Double Door, September 14
The destination sign on the powder blue tour bus parked in front of the Double Door pointed to the obscurity of its occupant: "No One You Would Know."
But notoriety often comes with perseverance. Ask the bus's passenger, Edwyn Collins, whose recent single "A Girl Like You" is now a hit on local radio stations WXRT and Q101. The song's inclusion on the sound track for the film Empire Records has even landed it on American television commercials. Not bad for a musician who had a bit of success in England during the early 80s as leader of the Glasgow band Orange Juice but who has remained a minor cult figure (at best) in the U.S.
Born in 1978 from the ashes of Collins's college band (the Nusonics, a group of Buzzcocks-obsessed punkers), Orange Juice would spend the next eight years forging their own sound, wedding their love of northern soul and Motown to the do-it-yourself punk ethic. Orange Juice's first few singles were put out on Postcard Records, a label set up by Collins and cohort Alan Horne. The label also released 45s by Josef K., the Go-Betweens, and Aztec Camera, and Collins and Horne both envisioned a "hit factory," going so far as to cop Motown's motto for their own purposes: "the Sound of Young Scotland."
The early Orange Juice singles were decidedly more punk than funk, yet Collins was a prankster, not protester, bringing a touch of thoughtful levity to punk rock. Collins's self-deprecating lyrics would influence Morrissey and the Smiths and countless other preening pop bands leaving their mark on Britain's mid-80s indie scene. Take his pithy warning to weekend punks starting their own bands, in 1980's "Lovesick," O.J.'s second single: "Posturing, posturing, cut yourself shaving. / Bleeding too much, please give it a rest. / If you're not careful, I'll grow to dislike you. / Sorry to moan, but that's what I do best."
Though some critics cringed (one compared Collins's voice to that of a bloated sheep being lanced), most were won over by Orange Juice's ramshackle approach, all scratchy, jangly guitars amateurishly played and out of tune, working in the service of some undeniably catchy tunes and very clever arrangements. Their first three records wound up as N.M.E. singles of the week.
The major labels took notice, and the band was signed to Polydor while still recording their first LP. At the urging of the label, the album was recut and released in 1982 as You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, with lots of adornment--horns, keyboards, and female backing vocals (the stripped-down version finally appeared in 1992 as Ostrich Churchyard on the reactivated Postcard label). Producer Adam Kidron (Scritti Politti) accentuated the cute, coy side of Collins and gave the group's driving pop a hard sheen, forever damning Orange Juice to comparisons with spiritually bankrupt "new wave" bands like Haircut 100 and Altered Images. No matter, during the next four years Orange Juice released two more albums and one EP, mixing in an ever-expanding set of musical influences. Collins was becoming a more proficient guitarist, stretching out into a languid style of playing reminiscent of Lou Reed with the Velvet Underground or Television's Tom Verlaine. With the addition of Zimbabwean drummer Zeke Manyika and Jamaican dub producer Dennis Bovell, Orange Juice found a more earthy sound, not far removed from Talking Heads's stew of rock, funk, and world music. But by 1985, with only one bona fide British chart hit (1983's "Rip It Up"), Orange Juice decided to call it quits.
After a couple of singles, Collins reemerged four years later with his first (and finest) solo LP, "Hope and Despair." Although dark and downcast, the album captured his songwriting at its best, lyrically assured and mature, while his voice had deepened and become more commanding. The next year's "Hellbent on Compromise" threw a little country into his usual Velvets-Motown-Byrds mix. Collins then went on to produce other acts (such as A House and Vic Godard) until the 1994 release of his current LP Gorgeous George, which was picked up this year by Bar/None for his first American release. While the weakest of his solo efforts, Gorgeous George is the most commercially accessible. Collins's production gives the tracks a punchy quality that's most apparent in "A Girl Like You," which sounds like a hit. He still manages to work in the usual lyrical barbs; the opening track, "The Campaign for Real Rock," attacks alternative acts playing to stadium crowds ("Their idea of counterculture's mama's charge account at Sears"), and the lullabylike "North of Heaven" blithely lets us know what he thinks of Guns and Roses ("At best I think they suck"). With "A Girl Like You," Collins finally has a hit record in America, just in time for his first tour here.
A surprising number of old fans mingled with the new enthusiasts packed into the Double Door last Thursday night. Ivy, the opening band, performed original material that all seemed to blur together, especially obvious after playing a standout cover of Orange Juice's "I Guess I'm Just a Little Too Sensitive." Collins appeared to take the homage personally as he climbed onstage alone with an acoustic guitar. Starting off with his heart on his sleeve while still lampooning the confessional style, he shamelessly positioned Rod McKuen's "Love's Been Good to Me" between a couple of his own more emotionally direct songs from the current album, "North of Heaven" and "Subsidence." He set the stage for his band's arrival by gently admonishing fans who were asking others to be quiet: "It's rock 'n' roll. You're supposed to do what you want." The band launched into a striking version of "The Campaign for Real Rock," with a breakout at the song's end that showed off Collins as a guitarist, capable of reaching a level of intensity similar to Prince's guitar work on the Purple Rain album (yet squarely in his own eccentric style of playing). Unlike other performers who find success after years of struggle, Collins didn't distance himself from his past. Mixing in a handful of Orange Juice songs--including the elegiac "Dying Day" and rousing renditions of "Bridge" and O.J.'s first single "Falling and Laughing"--he continually reminded us of his importance as a father to Britain's current indie scene.
Working with longtime bassist Claire Kenny and Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, Collins was able to replicate the big crisp sound of the newer material while coming off scrappy for the spunky earlier stuff. Second guitarist Steve Skinner played chunky rockabilly licks to Collins's more way-out "lunar" style. A consummate showman, Collins worked the small stage, jumping up on the bass drum and speaker risers for his solos and mocking the rock-god poses of the stadium bands he roasts in his lyrics.
The joke may be on him. It remains to be seen if Collins will fall back into obscurity after his hit record has run its course or, heaven forbid, he will become an alternative star. Either outcome is OK by me. We could certainly use a star with a bit more cheek than Michael Stipe or Eddie Vedder. But if that doesn't happen, at least we know after 17 years Collins is persistent.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Kamba.