People and Places


Once there was a band called Passion Star, whose drummer was at my school, and who played every so often in town, drawing a pub full of underage drinkers. What was unusual about them was that they didn’t rock: they were three seventeen year old boys trying to be The Sundays. Their sound was crisp, sensitive with a shrug. It was 1993, the year after Blind came out, and of course Blind is the best record ever made, so who could blame them? All the same, it wasn’t a tactic adopted by many, and it presented the problem of... how do you sound like that? You’ve got to be cocksure to be so fey. You’ve got to be able to nail a tune, too - there’s no posturing to fall back on in Sundays-world, no 12 bar blues patterns. So instead: tapped out hi hats threaded with mobile bass and sketched in by guitars which were brittle but never angular. Topped with a bravely high vocal, less strident than it was to become, almost modest at this stage. Singing, on set closer ‘Carolyn’ - and this is what killed me - ‘Carolyn, you are my life / Please be my wife’. I’ve no idea how grounded this was in a real situation, whether there actually was a Carolyn standing in the audience, chattering away, having her sleeve tugged by a friend saying ‘Shh! Shh! Did you hear that?’ Whether or not, it’s the most romantic thing I’ve heard in my life.


Once, maybe a year or two later, there was a band called Spare Snare. There still is a band called Spare Snare, for that matter. They have a new album out, on their own Chute label, Garden Leave. It’s their seventh, and it’s brilliant: surly, sweet, recorded ‘in Jan’s living room’ and the drums ‘in Jan’s hall’. I’ve promised to leave writing about it to Andy, who has an actual review copy, so. Spare Snare didn’t sound like The Sundays, or anyone. There’s a song on Guided By Voices’ Vampire On Titus which kind of does, actually, but apart from that - unique.Lo-fi as fuck in the beginning, on their barely competent, intermittently poptastic Live At Home. It took me a while to get it. The barely competent thing was where I got stuck, but it was part of the package: for ages, Jan would play gigs with only two strings on his guitar. Garden Leave has no guitars on it at all, only a mandolin made to sound a bit like one. 2004’s Learn To Play... is, well, called that. Live At Home (‘pronounced give’, they printed on a later sleeve, in case anyone thought they’d been trying to be cool) starts almost agonisingly slowly, ‘Thorns’ with its hung-over slide guitar, and ‘Shine On Now’ with that irritant two string fuzz hanging there like a taunt. They once gave out button badges which read ‘No Social Skills’, and this is the essence of it: if we’re a bit messed up in our actual lives - not massively, not basket cases, just normal - then why would we polish the music that comes out of that? That would be a lie. People may lie to us and to each other; society may be entirely constructed around the creation of smooth and deadly surfaces, but we decline to be part of that. We’re not going to lie. That’s what Spare Snare stand for.

The pace picks up, grudgingly, on its own terms, making way for pop classics ‘As a Matter of Fact’ and ‘Bugs’ (‘I’ve got bugs on my mind / I’ve got bugs on the wall’ - somehow this manages to be glamorous). It’s a record which dares you to like it, and doesn’t much care what you decide. By the time I went back home from university for a holiday, I’d decided, on balance, against.


Coming back from town one day, I saw a poster for a Passion Star concert on the railway bridge. I’m not aware of anything else having been advertised in that way, ever, so it was doubly a surprise. They were still going, three years on? It was hard to imagine, they’d been such a part of an earlier time (when Belly ruled the earth, before Oasis ruined everything), and so delicate it seemed inevitable they’d be blown away. Was it possible that Carolyn still hadn’t noticed Richard’s coded message?

The gig was in the back room of a hotel, and pretty packed it was too. Before the main set, Richard got up with his twelve string and did some songs. His voice had made the leap from determined but timid ambition to formidable self possession, and he blazed through these four new songs (I didn’t know for a fact that they were new, it just seemed as though he was spilling them out, hadn’t had time to rehearse them with the band, and needed them to be heard), all of them breathtaking. They really were. I taped the gig, and on the strength of it have prowled around many another with a tape / minidisc recorder hoping for this amount of spontaneous thrill. It’s hardly ever happened again (Bill Wells Trio managed it, and Jad Fair). Again the subject matter - even the words themselves - walked a tightrope between emotion and cliché. Asking for ‘just one smile’, declaring ‘I’ll be taken / I’ll never be fakin’ / Just give me back my life again’, describing ‘a quick sudden anger’, volatile, desperate, intense and unquestionable. Brilliant pop, like The Beach Boys’ ‘I’m So Young’ revved up and with just a dash of Eitzel longing in the tank.

When the band joined him, the non-timidness continued. The new drummer could do dynamics and stuff: they could now rock, in a tender sort of a way, and the Sundays-isms were reduced to an echo and a way of making the best songs out of the worst situations. It was a happy occasion: bassist Adam announced, to cheers, that they were to sign a record deal the next day. At least two songs were introduced as ‘the next single’, and it felt as though good things were around the corner.


Jan worked in Virgin, everybody knew that. Even so, it felt like a vindication and not nepotism when an entire stand of CDs announced Spare Snare’s 1998 album Animals and Me. This was the point at which, belatedly, I got it. Finally, a bit of ambition! Strange name for an album, but at least they’re trying to shift a few. Took it home, put it on.

Where the answers lie, I don’t know
Between you and me, I’m not sure
Figure out what is truth
Don’t get no clues from these books
Even stealing’s fair enough
’Cause all I wanted was my half

More or less the opposite of Passion Star’s grand romance, the Snare do description rather than aspiration; uncertainty and caution is their bag. Animals and Me makes this explicit. In the opening words, in ‘The Lies Count’, but most beautifully on ‘All I Wanna Do Is Touch’ (whereas Passion Star are after someone to ‘guide me through’), bruised, numb and a little like watching a tear descend a face which is usually hard as nails. The writing around the edge of the CD reads: ‘All rights reserved. Manufactured in the E.U. Fuck with us and we’ll kick your fucking head in.’ It’s a rearguard action which doesn’t wholly convince, now they’d made a ‘proper’ record which doesn’t undermine its own sound at every step. You love them for trying anyway, for being contrary buggers. But once you’ve let on that you’re capable of lines like ‘If I had a hi-fi, would you stick around? / Would you scratch my vinyl, make my tapes unwound?’ there’s really no going back. I saw them play these songs, unfortunately minus tape recorder, and it was so exciting. Possibly for the first time, their live sound was more ragged than the recorded, making the songs from their breakthrough LP even more thrilling. ‘We don’t do interaction.’ Yes! ‘Why don’t you stop complaining?’ Goal! The Snare have a surliness which makes me feel like a teenage girl watching The Beatles. I urge anyone who’s anywhere near Glasgow on 28th December to go and see them ‘promote’ Garden Leave at King Tut’s.

Around this time - again it’s a little hazy - Passion Star reached the apex of their stab at fame and, three singles under their belt (the first two, ‘Someone, Somewhere’ and ‘To Be The One’ are so great), did a national tour which took in Dundee. There were signs that things weren’t going quite so well: an extra guitarist who beefed up the sound unnecessarily, a picture on their third single which looked like someone was trying to appropriate them into being a boy band. There weren’t too many people in the audience (it was entirely un-advertised and far from home), so Chris marched us backstage afterwards and, after leaving his number on the wall for Lauren out of Kenickie in case they ever played there, instructed a downcast band that the best way to get a crowd in Dundee was to play on a bill with Spare Snare, get some local support in. They nodded, gave us some beer, grumbled about the new guitarist. They were supposed to come back a few months later but it didn’t happen, and the last I heard of them was that ‘To Be The One’ was to be featured in the film Shooting Fish. It was, but it got faded out too early, just like the band themselves. You can hear a bit of what I mean at Adam’s website (see link below). Some of this is post beefing-up, but the first ‘To Be The One’ single is a great record, and ‘Waiting’ is one of those four acoustic songs I was talking about.

Every few years, always by chance, I discover that there’s a new Spare Snare record, and the world seems a righter place for it. Learn to Play is my other favourite, and the Love Your Early Stuff comp is pretty unbeatable (and a better way in to the Live at Home material, I found). You wouldn’t have bet on them lasting this long, and if they’d signed to a real record label in the early days then they probably wouldn’t have. The long haul suits them, though, in a way it’s hard to imagine happening with the brightly burning Passion Star. Who’s to say which approach is better? Both give great pop. Why even compare them? Because, I suppose, they’re my ‘secret’ (though that’s nonsense - it just feels like it), they come from the places I come from, and because, if you haven’t, you really ought to hear them.

© 2006 Chris Fox
Passion Star mp3s: