Echo and the Bunnymen – Crocodiles [US Release] (1980)

Sire/Korova Records ■ SRK 6096

Released July 18, 1980

Produced by The Chameleons (Bill Drummond, David Balfie) and Ian Broudie (Tracks A4, B1)
Engineered by Hugh Jones and Rod Houison (Tracks A4, B1)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Going Up
  2. Do It Clean¹
  3. Stars Are Stars
  4. Pride
  5. Monkeys
  6. Crocodiles
  1. Rescue
  2. Villiers Terrace
  3. Read It in Books¹
  4. Pictures on My Wall
  5. All That Jazz
  6. Happy Death Men
¹Not present on original UK release, but included on a bonus 7″ with early pressings
While Paul Westerberg’s strange “side solo act thing” Grandpaboy is still echoing through my head at the moment, a mild spur toward writing here has convinced me to take up the reins and launch in again, after a good many weeks of just not feeling it and not wanting to half-ass it instead. Of course, that kind of approach can occasionally work, but this is intended to be a joyful thing, not a chore, and everyone I know wasn’t even keeping up after I started slipping more toward weekly entries, so it isn’t as if I’ve left a relative gap for anyone paying attention (PS: if I have, you should probably tell me. If someone else is interested, there’s far more reason to stick to doing this more regularly!)

When I think of post-punk, my first thought is still pretty consistently of Gang of Four. It’s not fair, of course: one of the things I even like most myself is the insane variance of styles and approaches bands that appeals to me most about the genre (and its sometime-close relative, post-hardcore). Echo & the Bunnymen kind of exemplify one of the far bounds of what I think of–mostly because they aren’t a sound I think of at all. Much like The Boomtown Rats or the Talking Heads and punk,¹ I’m aware of the classification and even the justifications, but I think of them more as popular, familiar, readily grasp-able bands. Mainstream or pop, even–not in that bizarre, disparaging sense most use those terms in now, just in the sense of more familiar instrumentation and song-writing, even if with a clear identity. I can’t pin down what it is that makes my brain draw the lines where it does, except perhaps to say that here I think it’s the dominance of Ian “Mac” McCulloch’s voice, particularly over Will Sergeant’s guitar, but that’s just a guess, as it’s an instinctive thing.

As I think is probably increasingly common, my first (knowing) exposure to Echo and the Bunnymen was in 2002 (I suppose that won’t be increasingly common, for obvious temporal reasons) when I watched Donnie Darko, which quickly became my (still uncontested, for reasons that don’t belong here, as we’re talking about music, not movies) favourite movie. The theatrical cut² of the film opens with Echo’s “The Killing Moon”, which appeared on the later album Ocean Rain (the other I have on vinyl by true coincidence–I don’t see Porcupine or Heaven Up Here often, and the self-titled album is distinctly disparaged, so it was simply the other I ran into, not one pursued).

I’d actually already heard Echo in a similar but relatively peculiar context: released as a soundtrack the same month as their then final (if you will) album, the self-titled Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lost Boys contained their cover of The Doors’ “People Are Strange”. I first saw the film with young eyes and didn’t quite catch on to the variance in sound it had from the original track, which I also heard plenty of at a young age. Maybe it was the appropriate placement of a non-goth but goth-esque³ band with a movie reveling in both goofy camp and darker violent moments, rendering it too appropriate to stand out from its predecessor.

I began slowly collecting Echo albums two years ago, beginning with the 2003 expanded CD of this very album, and culminating with the comparable releases of Heaven Up Here and Porcupine. I was in the throes of my fascination with post-punk and earlier post-hardcore, so it only made sense. It did mean that an absolute torrential influx of music into my library prevented a lot of it from fully penetrating, but I got a feel for the sound of Echo, nebulous though it was.

“Going Up” is appropriate as an opener for the way it slowly winds its way into play, Pete De Freitas pushing it forward until Sergeant jams down a chiming set of chords that drop the band right in your lap. Les Pattinson’s bass is the one element that keeps itself even throughout both the opening rise and the splashing constancy of the song as it follows. One of my favourite moments on the entire album comes just after the midpoint of the song, Pattinson continuing on as Mac’s voice fades, Pete holding a steady beat, and Sergeant layering a coiled non-solo lead over an occasional spark of clean, clear individual strings. Mac’s voice occasionally wobbles back in and out almost unintelligibly until the song fades on this curious and unexpected twist of sound.

The next track on my copy was not on the original UK release (surprise, surprise…) and was most uniformly (non-limited-type) released as a b-side to the non-album single “The Puppet”, and I continue to be baffled at it not having been released as an independent single. “Do It Clean” is a charging song, Pete riding a hiss of cymbal over Pattinson’s climbing bass until producer Balfie drops an almost Steve Nieve-y key riff in to smash the song in. As he fades, Mac takes the song over, throwing in what is, no doubt, the catchiest chorus on the record (even if it wasn’t on the original record!). It’s a rush with a throbbing bass and a nice, fast drumbeat. I guess, though, the band eventually agreed–apparently the song is wildly popular now, and was even (in live form) b-side to “The Killing Moon”, which I’ve always understood was a rather successful single, independent of its usage in (a few, actually) movies.

“Stars Are Stars” drops the pace and tone down a fair bit–for all that there’s a downward curl (mixed with a sort of sneer) to Mac’s voice even in the uptempo “Do It Clean”, this is even more miserable, in its way. It’s something like an amped up version of the most morose moments from Robert Smith, slower for Echo, but still fast for its mood. Sergeant inserts a solo that’s simultaneously knowingly simplistic and acutely unnerving at each note, repeated a second time and seeming to instrumentally echo (ahem) the words and sounds of Mac that precede and surround it. Pete’s enthusiastic drumming, particular, a periodic, bass-heavy fill are what keeps the song moving.

There are hints of that Andy Gill-style jerky, angular, strike of guitar in Will’s opening moments of “Pride”, but they are smoothed and curved back in filter by the time of the verse. Momentary interruptions of a xylophonic instrument and the crash of that sharpened intro as chorus fill out the song’s sound and identity, one that’s primarily defined by those rounded edges on the guitar, murky like the water of a lake, but still clear enough to keep on.

There’s something of the early U2 sound (slightly pre-dating, but largely contemporaneous) in “Monkeys”, a moody, contemplative rumble with flights of wiggly, springy guitar. Les’s bass is the controlling force, though, except at the chorus, where Sergeant’s reverberating squiggles become clean, sharp, and straightened points of melodic focus. It’s perhaps the most recognizably “post-punk” of tracks on the album, and that’s a very good thing.

The title track is probably the closest match the original running order had to the energy of later insertion “Do It Clean”: Pete’s drumming and Les’s bass are both at their most frenetic, even when Mac’s voice drops along with the song, for a booming moment of low-end groove–which fascinatingly ends on a sudden chime at a bright and high pitch. But Les and De Freitas won’t let the song relax long, and shove it back into overdrive, letting Will’s lead moment turn to a rapid struggle of furious riffing on adjacent chords, turning to a broken record of jagged peaks of muted chords.

While extra songs were inserted, the running order is actually mostly intact–much like the original, the US Crocodiles opens the second side with the single “Rescue”, which was released before the album initially. Not riding the intense energy of a “Do It Clean” or a “Crocodiles”, it’s still a noticeably pop-inflected song, and an unsurprising choice for single. The high-point-low-point alternation of Will’s guitar is emblematic of much of the post-punk-y hits of the 1980s, nudging even at the edges of its cousin indie-rock and the more moody work of the Smiths when at its chorus, though De Freitas acts far more as a rock drummer in his force than Mike Joyce would–a natural difference in musical styles, but a noticeable one.

“Villiers Terrace” is unquestionably my favourite Echo track, bar none. I may not be alone in this, as the most extensive fan site out there shares the name. “I’ve been up to Villiers Terrace/To see what’s happenin'”, goes the chorus, and it’s catchy as all hell, yet distinctly ominous and shaky–Mac’s description encourages that feeling, though, as he continues: “There’s people rolling round on the carpet/Mixing up the medicine/[…]/Biting wool and pulling string…” David Balfie’s quiet return on piano perfectly enhances the weird, discomforting and hallucinatory, semi-horrifying observational feeling of the song, with a prettily rising but somewhat off riff. The song pulses and grooves, but is spiked with those incredulous descriptions.

Sonically, “Pictures on My Wall” is a very appropriate follow-up to “Villiers Terrace”. The intro is the still-hot but low-burning embers of that fire, bellowed up to steady, even flames by the verse, crashed into a thunderous bolt at the end of the chorus, droning keys stretching out behind it. Pete peddles mightily behind it, pounding up the snare to an all-ride hiss that breaks with a round-trip fill. It would be a somewhat spooky trip through a decaying, darkened hallway (lined, of course, with old pictures) if not for Pete and Les, who give it too much motion to be completely mired in spookiness, without completely interrupting that moody darkness.

Somewhat appropriately, the wide-release of “Read It in Books” was as the b-side to “Pictures on My Wall”, which means its placement here is perfectly logical. It’s a continuation of the subdued tempos and tones (but not moods) the previous tracks have started to establish, too. While there’s power and force in the song from the rhythm section, it never really gives the track the kind of oomph that would render it something beyond moody and darkened. Mac’s voice seems to be at its most unrestrained, even when it is low, quiet and breathy.

Stompingly rhythmic, “All That Jazz” is another nudge toward that Gang of Four-type aural aesthetic, the rhythm section carrying much of the song’s groove while Sergeant’s guitars strike across the top of it. It isn’t, of course, some kind of rip on the (semi?)famous Leeds band: a late break in the song for a melodic low end ripple over a pounding patter of percussion is unusual and unique in sound, especially as the rest of the song crashes back in on top of it, shoving the entire track and the album back to a kind of energetic peak that stops suddenly when the track ends, bringing us to the final track and a more wandering, experimental feel.

“Happy Death Men” is oddly appropriate for its odd title. It seems to wander in in a daze, sprinkling random key sounds across its length. Mac’s emphatically punctuated repetition of the title in the chorus is oddly endearing and also just odd, considering the words. At something like the first third’s end, his voice leaves the instruments behind, as they seem to jam or otherwise experiment, until a horn section (!) suddenly appears, repeating the slight melody and particularly rhythm of Mac’s vocal chorus. When his own voice returns, the song takes yet another turn toward the meanderings it saw just moments before, once again punctuated by those horns, but now joined by Mac’s voice. Pete gallops off toward the end of the song aggressively, wildly–Will lets loose a furious wail of sharpened, passionate soloing, the horns find tentative footing, and everything crashes and wanders off into a slow fade.

I feel as though I wandered into an awful lot of comparison here, but it is for me (as with most people) one of the easiest methods of describing musical sounds–language alone can only get one so far before the limitations of subjective description begin to interfere and cause a kind of divergence in perception. Still, it implies a kind of “secondary” status for the band, which is undeserved–comparisons should largely not be treated in that way anyway, but instead for the reason I at least intended above: familiarity via parallel.

The cover of Crocodiles is actually quite interesting, and I cannot leave without commenting to that effect: the boys are standing, leaning, and sitting in various less-than-happy ways (and, in Mac’s case, rather bewildered or shocked) in a forest in Hertfordshire, but one that is rendered bizarre, artificial-looking and even vaguely psychedelic in its forced, colourful lighting⁴. It’s a pretty striking image–I don’t know if I could call it evocative with regard to the music, but it is at least peculiar and darkened enough to suggest the unusual tones and bleak tones of the album. Credit goes to one Brian Griffin, who certainly deserves just that.

¹I’m of the mind that both left the genre pretty rapidly and wandered into entirely different territory, but the first album from each feels pretty firmly punk-y.

²The director’s cut version restores INXS’s “Never Tear Us Apart” to this place, which has a uniquely appropriate lyrical moment as it’s edited. I think it angers some people because of INXS’s obviously more popular (and more “pop”, often in that aforementioned disparaging sense) nature, and thus severely deprecated “cred”. Whatever. But then, I own an awful lot of INXS records.

³Mac’s lyrics and his vocals would not be too out of place in those circles, at the very least, and the dripping, downward crawl of that song (and the especially warbly sound of Will’s guitar, too) only enhanced this.

⁴Reminiscent, I feel, of Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories


Various Artists – Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volumes 8-11 (1997)

  Amphetamine Reptile Records ■ 9 25194-1

Released April 22, 1997

Technical Credits Unknown, Likely Varied

Side One (Vol. 8 & 9): Side Two (Vol 10 & 11):
  1. Superchunk – “Basement Life”
  2. Guzzard – “Bites”
  3. Jawbox – “Low Strung”
  4. godheadSilo – “Lotion Pocket”
  5. Bordeoms – “Pukuri”
  6. Supernova – “Sugar Coated Stucco”
  7. Chokebore – “Brittle & Depressing”
  8. Love 666 – “You Sold Me Out #2”
  1. Bailter Space – “Glimmer Dot”
  2. Steelpolebathtub – “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo”
  3. Chrome Cranks – “Dead Man’s Suit”
  4. Brainiac – “Cookie Doesn’t Sing”
  5. Today Is the Day – “Execution Style”
  6. Rocket from the Crypt – “Tiger Mask”
  7. Calvin Krime – “Fight Song”
  8. Gaunt – “Kiss Destroyer”
  9. Servotron – “Matrix of Perfection”

I’m often wary, wandering into any record store for the first time. There’s no real guarantee of what anyone has or will carry, and in a used store it becomes even more complicated, as they can only carry what records they’ve acquired to sell. And that, then, depends on the locals. The first time I walked into Dead Wax Records, I wasn’t sure what to think. Between the place I now live and the places I work, there’s not a lot of music to be found. Even the oft-ignored (for financially justifiable reasons) FYE and similar “TWEC” (TransWorld Entertainment Company, who owns FYE, Coconuts, etc) stores make no appearances. There’s a Best Buy, a Wal-Mart, a Target–certainly nowhere you’d find vinyl (beyond the semi-kitschy ‘7″ with a t-shirt’ thing Target is doing–but I owned most of the ones that looked interesting to me, or saw no reason to get the 7″), and nowhere you’d find a good chunk of my music collection, vinyl or otherwise.

I found a small used record and used/new CD store about fifteen miles away and had a very strange experience there, locating both upstate New York’s Immolation’s third album and some Split Enz albums I was looking for on CD. I found some Throbbing Gristle material, too, which is only appropriate for this particular entry–well, parts of it. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of the place, though I’ve intended to go back a few times (never managing). When I started my current job just a bit further out, though, someone there mentioned a local record store, which piqued my interest immediately. I swung by after work that day, only to find it was closed on Mondays, deciding to come back the next. That next day, I wandered in and found it comfortably cozy and close, as you’d expect from a fledgling (only a few months old!) record store. However, its walls were papered with posters and fliers for bands I knew well–but knew well from my forays into music in the last few odd years more than anything else. Snapcase. Gluecifer. The Murder City Devils. The Supersuckers. Turbonegro. Mudhoney. All the sorts of things I’d tried (sometimes successfully) to push on a very picky person I know.

When I started flipping through the records there, I found I was in a store I could definitely see myself returning to. I brought a stack of 7 12″s up to the counter and was told I had really good taste. I was buying Prince, Black Flag, Alice Donut, The Church, Leon Russell, and The Fall albums–and this one. I later went back for a single volume that was hanging out there, Vol. 6 in the “Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets” series, too. But that set–including my favourite Church album, Heyday–basically informed me this was a worthwhile stop. And, along the same lines, it was confirming that this set included Jawbox’s “Low Strung” that sealed that purchase and left me shrugging and stacking everything else in (Heyday was a no-brainer, mind you, and was the “gateway” to accepting that I would purchase more that day).

I knew the series, vaguely, because tracks from it will often appear on compilations now, such as the Sub Pop reissue of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, or, most pertinently, Jawbox’s My Scrapbook of Fatal Accidents. My habit of relentlessly parsing out the bonus tracks on CD releases was fruitful, as it often is: it informed me both of the series’ existence, and its particular approach to art, meaning I recognized them as soon as I saw them–and it was that that sealed the store as worth digging in for me. Many bands have appeared there, the ones familiar to me including the above, Rocket from the Crypt, the Melvins, Helmet, Lubricated Goat, Tar (who did a split with Jawbox, which I own), Superchunk, and the Jesus Lizard. The last is a stretch insofar as familiarity, but those were the names I knew–in most cases, bands I owned full-fledged releases from (Lubricated Goat quite by–hilarious–accident).

If any of those names mean anything to you, then this is probably an interesting-sounding compilation. If they don’t, this is probably a scary-sounding compilation. And that’s probably fair–while Superchunk and Jawbox are by no means known for anything ultra-noisy, abrasive, raucous or otherwise “difficult” and largely any bands “known” for that aren’t known in the first place, unless you’re asking people who like that kind of thing (or they know the more popular and largely more accessible works of those groups–like the Butthole Surfers’ “Pepper”, for instance). But this isn’t a noise compilation–at least, not completely. It’s a mix of alternative, noisy, post-, and various other kinds of independent music, though it largely eschews the “indie” variety, if you’ll allow that rather expansively-narrowed definition.¹

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eight
(Superchunk, Guzzard, Jawbox, godheadSilo)Originally released in April, 1994

Naturally, Volume 8 was of supreme interest to me. Most of the Dope-Guns series is 4 tracks on a 7″, two per side, but there are variances throughout. Volume 8 was not an exception to this layout, though–even as it does have seemingly the strangest appearance that could be managed, starting from my own experiences.

Despite living in Durham and working in Chapel Hill for the majority of my adult life (no longer, in case the “there are no record stores here” wasn’t a tip-off), I never really listened to Superchunk. I kind of filed them with Guided by Voices and Pavement and a bunch of other bands I heard spoken of in awed tones with respect to indie rock in the 1990s. I tried a few out about ten years ago and nothing caught my ears, but the newfound love for Pavement in the past some-odd years and growing love for GBV has led me to soften my disinterests and try things. I picked up a few Superchunk singles in my last wanderings through used CDs, and liked what I heard. “Basement Life” is a bit more buzz-y than the singles (“Hello Hawk” and “Hyper Enough”) I’ve picked up, which didn’t bother me and seemed quite fitting for a release on a label that has “NOISE” built into their logo. It’s a stomping roll through a rumble-bass-focused track of fuzzy, catchy fun. What strains it has of indie rock–the only instance on this compilation of compilations–is the full-on Pavement kind (I’m betting also the Superchunk kind) that still carries the genetic trace of punk in its semi-sneering vocals and snarky tone–less “Revolution”, more “whatever”.

Guzzard apparently didn’t last much past this compilation’s original release (indeed, not long enough to see the release of the three volumes combined), but sounds more like you might expect from a label associating itself with noise, though it’s still pretty accessible. “Bites” grinds and buzzes a little more, and has a forward-leaning aggressive tone to it than “Basement Life” by far. Nice, strong, clear drumming that wasn’t always present or as well-produced in hardcore acts appears and backs a strained yell of a voice, as well as very clear hardcore origins for the group. It’s a nice, tight, buzzsaw follow up to Superchunk.

Jawbox’s contribution is a nice bridge between the work on their first two full-lengths (Grippe and Novelty) and the works for which they’d become best known and loved (For Your Own Special Sweetheart and Jawbox). Original drummer Adam Wade had left to join Shudder to Think (labelmates of Jawbox on Dischord–interestingly, both being the Dischord bands to hit major labels in ’94) and now the great Zach Barocas had joined and added a ton of spice to the group with his unique drumming style. He’s not quite in the front seat he’d be in the albums that would follow this recording, but his “voice” is clearly present. J. Robbins’ voice is “punkier” than it would be on most of those next two albums (with the possible exception of Sweetheart opener “FF=66”). It’s a smart contribution to the release, as it, too, is like the noisier edge of their range.

godheadSilo were a peculiar group, being one of few to work with the “bass and drums” set-up, lacking a guitar, keys, or other ‘focal” instrument. The track sounds like a strange amalgamation of the low-end droning of bands like SunnO))) and some of the (knowingly) sloppier garage rock of the last two decades. It’s the first clear sign of “noise” on the album, though it’s a clearly defined song, built on a(n admittedly repetitive) bass riff and simple drumming, with vocals shredded by distortion themselves. It’s a catchy number despite that–maybe the years of metal and rapidly increasing years of noise rock have inured me to those things and let me hear the underlying guts of a song, I’m not sure. Still, it works well, and feels like a nice comfortable medium stance between “noise” and the kinds of genres that didn’t quite cross that line, but sat snugly against it.

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Nine
(The Boredoms, Supernova, Chokebore, Love 666, Bailter Space)Originally released (later) in 1994

Spacial concerns obviously pushed the fifth track on this one onto the second side, but I can’t complain too much, as it’s still 4 of these put together, and each was a wild mix of artists, anyway.

I can’t say I’ve heard of a single one of these bands–maybe Chokebore, but that could just be the fact that my research around this has taught me that they, like many of the others, were Amphetamine Reptile “natives”, and would release their singles and albums through AmRep, too. Indeed, they did a split release with Guzzard and Today Is the Day the same year as these first two Dope-Guns. Still, otherwise? Completely new.

The Boredoms’ appearance with “Pukuri” immediately gave me a better impression of what AmRep was interested in including. Kazoo-like sounds and a tromping beat bring to mind the kinds of weird melodies and instrumentation that would sometimes meander through early Zappa/Mothers records (particularly “Mothers” ones), especially the brief “interludes” that appear between songs. It devolves into screaming, dissonant and semi-random guitar distortion and even more distorted recordings of drums–but seems to inevitably circle back to the same marching melody that it started with in spite of that. The drumming gets “tribalistic” at some point, and sort of takes on a kind of focus, though the track wanders through a variety of “movements” and sounds, wah-wahed guitar, strange wails–this is not the kind of track most people throw on for a good time, but it’s appreciably intentional, despite its chaos. I’m gaining a bit of a taste for this kind of controlled insanity, I have to say, though it still comes out a bit weird sandwiched in with “normal” songs, even if from punk-related bands.

“Sugar Coated Stucco”‘s intro makes it sound, at first, like it’s going to be even weirder than “Pukuri”, but breaks off into extra-nasal pop punk of the kind I’ve grown to like a lot (think Screeching Weasel, not Blink 182, if that helps at all–though I realize it probably won’t for most I know to read this). The vocals are so nasal, though, that they almost disappear into themselves. It’s catchy like all that stuff should be, though, simple and built on guitars and drums that are perfunctory–they’re there to build the beat and melody and nothing more, really, and that’s what they should do here. Interestingly, they were responsible for “Chewbacca”, the song in Clerks (which isn’t nasal at all–go figure). Hayden Thais ended up joining Man or Astro-man? though–and later Servotron, who appear on volume 11 here.

While their name implies something aggressive, speedy, and thought-to-be headache inducing, or perhaps the inappropriately aggressive name for a pop punk band (that sound just doesn’t seem to work as intimidating, despite the occasional name implying it ought), they’re more in the Mudhoney vein than anything else–sludgy, just-above-plodding and fuzzy as hell, with a vocal totally uninterested in sounding “pretty”, but staying firmly where it is placed, it might even bring to mind that of Alice Donut’s Tom Antona, too.² “Brittle and Depressing” doesn’t sound much like either musically, though–it’s strong, and has a nicely cranked out, unobtrusive lead guitar.

Love 666 contribute “You Sold Me Out #2”–it’s a great little track, that seems to somehow wind its way between hints of shoegaze conventions and sludge-rock ones. I’m not sure what, exactly, that adds it up to–but it’s interesting. Drums thump and guitars buzz loosely, while the vocals are clean, clear, near-spoken and very upfront. There’s a clear chorus, where the voices reach a kind of weird, amateur harmony that is endearing and lovely in its strange little way. The way the thumpy fuzz of guitar hammers down after it is really great, though–confusing what the track actually is without ever losing sight of itself in the process.

When Bailter Space’s “Glimmer Dot” drops, it’s totally unexpected. Unabashed shoegaze (!), it warbles along in the shoegaze vein of My Bloody Valentine, washes of guitar and production that seems to blur everything into a single stream of sound, despite the still recognizable variation in instruments. Vocals are in the half-lidded, drugged-out style that marks most shoegaze, and the whole track is great, but wildly unexpected. It’s entirely possible this track would be worth the whole compilation to someone who couldn’t stand the rest, if they liked shoegaze enough. 

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Ten
(Steel Pole Bath Tub, Chrome Cranks, Brainiac, Today Is the Day)Originally released (later) in 1994

I guess these records were coming fast and thick in ’94, which makes sense as the whole series of 11 came out between ’91 and ’94, but, dang, that’s three, and I know 11 came out years later…I figured they were spaced out more than that.

The name Steel Pole Bath Tub rings only the faintest of bells–nothing helpful, but something that insists I’ve heard the name before in the context of a band. I’m not sure how, why, or what context it came in, but I don’t think I would’ve gone with their actual sound if I was asked point blank before I’d heard this what they sound like. “A Washed Out Monkey Star Halo” at least is a track I’d be inclined to call instrumental even if it isn’t–a nice fat bassline opens the track and carries it a long under semi-unnerving guitars and over a steady drumbeat. Vocals are seeming babbles, distorted and distant, acting as a layer of sound more than a perfectly clear expression of thoughts as words. It sounds a bit like a story, but it’s hard to peel out of the music, seemingly on purpose.

The Chrome Cranks ride a rather rockabilly beat in “Dead Man’s Suit”, with the scattered slide of many of the more twisted modern interpretations of that genre. The vocals are like the more frantic and unhinged Nick Cave vocals–but with layered echo and even more punk influence. It’s like a rockabilly band through a carnival mirror and the spinning room of chemical influence. For all that it does seem ramshackle, the guitar finally takes off on a solo that is sharp and pointed in its quick run, deflating the song for a moment, before it takes off again. A fun track, and rather in contrast to what has come before on both of the previous records.

Brainiac has the frenetic drumming of a punk band, but the proximity-distorted (is he eating the microphone, perhaps?) vocals and the elliptical swing of the guitars makes the placement of “Cookie Doesn’t Sing” next to “Dead Man’s Suit” terribly appropriate. It’s a wonderfully weird track, in more the Birthday Party (I don’t know why Nick Cave’s on the brain right now) than the Butthole Surfers sense. It’s not an effect I haven’t heard before, but it’s exactly the right one in context, like a spitting flurry, slurred into a deceptively steady swing.

 It’s no surprise that Mastodon’s Brann Dailor and Bill Kelliher floated through Today Is the Day at some point, even if “Execution Style” isn’t an example of their time there. I’m reminded most immediately of the peculiar choices of time signature and stylistic variation in bands like Coalesce and Botch–the most aggressive, abrasive, and heavy ends of hardcore, but filtered through tight musicanship. The guitar here is beautiful in its knowingly unsteady vibrations–I cannot think of what it reminds me of (despite hearing it for the third time now) but it’s a sound I know, not derivative enough to feel obvious, though. It’s an odd track here, but aren’t they all?

Dope-Guns-‘N-Fucking in the Streets Volume Eleven
(Rocket from the Crypt, Calvin Krime, Gaunt, Servotron)Originally released in 1997
 Man, where did time go?

Now this band, while I’m still only just getting a good feel for them, is the other that I felt assured in purchasing this record for–Rocket from the Crypt. I picked up Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime on recommendation a few years back, and quite liked it. DLJ’s John Reis would of course become “Speedo” of Rocket from the Crypt (as well as plain ol’ John Reis in Hot Snakes) and there we have the connection for me. “Tiger Mask” is a fantastic example of RFTC for sure, the semi-dramatic rumbling rock and roll that defines much of their work, under Reis’s affectedly rocking vocals, which turns more melodic and shaky for that great and catchy chorus. It’s probably the most fun song on this whole record–and I mean 8-11, not just 11.

Calvin Krime is apparently the band Har Mar Superstar was in before being Har Mar, and it’s actually a kind of cool song they contributed–“Fight Song”. It’s a series of layered “conflicting” tracks: multiple vocalists and a stop-start drumbeat, guitars gluing the two together. It’s actually very tight and solidly played and interesting. Unexpected and interesting, but fitting with the RFTC track, stylistically, in many ways.

Perhaps AmRep had abandoned a lot of their noisier strains by 1997–I don’t know. Gaunt continues the heavily rock/punk feeling of both RFTC and Calvin Krime, with the rapid patter of pop-punk drumming but a rather windmill-chord style rocking guitar. Vocals cross somewhere between the sneer of pop-punk and the sandpaper edging of a vocalist like RFTC’s Reis. The guitar is great, its lead loose and bendy, never showy, just pointy enough to make itself known. There’s a brief interlude for some cool tom drumming, and then a perfect ending.

Servotron may be the most interesting find, band-wise–even if not necessarily sound-wise–for me. One of those groups (actually like Supernova above) that decided to go whole-hog, naming themselves all with robot names and dressing up in costumes to emphasize their chosen subject matter and mythology, they sound like they listened to a lot of the B-52s, down to the choked-down male-female alternating vocals, but with hints of rather more Devo-style weirdness slathered over the whole thing. There’s a deliberate monotone to their vocals that is even given the “robo-voice” treatment here and there. Of course, the whole song is about robotic genocide of humans (so long as robots remain as limited as they do, we can find this weird and amusing instead of terrifying–but really weird for such devoted lyrics writing, I’d say anyway). The song actually ends up breaking down into something smoother and less stilted toward the end, with a rather warm and soft synth coating it, their vocals finally reaching the title: “Initiate! The matrix of perfection!” repeated until the song ends in a cleverly placed sudden stop.

When you find someone talking about the Dope-Guns series, they usually speak rather highly of it–and now I can see why. I’m going to have to resist the temptation to explore a number of these bands in greater depth now, but I doubt that resistance will last long. It’s a great mix of styles, never seeming like it wants anything more than to showcase interesting sounds from interesting bands–not force you to buy other records (indeed, these tracks are exclusive to the series, in most if not all cases, barring modern compilations and reissues), nor to give you that record to make you seem “cool” by annoying the hell out of anyone else with weird noises. The weird noises, instead, seem like just another iteration of interesting sounds.

Give this thing a spin, actually. You’ll probably find something you like in here somewhere!

  • Next Up: Guest Writers!

¹There are at least three largely useless genres I know of–not useless for content, but useless as labels, they’ve been stretched and abused so significantly that little if any clear thread is left to connect them. “Indie”/”indie rock” is one of those. It means way too many things, yet there’s a vague, nebulous idea there, of some kind. And it’s not on this record. Mostly. 

²I’ve been accused of writing things that require too much music knowledge to make sense to the unfamiliar on my last blog, but it’s hard to think of appropriate voices. Mudhoney was relatively popular during the early grunge surge, though never as popular as they were hoped/expected to be. Alice Donut have never left the underground, not really, so I’m sorry for that one. But it’s what I hear! And if you know those bands, cool–I’m talking to the lots-of-people-I-know don’t, and operating on statistical probabilities. Besides, it’s a footnote.

Day Forty-Nine: The Cure – Seventeen Seconds

Fiction Records ■ BEG A 65

Released April 18, 1985

Produced by Robert Smith and Mike Hedges
Assistant Production by Chris Parry and M L S
Engineered by Mike Hedges and Mike Dutton
Assistant Engineering by Nigel Green and Andrew Warwick

Side One: Side Two:
  1. A Reflection
  2. Play for Today
  3. Secrets
  4. In Your House
  5. Three
  1. The Final Sound
  2. A Forest
  3. M
  4. At Night
  5. Seventeen Seconds

I don’t remember now how I found myself listening to The Cure. I think it was finding the video for “Lullaby” (meaning I probably saw it on the same tapes that led me to Marshall Crenshaw and listening to more Elvis Costello), but I’m really not sure. It meant I kept an ear out for Disintegration, but was never sure what to do with the rest of their discography. Someone I know–forgive me, for once, I can’t remember who–posted video of a live performance of “Killing an Arab”,¹ and I finally found myself asking: what album do I go to next? Pornography was a quick response, and I filed it away mentally–I’d picked up Bloodflowers on somewhat a whim, but had listened to it only a few times, and “Killing an Arab” told me there was something else back there, an entirely different style than what I’d heard so far.

I finally picked up a copy of Pornography, and soon found myself picking up every one of the deluxe-ified Cure remasters I saw (each came with a bonus disc of demos and live material from the time frame surrounding the album in question), Seventeen Seconds and Faith following rapidly behind Pornography, and all of it being settled when I purchased Three Imaginary Boys four months later (about a year ago). My ever-referenced used vinyl haunt last year, Hunky Dory, happened to have a copy of Faith on vinyl, though–the owner mentioned a copy of Pornography waiting in the wings, but, alas, it never appeared when I was there. In a sense, though, that has its benefits: I already really liked Pornography, but had only listened to most of the other albums a few times. That it was Seventeen Seconds and not Faith (they are the two immediate predecessors to Pornography) was even more fortuitous, as that album had stuck with me far better than Faith ever has.

If, like me, you only know/knew the Cure for songs like “Lullaby”, “Lovesong”, “Pictures of You” and similar, “A Reflection” might strike you quite immediately for its simplicity and its rather open structure. A repetitive twang sounds very quietly in the background, and then a single guitar and piano chord blares out–though it’s apparent after the initial surprise that it’s not so much blaring as at a reasonable, average volume. Smith’s guitar continues to strum single chords at the first beat of each measure, while Matthieu Hartley’s keys take that downbeat and plink and plunk up from it to link each together. The tone is somber but vaguely inhuman, the feeling of nature making that somberness a sort of flatline of feeling: instinct, not emotion. And then, Smith unexpectedly brightens the guitar, just slightly, but at the next chord it’s fully there, the song feeling like a peeking light is now coming up over the horizon, still slow, spacious–but it loses this quickly and finds itself at the initial darker chords and generally downward stride of the opening. A distant yawning wail fades in with a sort of obscured sound, and then fades away, and the song ends on a chord that simply is not, this time, followed by another.

“Play for Today” suddenly ups the tempo, Lol (still “Laurence” at this point) Tolhurst playing a beat that fairly well shifts it–a dance speed, really. An expulsion of air–electronic, one imagines–helps to punctuate the song. Smith enters on confident harmonic notes that seem to linger and consider their next movement, even as those changes seem practiced in the performing. Simon Gallup drives the majority of the melody on the pulsing eighth notes of his bass, until Smith takes the reins and his harmonics become clean, clear, but very warmly toned chords, running at the same tempo and rhythm as Gallup’s bass had been. “It’s not a case of doing what’s right/It’s just the way I feel that matters/Tell me I’m wrong/I don’t really care/It’s not a case of share and share alike/I take what I require/I don’t understand/You say it’s not fair”, Smith adds the first words of the album. The song travels at a fair pace, as established by Lol, but Smith’s characteristic down-turned voice (though still in the infancy of what it would later develop) and his stripped-to-minor chords imply a downbeat sense that’s more misanthropic or apathetic than it is “depressed”. For all that Tolhurst set the beat, his drums are low-key, the heads all dry and short, keeping a backing role to the swirling of warm guitars played coldly.

Simon Gallup establishes the tone of “Secrets” with a lead bassline that draws a melody and then slides downward to abandon it and joins the newly-entered Tolhurst in the rhythm. Smith, having played short, controlled palm-muted rattling with just enough release to give it clear and pretty tone, takes up the reins, alongside Hartley’s keys. Single chords from Hartley accentuate the start, while Smith’s playing loosens the muting just enough, while increasing the volume in kind, to give him control. Gallup’s playing is minimalistic, Tolhurst’s is a heartbeat of kick and very light hi-hat that gives a spine to the track while staying off and behind. Smith’s vocals are quiet and almost hidden, a distant, more passionate echo almost a flare that leads back to their whisper. His guitar, though, continues its lead role, briefly wandering up and down chords in dissectionary ways, but never takes the song past the subdued sound it shows so clearly in his vocals.

“In Your House” is Tolhurst’s kick at its most heartbeat-y, snares on the offbeat being the attack to counter this. Robert’s guitar is all murky single picking, steady and almost mysterious, the lower notes drifting up and down the neck while the higher ones that follow them are almost the same each time. Gallup’s bass is at its most active, bubbling up along the heartbeat kicks of Lol. Warping washes and heavily electronic keys dot the track periodically for texture, Smith again seemingly bored in his singing, or perhaps just darkly, callously confessional. The guitar leaves its incessant picking at the same notes only briefly, only a mild shift upward, but one that takes the song on a reasonable sidetrip into a kind of questioning, a wisp of smoke beckoning supernaturally outward that dissolves after the gesture.

A reverberating key sounds–think the Kinks’ “Death of a Clown”²–to open “Three”, a seemingly random set of  reverberating keys is strewn across it, distant mumbling hiding far behind it. An actual dance-like beat drops in from Tolhurst, the keys continue in their diffuse pattern, the track pounding hypnotically until it clears away in an abrupt electronic noise seemingly like a ball dropped and bouncing lower and lower to short frequency vibration.

Intended as an instrumental of great length, “The Final Sound” is a slightly dissonant clutter of sustained and echoing keys, growing in their low-end murmurings of somewhat disturbing nature, the keys climbing in fumbling fashion, wandering up and down before the volume drops out–the tape ended, and there was no money for another. (Really.)

The lone single from the album, “A Forest” is moody, dark, electronic waves, a cold echo of single-picked guitar slowly gathering up to a slow walk in tempo over it, but rising in pitch just a bit. A soft, unusually high bass lick loops around once, trying to pull the song up. Tolhurst’s drum machine like beat pops in, a bass followed by a light snare roll on the second beat, repeated consistently. Robert’s guitar returns with a faster (though still economic) version of that first riff, the guitar less dry and far off, curved and warm instead, though it only lasts one run of the riff, the second time going up and then running into a more speedy lead before dropping off. Lightly phased muted chords take over guitar, Gallup’s bass bouncing along faster than Lol’s drums. Robert sings in the most wonderfully rapid, rhythmic way, perhaps the most immediate and engaging vocal on the album (no wonder it was a single!). Hartley takes the keys up into a sonorous hold, Smith opening the guitar again for a mild crescendo that crashes into his voice’s renewed presence. At the end of his last word, his guitar jangles and strums out to an ending that drops drums and a bass spliced to half its beats, the guitar rising and spreading outward and upward and into the ether, leaving the steady thumps of Simon behind.

Rich and entwined guitar chords splay across “M”, a panning wash of white noise sweeps in Simon’s bass and Lol’s light, simple drumming. One of the few instances of lyrical chorus, “You’ll fall in love with somebody else/Tonight” is matched to the staccato thud of bass and drum, nodding up and down with both. Smith actually follows his final words in the song with the steady picking of an early rock style lead or solo, which wanders up and down and around until it finally settles on a high pitch it holds nervously, dropping off only with the rest of the song.

The most wonderfully fuzzy bass appear when we come to “At Night”, Lol’s drums spare, clean, and dry, but the intermittent fuzzy driving riff lending a sort of sneer to them–yet, driving though it is in construction, it’s quiet and comes off more as actual “fuzz” than it does a crush of even nihilistic dismissal. Hartley has a few well-placed, reedy keys texturally intertwined with those standing elements, buzzing lightly but with a hint of majesty, or at least gravity, about them, despite their relative lightness. Robert’s voice is hiding in the middle of the mix–surrounded by the darkness of night, perhaps–and it brings out the clean guitars, which use their lovely clean jangle alone, but carve a dissonant swathe through the returned fuzzy rumble of Simon. Gallup takes the opportunity to play a plodding rise of pitch through his fuzz, climbing slowly at each measure’s new note. This style is taken into a sort of lead at the end of the track, Smith’s contrasting clean guitar brilliantly acting as the dissonance to the harsher fuzz. A buzz of electronics hangs over the final moments, even as Lol’s drums fade out alone.

The song that has always stuck with me most on the album–perhaps because it’s the last one you hear, perhaps because it’s the title track, perhaps because its title is apparent in the song, or just maybe because it’s so damned good–is “Seventeen Seconds”. Lol counts the beats on the hi-hat, alternating snare and bass only at the beginning beat of each measure (seriously, it’s unbelievably noticeable in its pace). Smith enters  after five bars, a circling guitar in the languid, part-calloused, part-moody, all downbeat style that he employs throughout the album. Simon gives a little more emotive performance here, his bass line characterized by diminishing bends that eventually become steady eighth notes that continue to build the song up to a full drumbeat from Lol, allowing Simon’s bass to return to a melodic role at the same pace. It’s a minute and a half before Robert’s voice comes in, waiting for the song to reach its full sound before he begins. His words are that of ending, as if recapping the prior tracks on the album, telling us everything to this point was all fated and inevitable. “Seventeen seconds/A measure of life/Seventeen seconds…” he sings, his guitar suddenly energized to emphasize those words. Simon’s bass returns to its plaintive bends, Lol’s drum slows back to its snails pace, Simon disappears, Robert frays, and we’re down, again, to just Lol’s crawling beat.

Okay, if nothing else, putting that showstopper at the end of the album was a brilliant move. It hasn’t got an expected construction in any sense. Sure, the build up, tear down approach to instrumentation has been done, but the way that Robert sings those last phrases is just–there is nothing extra, no fat, and yet it’s also not exactly a hook, or anything else like that. It’s just phrases thrown out there, though they have their meaning in context. That they don’t actually end anything, but the song also seems to respond to them, appropriately, makes it that much more brilliant. It’s brilliant because it’s not at all obvious. It doesn’t feel designed, yet it feels perfect.

For a band that ended up lush and dreamy and dramatic and maybe even melodramatic, the album is sparse, spare and light. Its tone is what you would expect, whether you know the Cure at a glance, or just by reputation, though it predates the most familiar images of Robert Smith (who wore no makeup, kept his hair short, and wore snazzy, if peculiar, suits at the time). It’s been dismissed as “soundtrack-y”, but it’s not at all. It’s minimalist and atmospheric, but it’s all creating a mood for an album, not for images or movies or unsung words or anything else. It’s a cohesive whole, and a stunningly good one. I may still prefer the likes of Pornography³, but this listen gave me a new-found appreciation for why I always liked this album at least a bit, and never found it boring or iffy. It’s really quite good, and an understandable favourite for many (and if it isn’t, it ought to be).

  • Next Up: Cursive – Happy Hollow

¹If anyone finds yourself aghast at the title, Robert Smith has “retired” the song for that reason. Of course, it was originally written in reference to Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, and had nothing to do with a suggestion or nonchalance about the title’s subject. Okay, well, not about Smith’s nonchalance anyway.

²Holy cow that feels like a pretentiously obscure reference (in context, at least, because I don’t imagine many people associate the Kinks and the Cure beyond “British bands”), but it was what I thought of immediately when I heard it.

³If we remove the formatting, this entire thing is going to read very, very strangely.

Day Twenty-One: Big Country – The Seer

Mercury/Polygram Records ■ 826 844-1 M-1

Released July 14, 1986
Produced by Robin Millar
Engineered by Will Gosling
Mixed by Walter Turbitt

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Look Away
  2. The Seer
  3. The Teacher
  4. I Walk the Hill
  5. Eiledon
  1. One Great Thing
  2. Hold the Heart
  3. Remembrance Day
  4. The Red Fox
  5. The Sailor

I thought, for a moment, that I’d sorted out a pattern to how people vote in the polls. I thought it was a relatively simple matter: choose self-titled albums, choose “biggest” albums–but then that was ruined when someone I know who knows music said he chose The Crossing because it sounded cool. Which is fine with me–my object is not demanding an existing opinion from anyone, but rather to find a way to settle on a release where more than one is available from an artist. “Ooh, that title sounds good,” is a perfectly legitimate reason for me, and it can offset the knowledgeable to some extent–whether they push for a “familiar face” or a comparative obscurity. Variety of response is helpful in getting a more complete aggregation of interest–after all, tastes vary wildly. If I didn’t poll, I’d be choosing deliberately and people would or could lose interest–it’s also like saying directly that I have no interest in some records I own, as well as occasionally (if not always) guaranteeing an avoidance of digging deeper into catalogues I intended to (hence buying the records) but never bothered to (and would, then, continue to fail to acknowledge). This is all a way of leading into the relatively middling response to the poll that led to this particular entry.

Big Country was¹ a band that started in the early 1980s after Stuart Adamson left the Skids, a post-punk band that didn’t make quite the mark Stateside that Adamson’s followup did. We’ll get to them in, well, a number of months, I suppose. They are most known in the United States for “In a Big Country”, their first U.S. single. Of course, they’d released two others before it in the U.K.–no surprise, as the band was formed there (and, in large part, from there). Still, it stayed their only Top 40 hit in the US for their entire existence, though it was the herald, in many ways, of only their debut album. That album was, of course, The Crossing, which is why I initially thought it was going to storm my poll. As it happens, it didn’t, the final tally being split between it, Steeltown, and The Seer. I had to ask for a tie-breaker at random, and it came from a high school friend who put out his vote for The Seer (though I suppose you probably guessed that!). I will thank him here for that favour, as I did not relish the thought of being left with a three-way tie to sort out myself.

I’m rather pleased, in the end: I sought out The Crossing quite deliberately, and own it on both CD and vinyl, though I intend to replace the expanded edition I have with the two-disc deluxe edition at some point. I do actually have the Wonderland EP on vinyl as well, a U.S.-only release, and CD copies of Peace in Our Time (utterly abandoned in polling), Steeltown and The Buffalo Skinners. It means, then, that The Seer is the most neglected of all the Big Country albums I own–a happy coincidence that it ended up the one I was asked to listen to, as I was less likely to otherwise. The availability of digital versions of most of the rest means I’ve listened to them, passively at least, a few times.

Big Country’s greatest claim to fame was their “bagpipe guitar” sound, which the band oddly did not use e-bows for, despite the fact that they used e-bows–and more than one, at that. Both Stuart Adamson and second guitarist Bruce Watson used them, even, but neither for that sound. It is quite prominent in “In a Big Country”, though I’ve found that many (including myself) would never have identified it as such without having it pointed out. I am quite sure I heard the song numerous times in my youth, but it was during my rather lengthy spell of watching the U.K. show Nevermind the Buzzcocks that I was reminded of the group, when a brief clip of “In a Big Country” was actually played there and it was lent an air of appreciation. The Skids, too, were applauded there–which is why I have one of their albums on vinyl (and another on CD).

I picked up The Seer because–well, let’s be honest: it was there. I had a brief return to old habits in the past year or two, seeking out a few odd 80s artists with relative mainstream success on vinyl, which is something I used to do when I first started collecting. Any Big Country I saw, I picked up blind, by virtue of how much I liked the sound and the kind of appreciation lobbed in their direction. It’s their third album, following The Crossing and Steeltown, and may be the most, well, Scottish album I’ve heard from them.

“Look Away” is the big single from the album, a much bigger hit in the U.K. and Ireland, hitting #3 and #1 respectively. It establishes the Big Country style immediately–a big drum hit launches a clever and rather lengthy guitar lead, and uses an interesting guitar sound during the verses that follow: a heavily plucked, two-string, and slightly alien sound that is joined by a more traditional but smooth guitar that matches the sound of the initial lead. The chorus is catchy as all heck, and is in Stuart’s usual style of increased energy, driven by far more expected rock guitars that emphasize it in a darker tone that only shifts upward at the very end. It’s deserving of its placement–well, its placement across the Atlantic from me, anyway.

A claim to fame in some part for the album as a whole is the title track, which catches a whole second fanbase: that of Kate Bush, who sings it as a duet with Stuart. This is the advent of the song’s traditional sound, or at least its melding into the post-punk guitars of Adamson and Watson. There’s a nice, fat bass from Tony Butler, but the star is the vocal rhythm of the verses, which is unmistakably in the style of traditional Celtic music (not to be mistaken for exclusively Irish, the Scots also retain a lot of this same culture, as does traditional Scottish folk music). It’s actually an interesting duet: Stuart takes the high end in verses, and Bush actually nearly speaks the same lines below him, though hints of her more well-known vocal stylings appear in the chorus. The entire song carries the feeling of the album’s own feel, themes and tones; there is a sense of ancient thought in it, being about a mystic seer who seems to live outside “civilization”, but one who predicts violence, bloodshed and destruction of a kind that Stuart’s quite clearly opposed to, as the album makes more apparent later.

While the “bagpipe” sound may be their trademark, Big Country were not a one-trick pony with guitars. The introduction to “The Teacher” is a favourite: a guitar that slowly plucks along in ringing Edge-like style², but that is answered by a braking, reverberating echo that turns into a dual lead that establishes a melody in advance. Stuart sings out in the chorus, “Teacher will you show to me/The bond between the land and sea/For I am new to mystery/I want everything laid out for me/All of History”, and the sense of obscured, misty spiritualism and embrace of the greenery and natural history seems to shine through in even a story of a first lover. And then Stuart blasts off with a lead in his inimitable style, one that seems to hint at the traditionally-inflected songwriting he exhibits while sounding thoroughly modern at the same time. It’s a strong moment for Mark Brzezicki on the drums as well, who has a rhythm that lies under that lead in just the right way.

The crunchier opener for “I Walk the Hill”, with its crystal, slippery lead and huge drum sound takes the band to a more familiar ground, where short lyric lines are more rhythmic than defining for the song. It has the feeling of familiar rhymes in its simplicity, and echoes traditional songs in a somewhat different way–that infectious, easy-to-learn nature of folk songs that allows them to be picked up by a whole group is present here, though the song is its own. There’s a pride and a humility in the song, both of which almost seem to give cause to flirtations with his native Scottish accent (though born in Manchester, he was raised in Dumferline, Scotland, and comes from a Scottish line). The ending of the song is, admittedly, quite “80s”, with that huge drum sound that defined them (and my aforementioned best friend in college and high school hated–and probably still hates), but played in that spacious way that just calls out for a sing along moment.

When “Eiledon” opens, you are left quite immediately with the notion of greenery in untouched lands in the British Isles, the guitars played with e-bows that smooth out their movements. When Stuart begins singing, and you hear those first few lines, you realize that sense is not misplaced: “The eagle soared above the clouds/The deer ran in the hills/And I may walk in cities/Where the wolf once had his fill”. The way he sings the chorus, his voice peaking at the middle of “Eiledon”, you can hear an aching love of place, which is a different kind of love than that of a person. It’s a continuation, too, of the spoils of man’s advance: the image of the wolf in the city, which he closes the song by referencing again with a call to wake those wolves–and the suggestion that this will bring a reckoning. It is also one of the few songs on the album that does bring in that “bagpipe” sound.

If there’s a passable song on the album, it’s likely “One Great Thing”–the message is solid and the sound is good, but the lyrics and the nature of them is like a determined call for unified voices. It’s a call for peace, a call for this to be the “one great thing to happen in my life”. It’s a good idea, and one of the more earnest calls in a portion of culture that has never been short of the call, but it edges close to a sound of contrivance, even as it doesn’t feel contrived. You believe Stuart means this, but perhaps outreached his grasp with the song he put together–looking too much to bring everyone into shouting along (the video including constantly shifting groups of people singing along encourages this notion, too).

While many who meet me never guess it, I’ve always been a bit of a sap. I actually have a phone, three phones back, in which the first message from someone, saved deliberately, calls me exactly that (it’s not entirely coincidental that said person is actually a Scot). “Hold the Heart” is an absolutely fantastic love song. It’s the story of friendship splintered by the introduction of romantic love, but Stuart sings as someone who accepts that perhaps they acted wrongly in this, yet holding out for this lost love to find their way back–confident of this eventuality, but patient and undemanding. “I will be strong/And I will be warm/I will let no one be near me/Until you will hear me/Just once again”. It’s not sung directly, and that’s clear, so there’s no sense of attempted guilt or other manipulation–just the sound of soaring hope. Adamson’s voice shifts into its clearest for that chorus: “But I would wait a hundred years/To hear you say my name/The way you did before he came/The way you will again”. When he sings out “hundred years”, you can feel that he means exactly that–there’s an intense passion to it that is intensely believable. And I haven’t even said a word about that beautiful e-bow lead line, which just wavers like a slide with a warm sadness throughout the song.

At first, “In your fine green ware/I will walk with you tonight/In your raven hair/I will find a Summer night” appears to speak of another love, but when he sings, “I must leave the land/And the hunger that is here/But the place I stand/Is the one I love so dear/Like a flower in some forest/That the world will never see/I will stand so proud/For I know what we can be”, you know that he is singing of home, of a land and a people–and, indeed, Scotland remembers its lost veterans on “Remembrance Day”. And, more than that, it is a song of Remembrance Day itself, as it is clearly the voice of a soldier leaving with pride in his home, and choosing to “be the sacrifice”. It avoids any of the traps a song like this might fall into–jingoism, hypocritical (considering Stuart’s previous sentiments, and future ones, with albums like Peace in Our Time) war glorification.

When I heard “The Red Fox” and read along with the lyrics, I knew there was something here to “decode”, so to speak–I knew Stuart was singing about something that would be immediate or obvious to others, but lost to me. I guessed that it related to Scottish history, and a quick Googling confirmed this right away. The Red Fox was Collin Roy Campbell of Glenure, tasked with retrieving taxes from the clans who was shot dead in the woods. The clan thought responsible was the Stuarts of Appin, and the prime suspect disappeared. It is generally thought that the Stewart chosen to stand trial, James of the Glen, was not responsible and was railroaded by a jury composed primarily of Campbells (eleven of fifteen were), and presided over by the Chief of Clan Campbell. He was sentenced to death and executed protesting his innocence. There’s no doubt that this is the story Stuart was relaying by song–he begins with the narration of the killer moving to kill Campbell, and switches to the voice of James, singing “Kidnapped in the dead of night/I did no wrong/I will not fight/It was not me/I will not run/But I believe in what was done”. Unsurprisingly, this is another song that carries the rhythm of a traditional Scottish song in many ways, lyrically. One of the best parts, though, is the moment that the song transitions between narrators–a guitar rings, then fades, the second guitar comes in rhythmically, the drums matching its staccato riffing, gradually speeding, until we find ourselves in what is almost another song–for it is, it’s that of James instead of the man presumed to be Donald Stewart. We even get a new chorus, and it’s another good one. Historical songs can be of some difficulty to carry off properly, but this one manages even that trick brilliantly. It’s worth noting this same story is part of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped!

The album’s closer is “The Sailor”, and it is one of the lightest songs, though in that inimitable Big Country style. It has faint strains of songs associated with seamen, yet lifted to strains reminiscent more of a land-locked freedom on distant islands. Which, of course, is kind of the point: it’s a song about finding a distant, ideal future, one separated from a standing existence as sailors. The guitar leads that follow an energetic speed-up of the song seem to carry it off into a clear sky, ending the album on a high note.

It’s sometimes said that this was the end of Big Country’s heyday, or that this was a tired reptition of the two albums that came before, but I’ve often felt that there’s a certain tiresomeness to the idea that a style is valid only for a certain timeframe–certainly, many (most!) things can get tiresome if listened to in rapid succession for an extended period of time, but most often this seems to indicate a dulling of immediacy for a listener–not necessarily a band. It’s not a definitive thought, but it’s one that drives a lot of both my taste and my frustration with music criticism.

The value of this album isn’t that it’s stunningly innovative (per se), as Big Country had already established themselves quite handily by now, and Stuart had now led two bands (as he had actually introduced the “bagpipe guitar” in the Skids). Heck, John Peel called him “Britain’s answer to Jimi Hendrix”–high praise indeed from a man determined to find diamonds in the rough. Perhaps an overstatement, but Stuart’s guitar style never feels like anything familiar, except with regard to his own prior (or later, depending on listening order) work. And it’s this freshness, even if some see it as “stale” within the microcosm of a single career, that helps to render it useful, as it lets a band maintain a stylistic approach while exploring different ideas. Certainly, there are themes Adamson returns to (I should mention, a handful of songs are co-written by Watson and Butler, but only 3 on this album, 2 with Watson and 1 with Butler), but overall, this album feels more like a declaration of a kind of appreciation for Scottish culture and history. Perhaps it’s somewhat more general than that, and certainly it’s married to an anti-violence sentiment, but it’s so defined by tracks like “The Seer”, “The Sailor”, and “The Red Fox” that it’s hard to think otherwise.

This is actually the first album not produced by Steve Lillywhite (whose name will appear a fair number of times in my record collection), but it doesn’t suffer a debilitating change for that, and Millar does an admirable job of bringing the kind of “majesty” and power that Big Country’s style demands. It seems many fans actually think of this as their favourite album, and many more had it as their introduction. It’s not a bad choice in either place, even if “In a Big Country” may hold the quality of recognition that is so helpful to many people in understanding a sound–not least of which is myself.

¹Let’s not mince words: Stuart Adamson died in 2001, and it’s difficult to pretend it’s still the same band without its primary songwriter, lead vocalist and lead guitarist. At least, one established for nearly twenty years at the time of his death, and that only decided to release new material a decade later

²Recall that this is 1986–U2 has achieved fame, War and The Unforgettable Fire are released, but The Joshua Tree is yet to come, and the Edge himself said at Stuart’s eulogy that Adamson wrote the songs he himself wished U2 could.

Day One: 86 – Provocation

Twilight Records ■ TR010

Released ??, 1986

Produced by George Pappas, Billy Swain and 86

Engineered by George Pappas and Dan Vaganek

Side One: Side Two:
  1. New Pair of Eyes
  2. The City
  3. Seven Weeks and One Day
  4. Shade of Black
  5. Kings Mountain
  1. Eyeless
  2. Sonambo
  3. [Interlude]
  4. Wondering
  5. Getaway
  6. Inside

86 is a curious band in the entirety of my music collection–barring the handful of CDs (and even a 7″) I have acquired from people I actually know in person. In some ways, it’s actually even more curious than those items, as it was never issued digitally at all. 86 was a band from Atlanta, GA in the mid-to-late ’80s that got around somewhat in the southeast from what I have gathered, but not much farther. Indeed, the only reason I know them is someone I know who lived in Atlanta at the time they were around–from about ’83-’89–and asked me to make digital copies of her aged records from those days, some of the last she was keeping around, even past owning a turntable. For some time, all I had was the needle-drops of the two records she passed me (Closely Guarded Secret from ’85 and Minutes in a Day from ’86) that I of course dutifully sent back when I was finished.

If you try to find information on them, you will find very little these days. There’s a surprisingly complete page on, there’s a–no, I’m not kidding–MySpace page, and there’s this little blog entry that does actually have needle drops of their entire catalog. I’ve noted in my “What is this?” page that I don’t normally like linking to or including such things, but these two releases I have, at least, were put out by Twilight Records, which was based in Atlanta, and doesn’t appear to have released anything for over two decades–for certain, these albums were pressed on vinyl only, and have not been re-pressed, re-issued or re-released.

This is actually a kind of fun and exciting way to start this blog: a vinyl-only release from a band you’ve probably never heard of, that is wildly out of print. I myself was naturally in need of listening to them as I recorded them for my friend–short of deliberately making the things silent and shutting off all other digital output from a computer not distinctly designed for such purposes, there’s no other way to record analog materials. I found myself liking them more and more as I listened and edited down the tracks to manageable digital forms (separating the tracks and eliminating excessive pre-track silence).

As a result, one day when I walked in to a record store I patronized on occasion and recognized the copy of Minutes in a Day, I pulled it out immediately and found Provocation right next to it, picking it up without a second thought as well. This record store was of course in Carrboro, North Carolina–so not a monstrous distance from Atlanta, and in an area noted for a destination music venue for decades now (The Cat’s Cradle).

Of course, the first song that appealed to me was actually one released as a single, and appearing on Closely Guarded Secret otherwise, but I’ll go ahead and throw out a recording of it from their last show matched to some photos from the same show, all of which was uploaded by a fan to YouTube:

I’m mostly ecstatic because I finally know the full lyrics of the chorus–they were always a bit muddled in my copies!

But, let’s on to this album:

Provocation is, in effect, the only full-length album 86 ever released. They did come from the time frame and genre most associated with post-punk and its offshoots into “alternative rock,” which does explain or excuse the 24 minute running time of Closely Guarded Secret, and Minutes in a Day explicitly labels itself an EP, so its 18 minutes is understandable as well. Still, at 12 tracks and only 31:00, Provocation only just squeaks into a reasonable full length run-time.

If you listen to enough bands labeled “post-punk,” you’ll find that there are at least strains that hold similarities between each other, even as universally there’s not an easy handle to place on the entire genre or group of bands held under it. 86 falls in line more with the Mission of Burma side of things–much more post-punk than alt-rock, which means less pop, and more angles, to oversimplify things a bit. If you know what U2 sounded like in their earliest days, it’s a lot like that, but nothing like what they began to sound like with even War and “New Year’s Day”–more like “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” and “Out of Control.” If you only know U2 from their singles, it’s best you forget I made this comparison! Echoes of Echo & the Bunnymen, The Killing Joke and the Cure are not impossible to find, either.

The album starts with “New Pair of Eyes,” the band pushing things right out of the gate with vocals that drag the music in a forward motion, unified between multiple members of the band and establishing their sound very clearly, with Mac McNeilly drumming furiously and making full use of his kit while Max Koshewa’s bass establishes the melody’s foundations that their vocals truly define and Ken Schenck squeals and bends seemingly unaware of everything else around him, but fitting in all the same. 

“The City” has Koshewa establishing the beat with a muted set of bass chords as Schenck slowly crunches in with similarly staccato guitar and McNeilly’s drums arrive to form the more complicated rhythmic underpinnings of what continues to be a lurchingly forward-leaning but chopped up sort of song.

“Seven Weeks and a Day” (mislabeled on the album sleeve, label, and mis-placed in the inner-sleeve’s lyrics, the only way to properly identify it) is probably my favourite song on the album. There’s a dejected and forlorn tone to the vocals (shared by Koshewa and Schenck, but seemingly primarily Koshewa) that plays contrary to a rather buoyant bassline that slides and sounds almost like what you would expect from a very large rubber ball bouncing, following along with a strong drum attack and guitars that again seem to be playing something that seems out of place but isn’t at all. Eventually, the chorus of, “A loss of life/A loss of limb” shifts in pitch, energy and tone, becoming more desperate and aching as the song builds. A real winner.

The end of side one has McNeilly’s first run on lead vocals as well as Schenck’s, each of which shows (as do many of Koshewa’s lead vocals) the more deliberate approach each takes to their instrument when singing. Rarely leaving the instrument to hang as they focus on their voice, they do typically choose a simple pattern, but an odd and interesting one: McNeilly’s turn on “Shade of Black” (its title being in the song being the only way to confirm the aforementioned track order goof) has him riding his hi-hat over steady bass kicks, until he finishes his vocal part to turn to a furious string of poundings that end out the song, moving from menace to actual threat. Schenck’s approach is not dissimilar on “Kings Mountain,” though he has an almost spoken-word approach to the vocals, while Koshewa again uses bass chords, somewhat unusually, as the focus of his playing for the song. McNeilly is mechanistic but uses more fills when he’s focused on drumming, all of it leading to Schenck’s wild and meandering guitar solo that closes out the song and the side.

Side two has only more good stuff: “Eyeless” is their most punk or hardcore track in terms of energy and aggression, while “Sonambo” has Koshewa referencing “the best laid plans of Mice and Men” over an unusually hesitant sort of bassline, but under the cascading shards of Schenck’s fascinatingly angular guitar work. There’s a brief “interlude” of reversed recording before the album’s final tracks, with Schenck overpowering “Wondering” with a guitar that seems to just arc over the rest of the song like streaks of lightning before it finds itself curving into more comfortable bends, while the vocals of all three members contribute to a deliberately confused atmosphere of conflicting lines. “Inside” has more cheerful bass contrasted with Schenck seeming to cut through the rhythm section with a veritable saw of guitar–not in the sense used to hilarious effect in metal, where the credits read “buzzsaw guitars,” but actually sounding like it’s buzzsawing through the song itself. “Wheel of Confusion” closes the album with another upbeat tempo, frenetic drumming from McNeilly failing to betray his position as vocalist for the song, while Schenck rides his tremolo arm like nobody’s business, wobbling the melody off in strange directions, letting it carry the melody between vocal lines as Koshewa thunders along steadily between either of them, holding it all together.

Honestly, this record stands happily and readily in my collection–it doesn’t feel like some amateurish, almost-there effort from a band it’s just cool to know because they’re kind of obscure. It’s a great record, and should really have gotten out further than it did–but may just have been lost in the shuffle of a time where its sound wasn’t as distinct as it is now.

While Koshewa and Schenck seem to have faded into the background, McNeilly went on to join The Jesus Lizard (who I’ve vaguely ruminated on listening to, but now quite need to) who are much more famous than 86 ever was, or sadly ever will be.

If you want to try grabbing this record in a nice, real, physical format:

Discogs also has a few out for sale, too.

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