Wednesday, 19 June 2013
The Teardrop Explodes' Wilder revisited
Reward was a Top 10 hit in early ‘81, pushing motor-mouthed psych fan Cope, and his moptop, onto the cover of Smash Hits. The Teardrops’ debut album, Kilimanjaro, was re-issued with Reward added, and stayed in the chart for most of the year. Issued in November ‘81, their second album was going to be called The Great Dominions until a last-minute change of heart saw it switched to Wilder; blurred flowers on the sleeve, like an imprecise Power Corruption and Lies (New Order’s second album, released a few months later), also indicated a sense of indecision. And then there was the opening track.
Bent out of Shape is a decent enough recording, with a strong, melodic chorus and Kilimanjaro brass married to a clunk-funk backing. The problem was that it had been recorded a few weeks earlier for a Radio 1 Richard Skinner session - switch to that version on the second disc of the 2013 reissue and you get an idea of how things going wrong in the Teardrops’ camp.
The verse on the Radio 1 version is just Cope (“Oh my love I’ve been bent out shape, can’t you see it’s killing me?”) and a two-note church organ, while the chorus reaches for The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore grandure. There’s also a musically subtle alteration I can’t put my finger on - a ninth, maybe? - which makes it a very different proposition to the album version. This version is a masterpiece, while the Wilder version is OK. Who on earth couldn’t have spotted that, either in the band, their management, or at the record company? It’s day and night.
The rest of Wilder’s first side is patchy; Colours Fly Away has brass reminiscent of the end credits to Thunderbirds, a fine, high verse and a weak chorus; Seven Views of Jerusalem is a horrible, arid Talking Heads-alike; while Pure Joy is Cope indulging his love of garage punk, over inside of 90 seconds.
It isn’t until the last two tracks on side one that we start to understand what Wilder, née The Great Dominions, was meant to be - a psychedelic divorce album. Squelchy funk moves almost kill the lovely Falling Down Around Me, but Cope’s mournful ba-ba-ba’s save it, while The Culture Bunker is a highpoint, detailing the fallout between Cope and former bandmates Ian McCullough and Pete Wylie. “I feel cold when it turns to gold for you” he sulks, over a bit of Gatsby trumpet, a Byrdsian guitar motif and a solid, largely synth-free groove. It’s the only Wilder track that could have slotted neatly onto Kilimanjaro.
Side two keeps up the momentum, opening with their third hit, the very Happy Together-influenced Passionate Friend, before the mood dips again for the hushed and exquisite Tiny Children. As Wilder came out, Cope was also working on a Scott Walker compilation called Fire Escape in the Sky. It seems hard to believe now, but Walker’s classic solo albums had been out of print for a decade, for the whole of the Seventies, and he had been entirely overlooked by the music press. When Fire Escape... was released it was a revelation to many.
Putting the Scott compilation together unsurprisingly rubbed off on Cope’s songwriting for Wilder. Tiny Children is good enough that it could have been on Scott 4: “I could make a meal of that wonderful despair I feel, but waking up I turn and face the wall”. With gentle Christmas bells on the end, it would have been a brave but timely single. A few weeks after Wilder was released, Soft Cell’s Say Hello Wave Goodbye was at No 3 in the chart - there was a definite appetite for this kind of autumnal epic in 1981 - but the middling Colours Fly Away became the album’s second single instead, and stuck miserably at No 54. Tiny Children wasn’t released as a single until the following summer when it felt decidedly unseasonal. It hung around the chart for a couple of months, with support from Radio 1’s breakfast show DJ Mike Read, but couldn’t get any higher than No 44, and the group split soon after.
The rest of Wilder’s second side is similarly moody. Just Like Lela Khaled Said featured some of Cope’s battiest lyrics - “I showed an empty crisp packet and said ‘Christo was here’” - as well as one of the catchiest choruses on the album; And The Fighting Takes Over revisits the “wonderful despair” of Tiny Children; and the would-be title track The Great Dominions is another kettle drum and synth wash neo-psych gem. Cope parodies himself lyrically, and the 1981 music press had little time for lines like “I’m just stuck in this pickle jar on a paper carpet.” Me? I think he meant it.
Frustratingly, the second disc on the new reissue includes a few tracks from the third Teardrop Explodes album, which was never completed. On the strength of the eerie Ouch Monkeys, with its delicately terrifying choral samples and dubby drops, it would have been their best. Soft Enough for You is a discomfiting sea shanty; The In-Psychlopedia sounds like Blue Monday on 78; and Suffocate is a superior, string quartet version of a track that originally appeared on the US edition of Kilimanjaro. What we don’t get here are Log Cabin or Buchanan, both recorded in ‘82 for a Peel session, which should have made the cut.
So this new edition falls between two stools. The complete sessions for the lost third album would be a proper archival treat, though this release effectively kills the chances of that happening. The sessions were produced by Dave Balfe, Cope’s nemesis in his autobiography Head On, but a severely maligned character if Ouch Monkeys is anything to go by.
Cope’s subsequent solo album World Shut Your Mouth was no slouch, yet was garage band, one-take stuff compared to the dark riches of b-side Window Shopping for a New Crown of Thorns or Soft Enough for You. It’s such a shame Balfe and Cope couldn’t hold the band together for another year.
If only Cope’s personal life hadn’t been such a mess (his consumption of LSD was notorious), if only he’d grasped the nettle and included the Scott-like take of Bent Out of Shape. At least now we can assemble our own preferred version of Wilder (add Screaming Secrets, delete Seven Views of Jerusalem, switch Bent out of Shape) from these two discs.
Cope has since said reforming the Teardrop Explodes would be like “having your mother wipe your asshole”. He has also said he never liked Scott Walker all that much. I’m inclined not to believe him, but I can’t blame him - who’d want to revisit a time when their marriage was falling apart and their freshly acquired pop-star status, the dream of a lifetime, was similarly out of control and disintegrating?
Posted by Bob Stanley at Wednesday, June 19, 2013