18 Wheeler

TrackAlbum
SuncrushTwin Action
The RevealerTwin Action
Golden CandlesTwin Action
Steel GuitarsFormanka
CartoonFormanka
The BottleFormanka
The Hours And The TimesYear Zero
StayYear Zero
Everything's DeadYear Zero
The Ballad Of Paul VerlaineYear Zero

18 Wheeler photo

 

 

 

Contributor: Rob Morgan

You know how it is. You come across a song you like – on TV, a radio show, something you overhear from a friend – and you note it down in your memory banks as “something to investigate”. Sometimes you will dig into it immediately, sometimes the thought will linger in the back of your mind, ready to pop up from time to time, usually when trawling through bargain bins. This was how it was for me and 18 Wheeler.

During 1995 I heard their single Steel Guitars on Mark Radcliffe’s radio show and enjoyed it enough to remember the name. A year later I was browsing through the reduced rack of Diverse Music and found 18 Wheeler’s second album Formanka for all of a quid, especially a bargain as it had a free 7″ single with it. It had Steel Guitars on it, which was the song I knew, but after playing it at home it turned out I knew another song on there. The Bottle was one of the best guitar pop songs I had heard in a long time – the guitars are bright and breezy but the sentiments of the lyrics are doubting and melancholy.

I can’t stop missing the lips I’ve been kissing
Please take hold of my shaking hand
Can’t you see I’m a broken man?

Can’t get out of bed til you get out of my head
Every day it’s the same old fight
How am I meant to sleep at night?

At this point the song turns darker, waves of distorted guitars thrash at chords for a few seconds before sunshine breaks through – a phalanx of guitar arpeggios, a descending chromatic bassline and harmony vocals

She’s in the bottle
I can see her in the bottom
By the time I’ve reached the bottom
I’ve forgotten

Repeated over and over, so sweetly yet sadly, and finally the song bursts apart with more fuzzy guitars, then some classic guitar licks as the song ends.

I was blown away by The Bottle, alongside the nagging feeling that I had heard it before. Had it been played on the radio? Had I heard a live session perhaps? No matter, I loved The Bottle and would add it to mix tapes for myself and other people. They’d ask “What was that song by Teenage Fanclub?” and I’d say “That was 18 Wheeler” and they would say “Oh, aren’t they that band who … ?”

You see, some things never change.

If 18 Wheeler are remembered at all these days, it’s mainly in relation to two particular legendary incidents. Of course these two incidents will be mentioned in passing and they do tend to loom large in the band’s history but they totally overshadow the actual music they made, which is a shame as 18 Wheeler made some of the best mid 90s indie music.

18 Wheeler were formed in 1992 and originally had four members – Sean Jackson on vocals and guitar, David Keenan on guitar, Alan Hake on bass and Neil Halliday on drums. Although they formed in Glasgow some members were from further north, up in Aberdeen. They were swiftly embedded into the Glasgow music scene which had seen Teenage Fanclub elevated from minor Dinosaur Jr slacker fetishists to major Big Star slacker fetishists via their classic album Bandwagonesque. Every new band in Glasgow was mixing grungy guitars with Chilton-esque chimes and harmonies, and most of them were being swept up by Creation Records. Bands like Captain America (aka Eugenius), Superstar, Boyfriend and 18 Wheeler themselves were seen by the music press as jumping on the bandwagon and nothing special at all. This does a disservice to all these artists who had their own take on the Teenage Fanclub style.

18 Wheeler were initially signed to August Records, a subsidiary of Creation formed by Dave Barker who had previous form with indie labels, having set up Glass, Paperhouse and Seminal Twang and having worked with Teenage Fanclub, the Pastels, Velvet Crush, the Springfields and Shonen Knife. August issued two singles by 18 Wheeler – Nature Girl and Suncrush – before the label closed down and the band moved to Creation. Of the two singles, Suncrush is the best – as refreshing as a summer breeze, a cheerful male female duet swinging over classic 12 string guitar chime and some delightful pedal steel guitar. When the band moved to Creation in late ’93 they lost David Keenan who formed Telstar Ponies alongside Brendan O’Hare who left Teenage Fanclub around the same time.

So that was 1993 for 18 Wheeler; two singles, lost a guitarist, signed to Creation … Anything else? Oh well there was that gig they played in Glasgow in May where Creation boss Alan McGee came along to see a friend in the support band, only to find the band’s mates who were also in a band barging their way onto the stage to play four songs, enough songs for McGee to decide to sign the band to Creation and change the label’s fortunes within a year. Yes this is Legendary Overshadowing Incident #1. 18 Wheeler were supported that night by Oasis.

 

Meanwhile 18 Wheeler found themselves on Creation and completed their debut album for release during the summer of 1994. Twin Action has all the hallmarks of a debut album – slightly overlong, a sense of ambition not quite matching the band’s abilities yet there is plenty to enjoy across the 47 minutes playing time. The majority of the songs are melodic guitar pop gems such as Sweet Tooth, The Revealer and Kum Back, fuzzy blasts of overdriven melody and harmonies, songs which could easily fit onto side two of a Teenage Fanclub album. There are a few odd songs along the way as well. Golden Candles is a three part epic – the first part a piano and string section ballad, the second a bizarre instrumental homage to Smile-era Beach Boys, the final part an acoustic campfire singalong. The whole song is smothered in so much reverb it’s almost intoxicating. Another reverb drenched oddity is Gram, queasy strings in abundance over a piano and acoustic guitar. The mid tempo beauty, Hotel 167, is spoiled by the decision to place the entire song through a phasing effect which distracts from the song and makes it sound slightly seasick. Frosty Hands starts all dubby with heavy reggae bass and echoing guitars, before moving into another reverb soaked epic. Album closer, Wet Dream, again uses reverb to cloak the song itself. All in all Twin Action has some great songs and some odd ideas but enough potential to investigate further.

Luckily, Creation had faith in 18 Wheeler, even if their one time support act were now climbing the charts and changing the musical landscape. 1995 saw the release of 18 Wheeler’s second album Formanka, a shorter and more focused album than its predecessor. The experiments are mostly dropped in favour of straight ahead riffs and melodies, and there’s only two excursions away from the power pop formula. Opener, Boddha, is bright and breezy, with layers of fuzz in the background, but the song twists and turns and after 90 seconds moves into an acoustic reverie, but still infused with fuzz. It’s an intriguing start. Steel Guitars is the obvious single, but there’s a melancholy edge in the descending chords which turns the song from great to sublime, as do the call and response vocals in the verses. Closer, John The Revelator, builds from an acoustic strum to a full on guitar assault but never loses its melodic sense. And of course there’s The Bottle. There are two diversions though – Cartoon is another dive into the reverb tank with a piano and a rather lovely Leslie-toned guitar while the title track is an instrumental built on acoustic guitar and a string quartet.

As I mentioned above, the vinyl album had a free 7 inch single of two demos, and it turned out the CD had a free CD with four demos. All songs from Twin Action, these are more straight ahead than the final recordings, with Hotel 167 now shining like the sad eyed ballad it always should have been – ie not flanged, phased out or reverbed to death. This is it.

 

Times were changing around 18 Wheeler and they changed with the times as well. When they signed to Creation, the label was forever on a knife edge between success and bankruptcy. While Primal Scream, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Sugar and Teenage Fanclub had all had chart success and music press kudos, the label itself was frequently perilously close to extinguishing itself, mainly due to money issues. A deal with Sony in 1993 helped provide stability for Creation, but they had yet to find an act which would put them into the big league. However, that Mancunian band at the bottom of the bill at the 18 Wheeler gig in Glasgow would change all that. By the time of the release of Formanka, Oasis had a number one single (Some Might Say) and a number one album (Definitely Maybe) with another album in progress which would go on to sell over 4 million copies in the UK. Oasis changed the face of British pop and suddenly Alan McGee was the most famous record mogul on the planet. Cool Britannia and all that. Oasis and McGee were feted by the press, and the ascendant Labour Party, led by the ascendant Tony Blair, took notice.

Somehow 18 Wheeler were swept up into this as well. In 1996 they were preparing to issue their third album Year Zero – a change of direction with a title to match – and McGee had been invited to a Labour Party event in Blackpool, presenting an Oasis platinum disc to Blair. 18 Wheeler were due to play at the event and Blair was set to introduce them. As McGee wrote in his autobiography “Creation Stories” – “Then Blair introduced the band and got their name wrong, calling them ‘Wheeler 18’. He’d never heard of them, of course he hadn’t.” This then is Legendary Overshadowing Incident #2.

This is a shame as Year Zero was different from their previous albums but just as good, even better in some places. Gone are the power pop guitars, the Teenage Fanclub-isms and other trappings of indie-dom. In come electronic dance beats, keyboards and a lot of production. Even so the songs are still there, the melodies are still there and it works really well. Their modus operandi had changed – they would still work out the songs on guitars but would use this as a guide to add samples, keyboards and more – they had been absorbing the dance music scene for a while.

 

First single The Hours And The Times gave notice to the change of direction, a shuffle beat, plenty of processed guitars but all attached to a fantastic song. It was all over the radio too, as I remember it. However the music press – who were never that fond of the band – turned nasty. The change of style was noted in a derogatory way, as was the Blair incident. The music itself was barely mentioned.

Year Zero is an album of two halves. The first half of the album features five songs which would all be released as singles – the aforementioned The Hours And The Times, Crabs, Grease, Prozac Beats and Stay. All great songs, especially Prozac Beats and Stay, but five singles from an album? Each single was filled with dance remixes too; Creation wanted to push 18 Wheeler in the direction of hip and trendy DJs with mixes by Bentley Rhythm Ace, the Aloof, FC Kahuna and William Orbit. Who were 18 Wheeler’s target audience now? Even with two CDs and copious 12 inch mixes, the only single to scrape into the charts was Stay, reaching number 59 in March 1997. This seems fitting as Stay was by far the best single on the album, the most traditional song in a way, a melodic gem not encumbered by an overzealous electronic beat, with a straightforward arrangement of acoustic guitars and a queasy string section. See, Prozac Beats could not have a more 1996 song title, and even the B-side of the single (Fuck Easy Listening) felt like touching the zeitgeist, even if it did sound like the High Llamas covering Burt Bacharach. Or maybe that was the point?

The second half of the album was slower and more considered, there’s an air of melancholy hanging over Everything’s Dead, an end of the evening feeling where the hangover is already starting to kick in. Den Dagen, Den Sorgen has a similar ache, even the lyrics tell a tale of helping a friend find solace and comfort in hard times. The album ends with a strange, short but beguiling instrumental named Planesong which sounds like nothing else on the album, or anything else at all.

The whole album pivots on track six, after the five singles. This song is The Ballad Of Paul Verlaine and it’s still my favourite 18 Wheeler song, and I still listen to it in amazement. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Are the strange lyrics a reference to the French poet whose ballad it is? Nothing is explained. The song is fast, built on throbbing distorted power chords, a drum machine as fast as jungle (the subset of techno then in vogue) and rumbling bass. Sean Jackson sings about blood on windowsills, trips, dirt, before a chorus built on a church organ while his voice raises higher and higher like a choir boy. After two uneasy verses and choruses, Jackson stops singing and something quite extraordinary happens. A swarm of glide guitars emerge from the background swooping and swooning, while the drum machine gets more frantic, keyboard hits get more atonal and meanwhile from nowhere a sonar bleep turns into a Shepard Tone, constantly rising, building tension, and this continues for minutes, building and building, until the song seems to throw everything off the speeding merry go round and grind to a halt.

The first time I heard The Ballad Of Paul Verlaine I was gobsmacked. Around this time there were rumours in the music press of what My Bloody Valentine were creating for their long awaited follow up to Loveless. Tales of Kevin Shields making jungle music, drum and bass, crazy talk. And yet here were 18 Wheeler with a song which sounded exactly like MBV playing jungle. Here was another 18 Wheeler song to drop onto mix tapes and wait for the reaction. “Wait, that was 18 Wheeler? But I thought … ” Many years later, when My Bloody Valentine issued m b v in 2013, including some pieces originally recorded in the mid 90s, it was reassuring to hear that they did indeed sound a little like The Ballad Of Paul Verlaine.

Once the promotional cycle for Year Zero was complete (they ended every gig with The Ballad Of Paul Verlaine because … Well … where could you go after that?) 18 Wheeler started recording a fourth album but it was never completed. Just as it neared completion, Creation dropped them from the label. It was a very different label to the one 18 Wheeler had signed to back in 1993. As Alan Hake said in a 2002 interview, “Creation was probably becoming less ‘special’ at that point.” Sony were waiting for the next big thing to arrive via Alan McGee’s magic touch, but McGee was rapidly losing interest in the label and the industry. He could see where the future lay – towards music distributed via the internet. Sony wanted hits, 18 Wheeler weren’t providing them, and they were dropped. The fourth album was never finished and the band split up immediately. Of the original members it’s Alan Hake who has the highest profile in the music world, though not for music making. He helped Alan McGee at Poptones Records in 2000 before forming Must Destroy Records a few years later, having success with The Darkness and Goldie Lookin Chain. He was also in the original team who set up the 45cat website. Sean Jackson issued a solo album in 2010. David Keenan is a prizewinning novelist and his writing in The Wire magazine is highly respected

Twenty years after their split nobody remembers 18 Wheeler, or if they do it’s as a footnote in the Oasis story, or the uneasy tale of how politics and pop music became entangled in the 90s. Nobody talks about the music, which is an absolute shame as the music was superb. There are no 18 Wheeler songs on Spotify (the Charmed Life album on there is another band altogether) and no demand for their albums to be reissued. Occasionally Twitter accounts like @britpopmemories and @indieover40 will tweet about the band, showing that some people remember them for the music. But they will always have a place in my heart for songs as perfect and extraordinary as The Bottle and The Ballad Of Paul Verlaine.

 

 

 

18 Wheeler at Discogs

Creation Records interview with Alan Hake, Sept 2002

18 Wheeler biography (AllMusic)

Rob Morgan writes about the music he loves for a number of websites including Everything Indie Over 40 and his own blog A Goldfish Called Regret – he also creates podcasts. He tweets @durutti74.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other bands mentioned in this post:
Big Star, My Bloody Valentine, Oasis, Pastels, Primal Scream, Ride, Teenage Fanclub

TopperPost #862

1 Comment

  1. Marc Fagel
    May 8, 2020

    Have to admit I was unfamiliar with this band, but the Teenage Fanclub references got my attention, and I’m definitely gonna be spending some time digging into their catalog. It’s a shame how few of the Creation acts made much of a mark here in the US, but every time I look I’m stumbling across another one I’m sorry I missed.

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