Rabid Curiosity

I've been making lots of tapes these past few first weeks of 2002. Odd old stuff mainly, like The Chills, Sneaky Feelings and Biff Bang Pow! My friend Hye Min, for whom the tapes are made, tells me she has been playing 'She Paints' on endless repeat for NINE hours. She says non-stop. Which is scary. For anyone, but especially for a sixteen year old in 2002. Naturally I think this makes her an angel. A kinda weird scary angel, sure, but the wings are there nonetheless. You just need to know how to squint in the sunlight.

Also on the tapes are the first Del Amitri album which I insist still sounds magnificent, and Friends Again, who were my favourite Scottish post-Postcard group even though I know it was, and for all I know is still, deeply unfashionable to say so. I remember the night I first heard Friends Again, it was 'Honey At The Core' on Radio Clyde, and the DJ whose name I forget - I want to say Billy Sloan but am sure it wasn't - was caught out by the false ending and then said it sounded just like David Bowie in the vocal department. I didn't really know or care about that, I just knew it sounded fantastic and I was a fan from that moment on. Much later, on their swansong single 'South Of Love' there was, on the b-side, the bands' crowning glory. 'Why Don't You Ask Someone' was a song of two halves, the second particularly being special, with those lines about suede jackets being too old to keep out the cold, but what was more special still was the clip of radio broadcast that split the halves. It was of course a recording of the very DJ's words from the night I first heard Friends Again, and hell, that's some special circularity and if it sounds corny who cares because that's one Pop moment that makes me glow inside. Strange coincidences that fuel our lives and without which the world seems strangely empty.


When Friends Again split, singer Chris Thompson went on to form the Bathers, whose debut Unusual Places To Die I also taped and which is a minor classic. It features the line 'she plays guitar like Tom Verlaine' and maybe some have forgotten that Verlaine produced 'Swallows In The Rain' on the sole Friends Again album Trapped and Unwrapped. The other Friends Again singer James Grant went on to form Love and Money who were largely forgettable, although in the split second before lesser lights like Hue and Cry, Wet Wet Wet and Deacon Blue made Glasgow famous for soul-less white boy 'funk' rock, Love and Money and Hipsway made fragments of hard flamboyant Pop. Hipsway's 'The Broken Years' in particular was a hallucinatory dance sensation of sweet guitar slashes, although I dare say if I listened to it again now I'd think differently. But that's the beauty of memory: It plays magnificent tricks.

Magnificent tricks of an altogether more real form have been performed by the Orchids, whose records I have revisited fairly frequently in the past ten years or so. Each time the sounds sound as if they hold something of greater importance, a kind of cipher of historical significance that we missed at the time. The Orchids made records for the Bristol based Sarah records and were sadly stigmatised as being fey indiepop janglers by a music press that seemed at the time to long for something more, ah, Rock-derived. It was a great shame. The Orchids were also largely passed over by those Sarah devotees who instead spent hours moping in bedrooms listening to the Field Mice or flouncing in Pop basement clubs to Heavenly records. The Orchids didn't seem to fit in to the Sarah scene, the irony of course being that the Orchids fitted perfectly with the Sarah scene because Sarah was never about scenes and was always about being bloody minded and standing up and just being... well, just BEING really. The Orchids were great at just being. Mostly just being terrific.

Live, The Orchids could be almost laughably chaotic and shambolic, or else mind-blowingly sublime. I saw them in both lights, but it's the latter that burns most lastingly on the retina of my memory. I remember dancing wildly to a punk-rock 'Caveman' and losing myself in a deliriously delicious 'Something For The Longing'. The Wake supported that night, and of course the Wake and the Orchids shared occasional members, and the Wake too fit perfectly on Sarah because they too were never ones to fit into easy scenes.

All of The Orchids' records were magnificent. They still sound so today, especially on the second and third (and final) albums, Unholy Soul and Striving For The Lazy Perfection, the latter particularly being a stunning confection of beats and dance-inflected keyboards and sequencers that if it had been on a trendy label would have blown the charts apart, just like One Dove did a year before. The One Dove reference of course isn't accidental because keen-eyed sleeve scanners will have noted the thanks to the Orchids on the One Dove album, the connection being Ian Carmichael, who produced and occasionally played on nearly all the Orchids records.

In 1995 however, after that last album, The Orchids, like One Dove, pretty much disappeared. Sarah label co-owner Matt Hayes rightly suggests that was a wonderful thing to do, in so far as we have not had to see them resurface in any embarrassing post-brit-pop bands sullying reputations and memories in the process. Still, it's a minor tragedy that no-one has put together an Orchids collection, or even better reissued all their albums and singles on CD. I maintain that they would be magnificent collections.

The Wake's Sarah recordings meanwhile are newly available once more on the LTM label, if not at the time I write this, almost certainly by the time you read it. LTM seems to be picking up the pace somewhat this year, with the Wake reissues and Josef K collections lined up for the coming months. Also in the pipeline seem to be three Stockholm Monsters CDs, which is very exciting news, Stockholm Monsters being one of my favourite Factory bands, and indeed favourite bands ever. I have many memories of Stockholm Monsters songs, most of which I have aired in the past, but one I haven't is that of being woken at three a.m. one April morning in 1994 by a phone call from the USA from someone who'd read my fanzine of the time and who wanted to rave about Stockholm Monsters. It was kind of surreal.

The person on the other end of the phone was John Darnielle, and when I rubbed my eyes and started to awaken, I was really thrilled, because John's band the Mountain Goats were current favourites at the time, so much so that I'd played a track from their 'Beautiful Rat Sunset' 10" record in a school assembly a few months earlier. I don't remember the context now, although I think I just wanted any excuse to play the Mountain Goats in a UK High School assembly. Which seemed fair enough.

Mountain Goats are another band I've been revisiting the past few weeks, although I've been kicking myself that somehow I kind of lost track with what they were up to for so long. So now I find myself scrabbling around trying to track down several albums, most of which are deleted and hard to find second hand. I keep my fingers crossed. Instead I play a couple of old 7" singles, the Zoopolite Machine album and that wonderful 10". One of the albums that has come my way, however, is The Coroners Gambit, which is as fine a collection of Mountain Goats songs as you'd care to find, the Mountain Goats being essentially a single sound; the sound of great guitar batterings and oddly magical melodies, recorded in what sounds like haste. Recorded in what some used to call lo-fi and what Darnielle himself likes to call bi-fi, which is kind of funny. But pretty basic, any way you want to describe it, which is just fine by me. There are quite a lot of live Mountain Goats recordings available on the web, which is terrific because it sounds like a wonderful experience. Imagine listening to some odd academic singing songs about Roman governors, accompanied just by acoustic guitar and maybe a cheap electric organ and someone hitting cardboard boxes, in an old coffee shop down in the old East Village; kinda like the ghost of Dave Van Ronk if he came from California and didn't have a deep growl, but a higher pitched stabbing whine instead. Which sounds altogether not quite right because the Mountain Goats sound miles better than you can possibly imagine. Think purity of mountain streams married to punk rock sensibility and maybe you're close. Or maybe a million miles off target. Fuck it, I don't know anything except that the Mountain Goats thrill me all over again now and I'm anticipating their new All Hail West Texas album with a rabid curiosity.

Also filling me with rabid curiosity is the question of whether the new White Stripes single 'Fell In Love With A Girl' will actually storm the Charts and enable Jack and Meg to become the bona-fide Pop Sensation everyone seems to have been predicting they'll be for the past year. 'Fell In Love With A Girl' as we all know is a song of uncanny wild abandon carefully reigned in and tempered with a metronomic beat that pauses and leaps with all the ease and precision of a wild cat. Pop hasn't sounded this sharply, perfectly (de)formed since the Buzzcocks' and Ramones' two minute epiphanies, and that's some mighty recommendation.

Alistair Fitchett 2002