Saturday, 9 July 2011
60 Tales Of The Expected - Red Guitars
Purchased : April 1987
Tracks : Sweetwater Ranch / National Avenue / Be With Me / Suspicion And Fear / Love & Understanding / Storyville / House Of Love / Train's On Time / Marianne / Baby Had A Gun
This was bought from a sale at Woolworths, Ashton-under-Lyne. For the next year or so I would be consciously looking to snap up the LPs from 1986 that my financial woes had prevented me from purchasing at the time.
With the Red Guitars I was consciously looking for the next Smiths ; perhaps I had a premonition that the real thing were not going to be around for much longer. I picked up their single "National Avenue" in the summer of 1986 and loved it to death and I noted that its parent LP got a good review in Record Mirror. I also vaguely recalled their earlier singles "Good Technology" and "Steeltown" from the David Jensen show.
The band originally formed at Hull university and their name reflected their political leanings. Their first LP and half a dozen singles were released on their own Self Drive label and made them big in the indie charts but mainstream success eluded them. Original singer Jerry Kidd left and was replaced by Robert Holmes and shortly after that Virgin came calling ; perhaps they too were looking for the new Smiths. However the move didn't greatly benefit either party and after releasing this LP and a couple of further singles the band split up at the end of 1986. As none of the members enjoyed any subsequent success they are largely forgotten and it's been a while since I last played this.
The opening track "Sweetwater Ranch" immediately illustrates the folly of trying to impose your own preferred identity on a band . The politicised lyric is a million miles from anything Morrissey would have written and the jagged guitar work of Hallam Lewis suggests Echo and The Bunnymen's Will Sargent rather than Johnny Marr. There are umpteen Sweetwater Ranches in the US but the song seems aimed at Reaganite capitalism in broad terms. It's not a very easy listen. Robert Holmes voice is a bit like Mike Scott of the Waterboys but he often sounds like he's trying to compensate for a lack of drama in the music. This is a mid-paced acoustic strum and both his histrionics and Lewis's jarring guitar seem bolted on to a not very good tune.
After that disappointing opening it's a relief that "National Avenue" follows. It was never going to be a big hit in 1986 (it got to 100 I think) it's too diffuse and limpid but still a treasured memory, its evocation of hard times and tough choices resonating with me as I was on the dole when I bought the single. The sound was actually quite dated; the combination of African tinged spindly guitars , fretless bass and moody keyboards calls China Crisis circa 1983 to mind but there's a gem of a song at the heart of it. A man calls back home to see his old girlfriend and ask after old mates but can't stop because there's no work in his hometown anymore. It's more Springsteen than Morrissey but Holmes sings it with feeling "I'm gonna miss this place , I'm gonna miss your face" . One that got away for sure.
"Be With Me" maintains the mournful mood and could be taken as a follow-up with Holmes missing his girl ( named as Jenny ) at 3 am but recognising his own posssesiveness - " I don't want to set you free". The Sade-esque percussion track adds to the dark night of the soul vibe and while Lewis's intermittent squawks threaten to derail it they don't quite succeed. It's probably got the best tune on the LP but didn't do anything as a single.
Unfortunately they can't maintain the quality of the last two tracks. "Suspicion And Fear" starts promisingly with a plucked intro but as soon as Holmes comes in it goes rapidly downhill. Lou Howard plays a sludgy bassline, Lewis goes into Reeves Gabrel mode making sure he's heard no matter what and Holmes seems to be making up the words as he goes along with that old fire-higher rhyme in the first line and then a whole phrase lifted from My Favourite Things. It's the sound of bad, tuneless music.
"Love And Understanding" is a bit better for the introduction of keyboards to add some melodic strength but it's very Waterboys , Holmes trying manfully to achieve that sense of dramatic despair. He's the outsider watching a couple and disguising his envvy with faux-concern for how the woman is being treated . This is expressed through metaphors of Sixties Americana with references to Jackie O and Marilyn but he drops a bollock with the line "I'd fight Joe Dimaggio, I'd fight Cassius Clay". You'd think someone in the band would've known the former wasn't a boxer. It's pretty good but the descent into an incoherent cacophony at the end again raises questions about their songcraft.
It's thin fare indeed on the second side. "Storyville" takes its title from the old red light district of New Orleans but seems to be a tale of mundane US domesticity set to plodding bass, abrasive guitar and tuneless, shouted vocals. "House Of Love" is even worse with a crushingly boring bassline , more migraine-inducing guitar abuse and a sneered vocal about a brothel visit. This is mid-eighties student indie at its worst and Virgin must have started to have doubts about them when it heard this.
"Train' On Time" brings a little relief as Lewis re-introduces his South African influences with relatively melodic hi-life guitar ( including an appproximation of the Needles And Pins riff ) a bendy bassline and bouncy percussion. Six months later Paul Simon would take this music to the top of the album charts. Here it's put to the service of a state of the nation address which mixes some serious observation about the YTS scheme -"I know men dig ditches for absolutely nothing" with puerile insults towards Radio One. It's passable but a tune would help.
"Marianne" is based on a less aggressive version of The Jam's Pretty Green bassline and an approximation of the Cocteau Twins's neurasthenic guitar sound. The lyrics have a romantic theme but the song seems only half-written and boredom quickly arrives.
They do manage a decent closer with the brooding "Baby's Got A Gun" . The song is keyboard-led and Lewis's contributions are thoughtful and effective in building the atmosphere. Holmes's vocal is also in sync with the theme of being in thrall to a dangerous woman and the mantra that forms the chorus is simple but effective.
So it was something of a disappointment. Two good tracks, one of which I already had, two OK ones and six which suggested that this was an LP too soon. By the time I bought it the band had already split and the spin-off projects didn't last into the nineties so this story ends as a blind alley.