29 May 2007

The Wildhearts - P.H.U.Q.


EastWest, 1995


This was the first Wildies album I bought, back in 1995, in a small indie shop while on holiday in Wales. Naturally there was no CD player in the cottage, so I had to wait til I got home to get it listened. I’m pretty sure purchase of this album was preceded by liking the single ‘I Wanna Go Where the People Go’, as I was rather conservative back then and wouldn’t buy an album without a good reason (seriously. I waited until the release of ‘Lithium’ before getting Nevermind).

This was back when rock actually got on teen pop show Top of the Pops; indeed it was back when there was a Top of the Pops at all. Yes, back in this age, it would be no surprise to see The Almighty, Faith No More et al nestled between the stolid non-grooves of Britpop and whoever was the boy band du jour. In fact, I first heard Green Day on the show, but that probably tells you more about my ears distance from the ground than anything else. Otherwise, grunge was over, Britpop was in over here and Green Day and Offspring were the unit shifters in the States. There you go, Tom.

So, while I waited a week to actually listen to the thing, I spent a while looking at the packaging, which was pretty disturbing for an innocent kid like me. In fact, the whole thing seemed rather rude. There was the title (which then Radio 1 DJ Bruce Dickinson always mistakenly called ‘P.H.U.K.’ – still, he loved it. Pretty sure I heard ‘V Day’ on there), and the titles. I know I’m gonna seem like a real non-boy-of-the-world here, but I hadn’t got that many rock albums with swearing in their song titles. As a result, ‘Whoa Shit, You Got Through’ was pretty exciting and, even though I had no idea what it meant, ‘Cold Patootie Tango’ definitely sounded rude. It turns out I was right about that one. And that’s without going into the artwork that featured various grotesques of human faces and, my ‘favourite’, a drawing of a human lower body with a massive head and nose instead of genitalia. Yeah, that wasn’t disturbing at all.

What’s really weird is that, when I finally did get to listen to the album, I liked it far less than I ended up doing so; far less in fact than I do now. I knew it was good, and credible, and that I should like it but, for every anthemic ‘I Wanna Go Where the People Go’, there were more random bits of songs, or strange doom metal interludes. More on this stuff in a bit, but suffice it to say I wasn’t ready.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn this album reached number six in the UK charts, as the Wildhearts are one of those bands whose treatment at the hands of the majors really annoys me to this day. I remember they were actually part of the Sound City gig series that Radio 1 used to put on and, in-between songs, Ginger exhorted the crowd to buy the single and put them up there with the likes of Blur, Oasis and presumably Supergrass or something. And that’s what is really annoying about this album: it should have been absolutely massive; and I mean that about the Wildhearts even more than Kerbdog, because the former had such a knack for catchy, poppy choruses.

I’m not going to do a track by track rundown, because hopefully the Earth vs. The Wildhearts write-up gave you an idea of what the deal is with this band: heavy metal riffs played in a punk rock fashion with the catchiest pop imaginable sung over it. Not only was this approach pretty nearly perfected on this record, but the band branched out in other, slightly weird, directions. Speaking of weird directions, I suppose now would be the time to mention that the band originally wanted this to be a double album.

The Wildhearts were building quite the head of steam by this point (the single preceding the albums release charted at #16), but their label in its infinite wisdom demurred, suggesting this just be the single disc release. In hindsight it all worked out for the best, as the band got to work on the more far-out songs and released them in 1994 to the fan club as Fishing for Luckies (so we get two excellent albums rather than just the one). As I have the 1996 extended release of that record, I’m saving my look at it for after this is done. For those who hadn’t realised, I’m attempting something of a chronological album-based timeline for the band.

In terms of songs, I will mention the first one on the album, the aforementioned hit ‘I Wanna Go Where the People Go’. It seriously would not be hyperbole to suggest it’s a top ten calibre UK single of the nineties. It does everything right, from the teasing intro and massive kick-in to the swathes of glorious backing vocals, bang-on anthemic melodies, returns and sloppy guitar solos (sadly, Mick Ronson had died by this point). I mentioned in the last review that ‘TV Tan’ was the ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ of my imaginary parallel-universal meritocracy; this would be the ‘Wonderwall’, combined with the ‘Alright’ and probably also the ‘Parklife’. I’ll let songs like McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes’ (pre-Bridget Jones) and all Radiohead singles remain extant, because I’m nice like that.

I bang on about how certain band should have been big, but I can’t escape the feeling that, catchy pop songs notwithstanding, The Wildhearts were just too good to make it particularly big. And I don’t mean that in a bitter ‘you were too pure for this world’ kind of way, as I gently caress their still warm cadaver, but that this album evinces Ginger’s ostensibly inherent knack for turning off the mainstream.

Quite apart from the phallic faces of the packaging, or the fact that their big hit from the album features the line ‘I wanna be where the cunts like me are buried six feet underground’, there are the anomalous songs. Take ‘Baby Strange’, for instance. Yes, it’s catchy, if slightly misanthropic, but it lasts about a minute and ends pretty much halfway through a beat, at which point a real hit that never was, ‘Nita Nitro’ picks up the slack. How about the aforementioned ode to bad sex ‘Cold Patootie Tango’, which sounds like a direct cross between Metallica (down to the ‘Fight Fire with Fire’/’Battery’-style intro) and how Paradise Lost sounded at the time. Sure Pulp and Radiohead were intelligent bands operating at this time in the public glare, but they didn’t have doom metal songs on their albums.

Speaking of Paradise Lost, the majority of P.H.U.Q. employs the same producer that the Halifax gloomsters used on the same years very good Draconian Times, but to even better effect. I sometimes wonder about rock producers, as they are as subject to trend as their ‘electronic’ brethren. So I wonder what Simon Efemy is doing at the moment (as I have Colin Richardson, GGGarth and Andy Sneap in the past), because this is easily the best produced Wildhearts album thus far.

Changes in personnel had little discernable effect on the sound of this album, as Ginger wrote everything, but I shall mention those changes for the sake of completeness. Original members Ginger and Danny McCormack (bass player) remained from the last album, while drummer Stidi had been replaced by Ritch Battersby. The Other Guitarist role was traditionally filled by CJ, but he was turfed out, leaving the band as a trio until Mark Keds (who I originally thought was a woman - bottom right) filled the role for one single in the summer of 1995. The Kedsed-up roster was the Wildhearts I was particularly familiar with due to picking up an issue of Kerrap! magazine on the aforementioned holiday to Wales in the aforementioned summer of the aforementioned 1995. Before Keds, Canadian cult hero Devin Townsend had a cup of coffee with the band and, by the end of 1995, Jeff Streatfield was in place, where he would remain until the band split in late 1997/early ’98.

In terms of overall quality, I’d call this the second best Wildhearts album, but that might be something of a misnomer seeing as the one superior record of theirs was largely written at the same time as this. Still, separate albums they are, so second fiddle this is. Not that such a status is damning in any way, though: that other album (next up on the chronology fest) is absolutely elite leaving plenty of room for quality below.

I consider this album superior to Earth vs. The Wildhearts for numerous reasons, not least the night and day difference in the quality of production. There is greater consistency of quality here, with the Wildies blueprint reaching something of a zenith (certainly on tracks like ‘I Wanna Go…’, ‘Caprice’ and ‘Just in Lust’), married to the newfound sense of variety that led to ‘Baby Strange’ and ‘Cold Patootie Tango’ and spilled over onto their next release.

As the band matured, though, the overt aggression receded accordingly. So while the desire to rock was ever present, it never spilled over into the kind of thrash-influenced mania that songs such as ‘Caffeine Bomb’ and ‘Suckerpunch’ had conditioned fans to expect. In its place was, among other noises, an arguably cynical seam of ballads.

Most cynical, though not to say it wasn’t good, was the psyche-Britpop of ‘In Lily’s Garden’, a song actually mentioned on the hype sticker on the front of the case, but never actually released as a single (good one, East/West!). I’ll readily admit to not liking it for years – I used to just skip it when the jangly chords sounded – but it has grown on me despite its ostensibly cynical genesis (i.e. ‘this’ll be a hit’). In fact, I’d rather it was released and they got their cynical breakthrough hit, as deserved success would be an end justifying such means.

The other ballad was far better, and less of an attempt to capture the zeitgeist, as it was essentially a mid-nineties update of a power ballad: ‘Jonesing for Jones’. As the title indicates, the lyric compared the junkie’s yearning for drugs with the rent heart of the lovelorn. Weirdly (coincidentally?) it is one of two consecutive songs with fade-in intros, along with the closest thing to a ‘Suckerpunch’, titled ‘Whoa Shit, You Got Through’. Though my description may turn some off wanting to hear ‘Jonesing for Jones’, I can assure you that it is a piece of quite exquisite quality, albeit with the sentimentality turned up to full (perhaps moreso for me, as I had my own 'jones' for a Jones back in '95). Nevertheless, it is emotive in the best sense of the word, and a definite highlight of the album.

Of course, some of the songs are not as successful as others. In addition to ‘In Lily’s Garden’, ‘Naivety Play’ is a very competent tune that never threatens greatness. Similar is ‘Be My Drug’, which is largely uneventful save for a presumably unintentional, though dead-on, impression of Therapy?’s Andy Cairns during the chorus.

As with too many albums, these songs fall in the second half, though they are thankfully book-ended by quality. Preceding them is another high point of the album, the excellent ‘Caprice’ (named well prior to the rise of the ‘celebrity’/’model’ of the same name) and energetic closer ‘Getting It’. The latter is followed by the mock-old fashioned sing-along, the untitled but sorta named ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me’, while the former is one of many rhythm based songs on the album – surely something of an anomaly for melodic rock bands – along with ‘Nita Nitro’ and ‘V Day’. In fact, it is this marriage of melodic and rhythmic hooks that imbues the album with such clear songwriting strength.

I was hoping to go into greater detail on the lyrics and musical composition, but two thousand words is probably enough. Besides, I can save that for the next – and both more deserving and musically intriguing – album; the magnum opus, as far as I’m concerned…

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