My sister, who is a few years older than I, went to University in Norwich. Knowing that I was a music fan, she used to tell me, now and then, about what was going on musically in Norwich. Sometimes these stories would involve a band called Passing Clouds, a member of whom was friends with one of my sister’s friends. They seemed to be a big musical fish in the small Norfolkian pond, and I was quietly impressed by this ‘friend-by-proxy’ connection with someone almost an Actual Real Musician.
As this was a pre-internet-taking-over-the-world, let’s-go-indie-pop-through-the-mail kind of time, somehow I came across the postal address for Grant Madden, the aforementioned musician – and Passing Clouds vocalist. Ostensibly to ask if the band might like to contribute to one of the cassette compilations that I was releasing at the time, I dropped him a line. I can’t honestly remember if this led to the band actually being on one of my releases – such information is not on the internet; maybe I should put it there? – but it did result in getting copies of this record and another 12″ by the band. And they were free! And they were, and still are, very good!
Grant Madden moved on to form a band called Half Time Oranges, who released an album called Clive Baker Set Fire To Me, a title that has some kind of humorous football-related meaning, which is completely lost on me. That album was released by Rutland Records – named after Britain’s smallest county, which is a very indie-pop-twee kind of name – and that label also released records by Po! and The Cudgels, both of whom were on some of the compilations that I released. And so the circles-within-circles nature of that indie-pop scene is reinforced once again.
‘Big Black’ in this record’s title refers to the glory of a twelve-inch piece of vinyl, of course, and not to Steve Albini’s thundering industrial rock band. The Groove Farm were thundering, too, but in an altogether more indie-pop fashion. Thunderingly cute and perky. A twelve-inch record being released by an indie-pop band was a rare occurrence, such was the habit of bands involved in that scene for staying true to the seven inch or album formats. Remember, CDs were very rare things at this time, so I presume the extra cost of twelve inch production was a deterrent, unless it was to be used for a full album. I rememember the furore created when Sarah Records broke with tradition and released the Field Mice’s ‘Missing The Moon’ as a twelve inch, after nothing previously but seven inch singles. Quaint times.
The Groove Farm, of course, begat Beatnik Filmstars, who I loved. This record includes the song ‘Baby Blue Marine’, which I first heard on a compilation tape made for me by the kind fellow that used to run a label called Pillarbox Red Records. One side of the tape was named ‘100% flexi-pop explosion’, as I recall, and was made up of – as you may expect – indie-pop tracks recorded from all kinds of flexidisc releases. The wavering, scratchy nature of the recordings only made the songs sound better. ‘Baby Blue Marine’, on that tape, was taken from The Groove Farm’s split flexi with The Sea Urchins – the latter, of course, having the honour of being the first release from Sarah Records. See how all things are connected?
This record includes a cover version of ‘Red Dress’, originally recorded by Alvin Stardust, with whom The Groove Farm seemed to have an ongoing obsession: a later album of theirs, also on Subway Records, was named Alvin is King. Alvin Stardust would, of course, later appear in the very early days of TV teen soap Hollyoaks, as one of the original owners of the Dog In The Pond pub. He is best remembered though for this kind of thing:
The concept of ‘perfect pop’ is a long-standing one amongst indie kids. It’s a term often thrown back at critics of songs, almost a defense mechanism: ‘yes, it’s very badly-recorded, but it’s perfect pop!’, ‘I know it’s Girls Aloud, and they’re completely manufactured, but it’s just a perfect pop song!’, and so forth. It’s a term used often in the hand-crayoned, hairslide-heavy realm of indie-pop, and there are a few bands – mostly from the early 1980s – who are pulled out as the big guns of perfect pop; the bands that created the framework for much that followed. Everything But The Girl are one of these bands, along with many others like Orange Juice, Haircut 100 and Aztec Camera. None of these are/were thunderingly independent or fiercely different, as one might expect – and so it’s surprising that ‘perfect pop’ is so often a term used in the context of independent music ideals. Perhaps it a question of scale – pop includes all manner of dross that clogs up the charts, but perfect pop represents a strain of that larger selection which ticks boxes for people who enjoy it alongside ever wider echoes of independently-released records.
For the record, in my opinion ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ isn’t perfect pop. I find it somewhat boring and dreary. However, Everything But The Girl have a selection of contenders in their long history for the perfect pop epithet.
On the back of this record’s sleeve, within some oddly-precise liner notes, it states that ‘The cover photograph of discarded confetti is by Richard Haughton’. Some points that this raises in my mind:
- Why the need to tell us what the photograph is of? Shouldn’t it be obvious from, well, looking at the photograph? Or is somebody concerned that it’s not obvious what it’s of? In that case, why was it used?
- The photograph is actually pretty poor – it’s been blown up to the point where it’s quite blurred and the colours are dulled. More than that, it’s just not that interesting an image.
- If this is the same Richard Haughton, he’s snapped some pretty big names! Paul McCartney, Simon Le Bon, New Order… even Phil Collins. His website’s homepage is very odd, though. If you’re on a big monitor and you increase your browser window size so that it’s larger than the image on the homepage, you’ll see that there’s a copy of that image behind the main one, and that the copy scales to fit the browser window. I don’t know why the main image itself doesn’t scale. This kind of thing bugs me.
Some randomly-selected ‘perfect pop’ links from a Google search:
People often bang on about the fashion/style wasteland of the 1970s, but I’d suggest that the mid-to-late 1980s were in fact one of the darkest times in Britain’s sartorial history. I remember, as a naive teenager, sporting the horrific combination of a pair of sand-coloured chinos*, a striped shirt and a reversible bomber jacket with one orange and one black side. This was beautifully topped off by some over-gelled hair, approximating some kind of Nick Kamen ‘do, but gone horrifically wrong.
And here, on the sleeve photograph of what is actually a rather good record, we see The Soup Dragons combining some utterly bizarre and misguided stylistic decisions, that could only have come out of this time in history. To wit:
- Paisley shirt/tartan tie/braces/tartan trousers combination
- Christmas-present-from-Auntie patterned sweater, worn underneath patterned cardigan
- Shirts tucked into jeans, Jerry Seinfeld-style
- The holding of a Slinky by one band member: what is this supposed to mean? Is it wacky? Is it kooky?
- The clock is set at a quarter past ten. Why is this? The record’s name is ‘Hang-Ten!’ – not ‘Hang-Ten-Fifteen!’ or ‘Hang-Fifteen!’
- The expressions on the band members’ faces: in all but one instance, look deep into these faces and you’ll see boredom, uncomfortableness and a strange feeling of arrogant dumbness.
But still! I do like The Soup Dragons even if, as previously mentioned on here, their entire career seemed to hang onto the coat-tails of Primal Scream, and even though they have wrapped this release in such a ridiculous photograph. We’ve all done silly things in our past, and we’ve all worn silly clothes. The Soup Dragons at least redressed the balance with some excellent sleeve artwork that would come out after this release. And not least because they seemed to quickly decide against putting themselves on their covers…
*As an aside: ‘chinos’? Where did this bizarre, ridiculous name for a style of preppy, boring trouser actually come from? According to Wikipedia, the word refers to the type of cloth. But I’m not sure I buy that – the word seems forever tied to a light sand coloured loose-fitting trouser that painfully encapsulates the entire concept of ‘smart casual’.
Sleeve designed by Andrew Biscomb & Peter Barrett. I only picked this record up a couple of years ago, along with a couple of other Suede 12″s, from an Oxfam shop. I recall though, way back around the time this came out, thinking what a nice sleeve design it was – very simple, very effective, and with a vague bit of thought behind the imagery. This was somewhat out of kilter with many ‘indie’ record sleeves at the time, which would often focus more on either trying to make unhip band members look hip, or going down the ‘pure abstract’ route. Looking up Biscomb & Barrett on the internet now, I see that they designed sleeves for a variety of other artists too – Luke Haines, The Auteurs, and (horror of horrors) Simply Red amongst them. Quite an odd selection of clients!
Back at the time of the record’s release, along with other Suede 12″s – a flurry were released within a couple of months, as far as I remember – I recall this and a couple of other Suede sleeves hanging on the wall of a room in the house of a chap called Jigger. Well, that wasn’t his real name, but I can’t actually remember his real name. His was a house of choice of post-pub shenanigans – smoking, drinking, chatting, etc. I thought the sleeves looked cool up on his wall. I’m not going to put my Suede sleeves up on a wall – too much collector/catalogue-r mentality going on in my mind for that.
Suede later went on to work a lot with Peter Saville for their artwork. Saville’s cool, but I never much dug his work with Suede, it was a little too neo-cool for my tastes, too much mock airbrushing and shininess. A couple of years ago, I was having a band practice break outside a rehearsal studio in London, and who should pop out of the studio door but Mr Suede himself, Brett Anderson. This alone didn’t really fill me with excitement, but he then answered a mobile phone call with ‘Hello, Mr Saville,’ and I was somewhat overwhelmed with fanboy tremors at being – sort of – right next to Peter Saville. I kept a lid on it, of course, and maintained my exterior cool. I would’ve loved to grab the phone though and somehow blag a design job with Saville with a combination of guile and charm. Never going to get that opportunity again…
This was a charity shop purchase at some point during the 1990s. Thee Hypnotics weren’t (indeed, aren’t) a band I felt particularly desperate to hear, but at the time my thinking would have been influenced by two factors:
- This was a record released on Situation Two. That label also released the early output of The Charlatans (or The Charlatans UK if you’re reading in America). I liked the early output of The Charlatans a lot – enough to think that something released on the same label as them can’t be all bad…
- Thee Hypnotics were a band that I’d heard of, and I was under the impression that they had something of a whiff of outrageous rock’n’roll/drugged-out psychosis to them. In hindsight, they really aren’t that exciting or transcendental, but I distinctly remember that I used to mix them up with the whole Spacemen 3/Spiritualized/The Darkside axis of music.
There is other psychological stuff going on when I make a charity shop purchase. Consider, if you will, purchasing records in one of the following three situations:
- A specialist, hyper-cool independent record store that stocks only records that you want to buy.
- A high street (or Main Street if you’re reading in America) chain store that stocks some records that you want to buy.
- A charity shop that generally stocks very few at best records that you want to buy.
Each of the situations represents a slice of an overall, scientifically-sound, record-buying Venn diagram of choice and necessity:
- Choice: You’ve either got a lot to choose from, or you haven’t.
- Necessity: I came out to buy a record today, and nothing will stop this from happening.
Given those two factors, buying a record by a band I didn’t really want to hear, on the very sketchy basis of a label connection with a band I enjoyed hearing, makes complete sense, does it not? If I’d have been in situation number one above, but could only purchase one record, I’d have bought the one that I desperately craved over all others. As it was, in situation three – as in the case of this purchase – any record was better than no record.
That’s the end of today’s science. Please don’t get situation two above mixed up with Situation Two above.
I really liked the first couple of Battles EPs, as they were totally weird, chilly alien post-rock music of a kind I had never heard before. As the band signed to Warp and started introducing vocals to their instrumentation, I began to find them slightly less compellingly odd. I didn’t not understand them any more and so there wasn’t as much to hold my attention. However, this changed when I saw the band performing on Later With Jools Holland (of all things) and could see the bizarre way that those squeaky Chipmunks vocals were being manipulated in real time, alongside the already complex and fiercely controlled musicianship that was going on. That re-ignited my sense of wonder in what they were doing. Good for them. Jools Holland is still a tool, though, and I am very, very, very glad that he didn’t feel the need to pitch in with some boogie-woogie piano during their performance, like he often does.
You need to experience Battles live, but you need to do so in the right environment. For example, I saw them at Oxford’s Zodiac (as it was then called), supported by Foals, and they were extraordinarily good, with exactly the right audience (enthusiastic but attentive) and sonics (clear and defined). Some time after that I saw them at the Truck Festival, and they were no good at all from my vantage point. I admit that I was at the back of the crowd, but that meant that the audience wasn’t right (I was surrounded by chatter) and the sonics were terrible (gig in a barn; the aforementioned chatter; muddy and messy sound mix). More so than a lot of other bands, this is a real ‘set and setting’ band – to appropriate a phrase from Timothy Leary.
A Battles track (‘Race:In’ I think?) has been recently used on a set of Audi ads on television and in the cinema. I was reminded of this most recently when I saw it prior to watching Avatar recently. There’s a long-standing argument that goes on amongst indie kids about whether a hip+cool artist like Battles is selling out by having their music featured on advertising. My standpoint on this is that as long as the company/brand being promoted is one that the artist doesn’t have any personal problems with, it’s up to them. More than ever, in today’s world of downloads and the immediate exchange of digital files making it easier than ever to transfer music without commerce being involved, perhaps it’s one of the few ways that a band can actually support themselves with music? My main, over-riding feeling on the subject is who really cares. So a band has their music on an ad. So what. They’re not killing babies or injecting drugs into grandmothers. They’re furnishing themselves with the means to create more music – and in the case of a band you like, can that be a bad thing?
This 12″ is from the latter days of 14 Iced Bears, who first (I think) released a couple of 7″ singles on Sarah in the late eighties. Despite sounding as shambling and perky as many an indie-pop band of that time, they always seemed to be slightly edgier, with one foot in strange neo-psychedelic territory. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t like a modern incarnation of Country Joe & The Fish; it was just as if they had imbibed more psychedelic substances than, say, the Field Mice. Perhaps I’m wrong? All I have to go on is the music, after all.
A strong memory created by hearing the 14 Iced Bears band name is a fantastic compilation tape made for me in around ’93 by my good friend Rob, which had all kinds of marvellous stuff on it (Sultans of Ping FC! Swervedriver! Pond!) alongside the 14 Iced Bears track ‘Come Get Me’, which would nowadays sound completely wrong unless it was played on slightly warped, very worn cassette format. I haven’t seen Rob for years – I bumped into him in the streets of Oxford ages ago and that was the last time, I think. He was living in Brighton – maybe he still is? – and was in Oxford for a wedding. I’d lent him my Crybaby Wah-Wah pedal a little while before losing touch – I don’t want it back; I hope he made/is making good use of it!
Borderline Records (the label on which this 12″ was released) was, and I believe still is, a Brighton-based record shop (which extends some kind of Brighton-connection-circle, perhaps). There have been a few instances of real, physical indie record shops also releasing their own product – Borderline in Brighton, Swordfish in Birmingham, and Hospital, Time-Lag and Aquarius out of America are a few I’m aware of… are there others? Do the two things – selling records and making records – go naturally together?
Occasionally I’ll hear some piece of music from the mainstream that totally sticks in my head and obsesses me to the point where I ultimately end up in HMV buying it whilst trying to maintain an air of independent coolness that will convince the person behind the till that although I’m buying something that’s been bought by thousands and millions of kids who just don’t know music, I’m still somehow better and more knowledgeable and more hip than any old casual purchaser. Hah! Deal with that long sentence.
This record is such a case – okay, so it might not be from the complete MOR pop mainstream, but it got what I believe is known as ‘heavy rotation’ on major radio stations upon its release. Those major radio stations were the ones that polluted my ears during my working days at the time, and this song was a huge relief amongst the relentless crap every time it came on. Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s voice is so ugly, so rough, I love it – and I love the fact that such a dirty and sleazy song as this was all over Radio One for a time (even if they did have to refer to the artist as just ODB in order to fend off the inevitable flood of complaints)…
By the way – Ol’ Dirty Bastard; RIP. He seemed to live life to the full (to put it mildly).
My Wu-Tang Clan anecdote: I saw Raekwon and pals performing at an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival a couple of years ago, and a few memories stay with me:
- The total rip-off they got away with by playing snippets of Wu-Tang faves for a minute or so before playing out a huge gunshot sound, shouting at the crowd for a bit and then moving on to the next track. Then ultimately descending into nothing more than a sales drive for Wu-Tang t-shirts from the stage.
- How inappropriate the sleazy, dirty hip-hop of Wu-Tang seemed to be when played out to a room full of pasty-faced indie kids (in which group I consider myself firmly a member). The intense embarrassment of seeing flower-skirted indie girls attempting to shake their booty when invited up on stage.
- A brief, drunken conversation with a couple of Wu-Tang entourage who were stalking through the crowd during the performance, selling mix CDs. I purchased a couple, and attempted a manly slap on the back whilst informing the guys that they were ‘great sallesshmen’. What did I expect to be the outcome of this lame performance? That I would get invited to hang out with the group? That I’d become an honorary Wu-Tang? Alcohol makes you do funny things.
So here’s the second Cud record I’ve written about on here thus far: I think they’re the first band to achieve this dubious honour. It’s not particularly a surprise, as I have a lot of Cud records. I’m sure that more will be mentioned here. In fact, I even have two formats of this release – the twelve-inch you see above as well as the seven-inch release. True fandom, is that not?
As with the previously-mentioned Cud record, this one is from the time when A&M were liberally showering them with money to wrap their releases in all kinds of gimmickry. As such this one is on clear vinyl, it’s numbered (a ‘limited edition’ of something like 10,000 copies…) and it comes along with a push-out-the-pieces Cud mobile, lovingly illustrated by Jamie Hewlett of Tank Girl – and later Gorillaz – fame. My push-out-the-pieces mobile has its pieces firmly un-pushed, by the way.
Related story: as a spirited teenager doing an A-Level art class, I was asked to produce a poster to ‘advertise a product’. Naturally I put together an A2 poster promoting Cud’s then-recent song ‘Eau Water’, lovingly hand-rendered with a beatifully-illustrated tap and flowing water, created using an actual paint-and-compressed-air airbrush. Yes, these were the days before Photoshop ran the world. Proper, this-takes-hours-longer-than-it-really-should, art!