Thursday, 19 January 2017

You Don't Know How Much I Love You: Reclaiming Kenickie's "Get In"

Has there ever been an opening line in a top 40 single as quietly devastating as "I'm in pieces / does no-one see it?"

Outside of their media-friendly former front-woman, Kenickie are probably best, if at all, remembered as air-punching, glam stomping, pint-swigging mouthy teenage BFF girls (Lauren Laverne, Emmy-Kate Montrose and Marie du Santiago or Lauren Gofton, Emma Jackson and Marie Nixon at home) who were hilarious in interviews. Press and TV loved it because they had an instant angle and didn't have to do any real work. The début album went top ten. Bombing down the street, its a laugh. So what happens next?

"Oh great, we're getting a band together...lets get all yer mates. And then you find yer mates cant play..."

The sixties influence running through the album even made it to the artwork, as baffingly generic as it is.

There's a definitive mood that holds together Kenickie's second album "Get In" only hinted at briefly by that confusingly damning sample from BBC2's magnificent video diary "In Bed With Chris Needham" as the opening seconds of "Stay In The Sun" punch through your speakers. Thankfully it isn't quite as relentless as the single mix but has a simple summer-friendly chorus that should have seen its sunny - even funky - indie dance beats push further up the chart than its profoundly disappointing No.43 peak in August 1998.

Despite this, "Stay In The Sun" is a defiantly arms-aloft POP! record that sounded magnificent the few days it was played on daytime radio. There seems to be no reason for its lack of Radio 1 support, it just was the right song for the wrong summer. These were strange times for indie bands though with many who had thrived just a year earlier (The Supernaturals, Ash, Babybird and Symposium to name a few) now struggling to get anywhere near to the lofty positions they'd previously reached.  July and August 1998's top ten is the playground of SERIOUS boy bands (Boyzone, Savage Garden, Another Level) and ridiculous novelties (Ace of Base, Aqua, Alda) plus a lot of dance music as befits a summer chart, the best of the bunch undoubtedly being Stardust's "Music Sounds Better With You".

Besides, Kenickie might have sounded like they wanted to have fun in the sun and yet to avid fans of their earlier music, something felt a little hollow in their insistence. The giddy passion of "Punka" and "Stay Out 2Nite" replaced by hearts and keyboards. And did Lauren really just sing "I'm so weakened / We feel bloated / I feel sick"? everything okay?

Several months later, we learned the answer. Kenickie were to split. Second album syndrome, some said. With a chart peak of 32 after the top ten highs of the first LP you could well believe it. But had Kenickie really fallen into such an obvious trap? Had they shed too many fans of their original rambunctious punk pop sound with a new pop image? Or was it the public that got it wrong, giving up on a band just as it was becoming something much more interesting?

Track two on "Get In", "Lunch At Lassiters" gives little time to assess, coming on like the title sequence to perhaps not a Bond film but one of those shit-in-a-field knock-offs that were prevalent in the 1960s. Its a decade that looms large over this record, despite the group's youth, with the hippy themes of romance and having fun, joined by a N‭ixon (Richard, not Marie) era paranoia and fear. The production is much smarter than to just attempt a sixties love in with a lightness of touch and almost hip-hop take on percussion from main producer and drummer Johnny X (Pete Gofton). This runs right through the record and is perhaps most successful on magnificent first single, "I Would Fix You", home to the line at the start of this article, which takes a John Barry-style orchestral approach to a gorgeous, shimmering but desperately fragile record that has encapsulates the feel of the whole record much more succinctly than "Stay In The Sun". Its a punch-drunk boxer standing up in the third round despite all that’s been thrown at them. A sunflower fighting through the concrete. Something has gone very wrong indeed.

[CHARMING SIDE NOTE: "I Would Fix You" was one of the songs pastiched by Smack The Pony in its exceptionally funny first series (March/April 1999), along with The Corrs, Republica, Steps, All Saints, B*Witched and weirdly, Velocette. Becoming "Colours" by "Kinkee", the track is not especially funny lyrically, with the comedy coming from the cast being annoyed by butterflies and fannying about on wires, but absolutely dead on in both music and visuals as a parody with lead vocals from the always superb Doon Mackichan. Quite how many people got the reference at the time is hard to say but it was very much appreciated by me regardless.]

This thinly-veiled anger and sadness continues with "60s Bitch" clinging hopelessly to a relationship already over, whilst getting its claws into high street shops diving on the easy listening revival too late. ("You don't want her / She's got a waistcoat / She shops in Mark One / She's not strong enough / She's known in New Look / She's got a card there...") There's been drugs. There's been a lot of alcohol. But is there a way through it all? No answers are forthcoming in the much more lively "Run Me Over", which would fit comfortably on "At The Club", although barely hidden under the surface is the lyric "I hate it when you talk about me" suggesting somebody (Lauren Laverne? the band?) is approaching a limit.

This feeling of emptiness continues on track six "And That's Why", an achingly fragile piece that removes the regular band in favour of strings and minimal brass with Lauren seemingly looking down from above on a person nobody wants and wondering why. Of course, you don’t have to be Ian Q. Psychologies to work out that its the narrator who is truly hurting, a theme that continues on album stand-out, the initially sparse and dramatic "Weeknights" in which Laverne tackles the increase in drinking she seems to be doing as "a broken mind breaks out of me". The resigned sound of someone proudly marching over the cliff.

Between those tracks however comes something of a mood change as the keyboard-drenched dance number "Magnatron" featuring Marie on vocals and writing duty finds a bouncing disco beat reminding us that drinking and going out can still be the vicarious pleasure it seemed on the first album - the song even starts with someone pouring out a drink. But look deeper and there's talk of vomiting, sleeping it off and the slightly chilling "she'll be alright / but it's a long way down". On another planet this was a top five hit, here its just a slightly ill-fitting mid album track.

From a purely musical level, "Psychic Defence" is probably the album's catchiest track with a full chorus of harmonic "do do do"s (and occasional "ba ba ba"s) accompanying a simple glockenspiel melody which again leads into some beautifully arranged strings. With lines like the acidic "here's a reason for all the heavy hearts to stay / your mates don't really like you / and neither do I" throughout though, the happiness may all be as surface as the sounds. Marie's second vocal (and one of two songs solely written by her, with two other co-writes) comes on "5AM", a Kenix take on the pop RnB ballad doing big business for the likes of All Saints and Honeyz at the time that doesn't really divert, although the lyric "So much hard to go home / came in someone else's car / shiver in your night time clothes / you don't know where you are" seems to deliberately try and cast the darker side of earlier singles "In Your Car" and "Nightlife".

Marie and Lauren. They were really exceptionally good, you know...
"411 (La La La)" is perhaps, outside of "I Would Fix You", the most positive song Laverne contributes to the album. The words of loneliness and feeling lost are still there but joined with an optimistic belief that things could actually change. "Come to me / let me be kind", sings Lauren and you hope more than anything that this time she really was singing to herself.

After all the sadness and self-searching throughout the previous forty two minutes, you could easily be mistaken for seeing the final track's title - "Something's Got To Give" - and thinking this is the knife against skin moment, the pressure point released and yet what follows is a charming, played straight big band showstopper with Marie again on lyrics and lead vocals. Its fun, simple and a much needed reminder of Kenickie's scampish playful side which despite the overall themes, still twinkles throughout the album.

A flop on release, it feels like "Get In"'s only real crime was being so different from the easier pleasures of their début, trapped between pop megastardom and underground cliché. And while the band members have gone on to much happier futures, the music remains and it is always good to know someone, at some point, was out there feeling as lost as you. Repay the favour and lose yourself in "Get In" today.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Strong Without Finish - The Enduring Rubbishness Of Popeye

Who of us over the age of 805 can honestly say they don't remember where they were when they first saw Popeye the Sailor Man, who appeared for the first time on this day in 1929 on E.C. Segar's long running "Thimble Theatre" newspaper comic strip saying his classic catchphrase "Ah'll skerbidge umper doodoo skiddlypom wise guy huh?" which the American states of America soon rang with in every school yard, shopping centre and horse reclaiment centre for miles.

That first classic strip. Other oft quoted comic strip pearls of the time included "Hello wife! I'm home. Where is sandwich?" (The Husband and Wife), "Buggeroon!" (Captain Cap'n and The Katzenjammer Geese) and "Fuck off you" (Mentally Disturbed Cat). This was a golden age for the newspaper funnies.
For me as a kid in the 1980s though, Popeye was strictly an animated character, popping up frequently as scratchy TV filler or badly traced on the front cover of those "an hour of kiddies favourites cartoons!" VHS tapes along with the equally out of copyright likes of Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Betty Boop and Bugs Bunny cartoons that were seemingly drawn on a potato and filmed through an arse. Later as I acquired more interest in the history of animation, I could appreciate how well done many of these cartoons were, in particular those made by Fleischer Studios who were extremely quick to transition Popeye to the big screen, less than four years after his first Thimble Theatre appearance and was nothing short of a phenomenon, taking over from a censorship-hit Betty Boop as the top animated franchise, a popularity equal in the modern day to something like The Great British Bake Off, Drake or being sick in the road outside a Wetherspoons.

Some alarmingly real Popeye cover art from the 80s. 

Back in the eighties, Popeye was just baffling to my telly obsessed pre-teen mind. The original black and white cartoons were odd and surprisingly violent, unlike the Disney and Hanna Barbera I'd grown up with and the plot was seemingly the same every time:

1. Popeye and Olive Oyl would be doing a thing,
2. Bluto would steal Olive Oyl as if that's a reasonable thing to do,
3. Popeye would get the piss kicked out of him,
4. Popeye would open a tin of spinach in an extravagant fashion which made you question his need for it in the first place,
5. Popeye would get stronger and punch the living fuck out of Bluto,
6. Ends.

What the sod even was spinach? We didn't have it in our local Morrisons I can be fairly sure. To confuse matters further, BBC One would desperately fill up its kiddie slots (stop that) with cheapo imported cartoons including "The All-New Popeye Show", a title as unoriginal as it was frequently lies. A chopped up syndicated version of what had been an hour long slot in America, these shows would usually involve some standard Popeye scrapes followed by a back-up 'extended universe' series featuring some 'big concept' like Olive Oyl in the army or a caveman version of Popeye that seemed to completely contradict what happened in the main cartoon. I'd only just got used to the idea of the Muppets as babies, I couldn't be dealing with all these multiple Popeye continuities!

Then as if to kick further gravel in my childhood craving for order an entirely new and TOTALLY!!! UPDATED!!!! FOR!!! THE!!! 80s!!!! version of Popeye was spat into our face on October 9th 1988 with "Popeye and Son" as part of BBC2's Sunday morning "Now On Two" strand. This unsurprisingly featured the spinach-spitting sailor in the modern day (we know this as he wears a very Magnum PI-style Hawaiian shirt) with now-wife Olive (always clad in a Roy and Renee-style pink tracksuit) and a Scrappy Doo-ish son Junior. At almost the exact same time Popeye was fertilising his wife with his ejaculate, Bluto was similarly penetrating his partner, leading to a child the same age called Tank. (Whether this was the same Tank who frequently espoused admiration for Walkers Crisps is as yet unsubstantiated.)

This mania for adding kids to existing Hanna Barbera properties had begun the previous year in the US with the correctly forgotten Flintstone Kids which reduced the ages of the original stone age favourites for...reasons. The same series also featured the in universe show "Captain Caveman and Son" which...oh, you know.

And all this isn't even thinking about the mid 60s cartoons where Bluto is renamed as Brutus for some reason. What the hell was I meant to do with that information? Next you'll be telling me Boss Cat isn't actually called Boss Cat!

As the eighties turned into the day-glo Twist N Squeeze-sippin', Hammer-non hurtin', hard poggin' decade of the 1990s, Popeye seemed to fade away from the collected world consciousness. And yet looking at the TV schedules on BBC Genome, repeats of the now deeply ironic "All New Popeye Show" continued on terrestrial Children's BBC as late as 2004. Its probably on some ridiculously high Sky channel as we speak. So until the inevitable CGI big screen reboot, happy birthday Popeye, 88 years young and liked by nobody I have ever met ever.

All together now: He's strong to the fammich cos he ate a sammich, he's Pobbay the Sailor Type. Toot toot!


Monday, 16 January 2017

Welcome All (Tommy Cannon, Bobby Ball)

In this modern world of 3D horses, printed flatbreads and The Peter Kay's Comedy Shuffle, its easy to get lost with something new on the crowded internet. Regardless though, over the next weeks and months, I'm going to try and lure you anyway with my tales of pop culture ephemera, both new and old, broken and yellowed around the edges.

If there's one thing the British are fantastic at, its looking back at things in the past and mainly complaining about it not being as good as they used to be. This might be chocolate ("A Chomp used to be big as fifty houses when I were a sperms!"), comics ("Why is Desperate Dan enjoyable and not boring old cowboy shite that has remained the same since 1937?") or TV, which as we all know peaked on Christmas Day 197something when Morecambe and Wise did the charleston on Mike Yarwood's face and then Dana shat the National Anthem. "37 billion viewers they say!"

This blog will aim at writing about subjects such as TV, music, film, radio, comics etc. without trying on the Google Rose Tinted GlassesTM or, worse still, falling prostrate on that terrible phrase "THEY SHOULD BRING IT BACK". I just want to write honestly and openly about the things that interest me, good or bad. So, um...I will. Hope you'll come join me too.

Ben Baker,
January 2017