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Song of the day – 203: Orange Juice

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Yesterday I posted the heart-warming news that former Orange Juice singer Edwyn Collins has a new album out. It seems only right to follow-up with this. So please, note this date: 8 November 2010. Auspicious. Realistic. Wonderful. Domino Records are releasing Coals To Newcastle, a seven-disc box-set of Orange Juice music, in the UK on that very day.

That would be… let me think…

The two (rather different) versions of the debut album You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever. The more renowned one came out in 1982, and has delighted me ever since.

The other was recorded for their original label, Postcard Records (“The Sound Of Young Scotland”) and never released, after the group signed to Polydor and the original lineup fell apart in the middle of re-recording. That one was called Ostrich Graveyard, and it finally got a release in 1992, followed a year later by The Heather’s On Fire, a collection of those first four glorious Postcard seven-inch singles plus a bunch of related stuff. These two retrospectives were reissued together in 2005 under the title The Glasgow School – I think – and it is under that title here that they make up the first CD of this glorious set. With a bunch of extra stuff, of course (French versions, instrumental versions, live versions etc). Now, the music all sounds very cluttered and brash and swept away with the sheer delight of being young and living in Glasgow, loving other boys’ fringes that most don’t even dream about, but of course that was a lot of Orange Juice’s appeal. That, and Edwyn Collins’ delirious tremble of a voice, sometimes not even able to hit the notes it so desired. But that, of course, was much of the appeal. That, and the melodies, and the warm self-deprecating humour.

Not that I immediately thought so back in ’81. I auditioned for the role of Scars singer after Robert King left the group: I was mortified when told I sounded like Edwyn. Now, of course, I wear it as a complete badge of pride.

Here’s what I wrote about The Glasgow School for Plan B Magazine #6.

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Orange Juice
The Glasgow School (Domino)

“They say there’s a thousand like you/Maybe that’s true/I fell for you and nobody else” – ‘Falling And Laughing’

This is where it starts: fumbled glances in doorways, fringes worn proudly like Roger McGuinn, guitars a rush of blood through the heart and out onto the streets, mistakes and laughter mixed in with crush-worthy melodies and the undeniable rush of falling in love for the 113th time. Orange Juice were Glasgow boys manly enough to admit their feminine side was at least twice as enticing as their male. Before Stephen Pastel and Morrissey and all the lesser lights that followed (them), there was Edwyn Collins. Cavalier, gay (in the old-fashioned sense), flashing a coy smile while simultaneously flicking his fringe back and falling over drunk: championing a proletarian pop music that took punk’s first and most important lesson to heart – do it yourself, the others are probably boring old farts anyway – and applied it to the music of Motown, Stax, disco, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, life itself.

The first Orange Juice singles are peerless – 1980’s debut ‘Falling And Laughing’ with its riotous instrumental B-side, ‘Simple Thrilled Honey’ (oh MY GOD!) with its infectious stuttered denouement of peer pressure, the tinny, delirious ‘Blue Boy’, the unstoppable ‘Poor Old Soul’… These were the rampant, barely formulated, refrains that launched a thousand independent bands (most of whom promptly missed the point of what they were aping) and helped define one of the Greatest Indie Labels of our time, full stop – Postcard Records (Orange Juice, Josef K, The Go-Betweens, early Aztec Camera), the Sound Of Young Scotland indeed. And then the band (Edwyn, much overlooked songwriting partner James Kirk, Steven Daly, David McClymont) got even better.

A debut album was recorded, Ostrich Graveyard and scrapped, for being too… what precisely? Gleeful? Amateur? Spontaneous? I believe it had something to do with the band signing to a major label, Polydor, halfway through its recording… So another was released in its stead, 1982’s You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, pretty much my favourite debut ever (alongside The Fall and Dexys), mostly the same songs, but an entirely different feel (burnished, polished and glistening like the first rainfall of spring). Both are as fine as each other, but it’s the first that is repeated here, alongside the aforementioned four Postcard singles. Also included here are two bonus tracks: a weird, barely together, send-up of ‘Stars On 45’, ‘Blokes On 45’, and some pre-OJ vintage, Nu-Sonics. No complaints, although I was hoping for far more obscure material.

Still. This is, without doubt, some of the finest ‘independent’ pop music recorded. And you know what? Like Beat Happening and Huggy Bear after them, like The Slits before, all most critics could think to say about Orange Juice was, “You can’t play your instruments, you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s not rock’n’roll”. It was accepted Edwyn couldn’t ‘sing’. You WHAT??? As the future NME editor, Steve Sutherland, rightly wrote at the time, “Since when has pop’s odd stray note meant anything other than the finest point of expression, the bit where personality punctures a rigid song formula and really rejoices or hurts?” Listen to songs like the heartrending ‘In A Nutshell’ or deprecating ‘Consolation Prize’, or the upbeat rendition of Vic Godard’s joyous ‘Holiday Hymn’ and then tell me perceived technical ‘flaws’ matters one jot. If they do exist, they only add to the music’s charm, to its humanity. That’s the line that separates Plan B readers from U2 and Coldplay aficionados. We want to hear the humanity at music’s core. We like it when things go wrong, or aren’t quite perfect.

This compilation is beyond essential: it’s lifeblood itself.

So that’s discs one and two.

Disc three must be 1983’s ‘difficult’ second album Rip It Up. It’s here, with a bonus tumble of 12-inch B-sides and the ace Motown rip ‘All That Ever Mattered’. Let’s be honest. I still don’t understand the bewildering variety of different musical styles that tumble gleefully over each other on this sprawling pussycat of an album: I know funk and soul and pop were all the rage among the Glaswegian bands of the day, and fuck’s sake why not: and I know that after the split, Malcolm Ross (previously of the jittery and superlative Josef K) and Zimbabwe/Glasgow drummer Zeke Manyika) were major influences on Orange Juice’s sound and songwriting, and fuck’s sake why not: but songs like ‘Hokoyo’ and ‘A Million Pleading Faces’ still sound like filler to me, especially when placed next to such moments of genius as the Top 10 hit ‘Rip It Up’ and The Four Tops-referencing ‘I Can’t Help Myself’.

There again, I never understood why Oasis ever had Noel Gallagher sing.

It’s weird. Discs four and five almost seem after-the-fact – the mini-album Texas Fever was recorded in 1984 in the middle of yet another band break-up; the final album The Orange Juice was released later the same year, as Polydor Records became increasingly lukewarm towards the band (now just Collins and Manyika) – yet they contain some of my absolute favourites. ‘A Sad Lament’ with its beautiful organ sound and slow fade-out. ‘The peerless, abrasive ‘What Presence?!’. The self-deprecating and perhaps too close-to-the-knuckle ‘Lean Period’. The should-have-been chart-topping  ‘Bridge’. The rollicking ‘The Artisans’. The deeply soulful ‘Out For The Count’. Whatever misgivings I might have had about Zeke Manyika’s role a few years earlier had disappeared by the time 1984 rolled around. I played these songs beyond endurance on my Dansette living in some fetid Rotherhithe squat, or perhaps that tiny one-bedroom flat in Peckham I shared with Aggi from The Pastels. This music was more ostensibly ‘rock’, although still influenced by 60s soul. Perhaps that’s why I liked it more?

Whatever. Orange Juice split in March 1985. I must have seen one of their final performances, in Luton, I believe, in front of a barely-populated auditorium.

Despite all the above wonderfulness, discs six and seven are the real meat for me – the BBC Sessions (of course!), which include perhaps the worst Orange Juice recording ever, their version of the Stars On 45 records that used to blight the Top 40 on a regular basis, ‘Blokes On 45’. Matched against that, however, is an even more frantic version of ‘Felicity’ and an appropriate tribute to primary OJ influence (and producer) Vic Godard, a shambolic reading of Subway Sect’s ‘Holiday Hymn’ that loses none of the original’s charm.

And on disc seven, a DVD, there’s the concept video Dada With (The Juice), pulled together with some Old Grey Whistle Test appearances and awful 80s videos. (What, no Top Of The Pops? Shame.)

Magic.

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