Thursday, December 7, 2006
The Pale Fountains “Pacific Street” (Virgin 1984)
Liverpool, during the early 1980s, was quite possibly the hardest English city to form a band. The Beatles’ legacy continued to cast a long shadow. Manchester’s Factory Label was quickly becoming the voice of the North. And thanks to the Human League, Sheffield’s once avant-garde electronic scene was becoming a national phenomenon.
The only way for Scoucers to stand out in the face of such strong competition was to scatter like roaches and explore a wide range of eclectic styles. Echo and the Bunnymen performed with a bombast and grandiosity that rivaled U2. The Teardrop Explodes boldly explored psychadelia and Krautrock. And Frankie Goes to Hollywood managed to subvert the world by coupling shamelessly homoerotic lyrics with Trevor Horn’s inventive production. Despite their quirks, all managed to strike a balance between post punk principles and Britain’s lush musical past and reassert their city’s place as a breeding ground for English talent.
But one band remained totally out of step.
Based on their influences alone, The Pale Fountains, formed by Michael Head in 1981, managed to stand out as an anachronism. Their music betrays the influence of Burt Bacharach, Love, Brazilian jazz and bossa nova. Their overtly sunny lyrics were suspect during the gloom of the early Thatcher years. Some critics dismissed them as a “cabaret band.” Their response? "A cabaret band play cover versions of standards -- we play our own songs."
While in a record store in the south of France, I picked up a book called “Le Guide Du Pop et Rock: 1980-1999.” Deep in the heart of this pocket sized guide was an album cover featuring a young fellow with an ammunition belt wrapped round his chest. With such a vibrant and puzzling image, I decided that I would have to track down a copy and see if bossa nova and Arthur Lee really meshed.
Released in early 1984, “Pacific Street” is a very rich and well recorded album. It’s brimming with a wide variety of sounds: including, but not limited to, congas, trumpets, string sections, flutes, mandolins, pianos and steel drums. All of this with the perfect touch of foreign rhythms to keep things interesting.
The opener, “Reach”, kicks off the program in a very quiet way. The intro is barely audible and rather unspectacular, but quickly gives way to chiming guitars and chipper trumpets. Song two, “Something On My Mind,” is a song that I use as a starting point when I recommend this band to friends. It’s quite possibly the most flawlessly recorded piece of pop rock of the last twenty years. “Unless” is the only song to take advantage of affordable synth technology. Pre-recorded choral swells accent the lead vocal while a sequencer occasionally gurgles through. Kinda reminds me of Brian Eno, except with better lyrics.
A heavy debt to Love is evident on the saccharine “Southbound Excursion” and the thrash poppy “Natural”. Though I tend to grit my teeth at Michael’s “Yeah yeah yeahs” and yelps in the latter.
After the instrumental “Faithful Pillow (Part 1)” the boys get really ambitious with “You’ll Start a War,” a mini-epic that failed to make a dent in the UK charts upon its release as a single.
The remaining numbers, while strong, lean a bit too heavily on the Burt Bacharach influence. This doesn’t mean they’re boring, but they sorta validate all the cries of “cabaret” and “M.O.R.” But I do enjoy the lively steel drum intro of “Crazier.” The original album ends with a reprise of “Faithful Pillow.” European re-issues feature 4 bonus tracks, including the single that got the band signed, “Thank You.” The Japanese reissue really beefs it up with a total of 9 bonus tracks, including alternate and extended versions.
Because the public was so fixated on looks and controversy, “Pacific Street” only reached #84 in the UK charts. Funny because if this had been released in 1996, the same year as Belle and Sebastian’s “Tigermilk” it surely woulda been a hit. And I think that this album would sit comfortably next to recent releases by the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire.
From what I’ve read, Virgin Records gave these lads a £50,000 advance and an additional £100,000 for expenses and recording fees. In a 1990 interview with French rock magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, Head expressed a sense of regret about the heroin fuelled demise of this band, but also looked back with a certain fondness:
“Money was an excellent thing for the whole of us. We could do anything we wanted. The problem is that money can buy anything, good things as well as bad. Because I've always been very curious, I began to experiment everything. I say: everything. Therefore, it's money that killed the band, because it enabled us to buy all sorts of drugs we wanted to.”
The Pale Fountains disbanded in 1985, following the release of “From Across the Kitchen Table”. Head would go on to form Shack with his brother, and continues to drift along in obscurity. But the Pale Fountains and Shack retain a cult following that includes the likes of Noel Gallagher and Badly Drawn Boy.
Photos and early single reviews
Video for “You’ll Start a War”
Interview with Michael Head from France’s version of NME, Les Inrockuptibles
Buy the expanded Japanese import version @ Amazon.com
Or…save some $$ and contact me!