Dark Train – Sing to You

Describing themselves as “Anti Pop Synth Pop”, Dark Train are an electronic duo based in Brighton. In their sunny south coast hideaway, Lauren Bateman and Marcel Ino combine their respective backgrounds in dance and post-punk and a mutual love of analog synths to produce deliciously moody sounds that are equal parts sinister and intriguing, as shown to great effect on “Sing to You”.

Dark Train recently supported at the live debut of Empathy Test, another of this year’s exciting new synth bands and longtime favourites of this site. Dark Train next play live at Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar in Brighton, playing Brighton Rocks in support of The Dirty Divine and Pleasure House, on Friday 7th November. Tickets are £4 (four pounds! why would you not go?)

In the meantime, check out Dark Train on Soundcloud, Facebook and Twitter:

https://soundcloud.com/darktrain
https://www.facebook.com/Darktrainishere
https://twitter.com/DarkTrainIsHere

Oasis – Supersonic

Back in April 2014 the BBC ran a series of shows and promotions under the banner title “20 years of Britpop”. The logic behind the choice of time and place for the start of that 20 year period is fuzzy and vague, but they mention the death of Kurt Cobain (5 April 1994) and the release of Parklife (25 April 1994) as touchpoints.

There’s also a claim that Stuart Maconie coined the term Britpop, a claim that will come as news to John Robb, who runs www.louderthanwar.co.uk and who has said that he first used the term in the late ’80s while discussing the “madchester” scene. John Harris doesn’t offer anything as vulgar as an exact date in his book “The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English rock”, but he does tie the term’s mainstream acceptance with the rise, in 1994-5, of Blur, a band who had come a long way in a short time: from windy Primrose Hill to Westminster, to be precise.

Blur - ParklifeLike my Mum always used to say, though, it doesn’t matter who started it. And I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s touching to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a musician by scheduling two weeks of programming in celebration of the scene that his music was often placed in direct opposition to. What we do know is that between the death of Cobain and the birth of Parklife, a new band from Manchester burst onto the scene. Their rivalry with Blur (fabricated or no) would do as much as anything to shape the public perception of Britpop.

“Supersonic”, the debut single by Oasis, was released on 11 April 1994. It went into the charts at #31, three places below “Standing Outside the Fire” by Garth Brooks and four behind “Why Me?” by pop titans PJ & Duncan, both of which were also new entries that week. It was also a week that saw the artist then known as the artist formerly known as Prince at number one (I think. He’s listed as “Symbol” on the Official Charts web site at this point): other than Terrorvision at 24 with “Oblivion”, there was a general dearth of British guitar bands in the chart.

The singles chart wasn’t entirely forbidden ground in 1994: Suede had reached #3 in February with “Stay Together”, while Elastica bruised the Top 20 with “Line Up” in the same month, and Inspiral Carpets had also reached the Top 20 with both “Saturn 5” and “I Want You”. Inspiral Carpets had been in the charts since “Move” reached #49 in 1989, though, and these were their 12th and 13th hits respectively. “I Want You” also featured a typically shouty vocal from Mark E Smith of Manchester legends and Peel favourites The Fall. As powerful as this combination was, it hardly felt like the future.

You need to be yourself

John Harris - The Last PartyOne man who might have taken an interest in the fortunes of Inspiral Carpets was their former roadie, Noel Gallagher. In 1988 he had auditioned, unsuccessfully, to replace Steve Holt as the band’s lead singer. Tom Hingley, whose band Too Much Texas had supported Inspiral Carpets a few times, got that gig, but the band saw something in Gallagher’s cocksure attitude and soon enough he was on tour with them. Hingley, who hadn’t known about Gallagher’s audition at the time, later described Gallagher as “a very smart, funny, street urchin: a bit like the Artful Dodger”. He lugged and delegated until 1992 when Inspiral Carpets could no longer afford to keep him on, by which time he had joined and pretty much taken charge of a band that already featured his brother Liam on vocals, along with Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs, Paul McGuigan, and a “just-about-competent drummer named Tony McCarroll”. Instilling a keen work ethic in his band-mates and creating relatively straightforward songs for them to play, he set about turning Oasis into the biggest band in the country.

You can’t be no-one else

Part of that plan was finding the right record label. At the end of May 1993, Creation records boss Alan McGee was in Glasgow to see the live debut of the Big Star inspired Sister Lovers, whose members included his good friend Debbie Turner. Oasis weren’t on the bill that night, but shared rehearsal space at the Boardwalk in Manchester with Sister Lovers and came along to blag a support slot. The way the story is generally told from that point is that a pissed up McGee heard one song and knew there and then that he was going to sign this band of cocky Mancs.

Oasis - ColumbiaOasis’ first release was “Columbia”; it was well received and even made its way onto Radio 1 despite being a limited edition promo only 12″. Their first single proper, “Supersonic”, was released in April 1994. It entered the charts at number 31, and dropped out again after just one week.

At this early stage, in the eyes of my friends Oasis was just one of those weird bands I was into, where weird means new, not very popular, not obviously destined for greatness. One day, though, in the not-too-distant future, they would be queueing with me in Manchester city center, part of an early morning snake of freezing bodies, gloved hands wrapped round cheap coffee in cheaper polystyrene cups, constantly batting back rumours that the gig was sold out, until those rumours became fact and there was no choice but to trudge home. Seeing Oasis live would have to wait.

But back to April ’94. Maybe it was tied up with being in Manchester during the ripples of the Madchester aftershock, the ruination of Factory and the corporatisation of the clubbing scene. Maybe it was all those endless 80s student nights (Club Tropicana at the Manchester Academy, anyone?) and cheesy Manchester clubs that the characters from Coronation Street would visit on a big night out in town (Royales, anyone?). Maybe it was a lack of competition in the “exciting British bands” category at the time. Whatever it was, “Supersonic” was a bolt from the blue.

No-one’s gonna tell you what I’m on about

It starts with a confident piece of no-nonsense drumming (“Meat and potatoes” as I swear I heard Tony Parsons once describe it, although I can’t find a reference to back that up) from McCarroll, met by one of Noel’s simple but incredibly evocative guitar melodies, and a slice of rhythm guitar from Bonehead that’s as dense as your granny’s fruitcake. And then Liam of the ridiculous vowel sounds chips in with the kind of lyric that I am sure is exactly the sort of thing my friends meant when they said “weird bands”.

Let’s be clear: this is drivel.

You need to be yourself
You can’t be no one else
I know a girl called Elsa
She’s into Alka Seltzer
She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train
She made me laugh
I got her autograph
She done it with a doctor on a helicopter
She’s sniffin in her tissue
Sellin’ the Big Issue

But what a chorus, what a racket, what a feeling (hell – more than a feeling!). And what’s more, it fades out on one of those double-tracked loopy, bendy guitar solos that I’m a complete sucker for. It’s Teenage Fanclub’s I Don’t Know (Burnage boys are mad for it remix).

I’m feeling supersonic, give me gin and tonic

Did you know that Oasis have had eight number one singles in the UK? That’s as many as The Rolling Stones, and only one below ABBA and The Spice Girls. Remarkable, really, especially when you consider the list includes songs like “The Hindu Times” and “Lyla”. You probably don’t remember those two songs all that well, because you probably stopped listening to Oasis after the musical cocaine party that was Be Here Now. Many people did the same. And yet many (enough) people went out and bought each new single as though it was actually an exciting event. Mostly, they did this during the song’s first week of release, because not one of Oasis’ eight number ones have lasted more than a week at the top. This feat of short-evity puts them in interesting company: of the artists with four or more number one UK singles only Eminem, David Guetta and One Direction have also failed to spend a second week at number one.

Oasis - Be Here Now

Perhaps more remarkable is that while some of their late career singles reached the top, the song that perhaps defines them more than any other only reached #2. And no, I don’t mean “Roll With It”, the joke-inspiring single that battled with Blur during Britpop’s commercial peak and creative nadir. Not that, but “Wonderwall”. Iconic, instantly recognisable, and tragically easy to play on an acoustic guitar, as anyone who’s ever spent a night in a music festival campsite can attest. As good as it is, though, some might say (ahem) that Oasis’ version of the song is not the best. Personally, I would put this above it:

And also this, depending on the jollity of my mood:

Brilliantly, the Mike Flowers Pops version of “Wonderwall” was released at the end of 1995, while the Oasis original was still in the chart, and very nearly stole the Christmas number one position from Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”. I say “Oasis original”, but after it was cheekily declared on Radio 1 that the Mike Flowers Pops cover was in fact an original song from the 50s, Noel Gallagher received a transatlantic phone call from a nervous record label suit to verify that he had in fact written the song. “You bunch of dicks”, said Noel, later.

But he can smile about it now, perhaps helped by the fact that “Wonderwall” reversed its descent out of the top ten and spent a few extra weeks in the chart on the back of the success of the lounge cover. This bonus chart time might also have helped soften the blow of being beaten to the top spot in the first place by singing soldiers Robson and Jerome and their double a-side “I Believe / Up on the Roof”.

But before tomorrow

Blair GallagherWhen did it become the norm to dismiss Oasis, eh?. They did get progressively rubbisher as time went on, it’s true, but it’s sometimes hard to square the modern-day revisionism with the astonishing sales figures of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and Be Here Now and the scale of live events like their immense two days at Knebworth. In a way they became victims not of their own success, but the failures of others, doomed to be forever remembered for Noel’s visit to Downing Street, getting chummy with Blair and the now faintly embarrassing notion of Cool Britannia, or their part in Britpop’s downfall with the ludicrous chart face-off against Blur. There’s also backlash to feel in the form of music journalists of the day hastily recanting their 5-star-fulsomeness for Be Here Now. On its release said to have been a masterpiece; subsequently: an overblown wreck. Journalists, perhaps, were themselves too happy to indulge in some of what we might call “Gallagher’s ruin”.

I don’t listen to Oasis very often any more, but when Definitely Maybe was re-issued earlier this year I enjoyed some quality nostalgia-time with it, hearing “Slide Away” and “Cloudburst” (originally a Live Forever b-side) for the first time in a long time. It’s been a long time since I was excited by anything new from Oasis, but I can’t deny that for a while back there in the 90s I was just a little bit mad for it.

The Boo Radleys – Lazarus

1993 was the year Select magazine told the Yanks where to go. Specifically: home. Don’t turn around now, we don’t need you any more.

Because now we have Suede (who you will come to know as The London Suede, and even with that ridiculous name they’ll still be amazing), Denim (the band, not the material, which I guess you made famous, but it’s a French name, so not really yours), Saint Etienne (definitely very, very English, but, um, named after a French football club, big in the 70s), and The Auteurs (whose English lead singer, Luke Haines, doesn’t actually like England all that much, but they do have a song called “American Guitars” which we think is about dumb American music, and even though it isn’t really, and is in fact a dig at British bands lazily aping US sounds instead of finding their own voice… look, that’s not really the point. Anyway, where was I?). And then there was Pulp, who would take another year to truly hit the big time with His n Hers in 1994. Jarvis was already quotable, though:

What I’ve seen of MTV in Radio Rentals’ window I don’t like.

Fast forward 20 years and Jarvis is still Jarvis. Not so much the other two though.

So. 1993. We had the bands, we didn’t need the Yanks. Except the biggest selling single of the year was Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”, and the best selling album of the year was Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell. By Meat Loaf.

Oh well, perhaps Select just meant its rebuke in the context of proper guitar bands. Sorry, “proper” guitar bands. There’s a slight problem there, too, in that the second best-selling album of the year was Automatic For The People by R.E.M., released the previous Autumn but number one on three different occasions in 1993 after the success of “Everybody Hurts” in the singles chart.

In May, Blur released their second album, the very English sounding, and very English feeling Modern Life is Rubbish. They took it to America, along with Damon Albarn’s Kinks collection, suffered apathy and homesickness and returned to dear old Blighty only to find the music press in the thrall of Brett Anderson and Suede, who picked up the inaugural Mercury Music prize, allegedly beating a very (even more so than usual) bitter Luke Haines’ Auteurs by one vote.

As ever, most of the really interesting music was taking place away from center stage, behind the curtain, in the wings, or was yet to be. Sub Sub had a massive hit this year with “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t no Use)”: three years later a studio fire would reduce their work to ashes; in 1998 they started all over again as Doves.

Giant Steps Up! (Forever)

Neither Denim nor Pulp released studio albums in 1993, while Select placed New Wave by The Auteurs at number 6 in their end of year countdown. Suede’s self-titled debut was at four, just behind The Aphex Twin, and One Dove. Topping them all was a widescreen vision of breathtaking scope and accomplishment from an unpredictable, unexpected source.

…it’s like being hypnotised in a wind tunnel

The Boo Radleys had come a long way from their debut, Ichabod & I, released on Action Records in 1990. Lo-fi, scratchy, fuzzy and infatuated with J Mascis, it barely exists at all – a limited initial run has never been followed by a reprint or reissue. Everything’s Alright Forever, released in 1992 after the band had moved to Creation Records, was largely self-produced by the band. The sound is satisfyingly dense; layers of sound wash over tracks like “Losing it (Song for Abigail)” like an unexpected studio spillage. Mostly the result of their knob-twiddling is a sort of psychedelic shoegazing, but when they plug it all in at once it’s like being hypnotised in a wind tunnel.

By the time Giant Steps was released in August ’93, Martin Carr was in full-on experimentation mode, talking of how he didn’t like to repeat an idea in the same song, let alone across the same album, and playing like he meant it. “I Hang Suspended” and “If You Want it, Take it” are exceptions that prove the rule: it’s like the Boos are telling you they could knock this sort of thing out all day long if they had to, or felt so inclined, but with a Chris Tarrant-style “Millionaire” flourish, they don’t want to give you that, they want to give you “Upon 9th and Fairchild” and a howling guitar, and a song that veers from dub to post-punk and back again. Or how about a melody and arrangement that could be The Kinks, could be The Beatles, and manages to mix wailing feedback with what I assume is a clarinet. All this variety, all this experimentation could go horribly wrong in less skilled hands, but Carr knows when to hold back and let the horns and harmonies take over, and for the most part the patchwork pieces are strong enough that a more bombastic band would have stretched them into an epic triple album. As it was, Giant Steps was almost too much to take in at the time. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was a mild letdown after all the expectation, or the most brilliantly, thrillingly ambitious album of its day.

The only certain disappointment in Giant Steps is the song that should have been the album’s peak, and which was the song that had got me so worked up for the album in the first place. Near the end of 1992, The Boo Radleys released a single, “Lazarus”, that was a world away from the layered obfuscation of Everything’s Alright Forever. 6 minutes long and change, it’s eerie, spacey, and builds tension through a thrilling three minute intro. An organ roll ushers in the horns, and suddenly all the music in the world is happening at once. And then – brilliantly – they cut the switch almost immediately for an acoustic guitar, slightly distorted vocals and “ba-baa” Beach Boys harmonies.

I… I must be losing my mind

They repeat the loud / quiet pattern a couple of times and then that’s it, all gone, see you next time. It’s devastatingly simple. And perhaps it’s a description I hook out too easily, but it’s perfect.

On Giant Steps, “Lazarus” appears half-way through side two, just sort of quietly slotted in there between “Take The Time Around” and “One is For” like it’s nothing special. The brooding menace of the first part of the intro from the single version is gone, and the rest of the intro gets an overdub featuring way too much left-to-right-channel then right-to-left-channel swishing.

The thing of it is, even with all that tampering, it’s still perfect.

1992 – The Loved Albums

Having made my choice for 1992’s Tracks of my Years playlist, I was hit by a flood of thoughts of what might have been. This was the year that my music collection truly started to begin the burgeon: my purchasing power still lagged behind my curiosity, but as both grew, so did my library. I was flying in all directions, chasing down new sounds, both “new new” and “new old”. From the latter category came the likes of Nick Drake, Van Morrison and Big Star. Some of the very best of the newness is contained within this here list of ten great albums released in 1992 (as well as one that wasn’t):

Ride – Going Blank Again

Somewhere between the fuzzy haze of Nowhere and the glistening groove of Carnival of Light was Ride‘s second album, Going Blank Again. Instrument-heavy and lyric-light (the entire lyric of “Not Fazed” is essentially “I won’t be a monkey in anyone’s zoo, and I won’t get fazed whatever you do. Hit him again he’s crazy” with a few ah-ahhhs thrown in, but it stretches out for nearly four and a half minutes) it’s prog-shoegazing, but at the same time not actually like either of those things. Which is good if, like me, you’re not all that sure about prog.

The main thing to note about Going Blank Again is that it is consistently very, very cool. For most of the 50+ minute running time it’s a succession of descending or ascending chord sequences and drum fills, with not much of a nod to old fashioned notions such as the verse or the chorus. There are lyrics here and there, and a couple of radio-friendly moments (“Twisterella” and “Making Judy Smile”) but for the most part it’s all about the long and floppy-haired groove. On and on it goes, like a never-ending, but very satisfying dream.

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Honey’s Dead

Simon Reynolds described The Jesus and Mary Chain as “record collection rock”, meaning not so much music steeped in its own past as music that demanded you were steeped in its past. Or at the very least, schooled in its influences. That way, like the music bore who knows and owns everything, yet feels nothing, you could “enjoy” the songs all the more.

The Jesus and Mary Chain - Honey's DeadIn 1992 I didn’t even know that much about The Jesus and Mary Chain’s earlier albums, let alone possess a record collection stuffed full of the influences they were so happy to lift from, but even I could feel the attitude dripping from the case of Honey’s Dead every time I went to listen to it. Listen closely enough and you can almost hear them respond to that classic line “what are you rebelling against?” with a terse “hey, do you mind? I’m trying to get some perfectly placed feedback going on here. Jeez”.

Reynolds also observed that as alternative and anti-pop, they shunned synths and dancefloors “to the extreme with their music’s utter lack of rhythmic thrust”. That’s not entirely true of Honey’s Dead – tracks like “Far Gone and Out”, “I Can’t Get Enough” and “Tumbledown” do have a certain impetus, even if the sheer effort of it all seems to have left them listlessly swaying in slo-mo for the rest of the album.
Except for “Reverence”, that is. Banned by BBC Radio 1, and Top of the Pops because of its lyric (all that dying, JFK, Jesus Christ stuff apparently not suitable tea-time content in Auntie’s eyes), it trips along on a perky, programmed-sounding beat and more or less constant feedback. The kids on Top of the Pops would have loved it.

R.E.M. – Automatic For The People

What can I say? R.E.M. were the first band I became obsessed by. They were my first, and probably still deepest musical love. Between the release of Out of Time and Automatic for the People I went out and bought everything I could find, including the Chronic Town EP on cassette – purchased along with a Fables tour t-shirt while on a trip to California.

I was worried that it would all fall apart, that Automatic would be a dud, that I’d be left disappointed with my stock.

I needn’t have worried. It was more accomplished, more confident, more rounded than Out of Time, which quickly started to look like a tentative warm-up for the main act.

Moose – XYZ

I had been led to believe that Moose were a shoegazing outfit. That’s just what I was told (not only that, but their on-stage antics, or lack of, had possibly inspired the term in the first place). Imagine my surprise, then, when I first listened to …XYZ. As “Slip and Slide” started I didn’t have long to register my confusion: coming and going as it did in 74 seconds, albeit at the rough pace of a man pulling an anvil against his will.

Imagine, too, my embarrassment that this was taking place near the till of Revolution records, the only independent record store I knew at the time. Bloke probably thinks I’m some sort of weirdo, I figured, and is it hot in here, or is it just me. Where did all these other people come from? Why are they pretending to browse the singles rack while secretly laughing at my this album I’ve innocently asked to have a quick listen to?

But then “Little Bird” came on, and even though it still wasn’t the sound of understated cool I’d hoped for, it was bloody good. Purchase made – shop exited sharply.

Once home, safe, I could savour the country-tinged tracks like their cover of “Everybody’s Talkin'”, the rollicking Soon is Never Soon Enough and The Whistling Song, and relax and float downstream with “This River is Nearly Dry”. If there are hints of shoegazing to be found, then look to the dense layers of “Screaming” (or seek out their earlier EPs, where the label is much more accurate).

The Cure – Wish

Albums by The Cure that I definitely own:

  • Wish
  • Show
  • Paris
  • Greatest Hits (the 2CD version with all the acoustic versions)

Yep. Not exactly a connoisseur, am I? I’m the guy next to you at the Cure gig checking my watch wondering if they’re going to be finishing up soon, or if my knackered old legs can stand for another hour of back catalogue trawling.

I might also have a copy of Wild Mood Swings, but I’m really not sure. I know that I nearly bought Standing on a Beach a hundred times, but you know that thing was really pricey at a time when I couldn’t afford the luxury, so it always ended up back on the shelf. Don’t blame me, blame the big stores for their weird pricing strategy.

Wish, though, will always have a special place in my heart, whether it’s for “Friday I’m In Love”, which I am happy to enjoy even though I’m apparently not supposed to because it’s their “Shiny Happy People”, or the unadulterated fun of “Doing the Unstuck”, or the meandering grooves like “Cut” and From the “Edge of the Deep Green Sea”. I like it so much that I don’t even mind that it’s over an hour long, which is pretty lengthy for a 12-tracker

It’s a perfect day for letting go,
for setting fire to bridges, boats and other dreary worlds you know
Let’s get happy!

The House of Love – Feel

1992 was a year of unnecessary suffering and repeated misfortune. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was number one. Again. Stars by Simply Red was the bestselling album in the UK. Again. The Tories won a general election. Again. England flunked an international football tournament. Again.

And The House of Love released an album of untouchably beautiful guitar music, and the world wouldn’t listen.

Again, and again, and thrice again.

The House of Love - The House of LoveHaving twice managed to miss the Top 40 by just one place in 1989 with “Never” and “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”, in 1991 The House of Love released “Girl With The Loneliest Eyes” as a teaser for the forthcoming album Babe Rainbow. It was a #58 smash. Then, in 1992 The House of Love exceeded themselves by missing out three more times. Like a pathetic drunk on a bungee run, each time they tried to score a hit they just ended up further away than before. “Feel” reached #45, “You Don’t Understand” gave up at #46, and finally “Crush Me” could go no higher than #67.

Sometimes you crush me
Sometimes words will not deny
that you crush me
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Sometimes you crush me

Meanwhile, Melody Maker were making cover stars of Suede before they’d even released their debut single “The Drowners”, declaring them “The best new band in Britain” in April. It was all wrong. The House of Love knew how it felt to be pitched as the next big thing, signing to Fontana for big bucks (£400,000 was the rumoured figure) after their perfect self-titled debut album for Creation. Fontana, perhaps wanting a quick return on at least some of the outlay, shoved the band straight into the studio. The result was “Never”, and we already know how well that charted.

At twenty-five and sick of life

The unhappy departure of guitarist Terry Bickers – abandoned mid-tour, dumped from the tour bus dropped at a train station – seemed a mere distraction when a new version of “Shine On” made the Top 40. It was followed by a well-received second album, and single “The Beatles and the Stones”, charting lead singer Guy Chadwick’s relationship with the bands, and his formative years (“The Beatles and the Stones / made it good to be alone”) made it two from two when it reached #36.

Somewhere along the line, though, the yarn began to unravel. Articles about the musical talent turned were replaced by articles about the band’s hedonistic lifestyle and talent for self-destruction. Drugs and money were both reputedly being burnt backstage. Soon the band started to slip from the limelight; a sporadically brilliant compilation of previously unreleased material appeared, but by the time Babe Rainbow was released in 1992, madchester had risen, exploded and fallen, and suddenly The House of Love’s 60s influences were out. Suede’s brash sense of 70s glam was more the people’s speed.

My theme is: lose the plot
fuck around and drink a lot

The House of Love - Babe Rainbow

Babe Rainbow was a beautiful creation. It took its name from a piece by Peter Blake (his efforts on a certain Beatles album are slightly better known), which appeared on the album’s cover, and tempered its moods of despair and decay with shining guitar sounds and mellow Guy Chadwick vocals. On its release, Babe Rainbow barely dented the Top 40 before shuffling off to become one of pop’s great lost albums. Despite the melancholic splendour of “The Girl with the Loneliest Eyes”, the anthemic “Feel”, and the collapsing beauty of “Yer Eyes”, no-one seemed particularly interested. Even Terry Bickers probably paid it no mind, at least until he heard Guy Chadwick say the band didn’t miss him because Chadwick had played 90% of the guitar parts anyway. By now, though, Bickers was a member of Levitation, whose album Need For Not was released on May 4th. And, yes, they did the Star Wars pun thing.

A final House of Love studio album, Audience With The Mind was recorded in a lightning-fast 12 days, and was released to decent applause if not exactly fulsome praise. Tracks included a follow-up to Shine On, called “Shining On”, and “Into The Tunnel” – an eight-minute epic that Chadwick had spent the best part of a decade working on. It sold about 4 copies. It was to be an anticlimactic end for a band that had once been touted as the new U2.

Shining On

Guy Chadwick went on to form The Madonnas, a band that released precisely no albums or singles, although they did play live at least once, supporting The Cranberries in Manchester. I know this because I was there. Chadwick then embarked on a brief solo career, with the release of Lazy, soft and slow, a down-tempo collection of love-adorned ballads variously described as “sleep-inducingly samey” (Uncut, March 1998), or “Masterfully understated stuff from a much missed and quietly inspirational maverick” (MOJO, March 1998).

The House of Love - She Paints Words in RedThen, suddenly, gloriously, happily, The House of Love reformed, Chadwick and Bickers burying the hatchet to record and tour together. The comeback didn’t disappoint: old songs like “Christine”, “Love in a Car” and “Hope” still sounded magnificent live; new album, Days Run Away, was the sound of a band released from the pressure of expectation, wiser than before, but with the same wicked way with a melody. In 2013, The House of Love released a sixth album, She Paints Words in Red. Listening to it doesn’t recapture the excitement of those early albums, but it’s magical in its own way: it’s just enough to know The House of Love are still around, despite everything.

Teenage Fanclub – Star Sign

This is where picking a single song to represent a year starts to get tricky. 1991 wasn’t where everything changed for me, but it’s a time defined by discoveries, some more exciting than others. By far the most obvious choice to represent this year would be R.E.M.; I fell in love with “Losing My Religion” and Out of Time, and spent most of the rest of the year in awed obsession, hoovering up their entire back catalogue while I waited for the remarkable, incredible Automatic for the People to be released.

1991 was a time of looking in all directions before choosing a road. One day in September I bought three albums that summed up my search: On Every Street by Dire Straits, Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and Leisure by Blur. Something old, something something, something new. Which musical path to take? In the end I chose the road less travelled. Perhaps just to get a way from the banality of life, perhaps to show what a remarkable thinking iconoclast I was, or perhaps because 1991 was the year pop finally gave up and stopped trying to keep me interested.

It was a year of greatest hits, re-issues, novelties, musicals: didn’t anyone care any more? Bryan Adams was number one for the whole of the summer (just you keep your British weather jokes to yourself, all right?) and for a while it looked like he would steal Autumn from us too. 16 weeks at the top – who was out there buying (Everything I do) I do it for You after four months? “Well, it’s just been such a busy summer, I haven’t had time…”

It took the release of U2’s first single in over two years, “The Fly”, to bring interesting back, but then suddenly Vic Reeves and The Wonder Stuff were number one with “Dizzy”, completing a hat-trick of chart-topping comedians for the year after The Simpsons (“Do The Bartman”, 3 weeks) and Hale & Pace (“The Stonk”, 1 week). The bestselling singles of 1991 also included “Any Dream Will Do”, “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop song)”, and “I’m Too Sexy”. After Freddie Mercury’s death in November, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was re-released and became the year’s second biggest selling single.

Live and Unreleased

Various Artists - Live and UnreleasedAs Queen were on the verge of topping both the album and singles charts at the end of 1991, the latest issue of Vox magazine was published. Attached to that December 1991 issue was a free cassette – Live and Unreleased – featuring 14 exclusive tracks from the BBC Radio 1 Mark Goodier show. Alongside less remembered names like The Dylans, Milltown Brothers, Paris Angels and Spirea X, the last track on the tape was a stunning version of “Everything Flows”, a track from Teenage Fanclub’s first album, A Catholic Education. In contrast to the relatively leaden album version, it rips along, and Raymond McGinley’s guitar solos (if you can call them that) are note perfect.

Bandwagonesque

Teenage Fanclub’s second album, Bandwagonesque, was released in November 1991, and although it hasn’t been representative of the band’s sound for a long time, it is still what I think of first when I hear their name. At this time the back pages of Melody Maker and NME were your passport to a world of gig listings, extra-special import albums, and all the band merchandise you could possibly, conceivably lust after. Basically, t-shirts and posters, really. You sent off your postal order and within mere weeks a cardboard tube would find its way to you containing, say, album artwork from the latest Tom Petty release, or a stupidly big image of Michael Stipe’s shadowed, downcast face from the cover of Losing My Religion. Or even a Teenage Fanclub Bandwagonesque tour poster, the only disappointing aspect of which is the thought that Geffen apparently paid Gene Simmons because of a trademark he held in the image of a moneybag with a dollar sign on it.

Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque

It’s an album that is proud to show off its influences, in particular Alex Chilton and Big Star, and if that makes it in any way regressive or unoriginal, well, frankly who cares? It starts with the opening three-part masterpiece “The Concept” (I’d give anything for this to be as well known as Bohemian Rhapsody), and finishes with the instrumental “Is This Music?”, which I seem to recall soundtracking the Goal of the Month competition on Match of the Day for a while. Between these two you’ll find various flavours of perfection: “Alcoholiday” is all glam stomp and harmonies, and “I Don’t Know” contains a guitar line that will never be bettered. Seriously, stop trying, put down your instruments, this game’s been won already.

Then there’s “What You Do To Me”. A second shy of two minutes, it’s short, sweet, and succulent – “I know, I can’t believe / there’s something about you got me down on my knees” – and if I once heard it compared to Status Quo, I’ll just attribute that to the fact that the accuser (a known Bryan Adams fan) must have had them on his mind after watching them accept their Outstanding Contribution to Music Award at the Brits that year.

“Star Sign” is perhaps the best example of their slacker rhythm and combined guitars. It’s essentially Big Star with long hair (incidentally the name of a Teenage Fanclub track from the b-side of The Concept that shares some common DNA with Star Sign) and a sudden and surprisingly easy-going approach to life. with a lyric offering a casual dismissal of superstitious beliefs and behaviours

After Bandwagonesque came the weedier Thirteen, cut from more transparent cloth but sporting much the same pattern. Grand Prix hinted at what a comfortable-again Teenage Fanclub were capable of, and with Songs From Northern Britain they once again proved themselves masters of melody and harmony. All of these albums have spawned great singles, only one of which, somewhat surprisingly, made the Top 20 (“Ain’t That Enough” reached #17 in 1997).

To some, 1991 was all about Nevermind. Spin magazine famously chose Bandwagonesque as its number one album for the year, though, and even as they try to backtrack from that bold decision and engage in some retrospective herd-following, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t even have Nevermind in second place that year. It was actually third, behind Out of Time. Personally I’m impressed they got the order so spot on first time.

The Charlatans – Sproston Green

A new decade
The radio plays the sounds we made
And everything seems to feel just right

So sang Richard Ashcroft on The Verve‘s song “A New Decade”, released in, er… 1995.

A new decade: a time of excitement, anticipation of what might be. But also a time of looking back. Thinking of what might have been. “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths” lamented Danny as his decade of fug reached a close at the end of Withnail & I.

It’s the end of an era.

Madchester was looking good in the late 80s. In the city that had already served up a generous helping of seminal 80s indie – Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses – everyone was high on… I dunno I was too young for all that, and anyway with my customary timing didn’t get to the party until it was down to its last bulb… but high on something, let’s say. No matter how underground you start, get high enough and someone will notice. Clubs started closing, authorities starting taking dim views, and didn’t like what they found in murky corners. By the mid-90s, a Conservative government clinging, terrified, to the precipice of power (a MORI poll in August had them 33 points behind Labour), brought in the “Turn that racket down, don’t you lot have homes to go to?” act, which effectively banned young people from cheering themselves up with illegal highs and “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (aka rave).

The Stone Roses still hadn’t released a second album. The Happy Mondays were probably still crashing golf carts on Barbados.

The Charlatans – probably the best Manchester band not to actually come from Manchester – had released three albums by mid 1994. The run started with Some Friendly, which went straight in at number one in the album chart. The pressure, or the glory, or something must have gone to their heads by the time they went back into the studio to record its follow-up, the mostly mediocre Between 10th and 11th, but partial redemption came in the form of 1994’s Up to Our Hips.

Two tracks from Some Friendly found their way onto two 1990 compilation albums of very different quality, both of which found their way into my music collection. Let’s get the less good of the two out of the way first.

Rhymes with Hit Pack

The Hit Pack was a 1990 compilation album that moves from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous in 24 chart hits. 24 because I bought the luxury cassette version with its extra tracks, and not the CD version, which was limited to 21. It starts promisingly: Deee-Lite‘s “Groove is in the Heart” takes Herbie Hancock‘s Bring Down the Birds and makes popsicles out of its bass riff. It’s largely a downhill journey from there, with everyone’s second favourite Black Box track, Fantasy, and everyone’s second favourite SNAP! track, Mary Had a Little Boy starting the ride.

Various Artists - The Hit Pack

The Hit Pack meanders around for the rest of its tracklisting without settling on any genre. I say meanders, but the transition from 808 State (“Cubik”) to Aztec Camera (“Good Morning Britain”) is not as bucolic as all that, while following “Show Me Heaven” by Maria McKee with Berlin‘s “Take My Breath Away” is as much of a transition as a non-committal step forward in quicksand. The standout track was “Then” by The Charlatans, with its baggy backbeat and Tim Burgess singing just outside the intelligible range of my tin ear for lyrics (the opening line is “I want to bomb your submarines”, apparently).

The worst is saved for last, however, with the unspeakably dismal “Fog on the Tyne (revisited)” by Gazza & Lindisfarne.

Skool Daze

Various Artists - Happy Daze

Let’s talk Happy Daze (Volume 1) before I start feeling retrospectively violent. In the words of Gary Crowley’s liner notes:

We feel it sums up the year the Indie Guitar Pop finally left the bedroom, hooked up with some strident dance grooves and had one hell of a bender / night out!

Not a bad summation. Apart from the curious selection of “Hippy Chick” by Soho, and the inclusion of a remix of “Circle Square” by The Wonder Stuff, it is for the most part a solidly danceable indie-dance collection. At the time it was my introduction to Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine (“Sheriff Fatman”), Ride (“Taste”), and the splendidly named New Fast Automatic Daffodils (“Big”). The Charlatans track on offer was “The Only One I Know”, which lifted lyrics from The Byrds’ “Everybody’s Been Burned” and swirled them around in a big baggy Hammond organ soup, with a strong bassline for a ladle.

I Know I’m Too Necessary

“Sproston Green” is the last track on Some Friendly, and was said to be lead singer Tim Burgess‘ favourite Charlatans song at the time. It’s the kind of song that sits up and begs to be played at a neighbour or parent-offending volume, and that’s generally how I listened to it. It’s one long groove driven by sustained chords and that insistent Hammond. Or, in the words Ian Gittins of The Guardian, it is “leaden psychedelia”. Listen to either the album version here, or the live version back up at the top of this page, and make your own mind up.

http://youtu.be/GgyS74IKxAE

The Stone Roses – She Bangs the Drums

Rough transcript of an argument I’ve had more than once on the internet:

Me: I used to listen to a lot of indie music
Them: Indie isn’t a genre.
Me: Yes it is.
Them: No, “indie” means independent. It means “not major label”.
Me: OK, firstly, no it doesn’t. The “indie” in indie chart says nothing about the label the artist was signed to. It merely refers to singles that did not use the distribution network of any of the major labels. Artists signed to labels that were subsidiaries of or owned by major labels could be included in the indie chart.

Secondly, ask anyone roughly my age who grew up listening to a certain type of guitar band in the late 80s and early 90s, and at some point they’ll use the term “indie” to describe this broad set of bands in a generic but usefully concise way.

Them: indie just means independent… [etc etc]

Now, not to cause Atlantic consternation, but the person on the other end of this argument is usually American. I think the problem stems from the fact that where our chart distinctions have always been relatively clearly defined – ie singles chart, indie chart, dance chart – charts in America have always, as far as I can tell, been completely screwy.

For example, there’s a chart called “Active Rock”. Active Rock, in case you don’t already know and are unable to intuit definition from such a vague and meaningless two-word combination, is best described as rock that isn’t quite alternative and isn’t quite as heavy as metal. More accurately, but less usefully, it’s music played by Active Rock radio stations. What is an Active Rock radio station? Why, it’s a station that plays Active Rock of course!

There’s an alternative rock chart as well, of course, which is for non-mainstream rock, but I think it can be active or inactive. Oh, and modern rock; that’s one, too. To be honest I’m not really sure where the boundaries are, and I doubt I’m the only one.

Which is why the indie chart is a perfect conception: identify a possible new chart, create a rule for it, apply the rule. Defining “indie music” might still be like catching water in a net, but saying whether a single belongs on the indie chart or not is a simple matter of checking the rules.

It just so happened that a lot of the time, the sort of music being created by bands whose work was eligible for the indie charts tended to share certain characteristics. It happened because the musicians tended to have similar goals, outlooks, influences. They were following on from 80s outsider scenes like post-punk and indie-pop. There was a desire to eschew the mainstream, to avoid the obvious, to strive for authenticity. As Richard King writes in How Soon is Now?

An “indie” band’s songs document their passage into adulthood with the odd jarring chord sequence, a sense that no one has been through this kind of thing before, vague or confused lyrics and an underfed look in their video.

Now there’s a description I recognise in much of the music that formed my early music collection.

You might think, then, that the indie chart would be a pasty, nervous, introverted thing. To an extent it was, but then a group of guys who did not at all fit that description invaded the indie charts. Here’s a list of indie chart number ones from the Spring and Summer of 1989:

  • Pixies“Monkey Gone To Heaven”
  • Beatmasters feat MC Merlin“Who’s In The House?”
  • Kylie Minogue“Hand on Your Heart”
  • Dinosaur Jr“Just Like Heaven”
  • The Christians
  • Holly Johnson, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden & Stock Aitken Waterman – “Ferry Cross The Mersey”
  • Jason Donovan“Sealed With a Kiss”
  • Pixies“Here Comes Your Man”
  • Spacemen 3“Hypnotized”
  • The Stone Roses“She Bangs the Drums”
  • Lightning Seeds“Pure”
  • Beatmasters feat Betty Boo“Hey DJ”

If you were expecting a panoply of British alt-rock greatness, you might be confused by the presence on the list of Kylie, Jason and Beatmasters. The clue to figuring out what’s going on here is the presence of Stock Aitken & Waterman, number one in May with a version of “Ferry Cross the Mersey”, recorded in support of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster the month before, in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives. Their label, PWL, was independent of the majors, so they were indie-chart eligible even if their methods and music represented a complete opposite of almost everything indie fans and musicians stood for and craved. Their songs were number one in the main singles chart as well as the indie chart, their artists were former soap stars, and while Pete Waterman might have felt like a spiritual successor to Berry Gordy’s songwriting teams at Motown, that only holds if you can imagine Holland-Dozier-Holland desperately trying to cobble “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” together in half an hour having just remembered that Marvin Gaye is popping into the studio to pick up his latest track. “The respectable face of capitalism”, he called it. A production line; an efficient hit-generating machine, in other words.

(This awkward interloping, though… it’s still better than the “Active Rock” chart. I understand that the market in America is bigger and broader than in the UK and that expanding and fragmenting charts could lead to more exposure for artists, but this can cause problems of its own, when it becomes a matter of publicity and marketing to be able to announce that your act is flying high in a particular chart. The charts then become something used to generate popularity, rather than a reflection of popularity.)

I hear my needle hit the groove

In the late 1980s, Manchester bands The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, on a diet of Ecstasy, house music and a mutual appreciation for the tradition of British guitar bands, took their danceable indie to the masses. As Ian Brown said to Nick Kent –

The Mondays and The Stone Roses have the same influences really, cos we’ve been to the same clubs. Blues nights, reggae nights, house nights, a bit of Parliament, a bit of Funkadelic… we’re all takin’ it from the same record collections, just doin’ it up different.

At first The Stone Roses sounded heavy, gritty. “So Young” felt like it wanted to toe the Joy Division bassline, but Ian Brown was no Ian Curtis. John Squire could be Johnny Marr Mk II, however, and by the time of “Sally Cinnamon” and its b-sides – “Here it Comes” and “All Across the Sands” – there were hints of a lighter, looser Stone Roses sound. Perhaps it was just the E talking, but by the time they released their debut album, they had perfected the Madchester rock/dance fusion, and were no longer so obviously in the shadow of their record collections. Tracks like “Fools Gold” and “I am the Resurrection” stretch out into the forever, groovy, funky, full of regional self-confidence, and when Brown sang, he was “the first rock vocalist to stake a claim for the Manchester accent”.

The Stone Roses opens with “I Wanna Be Adored”: it’s a statement of fact and intent. That intent would be achieved by never stopping, never standing still. The album’s second track, “She Bangs The Drums” became The Stone Roses’ first indie chart #1 and their first top 40 hit in July 1989. “The past was yours but the future’s mine”, sang Ian Brown, unaware of the brick wall around the corner. Liam Gallagher, the next to let his natural Manchester sounds sheeee-iiine, once chose it as his favourite summer anthem. Sound choice, Liam.

The following year, The Happy Mondays stormed the charts with Pills “n” Thrills and Bellyaches, and recorded two top five singles with Step On and Kinky Afro, but that was as good as it got. Madchester was over almost before it began, and both its shining indie lights lost their way. The Happy Mondays lost it in paradise, almost spending Factory into oblivion during hedonistic recording sessions in Barbados, while The Stone Roses were stuck in legal wrangle hell. Unable to record or release a follow-up, they stagnated, and when Second Coming arrived in December 1994 it was a huge disappointment, almost entirely lacking in the youthful arrogance of its predecessor, bogged down by a reliance on the old rock gods.

Bomb The Bass – Beat Dis

What do the 1945 General Election campaign in Kettering, the 1960 Grand National, the 1963 International Poultry Show at Olympia, and “Beat Dis” by Bomb the Bass have in common?

No?

Perhaps the first few seconds of this clip will help:

The voice you can hear belongs to Geoffrey Sumner, an actor and regular narrator and commentator for British Movietone News, who provided plummy commentary for all of the above.

Incidentally, in that 1945 election campaign video, the Conservative candidate turns out to be none other than the later-to-be-disgraced John Profumo. His affair with Christine Keeler in 1961 led to his resignation two years later and is often cited as one of the causes of the Conservative’s 1964 General Election defeat. In 1989 the film Scandal told the story of the affair and the aftermath; it would probably been in production at about the time that Bomb The Bass was in the UK charts. In a not particularly related co-incidence, 1963 saw, as well as Profumo’s resignation, the release of a record called Russian Roulette, on the Audio Fidelity label, which is also sampled on “Beat Dis”. The fact is that “Beat Dis” samples from so many sources across such a wide time-span you don’t have to look hard to find connections. But one more… On June 30th 1945, newspaper delivery drivers in New York started a 17-day strike that led to mayor Fiorello La Guardia reading comic strips over the air to keep the city’s children from missing out on the latest news of their heroes.

A Movietone news recording of LaGuardia exists. You might recognise his words at about 1:28…

Meanwhile, at the same time back in Kettering, Profumo was losing his parliamentary seat in the ’45 election, the holding of which was delayed in some seats because of the ongoing wakes weeks, in which the country’s workers took a well-earned break in one of the many popular resort. Resorts such as Blackpool, in fact, as captured in the 1939 presentation “Blackpool, a nation’s playground”, which was narrated by – yep, you guessed it – Geoffrey Sumner.

I digress…

Like Profumo in the 1945 election, “Beat Dis” failed to win the popular vote, stalling at #2 in the singles chart. Whereas Profumo lost out to Dick Mitchison, an Old-Etonian Labour politician, “Beat Dis” lost out to a diminutive former Aussie soap star.

The Kylie Minogue song that the public preferred was “I Should Be So Lucky”, which went on to become the third biggest selling single of 1988, after spending five weeks at number one. It was famously claimed by Stock Aitken & Waterman that they’d forgotten Kylie was coming to see them and wrote the song in under 40 minutes, which is pretty impressive, although listening to it you do wonder what they were doing for about 37 of those. I’m not saying I could have written that song in real time; let’s just say it’s about as complex as Kylie’s vocals are at this stage in her pop career.

Now That’s What I Didn’t Really Call Music

“I Should be so Lucky” was one of five Kylie songs in the end of year best-sellers list, although it was the only one to actually reach the top spot. (And calm down, pop pedants – “Especially For You”, her duet with fellow Neighbours star Jason Donovan, did reach #1, but not until the following year.) It also ended up on the eleventh in the already worryingly long-lived and successful Now! series, the cleverly titled Now That’s What I Call Music 11, exactly 50% of which I own.

Various Artists - Now That's What I Call Music 11

I don’t know why I only seem to have one half of Now 11; darkly I suspect that it belongs in someone else’s music collection. Happily, the time for them to be mad at an unknown thief has most likely passed. That said, an alternative theory would be that instead of the criminal, I am really the victim here. For the most part, Tape 1 holds no great allure for me; the songs are familiar but not necessarily loved: if I have a memory of listening as “Always on my Mind” leads into “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, and then “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”, is this just an imagined event, or a real memory? Is any modern day fondness for Candle in the Wind simply a sympathetic reaction to the lyrical butchering it received in 1997 (“Goodbye England’s rose” / “Never fading with the sunset”)?

With a single exception, the rest of the first half of Now 11 is eminently forgettable. One track, however, stands out like, well, like a “Suedehead” at a Stock Aitken and Waterman launch party. It’s this track, and this track alone that makes me suspect I once owned the whole album, predating as it does the time I started buying (into) Morrissey and The Smiths, and yet it’s one that I remember so well.

The second tape isn’t exactly stellar either, mind. Dollar, Jellybean, a Mel & Kim song that isn’t one of the ones you remember, a Bananarama song that isn’t one of the ones you remember, a Morris Minor and the Majors song that you wish you could forget… These are the filler in the Now sandwich that make you question the success of the series, even as it rumbles on after over 30 years. What songs on Now That’s What I Call Music 88 will take the place of these for the 224,000 people who made it the fastest selling album of 2014 on its release in July?

Sample this

If “Pump Up The Volume” (nearly my pick for 1987) was at the fore-front of this new realm known as sampling, then “Beat Dis” took it to a whole new level. The song’s Wikipedia entry claims an “incomplete list of samples” used in the song, and lists 25 samples. The real figure is probably two to three times as many as this. It was all the work of 20 year old DJ Tim Simenon, and cost less than £300 to produce. Samples were found and combined over drum and bass rhythms written by Simenon. It’s how both the track and its name came about:

It’s how the name Bomb The Bass came about, because the samples were either scratched in live or sampled and looped on top of the rhythm section. So the concept was one of bombing the bass line with different ideas, with a collage of sounds. Bombing was a graffiti term for writing, like people would “bomb” trains or whatever.sound on sound

Since the success of Beat Dis, Simenon has worked with a variety of artists including Neneh Cherry, Sinead O’Connor, Depeche Mode, Primal Scream and Dot Allison (One Dove).

The appeal of “Beat Dis” lies in its combinations. Samples bounce off one another in endless inventive cycles, these samples combine with the drum and bass, which results in a track that while it is completely indebted to earlier pioneers of sampling such as “Pump Up The Volume”, doesn’t just ape that song’s feel, adding some pretty meaty beats into the mix to create a track that still feels fresh, and not a milion miles away from the kind of cross-over that would be visited by the odd indie guitar band or two in the coming years…

George Harrison – Got My Mind Set on You

If I was playing for cultural cool points, I’d probably pick a track like “Pump Up The Volume” for 1987. A landmark for house music and sampling, “Pump Up The Volume” was born of a collaboration between A.R. Kane and Colourbox. A.R. Kane’s Alex Ayuli had previously been an advertising copywriter and is credited with coining the term “dream pop”, which in turn became a perfect descriptor for A.R. Kane’s music.

all you could be sure of was that they denied having any influences beyond Miles Davis, and they made records that sounded like no-one else. Sensual, spiritual, vaporous, liquid, unearthly, subterranean.Neil Kulkarni

As collaborations go, this was a particularly fractious one, and there’s actually very little of the “Pump Up The Volume” / “Anatina” 7” that contains moments of the two working together. The name given to the project – M/A/R/R/S – is taken from the first letter of the names of the members of the two groups; it was as close as they ever got.

“Pump Up The Volume” sampled other tracks prodigiously. At some point after 4AD pressed it as a white label someone in the production team at Stock Aitken & Waterman spotted a sample of their track “Roadblock”, and decided to sue. In hindsight it seems a somewhat tenuous case to make, because “Roadblock” itself used a series of samples, but sampling’s legal waters were murky and untested, and knowing SAW to be savvy operators, 4AD settled out of court. No-one else complained (Eric. B and Rakim, who were repeatedly sampled in the track, were more than happy with it), and “Pump Up The Volume” became 4AD’s first number one record.

MARRS - Pump Up The Volume

“Pump Up The Volume” went on to become the year’s tenth best-selling UK single. Its status as pioneering trailblazer for a new generation of music is somewhat tested by the fact that it was marginally outsold by The Firm’s excruciating “Star Trekkin'”. Also, it was knocked off the top spot by the distinctly square to be square Bee Gees, and their chain-dragging dirge “You Win Again”.

Following the Bee Gees at the top of the charts was “China in Your Hand” by T’Pau, featuring the vocal talents of Oswestry’s finest, Carol Decker. Still with me? Good, because today’s track is the song that couldn’t push past “China in Your Hand”, although it did manage to reach the top spot in 18 countries worldwide, including the US.

“Got My Mind Set on You” was the fifteenth best selling single of 1987, although remarkably it wasn’t even the best selling single not to reach number 1. That accolade, as I am sure you will have remembered, goes to Bruce Willis, whose version of “Under The Boardwalk” hit number 2 in July, kept off the top only by the year’s chart dominators-in-chief The Pet Shop Boys.

I know all this very precisely because I’ve looked it up (this mind-numbing fact volcano didn’t just spontaneously erupt, you know), but it’s not entirely new information to me, for 1987 is the only year that I can vividly remember recording the end of year top 40 rundown in full. The “why” of this has been lost to time; usually I would record individual tracks, but never a full chart rundown. Perhaps 1987 was a vintage pop year, or perhaps I just had a spare C90 or two that needed using up.

Got My Mind Set on Recording You One Day

“Got My Mind Set on You” was originally recorded by James Ray in 1962, and was written by Rudy Clark. A friend of Bobby Darin’s, Clark’s best known hit is “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)”, which became a hit for Cher in 1991 off the back of its appearance in the film Mermaids.

Ray’s version is a curious beast. At times it sounds soulful and strident, and there’s a richness to “Little Jimmy”‘s vocals and fun moments with the brass, but the rhythm is curiously prosaic, leaving his off-beat “to do it, to do it” lines in the chorus unsure whether to catch up with the beat or wait for the next to come along.

Having heard the song, Harrison bought it up with a view to one day recording it. His eventual take is, by contrast to Ray’s smooth, if a little sanded round the edges. How much you’ll enjoy listening to it now will be determined in no small part by how you feel about the distinctive spacey boom and echo of Jim Keltner’s drum sound. To me it’s a part of the ’80s best left behind.

In 1988, “Got My Mind Set on You” was parodied by the never-hilarious Weird Al Yankovic on his album Even Worse. Unremarkably, though possibly ironically, Weird Al’s take on the song – “(This Song’s Just) Six Words Long” – becomes tedious even before repetition fatigue sets in. Remarkably, Al scored his first US number one album this year with Mandatory Fun, a title so misleading I don’t quite know where to begin with it.

George Harrison - Cloud NineThe George Harrison album that featured “Got My Mind Set on You” was called Cloud Nine, and was released in November 1987. I liked the single, I liked the title of the album, and more importantly I liked the shot of George on the cover, with his guitar, and mirrored shades. Pretty, pretty cool, I think you’ll agree. At the time, anyway. Perhaps best to leave the look with those spacey drums.

Listening to the album now, at first I’m struggling to connect the dots and place it on a timeline with anything else I’ve fallen for, but by the end of the first chorus of “That’s What It Takes”, I can already draw six straight acoustic guitar string lines between this and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, who I’d be tentatively trying about four years later. Most of the rest of the album now passes by without raising much spark of interest from me, though. Even “Wreck of the Hesperus”, which was a favourite, while pleasantly melodic, and still lyrically interesting even if I never did quite understand the line: ”I’m not being a power of attorney. But I can rock as good as Gibraltar”.

David Bowie – Underground

I know what I should be writing about for my 1986 entry in the Tracks of my Years playlist. Released in late summer that year, Graceland was soon everywhere. People I knew who had never shown the slightest interest in or inclination to talk about music were discussing “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”, “Homeless” and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Chevy Chase put in an appearance in the video for “You can Call me Al”, and everyone loved it.

Graceland opens with “The Boy in the Bubble”, and a typically sublime Paul Simon lyric:

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby, don’t cry
Don’t cry

But 1986 also belonged, in a small and very localised way perhaps extending only to my known universe, to David Bowie, thanks largely to his role as Jareth the Goblin King in the Jim Henson film “Labyrinth”, released late on in the year.

I’m being completely serious here.

In the words of its Tristar trailer, “Labyrinth” combines “the imagination of Jim Henson” with “the wizardry of George Lucas”, and completes this melting pot of empty marketing sentiments with “the excitement of David Bowie”. It tells the story of a girl’s journey to “the castle beyond the Goblin city”. Not somewhere she would normally bother making the trip for but on this occasion she is more or less obliged on account of her having unwittingly asked evil Goblin King Jareth’s underlings to take her baby away. If she doesn’t reach the castle in thirteen hours, her kid brother will become just another of Jareth’s subjects, consigned to a lifetime of goblin drudgery and having to listen to Bowie’s bizarre accent-bending intonations. Vogon poetry would be such sweet music in comparison.

“Labyrinth” was Jim Henson’s last feature production; its commercial failure was for Henson a painful contrast to the success of “The Dark Crystal” in 1982. It’s hokum, to a degree, but good hokum at that. It’s got a fairytale storyline, helping hands, a feisty dog riding a docile dog, a smitten dwarf, and the classic “one of us always tells the truth, the other always lies” logic puzzle. It even has David Bowie twirling his glassy balls (or pretending to, at least, while juggler Michael Moschen performed blind “crystal ball manipulation” from a luxury position somewhere ‘neath Bowie’s underarm). All around are brilliant Henson creations.

Jareth wears eight distinct costumes over the course of the film, often being seen in black boots, long, ragged cloaks, a black sparkly jacket, eye makeup, baggy shirts and contoured trousers. He carries a riding crop in some scenes.Wiki

But it was the music that won me over, even if looking back on the soundtrack now it seems pretty light on classic Bowie: there’s a smattering of electronica, like the imminent doom signalled by “Into the Labyrinth”, meandering instrumentals like “Sarah” and “Home at Last”, and the madcap head-switching of “Chilly Down”, a Bowie track in all but vocals. Moments of true Bowieness are few: “Within You” just about survives under the onslaught of its own melodrama, and Bowie’s pained attempts to reach the high notes without switching to falsetto, while “Magic Dance” is “Let’s Dance” rewritten with Goblin backing vocals and cringe-inducing gurgles – in the movie’s “making of” documentary, Into the Labyrinth, Bowie owns up to being the source of these baby noises after the baby selected had clammed up (“I thought, what the hell, I’ve done laughing gnome”), so on the one hand kudos for doing whatever it took to get the job done, but on the other hand, maybe taking a step back and rewriting the lyric, and ditching the line “then baby said” might have been a better option?

Compared to some, Bowie had a relatively easy time of it. Here’s poor old Jim Henson on his filming travails:

Working with a baby had its problems but then I tried directing chickens

All that dedication to the art, and still it went unappreciated by the critics. You wonder what they want from people sometimes.

The highlight of the soundtrack, though, is “Underground”, which makes a cameo appearance at the start of the film, with the full version held back for the end credits. It’s a glorious pop masterpiece (being serious again, here) that morphs into a soul jam, rolls into bar-room piano, heads off briefly into jazzy hammond. In parts it is absolutely drowning in saxophone, but somehow that all seems to be ok.

The song’s clash of realities video melds various aspects of Bowie. It starts with him performing, as himself, in a club, then flashes through various characters he has inhabited. Bowie falls through animated sequences that introduce scenes and characters from the film, Jareth’s crystal balls get a roll-on part, and in the end the real Bowie finds himself in the company of some of the film’s creatures.

Like the film, “Underground” didn’t do great business, stalling at 21 in the UK Top 40 on its release in June 1986.

U2 – The Unforgettable Fire

On Sunday 15th July 2007, readers of the UK’s Mail on Sunday found a little gift to go with their morning dose of casual xenophobia and Royal gossip. This gift was in the form of a CD – the new album by Prince, in fact, whose management had arranged the tie-in in lieu of a conventional album release. For many of the readers it was probably the first and last Prince entry in their collection. For others, it was probably the first and last Mail on Sunday…

Radiohead - In Rainbows

Three months later, on 10th October, Radiohead released their new album In Rainbows as a digital download, allowing fans to pay whatever they wanted for it. With no minimum price specified, it was claimed that nearly two-thirds of people who downloaded the album opted to take their cue from the illegal download market and quietly grabbed it for free1. (No doubt some of them swore to pay later, or definitely buy the next one anyway). If you take into account the freeloaders, the average price paid was $2.26, which is probably about the cost of The Mail on Sunday at the time.

Not everyone was keen on the idea at the time. Many, including Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers, felt Radiohead and the “free music” model were demeaning music. U2’s manager Paul McGuiness was also sceptical:

Sixty to 70% of the people who downloaded the record stole it anyway, even though it was available for free.Paul McGuiness

The same methods would not work for U2, he said, who still relied heavily on sales of physical CDs. Intriguingly, though, he also said this:

We will obviously work with whatever technology is available to make the release of the new record as interesting as possible.

Speaking to the NME at the time, Bono, who probably doesn’t read The Mail on Sunday, felt Radiohead were –

courageous and imaginative in trying to figure out some new relationship with their audience… Such imagination and courage are in short supply right now.NME

Fast forward another five months, and The Charlatans made their new album You Cross My Path available as a free download from the web site of radio station XFM.

In the short term, everyone was a winner from these arrangements. Everyone involved in them was, anyway. The Mail on Sunday saw a huge spike in circulation, Prince profited handsomely from a sell-out 21-night residency at the O2 arena shortly afterwards, Radiohead sold more albums than in their recent past, and The Charlatans were able to re-announce themselves and climb back from the abyss of bands that had had it all (their debut album went straight in at #1) and seen it all gradually fade away.

Both Prince and Radiohead could afford to be generous with the upfront price, knowing that the money would be recouped anyway. Besides, Radiohead were kind of trying to make points about downloads, illegal downloads, the industry, and crumbs from the table. And if not points, then at least to stir up some debate. Also, it worked pretty well as a piece of PR for the album, which went on to sell over three million copies, making it a far greater success than its predecessor There There, and making a decent wedge for the band. Much of that wedge, it should be pointed out, was actually from sales in CD form when the album was given a conventional physical released, and what was called the “In Rainbows discbox” – which contained In Rainbows on CD and vinyl, with artwork, lyrics, and a second CD of additional tracks. The discbox version was available for £40 (about $80 at the time). Radiohead might have been revolutionaries with their “choose your own price” model, but perhaps we should also give them a gentle ticking off for happily shilling a luxury version.

On Tuesday, at a special show and tell session in Cupertino, California, Apple boss Steve Cook excitedly announced that U2’s new album Songs of Innocence would be given, absolutely free, to all iTunes customers. Sure enough, within hours, the album was sitting there in the account of 500 million users. Depending on who you ask, this is either brilliant – it’s free! What are you complaining about, grumpy old man of the first world? – or, frankly, a bit of an imposition if you don’t mind.

Whether you wanted it or not, if you have an iTunes account you now own U2’s new album. Depending on your iTunes settings, it is either in the cloud waiting for you, or already downloaded to your collection. It will forever be a record on your account, as a purchase, made by you. You can hide it, but you can’t delete it.

U2 - Songs of Innocence

“We wanted to make a very personal album”, said Bono, with an entirely straight face.

The move will be pushed aggressively, have no doubt about it, as an example of the brilliant forward thinking of both camps. U2’s manager Guy Oseary (Paul McGuiness, the band’s manager for 35 years, stepped down in 2013) has praised Apple – “so collaborative and forward-thinking” – while Apple CEO Tim Cook has called this “the biggest album release in the history of music”, which brings to mind Bill Bailey’s reaction to hearing there was a world record for attaching the most pegs to your face – “that’s not a record – all you need to do to beat it is just have a bigger face!”.

Although it’s likely the free availability of Songs of Innocence will hurt physical sales of the album, U2 have an extensive back catalogue, which Universal has just slapped an enormous “SALE!” sticker on. And there WILL be a tour, you know. So that’s all good then.

Still, it will be interesting to see how many people actually download the album, taking willing ownership of it, although The Official Charts Company in the UK have already said that Songs of Innocence will not be eligible for the charts before the physical release, on the basis that people have to make an “active choice” to acquire music. If this stunt was chart-eligible it would be, to paraphrase Cook, the biggest chart hype in the history of music.

Also relevant is how many people listen to the album. I’m sure we’ve all gladly accepted a freebie CD but never actually find the time or a reason to crack open the protective covering and give it a spin. The last.fm weekly chart on Sunday might give some clue as to the true popularity of Songs of Innocence.

How I learned to stop worrying and tolerate U2

In the late 1990s and early 2000s I was only too happy to sound off about my views on U2. They were one of a handful of groups that had unwittingly offended me in some undefinable way, at some unremembered moment in the past.

There were always exceptions that proved the rule: Achtung Baby was the first CD I ever owned – a christmas present in 1991; “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” were frequently played staples of the bar jukebox in my University hall of residence; “Lemon” was groovy.

In my own stubborn way I have always resisted The Joshua Tree. Oddly, Rattle and Hum was the first U2 album I warmed to. And then there’s the bizarre truth that I own a 7” of “The Unforgettable Fire”, which I must have bought at a record fair, possibly while malignly hypnotised, though I have no evidence to back this up. It makes sense in a way: “The Unforgettable Fire” is the first track on side two of cassette two on Now That’s What I Call Music 5, the first of only two compilations in the series that I own.

Given that the unique selling point of the Now series was the Virgin/EMI collaboration that made it the first to feature artists from more than one label, it’s a bit of a surprise to find that whereas the first in the series had included no fewer than 11 number one singles, Now 5 only featured one chart-topping hit.

And the name of that one lone best-seller? “Frankie” by Sister Sledge.

But perhaps one of the charms of Now 5 is the particular skill of series compiler Ashley Abrahams at Box records in creating a mix of the well-known and the comparatively obscure, On Now 5 you’ll find gooey ballads like Kool & The Gang’s “Cherish”, “One More Night” from Phil Collins, and “Every Time You Go Away” by Paul Young, but nestling among them you might just spot Gary Moore and Phil Lynott, Scritti Politti, Stephen “Tintin” Duffy and The Damned. Few among us still regularly give “N-N-Nineteen Not Out” by The Commentators (aka Rory Bremner) anything like a regular airing, but there’s always “A View To A Kill”, “Slave to Love”, or “Black Man Ray” to more than compensate.

And, of course, “The Unforgettable Fire”. Inspired by an art exhibition about Hiroshima that U2 had visited during the War tour, it beats all those Joshua Tree anthems into a cocked hat. Whereas on “With or Without You” the mystery and serenity is shattered by Bono’s vocal, here it provides just the right push, and while “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” are constructed from industrial lead reinforced with super-gravity concrete, “The Unforgettable Fire” is slinky and swirly.

notes

  1. This claim was refuted by the band, but no official figures have been released to verify either side of the argument.