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 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.

Best tunes of 1991: #10 Rheostatics “Record body count”

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At the tail end of 1999, I was just over a year into my first full time, post-university job. As my wife Victoria will tell you, I often just happen into things and my work at the time was in tool rentals, a full time gig that came out of a part time job I found while my university professors were on strike near the end of my program. I went through a management training program and I was at my second store after the training, just before getting my own store the following spring. The Merton Street location was one of Stephenson’s Rent-all’s busiest stores at that time, servicing both uptown and downtown, north of Bloor and south of Eglinton. I often worked with a guy, perhaps a few years older than myself, named Chris and we shared similar tastes in music. We often talked about who we were listening to at the time and discovered new music through each other. (It was he who originally put me on to The Waterboys.) We also ensured that the radio in the store was always set to the Alternative station EDGE 102.1 while we were working, overruling with majority votes the other employees that wanted the dance or hard rock stations.

In December of that last year of the 1990s, EDGE put together its second list of the best 1002 songs ever and broadcast it over the course of a few days. I was of two minds about it at the time. I found it a shame that they were for all purposes erasing an amazing list that they had broadcast 8 years earlier in 1991 and replacing it with one made up mostly of 90s tunes, the original number one by The Smiths became second fiddle to Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”. On the other hand, it was the best few days in radio I had heard years and haven’t heard since.

Rheostatics’ 1991 single “Record body count” hit the chart early on at the 960 spot and I distinctly remember Chris getting all excited. He was all over himself explaining how he went to the same high school as members of the band in Etobicoke, Ontario and how the song is about their experiences while attending the school, whose name I no longer remember.

For those outside of Canada and who might have never heard of Rheostatics, they were a four-piece that formed in 1978 when its member were all still teenagers, and yes, in Etobicoke, a community now part of the amalgamated Toronto. They developed a cult following through the 1980s and into the 1990s and they have long since become an iconic Canadian band, despite never following the traditional rock band route, their only ever top 40 hit being “Claire” in 1995. They took their place alongside The Tragically Hip, 54.40, and Sloan, having played the game their own way, mostly on the back of their live shows.

“Record body count” is quite possibly my favourite by the band. It is very short at less than two minutes and could almost be considered a pop song when compared with the rest of their body of work but if you listen to it, you know that’s far from true. It’s weird sounding, definitely unconventional, and with a jarring rhythm and bass line, reminding me a little of Primus. The lyrics are serious but not, seemingly about a young person’s first experiences with death, suicide to be specific. It was easy to identify with it, though, when I first heard it as a teenager and still feels relevant and true today.

Wow. That’s a lot of words for such a short song. Let me just close with this:

“There’s a record body count this year.”

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