|Track||Album / EP|
|Tiny Words||Underneath The Window EP|
|It's Only Obvious||Lyceum Mini LP|
|Yawn||What Will We Do Next EP|
|Bemused, Confused And Bedraggled||Penetration EP|
|The Sadness Of Sex (Part 1)||Unholy Soul|
|I Was Just Dreaming||Thaumaturgy EP|
|A Living Ken And Barbie||Striving For The Lazy Perfection|
|Another Saturday Night||Good To Be A Stranger|
|She's My Girl||The Lost Star|
Contributor: Rob Morgan
In November 1987, a new record label in Bristol issued its first two singles: Pristine Christine by The Sea Urchins and I’ve Got A Habit by The Orchids. Seven years later, the label closed down having issued just under 100 singles and more than 30 albums, alongside a number of flexis, fanzines and a board game. The label was Sarah Records – a small outfit with a big heart, a love of pop music and a desire to prove that running a record label could be a political act. Many years later the reputation of Sarah Records is far greater than it ever was during its lifetime. Next year there will be a comprehensive book about the label published by Bloomsbury and today (3rd May 2014) a documentary film on Sarah, My Secret World, will be premiered at an arts centre in Bristol, alongside a concert featuring Sarah Records bands – one of whom is The Orchids. (And yes I’ll be there tonight and I can’t bloody wait!)
Sarah was run by two former fanzine writers – Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd – who found they were issuing flexis for their fanzines featuring the same acts and decided to make the move to hard vinyl. They always believed in vinyl – this was the era of record companies moving towards CDs – and in value for money, encouraging three or four song seven inch EPs, issuing some 10 inch eight song mini LPs alongside 12 inch LPs, always insisting on low prices and no “extra track on the twelve inch” cons. Their insistence on remaining true to Bristol and celebrating it – postcard inserts on singles creating a jigsaw of Bristol Temple Meads station, label catalogue numbers using bus route numbers, label illustrations of Bristol sites – was either adored by the few (that’ll be me, then) or hated by the music press who sneered at what they perceived as small minded and parochial and typically indie jangly nonsense. There were supporters too: Bob Stanley gave their early records “Single of the Week” in the NME; later advocates included Ian Watson. Everett True and Dave Simpson at Melody Maker, and John Peel was always enthusiastic, indeed it was through The Field Mice’s appearance in the Festive 50 of 1989 that I became aware of Sarah Records. But that is a tale for another time (or another blog actually).
The Field Mice were the defining act on Sarah Records and their second single, Sensitive, may be the defining Sarah record – jangling guitars, crying at sunsets, bunch of bloody wimps. Or so the cliché about Sarah Records goes. But that cliché does a huge disservice to The Field Mice and to Sarah Records – both act and label were far more varied and interesting than that. It wasn’t just boys with guitars complaining about girls not noticing them. They had artists from America (Aberdeen, East River Pipe) and Australia (Even As We Speak, Sugargliders). They had Heavenly – created by Amelia Fletcher from cutie legends Talulah Gosh – who had songs about date rape and male impotence and, yes, boys with guitars. They had frantic punk rock in Boyracer and Action Painting!. (Yes the exclamation mark is part of their name) and quiet Irish folk pop with the Harvest Ministers. They had classic 60s guitar pop in St Christopher and shoegazing in Secret Shine. They had bands singing about Clause 28 (Clearer by Blueboy) and the Poll Tax (Defy The Law by The Orchids). They had guitars but they had lots more than just guitars. Not every single Sarah Records was great, but a good 95% were fabulous. It certainly wasn’t just The Field Mice. And I’m not demeaning The Field Mice, I absolutely bloody love ’em and they quietly changed my life. But I’m not here to talk about them, I’m here for The Orchids.
The Orchids were one of the best bands on Sarah Records and quietly released some of the best pop music of the late 80s and early 90s. They were formed in Glasgow in 1985, a five piece band of James Hackett on vocals, John Scally on lead guitar, Matthew Drummond on rhythm guitar, James Moody on bass and Chris Quinn on drums, and their first hard vinyl release – after a few flexidiscs with fanzines – was the aforementioned I’ve Got A Habit EP. It was skeletal and slightly shambling but showed their melodic sense, even if it sounded slightly woozy. Their second EP, Underneath The Window, Underneath The Sink, was issued in late ’88 and started their collaboration with producer Ian Carmichael who would become a surrogate sixth member, adding simple (at this stage) keyboards to their sound and becoming their very own George Martin. This included Defy The Law – their defiant stance against the Poll Tax (don’t forget that Scotland ‘trialed’ the Poll Tax a year before it was introduced to England and Wales in 1990) – alongside three other great songs, the EP’s title track was delicate and heartfelt and Tiny Words was an early highlight of their career – cascading sparkling guitars, a lilting melody and Hackett’s half-asleep vocals. And that opening line! “If you don’t come with me, I’ll tell on you…”. Well you can’t help but love a song like that.
By the middle of 1989, Sarah Records had issued nearly 20 singles but The Orchids – and The Field Mice – were more prolific and so both bands issued albums on the label in August ’89. Both were eight song ten inch affairs, a beautiful format which gave the bands room to expand. The Field Mice dabbled with sequencers and Factory Records style melancholy, and The Orchids created a pure guitar pop classic called Lyceum. Acoustic and electric guitars mingle and shine, the rhythm section ably bolster the songs and Hackett sings like an angel, telling tales of love, drunkeness, heartache and comfort. I’ve picked It’s Only Obvious because it is a perfect album opener, full of the joys of spring and who can resist as Hackett sings, “Who needs tomorrow when all I need, all I needed was you?” But there’s plenty of other great songs on the LP – the punkish rush of Caveman, the quiet ache of Blue Light and the brilliant closer If You Can’t Find Love. Having perfected the art of gentle indie guitar pop, The Orchids decided to expand their horizons.
Their next EP What Will We Do Next? was issued in the autumn of ’89 and had two songs on one side at 45rpm and one song on the other at 33rpm. The two 45rpm songs continued their guitar pop theme – As Time Goes By is a lovely song – but the 33rpm song Yawn was something else. Almost eight minutes long, it starts with keyboards and odd samples before a slow drum machine sets the tempo, then a bass line establishes the key and Hackett murmurs some gentle truths before Scally starts firing off skykissing salvos of guitar, echoing into the atmosphere. And it keeps building slowly and gracefully to a chorus of “That’s the way it goes, my friend, til it forms the bitter end”. I have absolutely no idea what it means, but there’s such passion in the sleepwalking performance, such grace. And Scally’s guitar plays with dissonance and feedback and it’s totally awesome, in the proper sense of the word – the listener is filled with awe. Totally wonderful. And this was just the start …
The Orchids issued a few EPs before issuing their full length debut LP in May ’91. The title track to the Spring ’90 EP Something For The Longing is great – those Apocalypse Now helicopters at the start, the rousing chorus, the introduction of backing vocals, the glorious swelling chest melodies. On the other hand, January 1991’s Penetration EP (Sarah’s first twelve inch single, sold at the price of a 7 inch single and still offering five songs) provided the catchy three minute blast of tunesmithery that is Bemused, Confused And Bedraggled – and where did that opening speech sample come from? The song is simple, humble and funny – you can’t help smiling at a chorus which goes “This is my song, it ain’t very hard and it ain’t very long”. The whole EP is great, not least Tropical Fishbowl, a drum free drift of acoustic arpeggios, deep piano notes and Hackett sighing, “Are you the girl who stands in the rain? Are you the sunshine in my veins?”. The Orchids were incorporating dance beats, drum machines and keyboards into their sound, but they didn’t feel patched on, it sounded totally natural and part of their ethos. This would lead to their masterpiece Unholy Soul, their first full length album issued in May 1991.
There isn’t a bad song on Unholy Soul so I found it hard to pick for this selection. Should it be the rocking opener Me And The Black And White Dream with its sampling of Radio Sweden’s call signal? Or the perfect pop song Peaches with its call-and-response backing vocals and gentle summery feel? Or the closing saying-you’re-ok-but-not-really-meaning-it heartache of You Know I’m Fine? Or the jogging countryish swing of Bringing You The Love? Or the rocking Dirty Clothing or Frank de Salvo or the acoustic balladry of Long Drawn Sunday Night or Women Priests And Addicts or Moon Lullaby… An embarrassment of riches. What I’m trying to say is that every song is great, each one is different but sounds distinctly Orchids thanks to Hackett’s voice and Scally’s perfectly judged lead guitar work, alongside the other musicians’ lively and sympathetic contributions, and Carmichael’s expansive production, and the integral backing vocals of Pauline Hynd. In the end I chose two songs: Peaches is poptastic, the call and response vocals, the sheer melodic sense, while The Sadness Of Sex (Part 1) is actually two songs, the second being Waiting For The Storm. The former (the title a reference to little known American short story writer Barry Yourgrau) is full of beats, keyboard hooks, peculiar samples and enigmatic lyrics, and some gorgeous back and forth vocals (including a cheeky lift from Silly Love Songs), it is absolutely perfect early 90s pop. The latter is slower, moodier and dreamier before Scally fires off a waterfall of echoing lead guitar parts which threaten to engulf the song. The album is tuneful, varied, funny, mournful… Look, if you only listen to one Orchids album then listen to Unholy Soul, you really won’t regret it. (Have I hyped it up enough, do you think?). It even garnered good reviews from the music press – I’m sure Melody Maker called it something like “Sarah Records’ own Pet Sounds“! The band toured the album and helped out with label mates and fellow Glaswegians The Wake on their Sarah debut LP Make It Loud earlier in ’91 (The Wake deserve their own Toppermost actually, the only band to go from Factory Records to Sarah Records and beyond, but that’ll be another time in the future) and continued to develop.
1992 saw a new EP being issued and quite possibly the hardest decision I’ve had to make for Toppermost. The EP’s title track Thaumaturgy (that’s the ability of a magician or saint to create magic or miracles respectively) is another top pop hit that should have grazed the charts, even with a sample from Drugs by This Mortal Coil! On the other hand, one of the B-sides, I Was Just Dreaming, is an incredible song. Slow, slinky, sleepy-eyed, the words are sharp as a knife, Hackett sings with such expression, the way he hits the final word on the line “And d’you know she almost smiled?”. Which song to choose? In the end I went for the B-side but the whole EP is wonderful.
Then it all went quiet for a while, probably because producer Ian Carmichael was busy having success with his band One Dove (and there’s a band who’ve slipped through the cracks, and doesn’t their White Love sound like a female I Was Just Dreaming?). When The Orchids returned in 1994 they sounded oddly fragmented. Don’t get me wrong, the Striving For The Lazy Perfection album is great – there’s some rockier songs like Obsession #1 and Beautiful Liar, dancier selections like Avignon and A Kind Of Eden (giving Pauline Hynd a solo lead vocal, and what a treat it is), and moody ballads like Prayers To St Jude. But whereas Unholy Soul felt greater than the sum of its parts, Striving… feels less homogenous, too diverse. It’s still a great record though, and I chose A Living Ken And Barbie, a cool breeze of a song, interspersed with samples of Vanna White (host of Wheel Of Fortune in America). But trouble hit The Orchids – van crashes, broken legs – and they couldn’t capitalise on promoting it. Still, they managed to record a great Peel session, including two songs they didn’t record for Sarah, and a rockier Ken And Barbie. When Sarah Records closed its doors in August 1995 with a farewell concert, The Orchids performed there alongside other Sarah acts then quietly faded away. While The Field Mice’s reputation grew over time – thanks to Shinkansen’s Where’d You Learn To Kiss That Way? compilation – The Orchids tended to be forgotten. However, both bands’ Sarah outputs were comprehensively reissued in 2005-2006 by the very fine LTM label and The Orchids’ standing was raised.
Around this time they reformed with a few line-up changes (but still with Hackett’s distinctive voice and Scally’s wonderful guitar at the helm) and started work on a new album which was issued on Siesta Records. Good To Be A Stranger sounded like a return to the simplicity of their Lyceum-era music; nothing too ostentatious, just simple guitar pop with a flute here, horns there and a healthy portion of tunefulness and a mature set of songs about being in love. Standout song was Another Saturday Night, a song which builds and builds and has enough melodic hooks to keep most pop fans happy. It was later remixed by Ian Carmichael, who returned to produce The Lost Star, their 2010 LP. If Good To Be A Stranger was Lyceum Part 2 then The Lost Star was Unholy Soul Part 2; the samples and keyboards had returned, alongside the backing vocals and playfulness. It’s a full-on wonderful record and included treats like The OK Song, the gently aching The Girl And The Soldier and Song For A Friend, the head-nodding funkiness of The Way That You Move and Doot Doot. It was my favourite album of 2010, a totally unexpected joy. I’ve chosen She’s My Girl to conclude my Orchids top 10, because it rocks really well and also because it’s great that a forgotten song from that ’94 Peel session finally gets a release. As I write this The Orchids are mastering their next album, again with Ian Carmichael at the helm, with a release set for later this year. Based on the one or two songs I’ve heard so far it should be excellent.
Looking back this is all a bit hyperbolic but what the hell, I’m hoping you’ll give The Orchids a listen and hopefully discover some of the loveliest guitar pop that Scotland has produced in the last few decades. Give ’em a go, see what you think.
Rob Morgan writes about music and stuff at A Goldfish Called Regret. The Orchids – there are/were at least two other Orchids out there, one a doo-wop group, the other a sixties girl group on Decca, but as Rob said, “These Orchids ain’t them Orchids…”