Best tunes of 1991: #8 The Wonder Stuff “Welcome to the cheap seats”

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Last week I posted how I discovered the Levellers and the song at number nine on this list (“One way”), all because they had been compared to The Wonder Stuff, and this week, at number eight, we have the band themselves and their hit single “Welcome to the cheap seats”.

It was my friend Elliott that introduced me to The Wonder Stuff, having loaned me their debut CD, “The eight legged groove machine”, a few years after it was released in 1988. There was something about it I connected with (more on that another time) and when I learned they had a more recent album to explore, I jumped on it. I brought “Never loved Elvis” home on cassette and immediately after popping it in my stereo, I noted the striking difference in sound from the debut. Instead of short, peppy, and snarling post-punk, we had fiddle-laden folk-rock but yeah, okay, it was still short and peppy and still had its snarling moments. And did I still love it? Oh yes.

I later learned that the change wasn’t as abrupt as all that but an evolution of sorts when I picked up their sophomore, ‘transition’ album “Hup”. The original four piece of Miles Hunt, Malc Treece, Martin Gilks, and Rob “The bass thing” Jones had become five by the third album, after “The bass thing” had left for America after the sophomore, was replaced by Paul Clifford and they added fiddler and multi-instrumentalist Martin Bell. The Wonder Stuff released four albums in total during their original run before splitting up in 1994. I distinctly remember where I was when I heard the news: out camping with the boys, taking down a dead tree with a dull axe and when my friend Tim arrived with the news, it came down post haste. (And it had a few extra hacks in it for good measure.) They have since reformed, dissolved again, and the name resurrected by frontman Miles with a different set of musicians.

But back to 1991 and “Welcome to the cheap seats” – “where your life’s seen through cracked spectacles.”

It’s brief and upbeat but old-school sounding, like a sped-up waltz, filled with anachronisms and metamusic – it’s what me and my English lit friends in university might have pretentiously termed ‘pre-neo-anti-post-postmodernist’. If you’ve seen the official video (sadly, I don’t have it below), you’d have seen the band dressed in pseudo-Victorian garb, playing their instruments and dancing about an absurd and surrealist set. You’d also have noticed (and if you had a keen ear, you might noticed anyway) that that is Kirsty MacColl singing backup, lending her lilting vocals as she has with many an artist, most notably, Morrissey, Billy Bragg, and The Pogues. And there’s another guest musician on the song, adding her accordion to the already folk-laden palette: none other than Spriit of the West’s Linda McRae.

So you see why I love this tune yet? Enjoy.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2001: #4 Cake “Short skirt/long jacket”

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I can’t remember exactly how it came to be and at what points but for periods during our first years in Ottawa, Victoria’s mother loaned us one of her cars, a green cavalier. It had a tape deck in it but I only drove it to work irregularly so I rarely had tapes in the car. Thus, those early years here was probably one of the last periods in which I listened to the radio with any regularity. It didn’t take long before I found the city’s alternative rock station, which at the time was X FM (101.1, I think), and I likely found it with this particular song, Cake’s “Short skirt/long jacket”. Why do I think that? Because I feel like it was played on every morning that I commuted into the Enbridge call centre, my job at the time.

Cake is definitely one of those bands whose sound makes it easy to identify them. Ever since I first discovered the band with their raucous cover of “I will survive”, it never mattered if it was a song I had never heard before, whenever I came across something on the radio, whether at work, in the car, or in a store, I would smile and stop to listen to the rest. There’s always a heavy focus on the beat and a funky bass line, we usually get an explosion of trumpet, a rarity in rock music, and frontman John McCrea’s deep and deadpan sing/speak vocals. I loved all their singles through the latter part of the 90s but it wasn’t until this particular song that I finally declared myself a fan and went out to get one of their albums: “Comfort eagle”.

“Short skirt/long jacket” was the first single to be released off said album. It is the best of Cake, starting with that blare of trumpet, danceable drums and jumping bass, the rattle of vibraslap and regimented backing vocals. And John McCrea reading off a shopping list of attributes that he seemingly wants in girl but as the list gets longer, the girl gets more and more unattainable. This seems to be more the message to me: wants and desires and how they are always changing, making it all so impossible.

“She’s changing her name
From Kitty to Karen
She’s trading her MG for a white Chrysler LeBaron
I want a girl with a short skirt and a long jacket.”

Fittingly, this was their final song of the night, the first and only time I saw them live, a few years ago at Toronto Urban Roots Festival, having invited Toronto’s Choir! Choir! Choir! up on stage with them, making the song a riotous party, and in the process, I think, making fans of my concert buddies Tim and Mark, as well as everyone else in the audience.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2001 list, click here.

Best tunes of 1991: #9 Levellers “One way”

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As I’ve already mentioned a million times in posts for this series, I was an avid, perhaps even rabid watcher of MuchMusic’s CityLimits on Friday nights. On one of those nights, the host at the time, Simon Evans, introduced the next video up as one by the Levellers, likening them to The Wonder Stuff, and then, played “One way”. Hearing the comparison to my undisputed favourite band in those days, I got up to press the “Play” and “Record” buttons on the VCR to be able to watch the video again later. And so started my love affair with the Levellers.

On the back of that one video and the countless times I rewound and rewatched it, I went out to purchase “Levelling the land” in short order and that cassette spent a lot more time being shuffled between my Walkman and my bedroom stereo than it did in its case. Little did I know in those days before the internet that this was the group’s second album, that they had formed three years earlier, and that they had already amassed a cult following of ‘travellers’ that travelled (for want of a better verb) with them all across England to attend their shows. Their popularity grew further with this album and the next, 1993’s self-titled full-length, to the point that they were considered the biggest indie band in the country, culminating in a massive headline set at Glastonbury to an audience topping 300,000.

This was all unbeknownst to me, of course. For my part, I later purchased “Levellers” on CD and had procured tickets to see their Toronto stop on the tour in support of it but unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Perhaps it was poor ticket sales or perhaps something else, but the show was cancelled and my $10 ticket refunded. I would finally get to see the band a number of years later, a decade after the release of “Levelling the land”, with my wife Victoria, whom I had, of course, indoctrinated to the album’s greatness. It was an acoustic show at Lee’s Palace, a mid-sized club venue and I particularly remember the guy behind me, probably from England, being so shocked at seeing the band play such a small venue, given how huge they were in their native country. That particular show has gone down as one of Victoria’s favourite shows, mostly due to the size, the intimate feel, the band’s energy, and the fact that she knew so many of the songs and could sing along with them.

“There’s only one way of life and that’s your own”

So “One way” was my introduction to the Levellers and to this day is likely still my favourite by the group. Does it sound like The Wonder Stuff? I guess… if I had to stretch things. It has that folk punk thing going for it, more punk than folk on this tune, especially when compared with other songs on the album. It has muscular bass and roaring guitars. It has funky drumming, popular around this time due to the acid house scene. It has screaming fiddles that play throughout, holding court, and pulling things all together. It has Mark Chadwick’s fresh-faced and jaded though hopeful vocals. It has the moral high ground and teen angst. And it has that anthemic chorus line that is filled with conviction and motivation.

Yeah, it’s great. Let’s rewind it and play it again.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.