(Ratcat) Ain’t That Bad

You may notice a pattern appearing: the last two posts have mentioned the seminal influence of a particular EP – namely Ride’s Play and MBV’s Glider on my musical tastes and palette. Well, here we go again.

I cannot emphasise enough the impact of Ratcat’s Tingles EP on both myself and the Australian musical landscape. Put simply, Ratcat were Australia’s Nirvana. I say that only because there were three guys in Ratcat originally, and Tingles came out a full six months before Smells Like … so have a think about that for a second.

Forget those Ride boys and their fey haircuts, Ratcat were the real deal. In fact I’ll go out on a limb (because I don’t care) and say that Ratcat were better than Nirvana. They’d already released one full length album (This Nightmare) and a pile of indie 7-inch singles but no one was prepared for what happened in 1990 when Tingles came out.

As an EP, Tingles was nothing short of a blueprint for the past, present and future of fuzzpop. “That Ain’t Bad”, with its explosive guitar line and Joey Ramone vocals, was one of the smash hits of the year and I’m not talking Kerry Packer. Doubtless, lead singer Simon Day’s stunning good looks won over a lot of fans but it was the sheer relief of the music – power chords, straight ahead drumming (not quite spartan) – in short, three minutes of perfection, that sealed Ratcat’s fate as homegrown rock stars.

The other five songs on the EP were no less impressive, and constituted a huge quantum leap from their previous material. “(Getting Away) From This World”, “Tingles” (a Jane’s Addiction tune if ever I’ve heard one) and the astonishing “My Bloody Valentine” provide me with a neater segue into shoegazing than even I could have hoped for.

The fact that the subsequent second album, Blind Love (containing both “That Ain’t Bad” and their other Number 1 hit “Don’t Go Now”) went to Number 1 on the national charts is simply a testament to how freaking brilliant Tingles was. Another factor in its success was its availability in (cheap – was it $3.99?) cassette/ cassingle format. One must also mention the appalling cover artwork (derived from the lyrics to the title track: “It’s in the cards, the future’s in the cards”.

Alas, if Simon Day had only foreseen that just a few years later he would be resorting to a duet with John Paul Young, he might have thrown his cards in earlier. Still, ask anyone who was around in 1990 and inevitably the genius of Tingles will be brought up.

It’s funny, I actually met Simon Day in the mid 1990s, when I was working for the Electoral Commission, going from door to door checking if people were enrolled to vote. Not only was he enrolled, he was also probably the politest resident I met, and totally enthusiastic about my role as a defender of democracy. Enough said.

“That band is Ride”

Of all the sad remnants of the early 1990s, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anything sadder than the lead singer of Ride undertaking a tour of Australia, ten years after the band fizzled out, like luke-warm piss floating down an alleyway behind the Punters Club. That’s because the Punters doesn’t exist anymore, and Ride were the shoegazer band par excellence. To make any kind of comeback simply proves how of the moment Ride truly were, and how pathetic they sound now.

Okay, I’m being harsh. They had some good songs. They did to Australian indie rock what Nirvana did to the world – that is, I’m not so sure what they did but at least it was something noisy. They were prettier than MBV and artier than anyone else. Their first EP featured roses on the cover; the second daffodils; the third, penguins. That their fourth (the turgid Today Forever, released in between albums Nowhere and Going Blank Again) featured a white pointer shark suggested that the original shoe-gazing indie boys had learnt the hard way how art doesn’t pay; in fact, is bound to be swallowed whole by both time and money.

“Sharks patrol these waters” said Morphine; and I’m afraid I have to agree.

My brother actually saw Ride before me, at the Hordern Pavilion in 1992, playing on the same bill as what was basically the entirety of Aussie indie pop at the time: Ratcat, the Falling Joys, the Welcome Mat (I think), the Hummingbirds (probably), the Clouds (maybe) and some other Mushroom or Redeye act. According to him, Ride came on (last?) and blew the rest of them apart, which you’d have to expect really, as their trademark was a “wall of noise” – and I’m not talking Phil Spector.

I saw Ride at the Paddington RSL supported by Swirl (perhaps Australia’s all-time greatest shoegazer band). It was a very loud gig indeed. They were very fey, almost corpose-like on stage, all very pretty, la. It’s funny how such prettiness was acceptable amongst straight-acting indie kids, how it’s still okay to adore pasty boys in Doc Martens and obscure-band t-shirts. Whatever.

At the time I think they (Ride) only had about three good songs (this was before Going Blank Again was released – though they did play the monstrous single off that album, “Leave Them All Behind”, making good use of some Aztec-style lights n’ lasers). The funny thing about them was that their first EP (Ride) looked so good but was really just garage crap (the kind of crap the Earthmen managed to record on their first couple of vinyl singles).

The second one (Play) started off with perhaps their greatest song ever – “Like A Daydream” – after which it sank back into turgid territory again; the third – Fall (the one with the penguins on the cover) was perhaps their best – featuring the slightly bombastic “Dreams Burn Down”.

Then came the album Nowhere which in Australia had Fall tacked on the end of it; then came the Today Forever EP (enough said); Going Blank Again; and then two more albums of such ineffable shite I can’t even bring myself to name, catalogue or even describe them (let alone recall what was on the front covers).

The saddest thing of all, apart from Mark Gardener’s impending snooze-fest, is that Creation have just brought out a Ride best-of. Best of freaking what, I’d like to know. Looking for a band that sums up everything that was good and bad about the early 1990s? Look no further. That band is Ride. Thank you, Richard Kingsmill.

My Bloody Valentine: Whatever

I don’t think My Bloody Valentine ever put out a song or album with the word ‘whatever’ in the title but I should be wrong. My Bloody Valentine are the ultimate Whatever Band. If you’re talking nano, they don’t even register. They’re so early 1990s the NME website doesn’t list any of their records for review, because they haven’t done anything since 1992.

Loveless was a blow-away of an album but if I have to put in an early call, I’d have to say the two EPs in between Isn’t Anything and Loveless (namely, the Tremolo and Glider EPs) sum the band up perfectly.

Some recent media attention paid to Kevin Shields (who since the band broke up has done Whatever, although he did guest a few times for Primal Scream. Or was that remixes?), mostly for his work on Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation soundtrack, may well re-ignite interest in the band, with the NME suggesting the band are back in the studio again. Coppola herself in a recent interview name-checked only Loveless, suggesting that she might well be a late fan.

Having listened to their early stuff (which featured a different vocalist altogether- I’m talking pre-“Feed Me With Your Kiss” here), maybe that’s a good thing. I never warmed to Isn’t Anything, I guess because at the time my girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend liked it. A friend of mine bought the Tremolo EP on vinyl. Speaking of holy shit! “Honey Power” is just the ultimate in your face!

You may find this hard to believe but I only listened to the Andy Weatherall remix of “Soon” (My Bloody Valentine’s seven-minute dance song) for the first time last week. I’d bought the Glider EP t-shirt (the tongue-kissing transfer) and always liked “Off Your Face”, and “Glider” itself – a sort of cross between what a tennis racquet-stringing factory must sound like and the noise of Ireland itself, but for some reason the Weatherall remix had always passed me by.

I just have so much to say about My Bloody Valentine I have to stop here for the moment. But how can I stop? You may think I’m coming out of left field with this one but having recently listened to Flying Nun’s excellent Straitjacket Fits compilation album, I just can’t. Straitjacket Fits supported My Bloody Valentine on their tour of Australia in – help me somebody – was it 1993? and, in the words of one reviewer, “wiped the floor” with the grandparents of shoegazing.

Straitjacket Fits’ lead singer Shayne Carter was a strange beast lyrically, but at least he had something to say. The night I saw these two bands play, at the Sydney Uni refectory building, Kevin Shields did not say a word the entire set, apart from the words he sort of hummed into the microphone during songs, words you could not in fact hear anyway. At the end he approached the microphone, thought better of it then left, just like Robert Smith when the Cure played the Entertainment Centre a few years later.

Straitjacket Fits were a spooky band, alarmingly intense. They had the kind of drumming my brother would describe as “spartan, militaristic”. At the same time, they encapsulated the spirit of a NZ buzz pop that managed to sound like Elvis Costello and MBV at the same time, right from their first release.

The highlight of their sporadic career was surely second album Melt, featuring classic songs like “Missing Presumed Drowned”, “Down In Splendour” and “Bad Note For a Heart”. Their bass player really freaked me out that night at the Refectory. I was right up the front (you know, because they were the support they had less of a crush). Man, they went off. That bass player drilled a stare straight at me for the entire set. I couldn’t move.

Shayne Carter didn’t exactly jump, like a young Tim Rogers – he prowled. Quite menacing really. But shoegazer nonetheless. Or, should I say, “Nu-gazer”.

I felt kind of sorry for My Bloody Valentine, in the end, when Loveless came out with “Soon” tacked on to the end of it, like the Stone Roses’ eponymous debut repackaged to include “Fools Gold”, never available on the original LP. I guess that’s why the EPs still do it for me, while the albums don’t, really.

What Is An EP?

Well obviously EP stands for “extended play”, thus distinguishing it from an LP (“long play”) record or “album”. An EP is longer than a 7″ single and usually features between 4 and 6 songs. Some define an EP in terms of overall length in time – if it’s shorter than 10 minutes, it’s a single; between 10 and 35 minutes it’s an EP. While the notion of an EP has become less important in the CD era, you still see a whole lot of bands putting out “mini-albums” that are basically EPs. For me, the high point of the EP era was probably the late eighties, early-nineties, when you could still purchase vinyl relatively easily. While for many bands the EP functioned as a kind of filler between album projects, in a postmodern sense these EPs have now taken on a language all their own. To put it another way: they have been “reterritorialised”, and have taken an altogether different line of flight from the norm. As I’ve been trying to expound in these posts, for quite a number of bands in the early 1990s, EPs were what signposted different phases of their careers. Early EPs, due to the fact that so few copies would be pressed each time, quickly became more valuable than the music perhaps warranted. An entire generation of indie bands revolutionised the EP, notably USA-slackers Pavement and Sebadoh and UK indie darlings Ride and Swervedriver. In recent times the EP has given way in popularity to the “Tour EP”, released whenever a band finds itself on foreign shores. Such discs often feature alternate takes of “hits”, live renditions and other b-side type trax. It’s interesting to think of single releases that actually function as EPs too. Using the definition above, and bearing in mind how much more one can fit on a compact disc these days than was possible with, say 12″ singles and remixes, most single releases would qualify as EPs today, being usually over 10 minutes in total tarck length. What’s hilarious is when a band releases a “single” on CD along with a “b-side” and even go so far as to dress the CD cover up as if it were vinyl. I know The Strokes did that with their early releases (“The Modern Age” and “Hard To Explain” were strictly singles). The fact that they have yet to release a real EP suggests that The Strokes are a band going nowhere. Or else, it’s me that’s out of touch. You decide.

The power of muzac

For the first time in my life, i’m actually enjoying muzac. It hit me as soon as we got to Ho Chi Minh City – in our room, piped saxophone renditions of some of the greatest songs of all time (you fill in the blanks). The further we have got into this crazy trip, the better it gets. In the beachside cafes at Nha Trang, it simply oozes from the speakers. The sensation is indescribable – a kind of eye of the storm calm. It seems everyone here takes muzac for granted, indeed, expects muzac to be pumped from every available device. I find it’s enabling me to think rationally, in a way I never expected. Even the touts on the beach are getting into it – one guy who’s been selling his art approaches tourists by saying “hello – is it me you’re looking for?” a sure fire way to win over the hearts of jaded backpackers. He tried it on me but I sent him packing. But there’s more. When we got on the train at HCMC station, and clambered up to our top level sleeping berths, what else confronted us but the soaring melody of the theme from The Godfather. Some might find it off-putting (horse’s heads and all) but for me, well, it made me feel safe, at home, satisfied. How can you complain, on a glorious morning, when the waiter cranks up “What a Wonderful World”? It *is* a wonderful world.

Update: listening to an Enigma-style remix of “Wherever you go, whatever you do i will be right here waiting for you …” Geez I’m getting a little bit sick of the muzac now … but I heard some Midnight Oil the other day … magnificent …