/ Stumble, Esurient, 1989
Every now and again the newspapers wheel out a pseudo-scientific piece of research, concocted on the back of sponsorship by a commercial enterprise that feels it stands to gain by the established association, positing that a particular day is the one on which we are likely to be at our happiest, or our most miserable. Unsurprisingly the former tends to crop up towards the end of June, when ‘the combination of lighter evenings, the prospect of holidays and memories of childhood summers is at its peak’ – that is, according to research commissioned by Walls Ice Cream. Conversely ‘weather, debt, and time since Christmas and failed quit attempt’ is cod proof that the bleakest day of the year is towards the end of January, when the days are not lengthening fast enough and spring still seems an age away. Funny that.
But another day has been earmarked in my mind as the bluest of the year ever since a group called Emily chose to immortalise its special brand of misery in song. Hungover and bloated we habitually rise on this day, facing eleven months before the dubious magic of Christmas would be engineered once again. The mild disappointment of presents received – the clothes that we would not ourselves have chosen, the books whose covers intimate hard labour if we want to extract goodness and pleasure from them – is coupled with the certainty that the presents we ourselves gave were very likely opened with the same sinking sensation. We’re still with the relatives, or the relatives are still with us. As yet there have been few flashpoints, but we would soon be calling in conciliation services were we or they not due to be leaving after lunch.
So it’s a blue holiday, but one not without a sense of relief, of having put all that disproportionate expectation – that residue of childhood – behind us. This is the low point of winter, but things will gradually get better from now on. The upcoming year is the one in which we will finally crack that nut we’ve been trying to crack, and this time around we are determined not to let the January blues get us. The days will soon start to lengthen and the first flowers of spring will signal returning warmth. And today we’ll be having bubble and squeak for lunch, followed by reheated Christmas pudding with the last of the brandy butter. Maybe there’ll be a decent movie on telly rather than a blockbuster. Certainly we’ll win the derby match this afternoon. And for the first time in what seems like days, the music lovers among us will find a few moments to play some music. And the first song this music lover will play is ‘Boxing Day blues’.
It’s an acoustic number, its rhythm provided by the guitars, and it’s swathed in appropriately wintry echo, creating a mood that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has experienced the inevitable post-xmas comedown that it is as much a traditional part of the British experience of Christmas as the face-off between the Boxing Day Hunt and the local branch of the Hunt Saboteurs Association used to be. It turns that listless satiated anticlimactic melancholy into a thing of great beauty. That’s in no small measure down to Gian Binelli’s beautiful clarinet part, and Oliver Jackson’s voice, deep and wide and tall but also capable of surprising softness, much like Scott Walker, and the words he sings:
‘It’s a wonderful thing
No a nightmare
The confusion I feel
Declared in a word
Oh but let yourself go
And believe that this is
I would not change
because the core is what you already see
‘There’s a vagueness in here
but it’s rooted in fear
That I might become
one of the horror stories of the year’
The song builds to a tinkling, chiming, jingling climax without ever losing its consistency of tone, its mood perfectly encapsulated by its title.
Emily’s path can be traced through the names of the record labels they recorded for. After appearing on a Sha-la-la flexi disc, they made a record each for Creation, Esurient, and Everlasting. This was a road which served to take them and their admirers away from the strictures of indie; helped free our minds for our asses to follow, eventually. While the leap they made during their association with Kevin Pearce’s Esurient label was gigantic, and the distance they travelled in order to present their Everlasting LP Rub al Khali was similarly staggering, Irony, the 12” that Creation issued, turned out to be a false start. At the time a number of us cried ‘Shoot the drummer!’ for even by indie standards he was not possessed of any audible sense of rhythm, but perhaps this is a little unfair on him, as listening back to the EP today, it’s obvious that the whole group was struggling to find its instrumental feet, let alone the musical chops the subsequent Emily line-up went on to develop. But the drummer was undoubtedly the weak link. If only Alan McGee had made it a condition of signing Emily that Olllie needed to get rid of his Pete Best, and find himself a Ringo, then Creation might eventually have had a group capable of challenging the cult status of My Bloody Valentine.
As it turned out, when new drummer Nick Jacques materialised, he was more Keith Moon than Ringo Starr. The difference he made to the group in the live setting was immediate and startling. This boy could drum. Boy could this boy drum. Finally Ollie had someone capable of following him, and spurring him on. In the back room of Camden’s Falcon, the sound may have been as taut and scratchy as barbed wire, but the idiosyncratic quality of the song writing and arrangements shone through. ‘What the fool said’ was transformed from an awkward and stilted plod into venomous shards of crystalline sound, the combined might of the trebly guitar and percussion scarifying all exposed surfaces, wood, metal, skin. If anything Nick was too good and Emily were rehearsed to the extent that they could tear through songs which they might have lingered a little longer over. But this they later learned to do to magnificent effect, settling into a habit of playing stretched-out four or five song sets.
It was with Nick on board that they began to play a song called ‘Stumble’. Blown away would understate its effect, even in that raw three piece state. The only thing that wasn’t trebly in the room was Ollie’s deadly deep vocal, and he howled the psychodramatic lines of the song as if at the moon. In its recorded from, fittingly wrapped in a sleeve of photographed fish heads in negative, ‘Stumble’ begins softly and acoustically, leading the listener up the garden path. Then a wash of keyboards suggests something else is afoot, if you hadn’t guessed from the organic percussion and the way the vocally confident Ollie is starting to let fly. A flute played by Italian multi-instrumentalist Gian Binelli, soon to join the group on a permanent basis, prettifies the sound, while deeper in the mix an electric guitar unwinds in the opposite direction. Finally Nick is unleashed, beating his kit into submission and together with the guest saxophonist and Ollie’s increasingly fevered vocal, a whirling dervish is created. In the late 1980s, an independent single with sax and wind instruments, certainly in the way Emily combined them with their underlying trio sound, was a relatively rare artefact. It remains an astonishing song. The man from the Washington City Paper got it right when he said (apropos of nothing and out of the blue in 2003) that it was ‘Astral weeks in four minutes instead of 47’.
Alongside ‘Boxing Day blues’ on the flip was ‘Rachel’, proving that Emily could write and perform at least three very different kinds of song. This was an up-tempo number, superficially more traditional, until you realised how much percussive dynamic and detail Nick was generating. Ollie’s guitar work strives to keep up and the resulting sound is somewhat Brazilian in its rhythmic lightness. A yearning, rain-affected chorus – ‘what surrounds us could even drown us’ – means that its particular melancholia is part-Brazilian, part-British; melancholia that is somehow managing to be jaunty.
As a complete record ‘Stumble’ outdoes pretty much the whole Creation roster on any number of counts: jangle, relationship psychodrama, dynamics, melody, performance, unusual instrumentation. Given Ollie’s unusually deep voice – I want to say basso profundo, even if it’s not technically accurate – and how much I played these three songs, it was understandable that the guy who had the room next to mine should ask me one day in the shared kitchen, ‘You like opera?’
A long time ago I wrote that ‘’Stumble’ is one of the best singles ever, and ‘Merry-go-round’, the greatest single never released.’ It’s a statement I still stand by. Esurient itself stumbled and fell. The unreleased single was to be recordings of ‘Merry-go-round’ and ‘Phydrama’ made live in a barn near Pandy in North Wales. You can get something of the sense of this version of ‘Merry-go-round’ through the live recording posted at Unpopular (it’s the second song of four starting at 5:46). Like ‘Stumble’, it was a song which developed along with the group, beginning life as a solo work with acoustic guitar, becoming a pacey jangle, then a raging prog attack and finally the dubby version renamed ‘Merri’ recorded for inclusion on Rub al Khali (and currently being streamed from Emily’s MySpace site). The lyric was the one constant: ‘The people change but the horses stand their ground’.
The Rub al Khali LP appeared without any fanfare in early 1991. It was yet another radical leap, though one for which live performances had somewhat prepared us. The Middle Eastern imagery of the cover was surely Emily suggesting that we are not who we were. We are not who you might want us to be. We are certainly not indie. The world is bigger than that; bigger than us. This LP is an expression of that. Take it or leave it. The cover also thanks ‘Du-Du Pukwana, healer of nations’, simultaneously referencing both the South African saxophonist in Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes and the peace-pipe in Longfellow’s ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. The track timings are another sign – four longer than seven minutes, one longer than eight, and the last, ‘Allah’, thirteen and a half. Almost an hour in total; as an LP-only release, there was no room for ‘Merri’. (I would have regretfully lost ‘Journeyman’ myself.) Two of the songs were recorded live in that barn in North Wales.
The musical inspirations for Rub al Khali are Jimi Hendrix, Tim Buckley and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. You might add the kosmische musik / Krautrock of the late sixties and early seventies but when I asked Gian about this many years later he said none of the group knew much about that. Hendrix is the obvious touchstone for ‘Americana’, ‘48 today’ (Jimi would have been 48 on November 27th 1990) and the opening number ‘Foxy’. The song shuffles into view, but we could not be further from shambling if we tried. This is progressive prog, improvised indie, jazzed-up Jimi. Against the languorous prowl of Ollie’s vocal is set the sharply articulated soul singing of Jo Roberts, whose voice might easily have lit up any number of dance records emanating from the north-west in the early 1990s. ‘The Ocean’s coming in’, ‘No. 4’ and ‘Journeyman’ act as acoustic foils to all the blazing guitars, with Gian on clarinet and flute adding rainbows of colour and melody to each. And then there is ‘Allah’, its suitably Arabic mood improvised to a greater or lesser extent with I would guess Gian leading the way on alto sax. Rub al Khali isn’t quite perfect, nor is it a thoroughly mature piece of music-making, but it comes close on both counts and in terms of adventurousness it’s right up there with a record released later in 1991 – Talk Talk’s Laughing stock.
After the LP, the group recorded sporadically over the years, until the tragic early death of Gian Binelli brought any chance of Emily’s resurrection to an untimely end.
Emily travelled from ‘Boxing Day blues’ to ‘Allah’; from ‘The old stone bridge’ with which they began to Rub al-Khali, the ‘Empty Quarter’ of the south-eastern deserts of Abu Dhabi. It’s an incredible journey, and one which ought to be much better known than it is. And its peak was that incomparable record for Esurient.
• Boxing Day blues
• Emily MySpace
• Rub al Khali and Irony downloads; you may also be able to buy the LP from Rhythm Online
• Let me see you – on Emily, the Claim and the Hellfire Sermons with links to downloads of live sets
The photographs are of Emily at the Arts Centre, Exeter, 13th April 1989.