Radiohead -- The Mightiest Band This Side of the Stone Roses -- got its start by ripping off Catherine Wheel.
When Radiohead’s “You” saw its proper release as the lead track on the band’s debut album Pablo Honey (1993), listeners were greeted by a sparse chiming guitar figure that wrapped gently around itself before being pummeled by an onslaught of buzzsaw riffs and bottom-heavy drumming. When Catherine Wheel’s “Texture” saw its proper release as the lead track on the band’s debut album Ferment (1992), listeners were greeted by a sparse chiming guitar figure that wrapped gently around itself before being pummeled by an onslaught of buzzsaw riffs and bottom-heavy drumming.
There are a few ways to historicize this one. First, we could get all technical and argue about how “You” was released in seriously limited fashion on Radiohead’s Drill EP in 1992, which came out just prior to Ferment. The other is to state the obvious: Radiohead evolved out of the swirly waters of post-Loveless shoegaze, which oozes all over both Pablo Honey and Ferment. The other is to make a slightly bolder claim: Radiohead—The Mightiest Band This Side of the Stone Roses—got its start by ripping off Catherine Wheel. Since I’ve never been prone to impartiality, and since Radiohead left “You” in pretty much the same shape during the year between Ferment and Pablo Honey’s release, I’m going with the third option.
The implications of that thesis are pretty major, as the past twentyish years have seen Radiohead’s stock rise astronomically, while about half of Catherine Wheel’s stellar catalogue has slipped out of print. Thankfully, Cherry Red intervened and reissued Ferment in expanded form earlier this year. It’s a welcome reissue that gets just about everything right, which can often be a rarity with these campaigns.
To start, we should acknowledge one simple fact: Ferment is not the band’s best record. Depending on which Wheel fans you ask, that honor would probably be split between Chrome (1993) and Adam and Eve (1997). Ferment, however, is the band’s most unique record; as such, it serves as a fitting lens through which to view the group's work throughout the 1990s. While large swaths of the album find the band approximating the sound of the Creation Records acts of the day—“Flower to Hide”, “Indigo Is Blue”, and even the understated “Tumbledown” are layered with gushy guitar effects galore—Ferment also displays Catherine Wheel’s early attempts to meld drone-drenched shoegaze with heavy rock, an aesthetic the group would perfect with its masterwork, Chrome, before meandering into momentary blandness with Happy Days and ultimately remaking itself to gorgeous effect via a slightly progressive concept album in Adam and Eve. If I’m not mistaken, there was another modest band making similar moves at exactly the same time.
The Wheel expose Ferment’s rock underpinnings early on by foregrounding one of the genre’s oldest topics: sex. “I Want to Touch You” showcases a cocky swagger that propels the song into a state of erotic delirium. “And I’m scared that when we meet / I’m fermenting can’t you see”, Rob Dickinson pleads before guitarist Brian Futter spackles the track’s bridge with a series of guitar moans that embody the narrator’s horniness. The track concludes on a note of desperation with Dickinson repeating the words “touch you” over and over again as the band (particularly when it would perform the song live) whips itself into a boiling, frothy frenzy. “She’s My Friend” follows suit, blending lovelorn lyrics—“I’m only waiting, ‘cause she won’t care / Shivers, shakes, and shallow / Hide the taste that’s always there”—with tightly wound elliptical guitar lines that threaten to burst open at any moment. If shoegaze was anything, it was not this sexy.
Catherine Wheel build on this primal energy throughout Ferment. The deep album cut “Bill and Ben”, while essentially a retread of Swervedriver’s “Rave Down”, pushes Neil Sims’ frenetic drumming (always an underappreciated component of the band’s music) to the forefront, as the otherwise chugging song explodes into an elongated punk-tinged freakout that is unlike anything else the group ever wrote. Similarly, the album’s title track foreshadows the soft-loud affectations of post-rock, shifting erratically between muffled passages that are all mumbled lyrics and echoey drumming and hemorrhage-inducing bursts of volume laced with razor sharp feedback.
Still, after all these years, it is the record’s twin epics, “Black Metallic” and “Salt”, that immediately illustrate why Catherine Wheel was so meaningful to so many of the bands that came after them. “Black Metallic”, perhaps the group’s most famous single, is absolutely otherworldly—a love letter to an unnamed android that has become only more relevant in our current age of gadget lust. Opening with restrained, plangent strumming and slow, morose verses, the song erupts into a head-breaking middle passage that could pummel the exoskeleton of the most hardened cyborg. Throughout, Dickinson’s vocals are soft, calming, displaying a coolness befitting his subject matter and the detachment inherent in a world giving itself over to the machines. Whether he would admit it or not, Morpheus has this song on his iPod.
“Salt”, the track that closed original UK pressings of Ferment, rides a series of gorgeous repeating guitar notes for nearly six minutes. Coiled around Dave Hawes’s thick bass, the song gradually builds in intensity until the whole thing spirals outward, enveloping itself in endlessly cascading cymbal crashes that spill over countless howling guitars. Through it all, Dickinson croons, “It’s only time”—words that come off at once as a plea and as a promise.
If the reissue falters at any point, it is in the selection of the b-sides and rarities that are appended to the record. Catherine Wheel’s Ferment-era b-sides are definitely its most interesting, even if they are not always the band's best. Thus, Cherry Red really could never have selected a representative few rare tracks from what were probably the band’s most prolific days. In other words, two discs—one for the proper album, and one for a more extensive collection of b-sides—were in order here.
Given all that, the inclusion of the extremely rare 30 Century Man EP is a fair concession to fans and collectors. Save for that mythical promotional Judy Staring at the Sun single (with “Capacity to Change” on the b-side), this EP stands as the crown jewel in any Wheel collection. Though it only contains one original cut, the decent “Free of Mind”, the remaining covers—particularly of Hüsker Dü’s “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely” and Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”—are fascinating for, again, tracing the band’s roots back to the ferocity of (American) post-punk and alt-rock.
The inclusion of “Balloon” likely won’t mean a whole lot to American audiences, as that song was added to the end of the American release of Ferment. However, the decision to include it as a “bonus track”, if these designations still mean anything, is an important one, because it allows “Salt” to bring the proper record to an appropriate conclusion. Finally, “Intravenous”, while not really expanding on Ferment’s overall aesthetic, remains a fantastic reiteration of it, which makes it a worthwhile listen for anyone interested in the record.
Whether or not this reissue will reinvigorate interest in Catherine Wheel remains to be seen. Regardless, there are a few historical facts that should be noted here—once and for all—about the band: early on, Catherine Wheel caught the ear of Alan McGee, the man responsible for breaking the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, and Oasis; the Smashing Pumpkins would ultimately thank the group in the liner notes to Siamese Dream; and, at the start of its career, Radiohead sounded a heck of a lot like them. No amount of amnesia should allow us to forget all of that.