[16 November 2010]
Orange Juice formed in 1979 and enjoyed plenty of critical acclaim in the UK press. From early 1980 a string of excellent 7” singles had the group deservedly marked for stardom or legend. They appeared on both the Tops of The Pops and Old Grey Whistle Test television shows, did sessions for BBC radio (including John Peel) and had a memorable hit single with “Rip It Up” which put the Roland 303 synthesizer through its most squelchy paces. Yet the bosom of the record-buying public remained mostly cold and distant. So, there remains a simple case for Orange Juice as one of the most underrated and under-appreciated groups of all time. After all these years their gloriously ecstatic sound still hits the gut and the brains with equal force; crisp disco-punk guitar lines dueling with oblique rhythms and crooned lyrics dripping with irony and whimsical good humor.
Few bands have been as successful in juxtaposing the glamorous with the humdrum. Thus, Orange Juice always sound as if they are simultaneously trying to get you onto the dance floor and crying into your shandy. Their earliest work makes plain a devotion to the raw simplicity of the Velvet Underground, US soul music, and the Buzzcocks. An appreciation for dub and country music, art and mythology would also become apparent. Such a balance of emotion and intellect might have been a load of old nonsense if they’d not had, in Edwyn Collins, a group leader capable of emphasizing primal enjoyment as much as detailing romantic pain and philosophy. Across this collection, Collins infuses everything with an air of slightly foppish wit, yet never lets the music drift too far from the raw and the real. Sounding both gentle and upbeat, with hindsight, he seems almost a blueprint for Morrissey (if the latter loved soul and reggae music as much as he loved himself).
Incidentally, that’s no diss of Morrissey. Far from it, for in the mid-late 1980s, I would debate anyone on his lyrical prowess versus that of Elvis Costello. Around the same time period, another big stink was brewing as shiny compact discs were raising their ugly head and being chuntered against by all true vinyl lovers. The format seemed impressively flash, but sounded shallow and often still does. The album cover as art was set to be made virtually extinct by something squat encased in an easily breakable clear plastic case. Even worse, record companies began a CD reissue program of whatever they considered were classics, starting with, I dunno, Beatles, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Pink Floyd, Santana, Stones, to the detriment of new releases and worthy older ones. It was just business, of course, but from time to time some CD-bearing unfortunate would wander into my verbal cross-hairs. If they knew something about a broader musical landscape and answered back then, if all else failed, I would fall back onto the ultimate trump card and cry: “Just admit it you [expletive deleted]. They will never compile and release all the Orange Juice A & B sides and sessions and flexi-discs and 12-inch singles and dub versions on CD, so fuck off you [different expletive deleted]”.
Well, finally, here they all are in all their heartbreaking, jumbled, poetic, stumbling glory. The (naturally) ironically titled (but you can google the expression) Coals to Newcastle is a six-CD/one-DVD package of 143 tracks including 16 previously unreleased ones and 23 “previously unavailable on earlier reissues”. A disc is devoted to each of their four studio albums (You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, Rip It Up, Texas Fever and The Orange Juice) another to an expansion of a previous compilation The Glasgow School, another covers their BBC sessions, and the final DVD is of promo videos, TV and concert footage including Dada With Juice. There is so much here in which to revel, from the marvelous “Felicity” (written by James Kirk) which sounds like it was recorded in a box of cornflakes, but no matter, through the thrilling “Falling and Laughing”, “Lovesick” “Blue Boy”, “Poor Old Soul”, “Dying Day”, and “Louise, Louise” to later solid classics such as “What Presence?!” and “Out for the Count” (in which Collins gives an idea of the breadth of his concerns with the lines “I dreamt of Bobby Gentry with her warm enchanting smile. She said she’d never fall in love again. At least not for a while” and “Venus, she was lying in state, wreath placed at her side. So I asked her why so tight-lipped, when there was nothing left to hide?”
Apart from the literate stuff and the deep knowledge of rock history, what set Orange Juice apart was a necessary or deliberate disdain of perfection and production-values. The group preferred the quest for spontaneity and substance. Their experiments in blending reggae and soul rather delicately into their jangly indie pop remain unsullied and somewhat beautiful. They may be the missing link between the Velvet Underground and The Smiths, between disco, funk, and real country music, between Motown and shoegaze, between the art college and the chip shop.
Edwyn Collins, best known in the US for the later hit “A Girl Like You”, suffered a double-stroke in 2005 and has really had to start again, relearning such basics as how to walk, talk, and sing. He still doesn’t play guitar but he is alive! Recently, I heard him interviewed. His infectious enthusiasm and self-effacing humor survive and, incredibly, he has re-learned his old songs and written new ones. I must, therefore, also point you in the direction of his remarkable new solo album Losing Sleep out on the Heavenly label. But even back in the Orange Juice days he had some spine. Collins all-but disbanded the original group, infamously replacing guitarist James Kirk with Josef K’s Malcolm Ross in a change that brought about the UK top ten hit “Rip It Up”. But really, anyone able to stand on a stage in the Scotland of nearly thirty years ago singing “Ye gods! I’m simply thrilled honey” with a girlish fringe while wearing plastic sandals and a cravat, must have always been tougher than he looked.
Some listeners might chunter over the repetition in this box set but others will love listening to the contrasting versions of several songs. “Poor Old Soul” comes out sounding particularly great (the French one is ridiculously sublime). The versions also bring back some nice memories of the gorgeously-packaged Postcard singles and that very odd and unique time which we may refer to as the first golden age of the 12” single. The 12” format allowed for the rare and amazing sonic adventure of Public Image’s original Metal Box (released in the imitation film canister). Usually, though, all most groups did was have an extended intro to the 7” version of their single and charge a bit more on the sticker price. As such, Orange Juice’s efforts in that department fare quite well—not least in making clear the disparate elements of their work. For example, the 12” dub version of “Lean Period” creates space to make (even more) explicit the separation of influences: Collins’ soft croon, the bass and percussion, echoing steel drums and horns, countrified guitar lines and the merest suggestion of a Motown riff.
Equally successful are tracks from sessions on the John Peel radio show. Peel sessions generally brought out the best in most bands and often when later versions of the same songs were released they seemed over-produced and lacking in crispness or bite. Perhaps artists set out to try to please Peel or the constricts of time imposed the necessity of brevity and aggression, but the result was generally no-nonsense and powerful. An oddity from such a session is “Blokes on 45” which mocked the then-current “Stars on 45”, a pathetic dance-floor trend which spaced snippets of crap versions of popular hits between an insistently wooden hand clap beat. The Juice version puts wonderful snippets of some of their non-hits to a similar beat and ends with a fake Beatle-mania scream.
Oh, of course there are one or two ropey tracks on here (I don’t care, for example, if I ever hear “Craziest Feeling” ever again) and some of the live versions don’t always take off. Overall, though, the majority of these songs have an enduring seductive quality. It may be the guitar tone (“I Can’t Help Myself”—albeit with a synth break quoting Los Bravos’ “Black Is Black”) or the vocals and lyrics (“Tender Object”) or the combination of both (“Upwards and Onwards”). I know a lot of these songs from the 1980s but in the past month, while listening at home and in my car, I have found that frequently, if a song began and I’d shrug a little as if to say “so what”, then at some point I’d be totally immersed in the sound and often grinning.
As is the natural way, the moment Orange Juice ceased to exist they began to be frequently cited as an influence by new groups. No wonder, for they had neither the macho rigidity of most UK punk groups nor the grandiose pretensions of pompous rock bands such as U2 or Simple Minds. Not for them the easy copyist mentality of the likes of Oasis or the feeble, layered, studio disguise of Spandau Ballet. Orange Juice are in a different stream of musical history where attempts to fuse the spirit of Noel Coward with that of Chic are not just entirely reasonable but essential. Orange Juice never really made it beyond the cusp of chart success and some of their efforts now make them seem almost deliberate saboteurs. Did any other group release two albums in 1982 and another two in 1984? Who did they think they were, Bob Dylan? Either way, they made their bed in a less than pristine fashion yet had the good grace to fall happily into it, laughing. And if you actually believe that chart success equals artistic prowess call me back when Bono or someone writes anything as good as “I’m not saying that you should build a city of tears. All I’m saying is I’m alone, and consequently, only my dreams satisfy the real need of my heart.” Oh, did I mention that they have to write it for the first single, like Edwyn Collins did.
It remains a lovely miracle that the tiny Postcard label, referred to in the liner notes as “a sock drawer”, could put itself on the musical map. All this long before computers made all kinds of recording trickery and promotional opportunity available to anyone with even a modest budget. Nowadays, scarcely a day goes by without some new wizard being heralded along with spurious claims as to he extent of their influences. Usually, these contain everything from kraut-rock to folk music yet are not actually apparent to anyone with ears. Orange Juice, by comparison, not only made clear their influences, but tried to transcend them. I am convinced that eventually their legacy will outstrip that of countless better-selling artists.
There is a nice booklet included here with all the footnotes to the group that anyone could ever need on everything from earlier times as the Nu Sonics, to lyrics cribbed from Baccara’s excruciating chart hit “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”. The best songs on Coals to Newcastle are crushingly enjoyable without any knowledge of the group of when they recorded or how big their first record label was or who they were influenced by. Over time a listener could discover which ones refer to the group’s manager, the move from Scotland to London, to a particular girl, to Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, to writer’s block, to Nico, to the need to start over, to the Catcher in the Rye, to old folk songs, or whatever. If this added enjoyment to this great reissue then so be it. Hats off to Domino records, too, for not trying to compress and artificially boost the sound as has been done to Orange Juice before, and for releasing such rare valuables as this package. Ye Gods, but this set is joyous, scratchy, clunky, flawed, uplifting, visionary, a bit wank and sublime. The clocks have gone back but who cares? This is what life is all about!