GREAT LOST ALBUMS: A Witness (#2 in a hypothetical series)
NME’s semi-legendary C86 compilation was a curious hybrid. Much of it was the kind of ineffectual indiepop that 2008’s CD86 is exclusively populated with. But a good third represents a strand of British sub-liminal music that still hasn’t been given its dubious due by being assimilated to the Grand Narrative. Age Of Chance’s contribution, From Now On This Will Be Your God, is one of my favourite Great Lost Songs ever: the punk rock disco rendered as you’ve never heard it before or since. A mutant descendant of the I Feel Love bass line and a guitar sound they described as “duelling cathedrals”, plus a wiry bespectacled man giving it the old anti-American diatribe in an intelligent, wordy and funny way you just didn’t in 1986. This song is their clear pinnacle, but if I were in the reissue business I’d be more than happy with a product comprising the Peel session that includes it, the C86 version and the tracks from the two 7”s they did on their own Riot Bible label. I’d certainly buy one if I were in the buying-stuff-you’ve-already-got business. Which, shamefully, I am. So get to it.
Age of Chance turned to shit more catastrophically than most. They’d done a version of Prince’s Kiss that persuaded major labels they would be viable fodder. It was executed in that very eighties white-boys-try-to-do-hip-hop style. It wasn’t as bad as Pop Will Eat Itself. Few things are. But it (and everything they did subsequently) had little to do with anything they’d done when they were good. They wanted the cake. They wanted the cake so badly that after their appalling first album bombed they sacked the wiry bespectacled man and replaced him with a soul singer. Fuck the Age of Chance. They have nothing to lose. Not now.
More to the point, A Witness. Peel adored this band, and I’m mildly sure it was he who told of a R1 colleague recoiling in horror, saying “it sounds like Led Zeppelin!” You must hear A Witness now, just to get your head around the fact that at least one person has existed who heard them and was reminded of Led Zeppelin. The mind boggles, violently. Keith Curtis does sing high, but comes across more like the overwrought junior cousin of Mark E. Smith than any kind of rock singer, and Rick Aitken’s guitar owes less than nothing to the venerable British tradition of taking some tired blues riff, turning up the gain and trying to pass the result off as entertainment. He’s too busy inventing the guitars of the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Tortoise for all that. OK, he’s neither as rawk as Rage nor as beard-strokey as Tortoise. But it’s 1986 and he lives in Stockport. Give the man a standing ovation, with tickertape. If the wave of Reformation ever reaches as far up shore as A Witness, I’ll tip my hat to the guitarist who can stand in for Rick, who died before the band had the chance to outdo I Am John’s Pancreas.
It’s all about the shouty kitchen sink snot situation really, this record, except for those pesky lounge tracks of course, but 4.49 Stool, seven minutes of uneasy ambient drone, takes all of the best biscuits for me. Having a genius precog guitar player isn’t enough for them, you see. They have to go and invent the likes of Seefeel and Fennesz while they’re at it. Of course, none of these people has the slightest idea that A Witness ever existed. Doesn’t matter: fact remains that 4.49 Stool sounds like a more than decent album track in 2009 whereas in 1986, in the context of an “indie” album such as this, it sounded like wilful, incomprehensible perversity.
Of the more snot-caked tracks, Dipping Bird is a slowed-down acid nightmare reminiscent of things the Butthole Surfers were doing half a world away at the same time, while the über-shouty Loudhailer Song is like an uncouth Wire and begins “Things to remember / There is no God / Revolution will never come / We are all doomed to a life of servitude” which is pure bludgeon genius (until I bought the recent reissue, with its lyric sheet, I’d always thought it was “Little Richard will never come” and “solitude”, which was perfectly fine also). But the doozy is Red Snake, the most conventional track on the album, where they apply the spindly goth guitar/drum machine approach of early Sisters of Mercy and their legion of imitators to their Fall-literate blueprint (the actual Fall were not averse to nicking the odd goth trope at the time, of course) and manage to transform the whole into driving music for the A666, Blackburn-bound on a grey and pissy November afternoon.
In the parallel universe where Ultrasound’s singer wasn’t fat and the dumbing-down influence of Britpop wasn’t so prevalent, it’s possible that Ultrasound could be wowing them by the stadiumload by now. Nobody would make any such claim for A Witness. Different kinds of greatness, then. Same kind of lostness. But what the two acts do share is uniqueness: the most valuable attribute a pop group can possess. Perhaps I should re-name the hypothetical series before it gets any longer…