127. POSITION NORMAL- STOP YOUR NONSENSE (1999)

By 1999, I had completely lost interest in new music. There was one aberration from this disconcertingly reactionary development: my obsession with an album by a ‘band’ called Position Normal. I knew nothing about them except that the album was entitled Stop Your Nonsense.

I later discovered that Position Normal was a guy called Chris Baliff who had been experimenting with tape-to-tape multi-tracking since his early teens, using his family’s Amstrad hi-fi and an SK1 drum machine. At college he borrowed a Marantz tape recorder to do a project on ice cream vans, and from there began utilising guitars and other instruments. In the guise of Position Normal, with help from John Cushway, Baliff inhabits a discomfiting subconscious world of nonsensical gibberish, dreams and nightmares, delirium and hysteria. All conventional ideas about how music should sound have been abandoned, liberating him to create discombobulated aural collages which – depending upon the listener’s own psychological state – have the capacity to amuse excite and disturb in equal measure. If he has cultivatied his own mystique over the years (sporting faceless masks for example), resolutely maintaining a deliberately low profile, there is certainly nothing taciturn in his willingness to completely mess with your head.

Stop Your Nonsense is one of the most fearless records I’ve ever heard, made without the remotest concern for commercial viability. That is fairly unusual in itself, but what makes the album even stranger is that it is constructed almost exclusively from obscure samples of found sound. [‘Plunderphonics’, according to at least one website] In sharp contrast to DJ Shadow’s painstakingly seamless reconstructions on Endtroducing however, Position Normal layer the samples on top of one another in the most anarchic way imaginable: visualise a Banksy mural stencilled over a fresco by Botticelli or custard being thrown over a plate of sausages. Take ‘The Blank’ for instance, where a mechanical clang of Beefheartian guitar locks horns with what sounds like some syrupy children’s (loonee) tune knocked out on a xylophone. Meanwhile, vocal samples from a television quiz show (“What is the blank?”), manic bouts of laughter, and an obscure loop of eveningwear jazz arrive to gatecrash the party. It’s all utterly disorientating, rather marvellous and somehow makes perfect sense.

Everything sounds fractious, frenetic, desperate not to outstay it’s welcome, as much the perfect recipe for those suffering from attention deficit disorder as once was Pink Flag. Things move quickly here. You might struggle to keep up. Perhaps the strangest juxtaposition of styles is on ‘Rabies’ where the lyric (“Missing her like I miss rabies”) read by the narrator in a ludicrously accelerated tempo, fades into a devastatingly poignant moment from some ultra-solemn piano sonata. ‘Undada Sea’ likewise begins with looped varispeed voices before a playbarn bossa nova party is bashed out on flutes, tin cans and glass bottles.

‘Drishnun’ could be Broadcast or Stereolab on downer acid. Then there is ‘German’, where a strident rendition of what sounds like some theatrical composition by Kurt Weill (perhaps sung by his wife Lotte Lenya?) dissolves away through the addition of some sumptuous sonic phasing. Despite this Teutonic phonic interlude, the sounds Baliff harnesses together are typically unmistakably English, from the lumpen cockney accents on ‘Whoppeas’ and ‘Jimmy Had Jane’ (“Pickled egg, pickled egg, pickled egg eyes…”, which could be Derek & Clive or the Monty Python team reworking Rock Bottom) to taped telephone calls and source material extracted from UK children’s television and radio shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Simon Reynolds has detected elsewhere the same spirit of adventure characteristic of the UK post-punk scene of the early ‘80s, even comparing some of the eerily disembodied guitar to the work of Vini Reilly (check ‘Pepe Pepaymemimo’ or the haunting and genuinely hypnotic closer ‘Bedside Manners’), as well as citing other reference points as diverse as St. Etienne, Nurse With Wound and De La Soul. Perhaps another might be The Residents or early Matt Johnson (check the heavily reverbed guitar on ‘Bucket Wipe’)

It’s all defiantly lo-fi, at times making The Fall’s Dragnet sound as smooth as late period Steely Dan. Mind you, there are so many snippets and samples it becomes a challenge in itself to discern which sounds are authentically original. In the end, that doesn’t really matter, for in the early years of the noughties, when I like many others, had been left utterly unmoved by Coldplay, The Strokes, Primal Scream et al, this beautifully unhinged little gem contrived to keep my sanity intact. (JJ)

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125. THE LILAC TIME (1987)

In late 1986 Stephen Duffy decided it was time for a change of direction. His second solo album Because We Love You, was a commercial flop and his record label, the Virgin subsidiary, 10, hardly enamoured with the plans he had for its follow up, proceeded to dispense with his services. Duffy regrouped with his brother Nick and their friend Michael Weston to record some new songs inspired by their shared love of folk and country music. His discovery of a compilation album by Nick Drake entitled Heaven In A Wild Flower in ’87 gave this vision crucial impetus. Drake’s reknown was much slighter then than now, but the record’s impact was such that Duffy decided to christen the new band using a lyric from one of Drake’s songs. The trio, now reborn as The Lilac Time, soon signed to a small independent label called Swordfish, which, with little fanfare, released their (eponymously titled) debut album to quietly enthusiastic reviews at the tail end of ’87.

The switch to making more traditional music surprised many. Stephen’s pop pedigree was undisputed. He had after all been the founder of Duran Duran, and had written sizeable hits (‘Kiss Me’ and ‘Icing On The Cake’) not without flair and finesse. He was unmistakably a savant, his lyrics knowing and clever (how many Top 10 smashes possess lines such as “When I grow old I won’t forget / To innocence my only debt”?) On The Lilac Time, his pop sensibilities would remain intact, seeing him pen songs like ‘Return To Yesterday’ which had a chorus The Monkees would have died for, alongside its own banjo-fuelled rustic charm. In a similar vein, ‘Together’ was masterfully crafted and equally joyous. Pop would always be part of the package, but elsewhere Stephen finally sounded free to explore the music he loved, liberated from any pressure to populate the charts with hits.

To open the album with ‘Black Velvet’ was not only a brave move, but also a perfect calling card for Duffy’s second coming. As gentle as a snowflake, it sounds as if Stephen is hiding from the world – in some ways he was – but the sheer beauty and poetry of the lyric [“Found me a language that talks without blackmail…/ I called for you without words / And you answered like a kiss.”] slowly sweet-talk the sparse instrumentation out of the shadows, and if one listens closely enough, the  little cracks and tremors of yearning in his voice lend the song huge emotional weight.

‘Love Becomes A Savage’ mines even greater depths. [“And if you get married / You’ll find out that it’s true / Love becomes a savage / Who’s going to savage you.”] Frank, more than a tad fearful (oh youthful pessimism!), genuinely erotic, possibly even a little self-righteous, it – for a fleeting moment – appears to cradle in its arms the secret to happiness in human relationships, only to concede – like sand slipping through one’s fingers – to their impossible fragility. It’s the sort of thing Leonard Cohen may well have conjured up, although Lenny, God rest him, would no doubt have been tempted to inject a profanity or two into the mix. For art’s sake.

These two songs could have been written yesterday. That the album made few concessions to modernity lends it a certain timelessness and consequently it has aged remarkably well. Even its humble sleeve – with a picture of the house where the band rehearsed – suggested a new back-to-basics stoicism. Only the gothic country of ‘Rockland’ incorporates some technology of sorts. Indeed, it could quite feasibly read as a prescient state of the nation address [“Our leaders are assassin’s friends / And we aren’t needed for their ends / No industry or open wars / They cut health care and lock the doors.”]

Duffy must have divined he was onto something special and he was determined to make it happen. After only a few months on the shelves the band signed to Fontana, and The Lilac Time was quickly  given a production makeover and reissued in early ’88. There issued one deviation in the album’s running order (‘Rockland’ swapped places with ‘Return To Yesterday’), but it was on the more uptempo tracks where one noticed the extra polish and depth of the remix, particularly on ‘You’ve Got To Love’ and ‘Too Sooner Later Than Better’, both of which were virtually hoedown barndancers by comparison to ‘Love Becomes A Savage’, surely symptomatic of the underlying musical contentment of its creators. But it did also contain more elusive moments, harder to read, such as the bittersweet ‘Road To Happiness’ whose theme seems strangely at odds with the solemnity of its music, which could be preparing for its own burial.

‘And The Ship Sails On’ meanwhile is without doubt one of the great lost pop songs of the ’80s. ‘Return To Yesterday’ may have made a more obvious choice as 45, but it could quite as easily have been this. It is a picnic on the meadow in summertime, a curtain blowing gently before the stillest ocean, and is the song that The Lightning Seeds always wanted – but were never quite able – to make [“And the ship sails on / And when our lives have gone / What epitaph will mean a thing? / What’re you gonna say when the phone don’t ring? / Was your life quite good? / And were your book shelves made out of wood? / To hold the books they write when their heroes die / And the loss they always find / Beyond words.”] Pure gold. And to finish, Duffy instituted a Lilac Time tradition by closing the album with an instrumental, the gorgeous ‘Trumpets From Montparnasse’, whose stark banjo plucking gives way to a magnificently rebellious melody that meanders its way through the Balkans until it comes across some singing travellers, with whom it dances the night away in front of the fire. And there’s not a trumpet to be heard anywhere!

It’s sometimes easy to forget just how many brilliant wordsmiths there were making music in the ‘80s (Morrissey, Costello, McGowan, McAloon, MES, Tom Waits, Nick Cave etc). But few have lasted the pace as well as Stephen Duffy. He has made consistently great music over the last 30 years, and the band’s latest offering Return To Us, scheduled for release later this year, even features on its sleeve the aforementioned old rehearsal house from the first album. Perhaps things have come full circle for Stephen Duffy. But whether or not there is more to come from him, it remains undeniable that on The Lilac Time his tongue danced like a butterfly and his fingers ached to touch. The music may have been as gentle as a feather floating through the air. But when that feather came to rest on the surface of the ocean, what great depths lay beneath. To paraphrase a certain man, his songs were innocent as doves and yet wise as serpents. (JJ)

Interview with Stephen Duffy, July 2018

TNPC: When you started out together how did you envisage The Lilac Time? It seemed at the time a strange digression from Ups & Downs. 

SD: There were hints – B sides – the version of ‘Wednesday Jones’ that came out on an ep – but certainly songs like ‘Sunday Supplement’ and ‘Julie Christie’ on the Because We Love You album. A song called ‘Cocksure from that time could have been on the first Lilac Time album. To me though The Ups & Downs was the digression.

I was always a folkie. The Incredible String Band were the first band I ever saw was I was 9 or 10 and remain my favourite band. They were produced by Joe Boyd who went on to produce Nick Drake & Fairport Convention who were also very important to me. Bob Dylan was a major obsession for me in my teens. Planet Waves was released when I was 14, Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes when I was 15, Desire – 16. In-between discovering the other previous 12 records, I even bought Dylan. I loved the Pat Garret & Billy the Kid soundtrack. I found the Albert Hall bootleg in someone’s record collection. It was all mind blowing to the teenage me. It still is.

But it was the release of the Nick Drake compendium Heaven in a Wild Flower and the first UK terrestrial television broadcast of Don’t Look Back in 1986 that forced the issue. I recorded half of the Lilac Time album (‘Return To Yesterday’, ‘Rockland’, ‘And the Ship Sails On’ and a couple of othersas my next Virgin/10 album. They wanted me to make dance records so I knew they’d hate it. I was dropped. So I recruited Nick and Michael and called it the Lilac Time and recorded the rest of it.

TNPC: Did your approach to making music closely reflect what you were listening to at the time? Beyond Nick Drake, were you influenced by contemporary songwriters (Morrissey, Forster & McLennan etc)?

SD: The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, REM, The Replacements, Echo & The Bunnymen I’d always check out their new releases but I don’t know if they had any direct influence. I was still too enthralled by the mechanics of the old records and perhaps too jealous of everyone else’s success. There was so much old stuff to discover. I’d been hip to the Witchseason artists, Dylan, The Beatles and The Stones. And then came the great punk wars which put a dent in things. After that it was all about playing catch up. Tim Hardin, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, Later Byrds albums. So much to listen to and all in the second hand stores in their original pressings with any luck.

I was and still am great friends with Nick Laird Clowes of the Dream Academy, his enthusiasm for music was an influence. I think I got heavily into Crosby Stills Nash & Young at this point. I wanted my own Broken Arrow ranch which took us the Hereford side of the Great Malvern Hills. I was reading a lot of Iris Murdoch too.

TNPC: Songs like ‘Black Velvet’ perfectly capture that quintessential Englishness, that many strive for but few are able to achieve. What inspired the lyric here and can you please tell me where is ‘Butcher Town’?

SD: I got really drunk one night with the best friend of one of my exes. Which led, tortuously and eventually, to a relationship. This was the night spent falling down on Black Velvet. That was the starting point. Black Velvet in the Fox on Hurst Street was cider and Guinness. There is a Buchertown in Louisville Kentucky but here it substitutes for Birmingham.

I’d been reading a lot of twentieth century poetry, just beginning to grasp its immensity and greatness and wanting assimilate or subsume some of that vast poetical warp and woof into the songs. I figured I could go further, that I’d been holding back in a kitchen sink drama of my own making. I was very taken by a Stephen Spender poem called Your Body Is Stars. (“Your body is stars whose million glitter here/I am lost amongst the branches of this sky/Here near my breast, here in my nostrils, here/Where our vast arms like streams of fire lie.”) And on the day I read it I wrote ‘Black Velvet’, ‘Road To Happiness’ and ‘Love Becomes A Savage’. Poetry was quite potent back then.

TNPC: When you wrote ‘Love Becomes A Savage’, was the lyric contemporaneous with the experience you mention or were you speaking about something from the past? It’s such a beautiful song lyrically, but I’ve always felt raw listening to it, like I’m intruding on something far too private and personal.

Yes, it’s become my Lady of the Island. Too embarrassing to sing, although we did at last years Port Eliot Festival. We were going to play the whole thing but I got too bored with it in rehearsal. I didn’t want to inhabit that 27 year olds shoes and limitations. Originally “love becomes a savage who’s going to savage you” was “loves a noble savage who’s going to damage you”. I changed it because I felt the noble savage was a racist concept and not something philosophical of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This hunch was proved right but I only found out when they invented the internet. So after the noble savage disappeared it became more personal. Why did people, usually my girlfriends, want to get married when all of the young married people I knew seemed so unhappy and destined for divorce? Speaking as a 57 year old whose life was perhaps saved by marriage I wouldn’t write it now. But it was true then. You don’t get many songs about female pubic hair these days and I think the world is commensurately worse off.

TNPC: The Lightning Seeds would trade their England shirts for German ones to be able to write something as effortlessly brilliant as ‘And The Ship Sails On’. Were you not tempted to release it as a 45, or did ‘Return To Yesterday’ seem a more obvious choice?

SD: I wonder why we never remixed ‘And The Ship Sails On’?It was a big step for me to go “I’m not going to try and come up with a new riff, I’m going to use the ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Love Minus Zero’, ‘If Not For You’ chords instead.” I think I’ve written three or four others subsequently, ‘In The Evening Of Her Day’ being the best. I suppose we thought “beyond words” wasn’t a big hook. ‘Return to Yesterday’ is a bit of a mission statement though isn’t it? It tells you all you need to know about the band and the state of the world. We’ve got one on the new album the title track Return To Us.

The next single was ‘You’ve Got To Love’ which started off with a line of Bobby Sands but I can’t remember which now, or if it made it to the finished track. Then we remixed ‘Black Velvet and out it out at Christmas but it didn’t knock Noddy of his perch.

On the Dreaming tour just before we split up in 1991 this guy would come to the gigs and request “Ship, Ship!” he’d shout. We had a guitarist with us on that tour and our shouter thinking he might not know it alternated shouting “Ship“ with shouting the chords “C to F” he’d shout “C to F”.

TNPC: ‘Trumpets From Montparnasse’ sounds completely joyous, almost like a Balkan wedding band at the height of the festivities. Tell us a little about it…

I wonder when I said to Nick “Do you have an instrumental to finish the album?” We’ve certainly stuck with it. All 10 albums have instrumentals, lilac6 has two. It’s our most heard song as it was used as a Flora margarine advert and a television programme about narrow boating. I love a banjo tune being called Trumpets. The new one on ‘lilac 10’ is called ‘King Kopetsky’.

TNPC: The Lilac Time is a record shrouded in mystery. [Appears to little fanfare on relatively obscure label late ‘87, a few glowing reviews, disappears briefly, returns ‘remixed’ in early ‘88] but has slowly garnered great critical acclaim over the years. Did you have a sense that this was a great record? Was its temporary disappearance an act of desperation – did it need another push to try to seek a wider audience? Or had Fontana noticed its potential and made particular demands? Or was the remix less to do with the record’s marketability and more for artistic reasons? Looking back, what would you say is the difference between the two versions?

SD: There was a third version released by Mercury Records in the United States of America. I felt at the time this was the best version. It had the ‘Black Velvet‘ remix on it. I wonder if I have a copy. David Bates at Fontana wanted remixes and I was happy to do them. We added more backing vocals. I think I replayed the bass on something. It sounded better to me although I’m sure the Swordfish version is charming.

We were finishing the record in August/September 1987 and I called up Swordfish records in Birmingham, a record shop and a label, and I asked them if they could turn the record round before Christmas. They said yes and so they did. I’d known Gareth and Mike since the Duran days so it was very friendly and collegiate. We’d recorded the record at Bob Lamb’s studio which was also in Birmingham. The house on the cover was where we rehearsed.

I sent a few records off to the press and everyone gave it good reviews. We then should’ve signed with Go Disc which would’ve been cooler. But my manager thought sign with the big guys. I got a big publishing advance from Lucian Grange who now owns the music business and bought a house in the Malverns which was kind of impractical. Mercury were trying to break us in the States and we’re rehearsing in a 17th century farm house without a phone…

TNPC: Have you always been more content to live in the shadows – or has that been more by accident than design? You seem to have slipped out of the spotlight at important moments. Anything to do with pressure, fear of compromising your artistic integrity or have there been other factors?

SD: I was very briefly a pop star and I think I’ve pretended to be a pop star ever since. I thought it would be easier than coming up with another pose. It’s easier to do this kind of thing if you pretend to be a pop star because pop stars think everything they say is interesting. But truthfully if you’ve had a hit in the eighties you are exempt from certain things. You don’t have to go out in the rain for instance and of course you can wear sunglasses at night.

I alternate pretending to being a popstar with genius of this parish and slightly tipsy unpublished poet. None of these make you a hit at dinner parties or indeed in the public bar.

I think I’ve always expected great success but have always been contrary. If dance music is big I assume people will want country pop folk rock. My shoegaze grunge era record I made with Nigel Kennedy. I made my Brit pop era record in Kernesville North Carolina with Mitch Easter. My memoir is called What The Fuck Was I Thinking?

124. MY BLOODY VALENTINE- ISN’T ANYTHING (1988)

First things first, Isn’t Anything > Loveless.  I’ve written regularly in these pages about the music of 1988, and twice during the course that year, in Glasgow and Manchester, I was fortunate enough to witness the new improved My Bloody Valentine in action. The title of their second (mini) album Ecstasy (released late ’87) had promised euphoria but hadn’t really delivered. Still, the record was a marked improvement over those early shambling – if faintly charming – singles and EPs for which the critics as well as the record-buying public had little time. By summer of ’88 however their ‘You Made Me Realise’ EP had completely transformed indie guitar music in the UK. If there remained subtle traces of the familiar janglepop, those pretty melodies were now buttressed by dissonant metallic chunks culled from the Transatlantic sounds of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. But songs such as the ravishing ‘Slow’ confirmed the extent of their reinvention, owing as little to C86 as to US Hardcore, and sounded as if they had discovered sex and noise on the same day, fully immersing themselves in both without the slightest inhibition. This was an altogether more enthralling proposition, so much so that, surveying the audiences at those gigs, one envisaged every boy suddenly reimagining himself as Kevin Shields, stealing the odd glance at those guitar pedal boards whenever his gaze could avert itself for one moment from Bilinda Butcher.

Holed up in the studio surviving on little more than two hours sleep per night, the conditions were less than ideal for making music, and the album sleeve with its bleached out faces mirrored the opaque out-of-focus blissfulness contained within. MBV would prove themselves to be master manipulators of sound gliding their guitars through accelerating/decelerating warped arcs of noise, procuring shivering little eargasms all over the place. The hard graft on the album’s opening track ‘Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)’ was undertaken by Debbie Googe’s bass which maps out a melody over a grating twisting dragging guitar riff, which can’t be bothered to get going at all, with the beat equally laborious, as if Colm was nodding out or the drum machine had broken down.

That almost post-coital languor and imprecision characterises much of the album – be it the hushed crescendos of ‘Lose My Breath’ or the whirring cloudbusting atmospherics of ‘No More Sorry’, while on ‘Cupid Come’ the verses collapse on top of one another, almost as if Colm had accidentally overextended the beat by a few lengths, forcing the others to slow down to accommodate his error. It’s not all hazy and nebulous atmospherics of course, with ‘(When You Awake) You’re Still In A Dream’ and ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ proving that Shields, despite the blurry weightlessness elsewhere, still had a penchant for some good old-fashioned rifferama.

At its pinnacle, on ‘All I Need’ (there is nothing quite so ‘out there’ on Loveless I assure you) we find MBV rewriting the rule book completely to create one of the most authentically psychedelic things I’ve ever heard. Here our intrepid sonic explorers climb aboard some pulsing spacecraft attempting to negotiate its way through the eye of a terrifying cosmic intergalactic battle – comets flying in every direction – with the machine’s engine slowly burning up. Or at least that’s what I’m hearing.

On Side Two the tempo and energy is relentless. ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ was the follow up to ‘You Made Me Realise’ released just prior to the album itself – this one’s all about the rhythm section. If at times on the album Colm’s drumming is narcoleptic almost arrhythmic, here he could be Keith Moon on a strict diet of super strength amphetamine while Googe’s skullcrushing pummeling bass riff drives the whole thing. You shall submit. ‘Sueisfine’ (is that really what we’re hearing?) meanwhile could be Husker Du blasting out ‘Blue Jay Way’ inside a hornet’s nest. But almost everywhere else, buried beneath those layers of distortion are melodies to die for. ‘Nothing Much To Lose’ (almost conventional by the rest of the album’s standards) is torn to shreds by a monster riff and a blizzard of feedback, while the dark droning  beauty of ‘I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)’ leaves us aching and aching for more.

At the very least the sonic leap forward from Ecstasy to Isn’t Anything is a far greater one than that from Isn’t Anything to Loveless. Loveless gets all the plaudits, perhaps rightly so – it took three years to refine the rawness of the experiments on Isn’t Anything, and is in some ways the latter album is even more pinkly delicious, but by then we fully expected it to be so, and I actually recall it coming as something of a minor disappointment at the time. By contrast not a soul would have been disappointed by Isn’t Anything, bursting as it with ideas and energy and awash with sheer beautiful ecstatic noise.  (JJ)

122. AR KANE – SIXTY NINE (1988)

No subsequent calendar year has yielded quite the same abundance of brilliant new music as 1988 did. Looking back, I could barely keep pace with it all, and neither could my student grant. It seemed an altogether more adventurous time, more creative. Everywhere bands seemed to be taking risks, determined to outdo one another in their inventiveness – artists who sounded very diverse musically, seemed connected by some invisible thread of inspiration. Daydream Nation, Surfer Rosa, Blue Bell Knoll,16 Lovers Lane, Miss America, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Hairway To Steven, Tender Prey, Bug, The House Of Love, Bummed, House Tornado, California all nuzzled up beside one another on record store racks itchy with expectation.

But even these terrific records sounded little more than the next natural step in the artistic evolution of their creators. Two other albums – by contrast both radical departures – would deliver a more significant sonic leap forward: Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine and Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. And then there was Sixty Nine, the only debut album of ‘88 whose vision reached as far as, and possibly even beyond that of its contemporaries.

And yet, upon first listen, Sixty Nine was for me a major disappointment. Often the most adventurous albums elicit that initial impression. It certainly did not sound as I had expected it would, but in hindsight that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

They weren’t wilful obscurantists, but intrinsic to AR Kane’s mission was the desire to break with convention, defy expectations. It is unsurprising, given that Alex Ayuli had been the brains behind successful creative PR campaigns for Saatchi & Saatchi, that he and Rudy Tambala were savvy in their dealings with the music media, presenting as much or as little as they felt expedient, carefully nurturing their own enigma in the process. To begin with they were two black London boys reared on a diet of dub, jazz and dance music, who were making ‘rock’ music seemingly tailored for the indie market. If that sounds like a crass or racist comment, this was most certainly out of the ordinary in 1988. Their name was somewhat obtuse too, even if on closer inspection it could be at least partially decoded; thirdly, rather confusingly, their first three EPs were each on different labels (One Little Indian, 4AD, Rough Trade) – were these guys petulant, demanding, awkward to deal with?; then there was the collaboration with Colourbox on the MARRS single ‘Pump Up The Volume’, which seemed a bizarre move (it wasn’t really – AR Kane were responsible for the flip side – a very different proposition from the runaway chart-topper); finally the music itself – hazy, nebulous, fluorescent, ecstatic, whether drowned in feedback or shrouded in dubby experimentation – was almost impossible to categorise. So Alex and Rudy were left to do that themselves, coining the term ‘dreampop’, and inventing a new genre into the bargain. It was an apt definition in the sense that their career followed the logic of a dream, each move they made unprecedented, sometimes downright confusing to the point of being frustrating, but never what one had the right to expect from them.

If there was sufficient thematic unity in those early EPs, with a few instantly recognisable touchstones (The Cocteau Twins, The Jesus & Mary Chain), yet there was always another dimension to their sound, as if they were reaching beyond the infinite. The Up! Home EP was a case in point, and had critics near tongue tied in their loquacious commendation. Still, no one could have anticipated what was to come next, possibly even Alex and Rudy themselves. And that is the point. The pair’s “fragile but telepathic” sixth sense ensured the process of composing and recording the album would be an organic one, spontaneous, unpredictable, as they indulged their love of jazz, dub, world musics and the avant garde. With the resources at their disposal from their recently acquired 16-track studio (for AR Kane always a crucial instrument in itself), which they embedded in the basement of Alex’s mum’s house, they sought to capture on tape the pearls of inspiration issuing freely from their collective imaginations.

The opening track provided scant indication of the almost polymorphic iridescence which would follow. That’s not to suggest ‘Crazy Blue’ is a conventional rock track. It was anything but, the bass (courtesy Ray Shulman, ex of prog band, Gentle Giant) providing almost all of the melodic content, the main guitar line gently metronomic, with the second pealing like a hundred broken bells clanging inside an aluminium cage. The elasticism of the bass becomes more taut on ‘Suicide Kiss’, sucking into its vacuum washes of feedback as guitars seeking an escape route eventually burst the walls of the dam and suddenly we’re left with Hendrix submerged beneath the waves bashing out an orgiastic version of ‘If Six Was Nine’! It was this kind of noise which gave rise to the description ‘oceanic rock’.

‘Baby Milk Snatcher’ (read Thatcher – in ‘88 edging towards her last moments as PM) successfully harnesses together the archetypal (Wobble-y) bottom end (this time by regular bassist Russel Smith) and the band’s flight towards the stars. There are little sonic shoots sprouting all over the place, and here, the feedback which drowned the version on the Up! Home EP is absent allowing the band’s masterful use of space and dynamics to take centre stage. Lyrically, like in much of their work, there was no overtly political sentiment, in its place vaguely erotic inferences (“Baby suck seed slow slow slow”), which often seemed a by-product of the prevailing atmosphere of playful experimention.

If those two tracks are definitively left field, the brief acoustic wriggle of ‘Scab’ threatens to rein the weirdness back in again, but we are soon reassured by arguably the least reassuring piece on the album, ‘Sulliday’, which closes the first side. One imagines the preliminaries to have included a discussion around how many different sounds guitars can make. It captures what sounds like a lengthy experimental (de)tuning of their instruments, sewing sounds on top of this static industrial heartbeat, while a madman sings gentle lullabies to himself. It’s, shall we say, ‘out there’.

If ‘Sulliday’ takes us close to the abyss, then ‘Dizzy’ drags us kicking and screaming inside the corridors of the asylum itself, the solitary cello solemnly soundtracking Alex’s deranged call and response. It’s a disturbing noise, recalling Beefheart’s hysterical wails over Jeff Cotton’s lead vocal on ‘Pena’. In complete contrast, ‘Spermwhale Trip Over’ is surely the prettiest thing here. If the template is undoubtedly Robin Guthrie, yet the waltzing rhythm and wiry fluorescent guitar shapes take us into even more blissful territory. It may be wise for novices to begin here.

Until now the album has had something of a schizophrenic feel: blissed out but chaotic, unsettling but narcoleptic. But now it’s time to throw caution to the wind, and with painstaking concentration enter once and for all into the void. From this point forward Rudy and Alex elevate Sixty Nine onto a higher plane altogether. This is not some embracing of art for arts sake, but a total surrender to the moment. In truth, I’ve no idea how they created the astonishing sounds on ‘The Sun Falls Into The Sea’ and I wish I’d asked Rudy when I had the chance, but those shimmering uncoiling filigrees of guitar are like the ultimate aural benediction. “Cast your shadows like dreams and whispers/And I can see your breath/The sun is on the sea” sings Alex, enraptured, possessed, but what are words anyhow? For now they are meaningless.

The penultimate track, ‘The Madonna Is With Child’ is just as gorgeous – a patient spiral of piano, injections of shrieking feedback and Alex, lost to the muse. Then, finally, a doff of the cap to Miles Davis with the aquatic abstraction of ‘Spanish Quay’, its eddying guitar pattern returning us safely to the harbour,

AR Kane’s very next move was the Listen Up 12-inch, which saw them more openly incorporate their dance roots. A flawed but ambitious double album (‘i’) would follow in ‘89. It was poppier if less intense but showcased an even broader range of influences. Their profile then dipped significantly – with sporadic recordings until the mid-‘90s – although many bands have cited them as a formative influence, including Bark Psychosis, Seefeel and Slowdive. Over the past few years, Rudy has been working once again under the name AR Kane. I spoke with him about the early days and in particular his recollections about the making of Sixty Nine. (JJ)

Interview with Rudy Tambala (January 2018)

Your early EPs invited comparisons with The Cocteaus and The Jesus & Mary Chain, yet you claimed at the time all you were listening to was Miles Davis! Were you just playing with the press? 

“Not sure we said that. From the start, we cited CTs as a big influence; they made us want to start a band. But it was as much their spirit of newness, experimentation, as it was their actual sound. We were not indie fans, didn’t even know what indie was. We were very much into Miles and Coltrane and Sun Ra, and similarly, more for the spirit than the actual sound. Although we loved the sound too. As for JAMC, I remember Alex getting the album because someone that’d seen us live said we sounded like them, so we played it one evening when we were song writing and decided to approach one song with some of the elements, specifically the feedback layers of noise and the big reverbed drums. That was our first single, but not really anything after that. Oh, and the attitude. I would say that Cindytalk and Joy Division and Bowie were just as much an influence at that time. I had been to university and been exposed to so many different musical styles from people I met. Likewise, Alex was out in the big bad world, getting influenced by stuff. So yeah, maybe playing with them a bit, the writers, but there was a core of truth; our main musical influence was a free kind of jazz, and experimental music, like the dreamscapes you hear on the 80’s ECM label, that Manfred Eicher sound, a kind of jazz rooted in a European tradition, as opposed to, or maybe complementary to, the African blues root.”

The Up Home! EP was in many ways a blueprint for the Shoegaze Scene, albeit much more than that. Simon Reynolds hailed it as rock’s “Antarctica – its final petrifying spell”. When you read reviews like that, how did you respond at the time? 

“We laughed. Sometimes we rolled on the floor crying with laughter, reading bits to each other aloud between hysterical fits. It was a way of coping I guess. It was so over the top, like these writers were competing with each other to compose the most pretentious and absurd prose, but absurdity as art. We knew what was happening; a symbiotic relationship with Simon and a few other intellectuals. We, as people on ‘the scene’, and our sound, for a while, defied categorisation, and so this gave them a big space to play in. At the same time it was amazing, to be found interesting, at that level; these were not blogs, they were music fans’ weekly bibles. People we knew, so-called friends, were freaked. Envious. They didn’t see the humour in it all, and they didn’t get why the press loved our sound so much. We made it look easy, to get in the press every week, but we were not actually doing it. We knew we were not in control of it, so we decided to just enjoy the trip. It encouraged us to go even further out there. That was the best effect.”

Hearing Sixty Nine was a real shock at the time. It wasn’t like anything else you’d done. Had that always been the plan – to create something quite different from the EPs, or did the sound and direction develop organically in the studio? On first listen, it sounded quite formless? 

There were some things that we figured out early, one being that the studio is itself an instrument. Growing up with dub music this was natural. We recognised that in the pro recording studios we were limited in the level of experimentation we could achieve. We were treated like proper musicians. We never thought of ourselves in that way, it was quite limiting, and always a struggle “no, you can’t do it like that, it won’t work, this is the way it’s done…” and that kind of crap. Kill the idea before it wreaks havoc. Don’t get me wrong, working with Ray Shulman, Robin Guthrie, John Fryer; these guys were gods to us and the EPs we did with them were sublime, but we could not have done 69 with them, in the that familiar studio setup. We didn’t want to fight for our ideas, and we didn’t want to seek approval or ask permission. Even the subtlest of implied resistance would have killed the vibe we needed, the playful experimentation. We needed to understand how it all plugged together, how and why things were used. Then we needed to fuck it all up. We needed our own studio.  

So we took a small advance from Rough Trade and bought all the gear necessary for a 16 track studio, with a sequencer and a sampler and a drum machine, reverbs and fx boxes, a quirky ½” tape machine that gave the mixes a fat, warm and bright sound. Set it all up in Alex’s mums cellar underneath 53A Romford Road, Stratford, E.15. We hung old carpets over a couple doors to make a vocal booth. It was cramped and damp and smelly, but when we shut the door, it was like a starship to us. Lift off! We recorded and learned at the same time. Only way to do it. Without pro engineers, producers and pro attitudes, we were set free. We were in a state of extreme excitement the whole time. We were able to freely experiment and play. Yeah, playful freedom. Kids in candy store. We never had a particular structure in mind until it came to mastering the album. We went from one song to the next, without pause. Sometimes we brought in an idea, a guitar part, some words, whatever. Other times we just hit record and did stuff. Compiling the songs for the master is where the final structure started to crystallise, and we took the tapes to Abbey Road to do this. We expected the engineer to say it sounded shit, technically I mean, but he was really cool and said it sounded fine and didn’t really need much tweaking. I think we were influenced by records like Pink Floyd’s DSOTM, the idea of three-machine cross fades, to blend tracks, one into the next. To create something seamless, and let the narrative emerge. And welcome happy coincidences. Songs take on a different meaning, and the listener experiences things in a more holistic way. Great for tripping to, or so I am told. Might try that before I die. Just before.”

I always detected in there elements of PiL, Basement 5 etc. Were those influences conscious, subconscious or would you not acknowledge them at all? 

“PiL for sure. Alex owned everything they created, I had a couple LPs. The Jah Wobble bass, Levine’s Guitars, Lydon’s weird charismatic genius – this was to us a high standard. A very high standard. Basement 5 less so, although we knew some of their stuff, I think it was too obvious in a way, not the same spirit. I wonder if you pick them because they’re black and punky? Anyway, The On-U sound was a big influence too – Playgroup, New Age Steppers, etc. A Certain Ratio Sextet LP – still play that. The punky reggae vibe but very much out-there kinda thing I guess. 

Can you describe what the atmosphere was like in the studio during the recording? How long did it take to complete and who made key contributions apart from yourselves? 

Kinda already touched on that. Experimentation. The willingness to try an idea, go with it or kill it, quickly. The willingness to be surprised. A degree of discipline – we both had a strong work ethic – would start in eve’s after dinner and work thru till sunrise. Weekends we were like monks; locked away. H.Ark! Studio was out of bounds to girlfriends and old friends. We never recorded on drugs, but when we felt we had a mix we’d spliff up, sit back, hit the lights and have a proper mashup listen. We probably took a month to get all tracks down, but I’d need to check the masters for all the dates. We had several contributors. Russel Smith played bass on number of tracks. As did Ray Shulman, who doubled as mentor and technical guru. Billy McGee played cello. Maggie Tambala sang backing vocals. Stephen ‘Budgie’ Benjamin, clarinet. We’d just ring people and say, hey wanna come and play some shit on this, or what? Sometimes they gave us the ‘or what’. We were a bit stroppy. We upset a few folk. This was because we put the music above people’s feelings. If they weren’t cutting it, we said so. Without the least bit of tact. Listening to ‘Crazy Blue’ over Christmas, I remembered singing the bass line to Ray and saying, I want it to sound like that Weather Report sound. He played it in one take, with improvisations. Fucking amazing. Russel, our bassist and third member at the time arrived while Ray was laying. He was really pissed off. I think he may have left the band that day, but it’s al a bit of a blur. I must ask him. Russel was, in person, quite edgy. Nervous. Unconfident – is that a word? – in many ways. Hilariously funny, in a dark way. But when he picked up the bass he was a rock. Solid, calm, perfect feeling, tone and timing. I badgered Russel to bring in songs of his own for 69, but he never did. I remember he had a 4-track set up in his living room, with guitars and effects, and he was working on a version of ‘Golden Hair’, it was extremely far out. Would have been interesting if that had been on 69. He completely got us, and mentored me with hot knives and Sonic Youth, Syd Barrett, Butthole Surfers, Swans, and such things. He brought some real avant-rock knowledge into the band, without which I think we would have been less out there. Maggie would drift in, do her part, float out again. Spacy chick.  

Alex and I argued all the time, on every subject. We had been friends since we first met at primary school, aged 8. Our arguments were silly, like “Genesis are better than the Sex Pistols because …’, anything really. We enjoyed this exchange, and in retrospect I see we were just exploring and challenging each other, sharpening our wits. From this we developed our own language and a point of view. It was a clique of two. Sometimes, in a very cruel way, we would turn our wit onto others, and pick them apart, like pulling the wings off a fly.  We could be horrible. But anyway, I digress. The point I’m getting too, the relevant bit, is that over two decades we became very close, connected, to the point that when we discovered music, we no longer argued. We poured all that energy into discovering sounds, pushing each other further, supporting each other’s efforts. We hardly ever spoke when we were in the basement. It became a kind of telepathy. A trust. Very intense, but in that focused way you see when children are building something or drawing. As soon as it was right, good enough, we moved on. We instinctively avoided over doing it. We knew that we needed to leave imperfections.”

With something like ‘The Madonna Is With Child’, did it only last 4 minutes or was it culled from a longer improvisational piece? 

“That was pretty much it; a fade at the end but not much edited out. Interestingly, a cool US producer and fan offered to remix the entire album for the 30th anniversary, and I was wondering if it could be longer or different. Recording this weekend, a new song, and remembering how the experimentation works, I kind of felt it would be pointless to try and remix it. It is what it is. Was what it was. Of its time. It could be fun though.”

The album got a lot of good press – how did it do commercially? 

“It did pretty good. Number 1 in the indie charts. Can’t remember where it was on the pop charts. I remember around 60,000 units moving in the first year, across all formats and territories. I guess that’s OK for something so uncommercial sounding. If everyone that bought it played it right now, at full volume, it would make a right bloody racket. I don’t think we even thought about how ‘well’ it would do while we were making it. I listen to the radio from time to time, or hear music in shops and eateries, and always feel sad that once great pop songs that sold millions, for example from Motown, sound so worn out now, flat, like when you’re waiting for someone and can’t see the world around you. Guess I’m glad we made ours sound fucked up. Still sounds fresh. So yeah, commercially, did ok. When Rough Trade went down the pan in the 90’s, Brian Bonner from the pressing plant, and One Little Indian, swooped in like carrion crow and picked up our entire catalogue for pennies. They have sat on ‘69’ for 20 years and done nothing with it. I tried to get them to release the rights back to the band but they refused, they are a nasty bunch of artistic slavers. The contracts bands signed in the 80’s were a complete sham; so-called right on indie labels were worse than the majors, where at least they were upfront about raping you. These indie labels that coerce young talent into these deals are con men, dressed up as ‘the alternative’. They have no scruples, and little business talent, so they can only cut it by ripping off the artists. So, 69 and the rest of ‘our’ catalogue has been pretty much shelved, except an awful digital copy on iTunes that has completely lost the dynamics of the analogue master. OLI are threatening to re-release it this year on vinyl – they do not have the masters so it will probably be CD to vinyl. For Fucks Sake! This might be the saddest end to our story I can imagine. I personally will not endorse this. Our plans to play 30th anniversary shows this summer and re-release 69 ourselves from the original tape masters, are dead in the water. Rough Trade and OLI sold us down the river, to quote the prescient lyric of ‘WOGS’.

You always had one foot on the dance floor, with the MARRS project and it was no surprise to hear more of a rhythmic dimension to the sound on ‘I’. Did you and Alex see eye to eye on this? Was it your very eclecticism which caused things to unravel in the end or were there other factors? 

“We both grew up on dance music and clubbing, not indie rock, which is the whole fucking point, n’est-ce pas?. By age fourteen we were clubbing in the West End, doing bank holiday soul weekenders, vibing to jazz funk, funk, soul, ska and reggae, and the emergent electronic sounds from UK and Europe, Chicago and Detroit. Both feet solidly in the fucking dance floor. Alex and I were completely in sync about this, he would sing a melody to me, and I’d say wow, that’s like MFSB, we need strings, or I’d play a guitar chord and he’d send it to the Copycat tape echo to get that rythmic dub effect. Even in the more rocky songs, we tried to add a groove element, with beats or a deep bass. Sometimes it might just be implied, like on ‘Scab’. This is essentially what separated us from the indie bands, alienated much of the white indie crowd, and endeared us to other musicians, DJs and producers, like Andy Weatherall, David Byrne, Saint Etienne etc. I’ve said this before, about the ‘unravelling’ as you put it, that A.R. Kane was two people acting as one. Like when you are deeply in love. The telepathy, the connection, the intensity, all were necessary, and all were fragile. These essential ingredients did not survive physical separation, and so when Alex moved to California, A.R. Kane became A & R Kane. The connection was lost. We began to argue in the studio about the music we were supposed to be creating together. This was exactly like those moments of insanity in a relationship, when instead of fucking, you fight. You watch it happening, it’s unreal, like watching a bad moving with awful actors. The music suffered, it was less spontaneous, less honest. We didn’t so much forget how to do it, we could no longer, ‘sense’ how to do it. A shared sixth sense was lost. We used to call the actions derived from that sixth sense, ‘Kaning it’. If a track was slightly off, we’d say ‘let’s Kane it’, and it shifted us into a different way of working. Like a magic spell. Alex might turn his amp to 10, and chuck his guitar on the floor and attack it with a screw driver, or I might sample a door slamming and use it as the kick drum, or we might cut up the lyric and randomly rearrange the words, then start screaming them through a massive reverb, while I did a poor imitation of Theolonius Monk on the piano. There would be no discussion, just set it up quick, hit record, see what happens.” 

121. CALENTURE – THE TRIFFIDS (1987)

CALENTURE – THE TRIFFIDS (1987)

Calenture – a word so arcane, so esoteric that a compulsion was felt, either by Island Records or by the Triffids themselves, to carry its definition on the back cover: a tropical delirium which would, after months at sea, lead sailors to see the ocean as a field and wish to propel themselves towards it. A soaked mirage, you might say.
Daniel Defoe mentions it in Robinson Crusoe and another lesser-known novel, Captain Singleton; Joseph Conrad, remarkably, never seems to have referred to it at all, though something similar appeared to afflict many of his characters, notably the deranged, Gollum-like wretches which recur throughout his novels and are ripe for exploration in a PhD. The Triffids saw it as an apt metaphor not only, in a novel twist on a well-worn subject, for the nomadic existence of a touring band but also for their own deracination.
Like the Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens before them, the Triffids left Australia for the UK to get things done but there are probably more traces of their homeland in the records they made among the Poms than in those of their compatriots. Vast, uncultivatable inland spaces, jagged shores and tough lives of soil and toil largely prevailed on 1986’s Born Sandy Devotional over the stereotype of quasi-Californian coastal city lifestyles that was rapidly emerging through soap operas (more on that soon), linking it closely to their earlier records and making it a companion piece to REM’s Fables Of The Reconstruction – which was also recorded in London a few months earlier and had an even more forlorn yearning for a warmer, unreachably distant home.
Calenture,  by contrast, has appropriately, a ceaselessly flowing, liquid sound and is, unambigously, huge. In sound, scale and ambition, it dwarfs the sound of the Triffids’ contemporaries: of U2, whose multiplanetary success bankrolled the Triffids and who were filling spaces they could never approach; of the Waterboys, who had coined the term Big Music but were in fast retreat from it, and Echo and the Bunnymen, whose masterpiece Ocean Rain, for all its own grandeur, resembles a demo next to Calenture’s torrential kaleidoscope.
Much of the credit for the record’s water sculpture presentation lies with Gil Norton who, after reportedly unsuccessful tryouts with Craig Leon and Lenny Kaye, was brought back to revisit the sterling job he had done alongside the Triffids on Born Sandy Devotional (most of the Triffids were also fresh from backing Bill Drummond on his wonderfully odd solo album, The Man). Norton may have lacked the CBGB scene pedigree of his predecessors but knew how to make a sound swell, sheen and surge at the right time in the right way – he had already done so with the Bunnymen (among the ‘All Concerned’ who produced Ocean Rain) and Throwing Muses and would do so again with Blue Aeroplanes and, perhaps most celebratedly, Pixies on Doolittle.
It’s there on opener Bury Me Deep In Love, where agile strings, choir and tympani – loads of tympani – embellish the Triffids’ already florid core sound, resting on Jill Birt’s rich keyboard orchard and the magnificent voice of David McComb, one of the genuinely great male singers of his day, who steered Scott Walker from California and Paris, and Ian Curtis from Manchester and Berlin, to some unknown, but far from neutral, meeting ground. It was a voice that was emotional but never sentimental, strong but never brutish (not even when shouting on Born Sandy Devotional’s Stolen Property), vulnerable but never weak. On this song, he shifts the identity of the buried, from “me” to “him” to “them,” and the scene of the commanded burial, from a chapel to a precipice to the rocks below and back to a “tiny congregation” – just in time for the wedding of Neighbours characters Harold and Madge, which it would later soundtrack. Despite the song’s glories and universal sentiment, the British and Australian record-buying public instead opted for Suddenly by Angry Anderson when the bells rang in Ramsay Street again.
One of Calenture’s few flaws is exposed at the start of the solemn yet triumphant Kelly’s Blues. Birt whispers: “You think of everything, my dear, but you do not think of me” – and that’s the closest she gets to a lead vocal, despite leading her voice to some of their most vivid and stirring songs up to then (Raining Pleasure, Tarrilup Bridge, Tender Is The Night). Like McComb, her range isn’t huge – no falsetto or melisma in this band –  but she also brings this song a voiceless chorus on a piano figure that glows like a September sunset. It’s also seared by a clarion guitar that the Mission might have offered the same year and is a personal tour de force for future Bad Seed Martyn (P) Casey, whose elastic bass unleashes unexpected shafts of funk, not the Level 42/Seinfeld horrors that might be feared but a genuinely lithe journey to the lower end, following Les Pattinson’s highway code.
There’s an even more burnished piano twilight on Blinder By The Hour, a song which puts me right where it wants it like few others. The place is just off one of Bordeaux’s main thoroughfares, Rue Ste Catherine, and I’m transported there every time, “down Roman streets through your secret back door” – a line which echoes the puzzling entrances of Dylan’s Temporary Like Achilles and holds a similar sense of fervent yearning, while there’s a snapping regret at “the damn all we said and the damn all we wrote” that harks back to the Triffids’ own doom-laden Life Of Crime. And that chorus – the appeal for peace of “lay me down now,” the resignation to fate of “take me down,” which are a twist from the version recorded earlier in a woolshed for In The Pines, where the plea of “lay me out now” suggested abandonment to the vultures. Many times I sat there outside cafes with this impossibly beautiful song pursuing thoughts around my ahead – I barely feel able to do it justice and can only recommend you secure your own moment for it.

Jerdacuttup Man (named after a tiny Western Australian settlement) also shares imagery with Blinder By The Hour; again the narrator has sewn-up eyelids and teeth of dice but not without reason; he’s a 10,000-year-old prehistoric dweller sentenced to a living death as a museum exhibit. McComb’s monologue was largely seen as comical, with his character anachronistically blighted by “no luck in business” and shruggingly conceding “you could say I’m a chump.” But listen to his tumbling delivery of the second verse’s latter lines: “I tried to object but the words didn’t come/Say ‘you’re making a mistake boys, you’ve got the wrong one/I’m a little out of shape but I’m too young to go’/But my throat just seized up and it started to snow.” There’s a universe of here-and-now suffering in there – poverty, homelessness, miscarriage of justice – aptly set to an intermittent hammer-on-anvil/galley rowers’ rhythm and hauling slide guitar, though it makes periodic breaks for freedom on the unlikely wings of uillean pipes, which by 1987 were already a cliched signifier of Celtic authenticity and would be finally, irrevocably, Titanically tainted a decade later but actually work here by adding to the prehistoric murk.
A regrettable period detail is similarly avoided on Hometown Farewell Kiss, where a sax steps forward not once but twice to take a solo from a rearguard of growling Stax horns. Fortunately, it’s muted and enveloped in a packed and seemingly disparate arrangement, where organ, marimba, gospel voices and the steel guitar of ‘Evil’ Graham Lee also jostle for position – and somehow all manage to find it. Meanwhile, McComb blurs the line between literal and metaphorical as he tells mysteriously of “my hometown city burning down…I just came back to see the people and their houses burn” then issues the command for his name to be crossed off his lover’s “fiery list.”
And so another element arrives to challenge water’s dominance of Calenture but it’s short-lived, as Holy Water douses the flames with a sequencer undertow that’s at once metallic and mellifluous and a melody so effervescent that it’s odd it took almost a whole year after the album’s release for it to emerge as a (non-hit) single. It’s also the indirect source of the album’s title – when McComb came across the word that purred, he had already written the lyric which told of “an ocean like a meadow” and the coincidence couldn’t be fought.
The soothing washes of Save What You Can are the last word beyond which little can be added. It opens with a figure which would later be rejigged on tack piano by Neil Young on A Dream That Can Last and which speaks wordlessly of yearning, memories of sunsets, times which maybe really were as idyllic as you remember. It’s a song not so much about aging as power fading though changing times, time running out (“Time is against us, even love conspires to disgrace us…We used to walk in the flames/Now somebody’s taken my arms”) until self-preservation and self-interest become the only options (“You save of yourself what you can save…If you don’t get caught, then steal it all”). It comes over as a twist on the French equivalent of ‘every man for himself,’ which translates as ‘save yourself if you can’; it would be a punishingly sombre ending were it not for its glorious musical setting and the wit and open-heartedness which surround it elsewhere in the Triffids’ annals. It cuts as deep as Dive For Your Memory, which closed 16 Lovers’ Lane for their countrymen/women the Go-Betweens the following year; that is deep.
Following one more album, 1989’s diverse but uneven Black Swan, time was up for the Triffids. One horrible day a decade later, the news came through of David McComb’s death at the age of 36;  it truly choked me in its suddenness, its seeming arbitrariness and the feeling – not for the first time, certainly not for the last but profoundly just the same – of a life and voice stilled, an ornate and panoramic vision summarily extinguished.
The ripples of that vision spread over the years – to Shiva Burlesque, Midlake, Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire were of primary school age when the Triffids were in their prime, so theirs may be a coincidental or at-several-removes echo, but the shortest distance between two points can be traced between the two bands’ theatrical flourishes, the tension in both their native countries’ frontier struggle past and chic urban present, even their line-up dynamics, with siblings (David and guitarist/violinist Robert McComb) and a couple (Birt and drummer Alsy MacDonald).
Even so, despite their penchant for the anthemic (Win Butler has been honest enough to concede that his band has, even if only indirectly, inspired a good deal of pretty awful music) Arcade Fire have always sounded pretty lean and spindly next to the Triffids’ watercolour roar. Calenture has possibly aged better than any of their albums, lacking as it does the gated snare wallop of Born Sandy Devotional, the pointed downhomeness of In The Pines and some almost too-in-the-moment elements of The Black Swan. This shouldn’t be seen as a dismissal of any of those still magnificent records but, for exquisite, pomposity-free orchestral rock music, Calenture is right up there with Forever Changes, Paris 1919 and the aforementioned Ocean Rain – it’s that good (PG).

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)

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)