An occasional column about astonishing but forgotten pop music by James Kerr of Snakeskin Shoe Review
1. Win – Uh Tears Baby, A Trash Icon (1987)
This is the first in a series of articles intended to direct you, if so inclined, towards some of the most astonishing commercially produced music which has, for whatever reason, come unstuck and fallen out of popular consciousness. There is rather more of this than you might imagine. The illusion of endless choice on streaming sites disguises the fact that these are not all encompassing. The vast surfaces of Spotify and itunes contain cracks.
By the mid eighties pop music had enjoyed a five year renaissance of such quality and consumption that there was no escape from whatever was number one that week. You knew it, your dad knew it, your gran knew it. Arguably Live Aid was the final step in completing the canonisation of pop musicians in this period, leaving them more vulnerable to satire. From within this dominance arose a desire on the part of more mischievous artists to bite that the hand that fed them.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik were an attempt at a meta band, presented in 1986 as instant, undeserving, pop superstars with no foundation other than rampant commercialism, appropriating Soviet and Manga style graphics alongside sub McLaren tactics such as offering adversing space between the songs on their album. Journalists seeking a respite from the opposing Red Wedge v WHAM camps were happy to play along, enjoying their own power in propagating the prank. The band’s takeover of the rock media was successful for roughly 45 seconds however, as once the needle hit the vinyl in livingrooms across the nation the new clothes were revealed for what they were, if not invisible then certainly tacky and threadbare. A joke where the punchline comes first. Nonetheless, a top ten single is not to be sniffed at.
Also in 1986, after having a go with a single comprising eight different versions of the same song, Sudden Sway released the conceptual project Spacemate. An LP in a box containing two 12 inch singles, the additional content included a wallchart explaining the whole of existence, geometric shapes and instructions on how to use these to evolve into a higher dimension. The kids didn’t go for it.
Elsewhere, Edinburgh group The Fire Engines were getting ready to dress up. A post punk band fond of twenty minute sets and the sound of violence within pop music they felt the same pull towards the notion of a mega consumerist style of pop, building on top of the landfill of popular culture. Morphing in 1985 into the band Win, Davy Henderson and Russel Burn presented themselves as the ultimate modern pop band, surrounded by the iconography of the disposable, condom wrappers, candles, postcards, arranged like a shrine on the album cover. The LP title “Uh Tears Baby, A Trash Icon” somewhat gave the game away. At the time it was even not entirely clear which of the two phrases was the actual name of the album.
Unlike the hapless Sputnik, and more so than Sudden Sway, Win had the goods. Track one sets out the stall. Super Popoid Grove sounds exactly as you hope from that title. Better even. A tightly wound release of melody bouncing around a pure pop disco, don’t worry that the lyric knows this is “Chewing gum baby for the ears/ a dashing young valium to soften the fear”. The sound is sweet to the point of cloying but it can’t cover all the acid. Shampoo Tears taps into the supermarket aesthetic, adding gorgeous trumpet into the mix. Later, Hollywood Baby Too supplies a lighters aloft proto-stadium chorus whilst contemplating commercial suicide. As the album progresses more serious concerns come to the fore, with Charms Of Powerful and It May Be A Beautiful Sky Tonight But It’s Only A Shelter For A World At Risk contemplating the very real eighties fear of imminent nuclear armageddon. Eventually the melodic sheen is ripped away for the shredding of the Kids From Fame on Empty Holsters and the descending into nightmare finale of Baby Cutting.
What went wrong? Partly the delay in capitalising on the success of early releases. 1985 Single You’ve Got The Power did not trouble the national charts but in Scotland was popular through being the soundtrack to a stylish and long lived advert for McEwan’s lager. In the long run the association of the high concept consumerist satirical band with real life cans of alcohol may have done more harm than good. It certainly wasn’t for want to trying on the part of London Records. The re-recorded and sweetened Fire Engines track Un-American Broadcasting was released no less than three times. No one cared. When the album finally snuck out in 1987 there were two different coloured covers to chose from and a poster inside. HMV made it a “no risk disc” in their stores. The reviews were stratospheric. It didn’t chart.
The London Records label hit some kind of trouble in 1988. Uh Tears Baby did come out on CD, there may have as many as a hundred of them made based on how difficult it is to find. Since 1988 the majority of London catalogue has been acquired by, or cycled through, Universal, Capitol, Polydor and Warners but despite this publishing might the album remains frustratingly out of print (see also, Think Visual, The Road, and UK Jive by The Kinks, less of a loss in honesty). The rights are tied up in a basement somewhere. No streaming, no deluxe 2CD version, just your crackly old vinyl or increasingly muffled sounding cassette unless you have a lot of luck and correspondingly deep pockets. Cherry Red managed to re-issue Win’s second album, Freaky Trigger (originally on Virgin Records) but this was a poor photocopy of the debut, the same punchline to a different joke. Don’t listen to it.
This is the modern age of course, so nothing is ever completely lost. It doesn’t take too much effort on You Tube or Soundcloud to hear this music. Don’t let pop history be just the authorised version. Free the ghosts of the subversive eighties popstars.