UK indie bands from the early 1990s

The older I get, the more apparent it becomes that I’m a child of the early 1990s. Or at least, I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s who left home in the early 1990s. In fact, let’s make it even more clear: I left home in the week British indie shoegazers Ride released their first, eponymous EP. It was January 1990, the beginning of the greatest couple of years in UK indie. Hyperbole much?

At the time, unfortunately, I knew nothing about shoegazing, Ride or UK indie. I was a passionate R.E.M. fan, and had just been (ahem) blown away by Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. I’m not too proud to admit that I was listening to commercial FM radio, too. I’m also happy to admit that, given I was living in Australia at the time, the soundtrack to my summer of 1989/1990 was heavily tinged with execrable shit like Noiseworks. It’s okay, we can all love on from that.

Then again, in my defence, by 1989 I was already into Australian indie. Ratcat, the Hummingbirds – this stuff was the actual soundtrack to my first summer out of high school. Ratcat’s That Ain’t Bad EP was brilliant. The Hummingbirds’ loveBUZZ album, named after the song Nirvana covered on Bleach, was also fantastic: 14 singles in a row, really, all with that R.E.M.-style Rickenbacker jangle that was so hot at the time (and no surprises that it sounded like R.E.M., given the album was produced by Mitch Easter).

Despite my Sydney indie credibility, however, I was in for a shock when I started university and fell in with a bunch of guys who were not only fully aware of British indie but were also apparently lifetime subscribers to New Musical Express. Through them, I discovered that there was a whole world of indie beyond R.E.M. (and let’s face it, by 1990, R.E.M. were slightly removed from indie anyway). The first time I heard the Pixies I almost shat myself. Sonic Youth had a similar effect. But the biggest impact was reserved for the shining lights of UK indie: My Bloody Valentine, the afore-mentioned Ride, the Charlatans, the Wedding Present, and on and on and on.

A little while ago, during one of my many trips down Amnesia Lane, I decided to create a list of all the great UK indie bands from the early 1990s. The problem was, I wasn’t ever an expert at all, and I’d never lived in the UK. Who needs Wikipedia, I reasoned, when I have a whole bunch of friends on Facebook who were all alive at the time, and are all now going through more-or-less the same stages of sentimentality and nostalgia? So, I opened up the comments on a Facebook post, and look at what we came up with together.

Pop lyrics: do they really matter?

Here’s an interesting post by Laurie Duggan on the wall of sound, where he makes the point that the vocal track on My Bloody Valentine’s song ‘Come In Alone’ works because of the wall of sound surrounding it. While I think this is true, a closer inspection of the lyrics to these kinds of songs reveals (as if we didn’t know it already) that when it comes to pop and rock music, it’s not what you say but how you go about saying it that matters.

Continue reading “Pop lyrics: do they really matter?”

(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.

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.