18th Oct 2021
Amongst the wealth of new exciting new sounds and styles in music that the 80s heralded was a band that always stood out from the crowd – Shriekback. Their quirky dark lyrics and odd arrangements appealed to me. While researching this article I was happy to see that they were (pre-COVID) still pretty active with their 15th studio album, Some Kinds of Light, having been released at the end of 2019.
I’ve chosen to feature a few songs from their 1986 release, Big Night Music, the 5th and possibly most accessible album of their (then) four year career. I featured one of my all-time favourite songs from the album some time back, and as tempting as it is, I won’t be sharing ‘The Reptiles and I’ again today.
Before we hit the music let’s take a look at the who’s and how’s of Shriekback. The band formed in 1980 as a part of the post-punk movement thanks to Barry Andrews, the keyboardist of XTC, Dave Allen, the bassist for Gang of Four, and Carl Marsh form Out on Blue Six. They turned their backs on the pop clichés of the era and honed their sound around bass-driven funk, intriguing (although not always understandable) lyrics, and a dark vocal style which set them apart from their peers.
Shriekback’s first albums were an exercise in psycho-funk and featured distinctive drum programs. Although they produced some decent tracks on the early albums, it wasn’t until their third release, Oil and Gold, that critics started to take notice. By the time Big Night Music came along, Carl Marsh’s drum machines had been replaced by Martyn Baker’s skilful percussion. In the album notes the band is quoted to say “Big Night Music is entirely free of drum machines, we have chosen to make a different kind of music — one which exalts human frailty and the harmonious mess of nature over the simplistic reductions of our crude computers.”
This change in approach saw the band move from the realms of ‘fringe’ to unlikely pop stars. It is a special album and see’s Barry Andrews handling all of the vocals for the first time. Although by no means a great vocalist, it is perfect for the dark quality of the ten tracks. Dave Allen’s bass anchors the sound and never falters throughout, but he unfortunately left the band shortly after the release of the album.
I’m starting with the opening track of the album, ‘Black Light Trap’. In an interview Barry Andrews described the song as “Large – so large! Lots going on in an architectural vibe – It’s a big, creaky, Gormenghast* thing with disco”
(*Gormenghast is a 1950’s gothic fantasy trilogy by Mervyn Peake – highly recommended reading – LTM)
The Big Night Music album was a conscious effort on the part of the band to reach a wider audience. It was the first of their albums to feature pictures of the members and included lengthy linear notes crediting everyone from make up to production assistants. The ploy worked and the album found favour with critics and an increasing global fan base.
My second choice from the album has always made me smile. If you have ever read Zen Master Linji’s ‘If you meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him’ you will appreciate ‘Gunning for the Buddha’. If you haven’t, you may be a bit confused.
The title is usually interpreted to mean that if you think you’ve met someone who fits your notion of who the Buddha is, it’s actually not Buddha, and the best thing to do is to ‘kill’ your notion of Buddha by ridding it from your mind.
The song ‘Gunnin’ for the Buddha’ is about a couple of friends, Mark and Danny, who enjoy discussing ancient Eastern philosophy while travelling through Greece together and are “gunning for the Buddha” in that they are pondering the teachings of the Zen Master Linji, questioning their personal conceptions of the Buddha, and/or possibly playing a game at trying to spot (read: hunting for) fake (or “half-baked”) Buddhas. While agreeing to do so, they joke about “gunning” (substituted in place of “killing”) for the Buddha during their travels.
The song tells of their encounters and contains some brilliant lines and imagery (“Moving on into the body of a beetle/ Getting ready for a long long crawl”). I also love the island style steel drum vibe of the song that gives a coconut infused foot-tapping quality to the darkness!
A question that Shriekback has regularly been faced with over the years revolves around the meaning of some (most) of their lyrics. Barry Andrews explains “what I’ve always tried to do with music, specifically SONGS (which are a brilliant art-form and still nowhere near exhausted) is create new places – funny little aquariums where the rules of the outside world no longer apply. Bear in mind that this is not sheet music it’s recorded music so all sorts of subtleties and inflections are possible. What I mean is that Songs are perceived sonically, primarily – then we add the strata of meaning. But, as with all good art-forms the most fun is in the grey areas – where the Delicious Frissons of Ambiguity live.”
These delicious frissons of ambiguity result in ten tracks that include (in my humble opinion) some of their best songs. I was happily surprised at how well this album has stood up over the 35 years since its release and urge any fans from the day to take another listen. I think you will agree with me.
In conclusion, Big Night Music isn’t a party album; it’s an album for contemplation; One of those ‘roll me another’ albums to be shared with likeminded friends who appreciate your sense of odd. It’s a pity that Shriekback never gained the recognition or commercial success they deserved, but in a way that makes them akin to a well kept secret.
I’m closing with another favourite – here’s Underwaterboys. Enjoy.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021