Crime and the City Solution’s Paradise Discotheque is an album that should be in everybody’s top ten, Sun 13’s Banjo looks at why success never came for this lost gem.
Crime and the City Solution are a band who seem trapped in a ‘should have been’ situation.
They should have been more successful, their albums should have been selling in huge quantities and they should have been a band that everyone has heard of and loves.
But fate can be cruel and quality is sadly no guarantee of success.
What we are dealing with here is not so much a lost album, as a lost band.
Why this should be the case is difficult to determine. I am put in mind of a comment made by Al Jourgensen when he was asked why he thought Ministry had suddenly become famous and successful back in the 90s, after many years at the fringes.
His reply was along the lines of there being decision made by either fate, record company execs or both, whereby a finger was pointed at a particular underground band, a decision was made that ‘they’ll do’ and levers were pulled, decisions were made and said band were then rocketed to stardom and stadiums.
The flip side of this coin however, is that for the bands who do not have this finger pointed at them, success in any meaningful, financially supportive way is often disallowed.
Such was the fate of Crime and the City Solution, who were denied success at anything other than a cursory level.
This does not mean that the music they made has any less value than that of their more successful peers. On the contrary, few bands that have ever existed made music as beautiful and haunting as Crime and the City Solution.
Their story starts back in Australia in the maelstrom of 1977, when Simon Bonney put the band together in Sydney. There must have been something in the Australian air at the time, as this was when Nick Cave formed The Boys Next Door (later to become The Birthday Party) and Rowland S Howard was involved with The Young Charlatans. Kindred spirits bringing bands into being at the same time.
In 1978, Bonney moved the band to Melbourne where, with the distance between them removed, all three bands became friends to some degree.
The initial lineup lasted only a couple of years before they fell apart, leaving no records behind to tell their story.
Fast forward to 1985. The Birthday Party had fallen apart, as they were always bound to do, and the band’s members were scattered to the winds. Nick Cave, as we know, went on to huge critical and commercial acclaim with a career that still, magnificently, shows no sign of tailing off.
But what of their stellar guitarist, the whirlwind of sonic turbulence that was Rowland S Howard?
Well, Simon Bonney travelled to London and reformed Crime and the City Solution, with Howard at its heart, the guitarist perhaps seeing Simon Bonney as a natural successor to his former partner Nick Cave.
For a while, Birthday Party drummer/guitarist Mick Harvey played with both Crime and the Bad Seeds, also taking on management duties for both bands.
As you may expect from all this, there are common threads joining these bands together, in terms of sound, lyrical slant and attitude. But, while eclipsed by the success of Nick Cave, Crime and the City Solution can lay claim to an output the equal of anything their more famous countryman has produced. But, tragically, one that has had less coverage and reach.
Crime and the City Solution have produced a body of work without flaw, including such gems as the haunting Six Bells Chime, All Must Be Love and Shine.
The cliché is that a band’s debut album is often their best, but Crime grew in stature with each release, reaching a pinnacle on what was to be their last album for 13 years, before reforming again in 2013.
On Crime’s fourth album, everything fell into place perfectly.
Paradise Discotheque starts with single I Have The Gun, an almost jaunty number with country leanings that may give the listener a false sense of normality. The country theme was further explored in Simon Bonney‘s first solo album Forever, itself an incredible, 24-carat gold record more than worthy of its own lost albums feature.
By track two we are into something denser and more intense. The Sly Persuaders is a bluesy tale of corruption and greed, or perhaps even capitalism itself.
Bonney’s words were often very literate, coming across more as a story than actual lyrics and again it is easy to see a connection to the work of Nick Cave. The Sly Persuaders can be seen as a short story, with its cast of shadowy characters and easily-persuaded town residents.
Musically, the importance of Bonney‘s wife Bronwyn comes to the fore on this album. Her input helps lift Crime above the masses, often adding a melancholy counterpoint to proceedings. She also shares song writing with her husband and between them they make a formidable team.
Next track The Dolphins and the Sharks is perhaps Crime and the City Solution‘s high watermark. An unabashed love song, The Dolphins and the Sharks is beautiful and, again, literary. The object of the song’s affection is a beacon that shines out in grim conditions; ‘Waking from the slums of the night, you kick your toes out and touch the light, you are a beautiful and lazy sight.’
Simon and Bronwyn Bonney‘s ability to set a scene with just a few words is again in evidence as the opening lines show: ‘The urban heat is stifling, the kettle’s on the boil. The dishes are dirty and the milk’s about to spoil. The sounds in my head crowd the hours, you brush across me like a summer shower. It ain’t loud now‘ all delivered in a slow drawl.
Musically, The Dolphins and the Sharks is hauntingly beautiful. If you are reading this and by any chance are unaware of Crime and the City Solution, listen to this song and marvel at how uplifting and affecting music can be. The Dolphins and the Sharks is really as good as music gets.
From here, most bands and most albums could be forgiven for lurching into a trough, after so magnificent a peak. But Paradise Discotheque is not most albums. The Sun Before The Darkness features a cyclic, melancholic guitar riff that works its way into your subconscious and stays there.
Live, the guitar in this song was more to the fore, but here in the album version it is buried in the mix adding atmospherics and letting the strings take over and guide the song.
Lyrically, we find ourselves in a world where the deeds of man have stopped the sun from rising, ‘Since the sun has refused to rise, to wake is an unwelcome surprise‘.
Again, there is a story here that conjures images with an efficiency of words: ‘Daybreak, strange shapes on the horizon obscure the sun.’
The only cover track on the album is a version of the traditional Australian song, Motherless Child. Crime and the City Solution‘s version here is a claustrophobic and dense take on this tale of a rootless person travelling the world.
Ironically, this is pretty much what happened to the Bonneys after Crime and the City Solution split up, with work and a restless spirit taking them to live in places such as Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh and The Marshall Islands, before settling in their current home of Thailand.
With side one (remember sides?) out of the way, Crime and the City Solution settle down into the main part of Paradise Discotheque, an incredible, ambitious and brave four-part epic called The Last Dictator.
The songs follow an epic tale of ambition and power seeking, with references to historical and biblical stories. The scale of the songs and the ambition needed to bring them to life is staggering.
The only other record I can think of that matches the scope and aspirations of The Last Dictator is The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists, which has even been performed as a play.
There is something about The Last Dictator Parts 1 – 4 which would also suit being performed in this manner and it is easy to imagine it cast as an epic film, such is its depth and density of language.
Simon and Bronwyn Bonney were clearly working at a level that is quite simply beyond the reach of most lyricists. As good as these songs are, it is perhaps a shame that The Last Dictator didn’t take the form of a novel; the themes and treatments are utterly compelling and work on many narrative levels.
As to the question of why this magnificent album wasn’t more widely received, I really have no answer. When I was younger and in a band myself, I believed that the cream would always rise to the top and all a band had to do to become successful was to produce great records and fantastic music.
Time has robbed me of this illusion and I realise that success is more to do with chance, payola and sheer dumb luck.
The fact that Crime and the City Solution were deprived of these does not make this record any less valuable, any less powerful or any less wonderful.
Seek it out, play it, fall in love with the marvel that is Paradise Discotheque and marvel at the unfairness of the world.
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