Switched At Birth
The (Greater) Manchester music scene is a complex and vibrant beast of a thing – just when you think you have got your head around it, and its various sub-sets, and nooks & crannies, something comes along to throw all of that certainty into another place entirely. Ian “Moet” Moss has been an important part of its’ history, and indeed is still as part of the current scene, as articulated very precisely in Stephen’s Dobson biography – The Man Who Killed The Hamsters. Page 252 of the book dwells briefly on the Stepbrothers – which was a band comprising Moet, Eddie Fenn and John Gill. This is a tale of an album that never got released – until now. The twelve songs on this “digital only” release represent a pocket of time in 1993, but, more importantly they demonstrate that how the music industry can miss out on a work of significant quality due to the vagaries of life, and the passage of time.
The music was recorded at weekends, in a studio Eddie Fenn had built in the cellar beneath his home, in a relatively short period from spring to autumn 1993.
The nucleus of Stepbrothers was Eddie Fenn – ex member of Marc Riley’s Creepers , Tools You Can Trust , and early Factory Records act Crawling Chaos; John Gill, a cheerful and gentle studio technician of the highest order affiliated to the Mekons , Edward the Second – and through his work at the Band on the Wall a source of encouragement and knowledge aspiring musicians could tap into; the trio was completed by Moss , ex Hamsters vocalist.
The initial recordings were very machine based and drew record company interest but as the material developed more and more ‘real’ instruments were used, with many guests contributing , the album was completed, but by that time record company interest had cooled. This demonstrates the not unsurprising lack of foresight you find in the decision making processes at some companies.
More tracks were started featuring Lu Edmonds (PIL, Mekons , The Damned) and Tom Greenhalgh ( Mekons) and then life intervened which meant Moss had to withdraw.
Stepbrothers continued as a vehicle for Fenn and Gill using an assortment of vocalists until the illness and death of John Gill. He was a well respected and much loved friend to so many, and an all day memorial show at the Band on the Wall saw many musicians he had helped and collaborated with paying tribute to his memory. These included Eddie Fenn , Ian Moss , and the Mekons.
Looking back to 1993, and using my usual point of reference i.e. which Fall album was released that year (The Infotainment Scan – in case you are interested), it’s interesting to view the context. The Happy Mondays had more or less dissolved, the Madchester scene had imploded, The Chameleons had called it a day and Burgess had begun his solo career. In the charts the Manchester music world would be represented by M People throughout the year, Sub Sub would have their one hit before morphing into Doves, but that was about it singles wise. Surprising then that a politically aware “manc” pop album which is stepped in Jamaican rhythms, jazz licks, post-punk guitars, nascent dance electronica and the Moss’ gravelly polemic didn’t grab the attention of the music gurus – maybe the “return” of New Order with “Republic” diverted attention away from what was, and is, a remarkably good collection of music.
What you have here is a collection of music which some twenty-one years later sounds fresh, new, modern, and inevitably timeless.
In a conurbation that has delivered such a wide variety of ground-breaking musical themes over the years here’s a chance to listen to one that slipped through the net. There’s a selection of material that moulds a variety of styles and influences into a compelling sound. The album splits neatly into two six song sections – the first half is more varied and might be generally called “Manchester Pop”- albeit pop with a very angry vocalist raging at all and sundry through layers of reverb and echo. After the dance hall stylings of opener “Battery Hen” we are introduced to the infectious back-beat of “Spleen” with it’s layers of sensuous guitars and Moss’s swaggering vocal, the variations in style are breath-taking. Next up we have sexy saxophone rolling around a funky little reggae beat, disco hand-claps, and a series of blues soaked changes which are simply stunning. Moss is at his lyrical zenith here – the imagery, the word play, and the references are multi-layered – “Bird” referencing Charlie Parker of course – is a high-point of the album. Into the Dub Chamber for the off-kilter “Chicken” which batters you over the head with it’s delivery – quickly followed by the other worldly “Dreamer” which owes a nod towards “Chanson” and english musical-hall and feels like something Pagliacci might have come out with had he been born in Ashton Under Lyne. One of Moss’s great auto-biographical lyrics. After the drama we have the pure pop fun of the excellent “Ararat” which gives a northern edge to the “Nutty Boy” sound and is fine closer to the first set of six.
The second set of tunes goes somewhere else entirely. Serial electronica introduces “Acetone” which was revived on Kill Pretty’s “In 80 Days” album. At this point you think, hang on am I listening to the same album? “A Series Of Dreams” is marvellous and mixes a louche manc dance swagger into a amazing chorus which wouldn’t be out of place on a Syd Barrett album. The predominant rhythm is an anglicised reggae/ska feel which reappears across the album but is in each instance coupled with a jaunty Manchester pop-psych sound which also brings in the off-kilter vibe of the early David Essex albums. If you aren’t up and dancing to the infectious “Plague” with it’s moreish “Shabba Sha” chorus they you have no soul. However don’t get comfy in your dancing shoes as the next track leaps into a manic post-punk guitar work-out with the venomous “Coney Island” which made me wonder what Howard Devoto would have sounded like if he had embraced are more soul oriented approach. You can slip your dancing shoes back on for lengthy and dubby “Bogle Vers”, which is insanely catchy. The closing “Persian” is a tour de force, including the elements of the original work of Cabaret Voltaire, a nod to the more interesting elements of David Sylvian’s work, and an Eno-esque attention to soundscape. Moss is baleful and unforgiving but also richly emotive and Mancunian at a visceral and primitive level.
This is. put simply, an exceptional album which you need to hear.
The album is released in digital format via German Shepherd Records on March 31st.