It is thirteen years since I first heard The Stars Of Heaven, and looking back over the things I have written about Pop music in the intervening years, I am surprised to see that in that time I have never once written about the group. This is a surprise to me, not least because The Stars of Heaven made records that moved the very foundations of my being, but also in that although I may have said of numerous groups that they have made music I used to dream about, The Stars of Heaven remain the only band that ever actually made it into the realms constructed by my own Mr. Sandman. (Glasgow Central rail station, a gun, the 17:12 to Troon and a brilliant soundtrack… that's all you're getting.)
I was actually never the sort of teenager to be obsessive about records, at least not in the typically traditional teenage years. My own obsessions dealt with bedroom isolation for sure, and whilst I would listen to the sounds of the new wave and post-punk on the evening and night time radio to alleviate the boredom, it was the finer points of the early careers of Andrea De Cesaris and Stefan Johansson, and not those of Joy Division or The Fall that filled my head. This all changed in 1984 when I stumbled upon a copy of Juniper Beri Beri and Communication Blur in a Glasgow record store, but that, as they say, is another story entirely.
By the time I heard The Stars of Heaven in January 1986 I was in the depths of that crisis of identity that comes as you go lurching from the false, imposed surety of teenaged ambition to the slowly developing realization of an inner self that had never been allowed free reign. I may have become only vaguely aware that Stefan Johansson was driving for Ferrari but knew only too well that the sound of a guitar and voice meshing just so could make the world of difference to my world; could take the grey skies down and paint them blue, as some other poets once sang in a moment of enlightenment.
So it was that hearing 'Sacred Heart Hotel' for the first time stole my heart away. Like all the greatest things in life, it made me speechless, left me breathless. It makes me feel the same still, hearing it again now, as it has every time I have played it in the last thirteen years. The guitar line that sings in the sky at the beginning and throughout the song is so beautiful it almost tears your heart inside out; the somehow perfection of a lyric that can go 'diddly idle, bone idle; on the dole and on the fiddle' and somehow sound like beautiful poetry. The more so if that was your life, as indeed it was mine to a T. Really though, it wasn't just that, and nor was it that living in the middle of a suburban nowhere, you could hear a song talking about 'falling to pieces in a suburb of hell' and identify wholesale with it. It was more than that, because it was the way those sentiments flew on the up draught of startling harmonies that really made you want to implode; made you know that the recording of despair and emptiness could be so much more beautiful than anything that made claims to classical perfection.
I remember the Stars of Heaven sessions for the John Peel show of 1986 and early 1987 with such clarity; they were THE sessions to play time and time again on old tape decks, wherever and whenever possible. The release of the Sacred Heart Hotel mini-album on Rough Trade collecting the first session onto vinyl later in '86 was similarly an event of massive importance, and I clearly recall meeting my friend after college one day and steering him towards the record in the store before we caught a swift half in the railway bar before catching the train home and spending the night in a darkened room drinking whisky and listening over and over again to those songs of bittersweet melancholy and passion. There was something steely and pure about the sound made by Stars of Heaven, something that demanded deep love and respect. They might have made you want to bawl your eyes out in the early morning dew, but they made you grit your teeth whilst doing it. There were great badges at the time too that simply had a blue ground, a red heart and a white cross. Everyone in the know knew the significance, and they were prized possessions; truly a symbol of faith.
Of course in 1986 I never knew a thing about Country music, aside from the fact that it was the music your dad played and thus was deeply suspect. I had never heard the beauty in Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris or Johnny Cash even, but the Stars of Heaven changed all that, for which I must be forever grateful. In February 1987 Stars of Heaven covered 'Still Feelin' Blue' and 'Wheels' for their Peel session, and coincidentally that same month a friend sent a tape that concluded with 'Song For You'. It's strange sometimes how things just fall into place naturally, assuming always of course that you have eyes and ears open to catch these things in the first place. I know a lot pf people have been fortunate in having well informed older siblings to pass on priceless gems of insight, but I had no such luck, and really The Stars of Heaven were like that older brother, letting me in on great secrets I'd never have guessed existed.
There always seems to be a common suggestion in retrospectives of groups who never achieved any great success in their lifetime, and it usually uses the phrase 'ahead of their time'. It's a phrase used too often and with a woeful lack of accuracy, but with Stars of Heaven it is very fitting. If their records were released these days they'd be shoehorned neatly into the whole 'New Country' deal and that would be that. Of course, back in the '80s there was no such thing, and the band was always awkwardly lumped in under the meaningless 'indie' umbrella, something which seemed to amuse and annoy the band in equal measure, to the extent that they wrote the great 'Northern Isles' in '88 with it's unforgettable line 'we know Mel and Kim are the enemy.' When everyone knew, of course, that the enemy was really Rick Astley.
If I was to complain at all about this Stars of Heaven collection I could say it was not the perfect record it could have been. There are some fine moments missing; only two of the seven tracks on the 'Sacred Heart Hotel' LP make it here, with the loss of the chiming magic that is 'Moonstruck' and the moody masterpiece of 'Folksong' being particularly unfortunate. Also missing are some of the best songs from the admittedly over-produced 'Speak Slowly' album of 1988, and although the session versions of 'What Else Could You Do' and the achingly beautiful '2 O-Clock Waltz' appear, there's no place for 'Paradise of Lies' with its terrific fiddles, or for 'The Lights of Tetouan' which has, as bassist Peter Sullivan says in the sleeve notes, one of the two best Stars of Heaven guitar solos.
All that said, though, it would have to be me in a very tetchy mood to say it mattered at all. After all, I have all those songs already, and half the fun of discovering great songs is in the process of the finding, so if you care at all, go and root around. And anyway 'Unfinished Dreaming' doesn't pretend to be a 'best of' collection, instead concentrating on gathering a whole host of rare and previously unreleased material. Hence we have a very early and frankly rather hilarious Stars of Heaven in full country rock effect with 'Eldorado' from 1984, both sides of the 1985 debut single and a lot of material from the end of the '80s when the band recorded tracks for an album for the Mother label in the USA. There are some fine songs from these sessions, and people will argue I'm sure over the merits of the 'demo' recordings ('City On The Hill' 'I Think I Know You Well Enough' and the ineffably catchy 'Radio Panic') against the more polished Mitch Easter produced tracks (A great 'Easier This Way', the throwaway full-on-rocker 'Telescope' whose original lyrics of 'Julian Cope, the Polish Pope, Telescope' would have been immeasurably better than what emerged on tape, and a frankly redundant cover of Neil Young's 'Drive Back'). In all, that's twenty five tracks (twenty six if you include their song for roadie Ken Binley that sneaks in at the end) documenting a half decade or so of making music as vital and seductive as the equally unsuccessful-in-their-lifetime Big Star, whose (lack of) fame guitarist and songwriter Stan Erraught says they fully expected to achieve. One can only hope that with the release of Unfinished Dreaming they get as much posthumous glory and kudos.
© Alistair Fitchett 1999