In the 1970s and 1980s, Seymour Stein’s Sire Records was a great example of a major-label-backed (by Warner Bros.) record company that actually allowed its artists’ careers to develop over the course of several albums. Sire signed acts whose commercial appeal wasn’t always immediate but who had the potential for a strong, lasting fan base. As a result, the list of former Sire artists reads like a who’s who of early college-rock heavyweights: the Ramones, Talking Heads, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Pretenders, Depeche Mode, the Cure, the Smiths, and the Replacements were all at one time signed to or distributed by the label.
Just as Echo & the Bunnymen, the Smiths (and then Morrissey), and others were finding some mainstream success in 1988, Sire gathered a cache of post-Bunnymen guitar-pop bands. Some of these bands, such as the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Ocean Blue, had moderate success on college radio and the charts. Others, like Liverpool’s Wild Swans, hardly made an impression. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t make any good music. Though not a classic, the Wild Swans’ Space Flower is a consistent, endearing and enduring guitar record that owes its place in history’s cut-out bin to bad timing more than anything.
Born of the same Liverpudlian scene as the Bunnymen, the Wild Swans formed in 1982, generated buzz, received some great reviews and then spilt up before having the chance to release more than one single, “Revolutionary Spirit”. Produced under a pseudonym by Bunnymen drummer Pete De Freitas, the song was hailed by critics upon its release and has since become legendary. The Wild Swans didn’t emerge again until a reformed version of the band released “Young Manhood” in 1988. The song was a pounding, concise, riff-filled coming-of-age anthem about exactly what its title said. Written from a distinctly British point of view that nonetheless touched on universal themes, “Young Manhood” had its idealism tempered with the harsh realities of the Reagan/Thatcher era: “I don’t believe in an act of war”, bandleader Paul Simpson states first thing, “I don’t believe in empires any more”, and then he adds, “I’m not ashamed of the nights I strayed / But Lord, I’m in your hands on Judgment Day”. “Young Manhood” and its follow-up, the dreamy, equally anthemic “Bible Dreams”, both appeared on Sire’s groundbreaking Just Say compilation series, which in turn earned some college airplay and moderate success for the Bringing Home the Ashes album, also issued in 1988. Though hard-core fans were split on its merits, Ashes was full of stately, ultra-earnest anthems that hung on Jerry Kelly’s melodic, jangling guitar riffs and leader Paul Simpson’s atmospheric keyboards and rich, Morrissey-without-the-attitude croon. The sound was big, echoing and immaculately produced by Paul Hardiman (Kate Bush, The The). But after Ashes, Kelly left the band, and its follow-up, Space Flower, made for a pretty radical departure.
The Wild Swans of Space Flower weren’t so much a band as a loose, Simpson-led collective of British alt-rock veterans that featured a couple significant almost-reunions. Ex-Icicle Works drummer Chris Sharrock filled the stool and brought along Icicle Works frontman Ian McNabb on guitar and backing vocals. Simpson himself was a veteran of Teardrop Explodes. He brought in Ian Broudie, with whom he had formed the short-lived synth-pop group Care after the first Wild Swans breakup in the early ‘80s, to fill in for Kelly and to produce the album. Broudie had himself just scored an international hit album as the Lightning Seeds (a remake of Care’s sole UK hit, “Flaming Sword”, appeared as a Seeds b-side). Bassist Joe Fearon was a carryover from Ashes. Whew!
Though Bringing Home the Ashes fetches the eBay money these days, Space Flower can be had at a bargain. It is not a lost classic. But it is a fun, infectious, colorful album that came at a time when college rock was becoming increasingly dour and bland, replacing the earnestness of Ashes with unabashed, playful psychedelia. The cover depicts a big, sticky ball of pastel-colored candy—a perfect reflection of what’s inside. “Melting Blue Delicious”, a groovy piece of bubblegum pop, was the first single. With such lyrics as “She’s my love-flavored / Melting blue delicious”, it wasn’t going to win any songwriting awards, but it’s catchy as hell and lots of fun. “Butterfly Girl” (“She wears her hair like a Roman candle” goes the verse) features some enthusiastic la-la-la-ing from McNabb; “Immaculate” is bit more reflective, even bringing back chilly synths and big chords. The title of “Chocolate Bubblegum” says it all, while “Magic Hotel” lifts the late-period Bunnymen sound wholesale with sing-along results.
But the album goes a bit deeper than that too. “Vanilla Melange” is a brief, folky interlude. “I’m a Lighthouse” is musically more complex and accomplished than anything on Ashes, a sincere and sincerely affecting love song that starts simple and builds into an orgasmic climax of phased guitars and the refrain of “Love, love, love / Melts inside us”. It’s not nearly as hokey as you’d imagine. The album ends with the 10-minute trancelike space-out, “Sea of Tranquility”.
Broudie was a veteran of the Liverpool scene: He had played in the post-punk band Big in Japan with Bill Drummond (future Bunnymen manager and KLF member), Budgie (future Siouxsie & the Banshees drummer) and Holly Johnson (future Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer) and went on to produce some of the first Bunnymen tracks. His influence on Space Flower is pronounced, from the whimsical atmosphere to his accomplished, surprisingly diverse guitar playing. Sharrock is cracking; his crisp, sharp work propels many songs and helps assure the record doesn’t sound all that dated after 15 years. Simpson had gotten hold of that ultimate psychedelic machine, the Mellotron, and peppers the album with goofy, sometimes jolting voices and sound effects.
A number of factors led to the failure of Space Flower and Simpson’s subsequent relinquishing of the Wild Swans name. The album certainly disappointed many of the Wild Swans faithful, but there weren’t a lot of those in the first place, especially in America. More important, Space Flower, released in May 1990, got trampled by some major developments in college rock. The “Madchester” psychedelic dance-rock sound from England was getting a lot of press and airplay, with Happy Mondays’ seminal Pills ‘n’ Thrills ‘n’ Bellyaches hitting the shelves in November. Space Flower may have been Simpson’s attempt to tap into that sound. But despite the psychedelic flourishes, it’s a guitar-pop album at heart, and not very danceable.
Along with “Madchester”, the emerging techno-rave scene was getting coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. Moby’s “Go” would burst the British charts open in early 1991. Sire Records’ biggest album of 1990 was Depeche Mode’s Violator, whose slick electro-blues couldn’t have been farther removed from Wild Swans’ sound.
What’s more, grunge was about to explode and leave most of what immediately preceded it in its wake. Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual and Alice in Chains’ Facelift were both released in 1990 and were big hits on college radio and nudged the format further toward mainstream success. These helped set the stage for Nevermind‘s ground zero of September 1991.
In the midst of all this change and all these new sounds, Space Flower was an anachronism almost immediately upon its release. Ironically, that is one of the reasons it holds up so well 15 years later. In the end, though, it’s quite possible that Wild Swans simply suffered from the uniquely English affliction of Sounding Too British.
Shortly after Space Flower‘s release, Sire dropped the Wild Swans. Shortly after that, Simpson and Broudie had a falling out from which they’ve never recovered. (Details are scarce; sadly, Broudie’s official website makes no mention of Simpson, Care, or the Wild Swans). Simpson went on to release several experimental albums under the name Skyray. Wild Swans enjoyed a minor renaissance in England when a retrospective, Incandenscent, was released in 2003. Reissued in July 2005, the two-disc set contains “Revolutionary Spirit” plus b-sides and radio sessions from the band’s first incarnation, and some pre-Sire demos and live tracks from the late-80s lineup. It received rave reviews and brought the band some much-deserved recognition. But Simpson’s memories of Wild Swans’ time on Sire are less than rosy. He recently offered up this summation: “Major labels suck the poetry from your bones and fill the gaps with a cement made from cocaine and crushed teenagers.”