The Fire Engines, Candy Skin (1981)


Artist: The Fire Engines
Title: Candy Skin
Description: single
Label: Pop:Aural
Release date: 1981
First heard: 1981

I wrote at great length about “indie” for the mighty – and mightily missed – Word magazine in 2006. They headlined the piece, with typical panache, Wan Love. By “indie”, I meant that multifarious music which sprang forth from the bowels of punk, taking with it the rigid-digit spirit, but pressing that attitude not just into the noise it made, but the means of production by which it distributed that noise. In 2006, I reluctantly wrote indie’s obituary, as its DIY ethic had long since flown the nest, replaced by a cuckoo of workaday guitar and major label largesse disguised as something “edgy”.

In 1981, indie – the abbreviation not really yet in common circulation (I can’t have been the only young person convinced that the “Indies” chart published initially in Sounds pertained to music from the West Indies) – meant something. It meant The Fire Engines. It meant Pop:Aural, a subsidiary of Fast Product. It meant Bob Last and Hillary Morrison, who founded Fast Product and ran it from a tenement flat. It meant Candy Skin.

The scratchy, discordant, Marxist sounds that emanated on Warholian waves from punk-energised cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow and – in the case of the Fire Engines – Edinburgh, did not necessarily seek to destroy, but to enhance, to romanticise, to drag out of the gutter and aim somewhere higher and more intellectual. Led by Davy Henderson – a handsome, windswept, literate pop star who never was, but ought to have been (trading as Win he even had a song used on a McEwan’s lager ad) – the Fire Engines epitomised a movement, especially north of the Wall, whose cultural glue was civic, even economic (the recording of the Fire Engines’ debut is fabled to have cost £46). That such sweet, romantic music arose from dirty urban centres should not surprise archaeologists of Detroit.

The Edinburgh scene also produced the Scars, Josef K, the Flowers, the Rezillos, Shake (I seem to recall), the Prats and Boots For Dancing. I have chosen The Fire Engines to represent the clan, as Candy Skin has never stopped resonating in my heart since I first heard it on John Peel in the earliest 80s. In 1988, as the new kid in the NME art room, I was asked to design and illustrate the paper’s latest compilation cassette, Indie City. Candy Skin nestled on Side 1 between Blue Boy by Glasgow compatriots Orange Juice and Never Been In A Riot by the Mekons (the first ever release on Fast, which actually specialised in Northern English in its early years). I can claim no credit for the intuitive brilliance of the track listing, but Candy Skin was a constant highlight when mainlining that double-cassette with a surfboarding Noddy on the inlay card.

There are a number of sounds which historians should take note of. Chief among them, the lead guitar, which stitches into this ramshackle tapestry one of the great riffs of the new dawn. It defies “scratchy”, and “angular”, and affects something closer to “tingly”. It tingles. A goosebumping ostinato that crystalises everything about 1981 in one electrifying, melodic phrase, augmented thereafter by an entire jumble sale of bashes, squeaks, voices, vibrations and even chocolate box strings, which unite to attain a certain kind of DIY nirvana. Henderson’s deep quasi-croon speaks of a soulful, sometimes operatic ambition that also gave us Billy Mackenzie, Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame. The sound of young Scotland, indeed.

In February 2006, a trigger for my Word treatise, I’d been for a haircut at Toni & Guy in a market town in Surrey, and asked Mel, the name of my young stylist, to take plenty off the back and sides, thin it out on top, hack me out a side parting and leave me a heavy fringe, enough to cover one eyebrow. She commented, “This haircut’s quite fashionable. A lot of the indie bands have this.” RIP indie. Long live the Fire Engines.

The Rakes, We Are All Animals (2005)


Artist: The Rakes
Title: We Are All Animals
Description: album track, from Capture/Release
Label: V2
Release date: 2005
First heard: 2005

My abiding memory of The Rakes is of telling someone off at Alexandra Palace. The London four-piece were supporting Franz Ferdinand – whose jerky art-rock style they shared – at the cavernous barn, and the gig seemed to epitomise what was suddenly right about British guitar music, as the gloomier Editors were also on the bill. I’ve looked it up and it was December 1, so something valedictory about a better year was in the air.

The Rakes had caught my ear with 22 Grand Job the year before, a calling-card song if ever I’d heard one, singer Alan Donohoe’s lyrics almost impenetrable but you got the idea (“22 grand job, in the City, it’s alright”), and you sensed something very local, very contemporary, very British, and keenly if dissentingly observed. Their debut album, Capture/Release, chimed with the post-punk revival being felt from Franz and Editors to all those New York bands we had to beat. You sense that a lot of angular young men were signed up in Franz Ferdinand’s refreshing, strident wake, especially after their Mercury in 2004 for the triple-platinum debut. The Rakes never quite rode the wave, although I still rate Capture/Release. It was as characterful as Donohoe’s Ian Curtis-like dancing.

We went “down the front” to experience his stagecraft close-up, and it was there that much younger, drunker consumers starting bashing into us. It was not a mosh pit, but an element wished to start one, and having been almost knocked off my feet more than once by the same youngsters, I felt the need to have a word. It was probably inappropriate of me, but it was my fortieth year, and I really, really wanted to enjoy The Rakes.

We Are All Animals remains a defining song: built around a bass/drum skeleton that recalls a marginally funkier She’s Lost Control, Donohoe’s staccato, near-spoken vocal invokes Darwinian theory (“We – are – all – ani-mals – who have lost our hair/Re-tained – some of our teeth and gained – a – choice”), the God delusion and the Pandora’s Box of self-actualisation. All this academia fuzzed-up by guitar that crawls over the chorus like tuneful interference, abetted by a brazen use of the keyboard’s “choral” effect adding cheeky portent. This last conceit recalls the theme tune to quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire as much as Carmina Burana by Carl Orff.

This is catchy stuff, with witty lines that stay in the mind, but you can’t walk off into the night chanting its riff like an anthem by Kasabian (or, for that matter, Editors), as it sort of doesn’t have one. It might have been a hit otherwise. It wasn’t even a single, and that’s worth stating, as V2 pulled five off the album, Thriller style, in search of a breakthrough – if you count All Too Human, which was added later. The Rakes never even cracked the Top 20, while Editors reissued everything until they went Top 10.

As fiery as the Fire Engines or Josef K, but with the added oomph we might credit to the crisp, modulated production of future Adele genius Paul Epworth, something told me that The Rakes were into something good on this album, and particularly on this track, where lines like that have no place in a pop song, like, “biologists and chemists reducing our souls to four letters” and “we’re like a masterpiece that’s glimpsed the artist,” play with your brain while messing with your feet.

If the passing brilliance of The Rakes can be reduced down to a single instance, it’s the way Donohoe pronounces “gorillas” in the line, “chimps or gorillas” as “grillers.” I loved him for for it.

After that, it would be frustrating to follow The Rakes’ progress. But they made their mark on me at a vital moment and I love them for that, too. Within a year, I’d be back down the front at Arctic Monkeys gigs at home and abroad, this time facing up to my mid-life crisis by pushing into other people, young and old. We were all animals, after all.