Friday, 5 July 2013

ALBUM: Scared To Get Happy - A Story Of Indie Pop 1980-1989 (Cherry Red 5CD Box Set)




The Eighties. There, I’ve only just started writing this and I already feel like I’ve said a bad word. If you’re thinking “no, please, not an 80’s compilation”, then you’re preaching to the converted. You need not tell me how bad that rightly maligned decade was, as I spent my formative years in it too. While friends were in the local chain store picking up a Phil Collins LP, I’d be elsewhere in Southampton, St. Mary's Street to be exact, rummaging through the racks at Underground and Weasel’s Records, delirious with joy at finding a second-hand copy of Love’s “Da Capo”, The Ramones’ “Rocket To Russia” or a 7-inch of Traffic's "Paper Sun".

It came as something of a relief to discover I wasn’t alone. Late at night, despite having to be up for school the next day I would be huddled up in bed with my Sanyo radio-cassette player pressed to my ear, a C90 lined up ready to record the weird and wonderful noises coming from John Peel’s late night Radio 1 slot. Amongst those sounds, there seemed to be a particular contingent made by people who sounded like they may have been digging out the same records as me, throwing everything they heard into a huge melting pot, but also with a real sensibility of great pop hooks and melodies. If something positive can be said of that decade of big hair, Stock-Aitken-Waterman, pummelling power ballads and that greed-is-good, look after number one mentality, it did give a lot of other people something to react against.

Arranged in roughly chronological order, Cherry Red’s 5-CD collection unearths 134 examples of the British independent pop single of the period. The sheer range of the music within is quite staggering. If you’re going to dissect influences, the spirit of punk still hung heavy, but there was also a heavy whiff of acts like Joy Division or Siouxsie & The Banshees (who I always considered a misunderstood psych band anyway). Throw in a healthy dose of The Velvet Underground, some Fairport Convention, Love and The Byrds… oh hang on, then there’s a splash of Scott Walker, even Bacharach & David in places. And then there’s the perfect pop knack of Buzzcocks, the aforementioned Ramones, those Rubble and Chocolate Soup For Diabetics compilations, and then… I could go on for ages (and have indeed been known to after too much cherry wine), but my point is this: the retrospectively applied tag of indie-pop is very much an umbrella term, attempting to band together a massive spectrum of records which are often miles apart from each other, but were all released on indie labels, and are all, in a fashion, pop records. The vast influences tell you a lot about the music on offer here, whilst also telling only part of the story.

You want jangling guitars? There’s plenty - The Dentists, Raw Herbs, Railway Children and Weather Prophets (to name a very few) are happy to oblige, whilst Gol Gappas add a dash of Syd Barrett to the mix. Want some added fuzz? Then The Darling Buds, Shop Assistants and Groove Farm are on hand. A dose of psych, perhaps? Early Creation label releases from Biff Bang Pow! and Revolving Paint Dream certainly sound more 1967 than 1984...


...or if you really want your brain fried then The Bachelor Pad’s “The Albums Of Jack” does it nicely in just shy of two and a half minutes.


Meanwhile, the mere name of Hangman’s Beautiful Daughters tells you where they were coming from, and their offering doesn’t disappoint – like Fairport with Vashti Bunyan sitting in, but feeling ever so slightly goth as well (in a good way).


Fantastic Something’s “If She Doesn’t Smile (It’ll Rain)” was a track I didn’t remember hearing before, although I do seem to recall Smash Hits making it their single-of-the-fortnight at the time. The wait to hear it was worth it, and it now sounds like the massive hit it should have been, somewhere between Simon & Garfunkel and America.


Before Lloyd Cole’s “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken” makes a rare appearance in its earlier indie form, we get a bona fide hit in the form of Aztec Camera’s “Oblivious”, its blend of Forever Changes-like latin flourishes and Hammond swirls still shining thirty years later. If “Oblivious” took the sound of the 1983 indie charts to daytime radio, it still took a switch of label from Rough Trade to WEA to achieve it.



The Hit Parade’s “Forever” is like a bare demo for a proposed summit between Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, only with the tape sped up before vocals were added. It has a delightfully ramshackle summer charm, like following track “Every Conversation” from The June Brides, whose trumpet part really shouldn’t work but… well, it just does. The Seers' "Sun Is In The Sky" brought back a lot of warm memories for me, its "Last Train To Clarkesville" meets "Paper Sun" intro still giving me goosebumps (cue misty eyed nostalgia at live clip...)

Mighty Mighty’s “Is There Anyone Out There For Me” puts the sentiments of Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” in a blender with jangly guitars, and throws in a mention of long defunct fashion chain “Chelsea Girl” for good measure. I defy you not to smile at this one.


The Flatmates and The Popguns were as perfect as pop gets, and their offerings here ("Shimmer" and "Landslide" respectively) do them proud.


Early offerings from The Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets signal where all of this was heading as the set approaches the 1990's, but it wisely stops short of the point where Primal Scream embraced dance grooves and the whole landscape changed, as that's another story in itself.

The select highlights I have mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg (I've not even mentioned Pop Will Eat Itself, Jesus & Mary Chain, House Of Love, The Wonder Stuff, et al), but it is also worth mentioning that not everything here dazzles so much, and listening to the whole thing in one sitting takes some doing. (Jamie Wednesday's "Vote For Love" is still enough to make you hack off your own ears. Sorry Jimbob.)

Still, if you were to ask anyone listening to the set what they would leave out and what they would replace it with you would get very different answers from all of them. Some of the selections I would have liked to see included missed out simply through licensing issues or because the bands concerned said no. In other cases it was to avoid duplication with the earlier comps CD86 and Rough Trade Shops Indiepop 1. Whilst that’s good news for people who own these earlier sets (myself included), it’s not so good for newcomers as both are now sadly out of print and have been selling for silly prices. Maybe their contents would form a good basis for a future set? (hint, hint)

Anyway, I digress. What “Scared To Get Happy” does manage quite brilliantly is to capture a certain musical mindset and attitude in a certain time and place, specifically Britain in a difficult and divisive decade. The set also conveys a feeling of a very disparate range of individuals who shared one thing in common: they formed bands and made records because, at that moment in time, it was something that they quite simply had to do. And, just as the 60’s and 70’s have come to be just as defined in retrospect by records which didn’t sell in big numbers at the time as by those which sold by the proverbial shed full, perhaps it’s about time that the 1980’s, that most superficial of decades on the surface, was accorded the same level of archaeological study.

Alternatively, you could treat this as an antidote to those “100 80’s Oldies” sets that clog up supermarket shelves with the same old recycled hits, and imagine an alternative universe where The Flatmates, not Rick Astley were number 1 for five weeks and The Bachelor Pad were on Top Of The Pops as that week's highest new entry. Just imagine…

Anyway, here’s hoping this set marks only the beginning of a reassessment. Besides, my old Peel show tapes are getting seriously worn out. I’m off to compile my favourite tracks onto a couple of Maxell UR 90’s and dig out my Walkman, and if this side of the 1980’s has never caught your attention, you may be in for a very pleasant surprise. Warts and all, this set is thoroughly recommended.

One final note: The method of encasing the CD's in the (admittedly nice looking) packaging is a disaster waiting to happen. Getting the discs out without damaging the discs or the contraption holding them is like taking part in round 3 of The Krypton Factor. I've put mine in separate cases, and would recommend you do the same.

You can get Scared To Get Happy directly from Cherry Red Records or most other good online retailers, or if you're lucky enough to still have one, your local record shop will be happy to place an order!

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