SWAGGER – BLUE AEROPLANES (1990)
Lyrics aren’t poetry – discuss. What sounds like it’s fit to stand alongside Milton and Pope when set to music can be as pre-adolescent doggerel writen down – try “Where did your long hair go?/Where is the girl I used to know?” for starters. Conversely, lyrics that think they’re poetry are almost inevitably doomed to pull up well short – rhyming alone does not automatically qualify anything as poetry and the last writer to get away with using the weather as an emotional metaphor (pathetic fallacy, to give it its proper name) was Ernest Hemingway.
But any suggestion that lyrics shouldn’t be poetry, shouldn’t even try, leads nowhere except to a place where songs are about nothing but sound and fury and the beast with two backs, where nothing and no one should aspire to anything beyond dancing and getting tanked up.
All these things are absolutely fine as they go but the human experience offers vast source material and if this music had continued to draw on this inspiring, but ultimately limited and limiting, range, it would have quickly ended up trudging in ever decreasing circles, finally perishing quietly some time in 1965.
And this doesn’t mean haughty, heavily-worn erudition or proficient musicianship for its own sake, all of which led to the most flatulent excesses of prog and the type of rock that you always notice rhymes with ‘sock;’ it means having a bit of curiosity, not rejecting things out of hand simply because they aren’t in the orbit of your experience, being prepared to look beyond the limits others try to set for you and which can be all too tempting to set for yourself.
Right on cue, enter Blue Aeroplanes. A densely-populated, loose-limbed, horn of plenty, they emerged from the ever-fertile Bristol scene with an armful of slim volumes, a quiver full of riffs and more ideas in one song than many could muster in an entire career.
What made them if not quite unique then certainly distinctive were the words and delivery of frontman Gerard Langley. A genuine poet but one utterly enamoured with taking his place in a rock ‘n’ roll band, he frequently demurred at the idea of Blue Aeroplanes as an “intellectual bar band” and, as one which used not only his poems but those of Louis MacNeice, WH Auden, Kenneth Patchen and Sylvia Plath, he caricatured a common perception of them as having their album covers festooned with stickers declaring “includes A-Level syllabus poem.” In fact, he told with pride a story of them being ejected from LA’s Rainbow Room, whose clientele include practically every debauched rock type you could name over three decades. Yet he saw no paradox in having literary aspirations and sybaritic appetites, pointing out that some of the strangest art in history, notably by Shakespeare and Dylan, was also some of the most successful.
I first properly checked in (they were always an endlessly fertile source of punnery) to Blue Aeroplanes in the autumn of 1988. I had heard a small crop of their songs, notably Tolerance, here and there and had been impressed but then came across particularly vivid live reviews and interviews in editions of the late Melody Maker which I had been sent during my year in France, as part of my French degree. To paraphrase Kid Rock’s immortal couplet, we didn’t have no internet but, man, I never will forget how intrigued I became about Blue Aeroplanes. Effervescent guitars, florid lyrics, a scratching DJ, a relentlessly celebratory onstage dancer, live shows which were – as I would discover for myself – as thrilling as a Jason Bourne adventure.
While many of their contemporaries had a stylistic range as broad as Chile from east to west, the ‘Planes ran a gamut the length of Chile from north to south, encapsulated in their double album Friendloverplane which, while made up of b-sides, covers and alternate versions amid new material, made up a redoubtable cohesive whole that was a match for Hatful of Hollow. A year later, I failed to secure a copy which I’d been assured was on sale for £4.50 and it narrowly missed out on being my last purchase of the ’80s. A decade-long search for a modestly priced vinyl copy (the CD had three songs missing) followed and it eventually became my last purchase of the ’90s.
During a week back home in the middle of that year abroad, I bought Tolerance – the album – and, having received my sterling in large denominations before my return, produced, to the dismay of the guy behind the counter, a £50 note. But he was able to rustle up the change and I was rewarded with a record that was audacious, diverse, intrepid, if a little oddly produced – a matter Gerard was aware of. In the MM interview, he declared that, if his band had a budget to match that of justly forgotten soft metallers Glass Tiger, they could outsell them by five to one.
That budget arrived with a deal with Ensign and Swagger, presided over by Gil Norton (Pixies/Triffids/Bunnymen), presented Blue Aeroplanes in the variegated landscape they required deserved. Blue Aeroplanes are renowned for having a revolving roster to rival the Fall – albeit one where people at least appear to leave on more amicable terms – and Swagger presented a mostly, if not entirely, new string-wielding line-up. Angelo Bruschini, more recently associated with another set of Bristol titans, Massive Attack, had contributed the cameo of one of Tolerance’s outstanding moments, the unsettling Ups, and as a full-time member, proved himself to be a specialist in complex, serpentine epics.
Chief among these were the intertwined Weightless and …And Stones, the former a part stoical, part fulminating reflection on space exploration, alcohol and disease reminiscent of the Smiths’ stately ballads Reel Around The Fountain and I Know It’s Over, the latter a cruise-control lunge across the Clifton Suspension Bridge propelled by the dulcimer of Oysterband’s Ian Kearey, never an official Aeroplane but always their secret weapon.
Bruschini also slots the jewel into the Swagger crown – the closing Cat-Scan Hist’ry, a many tentacled monster which echoes some of Zeppelin’s most epic moments but which, instead of Plant being Plant, has a deceptively calm recitation by Gerard, pushed side by menacing chants and the pulverising tom-toms of his brother John, before it’s all submerged in chaos (in the true, creation of the universe sense) similar to the second half of the title song of the Bunnymen’s Porcupine. I always picture Gerard as an anthropologist recording his observations on to a dictaphone at a safe distance from preparations for a grim tribal ritual, before a hurrricane scatters them all at the last moment. It’s gargantuan and never fails to stagger.
The contributions of Rodney Allen, barely out of his teens when he joined the band, are less incendiary but this doesn’t mean they’re slighter. Your Ages is probably the most beautiful song the band have ever recorded and its circular, accelerating riff impeccably underpins Gerard’s reflections on a drive to the country and possible visions of the future. Allen also weighs in with Careful Boy, one of the moments on most Aeroplanes albums when Gerard steps aside and allows a song to be sung. This particular one was derided by some at the time as a moment to go and put on the kettle, like a Barbara Dickson song during The Two Ronnnies – or, come to that, a Ronnie Corbett monologue – but I’ve always found it tender and affecting, with a modest poetry of its own, though it makes more sense on the session version for Radio 1’s Nicky Campbell show – available on the deluxe reissue – than on the album proper’s mandolin-driven version.
A rich legacy is also left by former member Richard Bell, who left before Swagger. His setting of Plath’s poem The Applicant, in which a spouse becomes “it” and marriage a job or business transaction, is suitably fitful and carbonated, while What It Is is outwardly tranquil but with a trainload of wheels turning. A guest appearance by Michael Stipe on the latter – Blue Aeroplanes supported REM on the UK leg of the 1989 Green Tour at his invitation – became a selling point for the whole album but, in truth, he’s low-key and Swagger is easily strong enough to stand on its own, a sign that Blue Aeroplanes were rapidly becoming REM’s peers.
But within a couple of years, while REM had gone from big to universe-sized, Blue Aeroplanes had been largely forgotten – in the prevaling climate, dominated by the appallingly dubbed and often appalling-sounding genres of grunge and crusty, labelling bigots as “assholes” was deemed astute social comment and Blue Aeroplanes were routinely derided along the lines of “chin-stroking noodling” by people who had never seen them rend ceilings with Jacket Hangs, Bury Your Love Like Treasure (a riff for the ages, the equal of Jumpin’ Jack Flash) or Tom Verlaine’s Breaking In My Heart, which often saw the number of musicians on stage going well into double figures.
I yearn for another chance to witness all this but the records could keep you going for years, musically and lyrically – I also had the good fortune to be among the 50 winners of a copy Swagger in the Sounds (which would go out of business a year later) prize crossword and can brandish the compliments slip as proof.
So are lyrics poetry? They don’t have to be but, when written by Gerard Langley, they usually are – and I haven’t quoted a word from them here, so that you can savour them for yourself. (PG).