|The Higher State: Marty, Mole, Paul, Dan|
There’s an enormous sense of deju vu reviewing the new singles by Bronco Bullfrog and The Higher State. Twenty years ago I was producing a fanzine, Something Has Hit Me, and interviewing and putting on gigs for The Nerve and The Mystreated.
They were two of my favourite bands in 1993 and yet were worlds apart in terms of how they approached their take on the 60s. “One strives for perfection, the other seemingly goes out of their way to be as shoddy as possible,” I wrote. That reads harshly but Andy Morten of The Nerve could see “no sense in producing music to a fraction of our capabilities” and being “sick to death of hearing records that sound like they were done in five minutes in someone’s front room,” whilst Martin Ratcliffe of The Mystreated enthused about being an authentic garage band and loving “anything that was recorded on half a microphone and a biscuit tin. The worse it is the more likely I’m going to like it.” From those bands came Bronco Bullfrog and The Higher State.
The Nerve released a few singles and a posthumous collection of their work, Seeds From The Electric Garden, before Andy (drums/vocals) and Mike Poulson (vocals/guitar) teamed up with Louis Comfort-Wiggett (bass) to form Bronco Bullfrog. Rather than continue to perfect the Rubble series of UK psychedelic compilations they made three albums of well-crafted powerpop. Had the first been released earlier than 1998 they might’ve seen greater success during the Brit-Pop period. Timing, they say, is everything.
Andy Morten is now associate editor of Shindig! magazine which specialises in featuring neglected acts who seldom achieved commercial success. Someone should write an article about Andy Morten; such an underappreciated songwriter for over 20 years with The Nerve, Bronco Bullfrog and The Campbell Stokes Sunshine Recorder, he’s worthy of cult status at the very least. Morten has such a strong grasp of melody and there’s a sepia tinged romantic nostalgia that frequently washes through his songs; from pushbikes in the park to heart breaking accounts of broken relationships.
It’s claimed by those involved with these new singles, both recorded at Sandgate Sound Studios and released on State Records, that they “piss on” those of their former bands, “from a great height”. What is noticeable is how they’re shifted inwards and thus now sound closer related. Both singles sound like they were recorded live and even if they were still recorded in five minutes care has been taken to record them cleanly, yet somehow leaving in warm surface noise rather than capturing a cold sterile studio sound.
“Clarifoil” is the first Bronco Bullfrog record since 2004 and picks up their dusty nostalgia theme with a song about the plastic laminate covering found on old albums “protecting nasty ring wear on Nash, Hicks and Clarke and The Kinks on Pye”. It’s so typically the Broncos - marrying ancient pop culture with everyday practicalities through a Ray Davies eye for the details of British life - and then throwing it on a brash Who/Move backing that slashing, stutters then strums with multi layered vocals.
“Never Been To California” is the simpler song, there’s less going on, but is my preferred one due to the bouncy and suitably sunny melody and sounding like it could be straight off their debut eponymous album I love so much. Also, I can’t quite shake the idea that singing about a manufacturer of shiny plastic surfaces is admirably anti-rock and roll it’s also a little silly. Here the band rue, once again from a very British perceptive, how they’ve never had the chance to go to California where orange skinned people can’t pass the sea without going in and throw their food in the bin to keep thin. It’s a glorious track.
The Mystreated made four albums, a mini-LP, and handfuls of stand-alone singles and EPs before calling it a day in the face of the huge indifference. They did move beyond the smash-and-grab raids of their first releases but it was those, including their debut 10 Boss Cuts, which had the greatest influence on me, even being partially responsible for four of us from Uxbridge forming our own band, The Electric Fayre, even though none of us had ever picked up an instrument before.
We knew we’d never come anywhere close to them but we pinched parts of their songs for our own and cheekily thought one day we might be as good as The Nuthins (headed by current Shindig! editor Jon Mills). Our Gary Garage bought (much to my delight and slight jealousy) Martin Ratcliffe’s Vox teardrop guitar that appears on the cover of their 1994 LP Looking Right Through. Gary could barely play it but it looked beautiful and it looked great hung on him. Without hearing us and despite our protestations of being crap, The Mystreated invited us down to play in Folkestone one Saturday and we spent the afternoon drinking and ignoring, even more than usual, my Two Pints Rule. The resulting gig was predictably atrocious and I spent the longest, most embarrassing, twenty minutes of my life trying to work which member of the band I should try to sing/shout along with as they all giggled to themselves behind me. That night has now passed in to Electric Fayre legend and gets mentions, to this day, every time we are together, mainly to wind me up. Oh, I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.
But I digress. Back to The Higher State. Formed in 2005 and now working on their fourth LP they contain the same nucleus as The Mystreated, namely Marty Ratcliffe (vocals/guitar) and Mole (drums/vocals) plus Paul Messis (bass) and Dan Shaw (guitar/vocals) they tread very similar ground to their former band although they insist (as they would) they are far superior to their predecessor.
If Bronco Bullfrog are strong anglophiles, take a sideways glance at the 60s, and can only dream of visiting America, The Higher State are (in mind) the opposite. They’re firmly entrenched on the West Coast in ‘66 where Love and The Byrds encouraged thousands of bands to spring up who through imitation and then innovation created their own distinct styles. In that old Mystreated interview, Marty claimed “We aren’t a 90s band trying to be a 60s band, we are a 60s band” and nothing has changed. Authenticity is still the key and their single-minded and unwavering devotion to their vision is a rare thing in music world of fads and scene chasers.
“Potentially (Everyone Is Your Enemy)” explodes out of the traps on a taut fuzz line, guitars chime, drums snap and crack, and the song hurtles along kicking dust over the lines between folk-rock and garage-punk and West Coast psychedelia. There’s a huge hook of a chorus which pulls away from menacing whirlpool breaks. It’s nothing short of brilliant. They’ve got this stuff down to tee and always sound like themselves rather than mere copyists or revivalists and I’m as excited by this record as I’ve ever been about anything Marty and Mole have made in the past. To come up with something so vibrant you’d think this was their first record.
The flipside “All Ties That Bind” kicks off with a riff tweaked from “The Last Time”, although feels more 13th Floor Elevators than Stones, and doesn’t waste a moment of its one minute and forty five seconds. It’s over so quickly it encourages another play.
Much has happened in twenty years: tastes have changed, attitudes have shifted, people burn out or fade away but I’m sat here (thankfully no longer kneeling on the floor of my bedroom in my parents’ house with a manual typewriter perched on my bed) pleased I backed a couple of winners back then and delighted music made now by some of those same people can still move me enough to want to share it.
“Potentially (Everyone Is Your Enemy)” by The Higher State and “Clarifoil” by Bronco Bullfrog are released as limited edition (500 copies) 7 inch singles by State Records on 22 July 2013
|Something Has Hit Me Issue 2 (1993)|