AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #255: THE COMSAT ANGELS (2)

A GUEST POSTING by MIKE (Manic Pop Thrills)

JC had once challenged me to try an ICA on the Comsats and I’d had this piece 80% complete on my hard drive for several years when Echorich popped up with his own Comsats ICA a few weeks ago.

Fortunately, there wasn’t much of an overlap between our respective choices of songs (although inevitably their finest moment ‘Independence Day’ has had to be ditched) so I’ve been motivated to finally finish this piece.

Briefly, the Comsats are one of a number of bands I discovered from what I’d consider as a golden year – 1980. As a result, they’ve never been far from my heart. With the benefit of hindsight their career was a fascinating struggle between their own creative impulses and record companies demands for hits.

So, here’s a brief time jumping alternate history of the Comsat Angels which hopefully demonstrates some of those creative tensions whilst still highlighting the quality of the material.

1. Driving (from ‘My Mind’s Eye’, 1992)

After a hiatus of several years the band reconvened to make the seventh Comsat Angels album ‘My Mind’s Eye’ released on Crisis Records.

‘Driving’ was the lead single from what it is without doubt their most accessible album as, left to their own devices, the band pulled together all their experiences into a coherent statement.

Some might even argue that MME is the band’s finest record. I don’t think they’re right, I’d probably lean towards ‘Waiting For A Miracle’ if pushed, but they’re not as wrong as you might think if you’ve only heard the first four or five albums.

Of course, accessible or not, hardly anyone bought it.

2. Will You Stay Tonight? (from ‘Land’, 1983)

Dropped by Polydor after 3 critically acclaimed albums, somewhat inexplicably, Jive saw some form of hit potential in the band and fourth LP ‘Land’ was a not entirely successful attempt to mould their sound into something commercial.

The lead single from ‘Land’ is probably as far as the Comsats sound could have been taken into commercial territory whilst remaining recognisably them. And for me it works.

What didn’t work was the single’s distribution – I had to trail all over Glasgow on day of release to get it and the single only reached 81 in the charts. I can only assume that if the company had got their act together then the band might have had their first Top 40 hit. (Apparently, it’s also the only Comsats record in JC’s collection)*.

3. Do The Empty House (single, 1981)

After the strong critical showings of ‘WFAM’ and second LP ‘Sleep No More’, Polydor still seemed committed to the band and a new 45 ‘Do The Empty House’ was released just 3 months after ‘Sleep No More’. Initially issued as a double single with a re-recording of the band’s debut single on the second disk, ‘DTEH’ was undoubtedly a more radio friendly take on the band’s sound. Yet despite the extra push, it predictably failed to chart, as did the melancholic follow-up ‘It’s History’.

It’s perhaps not that surprising, given their status as failed singles, that neither single made it onto the band’s third LP ‘Fiction’, but that makes it all the more curious that their respective B-sides did!

4. The Cutting Edge (from ‘Chasing Shadows’, 1987)

Despite the way the Jive era ended the Comsats landed on their feet in securing a deal at Island Records due to the patronage of Robert Palmer. To be fair around the same time Island were also signing the likes of Julian Cope and the Triffids.

Their only Island LP ‘Chasing Shadows’ delivered a late night, organic take on their sound, but whilst it was great to hear the band making the sort of record that they wanted to make, ‘Chasing Shadows’ suffered from a not terribly strong set of songs of which single ‘The Cutting Edge’ was the best.

Yet, despite the lack of success, they were given the go ahead to make another album. Sadly, their next album ‘Fire On The Moon’ (released under the name of the Dream Command) found the band creatively adrift straining for a commercial sound again. FOTM isn’t the complete turkey it’s often portrayed as but it’s far from an 80s classic. However, it does make a lot of sense as a stepping stone between ‘Chasing Shadows’ and what was to come in the 1990s.

5. Close Your Eyes (from ‘7 Day Weekend’), 1986

The follow-up to ‘Land’, ‘7 Day Weekend’ largely saw the band ditch their trademark sound in search of an elusive hit. The Human League are an obvious influence on singles ‘You Move Me’ and ‘Forever Young’ but the band also tried to incorporate some Frankie into ‘Day One’. It also contains the career low point of ‘I’m Falling’ which sounds nothing like the Comsats so much so that singer Steve Fellows reportedly smashed a test pressing and mailed it through the Jive letterbox!

7DW doesn’t seem to have been recorded as an album, Steve has described it as a collection of failed singles, and it’s true that only a handful of the songs weren’t available on the singles. Yet, those other songs, including ‘Close Your Eyes’ are amongst the best on the albums, easily on a par with the (good) singles.

Despite this tortured history on balance I’d argue that 7DW contains a stronger set of songs than ‘Land’ – with one obvious exception.

6. Eye Dance (from ‘Sleep No More’, 1981)

As hinted above, ‘Sleep No More’ was received with rave reviews but, perhaps not surprisingly given its dense recording, it didn’t contain any single potential. (Which probably explains the quick release of ‘Do The Empty House’.)

Lead track ‘Eye Dance’ might have been considered for a 45 but it trod similar ground to the standalone single ‘Eye of the Lens’, which had failed to chart.

7. The Glamour (from ‘The Glamour’, 1995)

‘The Glamour’ is a harder edged, denser record than ‘My Mind’s Eye’. It’s an extension of the band’s approach on ‘SNM’ but shares with that record a lack of obvious singles. Nevertheless, the original 13 track record works as a satisfying whole, despite Fellows having subsequently expressed reservations about the album’s direction. The double disk Renascent reissue from 2007 added a further 7 songs to represent the wider range of songs that could have been included but for me it stretches things a little too thinly.

8. Red Planet (single, 1979)

The debut single was released on the band’s own Junta label shortly after they morphed into the Comsats from an earlier incarnation as Radio Earth.

Something of a new wave oddity (which they would subsequently revisit on the ‘Do The Empty House’ double single) what’s surprising is that the single gives little clues as the direction that they’d take on ‘Waiting for a Miracle’.

A couple of years after release I unexpectedly and luckily came across a copy in a singles box on the first floor of the old Virgin Megastore on Union Street in Glasgow.

The three tracks from the EP were absent from the various reissues over the years until they were included amongst the bonus tracks on the 2015 reissue of WFM.

9. Real Story (from ‘Waiting For A Miracle’, 1980)

Honestly, IMHO, ‘Waiting for a Miracle’ is one of the post-punk classics that is every bit the equal of feted albums by the likes of Joy Division and the Bunnymen. The Comsats carved out their own particular territory with a largely sparse sound driven by treated guitars and spartan keys. Yet the songs still contain a power that belies their sparseness.

Echorich featured WFAM heavily in his ICA so some of the obvious choices are gone but, hell, you could pick almost anything without diminishing the quality and ‘Real Story’ manages that with ease.

10. What Else?! (from ‘Fiction’, 1982)

‘Fiction’ saw the band opening up their sound from the claustrophobia of ‘SNM’, presumably in search of wider acceptance. Certainly, the single ‘After The Rain’ (perhaps aiming for a similar atmosphere to Japan) was their most attractive single to date but ultimately the band’s melancholic melodies were a barrier to wider acceptance.

Closing track ‘What Else!?’ is a fabulous song, but it’s difficult to hear it as being in any way commercial in amongst the new pop of 1982.

Postcript

It was only getting on to the internet in the latter years of the 20th century looking for news of a follow-up to the ‘The Glamour’ that I discovered that the band had split shortly after the record’s release.

There was a brief reunion for a handful of live dates in 2009/10, including a Glasgow show (for which I had a ticket but was unable to attend) then nothing. Until the tail end of 2014 when, to coincide with the re-release of the Polydor and Island albums on vinyl and double CD on Edsel, Comsats fan Mark Kermode revealed that the band were in the studio working on new material although Fellows subsequently downplayed this news in an interview with Penny Black. http://www.pennyblackmusic.co.uk/MagSitePages/Article/8168/Comsat-Angels

Releases of ‘Land’ and ‘7 Day Weekend’ were also planned but, for whatever reason, didn’t see the light of day. Which is both a shame as I don’t have ‘Land’ on CD and somewhat surprising given the exorbitant prices that the Comsat reissues now command – best illustrated by the mere £1,407.14 that someone wants for a used copy of ‘Land’!

Since the band’s demise Fellows has put out two solo records– the all instrumental ‘Mood X’ came out as far back as 1997 but he didn’t re-emerge until earlier this year with the excellent, song based ‘Slow Glass’ which is sure to appeal to all Comsats’ fans. https://stephenfellows.bandcamp.com/

MIKE

*JC adds…..Mike is correct in that the 12″ of Will You Stay Tonight is the only piece of vinyl I have by Comsat Angels, picked up for 25p in a bargain bin.  I do have digital copies of some of their albums, acquired (ahem!) in one way or another.

AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #252 : COMSAT ANGELS

A GUEST POSTING by ECHORICH

THE COMSAT ANGELS – AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM…

I’ve wanted to submit this particular ICA for quite a long time. As can be the case when you are too close to a subject, I’ve found it hard to approach and feel good about it. But I want to share my appreciation, my affection for the music of Comsat Angels, a band that suffers greatly from those popular tropes of “they could have been” and “they should have been” much too often when they are talked about. I won’t contribute to that here, I want to focus in on 10 songs that have helped to make them one of the core bands in my musical collection.

I have mentioned a few times in the past that in the early days of Post Punk, I discovered quite a number of bands based on picking their debut album up from the racks in Metro Records of Little Neck, NY. The first WAH! album, the first Sound album, A Certain Ratio’s debut long player as well – to name a few. But one stands out to this day – The Comsat Angels debut Missing In Action. It featured an image of a Sheffield motorway at night that the photographer, Martyn Goddard, remembers being taken while accompanying the band to a show. I would find that the music held within the cover was perfectly complimented by the photograph’s desolate sulphur lit glow and trailing car lights, capturing speed in an instant of time. It’s an album cover that would lead to a 40-year relationship with The Comsat Angels’ music and carnival ride of a career.

Their name comes from a short story written by J.G. Ballard. Many of the debut album’s themes, could be categorized as Ballardian. These themes of doubt, ruin, post-modern paranoia and future shock, would be a continuous thread through much of the band’s 15-year discography.

Here are the songs that best represent how The Comsat Angels have gotten under my skin and owned a piece of my memory banks for decades. I’ve decided to organize the list based on album release to give an idea of the evolution of the band’s sound – something which would impact their career and teach them some very important lessons.

1. Missing In Action – Waiting For A Miracle

Stephen Fellows opening chords are like a warning siren that starts slow and patterned and the quickly pick up to a frenetic pace as the rest of the band enters. I’ve always felt it was a song dealing with the fear and alienation of becoming an adult. Gone are the childhood things representing safety and security and ahead is a world of chaos and obstacles requiring all the strength and conviction a young person can muster. Kevin Bacon’s bass and Andy Peake’s synths lend heighten the paranoia and fear and Mik Glaisher’s drums are like a heart beat on the edge of bursting.

2. Monkey Pilot – Waiting For A Miracle

Post Punk’s most exercised theme gets a work out here – being out of control. The drums propel the track while also reflecting the theme of confusion and doubt. The addition of a farfisa organ heightens the feeling that things are out of place, out of pace. Fellow’s vocals reflect a man going about his everyday, his routine, but feeling as though somehow he’s loosing his grip.

3. Independence Day – Waiting For A Miracle

The track TCA are best known for, giving them one-hit wonder status were it not for the fact that it wasn’t really a hit. It is, somewhat perversely, one of the great guitar track of the 80s for me. It’s also a track with the most curated minimalist use of guitar I can think of. For that and because of my own perversity, it fulfills all the requirements to be one of my all time favorite tracks. I have never felt it was anything about proclaiming independence. More it’s about knowing that real independence can only ever be a hope, a wish, a goal and many times it’s just out of reach.

4. Eye Of The Lens – E.P

Released as a 7” single and 12” EP between the first and second albums. It points to the consolidation that the band’s sound was getting heavier, denser and darker. The paranoia is on full tilt, but again Fellow’s delivery is a mixture of self narration and resignation which manages to become a sort a strength against the prevailing forces.

5. Be Brave – Sleep No More

On their sophomore album, The Comsats project maturity in their sound while focusing their themes away from youthful perspectives of fear and nervous energy to ones of knowing and the resignation of unrealized dreams. Be Brave has a workman like bass and drums that set the tone while the guitar and keyboards the song’s emotional bed. Fellows guitar cuts through the landscape laid down by the rhythm section with emotional ferocity.

Sleep No More is an album that benefits more from being listened to than being reviewed. It is easy to put in a league with some very strong company, and many reviewers and critics have. But it’s darker themes require listening, most will not get it on first listen as it needs the listener to allow it in.

6. After The Rain – Fiction

With their third album The Comsat Angels took a lighter approach. Lighter is really not a fair word, but when put in relation to Sleep No More, it makes sense. The lightness is in the musical approach rather than the themes In fact, the Ballardian themes are still very evident. After The Rain seems to be about comforting and sheltering and love, but there is menace in the beauty of the track. “The rain” may be of a nuclear kind, and it may not be just one person needing shelter, but all of us.

After Fiction, with their Polydor contract up and no interest in the label resigning the band, they made the move to Jive Records. This was the house of A Flock Of Seagulls, rapper Whodini and Roman Holliday. It was also where producer Mike Howlett laid his hat, primarily producing the aforementioned AFOS. He took the reigns of their next album, Land, and guided a willing band into more commercial territory. Synths and Simmons drums replaced the harder, darker bass and drum-heavy sound of their Polydor albums. The sound fell somewhere between AFOS and Japan. As well Stephen Fellow’s lyrics were lacking the narrative, claustrophobic quality of his earlier work. While they found some Modern/Alt Rock radio airplay in the US with the single Will You Stay Tonight and a re-recording of Independence Day, the change in their path did not pay off commercially.

The second and last Jive release was their fourth album, 7 Day Weekend. While this album still retains their newly acquired “commercial” sound, the guitars, bass and drums are more upfront in the overall sound. They had a minor Modern Rock hit with single I’m Falling which also featured in the Val Kilmer film Real Genius. In the USA, it’s this song that they seem most remembered for. But there was one song that hinted that not all was lost…

7. You Move Me – 7 Day Weekend

You Move Me is a love song. It’s a love song that veers on obsession. The Fairlight is replaced by bass which propels the song forward as the guitar swirls like a mind on the edge of control. For me it is the most “successful” of their commercially intended songs. It is also a favorite, but throughout this period in the band’s output, the just never sounded as they were all that convinced themselves.

8. Flying Dreams – Chasing Shadows

By the time 7 Day Weekend was released, Jive had finished with The Comsat Angels. But the band found refuge from a left field Patron – Robert Palmer. Seems he was a fan and became the executive producer of their 6th album Chasing Shadows, bringing them along to Island Records. If there is anything missing from Chasing Shadows, it could be warmth. It’s an album that shows the education they received with their time at Jive.

Flying Dreams is not groundbreaking, but it references moods and elements from their first 3 albums with honesty of intent, while embracing the musical currents they found themselves attempting to navigate. There is strength and confidence in their attack. Back is Mik Glaisher’s dominant drums and Andy Peak’s deft touch with the keyboards. For me the song is refreshing and familiar. The song soars from it’s opening “take off” and glides off into the clouds searching for something yet unknown.

9. Pray For Rain – Chasing Shadows

One of the important changes on Chasing Shadows is Andy Peake moving from atmospheric synths to very pure piano – which is the cornerstone of Pray For Rain. Another change, and in some ways a return to an earlier ethic is that many of the tracks are realized in a minimalist fashion. Piano, Kevin Bacon’s faint, echoing bass and a pure vocal from Steven Fellows are the minimalist magic here. If the band’s output had ended with this track, it would have been a moment of closure in a career that began so very strong, stumbled, through a middle period, but regained momentum.

Unfortunately, this was once again a false start and their next – and last – album for Island would suffer from too much pressure to produce for the label. In fact, Fire On The Moon was so removed from what The Comsat Angels were about, they would only release it under a different name, Dream Command. It’s an album that veers from pedestrian FM Rock to heavy ballad, to synth noodling. It does nothing for their legacy…

…but in 1992, two years on from releasing an album not even good enough to put their name to, the band, still not ready to give up, came out with My Minds Eye. Released on the independent label RPM and self produced, TCA shine. It’s an album that’s heavy in parts, flirts with psychedelia but also references earlier themes in even more obvious ways than 1986’s Chasing Shadows. Andy Peake returns to form with a more atmospheric layering of keyboards. Mik Glaisher’s drums are at times martial and then tribal. Kevin Bacon’s bass returns to an anchoring position and Stephen Fellow’s guitar and vocals are confident in the colors they paint.

10. I Come From The Sun – My Mind’s Eye

For me, this is My Mind’s Eye’s stand out track. Subtle guitar and keyboards, an insistent drum beat and menacing bass combine into an other worldly setting which Steven Fellows’ echoey vocals only punctuate. It references the moodiness of tracks from Sleep No More but manages to get their with a lighter, maybe that should be softer, touch. I Come From The Sun, in my mind, stands up there with music by contemporaries like The Catherine Wheel or Swervedriver.

My Mind’s Eye would be the last album with the original line up intact. Kevin Bacon would leave the band to devote time to music and commercial production in the band’s Axis Studios in Sheffield (built with a ridiculous investment from Jive Records back in 1984). He would be replaced on bass by Terry Todd and an additional guitarist was added, Simon Anderson. They released the band’s final album, The Glamour in 1995. It continued on from My Mind’s Eye with an injection of a heavier Rock sound on many tracks. You can hear the influence of Grunge in the title track, while there are still moments of minimalist beauty.

The Comsat Angels find them right at the heart of what I love about Post Punk. They laid down many of the musical and thematic ethos that I searched out in music for many years – they still do. They endear me with their musical triumphs and their utter failure navigating the record industry.

Even if you limit yourself to The Comsat Angels first three albums, you are in for musically emotional ride. But give their entire catalogue some time. You will likely find music worth your time and you may be surprised just how much.

ECHORICH