As Groovy As You Can Get
It seems like a lifetime ago already, but just the other week I was in Brighton, walking the shingle in a warming morning sun. I’d been in town to see Brakes and Chris T-T play a storming home-coming show that left me short of breath and full of a re-kindled faith in the power of music to uplift and inspire. And whilst Brakes were brilliantly ebullient, feisty and made me unashamed to whisper to myself that they are the best damn rock’n’roll band in the world (and they ARE, oh you better believe they ARE), it was Chris T-T with his songs of love and hate that really hit me squarely in the chest and left my heart pounding with a blood as red as the songs he was singing from his new album. Now I’ve mentioned already what a fine record 9 Red Songs is, so let me here tell you how imperative it is that you track down his other offerings and acquaint yourself with one of the finest songwriters of our current generation. Now for anyone, like me, expecting more of the same intelligent and witty acoustic folk protestation, the London Is Sinking and The 253 sets might come as something of a surprise, for they are filled with naturally strange twists and turns. There are quirky atmospheric electronics, full blown horny Pop masterpieces and stripped pure moments of tenderness. There are songs about Tony Robinson and about London Bridge falling down; songs about heartbreaks and headaches, beer and sellotape. Haircuts and hedgehogs, The English Earth and Dawson’s Creek. And if occasionally Chris can sound a tad too close to Damon Alburn for comfort, at least the similarity is to the Blur of Modern Life Is Rubbish (to my mind their one glorious, unsurpassed moment), and more often he recalls no less than the great Hank Starr of the sublime Animals That Swim. So perhaps it’s no great surprise that these records are on the same Snowstorm label that resurrected Hank’s group with their wonderful Happiness From A Distant Star set and that then gave us their peerless Faded Glamour retrospective. And like Hank Starr, Chris T-T is a wonderfully perceptive and observant documentarian of life’s little details. His songs are kitchen sink vignettes of suburban culture and of country boy in the city ennui. They are also more often than not very, very funny. Do yourself a favour and check him out.
This week, on the other hand has been considerably cooler. The winds have howled around the eaves of the Geek Lair, and the rain has pummelled the windows. We’ve been forced to switch on the heating in the evenings, and we’ve been hunching and huddling in our sweaters. ‘Winter’, one of us will say, prompting a reply of ‘it’s all in the mind’. To which the other cuts back with ‘I wish…’ We’ve been playing this game for as long as we have known each other, which is a long time. Almost as long in fact as the song we’re referencing is old.

Now I always loved The Loft. I thought their scratchy melodious dynamic was refreshingly and intensely infectious. I used to stick those early Creation singles on the record player and play them endlessly. They made me smile in days and nights of darkness. Not that I really knew about them when they were at their prime, or even still in existence. No, the first I knew about The Loft was hearing the afore-referenced ‘Winter’ on the Wild Summer Wow! collection that I picked up from the old Argyle Street Virgin store. And I bought that because I couldn’t get the Different For Domeheads album, which I read about in a copy of (I think) ZigZag which I bought the day after seeing The Weather Prophets play ‘I Almost Prayed’ on what was I think their first TV appearance on Whistle Test. Looking back now I can pinpoint that as one of the key moments that really turned my life on its head and pointed me in fabulous new directions. So strange as it seems now, I owe Pete Astor a lot.

In the space of a week I had got my hands on the Domeheads set and had found a copy of Alive In The Living Room. I was scratched and startled. So many great sounds, so many inspirational moments. It was truly one of the most cathartic periods in my life, when I felt the scales of childhood and a largely (literally) wasted adolescence fall away from my eyes and my mind became opened to all kinds of strange new possibilities. And those precious few songs by The Loft were crucial.
After twenty years it can often be painful and embarrassing to listen again to the things that once inspired you. Often you wonder just what it was that you thought so special. Not so with The Loft. In fact listening to their Magpie Eyes retrospective just makes them seem even more valuable. These recordings remain every bit as sparkling and seductive, as poetically pugilistic as they ever did. For the Loft were capable of juggling those elemental joys of energy, melody and sparse finesse like so few others before or since. The evidence is of course there in those classic singles, and for sure the whirling dervishes of ‘Up The Hill And Down The Slope’ take some beating. But for me the real delights are in the brittle McCarthy-esque shimmer of the session recordings of ‘On A Tuesday’ and the Felt-ist ‘The Canal And The Big Red Town’, or in the live cuts like ‘Wide Open Arms’ which show just what a fascinatingly scratchy and rhythmic band The Loft could be. And of course that gorgeous cover of Richard Hell’s beautiful ‘Time’ was as perfect a nod of reference as anyone could ask for; evidence that really The Loft were as much a continuation of a lineage leading from the Blank Generation and The Feelies as they were from the Postcard Sound of Young Scotland. For at their best, The Loft had crazy rhythms and were as groovy as you could get.
The June Brides were groovy too, and the proof is there for all hear on the comprehensive double CD Every Conversation set. Now Cherry Red in one way or another really are making some sterling salvage efforts, and this really is as good as it gets. John Carney is right of course when he says that you have to applaud the way those guitars clang, and the way those horns pierce and parp is both gloriously atonal and textural and strangely harmonious and soothing all at once. Listening to these records again some twenty years after the fact, this is what strikes me most: they are so much more quietly complex and strikingly, stridently clamorous than ever I suspected at the time.

John Carney is right too when he says that The June Brides were a great soul group, and that a generation missed a trick when they failed to project their most precious and creative souls into the Pop market place. Somehow an opportunity was missed, and sadly the eventual crossovers between what had been the underground and the mass market became those which were so much more obviously Rock orientated. If only they could have put into practice the tricks of the 60’s LA groups that William Crain has written about, things might have been so different. But as people keep saying, Context Is Everything, and Camden is not in So Cal and the UK of the ‘80s was a place of absolutes and everyone had a side to take; a side of a line to stand. And that context, as much as anything else, is the reason that these June Brides songs are so vibrant and barbed, so joyously celebratory and so viciously damning all at once.

© 2005 Alistair Fitchett