|Track||Album / Single|
|Truck Train Tractor||Glass Records GLASS 048|
|Nothing To Be Done||Sittin' Pretty|
|Exotic Arcade||Mobile Safari|
|Wilderness Theme||The Last Great Wilderness|
|Slow Summits||Slow Summits|
|Different Drum||K Records IPU 14|
|Baby Honey||Up For A Bit With The Pastels|
The Pastels (l to r): Katrina Mitchell, Annabel (Aggi) Wright, Stephen McRobbie
Contributor: Duncan Harman
Not all records have geography embedded in their genetic make-up – just the best ones. The betrayal of location. Of place, of belonging, experiences distilled against a latticework of city streets, suburban streets, unfurling vistas, the great wide open.
Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream could only have ever come from New York. Nag Nag Nag wouldn’t have worked had Cabaret Voltaire’s origins not aligned with a failing, post-industrial Sheffield. From suburban Melbourne (The Birthday Party) to Manchester’s Irish blood, English heart (The Smiths, amongst many others), the geographic moulds so much of what we listen to. Paul Weller’s London is forever framed by a Surrey commuter belt mentality. Billy Childish wouldn’t be quite so Wild without the Medway delta flowing through his veins.
And then there’s Glasgow. Bad genes, bad habits. A city of broken teeth and broken windows; your tenement’s been condemned, and the locals sing along to Deacon Blue on the jukebox before kicking your face in.
Few places do reputation quite like Glasgow. Tinseltown in the rain it may be, but it’s a tinseltown populated by stock characters – the junkie, the jakey, and in every bar: at least five versions of Irvine Welsh’s Begbie. And whilst reputation doesn’t always align with reality – the modern city is vibrant, progressive, and as an émigré from the south of England I’m proud to call it home – there remains an edge. A degree of serration that – logic suggests – should be reflected by its cultural output.
And yet the opposite is true. I’m not sure why – maybe it’s a reaction against perceived grimness (or simply the weather) – but Glasgow’s artistic pulse is defined by its warmth. By its egalitarianism. Of sunshine and solidarity.
It’s in the work of Alasdair Gray. Carol Ann Duffy. Ivor Cutler.
And it’s in its music – because the story of Glasgow (and its satellite towns – hello Bellshill; good afternoon, East Kilbride) is the story of its sound. Records hewn from positivity and affirmation. Orange Juice and Strawberry Switchblade. Teenage Fanclub, Belle and Sebastian, The Vaselines, The Delgados – I could go on (and am quite tempted to; why Urusei Yatsura weren’t massive is beyond me). “Hello, we are Bis from Glasgow, Scotland,” announces Sci-Fi Steven at the beginning of Sweet Shop Avengerz, and it isn’t apology, or explanation, but celebration. Validation.
Not all these bands hung around for too long, or remained in the city once fame and fortune called. But many did, continuing to make wonderful records to this day – and two acts encapsulate this esprit de Glasgow like no other; Duglas T Stewart’s BMX Bandits, and a scruffy bunch of herberts known as The Pastels.
Were I to start firing around adjectives such as fey, awkward or shambolic, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was using them in the pejorative. Yet if there is an element of feyness, awkwardness and just pure mess within pretty much every Pastels release, then it’s these flavours that help to make those records so endearing. Thirty-five years (and counting) of seasick vocals. Guitars that sound barely tuned. Melody mangled, or daubed across the canvas whilst wearing boxing gloves. It shouldn’t work; that it does is testament not only to the musical interplay between the protagonists, or the obvious sense of fun the material radiates, but a sharp appreciation of the mechanics of pop, taking the motifs and structures of jangle, yé-yé, garage pop and kayōkyoku, then applying them in an inclusive, Glasgow context.
Yet don’t interpret that subjugation of sound as something cynical; instead there’s an innocence to all this. A sense of wonder akin to childhood. Truck Train Tractor – a single from 1986 – begins with a peal of toy instruments and a fuzzy, unfocused, playroom riff that’s tethered to the song by Martin Hayward’s bass, lest it floats away like a helium-filled balloon. It’s a frantic, sugar-rushed journey, Stephen Pastel – his real surname long usurped by band moniker – singing with an urgency almost sly in nature, as if trying to outrun the whoops and whistles kicking off in the background.
The Pastels are Stephen’s band. It was always his vision, and it was he who picked up the pieces when the original line-up disintegrated after second album Sittin’ Pretty. Yet whilst membership has (at times) been fluid, the number of hired hands bewildering, it’s an allure fostered by collectivism. Of creative forces percolating.
Earlier material, and it’s in the playful interaction between Brian Superstar’s extroverted guitar and Stephen’s more restrained fretwork; later on it’s Katrina Mitchell’s lifting vox and anchoring percussion. Songwriting duties shared, vocals shared, and if it wasn’t for Aggi (aka Annabel Wright, formerly of The Shop Assistants), the band’s distinctive DIY visual identity wouldn’t have taken shape.
It’s Aggi and Stephen who duet on Sittin’ Pretty’s Nothing To Be Done – The Pastels’ Some Velvet Morning moment. “Take my hand and take my heart,” sings Stephen. “I shiver when you’re near.”
“Just try and keep it light, or someone may get hurt tonight,” is the response. “Don’t talk that way, don’t talk that way, don’t talk that way.”
It’s a neat slice of vocal sparring enhanced by jangly guitars and a frenzied, semi-dissonant solo smeared across both middle eight and outro, and as a track it pulls off that neat trick of fostering expansive compactness.
As well as featuring on Truckload Of Trouble – the band’s 1994 singles/EP/album track revisit – both Truck Train Tractor and Nothing To Be Done have done the rounds of indie/twee-pop compilations to such an extent that any casual understanding of The Pastels would have them resident in some scene-anchored C86/jangle hinterland. It’s a rule by which music journalism – increasingly pandering to the lowest common denominator – assimilates and repackages genre, sub-genre and genres that never were into easily digestible nuggets – more museum exhibits than living, breathing sound (never mind that Amelia Fletcher is a Professor of Economics; she was the creative force behind Talulah Gosh, and therefore forever twee).
Such lazy revisionism is particularly disingenuous in this instance because not only were The Pastels never beholden to scene or vogue (at least beyond that Glasgow context), but understanding the band as C86 bobble-heads fails to recognise the flowering of their sound over subsequent records. And whilst you could never accuse Stephen & co. of prolificacy – just the five studio albums, and only one this century – it’s this later material, far less likely to be shoehorned onto an NME-sponsored collection, that underlines what a strange yet beautiful budding we’ve been witness to.
In 1995 the band released Mobile Safari, Stephen, Aggi and Katrina joined by the likes of David Keenan (The Shop Assistants), Dean Wareham (Galaxie 500/Luna), Eugene Kelly (The Vaselines/Eugenius) and half of Teenage Fanclub. It’s a fascinating listen, at turns subtle, wry and melancholic, and very much not strung out on template. Yoga – Aggi on vox – is The Pastels on a rainy day, the guitars distorted and a little reminiscent of early My Bloody Valentine, Katrina’s cooed harmonising working as cute counterpoint.
It’s also not an album afraid to slow the pace, exposing layers of tenderness as a result. Exotic Arcade, its lyrics uncertain and wistful, carries with it the faintest flavour of Americana, the chord progression between verse and chorus a deft pivot.
1997’s Illumination – largely with the same line-up, although Aggi’s last with the band – continued to channel the themes of its predecessor whilst exploring musical textures with greater reach and fluency. Cycle doesn’t bother with anything as mundane as a chorus. Instead, a mesh of dream-like phrases, the poetry floating upon momentum like driftwood. A delicate, autumnal track, and quite beautiful with it. Stephen’s Fragile Gang – “Pixelated pictures, moments without sound. Will we all go down?” – wraps its languid melody around slow-burn dissonance and a depth of detail; the entire affair may sound like it can’t be bothered, yet beneath any initial peek the patterns of instrumentation are deceptively complex; this is not stock indie-pop.
One further element that elevates The Pastels way above generic indie expectation is that they’re not afraid of the instrumental. Both Mobile Safari and Illumination contain passages that tilt in this direction, and by the early 2000s, such exploration was realised with the soundtrack to The Last Great Wilderness. Wilderness Theme may lack a lyrical centrepiece, but it retains the quality that makes the band’s material so engaging: warm yet fuzzy, and somehow out of reach. Against a looped vocal, each instrument – keyboards, bass, trumpet, flute – is smeared and fragmentary, yet pulled into a whole as if by sheer will alone. In a similar vein, the title track of their 2013 album Slow Summits sounds like it should belong on Roy Budd’s Get Carter soundtrack, were the film set in a record store – the interplay between flute and guitar in particular airy and evocative.
As mentioned earlier, there’s only been five studio albums, plus The Last Great Wilderness – yet even this is selling the band short. Cue LP collaborations with Japanese experimentalists Tenniscoats, EP collaborations with Jad Fair, a remix album that unlike many others is actually worth bothering with (My Bloody Valentine’s mix of the aforementioned Cycle especially), and a back catalogue in which – with famous friends and without – there’s a breadth of glide, invigoration and Glasgow sunshine.
But if asked to select two tracks that sum up the attraction … well, the first isn’t even a Pastels track, but Mike Nesmith’s Different Drum – a song that hasn’t exactly lost out on the cover versions front. The Pastels’ version is from 1990, released on 7″ only in the US, and yes; it’s fey and awkward and shambolic. Also: really quite lovely, Stephen’s vocal adding a vulnerability to the lyrics missing from other’s attempts (even if the execution is a little tongue-in-cheek).
Track #2: well, that isn’t difficult. The band still close their live set with Baby Honey – an early number that appeared on debut LP Up For A Bit With The Pastels – and even a cursory glance tells you all you need to know. Throughout their various guises the band have never been over-reliant on big guitar hooks to draw the listener in, but here the riff is a) predatory, and b) an aperture through which the song unravels in multiple directions. It’s drone. Freeform jazz. A toyshop symphony. Tension. Succession. It’s whatever you want it to be (particularly onstage, where it can last up to ten minutes – which is at least twenty minutes off the ideal, but every gig has a janitor in the wings impatiently tapping his wristwatch).
And above all, Baby Honey is the sound of Glasgow (in that it has the city’s presence running throughout) but also an anywhere. Because whilst geography is relevant, egalitarianism, sunshine and solidarity are universal constructs …
Thus the joy of Pastelism. It’s everywhere. A little rough about the edges, maybe … but isn’t that all of us?
The Pastels pictured with BBC Radio Scotland’s Vic Galloway (2013)
Record obsessive and occasional drunkard, Duncan Harman usually writes at Lazer Guided Melody.