138. THE PERFECT DISASTER – UP (1989)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative

Perhaps it was because they didn’t quite fit in with the C86 crowd. Or the American noiseniks. Or the proto-shoegaze bands. Or Madchester. Especially not Madchester. In remaining aloof from all of those ‘scenes‘, they were consigned to live in the shadows. And so, there was an almost painful inevitability about their demise. Even their name sounded almost defeatist to some – like victims of a bankrupt tryst with the gods of fate, they seemed destined to shyly fizzle out. The new world of baggie was just not a place they could call home.

It’s a familiar story in popular music: there are some groups who appear to possess all the right ingredients – the looks, the attitude, the timeless classicism – for whom things simply don’t happen the way they are supposed to. For some (The Velvets, Big Star), recognition would come much later, but for others, like The Perfect Disaster, even posthumously, there would be scant recognition of their achievements. And so today, they remain little more than a footnote in the story of rock’n’roll. But it is worth remembering that at the time, their records did receive quietly enthusiastic approval from the critics. They made the cover of Sounds and were support act for many big hitters of the time including The Jesus & Mary Chain, Pixies and My Bloody Valentine. Reacquainting oneself with their music in 2020 I would contend that their albums compare favourably with those of their contemporaries, none more so than their penultimate release, 1989’s Up.

Active throughout the ‘80s, front man Phil Parfitt had overseen a series of personnel changes and fractious relationships with record labels while the band struggled to make its mark via a few sporadic releases on 45 and LP. By their second album 1988’s Asylum Road, their canvas had stretched to incorporate organ driven psychedelia, gorgeous chiming guitar ballads and spiralling Street Hassle-style mood pieces. Following the departure of founding member Alison Pate, they continued on as a fourpiece with Parfitt on vocals and rhythm guitar, Dan Cross on lead guitar, Josephine Wiggs on bass, cello and piano and Martin Langshaw on drums. Up would prove to be the second of three albums they made with Fire before they dissolved at the beginning of the new decade.

By Up, the Velvets’ inspired energy was concentrated into dazzlingly infectious rock’n’rollers such as ‘’55’ (never mind that Oasis brazenly pillaged the riff for ‘Rock & Roll Star’) and ‘Shout’, an opening brace which fired up the engine spectacularly. Back in the day these two would have had the young ‘uns sardined on the dancefloor at the indie disco, if only the DJ would have thought to put the damn things on. There were prettier interludes too, such as ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ where Parfitt’s nasal drawl recalled a melancholic Peter Perrett, although the comparison with The Only Ones was one the band consistently rejected. ‘Go Away’ is ‘Some Kinda Love’ turned inside out until some ghostly oriental instrumentation transports it into strange unseen lands, while ‘Hey Now’ is the sort of natural organic burst of rock’n’roll that Primal Scream often strived for but could never quite be themselves enough, to deliver with any conviction.

Best of all however is a completely inspirational suite in three parts entitled ‘Down’, where Wiggs’ languid cello and haunting backing vocal elevate an exquisitely solemn chamber piece to unimaginably dizzy heights. It is surely one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever heard. Then as if reminding the listener of their rock & roll credentials, they head for home riding the 13 minute wave of ‘B52’, Wiggs’ bass almost managing to overlap Cross’s naggingly hypnotic riff alongside Phil’s characteristically deadpan refrain: “Go! Bo Diddley! go home…”

Up captures The Perfect Disaster reimagining The Velvets circa summer ’68 (just prior to Cale’s departure), and much of the music mirrors the range of styles and moods on the VU album, released a few years earlier. Like that wonderful document, you will discover that at its essence, Up is simply a terrific rock’n’roll album. (JJ)

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TNPC chats to guitarist Dan Cross:

TNPC: You stood outside and in between both the tweeness of the C86 shambling scene and the rise of baggie. Did you fall between the cracks?

DC: I would say definitely – it’s hard to explain just how seismic the split between ‘bowl haired’ indie was & Madchester baggie – one minute it was The Pastels’ ‘Truck Train Tractor’ & the Shop Assistants. Then MDMA arrived and it was ‘Fools Gold’ and flares. Timing is everything in pop music & we were immediately obsolete. After Jo Wiggs left we tried to reinvent the sound a bit to incorporate those influences but it never felt natural.

TNPC: There was a classicist rock’n’roll sensibility to your sound by 1988’s Asylum Road. I’m hearing the Velvets, The Modern Lovers, The Only Ones. Were those always the touchstones? Which contemporary bands did you feel affinity with? I’m thinking the Rain Parade, Mary Chain, House of Love etc (later Spacemen 3)?

DC: The aforementioned Pastels, Orange Juice, The Chills, Galaxie 500 were all fellow travellers I would say. The Only Ones’ were actually never an influence no matter what anyone ever said , it’s pure coincidence based on a similar love of VU & an English nasal whine

TNPC: There’s definitely a purity to the sound on Up, distilling those three chords, but varying the tempo and texture a lot more? What do you remember about the album’s making?

DC: My main memory is getting ‘New York’ by Lou Reed & just playing it non stop. The atmosphere was somewhat bleak at Raven studios but I can’t honestly remember why. Maybe everyone was a bit burnt out

TNPC: How was the album received and did it sell?

DC: I would say it gave us our best music press & I remember feeling suprised that journalists would accept such a depressing vibe & want to recommend it to impressionable minds!Paul Lester in particular was very moved by it.

TNPC: So, did Oasis nick ‘Rock & Roll Star’ from ‘55’?

DC: I have no idea about this but would say that those musical ideas were everywhere at the time from JAMC to Weather Prophets – note: I remember a band called RAIN supporting us at a university gig ( possibly Nottingham) around this time & I’ve got a feeling that it was Liam Gallagher on vocals, so who knows?!

TNPC: The ‘Down’ suite is simply inspired. Tell me a little about how it was conceived and executed.

DC: That came out of various late night acoustic jams – it’s really Phil & Jo’s baby – I just played it off my head.

TNPC: ‘B52’ is a blistering Diddley-esque finale – the kind of groove you don’t want to stop. How far was repetition / hypnotism a vital part of the PD mix?

DC: Phil had been a ska & reggae head back in the day ( he used to do a bit of moon stomping on stage from time to time too ) – as well as the usual VU/ Bo Diddley fixation. A good way to look at it was as a heavy one chord reggae jam – minimal lyrics & dub sound effects via guitar. (I read that Phil went on the road with Rebel MC many years later so that kind of dance groove was obviously a big part of his musical DNA – I was just channeling Hendrix over the top )

TNPC: Jo makes such a vital contribution here – love the cello in particular! How did her departure come about and where did it leave you?

DC: Steve Albini came over to work with The Breeders at Jo’s family home in Biggleswade for pre production on ‘Pod’ so perhaps it was obvious what might be on the cards but the first time I knew something was brewing was when I heard her very deliberately playing the bass line to ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ on stage at a soundcheck. It sounded like a throwdown to those of us still in the band without a loudmouth American celebrity friend to be honest because that song was everywhere at the time & we all knew that Kim & Jo had met up after The PD had supported Pixies at The Town & Country Club & Brixton Academy earlier that year I wasn’t impressed at all. Phil had been through loads of players by the time she quit the band so he was quite used to shrugging his shoulders & carrying on ( very much in the Mark E Smith style ) but it must have been a blow. He never talked about it after that. I had been childhood friends with Jo & her sisters well before the band so I guess I wished her well – however I was suprised to receive a band postcard from her one day after she moved to New York sending me her signature & ‘Sincere best wishes from Jo Wiggs ‘ to my friendly letter asking after her general well being. I felt like she couldn’t wait to be a star.

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