Those of us who spent our adolescent years poring over coffee stained copies of The Catcher In The Rye or Tess of the d’Ubervilles whilst bitterly rueing the fact that not a single girl in our school, college or workplace had the good sense to notice the painfully shy bookworm sitting tongue tied beside them, often took refuge in a particular form of popular music. Spurned and tormented, we squandered our teenage years in the self-imposed exile of our back bedrooms, consoling ourselves there by listening to a flutter of indie bands that had somehow cornered the market in self-pitying heartbreak and juvenile angst. We took a perverse pleasure in the confessions of these kindred spirits, as they meekly extolled the trials and tribulations of loveless lives that mirrored our own lachrymose existence.
The Smiths, in this respect, were beyond comparison, and in Morrissey they possessed a songwriter without equal in the miserablist pop pantheon. There were other bands, though, that had plenty to say on the subject of unrequited love. A whole genre of indie-pop, whether you call it twee, shambling or C-86, after the NME’s legendary mix-tape, was absolutely mired in it. Whilst bands like The Wedding Present (and for me David Gedge was the unofficial spokesman for the legion of shy-hearted boys who couldn’t summon the courage to front-up at the Friday night disco) enjoyed a lengthy spell in the limelight, many of their C-86 compatriots simply faded into obscurity. In some cases, no doubt, this was a blessing in disguise. However, bands like The Servants and Birmingham’s Mighty Mighty surely deserved to be more than a footnote in indie-pop history.
Pop Can: The Definitive Collection 1986-1988, on Cherry Red, attempts to set the record straight. Comprising all of Mighty Mighty’s excellent singles, B-sides and EPs alongside a few choice cuts from their debut album, the otherwise underwhelming Sharks, with a handful of tracks from the ‘lost’ second album The Betamax Tapes (finally released in 2013), Pop Can certainly does what it says on the tin, gathering together the best moments of this short-lived combo.
The album, whilst not arranged in chronological order, does kick off with debut single “Everybody Knows the Monkey” a jittery affair that sets the tone (Orange Juice and a dash of vox organ), for the frothy content of Pop Can. Other highlights of side one include the souped up single “Built Like a Car”, which reached no. 6 in the Independent Chart, their highest ranking effort, and the supremely catchy follow up, “Law”. Thankfully it’s the C-86 version that appears here, rather than the inferior “dance remix” that Chapter released on 12inch in late 1987
Side two commences with “Is There Anyone Out There for Me”, which probably remains the band’s best known song, reaching no. 44 in John Peel’s hallowed festive fifty of 1986. This is also the Mighty Mighty song that unsurprisingly appears on Cherry Red’s definitive compilation, Scared To Get Happy, The Story of Indie Music 1980-1989. The song boasts a terrifically effervescent chorus that also captures the brutality of adolescent loneliness, with Hugh McGuinness haplessly pleading for true love to come his way-
‘Is there anyone out there for me, is anyone else lonely / I can’t stand another summer of if only’.
Other stand-outs on side two are “Let’s Call It Love”, and a pair of tracks from The Betamax Tapes; “Touch of the Sun” and particularly “Unsteady” which brings to mind the literate/sophisticated pop of Lloyd Cole or Prefab Sprout. Whilst lyricist Mick Geoghegan may not quite rank alongside Cole or Paddy McAloon, “Unsteady” does signpost the more mature direction the band would surely have travelled in, had they continued –
‘Do you remember that letter of mine / When I changed my mind every other line / Now that I’m sure, will you condescend / to be introduced, as my unsteady girlfriend’.
Rather strangely, Mighty Mighty went on to noticeable posthumous success in Japan, whilst remaining prophets without honour in their own land.
Well, we’re all big boys now! Decades separate us from our former, self-pitying selves. Long gone are the days when David Gedge’s plaintive ‘aaaaaargh’ of despair reverberated through Leeds city centre streets at closing time. Even when taken out of its original context, though, the music still stands the test of time. Pop Can is full to brimming with sweet-toothed vignettes, fizzing over with tales of lost love that you can sing along to. Ultimately, this is a truly worthwhile trip down memory lane and a fitting tribute to one of the genre’s lesser known practitioners.
While we’re on the subject of the genre that dare not speak its name, here are my top ten twee related songs.
1. The Sun a Small Star: The Servants
The distrait, dreamy vocal, the sepia-tinted harmonies, the golden splashes of guitar that rained down on verse and chorus alike should all have ensured that “The Sun a Small Star” became a staple of mainstream radio for decades to come much in the manner of The La’s “There She Goes”. However, the track, which was taken from the sublime E.P of the same name, flatlined on release, managing just a solitary week on the Indie Charts reaching no. 47 in November 1986.
2. Is There Anyone Out There for Me: Mighty Mighty
The song that sound-tracked a succession of lovesick summers in rain-swept South Wales as Thatcher battered the valleys into submission. The dry humour, the self-pitying sixth-form poetry, and a star-spangled tune that still manages to send shivers scuttling down the spine, as well as bringing a tear to the weary eye!
3. Almost Prayed: The Weather Prophets
The sun-dappled guitar licks, alone, were enough to give many of the fair-skinned wallflowers who bought this, The Weather Prophets’ debut single, a serious case of sunburn and the passing decades have done little to diminish its luminescent beauty.
The group, formed by Peter Astor and Dave Morgan, after The Loft had raised the roof for the last time, went on to achieve minor chart success when “She Comes from the Rain” peaked at no. 62 in March ’87. Their second album, Mayflower, from which this track is lifted, is arguably the best album of a sub-genre that (Wedding Present aside) can’t be said to have produced anything approaching a classic 33rpm record.
4. The Word around Town: Westlake*
Having dismissed his Servants, David Westlake released one eponymous Mini-LP, through Creation records, before decamping for a career in academia. “The Word around Town” is the record which reserves Westlake’s place on the shortlist of best British lyricists of the decade, alongside the likes of David Gedge, Robert Lloyd, Elvis Costello and Morrissey. A masterpiece of literate pop which includes this wry piece of self-analysis:
“The word around town among those for whom nothing is sacred / Is that the Emperor’s clothes don’t exist but he’s beautiful naked”.
* Be careful to avoid the demo version which is currently doing the rounds on the Small Time compilation.
5. My Favourite Dress: The Wedding Present
“Some rare delight in Manchester town / It took six hours before you let me down / to see it all in a drunken kiss / A strangers hand on my favourite dress”.
David Gedge, the George Clooney of Indie pop, may baulk at the company he is asked to keep here. There was always something fundamentally more muscular and unwholesome about this angry young man’s amatory musings, allied to the bellicose guitar bursts that characterised songs like “Brassneck”, that put their C-86 compatriots to shame. For a start, there was the sense that Gedge’s dysfunctional relationships were actually with real women, rather than the imaginary girlfriends his fey counterparts and more often than not, his devoted followers were unhealthily fantasising over.
The band released two classic albums, George Best and Bizarro, before the law of diminishing returns took over. Nevertheless, they enjoyed spectacular chart success, racking up a half-century of hit singles between 1988 and 2005.
6. Pristine Christine: The Sea Urchins
This jubilantly jaunty single was the debut release on Sarah records (unofficial home of twee) and spent six weeks on the Indie charts. Their love affair with Sarah was short lived, though, and they sought solace in the enticing arms of Cheree records in the fleshpots of London, before splitting up for good in the summer of 1991.
7. She’s Always Hiding: The Servants
A passively beautiful pop song, posited somewhere between Galaxie 500 and Real Estate, with a closing guitar solo that drifts along languorously, like an Indian Summer, before dissolving in the shimmering haze of our subconscious. Why David Westlake traded in the sublimely graceful sound of these early Servants singles for the more claustrophobic tones of their dowdy albums will forever remain one of pops most puzzling career moves.
8. Untidy Towns: The Lucksmiths
Although latecomers to the “anorak” scene (the Melbourne based combo were only formed in 1993), the group can lay claim to having produced the most consistent body of work the genre yielded on either side of the world. These bashful boys chalked up eleven, mostly fine, albums before parting company in 2009. Influenced by all the usual suspects (The Smiths, Orange Juice and The Go-Betweens) they also acknowledged a debt to the bittersweet love songs of Britain’s most underrated wordsmith, Billy Bragg. “Untidy Towns” is a random selection, there are over a hundred genteel vignettes as heart-warming as this one tucked away in their backpack.
9. Fabulous Friend: The Field Mice
If New Order hadn’t discovered Arthur Baker and the New York club scene, as they struggled to come to terms with the death of Ian Curtis and Joy Division, they would have been forever frozen in time as The Field Mice! Dinky little tunes like “Sensitive” and “Emma’s House” couldn’t knock the froth off a pint of bitter, but that’s all part of the band’s frangible charm.
10. I’m In Love with a Girl Who Doesn’t Know I Exist: Another Sunny Day
The title alone merits its inclusion on this list, managing as it does to sum up the whole raison d’etre of the genre in one indisputably sorrowful sentence. Harvey Williams, the young Werther of twee, deserves recognition, though, for his work as ASD and as a guitarist with their Sarah records’ stable mates The Field Mice.