Sunday, 21 October 2012
92 Pillows & Prayers - Various Artists
Purchased : July 1988
Tracks : Portrait ( Five Or Six ) / Eine Symphone Des Graunes ( Monochrome Set ) / All About You ( Thomas Leer ) / Plain Sailing ( Tracey Thorn ) / Some Things Don't Matter ( Ben Watt ) / Love In Your Heart ( Kevin Coyne) / Modi 2 - Extract ( Piero Milesi ) / Compulsion ( Joe Crow ) / Lazy Ways ( Marine Girls ) / My Face Is On Fire (Felt) / No Noise ( Eyeless In Gaza ) / XOYO (The Passage ) / On My Mind (Everything But The Girl) / A Bang And A Wimpey ( Attila The Stockbroker ) / I Unseen ( The Misunderstood ) / Don't Blink ( The Nightingales ) / Stop The Music For A Minute ( Quentin Crisp )
This was also bought from the sale at Save Records in Rochdale. Amusingly (see the top right hand corner of the sleeve ) the "sale price" was 95p.
"Pillows And Prayers" is a sampler LP for the Cherry Red label released in December 1982 at a stipulated price of £0.99p. It's impressive that an independent label which had only two minor hit singles (by The Dead Kennedys who aren't featured here) to its credit could boast a roster of 17 different artists though some are clearly linked by common personnel. It's a reminder that in the early eighties "indie" had a very different meaning to the one it "enjoys" today - if corporate comfort blankets Coldplay are indie who's the mainstream ? My interest in it stemmed from being a regular listener to the David Jensen R1 show at the time it was released ( during my last year at school ) . Jensen was greatly taken with it and gave the three tracks that were released as singles a generous amount of airplay. There was one of those in particular that I would have shelled out £0.99 to acquire.
The selection here is fairly representative of what was being listened to in bedsits in the early eighties and some of it sounds like that's where it was recorded too. Only one act here went on to chart success ( and that of a rather compromised nature ) but it does boast a more eclectic range than say C86 a few years later. Most of these acts were signed by a guy called Mike Alway consciously looking for an alternative to punk rock by then ( in the UK at least ) degraded into the atrocious cul-de-sac of Oi !
Five Or Six who open the LP with "Portrait" were more or less Alway's house band at a club he promoted in Richmond called Snoopy's. They had a frequently changing line up but on this song are a two guitar, bass and drums outfit. Alway is credited as a co-producer with the band and the engineer but the end product hardly sounds like six people worked on it. The jangly guitars are mixed too loud obscuring the rather timid vocal and making the lyrics a bit difficult to make out. I think it's about nostalgia but seeing as there's no real melody to recommend it we'll move on.
The Monochrome Set ( formed by ex-bandmates of Stuart "Adam Ant" Goddard who were almost as numerous as ex-Dexy's around this time ) had already passed their commercial peak by the time of this LP having had a four week sojourn in the lower reaches of the album chart in 1980 with the album "Strange Boutique" when they were on Dindisc. In some respects they were a bit ahead of their time with their Anglo-Indian frontman Bid and smartypants lyrics. "Ein Symphones Des Grauens" was the subtitle of the original Nosferatu film in 1922 and translates as "A Symphony of Horror". The song was actually their second single for Rough Trade in 1979 - I don't know if this is a re-recording or the band owned the rights to it. Bid has subsequently conceded that they weren't writing single material at this stage and this strange amalgam of Cornershop and Bauhaus with quirky rhythms, mannered vocals and Banshees guitar was never going to strike gold even if it didn't seem to be about necrophilia - "My skull gives head so let's wed" .
The album then abruptly shifts from guitar rock to Gothic synth pop with Thomas Leer's "All About You". Leer had been making DIY electronic music heavily influenced by Kraftwerk since 1978 and this song, a single earlier in 1982 , was probably his most commercial effort to date. Although the drum machine dates it a bit the song is a splendid account of obsession possibly illicit - "I'm not supposed to see you, I'm not supposed to care" - set to melodic but sinister synth lines. It's not unlike Soft Cell although Leer's vocal is closer to Bauhaus's Peter Murphy than Marc Almond. It's one of the LP's highlights.
Next we have the two halves of Everything But The Girl in solo mode. Tracey Thorn's "Plain Sailing" ( which Jensen played to death ) is ultra-minimalist , just her inexpertly strummed guitar and double-tracked vocal. There's an intriguing tension between her dolorous voice and the lyric of surprised delight that a blind date has worked out so well but then comes the devastating pay-off line - "Tempting to think now it will all be plain sailing, old enough now to know there's no such thing". It's probably only second to At 17 as the ultimate girl in a bedsit anthem.
Ben Watt's "Some Things Don't Matter " is considerably less appealing. It sounds like an attempt to re-write The Girl From Ipanema with its languid bossa nova rhythm, jazzy sax solo and third person lyric. Watt's vocal is competent but unattractive and there's an excrutiating couplet - "This boy knows how to feel, the blood in his heart runs strong as cochineal" which doesn't even make sense ( I note that the lyrics web-pages all put a question mark in place of the last word ).
Kevin Coyne , already in his late thirties had been around , on the fringes of the festival circuit since the late sixties and had stints on John Peel's Dandelion label and Virgin. He was too idiosyncratic and provocative a talent to break through and so washed up at Cherry Red. "Love In Your Heart" dates from 1978 and is a disappointingly conventional jaunty acoustic ballad that sounds like Donovan.
Very bizarrely you then get an extract from a work called Modi by obscure Italian composer Piero Milesi. It sounds like someone playing a monotonous cello part over a Japan instrumental . It lasts barely a minute and that's something of a relief.
The side ends with the song I most wanted. Joe Crow is the most obscure artist here (i.e. the only one without a wikipedia entry; he was in fact an early guitarist with The Nightingales ) but Jensen gave "Compulsion" plenty of airplay and it's a little lo-fi classic that could slip easily onto an Eels LP. With a primitive drum machine and the tinniest guitar sound I've ever heard, Crow sings ( not unlike a less distinctive Robert Wyatt ) a mournful, slightly wordy lament about the necessity of moving on which breaks into a wonderfully simple keyboard part with an earworm melody. I wasn't the only one listening and it's a song ( the only one here ) that we'll meet again before too long.
Tracey Thorn re-appears at the start of Side Two as part of her first group The Marine Girls . "Lazy Ways" is the title track of their second album released in 1983 after which they disbanded (with a surprising degree of acrimony ) for good. At this point they were a trio with Thorn on vocals and guitar and sisters Alice and Jane Fox on vocals and bass respectively. They were the very essence of the indie DIY ethic, unschooled teens trying their best to keep in time with each other. Jane's bass in particular sounds like she's playing along from a book one note at a time without regard to what the others are doing. Despite this the song has an undeniable charm. It was written by Alice and she takes the lead vocal close up to the mike like a female Colin Blunstone and singing of quiet pastimes - "We sit reading under a tree" - to a simple acoustic jangle. After a minute Thorn begins asserting herself with a counter melody on electric ( in similar fashion to the guitar solo on America's Horse With No Name ) and then underpins the third verse with her subdued harmonies. There's an ineffable English sadness to it which has kept their name alive nearly three decades after they went their separate ways.
Another band who are still fondly remembered though often with exasperation are Felt who plugged away for an entire decade without cracking the charts. "My Face Is On Fire" was one of their first singles and sounds rather like Echo and the Bunnymen with its dense drumming and aggressively spiky acoustic guitar although idiosyncratic frontman Lawrence's voice also has a touch of Lloyd Cole. The lyrics too bear the stamp of McCulloch with their empty grandiosity and you wouldn't judge the band a great lost talent on this evidence.
No one's tried to suggest Eyeless In Gaza belong in that category. They were ( at least at this time ) a synth-pop duo and the keyboard work on "No Noise" is actually pretty good.
Unfortunately singer Martyn Bates takes the faux-croon of Kevin Rowland to the point of derangement and this track is on the point of being unlistenable. Nearly a quarter of a century on I've no idea what the lyrics are ( or even if there are any real words in there ) and a quick google suggests no one else has made the attempt either.
"XOYO" sounds louder than anything else on here thanks to the production talents of The Passage's main man Dick Witts. A serious musicologist, Witts had been a figure on the Manchester music scene since punk and was briefly a minor TV star with a regular slot on the first series of Oxford Road Show. The song is a celebration of genetic engineering and sexual diversity set to a rollicking beat and trumpeting synth fanfares ( prefiguring the awful It Bites ) . There's some melodic invention which prompted some optimistic predictions of a hit but the very frank lyric in the middle eight suggesting anal sex and featuring the word "erection" didn't get past Mike Read. Witts sings passably, not unlike a less excitable Marc Almond but there's a little too much going on , like the Shakespeare quotes in slowed down voices , and a certain alienating smugness ( Witts came across on TV like a Tony Wilson wannabe ) to the whole package.
Everything But The Girl finally appear in their most familiar incarnation with "On My Mind" the B-side to their debut single "Night And Day" but originally written for the Marine Girls. The song is pinned to an echoing guitar figure with no rhythm section. Thorn takes the lead in trademark mournful style with Watt adding, in almost equally miserable tones , a commentary after each line. Though the lyric is actually quite positive about romantic infatuation the song conjures up an impressively desolate rainy afternoon vibe.
So it's another very abrupt gear change when Attila The Stockbroker, the Home Counties answer to John Cooper Clarke, cuts in with "Right ! " before launching into " A Bang And A Wimpey" a curious poem about fear of feral kids in a hamburger bar . It's not exactly Wordsworth - "invade your space like Space Invaders" isn't the most imaginative simile I've come across - and hasn't dated well with references to Peter Sutcliffe and unpalatable Oi band The Exploited.
We're off to another place and time altogether with "I Unseen" from the shortlived US sixties psychedelic band The Misunderstood although paradoxically it's the track that most points to the future for Cherry Red themselves as curators of underground music of the past. When this LP was reissued on CD in the early 80s it was savaged in Q , the reviewer suggesting that this was the only track worth a listen. " I Unseen" is a musical translation of a poem from the point of view of a seven year old killed in the Hiroshima explosion with the cheery hookline "I am dead , yes I am dead". It sounds like The Byrds at their most acid-fried with The Damned's Dave Vanian on lead vocals and isn't bad although the melody's very pedestrian.
The last musical contribution comes from perennial Peel favourites The Nightingales and "Don't Blink" is a good illustration of why they stayed in the late night ghetto. The music is a tinny, anaemic approximation of Gang of Four over which main man Robert Lloyd moans tunelessly but with pefect diction. That's not a plus when you've got lyrics as bad as "No mother's slap dictates to me the taste in tea that I like".
It's awful which makes the sequencing of Quentin Crisp's one minute rant against pop music immediately afterwards a touch of self-deprecatory genius though you wouldn't want to listen to it more than once. The idea of there actually being an album's worth of the old queen mincing away about the youth of today is staggering.
"Pillows And Prayers" was definitely worth a quid of anyone's money and sold well enough to get into the mainstream charts had it not been for rules regarding pricing of albums ( originally brought in to keep out those old Top Of The Pops albums of cheap covers ). It's a great snapshot of one strand of indie music of the eighties and it might be worth just having a runthrough of what happened to these artists afterwards.
The Misunderstood , though championed by John Peel broke up not long after re-locating to England in 1967 and haven't left that much material. Guitarist Glen Ross Campbell ( not that one ) went on to the briefly successful Juicy Lucy. Quentin Crisp had one more encounter with the music business when he agreed to feature in the video for Sting's hagiographical Englishman In New York but redeemed himself shortly before his death in 1999 with some well-aimed and timely criticism of Princess Diana.
Attila The Stockbroker continues to do his left-wing thing but achieved most publicity in the mid-nineties as a prominent cheerleader for the Brighton FC fans in their battle with the owners ( ironically one of their targets was the Eastborne by-election winner David Bellotti who'd done far more to bring down Thatcher than any one of Attila's ilk. He went on to become Brighton's matchday MC during their exile in Gillingham. I attended their last game there as it was against Rochdale and remember thinking that the tannoy man was pushing the envelope a bit with his comments on Gareth Barry and a controversial substitution but I'd no idea until now that it was him.
Everything But The Girl are the only act here to have any mainstream success although if you take out the cover versions it was very modest until the Todd Terry remix of "Missing" which pushed them in a new electronic direction. One successful album "Walking Wounded" in this new vein followed but when its follow-up , 1999's "Temperamental" did less business they put themselves on an indefinite hiatus as a group ( they remain together as a couple ) which continues.
The Marine Girls split up after a backstage argument in 1983. The Fox sisters went on to form Grab Grab The Haddock a spectacularly stupid name even in a decade not short of them. That lasted a couple of years before they had to find day jobs. Tracey Thorn revealed a couple of years ago that she and Alice were in touch and both bemused by the afterlife of the group since Kurt Cobain was revealed to be a fan.
Milesi died last year having never broken into the mainstream as a composer. Five Or Six soon disbanded and one of them is now a top BBC producer. Coyne re-located to Germany in 1985 where he continued recording as well as painting and writing up to his death in 2004. The Passage shut up shop in 1985 and Witts is now a working academic and writer.
Joe Crow left the music business for more than two decades before an unexpected return with a new EP in 2009.
Thomas Leer was snapped up by Arista but they failed to break him and in 1987 he turned up at ZTT where he formed the duo Act with ex-Propaganda singer Claudia Brucken. They had one minor hit with "Snobbery And Decay" the following year but the album stiffed and Leer retired from the music business until 2003. He continues plugging away at the fringes.
Felt switched to Alan McGee's Creation records in 1986 but he couldn't do much more for them and they were back on Cherry Red for their final release in 1989 . Main man Lawrence has continued recording first with Denim and since 1998 Go Kart Mozart but success continues to elude him despite retrospective respect for his first band.
That leaves three bands who are still going. Eyeless In Gaza have never actually broken up. The Monochrome Set split in 1985 after narrowly failing to have that elusive hit single with the song "Jacob's Ladder". They reformed in 1990 and lasted eight years ( still on Cherry Red) but despite the apparently favourable musical climate they failed to follow Pulp and Chumbawamba into the charts and subsisted by touring in Japan. In 1998 they broke up again but re-emerged last year with a self-financed album. The Nightingales orginally packed up in 1986. Robert Lloyd got an unlikely solo deal with Virgin which lasted for one album. He reformed The Nightingales in 2004 and has released a steady stream of albums on a variety of labels though he's now the only remaining member from the Cherry Red days.