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!)
“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!