In another world, the Chills might have been the subject of one of those single-frame Viz cartoons in which a band name is depicted literally. They’d have been stood in a circle, chanting “one times two is two, two times two is four, three times two is six”. Stood in front of them would have been John Travolta, his thumb jerked over his shoulder, declaring solemnly: “I got Chills. They’re multiplyin'”.
It never happened. The fair measure of success they enjoyed in their native New Zealand did not travel, despite at least a dozen songs which could have, very conceivably, lodged themselves firmly in the public consciousness, around half of them on Submarine Bells, their second album proper and their first since their departure from NZ’s immortal Flying Nun to Slash, a subsidiary of London and one of a rash of pseudo-indies established by majors in the late ’80s.
The single from the album, Heavenly Pop Hit, fulfilled the two-thirds of the title’s promise that the Chills had control over. It formed part of a tradition of absurdly tuneful songs by acts not necessarily renowned for such things, like Oliver’s Army before it and Friday I’m In Love and – yes – Shiny Happy People afterwards. Martin Phillips and his compatriot, Donna Savage of the also unjustly forgotten Dead Famous People, exult wordlessly on a chorus which produces grins as surely as rain produces puddles- usually. Once, when called upon to help dislodge an unwelcome earworm, I offered Heavenly Pop Hit as an antidote. “Aw, that’s awful – cheeseorama!”, was the response, to my dismay, and the play of the song didn’t even last 30 seconds.
Maybe it needed to be heard in the context of some of their earlier colossal songs, like Pink Frost or Night Of Chill Blue, or of Submarine Bells’ close to perfect first side. Part Past Part Fiction offers vice-like drama and a solo as breathless as it is deft, all undimmed by Phillipps’ clodhopping pronunciation of ‘cacophony’ to rhyme with ‘lonely’. The Oncoming Day is even more frenetic and as anxious as its title suggests, a return to the runaway runway they visited on Brave Words’ Look For The Good In Others And They’ll See The Good In You. I Soar tells of a flight in the southern hemisphere but its cantering rhythm and synthesised woodwind sumptuously evoke the British autmn in which it was recorded.
Side two is patchier but clutches two real treasures. With its high-stepping upright piano, Don’t Be-Memory has always sounded to me like it was recorded in a living room, suitably enough for such an intimate and heartfelt account of missed opportunities, a “desperate deal” conducted with “this greenhouse on,” a nod to the environmental anxiety of the times which produced a spike in the Green vote at the 1989 European elections and which is eloquently expanded upon in the liner notes of Submarine Bells. The song’s odd structure – not one, not two but three bridges – means its poignancy doesn’t let up for a second.
Submarine Bells itself takes the complexity of a Day In The Life, adds the langour of Good Night and creates the proper ending the Beatles’ career never had thanks to their insistence on finishing with the sheer bathos of Her Majesty. It sounds like an orchestra; it might merely be a mellotron or similar. All that matters is that it has a beauty that can barely be described – rarely has ‘rock’ sounded so majestic, so utterly aloof from the common imbecility of rog an’ roll, but without a scintilla of pomposity. It concludes with a glissando that almost certainly tips a deliberate wink to My Way – but again they’re set on something far finer than that karaoke warhorse’s daft bravado.
Like so many bands of the period, The Chills had all the conditions for a breakthrough. The fact that it never came means they’re still there to be discovered by many, all of whom I promise a lifelong treat. (PG)
‘Hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown?” Lou Reed 1966.
When Lou was writing ‘I’m Waiting’ For The Man’, he would have had a precise picture in his head of the dope dealing character in the song. That’s because Lou would certainly have known him personally, aspiring young hustler that he was. For some reason however, when I hear the song today I think of Jonathan Richman as the naive fresh-faced ‘white boy’, with Lou himself conversely, the cool hipster of the Lower East Side, overseeing young Jonathan’s induction to the dark stuff. Lou fitted that NY boho smackhead chic pretty well, but what about Jonathan? Unlike Lou, he was never really suited to hanging out with druggies and sexual deviants. There was always something incongruous about this Velvets’ disciple, sleeping on Steve Sesnick’s couch and affecting that proto-punk attitude. It just didn’t add up.
Something happened to Jonathan Richman. Something changed in him. This vicious world of adulthood, where everyone smoked, took drugs and cheated one another over record deals or in the bedroom. This new world was not for him. What about the old world?
I imagine this metamorphosis to have occurred in 1973. [A dream: Jonathan is in attendance at a family gathering in late summer in a New Hampshire coastal village. He is experiencing a creative nadir, and finds himself out of the city at a nephew’s birthday party. It’s early evening. There are kids eating ice cream, they’re falling over one another on the porch and there is much laughter around the place. He watches a boy chase a kite along the beach. Some old uncle recalls a few anecdotes. Drinks are spilled and memories shared. ‘Come on Jonathan, play us a tune!’ comes the inevitable invitation. It’s been a while. Jonathan looks over at the old battered acoustic guitar leaning against the family Steinway. He picks up the instrument and knocks out a couple of old Chuck Berry numbers. Everyone cheers. Boy, does this feel good. Jonathan loves an audience. He wanders off into the kitchen. Maybe he hears an old doo-wop track by the 5 Royales or the Flamingoes on the little transistor radio sitting there. He goes upstairs and sitting by the bedroom window, writes the first version of ‘It’s You’, what will become the opening track on It’s Time For Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers. It will be 12 years before he records it for posterity but something has clicked. Jonathan recalls the first time he heard music like this on the radio and fondly remembers his carefree childhood. He’s battered and bruised from his walk on the wild side and disillusioned with the excesses of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. Change of plan.
Of course the first fruits of Jonathan’s new approach came long before the release of It’s Time For…. By 1986 he’d recorded a number of Modern Lovers albums, all filled with his own brand of gentle romantic rock’n’roll and all presumably filed nervously in the ‘new-wave’ sections of confused record stores. He had built his reputation on the classic first punk blast of The Modern Lovers: ‘Roadrunner’, ‘Pablo Picasso’, ‘She Cracked’, all moody black-clad Velvets sneer, and then proceeded to confound everyone’s expectations of him with his bizarre Top 10 novelty hit’Egyptian Reggae’.
Fast forward a decade or so and he has cultivated a small but loyal audience for his charming old world vision. This album was my first encounter with Jonathan, and to be honest, looking at the sleeve and seeing this thirty five year old man, looking (most impressively) no more than 21, but clad in an unbuttoned pink linen shirt, was certainly unpromising and frankly, a bit unsettling. I too was a Velvets disciple and well, the image was just…well, so wrong! But what to make of the music inside the sleeve? I could not believe the album had just been released. It sounded at least twenty five years older than that. And yet, there was a freshness, an innocence and a joy in this music which encapsulated the very essence of rock’n’roll. The album veers from the delightfully moronic ‘Let’s Take A Trip’ (‘I got my jeans and things and I’m ready to go!’) to Jonathan’s ridiculous hymn to his favourite milkshake of all (‘Double Chocolate Malted’ – OK Jonathan, no nuts!), and a playful retelling of the classic Persian love story ‘Shirin and Fahrad’. But amidst the somewhat contrived innocence and playfulness are a small bunch of timeless gems.
The opener the aforementioned ‘It’s You’ is a singalong classic – how could one fail to smile listening to it? ‘Neon Sign’ and ‘When I Dance’ sway along beautifully – the latter exuding an ironic sexual confidence, the former conveying a neurotic and nostalgic displacement in the adult world. But it is the triumvirate of ‘This Love of Mine’, ‘Just About Seventeen’ and the closer ‘Ancient Long Ago’, which really set this apart from other sterling Jonathan albums – such as Jonathan Sings!
‘This Love of Mine’ has all the smooth assurance of Sam Cooke, with the honeyed harmonising the perfect counterpoint to Jonathan’s stuttering adolescent awkwardness. He’s in character for sure, but he’s comfortable here. Jonathan and the boys enjoy themselves so much on ‘Just About Seventeen’ that, lost in the moment, they cannot refrain from a chorus of ‘dangdangdoodang wangdangdoodang’ to further accentuate the good vibe. “I’m about seventeen…I guess, well that’s what the calendar says…what do numbers mean? I’m about seventeen”. Pure gold.
It has been well documented that Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet” Hearing the angelic ‘Ancient Long Ago’ one might be tempted to disagree. It reveals Jonathan to be the real deal. Listening to it again, I am transported through time, people and places appear and disappear from my mind’s eye, in particular, some very special evenings being charmed by Jonathan’s songs aboard the Renfrew Ferry in the early 1990s. It is a shimmering invocation with an extraordinary musical arrangement which should evoke a heartfelt response from even the most sceptical listener. ‘I am not bound by space or time right now’ he says. Neither am I Jonathan. Not now.
We may be in the late autumn of Jonathan’s recording career, but these songs have been criminally under appreciated for far too long. I listen to them today in the first stirrings of spring, and I embrace summer in full bloom. Go on, as the man himself says, surrender to Jonathan! (JJ)