ANOTHER GUEST CONTRIBUTION FROM ALEX G
A.R.Kane. The very name suggests something obscure, difficult, hidden from the masses. According to AllMusic, they were “arguably the most criminally under-recognized band of their era.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s true that they always seemed to be more of a critics’ band. You won’t find A.R.Kane listed on officialcharts.com; they never achieved the crossover success of contemporaries like The Jesus and Mary Chain or My Bloody Valentine. Even when they lucked into a hit as part of the MARRS project, their song was the overlooked “AA” side, with A.R.Kane themselves credited only in the small print. If they were tempting fate with the name, then they got bitten.
The creative core of A.R.Kane consisted of Londoners and longtime friends Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala, who started making music together after being inspired by a performance by Cocteau Twins on The Tube. (Quite possibly this one: http://bit.ly/1OdJYwV. Now form a band.) They were still just messing around when, a couple of weeks later, Tambala told someone at a party that he was in a band, and was asked what sort of music they played. “A bit Velvet Underground, a bit Cocteau Twins, a bit Miles Davis, a bit Joni Mitchell,” he bluffed. A few days later, he got a call from One Little Indian Records, offering this intriguingly genre-busting group an audition. Well sure, why not? Somehow (Tambala: “Maybe ‘cos we were iconoclasts, black, actually quite good, and sexy”) A.R.Kane managed to wing it, and ended up snagging themselves a recording deal.
Such eclectic influences aside, how to describe what A.R.Kane actually sound like? Well, the path of least resistance would lead to “shoegaze”, although by the time that scene properly exploded and gained its mocking moniker in the early 90s, A.R.Kane had already left the building. And for much of their kaleidoscopic second LP, it simply doesn’t apply anyway. Their staunchest supporter, music journalist and essayist Simon Reynolds, favours “oceanic rock”, but he’s never got anyone else to buy into that. It fell to band member Alex Ayuli, ex-advertising copywriter, to come up with the description “dream pop”. That stuck. More than that, it became such a widely-used term that nowadays, Wikipedia has a “List of dream pop artists”, and although it’s merely by an accident of alphabetisation, it’s only right that A.R.Kane are top of the list.
A little note before we continue… the name A.R.Kane was inconsistently punctuated (AR Kane, A*R*Kane, A. R. Kane, that thing they did on “New Clear Child” that I can’t reproduce in regular text), which I imagine is down to the whims of graphic designers. But Rudy Tambala’s Facebook page has it as A.R.Kane (two dots, no spaces), and I figure he would know, so that’s what I’m going with.
To the compilation, then, which is broadly but not strictly chronological. The first side (“Dream side”) covers their early EPs and debut album, the second (“Pop side”) covers everything else. If you’re really not into the feedback-heavy proto-shoegaze stuff, then skip straight to side two where you’ll find the catchy alternative dance choons.
1. Baby Milk Snatcher (EP version) (from Rough Trade EP “Up Home”, released March 1988)
“[My Bloody Valentine] were a jangly indie band until we put out Baby Milk Snatcher. Suddenly they slowed it all down and layered it with feedback.”
So said Rudy Tambala in an interview for The Guardian in 2012. An influential record, then? Well, maybe (it came out four months before MBV’s You Made Me Realise, so draw your own conclusions), but also a great track in its own right and an important turning point for A.R.Kane themselves.
Debut “When You’re Sad” was a (relatively) conventional song, and the Lollita EP had, by their own reckoning, been about taking on producer Robin Guthrie’s sound more than developing their own. And the dance rhythms of the MARRS single, well, they would return later but for the time being they were a complete outlier. But Up Home was the real A.R.Kane, and its lead track distils their myriad influences – indie rock, dub, ethereal, jazz, the gamut – into possibly their finest moment. (It reappeared on their debut album, but in a shorter, inferior version. This one is definitive.) I think they do live up to their name here, as quite honestly it is a bit too arcane for serious hit potential, but I’m surprised to discover that it didn’t even make John Peel’s Festive Fifty. Now that’s an injustice!
mp3 : A.R.Kane – Baby Milk Snatcher
2. When You’re Sad (short version) (One Little Indian 12” single, released August 1986)
Back to the start, and A.R.Kane’s debut is actually pretty catchy under all that noise. Not a sniff of chart action, of course. JAMC’s “Some Candy Talking” was in the top 20 at the time, and this should have appealed to the same crowd, but it wasn’t to be, even after One Little Indian wisely vetoed the duo’s favoured title “You Push A Knife Into My Womb” (which is what Tambala still calls it).
The fade-out here seems rather abrupt, and you might imagine that the long version would go on after that. But no, the long version ends in exactly the same way – it’s just got a long and rather uninspired drum solo tacked onto the start of the track. It doesn’t really add anything except length, so I’ve gone with the short version instead.
mp3 : A.R.Kane – When You’re Sad
3. Sperm Whale Trip Over (from Rough Trade LP “Sixty Nine”, released June 1988)
For me, the real meat of A.R.Kane’s early period is the EPs, but their debut album Sixty Nine (strangely, almost always rendered in discographies as 69, despite being spelled out as words on the LP itself) is also well worth investigating.
The stream-of-consciousness title of this track reflects in the music, more than making good on the “dream pop” tag. No prizes for spotting the hidden meaning of that repeatedly-referenced “L. S. Dream”… “trip” is the operative word!
mp3 : A.R.Kane – Sperm Whale Trip Over
4. The Butterfly Collector (from 4AD EP “Lollita”, released July 1987)
The one “proper” A.R.Kane release on 4AD.
Alex Ayuli already had a bit of history with the label: in his old job as an advertising creative for Saatchi & Saatchi, he was behind a TV ad campaign for Thomson Holidays and approached 4AD supremo Ivo Watts-Russell for permission to use This Mortal Coil’s version of “Song To The Siren”. Upon being turned down, Ayuli arranged for the recording of a soundalike version instead, which duly appeared on the TV ad, causing confusion for a lot of viewers who thought 4AD had “sold out”. I don’t know what effect it had on Thomson’s business but, regardless of their non-participation, it did help to shift a lot of This Mortal Coil LPs.
At any rate, when Alex and Rudy, dissatisfied with One Little Indian’s low budget and meddling with their titles, turned up on spec one day at the 4AD offices, Ivo was clearly willing to let bygones be bygones. And poaching a promising act from under the nose of a rival was something he was definitely up for.
So it came to pass that A.R.Kane joined the 4AD roster, and released the acclaimed “Lollita” EP, produced by their idol Robin Guthrie. Oh, and then they accidentally had a number one hit, but we’ll leave that hanging for now. Meanwhile, enjoy this slow-burner, which I would say is one of the few A.R.Kane songs where the music serves the lyric rather than the other way round. What can you expect? Well, let’s just say that despite its initial sentiments, it’s unlikely to ever turn up on Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs.
mp3 : A.R.Kane – The Butterfly Collector
Incidentally, the Lollita EP was number two on Melody Maker’s singles of the year for 1987 (remember what I said about them being a critics’ band?). Number one was The Sugarcubes‘ “Birthday”, and second to that is surely a good result in anyone’s book.
5. Is This Dub? (from Rough Trade EP “Love-sick”, released October 1988)
Alex and Rudy always said that their biggest influence was Miles Davis. That may not be particularly obvious in the preceding tracks, but maybe this one, a remix of B-side “Is This Is?” (sic), will make it a bit more evident. Or not. Beggar & Co.’s Kenny Wellington brings the brass.
mp3 : A.R.Kane – Is This Dub?
1. Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance) (original mix) (from 4AD single credited to MARRS, released August 1987)
At this point we backtrack a little. Rudy and Alex’s brief time on 4AD produced two singles: the Lollita EP, and what was supposedly a collaboration with art-pop experimentalists Colourbox. Surely by now everyone knows the story of MARRS, but suffice to say that the “collaboration” was really more of a split single, Colourbox creating the more popular “Pump Up The Volume”, while A.R.Kane were responsible for the flipside, “Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)”. The disc became a major hit, that to this day gets spoken of in awed tones for its influence on British dance music. Supposedly, it was also the first independently-distributed number one, though I’ve also seen the same claim made for “Save Your Love” by Renee and Renato. We don’t talk about that, natch.
mp3 : A.R.Kane – Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)
Though “Anitina” came out under the MARRS banner, I have no hesitation in inlcuding it here since the group themselves clearly consider it an A.R.Kane song. Both the original and remix versions are included on their 2012 singles compilation (in contrast to Colourbox’s supposedly complete box set released a few months before, from which “Pump Up The Volume” is conspicuously absent), and it was regularly played on their recent tour. The way Ivo tells it, Colourbox actually wanted to do the B-side as well, but “Pump Up The Volume” had taken them so long that Ivo, keen to get it out while it was still hot, refused. Had Colourbox got their way, “Anitina” would probably have become the next A.R.Kane single instead. The fractious creation and well-documented legal troubles around the record put a strain on those involved: Ivo fell out with everybody, Colourbox split up, and A.R.Kane got booted off the label. Their new home Rough Trade naturally attempted to play up the MARRS connection in promoting their next releases, but considering that these were the very un-“Pump Up The Volume”-like “Up Home” EP and “Sixty Nine” album, it didn’t do them much good.
A.R.Kane did eventually return to something MARRS-y, but their would-be follow-up “Listen Up!”, released a year on from “Pump”/”Anitina”under the name ARK and with the members credited pseudonymously as Hays-Ze-Haze and Xero Tyme, has pretty much been written out of their history. Seemingly an attempt to ape the more popular “Pump Up The Volume”, it comes across more like a second-rate copy of “Tired of Getting Pushed Around” by Two Men, A Drum Machine And A Trumpet. I like Tired Of Getting Pushed Around, but that does leave “Listen Up!” as A.R.Kane’s rehash of a rehash of someone else’s flipside to their own record. Which is a bit of a comedown, wouldn’t you say?
2. Miles Apart (Robin Guthrie mix) (from Rough Trade Germany EP “Rem’i’xes”, 1990, original version appears on Rough Trade LP “i”, 1989)
Second album “i” (yes, that’s the title, quotation marks and all) was a much lighter, dancier affair than their debut. Sprawling over four sides of vinyl, it was a right old mish-mash of styles, including throwbacks to the layered feedback of “Sixty Nine” but also house, funk, ambient, acoustic pop, even a bit of glam rock. Robin Guthrie’s not-too-radical remix of the poppy “Miles Apart” appeared on 1990’s Rem’i’xes (see what they did there?) mini-album.
mp3 : A.R.Kane – Miles Apart (Robin Guthrie mix)
3. In A Circle (from “i”, 1989)
A good showcase for the eclecticism of “i”. Rudy Tambala’s sister Maggie takes the lead as A.R.Kane go all chamber-pop on us. It’s in the spirit of the earlier material, but with practically the opposite sonic approach – not layered, noisy and fuzzy, but minimal, precise and clean. You wouldn’t expect A.R.Kane to pull this off, but I think they do.
mp3 : A.R.Kane – In A Circle
“i” got good reviews and topped the independent charts, but there’s a huge gulf between having an indie number one and a mainstream hit (just ask Half Man Half Biscuit). At this point it was becoming clear that A.R.Kane weren’t going to make a living from music long-term, and when Rough Trade, finding trade rougher than they’d planned for, were forced to cut their roster, the duo found themselves not just without a label, but also without the inclination to look for a new one. Ayuli moved to the USA, and that, it seemed, was the end of A.R.Kane. But then they received an unexpected offer from a famous fan…
4. A Love From Outer Space (Solar Equinox Mix) (from Luaka Bop single, 1992 – original version appears on “i”)
It was late 1991, and with Talking Heads on a hiatus from which they never returned (the split was made official in December of that year), David Byrne was free to concentrate on other projects, one of which was his boutique “world-beat” record label Luaka Bop.
Disregarding (or perhaps unaware of) the fact that A.R.Kane had split up, Byrne licensed the band’s Rough Trade output and released the compilation Americana at the start of 1992, along with a set of remixes by John Luongo of “i” track A Love From Outer Space.
The remixes aren’t a long way removed from the original album version; the song still sounds a bit like The Beloved, while at times the lyric seems to be anticipating the future McBusted. Now there’s a combination of reference points you don’t see every day!
Incidentally, the extended and dub versions were the “Lunar Eclipse Mix” and “Venusian Dub” respectively, which suggests that though Tambala didn’t do the ALFOS mixes, his choice of “Martial Mix” and “Venusian Mix” as titles for his remixes of Saint Etienne‘s “Avenue” the same year might have been a little bit of cross-promotion. (Angling for a UK release of ALFOS, perhaps? Wouldn’t blame him.)
mp3 : A.R.Kane – A Love From Outer Space (Solar Equinox Mix)
Anyway, Americana got good reviews and solid sales, and the upshot was that Byrne put up the funding for a new album. Which brings us to…
5. Sea Like A Child (album version) (from Luaka Bop LP “New Clear Child”, released September 1994)
You will have noticed that I’ve only left space for one track from the “New Clear Child” era.
There is a reason for this: “New Clear Child” is pretty bad. Not meaning good. Full of lyrical platitudes atop over-produced passionless music, “New Clear Child” is the A.R.Kane album nobody talks about.
The opening track “Deep Blue Breath” is interesting though overly slick, and the closing track “Sea Like A Child” effectively revisits the dream pop of old in a more minimal style, but what happens in between is, in the immortal words of Steps, better best forgotten. (Interviewed for The Quietus, Tambala says “A few of the tracks are really there, but as an album it painted out some of the crucial flaws”. Yup. Bland.)
Still, “Sea Like A Child” – the album’s first and only fully-released single – brings us full circle (sort of), is actually pretty decent, and is the last track on what is, to date, the last proper release by A.R.Kane, so it gets the last spot here as well.
mp3 : A.R.Kane – Sea Like A Child
“New Clear Child” sold rather well by Luaka Bop’s standards, and an offer was on the table for a follow-up, but Alex and Rudy decided to call it a day (again). But a version of A.R.Kane with some of the previous live band (lacking Ayuli’s involvement, but with his approval) toured in 2015, and Tambala has since been working on new material and is keen to make A.R.Kane a going concern again, so a proper reunion looks likely in the near future. Which probably won’t make them any less arcane, but then that’s not really the point, is it?
The bizarre thing is that while reading the book on 4AD that I mentioned in passing a couple of weeks back during the posting on Cocteau Twins, I had found myself fascinated by the section on A.R.Kane and thought to myself that I must try and learn a bit more about them beyond the M/A/R/R/S single….and lo and behold Alex’s e-mail dropped in.
It’s a very fitting way to close the ICA series for 2015 but it will return again early next year. There’s already a high-quality contribution waiting in the wings from one of our regulars featuring a band that hasn’t previously been mentioned on T(n)VV and I know that another would-be contributor is working away on an ICA from a band still going strong almost 40 years after they first came to our attention. I’ve also got a couple more of my own in draft form as I try to narrow things down to ten songs but please feel free to continue to fire over your own ideas as and when they come to you.