|Track||Album / EP / Single|
|Tone Burst||Transient Random Noise Bursts...|
|Low Fi||Too Pure PURE 14|
|U.H.F. - MFP||Space Age Bachelor Pad Music|
|Metronomic Underground||Emperor Tomato Ketchup|
|Miss Modular||Dots And Loops|
|Refractions In The Plastic Pulse||Dots And Loops|
|Come & Play In The Milky Night||Cobras And Phases...|
|Kyberneticka Babicka Pt.1||Too Pure PURE 174/Fab Four Suture|
|Neon Beanbag||Chemical Chords|
Stereolab (l to r): Tim Gane (guitar/keyboards), Morgane Lhote (keyboards), Lætitia Sadier (vocals/keyboards), Simon Johns (bass), Mary Hansen (vocals/guitar) Photo: David Cowlard
Contributors: John Hartley & Rob Morgan
“What on earth are you listening to?” asks Dad, in that incredulously exaggerated way that only parents use and only when not believing their ears at the noise emanating from their offspring’s music player of choice.
It could be anything, to be fair, given Pa Nocash’s penchant for Barbara Dickson, The Houghton Weavers and Queen; however it is somewhat inevitably Tone Burst by Stereolab. Father is not impressed by the tinny snare drum opening, the persistent chug of the bass, guitars and drums, the low-octave female singing or the shrill organ trying to create some form of melody. We haven’t even got to the best bit yet, the country-and-western guitar break that comes in at 2 mins 42 seconds but Dad is long gone by now, so all there is left to do is lie back, relax, and absorb the cacophony which ensues. Tone Burst is the opening track to Stereolab’s second full-length album, the wonderfully titled Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements. This is the Ronseal of all album titles; it certainly does what is says on the tin. It’s not where my adventures with Stereolab begin, however, and neither is it where they end.
My ‘adventures’ begin somewhat accidentally, if they could be called adventures at all. I write to an address on the back of a record by a band who have split up. It’s a PO Box, so surely someone will get the letter; they do, and they write back. Martin tells me that McCarthy aren’t a going concern anymore, there aren’t any T-shirts, but here’s a couple of badges and by the way Tim’s got a new band: the latest newsletter is enclosed also. I notice there is a new single out imminently; on 10” clear vinyl, which seems a bit different. There’s a strange 1960s-style cartoon figure on the cover, who looks like an extra from The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, but I’m not put off. Having become somewhat obsessed by McCarthy, Low Fi isn’t quite what I’m expecting. This isn’t our average three minute indie pop song. In fact, it is a whole one and three quarter minutes of meandering bassy organ and guitar fuzz before the vocals kick in properly, and even then it’s only ‘la-la’s’. However it is now clear that I have never understood the true meaning of the word ‘groove’, because that is precisely what this song does until it finally concludes with a Gallic “You Bastard”. I don’t think you’ll like it, dad.
Instantly hooked, the natural thing to do then is to quickly snap up the entire back catalogue. There’s not much of it. Oh, but wait … it’s already going for a fair few quid more than what I’ve got. Never mind; here’s the back catalogue handily compiled on an album. Mum, I know what I want for Christmas. What I actually get though is the debut album by Stereolab, Peng!. On cassette, as requested for ease of trans-Pennine listening, and do you know what, the cassette sleeve is not your usual size: it’s shrunk to replicate the proportions of a CD or vinyl sleeve. Isn’t that quirky and inventive? Dad, why are you rolling your eyes? He doesn’t understand so I’ll just sit quietly in the back of the car, headphones on, and imagine a world where everyone dances to Perversion like it’s the greatest song in the world ever, because at this moment in time it just is. This formula of groove, beat, rhythm, organ, guitar strum and erratically undulating lead guitar and/or organ, combined with lyrics sung in French or a French accent (sometimes both) and a left-wing take on the world is a winner for me at any rate.
From here on in I am now supremely poised to buy the ever-increasing Stereolab discography as each piece is released. Sorry? What’s that? They’ve just released a split single available on tour only? But I was looking the other way, at that American 7″ with a free bubblegum stick and didn’t see it. A new album already …? Such is the challenge of being a Stereolab completist and having missed out on the first few releases I haven’t got the energy or the money to keep up. I decide to make do with what I can buy, although my enthusiasm will get the better of me. For the first (and now definitely last) time I lend someone a record. Two, in fact: Jenny Ondioline, the lead single – 10″, obviously – from Transient Random Noise Burst With Announcements, and the vinyl version of recent mini-album The Groop Played “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music”. I have in return two singles by Twang!, whose singer is borrowing ‘Stereolab’: it seems good security as he’s bound to want them back. Oh, but he’s disappeared, and so too my records. How am I going to listen to U.H.F.-MFP now? How will I enjoy the harmonic introduction, the two-chord simplicity, the joyful intertwining of the two vocals lines and the way a third chord is suggested so sublimely by the lead guitar outro?
Don’t worry. I’ll buy the CD when I realise the vinyl is never to be seen again. I’ll also buy the next double album, Mars Audiac Quintet, and that quirky mini album with the artist Charles Long. I’ll cherish the postcard Stereolab sign for me at Reading, complementing my pseudonym and sympathising with my absence. I’ll stand next to Tim Gane watching support band Yo La Tengo when Stereolab come to Manchester, too awestruck to speak to the founder of Stereolab and guitarist from McCarthy. However, like those two records our paths shall soon diverge, just after I have watched the set at the Phoenix Festival. It is a great set, opening with my favourite track from new album Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Metronomic Underground. Once more there is hypnotic groove, effectively simple bass guitar, a vocal line which swings like, well, like a metronome. It is sweltering on this airfield, and I am entranced.
However, I also have my first child on the way and am precariously employed on a one year contract with rental for a house to consider. I cannot afford to keep up with Stereolab. It’s not them, it’s me; just as it is with a few other bands. My appreciation doesn’t stop though, and I will keep watching their performance of French Disko on The Word as hypnotised by the music as I am by Tim’s grinning face as he pogos guitar duties.
John Hartley (Johny Nocash)
It was the end of the summer of 1991 when I heard Stereolab for the first time. That particular summer was one of those magical times when everything came together; a perfect time of friendship and great times and great music, it felt like there was a great new band or a great new single or a small step forward every week. The John Peel show was essential listening, as was “Out On Blue Six”, a show on Monday nights on Radio 1 hosted by Mark Radcliffe. It was an eclecticism of old and new, and Radcliffe was an intriguing new voice on the radio. And he played Super Electric by Stereolab at the end of August, as it was being released in September. With that one song Stereolab won me over. It had synth bubbles, an insistent buzzing organ, a simple ringing guitar riff, two female vocals criss crossing each other, and most of all it had an insistent urgent straight ahead beat. This was a style of drumming that sounded familiar, and it was unusual in the Indie context – this was a motorik beat that I recognised from the Neu! and La Dusseldorf albums I’d bought back in my teens. This was unusual, and certainly marked Stereolab out amongst the shoegazing and indie dance and whatever else I was listening to.
I didn’t really know the history of the band – how Lætitia Sadier and Tim Gane had formed the band from the ashes of McCarthy, a band who I only knew about from their mentions in the music papers. McCarthy had passed me by, but I wasn’t going to let Stereolab pass by. The music press mentioned them and how they had helped in the early days of shoegazing heroes Moose (Both Gane and Sadier had played on Moose’s first Peel session, that’s Sadier intoning down the phone on Je Reve) but now I knew what Stereolab sounded like and I wanted more.
The only problem was that Stereolab were an incredibly prolific band; there was always a new single or an album or a tour single or a track contributed to a compilation or a clear flexi in a bag and my god I tried to keep up, honestly I did, but there was only so much money and too many records and eventually I stopped being a completist, especially when the band started to issue a series of compilations of these odd tracks under the umbrella title Switched On. So I just satisfied myself with their regular singles and albums after a while but these were still in plentiful supply, always a new album every year through the 90s, usually a double album in length, and usually a single or two with exclusive B-sides, often as good as the A-sides. (Again these singles, B-sides and oddities were collected as a 3 CD boxed set, Oscillons From The Anti-Sun, which is an ideal place to start your Stereolab journey.
And it is most definitely a journey with Stereolab. The band transcended those early influences and assimilated many different styles of music into their unique style over the course of their career. The music changed slowly, incrementally almost, but always each year brought progress. From the early motorik drone they moved into more interesting waters as the 90s progressed, expanding into easy listening, space age pop, tropicalia, avant garde experiments, systems music, funky diversions but always with a good groove and enough melodic sense to keep casual listeners’ toes tapping. This is a hard trick to achieve – that balance of pop vs experiment but Stereolab always managed it.
In the pre-Google days of the 1990s, Stereolab felt like an education, but not in a harsh way. Each album sleeve would have a theme which would often carry through to the singles released at the same time. It may be an ancient synthesiser or an adaptation of a poster from some sixties film or book. There was always the opportunity to dig deeper, to discover more. This also applied to their music; you could listen on a number of levels. There’s the level of just enjoying the music and singing along, then there’s the level of reading the lyrics and realising they are deeper and more political than they initially seemed, then there’s the level of heading to the library/cinema/record shop to find out more of what their influences are. I was somewhere between the first two, but always happy to accidentally come across the sources (my father had the hifi test disc which would become the cover of Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements).
None of the above really talks about the music … John has done an excellent job of picking songs from the earlier part of their career – 1991 to 1996 – and I have picked five from the following ten years, a period where the band consolidated their position within the pop world, then slowly became less fashionable. In a way they were never fashionable though, never affiliated with a scene like Britpop they floated above the idea of scenes and fads. I suppose the period from 1994 to 1996 was the closest they came to “fame”; singles like French Disko, Ping Pong, Cybele’s Reverie grazing the lower end of the Top 75 charts in the UK, not bad for a band on their own independent label. The brief fad for easy listening and space age pop around this time helped gain Stereolab some prominence, though it could be said that they had reignited interest in this music anyway (check their The Groop Played “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” mini album from 1993). So what of my choices?
Miss Modular and Refractions In The Plastic Pulse are both from the 1997 album Dots And Loops which is my favourite Stereolab album (today, at least). The album was produced by John McEntire (of post-rock gods Tortoise) and Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner (from electro legends Mouse On Mars) and the combination works beautifully. Miss Modular is the kind of pop song most bands would kill to write, but smudged with little drops of electronic noise from time to time, like the song is somehow malfunctioning. Refractions is a seventeen minute tour de force. Previous Stereolab albums had long multi-section songs (Jenny Ondioline from Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements was their first attempt at this and would have been in my top ten if I was picking the early period, sorry John) but this song takes the ideas to a new level – there is a seamless flow between each section, and each section seems better than the last – a fantastic song which I never tire of.
Come And Play In The Milky Night from Cobras And Phases Group Play Voltage In The Milky Night is the type of song which makes me dance, in my own odd way. A fast pace, three simple chords and layers upon layers of buzzing twinkling synths and guitar lines. It could mean anything but the sheer joy in the performance is totally infectious.
Kyberneticka Babicka, Pt.1 sounds like Stereolab have been absorbing Philip Glass’ works and trying to incorporate it into their sound, and oddly enough it works; the strident drums and massed choral vocals make this a special piece of music.
Neon Beanbag is the sound of Stereolab trying on Northern Soul and Motown for size and finding it fits rather nicely.
Of course I’ve only chosen five songs from albums over a thirteen year period, and it barely scratches the surface of the depth of the Stereolab catalogue, just a glimpse into the music they have created throughout their career. The casual listener may not recognise how a band’s music could transform so much over the years, but that is the glory of Stereolab – always different yet always the same, to quote a wise man speaking about another band.
Sadly, Stereolab broke up in 2008 but both Lætitia Sadier and Tim Gane are making music – Sadier as a solo artist and Gane with his new band, Cavern Of Anti-Matter. There are also numerous side projects and collaborations throughout the band’s career – Sadier’s records as Monade and a Gane project made with Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas called “Turn On” are worth investigating.
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.
The first 5 tracks on this list of 10 are John’s selections from the early years, the next 5 are Rob’s from 1997 onwards. Oscillons From The Anti-Sun (2005) is a 3CD, 1DVD box-set of Stereolab tracks from 8 of their EPs. Serene Velocity: A Stereolab Anthology is a CD compilation of the band’s Elektra years.