The Boo Radleys

TrackAlbum / EP / Single
EverybirdLearning To Walk
FireskyEverything's Alright Forever
LazarusLazarus EP
At The Sound Of SpeedLazarus EP
Thinking Of WaysGiant Steps
Barney (... And Me)Giant Steps
WilderWake Up!
From The Bench At BelvidereCreation CRESCD214
Everything Is SorrowC'Mon Kids
EurostarKingsize

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Contributor: Neil Dewhurst

Depending on when you first heard The Boo Radleys you might know them as one of the following: a rough and ready indie rock band, shoegazers, experimental magpies, or the Britpop band that nearly was. For the purposes of this toppermost selection, let’s just say they are all of the above, and more.

Ignoring the mostly unknown debut album, Ichabod And I, released in very limited numbers on Action Records, the earliest Boo Radleys sounds can be found on the compilation, Learning To Walk, released by Rough Trade as the band left to join Alan McGee’s Creation records. Collecting together three early Boo Radleys EPs, the album also contains a couple of covers, including a version of the New Order track True Faith, cunningly renamed as Boo! Faith.

Learning To Walk wasn’t my first Boo Radleys experience, but it makes sense to attack this thing chronologically, to show the development of the band from hairy feedback and distortion monsters staring lovingly at a poster of J Mascis while they record, through shoegazing, experimental genius, Britpop, then back to noise before a final burst of creativity that revealed their true potential to a world that had long deserted them.

Everybird is the first half of The Boo Radleys’ career in a microcosm: sometimes melodic, partly a rush of noise, occasionally both at once. Timothy Brown’s bass treads softly under guitars that switch between floaty and brutal, with Sice holding a constant, vulnerable vocal. There’s a hint of embellishment and experiment in the production, but nothing on the scale of what was to come on the next two albums.

Having originally bought Everything’s Alright Forever on cassette, for a while I wasn’t entirely sure where some of the tracks at the start of side one ended, and where the next began. There seemed to be too many distinct pieces of music for the tracklisting, but which parts belonged to Towards The Light, and which belonged to Losing It (Song For Abigail)?

I know that this would bother some people, and once it would have perturbed me, but I was moving on from the days when I cared to know every lyric, every title, and the precise running order (including lengths of songs, memorised to the second) of all my albums.

Everything’s Alright Forever doesn’t really lend itself to that sort of forensic fanaticism. It starts, waves of sound cascade from the speakers and wash up at your feet, eddying round the socks and other obstacles you choose to keep on the floor, you drift off – life is but a shoegaze dream – and fifty minutes later the tide goes out, leaving you alone with a feeling of something having happened that you’re not quite sure of.

Firesky is a feel-good groove masquerading as wall-of-fuzz shoegaze. It’s a slow-burner with washes of self-produced Boos sound, broken only a couple of times by a 5-chord sequence that introduces a brief lyrical segment. I’d call it a verse, but there’s no chorus to speak of to compare it to. Sice’s vocal is somehow buried in the dense mix but at the same time the pure euphoria comes through clear and bright:

“I feel so alive, I feel so true. You would understand if you were in me.”

Near the end of 1992, The Boo Radleys released a single, Lazarus, that was a world away from the layered obfuscation of Everything’s Alright Forever. Six minutes long and change, it was eerie, spacey, built and built for a thrilling three minutes, when an organ roll ushers in the horns, and suddenly all the music in the world is happening at once. And then they cut the switch almost as soon as it begins, for an acoustic guitar, slightly distorted vocals and “ba-baa” harmonies:

“I … I must be losing my mind.”

They repeat the loud/quiet pattern a couple of times and then that’s it, all gone, see you next time. It’s devastatingly simple. Perhaps this is a word I use too often, but it’s perfect.

On Giant Steps, Lazarus appears half-way through side two, just slotted in there between Take The Time Around and One Is For like it’s nothing special. The brooding menace of the first part of the intro from the single version is gone, and the rest of the intro gets an overdub featuring an overdose of left-to-right-channel then right-to-left-channel swishing.

The thing of it is, with all that tampering, it’s still perfect.

At The Sound Of Speed was originally a B-side to Lazarus, and like many a Boo Radleys B-side it’s the sound of a band playing with ideas, not afraid to let a song move from one place to another, happy not to be bound by the constraints of the verse/chorus form. (For another example of this, listen to Whiplashed, from the Adrenalin EP, which goes from ambient to grungey before throwing up flutes and triumphant brass). It’s also evidence of a band with too many ideas to contain within a single album, and that’s even in the context of the spirit of experimentation and eclecticism that defines their 1993 landmark album, Giant Steps.

Riskily (or arrogantly) taking its name from a John Coltrane album, Giant Steps saw Martin Carr in full-on experimentation mode, talking of how he didn’t like to repeat an idea in the same song, let alone across the same album, and playing like he meant it. I Hang Suspended and If You Want it, Take it are exceptions that prove the rule: it’s like the Boos are telling you they could knock this sort of thing out all day long if they had to, or felt so inclined, but with a Chris Tarrant-style “Millionaire” flourish, they don’t want to give you that, they want to give you Upon 9th And Fairchild and a howling guitar, and a song that veers from dub to post-punk and back again. Or how about Thinking Of Ways, with a melody and arrangement that could be The Kinks, could be The Beatles, and manages to mix wailing feedback with what I assume is a clarinet?

Thinking Of Ways is followed by Barney (… And Me), another of those Boo Radleys songs that winds itself up over the first half before letting rip over the course of a long outro, the purpose of which could be just to set you up for the distorted nightmare of Spun Around. I’ve always loved the guitar solo on this, even if Carr thinks it “sounds like it was recorded on an electric squash racket”.

All this variety, all this experimentation, could go horribly wrong in less skilled hands, but Martin Carr knows when to hold back and let the horns and harmonies take over, and for the most part the patchwork pieces are strong enough that a more bombastic band would have stretched them into an epic triple album. As it was, Giant Steps was almost too much to take in at the time. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was a mild letdown after all the expectation, or the most brilliantly, thrillingly ambitious album of its day.

Released during Britpop’s heyday, Wake Up Boo! was described by Martin Carr as his stab at Motown, then later as the most cynical thing he’d ever done. It gave the Boos a brief burst of the top 10 fame they’d dreamed of as kids growing up in Liverpool, when Carr and Sice would practice being interviewed and getting out of planes, and a number one album in Wake Up!. It also brought them new fans, some of whom were doubtless confused at gigs by the back catalogue sections. Although it ditches much of the variety of Giant Steps in favour of a more direct sound, and acoustic gems like Fairfax Scene and Reaching Out From Here, there’s still room in the house of Boo for a curiosity like Martin, Doom! It’s Seven O’Clock. The album closes, too, with Wilder, a track that is almost unique in the Boos repertoire for its strong piano lead (other than Song From The Blueroom from Kingsize, no other examples spring to mind). For a couple of minutes at least, you could be mistaken for thinking the spirit of Elton John has taken over, before the mellowest of instrumental outros carries you away.

The Boo Radleys followed the success of Wake Up! with the standalone single From The Bench At Belvidere, which continues the wistful nostalgia visited here and there on Wake Up!, but with a far stronger, more relaxed song. The single is worth tracking down for the B-side, Almost Nearly There, alone, or you could buy the expanded re-issue of Wake Up! and get both songs that way.

In an attempt, presumably, to cast off any of the latecomers drawn to the Boo’s flame by the sudden shift to Britpop of Wake Up!, they followed it with the uncompromising, unflinchingly awkward C’Mon Kids. It was 1996: the year of Noelrock, when football came home and The Spice Girls brought Girl Power to the charts. At the same time here were The Boo Radleys, sticking two fingers up at everyone, much to the relief of anyone who’d been driven to violent distraction by the inescapable cheer of Wake Up Boo!. In “Creation Stories”, Alan McGee describes them as “another of the Creation bands that in the end cared more about being cool than about being successful”, but to me C’Mon Kids is the sound of a band uncomfortable with the deal they’ve had to make to find their fame, then deliberately walking away from what they thought they’d always wanted. While no-one would have expected Wake Up! Part 2, C’Mon Kids skips that time altogether and harks back to the all-over-the-map feel of Giant Steps, but with almost none of that album’s moments of respite. As a result, Everything Is Sorrow is something of a lost classic; released as a free tour single in 1997, it has shades of Belvidere on a melancholic trip, and was buried in the wall of angry noise that makes up most of C’Mon Kids.

“The only voice you’ll hear all day – will it always be this way? (yes)”

Having got this far, I have only one album left to mention, but only one slot to fill. Perhaps if I hadn’t so indulgently included a Lazarus B-side… if only I’d taken out one of the tracks from Giant Steps

Because Kingsize – The Boo Radleys’ glorious secret swansong – is too complete, too assured, too accomplished to be recognised by just one track. I can’t help but think of what could have been if, instead of C’Mon Kids, this had been the follow-up to Wake Up! But then again, perhaps this was the only way Martin Carr could construct a career – by coming down from the exploratory high of Giant Steps with Wake Up!, then rejecting success with C’Mon Kids, before taking one final punt into leftfield and showing everyone that you could have had it all. In the middle of it, there’s a run of five songs (Heaven’s At The Bottom Of This Glass, Kingsize, High As Monkeys, Eurostar, Adieu Clo Clo) that are as good as anything the Boos had done before; nothing particularly challenging, nothing out of the ordinary perhaps, just beautiful melodies and honest lyrics.

Take The Boo Radleys, circa 1990: kill the J Mascis fascination, take out the layers of sound, reign in the desire for constant change, forget the fame fixation, calm the fury, and it turns out that underneath all that you find a penchant for casually brilliant pop.

 

The Boo Radleys – Find The Way Out website

The Boo Radleys biography (iTunes)

Neil writes about the music he loves on his blog Record Rewind Play. His book of the same name will be self-published later this year (or at least that’s what he keeps telling people). Follow and encourage him on twitter @recrwplay.

TopperPost #370

5 Comments

  1. Rob Morgan
    Oct 24, 2014

    Excellent article and excellent choices too. I first came across the Boos when Peel played a few tracks from “Ichabod and I” back in ’89 or ’90, and though I never bought that mini-LP I bought everything else as it came out. I loved the way the band developed over time, expanded their horizons and created great music in every stage of their career. If I could pick a few Boos favourites… The sweet melodies of “Memory babe” being engulfed in more and more waves of noise and guitars… “Buffalo Bill” moving from Simon and Garfunkel tribute to Kick Horns and Hammond Organ freakout and back again…”The white noise revisited” being “Hey Jude” for the shoegazing generation and just like my life at the time…”Reaching out from here” being the first song my first girlfriend (now my wife) and I bonded over… Seeing them in Cardiff just as “Wake Up Boo” released for a show broadcast on Radio One (I can hear myself cheering on the tape)… Happy days and happy memories. Again – an excellent write-up!

    • Neil Dewhurst
      Oct 25, 2014

      I’ve barely heard anything from “Ichabod & I”, and always assumed it was unattainable (an assumption since challenged by finding tracks on Youtube…) but when EAF came out I just knew – I’m not sure how – that it was what I was looking for. It was so hard to pick one or two songs from that album: “Memory Babe” was definitely in my longlist, along with “Towards The Light” and “Does This Hurt?”; “Sparrow” has long been a handy track for those times when your mixtape has a couple of minutes of space at the end of side 1… “Reaching Out From Here” was actually in my original list, until I switched to “Wilder”, and “Buffalo Bill” – yes! another example of how they could just seamlessly pin these distinct parts of songs together. If they hadn’t ended up on the “Giant Steps” expanded edition, I’d definitely be urging people to hunt down all those early EPs.

  2. Nairn Davidson
    Oct 25, 2014

    Lovely read. And what a great live band the Boos were, followed them around London for a couple of years. A pop band, good and proper. I would add these to the mix – Swansong, The White Noise Revisited, Rodney King, Eleanor Everything. Will dig out Kingsize again and assess that middle run.

    • Neil Dewhurst
      Oct 26, 2014

      Thank you 🙂 – and those are some more great tracks that could so easily have been in my list. Definitely do revisit Kingsize – as a friend of mine said after it came out: “it’s a shame no-one cares any more” – it’s chock full of wonderful tunes.

  3. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Oct 26, 2014

    Scout: “Atticus, do you think Boo Radley ever really comes and looks in my window at night? Jem says he does. This afternoon when we were over by their house…” (from ‘To Kill A Mockingbird” – Harper Lee – her only major work)

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