Tuesday, March 25, 2008

There's A Worm In My Head And A Fish In The Bed

Nestled quietly South West from Birmingham off the infamous M5, sits Stourbridge. Unassuming and fairly shadowed by the great Midlands city, it presented to the British indie pop scene a misshapen motley crew of four young men in 1986 who called themselves The Wonder Stuff. It was the brain child of it’s front man Miles Hunt; a mop haired, opinionated student type whose tongue in cheek humour was to become very essence of this unique band.

After a minor collection of flopped singles, the band caused an unusual stir with their highly acclaimed debut album ‘Eight Legged Groove Machine’ in August 1988, which ignited attention within the masses of public school types eager to adapt their intellectual tendencies towards a surrealistic way of appreciating modern music, not unlike the generation of the late Sixties breathing a sigh of relief at the Monty Python boom. Hard nosed and a furious dip into the growing craze of indie music, they led the way of future bands, some of which, are still around today. The Wonder Stuff’s adaptation to jumpy, enthusiastic, good feeling music still echoes through many striving bands even now.

This presentation of silly, comical lyrics fused with a folky approach sounded, as in their 1989 album, ‘Hup,’ not unlike a cross between The Goon Show and The Waterboys. Edging away drastically from the depressing, wrist slashing effects of traditional folk music, the band sold their concept through these incredible catchy lyrics that made their presence felt in any drunken hour before last orders. I can recall, as an impressionable grungy teenager, religiously playing and replaying this album, scribbling down every word so that I could sing along with utter gusto with my even more impressionable college friends.

It was a wise idea to take on two added guests for a fuller impact namely organist, James Taylor (not THE Taylor) and banjo wizz kid, Martin Bell (not that one either!) who created the complete folk sound that was a strong drive throughout the album. Released in October 1989, it became one of those albums that completed the helter skelter tour of the Eighties decade in music. The adoring public, delighted in such an optimistic album that it reached number 5 in the album chart, thus dressing the ears with all the hope and anticipation that the final months of a closing decade could only bring.

With it’s strong, dark colours of black, gold and electric blue, the album cover by ’Daylight Robbery,’ was rather like being shouted at from point blank range. Short and perfectly named, it was the ideal title for a ‘sit up and take note’ kind of album. It’s 12 tracks entwine themselves not just around the listeners ears but takes a hard dig into the imagination. Colourful and intricate, it’s lyrics draw up scene’s in the listener’s mind. Pictures form through thrashy sounds and shouted vocals, making it still exciting to indulge in even after it’s release almost 17 years ago.

Opening with the intriguingly titled, ‘Thirty Years In The Bathroom,’ the track takes us through a Pink Floyd style introduction in ‘Wish You Were Here,’ with it’s frantic flick through the frequencies of radio stations before throwing us head first into a hard hitting indie theme laced with surrounding bass lines and harmonious lyrics. The voices gel like melting chocolate, something that fails to reflect in many indie bands. With it’s opening line, of ‘my lavatory has been my sanctuary,’ we have a pretty definite idea as to what the rest of the album has in store. It mixes unusual styles and instruments, rarely heard in indie music including bongos and banshee wails. Hardly an uplifting piece, it still has a pleasant style to it and will not fail to please the most hardened on indie fans.

Through ‘Radio Ass Kiss,’ we are prepared to be enlightened with the surpassing talent of this lively band. Taking the mood up a notch, we are opened now to sound distortions and tambourine based backings not unlike those we had been delighted by in the band, Pop Will Eat Itself, who, at the same time, gave us the diverse approach to listening to extraordinary sounds.

Like a dive into the extremisms of strangling folk music, ‘Golden Green,’ is subtle enough to even please your grandmother. I fondly remember my father asking me to turn the album down, then promptly telling me to turn it up when hearing the gentle rhythms of that tinkling banjo break in this track. With it’s unique lyrics, we danced around with pretend tambourine and fake fiddle whilst chanting ‘..she’s taken all my vitamins, used up my lighter fuel…’ It has a totally undated feel and will still defiantly urge foot tapping and finger clicking for years to come. The first of the only two single releases, for me, it captured a certain spirit of what was felt within the young generations of the day. For a free thinking student, it was a time of sitting around in a large group of the fields with a out of tune guitar and not a care in the world. Launched onto the single charts only a month after the album release, it failed to capture anyone else’s imagination, sadly. It managed only number 33.

The silliness of ‘Lets Be Other People,’ fills the veins of this album with the same amount of unimportance yet fits beautifully in this album that not fail to impress even on first hearing the album today. As with the dreamy ‘Piece Of Sky,’ reflects a mood of lying around in tall grass on a sunny Summer afternoon. ‘So take a jump and steal a piece of sky..’ speaks of a devil -may -care attitude that I can still remember fondly that was very much of the day. Perhaps that is where the album dates itself, but however it may feel to the listener, it captures a uniqueness not unlike rock and roll first touched upon in the early Fifties.

The manic ‘Can’t Shape Up’ if fast paced and gives hunt the stage for which he can project his ability to chant wildly into a violently moving microphone. Thundery and tinged with the smoothness of wistful backing ‘oo’s and arh’s’, the guitars are taken on a quick blast around the studio and the band members are expected to keep up with it. Like ‘Windmills Of Your Mind’ on speed, this racy track takes on a slightly psychotic feel and the band show us a side of this albums soul searching personality. Like an human being, the unsettlement of the lyrics shows a vulnerability which is found in all of us. It is the strength of the sound in this powerfully charged rock themed song that holds the whole thing together. This track was, as I gather, recorded for the album at The Mayflower in New York on the 9th of May 1989.

The next and last single release of the album is the sturdy ‘Don’t Let Me Down, Gently.’ Emotionally charged in it’s lyrics, it is on a par, in my mind, with The Beatles, ‘Help,’ in the sense that it portrays a vulnerable state. However, in this case we listen to the story of a love drawing to a close and how that can effect the way we deal with things on a begging scale. Still punched out in a rock themed, glittering manner, we fall short of actually hearing the words, rather more the want of shouting them out to any passing being, whether they have personally let us down or not! With the words, ‘..I don’t think of you, do you think of me, is that often or not at all, and if you have to let me down my friend, then kick me to the floor…’ we can be excused when we jump hysterically around the floor, far from being kicked but more elated at such a ‘feel good’ record. Drum filled and exhaustingly accurate, indie style, this hit should have done better than it did. Failing to hit the top ten, it trailed at number 19 for a couple of weeks, it had been a ‘smash’ of a record, but only to the few that could appreciate it’s alluring quality. If anything, Hunt’s sneering, critical lyrics should have been enough to quash the thirst of anyone under the age of twenty five at the time, yet, sadly, the genius of it’s repetitive, skipped drum beat went unnoticed to most.

It would appear on the outset that ‘Cartoon Boyfriend,’ that this track could have been pinched from folk obsessed rockers The Waterboys. Yet, this track set in a minor key shows a darker side to the humorous Wonder Stuff. It tells of a stereotypical existence set to a backdrop of a weeping fiddle and a slower beated theme. Still of the perfectionist quality, it still, even in it’s depressing subject has a catchy, foot tapping anthem. Perhaps it is this that makes us enjoy the shockwave filled ’Good Night Though’ even more. Subtly absorbed in a sea of random guitar riffs and short lived drum beats, it lacks any tuneful quality we have now got used to from this album. It does, however, display the talents of someone with a harmonica. Voice distortion, very much in the same theme as Transvision Vamp were known to use from time to time, it holds all the harmonious charm of depressive pop/punk band, Public Image Limited. Perhaps it all albums are allowed a ’bum’ track, then this is it for ’Hup.’

Separated to the extreme from the last track, ’Unfaithful’ stands alone in it’s very simple dreamy, Irish folk sounding theme. Roaming across the counties of Ireland is probably suited if one wants to imagine the perfect setting. Fiddles are romantic and the beats are as gentle as a summer breeze, and it is it’s refreshing appearance that is the ultimate idyllic interlude for this rock stretched album. So, it is not a surprise when we are presented with that familiar charm of Hunt’s sneering vocals and the sound of a indie band performing tightly together in ’Them, Big Oak Trees.’ Suddenly, lyrics are meaningless and music is silly, yet pleasing. Which ever mode this band ever performed, it was inoffensive and charming and this track is unmistakeably The Wonder Stuff at there jumpy, happy best.

For the final track of this epitomised album, ‘Room 410,’ climbs the same musical ladder as the beginning of the album. It would seem that we have been taken on a complete tour of the many faces of this band and here we are back where we started. What does seems apparent is somehow PWEI were a discerning influence or perhaps the other way around. PWEI took indie by the neck and made it danceable by using bass backing tracks and a mixture of samples pinched from just about everywhere and anywhere. Here, we find TWS doing just that. One could sit and try to pick out every sample used, yet even though it was PWEI’s old trick, it is still stamped across with the hallmark of The Wonder Stuff by the long drawn out angelic notes by the lead vocals and backing. Musically, it somehow has became, in my mind, an epitome of it’s very own. This track can be heard in a multitude of other singles released by the same number of bands since 1989 and with this in mind, it surely puts this album on the same classic pedestal as all the other great albums in British music history.

After the sudden death of Rob ‘The Bass Thing’ Jones in 1993, their bass man, the idealism of The Wonder Stuff appeared to fall into the darkness. Sometimes, in music history, a band loose direction after the passing of a band member, yet others, have found inspiration and light. After finding the drive to carry on and only two top five albums after, they performed their farewell gig at the Phoenix Festival in 1994.

Several flopped projects have since come and gone and only the statutory compilation releases her and there remain. Forever in their debt, we have learnt great lessons from this band; to enjoy music with an indie flavour, with jollity and humour.

Perhaps if got the world to enjoy life in the same way, the world would be a nice place to visit again….

Martin Gilks - drums - who sadly died in a motorcycle accident in 2006.
Malcolm Treece - vocals/guitar
Miles Hunt - vocals/guitar

And special guests;
Martin Bell - fiddle/banjo
James Taylor - Hammond organ

Written by The Wonder Stuff
Polydor 1989

©mduffy 2006

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Man In The Red Suit Or How The British Still Love Lurve...

In Concert - Alexander O'Neal
The Alex Loves Tour
Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Saturday 15th March 7.30pm

Born in November 1953, Alexander O Neal was pretty much destined to become the king of retro- soul. Big shouldered and probably the only man on earth who can swim the butterfly successfully, he strutts around, throwing arm gestures at the drummers when he wants them to round up a song. Prancing up and down on stage from the early 1980’s, he was firstly known for his wild antics on stage using a bed and inviting poor unsuspecting females from the audience to come up on stage and cavort around while he sang them into bed. Perhaps, and it wasn’t until I saw him in concert, that it dawned on me where UK home grown star, Lenny Henry found his inspiration for his love machine character, Theophilus P Wildebeest. It takes a long time for me to get these things sometimes...

So the original lurrve machine is knocking on now and don’t be fooled, he may have had noticeably had surgery recently and perhaps doesn’t jump up and down on a bed, so much as perch a buttock on a bar stool these days, yet his voice has never once failed him – like Elvis, in a concert only six weeks before he died, we will, inevitably be saying the same thing about Mr O’Neal.

So he doesn’t sell out at Wembley Arena anymore and he is a long way from Vegas, but he is happy in Tunbridge Wells on a miserable night next to the cop shop and we are happy to have him there – okay, so “Are you ready for some lurve, Tunbridge?” Doesn’t have the same romantic, Manhattan ring to it, especially when the crowd yell back “Wells! It’s Wells!” after him – yet we amazed by this American presence who loves his UK audience, so much that for the last few years, he doesn’t seem to have set a foot outside Croydon. Yet that suit can still deliver as well as twenty odd years ago, he was the god of soul and just about any middle class, middle aged woman would have still rather thrown her kickers on stage at Mr O'Neal than Tom Jones and yes, even at 55, he still gets that - except on this occasion, it was the bra that came off, then was promptly and rather unattractively stuffed back on her top heavy chest in front of the man himself - he averted his eyes - as only a "all true man" would...

He strolled on stage, surgery allowing, at the Assembly Halls on his last night for “a while.” He toll of touring takes it’s heavy toll in the visual presence of either weight loss or sets of wrinkles across the forehead, visible only from the third row back. Yet when he decided to turn the show into a “party” instead, we all got a good look at what life on the road really means.

The band were uniform, black musicians, very talented and at the beck and call from the master in the fire engine red suit. His backing singers, bountiful and dressed like Mica Paris also were to the heel of the big man, each sang professionally, which seems an odd thing to say, but in this day and age when we are presented with the sloppiest of bands on the Brits, it’s mildly comforting to see a band not only dress well, work together but managed to hit the same key. The big guy wouldn’t have it any other way of course, his vocal uplifts and represents a fading era of soul artists – real ones, who sing about love, romance, always getting the girl and never in a minor key – that helps - as a rule, I can’t stand ballads and only Whitesnake would be an exception here, yet when it comes to Mr O’Neal you not only will forgive him anything but you’ll be there saying to yourself, “Gee, I know how that feels!”

He was solidly on stage for an hour – another feat of endurance that is rarely seen these days. I remember donning a grassy hillock to see Level 42 last year in the shadows of a castle on a chilly August eve, and wondering why on earth I had paid an extortionate amount of money to see my teenage heroes only on for 40 minutes – a disgrace I thought, so to see a grown man, sweating in a way that only Lee Evens would be proud of, I was gingerly impressed.

Since gathering up a normal level of hearing again, I have managed to dig out the old LP’s, have a jive to a few classic dance numbers as well as blow the dust off my sudo – Miami Vice jacket and dream of a long gone day of roller discos and first snogs – I even went out and bough his new album – something a very rarely do on the strength of a concert, yet it has to be said, the man may be aging and the limp getting more visible, but I beg you to find another artist who sold out at Wembley Arena twenty years ago, six nights in a row, who even now, jumps into the audience and dances with them, sings with them and shakes them warmly by the hand as he smiles and dances by – it was a party and not a gig which I witness, but an invitation to share an evening and a dance floor with one of the greatest entertainers and nicest guys in the world – love still lives and as long as Mr O’Neal is on stage – the world is a better place.....

©mduffy 2008

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Dragged Away At 45rpm

Not accusing myself too much of actually liking anything recorded by anyone in the last 15 years, I practically fell over Travis in the street. Whilst out on a dreary day hunting down vinyl like a 45rpm seeking missile, I came across a beaten up, super scratched copy of ‘The Invisible Band.’ As I peered at the cover wondering if I should have picked up my glasses on the way out that morning, I found myself struggling to find the band in amongst the heavily wooded picture. Hence the name of the album, I guess. I flipped over the case in search of a track that I might have once heard of. I found one or two and promptly realised that this little fact was enough for me to make a purchase….

Scottish/English rooted Travis went through great up heaved changes around their humble beginnings in 1991. As a female and two brothers were replaced, what we were left with was then the line up that still appears today, although since their collective album ‘Singles,’ in 2004, they have seemed to have died a quiet death due to gigs here and there, their studio life has taken a back seat. Gaining approval as being winner of Best Album twice at the Brit Awards, they have taken a firm place in the archives of Brit Pop as being one of the great innovative leading bands in modern indie music. Lacing together a simplistic career with wistful tunes and dreamy chords, Travis would appear to have had their day and what remains is the quality that they uniquely produced with such albums as this one, released in 2001.

Falling fowl to the category of ‘crap name, no future,’ they regarded their first band name Glass Onions to be the kiss of death, they wisely changed it to Travis and suddenly it was ‘hip’ to have heard of them. Giving warmth and light to their work, they somehow became a land mark in Nineties pop culture. This quartet of young lads fresh faced and clean cut, fashioned by Man at C&A, were far from rebellious rockers. There attempt at making good records came naturally to them and this album is an example of their gliding capability to quite accidentally, fall over perfectly entwining songs.

On the surface, this album, to the untrained eye, will cream out the word ‘depressing’ to you and perhaps it bought in an average mood, then it is an album best to avoid until a poor mood passes, but if one can get passed their sullen tone that appears throughout the album, then a certain lightness comes through. These four accomplished musicians have created here a gentle succession of tunes that will sooth the soul and warm your spirits. Therefore, it really isn’t any wonder why this album didn’t do anything else other than climb proudly to number one in June 2001.

Melodic and sung on occasions most angelically, it is a question that drifts through the mind as to how Fran Healy on vocals can ever hit such high notes and remain there foe a considerable length of time. The zombie ‘Afterglow,’ is the epitome of Travis at their hallucinating best. The notes swim gracefully off Healy’s vocal chords to an accompliment of sweet guitar riffs that are barely being played at all. It may be a track that one either adores or can’t wait to skip over, but what should be noted here is their ability to embrace a feeling; a mood and hold it there, somewhere in mid air and entrance the crowd with it for as long as they wish.

The depth of thoughtfulness of this considerably young band can be felt through their clever string arrangements in ‘Indefinitely,’ The title is repeated over and over like a hypnotic style whilst the backing drifts out of ear shot not even giving the listener any time to realise it. It is quite obviously striking to the listener how a young band or the most ordinary fellas could attempt to write with such depth and emotion that can surely only come through age.

The mood is strong from beginning to end and one will feel that after al while, you are not listening to an album but to someone’s musical funeral. There are hidden tributes in every song, it’s up to you to figure out if they are personal to you or them. The sullen approach worked well ten years ago, the Nineties were leaving bitter tastes in our mouths and the future seemed hazy and nothing seemed definite. House prices were going up, so was inflation, taxes and few pay rises were being handed out. I find that Travis were probably to the best band to have around to reflect the social impact, and this album last came around three years too late.

On hearing the final dying sounds of the album, you will not doubt beginning to realise that the ‘jolliest’ track on the album was ‘Sing,’ a hit for them in May 2001 which reached number 3, a perfectly well timed release just in time for the dreamy thoughts of an approaching Summer. However, compared to the rest of this album, this track is about as happy as a New Years Eve drunken crowd jumping up and down to a Status Quo record. It is the Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep of it’s time in regard to the career of Travis who have only given us reflective moods, sobering tones and mind altering vocals.

Nothing can be knocked here as their ability to bring a tear to the eye is unmatched, yet many will find this album will bring on too many miserable memories. However, if the listener can get over the depressiveness of this work, and experience the talented composition beneath, then it is an album to treasure.

Featuring another fairly decent hit for the band, this album presents us with ‘Side,’ which was released as the A side of a live version of Travis’ take on Mott The Hoople’s ‘All The Young Dudes,’ which, I personally, would have preferred to hear as a single itself. Only sitting at number 14 in September of 2001, it is a song that represents the end of Summer. Again, perfectly timed to reflect a mood of another year coming to an end. The lyrics, ‘..the grass is always greener on the other side,’ may be poignant to the time of year and should, perhaps have achieved greater success. In the same vein, the uplifting ‘Flowers In The Window,’ should have done better, for those of you who may remember and for others that will be shocked to hear, this track only got to number 18 in March 2002. It is frilly, and ever so female with it’s title containing the word, flowers. It is a sweet piece but it seems more to me too wistful and takes me back to a Ben Elton line of that ‘wistful time of the month…’ Should this be an album to quench all PMT woes? I wonder, I shall try it next time…

You can have too much lace, pink bows and dreamy twitches of surrealism. Travis didn’t have the punch that drives me to appreciate a band or even worship them. I guess coming from the generation that brought us Spandex, glitter, platforms and Dave Hill from Slade, it is no wonder that Travis passed me by…..

I found them though, eventually….

In 2002, drummer Neil Primrose broke his neck from a diving accident nearly ending Travis for good, thankfully, he made a good recovery and the band hope to release another album in 2007.

Tracks include;

Dear Diary
Pipe Dreams
Flowers In The Window
The Cage
Follow The Light
Last Train
The Humpty Dumpty Love Song (did he ever get it on with Hamble?)

Travis are;
Fran Healy - vocals/guitar
Dougie Payne - bass
Andy Dunlop - guitar
Neil Primrose - drums

ISOM 099750305027
HMV £7.99
Virgin £9.99
©mduffy 2006