[Hi all! And welcome to a new feature here at WiS–using the title of the blog (and my book project) as the main theme, I’ll be featuring albums from the college rock years of the 80s that have been personal favorites of mine. The entries will be similar to the Blogging the Beatles series–featuring overviews of some (if not all) songs from that release, personal reactions, and maybe a brief history as well. Hope you enjoy!]
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Love and Rockets: 5 Albums box set
Released: 13 May 2013 (UK)
Love and Rockets was a very influential band in my younger years. Back in autumn 1986, MTV had been pushing their second album, Express, by playing commercials for it, as well as playing the videos for “Ball of Confusion” and “All In My Mind” on their late night rotation (as well as on 120 Minutes when it went on the air that November). That was right about the same time I’d returned to listening to college radio after discovering it earlier that year, so that band became one of the foundation points when I jumped straight into the alternative rock sound. I’d picked up Express at the Rietta Ranch flea market in Hubbardston, of all places–and it became one of my favorite albums of that year. Over the course of four albums in the late 80s, I fell in love with their distinct sound of dreamy acoustic guitars, neo-psychedelia, and post-punk. They ended up influencing my own songwriting style as well.
The band itself has quite the pre-band history–it’s comprised of the three musicians from Bauhaus: guitarist/singer/songwriter Daniel Ash, bassist/singer/songwriter David J, and David’s brother, drummer Kevin Haskins. After the break-up of Bauhaus and singer Peter Murphy going solo, they kept themselves quite busy…Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins turned their part-time project Tones on Tail into a short-lived but full-time project, releasing one album and a handful of great singles. David J kept busy with both an impressive solo career (including work with comic writer Alan Moore, creating music for his V for Vendetta series) as well as studio assistance with The Jazz Butcher. By 1985 they’d reconvened and started up a new band. Taking their name from the highly acclaimed comic book of the same name by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, they created a unique body of music that borrowed not just from their previous bands’ sounds but also of the guitar-centric soundscapes gaining ground at the time, such as those of XTC and Cocteau Twins.
5 Albums is part of a new box set series from the UK Beggars Banquet label; this one comprises Love and Rockets’ four 80s albums–1985’s Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, 1986’s Express, 1987’s Earth Sun Moon and 1989’s Love and Rockets–plus an additional collection called Assorted! which contains a number of b-sides and rarities, including their one-off Bubblemen “side project” EP. The four main albums are for the most part the same as the 2000-2003 reissues with little change (the version of the self-titled album here omits the bonus cd, most of which was moved to Assorted, minus the radio interview and performance), and for those who have these already, only Assorted is of interest, as it contains many b-sides not available elsewhere, as well as the unreleased track “Sorted”. This box is mainly for those who are completists (like me), but it’s an absolutely wonderful–and cheap!–way to introduce yourself to a phenomenal band. Let’s take a look at a few of the albums and tracks therein:
The debut Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, originally released in October 1985, is steeped in acoustic post-punk and drenched in atmospheric reverb–all the tracks save one are over five minutes long and contain deliberately calculated instrumental passages that make the songs soar. Lyrically the band showed a complete 180 from the gothic references in Bauhaus, or even the trippiness of Tones on Tail, instead focusing on personal introspection. This one was only released in the UK at first, only making an appearance in the US in November of 1988 with a reshuffled track listing and two single b-sides added, after their second and third albums had been released.
There’s some lovely work here, especially the pastoral “A Private Future” and the absolutely stunning instrumental “Saudade”, both showcasing Daniel Ash’s phenomenal guitar work. There’s also a few curiosities like the deliberately plodding “The Game”, but there’s also bluesy rockers “Dog-End of a Day Gone By” and “Haunted When the Minutes Drag”. The latter track would get a boost in early 1988 when John Hughes featured it on the soundtrack to his movie She’s Having a Baby. This current version also contains their debut single, a cover of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, which would also show up on the original US version of Express. All told, Seventh Dream is a stunning debut for the band–it’s not an album full of hit singles, but it’s certainly full of great musicianship and tight songwriting.
Express was released in mid-September of 1986, a banner year for quite a few bands that would define college rock–The Smiths, the Cure, Depeche Mode, The Mighty Lemon Drops, The Chameleons, and more. Their second album is much more upbeat and a lot trippier, infusing their love for sixties’ psychedelic rock into all sorts of places. The one-two punch on the first tracks “It Could Be Sunshine” and “Kundalini Express” hint at garage psych with mystical lyrics and spacey guitars, setting the tone for a much more electric and eclectic album than the previous one. They’re followed up with the American single “All In My Mind”, which eerily predates and predicts the dreamy sound of shoegaze, which would surface nearly three years later. The album also has its share of acoustic tracks similar to those on Seventh Dream, including a much slower version of “All In My Mind”, as well as the closer “An American Dream”. But the ultimate psychedelic track on this album is the speedy “Yin and Yang (The Flowerpot Man)”, a six-minute psychedelic freak-out of weird sounds, disjointed lyrics, and Bo Diddley strumming amped up to eleven. As mentioned earlier, many US fans were introduced to the band with this album, and it’s a great place to start.
Earth Sun Moon was released almost exactly one year later in September 1987–the same month that featured highly-lauded (and often game-changing) albums by The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Public Image Ltd, REM, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers–but instead the band had decided to go an altogether different route than the previous two albums. While Seventh Dream felt almost prog-rock in its scope and Express focused on psych-pop, this new track delved into the sound of late sixties San Francisco folk. It was no ‘peace-and-love’ album to be sure, but it had the philosophical ‘who are we and where are we headed’ vibe. The first track “Mirror People” sets the scene for the entire album, a self-aware metaphorical fence-sitter watching everyone act like everyone else, but deep down he knows he’s just as bad (“quite content to sit on this fence, quite content now a little bit older…”). This is a band that wants to have peace and love…but knows quite well that in reality, true peace and love, even inner peace, is hard to come by. The rest of the album focuses on this theme–the single “No New Tale to Tell” (Just how unique are we, compared to everyone else?), “Here On Earth” (Life goes on, with or without our participation), and “Waiting for the Flood” (We face what we’re afraid of in order to live) are just a few examples of how layered this album can be, despite its lack of strong sound. It’s one of my favorites of theirs, even though it’s considered one of their weakest.
Love and Rockets was released in September of 1989, and after a two year absence, their sound had moved in another direction…this time with loud, dissonant guitars, sparse, demo-like workouts, and even alternative pop. In some ways it sounds like they’d taken a page from the Jesus and Mary Chain, and in retrospect it was a perfect choice–by late 1989, the sound of “college rock” had morphed into the harder-edged “alternative rock” (and soon to splinter into all kinds of subgenres from Britpop to Grunge). For many who loved the more acoustic ballads of the previous albums, this was certainly a jolt. Preceded nine months earlier by the single “Motorcycle” / “I Feel Speed” (two completely different iterations of the same song, the former a ballsy rocker and the latter a dreamy blues played mostly on a bass guitar), this album also produced the band’s first Billboard Top 10 hit (it reached #3, and hit #1 on the Modern Rock chart) with the slinky, sexy “So Alive”. That hit track is the exception, though–while that one is perfect pop production, the rest of the album deliberately alternates between loud and clunky (“**** (Jungle Law)”, a middle-finger to one of their worst critics, and an industrial take on the 12-bar blues, “No Big Deal”) and quiet and dreamy (the lovely, jazzy “The Teardrop Collector” and the Bowie-esque “Rock and Roll Babylon”). It’s as if this album is self-titled on purpose; half blissful Love and half aggressive Rockets.
[This would be the last we see of the band for a good few years; they would finally reconvene in late 1994 with the electronica-heavy Hot Trip to Heaven, follow it up with the more organic Sweet FA in 1996, and finish their recording career with 1998’s disjointed Lift. These albums are interesting on their own, but aren’t quite as strong as the original first four.]
The new Assorted! compilation (only found as part of this box at this time) collects many b-sides and curiosities that aren’t already found on the repackaged previous albums. As mentioned earlier, most of the second disc of the reissue of the 1989 album is found here, including the unreleased Swing! EP, the lone Bubblemen EP, as well as the live b-sides found on “No New Tale to Tell” and “Mirror People ’88” singles which were not previously available. The only surprise here is an otherwise unreleased “Sorted”, an upbeat acoustic track that sounds like a demo stuck between Earth Sun Moon and Love and Rockets.
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I’ve been known to listen to all four of these albums in chronological order in one go, as they fit so well together, going from meandering acoustic noodling to heavily distorted noise. Love and Rockets are no more, but they’ve become one of the many important alternative bands of the 80s, not just through their heritage but through their excellent songwriting and musicianship. Many might know of them only through the “So Alive” single, but there’s quite a lot more to the band than just the hit. Sure, I picked it up because I’m a completist and needed the missing b-sides, but I also picked it up because they’re some of my favorite albums of the late 80s, and well worth coming back to time and again.