21 September 2016

Poppy Factory - 7x7/ Stars/ Fabulous Beast (EP)

Label: Chrysalis
Year of Release: 1991

Something very unusual happened at the turn of the eighties. The success of the Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Charlatans and Inspiral Carpets suddenly caused major labels to smell possible money in a lot of alternative rock or, more likely, indie dance acts. In the middle part of the eighties, large labels were sometimes sniffy about signing alternative acts, taking very careful, low budget punts on a small handful of bands then often half-heartedly promoting them at best - by the nineties, they were either snatching acts off indie labels just as they were creeping towards the Top 40, or signing them before the indies even got a sniff.

Poppy Factory were an example of an indie-dance act who, self-released debut "Drug House" aside, never came within a centimetre of an indie label. Cradle-snatched by Chrysalis on the tail end of the baggy scene, their exposure actually probably suffered slightly as a result. It sounds hard to believe now, but in those days if you didn't struggle on a small independent label for awhile, you were often regarded as being somewhat inauthentic and over-stylised by the music press.

The group, consisting of Jock Cotton on guitar and vocals, Michael Dale on keyboards and bass, and Jon MacDonald on keyboards, emerged out of Bradford with an innovative live show which frequently featured surrealist live props such as neon lobsters and out-of-context film clips, giving them an automatic parallel with World of Twist who were using similar bizarro stage distractions at the time. Sound-wise as well, the two bands have much in common - the indie-dance backbeats and the heavy leaning on distinctly eighties keyboard sounds make them feel like kindred spirits.

The debut single "7x7" is arguably their finest work. With its chorus and opening cry of "Call me Charlie Bubbles!" harking back to the sixties film of the same name starring Albert Finney, it combines electronic psychedelia, confused surrealist lyrics and an incredibly dramatic atmosphere to astounding effect. "Maybe the rooftops are hidden under the floors!" cries Cotton in an anguished, almost camp voice. Part E generation muzak and part rewrite of Scott Walker's "Plastic Palace People", it's indicative of how under-rated a lot of singles being released during this period were, and how grossly unfair it was that the indie-dance genre sparked and fizzed out quite so quickly. It's a very brave and immediately striking "proper" debut single which gently nudged its way into the Top 100 despite its odd edges.

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Label: Chrysalis
Year of Release: 1991

Follow-up "Stars", on the other hand, is very brazenly a pop record, with its chiming keyboards, whispered backing vocals, and bongo-bashing groove. Gone is the delirium of the debut and in its place is a record which is rather closer to the shiny slickness of ABC. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, but the conventionality of the track can't help but be slightly disappointing.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the public agreed and the single failed to make as much of a splash as "7x7". Reduced, remaindered copies of this were a common sight during my teenage years, all of them sitting and gathering dust in the budget boxes of my local independent record shop. The pop art sleeve almost tempted me into buying it a few times - I should have done. It could be obtained at a much lower price then.

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Label: Chrysalis
Year of Release: 1991

The Fabulous Beast EP was the group's last shot at chart stardom, and almost inevitably didn't make it. The title track is another slice of pop, this time much more frantic and retaining the faint sense of surrealism the debut single had. It's a return to form after the disappointment of "Stars", and should perhaps have performed better, but by this point the public's interest in both the band and baggy-inspired indie groups was seriously waning.

Another track on the EP, "Acceleration", shows that they had an obvious flair for faintly warped and melodramatic yet decidedly poppy ditties. It also seemed to prove that the forthcoming LP "Goodtime" was going to be an interesting proposition at the very least.

Sadly, the LP, while completed, never got released. Chrysalis dropped the band, noting their declining sales (and they never started from a very high base in the first place) and left the album in the vaults. To this day, it's never been heard by the general public, and nor have the group been widely remembered by anyone except those who paid close attention to the British alternative scene at the time.

Given a lot of emerging revivalist trends in this area, and how close some of them veer to Poppy Factory's sound - I'm thinking very much of bands like Swim Deep here - it's a pity nobody has thought to revisit those abandoned master tapes yet. Perhaps their time might have come.

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