Blue Waves That Spill
There'd been blizzards all day, driving snow in huge flakes tumbling from heavy skies, carpeting the mountains in luxurious white that would sparkle painfully in the sharp sunlight of the next morning, but for then just a wall of speckling oblivion, as winds buffeted and harangued our car. Winter. Highland winter, just on the cusp of Glen Coe, its towering faces scowling upon the valley floor, eerily still so black despite the snow, the mountains blocking out any light and casting shadows of historic sadness and foreboding.
We had a small hotel room looking out at the mass of the western sentinel of Aonach Eagach groaning through the mist across the chopping water of Loch Leven, just beginning to turn silver as the sun departed once more and the moon tugged the tides in their ebb and flow with its silken tendrils. And I was alone.
Alone standing gazing out on a Scotland I'd ignored for so long and strangely longed to explore more; to discover its legends, horrors and beauties. I stood on a tiny wooden balcony and looked east into the gaping mouth of the glen. West out down the loch towards the chopping Atlantic, whipped to a frenzy by waves of snow storms streaming from the barren northern wastes. Collar turned up, attempts to cheat the wind with hands dug deep into pockets and shoulders hunched over. Cold but stupidly happy. I looked south into the blank face of the mountain with a coin moon eye refracting on the sliced waters, piercing me with shards of diamond. We kissed heavens, me and her.
Presently I turned back into the warmth and lay myself across the bed, severed by the white blade of moonlight that penetrated the room. Hard shadows cast unflinching upon walls stood proud, a defiance written in light. Eyes closed.
The corner of the room was another snowstorm. A blank television screen crackled uncertain oblivion, trapped between channels. Perhaps I was punishing it. Perhaps I was its saviour. The pattern of speckles on the floor hypnotised as I gazed at its regular fractious myriad of white. My eyes burned into black. The world was spinning below me.
And through it all of course, was a music. The tremulous pulse of 14 Iced Bears providing a soundtrack made in some kind of a heaven for a spilt second of my life remembered forever.
McCarthy once (not very) famously sang that 'the '80s was an evil time' and up to a point they were right of course. McCarthy wrote great songs that pushed and pulled at the fabric of society in the 1980s, made a Pop that was barbed with wit and wisdom; a Pop that made political comments, no less. It seems strange listening to their records again now. They still sound like great songs, but the urgency is lost... the meaning seems to have slipped, seems less relevant. Perhaps this is just because I am no longer a teenager, am no longer a young twenty-something with 'issues'; am no longer someone seeking an identity and making allegiances based on idealistic, political persuasions. And then again, perhaps not. In fact I feel less sure of my identity now than ever I did; feel less focused on what matters and what does not. I think I still feel as strongly about the issues I did when I was twenty, but then the world and society all seems so fluid, so vague that I really can't tell anymore. Perhaps this is what it means to be living in a post-structuralist world, a post-political world where there is no right or left but only a sludge filled river of middle-ground compromise. Where in fact that river is polluted by globalised hyper-capitalism, and when we talk about post-politics we really admit that politics has failed and that only commerce matters. We admit that where human nature is concerned, greed will triumph over all else.
Or maybe I'm just too comfortable.
Strangely these days I find myself almost longing for the return of the 1980s. I find myself wishing for a time when I knew what I loved and what I hated. I find myself longing for a society where against the dominant culture of confidence and arrogant smugness there was (apparently) one of nervous energy, one of peculiarly strong self-doubt. I don't see that anymore... which is maybe good or bad, you can decide for yourself. For me though, the culture of smug confidence we currently have can only be a bad thing.
Or am I just wallowing in the stupid romantic image of fabulous failure? Am I just admitting that I love frailty more than strength? Is it just a question of fashion?
It's probably a question of fashion.
I wrote the words at the start of this piece in 1988, at a time when it seemed as though Brighton's 14 Iced Bears captured that sense of fabulous romantic failure better than anyone. Their eponymous debut LP of that year was full of neuveau-psychedelia that at its best soared monumentally to the stars. Not that many people noticed of course, because in terms of fashion 14 Iced Bears seemed about as unfashionable as it got.
One of the most annoying and most appealing aspects of the 1980's 'independent' / 'alternative' UK culture was its absolute inability to come together into unified cohesion. Fractured into numerous sub-genres, each select clique would fiercely defend its position and deny any possible connection to others. It all made for a selection of impossibly glamorous (in an non-gloss way of course) storefronts to rooms of grimy insignificance.
Hence, 14 Iced Bears were seen in a dim light by those who followed, say, the early Primal Scream with their terse jangle psychedelia, or Loop with their blasted, burnt out sun spiral noise, although really they made records as good if not better than either.
The early 14 Iced Bears records were a racket; the sounds of people trying to make sense of the world and seeing no sense in that world and so inventing one for themselves. And what they made was a world of post-punk Pop Noise that at its finest ('Balloon Song' and 'Like A Dolphin' from their second single, and more than anything else the wonderful 'Cut' from their first) was a world to cherish.
It seemed natural that 14 Iced Bears should release a single on Sarah records because Sarah records was about as unfashionable as you got at the tail of the '80s also. Continually mocked in the UK rock press for their supposedly fey ways, Sarah put out the Bears' third single in 1988. 'Unhappy Days' and 'Come Get Me' were terrific blasts of exuberant Pop, but 'Sure To See' was the song that really counted. A slow burn of a song, 'Sure To See' was midday on top of the castle, staring at the sun and feeling your retina whiten. Perfect summer Pop.
And really 14 Iced Bears were always at their finest when they were slowed down to a crawl, as they showed on the highlights of their eponymous debut album. 'Moths' and 'Hay Fever' for example were blissful meanders along the sands at midnight low tide, whilst the trilogy of 'Dust Remains', a re-recorded 'Cut' and 'Surfacer' that closed the record were astonishing arcs into the stratosphere, made all the more real by the edgy playing. 14 Iced Bears always sounded like a bunch of ragged minstrels desperate to leave the planet; if Loop could effortlessly ascend to the heavens with a profound darkness of soul, then 14 Iced Bears reminded you that you were human, told you that those aches inside were for real. That the welts on your heart were more intense, held more potential for release and true escape than that dense blankness.
Of course again no one noticed, or so it seemed at the time at least.
Time passes on however, and either new generations, or the same old ones who maybe mislaid their records seem intent on digging out old tunes and even on re-interpreting them. San Francisco's' finest Aislers Set covered the 14 Iced Bears 'Balloon Song' on last years' amazing The Last Match album, and the ever-wonderful Slumberland Records is in the process of releasing a 14 Iced Bears compilation that collects those early singles, plus John Peel Session recordings, a couple of live tracks and some frankly forgettable demos onto the accurately titled In The Beginning. It's a shame that the CD cuts the story off just when it got really interesting, but with the continued availability of the 1999 Overground compilation Let the Breeze Open Our Hearts, which collects the debut album tracks, then that's fair enough.
In The Beginning is released by Slumberland sometime soon. A limited edition 7" of 'Inside' and 'Balloon Song' is available now.
© Alistair Fitchett