SOMETHING MIGHT SOAR
"Obscure they may be, but in their mid-80s prime, the June Brides bestrode the fledgling independent music scene like a colossus with indie chart top-sellers, packed-out gigs and music paper front covers. They made their mark with LPs and singles such as There Are 8 Million Stories, and In The Rain; monumental melodramas, extensive gripping tales which offer untrammelled insights into the lives of everyday folk, recognising the inherent royalty of ordinary individuals: epic and unforgettable. For this, the June Brides were cherished at a time -- more innocent, some would say -- when bands were clung to like life rafts by kids seeking nothing less than salvation in a cold Thatcherite universe that always seemed tainted with an isolating sense of anguish, breakdown and the feeling that everything was going to wrong."
Richard Cabut interviews erstwhile June Brides guitarist Simon Beesley who will be playing at 3:AM's birthday gig next month.
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In "Something Might Plummet, Something Might Soar", a short story by David Eggers published in the Guardian's Weekend Magazine of 2 April, 2003, the protagonist is a big fan of the June Brides. The character listens to the radio. He is tense. Anxious. There is one particular Brides song that he is eager to hear and tape. Strangely, he already has the first half of the tune, and needs the second. Perhaps he can somehow splice the two halves together, he wonders?
This little literary incident begs a few questions, the most important of which as far as we're concerned is: why the June Brides? Is Eggers a particular fan of the mid-80s indie stalwarts? Has he found succour in their edgy, angsty urban blues? Has he been inspired by their stripped-down art which focuses on the margins of life, on the place where the real stuff really happens?
"I think he just wanted to namecheck the most obscure band he could find," says Simon Beesley, erstwhile June Brides guitarist.
Obscure they may be, but in their mid-80s prime, the June Brides bestrode the fledgling independent music scene like a colossus with indie chart top-sellers, packed-out gigs and music paper front covers. They made their mark with LPs and singles such as There Are 8 Million Stories, and In The Rain; monumental melodramas, extensive gripping tales which offer untrammelled insights into the lives of everyday folk, recognising the inherent royalty of ordinary individuals: epic and unforgettable. For this, the June Brides were cherished at a time -- more innocent, some would say -- when bands were clung to like life rafts by kids seeking nothing less than salvation in a cold Thatcherite universe that always seemed tainted with an isolating sense of anguish, breakdown and the feeling that everything was going to wrong.
Since the band split in 1986 -- on July 1, to be exact -- Ebay has been doing a roaring trade on their records. But those profits are about to be cut with the release of a new Cherry Red Records compilation of all the group's recorded output: the aforementioned LP, the singles, plus John Peel and Janice Long sessions, as well as former singer Phil Wilson's solo material, originally released on Creation.
Fans will be further thrilled by the release of a tribute LP, an accolade which confirms the Brides' place in the indie rock canon. The calibre of the contributing groups underlines the group's import in the scheme of things. "Franz Ferdinand expressed an interest, but I'm not sure if they're on the final cut," says Simon, vaguely. "And there are a whole bunch of American bands -- in the US there's a bit of a June Brides thing going on. Weirdly, there's a large fan base in the Philippines, and a few live obscurities have been put out there. But the big news is that the Manic Street Preachers have contributed a track. In most of their recent interviews, Nicky Wire has mentioned the Brides and how influential we were when he was growing up in a small South Wales town. I think we offered him hope."
The June Brides were formed in the vague somewhere between the hubbub of possibility and the mystery of disappointment -- the end of punk, in other words. "It was the early 80s," says Simon. "Phil Wilson and I met at the London School of Economics. I'd been told that Mick Jagger went there, and I was attracted to it because of the 60s sit-ins and student activism. I'd seen loads of punk bands in my home town, Shrewsbury, but by the time I got to London it had all moved on. Steve Strange's < Blitz club was around the corner from the LSE although that didn't grab me at the time. The bands I was interested in were from places like Glasgow, Edinburgh -- Josef K, Orange Juice -- or Liverpool and Manchester. To me, the whole Postcard thing was true independent music; you could play it, jingle jangle along with it."
After university, the boys found themselves on the dole in Lewisham, where nearly twenty years before current SE14 darlings Art Brut et al, a different kind of outsider art was born. These days, New Cross, home to Angular Records and rocking hotspots such as the Paradise Bar and the Montague Arms (where the Gang of Four played an invite-only secret gig earlier this year), is the place to be. But back in the mid-80s, south east London, a wasteland of scrapyards and grey tower blocks, was the scene of filth, disillusion and industrial decay. With its shut-up shop fronts, the place felt like a decaying seaside town. Music journalists down to interview the likes of Test Department or the Band of Holy Joy marvelled at the atmosphere. it was wretched, forsaken by God and government, and pissed on by dogs and humans alike. Pocked and frayed, the area smelled of sorrow -- not like noncy North London.
"We formed the band in South East London, where we had ended up by default, which was the case for many people," says Simon. "I think it's to do with the housing situation. We managed to wangle ourselves into an association which let out quite dilapidated houses. It was one up from squatting. We paid token rent -- we were all on housing benefit, anyway -- and they put in the basics: water and electricity. Otherwise the place would be vacant until they had the resources to improve it to the standard required for family accommodation. South London was full of such houses. But it gave us the space and time to get on with what we wanted to do: the band.
"South London didn't have the cachet of North London, which was quite trendy with a lot of places to play and tons of like-minded people. In South London, you had to seek out people who you might have something in common with. It's a bit like being 15 or 16 in small provincial town and you're into the Pistols or the Clash and you see someone with badges on -- maybe they're wearing flares, but it's a half punk look -- and then you see them at a gig, and you notice them, cause there are so few of you around. That's what South London was like in the mid-80s. There'd be a community thing going on."
The Brides began playing in the area, before Phil sent a tape to Creation boss Alan McGee who, at that time, was writing a fanzine, Communication Blur. "It was full of mod bands like The Action, and he seemed to idolise Paul Weller," says Simon. "There were bits on people like the Nightingales and the TV Personalities.
"McGee started putting on bands in rooms above pubs, in Euston or wherever it was, and we ended up playing a few gigs. It was a burgeoning scene. Then, he started the Creation label with The Legend, not a very good start, his own band Biff Bang Pow, and the Jasmine Minks, but he didn't want to take on the June Brides. Creation owed a lot to Postcard -- Alan Horne was a role model for Alan -- but I don't think McGee wanted to imitate their sound. So, with our scratchy guitars inspired by Orange Juice and Josef K, we were out in the cold. Nevertheless, we were happy to play the club, and had a sizeable following. Phil has always said that the June Brides helped to finance the early Creation releases."
Eventually, the band signed to Simon Down's Pink label, and their first releases were produced by Creation dogsbody Joe Foster. These records underlined the Brides' position at the centre of a scene later dubbed C86, after the giveaway NME cassette of the same name. This worked both for and against them. Gigs and kudos were gained while, on the downside, C86 was, basically, nonsense. Characterised by ineffectuality and niceness, the movement was pushed by music writers enamoured with inadequacy, furiously pumping out three page articles on bands such as Bogshed and Big Flame -- groups which, on closer investigation, proved to be a bunch of jizz. The Brides suffered by association but, ironically, weren't even on the C86 cassette.
"We were asked to be be on it, but we had a discussion and decided not to do it," says Simon. "We felt we'd been going for quite a while, and didn't feel a part of that scene. It all became codified very quickly: the shambling music, the bowl haircuts, the anoraks. If you compare C86 to C81, the latter was much more interesting, much more broadminded with the Subway Sect, some Ze stuff. The shambling thing was a ghetto."
The Brides, meanwhile, continued to plough their indie furrow. "The high point was a night at the Harp Club [now the Venue] in New Cross. It was our local gig, and loads of people turned up. We'd just played in Norway, the first time we'd flown as a band, and the next day we returned in triumph to our area. I thought that was it, that we'd really made it. However, things were changing. Some bands were flirting with majors -- Primal Scream, for instance. Other groups, like the Wedding Present were getting a lot of exposure, but we never made that leap."
At that time, going to a major label was seen by the Kids as a sign of selling out. A successful indie band might sign with RCA, or whoever, and be instantly deserted by disgusted fans, who would quickly shift their allegiance to the next bunch of soft lads.
"We certainly had an anti-capitalist viewpoint," says Simon. "Although personal politics were more important than global resistance. In fact, we had an affinity with the anarcho bands, and played the anarchist centre when it was at Roseberry Avenue.
"We did have some meetings with bigger labels, though. Stiff Records, sounded promising -- it wasn't like getting into bed with EMI -- but what we didn't realise was that Stiff were lurching from one crisis to another. We also talked to Go Discs, but the bloke we met had a Red Wedge mug on his table, and we couldn't be dealing with all that crap. We used to take the piss out of Billy Bragg and all that party politics rubbish.
"At the same time, it was difficult to get exposure. There was no radio play, apart from John Peel and Janice Long, although I remember Simon Bates once played one of our tracks on (BBC) Radio 1. I thought it was out big breakthrough to the mainstream, but I think he was told to play us by an up-and-coming producer. Put it this way, he wasn't full of enthusiasm!
"In fact the backlash had started, and we were getting despondent. We were still playing the same old dives, and still on the dole. The last straw was the final single, "This Town". Musically, with the use of the viola and trumpet, we were progressing and expanding, but it didn't do as well as the other records. What we thought was a great leap forward didn't turn out like that for us. We emerged before the existence of production values, and never really had a sympathetic producer. The recordings were muddy or scratchy, but of their time. However, time was up. We met in a pub and Phil decided he didn't want to go on anymore. We had been interested in vibrancy and urgency -- and we still are."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Cabut has written for the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph, Big Issue and many other publications. He writes fiction, takes pictures and cycles around town. He used to play in the punk band Brigandage and publish the fanzine Kick. You can contact him here.