Whatever | July 2007

Whatever | Noughties indie
When did the indie bands get so damn greedy?

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It was a standing joke among readers of what used to be called the music press in the mid-80s that Prefab Sprout would reissue the single When Love Breaks Down every six months. They did so in the hope that the Great British Public would finally recognise it for the modern pop classic it so patently was and put it in the bloody charts.

The fast track to overground glory didn’t exist for a critically acclaimed fringe property like Prefab Sprout in those days, when “chart music” had a very specific sound: thunderous, sequenced drums, elephantine keyboards, Pino Palladino. With very few exceptions – Smiths, Depeche Mode, New Order – critical darlings had to be grateful to splash around in the small pond that was the Independent Chart and hope there was no Acid House that week.

Kitchenware, a record label of character and wit, actually only put When Love Breaks Down out three times: first in October 84, when it failed to worry even the Top 75; again in March ’85, politely remixed this time, but still no Woolworths action in a climate of Belouis Some and Go West; and finally, November ’85, when it clawed its way up to number 25 and got them onto Top Of The Pops in time for Christmas. It was all very proprietorial in those days, “us” and “them”, and for one of “ours” to be seen chasing Gallup was frankly unbecoming. Prefab Sprout had banked sufficient goodwill for this willful act of gamesmanship to be filed as a moral victory.

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How very different the playing field looks today. As I write, Jamie T, gifted Wimbledon street-poet and darling of the NME, is in the charts with the tremendous Sheila. But wait a minute, wasn’t Sheila in the charts last summer? Yes it was. It reached a healthy number 22 in July 2006. So why release it again? Vanity? Creative bankruptcy? For a laugh? Or might it be that Jamie T and his record company Virgin are greedy, greedy bastards who regard the kids as contemptible idiots? (Oh, sorry, it’s got a new live b-side.)

Nobody in the industry will bat an eyelid that a number 22 hit is being lovelessly reissued less than a year later just in case it can get a bit higher this time. Over the last five years, such craven acts of ideological surrender have become standard practice, with labels treating the Top 40 as a fairground Test Your Strength machine, returning time and again with a slightly bigger hammer.

Newcastle new wavers Maximo Park enjoyed their first hit Apply Some Pressure in March 2005: it reached number 20. Eight months and two further hits later, they re-released it. Same song. Same mix. Live b-side, no doubt. This time, it reached number 17. That’s three places higher. In a single chart that only requires sales of about five thousand to reach such lofty heights. Kasabian reached number 19 with Club Foot in May 2004; a year later, the reissued Club Foot reached … 21. That, ladies and gentlemen of marketing, is three places lower. Why bother?

Am I being horribly old-fashioned and prudish in expecting younger, more idealistic bands in the first flush of success to act with a little more dignity?

WhateverIndieMunich2It was Harry Hill who, in the mid-90s, said, “I like the indie bands. Pulp, Blur and Oasis, they’re the main three, aren’t they?” A decade later and everybody’s an indie band, a bottleneck that leads to desperate measures, and the “firework bands” phenomenon, whereby we see a glut of credible bands who enjoy disproportionate success with their debut album – Hard-Fi, Editors, the Kooks – but may struggle to keep the blue touchpaper lit as younger indie fans, who’ve turned out to be just as fickle as pop fans, wander off. Arctic Monkeys may endure, but then, they have never re-released a single song, ever.

The indie sector first bent over in the early 90s, when great white hopes were signed to majors for sums indexed largely on NME and Melody Maker coverage and then dramatically failed to recoup. Fontana, having paid £400,000 for the House Of Love, managed to secure a Top 20 placing for a reissued Shine On only by putting it out on seven separate formats. Follow-up The Beatles And The Stones came in ten formats. It reached 36. The kids, whom the band’s previous label Creation claimed to be “doing it” for, were not impressed. These days, the kids don’t give a fig for honour or principle.

Hence, aforementioned Birmingham gloom-rockers Editors, whose discography is so engorged with reissues it actually reads like a haiku: Bullets, Munich, Blood, Bullets, Munich, All Sparks, Blood. The reissue of Blood, I hardly need mention, peaked 20 big chart places lower than the original.

Mind you, Editors are signed to Kitchenware.

Published in Word magazine, July 2007

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Velocity rapture

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It may seem a little prosaic, but do you mind if I just list some band names? Jasmine Minks. The June Brides. Mighty Mighty. Big Flame. Grab Grab The Haddock. The Wolfhounds. The Dentists. The Servants. The Seers. The Brilliant Corners. The Close Lobsters. Is this painting any kind of picture for you? Cherry Red records, the label who were at the epicentre of the birth of indie, are about to release a five-disc box set entitled Scared To Get Happy: A Story of Indie Pop 1980-1989. It’s out on June 24, and there’s a gig in London on June 22 to mark its arrival.

The compilation boasts 134 tracks by 134 artists, beginning in style with Revolutionary Spirit by the recently reactivated Wild Swans on Zoo in 1982, and ending with Catweazle by future hitmakers the Boo Radleys on Action in 1990; in between, you will be transported back to a simpler time, when t-shirts had horizontal stripes, fringes were worn sticking out of the front of Greek fisherman’s caps and guitars were played in a masturbatory style that somehow perfectly crystallised the raw, undersexed emotion that lay beneath. I have been immersed in this grand testimonial for a week, repressing squeals each time a new memory is unleashed: Delilah Sands by the Brilliant Corners, Toy by the Heart Throbs (the first band I ever interviewed as a cub reporter for the NME at a picnic table outside a pub near Rough Trade’s Kings Cross HQ), Almost Prayed by the Weather Prophets, Every Conversation by the June Brides (a defining anthem of my early student years, which took me and my friend Rob to the Venue in New Cross) …

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It’s also great to hear early efforts by bands who went on to greater things in the grown-up chart on major labels: Sick Little Girl by Pop Will Eat Itself, Quite Content by the Soup Dragons (whom I interviewed prior to their chart explosion and became good pals with), Motorcity by Age Of Chance (whose baseball hat I proudly wore to my first days at the NME, only to have it frisbeed across the art room by Steven Wells), Vote For Love by Jamie Wednesday, who would become Carter USM. It’s personal for me, this music.

As much as anything, it reminds me of being largely single and occasionally lovesick, which is apt, living on my own, subsisting off boil-in-the-bag Findus meals and large panfuls of mashed potato and cheese, and taping everything but the reggae off Peel and quirkily naming the cassettes (actually, I did record some dub, and certainly remember loving Adrian Sherwood and On-U Sound at the same time, although there is no place for that here).

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It’s also amazing to hear Grab Grab The Haddock again, the group formed after the Marine Girls by Jane Fox, whom Rob and I adopted as “our” band and followed around a bit. (How bitter the disappointment when they put us on our first ever guest list at the old Marquee, and the doorperson told us that the support band had no guest list.) And the Marine Girls’ Don’t Come Back, all the more poignant for my having sort of befriended Tracey Thorn – certainly remotely – in middle age, as well as Jim Bob, and Miles Hunt (the Wonder Stuff are represented by A Wonderful Day).

There are some “big songs” here, as well as ones that may only mean something to the lucky few: Up The Hill And Down The Slope by The Loft (whom Rob and I saw split up, without knowing it, at Bay 63, supporting The Colour Field, and whose bassist Bill Prince would become my colleague and friend at NME and Q); Velocity Girl by Primal Scream; Just Like Honey by Jesus & Mary Chain; Shine On by the House Of Love. National anthems, all.

I met and interviewed and shared tour bus seats with so many of these indie luminaries as they crossed over to major label hopefuls in the late 80s and early 90s, catching them on the way up, but not necessarily that long before the way down. There are some bands I only remember by name, and not by song – the Corn Dollies, the Waltones, the Raw Herbs – but even the names evoke lazy afternoons and lager in plastic glasses and zip-up jerkins and cheap Top Shop Ray-Ban copies and plastic carrier bags full of fanzines; they speak of Steve Lamacq and Simon Williams and Ian Watson and other be-capped indie enablers.

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It is a commonplace now that the word “indie” has been stripped of all meaning. But this compilation places it back on an ideological pedestal at a time when it meant beating the system and operating by its own back channel.

As I wrote in 2006 for a piece in Word, the first time I remember seeing the word “indie” was in Sounds, the first of the weekly music papers to carry the indie chart, inaugurated in January 1980 in trade mag Record Business, after an idea by Cherry Red boss Ian McNay. It was based on sales from a network of small record emporia, and was open only to records independently produced, marketed and distributed, that is, outside of the infrastructure of the major labels.

The likes of Virgin, Chrysalis and Island, though established as indies in the 60s and 70s, didn’t count in the 80s as they were distributed by The Man, and this was key to our understanding of the word. The same ideological exile had befallen pre-punk stalwarts Chiswick and Stiff, when they took the majors’ shilling. The indie charts did exactly what they said on the tin, and rapidly became not just an indicator of what was selling, but a useful business tool for the alternative sector, especially in terms of foreign licensing.

Incidentally, I can’t have been the only Sounds reader who initially assumed that the chart bluntly headed “Indies” was dedicated to artists from the West Indies, and not Eyeless In Gaza, the Marine Girls and Crass.

My Select co-conspirator David Cavanagh nailed the scene in his Creation Records doorstop My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize (named after a line in the Loft classic), producing a revolving paint dream of indie life in 1980, as Alan Horne, founder of Glasgow’s Postcard, and Edwyn Collins, leader of Orange Juice, put 800 copies of the band’s debut Falling And Laughing into the back of Horne’s dad’s Austin Maxi and head South. They arrive at Rough Trade, still primarily a shop, though also a label. Geoff Travis, hippyish boss of RT, plays the record, digs it and takes 300 on the spot. They manage to get Small Wonder, another capital-based indie shop-turned-label, to take another hundred, and head back to Scotland, “in good cheer.”

It was, in many ways, all downhill from there for the true spirit of indie. But the 134 tunes under Cherry Red’s latest umbrella (and by the way, where would indie be without their pivotal Pillows & Prayers compilation?) are flag-bearers for its finest ideals. Cheap and largely cheerful, albeit wan and apparently permanently single, these songs do it for the kids. If the golden year of 1986 has its own flag – NME’s iconic (yes it is) cassette C86, all of whose contributors are found here, I think – then Scared To Get Happy might have to be casually known as C80-89. It’s that complete.

Let us not remember indie by the snobbish panic that marked the late ’80s when Ecstasy changed the rules. It was certainly too hot to wear leather trousers and tassly suede jackets when you were “on one”. Dance music, while energising the indie scene with heady possibility – and later leading to the comedown-drone of shoegazing – also rent it asunder. Again, as I wrote in Word in a piece brilliantly headlined, by Mark Ellen, Wan Love, in the ensuing cross-pollination, the proliferation of one-off post-Acid House singles in the indie charts offended the purists.

As the Cav notes, one week in July 1992, the highest-placed guitar tune in the indie charts was at number 13. Chart compilers CIN eventually went all Stalinist and excluded these bleeping anomalies, to protect the integrity of Mega City Four, The Family Cat and Midway Still. A similar ideological panic occurred in 1989 when PWL dominated the indie charts with hits by Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue. Until Pete Waterman inked a deal with Warners, he was more indie than the likes of The House Of Love, The Wonder Stuff and The Fall, who had already made themselves ineligible by signing up with majors of their own. They were followed by the next wave, t-shirt bands like Carter USM, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Kingmaker.

With indie a marketable property, the majors started setting up their own “boutique” labels – Hut, Dedicated, Indolent, Laurel – all the credibility of indies, none of the tiresome independence. But let’s not go there. Indie: it was alright while it lasted. Now, where’s my fisherman’s cap?

Find out about, and pre-order, Scared To Get Happy (and explore the rest of Cherry Red’s catalogue) here.