Shave Your Head
Soul. There can be only one place to start. This is it: Shave your head.
I used the same lines to start an article about Manchester's Stockholm Monsters once before, and then like now the words were culled from the great first page of the obsessional Monsters fanzine Tony France. Of course there was only one issue.
Stockholm Monsters recorded for Factory records, and there are few more self-mythologized record labels than Factory. Yet despite all of the myth making there are many forgotten chapters of the Factory story. Stockholm Monsters would be one such chapter.
People have said that Stockholm Monsters were the Happy Mondays a few years too early, which I think is quite close to the truth, although that statement really needs clarifying. Because to most, mention of the Happy Mondays will conjure notions of ridiculous drug abuse, crashed cars and ropey 'baggy' records like 'Step On'. Whereas really, the Happy Mondays ought to be better remembered for magnificent records that stole the show when it came to madcap white-boy-without-a-clue funk banging its head against post-punk council estate ennui, a kind of strangely compelling and hypnotic '80s psychedelia of the ragamuffins; a raggedy troupe of villains and wild-eyed anarchists with Tony Wilson their Fagin. Those in doubt need only listen to the triumphant first singles, which from the marvellously ramshackle 'Delightful' that sounded like it was all barely held together with airfix glue, to the simply outrageously infectious 'Freaky Dancin'' which has one of the most addictive beginnings in the history of Pop and which was as aptly titled a song as ever there was. The debut LP, Squirrel and G Man Plastic Face Carn't Smile White Out was also an unqualified triumph, charging like a crazed herd of wired elephants through the undergrowth, rampaging through the city streets without a care in the world. And, lest we forget, it was produced by one John Cale.
In the Spring and early summer of 1989 I used to play the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses pretty much all the time, and everyone almost without exception would complain and tell me to 'take that crap off'. Of course I never did, until July when I went to the USA for a couple of months.
When I came back it was a different world. The Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses were everywhere, and all the folk who had told me they were crap were now wearing those stupid beanie hats and Joe Bloggs jeans. It was a nightmare. The new Happy Mondays records in particular sounded pretty awful; all the excited haphazard fluidity and compressed energy was dissipated dreadfully. It all sounded weak willed and forced, like the dull bleats of a bloated baby, delightedly playing the fool for cheap laughs. It was tragic. Especially since I knew that at their peak, Happy Mondays were simply thee most extravagantly dynamic and wayward Pop group in the world. Happy Mondays simply made nearly everyone else sound boring.
Everyone except the Stockholm Monsters, that is. Because the Monsters could make a noise every bit as unhinged and every bit as controlled, held together by the sinewy muscles of the dispossessed. And fittingly, even though they had all but spilt two years earlier, it was the Stockholm Monsters playing in my headphones as my plane descended back into Scottish gloom that autumn.
Stockholm Monsters fans were, like most Factory Funsters, obsessive characters. There was a great story where Rob Young (then of Sarah-label guitar band Poppyheads, now assistant editor of The Wire) wrote to the author of the Tony France fanzine asking for a tape of the Monsters. He received a curt note in return telling him to 'fuck off and buy their records'. Of course it wasn't always that easy. It always seemed to be impossible to find Stockholm Monsters records. Even in Glasgow I couldn't find more than a couple of singles, and it wasn't until the early '90s that I finally found a copy of their Alma Mater album (although Carrie found one in Bath in 1989, in her first week after moving there. The record store closed another week later...). In the sleevenotes to the new LTM reissues of the Stockholm Monsters' material, their manager Andy Fisher recalls that this was at least in part due to the failure of Rough Trade's Cartel distribution system, which in turn was at least in part a starting point for the Monsters' densely packed and seething 'How Corrupt Is Rough Trade' single.
Stockholm Monsters made some amazing singles.
LTM's All At Once singles collection is essential Monsters material, is essential Pop. There's the spooky debut 'Fairy Tales' with it's ghostly penny whistle, or flute, or recorder, or whatever the hell that is floating around in the background atop a drum beat stamping out a simple rhythm on the tops of plastic dustbin lids. Or at least that's how it sounds today. 'Fairy Tales' sounds like something out of The Brothers Grimm notebooks if they'd grown up in 1970's England. It's that spooked and desolate and full of fire. There's 'Happy Ever After', a bizarre mix of tinny keyboards, popping '80s electro-drum effects and ace horn blasts like those used so resplendently by the likes of The June Brides. In fact, 'Happy ever After' sounds kind of like those June Brides dining out with Giorgio Moroder. If Moroder lived in a flat in Moss Side, that is. Both singles are further proof that 1982 was indeed a terrific year for truly inspirational, intriguingly left of centre Pop.
1982 might have been a year of truly great Pop, but personally I was still sleeping through that year, and it was only in 1983 that I even began to open my eyes and glance around at the world beyond my bedroom window. Stockholm Monsters released three fantastic songs on a Factory Benelux 12" that March, but of course I didn't notice. In March all I would have been noticing would have been Audrey Simm's eyes and the steepness of Dundonald Hill as I rode over it to catch up with daydreams and fantasies. Listened to now though, 'Miss Moonlight', 'The Longing' and 'Lafayette' sound for all the world like awesome memoirs from the time; they capture the wild eyed innocence and magnificent hope held somewhere inside my fragile heart. The Stockholm Monsters here sound as though they are poised to break apart along ancient fault lines and pour out molten fire; sound for all the world like a band holding the pieces together with the thinnest of threads, magnificently letting the coherence of their noise stretch and pull against itself, only just being dragged back at the last moment. It's in the way Tony France wails almost uncontrollably, furious with something or someone (probably himself and his world), counter pointed by the organs, guitars, bass all equally wild and dynamic, but still somehow coherent.
It's on the later singles, though, that the sound really starts to come together, starts to sound tough and muscular whilst retaining the essential Monsters quality of nervous vulnerability. It's there on the magnificent 'National Pastime', where Tony France, voice almost cracking in that way he had, sings above a beautifully meandering bass line and gorgeously melancholic horns - 'every time I see your face, I just have to run and hide'. It's there in the aforementioned 'How Corrupt Is Rough Trade', a massive track stuffed full of dense vocals and more of that awesome bass sound (maybe down to long time producer and supporter Peter Hook) and restrained piano picking out a melody above jagged, jutting guitars. There's even a sneaky Scritti Politti sample in there. It's a magnificent five minutes, and I still feel my skin prickle when it reaches one of the few parts where you can actually hear what Tony France sings: 'do you remember when you made your stand, before you had your 'independent' bands. Nine years since it changed, nine years, now it's the same.'
Even better though is 'Kan Kill!' which kicks off its awesome seven plus minutes with a sample of some suave lounge vocalist segueing into a slice of Frankie's 'Relax' before sidling through three minutes of ghostly keyboards and then, with a punching bass and stabbing guitar, into the guts of the tune which is all reverberating paranoia, loneliness and regret. Tony France alternately sings 'oh no, take it back, I don't want to compromise' and 'oh no, take it back, I just want to see you smile' and then, in the blink of an eye, the eerie reversal.
Or what about the astonishing 'Militia' which never fails to stir me, never fails to stab me straight in the heart, never fails to make me want to get up and get out, get dancing around the attic or riding my bike down rocky trails in the wilderness. It's the way the guitars clash and leap against each other over the insistent rhythm of the drums and bass; it's the way Tony France sings 'let's go out for a walk, somewhere we can talk' before falling to the floor with the most plaintively honest Pop moment ever with 'oh I love you oh so much.' Forget all your classic 'soul' voices; in those few seconds Tony France captures the essence of It all so magnificently I wonder why anyone else ever bothers to keep trying. Except of course it's the trying, it's the striving, that counts. And Stockholm Monsters always sounded like they were striving; for beauty on their own terms, for some kind of truth; for some kind of personal escape from some kind of personal prison, with music the file in the birthday cake.
And then of course there's 'Partyline', which is a monumental slab of electro/guitar driven Pop majesty that anticipates the kind of strange post-Acid noises made by fellow Manchester band Laugh on their Sensation Number One album, which maybe isn't so odd since Monsters' Shan Hira was the producer on that particular forgotten-classic.
Speaking of which, what about Alma Mater, the Stockholm Monsters sole album, from 1984? Alma Mater was a triumph, from the gorgeous overlapping type of Trevor Johnson's sleeve design to the ten tracks held within, not that many people at the time would have said as much because the Stockholm Monsters were largely treated with disdain, mistrust and open hostility in their lifetime. It was a real tragedy, but of course that's life. Maybe it was because they were notoriously the favourite band of Factory boss Tony Wilson, and everyone secretly (or not so secretly) loved to have a reason to laugh at or openly hate Wilson with his label of myths and his flash cars and suits. So maybe Stockholm Monsters suffered from that. Who knows. All I do know is that Alma Mater has for years been up there in my catalogue of the greatest albums ever made.
It's more of the Stockholm Monsters sounds of above, more of their glorious merging of body-shaking, oddly nervous rhythm and soul; tinny, reedy and muscular all at once. Which of course doesn't matter in the slightest. Because of course all great records are only ever about personal moments; are only ever really about the flashes of personal memory and never about 'cultural significance'. Which means that Alma Mater is still about afternoons in the early January mists, sitting in dodgems on indoor arenas, glancing at the painted skies and feeling bruises darken on hips. It means that Alma Mater, specifically that moment in 'Five O'Clock' where Tony France says, simply, almost inaudibly 'I'm lost', is about the little red haired lost soul I always saw running in the streets of Glasgow clutching a Rupert annual, is about standing on the footbridge across the Clyde gazing up at the rain, trying to forget faces and voices, trying to imagine a past and a future all at once. It's about riding out the lanes through Trusham and Upper Bramble towards Lawrence Tower white in the sun that sneaks through the clouds on an April afternoon in 2002.
You see, that's the magic of Pop for me. It's the way in which powerful, evocative songs capture moments, the way such a thing fully eradicates notions of time... condenses all pasts into one present; the now of the song, the event of hearing it, feeling it course through your veins, a part of you. And this is why Alma Mater, why Stockholm Monsters in general still work so well; there are so many evocative songs with intriguing corners to lose yourself in. There are so many deliciously strange threads to wrap your world up in.
© Alistair Fitchett 2002
Stockholm Monsters' reissue of Alma Mater, the All At Once singles collection and The Last One Back (collection of live, unreleased and demo tracks) are available now on the peerless LTM label.