16. The Chills – Satin doll

from the Dunedin double EP, Flying Nun, 1982

If the music of the Creation is ‘red – with purple flashes’, then the music of the Chills is blue – with purple flashes.

Shikoku baby (Side B)

Layer an organ on top of the noise the Stones made, give it a Martin Phillipps tune, a cantering rhythm and a Japanese feel, and you have ‘Satin doll’.  The satin, the blossom and the keyboard melody’s gentle to and fro are as stereotyping of Japan as hanging Hiroshige wood-block prints in your bedroom, but the song transcends this and becomes memorable because Martin Phillipps’ NZ-accented singing – so soft and quiet on the Dunedin double that the song was remixed for reissue on the Kaleidoscope world compilation – betrays no trace of irony, while the line of his guitar ascends beautifully, scything its way like a samurai through any number of competing warrior songs to stand alone and undefeated at the end of the fight; the second of many of his songs to do so.

Salvaging boyhood

Martin Phillipps has a gift for songs which might be taken as themes for the Chills’ entire body of work.  ‘Kaleidoscope world’ is one such, lyrically portraying the bright-eyed wonder of late boyhood and first girlfriends but also capturing in the music the melancholy those lost days generate.  Floating with his girl in a space capsule, Martin declares that ‘we’ll never die in our kaleidoscope world’.  The organ meanders like the shifting patterns of a suitably psychedelic optical toy, and an electric guitar purrs out its riffs low in the mix, turning the occupants of the capsule into outsize feline astronauts of Bagpuss colouring.

Sonic beauty

‘Flame-thrower’ – the flipside of debut single ‘Rolling moon’ – set the tone for the Chills’ uncanny ability to meld the theme of their songs with their sound.  Recorded live, it captures the group at full force.   At first the flame is powered down, barely visible, but then as Martin urges ‘Talk with me – it’s not too late’, the handle is depressed, and all within range are scorched.  Martyn Bull’s brilliantly dynamic drumming and the Morse code beeps of Rachel Phillipps’ keyboards are the fluid that this flame-thrower burns.

If the Chills had only ever recorded ‘Pink frost’, then they would have stood a very good chance of being remembered for all time.  The essential pink frostiness of ‘Pink frost’, the evocation of deeply iced ground tinged with shepherd’s warning sunrise redness, is remarkable.  It’s one of few songs of which I never tire, and yet I try not to listen to it arbitrarily or routinely, for fear of it finally losing its power over me.

As I recall the Chills were able to reconstitute the studio brilliance of ‘Pink frost’ live in London in the late eighties.  Even the sight of Martin Phillipps’ curly-toed jester-minstrel boots could not detract from its emotional force.  The Secret box collection gives a sense of how they developed that fire and ice sound through live performance – the seven minute instrumental ‘Balancing’ provides the best evidence.

Under ‘Sonic beauty’, we might also file another theme song, ‘Night of Chill blue’, whose crystalline guitar is as clear as the scene in which Martin sets ‘Twinkling stars over a foreign land / Silent camel train on desert sands’, and ‘Effloresce and deliquesce’ which shows a Cocteau Twins-like delicacy in creating other-worldly sound-worlds.  Aquamarine is also the colour of the title song of the album on which ‘Effloresce’ appears, Submarine bells.  Once again, Martin makes a perfect match of lyric and sound, conjuring up a submersible sibling for the space capsule of ‘Kaleidoscope world’.

The contemporaneous ‘Wave-watching’ didn’t make it onto Submarine bells, but its sonic attempt to depict rollers crashing are notable, even if ultimately they are as unsuccessful as any painter’s endeavour to capture the motion of water on canvas.  Another song, ‘Water wolves’, which first surfaced along with ‘Wave-watching’ as a skeletal B side, conclusively proves that Martin’s cap was at that time set at a jaunty nautical angle.  It later reappeared on Soft bomb with a typically sumptuous string arrangement by Van Dyke Parks.  We can only imagine what a record that would have been if, like Joanna Newsom, Martin Phillipps had had funds enough for a whole album of VDP arrangements.  The music on Soft bomb was no longer quite so chilly, yet aside from the love at first sight of ‘Double summer’, the Californian sun seems to have failed to warm Martin right through to the core.

Soliloquizing bogles

There’ll surely be a lot of footfall on Martin Phillipps’ grave when he’s gone, if all the involuntary shivers captured in his music are totted up.

‘Pink frost’ may have been the first of his songs to face up to death, but it was far from being the last, and soon spirits – chills – were teeming through them.  ‘I love my leather jacket’ is the most celebrated of these, setting lines as weighted with insight about surviving the loss of a friend (drummer Martyn Bull) as those penned by the best poets to music which takes its lead from the archetypal rock’n’roll article of clothing of the title.  Then there’s ‘Ghosts’, ‘’Sixteen heart-throbs’, Dark carnival’, ‘Creep’, ‘Dead web’, the haunted music of ‘House with a hundred rooms’ and ‘Whole weird world’ from the Lost EP – the Chills have written the songbook of the Lost, and lure you into believing that the spirit world is a place you’d like to be trapped in, like the mother and her children in Alejandro Amenábar’s super-creepy film The Others.  For if nothing else, ghosts have longevity.

And that’s before we mention the ghosts of those still living, close at hand but out of reach, or on the far side of the world.  The homesickness of ‘Part past part fiction’ and ‘Come home’ and the separation of ‘Don’t be – memory’ fall into this camp.

Swirling breeze

There’s a lot of weather in the Chills’ oeuvre.  Rain is never far away, and it’s often very cold, if not frosty.

Their first Peel session in 1985 presented a couple of meteorological moods, and ‘Wet blanket’, itself more than a little rain-sodden.  All are of equal brilliance, or chilliness.  Alongside the aforementioned ‘Night of chill blue’, there was a re-recording of ‘Rolling moon’, the tune of which I like to think is a whistling staple of such milkos as still float the delivery of milk round early morning Dunedin.  Milkos of independent and psychedelic leaning, obviously.

Sharing its punning theme with the La’s ‘Doledrum’, ‘Doledrums’ made a lot of sense to a student on the other side of the world, with a commitment of eight timetabled hours a week.  Sense perfected when the student graduated virtually unemployable and started signing on at the Medina Road social security office in Finsbury Park.  ‘The benefits arrive and life goes on and on and on.’

‘Wet blanket’ also shared a lyrical conceit, this time with Smiths’ ‘I want the one I can’t have’, music being no different from science or fiction when it comes to people in different parts of the world reaching the same experimental or artistic conclusions at the same time.  While Morrissey marries it to tough-knock Mancunian upbringing, Phillipps makes you think of camping – the one with whom you want to be sharing a tent is sharing it with someone else.  ‘’Cause you’re so so so beautiful – why aren’t you mine?’

The Brave words LP brought a wet front with it in the form of ‘Rain’, a typically lovely Chills song which made you suspect that Martin was the sort who likes a good soaking.  But by 1996, the Chills were experiencing the effects of global warming, and titled that year’s album Sunburnt (though there was still occasion to tell of ‘Swimming in the rain’).  Temporary Chills of the calibre of XTC’s Dave Gregory and Fairport Convention’s Dave Mattacks were drafted in for Sunburnt, recorded over the previous English summer on the banks of the Thames.  By and large it maintains the consistency and avoidance of filler that had been the strength of previous Chills albums.

Sunburnt isn’t the last record Martin Phillipps has made – another phase of the Chills is up and running, the Stand by EP was released in 2004, and a new LP due in the near future – but it leaves the listener feeling that he had come to terms with his lot.

Songwriter’s blues

Despite the strength of the Chills’ identity, despite the fit between the group’s name and their music, despite all the brave words, there is a questioning ache at the core of Martin Phillipps’ song writing.  On ‘Bee bah bee bah bee boe’ he sang ‘You’d think that self-discovery / is really rather easy / I mean I’m standing right here / but the real real me is never very clear’ but to his credit he kept up his search throughout.

The sleeve notes to Heavenly pop hits: the best of the Chills say that ‘the perfect line-up was never secured’.  There had been fourteen phases of the group by October 1992, making Phillips seem only marginally less inclined to hire and fire than Mark E. Smith, but in fact the majority of the changes were forced on Martin rather than being at his behest.  So many changes spoiled the chance to develop the ‘Pink frost’ sound.

As it became more ‘Martin Phillipps and the Chills’, the sonic quality of ‘Pink frost’, ‘Hidden bay’ and ‘Flame-thrower’ was set aside, with minstrelsy (in the medieval sense) taking its place; the songs were more artful, but the overall sound was a shade less exciting and unique.  And yet, when Martin posed perplexed questions in songs like ‘Brave words’, ‘Singing in my sleep’, and ‘Song for Randy Newman etc’, you couldn’t mourn the fact that he had moved on.  As a meditation on his chosen trade and some of its most celebrated practitioners (‘Wilson, Barrett, Walker, Drake’) ‘Randy Newman’ is hard to beat.

Sweet benediction

Finally, in ‘Heavenly pop hit’, there was a trace of the irony Martin usually so assiduously avoided, but as it came encased in a confection so angelically light – despite the church organ wheezing for breath as it tried to keep up with the happy-go-lucky pace – that you barely noticed it as you sang along to the chorus.  But after all the fretting, how good it was to hear Martin sing ‘I’m growing in stages and have been for ages / Just singing, and floating – and free’.


One Response to 16. The Chills – Satin doll

  1. What a fantastic write-up!

    I’m researching NZ alternative music in the 80s (and onwards) – though how much of it is researching and not just reading and listening to and buying everything I possibly can, I’ll never know.

    But yeah, this is a great set of posts, along with the Verlaines et al. Nice one.

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