113. ORANGE JUICE – TEXAS FEVER (1984)

I could begin with a sad lament about how Orange Juice should have been the greatest pop group of the early ’80s. But I’ll leave that ’til the end.

So let me tell you instead about ‘The Bridge’. Who, but Orange Juice, could so naturally calibrate a perfect synthesis of Chic and The Velvet Underground, blending them together with such effortless joi de vivre, then, as if playing ‘keepy-uppy’ with a 5-0 advantage, leavening into the mix some owlish ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ ooh-ooh-oohs, not to mention having the downright audacity to be the only band in history to reference Isambard Kingdom Brunel in popular song? PS. This is a rhetorical question.

Or I could have begun by arguing that You Cant Hide Your Love Forever, more than any other single LP, invented ‘indie’ music, and taken my cue from there. No OJ, then no Smiths, no Pastels etc etc.

But instead I’d rather ask you a question about ‘Craziest Feeling’. Did you know that Malcolm Ross could play guitar with the same shrapnel spraying agitation and wit (yes, guitars can be witty too) as John McGeoch, or that Edwyn Collins, while unashamedly a savant, had a huge passion for the bubblegum trash culture of 50s America and a devilish sense of humour to boot? Or that he really just dressed up some good old-fashioned love songs in a modernist post-punk garb and a pair of dark shades? Or had you forgotten about all that? Then either you are too young or have a short memory.

Now why didn’t I start by eliciting readers’ nostalgia through fondly recalling some happening nights at ‘Texas Fever’ (or ’46 West George St’ to us Glasgow folk), the indie disco named in honour of this very record? That would have made sense.

But at this point I am half way through listening to the record again – wait a minute, no, I am half way through Remain In Light, or am I? – and in the midst of Edwyn’s sudden despair: “And I can feel the black lies fly/They’re in my sleep, they’re in my eyes/I hate this head, these feet and hands/I’m tired of being a man”, he exclaims on the scything dark bubble-funk of ‘Punch Drunk’, probably the best Josef K record that Orange Juice ever made. That’s because it was written by Malcolm Ross. It might be a million miles from the positivity and innocence of YCHYLF, but that’s because Edwyn knows what it means to be happy and to be sad. Sometimes all at the same time. 

I should have set out some context and told you how 1984 was a dreadfully difficult year for Orange Juice. It undoubtedly was. Four would soon become two. And not long after, none. But you can read about that elsewhere. 

The real truth of the matter is that David McClymont’s fingers fell off playing bass on ‘The Day I Went Down To Texas’. Yes sir, they fell right clean off. He and Zeke had to work their goddam socks off to put ’em back on. Son of a gun.

Surely it would have been prudent and fitting to acknowledge Edwyn’s heroic and courageous battle in his recovery from a dual cerebral haemorrhage? Heartbreakingly sad. 

But I think Edwyn would be happier knowing that his songs – songs I’ve lived with and grown up with and played air guitar to and danced along to and thought about and cried over (“There’s a place in my heart/I wish that your eyes could see/And there’ s no one on earth/Who loves you as much as me”) and laughed about (“Glory hallelujah, gonna sock it to ya!” – both from the same song people!) – are loved very dearly indeed, almost none more so than ‘A Place In My Heart’ with those little Buffalo Springfield guitar licks gilding a sublime slice of blue eyed soul.

Let’s talk about whether or not Texas Fever is an album or a mini-album or an EP? On second thoughts, let’s not bother. Who the hell cares?

I keep thinking as that bass intro steadies it’s nerves at the beginning of ‘A Sad Lament’ that we’re heading into ‘Sister Ray’ and while I adore ‘Sister Ray’ it’s hard not to feel an overwhelming sense of relief and then joy, yes joy – a goosepimply shivery crying and laughing at the same time kind of joy – when that organ arrives to elevate it and save it from the devil’s clutches. Why is it when Edwyn sings: “You came exactly on the hour/Such precision worries me” that I want to punch the air with delight? Or that today ‘A Sad Lament’ sounds not only like Orange Juice’s greatest ever moment, but the finest pop moment of the ’80s? If I could tell you why I surely would. 

I was going to begin with a sad lament about how Orange Juice should have been the greatest pop group of the early ’80s. But then I remembered that they were. (JJ)

112. BANDSTAND – FAMILY (1972)

BANDSTAND – FAMILY (1972)
Any mention of John Peel, particularly since his horribly untimely death, will invariably prompt a roll-call of the acts he cherished the most: the Undertones; the Fall; the Smiths; the White Stripes. It’s usually a pretty reductive list, indicative of an approach summed up by Lauren Laverne as simply pulling out Teenage Kicks and declaring “job done.”
It’s an overly simplistic view of tastes which spanned half a century, could test even those who consider themselves musically unshockable and embraced an often-overlooked predilection for novelty. What’s unarguable, though, and was something Peel took pride in, was his forward-looking, close to scorched-earth attitude. He took only his most prized memories with him and few of those dated from the early ’70s. When the Strange Fruit venture gave overdue official releases to sessions previously blighted on tape by unbidden coughs and unsolicited percussion from the kitchen sink next door, his lack of enthusiasm for that era was palpable – he was perplexed by his one-time fondness for “unutterable crap like James Taylor” but alongside oft-proclaimed stalwarts like Beefheart, Robert Wyatt and Kevin Coyne, one of the few to escape the Me Decade purge were Family.
This wasn’t particularly surprising. Family tend to be conveniently dropped in the prog bag these days and while that was one of the points on their compass – it undoubtedly describes possibly their best-known song, the deathbed drama Weaver’s Answer, though that’s one I’ve never got on too well with – they rarely had the requisite pomposity or verbosity. Only four songs across their seven albums exceeded six minutes and they were just as likely to dally with folk, R & B, psychedelia or flat out hard rock.
They weren’t inherently seers or visionaries – and I’d suggest they had that in common with the Beatles. But also that both bands had insatiably curious ears and a willingness to try anything, while always having their R & B/ R & R roots within grasp and returning to them as they neared their respective ends. In fact, one of the most frequently told anecdotes about Family is that they were among the very few who ever got their way at the expense of the Beatles. They nabbed the title Music In A Doll’s House for their 1968 debut while the Quality Quartet – who had mooted a similar title for their upcoming album – prevaricated, compelling them to go eponymous and White a few months later.
It’s also often observed that they were named Family by Kim Fowley, as their sharp-dressed, imposing demeanour put him in mind of East Midlands mafiosi. Not quite the full Corleone but definitely one of the most convincing gangs-as-bands of their era. Liam Gallagher fondly sees their Leicester successors, Kasabian, as a gang but does so merely by defining them, Paul Calf-style, in opposition to stuuudents. But what he thinks Kasabian are, Family actually were – they simply got on with job of, if not upsetting the hippy applecart, then at least discombobulating it.
An extended Family too – in common with another true gang, the Ramones, they adopted when siblings went astray and racked up 11 members in their seven years (perhaps more like a football team – after all, they were depicted as Leicester City players on the cover of a posthumous Best Of album and were introduced at their 2013 reunion gigs by the legendarily free-spirited former Foxes striker Frank Worthington; Gary Lineker was presumably unavailable). And like yet another, Dr Feelgood, a surfeit of Johns pressed nicknames and middle names into service, so that John Whitney became Charlie, John Palmer was reborn as Poli and, for his time as a Family guy, the late John Wetton was dubbed Ken. John Weider had the privilege of getting to keep the name.
It all added to the picture of an outwardly ramshackle yet acutely questing squad, though by the time of Bandstand, their penultimate album, a degree of professionalism was in place. There had always been spiny tangents to their sound – Peace Of Mind from …Doll’s House (which the Damned, psychedelia connoisseurs that they are, were most assuredly familiar with, if their Disco Man is anything to go by) was underpinned by the carpet burn violin of Ric Grech, shortly before he was poached by Blind Faith; Hung Up Down from 1969’s Family Entertainment had woven into its belligerent stomp a flute which, given time, starts to make sense but never ceases to be slightly incongruous, and Save Some For Thee from 1971’s Fearless was all but thrown off course by the almost non-sequitur intrusion of a marching band. Bandstand was one of their most conventional outings but was still also one of their most diverse and inventive – their shirts were still hanging out but one or two of them were at least sometimes wearing ties.
Not singer Roger Chapman, though – not then. Not ever. Few voices have ever been so polarising – Joe Cocker was a boy soprano next to this fellow, who claimed he was simply interpreting in his own way the R & B voices he’d grown up hearing. His stage presence put breakable objects as much at risk from his
flailing limbs as from his gargling-with-sand vibrato – both among the attributes which caught Peel’s attention the most. “You were always grateful for a few bodies between you and Roger,” he once observed, and Chapman was one of the most obvious manifestations of his penchant for extreme vocalists. As unlikely as it may seem, Chapman had a good deal in common with another, Marc Bolan – it was polymorphism for the ears. If Bolan was diamond, Chapman was graphite.


You can hear all of this coalesce on Bolero Babe, which, in time-honoured Peel-challenging fashion, fades in to proto-synth bleeps and Rob Townsend’s drum tattoo nodding vigorously to Ravel’s classic a full decade before anyone had thought of skating to it, while showing it was equally suited to looning. The lofty strings echo those which Bolan and Tony Visconti superstitously put on T Rex singles after the success they brought Ride A White Swan, as well as anticipating, oddly, those of Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. Where you expect a chorus to surge and thrust, you can almost hear this one being held back – as Chapman exhales: “I can see it shine/ Light years from here” is he declaring “its” mighty brightness or silently adding: so why bother going to it? But this sounds not like proto-slackerdom, nor the indolence which had become so prevalent, but a protective restraint.
Dark Eyes, by contrast, is a whisper that fills a room. Less than two minutes long, it announces itself with the most sweetly discordant piano you’ll ever hear, an acoustic guitar pirouettes and a double-tracked Chapman sings, not for the last time on this album, with compassion and empathy (“A shadow of the evening/And your baby at your side/ A sadness that’s within you/Your eyes refuse to hide”). A flute adrift from Bryter Layter finds shelter before the sudden fade – it all sounds as soothing as pretty much everything was for me as a pre-school child while they recorded this. I was oblivious to this song, this band, and to the turmoil they soundtracked that was as prevalent as it’s ever been – Dark Eyes occupies the gap between those worlds.
As, to some extent, does My Friend The Sun, which could be interpreted as an opportunistic pitch to Rod Stewart’s by then massive audience. But it’s not remotely calculated and even if it was, cause shouldn’t be emphasised over effect, as it’s simply the most beautiful thing Family ever did. It’s bucolic without emphasising the colic, the sound of that morning moment when you realise it doesn’t matter if you don’t do a thing all day. Chapman is again at his warmest- “I know that you’re lonely, come in from the cold/Your shoes they need mending, your clothes they look old” – and if, as we’re often told, the difference between violin and fiddle is attitude, this song is poised at the exact moment where the attitude switches. Harmonies descend like a freewheeling downhill cyclist though, as if to remind us we’re still dealing with the Strange Band, the tape lead is dislodged and reinserted at the very last moment. And no busker’s bass drum and tambourine to create an unnecessary Mumfords hoedown 40 years before the fact. It’s said to have been played at a number of funerals in recent years, reflecting a shift from mourning who we’ve lost to celebrating who we had and fitting to the bittersweet brew of this song.
Far more bitter than sweet – in fact, a riot – is Broken Nose. For precisely three seconds, it offers the promise of a Hispanic voyage – Crude Sketches of Spain, maybe – before becoming a barrage during which the titular injury could easily occur. The chorus stomps through the floor and waves to Sly and the Family Stone’s I Want To Take You Higher on the floor below, before all is subsumed by the swell of a Charles Babbage synth. Somehow, room is found for one more layer in the backing vocal of Linda Lewis, later to have a hit with High Wire and to cover My Friend The Sun.
It took me years to figure out that Glove is something of a gem, too ribald to be tender yet also too poignant to be seedy. It’s a balance Mott the Hoople were particularly adept at striking and Family locate that sweetest of spots here – nudged forward by a bassline so simple you wonder if Wetton has temporarily forgotten his proficiency, and with a wholly secular yet thoroughly gospel melody and arrangement, Chapman gets as close as he can to crooning as he performs what, lyrically, is effectively a folk ballad. He returns the dropped garment to a lady who ultimately invites him, in keeping with tradition, to “accompany me to walk awhile.” There’s no chance, though, of Chappo swapping his vest and braces for doublet and hose; this courtly request doesn’t come before “I swore and bit my clumsy tongue” but the surreptitious crescendo and chivvying strings push them off into the sunset – in the manner of a Charlie Chaplin finale, gauche and touching at the same time
.Closer Top Of The Hill opens like a soul stew, twinkling and bubbling to set the scene for the entrance of Stevie Wonder, Al Green or even Alan Toussaint. It maintains this pretence for more than a minute before a terse riff kicks down the door and a clenched, breaking-point drama barges through. It simmers with unresolved tension as the strings swoop like a squadron of pterodactyls and race Palmer’s vibes to the summit. But they’ve not seen Townsend surreptitiously scaling the south face and he gets there first – with an unforeseen snare roll, he plants the flag and Bandstand is done.
Family had one year left. They would sign off with It’s Only A Movie, which largely took its cue from Bandstand’s opener Burlesque – a song which gave them their third and last top 20 hit and, with its bawdy Faces stomp, really was an incursion into Rodland. They split in, it would appear, comparatively amicable circumstances, too soon to be sitting ducks for punk ire but, despite their prog toppings, their vigorous bravura might have spared them the worst of it – in fact, a decade and a half later, the very same accidental urban sage spirit would be all over, under and inside Happy Mondays.
They stayed split for a full 40 years and even those reunion gigs were a brief visitation, played, furthermore, without the now seemingly retired Whitney.
The reverence handed down through the generations to Zeppelin, Floyd and Sabbath has eluded them but at their best, they rivalled them for, respectively, tenderness abutting steamhammer momentum, what-does-this-button-do inventiveness and realising industrial landscapes in blasted, lurid sound. If that makes them prog, I’ll get my cape  (PG).

111. ROY ORBISON – ALL-TIME GREATEST HITS (1972*)

Nine days before his death in 1988, Roy Orbison was interviewed by fabled rock journo Nick Kent who gauged his response to David Lynch’s (mis)appropriation of ‘In Dreams’ for modernist noir masterpiece Blue Velvet. Orbison confessed to being “aghast, truly shocked – they were talking about ‘the candy coloured clown’ in relation to doing a dope deal, then Dean Stockwell did that weird miming thing with that lamp. Then they were beating up that young kid!” When he had recovered from his initial fright, Orbison was able to watch it later on video at home, and admired the film’s “otherworldly quality”. Even more importantly, he acknowledged it as the moment his music became relevant and contemporary again – particularly to a younger generation of listeners.
   As a youngster myself, there was always something strange about watching Roy Orbison on the television. To begin with I often confused him with Lennie Peters of Peters & Lee fame, imagining the old B&W footage to have been Lennie in the early days. A desperate misjudgment certainly, but I was only a boy, and both of them sported, rather ominously, the darkest pair of shades. Secondly I figured that Orbison was probably blind, not simply because he wore dark glasses, but because he stood almost entirely still on stage, barely moving a muscle except wrists and fingers to strum his Gibson. I imagined that someone had led him to the microphone and would come to take him away again after the show. Thirdly, he was almost always clad in black. As a young lad I could not conceive of why anyone performing in public would wear black. He was supposed to be a pop star. What on earth was he doing? The pop stars I watched on television were exciting, flamboyant and colourful, like Bowie, Marc Bolan and er…David Essex. They owned the stage in much the same way as Elvis had before, eliciting euphoric rapture from their audience and procuring pubescent puddles on the seats of auditoria all over the world. But not this guy. What was his problem, apart from being blind of course?

    And yet that voice, unlike any other in popular music before or since, was something I couldn’t forget. It danced, it wept, it flew. It communicated as few others were able, a huge huge hurt. Even so, it would be over a decade later before I discovered that Roy Orbison wasn’t Lennie Peters. And that he wasn’t blind either. And having just graduated in my musical education through love affairs with The Velvet Underground and The Smiths, wearing black was certainly not uncool. In fact it was the epitome of absolute cool. 

    To suggest that The Velvets’ modelled their appearance on Roy Orbison’s would be stretching the truth, but there were clear parallels. Dressed in black, their still silhouetted bodies behind those dark shades, the prevailing sense of mystery and misanthropy. And, well, The Velvets sang love songs too, didn’t they? Of a sort. 

    By the time Andy Warhol introduced his Factory protégés to the world in ’66, Orbison’s bubble had burst. For four years (1960-64), after his emergence as the ‘Rockabilly Caruso’, an artist to rival Carl Perkins, he made a series of unforgettable records for Monument, bossing the charts in the process, but by the end of that period he had become for some almost a self-parody. How often can one sing of doomed unrequited love? Popular music was changing fast and those changes had left him behind. Still smarting from this steep decline in popularity, as if to rub salt in the wounds, Orbison’s wife Claudette died in a motorcycle accident in ’66, and in ’68 his two eldest sons perished in a house fire while he was on tour in the UK. The little tragedies of which he sang were as nothing compared to the realities with which he was confronted. Those songs could and should have acquired fresh gravitas then, but instead The Big O had become a big ‘0’ in the eyes of the record buying public. The real world is an unforgiving place. He soldiered on bravely through the seventies and eighties, his output less prolific, increasingly less enchanting. And then Blue Velvet appeared.

    And when Blue Velvet appeared I remembered him. That man in black from the television. The man who wasn’t Lennie Peters. The guy with the dark glasses. With that voice. I may have been looking at Dean Stockwell in that film but in my head I was picturing Roy Orbison. I was thinking about those songs I had for some time forgotten: those songs with their complex chord sequences, yet entirely without frills, perfectly economical. Songs that captured the emotional anxieties and neuroses of the postwar suburban teen: ‘It’s Over’, ‘Only The Lonely’, ‘Crying’, ‘Blue Angel’, ‘Shahdaroba’, ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ and ‘In Dreams’. Yes, you know them too. We all do. They are embedded in our consciousness. Few have created as marvellous a repertoire of songs with such economy and class. 

    The Perfect Collection appeared in 1982, when Orbison’s cachet was at an all-time low, and consequently his name did not appear on its pages. A glaring omission for sure. In that Kent interview – which you’ll find in the pages of his classic anthology The Dark Stuff – one encountered a reluctant and supremely humble superstar, a man at peace with those around him, and with himself – with his past, and with whatever was to come. By then the world had rediscovered him and his music and celebrated its magic once more. Mercy. (JJ)

   

110. HARTLEY C. WHITE – RUN THE GAUNTLET (1991) Guest Contributor: Chris Cohen

A few months ago, we invited Gerry Love to talk about his work with Teenage Fanclub and then to write about his favourite under-rated album. Gerry chose Chris Cohen’s marvellous Overgrown Path.

Now Chris has chosen a favourite album of his own and on the eve of a short European tour, has written exclusively about it here for TNPC. 

In 2011 I visited musician and OSR label founder Zach Phillips in Brattleboro VT – he had a box of Run the Gauntlet cassettes and gave me one. I listened in my car a lot; at first I just liked the novelty of it but then it became kind of an obsession. After a listen or two I could hear there were definite aesthetic rules to it but could not quite tell what they were. I would also get certain lines stuck in my head, like “this time, I’m holding out for you, oh tell me that you’re holding out too/so no matter what you say, no matter what you do just remember, I’m holding out for you” or the refrain: “whose music, your music, my music…” Hartley C. White has an incredible story – the quick version is that he “came from Kingston, Jamaica to Queens in the 1980s. A student of martial arts since 1966, Hartley is the progenitor of a style he calls Who-pa-zoo-tic Music, ‘a non-classical music’ based on the ‘broken rhythm’ of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.”1  I highly recommend this 2011 interview. [http://osr-tapes.tumblr.com/post/83828921021/interview-with-hartley-c-white-by-zp-2011]


Hartley is a keen observer of the ways of world and has led an incredible life. To me, Run the Gauntlet is a revolution in music. It does so many of the things that music can do: it talks to you, puts you under its spell, skillfully manipulates tension and release – but does so using none any of the traditional means. It doesn’t stay in any meter for more than a moment, makes no reference to traditional harmonic movement (though it makes some incredible harmonic moves). It has a very loose though distinct sense of melody, and truly relates to no other musical genre than its own. It never plays on anything recognizable from the world outside, though Hartley has a vast knowledge of popular music and is by no means an outsider from the world of music (his father was president of the Jamaican Musicians’ Union in the late 60’s/early 70’s). He’s a fan of everything from 10cc to Captain Beefheart, the Meters, Manhattan Transfer, Weather Report to Neil Young – but he decided to make a totally new kind of music and release it on his own Who-pa-zoo-tic Music label in 1991. 

After listening to Run The Gauntlet many many times over the years, I still find new ways of understanding it but feel that I never truly will. That is the key to its success – the more you engage, the more it shows you, but there is always something beyond. Also it is pretty near impossible to listen to as background music, something I take as a hallmark of its greatness.

Made of repetitions of irregular-sized rhythmic cells, its syntax feels asymmetrical but always right. If I understand correctly, Hartley’s music literally follows rhythmic patterns he’s learned from martial arts. Like Jeet Kune Do and Capoeira, Hartley’s Who-pa-zoo-tics is based on the idea of studying another person’s timing and then “breaking” that timing by striking during the gaps in its phrases. On this subject Hartley told me in an email that “Who-Pa-Zoo-Tic Music is less about fitting the parts together and more about playing the spaces between each note.” 
Rhythm is only one of many aspects of this music that are unique – Hartley’s sense of orchestration and his concept of multitrack recording on Run the Gauntlet are like nothing that came before. Either working in unison or responding to his voice, the instruments rarely play through an entire song or even section or line. Digital synth bass, cuica, wood block, snare drum, chimes, tympani, and electric guitar come and go over the course of each song, just accenting the voice which is Run The Gauntlet’s only continuous element. (Hartley played every instrument himself). His voice appears and re-appears in many different characters – sometimes whispering, sometimes singing falsetto, just talking or harmonizing. Horizontal rather than vertical, the arrangements combine unlikely elements in a completely original way that never feels patchy or random. 
The songs are melodic in their own way and very catchy at times – Hartley’s sense of pitch is continuous, a kind of intonation that is not talking, not rapping, not any other kind of singing but just purely his own. Run The Gauntlet discusses politics, faith, love, culture, consciousness, creativity, and emotion. In Hartley’s words: “I believe ‘Life’ is not always supposed to be happy. I also believe that it’s by overcoming the obstacles that we build character and better learn to relate to each other, as none of us are perfect and we all make mistakes. I also believe, as musicians, artists, that one our jobs is not only to record and witness the history around us but also to carry our own dreams as well as those of others, especially in times of uncertainty, and when necessary remind ourselves and others of the best that we can be.”  
Hartley makes me feel that music and life itself are inexhaustible. Run the Gauntlet is only his first record- Coming Out Fighting continues in a similar but even more intense vein, then each of the next 5+ records are all different and equally worth investigating. His last, Something Better (OSR 2016), is maybe his darkest and most apocalyptic. In the history of recorded music – I think Run the Gauntlet stands alone – complete, coherent, always rich with inspiration and always new. I hope that music lovers and musicians of the future know about it… (Chris Cohen)

1 http://osr-tapes.com/hartleycwhite.html, accessed 4/23

109. BRIAN ENO & HAROLD BUDD – AMBIENT 2: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR (1980)

Occasionally, very occasionally, music delivers a transitory release from the things in life that we find perplexing or unbearable. In an instant it can make the world look and feel a very different place.     Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror by Brian Eno and Harold Budd is one of those records. Unremarkable to many, perhaps as much for the contrast it provides with Eno’s more immediately gratifying post-Roxy output as for its sonically supine disposition (try hearing it out after a hard day’s graft), Plateaux Of Mirror is one of the few records I know of which has the capacity to utterly transport me – not simply to some soporific place of refuge, but to a subconscious realm of half-forgotten memories and fragments of dreams never lived. 

    By 1979, Eno had already demonstrated unmistakable signs of disaffection with staid rock conventions, firstly in his work with Cluster, and in particular, with his inaugural foray into ‘ambient’, Music For Airports. Eno’s recorded output was prolific during this period, yet still struggled to keep pace with his inherently inexhaustible appetite for experimentation with treated and textured sound. Just prior to recording Plateaux Of Mirror in late ’79, he had collaborated on a second album with Cluster’s Moebius and Roedelius and made Music For Films. Before the latter was finished, he was already hatching plans to work alongside Laraaji and Jon Hassell for future releases in his Ambient series. 

    By then Harold Budd had developed a reputation as a highly respected avant-garde pianist and composer. On Plateaux Of Mirror, Eno offered him full range of expression in his utilisation of electric and acoustic piano, while he himself constructed a backdrop of minimalist soundscapes within which Budd could improvise. Together they produced a miraculous minimalist classic, characterised by short pieces such as ‘Steal Away’ – washed out, dissolving in its own timorous flightlessness, and lengthier pieces which to some may sound monotonous upon first hearing, but patiently reveal marvellously disorienting little secrets. For instance, on the album opener ‘First Light’, it takes the best part of six minutes before Budd’s impressionistic sonata cedes to a wash of ascending synth, almost as if suddenly, and very discretely, a trifling little celestial drama has unfolded somewhere in the heavens. It and its reprise ‘Failing Light’ (the closer), have a steady tempo, whereas the gaps in ‘Above Chiangmai’ are wider, the harmonics looser, the playing irregular, creating an atmospheric stillness that is taut and unsettling. It makes Erik Satie sound like Fats Domino. 

Meanwhile ‘An Arc Of Doves’ resembles something from Eno’s Another Green World, but Budd’s playing is pretty and optimistic.

    The title track, ‘Plateaux Of Mirror’ possesses these unbearably poignant melodic shifts which – much like the music on Victorialand by The Cocteau Twins (future Budd collaborators) – bring you face to face with childhood memories, real or imagined, the faces of loved ones past and present, beautiful landscapes once observed or perhaps not. Here, it’s capacity to extract from the deep well of the subconscious parallels the work of Boards Of Canada, if not musically, then certainly spiritually.

    A little incongruous upon first listen is ‘Not Yet Remembered’ – a voiced consonant amongst ariated vowels, it’s sudden increase in volume and utilisation of choral synth make it the most human and earthbound thing on the album. It contrasts sharply with something like ‘The Chill Air’, which barely seems to exist, leading us to doubt whether these sounds are the work of human hands at all. Instead they sound like a strange balancing act of nature.

     The other day I passed a woman struggling up a steep hill with her pet on a lead. It wasn’t a dog she was dragging along, but a ferret. A young girl cycled past her, pedalling on the wrong side of the road. Her protective headgear looked like a WW2 Nazi helmet and she had a big old leather rucksack tied precariously to the back of her seat. It was stuffed full of plastic bags. Then a car came thundering down the road with its exhaust hanging off, making a dreadful noise. I turned round and noticed a van parked in front of someone’s driveway. It had tasteless heavy metal style signage on its carcass, although I can’t recall what it said. I did however notice that behind the windscreen sat an ugly toy gorilla. The gorilla looked imperious, holding his Flying V guitar. How strange this life is, I thought to myself. And then a gust of wind came along and it blew hundreds of tiny little cherry blossom petals in my face. I looked up and the sight and sound of the wind breathing through the oak trees almost made my heart burst with joy. In a moment the world was transformed. (JJ)

 

108. FOXBASE ALPHA – SAINT ETIENNE (1991)

FOXBASE ALPHA – SAINT ETIENNE (1991)
‘Record collection rock’ was a phrase tossed around with vigour and no little relish in the early ’90s. It epitomised a mood of intense self-consciousness and an eagerness to have and eat cake – to demand that music be dumb, artless, rock ‘n’ roll (adjective more than noun) yet still be dissected within an inch of its life.
It was a loaded phrase, at best mildly cynical, at worst plainly pejorative, telling as it did of a genre perceived to have nowhere left to go but to recondition its past and reassemble prepackaged ingredients. But hadn’t this already been going on for decades? Wasn’t half the Beatles’ early repertoire drawn from the rock ‘n’ roll, r & b and soul records they eagerly acquired after they passed from the US Navy into eager young Merseyside hands? Wasn’t the mythical meeting of Jagger and Richards at Dartford railway station occasioned by the clutch of blues albums the former was holding, just some of the many the Stones would go on to plunder for material? And while it’s debatable how many records he may have been able to afford to buy, was Elvis not a human jukebox, absorbing everything he heard – and covering much of it, often radically- on the radio and at the diner?
The truth is, record collection rock is as old as rock itself and even Simon Reynolds, one of the writers most exercised by the concept, was compelled to concede around the end of 1991 that three of the albums which had given him most pleasure that year were prime examples of the art: Primal Scream’s Screamadelica; Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque – and Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha.
Maker writer Bob Stanley found himself embroiled in this debate, not only through what he wrote but also by being written about by his colleagues as he pursued extracurricular adventures in the Saint Etienne ranks. In his tastes, he was an entire mischief of magpies on his own, devouring acid house, French yeye and bubblegum with equal relish, while also finding a place for the perceived higher art of canonical acts. He was rightly withering of many of his contemporaries, bewildered by “people who got into music two years ago who think Jesus Jones are better than the Beatles” and saw no cause for celebration in the supposedly alternative mediocrities invading the charts in a charge of the featherweight brigade. Certainly, it was a grim time in a highly peculiar decade, in which many of the most prominent players gained their status from origins which were unlikely (Nirvana, Oasis, Primal Scream) unpromising (Radiohead, Blur, the Prodigy, Beck) or both (Manic Street Preachers).
All this, though, led to his needlessly absolutist claim that that pop music “shouldn’t be intelligent; it should be completely unintelligent.” I previously covered what I make of this view in my review of Blue Aeroplanes’ Swagger  (no 35) but suffice to say I don’t agree; neither did one of Stanley’s colleagues, Andrew Mueller, who said it best when he chided his fellow Maker man with the unarguable caution: “Without intelligence, there is no imagination…the alternative doesn’t bear contemplating” and added that the quality of Saint Etienne’s music was “no mandate to talk such cobblers.”
The evidence of that quality runs through Foxbase Alpha like the Thames through London, the only city on Earth where it could have been made, one they paintly as richly as, if less literally than, the Kinks, Ian Dury and Madness. Despite this unmistakably metropolitan hue, though, Saint Etienne presented their hometown as much as a global crossroads as a mighty collision of villages, particularly much later in Tales From Turnpike House. The tour of their cosmopolis begins with a reminder of their Francophone roots, a snatch of radio dialogue introducing commentary on the football team who gave them their name and whose lurid green shirts were the last word in calcio chic in the mid ’70s.
Then it’s off to Laurel Canyon via Pimlico and Toronto for the song they announced themselves with – a cover of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart. About time we had some more heresy here at TNPC so here goes – I actually prefer their version to the original, which is, of course, a beautiful and poignant piece of work but it plays into the hands of Young’s detractors by sounding the way many of them think he always does. With the slightest tweak of the melody and the empathic tones of one-off guest Moira Lambert, Saint Etienne lift the song out of the maudlin and into the sweetly sorrowful by way of the dancefloor.
That’s one of their natural habitats and they stay there, in varying guises and modes, for much of Foxbase Alpha. Stoned To Say The Least kicks off with a wry sample from Countdown, the first programme broadcast on Channel 4 in 1982 and a staple there to this day. It’s fairly fitting, as it’s a close relative of the majestic The Sun Rising by the Beloved, whose singer, Jon Marsh, was a contestant on that very programme when his band owed more to the New Order of Ceremony than of Subculture. The subdued bass and swooping backwards guitar, congas and interjections of cowbell and Italian house piano all make for a compendium of the ideal early ’90s dance tune – but it still finds room to wrongfoot you with an extended feedback fade. Record collection dance music in action – and ignore anyone who tells you that sounds no fun at all.

 


The rapidly cliched perception of Saint Etienne was of Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell as a parallel universe Blue Peter team or red Routemaster bus travellers tagging along with Rita Tushingham and Adrienne Posta. They were always a good deal more nuanced and savvy than that but on London Belongs To Me, they provide the soundtrack all those films could have had if they’d just had a word with Delia Derbyshire. It strolls, cascades, shimmers like the sun that makes you realise you’ve forgotten your shades – on the summer day you have to remind yourself to savour every minute of. It shares only a title with the 1948 drama starring a young Richard Attenborough, already specialising in misfits, tearaways and purveyors of cold evil at outrageous odds with his latterday ‘Dickie’ persona.
Like The Swallow is as odd, ambitious and outright headswimming as anything a chart act – for that’s what Saint Etienne were – has ever come up with. The washes of sound it opens with resemble Mercury Rev’s Holes, Talk Talk’s The Rainbow, even parts of the very un-pop It’ll End In Tears by This Mortal Coil, and it proceeds, as steadfast and unhurried as a symphony’s first movement for three-and-a-half minutes before vocals are even considered and even then, it’s a Cracknell cameo – she’s gone in less than a minute, buoyed by percussion which in other  places would sound martial but here prove that it is entirely possible – in fact, desirable – to march for joy. Speaking of drums, listen out for the snare thunderclaps that pursue a sampled Levi Stubbs through She’s The One – the sound of the Four Tops was once magnificently likened to the roar of a wounded lion and that holds true here as well, except this one has see Androcles run by with no time to pull out the thorn.
And do not dismiss Dilworth’s Theme purely because it’s the last song and is less than a minute long. In the spirit of the Time Bandits scene where Ian Holm as Napoleon rants about similarly petit conquerors (“Alexander the Great – five feet exactly…Tamburlaine the Great – four foot nine and three quarters) I give you a similar roll call of chronologically challenged but magnificent songs: Cockney Rebel’s Chameleon – 47 seconds; the Incredible String Band’s Son of Noah’s Brother – 16 seconds. Dilworth’s Theme – a dumpy little 38 seconds but
a beautiful, rainy day drawing room reverie, like Bowie’s Eight Line Poem with the comedy cowboy locked out of the house. The very fact that it’ll take you less time to listen to it than to read what I’ve written here about it says plenty about its condensed glories.
There’s  more, much more, to say about this record but I’d need as many words to do it justice as there are in Peter Ackroyd’s London:The Biography – in a very odd way, a companion piece – or Bob Stanley’s own, staggering Yeah! Yeah! Yeah, which takes on the fearsome labour of charting the history of post-war popular music and triumphs, omitting nothing and vividly illuminating everything. Not unlike Foxbase Alpha, really (PG).

107. HÜSKER DÜ – CANDY APPLE GREY (1986)

By the time they had signed a lucrative contract with Warner Bros in early 1986, Hüsker Dü’s implosion was well underway. Tracked by the label for the previous twelve months, the band had opted to remain with indie label SST until the completion of their fourth album Flip Your Wig. Hüsker Dü had outgrown SST, but the move to Warners didn’t go down well, and as a consequence, any objective critical analysis of their first album for them, Candy Apple Grey, has been rare. In an otherwise formidable canon, it is almost universally regarded as the runt in the litter, falling way short of masterworks such as Zen Arcade. It is time for a reappraisal.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that the major label debut album of the beloved independent band almost invariably elicits a hostile response from the hardcore fan. After all, he was there when it all began. He can vividly recall his idols heaving their own gear into some piss-stinking dungeon of a venue where they performed before an audience whose animosity could not have been greater had you announced you’d had intimate liaisons with their mothers the night before. But he was instantly hooked. He bought their first record on the day of its release at the little backstreet indie store, the only one with guts enough to stock it, and he has followed them ever since. Until now that is. Because now they are working for the man. Look at those Johnny-come-latelys wearing those t-shirts emblazoned with the new album sleeve. Where were they three years ago?! You can’t call them real music fans. They are living proof that the incorruptibles have become corrupted. If the only thing Warners are interested in is product and shifting units, it follows logically that the band have the same aspirations. To hell with those corporate whores, and their fawning new legions of gullible lemmings.

It is a peculiar relationship the one between pop star and fan. Many of us at sometime or another, may have borne this conceit. It is a well-worn cliche that rock stars, simply by virtue of their status, have realised their dreams and fantasies. But it is equally true to say that pop fans often inhabit a fantasy world of their own making. It is all inside their heads. Songs and albums may well seem very personal to the listener, a unique meeting of souls. But they are not. They are simply recognisable expressions of one particular aspect of the human condition. A coalescence of timing and circumstance might propel them deep into our subconscious. What might mean nothing to one person, could be the only thing preventing another person from putting an end to it all. Because of that, music can assume a gravitas beyond its rather humble ingredients. But to believe a rock band is one’s own private possession is both extraordinarily deluded and somewhat infantile.

It was to precisely this type of indignant response I first declared my fondness for Hüsker Dü. Occupying one half of an old C90 cassette was a recording of their penultimate album Candy Apple Grey. It was summer 1987, a few months after the release of their heroic double swansong Warehouse: Songs & Stories. The tape had been handed to me by a fellow student – being students we had little money to buy the records themselves – but the scorn he reserved for the album was merciless. In fact he’d only given it to me so I could hear Side Two (if I recall correctly the Homestead compilation, Wailing Ultimate!) “Ignore the other side” he warned. I could not.

The album was created in the most challenging of circumstances. A home movie style video for the Grant Hart penned 45 ‘Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely’ may have reflected the searing intensity of the band’s live performances, but it was captured at a time when relationships between the trio had broken down irreparably. Personal differences had been growing; Hart’s drug abuse accelerating. At the time Mould was quoted as saying that none of the three wanted to continue, but ironically, the band had reached their commercial zenith. That sense of confusion and disintegration permeates an album often labelled a sell out. But any doubts of musical compromise should have been dispelled for good on the album’s opening track, the finger-shreddingly ferocious ‘Crystal’, where Mould, hoarse with fury, rages at the chaos surrounding him (“When civilization falls in its grave/Technology throws on the dirt/You realize the finest things in life/Are the ones that can never be hurt”). Meanwhile, the guitars in time honoured tradition explode like a coalition of cheetahs leaping through an avenue’s worth of shop windows.

The communication breakdown, which Hart accepts ultimately led to the suicide of the band’s manager David Savoy a year later, allowed greater room for the expression of each individual’s musical and emotional idiosyncrasies, and Candy Apple Grey undoubtedly displays the greatest musical variety of any Hüsker Dü album. In Mould’s case at least, the ensuing turmoil led to the more introverted songwriting style he would follow into his solo career. It is undeniably true that on Candy Apple Grey he frequently sounds in despair, bereft. His energies were at an all time low, but this was misconstrued by fans as a mellowing out. His solo acoustic venture ‘Too Far Down’ (“I’m too far down/I couldn’t begin to smile/Because I can’t even laugh or cry/Because I just can’t do it”) is hardly the product of a singer seeking a wider audience. If Hüsker Dü had always struck a fine balance between melody and discord – it was the tempo which was unrelenting – they also possessed a more sensitive melancholic dimension to their sound. Consider ‘Perfect Example’ and ‘Celebrated Summer’ from New Day Rising, or even ‘Diane’ way back on the Metal Circus EP. No, these slower songs are the sound of people having to get to grips with the very real challenges of life, the turgid reality of having to work alongside people you once loved but can no longer look in the eye, and even, no matter how banal it sounds, with the life-work balance. The band’s output had been prolific, they had become exhausted by an unforgiving touring schedule. And their personal lives were unravelling. On ‘Hardly Getting Over It’, a song he continues to perform today, Mould reflected upon his awareness of the impact of loss and bereavement in his own life. “My parents didn’t even mention my grandfather’s passing to me for months, for whatever reason. Presumably it would upset me.” It was a heartfelt confessional, but all people heard was the volume reduction. The sound may indeed have been quieter, but the message sang loud and clear .

The band’s bastardisation of The Byrds’ folk-rock is most obvious on Hart’s ‘Dead Set On Destruction’, while his ‘Sorry Somehow’, the album’s second 45 is much more immediate, belying its author’s fragile psychological state. While the bitterness in the sentiment is acute (“There’s no need to talk to you, well to know what’s on your mind/There’s no need to see you either, no, I’m just being kind/You want me to beg forgiveness, tender an apology/It’s not my fault and you’re not getting one from me”), it’s infectious and muscular Hammond-driven riff seems perfectly tailored for alt-college radio. It is interesting to note that college rock darlings, fellow Minneapolitans The Replacements, had signed to a major label (Sire – also distributed by Warners) shortly before Hüsker Dü, yet there has never been any charge of ‘sell out’ levelled at The ‘Mats’ first major offering, Tim.

On ‘No Promise Have I Made’ Hart was accused of sailing perilously close to the bombastic coastline -over a skin of shivering cymbals and an automotive synth sounding like a multi-tracked vocal, its epic piano motif builds to an ecstatic climax powered by Greg Norton’s Herculean bass riff while at the finale Hart thrillingly hammers home the point orally as well as physically with emphatic angst.

Out of chaos occasionally emerges something beautiful, honest and true. If songs like ‘Crystal’, ‘Eiffel Tower High’ and ‘All This I’ve Done For You’ would have fit comfortably onto New Day Rising, Candy Apple Grey delivers a broader palette, reflecting a depth of emotional involvement unmatched elsewhere on any other HD album. As individuals they were suffering but growing up too, perhaps against their will. The case for the album being a sell out simply doesn’t hold water. It is a wounded bewildered beast, certainly without thematic unity, but made entirely without compromise. It is the album Hüsker Dü would have delivered no matter which label was pressing the vinyl. Time has been kind to its shortcomings. So should you. (JJ)