In another world, the Chills might have been the subject of one of those single-frame Viz cartoons in which a band name is depicted literally. They’d have been stood in a circle, chanting “one times two is two, two times two is four, three times two is six”. Stood in front of them would have been John Travolta, his thumb jerked over his shoulder, declaring solemnly: “I got Chills. They’re multiplyin'”.
It never happened. The fair measure of success they enjoyed in their native New Zealand did not travel, despite at least a dozen songs which could have, very conceivably, lodged themselves firmly in the public consciousness, around half of them on Submarine Bells, their second album proper and their first since their departure from NZ’s immortal Flying Nun to Slash, a subsidiary of London and one of a rash of pseudo-indies established by majors in the late ’80s.
The single from the album, Heavenly Pop Hit, fulfilled the two-thirds of the title’s promise that the Chills had control over. It formed part of a tradition of absurdly tuneful songs by acts not necessarily renowned for such things, like Oliver’s Army before it and Friday I’m In Love and – yes – Shiny Happy People afterwards. Martin Phillips and his compatriot, Donna Savage of the also unjustly forgotten Dead Famous People, exult wordlessly on a chorus which produces grins as surely as rain produces puddles- usually. Once, when called upon to help dislodge an unwelcome earworm, I offered Heavenly Pop Hit as an antidote. “Aw, that’s awful – cheeseorama!”, was the response, to my dismay, and the play of the song didn’t even last 30 seconds.
Maybe it needed to be heard in the context of some of their earlier colossal songs, like Pink Frost or Night Of Chill Blue, or of Submarine Bells’ close to perfect first side. Part Past Part Fiction offers vice-like drama and a solo as breathless as it is deft, all undimmed by Phillipps’ clodhopping pronunciation of ‘cacophony’ to rhyme with ‘lonely’. The Oncoming Day is even more frenetic and as anxious as its title suggests, a return to the runaway runway they visited on Brave Words’ Look For The Good In Others And They’ll See The Good In You. I Soar tells of a flight in the southern hemisphere but its cantering rhythm and synthesised woodwind sumptuously evoke the British autmn in which it was recorded.
Side two is patchier but clutches two real treasures. With its high-stepping upright piano, Don’t Be-Memory has always sounded to me like it was recorded in a living room, suitably enough for such an intimate and heartfelt account of missed opportunities, a “desperate deal” conducted with “this greenhouse on,” a nod to the environmental anxiety of the times which produced a spike in the Green vote at the 1989 European elections and which is eloquently expanded upon in the liner notes of Submarine Bells. The song’s odd structure – not one, not two but three bridges – means its poignancy doesn’t let up for a second.
Submarine Bells itself takes the complexity of a Day In The Life, adds the langour of Good Night and creates the proper ending the Beatles’ career never had thanks to their insistence on finishing with the sheer bathos of Her Majesty. It sounds like an orchestra; it might merely be a mellotron or similar. All that matters is that it has a beauty that can barely be described – rarely has ‘rock’ sounded so majestic, so utterly aloof from the common imbecility of rog an’ roll, but without a scintilla of pomposity. It concludes with a glissando that almost certainly tips a deliberate wink to My Way – but again they’re set on something far finer than that karaoke warhorse’s daft bravado.
Like so many bands of the period, The Chills had all the conditions for a breakthrough. The fact that it never came means they’re still there to be discovered by many, all of whom I promise a lifelong treat. (PG)