Striving For The Lazy Perfection
A fair amount has been written about Sarah records in the past ten years or so, most of it a further mythologizing of a 'scene' that has really been counter-productive. I mean, myths and legends are central to the joys of Pop, but they do tend to cloud issues and often obscure great music. So it has been with Sarah, where a predilection amongst the media and fans for painting the whole label as a home for fey, wan, lonely figures has certainly been detrimental to many of the bands who actually recorded records for the label. If you were feeling particularly mean you could lay most of the blame at the feet of the Field Mice, or at least at the interpretation most made of the Field Mice as the quintessentially sad and sensitive indiekids in anoraks, crying at sunsets and cringing behind their fringes.
Not that The Field Mice weren't good. I freely admit to being under their spell for a good few years, particularly around the time of the first two singles (the 'Emma's House' EP in particular still sounds like a fragile gem of a record), but they certainly weren't the best thing on Sarah. Not for me, at least, and that's all that matters after all. For me, The Orchids were always head and shoulders above everyone else, a feeling that has only increased in conviction over the years. For as the appeal of the likes of The Field Mice has faded with time, the pleasures that lie in the Orchids' records simply continue to blossom, giving more and more delight as the years slip past. Criminal, then, that whilst the Field Mice were (rightly, I must say) given a double CD retrospective set a year or so ago, the only way you can find anything by the Orchids is by scrabbling around the Net trying to track down the ludicrously over-priced original vinyl.
The Orchids came into existence back in 1985, the worst year for so many things, but particularly Pop, ever. After flirting as a six piece complete with keyboards and sax, they quickly became the five piece that stayed together for the next eight years. Originally named Gentle Tuesday after the great Primal Scream song (remember this was pre-Creation Scream), the band decided to change their name after Alan McGee looked at the demo tape handed to him one night at a Go-Betweens show at Rooftops and said that 'Gentle Tuesday' was going to be the Scream's next Creation single. Of course in the end it wasn't, and in fact the song didn't appear until after Bobby and his troupe had gone to the major label sponsored disaster that was Elevation, but nevertheless, not wanting to look like Scream hangers-on, the band became The Bridge. The Bridge played one show under that name as support to the god-like McCarthy, again at Rooftops, before changing once more to become The Orchids. And incidentally, Rooftops really was the key Glasgow venue at this time for the new Pop revolution - as was the Kes club which occupied the rooms below.
Clearly having caught the name-changing bug, the band dallied with yet another switch, this time to Splendour. A phone call to Matt Haynes, who was helping to release a flexi shared with the Sea Urchins scuppered the plans. The story was that the sleeves were already printed, although it's also a possibility that this was a rouse, Matt rightly much preferring The Orchids to the somewhat pretentious Splendour. It didn't take long before the band agreed.
The first I heard of the Orchids was that flexidisc. For younger readers, the flexi was the medium of choice for fanzines back in the mid to late '80s; in many ways it was the cover-mounted CD of its day, only with crap sound quality and the potential to pack maybe two or three tracks at most. Not that anyone at the time would have breathed the word 'flexi' in the same breath as 'CD'. These were times of technological Luddism, after all, when digital technology was seen as criminally evil and the analogue 'purity' of the flexi as the last bastion of the Punk ethic. Or at least that's what it seemed like at the time.
Finger pointers would cast the blame for this backward ideology squarely at the foot of the Sha-La-La label and its core of fanzines Are You Scared To Get Happy, Baby Honey and Simply Thrilled. Other fanzines carried Sha-La-La releases in their time, of course (notably Rob Young's great one-off It All Sounded The Same), but those three were the main contenders or offenders depending on your viewpoint. Really though most people misunderstood it, mistaking the media for the message. The message being that at that time CDs were still very much seen as a means of getting people to buy their record collections all over again, and flexis were clearly in diametric opposition to that, so seemed a great way to get new music out. Plus they were cheap, and sounded so. As well, they were 'throwaway', a concept prevalent at the time as being intrinsic to great Pop, and who's to say that wasn't perfectly on the money? The irony being of course that often the more throwaway things seem the more precious they come to be. And in the climate of hyper-capitalism, greed and glossy pretension promoted by the Conservative government of the time, such stances were seen to be Political, and if that seems vaguely laughable in hindsight or in the light of current context, then so be it. But when you were in your late teenage years at the time, it felt Important, and that's all that counts.
The first Orchids release was on Sha-La-La, and was 'From This Day'. The first copy I got came with Pete Williams' Searching For The Young Soul Rebels publication, and later I picked up a second copy through Rob's aforementioned 'zine, and then a third with one of those Turn! fanzines that appeared out of, was it Yeovil? Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, anyway. Or Somerset at least.
'From This Day' was sketchy and brittle, although pretty much everything sounded so on a flexi. It was accompanied on the disc by 'Summershine' by The Sea Urchins, and probably suffered as a result, The Sea Urchins being the feted ones at the time, resplendent in their pointy boots, leather jackets, bowl cuts and sixties psych-jangle homage. The Orchids by comparison sounded like they probably wore DM shoes, grey cardigans, check shirts (button down collar, naturally) and perhaps a hand-made Postcard badge. But maybe I thought that just because they came from Glasgow and had previously been The Bridge, a name I always assumed was half-inched from the glorious Orange Juice (not even nearly a) hit of the same name. 'Bridge' was a great song, never better heard than on the live 'summer '84' version that cropped up on the b-side of the 12", and wasn't this the time when all the OJs records were 'Holden Caulfield International' releases?
Sha-La-La was never built to last. That was the whole point. So when Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd started Sarah records back in 1988 it was logical that two of the best groups from the Sha-La-La stable should get the first 'real' record releases. So it was that the Sea Urchins and The Orchids came to claim catalogue numbers Sarah 1 and 2 respectively. The Orchids single came in a horrid sleeve that clashed with my aesthetic sensibilities at the time. It does so still. It looked weedy and lightweight, and maybe that was the point, I don't know. I remember writing to Matt at the time offering to do the Sarah sleeves, pointing out that hey, I was an Art Student. Matt replied with a note that said thanks but no thanks, and that the Orchid who did the sleeve was at Art School too, so nah nah nah. Or something along those lines. I'm sure it wasn't as petty as that. In later years I got all defensive when the mighty Action Painting! (I remember either Matt or Clare saying you ought always to have a band with an exclamation mark! in their name on your label - this I suddenly recall when Carrie and I popped into the Garden Flat to say hello one rainy afternoon after walking on the Downs) had a song called 'Art Student', even though on the whole I agreed with the sentiment that they were all stupid pretentious wasters. I even got my Sarah sleeve in the end; the wonderful 'Beautiful Day' single by Australia's Even As We Speak sported a photograph I took of a shopping cart laid on its side on Troon beach. Months later I went back and took more photos of the same cart embedded in the sand, twisted and rusted like the remains of some strange seabird washed up on the shore.
But back to the Orchids, and their first 7". It sported three tracks, and came with an odd orange poster which had the lyrics to 'I've Got A Habit' printed amongst a variety of pictures of medieval buildings and a peculiar photo of what looked like four Orangemen with drums that had 'The Orchids' lettraseted in the corner. I have no idea what kind of joke this was, but it had to have some significance what with the Orchids being Glaswegians and with Glasgow then and still and always and forever locked in that peculiar and depressing sectarian duel. Also significant was the sheer genius in lines like 'I'm drinking Irn Bru and I'm thinking of you', 'It's hard to say thank you when you're smiling' and a song title like 'Give Me Some Peppermint Freedom'. Add a sound that was all gangling arms and legs, like walking home in the early evening with a pint too many in your head, and you had something to cherish for a week at the very least.
Notes on the sleeve of the single gave thanks to Karen McDougall and Caesar, the latter of course being legendary in some circles as singer and songwriter in Factory recording artistes The Wake. What the thanks were for is not known, although later of course the two groups had close links as they shared at least groups members and The Wake's last (to date - there are murmurs of new recordings) records were released by Sarah. Karen McDougall on the other hand I know little about, except that wasn't she a mythical figure in the Glasgow scene at the time, and didn't she take the photo of Primal Scream that's on the cover of their Creation debut? There are people who know much more about this than I do, after all, since at the time I was only a lost soul who rarely ventured out of his bedroom, but whatever.
The second Orchids single was the four track 'Underneath The Window, Underneath The Sink' 7". This was the first of the Orchids records to be recorded at the legendary Toad Hall, and the first to be produced by Ian Carmichael, the unofficial sixth member of The Orchids. Carmichael of course later found some kind of fame with One Dove, although really The Orchids pretty much laid down the blueprint for much of their sound, and were given a thanks on the sleeve of the One Dove album. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.
The 'Underneath The Window' single was recorded and released in the midst of the Poll Tax troubles and came with a poster that had a collage of anti-Poll Tax material adorned with the message 'The Orchids say don't pay the Poll Tax'. Their was more on the record itself, with the blunt 'Defy The Law' (never did revolt sound so sprightly and gorgeously weightless as this) and a blatant 'FUCK THE POLL TAX' etched in the run-off groove. And whilst maybe it's just my snobbery that prefers the initial print-sun sleeve of shades of blue over the starker blue and white later version, it was nevertheless another fairly horrid sleeve housing a fantastic record.
I said earlier that my memory was shot to pieces, so I can't remember for the life of me whether the third single came out before or after the magnificent 10" Lyceum mini-album. Whatever, it was finally a great sleeve, just simple typography and blue and yellow inks mixed to give a main body of green with a blue strip at the edge. Very Factory. Simple and delicious. The songs were just as tasty, particularly 'What Will We Do Next'. Quiet simply a Pop masterpiece, it had edgy guitars that melded riffs made in heaven with lines picked out that sounded like diamonds scratching your skin. It's a song that can't help but make me move, can't help but raise a grin to my lips, particularly when it ends on those fantastic upbeat/downbeat line 'your suspicion and mistrust that turned my innocence to lust' and 'the world is crazy but so am I'.
Then there was the side that played at 33 and housed the track called 'Yawn' that sounded just like the title suggested. It was a mighty track that languidly reached for the sun and effortlessly captured it in its translucent fingers. I have two memories of 'Yawn'; one standing in a garage forecourt in Bristol arguing over its merit with some members of the Devon Contingent - they appalled by its hippie connotations and nods towards what some would later call 'dream-pop', and me entranced by those very same qualities. Although I would never use the term 'hippie' in a positive context, of course. My second memory is of it playing on the stereo one summer afternoon as my brother drove us into Glasgow. As we passed the entrance to Pollock Park, the radiator finally gave up the ghost, and steam poured into the sky in tune to the Orchids feedback and funereal drum machine and handclaps. It was a magic moment.
Lyceum was eight tracks of the simplest beauty. The sleeve was okay, too, with ten little square photographic details that still feel to me like a magical mystery tour around Glasgow. Certainly I was thrilled to recognise the little grinning head from the fossilised play-park at the edge of Kelvingrove park; things I photographed myself on afternoon in 1983 and then again this year, although sadly the best pieces of the park seem to finally have been removed. Then there was the detail of the fountain in the same park, and the little Saltire from the window box in front of the AA building in the square I used to walk through all the time between the old NCR office where my dad would drop me off in the mornings and the Art school. Who the geezer in bunnet and shades was, however, I have no idea, except that he looked related to Lou Reed.
The songs on Lyceum were amongst the best by any group at that time, or anytime. Listening once more to songs like opener of 'It's Only Obvious' with that fly-away magic moment when it goes 'who needs tomorrow, when all I need, all I needed was you.' or 'Caveman' with it's great Punk Rock rush that could be just awesome live, I remember that really The Orchids made the records that really mattered, really made the grade. And I mean, forgive me if I'm over-stating the case here, but when did The Field Mice ever capture that essence of lovelorn/torn ache as well as The Orchids did on the simply awesome 'The York Song' with its glorious interplay between piano and guitar and Hackett's shuffling, sand kicked in late night beach strolls voice going 'I remember nothing at all' and the cascades of 'no no never I've done that'? The answer is they didn't, although of course they came close in their own way, and did other things better maybe (like self-conscious self-pity, for which I accept there is a time and a place), but oh, for that few minutes alone I would treasure The Orchids forever. And what about the last three tracks on side two? From 'Hold On' (Hackett here sounds pleading, lost, and those lines '1,2,3' that he repeats are throwaway moments of forgotten loss, tossed off the cuff like only lovers are capable of), through 'Blue Light' (how can a song SHIVER so?) to the pared down but somehow lush closure of 'If You Can't Find Love' that opens with the ace 'I'm sad to say, I curse the day that I met you', these three songs are sometimes the only testament to the glory of Pop that I ever need.
Lyceum then was a minor triumph, but the Orchids were far from content. They continued to develop their sound, continued to seek out new possibilities, notably making more use of keyboards and effects. The first evidence of course was really on 'Yawn', and it was to that cut that the fabulous 'Something For The Longing' inevitably nodded. But where 'Yawn' reached for the sun, 'Longing' really took off for the stars. It opened with what sounded like Apocalypse Now helicopters at dawn, before a melody coasted in on guitars, bass and drums, crashing on the beach with the lines 'we can walk/talk for hours and hours'. Even the plain orange sleeve seemed somehow appropriate.
On 1990's five track Penetration EP it seemed suddenly like The Orchids had stretched out. They sounded altogether more confident and assured. There was a great country feel to their sound too, notably on the terrific upbeat 'Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled' with those great lines 'this is my song; it ain't very hard and it ain't very long' and 'How Does That Feel'. Elsewhere, like on 'Pelican Blonde', they sounded taught and expansive all at once, with wonderful textures underpinning their magnificent trademark ache. Of course there were stupid purists who savaged Sarah and by association the Orchids for releasing the EP on 12" format. Wasn't Sarah meant to be the last great refuge for the 7" single? And wasn't the 7" format a Political Statement? Well, no, actually. The ideological stance was to not release the same songs on multiple formats, to not put previously unavailable tracks on compilation LPs. It was a simple thing, but what the hell. The Penetration sleeve was finally a great Orchids sleeve too, and looked very Factory with the murky photograph of the graveyard angle on the front and the ring of cherubs on the back.
The Unholy Soul album similarly sported cherubs courtesy of One Dove/Carmichael associate Ali Wells (although if you believe the sleeve it's by Dr Hugo Z Hackenbush and D A G Wells), and too took the Penetration sound further still. Augmented by additional keyboards and assorted electronica, Unholy Soul sounded fantastic when it was released in the middle of 1991. It does so still today. Really of course the interface between the '80s and the '90s was a time of great interfaces between styles, and as a result was a time for some of the finest Pop ever. The Orchids tapped into the electro/guitar Pop collision better and more naturally than most, and if their take on the whole game stayed fairly resolutely on the side of the guitar, then so be it. Unholy Soul had some terrific moments. 'Peaches' had echoes of Screamadelica Primal Scream with its classy beats and melodies that featured guest vocalist Pauline Hynds' more obviously 'soulful' delivery alongside Hackett's more esoteric but no less emotion filled lines; 'Dirty Clothing' again had Hynds on backing vocals and was a gloriously languid partner piece to the likes of 'Something For The Longing'; 'Bringing You The Love' had more of that sweet country inflection that surfaced on the Penetration EP, whilst album closer 'You Know I'm Fine' was as chilling and desolate an example of darkly beautiful folk music as you could possibly wish for.
Best of all though was the pairing of 'The Sadness of Sex (Part 1)' and 'Waiting For The Storm' that were as great as any other pieces electropop as you would find that or any year. 'The Sadness of Sex' was the third song with Pauline Hynds on backing vocals, and showed that The Orchids would surely have been capable of mixing it with the biggest guns, if only the myopic music press of the time would have given them the chance. 'Waiting For the Storm' meanwhile was a masterpiece of subdued techno meets lonesome guitar troubadour that floated somewhere just beneath the clouds.
I swear that if Unholy Soul had been released on some other, more 'hip' label, it would have garnered the glowing reviews it most assuredly deserved and would have emerged as one of the albums of the year, no matter what opposition it was up against. Which isn't the fault of anyone except the music industry of course, and just goes to show how stupid, blind and deaf most music journalists are.
If Unholy Soul was the first evidence of the Orchids making advances on merging what was then still termed 'dance' music with guitar Pop, then their swansong album Striving For The Lazy Perfection took it all further still. It's of course a great album, but it also presents the evidence of the divisions between the two genres and between the members; some wanting to move further down the route of electronics and dance beats, whilst others wanting more guitars, more traditional song structures. Thankfully, on songs like 'Welcome To My Curious Heart', 'Avignon', ''I've Got To Wake Up To Tell You My Dreams' and the cracking title track, The Orchids gave us the best of both worlds. It wasn't a really a great 'band' album, however. By this time, original bassist James Moody was in the process of moving to Sweden, and on several recordings was replaced by Ronnie Borland. On several recordings too drummer Chris Quinn was replaced by programmed beats, and whilst those tracks sound terrific in their own right, it still doesn't quite feel like The Orchids.
Whatever. Striving For The Lazy Perfection was still a fine swansong. Pauline Hynds once again provided vocal duties alongside James Hackett, and was once again superb. If anyone knows whatever happened to Pauline after this, then I know there are a load of people who'd be interested. If she didn't make any more records then it's a crying shame, and if she did, well, that's more gems surely still be unearthed.
A crashed van and a broken leg in 1994 meant that the final album was never promoted in the way it deserved. And with Matthew Drummond and Borland wanting to push the band in more dance oriented directions and away from what Quinn, Hackett and guitarist John Scally felt pulled by, the band simply drifted apart. There was a final Peel session, and some Radio Scotland work that included a version of The Boxtops' classic 'The Letter', but that was pretty much it. Drummond continued with his infatuation with dance music and has released some singles. He currently heads off once a month to DJ in Poland, apparently. Moody is still in Sweden, rumour has it playing in an Irish pub band, although it must be stressed those rumours are unsubstantiated... Hackett recorded some unreleased material with former members of One Dove after their split and still gets together with Quinn and Scally for beer in Glasgow hostelries on occasion, although these days music making is inevitably not really on the agenda. Which is fine, and in many respects just as it should be.
The Orchids, after all, were very particularly and peculiarly of a time, and whilst many of their records still sound fresh and timeless, any kind of reformation would inevitably seem like a strange and un-needed punctuation to a perfectly formed story. What would be welcome, however, would be a great snapshot of what they produced; a collection of sublime Pop to light the winter skies. Because, of all the bands making records in those late '80s to early '90s years, The Orchids surely deserve more than most to be remembered; deserve to have their sounds preserved so that they may serve as inspiration for new souls searching for that lazy perfection.
© 2002 Alistair Fitchett