Wednesday, 5 May 2021

The BOO RADLEYS: Wake Up!

 


(#523: 8 April 1995, 1 week)

 

Track listing: Wake Up Boo!/Fairfax Scene/It’s Lulu/Joel/Find The Answer Within/Reaching Out From Here/Martin, Doom! It’s Seven O’Clock/Stuck On Amber/Charles Bukowski Is Dead/4am Conversation/Twinside/Wilder

 

It really struck us while listening to the second half of “Charles Bukowski Is Dead.” In truth the suspicion had already germinated with the acapella introduction to “Wake Up Boo!” – this is not really “Our Prayer” – and the vocal chorales are probably multitracked Sices with a dash of Martin Carr, but Lena said: I know which Liverpool band they remind me of most. Think of purity of spirit, intensity of emotional commitment and that ineradicable Merseyness – and you have, with The Boo Radleys, the natural successor to The Christians.

 

Certainly there is a lot of Garry Christian about the man who I hope will not mind if I no longer call him “Sice,” since he is now Dr Simon Rowbottom, a very well-respected psychotherapist. Note the first paragraph of his “About me” section, and how it fully sums up the emotional turmoil expressed here, and expressed for the most part by a second party, since the music and words were, and indeed still are, those of Martin Carr, as implicitly angry a guitarist as Graham Coxon (flashback to the penultimate episode of The Prisoner – sometimes the patient and the therapist change places).

 

He does not have the weighty authority of Garry Christian; his is more of a persuasive and perhaps vulnerable voice. A lot of the time (“Reaching Out From Here,” “Stuck On Amber,” “Wilder”) I’m reminded more of Glenn Tilbrook, though his falsetto quivers on the choruses of “Twinside” are decidedly Bowie-esque. He articulates what Mr Carr can only express through his guitar; the noise, the playfulness, the pain.

 

Wake Up! is a really important album to me – indeed, the opportunity to write about the record (and at least two others to follow in 1995) was one of the main reasons I wanted to start Then Play Long. I played it yesterday on cassette, the very same cassette I bought from Hammersmith Our Price the Monday it came out. This means that, unlike the next two entries, I liked it at the time.

 

I liked The Boo Radleys generally. I was one of the twelve people who bought their 1991 debut Ichabod and I – hey, if Teenage Fanclub wanted to do Dinosaur Jr (which, on A Catholic Education, they most assuredly did), then why not a Wirral variant? – and the following year’s marginally bigger-budget sequel, Everything’s Alright Forever, which suffered from being at the toe-end of the shoegazing boom but is a lot better than you might remember.

 

Then, in 1993, came Giant Steps, a phenomenal record which emerged at the “wrong” time and in the “wrong” cultural context. I was initially (i.e., before I actually bothered to listen to the record) sceptical – if you’re going to have the nerve to name your record Giant Steps, it had better be nothing less than phenomenal – but it is totally where Primal Scream should have gone after Screamadelica, the irruptions of an enticing record library being shamelessly emphasised and enlarged (because too much British pop and rock music suffers from the self-induced curse of “shame”). It perhaps only skirts the inner suburbs of its intended destination in its sixty-four minutes, but it’s one heck of a journey.

 

Wake Up! brought the implications of its predecessor to fruition. Giant Steps hadn’t done too badly, commercially – 60,000 sales are not to be sneezed at – but there was some pressure from Creation for the band to come up with A Hit. This they, beyond certainty, did; and “Wake Up Boo!” also proved their curse.

 

I wonder to this day how many of the 140,000 people who bought the album bothered to listen beyond its first track, and how many of them really understood that song in the first place. In a spring-of-1995 sense, those questions were kind of irrelevant, because the aura at the time was one of emerging out of winter into spring, a new beginning – we knew Major’s Government was finished and that Blair was patiently waiting to take over (yes, I know, but at the time it seemed like hope) – and so the sound of those Jimmy Young Show horns blasting through speakers and headphones provided us with the theme for a new and better world. I had just moved to Chiswick about two weeks before the single of “Wake Up Boo!” came out and cannot satisfactorily replicate the amber thrills of walking down a sunny King Street to work with this song in my head.

 

All of the required (but required by whom?) elements were present; Rowbottom’s knowingly jejune vocal, the snappy beat (yup, I thought then “who’s been listening to ‘A Solid Bond In Your Heart, then?” and was right to do so), the wake up/beautiful morning fanfare, the twenty-five/alive rhyme which made me think of how even Herman’s Hermits would have seemed exciting in 1965. For better, and mostly for worse, “Wake Up Boo!” became that rarest of musical phenomena, an actual anthem, a song whose emotions permeated the souls of those who didn’t really buy records or particularly keep up with music.

 

And few of the people who loved that song were really listening to it. A summer anthem which begins with the words “Summer’s gone” but niftily swerves expected autumnal melancholy; the transition doesn’t bother Rowbottom at all (“To pretend I do seems really done”). Nonetheless, the song is full of anticipatory dread; wake up “for what could be the very last time,” the sarcastic guitar twittering behind “You can’t blame me…for the death of summer”), the abrupt punk thrash and possible Oasis trolling of the bridge from that section back to the chorus.

 

Carr apparently wrote the song in his girlfriend’s flat in Preston while watching Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast (whose former co-presenter, Chris Evans, was by then on national radio and swiftly adopted the song as a Radio 1 jingle) following a sleepless night tripping on magic mushrooms. He’s still momentarily up for it – at least before he inevitably collapses back into bed – but the song is actually a dialogue between the protagonist and his weary and bored partner (hence “You have to put the death in everything,” which could emanate from either voice). “Wake Up Boo!” runs “Born In The U.S.A.” a very close second as the most endemically misunderstood of all pop songs.

 

In some ways, “Wake Up Boo!” is a red herring, or simply a misleadingly bright introduction to what is, summarily, quite a dark album. There are some quiet acoustic musings on “Fairfax Scene” – there’s more than a touch of Saint Etienne about song titles like that – which lay the groundwork for the album’s recurring and escalating themes of boredom, frustration and painful escape. The Johnny Arthey at the 100 Club punk rush of “It’s Lulu” – a song about somebody else impatient to get away – provides a temporary diversion (though bears a drifting prelude of My Bloody Valentine-derived glide ambience).

 

“Joel” develops the innovations of Giant Steps most profitably. It is drenched in White Album (and specifically John’s White Album influences – given that the song’s subject matter is the newborn son of a friend of Carr’s, this could pass as the band’s “Hey Jude”) but is careful to anticipate its own nuevo-retro anatomy (“All I want is harmony/Like some outmoded sixties throwback”). It moves through the four main stages of White Album dynamics splendidly – the harsh, Leslie cabinet-soaked voice/aggressive beats duologue midway through is rather akin to Liam Gallagher being recruited as a guest singer by Liam Howlett – and finds its peace at the other end of its determinedly noisome tunnel.

 

“Find The Answer Within,” which would not have disgraced the 1968 Herd, is a superb pop song which systematically detours and detonates its bounce with increasing levels of white-out noise – Carr’s guitars, backwards vocals etc. – and represents the steps which fair weather fans of “Wake Up Boo!” politely refused to take (when issued as a single, Radio 1 did put the song on their A-list, but did not take “Wake Up Boo!” off the same list – hence the latter cancelled out the former). “Reaching Out From Here” is heartbreaking; he is not happy, he knows that leaving is intrinsically the wrong thing to do, but what can he do? He’s stuck in Preston, wants to be with his mates in London, the place where, in 1995, it was all still happening (as hard as it is to imagine that now – the solution for me at the time was to keep a foot in both camps, in London and Oxford, but Oxford is a hell of a lot closer to London than Preston). It’s all right for – whom?

 

Side two opens with a harsher variant of the “wake up” trope – trumpet (possibly synthesised) reveilles, military snap-to-attention/stand-by-your-beds barks which immediately make me think of the importance of their near-neighbours on the Wirral, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (just how key was Dazzle Ships? Together with Songs From The Big Chair and A Secret Wish, it’s probably the most quietly, incrementally influential pop album of the eighties) – before the singer is reluctantly forced out of bed by the total absence of self-esteem.

 

As with several other songs on this side – “Stuck On Amber,” “4am Conversation,” “Twinside” – “Martin, Doom!” concludes with an extended, climactic passage for trumpets and band; and the fact that the side’s final song is called “Wilder” very strongly suggests, not simply a huge Teardrop Explodes influence, but also a determined effort to reproduce and evolve the dishevelled magic of Wilder’s second side – think of “4am Conversation” as the band’s “Tiny Children,” “Wilder” as their “The Great Dominions,” and so forth.

 

“Charles Bukowski Is Dead,” which serves the same purpose as Carla Bley’s “Drinking Music” halfway through the second side of Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra album, and which, thematically, also in part foreshadows Saint Etienne’s song “Popular,” forms a chimerical dream in which Carr imagines himself down at the Good Mixer, chatting and getting drunk with people who are on his wavelength, or he on theirs. But when we reach the vaguely hellish, repeated chant of a climax of “You'll never touch the magic if you don't reach out far enough,” we sense that the Worried Man – for this is the real voice of Wake Up!, just as it was on the first two Band albums – is demanding his own damnation.

 

As with the Mark King of Running In The Family, the Worried Man realises, as the album winds towards its conclusion, that he needs to make his mind up, one way or the other. The repeated sobs of “Don’t stay here for me” in “4am Conversation” expose a nerve which even Alex Chilton would have preferred to keep hidden. On “Twinside,” the Worried Man wonders aloud what to do about the two fighters stuck inside him.

 

Finally, on “Wilder” itself - after all these John songs, comes a Paul one - he decides to leave. He is aware that he may be leaving heaven for hell (“It’s not where you are, it’s who you’re with”) but the magnet is drawing him away. The song is slow and painfully patient. After the singer ceases to sing, there is a long and winding road of an instrumental coda, spacious and delicate like “Mandolin Wind,” as the Worried Man walks slowly into darkness.

 

Perhaps, in Liverpudlian musical terms, the melancholy of The Boo Radleys is a logical development from A Flock Of Seagulls – the latter’s 1984 album The Story Of A Young Heart is a more-or-less direct forebear of Wake Up!; I will not ruin its potential impact by telling you how it ends. Yet, just at the horizon of exit, there comes distended commentary, and then there comes a nautical bell which clang, clang, CLANGS louder and louder into a locked groove, demanding that you WAKE UP

 

“Sealand”? “Mother…sister…at home…these I’d value so.”

 

He goes to London, and nearly destroys himself doing so. The band will record two more albums, and these are the two albums they would have recorded anyway. They sell 40,000 and 10,000 copies respectively. They are both quite stunningly good. The band ends. Its members go on to do different, and perhaps more emotionally beneficial things. The Worried Man now, I think, lives peacefully in Cardiff. The psychotherapist studied in part at Oxford Brookes University, where Laura worked as a librarian. Their moment may have been fatally misunderstood. But it was a moment, and its reasonably central appearance in this tale helps to preserve that moment for posterity.

 

Oh, and…”Wilder.”

 

And…”High And Dry” (not the same song, and neither was influenced by the other, but they are nevertheless parallel songs)

 

And…Oxford?

 

Wake Up! is a hell of a lot more influential record than you’ve been trained to think.