Recently I’ve been listening again to the old albums made by the group Long Fin Killie in the 90s, and also the group Bows which the vocalist/writer Luke Sutherland formed afterwards. The last of these albums is now 20 years old.
None of these records had any commercial success, and I don’t even remember too much in the way of music press support either. They were released on the Too Pure label, who had the early albums by P.J.Harvey and Stereolab, and later on had Hefner, but LFK did not become a front page story in the chartbusting days of the mid 90s. They weren’t Britpop, but they were what Britpop should have been. Luke Sutherland’s lyrics wander around the experiences of racism and homophobia while the music puts percussion at the front and never lets the guitars be dominant (although they cut free in to blasts of noise when needed); jazz loops hover nearby. Some of these albums have hidden tracks at the end taking in a different style from what has come before, as the night time visions fade out in to early morning.
The settings of many of these songs are in coastal towns, where the narrator is observing or being confronted by thugs. “Unconscious Gangs Of Men” slowly and delicately builds up a portrait of the “hard as nails” man who “means every word” when he bellows out his bigoted aggression. We see these figures in close-up as well in “Homo Erectus”, struggling to “fit club feet into Nikes“, and Luke offers the advice to “cut your hair and use a little imagination“. “Heads Of Dead Surfers” has guest vocals from Mark.E.Smith, adding sneers on the state of the middle-aged men struggling to the beach. “The Lamberton Lamplighter” sounds like a copy of something off Seamonsters by The Wedding Present but is lyrically in another world.
We don’t always seem to be fixed in Britain, at least in the references used in framing these pictures. “(A) Man Ray” uses the artist as a label for a leering voyeur who boasts of a “flair for porno“. “Hollywood Gem” puts racist violence in terms of playing a role for the aggressors: “A song and dance for the same old bit part/ Total strangers ask me for a fight… Hollywood ruins another gem/ Another myth in melanin“. “Hollywood breaks another gem…” drifts off the conclusion, as the pattern will simply be repeated again and again.
“There’s no such thing as a so-called ’90s Man’/ It’s a myth, a lie, an utter fabrication” Luke declares in “Love Smothers Allergy”. In the main track “How I Blew It With Houdini” he summarises a failure to connect with one of the women in the background of these violent men: “Houdini popped up out of the blue/ She caught me on a Saturday/ She said-I’m looking for a sensitive intelligent man/ But all those guys have boyfriends/ So you’ll have to do for now.“
Musically a similar menu to its predecessor, but with a tightening of the sound, more attack and urgency on the guitar and more extreme imagery in the lyrics. We start with the quick choppy riff of “Godiva” that settles down once again in to a voyeur’s monologue with added topicality: “From the neck down: gleaming, photogenic/ Scrap the rest, dear, it doesn’t fit the frame/ You’ve a kit like a well-aimed Cantona/ Could win an Oscar, the trunk becomes the name.” In “Pele” the narrator is “still in the cupboard/ Because big women look much worse than big men/ And I’m a fifteen stone defender/ The clothes that I have stowed away/ Simply accentuate my weight“. Isolation amongst “the shell-suit craze” leads to the climactic declaration: “But I’m sick of headcase racist jibes/ Sick of deep-fried arteries“.
The title track is a story of attraction building to a violent reaction. “And this is why I wish I could be just like Spencer Tracy/ But I don’t have the build or the poise/ And I’m a few pounds shy/ If I were more like Spencer,/ I might not carry this handful of broken fingers/ Just cause I saw Valentino smoking under a streetlight” leading to: “He grabbed me by the hair and threw me down,/ Screaming, “I ought to fucking lynch you!.”/ He broke most of my fingers,/ Standing on my hands.” Violence condensed in to the image of machismo in “Matador”: “Matador thrown gored wide open/ A belly burst, flows full of wine/ Alcoholic flair for porno/ Kills the reflex every time/ Bloodsport, bondage, booze and babes/ Every inch a macho swine“.
The final LFK album changes the sleeve design away from the woodcut style used on earlier releases, and the music softens a little as well. The opening track “British Summertime” is a simple pop love song with lush orchestral backing, which could have been a hit if anyone had heard it on daytime radio. However normal standards of service are swiftly restored with the frantic claustrophobia of “Lipstick”, propelled by clattering drum and bass. In “Sugar Helping” Luke is getting tired of a more domestic existence: “I’ve heard all these stories before/ Just once is enough and they’re boring/ I can’t really take any more/ The rank of quick with and point-scoring.” Other stylistic changes come with the multi-tracking of vocals to create a semi-choral effect on “Ringer”, whilst “Yawning At Comets” goes in the other direction with a US indie rock sound that could have come from Pavement’s Wowee Zowee album. Altogether though the sound is getting more electronic, which is where Luke Sutherland went with his next group.
My old CD copy still has the sticky label of gushing press comments on it, which I probably didn’t remove because it would have too much mess and bother. I’m glad I didn’t as we have a record of how off-the-moment and tipped for success this release, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. Inside that old copy I also still have this little extra:
Luke Sutherland had put out his first novel by now, and there were more to come. Penguin still have an author page for him, although the title was published so long ago it was reviewed by the Independent On Sunday. I have not read any of these books.
Blush was a great album, plenty of it following on from lines laid down on Amelia. Big orchestral pop sounds boom out on tracks like “Big Wings” and now the vocals are mostly female, taken by Signe Heirup Wille-Jorgensen. There is plenty of in-studio experimentation with jokey samples and the spoof advert track “No. 4 Bows”. The key track feels like “Britannica”, as the lyrical concerns continue to be the state of marginal lives in the country, and the anxieties wound ever tighter. “Sleepless nights by candlelight/ I’m sick of sneaking round/ A kiss is a kiss but this is fake/ I spend all my time trying to stay awake/ But if I’m dreaming/ Why do you look so alive?” Tension increases to the final note of resignation: “And if I’ve been dreaming/ Why did it seem so contrived/ Up there with you/ Just feels like falling/ Well, at least we tried“.
“It’ll Be Half Time In England Soon” could be a title for a sardonic take on the country in the late 90s, but instead is a broody instrumental, a lost soundtrack for a national panorama. It serves as an introduction to the anti-Brief Encounter of “Girls Lips Glitter” :”U.S. coal costs too much money/ And takes up all my time/ British humour isn’t funny/ I’m just trying to catch your eye“. And finally “Sleepyhead” takes us to a place we’ve already seen in Houdini: “You’re right/ I just messed up again/ Last night a bridge too far/ You should have seen the lecherous beerguts and lush velveteen/ A compliment comes easy when you’ve lost all you have“, with the closing sigh: “Lurch like a loser/ No wit or charm or fight/ A ham fisted bruiser who’s the/ Wrong type“.
20 years old, the last of the sequence as I have it. The sound follows the template set on the previous album, and some of these tracks might well be from the earlier sessions. “Luftsang” is a close relative of “Big Wings”. Jingly piano lines predominate. A new departure is the strange pseudo-duet of “Ali 4 Onassis”, in which Luke reads lines attributed to Muhammed Ali (no attempt at a vocal impersonation): “It’s like rockets flaming all around you/ All my summers come at once/ TKO/ Mrs President you’ve floored me” and then switching to Jackie’s lines (also no impersonation): “My whole life was meant for this moment/ Cruising with you/ Out of Harlem/ And over the Turnpike“. “Hey Vegas” also shows we’re no longer anchored in the UK, this is an album finally escaping from the closed and fearful spaces of its predecessors.
In conclusion, all these records were great and should have clocked up 10 weeks in the top 10 album charts each, or at least as much as whatever Travis and Ocean Colour Scene did. They should be lashingly repackaged and reissued in the finest box set since the last Beatles thing. Or just listen to them on YouTube.