Thursday, December 21, 2006

Polka Dot Pop

The world has gone polka dot crazy, has it not? People blame the Pipettes, but in the spirit of everything from the early 80s being recycled in the world of music these past few years, this polka dot madness is obviously a revival of those ‘two witches from Scotland’, Strawberry Switchblade.

A comprehensive website dedicated to the polka dot pop of Strawberry Switchblade has heaps of interviews with informative snippets:

ROSE: I was sitting on a bus with James Kirk from Orange Juice. He was coming out to my house and he'd done this fanzine called Strawberry Switchblade. He said he wasn't going to continue doing the fanzine, I said that's a fantastic name, it can't just die, and he said 'have it'. I went 'really?' and he said yes, have it. So I went, that's it, and basically I had the name Strawberry Switchblade so I had to form a band cos it was such a good name!

Namedropping galore for fans of the Sound of Young Scotland:

JILL: I was at art school when we started to do it, so I was a bit older. I had a flat round the corner from Alan Horne, the guy who ran Postcard Records in Glasgow. They were just a real strange bunch of people who shared a flat. They were just great. They shared a flat, a very neat flat with a Polish girl called Krysia Klasheski who was an artist, and this guy called Brian Superstar who ended up being in The Pastels. It was such a weird, strange, great place to go. And then Edwyn who was the singer in Orange Juice lived round the corner, and David McClymont who was the bass player lived up the road. The drummer in that group worked at the dole office. We all tried very hard not to work so we could rehearse - THEY all did, I was at art school - but nobody wanted a job in the holidays when they were at college, so him and Edwyn I think, both of them, got grabbed and made to work in the dole office. We'd go down to sign on and they'd be behind the counter going 'you bastards!', a really resentful look on their faces.

And some completely bonkers interview answers:

What's The Weirdest Idea You've Ever Had? Rose: Judging by people's reactions, it's when I go on about how my organs wobble. I sway from side to side all the time and that's because I can feel my organs wobbling so I sway to keep up with them. (What on earth is going on here? - Ed)

There are also stacks of downloads, including BBC sessions aplenty, first single Trees And Flowers (it’s got Roddy Frame on it! And Woody and Mark from Madness! And Kate St John! And it’s completely ace!), The Pastels’ I Wonder Why (the girls did backing vocals on it, completist fans!) and a version of Since Yesterday by Minipops (I dunno, it might be funny after a couple of eggnogs this Chrimbo).

Other things we should know: Jill married Frog from the Farmers Boys and Rose married Robert Lee from The Band Of Holy Joy. Rose teamed up with Dave Balfe and Einar from The Sugarcubes to re-record solo track Crystal Nights under the band name Ornamental, which was obviously one of the greatest singles of 1988, but now I’m not so sure because Jill says Rose is a Nazi sympathizer and it’s about Kristallnacht. Ooh, controversial. Jill and Rose aren’t very good pals anymore.

It’s a great site, really well put together, jam packed with a huge array of downloads and interviews. Well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time (unless you’re a fan of Entombed or Cannibal Corpse or Dying Fetus, in which case I’ve got no idea what you’re doing here, but thanks for dropping by).

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Grant McLennan - In Memoriam

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee"

It's inevitable that with each passing year, legends of rock'n'roll will die. This year we lost the quicksilver genius, Arthur Lee, and the madcap recluse, Syd Barrett, the most famous rock stars for whom the bell tolled.

What such inevitability can't prepare us for is the swift, cruel and untimely tolling of the bell for someone whose music came out when we were growing up, that period which still feels preciously close because of its weight of influence on our contemporary thoughts and feelings.

Grant McLennan, whose unparalleled creativity with The Go-Betweens from 1978-90, and then 1998-2006, soundtracked those years. It's still with a numbing disbelief that I think of Grant McLennan as dead. This song, Easy Come Easy Go, is taken from The Go-Betweens' final gig in their first incarnation, at Selina's, Coogee Bay Hotel, Sydney, Australia, on December 1, 1989. I post it here in memoriam to one of the all-time greats:

Easy Come Easy Go - The Go-Betweens

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Medium Cool

One of my very favourite labels from any decade ever, Medium Cool, has a website in the making. It’s worth taking a look and keeping an eye on, too, as the shop suggests there’ll be old MC releases for sale, which are all worth grabbing.

One thing that set MC ahead of the pack was its fine attention to packaging. The sleeves were great and you knew just by holding a Medium Cool release that you had something special in your hands.

Andy Wake, who ran the label from1986-89, took special care in his customers. Every so often packages would arrive – unbidden but always loved – including badges of his bands (yes, I do still have them all) and updates of the label’s next steps to certain world domination. Best of all was the A2 poster advertising the peerless Autumn 87 schedule (She Looks Right Through Me by The Waltones, Don’t Bury Me Yet by The Raw Herbs and Be Small Again by The Corn Dollies, I think; maybe there was something else), although that sadly got destroyed in a house fire 16 years ago. (Fortunately, I and my records escaped 6 months earlier from the arsonist, but there were a few hostages to fortune…)

I remember one fanzine in the late 80s urging readers to write to Andy asking him why he’d put out She Looks Right Through Me by The Waltones on 12”, saying he’d got a 6-page letter in reply. The 12” singles are the antichrist/7” singles are manna from heaven argument that raged in fanzines in the 80s (and I’ll show my colours here by declaring that I still hold the 7” as aesthetically not to mention economically far more dear to my heart than any other format) might just have pissed off Mr Wake a little.

Knowing as I do now, that all small-scale indie labels are run on a shoestring and breaking even on a single release is a great result, releasing 7”s might not seem so attractive. There are test pressings of She Looks Right Through Me on 7” – but it could also just be that The Waltones thought it sounded better on 12”.

In the days before we had compact disc players (ok, I know all you Dire Straits fans and yuppies had them back then) some indiepop bands really did want their records out on 12”. I recall talking to The Orchids about this in 1990 and they were dismissive about the whole format issue; they just wanted their songs to sound as best they could when released, and to their minds it was on 12” not 7”. And which of us is to argue that the Penetration EP, all five songs of it, doesn’t sound fantastic?

It’s hard to pick a favourite from the Medium Cool discography. I’ll probably go for the crashing, glorious jangle of The Popguns’ Landslide (they never came close to matching that stroke of wonder, for shame) and The Raw Herbs’ Don’t Bury Me Yet; flip this one over and you’ve got I’m Falling Down, an unfathomably unheralded slice of melody and melancholy fanned by a country breeze from the Appalachians.

Forever Steven by The Corn Dollies, originally released on the Farm label in 87, then picked up by Medium Cool when they were home for the band for the rest of the 80s, is a perennial favourite, too. When MC reissued Forever Steven in 1988, the short-lived Underground magazine ran a competition to win copies and t-shirts.

After discovering – and you can imagine my surprise – that I failed to win (had I more influence there would’ve been a steward’s enquiry) I wrote to The Corn Dollies in a mixture of rage and disbelief, enclosing a cheque for £5, entrusting that this bribery – or exchange of cash for goods – would ensure me a t-shirt. They sent me one and returned the cheque. This (very poor) schoolboy was delighted.

I never wrote to thank them. If anyone of them happens across this, I hope that this belated thanks will suffice. I wore it to The Go-Betweens gig at the Barbican in June 2004 (you know, the one with the string quartet that was released on double CD). I was fortunate enough to be at the aftershow. Pointing to my t-shirt, I asked Robert Forster, who produced the single, if it rang any bells. “Many!” he exclaimed, eyes wide and eyebrows aloft. “Fond ones.”

Medium Cool didn’t last, thanks to Red Rhino’s collapse. If it had…well, you can hear how things were developing on the mighty Edge Of The Road compilation album (always available from ebay for about £3.50; one day these Medium Cool releases will be changing hands for serious money, so get them while you can).

One last question: The Waltones - why did they get overlooked in the Madchester phenomenon? Not wacky enough, perhaps (that is, just too darned good)- have a compilation out in January on Cherry Red. Find out more about them on myspace here.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


A decade rummaging around in Stereolab’s slipstream, releasing the odd single on the odd label, mostly numerical (Fugu 1 etc – like Led Zeppelin, only better; or like Chicago, only not as good); a debut album five years ago on For Us was a disappointment, failing in its mission to be an ‘idiosyncratic baroque sequel to "Sgt Pepper" meeting "Smile" and meant to be made in perfect 60's facsimile.’

This year, though, one-man band Mehdi Zannad raised the stakes. He wrote the songs Paul McCartney forgot to in 1967 (c’mon, just imagine Sgt Pepper without 64 or Rita Maid and think what could’ve been), recreated the urgent, irresistible power pop of the Raspberries and touched on the gauche melancholia of Neil Young on After The Goldrush to stride the world of popular music like a colossus of Smile harmonies and baroque, electronic grandeur, establishing Fugu as quite possibly the greatest act working in popular music today.

Last Thursday, Fugu’s gig at the Luminaire confirmed them in my mind as the most spectacular band currently operating. Mehdi has assembled a band who combine breathless magic with a surplus of showbusiness for your entertainment pound.

The guitarist looks like Robert Vickers in 1986, a 15-year-old mod in the world’s best band, with hair so healthy he might just have stepped out of a shampoo commercial. It’s not often I’d watch extended guitar wig outs happily, but they were played with such gleeful abandon, hair-tossing exuberance and compulsive majesty I very nearly walked into my newsagents the next morning and bought a subscription to Guitar World. The drummer – and I don’t usually notice drummers – was magnificent (I could’ve watched him alone for hours); and the bassist redressed the balance as the surly one.

When they left, I left, too. Monade were headlining and while I’ve nothing against them, no-one could follow that (just like seeing Pulp supporting St Etienne 13 years ago, you could only feel sorry for St Etienne and then wonder why they didn’t just surrender and say ‘we lost tonight’). I left on a high. A week later, I can still feel the adrenaline.

There is, predictably, a downside. Current single ‘Morning Sun’ is pretty much a direct copy of Neil Young’s Till The Morning Comes. If you go to don’t think it representative of Fugu’s wonder.