Rock Out at Home: Great Bands That Time Forgot
Published on 16 July 2020
It’s a tough ol’ business, this music game.
Most, if not all, bands and artists come into it with dreams of filling stadia and driving in limousines, living that Rock star dream and staying in the Hollywood hills, bathing in Scrooge McDuck-like piles of gold coins.
A tiny percentage of musicians will even get there! It’s do-able! The sky is the limit for those with ambition, talent and luck, but sometimes, even if you have all of those things, and tirelessly work to get our music out there, the arrow somehow still misses the target. The world is full of great musicians who reached out to make their mark and fell slightly short. Some others soared for a brief time and sank without a trace, leaving a mere shadowy silhouette on the horizon.
This blog is where we pick out some of these fallen gods: the hopefuls who ‘did’ for a bit, who left a slight dent in the universe and then struggled to climb higher. People love and adore these following acts, and perhaps in a slightly different universe it would be these almost-stars who’d be our household names!
Some have continued to make music in other guises, whilst some others haven’t made it out alive at all. Today, we’d like to celebrate some of these cherished bands, and hopefully introduce you to some special, new-to-you music that may lead you down fresh paths of exploration in sound and song.
There is no particular context or through-line here: we’ve simply gathered some under-sung talent from the last few decades and brought them here for you, today. Enjoy, and delve deeper!
When critics can’t put you into a genre-box, they call you ‘cult’. Thus, London’s Cardiacs are known primarily as the definitive ‘Cult English Band’. We don’t really know what that means or implies, other than something like ‘better than their success would indicate’. These days, that is neither here nor there, but it’s definitely true to say that the Cardiacs pretty much defy categorisation. Theirs is an energetic mix of several musical disciplines, often within the space of a single song.
Lead songwriter/vocalist Tim Smith has been quoted as saying, “God forbid if anyone thought that we were a crazy ‘fusion’ of punk and prog. If a word is needed then I would use ‘psychedelic’ if anything.” This presents a problem to us, since a mixture of Prog and Punk is pretty much where we were heading with this, but instead, we’ll let you have a listen and decide for yourself.
The Cardiacs are a polarising band: whilst they have been an acknowledged influence on Blur and Radiohead, they were also the subjects of an editorial ban by NME magazine, which is maybe more like a badge of honour than anything else. Tim Smith’s poor health has led to an enforced hiatus since 2008. Here’s to an eventual recovery!
Big Star are a near-legendary band that somehow never translated their modest success into proper stardom. This is despite REM, the Replacements and even Kiss namechecking their greatness! What more do you need??
Started by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell in 1971, Big Star released only 4 records in total, including a hiatus that lasted throughout all of the 80s before a comeback period that started in 1993.
Each of those 4 albums is considered by many (though interestingly, not the authors of the work itself) to be masterpieces of concise, potent guitar-based Pop. Chilton and Bell, who are now sadly both departed, deliberately modelled their working relationship on Lennon and McCartney, which strikes us as an inspired idea that maybe more songwriters should consider...
The results are out there, so see for yourself, and maybe you’ll be part of a new generation to fall in love with ‘your favourite band’s favourite band’.
Ditching the bass was a good idea for Portland, Oregon’s The Spinanes. Formed with just two members – singer/guitarist Rebecca Gates and drummer Scott Plout – the Spinanes brought breathy dreaminess to ‘the Seattle sound’ and released records on seminal grunge label Sub Pop in the early 90s.
We think most bands should think twice before jettisoning their bassist, but it worked for the Spinanes, whose sound gained space and identity due to the lack of low end.
Gates went on to sing backing vocals for Elliott Smith and Plout later played drums for these guys...
Built to Spill
Based in Boise, Idaho, Built to Spill are one of those bands which are actually built around one central songwriter, with a revolving cast of band members filling out the other roles. That one man is Doug Martsch, and he has helmed Built to Spill since 1992. Their sometimes triple guitarist-attack has resulted in 8 albums’ worth of quality Psychedelic Indie Rock, and the band are still going strong to this day.
As noted, The Spinanes’ Scott Plout has drummed for Built to Spill, and the band are a great ‘deep choice’ for fans of Pavement, Calexico and Granddaddy, amongst others.
With icy synths, baritone vocals and a rhythmically heavy sound, Sheffield’s Comsat Angels are almost like an alternative universe Joy Division. Taking their name form a J’G’Ballard (Crash, Empire of the Sun) short story, their influential sound has inspired bands like Interpol. Bequiffed TV film critic Mark Kermode describes them as the ‘greatest band in the world’ which is perhaps somewhat hyperbolic, but he’s more than entitled to his opinion!
It seems that nearly everyone expected Comsat Angels to be huge, but for whatever combination of reasons, their music has not lasted in culture the way band like Joy Division’s has. Still, their 80s Post-Punk sound has gone form sounding a little dated to becoming both fresh and kind of classic, so maybe there will be a re-appraisement in the future?
Who knows, but lead singer Stephen Fellows is still actively creating new music.
Another band from Sheffield is the criminally underrated Longpigs. Swept up in the gush of retro-glee that was Britpop, the Longpigs were actually a much more diverse proposition. Their grandiose, bruised Indie-Rock was as much in love with Cole Porter and John Barry as it was with Keith Richards and Keith Moon, and with Crispin Hunt, they had one of the greatest British lyricists and vocalists of the 90s. It is a great shame that they lasted only two albums, and that Hunt is a behind-the-scenes songwriter and Svengali these days.
Guitar fans will be more than interested to know that the creative ‘Hawaiian guitar meets bombastic fuzz’ playing on both Longpigs albums is by none other than Northern crooner Richard Hawley! In a sea of lacklustre Britpop bands like Sleeper, Space and the Seahorses, Longpigs stood out like a rare jewel. They await your rediscovery...
The Associates were a theatrical New Wave band from Dundee, by way of Edinburgh. Starting off in 1979 with a cover of David Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging, The Associates brought glamour and drama to post-punk Britain. Lead singer Billy McKenzie was already a star, with a distinctive voice and a subversive wardrobe to match.
Their debut album Sulk made the UK Top Ten, followed by a handful of hit singles, but fame wasn’t to last, and the Associates ended the 80s with a sigh. Sadly, McKenzie committed suicide in his Dad’s garden shed at age 39, whilst struggling with depression and a career that wasn’t where he wanted it to be. Björk and Bono have since gone on record declaring his genius, and the band’s sound has proven to be influential. Bittersweet and special.
This Manchester post-punk group brought a large, rumbling sound to early 80s politics. Vocalist Mark Burgess’ impassioned diatribes against Thatcherism struck a chord, making debut album ‘Script of the Bridge’ a minor hit. Many were surprised when that initial success didn’t translate into massive stardom for the band. One such bewildered fan was Mercury Rev frontman Jonathan Donahue:
“Here's a story: when we first came over in '89, I thought The Chameleons were so massive. So I thought I'd ask people, "Hey, when are The Chameleons playing Wembley? We're here, I want to see them!" And they'd say, "Never heard of them mate." So I'd be like, "No, no, no, The Chameleons, y'know, Script Of The Bridge?" I'd just keep asking what enormo-dome they would be playing. And I could not believe how small a cult following they had - I was stunned to hear that this band didn't have such a wide following. In my view this band was bigger than Pink Floyd.”
Mark Burgess continues to perform in a new Chameleons line-up these days, touring as ChameleonsVox.
Blending Folk, Punk, Country and Native American music, Denver’s 16 Horsepower were a band who had everything except huge audiences. Fronted by vocalist/guitarist David Eugene Edwards, 16 Horsepower were a thundering three piece who recorded 4 albums between 1992 and 2005, acquiring a small but rabid worldwide following in the process.
It may have been a case of being ahead of their time, since it seems to us that their sound, if released today, would be pretty huge. Who are we to know, though? Edwards has gone on to form the similar but slightly harder-rocking Wovenhand, spreading his intense, biblical message further out.
We hope you gave some of these videos a spin and enjoyed what you heard! That’s what it’s all about, after all. Can you think of other great bands that time forgot? We will certainly have missed out on some other lost gems, so please let us in on the secret! Leave a comment or a link below and spread the gospel of your favourite under-represented music!
Thanks for reading