Tag Archives: belly

We are home now

It resumed, as befits a great love affair, on a hot summer’s night. Not quite the Valentine’s anniversary that would have knitted together the last twenty three years perfectly but after so long what’s a few months between old lovers ? It resumed in London. Leicester was a hazy memory of long fringes, short sleeved tee-shirts over long sleeved tee-shirts, and long afternoons in bars stretching into longer nights in clubs and watching bands.

She brought her mates again. They’d not been together for a while but the easy camaraderie and friendship was still there: a little gang against the world, like all the best bands. I turned up alone. She was still cool, confident, talented and sassy. And now she was wise and warm too. I was no longer growing out a haircut turned bad. After several missteps from our first encounter I’d settled on something suitably respectable: greying, sensible, unremarkable. I probably should have had a better sense of who I was by now. Maybe I did. Some days I’m not so sure. She was from Boston, Mass. I was from Amersham, Bucks. Twenty three years ago it probably wasn’t meant to be and I guess now that will never change.

Earlier on this blog I wrote about seeing Belly in Leicester back in ’93. You can read that here: https://42at42.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/you-cant-change-the-unchangeably-untogether/. Last night they returned to the UK for a series of reunion dates and, spoiler alert, it was glorious.

As I wrote then there are some bands that you just get. They’re playing at relatively small venues – this isn’t a cash in tour by any means – but they’re all packed out with devotees who probably never thought they’d see them again. I’ve rarely seen an audience so on side with the people on stage. Everyone who was there gets them. There’s just something in those circular, dreamlike, chiming riffs and something in those vocal ticks and trills and something in those lyrics – man, those dark and twisted and beautiful lyrics – and something in those shout along melodies and choruses. They were woven into the fabric of my 20s and I can trace the stitches back across the last twenty years. There are parts of me that those songs spoke to, still speak to, and always will.

We got the singles. “Feed The Tree”, “Gepetto”, “Now They’ll Sleep”, “Super Connected” (a riotous version: they pack more of a punch than I remember). There are a few sound problems but dynamically they were always a tough band for an engineer to pin down: from the quietest whisper in the ear to a roar and back again inside of a verse and chorus. But you know what ? It didn’t matter. We got some lesser known gems, brilliant versions of “Spaceman” and “Thief” (this post’s “we are home now” borrowing its refrain). We got most of “Star” and we got most of “King”. The songs from the latter, in particular, came across really well – a wonderful “Judas My Heart”,  a delicate “The Bees”, a joyous stomp through “Red”. We got two new songs and they offered huge promise although given Tanya Donelly’s solo and recent collaborative songwriting that really wasn’t a surprise.

There were several on stage references – mainly from bassist Gail on usual hilarious form – to reliving the 90s but the thing that struck me over and above everything was just how well the songs had weathered. They don’t sound especially like a stuck-in-the-90s band; that just happened to be when these songs first surfaced. I’m hoping they decide to surface some more now that they’re back playing together again.

Finally, we got “Stay”. Writing about the performance in ’93 I described it as a soaring, spine-tingling, heart-bursting-out-of-your-chest kind of song. I wasn’t wrong then and time has not dimmed its power. Emotionally it was a curious evening in many ways – a revisitation of people we used to be, catching up with ourselves and remembering some former, formative versions of ourselves. Mostly it was a straightforward expression of joy. “Stay” stopped me in my tracks just like it did all those years ago. There’s all sorts of personal reasons why hearing T sing “it’s not time for me to go” cut me to the core and that was the moment, right there at the end, that Belly had me in tears. I’ve a long and distinguished record of crying at concerts but this was the strangest mix of happy tears for what had been and sad ones for some things to come.

Then they were gone. If falling in love, all those years ago, was about possibilities and being at peace, then rekindling that love was about all of the things that love is really about: constance and comfort and fun and feeling like you’re home. Oh, and singing fragile ballads but also rocking like bastards.

We are home now.

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Here we are now, entertain us

23. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (The Spam Ducks / Brian Clough)

I know, I know. Too obvious, right ? Well, I kind of agree but it’s not on the list, not entirely at least, for the obvious reasons. It’s here as much for the, ahem, spirited cover version of it that I was once involved in as it is for kicking in the door to the mainstream for a slew of US alternative bands in the early 90s.

There’s a whole host of musical “scenes” that I could lay claim to have been part of. Part of in the sense of associating with, using as a badge of identity, rather than literally being part of obviously – there isn’t about to be a big reveal wherein I announce that I was actually the bassist in Buffalo Tom. Any of the following would have just about fallen into my later formative years:  Madchester, acid house, the tail end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (sort of), glam / hair metal, and stretching it a bit, C86 if I’d started early and Britpop if I’d started late. Whilst there were bits in all of those that I loved at various stages, including a long infatuation with Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” which baffles me now, I never really felt like I belonged to any of them. For me it was all about the explosion of primarily American bands that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s playing, for want of a better term, alternative rock. Key reference points would include Pixies, Throwing Muses, Belly, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, Buffalo Tom, and Pavement, as well as people like Teenage Fanclub, Ride, and The Wedding Present from the UK.

At around the same time – 1990 to be precise – I began to learn to play the guitar. Play probably isn’t the right verb. Work would be closer, for both me and anyone unfortunate enough to be listening. I learned – in those heady days before any of us had the internet – via correspondence with a friend who used to send me little chord diagrams in the post, gradually progressing to a sort of rudimentary tablature. He’d gone on to University, along with most of my school friends, whilst I waited another year to do fun things like retake a couple of exams and have knee surgery. That year did give me the time and inclination to pick up the guitar though so perhaps these things happen for a reason.

I think the first song I could vaguely bash my way through was “My Favourite Dress” by The Wedding Present but playing guitar also meant that I could begin to relieve myself of vocal duties in the finest band ever to emerge from the villages of the South Gloucestershire area. I’ve relived the glory days of The Muppets elsewhere in this blog but they were not the first band I was a part of. No, that honour belongs to The Spam Ducks who later morphed into Brian Clough. Not literally.

The Ducks / Clough had various line ups over a period of a couple of years but was principally the result of the friendship between three of us – Ian, Russ and myself. Those are their real names. I feel they should shoulder as much responsibility for this as me. The band was an excuse for us to mess around and entertain our friends – we would periodically put on a show at a local village hall. On very, very rare occasions we convinced ourselves that we sounded okay. We had a certain ramshackle charm perhaps, often depending on who we’d persuaded to play drums (never underestimate the power of a good drummer to make a bad band sound okay). I think we mainly did it to make each other laugh and, on that score, we were the greatest band in rock history.

As none of us could really play that well we ended up having more of our own songs than covers; we usually couldn’t play the covers. Song writing involved someone coming up with three chords – some variation on D C G proving especially popular – and someone else turning up with a set of lyrics. I say lyrics… Quite often I think a good idea for a song title arising from something we found funny was then stretched out beyond the point of absurdity. So our set typically included: “Washing Machine On My Mind” (it’s tough on dirt, it’s not kind), “Soap On A Rope” (sitting in my bathtub, it’s not a tin one), “Fishfinger” (genuinely with no adolescent sex-gag connotations – it was about fishfingers that you, you know, eat), and “Alan” (Alan, I’d rather drink a gallon… of beer… than have you near…). “Soap On A Rope” was actually a pretty good little punk song.

When we did venture into cover versions it was typically something by The Wedding Present which was helpful in that a) most of the songs were three chords, b) the vocals don’t require much by way of singing ability, and c) no one in the audience really knew the songs anyway. That all changed when we decided to take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, one of the biggest songs of 1991 and so called anthem for Generation X. So how did we approach Kurt Cobain’s sarcastic, contradictory call for teenage revolution ?

We did it sat in large, high backed armchairs with Ian reciting the lyrics in a bluff Northern accent (part Mark E Smith, part Python Four Yorkshireman sketch). There may have been an odd call and response element to the “hello” “hello” bit leading into the chorus involving waving. It is fair to say that we made the song our own. I think Kurt would have approved. If Bill Drummond had done it people would have called it art.

That was one of our last performances and who knows what we might have gone on to accomplish ? We were definitely branching out into experimental territory – we had supported ourselves at that gig as The Living Carpets (stolen entirely from Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer) and performed the theme song to children’s TV show “Heathcliff” with large pieces of carpet taped around our heads. I guess to an outsider it would have looked like kids making a godawful racket, full of in jokes and nonsense but for us it was just hugely fun. Part of the point, as well, was to provide some entertainment for our friends – even if sometimes they got to laugh at us rather than with us – and hopefully we managed a little of that too.

I don’t listen to “Teen Spirit” very often anymore. Don’t listen to “Nevermind” much to be honest – time hasn’t been kind to the production and I think “In Utero” is a far superior record. For a long time though Nirvana were really important to me. It sounds kind of sad but I can strongly recall hearing the news about Cobain’s death and I was affected by it. That was still no excuse for spending a couple of years trying unsuccessfully to ape his hairstyle though. To everyone that witnessed it: I am truly sorry.

When I do listen to “Teen Spirit” now I tend to remember Russ struggling to switch his distortion pedal off, hear Ian bellowing “hello hello” like he’s Graham Chapman at the start of the Spanish Inquisition skit, and see a group of old school friends staring at us in a mixture of amusement and bemusement. It makes me smile.

You can’t change the unchangeably untogether

8. Star – Belly                                                                               When: 1993

It began, as befits a great love story, on Valentine’s Day 1993. Unlikely as it seems, it began in Leicester.

She brought her mates. I turned up alone. She was cool, confident, talented and sassy. I was growing out a haircut gone bad. She was from Boston, Mass. I was from Bristol, Avon. It probably wasn’t meant to be…

She was Tanya Donelly, her mates were her band, Belly, and whilst I might have wished it otherwise our romance never progressed beyond adulation from afar. There are certain bands, certain singers, that you just get a little territorial about – that you claim as your own and stick with regardless. There are just some bands and some singers that you just feel like you get. In this case, as is often the case, timing played its part.

In 1993 I was in my second year at University – or sophomore year at college, if you will, given we’re discussing a band synonymous with college radio in the early 90s. Not that college radio was something that we had in Leicester, not, you know, being actually in America. It was just something that seemed mildly exotic if you spent that time listening to Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, Throwing Muses, Buffalo Tom and Mudhoney. I digress. Second year, very single, going to gigs on my own… You get the picture ? Yes, we see. It’s not too difficult to imagine that a young man in such circumstances, melodramatic impulses twitching out of control (it was Valentines Day, stick with me) could be receptive to one of those epiphanous moments that music sometimes delivers. And I use the word epiphanous advisedly. If not correctly.

It was also one of those relatively rare occasions when I saw a band promote an album that I hadn’t yet bought – relatively rare now in days of more money than sense, streaming, and Youtube. More common then when the opportunity cost of a record was a night out. Believe me, I sometimes look at that Faith No More live album and wonder at the fun I could have had: it was a double, that’s practically an all-dayer. The upshot of this rudimentary economics diversion was that Belly played a set of unknown (to me) songs and there’s just something more arresting about falling in love with a band in person than on record.

So, worlds turned, the planets aligned, Belly take the stage, and for an hour or so time stands still. I won’t pretend that I can recount the intimate details of that performance, it was too long ago, but, even now, fragments linger. A vulnerable take on “Untogether”, performed by Donelly alone, a joyous, exhilarating rush through “Slow Dog”, and a soaring, spine-tingling, heart-bursting-out-of-your-chest climax of “Stay”. Those were the three clinchers. I’d heard the singles (“Feed The Tree”, “Gepetto”) but it was these album tracks that turned what might have been a fling into a love affair.

“Star” was released in 1993 in the period following Nirvana’s break through in ’91, breaking down the door that Pixies, Sonic Youth, and others had pushed ajar. I guess it would be filed under “alternative”, that entirely unsatisfactory genre definition – alternative to what ? It is certainly different. Beguilingly so.

The album opens with “Someone To Die For”, its chiming, circular guitar figure like a music box slowly rotating, opening its secrets. Slightly eerie, a little sinister. Donelly’s voice floats in, slight reverb lending it a dream like quality; now it feels (and much of the album feels) like that curious state between sleep and waking. There’s a nagging voice here, gently questioning:

Poor thing, poor thing… do you have a sister ?

Would you lay your body down on the tracks for her ?

It’s all a little creepy, somewhat menacing; there’s some unknown danger, threat here which can’t quite be seen. It sets the tone for the rest of the record. I’d like to wake up now.

The sleeping / dreaming theme recurs throughout. Second song, “Angel”, bluntly asserts “I’ve had bad dreams, so bad I threw my pillows away”. It’s a record of the subconscious, images that bubble up in dreams, suggestions of themes – loss, death, nature, childhood – conveyed in fragments, the whole picture never quite revealed.

The menace never leaves: “Witch”’s “you’re not safe, in this house”, “that kid from the bad home came over to my house again, decapitated all my dolls” from “Gepetto”, “see this child twice stolen from me” from “Full Moon, Empty Heart”, “somewhere to scrape your body off my feet” from “White Belly”. It’s twisted and dark, fairy tale nightmares given voice, an exposure of those veiled, dusty recesses of the mind.

The irony is that these dark songs are wrapped in the sweetest melodies and, in some cases, are gloriously catchy. Listen to “Gepetto”, you will be singing along by the end, cheerfully bellowing “decapitated all my dolls” on second listen before then realizing what you’re singing. It tricks you this record. Breezily dances around you, pulling you in, before revealing the trouble in its heart. It’s like a spell. It’s the apple offered to Snow White, the vial marked “drink me” that tempts Alice – take a sip and it will take you somewhere you haven’t been before, somewhere magical, somewhere that’s not quite here. Not everything there is quite as it should be.

The trick works so well that it produced a hit. “Feed The Tree” just broke the Billboard Hot 100, scraped the Top 40 in the UK, and was a staple of MTV. Not bad for a song about commitment and respect told via the metaphor of gathering around the tree at which family members would be buried. It’s an unusual hit but, like “Gepetto”, offers a carefree sing-along if that’s all that you want from it. It also probably would have been the more obvious choice as one of the 42 but I think the album works more effectively as a complete piece, rather than picking out an individual song. It’s a record that I can happily play start to finish and think it works more effectively like that, the recurrence of images and overall mode slowly seeping in. Its follow up, “King”, suffers in comparison by being less coherent. It’s a fine collection of songs (“Seal My Fate” might even be my favourite Belly song) but, to me, lacks the cohesion of “Star”.

So, why lead the piece with that line from “Untogether” ? I’m not sure I fully understand “Star” but I’m not sure that the point is to understand it. It gets under your skin, my unconscious recognizes some of what it’s trying to say even if I can’t consciously process it and pick it apart. It came at a time, the first time really, in my life when I had lost certainty; there was a version of me that I might become and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. It wasn’t the first (or last) time in my life that some people didn’t like me but it was the first time that their reasons for it bothered me. Too sharp, too self assured, too quick to pick an easy laugh regardless of the impact or victim. I guess it was a lack of confidence masquerading as confidence, sarcasm masquerading as wit. Whatever it was it wasn’t something that I was altogether comfortable with and so began the slow process of unpicking and rebuilding. On some level an ongoing attempt to “change the unchangeably untogether”. The resonance of this record is specifically that it deals below the conscious, gives voice to worry and anxiety in an indirect way, attaches stories and images to feelings that can’t quite be articulated in a straightforward way. I very much doubt that I was even aware that it was worming its way into my head, giving safe outlet to parts of myself that I wasn’t sure how to reconcile, but I suspect that’s exactly what it was doing. It spoke to me and still does.

I saw a lot of bands in ’92 and ’93. Saw a lot of bands on my own. It wasn’t something that I thought then concerned me but despite having a wide circle of friends, there is a slight sense of loneliness that I associate with that time. It might be too trite to describe music as the constant, as my companion through that time in my life (through most times in my life) but there is something of truth in it.

Star became one of my favourite records that year and its twisted, fractured pop sound-tracked the rest of that twisted, fractured year. For that night in the Union Hall though, all of that was remote, temporarily forgotten. Falling in love, even if it’s with a band, is about possibilities, about being at peace in the moment and, on a winter’s night in the East Midlands, the possibilities were endless and I was at peace.