NEVER LOSE THAT FEELING Swervedriver

As evidenced on two
key reissues, the British band made music that was simultaneously gritty and
pining.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

And onward they came, hurtling into history….

 

Although the U.K. shoegaze movement is rightly credited with
unleashing upon the world a swathe of gauzy-textured, occasionally over-earnest
(but still vividly tuneful) dreampoppers – including Lush, Chapterhouse,
Slowdive and Ride, sons and daughters, all, of My Bloody Valentine and the
Cocteau Twins  – shoegaze also produced a
handful of anomalies whose stylistic allegiances were definitely of a more
rockist bent. That’s “rockist” in a good way, incidentally, and none hoisted the banner in more memorable manner than
Oxford’s Swervedriver, whose hirsute fusion of skull-denting Stooges/MC5 hard
psych, Hüsker Dü/Dinosaur Jr-styled punk anthemism and classic pop melodicism
set the group apart from The Scene That Celebrates Itself despite being lumped
into said Scene by dint of personal and geographical associations.

 

Swervedriver, in fact, made their Stooges allegiance
explicit from the very start, initially forming in ’84 as Shake Appeal, the
moniker taken from a Stooges songtitle. Early on the band comprised Graham
Franklin (vocals), Adam Franklin (guitar), Paddy Pulzer (drums) and Adrian “Adi”
Vynes (bass), but following a protracted series of roster changes, the lineup
settled down with Adam Franklin handling guitar and vocal duties and Vynes on
bass and vocals, plus drummer Graham Bonner and guitarist Jimmy Hartridge. The
far more evocative name Swervedriver was duly adopted, and the stage was set.

 

After Creation Records’ Alan McGee heard a demo from the
band he quickly offered a contract, and in 1990 Swervedriver debuted with the
“Son of Mustang Ford” EP. That song, with its titular nod to T. Rex and high
velocity lyrics conjuring Hunter S. Thompson, J.G. Ballard and such automobile noir films as Two Lane Blacktop and Christine, and with a hi-octane
melodic assault arc-welding together “Search And Destroy,” “My Generation,”
Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” and Dinosaur Jr’s “Yeah We Know,” was a rock
fetishist’s dream. It immediately caught the attention of critics on both sides
of the Atlantic: yours truly came across the 12″ record in an indie record
store, and to this day I can still recall the looks of jaw-gaping awe among
sundry clerks and customers as it issued forth from the store stereo, very
nearly peeling the paint off the bins while leaving sunburnt streaks across our
stunned faces.

 

Two EPs later, it was time for a proper full-length, and
thus came 1991’s Raise (issued that
fall in America
on A&M). Listening now to the Hi-Speed Soul/Second Motion (www.secondmotionrecords.com) label’s
new expanded/remastered reissue, Raise is every bit as vital in 2009 as it was nearly two decades ago. In addition to
the aforementioned Stooges, its pedal-stamping, toggle-switching ferocity owes
a massive debt to Dinosaur Jr of course, with Franklin’s keening, slurry sneer also
bringing to mind the vocals of J. Mascis.  Opening with “Sci-Flyer,” a massive wall of
whorling riffs and convulsive drumming that sends the listener hurtling off
towards vanishing point territory, that band announces its volume-dealing
intentions from the get-go. Subsequent songtitles telegraph the rest: “Sandblasted,”
“Pile-Up,” “Rave Down,” and of course “Son of Mustang Ford” (which should be a
mainstay of any self-respecting anthology of British music from the era). Only
dreamy album closer “Lead Me Where You Dare…” is overtly shoegazeish; by flaunting
the band’s hard rock and punk roots, Raise at times seems almost defiantly metal, and for sheer visceral
wallop and brain-uncorking sizzle, it remains one of the most kick-out-the-jams
Brit-rock releases ever.

 

The reissue features a smartly-designed 16-page booklet
boasting photos, reproductions of EP sleeves and new liner notes from Franklin
and Hartridge. Also included are four bonus tracks: “Andalucia,” a jammy number
which, according to Hartridge, has only seen previous release in Japan;
psychedelic guitar showcase “Hands,” remixed some time after the Raise sessions by Alan Moulder; “Kill
the Superheroes,” originally one of the B-sides of “Son of Mustang Ford”; and
“Over,” a skronky composition loosely based (as Hartridge explains) on Sonic
Youth’s “Pacific Coast Highway.”

 

“[The name Swervedriver] doesn’t mean anything,” observed
Hartridge, in the group’s official A&M biography that accompanied press
copies of the LP. “But it’s got the word ‘drive’ in it,” he added. “And the
notes swerve around, because sometimes we bend them. The name makes more sense
as time goes on.” More prophetic words were never uttered. A few months after
the release of Raise, Swervedriver scorched
through the American heartland to promote the record, and I was on hand to
witness them blast hot sheets of solar wind not just at but through a punk club’s patrons in the most bone-rattling display I’d seen since early
‘70s Black Sabbath. My abiding memory of the group’s unholy vortex of
overdriven guitars, jackhammer drums and woozy, what-drug-am-I-on? vocals is
one of profound disorientation – the good kind that lingered for days afterwards, an afterglow gradually replacing the
telltale ringing in the ears.

 

Swervedriver was unable to sustain that level of intensity,
however. The apparently unstable Bonner freaked out and split during the
American tour and Vynes quit the following year. The group had recorded an EP prior
to both musicians’ departure, “Never Lose That Feeling,” so by way of a holding
pattern that was issued while the band quietly regrouped, eventually reemerging
at a trio: Franklin and Hartridge swapping off on bass and guitars, and new
drummer “Jez.”

 

If 1993’s Alan Moulder-produced Mezcal Head doesn’t
top its predecessor for sheer psychological impact (few sophomore platters do),
it’s still sonically superior, offering a crispness and a clarity that comes across
even more strikingly now with the remastering job. Where Raise boasted a thick, all-enveloping wall of sound, MH stares you directly in the eye – just
like the long-horned, nose-ringed steer confronting you from the front cover of
the album – and dares you to blink even as it applies a series of blunt objects
directly to the sides of your skull. Highlights include the
now-thundering/now-glistening first single “Duel” (so named for a ’71 Stephen
Spielberg car-chase flick, thereby maintaining the group’s automotive fetish);
“Blowin’ Cool,” a true-to-its-title mélange of wah-wahs and jangles, plus some
of the most sweetly tuneful vocals of Franklin’s career; a none-too-subtle
tribute (musically speaking at least) to the grunge scene, “A Change is Gonna
Come”; and the dreamily psychedelic “Girl on a Motorbike,” which may or may not
be a hat-tip to the ’68 cult film Girl on
a Motorcycle
starring Marianne Faithfull.

 

Oh, and lest we forget: “Last Train to Satansville” – which
with its amped-up neo-choogle, shuddery swipes of whammy bar dripping like dark
chocolate over clanging, twanging, droning riffs, and Franklin unspooling a tale
of betrayal, revenge and regret in classic murder-ballad fashion – is very
nearly the equal of “Mustang Ford.” It’s like a spaghetti western theme recast
for the alterna-generation, the protagonist making his escape at the very end
not on a horse but a Harley (the actual sound of a revving bike is audible in
the song’s closing moments).

 

Sings Franklin,
in a voice so full of woe and regret you can practically see him grit his teeth
as tears stream down the sides of his face:

 

 

“In one dream there’s
this girl I love

And we dance ev’ry
waking breath

And in the other
they’ve thrown me in a cell

And they’re trying me
for her death.

I’m only young and
young in love

As I hold that girl
today

But I’m old and tired
and in the cell

And I’ve nigh-on
withered away…

She promised me the
world and more –

How could she do this
to me?

And now mine’s
tumbling down around

But at least my eyes
can see –

And those stars in the
sky are for me.”

 

 

As with Raise, the
booklet for Mezcal Head is well done,
containing additional liners from Franklin and Hartridge that bring the band’s
story up to date: after the trio finished the recording, they cast around for a
bassist so they could tour behind it, eventually locating Steve George and
landing a U.S.
trek opening for Smashing Pumpkins. Four bonus tracks round out the disc: the
aforementioned “Never Lose that Feeling,” another solid Swervies anthem; plus
obscurities “Planes Over the Skyline” (a zig-zagging, woozy number that’s a live
favorite among fans), “The Hitcher” (yes, more automotive madness, as the nod
to the Rutger Hauer-C. Thomas Howell film suggests), and “Cars Converge on Paris” (a kind of dubby,
blissed-out experimental piece).

 

“We wanted to make music that was gritty and yet pining at
the same time,” writes Franklin,
in his Raise liners. That
Swervedriver did, and although they only lasted for two more albums, 1995’s Ejector Seat Reservation and 1997’s 99th Dream, before disbanding
in 1999, that gritty/pining quality, as revisited on these two albums, was
profound and enduring. The group reunited in 2008 for some well-received shows
(including an appearance at Coachella), and as Franklin puts in an interview with BLURT,
located elsewhere on this site, “We were all blown away by how well it came
together.”

 

Never lose that feeling, lads.

 

 

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