Thursday 25 August 2016

The CHARLATANS: Some Friendly

(#415:  20 October 1990, 1 week)

Track listing:  You're Not Very Well/White Shirt/The Only One I Know/Opportunity/Then/109 pt2/Polar Bear/Believe You Me/Flower/Sonic/Sproston Green

"They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own." TIME magazine, July 16, 1990

"Some say I'm vague/And I'd easily fade/Foolish parade of fantasy" "De-Luxe" Lush, Mad Love EP

And so we reach that most awkward year, 1990, yet again; a year, by evidence, when no one knew exactly what was going on.  I know TPL has been here for some time, but it could be said that the 90s started in 1987 with the successes of “Jack Your Body” and “Pump Up The Volume.”  It could also be said that the culture wars started in 1987, with The Closing of the American Mind and The Church of SubGenius.*  The fin, as Angela Carter had put it at the time, was coming early this si├Ęcle, and in some ways this liminal period was bound to be unpredictable and disturbing, by turns.**

As it was, by July my mom and I had left Oakville behind for Toronto, as we both worked there, and a friend of ours was leaving her apartment for Japan to teach flamenco dancing, as she could find no other work; and so we got the place above Clay Design at Brunswick and Harbord, in the whole mix of University of Toronto local houses, streets and vibrations.  It was a hot summer, a wet one (I recall the kitchen ceiling had a leak) and a contentious one, nationally.  The Meech Lake Accord, the Oka Crisis, the “Into the Heart of Africa” show at the Royal Ontario Museum – people were rebelling, speaking out, protesting and changing things up.  The 1990s were not going to be a laidback decade – I could tell that, already.  

At the time I was still listening to CFNY (though I think they were calling themselves 102.1 The Edge by now) and trying my best to keep up with things.  We, for some reason, didn’t bring the television with us, so I had no television to watch, just as there was no door on my room (my mom rigged a piece of cloth for a door) nor on hers; indeed we slept on futons, and kept doing so for the rest of the and books were the thing, as well as nights deemed too hot to cook, so we would go out to eat, always seeming to hear either Ottmar Liebert or the Gipsy Kings in the restaurants’ sound systems.  It was an odd time, a time for Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet to have their classic Savvy Showstoppers album out, with the hit “Having An Average Weekend” used as the theme music of the show The Kids In The Hall.  I say odd as I had to adjust to actually living in Toronto, and not simply knowing it by my time at Ryerson or the previous trips we had taken as a family for this or that purpose.  I was a resident, and had friends who also lived in Toronto; to live somewhere so big was a bit intimidating. 

But my  life was as mundane as ever, save for poetry.  The University of Toronto neighborhood had plenty of new and used bookstores, all of them interesting and different, from the abnormal psychologies and literary angles one on Harbord (I definitely got a book on Plath there) to the used place called Harbord Books that had cookies for sale and up on Bloor there was Book City, which was two floors of books, new and discounted, with a college-student-gonna-read-Chomsky-now-see-you-later kind of feel.  I started to slowly but surely get the poetry books of all the Voices & Visions poets, from Whitman to Plath, and tried to read the LRB and had no idea who Gazza was, nor how soccer could be so significant. 

I listened to music – loved Pod, Bossanova not so much; was still obsessing over The Chills, so much so that I got a guide book to New Zealand and read it with a kind of mild mania. I read the Village Voice and visited Washington D.C. just as the line in the sand was being drawn and Kuwait invaded; listened to Tairrie B’s The Power of A Woman and The Fall’s compilation 458489 B-Sides.  I stole a poster for The Stone Roses’ “One Love” and put it up in my room.   I was too busy to slow down and think, hm, maybe I need therapy.  There was always another book to read (I started reading the classics according to Kenneth Rexroth – more on “the canon” later) and another album to listen to.  But by the time Some Friendly appeared, I was worn out.   I was sensitive to everything and was ignorant about a lot – not the happiest situation, and it would exist for a long time. 

At some point I became so sick I had to stay at home, as I could not speak.  I had what I guess I would now call psychosomatic laryngitis and I felt a bit as if I was in a free fall.  The music that had sustained me would continue to do so, but what Concrete Blonde talked about on their 1990 album Bloodletting – “The Darkening Of The Light***” – was taking place within me, and suffice it to say that where The Charlatans were coming from and where I was coming from were so different, as to be opposing worlds.  Which I know they were.   Baggy was never going to be my thing, as it was fundamentally upbeat, male, new-old-fashioned, and rather casually ruthless.  It cared about record collections (more on them, anon) and groovy sounds and seemed to be broadcast from some other planet. 

A planet where magazine covers like this one, published just weeks after we’d moved to Toronto, could never appear:
Was I part of this rather aimless and unfocused generation?  One look at it and a friend’s anger became vocal – that was in no way her.  She knew what she wanted to do and was going to do it.  But was it me?  Well, what else was I?  From the looks of it, everyone in the UK music world was hell-bent on having a good time and/or becoming famous, and people around me were ambitious too, for their goals, whether they were professional or romantic.  None of that applied to me, and I watched these ambitious people achieve, achieve and achieve in 1990/91, feeling no compunction to be the same way.  I was not surprised when they succeeded, nor was I surprised when they failed, as had to happen; I already knew the universe was not really 100% with me all the time, just as I knew I was (how did I know? I just did) not going to meet anyone, male or female, with my exact taste in music in Toronto.  Someone who liked Swagger by The Blue Aeroplanes, Big Fun by Inner City, the Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye compilation, Goo by Sonic Youth, Submarine Bells by The Chills, Ex:El by 808 State, Supernatural by Stereo MC’s, Born To Sing by En Vogue, Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy...

I have tried once again with The Charlatans and because it takes me back to this period, when I was always too numb or too sensitive, too angry or too passive.  They are a rockin’ little Hammond organ-driven combo at this point, all youth and possibility, and off chance moments of greatness (“Then” is my favourite song).  It is steeped in references to the past, ones explained fully in Telling Stories (influences include the following:  Felt, The Brilliant Corners, The Claim, Talk Talk, The Rain Parade, The Pixies, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Spencer Davis Group, The Fifth Dimension, The Doors, New Order, Johnny Leyton and It’s Immaterial).  Some of this is, suffice it to say, not apparent to me, but then I don’t know all this music (to me the Paisley Underground remains underground, save for The Bangles).  However I don’t think any amount of listening is going to fundamentally change my experience of this album – it’s good, great at times, and the first indie rock number one album of its kind since The Smiths (not forgetting Burgess’ favourite band  New Order), but like I said, baggy was not really for me.  (Nor especially is indie disco, which I have at least seen, sort of, in person.)

To the album, briefly:

“You’re Not Very Well” is quite cool; Burgess’ voice is kind of nasal, whiny, the sort that is effortlessly and almost stereotypically English.  Not twee, exactly, but already it’s the first song and he’s seeming to say he is superior to where he is from, in a way.  This rejection comes straight from The Stone Roses’ “I Am The Resurrection.”  The superiority complex leads to....

“White Shirt” is punk in sentiment but sounds like the 60s in a near-car-commercial sort of way.  The chipper arrogance continues, and this from someone who was happy to work in an office.  Where’s the rock ‘n’ roll danger, as one magazine would later say.

“The Only One I Know” is a big song; a sad song; the kind of song that sounds like Steve Winwood could have sung in the Spencer Davis Group in ’66, no problem.  Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on how you look at things, I guess.  This hit sold the album, and certainly sold it to me, at the time.

“Opportunity” is slower, a bit shoegazey (The Charlatans as a group had not much time for shoegazing groups).  I think Burgess said this was about the Poll Tax riots, but then so many songs were inadvertently about it at the time, right there in the charts.  It sounds too vague to apply, and the whole “station to station” reference just makes me think of Bowie.  Maybe it’s about being lost on the Underground?

“Then” oddly enough sounds more like the actual “Station To Station” – the beginning part where  it’s always backing up on itself – only somehow flatter, and not able to escape the way Bowie does.   This song is in part about the Gulf War that was going to happen, but the actual Gulf War will provoke music much angrier than this, in 1991.  Still, this is a simmering song that sounds as if it’s coming from a place.  Rob Collins’ solo at the end is good, and I am not surprised to find out he was an angry player, who really threw himself into it, not in a showoffy way but with real feeling.

Oh, and it’s not prog.

“109 pt. 2” has a bit of dialogue form Angel Heart in it, and is more psychedelic than anything else so far.  Instrumental, with more Collins goodness as I think there are echoes of who knows what future hauntological musics here....until the end, when I there’s what sounds like a gunshot.  Welcome to the 90s....

(side two)

 “Polar Bear” sounds more like 808 State with guitars than anything else, and Andy Bell liked the title enough that he wrote a song for Nowhere with the same one.  This is the most “baggy” song besides the big hit so far, and I can imagine hearing it in Eastern Bloc, too.  As I have never eaten a Revel, I must have taken this to be a drug song at the time.  Cough.

“Believe You Me” Well hello whacka-whacka guitar, this does sound familiar, doesn’t it?  Yet it is a Collins song, so if you just listen to him, then it makes a bit more sense.  The “having a funky time on the weekend at the Blow Up club” song.  I am trying to get the intimidating vibe that is supposed to be here, but I cannot be intimidated by Tim Burgess. 

“Flower” is bass-led (for once, it’s a relief) and it’s influenced by the Pixies, without the whoops and yells and interruptions they had, that deadpan sense of humor, just a kind of quiet-loud-quiet that will become more prominent in the 90s.  Burgess sounds pretty mean here, but then bad girls are what make pop interesting.  And girls will decide themselves if they are bad, or not.....

“Sonic” is when I have to stop for a moment and wonder wait a minute now, isn’t that the same chord as “You’re Not Very Well”?  I guess this is what they mean by an album hanging together, but it’s getting to be a bit claustrophobic for me.  It’s a nice song, though. 

“Sproston Green” is the big closer; named after a real place, with all the band moments in place – Hammond, business-like drumming, big chords, enough to make the folks who remember the 60s happy and those born in the 60s feel both new and old at the same time.  I keep thinking of a band that will have many of these elements, but will do something different with them, but as they are just forming in 1990, I can’t mention them....yet. 

 Is the arrogance of the Charlatans earned?  Are they the best band in Britain?  So many times this is said by bands, and that arrogance can convince enough people in the media to repeat it, if only as copy, as something to report, rather than fact.  For what it is, Some Friendly is good; but I cannot say it stuck to me at the time, the way other albums did. 

For a voiceless, exhausted and unknowingly-in-need-of-therapy me, it all went by in a hazy, noisy swirl; I did not have the same reaction as one James Brown did, then of the NME, who wrote about them as if on drugs (hm, remove the ‘as if’), drugs that in no way could interest me.  The world was common, mundane, with its bright spots; The Charlatans are a band who are on their way to something here, though whether it is the past instead of the future it is hard to tell.  There are bands pushing against the past, like a swimmer pushing against the wall of the pool to propel themselves forward; and there are ones content to swim around in that past, touching the wall once in a while, but who are buoyant on tradition, history and perhaps more than a little nostalgia.  Some bands keep pushing, and some don’t.  You can list all the influences you like, but if the songs aren’t sticking with me, well, why should I be interested in the influences?  There are those even, out there, who don’t really believe bands can be influenced; they just steal things and hope no one notices....and in the meantime, we leave the north and head to Oxford: 

Nowhere by Ride was a little closer to what I liked.  I liked the cover – if Some Friendly is druggy/fuzzy, Nowhere is just...oceanic.  It’s bigger than anything, and that bigness comes with an impatient “Seagull” rising and rising at the beginning, and the ocean itself, waves against the shore, at the end.   This too is indie, though Creation instead of Beggars Banquet, meaning they were under the peripatetic and somewhat malign influence of one Alan McGee, who talks about them in his book Creation Stories as if they were a prize heifer, more or less.  The songs either soar and fiercely rock, or they gently ebb and flow, and the songs are about paralysis, love, escape, the idea of nowhere, of nothing....the odd noises at the end of “Paralysed” like there’s a lot of folks out there with psychosomatic laryngitis, trying to say something, but what?  It’s all AAAUGGGGGGAAUGIIIIIIIAAAAHHHH.....You can hear that Andy Bell will join Oasis one day in songs like “Taste” – upbeat, big, embracing, even if the song is again about the ephemeral, the longing, the not-quite-there....”Here And Now” has train references and a harmonica, but that’s about all it owes to The Smiths; it is too busy blasting outwards, harmonies (Mark Gardner and Mark Gardner, I think) are modest, indie, English...

“Nowhere” is HUGE though.  If there are MBV leanings, they come out here especially strong, that harmonica there, but the gentle voices set against nothingness....a kind of void I would have to get used to, as the decade wore on...the song is floating, a bit dubby, not at all psychedelic as such, but here are the waves as the guitar cuts off, and the seagulls, and that sense of being neither here nor there...a very different and unsettling ending, one that leaves the listener stranded, figuratively.....

There was an album that sustained me through all this, but it wasn’t Some Friendly or Nowhere; it was this:

I know Gala is a collection of EPs Lush had already made, but this didn’t matter to me; what mattered was that this was good.

Tremendously good, and done with such ease, though I know that probably wasn’t the case.  Their sound is shoegazing huge, but somehow even more open, free than Ride.

Now, I know Lush are mostly just okay musically; but it is perhaps their limitations that are their strengths - only on 4AD could their gauzy sound make much sense.  The stop-start songs (such as the God-like “De-Luxe” - truly a song that saved me, it is all joy) and the songs that are one chord and then another similar chord afterwards are given a lot more oomph by the drummer, Chris Acland.  Drummers are, I know, not really all that respected or loved by the public, but if a band has a great drummer than half the battle is won (U2 are an excellent example of this, as was Blondie).  Drummers are supposed to be a bit dim, but then so are catchers in baseball (wicket-keepers in cricket) when in fact this cannot be the case.  Lush veer from languid (“Sunbathing, ” which starts with some off-mike laughter - much needed) to ferocious (“Thoughtforms”) to blisspop (“Breeze” - so positive, a relief from the arrogance and windswept abandon in the albums above) and everything in between, including an ABBA cover, and Acland is always there to give form, to push, to lead the group, essentially. (This is why I find it easy to imagine jazz covers of Lush songs, as opposed to Ride or Charlatans ones.)  The catcher/wicket-keeper may not seem like they are doing much, but in fact they are observing everything, slyly directing the pitcher/bowler and doing this so easily that they fool the other side into thinking nothing is happening, when it most certainly is.  As TIME magazine was so easily fooled by thinking that because this twentysomething crowd didn't aspire to be just like them, there was something wrong about them....

In a year when Fifth Column (a Toronto band that were tough and feminist and of course made fanzines and so on) was a thing, Lush were feminist too, only through a veil of pedals and not always distinct vocals. (Done this way as Miki didn't really want to sing, but had to.)  Didn’t matter.  Having two females who sang and wrote and played in the same band was enough to distract me entirely from Mancunian music altogether. With Lush I had found my first favourite 90s band, and my hapless state was made much more bearable by them.  For now I was hip deep in the culture wars, the canon, what could be considered the establishment vs. the outsiders, and this was a very slippery place to be, with none of the stability I needed.  But it was the culture, and I was only too happy listen to Lush and gain some health and energy, uncertain as to what was going to happen next.  The canon, I soon realized, was something that was inherent in music as well, and I tried to ignore it and find something I liked, and it didn't.  Lush fit this for me (I always felt that they were something I liked and understood and no one else did, perhaps because I leaned on them so heavily at this time).  Little did I understand what was going to happen, but at least by looking backwards I felt I could see forwards....

Next up:  more restaurant vs. headphone music.

*There are plenty of albums that also seem to start the 90s early, whether it’s trip hop (Mark Stewart) or Box Frenzy by Pop Will Eat Itself or You’re Living All Over Me by Dinosaur Jr, not forgetting Culturcide’s Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America or even Come On Pilgrim by The Pixies and Yo Bum Rush The Show by Public Enemy, not forgetting The Lucy Show or Janet Jackson.  And of course two far more famous albums, Faith and Bad.  (The word 'liminal' by the way means that social hierarchies "may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.")

**I wish I could say the same thing for now, but if you look at the album charts it is utterly depressing just how much old music is still in the chart.  By my recent count (including greatest hits comps and albums over two years old) 37% of the albums were old, some dating back to over 40 years.  The noted effect is that unless an album has several hit singles and/or is by someone famous, then a new album can appear and then disappear in the chart in a matter of weeks, perhaps only returning if there’s a tour, a tv appearance or maybe a new single.  Meanwhile ABBA Gold is at Sainsbury’s for £3. And the media, alas, aid and abet all this, particularly the older sections of the BBC, with their complete inability to stop playing music from the 70s.

To put this disturbance into some perspective, last night I was listening to 6 Music and heard a song from 1985 and then one from 1974.  If I had been listening, as I first did, to a radio in 1978 with the same year differences, I would have heard a song first from 1947 and then one from 1936.  This kind of warped sense of what radio is supposed to play is so utterly common as to be unremarkable, but is in fact stultifying.  If the sentiment of the listener is that the past is better than the present, then sticking new songs in with the older ones does not give them a fair shake, as the listener will reject out of hand, like a toddler, anything s/he does not like.  Likewise, if the listener wants to hear something actually new, s/he has to sit and wait for it to show up, if s/he can put up with the increasingly retrogressive tendencies of the station.  And then there are stations that hogtie themselves to a whole decade, and only then about 300 songs from that decade, which were hits.  Those are symptoms of nostalgia, but also of giving up.  The final impression I get here in the UK is that new music has a very tough time of it, and many have given up on anything new completely, happy to keep buying Legend and Queen’s Greatest Hits and so on ad infinitum.

***Also a symbol in I Ching: The Darkening Of the Light is a tough one, but doesn’t this seem familiar:  “In a time of darkness it is essential to be cautious and reserved.  One should not needlessly awaken overwhelming enmity by inconsiderate behavior.  In such times one ought not to fall in with the practices of others; neither should one drag them censoriously into the light.  In social intercourse one should not try to be all-knowing.  One should let many things pass, without being duped.”  The darkness does not prevail; there is light, but it is veiled....