14 May 2014

Reupload - S*M*A*S*H - Barrabas (Piloted)/ Turn On The Water

Label: Sub Pop
Year of Release: 1994

S*M*A*S*H must surely rank as being one of the most forgotten NME hype bands of all time. Not for them the mocking references reserved for Menswear, or the curious nods given to Godspeed You Black Emporer - they're almost never mentioned at all these days, despite reforming to make another album in 2007.

How different it all was. From the stories, reviews and celebrity plaudits that were given at the time of the band's first singles, you'd have thought that they were the next brave band of conquerors, the great hope of British music generally. Tales were told of grown men crying in their presence (no, really), frenzied gigs, and an angry, intelligent left wing political agenda (it's difficult to imagine now, but that kind of thing was considered really bloody important to the music press before Britpop came along). Whilst a lot of these stories were bog-standard hyperbole, I did witness S*M*A*S*H live a couple of times and can verify that they were an astonishingly powerful band when on form. At one gig, Joe Strummer stood near the front jumping up and down enthusiastically, which must have seemed like the baton being passed on from one act to another at the time, as well as seeming like a dream come true for the band.

Sadly, it was not to be for them - they wouldn't be on this blog otherwise, would they? This was their last single to generate any press interest, though, their one America-only release put out to try and crack that "all important" market (ambitious as they'd barely cracked their home market at the time). For my money, it's also one of their finest pieces of work, expanding upon their punkish beginnings and creating something which sounded more modern and brittle. There's a marvellous false ending, some brilliant lyrical sloganeering, and lots of unexpected musical twists and turns. The B-side is a cover version of the Afghan Whigs "Turn on the Water", possibly included to seem friendly to the US market.

S*M*A*S*H's initial career was cruelly brief, and they only managed one album ("Self Abused") before disappearing. Nonetheless, when I lived in University Halls of Residence at the time, it could be heard blaring out of various rooms, not least from the room of my immediate neighbour who worshipped them - so there was some truth to the NME's claims that they had an army of devoted young fans. The only lie in that sentence was the use of the word "devoted" - they were as fickle as anyone else, and couldn't wait to drop them as soon as Britpop arrived.

(This blog entry was uploaded in 2008, and S*M*A*S*H do seem to have been periodically active on the live circuit since, though I've not yet got around to giving them another look. One memory I fail to mention above is the time I queued up to see them at the Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms and a notorious local homeless man - whose catchphrase was "Can you spare some change? Purely for alcohol, you understand" - tried to sneak in to see them for free. I'd like to think that if the band had ever found out, they'd have put him on the guest list). 


VanceMan said...

I was paying a lot of attention to up-and-coming acts back then and I don't remember a single thing about S*M*A*S*H. Hearing them now, I can't imagine "Barrabas (Piloted)" on US radio. Even "alternative" US radio can't handle fuzzy guitar + time signature changes + spoken word.

(And Afghan Whigs could barely get on radio — then or now — so I'm not sure how much a cover would have helped.)

23 Daves said...

It's interesting how - in the music press, at least - left-wing punk-leaning acts were given a lot of exposure in the UK, but failed to really generate any heat in America. The Clash really do seem to be the exception to the rule. (Carter USM even had a top ten single in the UK, but their US tours were notoriously disastrous - I'm sure it was them who played to four people in a shopping mall somewhere).

As for Afghan Whigs, I think I always assumed they were big in America. They got a lot of press and late-night airplay in the UK, though they were never actually well-known here.