GREAT LOST ALBUMS: Leatherface (#7 in an occasional series)
My erstwhile stomping ground of Sunderland has in recent years been fecund for a town of her size. Maximo Park and the Futureheads may not be to everyone’s taste – they’re certainly not to mine – but they are making a relatively honest living and, you know, at least they’re not Razorlight. Then there’s David and Peter Brewis’s unassuming but ambitious Field Music operation, which released one of the best albums of 2006 under that banner before trumping this achievement with two of the best of 2008 (as School Of Language and The Week That Was respectively). But there was intelligent life in Sunderland before the twenty-first century. Kenickie hold a place in the heart of any cool nineties teenager for their intermittently successful attempt to break out of the sell-500-singles-and-be-grateful ghetto, and of course it was obvious early on to anybody who was paying attention that Lauren Laverne was a star in need of a firmament, so it’s nice to have learned yesterday that she is to replace the abysmal George Lamb as presenter of the 6 Music mid-morning show. Not that Laverne needs the work these days, but the prospect of being able to listen to live daytime radio on a weekday without wanting to pull the auditory canals out of one’s own head like stubborn weeds is an appealing one after those brief but interminable Lamb years.
And before Lauren, but after the Toy Dolls and Wavis O’Shave, there was Leatherface. There still is, it seems, although I didn’t know that until just now. I’m on extremely shaky ground here because I know next to nothing about the punk/hardcore milieu where counter-examples might be found, but I’m contending that, with this record in particular, Leatherface pushed the “pop punk” blueprint to a limit far beyond anywhere it had been pushed before or has been pushed since, a point where, like an aircraft accelerating through Mach 1, the form took on a whole new set of behavioural characteristics (if I’m wrong, and viable counter-examples do exist, I’d love to hear them). Certainly, they make the likes of Stiff Little Fingers, Hüsker Dü and the laughable Green Day, with all of whom they could be seen as being on a continuum, sound like last week’s teabag. And if that’s not a blasphemous enough sentence to simultaneously alienate and intrigue three generations of readers then I may as well take early retirement. It’s true, though. I’m not just saying it. As if. Gentle reader, do you take me for a TROLL? Heaven forfend. Your graven idol sounds like last week’s fucking teabag. Deal.
The Leatherface sound is superficially similar to all of the above (as well as a slew of forgettable British bands like Snuff, Senseless Things and Mega City Four that emerged around the same time as Leatherface) in that it consists of fast, melodic songs with fuzzy guitars and lots of chord changes. But focus in a little closer and the comparisons break down. Whippet-like frontman Frankie Stubbs’ songs fly far outside the boundaries of orthodox punk rock in their construction. The vocal melodies are often sublime, but it’s those lengthy, hovering, lopsided chord sequences that really set him apart from the C-F-G brigade. I still haven’t figured out what he’s doing with some of them, but I do know that nobody could accuse Stubbs of insulting her attention span as he wheels through any number of oddly-spaced, unexpected changes on his way to a resolution that always arrives in the end because, after all, these are pop songs. They’re just up to something other than the obvious. And that voice! Stubbs sounds like Lemmy would if the latter wasn’t at heart a “rock” singer, like a Lemmy washed clean of the rhythm and bloooze influences that Discharge and Napalm Death, among others, finally exorcised from punk and metal; but like Lemmy a singer from the gut, a very different proposition to the throaty rasp of your average angry punk rock boy, although I’d be doing Bob Mould a disservice here if I allowed the implied slur to ride and didn’t point out that at his best – Brasilia Crossed With Trenton, say – Mould is one of the great soul singers of our time.
Stubbs’ lyrics are also frequently amazing. And as often they’re not, but he has a very individual style. Here’s Baked Potato, in its entirety, more or less. I could pick and choose and cut and paste from various songs and make him look like Oscar Wilde, but this is better. Typically, it can’t decide whether it’s kitchen sink realism or metaphysical poetry:
I’ve read the books of men and women and death
Stood in bars listening to conversations about Jesus Christ
And the refugees, and the royal family
Everybody knows how to cook baked potatoes
Everybody knows, but they still tell you
Everybody knows which way the wind blows
There’s a catastrophe, then comes the film
Packed full of art, you know that for a start
And people like me have something to sing about
… you can’t fill your boots for ever and ever and ever
Sea and black sand can’t be compared to anything
Being in a rock band wasn’t what I had in mind
Sea and black sand…
Impersonating Cliff Richard’s lip or Iggy with a bottle
Is not as ridiculous as Black Rod knocking on a door once a year
And never getting in
Because he wants the people to come and listen to the Queen
But Leatherface’s defining characteristic, and I’d hazard the band’s raison d’être, isn’t any of the above. It’s the guitars. Those guitars. Bloody hell. Stubbs and his foil Dickie Hammond are one of thee great double acts, no question, and like all the best double acts they succeed not by grudgingly taking turns to show off but by working together to evolve into a perfectly adapted, if ungainly and rather specialised, creature with one brain and four hands. The best parallel is with Buzzcocks (whose twin guitar genius is seldom discussed, overshadowed as it is for most listeners by their poptastic vocal melodies) but although both groups favour a distorted, compact sound that lends clarity to the densest of arrangements Leatherface’s guitars are waaaay ruder, and if in some senses their songs, for all their lopsidedness, are more trad than the best Buzzcocks work, once you’ve tuned in to those guitars you’ll hear some very weird stuff, harmonically, much of which, especially given that Leatherface songs are typically around twice as fast, is honed to a precision that leaves Shelley and Diggle in the dust. This is dual guitar work, or guitar duel work, of a rare intricacy: I think somebody whose fantasy football guitarist was John Renbourne, or Richard Thompson – or Adam Jones for that matter – could appreciate it, but always the breakneck lattice of those Gordon Smith guitars through MXR distortion (that’s what they sound like, anyway) exists to serve the song even while, as I’ve said above, the song really exists so Stubbs and Hammond can do that thing they do with those guitars.
For an act still more than unlikely to receive that coveted Mojo award, Leatherface’s back catalogue is all reassuringly expensive, albums typically coming in around the ten to fifteen quid mark. But prices for Mush – on Amazon, yesterday, that is, I haven’t researched this extensively because I already have a copy – start at just under fifty. So it must be good, ha ha. Nevertheless, if I stop to think of all the pleasure I’ve had from this record since its release in 1991, and of the surprises that it continues to dish up long, long after the average guitar pop album has lost its flavour on the bedpost, I’d have to say that it would easily have been worth the half ton. You can probably get it as MP3s for a tenner. Or “steal” it. Better than nothing, in both cases, for Leatherface and, dear consumer, for you.