96. TEENAGE FANCLUB – A CATHOLIC EDUCATION (1990) / (A) SONGS FROM NORTHERN BRITAIN (1997)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative

Teenage Fanclub are a Scottish institution. Many of us have grown up with them. TNPC speaks to Gerry Love and selects two albums often unfairly overlooked from an impressive career.

  
A Catholic Education (1990)

The inclusion of Teenage Fanclub in The New Perfect Collection was always an easy decision. Not so easy was narrowing it down to a single choice. Bandwagonesque and Grand Prix tend to get the plaudits, even making some of those Best Albums charts which were a reason for starting this blog. That still left me with 5 albums which were all candidates for inclusion (even Thirteen which Norman Blake recently rated as his least favourite but which includes personal highlights ‘Norman 3’, ‘Gene Clark’ and ‘120 Mins’, classics all). 

But the inclusion of A Catholic Education may not be as obvious a choice. In a lot of ways it is the least Teenage Fanclub sounding album. Its true it is sonically different to the TFC we now know. This is TFC before they were fully formed, recorded before they had played live. A noisier, more raucous confection, less obviously in thrall to Beach Boys/Beatles/Big Star/Byrds/Orange Juice. The sound here is closer to a loose Crazy Horse meets the Stones filtering through the myriad of changes affecting American post punk and hardcore. The early hazy melodicism of R.EM., the fuzzy power of Husker Du, the ear bleeding folk rock of Dinosaur Jr. Most of all I thought of them as a stoned (more Stoned?) Replacements, a similarly Alex Chilton-obsessed band with a reputation for riotous early gigs. 
Formed from the ashes of The Boy Hairdressers, a group was assembled to record an album written by Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley before they had ever played live. Initial recordings made in Glasgow were supplanted by a re-recording of four songs at Peter Hooks studio in Rochdale in the second half of 1989. This is the Fannies before they discovered those daydreaming harmonies, before those jangling chiming guitars. The guitars, for reasons that now seem lost to time are down-tuned two semi-tones, giving them a thicker sludgier sound, a sound they would move away from even as it became more popular in the early nineties. It has a style of guitar playing that had all but gone by the time they recorded Thirteen.
Some will dismiss it as an album overshadowed by one killer song, filled out with instrumentals and two versions of the title track. While true that the heart melting surge of ‘Everything Flows’ is possibly the standout track on the album, and is the only track from the LP still performed live, it fits the flow (ahem) of the album perfectly. Starting each side with an instrumental I always thought was a supremely confident move, ‘Heavy Metal II’ in particular sounding like Crazy Horse jamming on the Pastels’ ‘Ditch The Fool’ and I wouldn’t trade a second of either. The inclusion of both versions of ‘A Catholic Education’ was down to indecision over the best version (version 2 adds a chord and ups the tempo), and manages to sum up a youthful nihilism in about 10 words, played with a suitably ‘Rip This Joint’ looseness. Skill.

For me, however, its the rest of the songs that are the heart of the album. Early live favourite ‘Too Involved’ is a withering attack (“You’re just nothing”) on a slacker. ‘Don’t Need A Drum’ pitches itself somewhere between a shuffle and a boogie, with a lead guitar higher than the vocal. The vocals on the album are generally deep in the mix, unusually for a band with such good singers. their records would rarely be this unbalanced again. Side one closes with ‘Critical Mass’, a bittersweet love song in true Fannies style (“You’re in my heart, but its the feeling that all fell apart”)
‘Eternal Light’ is such sunny sing-a-long tune I wish I knew what the lyrics were so I could join in, and is graced by one of Raymond’s finest guitar solos. At various times ‘Every Picture I Paint’ has been my favourite song on the album, a love song to rival TV Personalities finest. Another of the reasons that A Catholic Education feels different to almost every other TFC album is the lack of Gerry Love songs, and perhaps this is the strongest reason for not including it. Indeed the only writing credit he received is on the scathingly funny album closer ‘Everybody’s Fool’. A friend once called this (not entirely tongue in cheek) our generations ‘You’re So Vain’. Whether or not it is about a specific person or not, I’m sure most people will have come across someone like this at one time or another. It dishes out some brilliant Glaswegian sarcasm, before building to a delightfully dismissive sweary chorus. They always seem to know when best to deploy the F-bomb (‘Verisimilitude’, ‘Some People Try To Fuck With You’)

I admit that some of my affection for this album is tied up in nostalgia for the period it was released. I saw them at (I think) their second gig supporting Primal Scream at the Glasgow Tech. They seemed to crop up regularly on support slots around that time and they were always a joy to behold. But that does not take away from this record. They would release better collections of songs in the future, their new album has all the makings of a masterpiece. But whenever I haven’t listed to them in a while, A Catholic Education is always the first one that I reach for, and it invariably leads me to working my way through the entire catalogue. It has been 10 albums and 26 years since A Catholic Education was released. Listening to it now, the distance from there to Here doesn’t seem so far. (TT)

Gerry Speaks…

The guitars are all down tuned a whole tone (I think) for this album. Was that a nod to The Velvet Underground/Sonic Youth, or was it the result of experimentation that worked for these songs? 
“Looking back, I don’t actually know why the guitars were tuned down two semitones. I asked Norman and Raymond the other day and they can’t remember exactly why. Our only guess is that there might have been a change of key in a couple of the songs, if the original key was proving a more difficult range to sing, and tuning down would allow the chords to be played in the original shapes; having the same open strings ring out in the same way instead of placing a capo higher up the neck or trying to find a jazzier way of playing it and losing the open strings. Tuning down definitely made for a more resonant sludgy sound, especially on open strings, and maybe they just decided to record everything that way instead of tuning up then tuning down. There was probably no real reason why the bass should have been tuned down too but I had just joined the group and I just did what they did, I wasn’t going to rock the boat.”
I read that the band were not happy with the initial recordings made in Glasgow and it was re-recorded in Rochdale. Does the album include recordings from both sessions?
“The first session was recorded in Pet Sounds, Maryhill, with Francis Macdonald on drums. In the following months, Brendan O’Hare joined the group and the decision was made to re-record four of the songs which we thought could be improved, maybe the tempos were slightly wrong or maybe we decided to try a different feel. We recorded the four songs and then mixed the entire album at Suite 16 in Rochdale – but i could be wrong, it’s all a bit blurry, maybe mixes from Maryhill made the final cut, but I think it was all Suite 16. The album contains the four songs recorded with Brendan and seven songs from the Maryhill session, with Francis. The song ‘A Catholic Education’ appears twice as we couldn’t decide which one was best.”
Was anything recorded at the time not used?
“No, everything was used. The whole point of the session was to record an album that Norman and Raymond had written. We hadn’t played live at this point, we weren’t really a band as such, we were a means to an end. We didn’t even have a name when we first turned up in Maryhill. The first album was the absolute beginning of the band; apart from a few rehearsals, there was nothing before that.”
You, Norman and Raymond are all credited with writing ‘Everybody’s Fool’. Was it written with someone specific in mind? (someone recently called this our generation’s ‘You’re So Vain’).
“I have to say I don’t know if the song was about anyone in particular but we all knew characters who tried too hard to be cool, who would try to put you in your place, and I always regarded the song as a counter to that type of character. As far as I remember, this was the only lyric that Norman didn’t have finished. He may have had a few lines here and there and I remember us sitting about suggesting possible rhymes to finish off the verses, but It’s all a bit hazy. It was predominantly Norman’s song, myself and Raymond might have come up with a line each and so we shouldn’t really have had any significant songwriting credit.”
Had you played in any bands prior to TFC?
I played bass guitar in a live incarnation of Joe McAlinden’s Groovy Little Numbers. I’d messed about with pals before that but nothing had ever come of it. The Groovy Little Numbers was the first time I had ever played bass and the first time I had ever played live on a stage. I knew Joe and Catherine from school, and I knew a couple of the other guys in the band, including Francis Macdonald. They were a nice bunch of people, with a few patter merchants – it was a good laugh.”
—————————-

  (A) Songs From Northern Britain (1997)

If they have stayed true to that cautionary maxim not to become too big for their boots, then Teenage Fanclub have done so virtually unselfconsciously. In itself, commercial success was never something they strove to achieve. If it came along, then sure it would be welcomed; if not, then too bad. It would be futile, dishonest, to chase after it. It is that very groundedness as human beings – the stubbornly democratic creative principle within, the unassuming personalities outwith – which is a turn off for some. This is rock’n’roll after all. Where’s the glam, the swagger, the smashed up hotel rooms, the foul mouthed tirades? 
It’s a rhetorical question of course. Cliched rock’n’roll behaviour was never really their thing. Instead, they excel at making brilliant records. Their collective artistic output during the ’90s compares favourably with any other band I can think of. Usually however, it is Bandwagonesque and Grand Prix which battle it out for the accolade of best album, but our second Fannies’ pick is Songs From Northern Britain, coincidentally the band’s highest charting release (#3, August 1997).

“Here is a sunrise/ain’t that enough?/True as a clear sky/ain’t that enough?”

Sometimes chastised as the blander, ‘mature’ album, a pale regression following the dazzling cocksureness of Grand Prix, it was a record that saw a conscious shift in approach. Gerry Love explains: “I think we decided, after making the Have Lost It EP, that we may as well do our own thing from then on, please ourselves and just follow our own instincts…we had done noisier stuff but we didn’t want to get stuck there, we were into all sorts of music and I guess we wanted to express ourselves in a slightly different manner.”
And the results were fresher than a fridge full of fruit smoothies. Blake, recently married and a new father, was in fine optimistic fettle on ‘I Don’t Want Control Of You’ an ethical, nay equitable, adult love song with majestic group harmonising, and is at his yearning poetic best on ‘Planets’ a romantic ode to seeking out nature’s solitude, which as well as conjuring images of chilly autumnal evenings in the West Highlands, is also one of three songs to experiment with the Mini Moog the band had acquired relatively inexpensively in Boston six years earlier. “I guess we used it because we had it there in the studio, but also the musical territory of that album provided a perfect context” recalls Love. “[It] sat really well amongst the strings in the song ‘Planets’, it was Norman’s idea to arrange it that way…it provided a good counter-texture to the more scratchy rhythmic elements.” The string accompaniment was added at Abbey Road.

Raymond sounds equally ‘loved up’ hitting peak form on what I understand to have been the last song recorded for the album, ‘Can’t Feel My Soul’. A stinging lead intensified by some seriously twisted whammy-bar pummelling recalls the axe sound on those early fuzzmungous Buffalo Springfield records. Meanwhile the ghost of ‘Eight Miles High’ wanders the corridors of his equally splendid ‘Your Love Is The Place Where I Come From’.  
Gerry’s Zuma-flavoured desert foraging on ‘Mount Everest’ sounds bruising, possibly even rather solemn, whereas his ‘Take The Long Way Round’ and in particular ‘Ain’t That Enough’ are unashamedly ebullient slices of pure pop, as indebted to The Archies or The Monkees as to Big Star and The Byrds.
I have always found the lyrics to the closer, Gerry’s ‘Speed Of Light’, to be a little cryptic. If they communicate positivity, still I’ve struggled to deconstruct them. Perhaps it’s pointless to try – I suppose we construct our own meanings from our favourite songs – but under minimal duress, their intrepid author was happy to explain (spoiler alert*): “Firstly I need to describe the context: I was in a marijuana phase at the time, we were on the verge of a new century and I guess I was trying to write some type of futuristic pop song. It’s not a short story or a cohesive narrative in the traditional sense, it’s more like a slide show of related images…Lyrically, I would classify it as an advice song. I’m from a big family and I have a lot of younger brothers and sisters, and at that time a couple of them were still teenagers. It wasn’t intended as an instruction manual for them, or for anyone for that matter, it was only intended as a vehicle for the melody, under the guise of bubblegum philosophy. It’s certainly no big hitter, nothing there that I’m particularly proud of. I was just looking for a lyrical possibility, a means to an end, and this was it, this was the breakthrough. In the first verse, “ Drive an easy road, if you’re looking for direction”, “Take an easy load, all you need is information” – pretty straightforward, be smart and value knowledge over materialism. “Only you and me add up” – together we’re stronger. “The speed of light and stars have planned it” – it’s simply a law of the universe, how it is and how it will always be. Second verse “Need a changing face when the wind around is blowing” – A clunky way of saying if the wind changes direction your face will stay like that, which was the type of advice I received when I was a teenager, which I would guess translates as roll with the punches and don’t get too hung up. “Waste in space, if you’re looking for persuasion, everything you need can grow” – back up in outer space, I can see space junk and fruitless searches for meaningful life and I’m saying forget that – all we need is right here on earth. And there you have it, ‘Speed of Light’, a lyrical deconstruction twenty years later!”
Rather than being a watered down version of what came before, here we see our four friends finally finding their places in a world of adult responsibility. Through their lens, this grown up graduation was not as unwelcome as it is for many. Liberated from the burden of having to make any kind of statement, musically or politically, they simply let their own optimism and enthusiasm spill over naturally into what I would regard as their finest set of songs. It’s more them than Bandwagonesque (indisputably marvellous but sooooo Big Star) and the songs, performances and production (if not the volume) are ratched up a notch or two from Grand Prix. It’s unfairly maligned and is deserving of greater acclaim. I often think of it as their Notorious Byrd Bros, their Loaded. With characteristic understatement Love recalls the album fondly. “I think we achieved good results everywhere, everything sounded really nice, we were working with good equipment and good people.” TFC have the knack of making everything sound effortlessly joyful and uncomplicated. Northern Britain is proud of you. (JJ)

(*Gerry’s emphasis)

95. ATLAS SOUND – LOGOS (2009)

Experimental, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia, Shoegaze

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Bradford Cox often seems completely baked. When he sings, it sounds like he’s sucking a tin of spaghetti hoops through his front teeth. He remains an enigma: interviews are relatively rare and he doesn’t really do social media (his blog seemed to dry up around three years ago). His band Deerhunter are indie big hitters: prolific, consistently remarkable. His solo project Atlas Sound has remained in the band’s shadow, despite yielding three fine albums, the second of which, Logos, was released during a genuinely purple patch of creativity, sandwiched between Deerhunter’s two best albums Microcastle/Weird Era and Halcyon Digest. And I think it could very well be the best thing Cox has ever done.

The sleeve, a bleached flashlight image of a skeletal torso turned inside out must surely be Cox? He suffers from Marfan Syndrome – but here it looks as if someone has reached in and pulled his heart from his chest. It can sound that way too at times. Cox plays around with different styles and genres. He is clearly someone who lives and breathes music. His songs are readily identifiable – drifting shells of wasted reverie with ghostly voices (‘The Light That Failed’, ‘An Orchid’…) irresistibly infectious slices of dislocated rhythmic pop (‘Shelia’, ‘Logos’, ‘Quick Canal’ – a lengthy motorik thang featuring Letitia Sadler), malformed garage sludge (‘Kid Klimax’), cryptic psych-collages full of electro-magnetic signals (‘Washington School’) and retro doo-wop’n’roll delivered by Cox like a faded angel through a couloir of cracked reverb (‘My Halo’).

And then there’s ‘Walkabout’ the album’s showpiece, made in collaboration with Noah Lennox  – a genius take on The Dovers’ obscure 1965 garage track ‘What Am I Going To Do?’ Mr. Panda Bear, as ever, sounds like he’s singing underwater, but like everything else on here the guiding hand is Cox’s. Ecce homo. Bradford Cox is the man and Logos his eternal word. (JJ)                               

91. DISCO INFERNO – THE 5 EPs (2011*)

Experimental, Indie / Alternative, Post rock

Disco Inferno: A Sense Of Otherness  Somehow I contrived to miss Disco Inferno. They arrived either ten years too early or ten too late, it’s hard to tell, but by the time they had established themselves, popular music’s few remaining visionaries were retreating into hibernation. 1991 proved a pivotal year. It was the year of Laughingstock and Loveless, as well as the last significant records by Public Enemy and The Young Gods. And then, suddenly, as those few flickering wicks burnt out, indie music was plunged into its Dark Ages. The air was thick with the stench of grunge and grebo – Neds Atomic Dustbin and their ugly ilk – while the nightmare of Britpop hovered vulture-like, ready to strip its rotting carcass. Britpop would become a model of retro complacency, mostly underwhelming, largely uninspired. Many of us felt queasy and headed for the dancefloor. I had a pretty good time there. The one regret I have is that I missed Disco Inferno. 

DI were, on the surface, a conventional post-punk (guitar/bass/drums) trio – Ian Crause, Paul Wilmott & Rob Whatley – with a penchant for early Joy Division and Wire. They began to suffuse those primary influences with the spirit of ’88 (AR Kane, Public Enemy, Young Gods, My Bloody Valentine), and then, following the release of their first album Open Doors Closed Windows in 1991, they stretched out into genuinely new and uncharted territory augmenting their sound with sampling technology alongside a proliferation of inspirational ideas. Crause recalls: “I had been at home with my guitar synth and sampler since late ’91. We came back in to rehearse again with the sampler and what I had written on it in about April or May ’92, not really knowing how it would all piece together as a band. We had a whole week of rehearsals booked and by the end of the week we were kind of stunned at ourselves ‘cos none of us had ever heard anything like it before, not even stuff like Public Enemy or the Young Gods. It just sounded so fucking odd…all of us were completely thrown by the noise in that room.”
A succession of spellbinding EPs followed between 1992-94, gathered together here on this 5 EPs compilation. And they are brilliant. At the time, those critics in the know wilted, quickly running out of fresh superlatives with which to embroider their reviews. Crause knew the band possessed something very special indeed, but the public wasn’t ready. And there was nobody else doing what they were doing. “Oh we were in the middle of fucking nowhere from the start of using samplers ’til we split.” Despite that, by the time Britpop hijacked the airwaves, DI were continuing to make authentically original music, uncompromising, challenging, visceral and at times breathtakingly beautiful. “When we were recording ‘DI Go Pop’ and ‘Summer’s Last Sound’, Charlie, our producer, did say he was finding it hard going as we had chosen the sounds for their narrative and not musical qualities.” Lyrically, Crause steered an uneven path from (poetically) documenting existential crises (“All the joy in my life had rotted away/I saw a vision in blue and my blues flew away/And just for a second I truly believed/Though I don’t know what in” – from ‘Second Language’) to caustic social commentary. It was often dark stuff.
“And the gulls are coming in off the coast/the smell of corpses pour from in/mass graves uncovered/must be abroad, it can’t be here/I can sense your violence, but I still don’t understand/the way the past looks dead when you’ve got the future in the palm of your hand.” And so begins ‘Summers Last Sound’ a magnificently unsettling fanfare to this most fertile of periods. 
Shrill screams undercut a naggingly insistent guitar riff on ‘A Rock To Cling To’ while ‘The Last Dance’ & ‘The Long Dance’ (from ‘The Last Dance’ EP) are poppier, more infectious, almost straying into mid-period New Order territory. But it is the more experimental tracks which sound positively scintillating. Crause has expressed his distaste for ‘Scattered Showers’ mainly due to what he regards as its lyrical deficiencies (“they really let the thing down. I was so far off the mark with it.”) but I can’t help but hear The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Murder Mystery’ being leaked through a distorted PA system at Brands Hatch. Here and elsewhere, the band utilise their Foley’s Sound Effects toolbox to its full potential, yielding extraordinary results.
Then there are the glistening guitar lines of the aforementioned ‘Second Language’, which alongside those on ‘At The End Of The Line’ recall Vini Reilly’s wonderfully inventive work with The Durutti Column. In actual fact, as Crause explains, those songs bore a more surprising influence: “The original guitar sound I had, with a lot of delay lines, was inspired by a German guy I saw on telly called Eberhardt Weber. He put his cello through massive delay lines and I was stunned by it. I liked Durutti Column what I heard, but I didn’t hear an awful lot to be honest…I realise it can sound very similar sometimes.”

There is huge variety here, a veritable smorgasbord of sonic adventurousness. Best of of all is ‘Love Stepping Out’ which sounds like Kraftwerk’s ‘Europe Endless’ playing as the wedding guests spill out into an old English churchyard. It is simultaneously naturalistic and disorientating, and crucially, entirely devoid of rock cliche. “Punching women, kicking men/Five on one, one on ten/These fuckers getting all that they deserve/It’s just tricks with mirrors/that makes them think they’re in the right.” There is so much going on here musically and lyrically, it needs a dozen listens to unmask its own face. What was the aim behind it? “To try to create a sonic environment where the real world conducts itself like music but stays psychoacoustically in situ so it feels like the world is playing itself like a composition.” Crause wrote it on his electric guitar, “but I ripped the pickup off so had to use the nylon acoustic guitar sample which came on a floppy with my sampler to replace it. That just went through a delay like the original guitar had done.” Suffice to say, like everything else on here, it is bloody magnificent.
Disco Inferno may now be considered a seminal influence on ‘post-rock’ while Crause has continued to make stunning music of his own. Despite their inability to make any commercial breakthrough, he continues to be much respected “by the same people who were well receiving the Disco Inferno records in ’92 and ’93 like Stubbs, Reynolds, Kulkarni, etc, who understood what we were doing and what I do.” And rightly so. If I missed Disco Inferno the first time round, then it has been a fascinating late discovery. Sometimes one can have the most bewilderingly thrilling time catching up. (JJ)

86. BEACH HOUSE – DEVOTION (2008)

Dreampop, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia

  
In the mid-1980s it would have been obvious to most – particularly to those with unwieldy stockpiles of vinyl – that it was only a matter of time before we were carrying our record collections around on a small portable device. A marginally less reasonable expectation of mine was that, without being troubled by having to make an awkward selection, I could instantly be dispatched the music my heart and soul desired. A telepathic transmitter (we’ll say app) would process neurological data, consult my hungry eardrums, and, bingo, the perfect musical recipe would materialise instantly. Alas, if this idea is ever fully realised, it will serve scant purpose. Nine times out of ten, the dial will point to Beach House.

So many of the things I love about music – the listless two chord purity of the ballads of The Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star, those swirling somniferous waltzes of Spiritualized, the empyreal sojourns of Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Hugo Largo, the spooky toy town keyboards of early Fall, the pagan folksiness of Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band, not to mention Brian Wilson’s blessed gift for melody (his left ear has been left here, believe me!) – are manifest in the glorious six album harvest reaped by Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand over the last decade.

From the very beginning, on their self-titled debut album, Beach House orbited a universe of blurry memories and hazy dreams. Nebulous narratives alluded to fractured relationships, but everything in that low-fi reverie lacked definition and precision. Four years later the duo had transformed themselves into sophisto-dreampop auteurs, their third album Teen Dream, a purring dislocated pop classic, universally recognised as one of the decade’s landmark albums.

In between those two, they released Devotion in February 2008. It marks the precise moment where the confidence is surging but the ambition still held in check by a mushrooming adventurousness sufficient in itself to procure its own reward. The music at this point is still facing inwards, basking in its own glow; after Devotion it would reach outwards. No harm in that at all of course – it deserved a wider audience, and the subsequent albums are of consistently high quality – but something of the charming amateurishness was lost as the production became progressively more assured. The Suicide-al drones may have remained, but a little less would be heard of that primitive programming (those Casio-style rhythms and beats) or those yearning Wicker Man folk stylings. Scally’s guitar is often buried lower in the mix than it would be on the later albums – here it often sounds unobtrusive – fuddled pedal steel, frilly licks – and is certainly of secondary importance to the organ. Along with Legrand’s velvety Nicoisms, balanced with that magical childlike imagery, the versatility of the organ – equal parts Sale Of The Century game show, spooked out Munsters moongazing, and Cale-ist celeste à la ‘Northern Sky’ – is as integral to the sound here as it is on say The Doors or Felt’s Forever Breathes The Lonely Word.

‘Wedding Bell’ rolls along jauntily with a kooky harpsichord riff – Alex mixes up the guitar lines with a burst of garage fuzz, followed by backwards psych. In spite of the lyrical ambiguities, ‘You Came To Me’ is a gorgeously haunting slice of chamber pop; it’s choppy oriental rhythm resembles something explored previously on ‘Tokyo Witch’ and anticipates the epic ‘Take Care’ from Teen Dream. But here the magick lies in Legrand’s irresistible delivery, particularly on these swooning lines: “you came to me/in my dreams/and you spo-o-o-o-o-oke of everything/sweeter than the days/ that I was breathing.”



‘Gila’ has a knockout off-kilter melody – the bass hits its bottom note in a fleeting but jarring collision with the sparkling organ while Scally plays out a simple repetitive sonar rhythm and the phantasmagorical harmonies threaten to disintegrate completely… it’s the sort of song that books into your cranium for an extended vacation. Like a good host you welcome it warmly, but a warning: it may not check out on schedule. 

The languorous melancholia of ‘Turtle Island’ suggests a loneliness beyond repair: “By the dock of the pond, Turtle Island/I will wait for you there, creeping/Silently, I can’t keep you/Right behind me/All my days in the sun...” Likewise, on first hearing ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ may be noticeable only for its brevity. However, the evocative lyric (by Daniel Johnston) hints at desperate heartache. As with the greatest love songs, it is what is left unsaid rather than what is voiced that matters. Beach House know this all too well and there is rarely anything explicit in what is being communicated. They simply intimate, we duly evaporate. I have found myself at times, eyes tightly shut, singing along to the words of the twinkling ‘Astronaut’ as if they had fallen out of the pages of a William Blake anthology, where, on paper, they are absurdly childlike. But the music is so ravishing they are afforded an uncommon poignancy. 

The holy fire of the solemnly gothic ‘Heart Of Chambers’ adds dark layers of density to proceedings. After momentarily threatening to mutate into ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ it recovers with its very own anthemic finale (“In our beds we’re the lucky ones/filled with the sun/In our beds we’re the lucky ones/fill us with the sun”) – this would become a Beach House trademark – the splicing together of two different song ideas into one, the second part a protracted coda, an unexpected left turn, the Beach House twist on the perfect pop song.

I can’t even begin to describe ‘Home Again’, the album’s closing track. For some reason unbeknownst to me, I am transported back in time: 26 years to be precise – 18 years before this song was even dreamt of! I realise this is illogical at best and can only imagine the song’s atmospheric sweep must resemble something I listened to once, as a young man, at a time when anything was possible. It possesses the power, the resonance to resurrect that daydreaming youthfulness, long ceded to the concerns and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps that time was my true ‘home’, the time when everything was simpler, more spontaneous, more free. And perhaps my love affair with Beach House is indicative of an onrushing midlife crisis as I long for a return to those lazy days. But, oh to have heard these wonderful songs when I was nineteen…

“Home Again/Constant heart of my devotion/Must be you, the door to open/Home again, be here, be with him/Will I swim out of your ocean?”
(JJ)

78. SCARS – AUTHOR! AUTHOR! (1981) – Guest Contributor: Rolo McGinty (The Woodentops)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

  

The bold cover that looks like an enemy in Tomb Raider 3. Albums would come into the house one at a time, monthly roughly, and be listened to relentlessly. We were in the country so no record shops that nearby: this album did the business. A funky punk sound, quite danceable, in a modern context still valid. Tribal and sticking to the beat. The tinny guitar licks are of the time but with a really full sound underneath. Listening to it now, I can hear something similar in the bands of today, the vocals and drums. Even moments of say Savages the band, are predicted here.

‘Leave me in the Autumn’, ‘Fear of the Dark’ – all cool chords. Dark and interesting on ‘Aquarama’ and always fat bass throughout. Sounded fab on our Sony music system. My brother and I had many a freaking out to music – bop on this one. All the time, that cover image suggesting some bizarre Papua New Guinea or Aztec mystery . 

 The Roland chorus effect was on everything at the time of this album, it’s definitely infecting all the guitar, but as skilfully blended as Public Image or Killing Joke. The Police for example, really over used the effect in my opinion. 

Tempos really vary all the way through. They go fast and they go slow and atmospheric. They do nursery rhyme simple as much as complex arrangement and unexpected changes. It’s well arranged and produced. The vocals full of passion drawing you in to story climax. ‘Je t’aime C’est la Mort’ is a good example of this. The surprise talking voice of ‘Your Attention Please’ was a shocker on first listening. A warning message building and becoming neurosis-inducing shouting like a Robert Calvert science fiction moment in Hawkwind’s Space Ritual. Into the echo it goes. Great!

‘All About You’ is almost Brian Eno, almost Killing Joke, perhaps Roxy Music. Somebody should cover it. A great way to finish. On and up! Fab name, great album of its time, I loved it, still sounds good. 1980/1981. I bet your average music teen would think it was made recently.

I chose the album after thinking for some time through many that could have fit the bill. I do remember being amazed that ‘Author! Author!’ wasn’t a massive hit. To me and my brother, it was huge. So it’s back to that time period I thought I’d go. Cheers, Rolo. (Rolo McGinty)

77. THE BEES – EVERY STEP’S A YES (2010)

Baroque Pop, Folk/ Folk-Rock, Indie / Alternative, Neo-Psychedelia, Psychedelic Folk

  If I said The Bees were masters of space and time, you may imagine them to sound something like Hawkwind. They don’t – but I suspect they have heard a fair amount of Hawkwind. In fact, they’ve probably listened to more records than just about any other band around – absorbing such an extensive array of influences from the popular music of the last 50 years that, listening to their albums, one finds oneself constantly attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to join the sonic dots. The Bees’ genius lies in their ability to sew beautiful new garments out of tired old rags. Some touchstones are immediately obvious – take for example the momentary snippet on ‘Change Can Happen’ where the phrasing and even lyrics are suddenly lifted from ‘That’s The Story Of My Life’ (Velvets’ 3rd) or consider how the fadeout of ‘Silver Line’ recalls the gassy euphoria of The Monkees’ ‘Teardrop City’. The Bees are masters of time because the spectrum of influences from which they have drawn – early Pink Floyd, Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, CSNY, Shack, roots reggae, Tropicalia et al – is not flaunted unashamedly, but is rather woven so inconspicuously into the band’s sound as to make it unmistakably their own. And against all the odds, their music sounds peculiarly modern.

‘Every Step’s A Yes’, their fourth LP, bears all the time honoured hallmarks of the ‘classic album’ – clocking in at 42 minutes (unusually short for the digital age), it’s ten beautifully crafted songs make for a brilliantly eclectic amalgam of sounds: slow ones and fast ones, toe tappers and ballads – characteristics of those indisputably great LPs of the past. It’s the kind of album which many of us middle-aged folk might find reassuringly familiar. In that sense it may be expedient to be a more mature listener (in years) to garner a true appreciation of it. And yet I am always struck by just how fresh and immediate it sounds. Sure, you’ll find nothing revolutionary here. When the album was released in October 2010, empires did not collapse, nor buildings fall. In fact, it’s probably fair to say, barely anyone noticed at all.

The Bees hail from the Isle of Wight. Perhaps that distance from the mainland has accentuated a sense of ‘otherness’. Because of that, their music betrays not the slightest hint of affectation. I imagine they are less tainted than more connected urban artists by the desire to be fashionable, to be part of a scene, whatever that means these days. They have utilised that space, that separate-ness to its full advantage. They use space in more creative ways too. For instance they recorded their debut album (the Mercury Music Prize-nominated) ‘Sunshine Hit Me’ in a small garden shed. The results – a kaleidescopic potpourri – virtually defied science. As if to emphasise their versatility, they recorded the next album at Abbey Road. The Bees demonstrate masterful control of the way sounds are arranged – the way the instruments move away from one another, at times creating beautifully eerie gaps (the keyboard on ‘Island Love Letter’, the strings on ‘Skill Of The Man’ for example).

‘Every Step’s A Yes’ has a relaxed energy (a ‘more mature’ sound, singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Butler stated) while triumphantly showcasing their extraordinary palette. The buoyant opener ‘I Really Need Love’ has all the ravishing freshness of a sun-bursting early spring morning – he’s in love and the whole world’s going to know about it (“I wish that love will come/for each and every one/and I know I’m gonna get me some/in the shadow of the sun”) – with a simple breezy acoustic strum for accompaniment the whole thing then takes off in a swirling crescendo of sitars and soaring strings.

Alongside a brush of harp and crisp stinging guitar lines, ‘Winter Rose’ succumbs to a prime slice of horn-locking Lovers’ rock. In sharp contrast the stark folk-rock of ‘Silver Line’ could have slipped off the run out groove of Moby Grape’s debut album, while the controlled reverb in the panoramic production of ‘No More Excuses’ is astounding – one moment the guitars are like little ripples of water gently brushing the boats on the shore, the next they are twisting psych fizzballs worthy of The Chocolate Watchband or The Strawberry Alarm Clock. The arrangements here are exquisite (fiddle, harp, sitar, clavinette, harmonica, trumpet all chip in with a cameo appearance) but the production is never for a second over-bearing – somewhere between Syd’s Pink Floyd and Lennon twixt Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, it’s sublime harmonies soar effortlessly past steeples and peaks to scale the heavens. 

‘Tired Of Loving’ is a pretty if sorrowful plaint with ear melting West Coast harmonies. Then comes a spellbinding triple salvo: ‘Island Love Letter’ recalls the gorgeous ghostly lullabies of mid-period Incredible String Band or even Vashti Bunyan’s naively delicate charm. ‘Skill Of The Man’ has the sort of languid somnolence which Mick Head strove to perfect on the longer tracks from his superb Magical World Of The Strands LP, except that it is in every way superior. And warmer. And that’s a big compliment. Narcotic oblivion beckons with ‘Pressure Makes Me Lazy’, a blissed out potion of drifting guitars horns and strings. Glorious stuff. The album’s closer ‘Gaia’ (the nearest we have to a hit here), recorded with neo-folk wizard Devendra Banhart, is a rallying climax which abruptly brings to halt the ultra-soporific haze by means of a mariachi flavoured Spanish fiesta, calling to mind the band’s earlier flirtation with Latin sound, their cover of Os Mutantes’ ‘A Minha Menina’.

This is not some sub-Weller ‘worthy dad rock’ studiously indebted to rock tradition and empty posturing. The Bees are music lovers, first and foremost: there are no big egos involved, no lascivious tales of rock’n’roll excess. Instead, ‘Every Step’s A Yes’ is the sort of record you might imagine Syd Barrett, David Crosby or Skip Spence having made if they’d just held it together for a little while longer. Unlike those three however – it’s not a fragile album on the verge of disintegration, but rather an assured and confident work. It might well sound like the best album of 1968, or perhaps 1974. It was comfortably one of the finest in 2010, and if it sounded a little out of step to some at the time, that is only because perfectly balanced modern pop albums are a rare commodity these days. I urge you to get your hands on it – it is truly one to treasure. (JJ)

76. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY – PRAYERS ON FIRE (1981)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

 Amongst the faded denim and the tired looking mohicans, a new breed of pale-faced malcontent was transfiguring the clientele of the early-80’s UK student union. Their necks were craned, but they seemed taller, their hair stacked up in a wild black pile. The uniformity of their appearance was sealed by the mandatory Bauhaus t-shirt. These children of the night were early ‘goths’. Their newest darlings, The Birthday Party, had just arrived from the other side of the globe and with their pulverising sound were aiming to shake the earth off its very axis.

Australia did not have a particularly well-established rock scene before 1977, but in Sydney the touch paper had been lit by Radio Birdman, while Brisbane boasted a burgeoning punk scene led by The Saints. On the Southern coast, the family trees of Melbourne’s Young Charlatans and The Boys Next Door (who should have been sued under the terms of the Trades Description Act for their deceptively innocuous moniker) would soon become intertwined through the defection of guitarist Rowland S Howard from the former to the latter. Providence would reveal the polar aspects of her nature to the two bands. The Young Charlatans’ 15 minutes of fame had fizzled out, their brief brush with immortality over. By contrast, for the Boys Next Door, their time had most surely arrived.

Howard was a highly original guitarist (equal parts Will Sergeant, John Waddington and Zoot Horn Rollo) with a penchant for dark, deathly blues music and a singular ear for howling feedback (he strove to make his guitar “sound like bee stings”). His influence was integral in reshaping the direction the band would take. The song he brought with him, ‘Shivers’, gave new impetus to this group of disaffected former public schoolboys (consisting of singer/lyricist Nick Cave, bassist Tracey Pew, guitarist/keyboard player Mick Harvey and drummer Phil Calvert), whose punishing gig schedule harnessed for them a reputation for notoriety in their homeland. They released an album (‘Door Door’) which they later disowned, but the lure of finding a wider audience for their music proved irresistible and the band soon packed their bags and moved to London in 1980. They renamed themselves The Birthday Party and, perhaps brutalised (or at least alienated) by their experience of living in virtual squalor in London, were possessed of a seemingly insatiable urge to inject a nightmarish violence and sense of the macabre into their live repertoire, their chaotic performances always on the verge of imploding.

Having resolved never again to use a record producer following ‘Door Door’, the band began work themselves on ‘Prayers On Fire’. Once again however, they would be less than happy with the results, and it is an album which is consistently overlooked in favour of its follow up ‘Junkyard’, which, while certainly more representative of the classic Birthday Party sound, lacks I fear, it’s predecessor’s unfettered explosion of ideas. Here, on ‘Prayers On Fire’ is a band seeking an authentic voice of their own. Sometimes the journey, the adventure undertaken in getting to the destination is far more thrilling than the destination itself.

We can hear the evolution of their sound unfolding on the album. Virtually the entire second side side prefigures the creeping cobwebbed claustrophobia of Junkyard – with the exception of ‘Dull Day’, which rather bizarrely, reminds me of Madness (?) – there is a sepulchral bone-crushing intensity with little variety in tempo. The first side by contrast displays the full range of their armoury.

It’s opening track, ‘Zoo Music Girl’, sounds as if the starting gun to the village idiots’ 100 metres dash has gone off prematurely – to the participants, the lanes on the track are there not to maintain order, but to hurdle, vault or if at all possible, ignore completely. Pew pulses his bass into paroxysms, while each demented line Cave expels (“My body is a monster driven insane/My heart is a fish toasted by flames…”), collapses on top of the preceding one. Perhaps a little embarrassed by some of the lyrical extremities (“Oh God! Please let me die beneath her fists”), Cave later disowned this as well, but with its mariachi trumpet blaring as if the carnival has arrived in the middle of a riot, it is a fitting calling card to the album.

Listeners can sometimes confuse the person impersonating a character in a song for the person singing it. With Nick Cave this could be a dangerous business. Consider for instance the charmingly entitled ‘Nick The Stripper’ (“Nick The Stripper/A-hideous to the eye/Well he’s a fat little insect/A fat little insect…he’s in his birthday suit…”) His fascination with the grotesque and with creeping invertebrates is further explored on ‘King Ink’ (“King Ink feels like a bug/Swimming in a soup-bowl”) which is a musical prelude to ‘Junkyard’ and (apparently) the song from the album with which Cave was most pleased.

‘Cry’ is like the Bunnymen on bad acid, while listening to ‘Capers’ has me visualising a hallucinogenic-fuelled Frankenstein swaying from side to side down the wide staircase of a haunted mansion, the chandeliers chiming together above, echoing their sound through its labyrinthian chambers. Howard takes over vocal lead on ‘Ho Ho’ which consequently sounds uncharacteristically restrained. It’s a subtly atmospheric piece and one can imagine why he sought more creative influence within the band. If it provides momentary respite, then the unholy carnage returns on ‘Figure Of Fun’ where frenetic guitars fizz, yelp and squeal producing as much panic as might result from a rattlesnake being dropped onto of a cartload of chimpanzees. Howard sounds like he’s deriving a sadistic delight in contriving a unique method of torture for each guitar string. There is brilliant bleak humour here of course, amidst the epileptic rhythms. (“I am a figure of fun/Obsessive, dead-pan and moribund/And I’m impressed by everyone/But I impress no-one/It’s irritating/I am a figure of fun”)

The final track ‘Just You & Me’ encapsulates the surreal dementia of Cave’s writing – as a youthful devotee it created much mirth in our household as we struggled to imagine what the subject of the song could be (“First: I tried to kill it with a hammer/Thought that I could lose the head/Sure! We’ve eaten off the silver/When even food was against us...”) We detected the darkest humour, though we may not have properly understood it.

Those other goths always seemed such a humourless bunch. Along with The Banshees they may have unwittingly spawned the whole God-forsaken subculture, but The Birthday Party had drawn their inspiration as much from the classical rock’n’roll lineage of The Stooges, The New York Dolls and Captain Beefheart as from the horror movies and gothic literature over which their ravenous disciples obsessed. Of their contemporaries, there were some genuine kindred spirits: the scratchy energy of The Pop Group, the trash aesthetic of The Gun Club and The Cramps and The Fall’s grimy rockabilly. But not Bauhaus. By contrast to The Birthday Party, Bauhaus are as significant as a bubble on the surface of the ocean.

Following ‘Prayers On Fire’, Cave poked fun at the admiring Munster hordes, recording the sardonic ‘Release The Bats’. Paradoxically, it became the goth anthem and the band’s most celebrated moment. But The Birthday Party’s days were numbered. Pew was in prison following a string of drunk driving offences. Howard and Cave had become estranged creatively – pulling the band in different directions. The classic clash of egos played out, and within the year, after a brief resurgence in Berlin, they would call it a day. The birth of The Bad Seeds would follow quickly. Cave would emerge stronger than ever from the wreckage. With The Birthday Party he had pushed himself to the edge of insanity. In their wilful recklessness, they created an unholy pandemonium laced with the blackest humour, but were never afraid to poke fun at themselves as well as others. There were few if any like them and we could certainly do with a bit of their snarl and bite today. (JJ)

 

68. THE GUN CLUB – MIAMI (1982)

Desert Blues, Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

 American Shaman

Jeffrey Lee Pierce in bona fide rock’n’roll tradition, was destined never to grow old. He barely gave himself a chance. The first diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver may well have been as early as 1982. Pierce was a mere 24 years old then, two thirds of the way through his brief earthly sojourn. That he lasted as long as he did surprised some, but his death in 1996 (from a brain haemorrhage) still came as a shock to many. The Gun Club had made a career out of being the craziest, drunkest, most shambolic act on the LA scene. The band members played their parts willingly. After all, as Pierce said at the time: “People here have got nothing else to do but lose their minds.” Who better than Jeffrey to help them on their way?

When Pierce – who ran Blondie’s West Coast fan club – met Brian Tristan (Kid Congo Powers) – chief of The Ramones fan club – at a Pere Ubu gig in 1978, sparks were destined to fly. First baptised Creeping Ritual and soon after The Gun Club, this early incarnation were according to Powers “too arty for rock people, far too rock for arty people, too cuckoo for the blues crowd and too American for punk”. If history was theirs to make, it was near inevitable that their legendary status would be born of their scabrous and uncultivated live performances and their antagonistic personalities, rather than from their mercurial discography. The Gun Club would never neatly present us with a ‘Forever Changes’ or a ‘Marquee Moon’; their anarchic lifestyles possessed neither the patience nor prissiness for that to happen.

By rights there should be no place on this list for their second LP ‘Miami‘. Gun Club devotees, accustomed to the band’s cathartic early performances, lament the emasculated mix of an album which in the right hands, could have been a career defining, even generation defining moment. It wasn’t. A critical and commercial failure, it lacks the blood and guts of their debut ‘Fire Of Love’, the nocturnal glare of ‘The Las Vegas Story’ (Pierce’s personal favourite) and the polish and swagger of ‘Mother Juno’. At least the latter pair provided the most unpunctual of platforms for original member Kid Congo Powers, absent from the band’s early records on Cramps duty, and ‘Miami’ doesn’t feature him either. Powers’ replacement, Ward Dotson who plays guitar, called the album disastrous. In an interview during the twilight of his career, Pierce was congratulated for delivering such a fine album, and proceeded to mercilessly deride the journalist’s compliment. So, is its inclusion here an act of folly or simply sheer contrariness? Not so. We’ve included it here for one very simple reason – more than any other of their albums, it has the highest concentration of brilliant Gun Club moments. Chris Stein’s anaemic production? Yeah, I hear you. Blah blah blah… You want the best post-punk collection of primitive American rock’n’roll songs? Look no further.

‘Carry Me Home’ and ‘Like Calling Up Thunder’ showcase Pierce’s shrill atonal wailing which almost drowns out Dotson’s atmospheric slide guitar, the latter track also featuring a brilliant rumbling Fall-like rockabilly rhythm. ‘Brother And Sister’ opens up promisingly (‘Sins of me, buzz and hiss in the trees/Their little skeletons will harm no one/Why do you bring them, always back to me/Their kingdom come and their will be done/On Heaven and earth and me’) but ends up feeling a little stiff and contrived. Thankfully it is followed quickly by a sizzling cover of Creedence’s ‘Run Through The Jungle’ – here Pierce multi-tasks with a strung out lead guitar, all the while sounding like he’s performing a frenzied shamanic ritual.

But the album hits ramming speed on ‘Devil In The Woods’ which along with Side Two’s ‘Bad Indian’ and ‘Sleeping In Blood City’ shares the thrilling two chord frenzy of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ filtered through an exhilarating psychobilly spectrum. Bassist Rob Ritter alongside Dotson play with finger-shredding ferocity which even the flattened mix can’t disguise. Pierce’s delirious and savage delivery ensures these are three songs to make cacti bleed. Meanwhile the band give good range on ‘Texas Serenade’ where once again Pierce maniacal delivery is electrifying, this time strewn wildly over Mark Tomeo’s woozy steel pedal.

‘Watermelon Man’ is the bands very own ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’, conjuring images of blood spattered Creole dolls – one can almost hear the bells jangling out their rhythm on Pierce’s wrists. If the band’s take on the standard ‘John Hardy’ is an archetype for the cowpunk of early Meat Puppets, nevertheless I somehow find myself singing along to Roxy Music’s ‘Editions of You’ – which despite its futuristic aspirations shares with it the same basic blues roots. Meantime, ‘The Fire Of Love’ out-Cramps Lux and Ivy with a big proud garage stomp. The closer ‘Mother Of Earth’ is almost a straightforward country rock track (once again enhanced by Tomeo’s steel pedal cameo), but masterfully evocative of the wide open desert spaces and consequently a fitting finale to an album which couldn’t have been made anywhere else in the world or by any other band in the world.

There was a time in the not too distant past, where UK independent record shops boasted bulging ‘Americana’ sections. I can’t imagine that record stores across the North Atlantic would have replicated this bumbling genre-lisation. That would surely be meaningless in the US, but I am honest enough to admit my ignorance in this regard. Nevertheless, I could partially identify with this (anxious? nostalgic?) millennial movement to recapture in a post-postmodern culture a sense of ‘authenticity’ or ‘rootsiness’. However, often the albums stacked up on those shelves were uninspiring rewrites of ‘After The Gold Rush’ ‘The Band’ ‘Grievous Angel’ and the like. If you want real Americana, why not hear the whole history of American rock’n’roll music in one band? Pierce’s travels took him to every corner of his homeland in his efforts to distil the mythical elements of that sound. From sleeping rough in New York to learning voodoo from Haitians in New Orleans, Pierce searched long and hard for the holy grail. His journey wasn’t a wasted one. I hear in the music of The Gun Club the wounded mutant blues of Charlie Patton, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf, traversing desert, prairie and swamp to revisit the voodoo incantations of Dr. John, freeloading along the way on rockabilly, exotic southern-fried trash and bad-ass LA punk, and simultaneously nailing the garage sound of ‘Psychotic Reaction’, while stretching out along the highway to envelop ghostly torch song and murder ballad. ‘Miami‘ tells its compelling version of the story of American rock’n’roll with the spikes and bristles flattened out in the mix, yes, but with the most indelibly bewitching treasury of songs imaginable. (JJ)

67. SPRING HILL FAIR – GO-BETWEENS (1984)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative


Gig-going regrets? We all have them- some can still be rectified, others can’t and some, owing to accidents of birth and geography, are too futile to dwell on but my realistic reasons for ruefulness include: never seeing Jeff Buckley or Stereolab; not seeing REM until 1989; being compelled to pass on an Al Green gig owing to farcical ticket prices and deciding to go and see the Cramps a second time.
But my most lingering pang arises from a calamity with the Go-Betweens in 1997. Having fallen hard for them after seing them a decade earlier and mourned their demise three years after that, their resumption was like discovering that a treasured item feared binned had actually been sitting in the cupboard all along. The cupboard on this particular Friday night was Glasgow’s Garage; at this time, I was working some 60 miles from the city and, as a rule, stayed away during the week then returned at weekends.

That evening, I got away from the office later than I’d hoped and arrived, flustered and frustrated, to hear them playing Draining The Pool For You, followed by Bachelor Kisses. Their set ended about 20 minutes later and the intakes of breath which followed my revelation of the first songs I heard told me just how much I’d missed.

The fact that this still rankles to the extent it does 18 years on speaks partly of a petty inability just to let go – but also of how much the Go-Betweens have come to mean to me. And those two songs can be found nestling on Spring Hill Fair, as fine an introduction to them as any of their albums.

Practically everything that’s been written about the Go-Betweens over the past quarter-century – including, I confess, a piece written by me as a callow student in 1990 – has laid great emphasis on the chasm between their critical acclaim and the quality of their music on one hand and their commercial success on the other. I see little value in going over this well-worn ground once again – what counts is that their music exists and is easily tracked down. Those who have yet to hear them are to be envied.

Spring Hill Fair, their third album, captures them in transition. Often, this can mean a patchy record with inconsistent focus – think of Another Side Of Bob Dylan, where there’s a Ballad in Plain D for every Chimes Of Freedom – but here, the subtle shift from the coiled-spring dramas they had so far specialised in to more elegantly crafted portraits is rounded and complete, meaning that the shift is no clunking handbrake turn but is seamless, almost imperceptible, bound together by the unifying theme of the turmoil of adult, but still often quite irrational, romantic intrigue.

Bachelor Kisses (introduced that fateful night at the Garage as “a song from France 1984” despite being the only Spring Hill Fair song not recorded there) opens proceedings and it’s a challenge to put into words how exquisitely beautiful it is. Clouded in a mist of synths so all-enveloping that they haven’t dated a second, it no more strays into sentimentality or smarm than William Blake strayed into limericks, tethered as it is by a rough-edged guitar solo which only casts the song’s sweetness into greater relief – as do the harmonies of the Raincoats’ Ana Da Silva (credited as Anna Silva) . Grant McLennan gives a warning to stay away from the cads and sugar daddies but does so without being patronising – it’s not a message to be given lightly (“Hands, hands like hooks/You’ll get hurt if you play with crooks”) and it can yield rewards (“Faithful’s not a bad word.”)

Five Words captures the Go-Betweens in-between, the looping melody straining and almost snapping but finally pulling itself straight against Lindy Morrison’s marching-yet-still-dragging its-heels beat. The words turn out to be “Bury them don’t keep ’em” – memories? Secrets? We never learn – another enigma from some of the finest purveyors of them. The ’80s produced few songs as restless yet simultaneously sure-footed as You’ve Never Lived, where a laser of a chorus cohabits with guitars that seethe like troublesome insects as Robert Forster delivers some of the finest of his many lines of suavely savage self-deprecation (“I’m no genius, just a former genius, a shadow of the genius/That I am.”) It’s the concoction that Franz Ferdinand have been grasping after for the past decade but have never quite clutched.

He’s at it again on the imperious Part Company, where there’s a brief mock-epic flourish (“From the first letter I got to this, her Bill of Rights”) and Forster’s brilliantly offhanded truncation of the middle syllable in “company,” as if to undercut the elegance that surrounds him, from the solemnly enunicated guitar figure to the ghostly apparel of that most ’80s of accessories, the Prophet synth, which is saved from being trapped in dayglo amber by its near-perfect mimicry of a theremin.

The McLennan monologue River Of Money has been compared more than once to the Velvet Underground’s The Gift but the similarity is more musical than lyrical, with a shared muscular, squealing feel to the backdrops. Where The Gift is a fully-realised short story, with plot, action, shifts of scene and grim twist, River Of Money is more meditative; it observes a general state of mind (“It is neither fair nor reasonable to expect sadness to confine itself to its causes”) and applies it to a particular case of him having to accept she’s gone and won’t be back. He fails, her memory blotted out neither by travel (“Snow which he had never seen before, was only frozen water”), drink (“Bottles had almost emptied themselves without effect”) or even simple domestic pleasures (“The television, a samaritan during other tribulations, had been repossessed). In this, it has more in common with Lou Reed’s solo Last Great American Whale – which appeared four and a half years later. An influence? We’ll probably never know but it’s an intriguing thought.

Forster’s now notorious theory, expounded in his book The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, that an album’s penultimate song is always its weakest is comprehensively disproved on Spring Hill Fair. McLennan’s Unkind and Unwise is almost the archetypal Go-Betweens song, with a locomotive thrust and a semi-autobiographical lyric speckled with natural imagery (“Burn in a river tangled with reeds/While a crane on the water silently feeds”) and sneaking in at just under three minutes, it dabbles in perfection and decides to hang on to it. There’s some fun had on the lyric sheet of Spring Hill Fair, with droll asides dotted across the songs, and the fade of Unkind and Unwise is heralded with “(repeat till cicadas join in the fun).” Blow me if I didn’t have to reach for the dictionary and discover that the song would be fading long into the night with cricket-like creatures.

In his excellent biography of the Go-Betweens, David Nichols asserts that Spring Hill Fair “doesn’t quite seem to come up to scratch” and suggests it may be too diverse to be cohesive. To me, though, most of their albums are fully-formed, with the right balance of meticulousness and all-too-human humanity to ensure the right songs are chosen and put in the right place; it’s hard to imagine Spring Hill Fair in any other order or form. They also hold Forster and McLennan up as one of the great songwriting partnerships; in true Lennon-McCartney fashion, the co-credit often belies the dominant presence of one half (though Five Words has at least lyrical input from both) but the presence of the other half is always tangible.

It was their only album on Sire – a brief sojourn between Rough Trade and Beggar’s Banquet. Two months later, Sire issued Madonna’s Like A Virgin and there was no competing with that – but there I go into the forbidden territory. I’ll limit myself to observing some of the belated recognition that has come the Go-Betweens’ way, at least in Australia – the Go-Between Bridge in Brisbane, Cate Blanchett declaring herself a fan and Streets of Your Town (from 1988’s 16 Lovers’ Lane) finding its way on to an iPod’s worth of Australian music (which also featured 13 songs by pedestrian rocker Jimmie Barnes) given to Barack Obama in 2011 by Australia’s then Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and to regretting deeply that much of this came too late for McLennan, who died in 2006 at the shockingly premature age of 48.

I bought Spring Hill Fair in Bordeaux for 10 francs – roughly equivalent to £1 or, at the present rate of exchange, €1.42. A week earlier, I bought Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom (qv) in the same city for the same price. My spokesman, Pete Townshend, has prepared the following statement: “I call that a bargain – the best I ever had.” (PG).

62. HOWLING BELLS – HOWLING BELLS (2006)

Indie / Alternative, Rock Music

HOWLING BELLS – HOWLING BELLS (2006)
It’s been widely accepted for some time now that “indie” has become a completely meaningless term, yet still the notion and concept persist.
Leaving aside the factual definition of a small record company’s business model and distribution method, the idea of indie-as-genre first evolved from Stiff, Factory, Step Forward and unnumbered others taking the practical step of recording, financing and distributing their own music to maintain it on their own terms and to pre-empt likely, though by no means inevitable, rejection by the majors of sounds that were in the main untutored and untroubled by anxiety over chart placings  or courting the approval of a music establishment that was even sleazier and more putrid than had been apparent at the time.
At this point, the sound of indie labels was a loose, labyrynthine but endlessly rewarding aggregation of punk, electronics, R & B (another term to have since mutated beyond recognition), funk and myriad other items tipped into the soup.
Sometime around 1985, the definition was put on a far tighter rein – mirroring the retreat of the best mainstream pop from loose-limbed adventurism to lumpen, profit-chasing garishness – and indie came to mean guitar-based music in thrall to either the Byrds and post-Cale Velvet Underground on one hand or Captain Beefheart on the other. The former definition became preeminent and solidified at the end of the decade with the precipitous rise of the preposterously overrated Stone Roses, a good band – nothing more, nothing less – completely unequal to the ludicrous hosannas  made on their behalf.
With the arrival of those who haplessly aped the even more overestimated Oasis, what had previously set this music apart from the mainstream – adventure, openness, empathy, quest – had been whittled down to a proscribed set of approved sounds and postures which resulted in utterly unremarkable music and which  came to be known by the 21st century as landfill indie, though I crave the indulgence of offering my own coinage –  I called it Gumby indie, as its oafish grunting unavoidably reminded me of the same in the Monty Python creations.
By the middle of the millennium’ first decade, Arctic Monkeys were perceived as the stationery-shovers but while they were several cuts above the sludge, owing in no small part to Alex Turner’s lyrical dexterity, they still weren’t quite what was needed. Around the same time, the saviours indie didn’t know it had quietly appeared – from Sydney, Howling Bells.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why they grabbed hold of the essence of this music when so many others hadn’t even come close. It’s an indefinable quality- there may once have been a time when I’d have felt able to call it the X factor without blanching – but it involves things like style, panache, a sense of dynamics and, quite simply, a strong feel for songwriting and melody. The absence of these things isn’t necessarily a problem in itself – some of the greatest music ever made has had little tune to speak of – but if you’re just going to make a noise, you’d better have some substance to it and the sheer gormlessness of so much of what was peddled meant it held so few surprises and made so few demands on the listener that it barely seemed to exist.
And so Howling Bells and their dense, layered sound – which supports the songs rather than hanging around on its own – slotted briefly but perfectly into the formidable roster of Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union for their first album. The cover art reflects what lies inside – an illustration of an owl in a tree being pursued, with nefarious intent, from a ladder; it’s such an authentic French-and-American-revolution period pastiche that I was surprised to discover it was actually commissioned for the album and, similarly, Howling Bells grapple so skilfully with their largely ’80s/early ’90s influences that it seems of a piece with them, while still being unmistakably 21st century.
Take opener The Bell Hit, which has an almost stage musical feel, a doleful intro (curiously reminiscent of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days – or, if you prefer, Dorogoi Dlinnoyu, the Russian folk song it’s based on) giving way to a jazzy sashay which could support an unwelcome singalong in the wrong circumstances but, left to its own devices, casts a sunburst into the sorrowfil refrain “Promises are empty in a world of empty bliss.”
There’s palpable contrast in Low Happening – the first of the album’s four singles- where two of the more obvious Howling forebears, Pixies and PJ Harvey, swerve around each other in brilliant discord on the album’s most blatantly abrasive moment. It’s run close, though, by Blessed Night, where Juanita Stein sets out what resembles an abridged version of the non-credo of John Lennon’s God but still grasps for something, or someone, to take her belief to (“Don’t believe in the stories I hear/Don’t believe in the things you fear/Give me strength/Give me time/Give me you, now”) against a simple but inescapable Spanish/Moorish guitar figure from her brother, Joel, and Glenn Moule’s drum pattern spelling out a dire warning.

The nocturnal theme recurs on The Night Is Young,  where Juanita darts in a breath from desolate (“When I needed you to stay/Drove your car the other way”) to defiant – with a nifty mixed metaphor for good measure (“Oh,me – don’t you worry about me/Got a pocket full of wisdom up my sleeve) in one of the most expressive and affecting voices of recent times. She doesn’t quite sound Australian but neither does she sound Pom and definitely not faux-American; she sings in a human accent, with no need for subtitles.
Setting Sun, the first toll of the Bells I ever heard, is the most markedly commercial song here but still retains oddness in a rhythm that piledrives even as it’s hushed, a solo from Joel which as uncomplicated as the one on Buzzcocks’ Boredom yet still yields up subtletly, and Juanita capturing the frustration of running out of time while being resigned to it happening: “One more day’s not enough to change the world/But we’ll rise and fall beside the setting sun.” There’s probably a mathematical formula that can unravel why this wasn’t a hit; maybe there’s a generous prize on offer for another formula to make it the hit it’s not too late for it to be.
Four albums in now, that hit continues to elude Howling Bells but the definition of what makes a hit is narrower and more predictable than it’s ever been. The web-driven collapse of the conventional music industry should have cleared the way for uninhibited adventure but conservatism still holds sway. Howling Bells may not be avant-garde but they’re vastly inventive and stand as a reminder of what’s still possible, as well as the solar system of difference in music between being ambitious and having ambition. Howling Bells, like much indie worthy of the name – and like the best of any genre – are ambitious; Gumby indie merely has ambition, for sales, for ever-vaster venues, for heavy rotation – for tedium. Hear Howling Bells – hear the difference (PG).