Obscure Gems

Some favourite albums I have picked up over the years have been fairly random – acquired through a friend’s influence, an article I might have read somewhere, or random browsing through a shop like Fopp. In my teens in particular I was very magpie-ish about music, trying to get a hold of as many albums as I could. (I was one of those guys who when visiting  friends for a weekend would come armed with a six-pack of blank C90 tapes, ready for copying anything good).  As I was saying earlier, younger readers might not be familiar with a world where music wasn’t available at the push of some buttons! Back then, even the biggest collections I knew were only of  a few hundred albums, and so acquiring more obscure stuff was a sometimes difficult task. (The music folder on my hard drive by comparison now comprises 132GB with 2722 albums – or as iTunes tells me, 306 artists, and 54.7 days of listening.) It took me months of searching before I found a copy of The Damned’s first album for example: my sister’s friend’s boyfriend have given me a copy on cassette which I adored, but it had broken. (He was quite the punk, and also gave me copies of In The City by The Jam and Rattus Norvegicus by The Stranglers – good guy!).

In those days, as I was saying, finding more obscure stuff was always difficult. I always read music magazines and wanted to find stuff that sounded good, but where the hell could you find The Melvins, Throbbing Gristle, Sonic Youth, Pantera, Kraftwerk or Primus? (I was born and bred a small-town lad, obviously). But fortunately the social network of pirated tapes was rich with many good albums quite beyond what you’d find in WH Smith or John fucking Menzies. Thus, some less well-known albums I’d like to recommend are:

1. Hate Songs in E-Minor by Fudge Tunnel

Awful band name, but this gem from a Nottingham band is one of the lost classics of British metal from the early 1990s. Massive, grinding guitars; huge, resounding drums; indistinct, shouted vocals: it’s kinda like “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath but MUCH ANGRIER. The two stand-out tracks are the title track, which has an outstanding sense of the old quiet/loud dynamic, and the alternate version of that song: it’s like an death-ambient track, the like of which I have never heard anywhere else. Both are utterly outstanding.

2. I Know Electrikboy by Thee Maddkatt Courtship

When I first went to university, I felt incredibly gauche and uncultured. (I expect everybody felt the same, but were better at hiding it than me). It’s not like I went to Oxbridge or, indeed, any of the Russell Group; it was just that I was young (only just 17), naive, a smalltown boy. One of the friends I made, though, seemed dazzlingly cultured in comparison: he was marvellously stylish, while I wore simple checked shirts, jeans and the fleece I’d bought for camping. Anyhoo, we got on well despite all that, and one evening he came by with a new album which he insisted I listen to. I liked it straight away, and popped in a C90 to copy it. I forgot to ask him who it was before he left, and so just wrote “FUCK KNOWS” on the tape. Though not generally a house music fan, I loved I Know Electrikboy, which to be fair is beatier than your average house track. Songs like “Zone 2 Nite” and “My Fellow Boppers” just resounded with a deliciously fat bass, while the middle track, the apex of the album, “Cosmic Pop” was just the sound of a euphoric ecstasy rush. The structure of it, rising from the overture “My Life Muzik” to “Cosmic Pop” then declining to more ambient textures was so clever, mirroring the ideal night clubbing and house-partying afterwards.

Later on, I found that two of the songs are on the film Human Traffic, during the clubbing scene; and some internet sleuthery eventually showed me who it was by: he’s better known as Felix Da Housecat.

3. Skylarking by XTC

One of those unfortunate groups more critically esteemed than popular, XTC are one of the great 80s pop groups; in the sense that The Beatles are a pop group, with intelligence, style and flair, not like Wham! or Bucks Fizz. Doomed to be one of the finest exponents of classic pop in an era when everyone else seemed to be trying to run away from it, XTC are unfortunately a bit hit-and-miss over the course of an album, but many of their individual songs are just blinding classics. Listen to “Senses Working Over Time” and try to tell me it’s not one of the best fucking songs ever! It’s just absolutely joyous. One album, though, does stand above others in XTC’s canon, and that’s Skylarking. Produced as a song-cycle even though there’s no thematic link, it’s simply a collection of killer pop songs in the best tradition of the word. Their b-side “Dear God” (an apposite exploration of disillusion with religion) was a surprise hit in the US, but my favourite tune on Skylarking is the wonderful “Earn Enough For Us”, a great song about work, love and maturity.

4. Copper Blue by Sugar

When Nirvana’s Nervermind went batshit crazy and the Seattle “sound” was everywhere, the music press was full of articles about their forebears such as The Pixies and Hüsker Dü. Bob Mould, the Hüsker’s lead guitarist and main source of poppy tunefulness and aggressive guitar, was held up as the John The Baptist to Nirvana’s Jesus H. Christ. He’d by then had a few minor solo albums, but in 1992 came out with Sugar, the ultimate power-pop trio.  Their first album Copper Blue was (I think) voted Album Of The Year by NME (not worth noting now, but NME back then was worth paying attention to), though it does suffer from a poor side 2. All the same, the first five songs are all stone cold classics. The opener, “The Way We Act”, has this amazing buzzsaw guitar, over which Mould repeatedly sings and solos in a dense brew of heady alternative rock. Just fucking brilliant.

5. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by The Incredible String Band

As you may have gathered, I am a huge Beatles fan, and consequently have read Revolution In The Head, an exegesis of their songs, god knows how many times – probably at least twenty. The author, Ian MacDonald, several times compares later-era Beatles to ISB, with their “exotic sweetness” and similar childhood ambivalence. Intrigued, I bought a copy of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter as it as the only one I could find: I would have preferred The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, just for its remarkable cover.

But it turned out that The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was actually the better album, one of the most psychedelic and dazzlingly inventive collections of music I have ever heard. From the child’s-eye reminisce “Koeeoaddi There” (“Hullo to the postman’s stubbly skin / Hullo to the  baker’s stubbly grin”) to the poetic/nonsensical “Witches Hat” (“If I were a witches hat / Sitting on her head like a paraffin stove”) to the hippy-dippy-trippy “Three Is A Green Crown” – I defy you to find a song more 60s, more psychedelic, more trippy, than that!

I could go on, but I’ll leave it up to you to offer up some of your own favourite obscurities!

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9 thoughts on “Obscure Gems

  1. I haven’t had a chance to sample all of these yet, but it is a fascinating collection.

    About six months ago I did a silly post on the albums I bought mainly because of their names.

    Perhaps my weirdest ever acquisition was an LP called Balalaika!, which I picked up in a bargain bin in Our Price in the late ’80s for, if memory serves, 50p. It was by a Russian Red Army band consisting of about 70 or 80 balalaikas, and nothing else. Mostly Russian folk tunes, but I think there were some Western pop covers in there as well.

  2. Related memory fragment: I was on a holiday in Crete in the early ’90s when I suddenly heard on the radio a cover of Eddy Grant’s Give Me Hope, Jo’hanna – played on massed bouzoukis.

    The world always manages to be stranger than we could have imagined.

  3. I’m not sure you can count Copper Blue as “obscure” if it was NME’s Album Of The Year!

    I think a lot of my obscurer stuff is probably EPs: the very long version of Money (though not the pink vinyl pressing, alas; apparently that’s worth a fortune to collectors), Eric Clapton’s mesmerising, bluesy soundtrack to the ’80s TV drama Edge Of Darkness, the Dead Kennedys’ In God We Trust, Inc. (which includes a brilliant version of the theme from Rawhide done at double speed!!), and The Pogues’ Poguetry In Motion (a fill-in effort when they were between labels for a year or two; it includes one of Shane’s most beautiful love songs, A Rainy Night In Soho – a song that has particular resonances for me because I’ve suffered far too many cold and wet nights in Soho myself, and without a Victoria Clarke to console me).

    Pick of the bunch, though – for obscurity, and oddity, if not necessarily for the music – is Star Fleet Project, a strange little solo release from Brian May. The title track is a rock version of the theme tune from a Japanese cartoon his kids were really into back in the early ’80s. That’s followed up by a song of his own that couldn’t find a home anywhere else. While I appreciated there were some interesting things going on in the guitar playing, I just couldn’t get into them, and abandoned that side of the record after 5 or 6 plays; Star Fleet, in particular, is just a really annoying tune. The thing is, he’d invited a bunch of top session guys over to his house to play this with him. And Eddie Van Halen!!

    And the B-side is a 12-minute blues jam. Now, that is worth listening to…

    • I know Copper Blue isn’t *that* obscure, but compare with other albums from 1992! I’ve never heard anyone else mention it (maybe that says more about my friends, heh-heh).

      I like your picks – that Dead Kennedy’s version of “Rawhide” must be brilliant! I can’t imagine anything by Brian May sounding different to everything else by Brian May, though. The jam (Eddie Van Halen on that too?), on the other hand…

      • Yes, Eddie was playing on the B-side as well. As far as I remember, that was just him and Brian. And it is rather different to ‘the sound’ he’s mainly known for with Queen.

        I suppose I could try to dig up some examples of some of these for you. Does WordPress support video embeds in the comments? Maybe it would make the page too bulky for quick download, anyway?

  4. I also have one of the solo albums from Roger Taylor of Queen, a mid-80s release called Strange Frontier. It was an impulse, bargain-bin buy that I wasn’t expecting much from, but it’s actually not bad (and he plays every part himself): particularly good covers of Springsteen’s Racing In The Street and Dylan’s Masters Of War.

  5. Strange Frontier is certainly a bit of a surprise, not bad at all (especially compared to some of the other band members’ solo efforts – looking at you here, Freddie).

  6. Some more album examples for you…

    World Record, Van der Graaf Generator
    I’m not much into prog rock, but these guys (discovered, like so much else, in the bargain bin when I was a student) got under my skin, and I collected most of their albums. This one is, I think, the best. Opening track When She Comes is a darkly obsessive anti-love song, long, complex, and unusually erudite in its lyrics (saying your girlfriend is “like something out of Blake or Burne-Jones” is going to go right over most people’s heads; I don’t think I got it the first time I heard it).

    Product, Brand X
    A late-70s electro-jazz project featuring Phil Collins, before his ego became a black hole. A very pleasant surprise. I seem to remember it was this album that had particularly amusing sleeve notes: e.g., saxophonist Raf Ravenscroft (who played on Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut) “in his spare time is a Battle of Britain fighter station”.

    Commercial Album, The Residents
    Surely the quirkiest of all quirky bands, and leading contenders in any funniest album name poll (Third Reich and Roll, Fingerprince). This was the only thing of theirs I bought, I think (a friend introduced me to them at college, and I mostly just listened to them round at his place). Interesting concept: 40 one-minute songs, accompanied by the suggestion that each one should be played three times back to back to create “a complete pop song”.

    Cal, Mark Knopfler
    The soundtrack album for an early Neil Jordan film about The Troubles, this draws heavily on traditional Irish melodies and instruments, and employs a couple of top Irish folk musicians, Paul Brady (mandolin) and Liam O’Flynn (uileann pipes). Though a little over-produced, it drips with the authentic melancholy of Gaelic folk music, and makes a great late-night mellow-out listen before bedtime. Later, a long CD was issued called Screenplaying, with highlights from this and some of Knopfler’s other film work (Local Hero, The Princess Bride, Last Exit To Brooklyn). This is all I’ve got now; I miss not having access to the complete album any more.

    Over The Top, Cozy Powell
    Debut solo album from the Rainbow drummer, with some very good stuff on it (Jack Bruce plays bass on most of it, but don’t let that put you off). Killer, with Gary Moore guesting on guitar, is particularly good. And the titular track that closes the album is an arrangement of the 1812 Overture for keyboards and drums – which is indecently good fun.

    Heavy Weather, Weather Report
    I don’t know that this quite counts as “obscure”, since Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s electronic jazz ensemble was a long-running and very highly regarded band, and this was the apex of their achievement, their biggest selling album. The opening track, the irresistibly sprightly Birdland, was a pretty regular ‘wake up’ song for me when I was an undergraduate (and another suggestion for your ‘best bass’ post – Jaco Pastorius!).

    Built To Destroy, Michael Schenker Group
    Again, MSG is probably not really “obscure”, but hardly mainstream either. This pick might suggest two other possible post ideas for you: Albums I Bought Just For The Cover (Schenker dementedly smashing his guitar over the rear windscreen of a Mercedes outside the stage door, while a slutty rock chick in the foreground looks on, trying not to be impressed); and Guitar Solos You Never Want To End (opening track Rock My Nights Away starts fading out just as he’s getting going!!!).

    • I think Weather Report are fairly obscure – I’ve never read anything about them in the music press (not that I read it these days), but you’re right about them being highly regarded. I have two of their albums, Black Market and Mysterious Traveller, and like them both a lot! MSG on the other hand were surely on of the biggest metal groups in the early 80s – I remember reading about them in Kerrang! magazine. Van Der Graaf Generator – I have one album by them, Pawn Hearts, and it really is unlistenable. Love the name though! The Residents sound interesting – must check that out.

      I have a deep loathing of the works of Bernard MacLaverty (writer of Cal), whose oh-so-SYMBOLIC use of Christianity and sub-sub-sub-Joycean allusions (the depth!) really gets on my tits, so I’ve never seen Cal. (Then again, I remember seeing the film Lamb (lamb of god – GEDDIT?) which was from a novel he wrote and that was deeply affecting. Maybe it’s just his prose style that annoys me).

      Thanks again for these epic replies. It’s great to get the conversation going.

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