29 May 2008

The Hush - Elephant Rider/ Grey

The Hush - Grey

Label: Fontana
Year of Issue: 1968

There are some cheery music industry optimists out there who believe that every band will eventually get the success they deserve, and if they don't, they've clearly approached something from the wrong angle. "Talent will out," as Freddie Mercury used to camply trill to anyone who was listening (and lest we forget, he suffered a few disappointments of his own before Queen made it).

On the other, shadier side of the room, however, stand people like me who think that whilst there's a grain of truth to the belief that talent is always recognised in the end, there are also other factors to consider. There's record companies, of course. We should never, ever, underestimate the power of record companies to make the wrong decision at the wrong time. Ask Bob Geldof what he thought of his American record company's plan to send stuffed rodents to radio stations to promote the Boomtown Rats. As a stunt, it turned more stomachs than it ever turned any dials on to heavy rotation. Then again, record companies are frequently known for promoting the right people in the wrong way, or signing the right bands and releasing the wrong tracks. And that's the focus of this entry.

On the "Sweeping the Nation 1968" muxtape, you'll have heard a track by the Penny Peeps entitled "Little Man With A Stick". Its bouncy frothiness was backed with an aggressive, mod garage barnstormer on the flip called "Model Village", which is the track which usually gets spun by DJs in sixties clubs these days. The band were apparently furious at the time that the label had chosen the weaker track by some staff songwriters as the A side, and felt that their careers had been wrecked as a result. My opinion (for what it's worth) is that "Model Village" might have sounded a bit too dated, a bit too pre-psychedelic even, for the 1968 charts, but there's no question it was the stronger piece of work. As a recording it would certainly have established the bands sound a lot more successfully, for the two sides barely have anything in common musically with each other. "Little Man" is a very polished piece of orchestrated pop, and the vocals are jolly and chirpy, unlike the sneering bluster of "Model Village" which was supposedly more in keeping with their live shows.

The Hush suffered a similar fate in exactly the same year, albeit by a different record company. Here we have two sides that sound absolutely nothing like each other. "Elephant Rider" sounds as if it could be a failed Song for Europe entry with its childish chorus and cheery noises, whereas "Grey" is actually a harsh, heavy, very garagey piece of work, messy and stormy in all the best ways. "One day I'll die, leave things behind..." the lead vocalist announces at the beginning of the track, to the single, pounding metronomic beat of a snare drum. "But that's just one thing on my mind," he then snarls as some demonic, punky guitars come behind. The chorus just builds, a single whining note being struck again and again as the vocals peak into panicked ranting. It's a total garage punk classic, and whilst I can understand how Fontana got jittery about its commercial potential, to bury this away on a B-side is nothing short of criminal.

As for whether The Hush approved of their decision or not, I'm afraid I couldn't say. This was the only single they were ever able to release, so unless some dusty tapes turn up somewhere soon, we'll never know if they had more tracks like "Grey" to offer. Nobody has ever been able to successfully trace them either, despite their single regularly going for hundreds of pounds at auctions (the copy photographed above is a bootlegged facsimile copy I purchased at a more regular price). If any of them ever happen to read this entry, though, they should certainly get in touch...

Both the A and B side is available at the below link:

28 May 2008

Stump - Buffalo

Year of Release: 1986
Label: Ron Johnson Records

Precious little can be said about the above song which hasn't been said already. Perhaps the only surprising thing left to mention about it is the fact that apparently the lyrics - which I originally read as being surreal nonsense - are actually supposedly observations of a set of large American tourists the band saw wandering around their hometown of Cork. Lines such as "big bottom, swing big bottom" were seemingly about their walking style, whereas "How much is the fish? Does the fish have chips?" and "How do I get off the bus?" are therefore presumably parodies of dopey tourist enquiries, or else actual questions which were overheard (and I've heard more absurd ones in Camden, trust me).

Stump did eventually sign to a major label, which seems utterly unfathomable now, the kind of thing that would never pass through the portals of EMI or Universal unchecked in the demographic and marketing obsessed noughties. It's not that they didn't deserve some sort of success, but their experimental leanings almost guaranteed a cult audience and little more. Still, as a great many people have since realised, "Buffalo" has both a musical and comedic appeal which is quite unique, and deserves to be rediscovered by a whole new generation. A lot of their other material is pretty damn good as well.

An anthology of their work was issued on CD by Sanctuary Records this year, which is worthy of a look.

26 May 2008

Sweeping the Nation Muxtape

Some time ago now – possibly too long ago, in fact – Sweeping the Nation blog challenged its readers to compile a Muxtape (see here: for a variety of different years. Noting with an angry tut that 1967 had already been claimed by one person by the time I noticed their request, I instead opted for 1968, which I suppose is more of a challenge. If 1967 was the height of the Summer of Love and record labels throwing money at anything with an even vaguely tie-dye hue about it, 1968 was when psychedelic pop gave way slightly to hard rock and the first fruits of progressive rock.

All that said, there was still a surprising volume of old school mod and psychedelic material lurking around throughout the calendar year, as I think this virtual tape proves. That most of these people failed to have major hits with the material provided shouldn’t come as a large shock, since their material would have perhaps seemed slightly out of fashion – but it doesn’t stop some of it from being perfectly enjoyable forty years down the line.

The Deviants – You’d Better Hold On

This garage squawker is partly the work of the International Times editor Mick Farren, who barks his way through the lead vocals. It wasn’t a hit at the time, possibly being a tad too noisy for the mainstream UK pop charts.

The Who – Dogs

The Who are clearly deeply ashamed of this one, since seemingly the only place you can obtain it is on the Maximum R&B box set. Their Greatest Hits and Singles albums pretend it never even existed. It does indeed sound like more of a Small Faces pastiche than any of their other material, and as such represents something of a wrongfoot in their musical progress, but nonetheless it’s a perfectly good single. I also can’t be the only person who has wondered if this cockney tinged ditty about dog tracks was more of an inspiration for Blur’s “Parklife” than “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake”…

Interesting fact – the band may choose to disown it, but this still charted one place higher than the supposedly “seminal” (but actually quite dreary) follow-up “Magic Bus”.

The Sound Barrier – Groovin’ Slow

Talking of the Small Faces, as we were, here’s another band who clearly loved them. Not much is known about The Sound Barrier, unfortunately, as they only released this one single on the independent Beacon Records label, which at one point was run out of a spare room in a lumberyard in North London. All I can tell you about the band is that one of them had a moustache to be envious of.

Billy Nicholls – London Social Degree

And yea, the Small Faces themselves do indeed play backing music for Billy Nicholls on this one. Billy Nicholls was supposed to have released the album “Would You Believe” on Immediate Records at the time, but somehow it got shelved and wasn’t released until very recently. This is one of the stand-out tracks. Billy went on to write “I Can’t Stop Loving You (Though I Try)” for Leo Sayer, which is considerably less enjoyable but doubtless helped him pay off the mortgage.

Timebox – Girl Don’t Let Me Wait

If ever there was a track which regularly gets aired at Northern Soul and Sixties club nights that’s aching to be covered by some opportunistic soul (who will probably make a huge hash of it) it’s this one. Timebox had a long history of releasing mod and psychedelic flavoured singles, but this one is much more in the blue-eyed soul vein, and is fantastic.

The Penny Peeps – Little Man With A Stick

Utterly despised by the band at the time, but chosen by the record company as an A-side, this former Tony Blackburn single of the week is eccentric enough to be endearing to my ears. No amount of plays by the boy wonder on the breakfast show could turn it into a hit, though.

Pink Floyd – Point me At The Sky

The post-Barrett period was an extremely stressful and trying time for the Floyd, who had yet to perfect their prog-rock leanings, and as a result frequently tried to emulate Syd’s style instead. Whilst there were occasions when this grated and sounded more like pastiche than anything else, there were also times when they produced some fantastic pop as a result, or some brilliantly floaty psychedelic miniatures. “Point Me At The Sky” is in the former territory, and deserved to be a hit single, but by this stage nobody in the pop market was really interested in them. Not to worry – multi-platinum concept albums and stadiums beckoned.

Anan – I Wonder Where My Sister’s Gone

Christian Martyrdom is a subject which seldom comes up in pop music, so it’s nice of Anan to address it. They were a duo from York who met whilst working as cowboys on a holiday ranch, which obviously lead quite neatly (in some way) into producing baffling and actually rather frightening pieces of work like this. Imagine the most demented “Smile” out-take, then add some screams, and you’re almost there…

Rainbow Ffolly – Sun Sing

Equally unusual is Rainbow Ffolly’s “Sun Sing”, from their album “Sallies Fforth” which is now a heavily in-demand cult item. The band were poorly promoted by EMI and split after that release, and it still remains very unclear as to whether they were actually trying to be part of the psychedelic movement, or else ripping it to shreds.

The Idle Race – The Birthday

Jeff Lynne has been the recipient of a lot of unnecessary mockery over the years. Even if you don’t like the finest singles ELO released – and what kind of human being does that make you? – as a member of the Idle Race he also produced some of the finest material of the late sixties as well. The deliberately childlike nature of much of the work was partly an attempt to counter-balance the pilled up, masculine aggression of mod at the time, and involved Jeff and the boys sticking Rupert the Bear pictures on their guitars. Such behaviour predated the twee elements of eighties indie, and sonically they would seem to have influenced the Super Furry Animals as well (less so on this track, but more noticeably on “Imposters of Life’s Magazine”). The Fall also covered “The Birthday”, and namechecked them in “No Christmas for John Quays”.
Is there a case to be made for Jeff Lynne being a cog in the wheel of alternative music? You bet your aviator shades and stick-on beard there is, pal.

The Peep Show – Espirit De Corps

Fellow Brummies The Peep Show had even less luck with their folkier take on things, though. Their first single “Your Servant Stephen” was about pregnancy out of wedlock, and caused David Jacobs to blow his top on Juke Box Jury about the subject matter. This follow up about World War II was largely ignored, but has a certain Kinksy charm.

The Magic Mixture – Moonbeams

A fascinating one-off album by the Magic Mixture (from where this stems) was funded – albeit in a paltry way – by the budget label Saga. The band were assembled into an infant school hall after hours, and made to record most of the LP entirely live before it was pressed up on cheap vinyl and sent to Woolworths for the costcutting general public’s consumption. A great deal of Saga’s output was inevitably awful, but much of this album stands up. Whether the echos on this track were the work of an on-site engineer or just the effect of the emptiness of the school hall is hard to say, but it certainly gives the song a distinct eerie, spacey feel.

And there we have it! I hope you enjoy it, friends. Normal Left and to the Back service will be resumed in a couple of days.

22 May 2008

Eurovision Song Contest (Part Two)

Apparently, Bob Dylan only watched the Eurovision Song Contest once, in his hotel room during a tour in the year 2000. Sat with his various band members and friends, he critically dissected all the entries with a voice of disgust. We do not have a record of his precise comments, which is something of a shame - clearly Bobby does not keep a biro and pad by his side during the contest, like you and I both do at home - but he apparently expressed disbelief that something so ridiculous should occupy so much television schedule time.

When Lativa's entry (Brainstorm's "My Star") came on the television screen, however, his mood changed somewhat. Pointing an authoratative digit at the lead singer Renārs Kaupers, he announced "That guy... he's got something... what's he doing taking part in this crazy circus?" Whenever Renārs was asked this particular question, he simply shrugged and replied "We have taken part in many song contests before Eurovision". So there you go, then.

Dylan had a point, though. Brainstorm were a genuinely eccentric proposition on the evening, delivering the decidedly poppy "My Star" in a bow legged, pie-eyed manner that managed to disturb plenty of people, but not enough to prevent it from climbing into third place on the final scoreboard. The band are successful throughout Eastern Europe, having supported bands such as Supergrass on regional tours, and continue to do well on the continent to this day. In fact, they're possible candidates for a Second Hand Store dip entry in themselves, since their albums can frequently be found scattered around stores in East London, presumably discarded by people from other countries (their discs sold poorly here, despite being hyped to Kingdom come by none other than Jonathan King).

If Brainstorm had indie-ish leanings, it should be noted that last year's contest had a fantastic entry of that ilk from France which barely anyone voted for. Les Fatals Picards "L'Amour a la Francaise" was a wonderful piece of string-laden pop which in places sounded slightly like Jack at their poppiest (who of course had an entry on here of their own some weeks ago). It was, quite simply, far too good for a contest which traditionally attracts a middle of the road audience, and bombed near the bottom of the board. It did go on to become one of the biggest sellers of the contest on iTunes in the UK, though, proving that it wasn't totally ignored. The video for the track should be viewed first:

But their performance at the final - which partly consisted of a man in a pink suit running around going beserk with a stuffed cat on his shoulder - may have alienated some:

And finally, let us not forget Iceland's entry from Paul Oscar in 1997. Here was a man who clearly predicted both the eighties revival and Hoxtonite stylings way before anyone else had even bothered - roundly mocked at the time, I wouldn't be at all surprised if nobody batted an eyelid at this now. Then again, the stageshow was perhaps a bit much.

Enjoy the second semi-finals tonight, and the finals on Saturday night. Remember, Bob Dylan was right - the Eurovision most definitely is a circus, but it doesn't hurt to indulge in such frivolities once in a while. No doubt I'll be back with another entry next year talking about all the goodness that finished poorly this year too.

21 May 2008

The Second Hand Record Dip Part 7 - Sgt Pepper OST

Sgt Pepper

Who: Various Artists (although mostly consisting of The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton)
What: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Where: Wood Street Market, Walthamstow
Label: RSO
Year: 1978
Cost: One pound

At last, a Second Hand Store Lucky Dip everybody at home can take part in, for it is highly likely that you too will be able to go to Oxfam tomorrow morning and purchase this said disc for a low, low price. And no surprise there.

If there’s one thing about The Beatles’ songs that seems to be a universal constant, it’s that almost all of the cover versions of their work are complete and total drek. It’s an unfortunate fact possibly made true by a number of unfortunate factors – but primarily, the tunes being covered are usually well known and loved by most members of the public from birth, and therefore far too familiar to be tweaked and interfered with without the results seeming in some way awkward and self-conscious. Even if those of us with patient ears manage to get past the remodels and attempt to find something beyond them, we usually discover that the new version does little that the original didn’t attempt already, except in a more cloying, charmless and over-produced way. There are exceptions, of course – Otis Redding’s version of “Daytripper” is a brutal piece of work which trumps the original, sixties garage band The Score’s version of “Please Please Me” takes the somewhat twee original and gives it some spittle and spite, and I’ll even guiltily confess to preferring Siouxsie and the Banshee’s version of “Dear Prudence”. What The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton did to the Beatles songs on the soundtrack for the Sergeant Pepper film, however, was almost universally loathed by the public and critics alike.

You can see the thinking behind this project. The Bee Gees and yer man Frampton were enjoying huge success at the time, and you can imagine the project being trumped up in boardroom meeting after boardroom meeting until the lion-maned brothers Gibb roared their hearty approval. “Yes, my glorious pride, we can do it!” Barry Gibb doubtless snarled, before pouncing on the rotting carcass of the Beatles back-catalogue. “And whilst we are chewing on this veritable feast, why not invite some of our comedy friends along to take on their music hall fare? Why, I met Steve Martin in a club last night… and Frankie Howerd said I’d have to fondle his crotch unless he was allowed to join in…”

If it sounds appealing in a kitsch way, trust me it isn’t. Steve Martin talking his way through “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is even more grating than the original was, and that’s quite a trench to dig quality-wise. When Dennis Pennis asked him “how come you’re not funny anymore?” you have to wonder if he’d ever heard this track. Martin could be excruciatingly unfunny even at the peak of his career.

Frankie Howerd and Peter Frampton duetting on “Mean Mr Mustard” might also sound amusing as a concept, but in reality it sounds like two idiots pissing around with a vocoder in a school musical equipment cupboard. The Bee Gees also add little to the proceedings, choosing to anemically bleat their way through overly slick versions of the tracks in a karaoke style. I could add at this point that I do have a great deal of time for much of the Bee Gees back catalogue, but I pray to God that even they would choose to disown this piece of work (they certainly don’t talk about it much anymore).

Robert Stigwood, entrepreneur and owner of the RSO label this was released on, suffered horribly in the aftermath of this release. He lost so much money on the project that the label collapsed not long afterwards – which considering he’d also released and financed the soundtracks to “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever”, two of the most popular albums of their kind of all time, really takes some doing. But then this album is quite uniquely bad, and inexplicably boring in its awfulness too. Given the people involved, it should at least have the decency of being a bit entertaining in an absurd way. Christ almighty, even Alice Cooper sounds dull covering “Come Together”.

Frampton and Howerd: "Mean Mr Mustard":

As for me? I found a brand new copy still shrink wrapped for the princely sum of one pound, and only bought it for the free poster, which is the only lovably ridiculous thing about the entire package.


19 May 2008

Eurovision Song Contest (Part One)

It's Eurovision Song Contest week, ladies and gentleman, and I'm afraid it's beyond my ability to ignore that very significant fact. Whilst the songfest is often mocked by people who haven't watched it in over a decade and therefore seldom know what they're talking about, lovers of backwater pop oddments (which must be you - what are you doing reading this blog otherwise?) will find at least a few ditties to treasure every single year. They normally crash and burn on the final scoreboard, of course, as the majority of international voters favour middle of the road efforts rather than the more peculiar aural trinkets out there.

The trouble is, whilst the contest might seem like easy meat for a blog like this one, it's difficult to find entries that haven't already had maximum publicity elsewhere in the media. If they're unfathomably bad, chances are the BBC showed them in their slightly condescending "Crikey, look at these funny foreigners who think they're talented! Who'd have thunk it, eh?" historical summaries last year. And the year before that. And the year before that one as well. Repeat to fade. Any artist who finished with nul points at the bottom of the board enters an unenviable hall of fame, and becomes known in a manner they almost certainly wouldn't be if they'd just released their song on a small record label and let it sell the twenty copies it was probably destined to.

There are exceptions, however. The rather marvellous Telex from Belgium - bottom rung finishers in 1980 - deliberately entered the ridiculous Kraftwerk styled "Eurovision" to scattered applause. Their concessions to choreography on the night revolved around the gentle movements of their scarves, a piece of sly subversion which would have earned them a vote from me at the very least.

If you're in any doubt that the above isn't especially representative of the band's fare, here's the video to "Moskow Discow", which proves they were utterly ace when they wanted to be.

If you think such electronic diversions are a rarity in Eurovision, you wouldn't be entirely wrong... but the times they are a-changing, as Georgia's Bjorkish entry for last year's contest proves. Sopho's "Visionary Dream" is still on my iPod playlist now, a full year on, and shows that when you combine throttling diva-ish vocals with squelching, honking keyboards, you get something which... doesn't perform that well on the final scoreboard, really. Nonetheless, this is genuinely one of my favourite Eurovision songs of the past decade:

And finally, for this entry, let's finish on the only Ska entry there's ever been on Eurovision (to the best of my knowledge), Athena's "For Real" in 2004. If the lead singer hasn't considered growing himself some hair and becoming the Turkish Kevin Rowland on the tribute band circuit, he certainly should do - there would be a pretty penny in it for him, and that's for sure. This finished in a quite creditable sixth place at the time, though it deserved to romp home given the feeble competition that year.

Apologies for the rather distorted sound, by the way - and it should be me apologising as well, since I uploaded the damn thing.

I will be back with some more Eurovision material later in the week, before the main contest on Saturday night. Meanwhile, on to that bloody Second Hand lucky dip entry I've been promising for ages...

18 May 2008

Animals That Swim - Workshy

animals that swim - workshy

Label: Elemental
Year of issue: 1994

The career of Animals That Swim has already been dissected once on this blog many entries ago, so it’s probably pointless me picking their progress (or lack thereof) to pieces yet again. Let’s just begin by saying that “Workshy”, their debut album, is nothing like as wonderful as the work which followed it on “I Was The King”, but the flashes of brilliance contained within certainly make it worth a listen if you followed my advice and went away to purchase its younger brother.

Where “King” lilts and soars, “Workshy” fizzes, jabs and jangles, sounding like a quintessential “indie” disc. From the opening line of “I can’t wake up, the sky’s too dull to rouse me” and the clanging guitar lines which back it, it’s clearly not an album with its eyes on the top ten, even though the band have since said that they were always aiming to make popular records. Lyrically it’s also a less cheery prospect, but somehow still frequently hilarious, using wit to bring sparkle to the least likely subjects. The motor crash tale of “Pink Carnations” somehow manages to cover the subject with a chirpy, brassy backing, and even turns its attention to the absurdity of celebrity at the end when it mentions a famous hospital visiting “bald shithead with a teddy bear”. We can only speculate who this might have been.

Elsewhere, the astounding, marginally Go-Betweens-esque “Silent Film” paints an outer London suburban picture which manages to be both delicate and recognizable, and their interpretation of Charles Bukowski’s “Sway with Me” is also surprising in that, unlike most melodic interpretations of poetry, it works just as well as the rest of the material on the album and fits its jagged nature perfectly. Animals That Swim could almost be Bukowski’s British backing band, swaying with bleary eyes behind him.

“Workshy” should be approached with a bit more caution than perhaps most of their other work in that it’s an imperfect whole. “Susie’s Friends” and “Saint Francis”, for example, almost become dirges at points. However, considering you can download the lot for free below, who’s complaining? In this case, the record sellers on ebay and Amazon probably won’t be worried about some obscure blog cutting into their trade – I noticed that one major site was selling it for 68 cents recently. At that sort of retail price, you might want to get yourself a proper copy after downloading this, a vinyl rip which unfortunately doesn’t have mint sound. Sadly, this is the only copy I own at the moment.

How to Make a Chandelier
Smooth Steps
Pink Carnations
Saint Francis
Action at Tescos
King Beer
Susie’s Friends
Action at Tescos 2
Madame Yevonde
Silent Film
Sway With Me

9 May 2008

I'll be back after the break (Bob Morgan - Marguerite)

"Left and to the Back" will be taking a break for a week to go away and focus on other things... but whilst I'm away, enjoy this strange and subtle video somebody on YouTube directed to go with Bob Morgan's "Marguerite" (which I mentioned last entry):

When I return, I promise to try and dig out more absurd Second Hand Record Store finds as well, something I realise I've been neglecting for a while.

8 May 2008

In the meantime, here's some light music...

Channel Four Testcard

It should hopefully be obvious to anyone reading this blog that the phrase “guilty pleasures” isn’t one I like to give a great deal of time to. Either you like something, or you don’t. Feeling guilty about liking certain music should only really apply if you’re treating yourself to a compilation of the finest Nazi rock classics, or perhaps some sicko dance track consisting of the samples of a cat being forcefed broken glass to an uptempo beat. Otherwise, you should be able to listen to what you want without feeling the need to justify it. Go on, stick on Phil Collins’ “No Jacket Required” if you like. It’s your life. As long as I’m not in the same room at the time, you’ll hear no sermons from me.

All that said, there are certain things you can profess a liking for at certain points in history and silence an entire room, and this entry is really dedicated to an entire genre which baffles the minds of many. Back in the eighties, I stumbled across some music I loved not on the radio, not through a friend, nor even through a (conventional) television programme. I happened to have the day off school, and I switched over to Channel Four which had yet to begin broadcasting. On the testcard was some sort of light, partly synthetic reggae noise I instantly found slightly sinister and odd, but tuneful too. Odd fragments of vocals and agonized “oh” noises came out in the track which was obviously imitating the methods of dub in its own particular muzak way. Whatever this was, it certainly wasn’t the Ray Coniff Orchestra. It was actually slightly unsettling and cropped up in my dreams at least a couple of times. I think what threw me most was perhaps that it challenged my expectations of what “testcard music” was and should be. In the context of the company it was in, it sounded horrendously threatening.

I carried on “watching” (or listening) to the testcard and heard, interspersed with the usual pieces of light fluff, other electronic tracks which seemed rather rum, even if they weren’t as strange as material I knew was already commercially available. I may have been very young, but I already owned The Art of Noise’s “Who’s Afraid of?” album, and knew things could get a lot more otherworldly than this. Still, though, it was such likeable stuff that I found myself in the habit of turning Channel Four on out of the usual broadcasting hours just to see if I could catch more music like this on a regular basis. For about a year in the mid-eighties, Channel Four acted as some sort of New Age/ Ambient radio station for me before late afternoon began and Richard Whiteley awkwardly chuckled his introductions to “Countdown”.

Of course, members of the family told me I was wrong, and being very silly indeed. My father was the most vocal, informing me that what I was listening to was “library music”, made in a rush by session musicians and given to the television station cheaply. “It’s just background noise, you’re not supposed to listen to it,” he told me, flicking his newspaper wearily. I must admit, I started to get a bit embarrassed. I’d try to sneak downstairs and listen to the testcard when there was nobody near the television. Everybody I’d tried to explain the phenomenon to just looked at me as if I was perhaps having an adolescent mental breakdown.

If there’s one thing you good people can learn from the above story, it’s that whatever music you love – within reason – will eventually become popular with others too. I say this because I’ve since managed to trace a lot of the music I liked from the testcard, and one of the tracks, “Marguerite” by Bob Morgan, seems to have worked its way on to a number of DJ blogs and ambient compilations. People have been known to utter “respect!” in its presence, admiring its gentle, haunting ambience. The Boards of Canada regularly reference this sort of library music on their albums. Beyond that, bands like Stereolab and Misty’s Big Adventure happily talk about the electronic composers in the manner that others might discuss Stockhausen. It clearly wasn’t just me listening, whatever I thought at the time.

Better still, given the power of the Internet these days it’s actually relatively easy to trace a lot of these recordings and listen to them in full again. Follow the link below to the KPM database, for example, and you’ll find the reggae track I was talking about, which was also composed by Bob Morgan. It can be found on a compilation simply entitled “The Reggae Album”. (this link might need a few clicks to display properly).

“Fool in Love (b)” still sounds marginally peculiar to my ears even these days, its electronic bubbling noises and mock-dub muzak stylings making it sound out of sorts. If this is wallpaper music, it would possibly be rather like the yellow wallpaper in the Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story. It’s hypnotic, but regularly surprising, and the central riff is almost menacing. It’s no wonder it worried me at the time.

The “Reggae Album” compiled here is admittedly patchy if we're reviewing it as a "proper" piece of work. There’s a certain rushed “will this do?” feel about a few of the tracks, and the constant repetition does cause the appeal of the weakest efforts to pall pretty quickly. For a few listens, though, the concept is intriguing, and you’re forced to realize that Channel Four would probably be the only station to use this sort of material on their testcard.

You can have much more fun on the KPM website by typing in searches on their database for words like “moog” or “sixties”, and call up a whole host of treasures. To actually download the material you’re required to register as somebody working for the media, but anyone with a reasonable knowledge of how the Temporary Internet Files folder works on their computer will probably be able to keep hold of the MP3s very easily (*coughs* - it’s not illegal or your fault if somebody else put them there, is it?)

As for Bob Morgan, he’s by no means an anonymous session muso, either, contrary to what my Dad believed. Further research on his work shows that he regularly works with Ken Campbell on his theatre productions, though sadly didn’t seem to be actively working with him on the “Illuminatus!” production at the same time Bill Drummond was, which buggers up a neat link to our last entry completely, but does at least put him in some pretty fine creative company.

7 May 2008

Aurora Borealis - Aurora Borealis


Label: Kalevala Records
Year - 1997

What's the official press biog on this particular piece of Finnish indie work, then? Who are Aurora Borealis, what do they stand for? Let's see, shall we...

Two superb ambient sound-paintings, from this reclusive collective of shamanic Artists, Poets and Musicians. Deep within the Arctic Circle, far from the cities and industrial decay of the modern world, they have produced these sonic sculptures, influenced solely by the protean wastes of their Lapp homeland. This is sombre, soulful and dreamy stuff - right from the heart of the Lapp zeitgeist. But don't think that it's in any way colourless, joyless or impenetrable, far from it - Those of you who have cooled your souls at the eternal 3 a.m. of melancholy, will find much in this music which speaks directly to your secret mind.

Hmm, right. In actual fact, in case you really needed telling after the heavy-handed hints, this record was partly (and perhaps even largely) the work of Bill Drummond out of the KLF, trying to pass himself off as a Finnish indie record label owner releasing the work of Finnish bands. Whilst it's certainly true to say that he often used Finnish musicians in this bizarre project, the song was normally his, and the record label and concept most certainly was. The band were also figments of his imagination, with biographies invented before they’d played or written a single note. Some of the releases included Zodiac Mindwarp and Drummond dicking around with the celebrity roadie Gimpo, whilst others (like this one) contained Finnish session musicians up for the fun of the concept.

Whilst plenty of the singles the bogus Kalevala Records label put out were iffy to say the least, and in some cases obnoxiously awful, Aurora Borealis is like the best parts of "Chill Out" distilled to a neat few minutes. The difference is, where "Chill Out" had a grasshopper-chirping, humid, southern United States vibe, this track is very arctic, frosty and Finnish. There are elements of "Albatross" by Fleetwood Mac about it (which, incidentally, is one of Bill Drummond's favourite singles of all time) - but ultimately, it's a beautifully warming and slightly melancholy winter tonic. If the aim was to give it a ludicrous dash of novelty, in my opinion all concerned failed. It's a wonderful piece of ambient work, and one a wider audience deserved to hear. It’s a pity this was a very limited edition, designed never to be reissued as soon as everyone unmasked the person behind the work.

5 May 2008

The Pastels - Crawl Babies/ Coming Through

Track: Crawl Babies
Year: 1987

Track: Coming Through
Year: 1987

One of those "Cor blimey, they never bothered to make videos, did they?!" Youtube moments. It would seem that pop clips were made for both The Pastels singles "Crawl Babies" and "Coming Through", despite not even getting so much of a whiff of a stop, rewind and play on the Chart Show indie chart*. To be a reasonably well known indie band making videos in those days and not to get that treatment is almost an achievement in a way - frequently the only bands in the chart who had bothered to go MTV on our asses were New Order, Depeche Mode or Erasure, and so the choices were extremely limited.

The Pastels are so cultishly successful in the UK that I almost feel like cheating by adding them on this blog, but the truth is they've never really hit the Top 40 of either the album or singles chart, and in fact have never bothered the top 75. At one point they were a Creation Records band who were lumped in (entirely inappropriately) with the Jesus and Mary Chain, and another were known (either lovingly or mockingly) as a "twee, C86 band", then another as "mates of Belle and Sebastian", but none of it has ever actually seemed to do them any good throughout their long career.

I suspect that the central problem with the band is that whilst to my ears their looseness and Stephen Pastel's woozy, slightly Barretty vocals sounded quite appealing - akin, in fact, to at least a couple of bands on the "Wallpaper" psychedelic compilation I put on here a few entries ago - daytime Radio One and the general public just weren't ready for that sort of thing in the mainstream, especially in the eighties when they enjoyed the most publicity from the music press.

I interviewed Stephen Pastel ten years ago, and he assured me that he thought the Pastels could crossover into the charts, and very soon would be putting out some "hard hitting singles". He felt that with Cornershop at number one with "Brimful of Asha" and also Belle and Sebastian having a rabid army of fans, the time was right for a band like his. Despite a very pleasing collaboration with Jarvis Cocker in "I Picked A Flower", his scheme obviously came to nothing, and I can't help but think that's a shame. Perhaps there's time for them yet.

(*A quick check on the Youtube Chart Show databases reveals that the programme bypassed the chance to play "Coming Through" in November 1987 in favour of Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares For Me", which just happened to be out on an independent label at the time. I think we should all collectively tut as loudly as we can at this point).

1 May 2008

Earl Brutus - Your Majesty... We Are Here

Earl Brutus - Your Majesty We Are Here

Year of Release – 1996
Label – Deceptive

When the NME came up with the idea for the “skunk rock” genre in the late nineties, the whiff of desperation rather than skunk must have been quite strong in the offices at Kings Reach Towers. Invented as a neat label for a bunch of bands who all consisted of slightly potato-faced, frequently unshaven men who were occasionally known to incorporate dance beats into their work, it really could have applied at any point in any decade. Would the KLF have been part of skunk rock in the eighties along with Mark Stewart and the Mafia, the Happy Mondays and Renegade Soundwave? Is Super Hans’ band in The Peep Show “skunk rock”? Did skunk rock eventually just get swallowed into Hoxton and Shoreditch, becoming a place rather than a concept? These are precisely the sorts of questions absolutely nobody is asking at the moment, which proves how much the vague “genre” caught on.

You could sympathise with the journalists at the NME more than usual, though. The post-Britpop landscape was a rather desolate place, filled with weary string-laden ballads and post-rock, and not much else which would appeal to their thrill-seeking readership. Skunk rock lumped together a lot of bands who created lively, slightly anarchic culture clash noises, even though as scenes go it seemed to feature very few bands to begin with, and didn’t collect many more candidates along the way.

Earl Brutus had already released the debut album “Your Majesty We Are Here” long before the time the NME had decided to categorise them. Supposedly written and recorded in two weeks flat, many critics at the time commented that it was an album which seemed to grab everything it could across decades of pop music. One Loaded critic even had an exceptional moment of clarity when he wrote that it consisted of “Whoopsy country to Kraftwerk sounding baloney and turning into gothic glam rock”. Indeed, whilst news that it was written and recorded in a fortnight didn’t stun me when I found out, it’s raw in a spontaneous, energetic, and occasionally frightening way, rather than raw in a ramshackle way. For as much as Earl Brutus wanted to portray themselves as punk incompetents, the truth is that most of the members had served elsewhere and even earned their stripes with session work, the lead singer Nick Sanderson having once been the drummer for The Jesus and Mary Chain (making them the only band I can think of who have had two drummers who then went on to become lead singers elsewhere).

The single “Navyhead” (featured here) was an excellent pointer for the album’s content. A greasy, sleazy, swaggering little disc, it sounded like pub glam rock being performed by an all-star ensemble of every angular punk band who had ever signed to Rough Trade in the early eighties, whilst somebody else made squelchy techno noises in the corner. Other tracks managed to reference seventies and early eighties electronic experiments, novelty pop, and new romanticism. “On Me Not In Me” sounds for all the world like a “Speak and Spell” era Depeche Mode tune, with lyrics partly about the loneliness of Harvester Restaurants. Even that song bursts into an Elizabethan instrumental break for no apparent reason, though, so anxious is it to explore other conflicting territories.

For all this plundering, the record managed to sound like nothing as much as itself in the long run – Earl Brutus sounded like the result of a lab experiment, producing a creature which looked demonic and frightening and seemed like little else on earth.

Aside from their recorded output being decidedly out of whack with the period, their behaviour was the cause of music press curiosity. At various points, the band:

· Used a spinning garage sign with “Music” written on one side and “Chips” on the other as a stage prop.
· Got a Japanese fan called Shin-Yu to join and shout angrily in his native language at concerts.
· Insisted that if they ever got on Top of the Pops (which failed to transpire) they would arrive on stage on horseback with fireworks blasting everywhere.

The sleeve for “Your Majesty We Are Here” was a rum affair, too, consisting entirely of blank pages in the CD booklet after Chat magazine refused to let them use a photo of theirs. The picture they wanted to run consisted of a girl crying as her mother lay drunk on a bed sozzled on whisky. It was originally used to illustrate a true life story article entitled “Mum Wanted Me Dead”. That they considered this to be the best image to describe both the title of their album and the music contained within probably says more about them than any write-up ever could.

The blistering follow-up album “Tonight You Are The Special One” is probably the superior and more finely honed piece of work, but this is available for under a fiver on iTunes, and to be honest you should all be encouraged to line the band’s pockets in any way you can. “Your Majesty…” is still a glorious piece of work, however, and has long been out of press. You can download it for free for a limited period below. It certainly beats paying eighty pounds for a collector’s copy on various auction or sale sites, and that’s for sure.