MUSIC CULTURE - See You in the Basement
Mark L 03/03/2005
The sense of cult was magnified. I mean this place was underground, selling underground bands, who were now buried in a metaphorical 'underground' grave. Hit by the stuffy air of stagnating plastic CD cases I always found a morbid curiosity to moping around my local indie store's bargain basement. The place was littered with the dead hopes and aspirations of a hundred 'nearly mades' for a dirty £5, or even, £2 a throw.
The final resting place for every best laid plan. Every grasp for attention still and lifeless. All the rehearsal room enthusing, bedroom dreams, worn away, beaten down until nothing remained but these documents. "Wow do you remember them....Octopus, El Nino, Joyrider, Geneva, The Nicotines, Arnold, Cay, Cecil, The Diggers, Grasshow, Subcircus, Rialto, Contempo, Ultrasound ..? " the list would stretch, the shelves would be densely packed with each crumpled dream. I would sometimes wonder what these band members were all doing now, whether they still hunted for their records in stores, what jobs they did, were any of them dead?
I would leave with a plastic bag cutting into my fingers carrying the weight of 3 or 4 CD corpses, largely having no clue as to what could be expected. I never had much hope, but being brainwashed by the price compulsion of the modern (student) shopper I was always willing to take the risk. Change in my pocket and morbid curiosity. But......if it died, surely it was bad? Then again, the general public have always been shown up for a lack of taste. In fact the perennial advantage of being an 'indie' fan (and I use that term loosely) is that you get more bargains than the average 'Joe'. Not many people like your bands, they are underground, they are the first to get the label over label ticketing until they are reduced to the price of a felt tip marker and a sherbet dip.
My success rate was high, I mean notwithstanding that I was on a drug of sort. The endorphin of being 'exclusive' and getting a 'bargain' combined to uplift the initial sense of listening joy, but despite this I was still surprised at how many of these CDs withstood repeated listening. Some even became favourites in my library.
I knew nothing about Cables' (£2!) debut album 'Downlift the Uptrodden', it had that feel of a band in the garage playing through blown speakers and rusty fuzz boxes. It was pure enthusiasm channelled through dark songs almost exclusively about death. I loved it. How had I missed this band? One of those 'names' that floated around. I had seen them support a band, oh I forget. That 'Arthur Walker' single a while back. In fact any snatches of their name were caught by me in their downward spiral and subsequent demise.
Because these bands get half heard, half glanced, half tipped before you 'were into this sort of music', or while you were reading something else, before you were born. Then you find them. Heard a single by them on the Evening Session in 1995? Oh they were tipped in 1994? Whatever happened to....Tiger? I bought the album for 10p. It wasn't very good actually. But the El Nino one for £2 was pretty cool.
In fact the Woolworth's 'tape bin' is like a tiny microcosm of the indie store bargain basement. It is full of those 99p tape albums that somehow found themselves in the wrong part of town on a dead format. Gay Dad / Lo-Fidelity Allstars albums for 99p each on Cassette!
The thing with this basement hunting was the impossible task of almost anyone you speaking to knowing of these bands. I mean we all know about the big Gay Dad / Terris 'Next Big Thing' failures of this world, but what about Toaster, Crashland, Speedo, Ruth, Cecil, Union Kid, Mercedes? At one point these bands were endorsed on a well known or large-ish commercial label, CDs pressed in large enough quantities to make a sizable sash of plastic spines, and then, before you know it, a 'do not pass GO do not collect fame and fortune, go straight to bargain basement'. Come to think of it Creation Records had a bit of a rate- One Lady Owner, Octopus, Heavy Stereo, 18 Wheeler, there was probably one wall in the basement just for their output of flops. In fact, many of the obscure bands I found in these indie dud basements were a direct result of the mad Britpop/ post Britpop signing spree which Creation took a big part in. A spree which was unsustainable by the record buying public, and resulted in the wheels falling off a lot of bands careers.
What I find interesting is that there are the 'pre internet' age bands found in these places that have effectively no online document of their existence. Nowadays even the smallest of new underground hopes will have more of a legacy on the WWW than an indie dud back in the early 90s. Now everything is documented. There are few nooks and crannies where a commercially released band can hide now, where your only information on them are those dusty Melody Makers.
When trawling through these places I even thought about the concept of 'Post Career Bargain Basement' success. The idea that in one store these bands could be selling well at a £2 per album price point and what if that system was multiplied across all record stores. Would price transcend the fate of these bands, and does price affect your outlook on how good an album is? I find that if I ever get stung and pay £14.99 for an album (rare nowadays) it subconsciously has to meet a much higher bar for me to be truly elated with it than an album I got for a quid. I suppose the best thing is getting an album in a bargain basement and saying to yourself that you would have been dead chuffed with paying £14.99 or even the 'Tower Records Re-Mortgage Your Home' £16.99.
But regardless of price I think the attraction to this whole exercise was the glamour of the unsuccessful. It goes back deep into the 'indie' psyche where 'sell out' is off putting. After all, what is a more extreme failure than an obscure indie band few have heard of, who aren't ever going anymore, with a quantity of surplus albums for £2 each in a grubby basement? 'But', I hear you say "if the quest is obscurity why are you not rushing to buy cheap unsigned CDs from the many eager websites?" Well, all I can respond with is that there is something more attractive, more perverse, in the fall from grace of a signed band once touted and reduced to dust. To think that there was something seen by A&R scouts to make them think this lot were the next Cure, Pavement, Oasis, Manics, Nirvana, Smiths, Sonic Youth or Blur. The fact that serious money was pumped in, that there was a Lamacq session and a mention in 'ones to watch', only for a quiet descent into obscurity. It is a quest to recapture the magic that was initially heard in these bands, to see if the public ultimately got it wrong, to uncover hidden gems. Maybe there is two quid burning a hole in your pocket for a fallen dream?