Agents of Change
Blue Orchids were one of those great early '80s groups who passed me by completely. This is hardly surprising since when their classic singles 'Disney Boys' and 'Work' were released I was all of 14 and more concerned with hiding from 'punks' who wanted to beat the crap out of me.
It wasn't until 1987 that I actually heard about Blue Orchids via an already old copy of Hungry Beat. This was a time when I clutched a handful of fanzines and the records they introduced me to as close to my heart as possible. I called them my bibles, my saviours, and that's no exaggeration. Kevin wrote about Blue Orchids and naturally made them sound like another crucial piece of the puzzle I was avidly piecing together then, as now. Naturally too he was right.
I first heard Blue Orchids soon after, on a tape another friend sent from the depths of Devon. On one side there was Stockholm Monsters' Alma Mater, on the other Blue Orchids' The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain). It was some holy pairing. A year later I would write about desperate bicycle rides along the coast by the Electric Brae, gazing on Ailsa Craig, recalling lines from Yeats and from Blue Orchids' 'Bad Education.' These things are important.
Blue Orchids were important. ARE important, or as important as Pop music can ever be, which is to say not at all and all of everything at once. Blue Orchids are important because they managed the tough task of capturing both a spirit of a time, and a timeless spirit. The early '80s of course were great times for artistic adventure. Lots of rules were being broken; lots of new styles were being forged in the fires of the post-punk explosion. Blue Orchids were forging ahead faster than most.
Blue Orchids sounded like Television sharing a bottle of ale with Can or Neu! And if that sounds kind of surreal, then that's just about how it should. Because Blue Orchids were the best of the post-punk bands who spliced a natural understanding of the psychedelic with the cut and thrust of the motorik beat and the ice cool of the Velvets and the whole mythic New York underground. In this Una Baines was as much a key as guitarist / vocalist Martin Bramah of course, because it's her keyboards that give the best Blue Orchids recordings their sheen of metallic mystery; and mystery is as important an ingredient in all the best Pop as any, after all.
There's a difference between mystery and invisibility though, and Cherry Red did the world a favour last year when they issued the fairly comprehensive A Darker Bloom collection. Hats off too to the inestimable LTM for unearthing more Blue Orchids delights with two new releases: From Severe To Serene and The Sleeper.
From Severe To Serene is perhaps the most vital of the two if only because it mostly contains material from the finest Blue Orchids era. So we have the seven tracks recorded by the band for the John Peel show in '81 and '82, all of which sound startling: the sound of a group exploring new possibilities within the structures laid down by those aforementioned reference points of Krautrock and the New York underground. It's all immeasurably but passionately cool, as indeed are the rare live recordings (recorded in Manchester in '81 when the band supported Cabaret Voltaire) that fill out the CD. Less impressive are the four 1987 tracks that Bramah cut as Thirst. Without Baines, these are more guitar driven and less ingenious than the earlier Blue Orchids material. Only the ravishing 'Crystal Kiss' still sounds vital.
After the relative disappointment of 1987's Thirst, I was less excited than I maybe ought to have been to hear of the unreleased album than Bramah recorded in 1993. It's not prime Blue Orchids of course, but it's much better than I rather unfairly expected it to be. It does rather sound like a creature of its time, however, and more than once nods unnecessarily to the like of Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets (a band from whom Bramah once turned down the invitation to sing), but that's a fairly minor quibble, especially as in others it also recalls the muscular drive of the Very Things' at their 'This Is Motortown' peak. It's not as essential as From Severe To Serene, or indeed A Darker Bloom but is an intriguing oddity nonetheless. The two remixes of the excellent 'NY Gargoyles' are particularly worth noting, as are the tracks that made up the 1992 'Sleepy Town' EP.
Really though it's from those couple of years at the beginning of the 1980s that Blue Orchids hold the most mysterious appeal, and on From Severe to Serene, and in those Peel sessions particularly. you can hear all that made them great perfectly distilled.
© Alistair Fitchett 2003