Things are happening with Southport’s Bobhowla, so we threw 13 questions at frontman Howard Doupé to get to the bottom of it all.
As the debut album from post punk pioneers Magazine turns 40, Banjo looks back at the start of an incredible story.
Back in the heady days of 1978, schisms and splits had already started happening in punk.
As a new movement, it is often said that there were no rules when punk first started, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that the rules were still being written. As such, some of its earliest protagonists were making shifts and leaps away from the basic noise that would come to define punk as a music.
One of the first to rail against perceived confines of punk was one Howard Devoto. His first forays into music was with Buzzcocks, who were a vital part of punk as perhaps the first punk band to form outside of London, the first to release an independent record and as organisers of Sex Pistols hugely influential gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. They were also a brilliant band.
Famed for their perfect singles and for naturally adding an impeccable pop slant into punk, Buzzcocks’ early material was spiky, edgy and rough around the edges. Devoto stood out as a front man, avoiding a confrontational stance and singing about his own observations on the world around him. If you want to hear a record that completely sums up the sound and spirit of 1977, listen to the band’s Spiral Scratch EP.
Devoto however, had ambition and vision that stretched beyond Buzzcocks’ brief and left the band in early 1977, refusing to be hemmed in by the rules he saw being written for punk. His next step was to form Magazine, a band who operated to no such barriers. Much of 1977 was spent recruiting new band members and writing new songs. And what a band Devoto put together.
Guitarist John McGeogh was a real find. Undoubtedly one of the best and most influential guitarists of his generation, McGeoch would go on to play for Siouxsie and the Banshees, PiL and Visage. Another find was bass player Barry Adamson, who muscular funk basslines added much depth and difference to Magazine. Adamson would go on to an idiosyncratic solo career, as well as playing with Nick Cave following the Birthday Party’s split.
The first sight of new material from Devoto’s new band was the single Shot by Both Sides. It was an instant classic and immediately a hip record to admit to liking. Magazine came off the starting blocks with instant credibility and cool. Shot by Both Sides was a startling declaration of intent for a new band and gave Magazine their first appearance on Top of the Pops.
It was also deceptively punk and straightforward, the rest of Magazine’s set was less conformist and had artier ideas.
Released in June 1978, the music press were practically salivating when the album was released. Opening track Definitive Gaze set out the album’s stall well; a keyboard led song with a funk feel, already Magazine were presaging much of what was to come. Much of what became known as the New Romantic scene can be found here. The loose grooves, the futuristic sounds and art house sensibilities here were laying foundations for a future, which one can imagine is what Devoto had in mind when he left Buzzcocks.
Second track My Tulpa followed this further, guitars and keyboards blending to create a music that developed and built on the dislocation that punk had engendered. Adamson’s bass particularly deliberately looks to be creating something outside of the rock or punk arena.
By the fifth track, Burst, Magazine had become epic. Perhaps articulating his reasons for leaving punk behind, Devoto sings ‘Once you had this promise on the tip of your tongue. But it went without saying, it went on too long’. The repeated closing line of ‘Keep your silence to yourself, you will forget yourself’ gave post punk its first anthem.
The next track, Motorcade, gave it its second. A tale of an important figure driven around in cars while people turn their heads to stare, but who is unable to even choose ‘between coffee and tea’.
For all their epic leanings, the band were not without a sense of humour however, as the ending to throwaway track Recoil demonstrates.
Perhaps the most lasting classic on this astonishing debut is The Light Pours Out of Me. A slow burning, brooding examination of ennui, here Devoto’s literary leanings also came to the fore. In interviews, Devoto referenced Camus and Dostoyevsky, where other bands were slinging political slogans around.
This is perhaps where Magazine’s strength lay, in their ability to marry together punk roots, a vision of the future and a keen literary mind. This can be a fine line to walk without falling off to one side or the other, but Magazine walked it superbly.
Closing track Parade finds Devoto surprisingly singing a love song. Of course, there are twists in the tale and examinations of love, but there are also genuinely touching moments, such as when Devoto sings ‘Now that I’m out of touch with anger, now I’ve nothing left to live up to, I don’t know when to stop joking, when I stop I hope I am with you’. The music itself is almost in ballad territory, but with a haunting futuristic keyboard riff that again led to a lot of music that was yet to come.
Real Life is a classic album and still regularly turns up in Best Album lists, with Uncut ranking it as the 37th best album of all time in 2006. It is also a record that offered a way out of the cul de sac that punk could to easily find itself trapped in, a pointer to the future and a source of inspiration for generations to come.
Magazine’s next album Secondhand Daylight was to bring keyboards even further to the front and again gathered rave reviews. Sales were disappointing however and it seemed that Magazine had peaked commercially. Commercial or not, Magazine left behind them a mighty back catalogue that sounds as interesting and inspiring now as it did then.
Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box was an album that transformed the post punk landscape, Getintothis’ Banjo looks back at one of music’s masterpieces.
The post punk boom of the late 70s and early 80s made stars of some strange people.
Marc Almond bringing high camp to Top of the Pops, Phil Oakey appearing in Jackie magazine with a chain between his two pierced nipples and Adam Ant displaying his Pure Sex tattoo to theatres full of young fans are but three examples of how punk sensibility clashed with a world not quite ready to take it all in.
We can add to this Julian Cope standing on a piano, tripping his face off and wearing a night shirt on Top of the Pops, with The Teardrop Explodes.
There is a sense with all of these of square pegs in round holes, of people perhaps not immediately cut out for mainstream fame bringing their baggage with them.
And none more so than the archdrood himself, Julian Cope.
When they first started, The Teardrop Explodes were a fine, if slightly odd, band formed in the embers of the punk scene that had raged through the UK. Countless bands were inspired by the likes of Sex Pistols and The Clash to pick up guitars and make music of their own.
Where the post punk bands covered themselves in glory was by refusing to follow the path of identikit punk thrash that was well trod by 2nd and 3rd generation punk bands and by applying their emerging musical abilities in a new and different way.
These bands had an innate desire not to follow the crowd. This led to some of the most wonderful music we will ever know being committed to vinyl by bands who were not interested in fame or its trappings, doing what they were doing out of a need to create.
It was in these post punk bands that the true spirit of the explosions of 76/77 bore fruit.
One of these bands was The Teardrop Explodes.
Formed around the triumvirate of Eric’s, Probe and the Armadillo Tea Rooms, Liverpool bands sprung up regularly, often lasting no longer than a day or two. Eventually though, some of these bands left the tea rooms for the rehearsal rooms and actually started writing songs.
The Teardrop Explodes wrote three songs, Sleeping Gas, Camera Camera and Kirby Worker’s Dream Fades. Bill Drummond, ex of Big In Japan persuaded the band to record all three songs, releasing them as the band’s first single.
On it’s release, Sleeping Gas was awarded Single of the Week in the weekly music papers. Suddenly The Teardrop Explodes found the spotlight shining on them for the first time.
Further singles Bouncing Babies and Treason were released and The Teardrops were one of Liverpool’s brightest hopes. However, success eluded them and their rivals Echo and the Bunnymen signed to a major label and left Julian and co behind.
It wasn’t until 4th single Reward went top ten that it seemed to be time for The Teardrop Explodes to have their own chance at the big time.
Treason was subsequently re-released and made it to number three, and The Teardrop Explodes became pop stars.
Lacking a stable line up, Julian Cope became the band’s face and focus, essentially employing and firing a series of players who were little more than session musicians.
Debut album Kilimanjaro gathered rave reviews and it seemed that everybody loved The Teardrop Explodes. What could possibly go wrong.
Well the answer to that is pretty much everything.
Pop fame sat uneasily on Cope’s shoulders and took to taking huge amounts of LSD and isolating himself. An American tour came to a messy end and Cope sacked fan favourite Alfie Agius. By now he had a reputation approaching that of Mark E Smith when it came to the ruthless way he dealt with band members.
Drummer Gary Dwyer was the only other continuous member of The Teardrop Explodes, and deserves great credit for his part in their story and for being the prop that held the band up when falling apart may have seemed inevitable.
Nevertheless, anticipation for the Teardrop’s 2nd album was so high that Cope had wanted to call it Everybody Wants To Shag The Teardrop Explodes.
Eventually called Wilder, it was in part designed to turn off The Teardrop Explodes new audience of pop fans.
There is still a rich vein of Cope’s love of classic pop running through Wilder, but it has an angular, awkward and arty approach that belied their status as staples of Smash Hits magazine.
Opening track Bent Out of Shape is a straight forward enough song, but underpinned by some strange noises and opens with Cope singing “All my life I’ve been bent out of shape, can’t you see it’s killing me’ adding “these are dreams that I never had” as if he has already had enough of the fame that landed at his feet.
Next up is Colours Fly Away, starting with a brass band section that harks back to the glory days of Reward. Fans could be forgiven that The Teardrop Explodes have picked up from where Kilimanjaro left off. But again, the opening lines show Cope’s unease with his success: “More by luck than judgement here I am, smiling at the fighting once again.”
Seven Views of Jerusalem is a jumble of beats and squawks with Cope seemingly in stream of consciousness territory, singing “I cut off my nose to spite my face, look at all pests around the place. Everyone’s laughing they think it’s disguise, but haven’t you seen all the lines round my eyes”
Lyrics such as these seem a long way from the same person who burst into the public’s affections by singing “Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news”
Pure Joy is trite and throwaway, but next track Falling Down Around Me is one of the album’s highlights. Built around a stuttering mix of bass and drums that seem to have little in common with the guitar track, the song has echoes of David Bowie from his early days, in particular the World of David Bowie album that was so popular amongst the Liverpool post punk cognoscenti.
The Culture Bunker is classic Teardrop and references Cope’s early days in Liverpool as he mentions The Crucial Three, the band he started with Pete Wylie and Ian McCulloch, as he sings “I’ve been waiting so long, waiting for The Crucial Three, wondering what went wrong”
Passionate Friend is another classic. Apparently written for Ian McCulloch’s sister, thus deepening the rift that had grown up between the two one time friends.
Tiny Children takes things down several notches and gives us a sense of Julian as a lonely figure writing his disquiet and depression down for us all to read, as if we were sneaking furtive glances through his diary. Lyrics such as “I could make a meal of that wonderful despair I feel” provide a glimpse into a troubled psyche and his approach to the people he now has to deal with is detailed when he sings “But each character is plundering my home and taking everything that is my own”
The chorus of “Oh no, I’m not sure about those things that I cared about. Oh no, I’m not sure, not anymore” give the impression of an unhappy soul rocking himself in a dark corner.
Like Leila Khaled Said further details an unhappy outlook, for some reason juxtaposed with Leila Khaled, member of the revolutionary Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the first woman to hijack a plane. Smash Hits suddenly seems a long way off.
And The Fighting Takes Over continues the downbeat, introspective theme still further, reading like an examination of Julian’s failing marriage in a sad but blame free manner, concluding “we were just a pair of little children, two children, no surprise”
Closing track The Great Dominions is perhaps the greatest song The Teardrop Explodes ever recorded, an open-hearted epic that again seems to look at his crumbling marriage.
The band provide a sympathetic backing as Julian pours his heart out in his own symbolic manner. The Great Dominions reads like the aftermath of a long and emotional argument, with Cope singing “Suddenly I came to my senses, a night on fire put out all traces of feeling”
The ending refrain saw Julian singing naked in a dark studio, his voice cracking as the tears come towards the end of the repeated line “Mummy I’ve been fighting again”, as the song climaxes around him.
As emotional as this is, it is difficult to see that the young fans who bought Reward would take to this tearful soul bearing with the same enthusiasm.
Of course, the post punk fans that the band had brought with them were more than able to love the sounds they found on Wilder, it was the pop fans that might have found it a more challenging listen.
Cope’s aim was not to make bad music, but to shake of his teenybopper image, a mantle that is easy to imagine never sat well on his shoulders.
Before the band could finish their third album, it was all over for The Teardrop Explodes. They remain one of the bands who have never reformed and probably for good reasons. Theirs is a tale that has too much depth, too many messy relationships and involved too many bad trips.
But, despite Wilder perhaps starting the death knell of one of post punk’s greatest bands, it is a mighty statement and one that deserves returning to.
A pop star who is prepared to open himself up to his public in this manner is a rare thing. We are reminded of the troubled output of Syd Barrett and Tim Buckley, but presented in a pop arena.
Wilder is a bloody-minded and honest look into the downside of success, when all The Teardrop Explodes had to do to ensure their continued success was to put on a happy face and smile for the pages of the pop glossies.
And as such, it is one of the bravest documents a band hungry for fame have ever committed to tape.
We all know how this is supposed to work. A band comes together and make an album that is so good that people buy it in droves, we talk about it in hushed tones for years to come and the band go on to create an enviable canon of records and gigs.
Except it doesn’t always happen like that. Sometimes incredible records fail to gain traction with the zeitgeist in the way that they should. The result of this is that record and band stay under the radar, get pressured or dropped by a record company looking for a return on its investment and they break up, ignored and disillusioned.
There seems to be no readily discernible reason for this, other than success in the music business is more a matter of luck than of talent. In other words, bad luck and a lack of lucky breaks can doom bands and records to undeserved obscurity.
But this does not mean that these records are any less wonderful. They still excite and amaze, they still float the listener away on clouds of musical perfection. Their worth is measured not in terms of units shifted, but in souls moved.
Such a fate befell One Dove and their Morning Dove White album.
It is, without questions, a towering thing of beauty, but it was beset with difficulties from its inception.
One Dove came from the 90’s dance music boom, combining chilled electronica, dub and dance floor appeal. Their first single Fallen was a hit in clubs at the time, which led to them signing to the influential Junior Boy’s Own label, changing their name from Dove, due to a band of that name already doing the rounds.
JBO released a superb Andrew Weatherall remix of Fallen, but already One Dove’s run of bad luck had started. Fallen was withdrawn after just one week, following complaints about an unlicensed harmonica sample from a Supertramp song.
A second single, Transient Truth followed and gathered further acclaim for One Dove.
Junior Boy’s Own was taken over by London Records and the new masters wanted a more commercial sound for One Dove. To this end, they brought in Stephen Hague to remix next single White Love. Hague was a big name producer who worked with the likes of New Order, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, so his pedigree was good.
His work with the band earned them favourable comparisons to Saint Etienne and brought them wider attention.
However, the stage was set for tension.
One Dove resented Hague’s commercialising of their sound and resisted attempts to sugar coat their songs. The release of Morning Dove White was delayed by a full year as the band fought with their record company about how they should sound.
The impasse was only broken when it was agreed that Hague coulis only remix their singles if they were in the studio with him at the time.
On its release, Morning Dove White only managed to make number 30 in the album charts. Listening back to it now, this is a shame of near criminal proportions.
Morning Dove White is a sublime record. As much as Stephen Hague may figure in One Dove’s story, this album has Andrew Weatherall running through its veins.
In many ways, Morning Dove White is Screamadelica’s little sister, younger and more effortlessly cool than its more grown up sibling.
Both albums carry the same sense of clubbing euphoria and both perfectly capture the spirit of the times in their grooves, but perhaps Morning Dove White is less likely to finish its bag of pills in one go and then fall asleep on your sofa for the rest of the weekend.
Morning Dove White starts with off with Weatherall’s remix of Fallen, minus the Supertramp sample. Singer Dot Allison introduces the album by seductively whispering ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you any of this. One thing is, don’t ever tell anyone I told you this. Don’t save me, just forgive me. Forgive me, because I was only thinking of you.’
Straight away, Allison has drawn us in, made us her confidants. We are friends and we want to know more. The music is rich with Weatherall’s Screamadelica-esque swoops, beats and whooshes. One Dove have created a sound that would be perfectly at home on the dance floor and for a post clubbing chill out session.
There is an unhurried fell to the songs, with the first two tracks clocking in at just under 18 minutes, a link to the fact that their roots lay in long nights on club dancefloors.
Second track White Love exceeds ten minutes on its own. Here in its Guitar Paradise Mix, it builds slowly, with guitar chords feeding back before the beats kick in.
The drug references of the 90s are present and correct, with Allison singing ‘this powerful, this pure, behind our eyes. And when I trip, when I fall, it’s just like velvet’.
Despite being only the second track, White Love is the album’s centrepiece, an epic, sprawling trip of a song that, despite it’s length, never outstays its welcome.
Breakdown carries the vibe forward with dub basslines and a Higher Than The Sun beat and Dot Allison lamenting ‘I remember the night you left me, the moon was full, I felt empty.’ It isn’t all euphoria for One Dove, as heartbreak and melancholy seep into their songs like cold night air.
There Goes The Cure and Sirens are blissful and almost beat free excursions, drifting along on a haunting piano or organ refrains, moments of calm and reflection.
The version of Transient Truth here is a dubbed out nine minute epic, with a Jah Wobble-esque bassline and runs of eastern melodies. It is stunningly beautiful and the album’s least commercial sounding song. So far on Morning Dove White, every track could be a single, but Transient Truth is out there.
Morning Dove White finishes with the yearning Why Don’t You Take Me, a straight forward pop song buried under layers of dub and a yearning not to sound too commercial.
Reissues of the album have extra tracks in the shape of various remixes, but the original Morning Dove White is more than enough. It takes you out, shows you a good time, tells you how it has had it heart broken and walks home with you. At the end you are best friends, you know each other and you will always be there for each other.
Despite these creative peaks and some extraordinary music, One Dove’s experience had been a frustrating one. Part way through recording their second album One Dove split up, with the business side of the music industry proving too much for them and their creative vision.
Dot Allison went on to have an acclaimed career as a solo artist, releasing further beautiful music and collaborating with the likes of Massive Attack, Death in Vegas and Slam.
But, for a beautiful fleeting moment, One Dove existed and our lives were the better for it.
There is probably an alternative universe where One Dove’s path through the world was smoother and their artistic vision was encouraged rather than whitewashed and where they are revered as gods, but for us here in this universe, we have Morning Dove White to love and to cherish.
And that is enough.
American Music Club made some of the best but most overlooked music around and Sun 13’s Banjo wonders why.
The point of our Lost Albums features, if there is one, is ostensibly to shine a light on some records that we feel have been criminally ignored.
If we’re being honest with ourselves here, it is also a chance for us, as music fans, to vocalise our frustrations, to turn to the ether and scream “Why!”
Why is it that these albums are so overlooked when the music they contain is some of the best that has ever been made?
We know there are a variety of reasons (luck, payola and the vagaries of fashion to name but three), but there is little more frustrating than listening to an album that you absolutely know is one of the most incredible things you have ever heard and know that it will never be discussed in hushed tones in the pub (remember pubs?), never feature in the Best Album of the Decade features that regularly appear in music mags and will languish in your record collection, lost but loved.
And few bands have this fate applied to them more thoroughly than American Music Club.
Singing songs of love, heartbreak and alcohol, American Music Club mixed rock, folk, country and punk and created a rich seam of Americana that has withstood the passing of time to sound as good and as vital as the day it was created.
In truth, we could have chosen any of their albums for a Lost Albums feature, such is the quality and the near obscurity of their recorded works, but Everclear is the one that should have brought this all to an end.
Everclear is the record that was meant to take them overground, to REM style levels of acclaim and adoration.
That it didn’t is testament to the fact that the cream does not always rise to the top and that, despite all the essential elements being present and correct, quality is no guarantee of success.
I have felt personally disappointed over these Lost Albums things before, but this is the one that actually upsets me. American Music Club should have been one of the 90’s biggest bands, but instead, mention of their name is greeted by blank stares and shrugged shoulders from those who should really know better.
Everclear is an album that deserves to be found.
My first exposure to American Music Club came when they played Reading Festival’s second stage back in 1991. A friend had heard them compared favourably to Swans, who were going through their acoustic phase at the time.
On returning from the festival, we checked out their California and United Kingdom albums and fell in love with singer Mark Eitzel’s voice and his candid lyrics. This was the start of a long journey to the heart of both Eitzel and American Music Club.
The band had built up a small but dedicated fanbase and their albums so far had received positive, if unspectacular press, but Everclear was a step up in terms of production and the potential for mass appeal.
Everclear hit a wall of inexplicable commercial indifference, but the critical reception was such that Rolling Stone magazine put it in their top 5 albums of the year and put Eitzel on the front cover, hailing him as Songwriter of the Year.
Later, The Guardian was to describe him as “America’s greatest living lyricist”.
Following this burst of publicity, American Music Club signed to Virgin Records for their follow up and a good deal of money was spent on their promotion.
So all the ingredients for success were there – wonderful, critically acclaimed music, a cult fanbase and major label support. It seems unbelievable that all this could have led to an attempt at success that was almost heroic in its failure.
Eitzel himself described American Music Club as a band “destined to fall through the cracks”, but given his self-deprecating nature this is not too surprising.
This deprecatory streak has been with him a long time, causing him to question the value of his work on a seemingly constant basis. His early demo tapes were given the titles Mark Eitzel’s 4 Track Tape of Shame and Mean Mark Eitzel Gets Fat while his two favourite solo albums are The Invisible Man and The Ugly American.
By the time they recorded Everclear, they should have been on an upward arc that would lead to great things.
The album starts off with the sublime Why Won’t You Stay, a short opener, clocking in at just under three minutes that manages to cram more emotion and pathos into is brief life than many bands do across whole albums.
Why Won’t You Stay seemingly finds Eitzel looking on the form of a sleeping lover, unable to sleep himself and pondering “Why do you do this to me, showing me all that I’m good for is to watch you sleep”
Eitzel’s insomniac imagination makes him suppose that the sleeping girl is, in fact, dead, wondering “seems like nothing’s too good for this life, but some things are too good for this world.”
Eitzel came out as gay in 1985, but his muse remained the woman he had lived with for over 8 years, Kathleen Burns. He later turned down offers to become any kind of a gay spokesman as, he reasoned, he was still writing love songs to a woman and was therefore not the kind of person they were looking for.
All this adds to the song’s despair as, all these years later, Eitzel was still able to recall moments from their relationship that gave him cause for concern, right down to how he felt watching his lover sleep.
The music is a slow and slight waltz and American Music Club back Eitzel’s tales up perfectly. Their playing is restrained and sensitive throughout, combining country, folk and the alternative rock that was taking America by storm at the time.
As album openers go, Why Won’t You Stay sets the scene perfectly, as American Music Club lay out their emotional stall.
Second track Rise is a change of pace altogether. An uplifting song that finds Eitzel in a rare optimistic mood, telling us “Everything can rise.” The song is a sweeping roar, with guitarist Vudi showcasing his trademark blend of delicate picking and abstract noise perfectly.
Vudi was integral to the sound of Everclear, his approach to his instrument adding an experimental edge and creating huge washes of sound or delicate arpeggios to the sound. Without Vudi, Everclear would be a much different, poorer album.
Bruce Kaplan‘s pedal steel guitar also gave the band an extra dimension and an added depth. It’s a skillful player of the pedal steel that can add texture to a song and not make it sound like a country cliche,
Meanwhile, bassist Dan Pearson is the only player I have ever seen with a three string bass.
Clearly American Music Club were far from being a conventional band.
Rise was written as Eitzel’s friends were succumbing to AIDS and he reasoned that with this going on in their lives, the last thing his friends wanted to hear was another maudlin song about his ex-girlfriend, so he tasked himself to write something positive.
Miracle on 8th Street looks at Eitzel’s issues with drink, his barfly tendencies that have occupied a large part of his life. He is an observer, looking at himself and noting “I know you’re strong enough to live in a world where all the magic’s gone. I watch your hands tremble, you reach for another sip. Now all your luck is gone.”
Ex Girlfriend is an album highlight and one of American Music Club’s best songs. In it, Eitzel is trying to comfort someone over the end of a relationship, saying “Your ex-girlfriend told me you spent all yesterday crying. Hey, I didn’t know things were going so bad for you. Maybe you’re just trying to get her to come back to you or work your way out of the cynical attitudes that protect you.”
Again, Vudi lifts the song and the band offer empathetic playing to carry the sad tale.
The album’s overriding themes are of despair at the creator’s life and situation. This feeling was never to really leave Eitzel and permeates his work.
Sick of Food is another highlight that sees its writer tired of what life has to offer but still desperate to live it. “I was sick of love, and so I just stopped feeling, but I couldn’t find anything to take its place”
Drink again rears its ugly head; “I’m sick of drink, so why am I so thirsty?” Before asking “I just called to ask you what I did last night.”
The Dead Part of You looks at the cost of committing to being part of a couple in a relationship, as Eitzel batters away at his acoustic guitar and sings “he has taken everything and there’s so little of you left”
Part of Eitzel’s skill is to document the dark corners of emotion and return with lyrics that we can relate to, that we can apply to our lives. His lyrics are heartfelt and meant and come from a place of sincerity, albeit with a mean eye that is often turned inwards.
What the Pillar of Salt Held Up shows Eitzel’s propensity for long and ungainly song titles that reached its peak with What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn’t Found In The Book Of Life on their 6th album, Mercury.
What the Pillar of Salt Held Up is a song of fragile beauty with serenely picked acoustic guitar and a superb vocal.
Final track Jesus’ Hands is a fitting way to end an album like Everclear; a drinking song where Eitzel tells his audience “Well I’d like to hang out but I can tell that you’re not a drinking crowd. I got places to go, people to see, I got a thirst that would make the ocean proud” before telling us that he sees himself slipping through Jesus’ hands, but the lure of the bottle is too strong to resist.
And with that, Everclear comes to the end of its journey, a journey that has taken us from hopeful highs to crushing lows, taking in broken relationships, alcoholic hazes and a genetic disposition to see the darker side of life.
It is perhaps this that denied American Music Club their rightful place at the top table. Theirs is a vision that rarely sees the sunshine, instead choosing to focus on the shadows.
This is not a forced position, something that was done to aim for an audience, but rather a reflection of the outlook and mindset of Mark Eitzel, something that ran through their songs and their albums.
Their major label follow up, Mercury, is another incredible record that was promoted with tours, an extravagant advertising campaign complete with the likes of double pack CD singles courtesy of Virgin records, but it was to come to nothing.
Its first song contained a line that seemed to sum up Eitzel when he described himself as being “drunk on the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink.”
American Music Club split up in 1995, with Eitzel releasing a string of excellent but similarly under performing albums.
In 2001 he had new songs ready to go but couldn’t afford to record them. It wasn’t until a friend won the lottery and wanted to finance the recording session that he was able to go back into the studio to record the beautiful Don’t Be A Stranger. That this album had to rely on the kind of odds involved in a lottery win to even exist is nothing short of ridiculous.
An American Music Club reunion followed in 2003, touring and adding another couple of albums before disbanding for good in 2010.
These days Eitzel is still touring, but playing small venues and failing to make a living from music. In 2019 he announced a ‘Living Room tour’, where he posted on Facebook asking for people to volunteer a room in their house so he could play a gig to a maximum of 60 people.
In a recent interview, Eitzel admitted that “Of course I secretly hanker for Bruce Springsteen’s level of success, are you kidding? If I could actually play a show and have people not talk through the show and not have to deal with smelling the toilet from the stage. But I don’t know how I’ll achieve it, now that I’m old and over.”
There is an almost casual disregard for American Music Club these days. Their Facebook page is completely empty and their website is little more than Wikipedia links.
Hopefully, there is an alternative world where Mark Eitzel and American Music Club’s talent and their superb canon of songs were recognised for the treasures they are, where they headlined Glastonbury and played the world’s biggest stage. A world where Mark Eitzel doesn’t have to concern himself with the smell of the toilets on stage or playing in people’s living rooms.
Unfortunately, that world is not this one. But at least in this world we still have the music of Mark Eitzel and American Music Club. And for now, at least, that will have to do.
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.