Thursday, October 8, 2020

From Duncan's Parcel of Pop (Part 4)

As I dug a little deeper into the box of goodies sent from my pal in New Zealand, it was difficult to contain my glee upon seeing the above two singles from St Christopher. These are early pre-Sarah self releases straight outta York on a label the band called Bluegrass. These had been on my shopping list for years. St Christopher's pedigree is impeccable. Through a rotating roster, Glenn Melia was the rock, writing one great song after another. His band label hopped, but they always ended up on indie-pop's most respected labels from around the world, including the Bus Stop, Vinyl Japan and Elefant. There were hits on the indie chart too, such as "You Deserve More" (No. 13) and "All of a Tremble" (No. 19) to name a couple, but even with an unimpeachable run on Sarah, it felt like fans in Japan and France appreciated them more. Often, these things take time. With all of this 21st-century love for Sarah and C86, St Christopher has received a second listen and a new appreciation by many. Rightfully so. Some, like Duncan, were there from nearly the beginning. Here's how he got into St Christopher. Duncan, the floor is yours:

One of the more interesting developments of the '80s underground pop scene was the rise of the DIY compilation tape. Bands would contribute demos or previously unreleased versions of songs which would be compiled onto a C60 cassette and housed in a homemade photocopied sleeve (often hand coloured) and sold via mail order for two pounds. All very much part of the 'get-up-and-do-it' fanzine culture of the time.

These tapes were a great way to discover new groups, many of whom had yet to have a "proper" release. My favourite series was put together by Dave Driscoll from Fleet, Hampshire. His 'Abigail's Birthday Party' cassette included otherwise unavailable tracks by the likes of Hurrah!, the Dentists, the Submarines, Blue Aeroplanes, Del Amitri, the Clouds, Swell Maps ... quite a lineup. The packaging for his cassettes was also way ahead of the rest of the pack. Worth looking out for.

Another such compilation I picked up in the autumn of 1988 was 'Something's Burning In Paradise...' [click on photo above for a better look]. Altogether a more amateurish affair, it nevertheless included many names familiar to this blog: Emily, the Driscolls, Remember Fun, Another Sunny Day and James Dean Driving Experience. But for me there were two tracks that stood out from the rest. The first, a track by a band called the Pilgrims, managed to sound more Fire Engines-y that Fire Engines. And the second was "To The Mountain" by St Christopher.

I fell for the St Christopher track in a big way: full of bracing, wintery jangling guitars and aching vocals, it became a constant companion during my first term at University. So I sent some cash and a letter to the address included with the cassette and received in return a lovely long letter and a big bag of goodies from Glenn Melia, leader of the group: copies of the first two singles, two flexi EPs and a live tape recorded in Germany. Here's how Glenn explained it in his letter:

"It's really nice that people seem to like 'To The Mountain', 'cos it was recorded really quickly and cheaply, and it doesn't even figure in our live set anymore! I hope you like the enclosed collection - the singles are not representative of us now (although Are You Scared To Get Happy? touted 'Crystal Clear' as a "classic"!), at least not as much as the flexis and live tape. Also we have not one, but two new singles in the pipeline - the 1st is 'You Deserve More Than A Maybe' ep on Sarah (the live version is good but the recorded version just has to be heard - easily the best song we've ever recorded!) which is due out probably after Xmas now, and we're currently recording 2 songs ('All Of A Tremble', 'Our Secret') for release on Bus Stop in the USA ... which should be available in March time."

Matt Haynes was right about 'Crystal Clear' -- a minor indie pop classic released in 1984 when such things were thin on the ground. In his fanzine, Matt made the connection between this song and Aztec Camera's debut from four years earlier, and I think he was spot on. They share a sense of striving and yearning for something beyond the everyday: "So when you're asking me to define that feeling for you, what can I say? It's there until that gold just slips away." The other song I recommend from these early singles is "Awe," which calls to mind 'Before Hollywood'-era Go-Betweens -- all jittery rhythms, strummed guitars and a beautiful melody carried by the bassist.

But it was the songs on the two flexis that really knocked me out. "Forevermore Starts Here" with its ringing guitars, breathless excitement and a tune to die for; the mournful bass notes at the start of "Sinking Ships," sounding like ocean liners signalling through the fog, and then into the big clatterly drums and a reverb drenched lead guitar line straight out of a '60s Walker Brothers epic; those wonderfully melodic guitar and bass lines that kick off "Remember Me To Her;" the heart-stopping atmosphere and breathy vocals of "I Wish I Hadn't Seen Her," sounding like a long lost Prefab Sprout demo.

Many thanks to Glenn Melia for his wonderful generosity back then and for his lovely letter (which I hope he didn't mind me quoting).

Thanks for that, Duncan. I find this tape culture fascinating. Completely foreign to this Yank. With all of those songs Duncan mentioned, we must really have another post on St Christopher soon. Today's listen was going to come from the 53-track double-disc anthology 'Forever Starts Here' that Cherry Red released in 2014 -- more of that 21st-century love I was mentioning -- but my laptop has been fixed. Instead, I will just recommend that collection (especially for the lengthy interview with Melia in the liner notes) and give you the two singles ripped right from Duncan's parcel. Sure, there are more snaps, crackles and pops than a bowl of cereal, but that's called character. All I know is, for the first time since August, digitizing vinyl is possible again, and it feels great. I'm back, baby!

Crystal Clear (1984)
My Fond Farewell

As Far as the Eye Can See (1985)

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