The Mighty Lemon Drops
|Track||Album / Single|
|Inside Out||World Without End|
|My Biggest Thrill||Happy Head|
|Now She's Gone||The Janice Long Session (12")|
|Out Of Hand||Blue Guitar (Chrysalis) AZURX 4|
|Into The Heart Of Love||Laughter|
|At Midnight||Chrysalis AZURX 13|
|You Don't Fast||Sire W 0032|
|My Shadow Girl||Sound ... Goodbye To Your Standards|
|Sympathise With Us||Uptight: The Early Recordings 1985/1986|
The Mighty Lemon Drops (l to r): David Newton (guitar), Keith Rowley (drums), Tony Linehan (bass), Paul Marsh (vocals, guitar)
Contributor: John Hartley
Along with several million other users of social media I was recently encouraged to name the three albums that had changed my life. For some people this evidently proved to be a very easy task, as they proceeded to name the first three albums by One Direction. (Please do not misunderstand me; I have nothing against One Direction and can genuinely appreciate that an album by them – any album by them – could dramatically change someone’s life. I just don’t see how the second or third in the chosen sequence could then cause a similarly profound alteration to that same life.) Should I have chosen The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? It is the first album I ever remember hearing in its entirety and I grew up on a diet of The Beatles and charting pop music between the ages of 8 and 15. But then could I really choose an album that was released five years before I was even born? What about, then, The Riddle by Nik Kershaw which was the beginning of my first steps at artist completism, or Paul Young’s The Secret Of Association, the first LP I bought with my own money? Perhaps I overthought it?
However, there was definitely one album that I could say without doubt changed the course of my life, that pulled me away from the medium wave clutches of Simon Bates, Ooh-Gary Davies et al and into the warm and welcoming arms of John Peel, Janice Long and the ilk that have continued their tradition. That album was – is – World Without End by The Mighty Lemon Drops. Hailing from Wolverhampton, The Mighty Lemon Drops star would shine very brightly for a short while; sufficient time for me to hear Inside Out on the car radio on the way home from a Bolton Wanderers match, fall in love with it so deeply yet be able to completely forget the unforgettable band name by the time I awoke the following morning. I was, in football parlance, gutted, sick as a parrot. Luckily, a fortnight later fortune would smile upon me. Not only did Bolton Wanderers win another evening match but Janice Long played that song again. From the chopping fade-in of the guitars I knew this was the song, confirmed by the simple, poppy guitar riff and then all doubt was removed by the opening verse sung in an octave unfamiliar to daytime radio.
The following morning I was not only able to recall the name of the band but was in a position to add it to the list of weird and unfamiliar names being written by my circle of acquaintances on Karl Hirst’s pencil case in a particularly boring Physics lesson. (This is, indeed, the only thing I can remember about any Physics lesson, ever.) My acquaintances were shocked, dubious that I even knew what I was writing. Lucky for me that I could tell them that my mum was buying me the album probably just about at that precise time. It was in that precise moment that the small core of people who weren’t calling me names or laughing at my family’s relative poverty (1988, and we still didn’t have a phone…) would become the friends with whom I would drink, form bands and spend the most pleasurable days of my school life. In that precise moment that the path took me away from Cutting Crew, Hall and Oates and Boris Gardner and into a world of Wedding Presents, Railway Children and Jameses.
So three paragraphs into this Toppermost and I’ve talked about one song, and how both this song and the album from whence it came changed my life. Definitely. The journey we now go on will be less verbose …
Inside Out was possibly as good as it would ever get for The Mighty Lemon Drops, certainly in the United Kingdom. World Without End was their second album and it reached number 34 in the charts, fourteen places higher than their debut Happy Head. For me, summer 1988 was largely soundtracked by both albums played back to back on my Sony Walkman as the family holidayed in Northumberland. There was nothing to match their simple, upbeat, melodic songs about, you know, girls and being in love and so on. One of the finest examples of their talent in this field was My Biggest Thrill. Originally intended as a B-side, producer Stephen Street had seen something in the track the band hadn’t and with the addition of another hook-filled guitar riff a sure-fire single emerged. Lyrically, the band were not exactly setting the world on fire (“I’m getting sick and tired of feeling like I do/Now I can’t understand why I’m sad about you”) but the feeling, the emotion, the melody were all there. When Strange Fruit released the Janice Long Evening Session the joyful rawness of the band’s sound outside of the studio was also revealed. I couldn’t listen enough to Now She’s Gone which was, I would shortly learn, their first B-side. However, I still prefer the session version and its brash, trebly guitars, simplistic lyrics of which Buddy Holly would be proud, and passionate urgency of the rhythm section – there is something about the time and prestige pressure of a BBC session that seems to bring out the best in bands.
That summer holiday saw my first purchase of the NME. I was aware of its legendary status on the alternative scene and looked forward to reading all about The Mighty Lemon Drops when not exploring the castles of Northumbria. There was, of course, not a mention; not even in the crossword clues or gossip column. By the time their third album came out in September 1989 the music press in the UK had all-but forgotten about the band. I hadn’t, and had spent the time joining The Mighty Lemon Drops Information Service, taking advantage of the friendly letter-writing of the people running it and their selling of remaindered back catalogue. I remember my doubts about buying Out Of Hand – would it be any good if it hadn’t been included on an album? – being soothed, possibly at the same time as reassurances were provided that guitarist Dave Newton was in real life a big softy, despite looking like he was about to hit someone in every publicity photo I’d seen of the band. Out Of Hand was a transitional single between the two aforementioned albums, and what a belter it turned out to be. I was especially taken by the fractured echo of the introductory guitar strums, and the keyboard and guitar riff that followed had as big a hook as Inside Out. Paul Marsh’s vocals were a bit more strained here than on other tracks I’d heard, but not to their detriment.
The press silence on my now all-time-favourite band was interrupted as summer 1989 petered out, as news was broken that The Mighty Lemon Drops had parted company with bassist and founder member Tony Linehan, recruiting in his place Marcus Williams from Julian Cope’s band to join drummer Keith Rowley in the rhythm section. Oh, and they were back with a new single. A slightly-faded guitar line heralded a musical rush Into The Heart Of Love, or into the first verse at any rate. Any doubts I’d had about the new line-up were instantly dispelled. Once again though, lyrically, the band hadn’t progressed massively (“firing the target into the heart of love” didn’t seem to make sense to me) but musically they had certainly moved up a notch, being less formulaic in structure and versatile in production. That said, what they gained in maturity they perhaps lost in boisterous appeal; certainly the higher-energy bouncy guitar pop that permeated Happy Head was far less in evidence. The NME said kind things about the new single in its review, which in hindsight is quite surprising, but there was no huge hype around either this or the imminent album; a few bands in the north west of England had started to create a bit of a buzz by now.
As I listened to The Mighty Lemon Drops’ third album Laughter, it became clear that here was, indeed, the sound of a band enjoying themselves. There was a freshness to the songs and also a definite growing-up within the songwriting. The generic subjects of unrequited yearning were less to the fore as a greater honesty seemed to seep through. Perhaps this honesty was borne out of frustration at the music world’s fickle taste. Two of the B-sides to the second single Beautiful Shame were tracks which, the band were at pains to point out, were “recorded live, no overdubs”. One of these was a version of album-opener At Midnight, which continued the laying of barer emotions with its suggestion that “some people don’t care if I run or I crawl, but most don’t even give a shit at all”. As a sensitive 17-year-old I couldn’t decide if this was clumsy, clever or both; whichever, it worked for me, providing the icing on the cake of a song beginning with tuned-feedback leading into a drum introduction that seemed to be setting a foot-stamping agenda before the rest of the band joined in.
Not even a rating of 8 out of 10 in the NME album reviews section could stem the decrease in national interest in The Mighty Lemon Drops. This was quite unfortunate, especially as the band continued to write increasingly well, their growing age and experience coupling with probable disappointment in reaction to Laughter ultimately only served to enhance their craft. It was of little surprise that The Mighty Lemon Drops parted company with their record label after Laughter and I’m not sure many people either noticed or cared in all honesty. I did though, and maintained my loyalties despite a budget now severely limited by student finance matters. The band signed to their American label Sire and released a fourth album in the UK, Sound … Goodbye To Your Standards. I never worked out of this was a dig at Chrysalis, the music media or some other unknown body.
Too High was the lead single from the album but again it was a B-side that caught my attention more. You Don’t Fast was – it transpired later – a faster version of an album track entitled You Don’t Appreciate Anything. The lyrics were not too far away from the earlier tracks that had first grabbed me, but again with a guitar riff that would not leave my head in a rush, You Don’t Fast also demonstrated Paul Marsh’s increasing ability to turn Dave Newton’s lyrics into his own raw emotion. The band’s apparent increasing frustration at the world around them continued to seep into their songs. The almost naïve sensitivity of their earlier works (“Here I stand with my head down and in my hands the words you wrote down …” from In Everything You Do, by way of example) was now a much rawer seam of self-loathing: “You’ve got problems with the world, worst is I’m here too” sang Marsh in My Shadow Girl. I was nineteen by now and knew exactly how he felt.
Such was the band’s slide from public view that The Mighty Lemon Drops’ fifth and final album Ricochet didn’t even get a release in the UK. This is unfortunate as it begins with what is possibly my favourite of their songs, Nothing. Pleasantly reverberated, insistent guitars ring throughout the song which could quite easily be a description of what credibility they had left in their home country. More cohesive as a band, The Mighty Lemon Drops could now choose to let their songwriting stand up for itself without the pressure of hit singles and it paid off. Ricochet provided probably the best collection of The Mighty Lemon Drops songs since their very early tape Some Of My Best Friends Are Songs.
The contents of that tape form part of the look-what-we-found-in-the-attic compilation Uptight: The Early Recordings 1985/1986 released on Cherry Red Records, and if that sounds derogatory, it is most certainly not intended to be. For on that CD can be found a whole host of otherwise hard-to-find gems; alternative versions of songs recorded for an influential NME compilation tape that would hang like a millstone around the necks of so many bands it had featured (yes; that one), radio session versions including the aforementioned one for Janice Long, and the tracks that formed both 7″ and 12″ formats of The Mighty Lemon Drops’ first single Like An Angel recorded for Dan Treacy’s Dreamworld Records. It is to that single, and its B-side Sympathise With Us, to which we return for the final track in this Toppermost. According to their later sleevenotes, Seymour Stein signed them to Sire on the basis of ‘that song that begins with S’ and was disappointed they never recorded it for his label. Scratching their heads the band could only surmise it was this track, one of their very best (hence its inclusion here, of course), although their enigmatic boss then claimed to have never heard it before.
History has left The Mighty Lemon Drops amongst a slew of ignored and forgotten indie bands from the 1980s and 1990s. This isn’t completely fair. The Mighty Lemon Drops’ recording career lasted seven years, in which they managed to write and release an impressive five albums that were never worse than good; most bands now would expect at least a two year gap between albums. They may not have set the world alight, but they were – and by default still are – one of the most important bands in my life.
Eight tracks from John’s selection can be found on the following singles:
Inside Out – Blue Guitar (Chrysalis) AZUR 6
My Biggest Thrill – Blue Guitar (Chrysalis) AZUR 3
Now She’s Gone – Strange Fruit SFNT 004 (Like An Angel B-side)
Out Of Hand – Blue Guitar (Chrysalis) AZURX 4
Into The Heart Of Love – Chrysalis AZUR 12
At Midnight – Chrysalis AZURX 13 (Beautiful Shame 12″ B-side)
You Don’t Fast – Sire W 0032 (Too High B-side)
Sympathise With Us – Dreamworld dream 005 (Like An Angel 12″ B-side)
More info on Rollercoaster: The Best of the Mighty Lemon Drops (1986-1989) and Uptight (The Early Recordings 1985-1986) here at Cherry Red Records.
After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song John Hartley has turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.