Miracle Legion

TrackAlbum / EP
All For The BestSurprise Surprise Surprise
Country BoySurprise Surprise Surprise
The BackyardThe Backyard
Just Say HelloThe Backyard
Out To PlayDrenched
Closer To The WallGlad
You're The One LeeMe And Mr. Ray
Snacks And CandyDrenched
Pull The WagonMe And Mr. Ray
HomerPortrait Of A Damaged Family

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Miracle Legion photo

Miracle Legion (l to r): Dave McCaffrey (bass), Scott Boutier (drums), Mark Mulcahy (vocals/guitar – above), Mr. Ray Neal (lead guitar – below)

 

Contributor: Darren Jones

WHY I LOVE MIRACLE LEGION

1. Miracle Legion found me

Some bands are meant to find you. I came across Miracle Legion months before I heard anything by them. Thumbing through records in 1987 at Our Price in Aldershot, I picked up Surprise Surprise Surprise. The front cover had an air of Russian orthodox iconography about it. The back had the band in some sort of fancy dress. One looking like some sort of high priest, another with a Pierrot face. There was a blue wig, dungarees, tons of face paint and a dog in a fur hat and purple lace.

Miracle Legion photo

Frankly, it put me off. Psychedelia? Paisley Underground? Not really my bag. But still I picked it up every time I went into the shop … Finally, I bought it. One listen to Surprise Surprise Surprise was enough to know.

This was my band.

 

2. Miracle Legion know about growing up

I love All For The Best. The insistent drum beat pulsing throughout. The opening line, “Waking up and the bed was made, no one looked me in the eye.” The off kilter guitar solo. Borrowing lines from Kenny Rogers’ Coward Of The County. Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done …

There was something else; something about growing up. The feeling of yearning for something, but you don’t know quite what. Something nostalgic, but not dewy-eyed, tinged with loss and regret. It was there in Country Boy, too, where “All I wanted was the girl next door, but, you see, she’s a little taller than me.”

Most obviously, it was there in the title track of their debut mini-LP and on the front cover; a photo of Mark Mulcahy as a child in his backyard. The Backyard tells of one of those baking hot days from childhood where “the world was so big and I was so small”, where “cracking wood made my little heart tremble”, where “your voice was always the loudest of all.” A specific memory that has universal resonance.

 

3. Miracle Legion do more than jangle

Miracle Legion have often been likened to early R.E.M. and seen as a jangling band. Ray Neal (aka Mr. Ray), guitarist and founding member of the band with Mulcahy, certainly has that in his armoury. From Just Say Hello on The Backyard to Out To Play on Drenched there are plenty of chiming guitars to be found and enjoyed.

However, Miracle Legion emerged originally from the post-punk scene and there are elements of this still to be found. The most notable example is Closer To The Wall on The Backyard, with its searing guitars, propulsive drums and drone-like vocals. The live version on Glad, where they are joined on stage by Pere Ubu takes this to another level of astonishing.

Recently, I discovered that somebody had put their very rare demo tape, A Simple Thing, on YouTube. There are early versions of tracks that would end up on The Backyard and Surprise Surprise Surprise and they have a much spikier, post-punk sound to them. It provides the link to Closer To The Wall and the side to Miracle Legion that is often forgotten about. The first song on the demo, Fight To Fight, also contains some of the most intense, pneumatic drumming I have ever heard.

 

4. Miracle Legion make friends

The first time I saw Miracle Legion play, in 1989, they were supporting Pere Ubu (who had joined them on the Glad EP). A couple of weeks later, I saw both of them support the Pixies in London. A few years later, when the Pixies and Miracle Legion were no more, Scott Boutier and Dave McCaffrey (the drummer and bassist) became Frank Black’s Catholics. Joey Santiago also added some guitar to Mark Mulcahy’s In Pursuit of Your Happiness album.

Earlier, Miracle Legion (as a Mark and Ray two-piece) supported the Sugarcubes on tour. For the B-side of You’re The One Lee they formed the Sugar Legion (minus Bjork) for Johnny’s Dilemma.

In the late 90s, Mark Mulcahy would support J Mascis and the Fog on tour. Later, Mascis would play on a Mulcahy solo album and Mulcahy would return the favour with vocals for Mascis.

You get the point. Everyone likes Miracle Legion! I’m not even going to mention Thom Yorke and Michael Stipe.

 

5. Miracle Legion have a dark side

Being seen as a jangle-pop, college rock band perhaps gives an impression that the songs will be light and uplifting, too. Or that they are all about a nostalgic romanticism for childhood or growing up. However, Miracle Legion were able to explore a darker side, too.

Snacks And Candy, their big single from Drenched (the one that got them on Letterman), is based around the death of Yusuf Hawkins, a 16 year old black-American, in 1989 at the hands of a group of white youths. In a feat of lyrical and musical daring, Miracle Legion tell the story from the point of view of the white rioters and add the jangliest, poppiest backing for good measure.

By way of contrast, a couple of songs later on Drenched, Everything Is Rosy provides possibly the bleakest song they have ever written, musically and lyrically. Perhaps only equalled by 6 Months from Portrait Of A Damaged Family, where “even if the sun shines right now, it’ll never be spring.”

 

6. Miracle Legion know about holding hands

Holding hands is the most intimate display of public affection. Miracle Legion know this. From The Backyard, The Heart Is Attached, “There’s a gentle touch for those with loving arms, I’m hoping for a hand to hold”. You’re The One Lee has the narrator waiting all night for his girlfriend to come home, “thinking about what you had in mind when you said, Honey, yours are the only hands that feel right, cos I meant it when I said that yours are the only hands that ever felt right, ever felt right, ever felt right.”

Holding hands can also be about power and the subtle dynamics of a relationship. Miracle Legion know this, too. From Surprise Surprise Surprise, Wonderment, “I couldn’t care less, when I’m holding onto your wrist”. Hands can also be for “waiting on you hand and foot” on So Good (Drenched) or being “tied to your bedpost” in Screamin’ (Portrait Of A Damaged Family).

 

7. Miracle Legion don’t do lyric sheets

Never trust a band that has lyric sheets. Probably. Anyway, it makes you listen harder, or make more things up in your head, if they don’t. Miracle Legion lyrics make you do the work, make your interpretation part of the joy of the song. There’s a wonderful line in All For The Best that goes, “You’re so beautiful it’s sin, on a lonely, lazy morning”. Or that’s how I have always heard it. However, on Thom Yorke’s version of the song (for the Ciao My Shining Star tribute album) he clearly sings “You’re so beautiful it seems …” For a while I wondered whether he had got the lyrics from Mark directly. Now I’m not so sure. Although I am sure that it doesn’t matter. That was his interpretation of the line. I have mine and I’m happy with it.

 

8. Miracle Legion are Mark and Ray

Miracle Legion was Mark and Ray at the beginning, and that’s what it will always be. There have been some brilliant rhythm sections that have been integral to the sound and the songs. But the relationship between Mark and Ray is at the heart of the band.

When the band was without a rhythm section, Me And Mr. Ray was the result in 1989. It was the ultimate expression of Mark and Ray as Miracle Legion. They played everything on the album. It allowed them to be more experimental. More opaque and more straightforward. If She Could Cry was the most straight up country song they ever wrote. Cold Shoulder Balcony was almost a capella. A sparse drumbeat, a penny whistle and Mark singing about a girl from Germany.

My favourite song on Me And Mr. Ray though is Pull The Wagon, a tale of quiet desperation where the narrator projects his feelings onto a donkey that has been left behind when a relationship ends. “Ask for nothing, you ask for nothing but grass to eat, that’s mine to keep.” It also features Mr. Ray’s most heart-wrenching guitar solo. Breaks me up every time.

 

9. Miracle Legion know about waiting

If Miracle Legion know most about anything, it’s waiting. There’s waiting as a sense of loss. Waiting up all night for the girl in You’re The One Lee or Little Blue Light (Drenched). Also, the sweet agony of waiting at the heart of growing up. Wanting something so much that actually getting it might ruin everything. It’s at the heart of every romantic dreamer. In Country Boy, “I’ve been wishing for this, but let’s wait just a little bit longer”, while in Truly, “It’s you I serve and slowly, slowly I am getting up my nerve.”

In Homer, waiting becomes heroic. “One of the greats, that’s the one who waits” might be my favourite line in a song. Of course, it’s about baseball and makes perfect sense as such. But for this dull, romantic man it recognises waiting as an end in itself. The perfect moment of thwarting between having and not having something. The sweet spot between a home run and striking out. A moment of pure potential.

Miracle Legion know about waiting. After finishing and touring Drenched through 1992, they were all set to start recording the next album. And that was that. Their label folded. They were left in limbo, not being able to put out new material and with no access to their old stuff. Waiting.

In 1996 they gave it one last go. Set up their own label (Mezzotint) and released Portrait Of A Damaged Family. It was a creative splurge, the release of something that had been pent up for years. The waiting had ended, but the damage had been done. It was over.

Or not.

Miracle Legion really know how to wait.

 

10. Miracle Legion are back

Twenty years after Portrait, they are back. Mark and Ray belong together. Mark and Ray and Scott and Dave belong together. I have recently seen Mark and Ray play a tiny record shop in Bexhill. Later this month, I will see the full band in Brighton and London. For now, I’m just looking around, looking around, looking around, looking around …

Some bands are meant to find you.

 

Miracle Legion bandcamp

Mark Mulcahy’s Mezzotint Records

Miracle Legion on 120 Minutes (YT 1989)

Mark Mulcahy rehearsal & interview (YT 2005)

Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy

Miracle Legion biography (iTunes)

Darren Jones lives on the south coast of England. He listens to music on the way to work, at work, on the way home from work and sometimes even at home. He knows what he likes when he hears it, but can’t always tell you what he likes. Find him on Twitter @darrenmjones.

TopperPost #542

6 Comments

  1. Paul Cooper
    Aug 21, 2016

    Saw them in London last night. They were amazing. Thanks for the article as I couldn’t recall the name of the song So Good which was my favourite of the night. One of the best bands I’ve ever seen.

  2. Sean Roberts
    Aug 21, 2016

    Thanks so much for this article! It’s funny that I have lived most of my life with Miracle Legion, but only with one song – and I didn’t know the title of it until maybe 5 years ago. In the early 90s my Dad used to tape Andy Kershaw’s radio programme and make compilations, which much later on were updated into the digital age in the form of 6 double cds. One of the tapes had this song on (CD1, Track2) that used to get us all singing in the car every time – especially the haunting guitar descent that seemed to get more poignant each time it returned. I could sit and listen to the main riff for hours, and actually used to slightly resent the key change and chorus! Every now and then in the early internet years, I used to try and search down this band using the song title ‘Locker Room Door’ and found nothing – though when I asked my Dad much later he knew the band’s actual name, just for some reason had never delved into them that much. Listening to the actual album version, I’m not sure where ‘our one’ comes from – it sounds like it’s half a step down, doesn’t have a second chorus, and has less string parts – any ideas?
    So there we were, with ‘Homer’ as one of our family soundtracks for years and no idea about the whole Miracle Legion back catalogue or back story, and but for a chance encounter with the Andrew Marr show that could have been it. We would have been happy with our two minutes ten seconds radio version and still sung along to this simple snapshot of a loss of innocence (that’s how ‘my Daddy’ explained the song to me). A song about a sport I’ve never watched or played, somehow touching exactly how I felt. Now thanks to that show, this article, and the incredible gig at the Oslo in London last night, I’ve discovered Miracle Legion just as they’ve come round again. Capped off when they came back on stage for the third (!) encore and, as I had been silently willing all night, played ‘Homer’. I have to say I had tears in my eyes. Thank you for this piece Darren, you’ve converted me.

  3. Darren Jones
    Aug 21, 2016

    Thanks Paul and Sean! They were amazing last night, weren’t they? Totally tore it up. My friend asked me about So Good, too. It was a cracking version. I saw them in Brighton on the first night of the tour, and think 5 shows in 5 days did them good. They were really on it. Plus, it was a longer gig, so there was time for Closer to the Wall and Homer!
    Sean, I think the version you had of Homer might have been a session they did for Andy Kershaw in 1992. It still pops up on 6Music occasionally. There is also another version on the soundtrack of a film called A Matter of Degrees, but think that’s longer. Glad you’ve discovered them properly now!

    • Sean Roberts
      Aug 24, 2016

      Yes that’s the version – thanks! Check out the Kershaw line up in 1992. What a show.

  4. IAMTHEASTROS
    Aug 26, 2016

    Hi there, came across this by accident and I’m glad I did. I believe you were talking about me when you mentioned somebody posted “A Simple Thing” to youtube. I was asked to remove it respectfully by mark and co. along with the rest of my Miracle Legion rarities. I still have them though and am always willing to pass them on to a fellow fan.

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