Bargain Bin Rescue Society II: They Coulda Been Contenders
In his second installment of what is a really cool series, Frazer Cooke introduces us to some more of his bargain bin finds!
If the first Bargain Bin Rescue Society article proved anything, it’s that bands who utterly failed to elicit any response from the public first time around are seemingly immune from any attempts to resurrect their career. The 8tracks playlist accompanying the article gained a paltry 2 plays. However, I know a format with legs when I see it and undeterred I am blindly ploughing on with my flag waving of the ignored and unloved. This time I’m slightly shifting focus from the utterly obscure to the bands that touched the cloth of fame, who fanned the faintest of embers of success before they blew out for good.
1. Air Traffic – Shooting Star (2007)
Luckily I’d heard the song before I read the promo which said the band specialised in “piano driven anthemic rock”, the phrase caused my spine to curl in disgust. It conjures up horrible images of the tepid, crowd pleasing, ever-so-earnest Coldplay. Probably the most disgusting thing about Coldplay is that their tunes are actually alright. I’d probably like some of them if they weren’t done by Coldplay, which is probably why I like this song. It’s rousing and catchy, you can air drum to it, it’s Coldplay, but importantly – it isn’t. Air Traffic started off quite well. They got some radio support and even the odd “Single of The Week” but nothing has been heard of them since 2010. Perhaps stadium rock doesn’t play too well in the back rooms of pubs.
2. Arkarna – So Little Time (1997)
I managed to assemble the entire Arkarna discography from bargain bin purchases. They flirted with success from the outset. The single ‘House on Fire’ got a bit of exposure courtesy of a remix by the Propellerheads (who subsequently used this blueprint for every remix they ever did). The group were well connected with various family members in the “biz”, they had money to spend on decent remixers and even had some sort of promotional deal with Levi’s which saw their mugs plastered around shops up and down the country. Despite all this, people avoided buying their records in droves. They were fronted by Ollie Jacobs, a young studio wizard who had done some work on Leftfield’s ‘Leftism’ album, a solid enough pedigree but curiously their formula of catchy hooks and big beats didn’t quite gel in the production. They sounded better when someone else remixed them. ‘So Little Time’ was their best single, though its legacy was tarnished when it was adopted as the theme of a cutesy American sitcom of the same name (although subversively it contains the lyric “Knock one out, then fall asleep”), although playing the song recently prompted my girlfriend to comment “Who is this, Peter Andre?” She has perhaps made an astute observation about a malfunction in my musical compass because it seems that Arkarna have reformed and are now working with pointless fluff act The Saturdays.
3. Purity – Dark Water (1998)
Opening for Depeche Mode on their singles tour is about as big a break as you could hope to get. Although, as I headed for the gig in Manchester in 1998, I was concerned by what I saw on the flyers plastered over every available surface – three pouty girls with odd haircuts looking like an ‘edgy’ All Saints. Hearing this track rumbling through the PA of the Manchester NYNEX, I was simultaneously relieved and elated. The bowels of hell cracked open as a ribcage rattling bass and a lacerated Amen break tumbled out over the assembled horde. On record it doesn’t quite capture that same intestine liquefying resonance. It clearly didn’t impress anyone else, as an outfit they didn’t make it to 1999.
4. Genaside II – Waistline Firecracker (1996)
Genaside II, formed in 1989, were not only present at the birth pangs of drum ‘n’ bass but DNA tests will give them some legitimate claims on its parentage. By 1991 though – like an irresponsible father – they’d gone. In 1996 they returned when the scene was blowing up, but not with a jungle track. Instead it was this slab of hardcore ragga hip hop; darkly brooding, with impenetrable lyrics and a melody lifted from Swan Lake. Casual browsers were no doubt put off by the tracklist; a ‘Shitty Remix’ and an ‘Eat Meatz Mix’ offered an unpalatable juxtaposition. Promotional material boasted of a relationship with Manga Films and the Wu Tang Clan but this seemed to amount to nothing more than the adoption of Manga’s corporate colour scheme and an album guest appearance from a peripheral Wu-ite. One of their early releases contributed the rhythm to The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ but later releases failed to build any success. They remain in that awkward state of influential without being successful.
5. Lunatic Calm – The Sound (1997)
Lunatic Calm created breakbeats that knocked lumps out of plaster. Genetically they evolved from the same ancestry as Radiohead (Simon Shackleton and Thom Yorke were both in the Exeter’s Headless Chickens). Lunatic Calm cooked up complex audio stews that took ingredients from jungle, techno, industrial and punk. Britain at the time was awash with artists specialising in hefty breaks and energetic loops, so they departed for the virtual breakbeat desert of the United States. Their label failed to support them and they slid into obscurity. Their American jaunt paid off in some degree as the single ‘Leave You Far Behind’ has become an action film soundtrack staple; most memorable from its prominent appearance in The Matrix. Shackleton continues to record with some success as Elite Force.
6. Silvah Bullet – Chemissinyadiss (1998)
UK Hip-Hop, though fondly remembered, consistently failed to produce any artist to rival the Americans. It wasn’t until it mutated into grime that it saw any stateside success. For a time Silver Bullet carried those hopes – and with good reason. The 1989 single ’20 Seconds to Comply’ is a classic, but its popularity was due to its club crossover success. It was something that clearly irked the group who dismissed it in interviews at the time, keen to establish their ‘real’ hip-hop credentials. Despite being mentored by Public Enemy for the next couple of years, fame eluded them. In 1998 they resurfaced with a newly misspelt name and cleansed of rave associations. They released two singles that foreshadowed grime and dubstep, carving out a uniquely British niche. It wasn’t traditional rapping, it was a sort of cross between dancehall toasting and Tourettic involuntary outbursts. An album was recorded but shelved and never surfaced. It was apparently issued as a promo because I found it in Vinyl Exchange in Manchester, but when I took the sleeve to the counter to have it reunited with the CD it had disappeared from their stock.
7. The Brotherhood – Alphabetical Response (1995)
Trevor “Underdog” Jackson knew how to construct a beat – with snares like a sledgehammer hitting a cornflake packet. He cornered the market in giving the hip-hop makeover to artists as varied as U2, Massive Attack, Sabres of Paradise, Shara Nelson and House of Pain. So when he took UK rappers The Brotherhood under his wing they seemingly couldn’t fail. They had access to some of the phattest beats in existence. It started well enough; Jackson released their initial output through his own Bite It! Label before securing them a deal with Virgin. However, in 1995 hip-hop struggled to be anything other than American. The Brotherhood were stoically Anglo-centric in their lyrical content and had considerably better production values than any of their American counterparts. Sadly, this was no guarantee of success and even the badly produced, trite US rap (of which there was plenty) proved more popular.
8. Dust Junkys – Nothing Personal (1998)
This last song completes our trilogy of UK hip-hop failure, although calling MC Tunes “hip-hop” is probably unforgivable in the eyes of any hardened UK hip-hop aficionado. Like Silver Bullet, MC Tunes found initial success with a club crossover hit – ‘The Only Rhyme That Bites’ with 808 State – but wider fame eluded him. If during the 90’s the larger rap world struggled with the concept of black British artists it certainly had no time for a white boy from Manchester doing cartoonish rave/rap. In 1995, MC Tunes formed the Dust Junkys. They created a seamless blend of rock and rap, not like the now derided genre of nu-metal, but a blues rock with big rhythms. They had a strong live following and it gave Tunes a credibility missing from his early work – but no actual success.
Words by Frazer Cooke. More writing by Frazer on Louder Than War can be found here.