Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Teardrop Explodes: 'Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns'

I could describe this blog as a tribute to a lost era. I could even describe it as a tribute to a lost art form. For most singers and pop groups, the b-side was a technological aberration, a minor annoyance; vinyl singles were two-sided, and you were only selling the A-side. For some, though, it was a chance to stretch away from commercial constraints and, if you felt warmly towards your fans rather than the casual buyer who may never even listen to it, you'd use the b-side for your most idiosyncratic and intriguing music.

Julian Cope was an early heavy hero of mine. One of the main reasons for this was his unfettered enthusiasm. I remember, in 1980, an interview with Spandau Ballet in which they said they had never really listened to rock or pop. I couldn't twig what they meant - was Mahler or Stravinsky the main influence on Chant No.1? No, they meant they were soul snobs; they didn't want to share. Julian Cope wanted to share. He'd talk about Arthur Lee, Tim Buckley, The Left Banke, none of whom I had heard of. I saved up for Forever Changes, Goodbye & Hello, and several more doors opened up. Cope did more than talk about Scott Walker, he issued a whole compilation of the man's work on Liverpool's Zoo label. This was unprecedented. Nobody - apart from the almost as effusive Marc Almond - rated Scott Walker in 1981, his solo records were buried deep. Cope's compilation was called Fire Escape In The Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, a description few would argue with now, but back in 1981 it was considered a joke - dopy Copey was blowing his cool again. The record came in a beautiful plain grey sleeve with simple green text. It was an act of extraordinary generosity.

Cope has since claimed he never really liked Scott Walker that much, which seems like standard issue, double bluff, pop star cool. It's disappointing, as a raft of Teardrop Explodes recordings betray Scott's influence. One - the eggshell-fragile, haunted suburbia of Tiny Children - even became an A-side in the summer of 1982. The majority were released as flips on a brief but glorious run of singles from 1980 to '82. Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns is the kind of song title Cope would have thought up, bug-eyed with enthusiasm, around Dave Balfe's freezing bedsit at 3am, then stitch a song onto it later. It's a very early eighties Liverpool title - Ian McCullough or Pete Wylie would probably have dreamt it up if Cope hadn't. Recorded during the sessions for second album Wilder, it became the b-side of Colours Fly Away.

Not surprisingly, the title is never sung. It opens with an asthmatic instrument playing minor chords - a harmonium, in tribute to Nico's Marble Index. Cope joins in with the melody, singing high, choirboy-like, very clean and pure, only the words are indistinct - you strain to hear them and make out "cross the bridge we sigh, watching clouds go by". Then a flash of muffled brass leads into the 'chorus', a jumble of spoken words reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's Murder Mystery over slightly more ominous harmonium chords and distant purple tympani, the hint of a storm. But before it breaks you're into the second verse, with a gorgeously sad counter-melody on muted vibes over an even vaguer lyric. The storm builds, the song grows more dream-like, ever more distant, harder to hold. It stops dead as verse and chorus merge over rumbling drums and piano, with Cope appearing to read extracts from his diary. He has since said that the song is built on "desperation, artistic doubt and loss". Poor sod. But it's our gain. Released in October 1981, Window Shopping For A New Crown Of Thorns is a beautiful exercise in northern English autumnal mysticism: what's beyond the stone door?

It wasn't by any means the only great Teardrop Explodes B-side. On Treason (Use Me), Passionate Friend (Christ vs Warhol), and When I Dream (Kilimanjaro) there were equally atmospheric adventures in hi-fi: each was a rich counterpoint to the radio-friendly top side.

When the Teardrop Explodes split, Julian Cope got more into puns (Jehovahkill, Peggy Suicide) and straight-ahead pop (World Shut Your Mouth), and switched from the soundscapes that populated his early singles: along the way he lost the knack of the perfect b-side. They went out with a bang, though, a five track EP containing all that existed of their third, abandoned album - effectively it was the staccato, buffed-brass, radio-friendly You Disappear From View and four underworldly b-sides. Unsurprisingly, it was very good indeed.

So the Teardrop Explodes were masters of the b-side, which is why they appear in pole position on this blog. That, and Pete Paphides gave me the idea to start it during a long Teardrops-and-red-wine evening a few weeks ago. Classic b-sides were a way of sneaking experimental pop into maybe tens of thousands of households. They were a hidden secret, waiting patiently to be discovered. Like tiny off-kilter sound bombs scattered across the country, across the world. Like Rain by The Beatles. There's the hint of something beyond, quite intangible, that would rarely find its way onto an A-side, nor would it do as Side 2, Track 3. Maybe it's melancholy. Sometimes it's masochism. Julian Cope, murmuring in the thickets of Window Shopping's chorus, gets close to the nub of it: "Show me more. In 4/4 time, show me more".


  1. I liked, in a funny sort of way, the B-side to Reward, Strange House in the Snow. I remember starting University in 1980 and thinking we were oh-so-clever putting it on 5 times in a row as we were leaving a local Leeds pub. Bloody students.

  2. I love your style. I actually spent a lot of time with the Bunnymen,around 79-82 and you know how closely related JC, Mac and Pete were at one time. So yeah, bought back a lot of nice memories and made me smile a lot too, which is surely the sign of a great blog.
    I emailed Ian McCulloch a couple of years ago, a really long 10,000 word effort reminding him of leaner times, underattended gigs, and their first (Crucial 3) ever appearence in a magazine (The Face) and for my labours I got back an email that said "Nuff said!"
    Rock and Roll eh?

  3. Always thought that "Use me" & "Suffocate" were brilliant b-sides...
    Much later (in his solo career), "I have always been here, before", which backs up "Fear Loves This Place" is definitely worth checking out...