A Different Story
I am not big on nostalgia. I do not approve of groups reforming and revisiting past glories. I do, however, believe passionately in pop revisionism, and am occasionally prompted to do my bit. Unlike some people I am not against the '80s pre se, but it is an era I feel uncomfortable writing about. This could be because I got too close at the time and got my fingers burnt. It could simply be that I wrote too much at the time.
Believe it or not I have a cassette I was sent in the summer of 1989 by a young man called Richey Edwards. Along the spine he had written: 'Manic Street Preachers - Esurient For Change.' On one side was a demo by his group of a song called 'Soul Contamination' plus a recording of a rehearsal in the singer's living room. On the other side was a collection of his favourite songs: 'Red Sleeping Beauty' and 'Frans Hals' by McCarthy; 'Union City Blue' by Blondie; The Jam's 'Away From The Numbers'; 'Ghost of a Young Man' by the Jasmine Minks; the Wolfhounds' 'Rain Stops Play'; 'Remote Control' by The Clash; Subways Sect's 'Nobody's Scared'; 'At Home He's A Tourist' by the Gang of Four; and 'Josef's Gone' by the June Brides.
Make of that what you will. The poignancy of the inclusion of 'Ghost of a Young Man' is telling, but that's another story. My reason for mentioning this tape is to remind the world how the music of the underground groups from the '80s like the Jasmine Minks and the June Brides really did touch some people's lives and inspire all sorts of creativity. These groups created great pop music, and just happened to feature in their ranks some of the best songwriters of their generation. Unfortunately, this remains a well-kept secret. So, as the song says: 'No one is listening, so let's shout out loud, to prove that we're alive.'
I saw the Jasmine Minks and June Brides so many times that I guess I ended up taking them for granted. I would to see them both again now as they were in 1985. I sometimes wonder if the individuals concerned took too much for granted the special talents they had. I don't think the Jasmine Minks and June Brides were ever great friends. They were perhaps too alike in many ways.
The June Brides, in particular, left behind such a deceptively slim volume of recorded work. Enough, however, to demonstrate (as Richey did) that the songs stand up with those of accepted greats, despite the cheapness of the recordings. That was partly due to budgets and partly because that's the way people felt pop should be. We were all anti-gloss, and pro-raw.
You may not hear a June Brides song for years on end, but some stay with you forever. For singer Phil Wilson had a way with words. His finest moment may be 'This Town'. It haunted me on balmy summer nights getting the last bus home from Woolwich when Nazi skins still roamed the streets. 'Every Conversation' came close because it demonstrated the vision to leap in a new chaotically rhythmic direction, always sounded on the point of collapse, and sounded all the better for it. We called it dance music.
Interestingly, the June Brides and the Jasmine Minks supported the Jesus And Mary Chain at their two most notorious London shows, and the Ambulance Station and North London Poly respectively. The Ambulance Station one in particular seems pivotal to the whole scene. The sense of expectation and optimism in the air was extraordinary. In this age of corporate sponsored pop, the fact that this show took place somewhere like the Ambulance Station seems absurd now. Hidden down Old Kent Road, in true punk style, the Ambulance Station had been liberated and was used for the occasional underground show. I remember later seeing That Petrol Emotion's first London show there on my 21st birthday, but that is another story.
The Ambulance Station had been just that, but it was just a shell. No bar, no real facilities, but on that night a lot of people waiting for a change. Everybody who was anybody was there. Well, the Go-Betweens and Lawrence from Felt at least. The June Brides were there as specially invited guests, and they rose to the occasion magnificently.
So, where had that scene come from? Literally, all over the place. In many ways this was a gathering of diverse souls, with little in common, but a shared experience of growing up listening to very strange music, partly through Peel. For them, all the wonderful and frightening stuff on Rough Trade like The Fall, Subway Sect, Young Marble Giants, Raincoats, Pere Ubu, Stiff Little Fingers, Blue Orchids, Cabaret Voltaire, Feelies, Swell Maps, Delta 5, Go0Betweens, Kleenex, Wire, etc had been the norm. We thought that's the way pop should be. The fierce independent spirit, the sense you could create your own destiny, was deeply rooted.
So the spirit of the time was that anyone could start a group, run a label, put on shows, produce a fanzine. Part of the problem was that almost anyone did, but at least a network of communication was opened up, and most people were there that night. It all ended in tears. Some became stars and some got proper jobs.
I can only speak for myself here. I had been absolutely besotted with Postcard records, the underground label run by Alan Horne in Glasgow. His groups, Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera, The Go-Betweens and Jazzateers changed my life. The arrogant, puritanical way Horne conducted his business seemed the way things should be done.
Josef K and kindred spirits Fire Engines were my favourite groups. They made a hell of a racket but had a glamour and swagger.
It didn't last, and only a few groups seemed able to ignite in the same way: Felt, Hurrah! and the Pale Fountains. The pop underground was grim. One of the few leading any show of resistance was a guy called Alan McGee. He had a fanzine (this was 1983) called Communication Blur which inspired me completely with its enthusiasm, and the fact that he was running his own club nights, had his own group and was setting up his own label seemed truly impressive.
Through him in 1983 I met two guys, Bobby Gillespie and Jim Beattie. We compared haircuts, swapped bootleg tapes of Subway Sect, Fire Engines and the Velvets, and discussed plans. A year later, McGee had got his label together, and his club was becoming a focal point for a few really exciting groups. The June Brides and the Jasmine Minks in particular.
I remember McGee always said it would have been too obvious to sign the June Brides to Creation. That was typically perverse of the man, but I doubt if history would have turned out much different. So, the June Brides signed to Pink, a label set up by Simon Dunn, a sidekick of McGee's. Whether Simon did take the money and run (back to a job on the Underground?) or not, he did not too badly, picking up on the Wolfhounds and McCarthy too.
I wrote about the new groups in my Hungry Beat fanzines, and we should not underestimate how successful we all were! This, however, was the era where Vic Godard was god, and The Fall were kings, so who cared if we were successful or not. We just took the Rods at their word, and did anything we wanted to.
A lot of the new groups were jealous of the June Brides because they had something weird going on like the viola and trumpet. Frank sawing away on the fiddle seemed very cool, like John Cale as we were all overdosing on Popism, The Velvets' Uptight book and Edie biogs. Though in retrospect the June Brides were more like the Raincoats, which is better still.
By the end of the decade everyone was talking about dance music. I used to think the June Brides performed dance music. In 1984/5 the man who became Kenny Wisdom was social secretary at the Thames Poly in Woolwich, and he would often put on local favourites the June Brides, and I remember trying out a few moves out there on the floor, like it was our own Casino soul scene. What strikes me now is the complete absence of any machismo, or what would later become the norm with people barging into one another and going mad. No, here the girls and the boys danced side by side, careful not to tread on one another's suede shoes, or crease their three button hand me downs. Ah, all those V-neck jumpers and razor cut hairstyles like something from a 1960s Polish art movie.
So why has time been so cruel to this period of pop? I was an arrogant, puritanical, argumentative so and so, but unfortunately everyone else was too friendly. This culminated in a cassette compilation by the NME called C-86 which killed off any credibility at all. Five years earlier the NME in conjunction with Rough Trade produced a cassette called C-81 that was a wonderfully diverse selection of adventurous pop from major and independent labels, featuring a galaxy of styles and sources. It still sounds and feels great. C-86, however, is a crassly compiled set of seemingly generic British guitar based music, that makes the dangerous assumption that one set of young white kids with guitars has anything in common with another set of young white kids with guitars.
It could have all been so different. The C-86 set does not really show it, but there was no shortage of great guitar based groups at the time: June Brides, Jasmine Minks, Laugh, Wolfhounds, McCarthy, High Five, Stockholm Monsters, Bodines, Primal Scream, Jesus and Mary Chain, and even Biff Bang Pow! spring to mind. If these were mixed in with some representation of the UK underground reggae, soul, electro, hip-hop, whatever scenes, then C-86 maybe could have been one hell of a compilation. At the very least, someone from the On-U stable should have been there, for they were arguably making the great leaps forward.
As it was, C-86 marked the beginning of the end. Some lost heart, some lost their way. The wring people became stars, and worst of all a whole new language sprang up that had nothing to do with the few great groups I had got close to. As the great soul sage Dave Godin said: 'Context is everything.' My own contention is still that people were too tolerant. We needed more people to work in isolation, and hate everybody else. Not that it got me or the Jasmine Minks very far.
Phil Wilson went on to produce his best ever song as a solo singer. Bob Stanley shrewdly salvaged 'Better Days' as a single for his Caff label. I saw Phil do a few shows in his country guise, and I saw some of his fans go on to become more famous: Saint Etienne, Huggy Bear, and, bizarrely, Del Amitri (you probably would not believe that they once played in front of projections of Josef K!). sadly, no-one covered any of his songs and had huge hits, but I blame Vic Godard for making failure seem so attractive!
This does not really touch on some of the darker aspects of the underground music scene, like a distribution network that effectively practised censorship by not distributing records, where once there had been no such network but you could easily buy obscure small label releases as The Visitors (from Edinburgh) or Marine Girls in your high street friendly local store.
I found out the hard way by putting on my own shows and running a label in the late '80s. I got my fingers burned, and still feel uncomfortable going back to those times. I do not spend my evenings listening to the Jasmine Minks and the June Brides. I would, however, urge anyone unfamiliar with their works to do some investigating and put a period's pop history in a proper perspective. For Richey Edwards was right about one thing: The June Brides and Jasmine Minks do belong alongside The Clash, The Jam, Blondie, Gang of Four and Subway Sect as greats.
© Kevin Pearce 2001
Visit Phil Wilson's terrific new June Brides site for more pictures, info, sounds etc.