Friday, 20 May 2011
Hiss & Shake - Legg's Eleven pt. 6
The Marine Girls’ Lazy Ways is a wonderful example of how to hold your nerve. It is one of the most spectacularly strange and strong-minded records ever. Stuart Moxham has quipped, self-deprecatingly, that as producer all he had to do was get Phil Legg to record the group in the Cold Storage studio and add a few overdubs. The miracle is that Stuart and all involved left it at that, resisting the urge to add embellishments like keyboards, drums, programming. That will have taken a real stubbornness by the Marine Girls, a definite boldness by the production team, and a degree of contrariness by the record label Cherry Red. Now it all seems delightfully perverse.
Beach Party by the Marine Girls had been a revelation when it first appeared. Partly it was a defiant statement about what you could get away with. But much, much more than that, it was about its participants being blessed with a very real talent for creating unique and gloriously catchy pop music. That record would never have caught on so dramatically if it wasn’t brimming over with infectious melodies and choruses that stayed with you, resolutely. Even now you can go for years without playing Beach Party but still instantly hum a refrain from In Love, Flying Over Russia, or He Got The Girl.
The Marine Girls thrived in an emboldening DIY environment, fuelled by early Postcard and Rough Trade singles, the odd things John Peel played on the radio, and an unofficial network of fanzines and local gigs. The appeal of Beach Party was that it was something you could feel very much part of. These were people the same sort of age, with the same taste, attitudes. There was a sense of belonging or at least identification, momentarily. But things in those days moved very quickly, attentions drifted, people got into different things, and they drifted apart. The story of the Marine Girls echoed the stories of what happened to us and our friends.
Lazy Ways is almost clinically stark, predominantly just bass and voice, with acoustic guitar in the background, and some sparse percussion. I now prefer it to the warm clatter of Beach Party, but I didn’t at the time. It’s tempting to expand on the presence of Stuart Moxham and Phil Legg, the YMGs/Gist link, minimalism, the spectre of dub and a growing awareness of how instruments were used in African pop music. It’s tempting to focus on the cover of Fever, the Peggy Lee recording which was revolutionary in the way it too used just the voice with bass accompaniment. But that would detract from the pioneering approach of the Marine Girls.
The Fox sisters were strong-minded enough to continue challenging ideas about what sounds right and wrong in pop music. After the Marine Girls were buried at sea, in Grab Grab The Haddock Jane and Alice were gloriously out-of-step with a musical climate that had a new (Smiths-inspired) solidity to it. I remember being shocked at seeing Grab Grab The Haddock play live and how gloriously out-of-step with the music scene they were. I remember being even more surprised when Lester Noel later made the leap from GGH to Beats International, but it made perfect sense in a way.
There was a toughness to Grab Grab The Haddock, visually and musically, that suggested a certain link to the day-glo pop end of the anarcho-punk spectrum (Rubella Ballet, Hagar The Womb, etc.), and an experimental element that kept things unpredictable and somehow evoked the radical approach of Jonathan Richman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers LP where he played with ideas of children’s music, folk songs and rhythms from around the world, unorthodox instrumentation, and using softness as a strength. I wouldn’t hear that unconventionality again until Pram came along and later still Tenniscoats served up their remarkable pop songs. And that’s interesting. Despite many people from the international pop underground citing the Marine Girls as influences and inspirations, most have been very structured conventional pop without the artistic flair and strangeness of the Fox sisters, Tracey Thorn, and all involved .
What Tracey Thorn did after the Marine Girls is well documented, but these accounts miss completely how radical the beginnings of Everything But The Girl were in the superslicksterised ‘80s pop context. Although by the time the debut LP Eden appeared my attention had wandered towards more primitive things (ironically my favourite groups of the time were pretty much Tracey’s: Hurrah!, Felt, etc.) but listening to that EBTG debut LP now it is almost shocking how stripped-down the sound is. Again, I suspect this is down to stubbornness on the part of the group, the producer Robin Millar, and Geoff Travis representing one layer of record company command.
Robin Millar was very much the man who captured a particular moment and sound as producer of choice (on occasion) for Weekend, Pale Fountains, Vic Godard, Sade, Working Week, and Everything But The Girl. His speciality was a very deliberate naturalism which was as aggressively modern as any heavily programmed production laden with effects. He tried to draw out something from his artists rather than impose (or shoe-horn) his own particular identity. So, for example, the musicians on the first Everything But The Girl LP appropriately include Simon Booth on guitar, Charles Hayward on drums, Bosco D’Oliveira on percussion, and Chucho Merchan on double bass, and are thus ideal ingredients to work with, a mixture of jazz and punk experimentalism.
I like the fact that Robin Millar turned out to be a real thinker about his production work. I always refer people to an excellent interview he did (ostensibly) about some abandoned Strawberry Switchblade recordings he worked on, with Simon Booth on guitar. He actually caught the duo brilliantly, giving them an unexpectedly raw Rickenbacker-led jagged edge similar to what Hurrah! were doing at the time (mid-’84), and it’s easy to wonder what might have been. That interview with Robin contains one of my favourite ever quotes, and I make no excuses for repeating it:
“I'm always excited by what I consider to be generic movements which are appearing spontaneously, genuinely from the musicians themselves, whether it's in the bedroom or the rehearsal room. You do tend to find a flavour in a particular town or country in a particular year. The Postcard Records thing had appealed to me because of its organicness, its awkwardness, the fact that it didn't seem to be directly coming from anything that was happening elsewhere, it wasn't being borrowed, you know? It was almost like the result of a REJECTION of what was going on, and that's always been what has appealed to me about that. People who'd organised themselves into some kind of art form that they felt was singular, original, not borrowed from what was going on.”