In the beginning was the word. And the word was…Felt. Alasdair Maclean saw the word, scribbled on his school chum James Hornsey’s pencil case. The friendship was sealed and The Clientele was born. Or so the legend goes. The band formed in London in 1991, while the boys were still at school. It would be almost a decade before their first fragile songs emerged to a politely indifferent world.
These songs, a compilation of early recordings including singles and B Sides were for the most part recorded on an eight-track portastudio above Innes Phillips’ flat in 1996. Phillips, guitarist and one of the founder members, would leave and go on to form his own band The Relict, before these songs eventually saw the light of day in 2000. As for the collection of songs assembled here on Suburban Light…well you have to trust me on this one…it is arguably one of the most perfect albums from any English band in the last twenty five years. Yes, it is that good.
Comparisons with Felt are obvious (‘We Could Walk Together’s guitar line for example), NZ’s The Chills perhaps less so (listen to the ghostly guitar on ‘An Hour Before The Light’, uncannily reminiscent of The Chills classic Pink Frost), but it is most often claimed the band are musically indebted to The Velvet Underground. Certainly ‘Reflections After Jane’ owes a nod to Candy Says or I’ll Be Your Mirror but I wonder if the comparison is apt. Indeed, perhaps it’s a little lazy. In reality the two bands inhabit entirely different worlds. The Clientele’s reverb-drenched songs of wistful suburban ennui the perfect counterpoint to the urban brutality and debonaire perversions of the Velvets. The lyrical contrast is even more spectacular: compare The Velvets’ catalogue of junkies, transvestites and freaks who send themselves by long-distance post in cardboard boxes; to the Clientele’s preference for documenting rainy Sunday afternoons in the park, or walking through the crowds with ‘Miss Jones’ (of whom nothing is revealed, but whom I imagine to be a rather pretty but stuffy English Literature student). Perhaps a more intuitive comparison than the Velvets could be made with Galaxie 500 (performing a cover of Waterloo Sunset). Whatever comparison one makes, the band would never sound quite like this again. The songs on their first album proper, The Violet Hour did not quite match up (with a few mis-steps along the way). Edges would be softened, the production become more sophisticated. The later albums with the exception of Strange Geometry (which is their other indisputably classic record) somehow strangely failed to recapture the thematic harmony of this first release. It is particularly unusual for a compilation to achieve such a singular vision, such a feeling of unity, but it’s there.
Despite greater, though still very limited success on the other side of the Atlantic, The Clientele remain as quintessentially English as an episode of Camberwick Green. Had they been children of a different era they would no doubt have been invited to compose the soundtrack for Bronco Bullfrog, Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush or some other cult late 1960s Brit youth film. The occasional backwards guitar loop alongside MacLean’s penchant for colourful cravats places the band at least spiritually and aesthetically in that era. So, right place, wrong time perhaps? Well, not exactly…there is nothing contrived about the Clientele’s Englishness. Neither gimmick nor motif, rather it emanates organically from their music like the dispersion of light through a prism.
‘If we’re on Delancey Street at night,
In the after train ride quiet,
Barking dogs by Highgate Pond,
Something’s here but something’s gone‘ McLean sings on ‘Joseph Cornell’ – it is a typically evocative mood piece and the album is littered with such examples:
‘The taxi lights were in your eyes
So warm against St. Mary’s spires
The carnival was over in the rain
And arm in arm through Vincent Street.
The evening hanging like a dream
I touched your face and saw the night again.’ (‘Saturday’)
These lost and unrepeatable moments of nostalgia and yearning, moments so vivid and personal are detailed with such precision for time and place, yet somehow paradoxically become universally tangible and almost unbearably poignant for the listener, who immersed in their atmosphere, casts his own shadow upon those spaces and places. I saw The Clientele play to a sparse audience at The Woodside Social in Glasgow in 2005. Perhaps not an ‘I was there’ moment but imprinted on my memory nonetheless. A few members of Belle & Sebastian, one or two from Glasgow folkies Lucky Luke and a few shy-looking snappily dressed mods. Almost their perfect audience. I remember walking out in the cold air afterward, the hazy drunken glare of the street lights providing the backdrop to the band hurriedly throwing their gear into the back of the van. And walking away into the night. Clearly one of those time and place moments – the spell had worked.
Post-millennium there exists very little consensus of opinion on the greatest albums of our age. It would be more straightforward to ask George Galloway to publicly extol the virtues of US foreign policy than expect acquiescence from others in this regard. Perhaps in a progressively individualistic culture which is post-everything, with few recognisable musical genres or subcultures, we have reached that point where consensus is virtually impossible. So we claim precedence for our individual favourites. And they become all the more precious for it. Suburban Light is one of those to treasure. The Clientele are the great lost English band of the new millennium, as genteel yet vital as Nick Drake, as elusive and undervalued as The Television Personalities, and musically, comfortably the equal of Felt. Their early songs, reflective and melancholic possess an enduring appeal. They will haunt you. Let them into your life. (JJ)