Saturday, 29 June 2013
106 First Night - Alternative Radio
Purchased : 23 September 1988
Tracks : First Night / What A Dream / No Indispensable Man / Strangers In Love / Concertina Ballerina / Harmony / Emotional Disaster / Valley Of Evergreen
This was purchased in Liverpool at full price; I'm not sure which shop.
Liverpool was always the most likely place to find this as it's the band's hometown. I first came across them in the autumn of 1986 when they did a session for Simon Mayo and two songs jumped out at me - "No Indispensable Man" and "Valley Of Evergreen" - melancholy tunes with choruses that you could sing after one listen. After that they got a brief mention in Record Mirror in early 1987 when they put out the latter song as a single and I found out they were essentially a pair of brothers from Liverpool and the song was connected to an anti-heroin musical they had written. Then nothing until I came across this in the racks 18 months later.
( To fill in the gaps since this is one of the most obscure albums featured here, Alternative Radio were formed in 1981 by Robert and Alan Fennah and won a national "Battle Of The Bands" competition staged in Liverpool in 1982. This led to a contract with EMI but they were unable to break the band and dropped them in 1985. The band have plodded on ever since sporadically releasing new material and Rob Fennah chalking up a hit as co-writer of Liverpool FC's Anfield Rap with footballer turned surf bum Craig Johnston.)
On the back sleeve there's a note : "Taken from the stage production "First Night" written by Mark Thomas and Rob Fennah" and a little logo of a full syringe. This has always been a bit of a puzzle since none of the songs' lyrics contain any obvious drug references and the credits also reveal they were written at different times between 1984 and 1986. A quick Google doesn't reveal much more other than the fact that Mark Thomas is now the editor of Liverpool's Daily Post .
Alternative Radio's sound could best be described as The La's meet O.M.D. ( who are non-specifically thanked on the sleeve, probably because they invited the band to be their support act in 1984 ) with a generous side order of Al Stewart ( which Mayo picked up on ). Rob Fennah's vocals combine Stewart's crystal clear diction with Lee Mavers' street urchin pleading to generally good effect. The combination of acoustic strumming with melodic synth lines made them distinctive but somehow it wasn't enough to give them a commercial breakthrough. Fennah's own rather tinny production may be part of the answer; some of these songs are crying out for Trevor Horn or Stephen Hague to give them more clout.
The title track is a strident synth-pop ditty about performance nerves which changes gear two minutes in when Alan Fennah starts playing a military tattoo and the synths get denser on a very lengthy instrumental midsection. It's attractive but not quite interesting enough to justify its near seven minute length, relying on a simple five note keyboard hook in lieu of a strong chorus.
"What A Dream" goes to the opposite extreme, a sparse mainly acoustic strum which clocks in at just over two and a half minutes. A rather insipid song about a pleasant dream - or possibly a trip - it's only notable for two things, the rather close resemblance of the hummed lead in to the (very lame ) chorus to The Boxer and the two sudden, and rather jarring, synth breaks which call to mind Tears For Fears's The Prisoner though less extreme.
Then we do get a strong chorus with "No Indispensable Man", a moralistic exhortation against self-importance whose breezy Teenage Fanclub strum is given a backbone by Fennah's steely electric line. Again, I think the Mayo version was better produced with the ineffably sad killer lines comparing a human lifespan to the ripple in a bucket of water not jumping out to quite the same effect here.
"Strangers In Love" betrays a familiarity with Year Of The Cat with its tumbling piano and sax breaks ( or possibly a very realistic synth since there's no credit for a sax player on the sleeve ) but the subject matter could hardly be more different. Fennah's protagonist is mired in domesticity and realising that his partner's escapist fantasies are a reflection of his own shortcomings. The restless burbling bass beneath the synth sheen underlines the point that all is not well. It's an astonishingly mature song and deserves to be much better known.
"Concertina Ballerina" gives synth man David Knowles his chance to shine and it's eagerly grasped. The way the glorious layers of keyboard melody interweave stands comparison with Benny Andersson and the lyric of unrequited love amongst fun fair folk is also reminiscent of Abba. The Al Stewart connection crops up again with a Spanish guitar solo half way through. I don't like the abrupt ending and the endless military drumming gets a bit wearing but those are minor quibbles.
"Harmony" is an uncomfortable hotchpotch , with an intro that threatens to turn into Roads To Moscow, a neurasthenic verse vaguely reminiscent of early Scritti Politti were it not for the awful chocolate box lyrics then a crunching gear change into a Bryan Adams rock chorus for which Fennah simply doesn't have the voice. They had enough material by 1986 to exercise some quality control and this is the one that should have been dropped.
"Emotional Disaster" is a rather hackneyed tale of an actress on the slide presented as a busker's song with massed acoustic guitars mixed loud and minimal input from the rhythm section, as in say Young At Heart . It ends short of the two and a half minute mark ; otherwise it would become tedious.
Alan Fennah again starts up that military tattoo for the final track, an extended version of "Valley Of Evergreen" but here it's obviously appropriate for the subject matter, the sacrifice of soldiers sung from the point of view of one beyond the grave. It's got another lovely melody and is polished up by more great keyboard work from Knowles sustaining one melancholy chord then colouring in with tuneful lines in a way that OMD must have recognised. This version perhaps outstays its welcome slightly - there is after all only one verse and a chorus to the actual song - but that might be nitpicking.
So "First Night" just about met my expectations and confirmed that Alternative Radio were / are indeed a band that got away.