The Soup Dragons

TrackAlbum / Single
Whole Wide WorldSubway Organisation SUBWAY 4T
Hang-Ten!Raw TV Products RTV 121
Head Gone AstrayRaw TV Products RTV 122
So Sad I FeelRaw TV Products RTV 122
Turning StoneThis Is Our Art
The Majestic Head?Raw TV Products RTV 125 / This Is Our Art
Vacate My SpaceThis Is Our Art
Soft As Your FaceRaw TV Products RTV 124 / This Is Our Art
Backwards DogRaw TV Products RTV 6T / Lovegod
Mother UniverseRaw TV Products RTV 8T / Lovegod

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

The Soup Dragons photo

The Soup Dragons (l to r): Sushil Dade, Paul Quinn, Sean Dickson, Jim McCulloch

 

Contributor: John Hartley

The heat can do strange things to a human’s psyche. At temperatures above 40°C the properties of cerebrum spinal fluid begin to change resulting in a range of symptoms which include weakness of limbs, dizziness, nausea and delusion. It’s why dehydrated desert-travellers see lakes, plantations and even cities ahead of them that are not really there. In the heatwave of August 1990 I was working in the very south of Ireland, near Bantry Bay to be more precise. As temperatures in the open sun nudged the high 30s, my summer holiday employment placed me inside a fish, chip and fried onion rings takeaway. The old adage suggests that if you can’t stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen. However, this was almost literally akin to another old adage, that of walking out of the frying pan and into the fire. Such conditions made the achievement of rationality quite a challenge, as anyone working with the chef in the attached restaurant would all too readily testify. And then somebody stuck their head through the customer hatch and said, “Hey John, you like The Soup Dragons right? Did you know they’re in the Top 10?”

This wasn’t the Indie Top 10, either. Such territory was of course familiar to the Bellshill band; they had managed to reach No.2 in the specialist chart with only their second release, the gorgeously fuzzy Whole Wide World. Ever quick to lazily label a band with reference to another, the music press of the time likened the sound of The Soup Dragons to that of Buzzcocks. In reality, this means that what you get with Whole Wide World is a breathless 1 minute 46 seconds of no-nonsense guitar pop that leaves the listener wondering quite what happened. Which is what every good pop song should do. The Soup Dragons replicated this achievement with Hang-Ten!, a song which expanded the earlier model by half a minute and includes a few ‘Ba-ba-ba’s and a key change into the bargain. This was blistering alternative pop music at its best, even coming with a Chart Show-friendly video to boot.

This video, and that for the next single released by the band, is a lesson in the must-have fashionwear of the average indie type in the mid-1980s: round glasses, art-school haircut, braces, cardigans knitted by grandma, ankle-flapping jeans. In Head Gone Astray the band provide a lesson in the bare musical necessities too: hook-lined Rickenbacker guitar lead, energetic drumming, melodic and honest singing supported by tight harmonies, subtle piano underpinning the guitars … Head Gone Astray was the band’s first release on RAW TV, a label set up by the former manager of Wham!, Jazz Summers. The single only made number three in the indie charts but it did manage to dent the UK Top 100 reaching number 82.

By now the four-piece (Sean Dickson on vocals and guitar, Sushil K. Dade on bass, Jim McCulloch on guitar and Ross A. Sinclair on drums) were clearly developing their sound; gone were the sub-two minute thrashes, being replaced by songs with more considered structure, production that was more pronounced without being detrimental, and lyrics that were less likely to blow away with the slightest breeze. That said, So Sad (I Feel) on the flip side of Head Gone Astray is hardly likely to set the annals of lyrical history alight. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favourite songs by The Soup Dragons largely on account of my being a sucker for a simple angst-ridden guitar solo and hint of violin in my indie ballad. And anyway, it does clock in at over seven minutes long, speeds up and has plenty singalong ‘na-na-na-na-na’ and elongated ‘ohhhhhhhhh’s in the second half of the song.

In hindsight, Head Gone Astray provides a perfect bridge between the earliest singles and the band’s debut album This Is Our Art and, for me if nobody else, this album represents The Soup Dragons at their best. Whilst the lyrical content was perhaps a tad lame-innuendo-heavy at times (The Majestic Head?, Passion Protein … subtlety not much in evidence here), melodically and sonically the band peaked. The psychedelia-influenced Turning Stone stood out for me almost immediately. Maybe the subject matter of this was nuanced and metaphorical; if I’m too naïve to realise then I’m happy that way. However, Dickson’s voice is as lush and soothing as I’ve heard anyone’s voice be, and the musical arrangement is spacious enough to give the whole song air to breathe. Turning Stone follows directly on from The Majestic Head?, whose orchestral introduction leads sublimely into an arpeggio-d guitar line which blossoms into a rockier chug of chord that rhythmically indicated both a sense of the past and a sense of the band’s own future direction.

This Is Our Art was released by Sire Records and spawned three singles, only one of which – Kingdom Chairs – was released by that same label. In truth, there could have been any number of singles released from the album and for me the pick of those left behind is Vacate My Space. Again, lyrically, Sean Dickson was never going to win any literary prizes, but the tune, the voice, the backing instrumentation, the band dynamic, the production all combine to provide a most enjoyable singalong opportunity. The finest moment on the album however comes in the guise of the gently acoustic strum of Soft As Your Face. Yes, again there are violins, supplementing a beautifully lilting guitar riff that invokes warm spring sunshine, the emotional tug of a teenage love where “every word you speak is tongue in cheek and tongue in cheek is tongue out of place”. It is songs like this that make me wonder what might have been for the band had the original line-up remained intact.

It was not to be, however; drummer Sinclair left, the lure of the art world too great to keep him in the band. Dickson, Dade and McCulloch continued, using a drum machine and sampler to provide the rhythm they needed for new material. Some months later as I enquired about a rumoured new single, the man at the counter in Alan’s of Wigan pulled out a white label disc, promising it to me in a week’s time. He wouldn’t play it in the shop – already midway through an album he was having to play – but warned me it didn’t sound like they used to. Upon hearing Backwards Dog I could see instantly what the shop assistant meant, although in hindsight I can again see the single was not an illogical progression from the style of such album tracks as Passion Protein. The guitars were heavier, true, and Dickson was now growling his lyrics rather than singing them, and there was a definite menace to the sound, but it still sounded extremely good.

The single was the first of three to be lifted from what would be The Soup Dragons’ second album Lovegod. By now Paul Quinn had assumed control of the drummer’s stool and brought with him a more dancefloor-friendly mood. To my ears the album was patchier than its predecessor, perhaps because my ears had not bought into the ecstasy-fuelled vibe that was going down. (As that sentence proves beyond all doubt.) Mother Universe perhaps epitomised this shift most of all yet perhaps surprisingly still manages to make it into my Toppermost. Here was a simple tune, a catchy chorus, some bleeps and bloops and – to keep Johny happy – some guitars, and it was very easy to dance to.

It is at this point that The Soup Dragons and I began to drift apart, although this distancing did not stop me feeling aggrieved on their behalf at their ultimate treatment by the music press. Whilst compatriots Primal Scream would be lauded for Loaded, Come Together and Screamadelica as a whole, The Soup Dragons got mullered for their Mother Universe era. There was very little between the bands in timing and in style but in the eyes of the press what was good for the goose was not good enough for the gander. Especially once Lovegod had been re-released to cash in on the unexpected Top 5 success enjoyed by the band from the outskirts of Motherwell with a cute name …

By this stage I had been working in County Cork for a few weeks. I hadn’t been tracking the fortunes of the band’s latest single; it wasn’t off their most recent album and having heard it was to be a cover version of a Rolling Stones song it wasn’t on my list of immediate must-buys. To say I thought my leg was being pulled would be an understatement, but a browse of the latest NME proved my informant to be honest and trustworthy, in this case at least. I didn’t quite know what to think, torn between a love of their more guitar-based origins and an ambivalence towards the indie-dance craze, proud that an unknown secret was now shared by so many yet begrudging the Johnny-come-latelys who had no idea of the band’s history, pleased that they had found success yet annoyed by their faces splashed across the music press and TV the more I looked. It’s a familiar story. I felt sorry for them as the media then lumped them in with the ‘we’ve always had a dance element to our music’ brigade whilst simultaneously lauding others for doing exactly nothing different. However, the overriding feeling was one of sadness: The Soup Dragons had their breakthrough, and as far as I could see it was the worst record they had ever made and one from which in my ears they would never recover. That said, The Soup Dragons then went off and stormed America, reaching number 26 on the Billboard and number 3 on the Modern Rock charts with Divine Thing from third album Hotwired, which just goes to show what I know about music.

 

 

POSTSCRIPT
The Soup Dragons disbanded in 1995. Paul Quinn joined Teenage Fanclub and then The Primary 5 and now manages Gorbals Sound Studios in Glasgow. Sushil Dade formed the experimental post rock group Future Pilot A.K.A. and is a member of The Burns Unit collective. Sean Dickson formed The High Fidelity and currently deejays as HiFi Sean. Jim McCulloch joined Superstar, wrote and recorded music with Isobel Campbell, and formed the folk group Snowgoose. Ross A. Sinclair had a successful career in art, winning a number of international awards and becoming a Research Fellow at Glasgow School of Art. (partly sourced at Wikipedia)

The Soup Dragons facebook

The Soup Dragons discography

The Soup Dragons biography (Wikipedia)

Sean Dickson – Hifi Sean – Soundcloud

Hifi Sean on YouTube – songwriter, producer, dj and lover of the moving image

Jim McCulloch / Snowgoose offical website

Sushil Dade facebook

Paul Quinn facebook

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.

Here are some of John’s other topper-posts: The Band of Holy Joy; The Beta Band; BOB; The Brilliant Corners, The Family Cat; The House of Love; James; McCarthy; The Mighty Lemon Drops; My Life Story; The Railway Children; Stereolab, Stornoway

TopperPost #653

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

↓