53. TELSTAR PONIES – IN THE SPACE OF A FEW MINUTES

Greatest Records, Post rock, Rock Music, Shoegaze

Sometimes I think the nineties was the worst decade for music to date. The twin behemoths of grunge and brit-pop may dominate any retrospective reviews of the decade but left very few albums that stand the test of time (to these ears) twenty plus years on. There were of course many other interesting things going on, the rise of electronica and dance culture and the global take over of hip-hop even as these genres blanded out and became the mainstream. Looking back now it is the bands that remained underground and retained credibility in the face of the music industries last hurrahs that I continue to return to and which only seem to improve as time passes. Before the internet removed record labels influence and wiped out the music weeklies.

1995 was the year of the jolly ‘oliday that was britpop. While some see the mid nineties as the time when independent music finally went overground to dominate the mainstream, in truth most of what made the charts was at best a watered down version of the music of the past ten years with particular emphasis on the type of bands who wanted to relive the sixties. As bands began to see the charts and major label deals as a viable option, edges were knocked off and sounds blanded out.

In Scotland however the best of the bands that emerged in the middle of the decade made it with their rough edges intact. While Bis, The Delgados and Belle and Sebastian refined melodic indie pop into new shapes bands like Mogwai and best of all the Telstar Ponies took inspiration from across the pond in the previous ten years of American alternative rock. Ignoring the barely disguised sub-metal that was most of the bands that exploited Nirvana’s success, these bands took inspiration from Sonic Youth, a little of the dream pop of Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star, and the disturbed sounds of Slint and Codeine, and forged their own sound

While Britpop dominated the music press, it’s easy to see why the experimental post rock of Telstar Ponies might not sit well next to Wake Up Boo, Country House et al. But while contemporaries Mogwai (who they shared more than just a drummer with) continued to bigger and bigger stages, the Telstar Ponies folded after the release of the flawed second album Voices From The New Music. In The Space Of A Few Minutes, however is a downbeat, edgy and intense masterpiece. It’s a restless music that can’t seem to settle, it’s the sound of those too hot city summer nights when you can’t sleep, the windows open to street sounds, the sound of frayed tempers and lovers quarrels, its walking home under orange streetlights anticipating confrontation. It is also tender, frightening and ultimately hopeful.

The songs are split between Brendan O’Hare and David Keenan (five each) and Rachel Devine (three), but there is little to separate them. The songs on this album sit together as a perfect whole. The opener The Moon Is Not A Puzzle, is a tense duet between David and Rachel building and building as she repeats “If you stay then I will go”. The vocals are mixed low so you find yourself leaning in, trying to catch what is going on (a couple of songs – Two’s Insane and Maya the vocals are almost indecipherable). Lügengeschichte (tall tale) is a helter skelter descent with heavy nods to from Neu! 2’s Super to, well, Neu! 2’s Fur Immer with great lyrics (I have no thoughts of self control) and ends with some crazy phasing. The single Not Even Starcrossed (taking its title from a line in a Codeine song)is a doomed romance of a song (wishing on a star, never should be wrong, when you got nothing)building to a beautifully elegiac chorus of “I’m in love with you”. Maya always reminded me of the atmosphere of Tom Verlaine’s Words From The Front.

Right in the middle of the album is a magical re-working of Patty Waters “Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight” re-imagined as a gorgeous torch song. Sung by Keenan, importantly he doesn’t change the gender of the songs subject (these things matter sometimes). It was hearing the records of Telstar Ponies that led me to investigate Patty Waters, Shizuka, Albert Ayler.

Monster is all anguished pounding before erupting at the chorus. Best of all is “Side Netting” which just aches, heaving under a narcotic drift of guitars like The Only Ones Inbetweens. The menacing Her Name (“Me and her won’t sleep tonight”)  and Innerhalb Weniger Minuten as Rachel Devine intones a mystery tale over a brooding soundtrack . It all ends on a hopeful note with I Still Believe in Christmas Trees.

The Ponies managed one more album. The following years Tales From The New Music may even reach greater heights than the debut, but lacks the consistency of sound of their debut. After that there was the odd single released, but nothing else. Some members released further music under various guises, some of it great, all of it interesting, but not reaching the heights of what was achieved here.

As for the 1990’s, it is only when you start adding up the bands that released classic in that decade (Luna, Low, Teenage Fanclub, Mercury Rev, Bardo Pond, Pastels, Spectrum, Dead Moon, Primordial Undermind etc) that you realise it wasn’t all bad. And In The Space Of A Few Minutes is one of the best. (TT)

39. ULTRA VIVID SCENE – ULTRA VIVID SCENE (1988)

Indie / Alternative, Shoegaze

Trying to find great, life changing music on television in the Eighties was always a bit of a struggle. As the steady supply of punk and post punk acts that sold enough to get on Top Of The Pops seemed to (with a few notable exceptions) dry up, you needed to look elsewhere. There was Whistle Test, but more often than not that sterile studio atmosphere (almost as bad as the forced enthusiasm of the Newcastle fashionistas on the Tube) failed to spur many of the bands towards anything like excitement. The Jesus and Mary Chain crackled with electricity under red and green lights playing In A Hole, despite being recorded at ten in the morning given their notoriety at the time. Contrast this with  their rather tame performance of Just Like Honey and Inside Me on The Tube ten months later. (Pete Townshend liked it though, reminded him of Buddy Holly). There was always that clip of the Smiths recording Meat Is Murder, Morrisey and Marr miming along to Nowhere Fast, Marr looking like Johnny Thunders trying to sneak his way onto the back cover of Revolver. Or what about that amazing footage of The Cramps playing The Most Exalted Potentate Of Love live at the Peppermint Lounge and shown on The Tube. These moments were taped and watched endlessly.

It probably didn’t help that TV executives seemed to be more interested in looking backwards – Sounds Of The Sixties, re-runs of Ready Steady Go. There was even The Golden Oldie Picture Show where they would create videos for old hits and shown at prime time. Where were the opportunities for the new bands to get this kind of exposure? It’s not as if the music was not being made. Sometimes you’d get great bands popping up in the most unexpected places. I remember Iggy Pop disembowling a teddy bear on No. 73, Pere Ubu appearing on Roland Rat, Strawberry Switchblade on Cheggers Plays Pop. These may not have been these bands finest hours musically, but even catching a glimpse of them was enough in pre-internet, pre-Youtube barren times. Sometimes you want something so bad you’ll grab anything.

So, towards the end of the eighties Snub TV came along and we could finally see interviews, videos and live clips of the likes of (off the top of my head) My Bloody Valentine, The Butthole Surfers, Wire, Pale Saints, Pixies, Loop, Teenage Fanclub, Ride (before releasing a record I think), Spacemen 3 etc. etc. For me, this is where Ultra Vivid Scene arrived. Cue slowed down grainy over-saturated footage of a cool looking band in a studio. Built around a prowling two note fuzz bass line, the song is called The Mercy Seat. Phhht! Don’t they know there’s already a song called that? It borrowed the template the Mary chain used for Sidewalking earlier that year. Still it drew me in, high sparkling fuzzy Fender guitars, great melody. I was a goner.

After further investigation it turned out that the band was in fact one man, a New Yorker called Kurt Ralske. Recorded in New York, UVS debut does not stray too far from those home turf giants of art rock Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine. Sung in a detached whisper, Lynn Marie #2 sounds like the song Lou Reed would write if you gave him the chords to Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, while Crash fades in just like Train Round The Bend. Blood Line is as pretty a melody as Verlaine’s Days, while the intro to How Did It Feel would not be out of place on Dreamtime or Words From The Front. He may be a guitar virtuoso but there’s no room here for long, meandering solos. There’s hardly any solos at all in fact. Everything here is designed to support the songs, from the chilly keyboards of Nausea to the One Of These Days-like slide guitars of Crash.

The album itself is full of tales of parties and beautiful cruel muses, icy Warholian goddesses (Lynn Marie, like Lou’s Caroline gets two songs named after her), uptight and strung out in equal measure.

It’s not all genuflecting at the feet of New Yorks finest though. The use of a drum machine colours the songs differently and stops them sounding like they are merely aping the Velvets or Television, and drives them closer to some imaginary crossroads where Chromes Slip It To The Android/Kinky Lover schtick meets Soft Cells kinky pop. The album opener She Screamed – could have been a hit single in more sympathetic era – is more like Metal Urbain piling into the disco on a night out. Like a lot of his contemporaries (Nick Cave, Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3) Kurt likes his Religious imagery (Whore of God, Hail Mary), and he’s not scared to cop a title from Ballard or Sartre. But most of all there is a romance and tenderness that more than balances any sleaze. This isn’t Real slows down Buzzcocks Walking Distance and adds a lyric about a B-movie sob story mystery. He saves his most heartbreaking lines for A Dream of Love

A dream of love is haunting me

a dream of love is taunting me

Misguidedly labeled shoegazing, this album deserves to be rated alongside the cream of the eras visionary dream pop like My Bloody Valentine, early AR Kane, late Spacemen 3, Mazzy Star et al. An album this good should not be languishing out of print as it currently is. (TT)

21. ECHO & AND THE BUNNYMEN – HEAVEN UP HERE (1981)

Greatest Records, Post-Punk
Everybody has one band who, above all others, are Theirs. Echo and the Bunnymen were Mine.
 It’s hard to explain why they should have snagged on to me more than any other – there were plenty of others, before and after, who came close and with many of them I had the same sense of discovery, both in the sense of finding them for myself and in being taken to places unknown. It helped that the silly name and their distinct difference from, on the one hand, boorish metal and on the other, flagging rock ‘n’ roll revivalists meant they were great for winding up the people who favoured those styles.  They also eschewed many of rock’s fatigued conventions at a time when its last rites were being read, from simple gestures like foregoing the drum riser to have the band in a line on stage, to their khaki stage gear and camouflage set, to event gigs like the mystery tour to a botanic gardens (captured in the short film Shine So Hard) and the celebrated Crystal Day, where Liverpool as a whole became the venue and the gig was just one element of a show which also took in Chinese theatre, a bike ride and a visit to the band’s favourite cafe which was required for tickets to be valid. It may be that these were largely the ideas of their manager, future KLF pop provocateur Bill Drummond, but instead of being overcompensatory gimmicks, they were inspired and complementary to the extraordinary music the band were making.
And most of all, that music and lyrics had a swagger, inexhaustible reserves of cool that I  could never hope to claim for my own but could at least revel in the reflection of, and at the same time a real – to borrow a phrase from contemporary heroes Dexys – knowledge of beauty – which meant it had heart as well as heft. In short, listening to the Bunnymen made me feel 100 feet tall.
Roughly 94 feet taller than Ian McCulloch, the garrulous, big-coated first Bunnyman among equals, who at this stage had as much to say in song as in interview and sang it in a voice which could leap from sardonic drawl to anguished peal and back again faster than you could say “King Kenny.” (his Liverpool fandom even went a long way towards rekindling my own interest in football, which had expired utterly through a combination of Scotland’s 1978 World Cup calamity in Argentina, a realisation that I myself couldn’t play the game for toffee and a sense that, compared with music, it was just plain uncool. Joe Strummer or Terry McDermott?)
Alongside him was Will Sergeant, a guitarist of ideas as much as action, influenced by Eno and Tom Verlaine in equal measure, who could bring textures by the score to a song while rocking like an entire ecosystem of beasts. Further along, the brilliantly athletic rhythm section of bassist Les Pattinson and the – it’ll always be painful to write the word – late Pete de Freitas on drums, elastic, double-jointed, able to switch direction at half a second’s notice and enabling the band to turn the conventions of rock songwriting, as they would put it themselves, inside out, back to front, upside down.
Two particular songs on Heaven Up Here conduct this surgery on the song with a Nobel level of skill and precision. Opener Show of Strength shifts gears, leaps ever higher and steps as surefootedly as a tightrope walker asking for the rope to be hoisted a few more feet, then it disappears like a spy whose mission is accomplished, leaving Mac alone to file the final report: “Hey, I came in right on cue/One is me and one is you.”
Similarly, Over The Wall fades in on a simulation of the sound of the seas that Mac would return to time and again for inspiration, a gently pulsing rhythm box and a three-note riff embodying Sergeant’s economical yet panoramic style. Pattinson goes one better with a rotating four-note bassline as far evolved from root-note jockey playing as the Grand Canyon is from a pothole, while De Freitas knows exactly when to hold back, when to detonate and when to let loose the steeplechases where Mac riffs on Runaway by Del Shannon (who, Mac claimed, was mooted as producer for first album Crocodiles) and pleads, twisting another cliche “come on and hold me tight…to my logical limit.” A year earlier, he’d chosen this for his all-time top 10 in Smash Hits but what would usually be unpardonable hubris actually seemed quite reasonable.
Elsewhere, they offer their own perspective on the parched funk of Talking Heads and Gang of Four – both strong undercurrents in early Bunnymen – on It Was A Pleasure and No Dark Things. The title song takes the triple-jump rhythm of Bowie’s Star and accelerates it to prove that rock that’s foresaken the roll can be its own kind of dance music, while All I Want is equally celebratory amid call-and response guitars and drums tossed on – to quote their Liverpool contemporaries the Wild Swans – a harsh and foaming sea.
Melancholy arrives on The Disease, probably their oddest ever song, a simple, see-sawing riff embellished by backwards vocals, injections of feedback and ominous rumbles. Like Heaven Up Here itself, it also sees Mac contrasting heaven with hell – a device he’s used in at least half a dozen other songs since.
The mood darkens further on All My Colours (aka Zimbo) where Mac ponders desolation and decline to the accompaniment of then-voguish tribal drums but to far more defeated and less triumphant ends than the ones that Adam and the Ants were, coincidentally, pursuing to massive success. This version of the song actually works less well than many live versions, as the vast snare crack which heralds the chorus is needlessly muted – I’d recommend instead the version from the 1982 WOMAD festival with the Drummers of Burundi (“we’re Echo and the Burundimen” quips Mac) which appeared on the 12″ of The Cutter.
It’s often observed that, despite three top 10 hits, the Bunnymen ultimately never achieved the stadium status of U2 and Simple Minds. Just as significantly, neither have they secured the place in The Canon that Joy Division/New Order and the Smiths now routinely occupy. Since reforming in the late 1990s, they continue to produce alluring records and remain an enticing live act but, while I wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re tarnishing their legacy, the songs are now largely linear (the very thing Mac claimed to dislike in early masterpiece Villiers’ Terrace), join-the-dots affairs, glaringly missing the vigour of the original rhythm section, while Mac has long since retreated from his early vivid lyricism (eg “a shaking hand would transmit all fidelity”) to an all too familiar litany of sunandrainandmoonand stars. In view of Oasis and Coldplay’s acknowledged debt to the Bunnymen, he might be held indirectly responsible for the trite, unimaginative lyric writing that’s so pervasive today.
But then I remember what the Bunnymen have meant to me for so many years and, even if they are peripheral in official rock history, it makes me feel even more vindicated. I’m more than happy to share them with anyone but you must understand – they’re Mine. (PG).