The Family Cat

TrackAlbum / Single
Remember What It Is That You LoveBad Girl BGRLT03
From The City To The SeaTell 'Em We're Surfin'
ConcreteBad Girl BGRLT04
Colour Me GreyFurthest From The Sun
What We Talk About When We Talk About LoveDedicated FCUK 001
GameshowFurthest From The Sun
Airplane GardensMagic Happens
Amazing HangoverDedicated FCUK 003
RockbreakingMagic Happens
Bring Me The Head Of Michael PortilloDedicated 74321220077

The Family Cat photo

The Family Cat (l to r): Stephen Jelbert (lead guitar), Kevin Downing (drums), Paul ‘Fred’ Frederick (guitar, vocals), John Graves (bass), Tim McVay (guitar)

 

Contributor: John Hartley

I am not quite sure who said it – probably my mum, but I suspect she wasn’t the first – that you never really appreciate what you’ve got until it is gone. Like John Peel, Burnden Park, Top Of The Pops, Pacers (fantastically minty green and white striped chewy sweets for those of you not old enough to remember)… some things will forever be lost, shrouded in happy memory tinged with the slight regret that better things did not come in their place. And so it is with The Family Cat, often overlooked, forgotten even, in hazy reminiscences of the good old days of indie of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite buying every record in the week of release, I didn’t realise how important their songs would be to me until they stopped releasing them. So, to appease my guilt, refresh your memories or kindle an enthusiasm that will otherwise not realise it is waiting to be kindled, here is a Toppermost Ten for The Family Cat.

On the top floor of the sandstone wall and lead windowed building that stood majestically overlooking the crematorium and the Croal Valley were my school’s music rooms. At lunchtimes these often housed peripatetic teachers of random instruments, too nervous to enter the staffroom, eating their sandwiches. Other rooms contained fifth and sixth form students, pretending to form bands or just practice their instruments. It was in one of these rooms that I was introduced to The Family Cat. Not in person, not even in picture; rather, in overheard conversation between two people on the periphery of my acquaintance. Sorry, who was it that was due to play a Peel Session that night? I won’t like them? Why not? Oh, because they’re Sonic Youth’s favourite new band and I don’t like Sonic Youth. Ok. I like their name, though; I might give them a listen.

Remember What It Is That You Love was the first track I heard by The Family Cat. Another introduction to fine music courtesy of John Peel, then; thanks John. The track would soon become the band’s second single, following on from Tom Verlaine. And what a single … the way the song announces its arrival with a huge rasp of the snare drum, the way the guitar riff takes hold of the song before the singer even has his tonsils warmed up, the way a wall of guitars drives the song in urgency, the way the lyrics teach with effortless simplicity. “Avoid the punches that leave you lying flat on your back”; too right – I just wish I could have been paying more attention.

As it was, the young me was too busy buying more records than he probably should have, often in discreet absconsions from school to X Records on Bradshawgate. It was quite easy really – absconding, not buying the records although that was barely a challenge either. All I had to do was sign out at the school office saying I had to go to ‘the bank’, forgetting to add ‘of new releases from The Chain With No Name’, and a free period and subsequent lunchtime were all mine. It wasn’t in X Records that I first came across the second song in this Toppermost though. It was the Sunderland branch of Our Price.

From The City To The Sea had appeared in that inaugural Peel Session; now it was available on heavy, solid vinyl. Vinyl that was probably heavier than the mix afforded to the mini-album contained thereon by the drummer from The Jam. Mix issues aside however, this was a great debut from a band that had so many guitarists one of them was forced to become the bass guitarist, and a support slot with The Mighty Lemon Drops won them many friends (although not as many friends as they might have hoped given the dwindling audiences for the headline act.)

A beefier mix was afforded the third single to come from The Family Cat, and worthy though Place With A Name would be in this Toppermost, it was a B-side that grabbed my attention most. Singer Fred had always had a warmly melancholic voice – possibly down to all the Leonard Cohen records he listened to in the A-side’s story – and in Concrete it became most apparent as he plaintively sang, “It’s not easy to be superhuman; it’s not simple to just be kind. I hate all the things we do to one another …” Relationships are difficult, hard: like concrete.

The Family Cat were by now becoming an increasingly big draw, and as the major labels began to see the pound signs flash in front of their eyes whilst they watched indie band after indie band breach the Top 40, so RCA via Dedicated would sign up the band whose t-shirts declared all other bands to be dogshite. Colour Me Grey was released as the fourth single by a band becoming increasingly renowned for their great singles. It featured backing vocals from up-and-coming songstress Polly Harvey, invited the listener to ‘pour themselves into a drink’, and set the scene very nicely for the band’s first full length album.

Before that, however, was the small matter of another great single. Steamroller would possibly be disqualified from this Toppermost on account of its lyrical declaration of love to Southampton FC (C’mon the Cherries! … Ed.). It isn’t being included, though, on the grounds that the B-sides, yet again, featured an even better song. If Concrete ruminated on the difficulties of relationships, then What We Talk About When We Talk About Love got right down to the nitty gritty; “It’s a smile and a frown, it’s the present, it’s the future and the past that lets you down”. Or, more bluntly, “it’s both penalty and prize” and something which ultimately leads the narrator to banging his head violently against the wall.

I had discarded ambitions to study teaching in Sunderland by the time The Family Cat’s second album Furthest From The Sun came out, having chosen to learn about government in my ancestral home of Newcastle instead. The best album covers always look like the album sounds, and this was a fine example. Rich darkness with a welcoming homely warmth not too far away. And so it is with Gameshow; after all the examination of relationships, here is a celebration of the biological reason we end up in relationships in the first place, with the newly-expectant couple “excited as the lucky winners of a speedboat on a gameshow”.

With their first major label album now under their belt, The Family Cat went back to doing what they did best, namely releasing excellent singles with excellent B-sides. Back in Bolton, X Records would come up trumps once again when Airplane Gardens was released. Post-graduation unemployment restricted my purchasing power to the 7” single, but that scarcely mattered when the A-side was as good as this. Sometimes in life we have to bite the bullet, have the courage of our convictions; “once the stomach hardens there is nothing you can do” reckoned Fred as the bass, guitars and drums thundered behind him in the manner of rapidly plummeting aircraft.

By only buying the 7” single, I made the calculated choice to not hear Amazing Hangover. This B-side had a pedal steel guitar credited and was restricted to 12” and CD formats. I hated pedal steel guitar with an irrational passion. Luckily for me a version of the song would appear on what proved to be The Family Cat’s third and final album Magic Happens, with the pedal steel guitar hidden in the mix. What a great song it was too, brimming with wistful regret and humble appreciation of those who “keep the world going without proper reward”.

The highlight of this final album for me, however, was Rockbreaking. Many songwriters are able to tell tales of emotional hardship, of frustration, of inadequacy with skill but here was one which touched a nerve on this young, single, unemployed and generally downbeat listener. “Anyone who lives here must be crazy”, sang Fred, as my mother invited me on another trip to ‘the land of the lost’ (or ‘let’s pop into town and get something for tea’ as it more likely was). “I’m the kind who should be worth a million” he continued, “but each day I wake up and I’m fuck all” – hey, welcome to life on the dole. Then the bittersweet finale: “I’d rather spend the weekend rockbreaking in Paradise”.

Released at the height of the ‘grunge’ era, Magic Happens never really stood a chance. The album spawned no fewer than four singles, none of which enabled the band to give their record label the requisite Top 40 hit. The final single brought with it a hitherto less obvious side to the band, that of political agitator. Goldenbook was a double A-side with the menacingly biting Bring Me The Head Of Michael Portillo (see clip below); at a time when Tory politicians were increasingly regarded as out of touch with the people over whose lives they ruled, The Family Cat offered to pay MPs to ask questions in the House Of Commons. “They complain of losing battles they won’t fight … you won’t lose much sleep tonight” cajoled Fred as the band hiss and stab their way through the song.

Unfortunately the world was to see no more of The Family Cat. Not until 3 loop music released their excellent 2CD set Five Lives Left: The Anthology in 2014, complete with radio session tracks and songs that the record company had deemed ‘not good enough’ for a fourth album. That was short-sighted, and it remains a mystery to me how The Family Cat have not been remembered as one of the great bands of their era. Incidentally, I have got over my pedal steel guitar phobia now, and recommend the B-side version of Amazing Hangover over its album counterpart, if you get the chance to hear it!

 

The Family Cat on Facebook

The Family Cat on 3 loop music

The Family Cat discography

The Family Cat biography (iTunes)

NB: Remember What It Is That You Love, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Amazing Hangover, Bring Me The Head Of Michael Portillo and others on this toppermost ten are available on the Five Lives Left: An Anthology CD – see link above for full listing.

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also 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.

TopperPost #502

6 Comments

  1. Tony Allen
    Feb 12, 2016

    Good to see TFC make an appearance. Great band, my wife has all their records – I bought a few too way back. Steamroller and Golden Book also amazing songs. Oh, and those Pacers 🙂

  2. Dusty Inhere
    Feb 12, 2016

    I was a big fan of The Family Cat, but not as dedicated (pun intended) as @JohnyNocash. I still occasionally have a look at my battered copy of The Golden Book, issued free with “Magic Happens”, and wonder how much I’m missing out by not being an FCUK completist. This is a great piece of writing, I can even forgive you for leaving out Steamroller. But only because of the Pacers!

  3. Gary/The Autumn Stones
    Feb 13, 2016

    Seriously: most entertaining, infectious, compelling criticism I’ve read so far this year (any topic, not just music). A bizarrely inclusive read — “bizarrely” because I’d never even heard of this band and yet felt very much along for the ride down memory lane. Q: Is anthology title FIVE LIVES LEFT a vague reference to Nick Drake, FIVE LEAVES LEFT?

    • John Hartley
      Feb 13, 2016

      Thanks Gary. I’m not sure about the reference to Nick Drake; however it’s the fourth album release by the band, suggesting they have now used four of the cat’s nine lives. Hope that means five more albums to follow!

  4. Stevie C
    Jan 12, 2017

    Just stumbled upon this – it’s nice to find someone who loved them as much as I did and who can write so eloquently about them. I was a huge fan and went to see them on numerous occasions – we got to know them a little by hanging around soundchecks and the like. We were from Manc and although there was a shortlived spike in popularity there they got to know our faces as we were there in the early days, through support gigs with the Buzzcocks and all the way to the Duchess of York in Leeds 🙂 (PJ Harvey supported!!). What is interesting is I wouldn’t pick one of your favourite tracks as mine – they’re great, but I’d pick a whole different set. I would dearly love a reunion but sadly very unlikely to happen. Shame! I have posted some FC images in the Facebook TFC group if of any interest.

    • John Hartley
      Jan 12, 2017

      Thanks Stevie! Will have a look at the pictures you’ve posted. Funny how we all have different favourites; picking ten from so many is never easy…

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