There are two types of Low Anthem song. The first type is slow, quiet, tender, wistful, maybe somewhat dark, and quite possibly in waltz time. It may feature close-part harmonies: not a million miles removed from Fleet Foxes in tone (the two acts share a label in the UK), but less angelic and more earthy. It will sound as if it could have been written several generations ago. The second type is louder, rougher, raspier, bluesier and more insistent, possibly evoking comparisons with Bob Dylan or Tom Waits.
On the band’s breakthrough album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, both types intermingle freely – but during the course of the Rhode Island four-piece’s hundred minute set at the Rescue Rooms, the latter type was shunted to a supporting role, mostly confined to the second half of the first hour. As much of the set featured material from a forthcoming third album, we can assume that the Low Anthem are taking the quieter road, at least for now.
There are, however, an infinite number of ways to play a Low Anthem song. The instrumental line-up shifted radically from track to track, as each band member traversed the stage and picked up something which they hadn’t played before: a stand-up bass, a cornet, a clarinet, a “singing saw”. An ancient field organ featured heavily, as did a set of antique cymbals that were sometimes stroked with a bow.
Bathed in red light and dressed in well-worn layers of cloth, the players looked as if they had stepped out of a nineteenth century daguerreotype, found in a dusty box at the back of an antique store. Their almost total lack of conversation added to the mystique. Lead singer Ben Knox Miller sported a Sherlock-style deerstalker, while Jeff Prystowsky wore a flat cap that had most likely been fashioned from a feed sack. Mat Davidson’s Grizzly Adams beard hid a sweet and sonorous voice (which we could have done with hearing more of), while the band’s sole female member Jocie Adams maintained a sombre, austere, slightly vexed presence throughout.
Although exquisitely played, in a manner which held the audience rapt and spellbound throughout (you could see why this band had received this year’s Breakthrough Act award from Mojo magazine), the songs did rather fall short on direct emotional engagement – with the notable exception of an arresting new country ballad, I’ll Take Out Your Ashes, which was dedicated to a friend of the band. If the Low Anthem could rein in their more reverentially antiquarian leanings, and allow themselves a few more moments of raw intimacy, they could be a greater band still.
For such a youthful band, Avi Buffalo draw a remarkably mature audience. Not that this seemed particularly apparent to the players: “Is this a college town?” asked 19 year-old band leader Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg towards the end of the set, seemingly oblivious to the fact that many of us were over twice his age.
For some of the older punters, perhaps it was the band’s label – Sub Pop, still best known for signing Nirvana and breaking the Seattle grunge sound – that first piqued their curiosity. However, the Californian trio’s influences stretch back even further, suggesting a familiarity with Sixties West Coast psychedelia and folk-rock, filtered through the likes of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and bearing occasional traces of Seventies prog.
Following the recent departure of keyboardist Rebecca Coleman, whose relationship with Zahner-Isenberg (better known to his friends as “Avi”) reportedly inspired much of the band’s self-titled debut album, there has been a certain toughening up of Avi Buffalo’s sound. Played live, their songs had a habit of starting gently, before building to intense instrumental codas that brought Avi’s fine, fluid and richly inventive guitar playing to the forefront.
Although this could have become self-indulgent, his flights of fancy were kept in check by Arin Fazio’s deceptively undemonstrative bass runs, and by Sheridan Riley’s loose-limbed, contemplative, almost quizzical drumming, which quelled the urge to turn every climax into a showy freakout. On previous nights, perhaps the balance between control and excess had been struck differently – but for their final British date, a sense of easy-going playfulness prevailed.
“We feel like being silly tonight”, explained Avi, flashing us a goofy grin. For his solo encore, a self-proclaimed “work in progress” called Sleep On The Floor with a wholly improvised ending, his free-form guitar experimentations threatened to become very silly indeed – and yet there was still something thrilling and magical about the way that he coaxed such arrestingly new sounds out of such a familiar instrument.
“We like old things that still feel new – like cool grandparents”, he had told us earlier, introducing one of several new songs. Perhaps it was this mix of tradition and innovation that lay at the heart of Avi Buffalo’s appeal.
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.
If someone asked you to name ten pop hits of 1980s, straight off the top of your head, you might list the biggest songs of that decade: Tainted Love, Don’t You Want Me, Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Karma Chameleon, Relax, maybe something by Madonna or Michael Jackson. But how quickly would you recall Martika’s Toy Soldiers, or Brother Beyond’s The Hardest I Try, or Climie Fisher’s Love Changes Everything? All were major hits in their day, but you’ll rarely hear them on the radio, or on the playlists of Eighties retro nights.
Frustrated by this narrowing of the Eighties pop canon, Nottingham writer Nick Parkhouse is now seeking to restore the reputations of some of these less remembered hits, as documented in his new book 101 Forgotten Pop Hits of the 1980s.
What inspired you to put this book together in the first place?
I was out in London with a fellow who I’d never met. We ended up in a pub, and we were chatting about pop music in general. We got onto the Eighties, I’d had a few drinks, and I was eulogising. He called me “the Louis Theroux of Eighties pop” and said “You should write a book about this”.
So I started doing a bit of research. A friend and I came up with a list of songs, but then it wasn’t really getting very far. I’d done a couple of chapters and it was all a bit “what does Wikipedia say” and “what can I find out on the artists’ websites”. It was a bit dull.
I was researching a chapter, and I came upon an e-mail address for Nathan Moore, the lead singer of Brother Beyond. I thought “OK, nothing ventured”, so I pressed the link. Within a couple of hours, I got an e-mail back, saying: brilliant, happy to help, here’s my phone number. I spoke to him a few days later, and he gave me loads of great stories.
So I thought: OK, we’re a 101th of the way there. I got a bit of momentum going, and I just started pinging e-mails to people, left right and centre. I could almost count on one hand the people who said no, but maybe three or four people got slightly haughty.
There were a couple of, as Buzzcocks would say, “very much still in the music industry today” replies. Then I got two or three e-mails back from people getting very stroppy, saying “Our song’s not forgotten! It gets lots of airplay, so we don’t want to participate in this.”
I might press you to name a name.
I tell you what – I am going to name a name, because they were really rude in their e-mail: The Bangles. And Shakin’ Stevens, of all people. I thought he would be nice! You’d think he would be a gent, but he was very dismissive.
You call the book 101 Forgotten Pop Hits of the 1980s, but the term “forgotten” is a relative concept. How would you define it?
There are two criteria, really. There’s the forgotten-ness, and there’s the pop-ness. The pop-ness was quite shamelessly arbitrary, as to what constituted a pop record and what didn’t. I tried to exclude anything that was pop-rock – that Huey Lewis type thing – and anything that was pop-dance, and anything that was pop-novelty, like Star Trekkin’ and Russ Abbott’s Atmosphere. They are quite good pop records, but they’re just a little bit too kitsch.
When we were initially writing the list, the big one that we had trouble with was Dennis Waterman’s I Could Be So Good For You. We really couldn’t decide whether that was pop, or whether it was not.
As for “forgotten”: when I’ve done bits of radio in the past, I love playing a record where people will go “oh, I haven’t heard this for ages”. But there’s a fine line between that and playing a record that people have absolutely no recollection of whatsoever. So it’s trying to walk that tightrope between stuff that if you give people a nudge, they’ll think “ah yeah, I think I vaguely remember that”, but not something that got to Number 38 in 1981 for a week. There are only a couple of records which never made the Top Ten, and I think there are eight Number Ones, so it’s not totally obscure.
You say that you’ve been to a lot of Eighties nights, where what constitutes an Eighties hit has been narrowed down to a tiny playlist, to the exclusion of everything else.
You’ll hear, for example, Relax. You won’t ever hear Welcome To The Pleasuredome, or Rage Hard. You’ll hear Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, but you won’t hear Freedom or The Edge Of Heaven. It doesn’t take much to play a different record by a great artist, but people don’t.
If anything, your list is slightly weighted towards hits from the second half of the decade. With the cycle of revivalism, things go through a period of being completely uncool and “why did we ever like that?” Then they get revered again as classics. The first half of the Eighties, I would say, is now home and dry. You had all the pop revivalists of last year referencing synthpop, so anything from Blondie to Frankie Goes To Hollywood is now OK. Anything beyond that is still regarded as being beyond the pale. So I was quite interested that you are describing a world where there is no shame in liking Climie Fisher, or Living In A Box, or Johnny Hates Jazz. Is there a part of you that wants to rep for that period in pop?
I got my first cassette player around 1984. At the age of eleven or twelve, when you start going out to Woolworths and buying stuff, that was around 1986. Had I come up with a list of 101 of my favourite records, the vast majority would have been from that second half. So I did find myself changing the list, to try and weight it backwards.
But I think you’re right: the revivalist stuff that has been on the telly is all early Eighties. It’s Human League and Heaven 17 and Boy George, that sort of thing. With Stock Aitken Waterman, I’m still not sure. The early Eighties are probably over-represented at an Eighties night. You probably hear a lot more Frankie and Wham! than you do Rick Astley.
Everyone from Lady GaGa to Friendly Fires, they all name-check the early Eighties. The late Eighties still seems a bit naff. I don’t think there’s anybody out saying “oh yeah, we’re influenced by Danny Wilson and Johnny Hates Jazz”.
Is it to do with the claims that the artists made for their own music? The early Eighties lot will go: “This is Art. I just happen to be using pop music as my medium at the moment. I am deeply serious about what I do.” They all had manifestos, and they had a complete look and a complete image. You can’t really say the same for Climie Fisher and Living In A Box. They didn’t make any grand claims. There was no Climie Fisher manifesto. It’s tougher for people to get nostalgic about, because you haven’t got that hook.
If you said “Nik Kershaw” to somebody, they’ll maybe name you a song, but they’ll talk about his hair, and his fingerless gloves, and his snood, and his daft videos. But if you say “Living In A Box”, you couldn’t pick them out at an identity parade. You might remember the song, but that was the beginning and the end of it. And I think that’s a real shame. The records are as good, but perhaps they don’t have that kind of peripheral influence.
Do you like every record in the book?
Broadly, yes. The whole thing is supposed to be quite passionate, quite sympathetic and affectionate, and I would have found it difficult to include a record that I didn’t really like. There are some that I don’t really care for; Physical by Olivia Newton John is probably my least favourite.
Of all the people you interviewed, who was the best value?
As strange it sounds, I owe quite a bit to the guys from Johnny Hates Jazz. They were some of the first people that I interviewed, when they were playing the Here And Now arena tour. They got us backstage in Nottingham and in Birmingham, so I got to meet some of the other people that were touring with them, like Paul Young and Bananarama.
From a personal point of view, it was interviewing Pal from a-ha about the Bond theme that they did for The Living Daylights. The whole idea of chatting to one of a-ha about James Bond: there was just something a little bit magical about that.
Did you learn any surprising facts along the way?
It sounds terribly macabre, but it was learning how quite a lot of these people are dead. I kept coming across people to interview, like Laura Branigan and the London Boys, and doing a bit of research, and finding out that they were dead.
The other interesting thing that I learned is that the six degrees of separation in Eighties pop music is much lower than you think it is. Everybody seems to know almost everybody. I interviewed Nick Beggs out of Kajagoogoo, and he said “I can help you with this, who else have you got?” I reeled off a few names and he said “Well, I play keyboards for Kim Wilde’s live shows, so here’s her manager’s phone number. Get cracking and tell him that Nick sent you. Oh, and I do work with Howard Jones, here’s his manager’s number.” So it’s a much smaller society than I had ever envisaged.
With Edelweiss, I was really struggling. They basically had the one record. They came and went, so I couldn’t really find anything out. I eventually found the name of the bloke behind Edelweiss: this Austrian fellow called Walter Wezowa. I rang him one day, and it turns out that he wrote the Intel “bong”, which is played once in the world every five seconds or something ludicrous like that.
His royalty cheques must be enormous.
They must be immense. For five notes? It’s mad! And then there was Glenn Medeiros: how lost in showbiz must he have been, at the point where he called his kids Chord and Lyric?
Did you manage to unearth much in the way of local connections?
Just one: Su Pollard. She was kept off Number One by Billy Ocean’s When The Going Gets Tough – which is a great record, to be fair. Su Pollard was fantastic, actually. I ended up having to write to her, in the old fashioned way, because there was no e-mail on her website. She left an answer phone message which I’ve kept to this day, which sounds like her auditioning to do the Tannoy at Maplins. It goes on for hours, God love her.
I eventually did a phone interview with her. The nicest woman in the world, but you do end up with the phone sort of… over here. I invited her to the launch, because I thought: she’s local, she might come. Then I was out one morning and my wife got her for about half an hour, going “I’m sorry I can’t come, I’m in Spain for my sister’s birthday, I’d love to come, if it had been another day”, and so on. She has been a very staunch supporter, our Su. I won’t hear a bad word.
But you did unearth one other Nottingham connection, I think.
Oh, Spagna. The video was filmed at Ritzy’s.
That shocked me. We never knew!
I think it was filmed partly in Belvoir Castle, and the rest of it is in Ritzy’s in Nottingham. I’ve absolutely no idea why. It had already been a huge hit in Europe, so why they had to make another video for the UK market, I’m not really sure.
She did supply what I think might be the best quote in the entire book.
It was from Smash Hits magazine. They used to say that she had a “fright wig”, with her huge blonde hair. And she said, “Ees not fright wig. Ees real hair.” Still very much working in the industry today! She’s gone back to “Ivana Spagna” now.
That’s much more classy. If you had to consign all but one of these forgotten pop hits to The Dumper in perpetuity, which one would you keep?
If it was for the human race, I’d keep Gold by Spandau Ballet. Gold doesn’t really count, because it’s the least forgotten. But I love Spandau Ballet, and I’ve been very lucky to meet Tony Hadley a couple of times, so I thought I’d better put one in. And it is one of the greatest records ever, isn’t it? But for me personally, I’d probably keep Climie Fisher’s Love Changes Everything.
I have gone back to this record several times, having read your glowing endorsement in the book (“quite simply the finest pop record of the 1980s”), and I just keep hearing a rather anonymous pop record that sounds a bit like Rod Stewart. So please, make the case.
There was a story that it was written for Rod Stewart. Simon Climie had written other stuff for him, and when Rod turned it down, he decided to sing it in a sort of Rod Stewart fashion. Apparently this is nonsense. It was intended for Robert Palmer, and he passed it over, so they decided to record it themselves.
I just think there’s something a little bit magic. The sound of it is maybe a little bit dated, and it is slightly mid-paced. It isn’t a ballad, and you couldn’t really play it at a disco.
It’s a drivetime record, I’d say. You’re on the way home, your tapping your finger on the dashboard, the sun’s out, and all’s right with the world.
I don’t think it’s got the greatest vocal in the world, and I think that he is better as a songwriter than as an artist. Had he handed that record to somebody who was a big star at the time, maybe it would have been a gigantic hit. But it got to Number Two, so it didn’t do badly.
Were you firmly a pop kid? You weren’t going off and scouring the indie charts or the dance charts?
No – I fell out of love with music a little bit when the pop of the late Eighties was replaced by the Manchester thing. Stock Aitken Waterman disappeared, and then along came the Happy Mondays and The Farm and the Stone Roses, which I absolutely hated. All of it. The early Nineties was a real nadir, because there was no decent music.
So there would be no mileage for you in doing 101 forgotten pop hits of the Nineties?
I thought about that, but it’s more difficult to define what was pop in the Nineties. Do you include Oasis? Britpop: is that pop? Maybe pop was that horrible Outhere Brothers shouty sort of thing. In the late Nineties, you could make some mileage, because you’ve got the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls and quite a lot of what you could call pop.
The other thing with the Nineties, because of the way that charts evolved, is that you’d probably end up including a strange amount of Number One records. They came in for a week, and then they disappeared. But it’s whether I care enough about the Nineties, which I’m not sure I do!