The Flatmates "Pot-Pourri (Hits, Mixes and Demos '85-'89)" (Cherry Red): Various Artists "The Best Of Subway Organisation" (Cherry Red): This Poison! "Magazine" (Egg Records): The Church Grims "Plaster Saints" (Egg Records): The Field Mice "Snowball + Singles", "Skywriting + Singles", "For Keeps + Singles" (LTM): The Fall "The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004" (Castle): Ripcord "In Search Of A Future" (Shortfuse)
When I was young, old music was rubbish. New music was brilliant. Now I am older, ergo new music is rubbish. Old music is brilliant. The conundrum is, of course, trying to justify this as not being merely the result of rose-tinted nostalgia brought on by the ageing process, but being based on a somehow objective assessment that in the mid-1980's there was indeed some life-affirming, fashion-eschewing great stuff "coming up from the underground", whereas in 2005 the bands coming up on the rails deserve, in my view, to go speedily off them, and in most cases with as much collateral damage as possible.
These re-releases help me in my self-justifying, because they are all bands that, when I was 15, I could have thought were great merely because I had very narrow terms of reference, and little practical experience. When I got into these groups, I didn't really like (or hadn't heard) much outside the narrow indie genres. I hadn't really taught myself punk, post-punk. I certainly hadn't cottoned on to the burgeoning new "rap" music, let alone the forming of electro and techno: and I hadn't delved sufficiently into Motown, reggae, dub. Or, of course, metal. And I suppose there was a certain novelty in every new band my fanzine "researches" unearthed. But now, I know that the music of these acts was good: that I like these bands for more reasons than my 15-year old self did: and that their tunes have stood a certain test of time already - let's call it a generation.
The Flatmates were where the Ramones took on the Ronettes, and I still honestly believe they are better than either. A massively underrated band, and, which wasn't so trendy then, at heart a pop band, who came up with a great run of singles (six in all, though the last was never released in the end: the last three of which really could and should have been hits), but never an album. I tried to go and see the Flatmates once - it was at Camden Dingwalls in 1988 - but was laughed out by the doorman after some pathetic attempts to claim I was 18... There was a chronological compilation, "Love and Death", one of the last releases on Subway*, which was essential, as you'd expect - showing how the Flatmates took a very simple formula of girl-boy tales with easy chords and rhymes, but injected it with a little verve and pace, using my beloved shambling guitar sound of the time. "Pot Pourri" is frustrating in that it has all the necessary Flatmates tunes, padded with a few out-takes and demos which would probably have best been left at that (though we do at last get a first CD release for "Sportscar Girl" in any format, and "Out Of Love" is an interesting insight into the earliest Flatmates demos, with male vocals from founder member Rocker - seen afterward in the splendrous Rosehips - and a gang show joining in for the chorus). It's also a little bit of a shame that "Heaven Knows" appears here as an alternate mix, meaning you don't quite get the full force of the original and in particular the "bloody hell, this is glossy. Is this really the Flatmates ?" feel that version had. But you tell me that "Shimmer", "Heaven Knows" or "Trust Me" are anything other than three of the greatest pop singles of the 1980s and I won't believe you. You almost feel that had Debbie Haynes been blonde, and had the Flatmates not tried to make it on their own through guitarist Martin Whitehead's fantabulous Subway Organisation, they would have broken through in the same way a host of lesser acts did (The Darling Buds definitely supported the Flatmates at some stage, for example). If you've got "Love and Death" already, you don't frankly need this album, but if you haven't, then Cherry Red have just done you a great service and you need to buy it as instantly as possible.
* Apparently this has now been reissued by Clairecords. Having said that, they allegedly released that Secret Shine comp, but I never managed to track that down - multiple grrr...
Equally, the Subway comp is amazing, and the tracklisting is frankly blinding. Again, however, it doesn't give you any tracks you won't have already been able to pick up from the Subway CD re-release of "Take The Subway To Your Suburb" or "Surfin' In The Subway" and the two "Whole Wide World" compilation reissues. Nevertheless, it is so fine. Bubblegum Splash!, Rosehips, the Chesterf!elds, the Shop Assistants, Korova Milkbar, the Flatmates, Soup Dragons - at this time were all awesome bands. And the Charlottes' "Are You Happy Now ?" was the apotheosis of the 80-second noisy pop song! Though the bands came from Stoke, from Bristol, from Edinburgh, from Molesworth, from all over, there is a "Subway sound" - fuzzy, warm guitars, lolloping bass, heavy snares - that still warms the cockles of my heart. There is also a lot to commend them in terms of '86 having built on 76's pioneering, independent, punk spirit - "no musicians used in the making of this record", as the Flatmates' first run-out groove had it. If you haven't got into Subway, use this as a primer before buying - as a minimum:
- either of the Flatmates compilations;
- the Rosehips "best of" on Secret;
- the Razorcuts' best of on Matinee (for the early stuff, basically);
- the early compilation of Soup Dragons stuff (I think this was a French import LP but there is a similar Sire CD released in the US you can probably find);
- everything by the Shop Assistants (Overground re-released their Chrysalis LP on CD, but otherwise there is not enough out there);
- Korova Milkbar's "Talking's Boring" (this really needs a re-release on CD, especially the fine opener "Something Missing");
- and the Chesterfields' "Kettle" (Vinyl Japan re-released this with extra tracks a few years back).
I really mean it - all this releases are must-haves. I will finish on this though by repeating my usual plea - can somebody anywhere re-release all Bubblegum Splash tracks please: I would be very happy to pay for it myself if someone gave me the masters (er, and did all the hard work like the sleeve and copyright and distribution and pressing and stuff).
And I don't want to eulogise too much, but the re-releases from Egg Records, now a little old admittedly, justify the praise. This Poison!'s "Magazine" compilation is manna for those like me who felt that the spirit of the Wedding Present '85-'87 should have been bottled in order that I could spend the rest of my life drinking cratefuls, if not lorryfuls, of the stuff. Yes there was much more to This Poison! than the furious, urgent jangling of their labelmasters - but it's hard not to have early TWP as a reference point when you listen to "Magazine"'s hurtling energy and frenetic guitars mixed with some poignant, aware lyrics (such as the kitchen sink drama which unfolds over "Question Mark", at a pace even the young Gedge would have baulked at). The CD starts with the four tracks from their first two singles on Reception Records, last compiled as the "Fierce Crack!" 12" close on 20 years ago: "Poised Over The Pause Button" needs no introduction. Here, though, we get effectively a "lost album": I remember "Driving Skills" (aka "James Dean Is Dead") and "Question Mark", songs of the same fine ilk, from their Peel Session, while "The Great Divide" surfaced only on the Airspace compilation LP, and is arguably their finest song of all, showing their political side as it bemoans the poverty gap of Thatcher's Britain.
The Church Grims deserve mention while I'm rounding up genius of this era because "Plaster Saints" contains a half dozen songs of the sort of quality that was rare even in these halcyon late 80s days, yet alone now. Like the Hellfire Sermons, who got a well-deserved and rather longer retrospective on Bus Stop the other year, they were undersung to the point of anonymity, but effortlessly crafted tunes and lyrics of the sort that would be raking in the plaudits today. You can understand comparisons to the June Brides ("Plaster Saint"), Close Lobsters ("Seen It All"), the Brides and the Lobsters ("Mr Watt Said") or even the Smiths ("Can't Laugh Anymore") or the Wedding Present ("Hardman") plus violins, but the real point, even aside from all those reference points which I certainly mean as a real compliment, is that such a smart retelling of familiar emotions ("boredom / is an anagram of bedroom / doesn't make for contentment, son") and such wonderful arrangements remain rare, if not quite unique. The best of many good reasons to buy this EP, however, is "Think Like A Girl": a beautiful, funny, unbelievably delicate mini-epic which owes much to McCarthy but which still strikes out with a charm all of its own and in doing so very much epitomises the Church Grims.
The genius of the Field Mice has been explored many times. The last time I bothered to do so was in writing a review of their "Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way ?" double-CD set on Shinkansen, before that label went into super-elongated hibernation. If you didn't see it, I guess it's too late, and rather a shame that I'm not going to reprise it here. Suffice to say that the Field Mice were the band that gave angsty bedroom indie a good name, with their Wake-worship and jumbled syntax ("this guilt that I do feel / I deserve to always feel / fully deserve to never not feel" is positively Prescottesque, but he never had the tunes) and wandering basslines and semi-acoustic snarls and unbelievably on-the-line sentiments ("I Can See Myself Alone Forever" epitomises this just in its title, but the unabashed honesty throughout is almost oppressive). Of course, from the divine openings of "Emma's House" and "Fabulous Friend", the Field Mice then exploded into legend with "Sensitive", which tied Bobby Wratten's defiant musings ("if the sun going down / can make me cry / why should I... not like the way I am ?") to guitars which spent the full five minutes fizzing up and threatening to burst from the record. Later came yet more - "So Said Kay", which even John Peel described as smooth and sultry, did things with a piano that made me want to kiss every piano tuner in the land, still married to Wratten's maturing lyrical style ("she reached in and placed a string of pearls / around this heart of mine") and "Missing The Moon" segued New Order's acid-lite into the Sarah Records canon. They're all here on this series of themed re-releases from Les Temps Modernes, along with every other step of the way, and a few previously unreleased tracks (Miracle Legion's "This Heart Disease Called Love" is delightfully adapted to the FM formula, and shows how the song was an inspiration for Belle and Seb's "This Is Just A Modern Rock Song").
As for the Fall, well April 25 was a quiet day for them really, just the three new live albums hitting record store racks: Glasgow , Los Angeles, Hoff alter Bahnhoff, to go with the two that had followed a fortnight before. However, aware of what a tough week that would make it for the fanbase, Castle and the BBC have teamed up to give us a 96 track box set over 6 CDs of the Fall's Peel sessions, including a couple of tracks that weren't ever broadcast. It is quite astonishing, and even for a band who have given us some amazing work, and had the benefit of nearly as many great compilations as dodgy ones, it really is a landmark release for Fall fans. The reality, the more I treat myself to it, is that it is a landmark release for all fans of music, period. I'm desperately struggling to think of a collection that could ever hope to match this in width or quality - "New Puritan" is a standout, you couldn't do bad versions of "Deer Park" or "New Face In Hell" if you tried, whilst the version here of "Hip Priest" is probably my favourite. Nobody of sanity could live without the nine rambling minutes of "Words of Expectation", the 8 minutes of "Garden", the 9 minutes of "Winter"... in these discs is really the clearest evidence yet of how M.E. Smith is the only poet from the last quarter of the 20th century who will still be capable of casting a shadow in a few decades time: when Br*tp*p's embers will be thankfully unremembered, and other bards recalled only as fond curios.
Finally, I want to give praise and thanks to Shortfuse records, ensconced somewhere in E. London, for giving a release to "In Search Of A Future", the first Ripcord demo tape, on a frankly inadequate 500 vinyl pressing. Hailing from Weston-super-Mare, Ripcord married punk and hardcore in a way not otherwise seen outside the likes of Unseen Terror: they took the inevitable Discharge influence, but in time they would mature to produce works like the fantastic "Poetic Justice" LP, with its beautiful forest / desert sleeve. On "In Search..." the highlights are the tracks on which they slow down a little: "Why Do Starving Kids Die ?", "In Search Of A Future" and "Blind Eye" are the highlights, not least for being lyrically as tragically relevant now as they were back in '85 when Ripcord were taking these first formative steps. Musically they perhaps had a way to go - the title track is not too far, aspirationally or structurally, from Chelsea's "Right to Work" - but the promise is all here and still has the power to work wonders. Those of you who scorn music outside of the narrow indiepop genre - as I perhaps did too often when I was too young to know better - are REALLY MISSING OUT. As you deserve to...
The Exploited "Dead Cities" (still a gem)
Hood "Still Rain Fell" (from "Outside Closer" LP on Domino)
Tullycraft "Twee" (from whatever their 3rd album was, I think)
Prince Far-I "Right Way" (slightly unhinged religio-toasting from "Long Life" LP on Virgin)
Chas n' Dave "Turn That Noise Down" (from "The Best Of" - think Ian Dury rucking with Madness and Level 42, but good)
52nd Street "Can't Afford To Let You Go" (classic Mancs electro - the one form of music not invented by Chas n' Dave)
The Go-Betweens "The Statue" (from "Oceans Apart" CD on Lo-Max)
Nasum "No Room For Improvement" (from "Inhale / Exhale" debut)
Snoop Dogg and C- Murder "Gangsta Gangsta" (from the NWA 10th Anniversary Tribute)
Lovejoy "Everybody Hates Us And We Don't Care" (from "Everybody Hates Lovejoy" CD on Matinee Recordings)
15 Storeys High - series 1 (Carlton DVD)
PeepShow - series 1 (Channel 4 DVD)
Labour. (I could get all defensive about this, but I don't need to, because I live in a Conservative / Labour marginal, so even if Tony Blair came round my house, lobbed a brick through the window and stamped on my Shop Assistants records, it wouldn't stop me voting Labour, given the "alternative". a fair electoral system probably would, but then life's imperfect, as ya know).