashing guitar chords. “Below the stars” slows everything down, no drums only an occasional tambourine as percussion, an ascending chord sequence of sighing synths and gentle electric guitar and a wistful vocal that again spoke to me about my life more than most other songs ever did.
“About my feelings for you I did so want to tell you, I wish I’d got around to it”.
Jesus, that’s me!
“As I watch the sun go down I wonder where you are, night falls I think of you somewhere out there below the stars”
I couldn’t believe this song, it was like someone had pulled the words straight out of my heart and added them to a heart rending melody. How could these Field Mice do so easily in song what I’d tried so hard to do and failed dismally? I was in awe but equally gutted.
One last track to conclude the album – “Humblebee”. Now this I really did not expect. A barrage of samples, voices and sounds with a mantra of “Chocolate love sex” repeating as a faint guitar clangs somewhere in the background and computer tape noises squeal through. All very “Revolution 9” I thought and I quite liked it. For some reason the song made me feel like I was listening to some strange radio documentary on 1969, all the references to drugs and “Do you think God is dead?” and everything – I have a strange idea of 1969 obviously. It ends with a girl’s voice saying “Very funny” – the equivalent of the laughter at the end of “Within you without you”. I thought of all the fans who would be up in arms. I thought of how varied the music was, within its narrow realms of indieness. More than anything I thought what a brilliant band The Field Mice were and I wanted more of their music.
A few days later, after absorbing nothing but “Skywriting” and “Snowball”, I decided to get some more Field Mice records. I didn’t really know what I was looking for but ended up back at Our Price looking through their indie 7 inch singles rack from where a few months earlier I’d picked up “I’m hardly ever wrong” by The Would-Be’s (now there’s a neglected classic…). There were two singles in almost identical sleeves from the Field Mice – “The Autumn Store” parts one and two. The sleeves looked like cheap art school versions of the El Lissitzky paintings on the sleeves of The Wake’s records. So they came home with me and I played them incessantly too. “If you need someone” and “Song 6” I knew already from “Temple Cloud” but the other songs were almost as good. The words to “The world to me” written down look quite anodyne and bland, but when sung over a sprinting guitar arpeggio and vaulting bassline they sound far better – slightly desperate for the adored one to remain. “Anyone else isn’t you” could be mawkish if it wasn’t so heartfelt – “Other than you I want no-one, if I can’t have you I want to be alone” – and the song is nicely arranged. “Bleak” is well titled – a piano ballad character sketch of someone toppling over the edge of their own despair and hints at what is to come featuring samples at the end. The most important thing for me though was a small insert written by the owners of Sarah Records – Matt and Clare – explaining delays and price rises and apologising with brutal honesty. I liked that. I also appreciated the insert having a full Sarah discography so I knew what I could look out for next.
Time passed again. In October 1990 I noticed that a new Field Mice EP was single of the week in the Melody Maker. I didn’t even know it was coming out, so I hurried down to Spillers and bought it immediately. It was a gorgeous pink ten inch EP with song titles in the wrong order on the sleeve and an interesting insert which I read over and over – no discography this time. The insert was a rant about the music industry and Sarah’s fanbase which I thought was brilliant and I can still quote lines from it from memory – “‘Air balloon road’ states ‘All songs from previously released 7″ singles and albums’, it should have said PUNK ROCK”, “Anyone can sell 500 copies of a single, I could even tell you who those 500 people are…I want our records to sell thousands, they deserve to…”. As for the songs…
I didn’t twig until years later – in fact the sleeve notes of “Where’d you learn to kiss that way?” – that it was an ‘acoustic’ EP. It didn’t really sound that way to me at the time. “Landmark” was slow and stately, making its own progress, the words not quite specific enough for the meaning to be misintepreted – the MM review saw it as the end of a relationship, I always read it as something more final than that. “Holland street” is a lovely little instrumental which builds and builds as more elements are added to the arrangement. “Indian Ocean” was a straightforward pop song with words I could love – telling someone that there’s a love for them out there somewhere. The music is lovely, too. “So said Kay” itself is a series of conversations and builds to a wonderful climax. But there’s one more song – “Quicksilver”.
I’ve spoken before about songs that have the ability to bring tears to my eyes. Songs that are so close to my heart, so close to my feelings, so close that it hurts, so accurate, so painful, so real, so honest, so beautiful. “Quicksilver” is one of those songs. Gentle guitar and synth arpeggios start the song then break off. An acoustic twelve string starts playing some chords and the change from second to third and fourth chords are each heart-in-the-mouth beautiful, and there’s a synth part or two in the background. So far so gorgeous. Then the words start and it could be – yes – a page from my diary. “The last time that I saw you, you were nearly thirteen. It was a summer’s day, it was shortly after our last term together…” Oh so you’re writing about me and D from ’83 now? Great. Just take my heart now, why don’t you? There’s more heart-stopping chord changes for the chorus “Dearly I would love to see you again”. The second verse is just as heart-rending. “Do you still live on that road that I look down almost every time I pass it? I dreamt of you last night, I have done many times since I last set eyes on you”. Still dreaming of someone, still thinking of someone, wondering where they were, if they were thinking of you – all regular day to day experiences for this dreamer at the time. So much is unspoken in the song but the longing is there. I mean I’m writing my own intepretation based on my experiences, because the song reflected them so well. I could be wrong. “Quicksilver” is one of my favourite songs ever, simple as that.
The “So said Kay” EP was about 23 minutes long so I found a C100 tape and recorded it four times, twice each side of tape, and played nothing else for about three weeks.
I still wanted more of these Sarah Records, and as I said last time I bought “Air balloon road” – the first Sarah Records CD – in November ’90 on the day “Pills thrills’n’bellyaches” was issued. Some of the songs on there were familiar from “Temple Cloud” but some were new to me and were quite impressive. I loved the three songs by The Orchids and the two songs by The Sea Urchins sounded good. I decided to make 1991 the year I picked up as much of the Sarah back catalogue as I could. For a start I wanted the first two Field Mice singles.
It took me a while – or rather it took Spillers a while to realise that someone was consistently buying their Sarah stock – but eventually I found both “Sensitive” and “Emma’s House” by February ’91. “Sensitive” featured that little snippet of guitar noise before the drum machine started which was edited out of every other appearance of the song, and the b-side “When morning comes to town” was a mid tempo lovelorn breakup ballad with male / female vocals and a lovely melody. “Emma’s house” was an interesting debut, being quite skeletal and tentative but already the parameters of their subject matter were laid out – love from many angles, friendship, hopes, disappointments and suicide – “The last letter” being a suicide note in song. It took me about a fortnight to figure that song out for some reason, and when I did I was a little shocked, and ended up writing it all in an email to a friend in college. A few days later I logged onto the college mainframe to find he had written it back to me alongside a proper suicide note in an email. He had sent this out the night before to myself and about ten other friends and that morning we all went into a panic and looked everywhere ffor him, only for him to appear the next day extremely hungover and extremely sheepish.
Early in 1991 Melody Maker gave a positive review to “Make it loud”, the new album by The Wake. I had waited a long time for that to come around so bought it as soon as I saw it, again from Our Price. It was at this point where the “indie” bloke who ordered the records for the store spoke to me – “Oh I love the Wake, and I’m so glad they’re on Sarah cos they’re my favourite label”. Suddenly I worked out why I was buying more Sarah product from Our Price than Spillers (which was and still is Cardiff’s best independent record shop). He also pointed out how The Darling Buds’ “If I said” was a total rip off from “An immaculate conception” from “Harmony” (which it is). I loved “Make it loud” – it had a rockier edge than their previous work and the songs were less about personal relationships, in fact it was hard to work out quite what some of the songs were about. More than twenty years on I still have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. It was a thrilling album, direct and to the point. The most ‘direct and to the point’ song was without doubt “Joke shop” where Caesar took his ex-record label boss Tony Wilson to task – “When we released our four track EP it could not be found in the megastores…” Er actually I bought it from a Virgin Megastore in Leeds so… But it was great to have an album by The Wake again. I always assumed The Wake had moved to Sarah through a connection with The Orchids, and it was obvious that The Field Mice were fans too so it made perfect sense for The Wake to be a Sarah band. A few weeks later Spillers finally got a copy of their Sarah single “Crush the flowers” and I bought it on the same day as the “Tremelo” EP by My Bloody Valentine, and I remember the day vividly as I had a job interview in Caerphilly and it had snowed overnight so I was slip-sliding all over the place in my suit with these precious records in my briefcase. I didn’t get the job.
During the Spring of 1991 I started picking up whatever singles or albums I could find on Sarah. Because they were relatively cheap it was easy to buy one or two singles or EPs each week or so. I haven’t got time to go into all of them but I loved a lot of them. I never really understood the appeal of Heavenly – great singles, dull albums – but adored Another Sunny Day and The Orchids and the other oddities along the way. One single stood out though – “A morning odyssey” by The Sea Urchins. When I bought it I wasn’t that impressed, it sounded simple and plain and didn’t really go anywhere and the b-side was dreadful (an opinion I still hold). But over time the more I played “A morning odyssey” the more the song opened out to me. It is sort of plain and isn’t musically complex – only five chords, all of which I can play quite easily – but there’s something intangible in the song that kept drawing me back. James Roberts isn’t the most ‘on point’ singer (to use horrible X Factor jargon) but he makes his point beautifully – “Take me take me where you’ve been, show me those things I’ve never seen”, “Overhead things that we said put ideas into their heads”. I mean I don’t know what his point actually is… Towards the end as the guitar and piano circle between Bm and E major, two voices cross each other singing against themselves for about thirty seconds then synchronise for a final “Do you know?” leaving the question hanging in mid-air, answered by a lovely string of lead guitar notes as the song fades out. I keep saying this, I don’t know what it means but I know what it means to me and over the years I’ve probably played that song more than any other single and I still love it and get something from it. What I’m trying to say is that it’s probably my favourite single of all time which is a preposterous thing to say but it’s true. I don’t expect anyone else to understand…
In April ’91 The Field Mice issued a new single “September’s not so far away” – the a-side a Byrdsian rush of twelve string guitars over a Northern Soul rhythm section. The b-side was just male and female vocals and two acoustic guitars. I can remember playing it to my mother on the day I bought it and saying to her “It’s their best record yet”. It was very good, they were now a fully formed band with a proper drummer and everything. The world was theirs to conquer. Around this time I bought my first fanzine – an issue of WAAAH! – with a Field Mice interview. The mainstream music press gave them short shrift – there had been a few paragraphs of an interview in MM around the time of “So said Kay” but little else – so it was fascinating to read about this band who I knew virtually nothing about. The most telling point was at the end – hopes for the future: “I hope we don’t break up too soon”. Ominous words.
By April Spillers had brought in as much back catalogue as they could – one day I went in and they had seven Sarah singles I didn’t have, five old and two new, so I snapped them up and hurried home with them. Each single was an experience – not just the record itself but exploring the packaging, reading the insert notes written by Matt or Clare, checking out the discography (it was around this point – Sarah 41 onwards – that they changed words on it so “I’ve got a habit” became “I’ve got a Hobbit”), reading what I called the “splatter poems” on the back of the inserts, even the pictures on the labels. You just didn’t get this much attention to detail from most labels. For some reason records by Brighter were hard to come by so I ended up writing the first of many letters to Matt and Clare and ordering their two EPs and the “Laurel” mini-LP (another ten inch). It was a long winded letter briefly explaining – well – everything I’ve said here really, discovering the label, loving what they do and to not take much notice of critics slagging them off or calling them ‘sell outs’ for making CDs. Ah such heady days when these things mattered. I can still remember the day the records arrived, Saturday 4th May, two EPs and a ten inch album and an A4 letter in close written handwriting from Clare apologising for being late in sending the package and how she remembered my letter as it was the only positive one they had after a string of negative letters and it had cheered them up. And the records were great too – “Around the world in eighty days” made me swoon – “And when I saw her, well I nearly fell over…” The album “Laurel” had some beautiful songs on it too – “Frostbite”, “Somewhere to call my own”, “Maybe”. All from a worldview I recognised as my own. Yes I was a lovelorn wimp. What’s new?
I’ll write about the Summer of ’91 some other time, it’ll take a while. Suffice to say it was the best summer ever for me and some great records soundtracked it, one of the greatest being “Unholy soul” by The Orchids. But another time. In short, I hung out at a bar on Penarth seafront and fell into ‘like’ with the barmaid, ended up writing five songs for and / or about her and presented her with a tape of them on her last day in Penarth. Only it wasn’t her last day, she returned the next night loving the tape, saying “Thanks but let’s be friends” and insisting that I play a gig at the bar. The date was set as the last Friday in September and I spent the week rehearsing – me and a guitar in front of a microphone – with two records soundtracking the days. One was “Screamadelica” – issued the previous Monday – and the other was “Missing the moon”, a twelve inch single by The Field Mice. This was a huge huge record for me. For a start it sounded like a proper hit single – at least in some parallel universe where “Everything I do I do it for you” wasn’t number one. It took all the New Order / Factory influences and threw it into a big sequencer led anthem, but still with wistful vocals and lovelorn words. It was seven minutes long but it could have gone on forever. The b-sides were different too – “A wrong turn and raindrops” was Bob Wratten (I’d found out their names by now) in despair soaking up memories and smells and thoughts of the one he loves who is elsewhere, played out to acoustic guitar and harmonica. “An earlier autumn” was another country jaunt that documented a whole relationship in less than two minutes. A simple beautiful song. The music press were finally taking some notice of the band – “Missing the moon” was single of the week in the NME and the MM had a full page interview with the band and Everett True gave their forthcoming album “For keeps” a good review.
During the Summer of “91 I had written the longest letter of my life to a friend who was studying in Oxford. It started out as just a normal letter then got all confessional and weird then started to document me falling into ‘like’ and all the craziness of the summer. The letter ended up being nearly 100 pages of A4 and cost a pretty penny to post. My friend returned a week or so after I posted the letter telling me he felt like he knew everything that was going on even though he’d been away for a year, my letter had told him all he needed to know. He also told me I should read some Martin Amis – “He writes like you” – so I devoured “London fields”. I also borrowed “Success” from Penarth library on the same day in October I bought “For keeps” so the two are entwined in my mind, sitting on my bed in the autumn sun, headphones on and book in hand. This wasn’t a common image though, I’m not that well read but I know what I like. But that was my first listen to “For keeps”.
It’s hard for me to write about “For keeps” for some reason. It’s obviously a great record with some of their finest songs but I always found it slightly lacking but I’m not sure in what way. The opening trio of “Five moments”, “Star of David” and “Coach station reunion” are perfect in every way. “Five moments” highlights Anne-Mari’s vaguest vocals over the wispiest wah-wah guitar ever and a bed of electric twelve string guitars. “Star of David” whispers through the delicate verses before roaring through the chorus – “This friendship is forever and ever”. Ha I wish. “Coach station reunion” is a not so distant cousin to “The girl I knew somewhere” by The Monkees and is a wonderful rocking full band performance, including a genuine whoop for joy before the guitar solo. All three songs show the five piece band at the heights of their powers, working out arrangements that suit the songs well. Then it all goes slightly awry. “This is not here” is a midtempo set of disguises – Bob disguises his voice in effects making the vocal unintelligible, the music owes debts to the Beatles amongst others and it doesn’t really work. (On the 1998 Shinkansen compilation “Where’d you learn to kiss that way?” the song was remixed with less effects on the vocals and makes a bit more sense). “Of the perfect kind” starts speedy then slows down and turns into a reverb heavy jam, almost. Except it sounds like the theme to “The hitchkiker’s guide to the galaxy” (which was an Eagles instrumental) and doesn’t really work too well. There’s a surfeit of jangling twelve string guitars by this point and the listener – well me – needs a change.
Luckily side two of the album has a change of direction. “Tilting at windmills” is an utterly gorgeous instrumental. It drifts, it swoons, it has layers of keyboards and bass, a sort of mid tempo shuffling baggy drum pattern and a wistful synth melody over the top all bathed in reverb. I probably haven’t described it well at all but take my word for it. “Think of these things” is an acoustic beauty, expressing feelings again I recognised – being possessive, wanting too much – all built around a dreamy melody. “Willow” is scary. Sung by Anne-Mari but expressing Bob’s sentiments to a former love in incredibly plain terms.
“I said to you I’d always
Want you and want you only
Now there’s another that I
That I want and I want only
I miss this other more than
More than I used to miss you
I’m sorry if my being
My being honest hurts you.”
And it gets more honest from there. It is painful to listen to, and must have been painful for all parties involved. “And before the first kiss” is the third acoustic based song and is very tender and sounds conversational, there’s lines that could be said from one lover to another. And then to ruin the generally electric guitar and drums free zone, “Freezing point” lumbers in jamming on an old Joy Division riff, loud drums, louder guitar and a false ending too. It’s ok but…it’s a dumb rock instrumental.
In the Autumn of 91 the Field Mice toured the UK. They didn’t play anywhere near Wales, the closest gig was a students-only night at Moles in Bath. There was a quarter page tour advert in the MM with an evocative photograph of a train track vanishing into a bank of fog. I was still in touch with my friend who’d used “The last letter” in his suicide email, he had moved to Basingstoke and we wrote letters or spoke on the phone. He insisted that “Nevermind” was a sell-out and preferred “Bleach”. He also saw the Field Mice on that tour in Reading. I was exceedingly jealous, especially as Blueboy were supporting them at that gig and Blueboy’s debut single “Clearer” was fantastic. My friend rang me a few days later, told me what a brilliant gig it had been and sent me a “Chocolate love sex” t-shirt he’d bought for me. It’s still in its cellophane in my wardrobe.
Around this time another issue of the WAAAH fanzine came out. It didn’t feature the Field Mice per se but they seemed to be the main topic of conversation with the other bands in the issue, as well as performing a live version of Loop’s “Burning world” on the flexi included. Everyone seemed to be talking about this ten minute noise song they were playing live. The song was issued on “The WAAAH CD”, a compilation I bought from Spillers on the same day I bought the Cocteau Twins EP boxed set which was November 91. “Other galaxies” is nearly eleven minutes long. It starts with a tremelo-d guitar riff and a bouncing bass with a pattern of tom-tom drums. Then Bob and Anne-Mari harmonise about the contentedness of being in love and one by one new guitars enter the picture. By three and a half minutes all the guitars and vocals drop away to leave the drums and bass. Then two distorted lead guitars start playing the same riff, then play off and against each other as slowly more distorted and feedbacking guitars are added, building to a crescendo of high frequency noise and feedback around the ten minute mark. It’s a thrilling song, and sadly it would be their last recording.
In early December I started to volunteer at the Oxfam store in Penarth doing Wednesdays and Saturdays. On my first Wednesday I popped two shops down to get the music papers and sat back at the till eating my sandwiches and reading them. In the MM there was a live review of the Field Mice. Again the words are imbedded in my memory – “It was love that brought them together and inevitably love that tore them apart”. It was over, the Field Mice had split up and I was shocked and saddened and wiped a tear away. It was only years later when I read the booklet to the Shinkansen compilation that I understood the full story of the band, how they had teetered on the edge of breaking up for most of 1991. But they were and still are special to me – they only existed for a few years yet managed to progress so far and issue so many songs – so many that felt like they were reading my mind – and introduced me to Sarah Records and all that entailed. God, I still love The Field Mice. And I’m still crap at writing these things – must work on my endings. And get a thesaurus. Sigh.
December 1992. I was deeply in something with M, deeply obsessed with Biff Bang Pow, you know the story. The fourth issue of WAAAH fanzine has an interview with Blueboy and Northern Picture Library, who are three ex-members of The Field Mice. It also mentioned that there was a one-off song by Bob and Anne-Mari as The Yesterday Sky on a compilation EP. I sent the cheque off for the EP and received it on 30th December. I played the new song “A winter’s dawn” over and over that night. It was stark, obviously a demo, but really quite lovely. A simple drum machine, a lightly played guitar or two and both singers – a sense of longing for closeness, wishing there was no distance between them, hoping for a happy end. I loved it intensely. The next day I was working at the Stats Office and as I got off the bus outside the office at half seven I had “A winter’s dawn” ready to play on my walkman. I walked through the fog approaching the building, the faint sun rising slowly behind me, the song resounding through my head – “There’s so much time to go before I see you again”. And the first person I saw as I entered the building? Nah, that would be too corny. And dishonest too. But that walk will always stay with me.
Next time – synthesisers in the rain.