A GUEST POSTING by STRANGEWAYS
Never the Bride
It feels like The Siddeleys were indiepop’s perpetual bridesmaids. The band was a fixture on that rampant UK scene of the late 80s, but never quite ascended to wider prominence.
It’s an old story, of course, and one that’s in no way exclusive to this group. But it’s an odd thing when set against the quality of the lyrics and music, and the appetite of the scene. Even now, the band feels less celebrated, cited and fondly recalled than contemporaries like say Talulah Gosh, The Flatmates and The Primitives.
Myself, I became aware of The Siddeleys via just a couple of songs: Are you STILL Evil When You’re Sleeping? found me via a John Peel show of the era. I taped it. But didn’t buy it. Then, a bit later on, a jaunty cover of Edison Lighthouse’s Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes), popped up on the compilation LP Alvin Lives (in Leeds). This record’s sales benefitted the Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay Resource Unit, an entity opposing the Thatcher government’s hated Poll Tax (or Community Charge to give it its Sunday name). I loved the Siddeleys’ cover, one of twelve versions of 1970s number-ones by bands including The Wedding Present, The Popguns and Lush. But I didn’t explore further.
Although it’s not totally my fault, around this time, after just two proper singles, a flexi and a couple of Peel sessions, The Siddeleys called it a day. A band that championed the mundane and made it sparkle, was ultimately undone by the mundane: the expense and fatigue of midwinter touring; the small-label collapse; the reliable unicorn-promise of interest from larger outfits (‘As hard to hold’, writes singer Johnny Johnson, ‘as a fistful of mist’).
Soon, The Sundays would appear: a group upheld by what you might call a major indie (Rough Trade), courted by the powerful-at-the-time music press (the monthlies as well as the weeklies) and subsequently feted by the fans.
Why mention The Sundays in relation to The Siddeleys? After all, they don’t much sound like one another. But as a pair of literate, resolutely British (even, zooming in closer, resolutely English) guitar bands they do occupy broadly the same circle in the great indie-pop Venn diagram (a thing existing, thankfully, only in my head). Yet these bands enjoyed wildly different fortunes. The Sundays’ debut single, 1989’s Can’t Be Sure, came to me via a John Peel show of the era. I didn’t tape it. But I did buy it. Perhaps I’d learned my lesson.
Diving into the DeLorean and mucking around with timelines, I recalibrate things so that The Siddeleys and The Sundays are proper contemporaries (in the horrible real world, as the former was fading from view, the latter was being prodded towards the spotlight, and to the New Smiths poisoned chalice). But in this version of events, Rough Trade snaps up The Siddeleys. Both bands embark on a tongue-twisting tour. The melodic support, fronted by someone called Johnny who – surprise – is actually a woman, gathers fans and plaudits. They go on to make great records. In turn, they’re supported on their own tours by some terrific new bands. Everything works out. And, job done, we all go home for tea.
Instead, in reluctant reality, this ICA is predominantly drawn from just one release: Slum Clearance, a compilation that appeared in 2001 on Clarendon Records and Matinée Recordings. Across its sixteen tracks, Slum Clearance gathers pretty much everything The Siddeleys ever recorded –including those two Peel sessions – and released.
It’s a collection that’s accompanied by extensive, and typically prosaic and poetic, sleeve notes from Johnny Johnson. The text is engaging: an alphabet of London postcodes is populated by bedsits and squats, rubbish jobs and rehearsals. Conjured up by Johnson is an almost Dickensian existence: lyrics crafted by candlelight, beetle-strewn floorboards, and meals of porridge bought for 37p/lb. Even the street names she wound up in sound like firms of bailiffs. Crampton & Colville. Longfield & Charlwood. There’s celebration too, of course. The comfort derived from locating kindred spirits. The getting-down-on-tape songs previously located only in notebooks and heads. And the enjoyable, inevitable mayhem that being in a band attracts.
But amid the flexidiscs and fanzine interviews, the well-received gigs and record deals, sits, ultimately, the disappointment of never, albeit commercially, quite making it. Of acknowledging that, actually, you had something pretty good. But it was something that didn’t fly as high or as far as it deserved to. As Johnson sings in You Get What You Deserve
‘I came so close to happiness it makes me cry’.
As we’re all here, for deeper cuts, 2017’s Songs From The Sidings, on Firestation Records, collects twenty-two demos recorded between 1985 and 1987. Like Slum Clearance, generous notes have been provided by Johnny Johnson. These are presented chronologically, each shift headed by those numerous dowdy London addresses the singer occupied at the time the songs on the record were created. It’s a clever device, and one that recalls a restless time and nomadic existence for Johnson, but a time in which the band members, as is often the way of it, against the odds found one another and began making music.
You can read the Slum Clearance sleeve notes at https://www.siddeleys.com/history.html
Andrew Brown, bass
David Clynch, drums 1987-1989
Phil Goodman, drums 1986-1987
Johnny Johnson, singing, guitar, piano
Allan Kingdom, guitar
Dean Leggett, drums 1987
Never the Bride : A Siddeleys ICA for The (new) Vinyl Villain
Whittling sixteen tracks down to ten was harder than that task might sound. Any, really, of the Slum Clearance songs could have featured on this ICA.
Honourable mentions go to: You Get What You Deserve Because of the lyric ‘Sometimes I think I’d rather be beneath the train’.
My Favourite Wet Wednesday Afternoon Because it’s the ultimate Siddeleys song and, for me, an authentic indie milestone full-stop. Beneath a kitchen-sinky title, it juxtaposes powerful, cosmos-shifting love with a down-at-heel seaside town and a smoke-pumping biscuit factory. It’s an anti-epic, and a chiming, elegant corker of a pop song. Remarkably, this was originally a b-side but, tellingly, a later version was chosen for Cherry Red’s sprawling Scared To Get Happy indiepop compilation. In 2018 the song popped up again, as one of two flips to 1987 debut single What Went Wrong THIS Time?, via Optic Nerve’s Optic Sevens reissue series.
Falling Off Of My Feet Again (demo): A pacier take than the version on Slum Clearance. And the faster and more brilliantly ragged of the two run-throughs on Songs From The Sidings. And, OK, maybe also because it does recall Talulah Gosh (see below).
Bedlam On The Mezzanine: Because its title sounds rather too much like the kind of event Paddington Bear might cause.
Wherever You Go Weirdly: It seems that back in the day The Siddeleys were dogged/blessed by comparisons with Talulah Gosh. Whilst, round these parts, this is pretty much the ultimate in accolades, it’s not really that accurate. This track could be the culprit. It does actually sound like Talulah. It’s a blast. But it’s not representative of the wider Siddeleys sound.
And I Wish I Was Good: Some songs have a finality about them: something in their construction that makes them the perfect LP or compilation-closer. I Wish I Was Good is such a song. Quite relentless, robust and knockabout, it shuts the door (as it does on Slum Clearance) on this ICA. Somewhat ironically though, it seems it kind of started the Siddeleys story: written by Johnson in the very early 1980s.
With thanks to JC for the opportunity and space to share this.
Still with us? Wow. Your reward? A bonus 7″, consisting of the cover mentioned a few paras back, together with the original b-side version of the ultimate Siddeleys song