Friday, 1 July 2022

Equus: Huggy Bear - Her Jazz/Hopscorch [Peel Session] (2 January 1993)


I consider it a very happy quirk of timing that this blog gets its first exposure to UK Riot grrrl sensations, Huggy Bear just at the point where I’m currently reading 1997 - The Future That Never Happened by Richard Power Sayeed, which is one of those books that is so insightful, entertaining and informative, it makes me grateful that I’m able to read.  Although the front cover of the book is the none-more-1997 photo of Tony Blair shaking hands with Noel Gallagher at a Downing Street reception, it is not solely a critique of New Labour’s rise to power and its subsequent bungling of the opportunities which its huge majority after the 1997 General Election offered it, but rather an analysis of how New Labour’s modus operandi - take revolutionary Left wing ideas, water them down into far more modest principles and then present them to more widespread attention as CHANGE - was essentially a short sighted tradeoff between publicity of ideas/concepts designed to illustrate Britain as a modern, progressive country at the expense of carrying out broad social reforms which could have effected significant and longer lasting change. Power Sayeed presents this late 90s phenomenon of repurposing complex political and societal ideas into palatable PG rated cover versions of the original issue as something which didn't just affect the Labour Party, but other aspects of British life such as our relationship with the Royal Family, racism within the police (as seen through the prism of issues raised by the Metropolitan Police Force's handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence) and, with exquisite timing, how feminism in the UK in the 1990s went from Huggy Bear to The Spice Girls.

That journey isn't quite the leap that it may seem on the surface when we consider that the Girl power slogan which underpinned the marketing of the Spice Girls was coined, not in a PR office in 1996, but rather several years earlier by Riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, a band who would go on to release a joint LP with Huggy Bear.  Power Sayeed demonstrates that although the Spice Girls were predominantly a commercial concern - especially given the number of commercial tie-in deals that their male manager signed for them - feminism did play a consistent role in the Spice Girls presentation to their fanbase, both within their music and their messaging. There was nothing about smashing the patriarchy, but plenty about individual empowerment, facing down sexism and the importance of strong, supportive relationships with women.  Power Sayeed quotes a study carried out by Rebecca Hains for her 2012 book, Growing Up With Girl Power: Girlhood on Screen and in Everyday Life, in which she asked a number of American feminists for their recollections and feelings about the Spice Girl phenomenon.  For those who had positive recollections, the group had provided....a viable form of beginners’ feminism - bringing empowerment rhetoric to girls in a gentle, easily digestible way, priming them for a more difficult, angrier, less mainstream feminist discourse later on. (Hains quoted by Power Sayeed in 1997 - The Future That Never Happened, p.206, Zed Books, 2017). 

Had they been minded to do it, I think that Huggy Bear could have provided that next stage for girls who bought into the Spice Girls message and were looking for a deeper take on feminism as they matured. But the two phenomena missed each other. By the time 1997 rolled around, Huggy Bear had been disbanded for three years, while the concept of an international pop music juggernaut mixing feminist rhetoric with ringing cash tills in both record shops and many other shops was but a fanciful glint in Simon Fuller’s eye when Huggy Bear went into the BBC’s Maida Vale studios on 27 October 1992 to record their first ever Peel Session. Everyone knew of Huggy Bear, but no-one quite knew what to make of them. Although the irony years of BritPop and the mid-90s had not taken hold yet, their mix of hard-edged sincerity and dedication to their mission disconcerted as many people as it enthralled.  Huggy Bear had embraced the Girl power ethos of Bikini Kill and their sister bands and sought to bring that energy and the issues that Riot grrrl bands sang about to British audiences. Themes which Wikipedia list as containing fun-for-all-the-family topics such as rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, racism, patriarchy, classism, anarchism and female empowerment.  

Huggy Bear’s wish to base their musical identity around these themes would see them dismissed as tiresomely woke if they were trying to get started today and it didn’t do them many favours back then either.  In 1992, the British propensity to make its excuses and find something else to do whenever it feels that it’s being lectured by artists was just as strong as it is today, though it felt less weaponised back then. Huggy Bear may have understood this and used it as one of the reasons why they chose not to push their agenda in a conventional way; eschewing interviews, using false names and remaining on a small label (Wiiija Records) even when the major labels came courting. It gave them a raison d’etre and prevented them from being Just Another Band. But regardless of their social/political aspirations, the question was whether their music could inspire passion and devotion to them and their causes. This Peel Session left me thinking that half of it was the like being stuck with a shouty bore at a party; but the other half would have me making donations and volunteering for any cause they told me to.

When considering the merits of Her Jazz, there is no time for sober perspective. It is quite simply one of the classics of the decade.  Drawing the listener in with its Big-Spender-in-reverse opening riff, I’ve found the song open to different interpretations each time I’ve listened to it, and while the Boy/girl revolutionaries refrain seems to suggest a dual gender assault on societal norms, the reality appears to be that the girl has been lied to and manipulated by her mental mentor who taught her to lift her skirt and then taught her hurt, implying that this marks a break with someone who appeared to be an ally but who was ultimately a user.  Had Huggy Bear been American, it would have been tempting to see it as an attack on male academics who use the teacher/student relationship as a means to entangle young women with their minds as a way of ensnaring them into their beds and in so doing try to hold on to their own youth under a facade of relevance, but she’s not fooled anymore. - Face it, you’re old and out of touch. It’s angry, euphoric and marks out the future as one for womankind.

Although associated with Riot grrrl, Huggy Bear were not exclusively a female band. Three of the four songs in the session saw lead vocals taken by Chris Rowley, but of these it was only Hopscorch that stayed with me. Despite starting with the kind of meandering guitar-line typical of so much early 90s mumblecore rock, the track soon bursts out of the gate with Rowley considering whether to make a break from a relationship that’s making him contemptuous of his lover and casting his eye further afield. Unfortunately, the session version doesn’t end with the sketchlet that completes the studio version, demonstrating just how hard it can be to say “I love you”.

Videos courtesy of VibraCobra23 Redux who has also posted the full session, which was originally broadcast on 11 December 1992 and which features 2 tracks, Nu Song and Teen Tighterns, which originally made my list but which failed to convince when listened back to subsequently.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Equus: Even As We Speak - Anybody Anyway (2 January 1993)

Even As We Speak’s sole 1990s album, Feral Pop Frenzy, offered listeners 17 tracks to enjoy and comprised a large number of new songs intermingled with a handful of previously issued ones, such as Beautiful Day.  Anybody Anyway was first issued as part of a 1990 EP called Outgrown This Town, which was the band’s final release on an Australian label before they started distributing their releases through Bristol’s own Sarah Records.  On the EP, this short and sweet tale of an isolated fraud seemed to have been constructed as another example of the band’s tendency to  find itself behind the tempo of their tunes.  However, when they resurrected it for the album, they threw out the electric guitar and hesitant drum, replacing it instead with acoustic guitars and banjos. Taking these together with a slower tempo helped to bring out the slow-waltz feel that the first take, which may have been a demo version promoted before it was ready, aspired to but failed to nail down.

Video courtesy of Even As We Speak - Topic

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Equus: Chia Pet - Hey Baby (2 January 1993)

NOTE - Going by Peel's pronunciation, their name would be said as "Cheer Pet".

It sounds a terribly bohemian, and almost parodical, thing to write down but Chia Pet were the house band for an American teen magazine called Sassy. Everybody you hear on Hey Baby either wrote for, worked for or was married to someone connected to Sassy, which ran for eight years between 1988 and 1996.

Journalists making music was not a new concept. Indeed, at this time, the UK could boast one of the most popular journalism to pop music success stories courtesy of former Smash Hits assistant editor Neil Tennant and his role as one half of the Pet Shop Boys. Chia Pet never approached the sales figures or longevity of the Pet Shop Boys -  this 7" single was their only release - but Tennant may have found some common ground in the style of writing on Hey Baby which takes a narrative verite approach - with the bulk of the verses and chorus made up of sexist remarks and sexualised taunts. It's entirely possible that the predominantly female members of Chia Pet may have collaborated on pooling together remarks and actions made toward them or at other female friends, supposedly under the pretext of "banter". From a "nice tits" here to an ass grabbing there and while the track tries to elicit a sense of wry sarcasm towards the Neanderthal attitudes, things get progressively more uncomfortable, especially when the lyric incorporates the inevitable moment that the sexist "compliments" give way to the sense of male resentment that the woman hasn't shown any reciprocation to some of the degrading offers made to her.  Why don’t you smile, baby? Don’t you like me? Why don’t you smile, baby? Don’t you like it? The increasingly nauseous sounding violin which chugs away throughout the track does a good job of evoking the sinking feeling in these women's stomachs when they find themselves attracting this kind of unwanted attention, which is further evidenced by the sing-song chorus line.
In the final verse, the band try to turn the tables by posing the question as to whether the act of a woman wearing a skirt deserves the volley of casually disgusting abuse that's been chronicled earlier in the song. There's no final resolution to the track either beyond a rhetorical question about why they have to put up with this shit, when they're just trying to mind their own business.  Perhaps, because they feared attitudes were too ingrained for there ever to be hope for change.

Peel really liked Hey Baby, describing it as angry but funny too. An excellent record.  I initially found it a bit odd that he dedicated a play of it to all who worked at The Waterfont venue in Norwich, which had achieved a number of Top 10 placings for Best Venue in year end polls in the music papers. Given the theme of the track, it didn’t seem like a very friendly gesture.  But, given the timelessness of that theme which is gaining far greater awareness than it was 30 years ago, but with much work still to be done, it may well have been far more pointed than anybody realised or was prepared to admit.

Video courtesy of IndieAnnieJones
Lyrics copyright of their authors.

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Equus: 70 Gwen Party - Knee Deep in Evil (2 January 1993)

Another slice of ear-shreddingly loud noisecore cum proto-drum’n’ bass from 70 Gwen Party. As always the abrasiveness is underpinned by delectable melodies and a sense of urgent excitability is a constant throughout, especially during the escalating guitar runs from 2:10 - 2:34. After which the music briefly seems to pause for breath before plunging the listener back into a sonic maelstrom.  It sounds exactly like every other 70 Gwen Party track I’ve ever heard, but their genius is to be able to mine the well of angry, intense soundtracks and keep producing a different band of gold each time.  And the more I hear them, the more I feel that they are what The Jesus and Mary Chain would have become had they branched out into dance music straight after releasing Upside Down.

Like The Jesus and Mary Chain, 70 Gwen Party had considerable bones to pick both with the music business and especially the music media.  They didn’t feature on any of the lists of bands/artists to watch in 1993, which Peel related that he had read in various music papers, on this show. Maybe the journalists and tastemakers were taking their revenge on them after reading the venomously critical sleevenotes of the Knee Deep in Evil 7-inch single, in which the music press were criticised for ignoring 70 Gwen Party’s music due to their obsession with pretty packaging on more vacuous material and how this would ultimately damage the music business and the art itself:

One day those same sad media people who ignore bands like ours might wake up to the fact that if a piece of music is crap, it doesn’t matter if it’s dressed up in a shiney sequined disc and played on the latest sound system with additional vibrator attachment, it will still be crap. Snape (Records) will continue to put out 7” mail-order vinyl because it is the only economically viable option, it they get ignored...cos we can’t afford all the promotional bollocks that seems to preside over this business, then so be it.  Perhaps those in media power,  who rely on music to be potent for their survival, might come to realise that by judging music on its technical attributes/format rather than the music itself, you will damage the “grass roots” who cannot compete on those terms, and by damaging the grass roots (who breathe life into this business unlike Major record label A&R depts who cream off the fat) they will ultimately be damaging themselves.

Video courtesy of Joe Morris

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Equus: Bhundu Boys - Pombi (2 January 1993)

This was the first time I’d heard the Bhundu Boys played on a Peel show.  If this blog was covering Peel shows from the previous decade, I would have probably had regular exposure to them already given how Peel was moved to tears of admiration when he first saw them play live in the mid-1980s.  However, the slight sense of guarded enthusiasm that he radiated when cueing up this track from the Friends on the Road album, which Cooking Vinyl had released towards the end of 1992, suggested that a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then.  Indeed the band had gone from world music darlings supporting Madonna at Wembley Stadium in 1987 and finding themselves signed to WEA; to an outfit which was riven by acrimonious departures (not least of lead singer Biggie Tembo), critical & commercial indifference (their major label records sold poorly and were badly reviewed with critics feeling that their music had been made bland due to compromises designed to make them accessible to Western audiences) and the spectre of AIDS which would kill off three members of the band in successive years between 1991 and 1993.

Friends on the Road would turn out to be their penultimate album.  In an effort to potentially revitalise the band, they were involved in several collaborations with other artists on the record such as Hank Wangford and Latin Quarter.  Peel was more taken by the tracks which they worked on themselves of which Pombi is a beautifully engaging example.  The liner notes described the song as being about disease and economic awareness, while the title is based on an African proverb of typically nonsensical profundity: 
If you have a pump, then buy your own bicycle.

Video courtesy of Takari Ekwensi

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Equus: Lagowski - Toxality (2 January 1993)

Less a dance track and more an aural collage of top secret and classified sounds, I find myself broadly in agreement with what my original notes said after first hearing Toxality. It lacks the danceability of Andrew Lagowski’s Storms from the previous summer, but such is his skill at sonic world building that this mix of industrial-technological environmental overload - such as the persistent siren-like call hold signal or the recurring, ominous bubble of conveyor-belts -   with Area 51 infused paranoia would have been compelling enough to have secured Toxality a place on the metaphorical mixtape. It’s typical of Peel though to have plumped for the spikier pleasures of Toxality ahead of the slightly, but only just, more melodic tracks it shared space with on the Toxality/Time/Formant EP.

With thanks to the uploader.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Equus: Oneil Shines - A Lover's Question (2 January 1993)

What's most striking about this song, which was originally written in 1958, is how much, to modern ears, it should be retitled as An Insecure Lover's Question.  I can't imagine how infuriating it must be for the subject of the track to find that, in their absence, their partner is in an endless stew of paranoia and developing jealousy about them.  I’d like to think that either of the song's authors, Brook Benton and Jimmy T. Williams had read or seen The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and based their protagonist on one of the characters in it, Faulkand, who spends the majority of the play professing reciprocated love to Julia, only to drive her to distraction with his constant need for reassurance that her feelings towards him are genuine.  Even the title sounds like an 18th Century poem.

The song has had many cover versions.  It first came to prominence as a doo-wop hit for Clyde McPhatter, while Otis Redding had a posthumous hit with it in 1969.  Oneil Shines reggae version was a Sly and Robbie production, the second one in that 2\1\93 programme and is as exquisitely tuneful as you might expect.  Indeed, A Lover's Question seems to be a song which inspires its arrangers and producers to go that extra mile. But regardless of the prettiness or funkyness of the arrangements, none of them are able to remove that canker of poison which sits at the centre of the song's heart.

Video courtesy of O'Neal Shines - Topic. (I've gone with the spelling on the Discogs page though)