Sunday, 30 November 2014

Oliver: Levitation - Squirrel (9 November 1991)

On November 21 2000, I was driving home from the dress rehearsal for St. Austell Players's production of She Stoops to Conquer.  While driving through Tresillian, Peel played a track by a band   I hadn't heard before.  They were called The House of Love and the song was Destroy the Heart.  It was taken from a forthcoming release of the band's Peel sessions from 1988-89.  Destroy the Heart lodged in my head for its strange lyrics and the force of its playing - highly melodic but with an underlying forcefulness that spoke to me in that rare way that happens when a band gets under your skin and makes you a convert to their music.

A few months later, I bought a Best Of album for The House of Love and in the sleeve notes read more about how the band's story was essentially split into two eras - the Terry Bickers years and the post Bickers years.  Bickers was the lead guitarist for The House of Love from 1986 to 1989 and his playing was seen by many critics to be as essential to The House of Love's early appeal as Guy Chadwick's songwriting was.  Described by David Cavanaugh as being able to pull guitar sounds out as though from the belly of a whale, it's certainly true that Bickers's incredibly dense playing gave the group a more definitive aural sound than they had after he left; although I agree with Cavanaugh that The House of Love's best album was made after Bickers's departure.  Cavanaugh provided more detail to  the story of The House of Love in his peerless 2001 biography of Creation Records: My Magpie Eyes  Are Hungry For The Prize.  Here was the classic tale of a band making an early splash, being tipped for huge success and messing it up despite having the songs and the musical chops to make it happen.  The House of Love were crucified on the altar of having the temerity to go from releasing one album on an admired independent label (Creation) and then seeing their support fragment and fail to expand when they moved to a major label (Phillips via Fontana).  How else do you explain a record as wonderful and radio friendly as I Don't Know Why I Love You peaking in the charts at number 41?

Compounding all this were problems with drugs, Chadwick's egomania and Bickers suffering a nervous breakdown over the new expectations that The House of Love had to fulfil as a major label act.  His breakdown manifested itself in ways that bassist Chris Groothuizen described as "annoying" and which critically harmed communication within the band, particularly between Bickers and Chadwick.  
Bickers recovered from his breakdown, but his relationship with his bandmates remained fractious.  When the band went out to promote their second album with a 70 date tour through late 1989 and early 1990, Bickers's behaviour became more and more provocative towards his colleagues.
Things eventually came to a head in December 1989, when Bickers went on an extended rant in the tour bus and burnt a £50 note in the face of drummer, Pete Evans, who responded by punching Bickers when the van pulled into a service station.
Although Evans initially used the incident as a pretext for leaving the band, he was retained while 
Bickers was sacked in a service station car park, to be replaced by Simon Walker.

For Bickers, it meant a new start and a a new band.  One which he claimed was closer to what he would have liked The House of Love to be doing instead of bowing to what he claimed was a commercial agenda.  Levitation certainly seemed like a logical extension from the sound of The House of Love's first album, on Creation Records and Squirrel features the denseness of Bickers work on that album.
Levitation were widely sneered at by the music press who saw them as closer to prog rock than shoegaze or grunge.  The fact that the band had a number of bad haircuts in their ranks can't have helped either.

For me, this gets on the mixtape, mostly out of loyalty to an ex-House of Love alumnus rather than because it's a great song.  There are some interesting shifts along the way and Bickers remained an innovative guitarist, but he was no great singer or songwriter as you shall hear.

We will come back to the Levitation and House of Love story another time.

Video courtesy of Awkwardist Productions.

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