People who weren’t there tend to assume that the early 80s was one long orgy of shiny, futuristic New Romantic pop. However check out any episodes of Top Of The Pops from the era and you discover a different story. For in spite of those strangely bequiffed keyboard touting duos the first few years of the decade were actually dominated by a series of revivals.
Mod, Heavy Metal, Rockabilly and Ska all became briefly fashionable again and gifted us bands as diverse as The Jam, The Specials, Iron Maiden and errr The Polecats.
There was however one revival that was always unlikely to trouble the chart compilers that was the return of 60s influenced psychedelia
Punk’s year zero approach had meant that anything that smacked of the late 60s and flower power was about as welcome as music hall. This in spite of the fact that many of punk’s main protagonists, like Captain Sensible John Lydon and Charlie Harper, to name but three, were in fact serious psych heads.
Yet for a brief period in 1981 and 1982 there was a flowering of a psychedelic sound that sought to take the template from the late 60s and turn into something to excite and inspire 80s kids.
Many of the original so called new psych bands were, not surprisingly given their Mod roots, not actually that psych. Bands like Mood Six, The Marble Staircase and Direct Hits seemed more interested in recreating the 1966 Swinging London vibe of bands like The Herd, Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich in their bendier moments, than they were of aping the far out projected sounds from a couple of years later. The original club around which the sounds coagulated, The Groovy Cellar was also more ‘Mod gone weird’ than full on psych, boasting a playlist that encompassed everything from early 60s girls bands through to bubblegum.
Yet as the movement blossomed, so all kinds of psychedelic individuals sneaked out of the closet and became part of a scene the music papers christened ‘new psych.’
Sensing a potential musical gold rush WEA records enlisted several of the bands to contribute to what has become new psych’s key legacy – the compilation album A Splash Of Colour.
What Cherry Red Records has done is to round up the tracks from that original album (minus two) and then delve further into the 80s psychedelic archive to deliver a triple CD box set, complete with extensive sleevenotes, which document the rise and fall and rise again of London’s second summer of love.
The original Splash Of Colour album quite rightly IMO received mixed reviews. I remember for example, Mark Ellen dissecting it on Radio One, praising some of the tracks but saying that he much preferred the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Nicely (more of whom later). It seems a bit harsh to say it now but there are a few tracks that may be could have remained in the archive.
Then again alongside the efforts of the jostick jokers are genuine pop gems that sound as fresh and vibrant now as they did back in the day.
Exhibit A being the album’s opener, Just Like A Dream by Mood Six which zips along powered by a relatively aggressive vocal (well for Mood Six anyhow) swirling keyboards and a dramatic chorus. It tells the tale of an imminent apocalypse which lest we forget was worrying most of the planet in the Reagan Brezhnev era.
Mood Six’s second track Plastic Flowers, sadly isn’t the version from the original album, but instead hails from a few years later. Nevertheless is a lovely silver of baroque pop with a touch of The Left Banke (whose albums were reissued in the UK around this time) with its harpsichord style keyboard and delicate mannered vocals.
As memorable as both tracks are (and indeed the EMI single Hanging Around and its Barry meets Bond instrumental B Side Mood Music) they don’t really tell the whole story of one of the most exciting London bands from the early 80s. Far better to recall them as a great great live act and for their second album, A Matter Of, a perfect distillation of classic 60s Ray Davies influenced songwriting and 80s jangly guitar.
If Mood Six were The Beatles of new psych then Miles Over Matter could stake a claim to be the scene’s Rolling Stones. Boasting a much tougher sound than their rivals – which was as much influenced by the reissues of 60s garage punk band albums from the likes of The Chocolate Watchband and The Electric Prunes which were just starting to land in the UK – Miles Over Matter had a fantastically theatrical frontman in Miles Landesman, a great guitarist /songwriter in Steve Counsel and a de rigueur swirly keyboard sound the really only could come from the early 80s.
For some bizarre reason WEA passed on the band’s best track, the almost perfect swinging beat pop nugget, Love Song (which surfaced legitimately for the first time on the band’s recent compilation), instead plumping for Something’s Happening Here, a Strawberry Alarm Clock influenced clarion call for a new Love Generation, and Park My Car a quirky XTC-esque slice of toytown psych. The latter in particular with its liquid guitar finale, sounds superb three a bit decades om.
The two other highlights from A Splash Of Colour, which are both featured here, are The Barracudas droney Byrds-influenced Watching The World Go By and another contender for the movement’s leitmotif, The High Tide’s Dancing In My Mind. For reasons which I guess have to be money/copyright-related, the compilers have not added The Times I Helped Patrick McGoohan Escape from the original LP but opted for an inferior, but still fun version from a few years earlier.
Away from A Splash Of Colour and the acolytes of the nightclub at the epicentre of the new movement the Groovy Cellar, the best psychedelic music of the early 80s was being made by individuals for whom the late 60s with just one colour of their musical palate.
Much has been written about Nick Nicely and his glorious 1981 Strawberry Fields Forever single Hilly Fields. If that isn’t the the best song on the compilation, then it is probably is its B side the Tomorrow Never Knows re-write 49 Cigars. Check out On The Coast from his Psychotropia album which really should have been the follow-up single. His mix of psychedelia and electronica, see also John Foxx, was an avenue of the genre that to this day is still largely unexplored.
Never really part of the movement but also responsible for many of the best 60ish pop tunes from Britain in the 80s (and beyond) was Robyn Hitchcock and his renegade band of psychedelic popsters The Soft Boys. In an era of punk-induced nihilism, the band with its mixture of Byrdsie jangle, folky harmonies (you just knew they loved a bit of Pentangle and Steeleye Span) and Barrett-esque instrumental interludes were never going to amount to more that just the odd gig at The Rock Garden. Hitchcock has however had the last laugh. Underwater Moonlight, the band’s second album, is now regarded as one of the best album of that or in fact any decade. The compilers have opted for Only The Stones Remain from The Soft Boys and the eery, slightly sinister It’s A Mystic Trip which was one of several brilliant songs Hitchcock recorded, but subsequently rejected for his debut album Black Snake Diamond Role.
Another act on the fringes of a movement were The Monochrome Set a band who shared Mood Six’s predilection for turning every gig into an event. On The Thirteenth Day is an inspired choice capturing the band at its most edgy.
Mod goes psych
Many of the early new psych bands began their career peddling beat and Motown influenced music to an ostensibly Mod audience. And Another Splash Of Colour include several great examples of what happens when pill poppers go lysergic. In my opinion the pick of the lot are Squire whose recorded output dwarfs every other Mod band from the era with the exception of The Jam. No Time Tomorrow is the psych jewel in their crown, although practically everything from their singles album, including Does Stephanie Know and My Mind Goes Round In Circles would still have been stand outs on this compilation.
The Purple Hearts Hazy Darkness is another top example of what happens when Mod band goes all experimental as is Doctor Ben by The Direct Hits and The Heartbeats’ Forever.
By summer 1982 the original psychedelic revival had pretty much ran out the steam with most of the clubs closing and the bands splitting up or moving on. In many ways then psychedelia became just another musical strand to be plundered rather than, as Miles Over Matter might have preferred it a dawning of a new Age of Aquarius.
One of the original psychsters, Talk Talk, re-cast themselves as Duran-alikes, before re-gaining their experimental edge on the epic Spirit Of Eden. Ironically though for much of 82 and beyond rather than disappearing psychedelia somehow became very much a part of mainstream British pop music. Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Beatles cover, Dear Prudence made Top of the Pops while two band members Robert Smith (also of The Cure) teamed up with that drummer Budgie to create a very trippy album called Blue Sunshine under the moniker of The Glove.
Neither appear here though a few acts who scored bona fide top 40 hits are included including Julian Cope’s very Barrett-esque Sunspots, a highlight from his second album Fried. Kimberley Rew would score a monster hit with new band Katrina and The Waves and Walking on Sunshine. Probably not generating quite as many royalty cheques is Stomping Around The Word, a similar slice of catchy 60s pop which is included here. Then there’s The Icicle Works whose debut album hovers somewhere between the doomy Doorsy/Velvets psych of fellow Scousers Echo and the Bunnymen and the lighter dreamy pop of Mood Six. Their debut single Nirvana is on board here.
Other highlights from the first two discs include The Attractions’, sans Elvis Costello, Slow Patience, Scarlet Party’s one hit wonder the very Beatley 101 Damnatians and Wivenhoe Bells from the the kings of the 80s cassette – Martin Newell and his Cleaner From Venus.
Psych hits the garage and indie
While disc one is probably the most interesting from a historical perspective it’s disc three where the garage punkers and indie pop chancers take over that is musically the strongest. Two bands stick out. Firstly The Prisoners who concocted a minestrone of Northern Soul, American Garage Punk and Small Faces/Nice influence keyboard sounds on the excellent Reaching My Head. And then Another Splash Of Colour also marks the debut on CD of psychedelic London’s long lost greatest live act The Playn Jayn. Hopefully both of their albums will be reissued soon, until then check them out on YouTube and swoon over the mania that is the live version of In Your Eyes.
Also by the mid 80s scenester Alan McGee was creating a buzz with his clubs, gigs and of course record label Creation. Another Splash collects a few early singles from his roster the best of which is The Revolving Paint Dream’s Flowers In The Sky. There are also a few other Creation influenced acts such as The Dentists and their timeless mashup of The Byrds, The Smiths and The Leaves – Strawberries Are Growing in My Garden.
The great thing about the boxed set is that while there is clearly an element of nostalgia, and anyone who bought the original album will probably love having shiny crystal clear CD versions of tunes, it also houses plenty of music that’s never been available on CD and would probably even be unfamiliar to even die hard collectors from the time. Like The Onlookers whose You Know Everything is an ultra obscure, yet fabulous piece of Beatley pop music, the previously unreleased Connect from Future Daze (compilation album please!) and tracks from Freight Train and The Chicanes which will only be know by serious collectors of the Bam Caruso label. Then there is The Third Eye’s proto garage psych Pass Myself, another contender for the grooviest track on the disc.
By the mid 80s psychedelia had become a key part of indie music. Australia had gifted the world The Church and The Triffids, while the US had conjured up with the Paisley Underground bands (The Three O’Clock, Rain Parade and The Bangles) as well as the jangle meisters The DBs and Let’s Active. In the UK XTC were plotting their next adventure as their psych alter egos The Dukes of Stratosphere, while mainstream indie bands like The Smiths were channeling The Byrds and The Beatles.
Psychedelia arguably had its key moment at the end of the decade with its most significant album since the 60s arriving in the guise of the debut from The Stone Roses. Psych also played a huge role in the career path of Primal Scream and quite several of the key Britpop acts. And there’s also a good case of arguing that REM did a very sensible thing in befriending and working with Robyn Hitchcock. They took The Soft Boys sound to a much wider audience potentially saving themselves millions in legal fees.
As I said earlier Another Splash Of Colour is way more that just a historical documentation of a glorious, and some might say rather naive and short-lived period in British pop music. It’s also a treasure trove of long forgotten 45s and album cuts and is a wonderful listen from start to finish.
Obviously invest in it straight away. And if you can’t get enough of 80s psych here is a Spotify playlist of more tracks from many of the bands who feature on it. Plus a few from the bigger names and the odd act that will probably star on Another, Another Splash Of Colour.
Buy the album here.