Friday, 21 June 2019

Never Mind The Skunk Rock, Here's The Beta Band....

NME 25th July 1998. Photo by Roger Sargent 

"If there's something inside that you wanna say, say it out loud it'll be okay...."

It seems a little unfair (of me to still try) to associate The Beta Band with the 'Skunk Rock' scene as they easily transcended the loose (NME generated) genre - indeed Agent Rob might just be the only person who recalls their ever actually being connected with it in the (quite deserved pole position of) first place - and crossed over into the mainstream (to a certain extent)....

"We're The Beta Band and we're nice and clean...."


The Beta Band - 'Los Amigos Del Beta Bandidos E.P.' (Official Music Videos)

"Well we went to Wales and we fannied around...."

Of course, technically The Beta Band had already put out an album's worth of (quite startling) material before their debut album arrived on the scene, so in a sense they are neck and neck with Lo-Fidelity Allstars as early exponents of the burgeoning 'Skunk Rock' scene (that was effectively stubbed out into ashes before it had even begun proper). And, of course, if you're reading this chances are you know that, as has often been said, had the (collected) 'The Three E.P.'s' been released as an actual debut album 'off the bat', so to speak, then it would easily have been one of the finest first transmission statements of any band ever. Read John Maclean's* 20th anniversary musings on its inspired genesis here....

*easily the coolest most inspirational man operating in music (at that time), y'know, when that sort of thing still really mattered to Rob....

"The songs were so good we didn't give a toss...."

The Beta Band - 'Inner Meet Me' (Official Music Video)

Betas bang upside ya lettabox! Announcing 'The Three E.P.s'....

Rob's sure there's a well-worn quote along the lines of, "if everyone who said they liked The Beta Band actually bought their records, then they'd be the biggest band in the world" which kind of sums up their eventual lot, each record diminishing on their returns leading to an eventual (mental) collapse under a (supposed) £1.2 million-ish record company debt....

The Three E.P.'s

Still, there's no doubt that mainstream contemporaries like Manic Street Preachers absolutely LOVED them. Here, listen for yourselves >> nice! >> presumably they were just bitter hearing music that could be a joyous, colourful, uplifting – even fun – experience, rather than a contrived, grinding, grey, trad-rock wallow....
 
The Beta Band - The Beta Band

But what of their, oft overlooked, debut album proper, a record that celebrates it's 20th birthday today? For starters it's a much more immersive experience than their earlier material, deeper and richer.... and yet somehow darker, inching into the distance, a vague outline*. It really is everything AND the kitchen sink - Rob's sure they play one on there somewhere - a wonderful experience that flows and absorbs you over time (if you have the time and inclination to give!). Not so much half-baked as fully-baked (with extra lashings of icing, hundreds and thousands and them wee crunchy ball things), each song rendered in either vast emotional widescreen or aimless country ramble.... 

*Much like The Stone Roses, there's no arguing the toss(ers) as to the sheer shining crystal quality of their timeless debut, but Rob's honestly more likely to reach for the expansive, brooding mess of their very own much anticipated 'folly-up' that is Second Coming.... 


The Beta Band - 'Smiling' (Official Music Video)



Aha, where creativity collides, The Betas and Regular Fries free spirited double-jointed tour lands at 'G2' in Glasgog*! Certainly both bands shared an amiable 'get rich or DIY tryin' ethos, wrapped up with a jolly nod and a knowing wink approach. Say no more! (Except perhaps how this contrasted with the more challenging demeanour that typified both Lo-Fidelity Allstars and Campag Velocet, their being cut from distinctly sharper cloths)....

*In another inter(esting)-(Beta)band twist the video for 'Smiling' here was directed by Mark Szaszy and Corinne Day, who (of course!) were associated with another of Rob's late 90's favourites, the hard rockin' Pusherman. Indeed their guitarist Martin Hoyland contributed guitar and vocals to 'Number 15' off The Beta's debut, as well as taking a starring role (as "Old Bill") alongside Pusherman's bassist Bo Ellery (as "The Chick") and second guitarist Tony Antoniou (as "The Toon Drunk") in the 'Needles In My Eyes' video, languid 'skunk rock' and bruising 'smack rock' brushing up against one another....

That DIY enough for ya? Announcing 'The Beta Band'....

Rob can clearly recall their cancelled show at The Cathouse in Glasgog. The crowd was in, the stage was set (up) - the all important miscellaneous potted plants were in place - and everything seemed good to go. But, nah, after it being off then on then off again it was agreed Steve Mason's voice(?) was shot and it was announced they'd be rescheduling (at The Arches(?) no less, where pal Ryan Mair chatted to a friendly John Maclean for ages about the (one take) making of 'The Monolith')....

Flower Press Issue One....



flower press issue 2....


I remember the first Barrowlands concert as being absolutely amazing, touring their first album, epic tracks like 'The Hard One' and 'The Cow's Wrong' really hitting an emotional high right where it hurts. The next time around made less of a startling impression, but it's rare to see a band deliver an astounding show (on your own personal level) more than once. Maybe partly due to the fact that, contrary to just about everyone, the band themselves, I really liked their debut album (which seemed to hammer home much more so when realised live)....


NME's quotes of the year....

The Beta Band - 'Round the Bend' (Official Music Video)

Huh! Whassat?! A1. Happiness And Colour B1. The Hut 

Somehow Rob had forgotten that the album number one was originally supposed to be two albums, the second lp comprising a pair of longer, more experimental 'ambientertaining' pieces (he also forgot - thanks again Ryan Mair - that quickly cracked plans were also hatched to record it in four different countries around the globe!). Thanks to The White Noise Revisited blogspot these tracks were finally trickled out online, available to hear in an (un)official capacity. Then someone had the very bright idea of a nice anniversary reissue as originally intended (even if the band felt the extra(long) tracks weren't really up to much first time around)....


Glastonbury warm-up show....

The Garage. The Barrowland Ballroom. Setlist? Eff 'em....


That second Barrowlands show I can remember overhearing on leaving two lads who had been blown away by the frantic 'all hands on drums' climax to the evening's show. These days I can hardly believe the sheer daring of The Betas approach - they'd have turntables, frantic instrument swapping (mid-song), bongo solos, samples, rapping - they really were pushing the idea of what a band could be (and do) to the next level, easily absorbing and spinning influences and happily taking a hot shot at any genre. It's actually quite a privilege to have seen such a group operating right at the forefront several times - there's is simply nothing approaching The Beta Band these days*....


*not to forget their great mixes for The Breezeblock. Again, thanks to Ryan Mair for preserving this classic slice of Old Jock Radio....



The Beta Band - Human Being (Official Music Video)



"How the west was won it's a lie.... but it's made to sound like fun...."

Second album Hot Shots II was an altogether chillier affair, the sparse, skittery beats (a canny appropriation of its time) in lieu of the excess of their debut's shambolic campfire glow – here everything is pared back, fading, leaving the dying embers, exposing Mason's brittle boned multi-tracked vocals, pushing them to the fore, the only source of warmth (in spite of the confused, bemused and lonely lyrics, the singer sounding searching, quite lost on his own (gently haunted) record)....


The Beta Band - 'Eclipse'

That's not to say the album didn't resonate, there being more than a few lyrical gems amid Mason's (slightly less) mumbled musings (this time around) - another of Rob's pals was quick to dismiss their early sound as 'Only Fools and Horses' music for that very reason - as he tried to make (non)sense of the wider world. Rob even filched the lyric from the track 'Eclipse' - “I don't want to be the type of guy who lives alone, reading books, and never eats a pizza pie” - about as cannily complete a summation of his empty life at the time, for his bio at a comic exhibition, thereby ensuring that that line, and his submitted piece 'Superscot', got a nice (if somewhat amused and bemused) mention in the local paper's review....

The Beta Band - 'Assessment' (Official Music Video)


The Beta Band - Rhododendron (Official Music Video)

By their third album the commercial chase (by the band's own somewhat disappointing admission) was well and truly on. Yet, however gamely they rose to the challenge, employing a fuller, tighter (slightly more traditional for The Beta) band sound, 'Heroes to Zeroes' was pretty much exactly that, an EP's worth of great tracks - IMO, of course! But that'll be 'Wonderful', 'Space Beatle', 'Rhododendron' and 'Pure For', if you're at all interested – buried in the middling* somewhere, their (broken) hearts just not seemingly into it....

*Again, having not listened back to the album in years this is proving to be much more of a (familiar) delight now Rob's revisiting it for this blog.... 


The end is nigh....


And so to their farewell show. The ticket says it all, the gig at Glasgow's (then) Carling Academy was an oddly muted affair (surely not helped by the venue's cavernous (lack of) atmosphere) - somehow it didn't get going right until the very end, not until they rolled out 'The House Song' for the encore, turning those frowns upside down with its growing gargantuan techno stomp....



These days, given there's a myriad (more) musical genres (chillwave, glitch, vaporwave, post-rock, darkwave, stoner rock, grime, slowcore, drill, etc, etc, etc) and most artists happily settle (or fall) into one or two, it makes The Beta Band's (successful) experimental bent seem even more as the end of an era. By picking up and easily transcending the colour explosion of Madchester's 'open all ears' policy - of which Happy Mondays were surely the most gleefully sonically stewed of the bunch - and randomly mashing it into ambient and techno (y'know, in the way that everyone seems to think The Stone Roses are supposed to*) with lashings of spaced dub and curvy hip-hop, Steve Mason's gently melancholic lilt the anchor around which the cosmic slop, er, slopped. In fact, bassist Richard Greentree puts it perfectly in their NME interview - "The most important thing," concludes Richard, "is that whatever ideas you have, no matter how mad or fantastic they might seem, you should stick with them. That's all we do." So what are you waiting for, jump right in and get a unique flavour and taste of it all below....

*....and more so too than fellow Scots Primal Scream, who really rely heavily on collaborators and producers-as-conduit to assist in facilitating their countless hopping of genres.... 

The Beta Band - 'Inner Meet Me' (Official Music Video)

Friday, 7 June 2019

Do You Feel Lucky, Skunk Rock! Here's Regular Fries....


"Everyone always talks about The Beatles and The Stones... but what about the Romans?"

The next bunch of misfits operating with blown minds are Regular Fries. Led/corralled/dosed by ex-NME journalist Paul Moody ("Live by the sword, die by the sword.") the Fries were less a 'garage band' and more a 'garage sale band' (or should that be a surreal, avant garde, experimental collective art installation as history lesson?)....


Like The Beta BandRegular Fries were somewhat dogged by their initial promise and speedy rise and, like The Beta's forever being harked back to 'Dry The Rain', they too struggled to better their first release, never again quite hitting the absolute highs of the 'Dust it, Don't Bust It' 12" (released on Fierce Panda offshoot Rabid Badger)....

Dust It (Album Version)

In the Fries case it was the knob twiddling mix mastery of Richard Fearless (Death In Vegas) that truly aced it, further elevating (or should that be 'horizontalizing'?) their already excellent 'Dust It' track and in turn providing what just might be their shuddering, groovy, stoner peak (as well as the ultimate 'Skunk Rock' statement). This truly Fearless epic puffed along like the class-B brother to (Primal Scream's) equally excellent 'Trainspotting' title track, the muffled slow-build and languid, rattling beat a favourite of Mary Anne Hobbes (and therefore myself too)....




So how do you follow that? Easy, you release the excellent freeform fug of the liquid manifesto that was 'Free The Regular Fries EP' and the subsequent mighty tasty, 'Mars Hotel' featuring, 'Fries Entertainment' single....

Accept The Signal


Not that their debut album 'Accept The Signal', which celebrates its 20th birthday today(!), suffers hugely by comparison, the band streamlining things a little to turn in a surprisingly wistful and thoughtful collection of songs (of sorts), hidden (un)comfortably behind the excess of fuzzy dreams, sonic fogs and arch concepts....


Write to Regular Fries and Cornelius Hope writes back....


If there's one thing that united the (not actually all that similar musically) quartet of 'Skunk Rock' bands it was a feverish devotion to DIY - they all were heavily involved in their own artwork, videos and promotional 'stuff/things to be chucked out for free at gigs. (Unfortunately I cannot find my handwritten letter from mysterious band guru Cornelius Hope that accompanied the above 'Fries Entertainment' 'zine....)

Currently worth more than the "Great" British Pound....


'zine number two....

The fries Live experience* was something akin to aged students invading the stage and trying to play whatever busted equipment they could lay their hands on, overdosed on dry ice and camouflage netting, crackling TVs tuned to the cosmos, beaming back static.... and not forgetting the giant FRIeS letters ("Eff! Arr! Aye! eeeeeeeee! Ess!") and the percussion birdcage full of, er, keys. Certainly the gigs were closer in spirit to the perpetual flow of their 'Free The Regular Fries EP', everything merging together into one glorious, chaotic, cacophonous whole....

(*There must be a few cassettes of Breezeblock gigs languishing somewhere in Rob's 'Archives of Doom'....)





At this stage 'Mash Maybe Mashed Man' was teased on Radio 1 as some sort of cascading 20 minute epic. Sadly it appeared (heavily truncated) as a less than memorable b-side to the above 'King Kong'. You can make your own (out of your) mind up as to its quality by munching on the far juicier 7 minute slice below....




This overly harsh trimming perhaps sums up the moment when the Fries wacky (baccy) ambition began to run away from them, their much touted 6(!) album deal with Junior Boy's Own - the home of the mighty Underworld at that time - grinding to a halt after (an admittedly rather refinely focussed) album number two, 'War On Plastic Plants'. Heck, it even has Braw favourite Kool Keith on there! - what's not to like, as they say....





The Fries were undoubtedly Rob's b(r)and though and, having met them across the road in Glasgog's infamous Variety Bar (following a stellar support slot with The Beta Band at the nearby Garage), he forged something of an ongoing relationship with the affable bunch (mainly thanks to clicking with Rich Little) and was happily inducted into their space military/cadet programme, thereby allowing him to catch them up and hang around Fries HQ at subsequent shows....




"Would you like fries with that?" Unfortunately it's a shame that not many people did and despite rambling rose Ian Brown cannily selecting them as his support on his 'Golden Greats' tour - an unexpectedly awful, neddy, violently charged gig at Barrowlands Ballroom where, by contrast, Rich  ("No one gets to meet Ian Brown.") kindly introduced me to Cressa and handed me a free t-shirt - it was clear their skunk rock was of a quite different, less commercial strain....




In 2001, when Rob honestly thought/assumed it was all over, the band suddenly reappeared, returning for one last album and tour, 'Blueprint For A Higher Civilisation', (released on their own Soft City Recordings label) giving him a chance to don the dusty spacesuit for one final mission to King Tuts, happily knocking back beers with themselves and The Toes before crashing back to earth, a man alone....



Signed 'Accept The Signal' poster too big to scan!

By this small stage their powers were definitely waning somewhat but to their credit, although the album feels a little out of shape, the tracks presumably slimmed down to get them on tape while (the very last) time allowed, it never feels hastily assembled or slapdash. Indeed, it gently pushes out from 'War On Plastic Plants' and there's a clutch of excellent spacey (not-by-the) numbers to be found thereon, with both 'United States of Mind' and 'Pink India's expansive atmospherics harking back to their glory daze. Of course, all this was shortly before they were reassigned to Theta 3, becoming the house band for Quing Alcon III. As Rob understands it they're still entertaining his court to this day....


Vitamin X


Not that this was to be the last word, their final recorded transmission coming in the form of the 'Phone In Sick' (Unreleased, Rare & Classic Tracks) compilation - the only place you'll hear the fantastic 'Fearless' mix on cd - from 2004, complete with one clattering new track, the virtual wobble and tumble of 'Vitamin X'....


Oddly enough one of The Fries finest moments was their 'reshuffle' of 'Stoned Island Estate' by Glamorous Hooligan (which is, odder still, essentially a reworking of their very own wonderful 'New Moon' track from 'Free the Regular Fries EP')....


"Where does it begin and where does it end...? Are we friends with the aliens...?"