Crispy Ambulance

TrackAlbum / Single
Four Minutes From The FrontlineFrom The Cradle To The Grave
Concorde SquareLive On A Hot August Night
We Move Through The Plateau PhaseThe Plateau Phase
Simon's GhostThe Plateau Phase
Drug User - Drug PusherFrozen Blood
LoupgarouScissorgun
The DropScissorgun
Quarter CasteThe Powder Blind Dream
Evil EyeThe Powder Blind Dream
Open, Gates Of FireTobacco Perfecto

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Contributor: Mick Schubert

I was eleven or twelve years old when I stumbled across Crispy Ambulance in the usual way – a line buried in the biography of another band somewhere that read, “singer Alan Hempsall appeared onstage with Joy Division, standing in for Ian Curtis at a now-infamous gig”. The show in question took place at Derby Hall in Bury thirty-five years ago, but Crispy Ambulance are still going strong. It’s a contrast to their beginning, in which they were turned down from a number of labels before releasing their debut single on their own label, Aural Assault. Decades later, I would hungrily track down this simple, paper-wrapped 7″ as if it were worth millions.

The B-side to that first release was Four Minutes From The Frontline, an energetic piece written by guitarist Robert Davenport, with cymbal-heavy percussion and an ambitious bassline. That record, along with Alan Hempsall’s brief moment as the lead singer of Joy Division, was enough to catch the attention of Rob Gretton, then Joy Division’s manager and an insider at Factory Records (which had previously declined to sign the band). After Ian Curtis’ death in May of the same year, New Order’s continued enthusiasm for their work and Rob Gretton’s becoming a director at Factory meant that Crispy Ambulance were able to release their second single as a genuine Factory product. Live On A Hot August Night came out as FAC 32, and its two tracks are perfectly matched – the A-side carries an unmistakeable resemblance to their earlier work, but B-side Concorde Square introduces a new dimension; the band’s sound, already recognizable, turned on its head with this bright, almost upbeat offering.

Unfortunately, becoming a Factory band carries with it not only a certain cachet, but also a set of expectations – namely, that if you aren’t setting the stage on fire with a brand new genre of music, you must be copying another Factory band that is. For Crispy Ambulance, that band was Joy Division, and the mere fact that both bands fell under the post-punk umbrella and were produced by Martin Hannett meant that Crispy Ambulance were written off as lacklustre and uninspired. By the time they were ready to release their first full-length album, The Plateau Phase, the band had been shifted to Factory’s more esoteric sister label, Factory Benelux. No loss there for Crispy Ambulance, as the album – initially met with disdain – is highly regarded in retrospect. The track from which the title is taken, We Move Through The Plateau Phase, also sets the mood for the album; it’s a moody but not an oppressive piece, with a sturdy bassline that allows the vocals to carry the song’s atmosphere. Closing the album is Simon’s Ghost, a delicate and beautiful instrumental piece that could hardly be farther from the imitative Joy Division-esque post-punk of which they were accused.

The Plateau Phase was not only the beginning, but also the end of the band’s studio album catalogue in the Factory years. Though the releases didn’t stop immediately – their excellent touring work, supplemented by studio recordings of varying quality, allowed for several more releases – the band themselves had officially disbanded by the end of 1982.

Thanks to the film 24 Hour Party People, everyone (apocryphally, of course) knows that when Tony Wilson famously said, “This is Manchester. We do things differently here,” he was referring to the (apocryphal, of course) F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “American lives don’t have second acts”. In fact, what Fitzgerald said was, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but …” and, much like with Factory Records, it’s also true of Crispy Ambulance.

The band officially re-formed in 1999; shortly thereafter, Frozen Blood, a compilation album of earlier material, was released. Drug User – Drug Pusher, a Peel session track from early 1981, is unique among the group’s more energetic pieces – launching straight into an instrumental opening, the vocals pick up as if they were already mid-song, leaving space for an instrumental break that builds tension for a full minute, then resumes for nearly the entire second half of the song. It’s material like this six-and-a-half-minute track that kept Crispy Ambulance fans looking for more over their long absence.

Though the Crispy Ambulance reunion was intended for a single show only, they opted to continue playing together and, two years later, recorded their first studio album in twenty years, Scissorgun. It’s explosive proof that their time away did nothing to harm the band’s sound; Loupgarou (my personal favourite, possibly proving my own latecomer status) is almost a punk song, fast from start to finish, featuring characteristic guitar chords over a rolling rhythm section and some of Alan Hempsall’s most forceful singing. (It also holds the distinction of being the only song whose lyrics have ever been explained – it’s “about a man who keeps changing into a werewolf,” Hempsall says.) The Drop is more typical of Crispy Ambulance’s mood pieces, all slow beat, rumbling bass, and drawn-out vocals. Definitive proof, if any was needed, that the band reconvening at the turn of the millennium is the same one that separated two decades earlier.

And the momentum continued. The Powder Blind Dream came out two years later, a continuation along the trajectory Scissorgun started. Kicking off with a well-chosen sample, the first track, Quarter Caste, has a similar flavour to the driving rhythms of Loupgarou and the jangling guitar that often typifies Crispy Ambulance’s faster songs. Thanks to this track, it was evident right from the start that this album was an evolution of the last. Though songs like Triphammer, Lucifer Rising and Pain And Pleasure prove that the band’s range was as broad as ever, it’s Evil Eye that seems the most likely to be a crowd pleaser, with standalone verses in signature Crispy Ambulance style and a chorus easy for an audience to join in on. The almost artificial slowness of the final track leaves listeners feeling incomplete, waiting for the promise of the next track. Alas, there has yet to be one …

The wait for another album, though, is at least broken by the release of a promotional album – a collection of rare, unreleased tracks by LTM Recordings. Included is the studio recording of Open, Gates Of Fire, a song that first appeared on Crispy Ambulance’s live album Accessory After The Fact. Bold chords accompany a restrained rhythm section and minimal ornamentation, while Hempsall’s lyrics match perfectly – individually fierce, but as a whole tempered by the same economy that characterizes the song after its commanding start.

That’s not the end of Crispy Ambulance’s story, though – the band have continued to play sporadic live gigs since their reunion. It was perhaps even a little disingenuous to say that there was no next track to follow their last studio release, because although that may be true right now, there is, in fact, a Record Store Day release (accompanied by yet another Factory Records reunion show) that I, for one, am eagerly awaiting. If we’re lucky – and we have been before – then this album, too, will prove not to be the last we hear from Crispy Ambulance.

Crispy Ambulance 1980

Crispy Ambulance in 1980 and 2003

Crispy Ambulance 2003

 

The Official Crispy Ambulance Website

Crispy Ambulance at LTM Recordings

Crispy Ambulance biography (iTunes)

Mick Schubert is a writer and editor by trade. He rambles about music at Punk Rock Warlord, creates books and comics in his spare time, and tweets short-form nonsense at @Jeyradan. If you can’t find him, he’s probably gone to a gig.

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