Celebrate Days of Future Past
Martin Bramah formed Blue Orchids at the butt end of the 1970s, just as his native band the Fall was issuing Live at the Witch Trials and beginning a long and circuitous history. Blue Orchids may have been a bit of a gamble for the Mancunian rocker, but it turned out to be one well worth the risk. At least at first. John Peel became an early champion and Nico would eventually take the budding rockers under her broken wings. The initial run lasted about five years with the group collapsing around that most Orwellian of years. There were fits and starts in the coming decades, but rarely has the band hung around long enough to get its just rewards.
Until now. Bramah’s assembled a working lineup of the group, begun a reissue campaign and and recorded a new album.
The first order of business was to come forth with a compilation of early sides for Rough Trade. The initial single, “The Flood” (b/w “Disney Boys”) comes on like a blast from a cheap transistor radio. Bottom dollars are bet that Bramah had cut his teeth on gems from the Seeds and other underground dwellers. The surf-style organ and drum beats offer clues to at least some of the influence but the vocal wailings are pure spirit of ’76, a barbaric yawp that only an Englishman could summon in that most tumultuous of decades in the anarchic UK.
Second single “Work” really broke the band and captured Peel’s fancy. Little wonder. There’s not much from that era or any era that followed that sounds much like Blue Orchids at that moment. Balancing ingenuity and naiveté, the single’s magic works in spades. At just over four minutes, it’s a glimpse of someone either on the verge of revolution or resignation and is all the better for not deciding for us. “The House That Faded Out” is a séance in which the spirit of the Electric Prunes mates with punk poet John Cooper Clarke in orgiastic delight.
By the time the Agents of Change EP arrived in ’82, the group had spent some time with Nico and learned the importance of mood and structure. The material is no less forward-thinking for having taken on those tamer tendencies: The titular track predicts the more palatable side of Simple Minds, “Conscience” stands as a singular statement, a kind of musical crossroads for everything that was happening or about to happen in British music just then. “Release” shows an awareness of the New Romantics and the business that Paul Weller was soon to get up to with the Style Council and yet sounds nothing like any of that. “The Long Night Out” still hasn’t found a place to land, more than 30 years later. It’s neither Goth nor New Wave nor post-punk and yet it is all of it.
Two demo tracks, “The Unknown” and “Sleepy Town”, round out the collection and all of it hangs together quite nicely as an album. Couple this with a copy of the wild Orchids outing The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) and you’ve got one def primer of the band.
Flash forward to 2016: Bramah’s back with The Once and Future Thing, sounding like a man much wiser but no less committed to taking life by the horns and shaking his fist at authority while convincing the rest of us to shake our collective ass. “A Good Day to Live” sounds like Dr. Feelgood on an ER adrenaline shot. And yet it retains that classic Blue Orchids sound. It’s an ode of sorts to Attilla Ambrus, the whiskey robber of Hungary who became a Robin Hood figure in the years after Communism left Budapest and Capitalism mostly left that country behind. It couldn’t sound more austere, cinematic and, well, punk.
“Feather from the Sun” is pure Bramah: It’s as much a throwback as it is a slice of prescience, all the sounds you love with all the ones you haven’t heard yet. It’s about 15 minutes ahead of whatever trend it represents and listening to it, you can’t help but feel that you’re on the ground floor of something. But what? Doesn’t matter because before long, you’re swept up in the hook-laden “Jam Today” and the blues-based brawn of “Motorway”. Each of these are examples of an artist who’s not trying to live up to his past glories. Instead, he’s one of those oddities who has gotten better. “Rosy Hours” breaks new terrain not only for the audience but also for the artist, asking us to imagine Fairport Convention had Richard Thompson been born in the darkest hours of Thatcherism and weaned on Public Image Limited.
“August Rebels” shows off Bramah’s wit and may or may not be a nod to his generation as it moves toward its golden years. It’s an uncompromising slab of rock ‘n’ roll that would make John Peel sit up once more. The album’s latter side is occupied with equally great moments, including “Running Blind”, the kind of song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Bramah’s solo affair The Battle of Twisted Heel (which is also just out), but it’s in very good company here.
Could this be the fourth coming of Martin Bramah? Most likely. His witty knives are sharpened and his sensibilities seem as spot-on as ever. Instead of running from his past, he’s putting on proud display with the Rough Trade compilation and a two-disc set that offers live material from both 1981 and 1985. More reissues are likely to follow and as word grows about the quality of the new material, it seems likely that an audience rabid for something new will embrace Blue Orchids and dig deep into the band’s rich history.
Bramah has said that an oral history is in the works and that an attempt to connect with the American public is also on the horizon. You could call it a revival or you could call it what it seems more like, a continuation. This is a story that remains unfinished and fascinating and if these new tracks are any indication of what Blue Orchids could do in the future, then this is indeed a very, very good time to be alive.