18 March 2009
It's an unfortunate fact that success in art, music, and indeed life itself is dependent as much upon timing as talent. The people who are first through the thicket are seldom the ones who are showered with riches when others benefit from their daring. It's much more likely that they'll be confronted with critics, and even their own friends, telling them they're idiots and they're wasting their time. Meanwhile, anyone with a mediocre talent can have a brief but lucky flurry of success just through copying the dominant trends of the day.
Some time ago I was looking at an old Chart Show clip on YouTube, and these skinny wretches in retro-wear appeared on the screen singing chirpily about "Jimmy Dean" and cutely whacking their guitars. Nothing remotely unusual about that, you might think, but it made me feel inappropriately nostalgic for my university days - inappropriately, of course, not just for the reason that the scene they best seemed to fit (Britpop) was often awful, but because they were never even around during that era. In fact, Boys Wonder first hit the scene in 1987, and were done and dusted before the nineties even began. I hadn't even left school by the time they split up.
Being perhaps a tiny bit critical here, there are many reasons Boys Wonder might not have hit the big time besides the fact that they seemed out of sorts with both the emerging Manchester scene and the departing C86/ shambling scene. I've yet to hear a single track of theirs, for example, which sounds as good as the best material produced by the three Britpop heavy-weights (Pulp, Oasis, Blur), and whilst I've no doubt they would have had some success if they'd emerged in 1994 instead, I suspect it wouldn't have been to the level of those lofty heights.
Be that as it may, in terms of production, stylings and posturing here, there's quite a bit of daring forward thinking going on which really shouldn't be ignored. The band were largely critically slated at the time, "for sounding like Sham 69" as one member says in an interview - which is interesting, because the comparison is a weak one and an indication of how much critics at the time were clearly confused by what they were trying to do. Their over-elaborate kitsch clothes, talk about dandyism, sense of irony, and excessive frivolity will have seemed odd even next to the most upbeat of Grebo bands, who may have been lagered up lovers of fun but were usually exponents of the "bash it out and bugger the analysis and the window dressing" school of musical thought. There really wasn't a great deal of this stuff around in the late eighties outside of mod nights in pubs in London.
It's also easy to say that all they were effectively doing was predicting a revival rather than actually instigating a new musical style. This is a fair point, but whilst I certainly wouldn't want to categorise them alongside the earliest experimenters with electronic sound, or even the earliest techno artists, there's still a significant difference between their output and that of their sixties forebears. Those bands (generally speaking) didn't treat what they were doing particularly ironically. On top of that there's an eighties dilution to Boys Wonder's sound as well which, rather than being interfering or too clean, actually works well. Somewhere in the barks and yelps in the vocals you can hear the influence of Adam Ant seeping through, and in the instrumentation the indie movers and shakers of the moment like The Wedding Present and The Darling Buds are also making themselves slightly spikily apparent. When you blend it all together (to quote Jools Holland) what that little cocktail effectively produces is your common-or-garden nineties Britpop band a whole decade early. To put that into perspective, Pulp were still recording awkward sounding, dark garage records at this point about suffocating relationships.
Was anybody listening and taking notes? It's not entirely impossible, but it's doubtful that their flop singles would have given the likes of the ambitious Damon Albarn much encouragement. They seemed to exist out on a limb by themselves, not being taken terribly seriously at all, before disintegrating and moving on to other projects until fashion caught up with them.
A fan website was recently launched for the band, which has enabled me to catch up with their work as well as download a large volume of their singles for free, which you can do too. You can access it here, and have a listen to the earliest bits of their discography here - I particularly recommend "Goodbye Jimmy Dean" which would have been Radio One A-listed in 1995.
A lot of members of Boys Wonder went on to form Corduroy, of course, who are another band who seemed to achieve more critical approval without having any commercial success - but theirs is another story for another time (perhaps).
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