On lightness and left-handed Indian knife throwers
Lightness for me goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard. Paul Valéry said: 'One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather'.
It's a strange oversight that the Claim have never yet been properly celebrated in these pages, as many of Tangents' regular contributors have an album called Boomy Tella in their collection, together with a series of singles on the Esurient label that was run by one Kevin Pearce. Maybe it's the whiff of nepotism that writing about them would stir up; maybe the Claim are unlucky enough to be the one common element that we've all taken for granted. But it is also a reflection of the Claim's simplicity. There's no great story of woe to tell, no newsworthy tragedy, no visible trauma or turmoil. Just a string of finely recorded songs which were more perfectly poised than those of their contemporaries. Poise was not something you associated with the group that supported them one night in September 1989, a group from South Wales playing in London for the first time. And that's why the Claim never got noticed by the world: unlike the Manic Street Preachers, they didn't attempt to open up a fault line in pop culture. They just tried to voice something of themselves, and it ended up sounding timeless, or out of time. So it's verging on ten years since the Claim retired gracefully from the stage and the studio, a decade which has seen their support act that night go from strength to commercial strength, long since stripped of what made them both significant and absurd.
What brings the Claim particularly to mind now is the emergence of their alphabetic neighbours, the Clientele, whose recent Suburban light compilation collects most of their recordings to date, and likewise hasn't yet received its due on Tangents owing to its release coinciding with the hiatus at the end of last year. The compilation includes the dynamic, reverberating 'I had to say this'; the angular, cyclical 'Joseph Cornell'; the soft, 'Sunday morning'-esque 'Reflections after Jane'; and the natural high of 'Lacewings' with its 'Little Johnny Jewel'-ish guitar. It's not that the Clientele have much in common with the Claim when it comes to the actual sound they make, save for drawing on some '60s source material and recording in a way that occasionally utilises the particular aural tone of that decade's best music. No, what unites the two groups is the deftness of their touch, the absence of anything heavy-handed in their music, and at the same time a natural tendency not to do the obvious thing. This I know has the subjective nature of an X-factor, but it's the very intangibility of the quality that makes it so appealing when you come across it. Passion, instinctive good judgement, belief, restraint and that mystery ingredient are present in a mixture whose exact composition is a closely-guarded secret. There are no jarring elements, no indiscrete moments. Here's how Kevin described Boomy Tella shortly after its release:
I love the way it's finely balanced. The way it's sinewy and substantial but understated and light on its feet. The way there's something to get your teeth into but something you can't quite put your finger on.
Where else at the moment in the world of pop do you find such lightness? Well, Broadcast achieved it with The noise made by people, creating their own distinctive sound world, iced at the poles by Trish Keenan's gloriously cool voice. The Boards of Canada's exquisite techno has it for sure, as does the Sea and Cake's blend of traditional and technological instrumentation, topped off as it is with Sam Prekop's carefully chosen sparse and spartan phrasings. It's often the way singing and music mesh together, and in the case of the Clientele, Alasdair Maclean's light and airy voice, made a little other-worldly and more evocative by the unusual trick of putting it through a guitar amp, is a perfect match for the magical noise they softly summon from the simplest guitar-bass-drums set-up. Importantly for a trio, there is no weak link, with both bassist James and drummer Mark adding equally to the overall musicality.
With all this talk of lightness, you might think that these groups were about to blow away like balloons in the wind. Without cutting loose, as the Claim effortlessly did when they played live, and as the Clientele do more rarely but more dynamically, their lightness might be a bloodless thing. The Clientele use attacking noise sparingly and with startling effect, for example at the end of 'What goes up', or suddenly in the middle of the as yet unreleased song that mentions motorways. 'I had to say this' particularly allows them to let off steam, reminding me of Biff Bang Pow! at their desperate best. Whether on this or their quietest songs, the way Alasdair plays guitar is like no-one I've seen, with as much concern for the motion and flow of the song as for picking an unusual melody from the strings.
Live, the Claim were totally inspiring. No-one has combined serious musical intent and a sense of ease and enjoyment better than the Claim at their best. Davids Read and Arnold would introduce what were obviously carefully composed and cherished songs with carefree good humour. Odd rhythms and jazz inflections, indeed odd touches all round, informed their straight ahead pop. Dave Arnold held his guitar high, and the unconventional playing style contributed to the choppiness of the sound. Thanks to the expressive range of Dave Read's wonderful lilting voice, the Claim could be both irrepressibly upbeat and as blue as Miles, though cheerfulness would keep on breaking through. They knew how to launch a song - anyone who ever attended an Esurient Special Night Of Action will never forget the spiralling staircase of guitar that opened 'This pencil was obviously sharpened by a left-handed Indian knife thrower', while Kevin rightly regarded the opening of 'Not so simple Sharon says' as being on a par with the first few bars of 'Waterloo sunset'.
Behind Boomy Tella's artless cover hide guitars caressed and struck into a hundred shades of red and blue, a rhythmic backbone that was foot-tapping in its simplicity but as fresh as a Kentish daisy in its execution, while over the top Dave Read weaves a sense of the absurd in the every day into his melodies. On one level they're mates having a laugh, and incidentally producing consummate moments of pop music. On another, they're gifted poets telling it like it is, playing it how they feel it. The Claim achieved a marriage of unforced exuberance and subtlety that set them apart from the Britpop that was to follow. Claim admirers couldn't help being a little suspicious when Blur's 'Parklife' single appeared. It seemed too close for comfort to a blueprint provided by 'Mike The Bike' (the B-side of their 'Birth Of A Teenager' single for Bob Stanley's Caff label) where the group provided the perfect two minute soundtrack to a breeze of a story by Hangman writer Vic Templar. Where would the Claim be now if they'd had the time, space and money to plot a course through the '90s? Not turning in tired retro standards like 'Song 2', that's for sure.
Some little clue about where they might be was provided in 1998, when a CD dropped through my letter box with no explanation and a word-processed address label. It was a three track single by a group I'd never heard of. The singer of the first two sounded familiar, rang a faint bell. The third was sung by a different vocalist and stopped me dead in my tracks. It had to be Dave Read. The single in question was 'Orchestra' by Coax, track three was 'My number nine', and its singer did indeed turn out to be Mr Read, signed up alongside a couple of ex-Dentists (the group, not the pain-inducing profession) as a member of this new Medway collective. About the same time as 'Orchestra', Coax turned in a respectable album in the shape of Fear of standing still, but there was no further starring role for Dave Read. Still, hearing his voice again was an unexpected treat, especially as he was singing what has to be the best song with a football theme that I've ever heard (better even than Ipswich's 1978 FA Cup Final song). 'Here comes / my number nine / he's found the space / he's got the time / When it comes / straight and true / I know he knows just what to do / He gives me hope / when there was no hope / Chance - thought we had no chance...'. It sounds like Dave's team is playing away, hitting the opposition on the break, the solitary number nine as eager to latch onto the ball as a greyhound to the hare. Of course, it could be about a number nine bus...
It's early days, and the Clientele have yet to release a proper LP, but when they do, there's a very good chance that it will have the consistency of Boomy Tella. The Suburban light compilation is a great starting point, though it shows they still have an occasional tendency to write the same song twice. Lyrical themes recur with obsessive regularity: rain, numbers, days of the week, parks, buses, more rain, parts of London: Kingston, Hampstead Heath, Finsbury Park, St. James' Square. The evocation of a London whose mood is unvaryingly influenced by the weather is a theme which they take almost to the point of self-parody (you can blame global warming if you like, but I reckon it's all the Clientele's fault). Their creativity will surely take them beyond this, and beyond being a three piece. Their most recent release is a split single with the Relict on Johnny Kane Records. '(I can't seem) to make you mine' is as soft as moonlight and features the luminous voice of Pam Berry, usually to be found in the Pines, where she combines to great effect with singing partner Joe Brooker. The Pines' 'Dieppe won't you' Long Lost Cousin single is, by the way, a fine example of voices that complement each other and songwriting which manages to be both artful and unaffected.
The Claim never let their lack of, er, acclaim get the better of them. They kept on keeping on, playing shows to a small but devoted following, putting out great singles. You can imagine treasure hunters of the future digging up 'Loser's corner' / 'Picking up the bitter little pieces' in the National Sound Archive and whooping for joy, much as Ultramarine must have done when they found 'The song of the Lower Classes' in the folk archives of Cecil Sharp House and knew that it would be perfect for Robert Wyatt to sing. 'Sunday'- featuring a cover designed by the fair hands of none other than the editor of Tangents - continued the theme of entrapment in suburbia, being what you might call an updated version both musically and lyrically of the Monkees' 'Pleasant Valley Sunday'. Like Esurient label mates the Hellfire Sermons, but not to the same extent, a few of the songs the Claim regularly performed live evaded their efforts in the recording studio. 'Earnestine', for example, which began in a stately manner and headed into a jittery jazz duel between guitar and drums. There were also a trio of songs from 1992 which were recorded in a replica '60s studio but never released. It would have made another great single: 'Being a minor' with its flawless verse and chorus and suddenly accelerating finale; 'Cathy loves Hercules', written after Dave Read had stared thoughtfully down from the balcony of a tower block in Bow; and 'Do you still feel?', sweetly sung poison about a dead relationship. The album, the singles, you could find them if you want to - Boomy Tella in particular may still be available from the Music and Video Exchanges, or those web or mail order firms specialising in rarities - but it would be great to add these unreleased songs to a new compilation bringing together their best material. I hope I'm right in saying that both the group and Kevin would like to see this too, were it to be done with the same care that went into the original releases.
I hate the thought of songs I know by heart from the Clientele's increasingly assured live performances not being preserved for future generations of pop archeologists, just as it pains me to know that no-one will ever hear a recorded version of the Hellfire Sermons' 'Blows rain down' or 'Down all the days'. There are those who say that such losses preserve the enigma and legend of a group like the Hellfires, but I think they're plenty enigmatic already without 'Blows rain down' being audible only as a ghostly echo in the back room of the Falcon in Camden, struggling to rise above all the other ghost songs that the walls there have soaked up over the years.
The Clientele should bear in mind what happened to the Claim. They've already generated wider appreciation than probably the Claim ever did, but their timelessness is against them. The world still dislikes anything it can't hang on a hook, and any of the ever-increasing number of hooks will do if something proves troublesome to hang. The Clientele have already suffered the indignity of being described as the new Belle and Sebastian, as Love copyists, and as fey merchants of '60s whimsy. When you add Dylan, the Blue Nile, Television, the Velvets, and Galaxie 500 to the list of comparisons, you begin to see that it's difficult to pin the Clientele down; people clutch at their own familiar reference points. That's the X-factor at work. I hope they keep developing, keep moving on in terms of song structure, lyrical concerns, instrumentation, even if it means risking what their current admirers feel is special about them. Most important of all, I hope they spend enough time in the studio to document their progress. On the Prefab Sprout album Steve McQueen, Paddy McAloon sang 'You're only as good as the last great thing you did', a tough principle that he promptly ignored. Unlike Paddy, the Clientele still have every moment of the future in their favour.
© Daniel Williams, 2001
Armstrong's revenge & eleven other short stories (Trick Bag LP, 1986)
For more on the Clientele, go to www.theclientele.co.uk
Photograph of the Clientele live in NYC by Brian Winter from the very wonderful Stolen Kisses site