December 31, 2013

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark - "Electricity" (1980)

Why are you into all the best things? Remember?

The Railway Children - Reunion Wilderness (1987/2001) / Recurrence (1988) / Native Place (1990)

It is hard to over-estimate the influence of The Smiths on the revival of guitar-pop in England during the mid-to-late 1980s. Rather than being a London-based phenomenon, this revival emanated from the north, and just as it had during the rise of post-punk, Thatcher-era Manchester proved a particularly fertile ground for this unique integration of sixties-era guitar-pop and post-punk moodiness. Hailing from Manchester, The Smiths largely created the blueprint for much of what was to follow for the remainder of the decade; however, the influence of Scottish bands such as Orange Juice and The Scars, as well as Liverpool bands such as Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes also informed this guitar-pop resurgence. In the summer of 1983, a group of Wigan teenagers from the outskirts of Manchester led by Gary Newby (songwriter/vocalist/guitarist) formed a band that, while featuring the jangly guitar-oriented sound that was quickly coming into vogue at the time, pursued a gentler approach to better feature Newby's subtly expressive vocals. Newby: "I was friends at school with Stephen Hull our bass player. We were in a couple of different bands together that never actually played any gigs. Then we met our drummer Guy Keegan, probably around '83, and started rehearsing as a three piece and playing bars and clubs around Wigan. We did mainly stuff I'd written plus a few covers, things like 'Crocodiles' by Echo & The Bunnymen or 'Figurehead' by The Cure. Brian Bateman joined on rhythm guitar, and the next big step came when we started playing clubs in Manchester, around '84. We eventually hooked up with our manager, Colin Sinclair, after various encounters, gigs, and demo tapes, including an aborted session with Martin Hannett. Colin owned a live venue and rehearsal studio just around the corner from the Hacienda, called The Boardwalk." After naming the band after a children's book by Edith Nesbit published in 1905, Newby, Hull & co. began gigging in and around Manchester and quickly built a devoted following due to their unique "gentle" sound, which culminated in a recording contract with the legendary Manchester independent, Factory Records.

Newby: "Being on Factory was an amazing experience. There was a real buzz around rehearsing and putting the material together for what would be our first releases. We had a room at the top of the Boardwalk building next door to where James rehearsed. The Happy Mondays also rehearsed there along with some other Factory bands like ACR [A Certain Ratio] and Kalima. There was always bands coming and going. We'd grown up listening to Joy Division and New Order, and Tony Wilson was an inspirational character. I think we thrived in that atmosphere because it was completely unstructured and unpressured." Factory's penchant for allowing their artists to develop and explore their sound in an environment free of corporate interference payed dividends for The Railway Children. They released their first single, "A Gentle Sound," in 1986, and the following year, their debut LP, Reunion Wilderness, reached #1 on the UK indie charts. Reunion Wilderness features one of the band's best songs, "Brighter," a fine piece of avowedly romantic jangle-pop that certainly put them in line with much of the C86 crowd; however, the band's immediate success and Gary Newby's polished vocals suggested the band was far more marketable than many of their peers. And the majors did come knocking. It was Richard Branson of Virgin America who convinced the band to leave the nurturing confines of Factory, and though the short-term results were a bigger recording budget and a significant expansion of their fan base, jumping to a major label did have its drawbacks, as Virgin began to push them in an increasingly commercial direction. Newby: "After the release of Reunion Wilderness, we had a lot of interest from other companies, and I suppose we got seduced by the bright Lights. Looking back, we probably should have stayed with Factory for at least another album, and grown a little."

Staying on a little longer at Factory would have indeed been a good decision because the band's stint at Virgin was fated to be not only stormy, but ultimately fatal. Nevertheless, things did seem promising at the start. The Railway Children's second LP, Recurrence, was released in 1988, and they soon found themselves touring Europe and America with the likes of R.E.M. and The Sugarcubes. The album itself finds the band hitting their stride in terms of songwriting; "In the Meantime" is a particularly fine example of this. However, Recurrence bears the imprint of Virgin's influence on the band's sound, as it pushes them slightly away from the pure guitar-pop of their earlier work and into a more produced, at times even mainstream, direction- but the songs are good enough to consistently overcome this. And in light of the creative struggles that lay ahead for the band, Recurrence sits as The Railway Children's most fully-realized work. Despite its obvious quality, the album failed to meet Virgin's commercial expectations, and by the time The Railway Children's third album, Native Place, was released in 1990, the band, at the behest of their label, was out to score a chart hit, which they achieved with "Every Beat of the Heart," a song with a noticeably dancier, chart-friendly sound. Perhaps ironically, this would spell the end of The Railway Children's flirtation with mainstream success. Within two years, Virgin would be swallowed up by EMI, and the band found itself without a label. Completely fractured by their loss of direction, The Railway Children decided to split in 1992- a band whose early work suggested something unique and full of promise but whose creative flame was decimated by a major label's insistence on compromising artistic integrity for mainstream appeal: another cautionary tale to be sure.

The Railway Children - "Brighter" (1987)

Wigan indie-poppers offering up some choice jangle

December 30, 2013

The Jesus & Mary Chain - "In a Hole" (1985) Old Grey Whistle Test

Aside from being the coolest clip ever (wait for the ending!), this song couldn't describe any more accurately the unbearable sadness and isolation dancing through my mind right now.

The Servants - Reserved (2006) / Disinterest (1990) / Small Time & Hey Hey We're the Manqués (2012)

Led by the vastly under-appreciated singer and songwriter David Westlake, who has more than once been described as a post-punk version of Ray Davies, The Servants, formed by Westlake in 1985, were a natural yet reluctant fit among the figureheads of the guitar-pop resurgence that took hold in England during the mid-late 1980s, a movement that retroactively came to be known as "C86." Westlake, who hailed from Hayes, Middlesex, had already connected with guitarist John Mohan when he placed classified ads in a number of London music publications in the hope of putting together a proper band. Among the respondents was future bassist Phil King (who would go on to play in bands such as Felt, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Biff Bang Pow! and Lush). Phil King: "As for joining the Servants, I seem to remember seeing an ad looking for a guitarist in the back of the ‘NME ‘around 1984. I am trying to remember the groups it mentioned in the ad. The Smiths, the Go-Betweens, Orange Juice' maybe? I remember there being a phone number and David's address in Hayes, Middlesex [....] David had sent me a demo tape of some songs that included a rather primitive version of 'She's Always Hiding' with no bass on it. I was of course knocked out by it, and both the songwriting and John Mohan's guitar playing. I was so excited by the tape I took it upon myself to drive over to his place one Friday evening in my 1964 two tone blue Humber Sceptre [....] David was of course rather surprised at my unannounced arrival but we got on very well, and arranged to meet up for a rehearsal in his bedroom with John Mohan the next week. We soon realised that we had one six string guitar too many, so I ended playing a black short scale Fender Musicmaster bass (there was also a Peavey combo bass amp there too) that had been left by their friend Ed who had tried - and failed - to master it. And that's how I started, and still play, bass." The new partnership of Westlake, Mohan and King paid off in a batch of promising songs, and after having named the band after the 1963 Harold Pinter-written film The Servant, they booked their first gig in King's Cross, London.

Cover of "The Sun, a Small Star" Single
King: "I remember years later David telling me that I gave him an ultimatum after we'd spent about a year rehearsing in his bedroom - with a drum machine - and recording demos on a 4 track Portastudio, that either we started playing some gigs or I'd leave. I have no memory of this but I guess the reason I said that, if I indeed did, was because I was so proud of the songs I just wanted everyone to hear them. Once we got a drummer (one of the earlier ones, Eamon Lynam, was nicknamed 'Neasden Riots', in the same way that the Clash's drummer Terry Chimes was called 'Tory Crimes' on the back of their first album, because he'd got into a bit of 'trouble' in the neighbourhood and was put under a strict curfew by the police), it all snowballed pretty quickly from our first show supporting the Television Personalities at the Pindar of Wakefield in Kings Cross in July 1985 to our last performance supporting Felt (the 'Lawrence Takes Acid' show) at Bay 63 around a year later." After only a few gigs, the band was signed to Head, an off-shoot of Creation Records, and in early-1986 released their first single, "She's Always Hiding," which garnered them much critical praise lauding their unique sound. For example, NME wrote, "Stop me if you've heard this one before, but there's currently a group of earnest young men doing the rounds of London's beery backrooms who play the sweetest, smartest evocations of The Velvet Underground's sepulchral third LP these increasingly '60s-sated, guitar-jaded ears have possibly ever heard. Still awake? Good, because The Servants (for it is they) are - wait for it - different. Not for them the simplistic allure of dark shades and darker strides, nor the convenient kudos of easy chords. No, what brings The Servants close to Lou's crew's gossamer grace-cum-disembodied depth is that self-same timbre; the giddying suggestion of melodies conjured from the ether; a recognition of enduring classicism; a similar striving for a sound as perfect, as profound as (eek!) silence. Heck, their "She's Always Hiding" is the greatest dark-eyed, love/hate song Reed never wrote..." On the heels of the first single, and only eight months after their first gig, The Servants were invited to record a John Peel session in March, 1986 and were also chosen to appear on NME's C86 compilation cassette. However, Westlake, whose ambitions always leaned heavily in the direction of "art for the sake of art," was quite discomfited by the band's meteoric rise; as a result, he only reluctantly agreed to contribute a song to the NME compilation, and the song itself, "Transparent," was a B-side. Despite such early success, this first version of The Servants was destined to fall apart by the end of 1986.

King: "We put out two singles (the second 'The Sun, A Small Star' sadly posthumously, as we'd split up by then), recorded a John Peel session, got a full page feature in the New Year's edition of the 1986 ‘NME’ hailing us as the next big thing, appeared on their C86 cassette and played shows with amongst others the Jesus And Mary Chain, Felt, Primal Scream, the Go Betweens, the Pale Fountains and the Wedding Present. By the time we split up we'd only done twenty four gigs. To use the snowball analogy, I guess it all gathered momentum a little too quickly for David, got out of control, crashed into a tree, and um, broke up. It was just a shame really as we had so many songs to record. Enough for a few albums." Ironically, this is where the story of The Servants would have likely ended if not for the song Westlake had begrudgingly contributed to NME's C86 compilation; the mail-order-only cassette had become a huge success (eventually released as an LP), providing a catalyst for the rise of an all-too-brief D.I.Y. guitar-pop resurgence in the UK. Inspired by the enthusiastic support of John Peel, Westlake decided to reform the band, which now included guitarist Luke Haines (who would later find fame leading The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder). Haines recalling his move to London where he was to shortly cross paths with The Servants: "Brixton was kind of heavy at that time, not like it is now full of middle class people. It was good and full of rastas and good fun.  I was sort of a nice middle class boy who had gone to music college and what not, not much, just a couple of days a week. It didn't require much of my presence [....] I had a few attempts at bands and what not in the mid-80s. Then I answered an advert in Sounds Magazine [...] for a band called The Servants who needed a guitar player, so I answered that advert and I kind of got the gig. I was then in The Servants for about five years or something. Unfortunately, The Servants had already had their, I suppose, day in the sun prior to me joining them. So I essentially joined a band that was struggling quite a lot. I mean even in the mid-to-late eighties guitar bands didn't expect to sell any records. You did it purely for artistic reasons. You know, there wasn't really this idea that you could be a big pop star- that all came later on in, I suppose, the nineties." Soon thereafter, The Servants were signed to Creation Records, who immediately began pressuring them for an album. After filling out the new version of the band, Westlake, Haines & co. entered the studio to record a batch of new songs; however, Creation mysteriously chose to only release a mini-album, and did so as a David Westlake solo album, titled Westlake, which was barely heard.  By the end of the 1987, Creation had unceremoniously dumped the band.

December 27, 2013

Notes from the Paisley Underground: The Long Ryders - 10-5-60 EP (1983/2011) / Native Sons (1984/2011) / State of Our Union (1985/1990)

While Uncle Tupelo is commonly credited with spearheading the rise of the alt-country movement (referred to in some quarters as "No Depression") that flourished throughout the 1990s, its true origins can be traced back to a number of Los Angeles-based cow-punk bands that inhabited the margins of the Paisley Underground scene during the early 1980s. Bands such as Tex and The Horseheads, Blood on the Saddle, The Beat Farmers, Rank and File and many others helped pioneer the unique fusion of country music and punk that would profoundly inform alt-country stalwarts Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and Whiskeytown a decade later; however, no cow-punk band was more influential or as talented as The Long Ryders who integrated influences such as Gram Parsons, The Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield into a harder-edged punk-infused sound. The seeds for what eventually became The Long Ryders were sown in an uber-obscure and militantly retro Los Angeles garage-psych band called The Unclaimed, which Sid Griffin had joined in 1978 after tiring of the then-nascent punk scene. However, Griffin soon felt trapped by the band's unwillingness to broaden their mid-sixties aesthetic and consequently left in late 1981 to form the nucleus of what would quickly evolve into The Long Ryders, which early on included Steve Wynn who soon left to form The Dream Syndicate. Fatefully, the band's formation coincided with the beginnings of the Los Angeles-based pysch-rock revival that eventually (and quite reductively) came to be known as the "paisley underground," a scene that actually featured an eclectic mix of bands that were linked together more through strong friendships and an ethos of mutual support than any sense of a shared musical approach.

Sid Griffin: "There was tremendous sharing in those days. At first everyone was on equal footing and then some bands became rather possessive and a bit more private but the Long Ryders were always looking at things from a socialist perspective. People shared amps, guitars, worked for other bands [...] Steve Wynn put out the early Green on Red album, I worked doing merch for several bands, Matt Piucci of Rain Parade became a kinda guitar roadie if you needed help like that and the Bangles sang back up on a lot of other people's records. Many of the bills of the day were three of these bands all at once. Perhaps Bangles, Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, something like that." The early days of The Long Ryders featured several lineup changes, but their debut EP, 10-5-60, produced by former Sparks guitarist Earl Mankey, established the band as peerless exponents of the kind of country-infused jangle-pop The Byrds were doing in their post-Sweetheart of the Rodeo incarnation. Starting with the stellar Griffin-penned jangle rave-up "Join My Gang," a song that might actually be better than a good percentage of the material many claim it is emulating, and also featuring the raucous title track, a garage-rock holdover from Griffin's days in The Unclaimed, 10-5-60 finds the band on the precipice of greatness. Following the release of 10-5-60, the band's bass player, Des Brewer, jumped ship to resume his career as a longshoreman, which apparently appealed to him more than touring; as a result, Tom Stevens, who at the time was working at a record store, joined The Long Ryders, thus ushering in the band's classic line-up. Having recently signed to Frontier Records, the band entered the studio with producer Henry Lewy whose résumé included the first two Flying Burrito Brothers LPs, and the result, their first full-length LP, Native Sons, represents a step away from the occasionally literalistic approach of 10-5-60 and step towards something approximating what Gram Parsons once described as "cosmic American music."

 Tom Stevens: "From the start, The Long Ryders were all about hybrids of pure American styles of music, as mostly defined by 60s bands, both rock and country. That all distilled through skilled songwriting into more of the classic style that you hear on Native Sons [....] I think at the time The Long Ryders were at the very height of their songwriting powers, and ability to naturally hybrid cool styles into a single form." From the opening track, "Final Wild Son," a snarling paisley update of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," to "Wreck of the 809," a psych-drenched version of R.E.M.-style Jangle-Pop, to the brilliant single, "I Had a Dream," a song that manages to stand shoulder to shoulder with the band's formidable influences (Griffin's vocals can't help but recall Gene Clark) and to lay out a sonic blueprint that would keep Jeff Tweedy busy for the better part of a decade, Native Sons stands as The Long Ryders' masterpiece. State of Our Union was the band's second full-length and first major label release. While there is a palpable production sheen cast over the proceedings, it ultimately lends this brilliant set of songs a certain punchiness that serves the music well. The album kicks off with a stone-cold classic in "Looking for Lewis and Clark," a powerful political anthem that sets out to punch a few holes in Reagan's "morning in America" myth. Another standout is "Here Comes That Train Again," a gorgeously spacious piece of jangle-pop that repeatedly conjures the ghost of Gram Parsons. Although it is arguably over-produced, State of Our Union is one of the most beautiful and enduring albums to emerge from the paisley underground scene as well as one of the most eloquently political albums of the 1980s. Drummer Greg Sowders: "we wanted to control our own art and it was just a very do-it-yourself attitude that we learned from the punks. But ultimately we thought punk rock in L.A.- I do kind of exclude X because they were very musical- but a lot of them really sucked [....] But that do-it-yourself attitude and the 'we want to control everything ourselves and deal directly with the fans'- that's what we learned from the punks. Plus, we liked to play our songs kinda fast."

The Long Ryders - "Looking for Lewis & Clark" (1985) Old Grey Whistle Test

Great great paisley band, channeling The Byrds & the Burrito Bros...

December 25, 2013

The Jesus & Mary Chain - "Just Like Honey" (1985)


"Listen to the girl
As she takes on half the world
Moving up and so alive
In her honey dripping beehive
It's good, so good, it's so good
So good"

Crispy Ambulance - Fin (1985/1990) / Scissorgun (2002) / The Powder Blind Dream (2004)

While Crispy Ambulance was certainly no stranger to sonic experimentation in the studio, their live performances were where they let their more aggressive sonic tendencies reign supreme. In early 1982, preceding the release of The Plateau Phase, the Crispies joined a European tour organized by Wally Van Middendorp, front-man for Dutch post-punk minimalists, the Minny Pops, which they headlined with Factory Benelux label-mates Section 25. All eight shows were recorded by Section 25 soundman John Hurst, and these tapes became the source of the cassette-only 1983 release, Open Gates of Fire. Ironically, it would be this release, along with the cassette-only compilation, The Blue and Yellow of the Yacht Club, that would finally garner Crispy Ambulance the critical praise they had been denied following the release of their stunning debut album. Soon after, a full critical reappraisal of the Crispies took place, and The Plateau Phase, once summarily written off by critics as a purely derivative work, was now being hailed as a masterpiece; for example, David McCullough called it an album that "wasn't only ahead of its time, it seemed to have invented its own time [...] and still ranks as a monster of an album." Nevertheless, by the time people had finally begun to listen, the band had already decided to call it quits, soon thereafter reforming as the thoroughly forgettable Ram Ram Kino before fading from memory for the next seventeen years.

 A full three years after the band's demise, much of the live material from 1981/1982 originally collected on Open Gates of Fire was given a more proper release as Fin, an album more than worthy of being the epitaph for Crispy Ambulance's original run, but also an album that begs the question: what if they had recorded a second studio album? These live performances caught the band both on a creative ascendance and heading toward dissolution; as such, Fin demonstrates a sound quite different from earlier Crispy Ambulance recordings. One of the album's obvious highlights is "The Plateau Phase," which did not appear on the album of the same name. Recorded in Brussels in early 1982, the song has a nervy, scratchy, doom-drenched quality that builds tension behind Hempsall's wandering, languorous vocals. Another standout is "Choral," a song never recorded in the studio due to some resistance within the band to exploring a more overtly electronic-based sound. Nevertheless, on Fin, the song comes off as a charging kraut-rock inspired gem that features some nice guitar-work by Davenport and a particularly ominous vocal performance by Hempsall. The posthumous release of this live album only furthered the Crispies' meteoric rise in the esteem of the critics. Writing in response to the re-issue of Fin in 1990, NME wrote, "Long before Manchester crawled back into flared trousers, bands such as Crispy Ambulance were busily painting their city black with urban mood music. The Crispies were doomed at the time by being compared to Joy Division, but as this record shows, they were much looser and far less serious than the mighty JD [....] Too bad this fine band ended up in the casualty ward." Indeed!

For the better part of a decade and a half, Crispy Ambulance was little more than an afterthought, an obscure corner of the Factory Records legacy, but at the end of the 1990s, with post-punk quickly coming back into vogue, the Crispies quite unexpectedly re-materialized. Alan Hempsall: "We reformed in 1999 because our back catalogue was to be re-released on CD so we thought it would be good to promote it and also fun. The reaction surprised us and a lot of people started to say why not write some new stuff [....] none of it was planned; it just happened by accident." Initially recording and releasing the live Accessory After the Fact, the real fruit of the Crispies reunion would appear a few years later in the form of their long-belated second studio album, Scissorgun, produced by Graham Massey of 808 State fame, which finds the band in brilliant early-1980s form, if not showing slightly more polish around the edges. Hempsall: "I'm not sure a seventeen year layoff preserves your anger. I certainly found it tempting to do something a little more laid back but that definitely wouldn't be in our true style. At first I found it quite hard to work myself up for that but it gets easier [....] Everybody who knows our music seems to be of the opinion that it seems like we're picking up exactly where we left off and whilst that wasn't deliberate on our part it's something I'm very pleased about."  When listening to Scissorgun, it is impossible not to marvel at how fresh and dynamic the Crispies' brand of post-punk sounds twenty years after the fact, and if anything, they highlight how facile most of the revivalists actually are in comparison. Songs such as "Loupgarou" and "Re-Animator" continue the band's unique ability to employ sonic textures in ominously ironic ways. And this points to what always made Crispy Ambulance a unique band. Never one to take themselves as seriously as Ian Curtis & co., they, nevertheless, exploited their looser approach to similarly dark ends, but in the case of the Crispies, darkness always came with a dose of humor.

William S. Burroughs - "The Junky's Christmas" (2006)

Here's a little Christmas elegy for you- after all, we are all, in one way or another, in search of that immaculate fix.

p.s. I will have some more Crispies for you soon

December 20, 2013

Tones on Tail - Everything! (1998)

When Bauhaus guitarist Daniel Ash began working on an informal solo-based side project in early 1982, little did he know that within a year, not only would it evolve into a group project called Tones on Tail, but it would also become his main gig, as the recording sessions for Bauhaus' then-swan song, Burning from the Inside, made it apparent that relations between Peter Murphy and the rest of the band were quickly deteriorating. After Murphy bolted to work with Mick Karn on the Dalis Car project  previous to jump-starting his solo career, Ash, along with former art school buddy and ex-Bauhaus roadie Glenn Campling and Bauhaus drummer Kevin Haskins, decided to leave behind the overt Gothic theatricality of their former band, choosing instead to focus on a more eclectic and experimental sound. Ash: "It was a great time, reaching out to something different. It was quite liberating after Bauhaus. In the end, we wanted a different type of music and [Peter Murphy] wanted to go in a more dance direction." Campling describes the early evolution of the band: "Dan was working towards a solo project when we lived in 'digs' during the Bauhaus heydays. I was backline roadie at the time. He was recording "Instrumental" and another track which became "Copper" (featuring both of us laughing our heads off- Dan's first vocal maybe?). He invited me to contribute to an idea which eventually became "A Bigger Splash" and "Means of Escape." The ball rolled on from there. We both enjoyed the distraction." 

 During Tones on Tail's two-year existence, they recorded one LP, Pop, and several EPs, all of which garnered critical praise for their unique and innovative mixture of neo-psych melancholy (something Ash and Haskins would explore further in Love and Rockets) with lighter, more dance-oriented elements. For example, on "Lions," the lead track on Pop, the band establishes a spectral samba effect, which joins Ash's seductively hushed vocals in creating a fine piece of moody pop that proves far more accessible than anything Bauhaus would have committed to tape. Likewise, on "Happiness," with its swinging cocktail-Jazz arrangement and playfully sarcastic lyrics, Tones on Tail prove effective at integrating a wide range of influences into a sound that, while echoing the experimental side of Bauhaus (an extremely under-appreciated aspect of the band, an example of which is the brilliant dub effect on "Bela Lugosi's Dead"), clearly stakes out its own territory. Another instantly memorable track is "Performance," one of the darker songs on Pop. With its cheesy synth-driven opening bars that somehow manage to set up an atmosphere of dread that pervades the entire song, along with Campling's nervy bass-lines and Haskins' adventurous percussion, Ash couldn't have asked for a better back-drop for one of the best, most straightforward vocal performances of his career. While Tones on Tail has never enjoyed the popularity or notoriety of Ash's more psychedelically-inclined work in Love and Rockets, it could be argued that this short-lived band not only drafted the blueprint for the latter band's sound, but did so while managing to sound far more experimental and unprecedented. Ash: " We were a motley crew of individuals who essentially wanted to sound like a band from Venus or Mars!"

Madness - "One Step Beyond" (1979)

This song and "Ghost Town" by The Specials were my introduction to ska so many years back- a sound I love so much, a sound that somehow simultaneously captures the suffering we experience everyday along with those moments of sheer joy at being alive.

"Hey you! Don't watch that; watch this!"

December 19, 2013

Crispy Ambulance - The Plateau Phase (1982/1999) / Frozen Blood 1980-1982 (2000)

The genesis of Crispy Ambulance, one of the more obscure Factory Records-related bands of the Manchester post-punk scene of the late-1970s and early-1980s, can be traced back to The Sex Pistols' first Manchester gig in June, 1976, which Crispy Ambulance vocalist Alan Hempsall later described as having taken place "in front of an audience of about 40, made up mainly of Bowie clones and hippies." While The Sex Pistols left a lasting impression on Hempsall and guitarist Robert Davenport, it was only after seeing Howard Devoto's first gig fronting his new post-Buzzcocks band, Magazine, that these lifelong friends felt compelled to start their own band; thus Crispy Ambulance was born. The name itself has garnered a fair share of ridicule over the years, even being cited on occasion as the chief reason they were fated to languish in relative obscurity, rather than becoming heirs to Joy Division's lofty post-punk mantle following the suicide of Ian Curtis. As Hempsall explains, "People asked about the name and how it originated every time we did an interview. The answer is, I'm afraid, quite a boring one. It is simply that a close friend [...] thought it up. He has a way with words, and I thought it was such a nondescript name (silly too) that we decided on it. Also, at the time every other band was called 'the...' (fill in blank space) whereas our name gave nothing away with regard to image, musical style etc., but at the time captured the imagination."

Original Cover of First Single
After adding bassist Keith Darbyshire and drummer Gary Madeley in 1978, Crispy Ambulance began playing regular gigs throughout the Manchester area, eventually catching the attention of the band they would later be unjustly accused of imitating. Hempsall: "Joy Division stumbled upon us in July 1978 at a gig we played in Manchester, and they liked our approach, even if the material was a little weak- to say the least. They dragged Rob Gretton, their new manager, down to see us some months later, and as a result we did a gig with them at The Factory around the time that Unknown Pleasures was released." Despite such connections, the band's first single, "From the Cradle to the Grave / Four Minutes from the Frontline," was turned down by several local independent labels, so Crispy Ambulance decided to release the single on their own makeshift imprint: Aural Assault. Hempsall: "The idea for Aural Assault came from the fact that we'd already tried Rough Trade and Factory and they'd turned us down, but Rough Trade gave us loads of info and addresses for a do-it-yourself single, which Rob Gretton encouraged us to do. So I came up with the bank loan and the name." Crispy Ambulance would eventually be signed by Factory, but only after the tragic death of Ian Curtis in May, 1980, which lead to the demise of Joy Division and their manager, Rob Gretton, joining Factory Records as shareholder and an A&R man. His first priority was signing Crispy Ambulance despite the protests of the label's co-founder, Tony Wilson, who never liked the band.

Martin Hannett
However, "The Crispies" much anticipated move to the Factory roster was both a blessing and a curse. On the back of a few initial singles that had garnered the band a number of critical reviews accusing them of being little more than Joy Division wannabes, Hempsall, Davenport & co. went into the studio with producer Martin Hannett, already a Factory legend due to his significant role in shaping the sound of Joy Division's studio recordings. The result of this collaboration was the confusingly titled single, Live on a Hot August Night, which did not win Crispy Ambulance any additional supporters at their label. Hempsall: "Hot August Night was the first time we actually went into the studio as a Factory band. As a matter of course Hannett was used as he was The Factory producer [....] Tony craftily got us off his back by depositing us on Factory Benelux, which we didn't object to because Tony was only making things difficult for us whilst on Factory, whereas Michel Duval, boss of Factory's Belgian counterpart, genuinely liked us, and had an enthusiasm for the records almost as strong as our own."

Live on a Hot August Night (a decidedly un-Joy Division-like title) was roundly dismissed at the time as little more than a product of Hannett once again taking on the role of production- booth auteur, this time attempting to turn a group of nondescript Manchester post-punkers into the second coming of Joy Division. For example, Melody Maker had this to say about the single's a-side, "The Presence": The best and worst of Martin Hannett and, as usual, you can forget the band. 'The Presence' illustrates his genius for that eerie, evocative snare-obsessed sound, cleverly maintaining interest in another Curtis clone crooning another doomy dodo of a tune." And NME chimed in with, "After the power and the passion that was Joy Division, imitators like Crispy Ambulance just sound listless and unoriginal." While it is obvious Hannett saw the Crispies as mining similar sonic territory to Joy Division, the single itself suggests a sonically restless band largely uninterested in remaining in any particular place very long, a trait that would fully take hold the following year on their brilliantly innovative full-length, The Plateau Phase. Listening to "The Presence" thirty years after the fact, it's hard not to describe the song as a long lost post-punk gem, undoubtedly reminiscent of Ian Curtis & co., but moving in a number of additional sonic directions at once, such as the ironically boyish charm of Hempsall's vocals repeating the mantra-like lyric, "there's no sense in trying / it changes nothing," and the languid, uniquely proggy atmosphere that sets it apart from their more famous label-mates. It stands as one of the Crispies', and Hannett's, finest moments.

December 14, 2013

The Walker Brothers- "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" (1966)

This video was posted as a comment on my writing blog a little over a year ago.  It didn't mean as much then as it does now. Be good to yourself, and goddamn the sun.

December 13, 2013

December 11, 2013

Orange Juice - "Rip It Up" (1982)

Apres moi le deluge.....

Notes from the Paisley Underground: Rain Parade - Crashing Dream (1985/2009) / Beyond the Sunset (1985/2010) / Demolition (1991)

The aptly named Crashing Dream was fated to be Rain Parade's one and only full-length studio album after guitarist David Roback's departure from the band in early 1984, ostensibly to work on the Rainy Day project with his then-new flame, former Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith. According to many accounts, Roback's departure was an acrimonious one; as fellow Paisley scene icon Steve Wynn recalls, "It would be like me being thrown out of Dream Syndicate [....] I never knew why it happened."  Roback's version: "It became a drag. I just had to get away and do something else [....] Musically it wasn't working out." Whatever the reason, Roback's exit left his former band-mates, including his brother Steven, at a crossroads in terms of what direction the band's sound would take without its lead guitarist. In addition, the band faced towering expectations from fans and record execs alike to replicate the brilliance of their classic debut, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip. For the time being, Rain Parade decided to proceed as a four-piece and recorded the Explosions in the Glass Palace EP, which, while missing David Roback's deftly subtle touch in places and showing an occasional proclivity for adopting a more traditional approach to song structure than before, suggested that Rain Parade was not eager to relinquish its place as one of the leading bands of the Paisley scene. Fatefully, it was during this time that the band made its jump to the majors by signing with Island Records, a move that would lead to the band's demise only two years later. Rain Parade released two albums during it's tenure at Island: a live LP recorded in Japan, Beyond the Sunset, and their final studio album, the aforementioned Crashing Dream, which functions as a strange epitaph for this seminal Paisley band, as some see it as Rain Parade's escape from the commercial ghetto of psych-revivalism, while others view it as another example of a great band sent down the road to creative ruin by a major label taking control of the creative process.

 Taken on its own terms, Crashing Dream is a consistently good, and occasionally brilliant, slice of late-eighties psych-pop that from the opening track, "Depending on You," suggests the band is looking to cut ties with the hazy psychedelia of its debut. The song's slick production and reliance on studio synthetics is a bit shocking initially given Rain Parade's psych-rock pedigree, but as soon as the vocals and lead guitar appear in the mix, the song begins to take form as a nice piece of shiny Power-Pop. The next track, "My Secret Country," moves in more of a country-rock direction, sounding not unlike a slower number by The Long Ryders, and by all rights, it should have become one of the most memorable anthems of the Paisley scene, but its emotional impact is marred by a meandering bridge and the production, which robs the song of much of its grit. Crashing Dream was unjustly ignored upon its release, and Rain Parade decided to call it quits soon thereafter. Steven Roback: "Our hearts weren't really into it, and we didn't want to abuse the identity of the Rain Parade, so we let it go." However, they did briefly reform in 1988 to record a double album, which never materialized until the release of Demolition in 1991. The first half of Demolition is comprised of an alternate ("as originally intended") version of Crashing Dream, which, if nothing else, suggests that Rain Parade were not as eager to leave their psych-rock roots behind as the over-produced Island version seemed to indicate. As the true epitaph to this legendary L.A. band, Demolition is both a revelation and a further reason to grieve over the untimely demise of a band that deserved a much better fate.

December 9, 2013

The Velvets- Fragments of a History, Chapter 2: Peel Slowly & See

Simply put, The Velvet Underground's debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was a game-changer that, over the course of the four+ decades since its release, has served as a precursor to everything from glam-rock to punk to industrial and beyond, a deceptively unassuming album whose particular effect was best summed up in Brian Eno's famous pronouncement: "The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band." As the album cover suggests, the back-story of The Velvets' debut is very much about their brief stint as members of Andy Warhol's Factory, for it was through Warhol's mentoring and patronage that they were able to record (a now legendary) album that they themselves never thought would materialize. However, from the beginning of their association with Warhol, there was conflict. Paul Morrissey, an avant-garde filmmaker and factory regular, convinced Warhol that The Velvets needed a more appealing lead singer, as Lou Reed was prone to appearing withdrawn and abrasive on stage. German fashion model and fledgling singer Nico, whom Warhol had used in a few of his films, most notably Chelsea Girls, was Morrissey's recommendation to Warhol, who in turn set about convincing Reed and John Cale to accept Nico as the band's "chanteuse." Despite their initial resistance to the idea, Reed and Cale were eventually persuaded to not only accept Nico into the band, but to write a few songs specifically for her; being the intelligent opportunists that they were, they likely realized that being given new instruments, free rehearsal space, food, drugs, sex (of all kinds), and Warhol's pop-art cache were perks that few, if any, bands could ever dream of enjoying.

Despite much evidence to the contrary, Sterling Morrison has suggested that the band was actually quite open to Nico's participation: "She was around because of Andy, but he couldn't talk us really into anything. We thought it would be a good idea. I mean that's how the whole thing was worked on the first album: The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other words, we were a unit with or without her. And she could do some things we really like, so we said do some songs. It was a complicated working arrangement because she said if I don't sing, I don't do anything. So it was always a question of how many songs Nico would do, should she do all of them, which we didn't want, and that was the only cumbersome aspect of it." Whether or not the band was initially receptive to Nico, her lack of musical experience had a divisive effect. At their first rehearsal with their new vocalist, the band reportedly drowned her voice in guitar noise every time she tried to sing. As Sterling Morrison has also revealed, after joining, Nico was often a detrimental force within the band: "There were problems from the very beginning because there were only so many songs that were appropriate for Nico, and she wanted to sing them all [....] And she would try and do little sexual politics things in the band. Whoever seemed to be having undue influence on the course of events, you'd find Nico close by. So she went from Lou to Cale, but neither of those affairs lasted very long."

Warhol's first major project involving The Velvets was a multimedia exhibition called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which involved the band playing in front of a silent 70 minute black & white film entitled The Velvet Underground & Nico: A Symphony of Sound. Performing in the EPI allowed The Velvet Underground to regularly explore and indulge their interest in musical improvisation, a trait that would be put to use soon thereafter while recording their debut album. In 1966, the first step a band would typically take before recording an album was securing a recording contract. In the case of The Velvets, Warhol decided instead to finance the album himself with the help of Norman Dolph, a Columbia Records Sales Executive who hoped Columbia would ultimately agree to sign the band and distribute the record. In mid-April 1966, after much rehearsing and endlessly working on new arrangements intended to accurately reflect the innovative approach they had honed earlier that spring playing in the EPI, The Velvets entered Scepter Studios, an old, decrepit recording studio in New York City, with Warhol as ostensible producer to record an acetate that would be peddled to various record companies. Lou Reed has clarified Warhol's role during the recording sessions: "Andy was the producer and Andy was in fact sitting behind the board gazing with rapt fascination at all the blinking lights. He just made it possible for us to be ourselves and go right ahead with it because he was Andy Warhol. In a sense he really produced it because he was this umbrella that absorbed all the attacks when we weren't large enough to be attacked. As a consequence of him being the producer, we'd just walk in and set up and did what we always did [....] Of course, he didn't know anything about record production, he just sat there and said, 'Oooh that's fantastic,' and the engineer would say, 'Oh yeah! Right! It is fantastic isn't it?'"

Despite the austere recording conditions, The Velvets made the most of the opportunity. Norman Dolph: "Most of the actual tracks, there was only one good unbroken take, maybe two of some of them. I'll say this: at no time did anybody on either side of the glass say, well, we'll fix it in the mix. That was never said. They performed it, and they'd come in, and we'd play it back end-to-end. If there was not a simultaneous agreement, they'd go back and do it over. But usually, anything that sounded like rough or iffy or from an engineering point of view didn't please John, he or I would break it down. We'd never even finish the take. Then they'd start a new one over, and then they'd come in and say, yeah, that's it, next case. And there was never any 'I'll play it back tomorrow, see if I like it tomorrow, and if I don't, then I'll redo it.' None of that. It was all just like they'd just sung it live, and they couldn't go back and redo it, because it was live. Because we were paying for the tape at probably $125 a roll, usually the broken takes were backed up and recorded over. Otherwise there would be some interesting scraps lying around [....]  It seems to me that "Heroin" was either done last, or the very first of the second day. 'Cause I remember that that was the one where Lou Reed needed to kind of get his head in the right place for that. And I remember in that one, in the control room, nobody moved a muscle when he was singing that song. And you didn't want anything to go wrong with that take at all, because if it had, he would have torn a wall down. Every bit of the energy in the song, you experienced in his persona at that point." The result, known as the Norman Dolph Acetate, ended up being roundly rejected by Columbia who didn't feel the band had any talent (ditto Atlantic and Elektra); however Morrissey managed to sell it to Verve/MGM, who promptly decided to sit on it until the following year because they had just released another "weird" album, Freak Out  by The Mothers of Invention and weren't quite sure how to market The Velvets. The delay gave the band a chance to re-record a few songs under better conditions in Los Angeles while on tour as part of the EPI and to record some new material (including "Sunday Morning") with Verve staff producer Tom Wilson in New York.

December 8, 2013

December 6, 2013

The 13th Floor Elevators - The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators (1966) / Easter Everywhere (1967) / Live (1968) / Bull of the Woods (1968)

The mid-1960s saw the rise of countless local garage-rock scenes throughout the U.S. that, in many ways, laid the groundwork for the psychedelic movement later in the decade and also the punk movement that first cropped up in NYC in the mid-1970s. While most of the bands comprising these local scenes were short-lived and destined for permanent obscurity, The 13th Floor Elevators, from Austin, TX. and fronted by one of the most tragic figures of the rock-era, Roky Erickson, arguably rock 'n' roll's first real counter-culture "wildman" figure and electric jug player and self-styled spiritual leader Tommy Hall, who claimed to have participated in LSD experiments at UT Austin in 1964, transcended their provincial origins by being one of the first bands to openly advocate the use of psychotropic drugs as a form of mind expansion as well as allowing the effects of this practice to overtly influence their music. Hall: "Everything I wrote was inspired through my taking LSD. I invented the electric jug totally out of my desire to find a place onstage with this new group, so I could be a part of it, and so I could communicate my new ideas through the lyrics I wanted to write." What set The 13th Floor Elevators apart from their garage-band contemporaries was their musical sophistication, which manifested itself not only in their playing, but also in their tendency to draw from multiple genres to create their distinctive brand of melancholic psych-rock. Guitarist Stacy Sutherland was the driving force in achieving the band's unique sound. Hall: Stacy was a consummate guitarist, far ahead of his time. He had deep fears about his dying young under violent circumstances. This manifested itself as a deep, mysterious, soulful feeling in his music and gave the Elevators a profound base to our overall sound. His sense of impending doom was indeed prophetic."

The 13th Floor Elevators led a dangerously precarious (in a legal sense) bohemian existence in amidst the ultra-conservative culture of their home state, something that eventually necessitated an extended stay in San Francisco in 1966-1967, where they helped foment the quickly developing Bay Area psychedelic scene and reconnected with fellow Austin native Janis Joplin (Joplin is rumored to have been influenced by Erickson's distinctive vocal style). Just before their visit to the Bay Area, the band had released their classic debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators, which was something of a clarion call for an impending revolution in rock music. Aided by a breakthrough single, "You're Gonna Miss Me," which landed Erickson, Hall & co. on, of all things, American Bandstand, The 13th Floor Elevators' debut album was a minor commercial success despite their humble garage-band origins; however, what truly set the album apart was its palpable sense of its own pioneering status. In 1966, there were a number of bands toying with adding psychedelic elements to their songs, but in the case of The 13th Floor Elevators, they were pretty much inventing psych-rock from scratch by investing their songs with a manic sense of emotional urgency and broadening their musical palette to include sonic textures falling far outside the purview of conventional pop music (not the least of which were Hall's simply bizarre contributions on the electric jug).

Stacy Sutherland
After returning to Austin in early 1967, the band began recording what would become their masterpiece, Easter Everywhere, an unparallelled piece of late-sixties psychedelia that features a more polished and confident sound than its precursor matched with a cohesive set of consistently fine songs. From the acid-drenched slow-burner "Slip Inside This House," to the beautifully mournful folk ballad "I Had to Tell You," Roky Erickson's vocals are simply stunning in their ability to convey everything from unhinged passion to wistful melancholia, and Stacy Sutherland's lead guitar work is an exercise in understated melodic brilliance. Sadly, a year after the release of Easter Everywhere, Erickson was arrested for the possession of a single marijuana joint, which, in Texas at the time, was prosecuted in outlandishly harsh ways. In order to avoid a 10 year prison term, Erickson pleaded insanity; consequently, he was institutionalized and repeatedly subjected to electroshock therapy until his release in 1972.  As a result of Erickson's fate, The 13th Floor Elevators slowly fell apart, finally disbanding in 1969 after releasing Bull of the Woods; however, few if any bands were as instrumental in the rise of psychedelia and the unprecedented revolution that rock music underwent during the late 1960s. Tommy Hall: "Most people got caught up with illusions, failing to see truth provided by the psychedelic experiences. You must look past the pyramid, into its shadow, to find the truth."

December 3, 2013

The 13th Floor Elevators - "You're Gonna Miss Me" (1966)

This mid-sixties Austin garage band, led by the legendary Roky Erickson and featuring the electrified jug playing of Tommy Hall, is pretty much ground zero for the psychedelic rock movement. But who came up with the idea of having them play a teeny-bopper pool party?

Love and Rockets - "No New Tale to Tell" (1987)

"When you're down, it's a long way up.
When you're up, it's a long way down.
It's all the same thing.
No new tale to tell."

Notes from the Paisley Underground: The Salvation Army - Happen Happened (1982/1992)

Michael Quercio was one of the pivotal figures of the paisley underground, not only because he gave the scene its moniker (which most, including himself, eventually came to hate because of its emphasis on image over musical substance), but also as the leader of The Salvation Army, a punky garage-pysch band who would later become the more overtly psychedelic and equally important Three O'Clock. If you're only familiar with the latter, then Happen Happened will come as something of a surprise because The Salvation Army had a much darker, grittier sound than the later, renamed version of the band, and the album itself happens to be one of the most vivid documents of the early days of the paisley scene in L.A., and some, including Rain Parade guitarist Matt Piucci, consider it the finest slice of neo-psych to emanate from the paisley underground. The origin of The Salvation Army begins with Quercio, then using the pseudonym Ricky Start, sending some home demos of his fledgling band in to Rodney Bingenheimer, the legendary Los Angeles-area disc jockey and unofficial curator of the growing alternative music scene that was soon to explode in the U.S. Inspired by Bingenheimer's enthusiasm for the band's sound, Quercio and band-mates Troy Howell and Johnny Blazing recorded a few professional-quality demos at a local studio, which ended up netting them their first big break. Quercio: "Our original 45 was released in the fall of 1981. We were all still in high school or just graduated. It was on the Minutemen’s label which was called New Alliance. There was a place where a lot of bands played called Alpine Village in Torrance that’s kind of like a German biergarten. Anyways, D. Boon from the Minutemen saw us there and after our show he came up and asked if we had anything and we had just made this little demo tape that we made with money we saved up from our parents and stuff. He liked two of the songs and said he wanted to put them out and he put them out on his label as a 45."

Michael Quercio
Soon after the release of The Salvation Army's debut single, Blazing was kicked out of the band (for flubbing up the photo session for the picture sleeve of the 45) and was replaced with Gregg Louis Gutierrez, a guitarist whom Quercio knew from his college days. With the new lineup in place, the band recorded a follow-up EP; however, it never saw the light of day because fate came knocking before it could be officially released. Quercio had sent Rodney Bingenheimer an advanced copy of the EP, which the disc jockey began promoting on KROQ. Lisa Fancher had just started her own record label, the seminal L.A. underground mecca Frontier, when she heard one of Salvation Army's songs on Bingenheimer's show Rodney on the Roq. She signed the band immediately and put them in a studio to work on a full album. It was during these sessions that Danny Benair, former drummer for The Quick and Choir Invisible, would join the band, replacing Troy Howell, whose limitations behind the drum kit were becoming more and more apparent. The compilation Befour Three O'Clock collects the first single, unreleased EP, and the result of the sessions for Frontier, Happen Happened, The Salvation Army's final recording before changing their name to The Three O'Clock. It begins with one of Quercio's earliest recording sessions, which yielded the excellent 1981 "Happen Happens / Mind Gardens" single. This early version of "Mind Gardens" is built around a simple Punk-inspired chord progression and Quercio's snarling vocals, and represents quite a contrast to the album version recorded the following year, which loses much of its directness beneath all the reverb and jangle. Despite this, The Salvation Army's sole original album is full of great Nuggets-inspired tracks such as the blues-psych cover of The Great Society's "Going Home," a song featuring a swaggering guitar-based hook and one of Quercio's better early vocal performances. Happen Happened is one of the most essential releases related to the paisley underground, as it both a great album and a rare snapshot of the scene's early roots in the L.A. hardcore/punk movement.

December 1, 2013

The Three O'Clock- "With a Cantaloupe Girlfriend" (1982)

It's strange how something as seemingly innocuous as a video show can potentially change your life. My parent's had just been divorced, and now, living with my mom in a small apartment, completely isolated and without friends, I began to disintegrate into dust. One day, after school, flipping through channels on the TV, I discovered a video show called MV3. What was unusual about this show was that it focused mainly on alternative and independent artists, as it was hosted by, among others, local KROQ DJ Richard Blade. The American Bandstand-style dance sequences were often painful to watch, but over the course of the coming weeks and months, my ears and eyes were opened to the only music that had ever really spoken to me, music that told me I was not really alone and that being different was a sign of sanity, even in those moments when I felt like I was falling down the rabbit hole. This was the first time I discovered that music would always be there to save me. Another great aspect of the show was the live performances by local L.A. bands, many of whom comprised the paisley underground scene that was just hitting its stride at the time. Among these was an appearance by The Three O'Clock, which really made an impression on me at the time. However, I admit, the hosts are pretty lame, although I think I had a crush on the devotchka speaking at the end of the clip- what can I say? I was a kid, ha. Seriously though, I always wanted a cantaloupe girlfriend, but it took oh so long to find her......

p.s. this clip might have been the beginning of my love affair with red Rickenbacker guitars as well

Various Artists - CD86: 48 Tracks from the Birth of Indie Pop (2006)

"We [tried] to invent an alternative scene – our own version of punk you could say – by forcing a coterie of new bands onto a cassette called C86. It’s not entirely convincing and you should get out more if you remember The Shop Assistants – but it nails our colours to the mast. We, it said, for better or worse, are indie." -NME

One of the biggest misnomers about the UK music scene of the mid-to late 1980s is that nothing of interest was happening. Post-punk had gone pop, bands such as Echo & The Bunnymen and The Smiths were beginning to disintegrate due, at least in part, to the realities of major-label patronage, and the baggy beats of the Madchester scene were still a few years away. Reverberations of the punk revolution ten years earlier, though still audible, had been reduced to a murmur as D.I.Y. ideals had been replaced by glossy imitation. This was deep into the Thatcher era, meaning the deregulation of markets under the euphemistic title "economic liberalization", massive unemployment and social unrest. In the midst of all this, NME (New Musical Express), something like the UK equivalent to Rolling Stone, perhaps to stem its own slow descent into cultural obsolescence, made a fateful decision. NME journalist Roger Carr: "During the mid 80s, a few of us at the paper were starting to hear and see a load of bands coming through with a different sound to that which had dominated the independent scene for much of the earlier part of the decade. You got the feeling that something was happening, like the ground was shifting slightly." In an era long before the conspicuous consumption of digital music files, NME's issuing of a mail-order only mix-tape served as both an efficient way to expose new indie music to a larger audience and to resuscitate the publication's flagging indie credibility. Roger Carr: "We thought we'd do one of these for what was happening in indie music at the time. I'd done it for the paper before in 1981- the imaginatively titled C81- and that had been quite popular. So a few of us got together and started picking the bands we wanted to go on the tape." What this unassuming cassette tape would end up doing is become the catalyst for the rise of a new indie-pop scene whose influence would be as controversial as it was far-reaching.

The bands that Carr and his cohorts had begun to notice emanating from places such as Bristol, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow exemplified a disorienting conflation of classic sixties guitar-pop with the D.I.Y. ethos of the punk revolution in its purest form. In terms of sound, the obvious touchstones for many of these bands were The Byrds, Love, Phil Spector, Ramones, Buzzcocks, Orange Juice, Undertones, Television Personalities and Jonathan Richman. As many of the bands took the "shambling" label that had been affixed to some of their post-punk forefathers to a new level, musicianship was not at a premium; however, what was at a premium in bands such as Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons, The Pastels, Shop Assistants and The Close Lobsters was a complete rejection of punk's tendency to embrace and celebrate male-centered aggression. Phil Wilson of London indie band The June Brides: ""If you like popular music there's pop and there's rock [....] And if you're a little bit sensitive then a lot of rock music feels a little bit ridiculous- all that feet up on the monitors stuff. I approve of not being macho." As such, this burgeoning indie-pop scene was open to the participation of women on an unprecedented level. Amelia Fletcher of Oxford's Talulah Gosh: "The political aspect has been neglected [....] It was very, very open to women. Although it wasn't overtly political, women felt involved because musicianship wasn't at a premium: you could make the music you wanted to the extent you were able." Martin Whitehead of The Flatmates: "Before C86, women could only be eye-candy in a band, I think C86 changed that- there were women promoting gigs, writing fanzines and running labels." In addition, the look adopted by fans and bands alike reinforced a sense of cultivated uncoolness: bowl-cuts and bobs were de rigueur, as were stripey t-shirts and anoraks. All of which prompted the following commentary on an indie mag called i-D: “Childlike innocence and assumed naivety permeate the Cutie scene – their clothes are asexual, their haircuts are fringes, their colours are pastel. Cuties like Penguin modern classics, sweets, ginger beer, vegetables and anoraks. Heroes include Christopher Robin, Buzzcocks and The Undertones.”

November 30, 2013

Felt - "Stained-Glass Windows in the Sky" (1987)

Here's a fine dose of dour mid-80s jangle-pop for a lonely and occasionally hopeless Friday night. And I almost forgot to mention that I have a few C86-related posts in the works soon, if that's your kind of thing....

November 28, 2013

Notes from the Paisley Underground: True West - Hollywood Holiday Revisited (2007)

Along with bands such as The Dream Syndicate, Game Theory, and Thin White Rope, True West originally hailed from the small but very influential music scene that thrived in the college town of Davis, CA. during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and like those other bands, they ended up gravitating to the paisley underground scene based in L.A. in order to find a wider audience and a record deal. True West's sound was a fertile blend of psych-tinged roots-rock, jangle-pop, and a touch of the dark, spidery dual-guitar interplay of Television, a combination of influences that made them quite unique among the paisley crowd. After a brilliant self-released EP (which would eventually be grouped with additional tracks and released as the even more brilliant Hollywood Holiday), the band was invited by EMI to record some demos at the legendary Bearsville studio in New York with none other than former Television visionary Tom Verlaine; however, the sessions didn't go well, and EMI passed on them. Russ Tolman: "What about Verlaine? Well, he seemed real strict and stern. We jokingly called him 'the schoolmaster.' I think he got along better with other people in the band than me, and I was the big Verlaine fan, which was kinda funny. But I was real worried about things getting over-produced so I was kinda playing the sullen adversary sort of role, so he and I never really hit it off until the recording was over and we gave him a ride back to New York in our van  and at that point he turned into plain old Tom Miller, a pretty nice guy from Delaware, instead of Tom Verlaine, the artiste [....] I asked him all the questions I always wanted to know about Television and about Richard Lloyd, and it was a lot of fun."  By the time True West finally released their first proper LP, the slightly less brilliant but still quite enjoyable Drifters, they were beginning to undergo personnel changes that would eventually rob the band of much of their momentum.

Though a third album appeared a few years later, True West were never again able to hit the significant heights of their earliest recordings. Because these recordings remained out of print for more than twenty years, Hollywood Holiday is very much one of the forgotten masterpieces of the paisley scene. While its production sounds a bit thin in places, the austerity serves True West's aesthetic well, as their later recordings tended to polish the dark post-punk grime out of their sound, thus making them seem, at times, like just another jangle-pop outfit. A perfect example of what made True West so distinctive is their cover of "Lucifer Sam" from Pink Floyd's psychedelic masterpiece, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which manages to capture both the twisted whimsey of the original and to inject it with a little early-eighties paranoia courtesy of lead vocalist Gavin Blair, whose voice possesses none of the child-like naivete of Syd Barrett's. Coupled with the intertwining guitars of Russ Tolman and Richard McGrath, the song traverses new-found depths of acid-drenched darkness. "And Then the Rain," True West's signature song and easily one of the best things to come out of the paisley scene, is a tense piece of jangly melancholia that wallows beautifully in its doom-filled verses. My personal True West favorite is "Look Around," the lead track on Drifters, which features a devastating power-pop-style hook and some memorable, inspired vocals from Blair. Although the phrase "lost classic" is used far too often by music reviewers, Hollywood Holiday and Drifters exemplify this notion. Eerily similar to the fate of Big Star ten years earlier, True West was as talented as any neo-psych band of the era, but commercial success would prove frustratingly elusive and, as is so often the case, an early demise soon followed.

November 27, 2013

Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars - "Starman" (1972)

Hands down, my favorite Ziggy Stardust clip. Makes me want to break out the old eyeliner and lipstick (black of course) ;)

Mick Ronson - Slaughter on 10th Avenue (1974/2003)

Mick Ronson is easily one of the most underrated musicians of the rock era. A first rate arranger and a sublimely talented multi-instrumentalist whose fiery lead-guitar work for David Bowie's Ziggy-era band The Spiders from Mars proved to be a huge influence on both the punk and post-punk movements of the late-1970s and early 1980s, Ronson was a rock 'n' roll careerist, who, much like Bowie, had endured many failures before his star finally began to ascend. Before meeting up with Bowie in 1969 toward the end of the recording sessions for the Space Oddity album, Ronson had paid his dues knocking about in several bands in his native city of Hull, most notably, an R&B-influenced outfit called The Rats who had a few minor brushes with success in London before descending again and forever into obscurity. The story goes that when former Rats band-mate John Cambridge made the trek from London back to Hull to recruit his friend to join Bowie's new backing band, The Hype, Ronson was working as a Parks Department gardener. Understandably reluctant after his previous failures, Ronson was finally persuaded to agree and consummated his legendary musical partnership with Bowie only a few days later on the John Peel radio show. In hindsight, Ronson's influence on Bowie's glam-phase is incalculable, as he not only was the architect (along with Tony Visconti) of the darker, harder-edged sound Bowie adopted beginning with The Man Who Sold the World, but he also co-produced, with Bowie, many of the classic Ziggy-era albums. Following Bowie's sudden retirement of his Ziggy Stardust alter-ego in July, 1973, Ronson, at the behest of Bowie's manager, Tony DeFries, recorded his first solo album, which, if nothing else, clearly demonstrates the extent to which Ronson had a hand in Bowie's distinctive sound.  

Slaughter on 10th Avenue isn't the kind of solo effort you'd expect from a lead guitarist striking out on his own for the first time; rather, it attempts to present Ronson as a viable pop star in his own right, instead of merely giving him a forum to lay down impressive guitar solos. This is evident from the first song, a cover of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender," which starts out reverentially enough, but soon converts this gentle (or sappy depending on your taste) chestnut into an over-the-top glam-rock power ballad, complete with Ronson's histrionic Bowie-esque vocals and dramatic Ziggy-style guitar work. It really should be a mess, but the song is so lovingly executed and sumptuously recorded that it simply works, and works well. Things get even more interesting on the Bowie & Ronson penned "Growing Up and I'm Fine," which listeners will either love or hate depending on their tolerance for (or love of) glam-rock excess. A fey take-off on Springsteen, it's the kind of song Bowie excelled at on albums such as Aladdin Sane, and though Ronson does a credible job on vocals, it's impossible not to wonder what Bowie might have done with the song; nonetheless, it's a great, glittery three-minute ride. And then there is "Music Is Lethal," another Bowie-penned tune that starts out sounding a little like "The Port of Amsterdam," but soon develops into a full-fledged Jacques Brel meets Scott Walker meets Bowie glam-opera. Overall, the production on Slaughter on 10th Avenue is consistently gorgeous and Ronno's guitar-work is spectacular (as usual), and while this is indeed a strange album that ultimately pales in comparison to the Bowie albums it, in many ways, tries to mimic, it still manages to feel like an essential document of a brief but inspired moment when pop hooks, gender-bending and high art could be taken in a single dose.