Regular EIO40 reviewer and contributor Rob Morgan (@durutti74) managed to get his mitts on an advance copy of the new Orchids retrospective and has given it the once over in his inimitable style.
As is usually the case with any of Rob’s output he takes us beyond a mere review and on a journey, pulling in history and context, adding emotional ingredients, offering up tips and even reserving some space to throw in a heartfelt appeal.
So being aware of The Orchids and those glorious songs is not a mandatory requirement to hop on board. Whatever happens you’ll take something away from reading on, believe us. Rob himself was even rewarded with an unexpected revelation.
So over to an 18 year old Rob then….
Who Needs Tomorrow… – A 30 Year Retrospective
Cherry Red Records
30 years? How time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. 30 years ago this Autumn I was a callow 18 year old, settling into life in the halls of residence in Sheffield Poly, and I thought I knew it all. Sure, my hall mates were listening to Suzanne Vega, Sting, Whitney Houston and Marillion but I was listening to better music than that. Didn’t they read the NME or Melody Maker? I read both, cover to cover, every week and I knew what was going on.
The Smiths had just fallen apart amid much acrimony and their final album “Strangeways here we come” was my soundtrack for that season. Nobody else made guitar music as good as The Smiths, in my view. The whole C86 scene had passed me by, I thought it was jingle jangle nonsense, I always paused my taping of Peel when he announced another song by the Soup Dragons or the Wedding Present …. it just didn’t float my boat. Give me Wire, Durutti Column, Microdisney…. just don’t give me 12 string guitars and fey vocals, they say nothing to me about my life. And what’s the obsession with fanzines and flexidiscs? Get with the technology, people – I’d just bought a CD player, perfect sound forever you know.
How wrong could I be?
I may have been reading the music papers every week but I was ignoring them really. I wasn’t noticing what was happening, partly because there was too much going on (I did notice the acid house scene, after all a lot of the Hacienda DJs would regularly cross the Pennines to play at the Leadmill), but I missed a lot of the interesting music of the late 80s due to my blind prejudice against the jingle jangle. I should also mention I missed a lot of the other good music from that era (the MBV / Loop / Spacemen 3 noise and AR Kane dream pop) as I thought it was all music paper hype. What was I thinking? What was I doing to miss these seismic shifts in music?
Somehow I caught up. It was hearing “Sensitive” by The Field Mice on Peel’s ’89 Festive Fifty which caught me first, then buying “Temple Cloud” – the second Sarah Records compilation album – in the summer of 1990 changed my mind. I’d seen the name Sarah Records crop up in the music papers, initially rave reviews for their early single releases written by Bob Stanley in the NME, then sarky reviews dismissing every Sarah Record as the product of wimps feeling melancholy because girls weren’t interested in them. (I paraphrase of course, but some of the reviews really were horrible – check out the Sarah Records website where old music paper reviews are reproduced).
Two points struck me here. Firstly, I was kind of sympathetic to the viewpoint posited above re melancholic unrequitedness. Secondly the first song on “Temple Cloud” wasn’t like that at all. It was almost seven minutes long, it moved slowly and built itself up from simple synth washes, a sparse drum machine, a sleepy sounding vocalist and some sky kissing guitar work – pushing itself into a lethargic chorus of “That’s the way it goes, my friend….” This wasn’t what my perception of a Sarah Record should sound like. This wasn’t jingle jangle nonsense. This was a wonderful song. This was “Yawn” by The Orchids and I was immediately smitten.
The story of the Orchids is entwined with the story of Sarah Records. Their debut single “I’ve Got A Habit” was Sarah 2, issued simultaneously with Sarah 1 –“Pristine Christine” by The Sea Urchins – early in 1988. Before that hard vinyl release the Orchids had issued “From This Day” on a flexidisc during the autumn of 87. So they were there at the beginning and at the end too, playing a set during the August Bank Holiday Sarah Records Farewell Party, alongside other Sarah acts like Heavenly, Blueboy, Secret Shine and Harvey Williams.
Now those names seem legendary, the reputation of Sarah Records and their acts have never been higher – Michael White’s book “Popkiss” and Lucy Dawkins’ film “My Secret World” have raised the profile of the little label from Bristol two decades after it stopped operating. Hell, the NME recently called Sarah Records one of the coolest indie labels of all time, which is some turnaround.
But what of the Orchids? Well they’re a five piece group formed in Glasgow in the mid 80s and still going strong, even if there’s been a few line up changes along the way. If you can forgive me the following appalling analogy…. if The Field Mice are the Beatles of the Sarah Records universe, then the Orchids are the Rolling Stones. The survivors, still going strong, only without the drug habits and tax exile. This analogy also falls over when Bob Wratten lengthy career is taken into consideration. I was never that good with analogies anyway. (By the way, to anyone at Cherry Red – how about a five CD anthology of Bob Wratten bands next? Just a thought).
Between 1988 and 1994 the Orchids issued three albums and seven singles on Sarah Records before taking a hiatus for a decade, reforming in 2006 and issuing more albums and a handful of singles and playing live whenever they can – they are due to play the Shine On indie festival at Butlins Minehead shortly.
As you would expect, their sound has developed over the years but constants remain – James Hackett’s soulful vocals, John Scally’s inventive guitar work, Chris Quinn’s powerful drumming, the playful call and response between lead and backing vocals (especially where Pauline Hynds is part of the mix) and the tasteful and sympathetic production of Ian Carmichael.
Now to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary they have teamed up with Cherry Red to issue a double CD “Who needs tomorrow?”.
Disc One is compiled from the Orchids back catalogue, starting with the woozy beauty of “Apologies” from Sarah 2. The early songs here show how quickly they grasped the idea of indie guitar pop – “It’s Only Obvious” and “Caveman” are timeless pop gems. They expanded their sound and their horizons too – Ian Carmichael introducing keyboards naturally into their songs and sprinkling production fairy dust over everything. The introduction to “Something For The Longing” still makes my spine tingle, like circling helicopters preparing to land, and a surging hopeful chorus .
There’s two songs from 1991’s perfect “Unholy Soul” album, including “Peaches”, one of their finest moments. In some parallel universe “Peaches” would have been number one in the charts for sixteen weeks during the summer of ’91, not that Bryan Adams song. “Tharmaturgy” – a single in 1992 – is another highlight, a melodic gem bolstered by a This Mortal Coil sample! The title track to their third album “Striving For The Lazy Perfection” bristles with urgent sequencers and drum machines humanised by the vocals of Hackett and Hynds.
The second half of the first disc picks highlights from their 21st century output and it stands up well next to their older material. “Another Saturday Night” – a highlight from their comeback album “Good To Be A Stranger” – builds to a powerful crescendo with some fiery guitar work from Scally and one of those unexpected chord changes on the chorus that I love so much. “The girl And The Soldier” is a beautiful heart tugging ballad, and “Something’s Going On” and “She’s My Girl” are equal to the best guitar pop being made by any of the young indie bands who have followed in the footprints of Sarah bands.
The final song “We Made A Mess” (from 2014’s “Beatitude #9” album) is a cool way to end the disc, looking back at the past ruefully and expecting better of oneself with maturity. Well that’s my view anyway, and I sympathise with the short and bittersweet lyric. Sure you could argue about what songs are missing, but disc one gives an overview of a band perfecting their art and maintaining it to a high standard over many years, and of course once you’re won over by these songs you’ll want to explore the back catalogue as soon as possible (hint – start with “Unholy Soul” and “The Lost Star”).
If Disc One is ideal for newcomers to the band (or a nice place to have some of the Orchids’ best songs in one place), then Disc Two is for the fans. It compiles together 18 rarities, demos, b sides and oddities, carefully constructed and organised in the same format as disc one. So it starts at the beginning again with “From This Day” from their first flexidisc and that was quite a revelation for me, because “From This Day” was slowed down considerably and extrapolated to become “Yawn”, that first Orchids song I heard back in 1990. And I never knew!
The second disc is full of treats and surprises like that. There’s glimpses of the creative process in progress – the demos of “It’s Only Obvious” and “Whitley Bay” show how a few small changes to phrasing words or changing keys can make all the difference. The acoustic version of “Welcome To My Curious Heart” may be better than the version on their third album, it’s more intimate and delicate. It’s great to have versions of songs recorded for Peel Sessions like “This Patience Is Mine” and “And When I Wake Up”, even if these are rough demos.
The tracks from their rebirth don’t disappoint either, starting with a live song recorded for Scottish radio before their fourth album was released, and a great cover of The Go-Betweens’ “Magic In Here” (the Go-Betweens were another band who had a wonderful second act of their career, just as the Orchids have).
Some of the demos (“One Last Cigarette” for instance) sound as good as real recordings, which shows how music technology has progressed in thirty years. The second disc closes with a brand new recording of “Underneath The Window, Underneath The Sink”, originally issued as their second single in 1988, a neat way to loop back to the start. It’s a lovely recording, everyone sounds older and wiser and the little tweaks to the arrangement (those violins!) work perfectly.
As we have come to expect from Cherry Red, the sound quality and packaging is exemplary. The booklet has fascinating sleeve notes from John Cavanagh and Ian Carmichael, full details of recording sessions for each song and pictures of memorabilia (nice to see the’ 91 tour postcard which Matt and Clare included in my first mail order package in May of that year).
All in all, this is a very attractive package which should appeal to a wide audience. If you’re interested in Sarah Records, this compilation will give you a taste of one of their finest bands. If you’re already a fan, this compilation will be a timely reminder of how great they are, plus a disc of rarities. The Orchids deserve their place in the pantheon of great Scottish music – a long list working backwards from Mogwai, Franz Ferdinand, Teenage Fanclub, through Orange Juice, Josef K, Simple Minds and back to the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and the Poets – and hopefully “Who Needs Tomorrow?” will secure their place in the hearts of many new fans, as well as pleasing old fans like myself.
Want to hear some of the loveliest guitar pop Scotland has to offer? Well this compilation is for you.
You can purchase the Orchids Retrospective via Cherry Red here including signed copies
You can also check out The Orchids at these places:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob writes about music and other less important subjects at his blog A Goldfish Called Regret (https://agoldfishcalledregret.wordpress.com) and also creates podcasts for Goldfish Radio (https://m.mixcloud.com/robmorgan589).
He never achieved his ambition of making a Sarah Record.
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