How Pop is That?
remembering the Shop Assistants

I've told you already that Slumber Party sound just like the Shop Assistants. Sounding just like the Shop Assistants is one of the best things that a Pop group could possibly do in 2002, and if you don't know why that is as close to absolute truth as you'll get, then you need to get out of bed, wipe that sleep from your eyes and check out the sunset. Or at least go and listen to some Shop Assistants records.

I love the fact that Slumber Party sound almost exactly like the Shop Assistants. I love this fact partly because I love the way it makes a mockery out of the 'importance' of linear time in the world of Pop, but more for the fact that it means I now have more records that sound this deliciously magnificent. And of course when I say that Slumber Party sound exactly like the Shop Assistants, I mean that they only sound like the Shop Assistants in their slowest phases, which is in fact to say pretty much only two of the Shop Assistants songs I happen to have in my collection, but those two songs, WOW, those two songs: you know, religions have been based on much, much less.

I first heard of the Shop Assistants when they were called Buba and the Shop Assistants and had made their first single, 'Something To Do' in a bothie somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland. At least that's what it said in issue three of the Junpier Beri Beri fanzine. I never heard 'Something To Do', and I still haven't, but I did hear the 'Shopping Parade' single that Subway Records put out in 1985. 'Shopping Parade' was recorded in Edinburgh during two days in April 1985, one of which was the day I was turning nineteen, sat in a pub somewhere probably, although for the life of me I can't remember what I was doing that year. 1985 being such a weird, horrible year, of course.

'Shopping Parade' however was a flash of light that helped strip away the rusted fa­ade of rock, casting peculiar shadows in the deepest recesses that sang the sweetest of siren songs for all those fallen in love with, oh, I don't know, let's just say the decayed, dayglo dark romance of the Ramones, the Velvets, Buzzcocks, Elvis, the Monkees... the Shangri-Las if they grew up in late '70s New York and hung out at CBGB's. It was really that great. Opener 'All Day Long' was delicious, full of typically pounding drums and swirling guitars etching out scratchy melodies, over which Alex sang in the most exquisitely bored angelic sneer, which made Shop Assistants sound like the sexiest group on the planet. 'Switzerland' was kind of throwaway but still swirled around and made an enormously enjoyable noise with great swathes of electricity and, you guessed it, those metronomic drums going clash, bang, thud thud thud. Flipped over, there were two more songs: 'All That Ever Mattered' was, guess what, a slab of pounding drums and yeah yeah yeah, you surely know the score by now: Shop Assistants classically using their own recipe for Pop Perfection and hardly straying from the point. And thank god for that, because 'All That Ever Mattered' was as perfect a snapshot of devotion as you could ever dream of being encapsulated in a three minute Pop song. The EP closing 'It's Up To You' though was the real gem; a spare, sparse gem with circling guitar lines made in heaven, a xylophone tinkling along, and Alex sounding like a ghost down in the crypt, all of it together echoing like Young Marble Giants discovering the third album era Velvet Underground in some Edinburgh basement.

Good as 'Shopping Parade' was though, it was really only a taster for what was to follow, because the next Shop Assistants single was simply one of the greatest Pop singles ever released, and as more than one person has pointed out, was up there alongside the Jesus And Mary Chain's 'Never Understand' as the finest single of 1985.

Of course 1985 was a horrid year. 1985 was the year Pop was strangled by Live Aid; the Stadium Rock event to end all Stadium Rock events, the irony being of course that all it ended up doing was reinforcing tired Rock hierarchies and killing all hope for Pop for a good few years, or at least until the Acid revolution really gathered momentum and the power of hedonistic, homemade Pop once again stormed the battlements of the Real charts.

And of course 1985 was a great year because there were some great records coming out still, still people willing to wear hearts on sleeves and make records that cut to the quick and to the core of being a teenager in love with Pop, and more essentially, the possibilities of life. Of course I was only just a teenager still, but what the hell... I know that the release of 'Safety Net' and 'Never Understand' helped make my world whole after a whole nineteen years of wondering what was missing. I mean, not just those two records, but some days, hell, it felt like it. I would sit and play those two singles back to back, over and over, sat in my bedroom gazing at the floor and knocking back home-made wine, headphones crammed tight on my ears, playing so loud it all distorted to hell, but what the hell, what a magnificent noise, what a magnificent dream.

Or walking home across the golf-course from the station, wind and rain in my face, and those records on my Walkman, blaring so that the wind was only audible as another layer of noise, and the melodies, oh, the tunes bleeding through. You know that's what I always adored so much about those two groups: the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Shop Assistants: they had THE most adorable tunes going on in their songs. Not just vocal wise, but hidden away in the mix there, buried deep, guitar lines going swirling like Catherine wheels spinning in the firmament, and the BLEEDING effect, the way those melodies seeped through the sky, like some weird holy experience.

So yeah, speaking of religious experiences, there was 'Safety Net'. What a killer Pop single. It starts with more of those trademark drum beats and a rumbling bass that wouldn't sound out of place on a Dillinja track, before quickly lifting off for the stratosphere on the back of one of thee finest dumb guitar riffs ever heard, and Alex singing about the desperate nature of life and love, cajoling us all for not being close enough to the edge, or flailing in desperate jealousy of those able to lead safer existences. It really rips along, tearing, hammering, a desperate and monumentally exuberant song, burrowing into your psyche and leaving the planet all at once. And then it all winds up on the hop skip and leapfrog of a blindingly simple guitar that goes spiralling around your spine, dragging its finger nails across your lips, teasingly just so, and then drops... just drops, stops, walks away, leaving you gasping. No fade out. No way a fade out! This song just stops, turns its back on you and flicks a glance over its shoulder, daring you to let it leave. And of course you can't. You just lift that needle right back the start, and off you go again, on that rollercoaster ride of a lifetime in the arms of the lover you don't dare to look in the eye.

Flipped over there was 'Almost Made It', which was more formula speed Shop Assistants with more of those thick, sweet guitar melodies in layers shunting each other around, duelling with, I dunno, were those tambourines? Pretty heavenly. But anyway... and then there was 'Somewhere In China'.

'Somewhere In China' was the big sister to 'It's Up To You' and was a cracked open ice-shelf that burnt your heart to a cinder if you got too near. It simply pulsed, opened up naturally into a simple flower, like one of those O'Keefe paintings. It just dripped patterns of green and violet from the sky, went all the way to the core of loss and memory, of growing old and up and away, all the way away and up, soaring in a glider over the estuary, kissing the clouds, eyes brimming over with precious diamond tears. It still makes me shiver and sweat today.

Some said that The Shop Assistants were even better live, although I wouldn't know about that. I missed them playing in a shitty little hotel in Ayr in the autumn of 1985 because oddly enough I was in Paris that week. My friend Alan caught them though and raved about them for weeks afterwards, especially Ann, one of the dual, duelling drummers.

I didn't really care about missing them when it came down to it though and, like so many other bands I could have seen if only I'd had the guts to leave my bedroom, I still don't regret not seeing them play. Because, and here's the thing; Pop is made for that isolation of the bedroom. For me, that's all it's about. Really. Those records, those songs, those feelings and those emotions. It's not about bands at all really. It's just about sounds, just about records, just about... the kisses dreamt and the missed embraces. It's just about the just about.

Well anyway, 1985 went into '86 and then Shop Assistants were on the telly. The BBC in Scotland had this weird show whose name I forget where they showcased Scottish bands. Mostly it was shit, but occasionally they got it right, and one of the times they did they had Shop Assistants on. I remember hearing about the recording ahead of time through someone who was on the audience list, being something of a face in Scottish media circles at that time, and I was gutted that she was going to be there and I wasn't. I'm probably making this all up, but I seem to remember that there was going to be Shop Assistants, Edwyn Collins and Win all on together, as well as someone deeply crap like Hue and Cry. Naturally I was excited about the first three, and naturally she was excited about the last, but such is life.

When she came back from the recording she was raving about Hue and Cry and said that Shop Assistants were crap because they had to keep stopping and starting again. I smiled and thought that sounded terrific. I don't know if they ever did get the song done, and actually I don't even remember seeing them make the telly in the end at all, although if pressed my memory seems to dredge up the image of them standing around looking exquisitely bored and doing a glorious 'Somewhere In China'. But that might have been in a dream.

Yeah, for sure, for the space of about a year or two, Shop Assistants really were the kind of band you'd dream about.

And then, as is the way of Pop, suddenly they weren't. Their third, or fourth if you counted the 'Something To Do' single, was 'I Don't Wanna Be Friends With You' and it sounded pretty generic and a bit tired already. Not that it didn't storm along with the pounding drums, and of course those guitars still buzzed, but the sparkle of the previous records seemed to be lost, and it all sounded a bit too one dimensional. Maybe it was the loss of one of the drummers. Whatever. It was still a great single, but just not as great as it should, or maybe could have been. And it was released on the major label off-shoot Blue Guitar. Blue Guitar was the Chrysalis label's attempt at hitting the 'indie' market, and it was doomed to failure mostly because Chrysalis was always a crap label with no idea. So whilst Blue Guitar released some great singles by people like Shop Assistants and Raymonde, they never really had a chance of charting in the 'real' charts, and since they weren't really 'independent' records they weren't eligible for the 'Indie' charts either, and so of course, 'out of sight and out of mind' and all that... all the records pretty much sank without trace. And so did the bands.

Or maybe it was just me. Maybe I just didn't care too much anymore. And of course it might be my memory warping again, but I seem to remember buying 'I Don't Wanna Be Friends With You' and the Primitives 'Really Stupid' at more or less the same time, and preferring the Primitives, which was a shame because really the Primitives were nowhere near as special as the Shop Assistants, but that's the way it goes: you pick up on the New, and you tend to forget the old, even if it's better. Such is life. And anyway, in fact if we're honest the Primitives made some terrific Pop singles themselves, and only really blew it when they stuck out an album which carried the stench of a sanitised, diluted 'executive produced' version of their earlier selves. I really didn't care when the Primitives released their debut album.

I didn't care when a Shop Assistants album came out, either. In fact I studiously avoided it, which was maybe me being shirty, but whatever: like the Primitives after them, Shop Assistants were a great Pop singles band and didn't need albums. They should just have stuck out a whole series of singles over a year or something, and then split up.

As it was, they split up pretty soon after the album anyway, with Alex going onto front the Motorcycle Boy with Pete Whiplash, who had been in Meat Whiplash and who recorded one of my favourite songs ever in 'Losing Your Grip'. There were rumours around for a while that Meat Whiplash was in fact the Jesus and Mary Chain in disguise, but it wasn't so. Incidentally, Meat Whiplash of course took their name from the fabulous Fire Engines song, and isn't it a crime that the Fire Engines records aren't available on CD? Anyway, The Motorcycle Boy released 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' with the simply gorgeous flip side of 'Room At The Top', but despite some press support they also failed to connect with anyone much at all, and after a support slot to the Mary Chain on tour on which they singularly failed to sparkle, it was pretty much all over.

There was a reformed Shop Assistants single a while later, but I never listened to it and have no idea if it was any good or not. My suspicion is that it wasn't, but I'm willing to be proved wrong.

So. Shop Assistants: a band who will forever hold a solid and fervent grip on a significant part of my heart, on the basis of two singles. How utterly Pop is that?

© Alistair Fitchett 2002