a remarkable person or thing. “the band was a pop phenomenon just for their sales figures alone”
I’m annoyed at myself. I’ve somehow managed to miss the two Sault albums that were released at pivotal points this year. It’s only now, as the movers and shakers and barometers of hip opinion are revealing their favourite albums of 2020, that I’m discovering that a band I found quite by fortune a year ago via a succession of blogs and Bandcamp links (snapping up both albums LIKE THAT) has released another two albums – both doubles! – in 2020.
Sault, it would appear, are a proper phenomenon.
They arrived a year or so ago with no fanfare or front page spreads. They have next to no online presence. No press shots exist. There appears to be no record company at work. Their artwork is sparse, dense and free of information. They are, like the good old days of yore, a proper underground sensation.
That a band can slip under the radar in a world of streaming and playlists and metatags and analytics and appear at the top of the tree above your Bruces and Bobs and Idles and Swifts is both remarkable and admirable. Phenomenal even.
They are, we have worked out, a collective of anonymous musicians, possibly a group of megastars, possibly a collaborative of home studio boffins or a mixture of both, with their music fine-cooked into its heady soulful stew by the hands of ace producer Inflo, the man who steered Michael Kiwanuka’s most-recent album to Mercury success and healthy worldwide sales. Urban Gorillaz, you might say.
Their music is eclectic, taking in straight-ahead, knee-dropping soul, sample-heavy gospel funk and the sparse, skittering sound of New York’s post-punk No Wave scene, that on-the-one bass and chanting sound pioneered expertly by ESG and their sing-song nursery rhyme vocals. In short, it grooves. And, short ‘n sweet, the songs never outstay their welcome. The albums – those first two at least – beg to be played again immediately after the needle has hit the run-off groove on side two.
Sault – Don’t Waste My Time
Their first album – teasingly titled ‘5‘ (did this mean there were another 4 releases before it? I looked, believe me) is everything that’s great about the band; expert playing that treads a fine line between an ‘is it real or is it a sample‘ conundrum, interesting/weird synths and ambient noise, insanely catchy and street-sussed, super-confident vocals, sulky as hell one minute, smooth as velvet the next but always irresistible.
Sault – Why Why Why Why Why
Sault – No Bullshit
Their second, ‘7‘ (they’re messing with us now!) popped up a month or so later and continued in the same vein. No drop-off in quality, no less essential, no more clues as to who Sault actually is.
Sault – Smile And Go
To discover that they’ve released another two albums – four sides of guaranteed-to-be wonderful music – is both frustrating and exciting. I should have known about this! I didn’t, though, so there’ll be some good new music to look forward to and there’s nothing better than that, is there?
A quick search led me to an Alexis Petridis review in the Guardian. Even he has been caught slightly off-guard as the review is built around this year’s two releases, both untitled (yet both titled.) How very Sault.
Untitled (Black Is) came first, a record apparently put together in the hours and days that followed the George Floyd murder. The follow-up, Untitled (Rise) crept out just a few weeks ago. It is, for those in the know, the album of 2020.
Jeez. I gotta hear it.
But, look! Their Bandcamp page is sold out and the eBay scalpers are having a laugh. Yeah, you can play the soundfiles to your heart’s desire – and there’s a superb Kiwanuka-voiced Afrobeat belter amongst them, but we need physical product man! Surely a quick repress is on the cards? Everybody loves you, Sault! Everybody! (You knew that already though).
Years ago I was doing supply in a school where they dedicated a whole Friday afternoon to the learning of new skills; baking, woodworking, knitting, glass staining and so on. The kids loved these afternoons. The dinner ladies helped with the baking, the janny helped with the woodworking and experts from the local community came in to impart their considerable knowledge in the art of growing root vegetables and making stained glass. With each new term, the kids could pick a different skill so that over the course of the school year they got to partake in four activities.
Being the supply teacher, I was right at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid and I watched, pained, as first the blogging and then the guitar groups were given to two teachers who couldn’t care less. Each subsequent activity was assigned to a nonplussed teacher until, finally the head teacher looked at me with a thin, watery smile and handed me a box of battered, rattling chess sets. “Chess Club!” she confirmed. “I doubt many will pick it, but it’s an option.” She never asked if I played chess, if I understood the rules, if I wanted to be in charge of the chess club. I just was.
I did know how to play chess, as it happened, but it was years since I’d done so. Anyway, I took the chess sets, fumbled together half a dozen complete sets out of the ten or so ancient boxes I’d been saddled with and set about turning my classroom into a (cough) Chess Club.
On the first Friday, seven kids – there’s always an odd number for these things – turned up to see what all the fuss was about. None of the kids I knew. Six of them were curious to see this new teacher in the school – a man! – and the seventh was sent to play chess because he’d already tried to stab someone’s hand with a gardening fork outside. Grrrrreat. First thing I did was draw the blinds to create an ambience that encouraged studied quietness.
After that I Googled an arty monochrome picture of Bobby Fischer eyeing up the board, typed ‘Chess Club‘ on top of it in an interesting font and displayed it on the smart board, a reminder to the players of where exactly they were. Then I rejigged the tables so that the players sat in a square around the sides of the classroom, allowing me to stand in the middle and explain the object of the game and so on, helping the kids as they took their first unsteady steps into the geek world of chess.
As they slowly began to understand the whys and wherefores of the board, I introduced music. Classical stuff sometimes, an Erik Satie piano piece or two, but mostly jazz, mainly John Coltrane or Oscar Peterson but always Miles Davis. Sometimes I’d branch out into the blues, helping some poor cornered soul get out of a chequered funk as John Lee Hooker boomed out at a genteel volume in the corner.
By week three, the ‘Chess Club‘ image of Fischer had been edited to say ‘Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club‘. By the following week, this had been shortened, in loose homage to CBGBs to ‘Chess AJABs Club‘. No-one complained. None of the school management noticed. I was having fun and so were the kids.
I taught them the one fancy move I knew, learned from my dad when I was 10 or 11, about the same age as them, where you could put your opponent in checkmate in three moves. More fool me, as after that, they all wanted to play white. One time, the garden fork boy got so enraged at being put into checkmate before Miles Davis had parped his way out of his first solo that he tossed the board and all its pieces into the air and stormed off. “There was no need for that, Mr McAllister,” said his victorious opponent in a world-weary voice that suggested she’d seen all of it before.
Over the weeks, the chess kids progressed to a reasonable standard. They played one another, they challenged and beat me, they seemed to enjoy themselves. In fact, when the time came to renew activities at the end of term, half of the kids chose to stay at the chess. And on their return in January, a couple of them told me excitedly that they’d woken up on Christmas day to a new chess set under the tree. One of them even got a ‘Best Of Jazz’ CD too. As it turned out, Chess (and Jazz and Blues) Club was alright.
We’ve binged recently on The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s seven-parter that tells the story of a young girl’s rise to Grandmaster level. It’s ace.
Set against a backdrop of 50s and 60s Cold War America, it is, on every level, a triumph. Visually, it’s stunning. From the trippy, imagined chess pieces that emerge from the ceiling each night and play combinations of winning moves that the lead character Beth Harmon commits to memory, to the period-perfect set design, every episode has the appearance of being filmed through a particularly agreeable Instagram filter. The more poetic of us might even suggest that the muted tones and dull pastels of the actors’ clothes that contrast with the glossy shine of hardwood and chrome are metaphors for the opposing sides on the chessboard itself.
The cars – big, American gas guzzlers, all sleek fins and whitewalls, cruise across the background like gliding bishops picking off pawns. The houses, with their mod cons and perfect lawns, bordered by subtly territorial picket fences, are the very symbol of nuclear family success. ‘Stay out,’ they scream silently, ‘or I’ll take you out.’ It’s a world at odds with the lead character – supremely played by Anya Taylor-Joy – yet here she is.
Quincy Jones – Comin’ Home Baby
The hotels where the chess matches are played, especially as the series progresses and the competitions become more exclusive, are grand affairs. Jet-setting across the continents, Harmon and her mother enjoy nothing less than the good life. Expensively-wallpapered corridors and opulently furnished dining areas are accessed via long-winding and never-ending Art Deco staircases.
There’s a terrific scene set in Miami where the swingin’ Quincy Jones track above perfectly soundtracks Harmon movin’ on up to the competition floor, sashaying confidently to another crushing victory against an awkward and embarrassed male player, all the while looking like Jackie Onassis’ cool half-sister.
A horrendous childhood and a less-than-smooth passage into adulthood comes at a cost to our young prodigy. To cope with all that life has thrown at her, Harmon has developed a fondness for tranquilisers and booze. Her numerous breakdowns and spirals into addiction are soundtracked by period-era deep cuts. If she’s not kicking off a three-day bender by dancing like no-one is watching to Shocking Blue’s Venus, she’s discovering pot to the sound of Gabor Szabo.
Gabor Szabo – Somewhere I Belong
The throb and thrum, the slowly spidering guitar line, the creeping paranoia and electric dischord are just the thing to simulate an out of body experience, no?
Or how about Gillian Hills’ 1965 slice of fingersnappin’ French Yé-yé mod-pop?
Gillian Hills – Tut Tut Tut Tut
Druggable yet fruggable, Tut Tut Tut Tut features during another particularly memorable scene, bursting through the stately piano that is woven through the soundbed of each episode, as joyously unexpected as the ever-attacking Harmon choosing to play the Sicilian Defence.
To be perfectly honest, every scene with Taylor-Joy in it is memorable. Usually, a blink of her dark almond eyes is all it takes to hook you in. She plays perfectly the ever-spiralling Harmon with a magnetism that should win her whatever awards are going these days for Netflix dramas.
The Queen’s Gambit is a masterclass in stylish home cinema. As the year creeps to an undignified close, we may well have found the best thing about it. Watch it. Now!
The ghosting season is upon us, the one time of year I truly despise. I hated it as a child. I hated it as a parent when my kids were young enough to participate. I just hate it. The dressing up… the greediness… those creeping Americanisms of going trick or treating for candy around cobweb-frosted front doors and plastic gravestone-enhanced gardens can do one.
Amazingly, brilliantly – God bless ye, Covid – this year there’ll be no drip-nosed grubbers standing at my door in their various states of grotesqueness, reeling off the same combination of tired and/or risque jokes (Q. ‘What’s the difference between the tyres on my dad’s car and a blonde?‘ A. ‘A blonde will go down quicker than my dad’s tyres.’) in return for a handful of Haribo and a “have you told your mum that joke?” telling-off from me. The wee girl who first let slip that horrorshow of a party piece four or five years ago, and every year since, might finally stop telling it for good now.
Bob Marley‘s Mr Brown is one of his earliest recordings, dating back to 1970. It just so happens to be a ghost song, written in response to local legend that told of a duppy/ghost that could be seen hurtling across Jamaica late at night on a three-wheeled coffin. Perched atop the coffin alongside the ghost were three crows, one of which could talk. The talking crow would repeatedly ask for a Mr Brown. If you ever saw this hideous and creepy apparition, the story went, then RUN!, because you didn’t have long left on this earth.
Bob Marley & The (Wailing) Wailers – Mr Brown
The tune itself is a gently lilting three chord skank, played at relaxed pace and featuring some sweet falsetto backing vocals. Guitars and keys lock the rhythm and never deviate, allowing Marley to tell the story of the out of control ghost-driven coffin and the talking crow. Not yer average subject matter, and all the better for it.
Mr Brown was produced by the ubiquitous Lee Perry. Lee Perry is synonymous with reggae. The more dubified the music, the more prominent his involvement. His blunted, mercurial touch has been applied to literally thousands of records from Jamaica and beyond, fried at the edges and sprinkled with madness but beating with a heart of thunderclapping echoes and cavernous bass.
As I get older, I’ve begun to appreciate his more outré work in much the same way age has allowed me to appreciate a fine malt. Slightly unpalatable at first, you quickly develop a taste and ponder how you could go an evening without it.
Playing around with the Wailers’ track, Perry removed the vocals, credited the instrumental to The Upsetters and manouevered it onto the flip side of the Wailers’ single. In keeping with the original’s ghostly/horror theme, it was given the title of Dracula.
The Upsetters – Dracula
I don’t for a second think that Bob, Bunny and Peter sat around in rehearsal saying, y’know what….what this tune really needs is a funky, alien vibration every now and again. That ever-present deep electronic shimmer that sounds like the ancient central heating pipes in a school I used to teach in was clearly the madcap work of Lee Perry. Half a century later, it’s that sound that’s become the record’s signature.
Removing Marley’s vocals also allowed Perry the opportunity to incorporate the instrumental version into his soundsystem and toast across the top of it should he fancy doing so. Forever forward-thinking.
Eco-aware long before there was such a thing, Lee Perry not only grew his own herbs, he recycled tunes for his own benefit. In a burst of foresighted creativity, and long before many a future hip-hopper or soundscaper was out of short trousers, Perry actually sampled the vibe from another record entirely and enhanced the Wailers’ and, subsequently, his own tune.
Jackie Mittoo – Peenie Wallie
He’s lowered the pitch, from toe-tapping shuffling ska to head-nodding deep-fried reggae, but you can hear exactly where Perry welded the backing track onto the Wailers’ own easy skanking shuffle, enhancing and filling out what is a fairly straightforward run through by a band still finding their musical feet.
The track’s title – Peenie Wallie – intrigues me. Here in Scotland, if someone is unwell, pale faced, or indeed ghost-faced, we refer to them as peelie wallie. Not a million miles away from the Jackie Mittoo title. I’ve often thought the owner of Studio One might’ve been referring to such a person, albeit in slightly interpolated form. Which of course, would bring us back onto the subject of pale-faced make-up and ghouls and ghosts.
“And for our next track….!”
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Duppy Conqueror
Bob and the Wailers went on to record an ‘answer record’ to Mr Brown, the self-explanatory Duppy Conqueror. Proving that there’s great mileage in reggae, it too used a variation of the same backing track as Mr Brown.
Poke your nose in and you’ll discover that reggae is full of wonderful, recycled tunes. You knew that already though.
Marvin Gaye‘s I Want You is a supreme slice of mid 70s soul. Taking its feel from one of its creator’s finest moments, you could be forgiven for assuming that What’s Going On‘s Mercy Mercy Me had slinked its way off the grooves of its parent album three years earlier, floated patiently in the ether while Marvin busied himself with rustling up another masterpiece, then alighted on the wax, a groove with no peaks or troughs and no real verses or choruses, but a slow and steady earworm of a track.
It’s heavy on Blaxploitation-era vibes – congas, elongated sweeping strings, tingaling percussion, parping brass, stinging guitar – and home to one of the singer’s greatest-ever vocal performances. What’s Going On (the album and its title track) – and to a lesser extent the follow-up Let’s Get It On – take some beating, and I Want You (the album and its title track) have been unfairly marginalised on the sidelines as a result. Indeed, you could make a decent claim for I Want You being the perfect third in a luscious, exquisite trilogy of soul. But that’s for some other writer who’s better qualified than I.
Marvin Gaye – I Want You
Marvin’s vocal on I Want You‘s title track is terrific. Double, triple, quadruple-tracked in places, he sings to himself, with himself and above and beyond himself. It’s there in the way he pre-empts the string motif at the start, it’s there in the high falsettoed call and response sections throughout and it’s most certainly there in the suggestive come hither moan that is emitted from somewhere below his belt line. Listen to the track 3/4/5/half a dozen times and I guarantee you’ll spot something you missed the last time around. It’s an astonishing performance.
Carried by a melody gifted from the Gods of Song, Marvin recasts himself as Nat King Cole for the right-on generation, a caramel-smooth crooner with perfect pitch and enunciation, the voice floating above and between his crack band of Motown sessioneers. When you want some of that badass, sidewalk struttin’ guitar on your record, who you gonna call? Ray Parker Jnr, of course.
You’d have to assume that Marvin had no bother when it came to the ladies. (Exhibit A, above, m’lud). Let’s Get It On was his previous call to arms, I Want You the next. I want you, he says, more a statement of fact than as a yearning for a partner that’s unattainable. No-one was ever out of Marvin Gaye’s league, right?, so when the Big M states that he wants you, he’s letting you know – out of gentlemanly manners – that tonight, you’re the chosen one.
Madonna though. You’d have to assume that she has no bother in this department either. If she wants you, she’ll most likely get you, yet she tackles I Want You with all the uncertainty of a lovestruck teenager at the back of chemistry who wastes her day away drawing hearts around the name of the school stud that common consensus makes clear she has no chance with.
Madonna/Massive Attack – I Want You
Slow and steady, powered by signature dark beats and a static crackle of tension, Madonna’s six and a half minute take on I Want You is the best approximation of being painfully, agonisingly in love with someone you’ll never be with that you’re ever likely to hear. Its treacle-thick ambience – stop-the-world, wooly and insular – captures perfectly that feeling of being lost in a place that you and only you understands. It’s an engrossing listen, the vocal drawn-out almost to the point of desperation. Madonna. Desperate. Let that sink in. It might be a cover version, but as far as great Madonna tracks go, I Want You is fantastic.
Much of the reverence should be reserved for Massive Attack’s sophisto instrumentation and Nellee Hooper’s on-the-nose production. They get Madonna to do the Marvin thing of singing the string line before it comes in. They get her, like Marvin, to sing to herself, with herself and above and beyond herself; a whisper here, a straight ahead measured vocal there, an immersive performance throughout. They even go for the tingaling percussion, synthetic rather than pitched and last heard on their own Unfinished Sympathy, and the strings too have seemingly slid straight off of that particular cracker and kept up the good work on the Marvin cover.
Slo-mo and cinematic, the Madonna/Massive Attack take on I Want You is sublime.
The schools break up today, bereft, perhaps, of much of the frantic downhill-without-the-breaks-on rush to cross the ts and dot the is on the paperwork, but also lacking in the uncontained excitement of hundreds of young minds who’ve already switched off and are planning great adventures in the great beyond for the next few weeks. The sound of excitable kids in a playground on the last day of term is one of life’s greatest sounds – up there with John Lydon’s plegmy rrrrrrightttt now, hurrgh hurgh hurgh! snarl at the start of Anarchy In The UK and those honeyed Beatles Yeeeaaaah! harmonies right at the end of She Loves You.
Teachers in Scotland will return a week earlier than normal this year, and (to our dismay and disappointment) to full classes – our government’s way of bowing to public pressure and addressing the lack of traditional schooling in the previous few months. As a working parent I totally get the need for schools to be back operating as ‘normal’ – children getting only two days a week of teaching in an actual school isn’t nearly enough – and we need to allow the country to get back to work, but it all seems more than a bit rushed. For what it’s worth, I reckon schools – the grubbiest Petri dishes of all – are being squashed back way too early and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if by perhaps October, a second wave of Covid has struck, forcing some (all?) schools to adopt the blended learning model that our profession has worked so hard to put in place. Who knows.
But back to the music. Sometimes you’ll hear a tune or even just part of a song that fits the current state of mind. Y’know, you’ll be driving home from work on an early summer’s evening, happy to be finished for the day, visor down and fake Ray-Bans shielding you from the rare Scottish sun, and Brass In Pocket comes on. As your left hand reaches out to turn up the volume, your right elbow automatically places itself on the window sill (Detroit leaning, dontcha know), just about one hand on the wheel, and you lean back and down into your seat just a touch more than you had been, your head bobbing in time to James Honeyman-Scott’s spacious, chiming riff. Serendipitous moments like this are few and far between, so when they occur you tend to remember them.
The better weather brings the cycling – lockdown’s greatest hit – and cycling up and down the west coast always sounds better when soundtracked by Underworld. The multi-layered rhythms encourage that extra 10% of effort that you never knew you had, the band’s propulsive thunk pushing you outwards and back in again. Occassionally in a quiter moment, the sound of a newly-oiled chain whirring through the sprockets will creep in to enhance the mix and again you think, this is alright!
It’s happening right now, as I type. I’m listening to Secretly, a softly looping instrumental by The Elevated Presence.
Secretly – The Elevated Presence
Part Albatross – listen for the whoosh of the gong and the gently thrumming bassline – and part Johnny Marrchestra guitar heaven, Secretly is a lovely textured wash of acoustic and electric guitars, ambient ephemera and pinging, unravelling melodies overlapping and looping into 4 minutes of music that could sit happily between your Durutti Column records and Mogwai’s less-heavier moments.
What you won’t hear as you listen though are the birds outside my window, high in the trees next to the Ayr-Glasgow railway line, warbling and twittering and chattering and whistling as the near-empty 11.05 to Largs rattles past. They say that mankind’s loss with Covid is very much nature’s gain, and with this much going on around me, it’s hard to disagree. All music sounds better with the added ambience of bled-in bird noise. Today it’s The Elevated Presence that’s benefitting.
The Elevated Presence is an on-going side project of sorts from Trashcan Sinatras’ guitarist Paul Livingston. The Trashcans are kinda mainstays around here, their world-weary uplifting melancholia and sparkling tunes never far away, so it’s always great to hear anything from the TCS camp, in any form that may take. The tunes that constitute the catalogue of The Elevated Presence are, I imagine, the ones that don’t quite fit with the Trashcans’ ethos. They’re interesting, introspective, self-indulgent in places….and certainly worth investigating as a result. Listen closely and you’ll hear chord structures, guitar tones and counter melodies that would colour and enhance any Trashcans’ record.
Sunchords – The Elevated Presence
The hazy Sunchords is the perfect example. All ringing arpeggios, slowly spiralling riffs and woozy, wonky whitewashed tremelo, it’s crying out for a heartstring-tugging vocal and tear-soaked crescendo. In its instrumental form it’s filmic, Lynchian even in its quiet assurance, and the most perfect sunbleached music for the songbirds outside my window to harmonise to.
If this is your kinda thing, you could do worse than nip over to The Elevated Presence page on Bandcamp and check out the 5 other tracks that are currently available for next to nothing. Flying Bike‘s Elliott Smith-ish picking that gives way to a frantic Flamenco breakdown, Toska‘s steadily unravelling melody, the atmospheric crackle of The Grasshopper Mouse Howls At The Moon…all contain the DNA that makes Trashcan Sinatras so essential. In their own way, these Elevated Presence tracks are just as required listening.
Grangemouth is a wee industrial town on the eastern side of Scotland, famous for the oil refinery and its belching chimneys and gas flares that rise strangely beautiful and plentiful into the skies above the Firth of Forth. You might spot its post-apocalyptic Mad Maxian skyline as you look for (and miss) the bypass turn-off that takes you to the Kelpies (just us?)
Even in these times of renewable energy and eco awareness, not to mention more accessible further and higher education, the refinery is still the town’s largest employer. The route for many of Grangemouth’s young people is seemingly mapped out from the day they are born: leave school, start work at the refinery, retire, die. If you do these things in that order, you’ve won at life.
It was against this backdrop that Cocteau Twins were born. With a desire to never set foot inside the refinery, their shared love of The Birthday Party, Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux saw them land a record deal with 4AD, find favour with John Peel and subsequently burrow deep into the ears of fans of leftfield music the length and breadth of Peel’s reach. You knew that already though.
Against the occasional industrial clatter of drum machines, it was the basslines (Will Heggie initially, Simon Raymonde not long after); bending, bulging, melodic and Hook-ish that carried the music forward.
This rhythm section gave freedom for Robin Guthrie to splash all manner of dazzling, sparkling guitar sounds across the top; crystalline and glass-shattering one minute, fuzzed-out then gossamer-thin the next. Echoing, chiming, phased and flanged, Guthrie took the sonic bravery of The Banshees’ (etc) John McGeoch and developed a style of his own that would help define the Cocteau Twins’ sound. Vocal-free, the tracks alone are very much music to lose yourself in – other-worldly, pretty and lilting, melancholic yet uplifting – the best sort of music.
The Cocteaus’ secret weapon was, undeinably, vocalist and focal point Elizabeth Fraser. When you add her vocals to the heady mix, the tracks take flight as high and far and wide as her vocal chords. She didn’t so much sing as soar, and she did so without the use of words that you might find easily in the pages of a Collin’s Dictionary. Fraser swirled and swooped largely nonsensical gobbledegook and it sounded fantastic.
Occasionally, recognisable words might jump out at you. That ‘burn this whole madhouse down‘ line on Iceblink Luck, for example, is so memorable precisely because it’s one of the few Cocteaus’ lines sung in plain English. Indeed, much of the song appears to be, unusually for them, in the mother tongue. It takes a fair bit of sonic squinting to work them out, right enough.
Cocteau Twins – Iceblink Luck
Most of the time, the vocals are heady and hippy, a mythical strangetalk language all of their own. Sung with an unparalleled style and phrasing, it’s Fraser’s vocals that are the true trademark of the Cocteau Twins.
Now and again, Fraser’s vocals will grace other records, Massive Attack’s Teardrop, for example, or more recently Sam Lee’s Old Wow album. When Felt recorded their Ignite The Seven Cannons album with Robin Guthrie in 1985, it was inevitable that the producer would call for his partner to add her celestial quavers at some point. The recording sessions were fraught with ego and anguish – Felt’s Lawrence, a stickler for detail and band aesthetics was encouraged to sign a contract that would forbid him from being present at the mixing.
Guthrie used the opportunity to Cocteau-fy much of the music with sea-deep reverb and an ambient swirl. He also finalised an 11-track album that the ‘Perfect 10’-loving Lawrence couldn’t cope with. “We’d have been better doing an EP with Guthrie instead,” he moaned to Uncut a few years ago. “A standalone 12″ like Joy Divison’s Atmosphere or Wild Swans’ Revolutionary Spirit.”
Felt – Primitive Painters
The lead single from the album proved be one of Felt’s most enduring tracks. Over time it’s become, like the reference points above (and no doubt to Lawrence’s delight), a classic 12″ single of the era. Featuring a freeform Fraser who’d been handed the lyrics minutes beforehand, Primitive Painters is a waltzing, loping, cyclical groove, chiming with 12 string intent and mooching ennui. It’s not a tune that particularly goes anywhere, until Fraser enters on the chorus. From then on in, the whole thing lifts off spectacularly for a good 6 minutes before crashing triumphantly to a long, slow fade-out.
Playing now, it evokes those days when the Chart Show would show you a run-down of the indie top 10, most of the records playing behind a picture of the record sleeve or a promo shot of the band in lieu of an actual video.
Fast forward a decade and the Cocteau Twins, not quite history, will limp on for one more LP. Fraser and Guthrie have separated and she is now in a relationship with Jeff Buckley, someone else who knows his way around the outer octaves of a vocal chord. Fiercely private people, their relationship proved fairly creative.
Jeff Buckley & Elizabeth Fraser – All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun
It’s a slightly uneasy, voyeuristic listen, this song. Not because it’s difficult to listen to – it’s not – it’s fantastic – but because it’s evidently very personal. A metaphor for their developing relationship maybe, All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun should be listened to through a filter of a conscience. Basically, you’re eavesdropping on a private moment between two people – Fraser’s unselfconscious giggle at the start makes that startlingly clear.
Since the track leaked, she’s said how disappointed she is that it’s out there, unfinished and raw. Yet out there it is, so listen we must. Their duet – a studio off-cut remember – stands up with the best of both artists’ work.
They’d have made beautiful babies, Buckley and Fraser, and this song is the sonic equivalent. Imagine how it might’ve sounded with Buckley’s shining, liquid mercury Telecaster singing across the top of it, Fraser’s vocals double-tracked and harmonising new melodies, a rhythm section with meandering bass, cymbal splashes and restrained bombast. We can only imagine.
Working Men’s Club have just about the least Googleable name in music but they’re worth swiping through all references to the Wheeltappers & Shunters of the world until you find them. They really are. Last year they found their way to Plain Or Pan, directing me towards their excellent Bad Blood track, a song subsequently pressed on a limited 7″ that tickled the top ten of yer actual singles chart. The charts might not be relevant to you or I as much these days, but you can bet the lint in your pocket that it meant a whole lot to the young northern English three piece.
With an album imminent (5th June is the date to circle on your year planner) they’ve emerged from the studio with a slightly changed and expanded line-up, but no less of the tuneage and teenage abandon that made Bad Blood and its follow-up Teeth so great.
Album track A.A.A.A. spits and snarls like those ’80s/’90s Fall collaborations with Coldcut; vocals megaphoned in from across the Pennines…sparse guitars spitting fury…vintage synths hovering and haemorrhaging between the processed beats…the whole thing sounding like a hornets nest on fire. It’s magic.
Working Men’s Club were due to go out on tour with Baxter Dury and yer actual Noel Gallagher over the coming weeks, gigs that obviously won’t now happen. I suggest you pre-order their album instead and then, when the live music scene gets up and running again, you’ll know every noise and every nuance on what promises to be a debut to rival all others this year. You might even find yourself at one of their own headline shows when they hit the virus-free road in their own right.
As far as guitar-based indie rock goes, 2019 arguably went to Fontaines DC. 2020 though is Working Men’s Club’s for the taking. Click the logo below and it’ll take you straight to your music retailer of choice.
Happy Mondays made great music; lolloping, scuffed-at-the-knees and forever riding the very limit of their abilities. The producers they worked with – yer actual John Cale, Factory’s in-house madcap genius Martin Hannett and Oakenfold/Osborne no less – coaxed and teased a groove that grew ever larger and ever-more technicolour with each release. The zeitgeist-surfing Bummed proved to be the moment the band outgrew the skinny, scratchy ACR-affected funk/punk of their debut and eased their way into wider trousers and more expansive soundscapes, torch bearers of what came to be termed ‘indie dance’ – dance music that fans of guitar bands could shake a leg to to, guitar music for fans of house music to groove to. Overnight, two tribes collided. The Metro in Saltcoats began playing Stones records. Irvine’s Attic spun A Guy Called Gerald. Everyone got along.
Happy Mondays’ music was gang music, bashed out together in rehearsal rooms with each member pulling the band in their own particular direction until snapped back by one of the others. There’s little in the way of finesse about it. The assembled musicians jumped in as one, hit a groove and rolled with it, clattering and rattling out of the traps like half a dozen Tesco trolleys being pushed from the roof of a multi story car park. What came out the other side was the resultant pull and drag, a cross-pollinated melding of repetitive dance-influenced bass lines and wheezing, tongue-chewed spaghetti western guitars twisted into a Mondays-shaped wonky industrial funk. Such is the wide-eyed fear of failure in the collective, once they hit their seam, they keep at it, afraid to change lest the whole thing falls apart.
Almost every Happy Mondays track from the time has a four bar guitar riff played ad infinitum behind the keyboard stabs and spacious, echoing drums. Go and listen to Bummed and hear for yourself; Do It Better, Wrote For Luck, Brain Dead….none of them deviate from the furrow they plough from the off. Much of it is one chord groove stuff, and it’s fantastic for it. You can bet your last post-Brexit pound that Shaun Ryder wasn’t sitting at the end of his bed with an acoustic guitar and a broken heart, notebook in hand and a “wait’ll the guys hear this in the studio” chain of thought. Gaz Whelan wasn’t creating the bones of Fat Lady Wrestlers when no-one else was around to disturb his mojo, man. This music is instant, spontaneous and reactive to its surroundings. And it’s never aged.
Happy Mondays – Brain Dead
In the case of Bummed, what turns good music into a great record is the vocal line. By the time it came for Ryder to add his wild grown mara-joanna stream of consciousness vocals –Grass eyed slashed eyed brain dead fucker, rips off himself steals from his brother, Loathed by everyone but loved by his mother – the finished item was quite unlike anything else of the time.
Never one to miss a potentially pretentious point of reference, Tony Wilson likened Ryder to WB Yeats. Certainly, the lyrics on Bummed scan well without the music and would make an interesting book of pre-millennial prose; Turkey Lurky, Juicy Lucy…..teachers who eat on their own…..double double good…..what about the detector vans…..You’re rendering that scaffolding dangerous!…..I might be the honky but I’m hung like a donkey…. and teamed with the unexpected twists and turns from the music -the clip-clopping Country Song for example, or Bring A Friend‘s choppy, Chic via Chorley groove, or the swirling, unstoppable shouty house of Mad Cyril, Happy Mondays were the fly in the ointment that soon became the grease on the gears of a music industry looking for The New Thing.
Happy Mondays – Mad Cyril
Street urchin rock n’ roll, wild-eyed on hard drugs and esoteric reference points – had anyone of our age ever heard of Karl Denver until 1988 ? – Happy Mondays ploughed their own wide-legged path regardless. Others might have followed, but all are poor imitations of the originals. You knew that already though.
A few years after Mick Ronson went down on Bowie on Top Of The Pops and the Bolan Boogie bongoed its way into the nation’s collective consciousness, a new breed of idol was born. Hot on the scuffed heels of post-punk, Adam Ant became the first popstar to enter my orbit and land on my record player. Well! Leapfrog the dog and brush me, daddy-o, if this wasn’t exactly what I was missing in my life! To a thumping double drummer Burundi beat, Adam and his Ants, all lip curl and collapsed Gene Vincent DAs, chanted and charmed their way through Dog Eat Dog, the rubbery electric twang almost too much for my 10 year old mind to take in. I really liked The Specials and Madness and the whole gang mentality that their music spawned in the school playground, but Adam, for me, brought on a whole new level of excitement. It was the pirate costume that swung it. That and the white nose stripe, of course. He looked liked a skeleton on the telly, all cheekbones and hollowed eyes, and while he danced his hoppy, arm swingin’, finger clickin’ jive, he stared down the barrel of the camera, directly into my living room, directly to me.
Adam And The Ants – Dog Eat Dog
By the Saturday morning I had availed myself of £3.99 worth of smash, splashed it on the counter of Walker’s at Irvine Cross in exchange for Kings Of The Wild Frontier and ran, ran! all the way home, desperate to get the first album I’d own spinning as soon as possible. I can still smell it now, freshly minted black vinyl, as it slid out of the sleeve and was transferred very carefully to the record player. I can still see the orange and yellow CBS logo spinning hypnotically. And when that Burundi beat fades in, I’m straight back to my living room in 1980, cross-legged on the floor, a bowl of Rice Krispies turning soggy while my attention was elsewhere for a couple of minutes. Life-changing stuff.
Kings Of the Wild Frontier was played so often I can still call it down from my brain and hear it whenever I fancy. I rarely need to play the actual music, it’s up there (points, taps head), burned indelibly forever. I know every adlib, every double-tracked chorus, every whistle, every solo…..every bit of it. I think my mum might too, as not long after buying it, my dad returned from work one day with a rare present – a copy of Adam’s previous album Dirk Wears White Sox. He’d bought it in Makro, of all places, on a work-related trip to the cash and carry and I’m sure it was bought partly to vary the soundtrack that my mum was exposed to from the minute I got in from school to the minute I’d gone to bed.
What none of us was prepared for was how different it sounded to Kings… The clues were there on the cover; a blurry black and white shot featuring a woman, back turned to the camera, standing under a streetlight. It looked like something from a 1940’s spy movie that my Gran might’ve enjoyed at the weekend. Within the grooves, there was nary a Burundi beat and a complete lack of pirate-themed potential. It was jerky, awkward and, to these 10 year old ears, a massive disappointment. It was still a record though, I had two albums now, and one that, even at that early age, I knew I’d ‘get’ at some point. I might even have done so too, had Adam not let out the ‘f’ word on one of the tracks and my mum, doing her best Mary Whitehouse impression, instructed me to turn it off and give it to her. With an awkward sense of shame and annoyance, I handed the album back to her, my collection reduced to one album once more. I never saw it again. Years later I found out that she’d made my poor dad take it back to Makro. God knows what he told them.
Zerox is still the killer track from the album I still don’t own. One of the Ants’ earliest singles, it’s held together by a tight ‘n taut see-sawing guitar riff that the 1992 version of Blur (Popscene! Alright!) would’ve given their right arm for.
Adam And The Ants – Zerox
Epoch-defining – ask a teenager today what a zerox machine is and see what sort of response that elicits – Zerox is punk manifesto set to music. We’ll copy your riffs, it says. “I’m never bored, I’ll steal your chords.” Unlike yer actual zerox machine, Zerox the song is timeless, an undeniable influence on all those angular guitar bands from a few years back.
Shortly after discovering Adam, I should say, my inner-self experienced a whole new thang when Debbie Harry popped up quite unexpectedly on Top Of The Pops with Blondie doing The Tide Is High. It was, I’d shortly discover, the worst single in the Blondie catalogue, as another sprint to Walker’s and back saw me add The Best Of Blondie to my thin collection, free Debbie Harry poster ‘n all. Suddenly Adam was relegated to second-best. To my dad’s relief, the Adam in full-on Prince Charming teapot pose poster was replaced by Debbie, pouting from the wall with tousled hair and an ‘Andy Warhol’s Bad’ t-shirt. Andy Warhol? Who’s that, I wondered…
In 2003, MW Macefield wrote a book called ‘In Search Of The La’s‘. Subtitled A Secret Liverpool, the author donned his best Inspector Clouseau raincoat, popped an oversized magnifying glass into the top pocket and hopped on the train to Lime Street in the hope of tracking down Lee Mavers, the wayward genius responsible for steering the good ship La’s aground. Despite reforming for a short, badly-received tour a couple of years after the book hit the shelves, and an even less successful venture a few years after that, I’ve now come to accept that The La’s are back residing in the ‘where are they now?’ category.
Mavers’ legend continues to grow by the day and in the smallest corners of the internet he’s regarded as our generation’s version of Syd Barrett or Peter Green; the band leader with (way) out there ideas that were too far gone for even the most open and creative of minds in his band.
Lee tuned his guitars to the hum of his fridge.
In order to baptise his recordings with the relevant credentials, he demanded the Abbey Road desks he’d procured remain covered in their original 60s dust.
Despite at least a dozen goes of recording an album, he said nothing came close to the demo they’d recorded themselves of non-album b-side Over. Over, as you may well know, was recorded live. To 4 track. In a stable. There’s a Jesus pun to be had here, but Mavers is not the messiah, he’s just a very haughty boy.
The small but (im)perfect body of work he’s given us rattles and rolls and chimes and chirps with effervescent Scouse enthusiasm and a scrubbed, scuffed, skirl. Alongside the actual album, you’ll find all manner of demos and outtakes if you look hard enough. The La’s album was given the Deluxe treatment about a decade ago and the inclusion of the extra tracks shone a light on just how many producers they worked with in their vain search to nail the perfect version. The 4 CD box set that appeared afterwards only goes to confirm this. Dig deep and you’ll uncover new things in old tracks. My sister a few weeks ago gave me a copy of the BBC Sessions album. Playing the record is much more La’s than sticking on a CD as you go about your business, and I’ve been re-listening with open ears and open mouth. Some of these session tracks knock the released album versions for six.
One of the oldest La’s songs, the version of Doledrum from the band’s 1987 Janice Long session is the perfect example;
The La’s – Doledrum (Janice Long session, 2.9.87)
Those percussive Magic Bus off-beats are magic! Maver’s vocal is strong, his rhythm playing an excellent counterpoint to the skifflish back-beat. Paul Hemmings sprightly solo in the middle is mightily whistleable. but it’s John Power’s high falsetto backing vocal that’s the song’s secret weapon, carrying the whole thing to the perfect multi-vocalled end. Like so much of The La’s material, there’s so much going on in such a simple song. Listen to it. Listen again. And again. I guarantee you’ll spot something new each time.
Possibly even more upbeat is the long-shelved version recorded with John Leckie;
The La’s – Doledrum (John Leckie version)
Faster and with less emphasis on the percussive off-beats, the Leckie version features elongated Mavers’ harmonies and a lovely, subtle Power aah-aah-aah sigh where the solo should be. Mavers would probably tell you that this version is unfinished, or is lacking the requisite magic or doesn’t have enough 60s dust sprinkled atop. For what it’s worth, it would have been a worthy addition to that one and only album. The version that made the final cut is positively lethargic by comparison. Indeed, visit the forum on thelas.org and you’ll find plenty of discussion around the tracklist of the perfect La’s album; the Leckie mix here, the Bob Harris mix there, the Mike Hedges mix for this, the John Porter take for that. It’s a happy minefield when you get going.
I’m off to Liverpool this coming week with an itinerary packed full of Beatle-ish activities, Tate visits and a trip to Anfield. While I’ll forever be in search of The La’s, or at least Mavers, I’ll most definitely not find the proud Evertonian anywhere near the home of Liverpool FC, and I can’t imagine he’ll be propping up the bar in the darkest corner of The Cavern Club, but, y’know, y’never know. I like to think that I’ll pass him on Matthew Street, that he’ll recognise me (we were holiday pals for a week in 1993) and he’ll punch me playfully on the arm before we step into the nearest pub for a chinwag and a gin pomade, “kiddo.”