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In 1987, British music needed a bit of overseas help....
IN 1987, BRITISH MUSIC NEEDED A bit of overseas help. The Smiths had split, [I]NME[/I] readers’ favourite band was The Wedding Present, Sigue Sigue Sputnik were the future of rock’n’roll, while ‘indie’ had become a generic straitjacket for dull, skinny men with fringes strumming guitars and pretending not to be able to sing. It took a bunch of drunken, yelping Arctic anarchists to throw away the rule book and remind us that ‘alternative’ music could sound like an alternative universe; joyously, hilariously, insanely different, high on life and anything else in reach.
A decade on, much of the first Sugarcubes album – and most of this ‘best of’ compilation – ‘Life’s Too Good’ still sounds startlingly original, inspirational and brilliant. It hasn’t dated because it was never of its time, because these bastards never knew the time.
‘Birthday’ was the first single, and you’ve still heard nothing like it. Psychedelic, surreal, bittersweet, childlike and scary, almost like jazz but with this hypnotic stuttering groove. Meanwhile, Bjvrk’s growling, warbling and hollering vocal gymnastics sound like a schizophrenic angel on angel dust, raw, beautiful and utterly intoxicating.
There was more to them than that, though: the Beefheartian oddness of the arrangements that still managed to sound like pop music, only from another planet; the way ranting trumpet hooligan Einar appeared to be constantly battling Bjvrk for centre stage like some mentally ill wino; the way they seemed to be having several in-jokes at our expense; and writing songs about riding around on a bicycle looking for motor accidents, or God putting you in a bathtub and making you [I]”squeaky clean”[/I] is excellent behaviour in any language.
At times it didn’t bear the intense critical examination it got. Consider the gibberish Einar spouts on ‘Regina’, where he is [I]”wetting quite nicely thank you”[/I] or [I]”lobster and shrimps… I really don’t like lobster!”[/I] Funny lad. But you got the impression they didn’t care what it all meant.
The ‘crossover potential’ was pretty much encapsulated in Bjvrk’s voice. Without that they might well have sounded like The Fall running amok in a musical instrument shop. Come the second album ‘Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week’, everyone was suddenly underwhelmed, presumably because nothing could compare to ‘Birthday’. But the sweet romantic reverie of ‘Water’ and ‘Pump”s strange sway and Bjvrk’s swoonsome croon make your head swim all the more in retrospect.
[I]”This wasn’t supposed to happen”[/I] sang Bjvrk on ‘Hit’ but you got the impression its name was no accident. The Sugarcubes seemed to be quite happy to be a pop group by now, Einar virtually rapping, and the groove determinedly funky. Alas, while ‘Walkabout’ is fine guitar pop, the frantic white funk euphoria of ‘Vitamin’, complete with football crowd chant, just sounds irritatingly wacky, as is ‘Chihuahua”s insipid groove. You get the impression that now this band lark had become a job, they were losing their identity a little and settling into something resembling orthodoxy. Which was OK, but not the revolution they once were.
You know the story from here. Bjvrk finally became the pop star she secretly always was, and the rest of them were probably much happier moving back to more experimental pursuits. But they left a legacy in a mental maverick spirit that still seethes from these records. For a music scene desperately in need of experimental pop music that doesn’t want to stay in its bedroom, there are few better examples.