Cowbell-crazed, no-wave noised, robot-funk grooves from the short-lived Scottish band best known for inspiring Franz Ferdinand. Even the most cursory listen provides that they were much, much more interesting than that.
Dance-Punk Progenitors Exulting in Difficulty
Fire Engines, out of Glasgow, Scotland, only existed for a couple of years between 1980 and 1981 and only cut one full-length record, 1981's Lubricate Your Living Room. Part of the Scottish post-punk scene, they were the feral cousin of bands like Orange Juice and Joseph K. They refused, until the very end, to slather over their difficult grooves with conventional melody or sweeten it with sustained notes of any kind. Their songs were abrasive, off-putting, riffs constructed out of notes that would never fit into the same key, let alone the same chord. A good half of their catalogue was instrumental-only. Where there were vocals, they tended to be buried in the mix, emerging, yelping and bloody-nosed, at odd intervals. They might easily have fallen into the sort of DIY shoulda-been limbo that the Hyped2Death label mines so effectively, except that their short, electro-shocked grooves lodged in the heads of some young men who went on to form Franz Ferdinand.
At the peak of their commercial success, Franz Ferdinand went on record stating that Fire Engines were more important as an influence than the usually cited Gang of Four, setting off a flurry of interest in the long out-of-print Fire Engines catalogue. There was even a new recording. After a more than 20-year recording hiatus, Fire Engines cut a single with the dance-punk revivalists, covering Franz Ferdinand's "Jacqueline" on one side, while Franz Ferdinand covered "Get Up and Use Me" on the other. Fire Engines played a December 2005 reunion show with Franz Ferdinand. Acute Records began planning a reissue of substantially everything the Fire Engines had ever recorded -- one full-length, three singles and a handful of alternate takes. It would all fit easily on one CD.
The result is here, a 16-track retrospective that includes all of Lubricate Your Living Room and A- and B-sides of all three singles plus four alternative takes. Although the cuts are not arranged chronologically, it is possible to trace the band's entire history through these songs.
A historically-minded listener would have to start with track three, the cowbell-crazed, bass-hopping, stop-start frenzy of "Get Up and Use Me", which introduced the band to the general public in January 1981. Noisy, frantic, it is built on a sing-song-repetitive, staccato riff, the bass and guitar slashing away in unison, though several octaves apart. The drumming is completely mental, a cowbell banging away in one rhythm, the snare in a totally different one, both of them clattering to occasional messy halts, which allow singer Davy Henderson to deadpan, "Get up", and then, after a very long pause in which you wonder whether everyone has packed up and gone home, "Use me." It is damaged, abrasive and almost autistic in its emotionless-ness... but sort of brilliant. It went to #4 in the UK indie singles chart, which seems almost unimaginably daring on the British public's part.
Fire Engines - Hungry Beat
The B-side "Everything's Roses" is a bit more polished, its off-kilter guitar riff making tight circles around a locked in bass and drum part. There's something Middle Eastern in the harmonies, possibly intentional but probably due to the fact that Fire Engines didn't seem to pay much attention to chord structure of any kind.
Lubricate Your Living Room which also came out in January 1981 (and which includes the "Get Up and Use Me" single), is even more shocking and non-mainstream. The guitar notes that open "Plastic Gift", its first track flare in and out of conventional tunings, anarchically bursting through the bass/drum foundation. There are no vocals on this opening track -- and indeed the majority of the album's eight tracks, including the two title cuts, are entirely instrumental.
Moreover, these are not melodic, user-friendly instrumentals. The track "Discord", the longest cut on the full-length, is built on a riff that starts at B-natural, ping pongs up to E-flat, then caroms back down to F-sharp. Play the notes together and it'll hurt your ears. Try to put them in a scale or chord and you'll find yourself flummoxed. But play them over and over, in a rigidly-defined cadence, with the grinning confidence of an idiot-savant, and they take on a sort of offputting inevitability. Plus, you can dance to it.
Even the cuts with vocals don't really focus on them, burying Henderson's yelps and moans and bleats under a barbed-wire tangle of guitar and bass and drums. "Hungry Beat," the cut that this compilation was named after, is mostly an extended argument between drum and bass, the snare snapping, the bass thundering back, guitars screeching and wailing over the top.
Fire Engines - Big Gold Dream [Riverside BBC2 TV / 1982]
It's tempting to say that Franz Ferdinand took this raucous foundation and tamed it into pop... but in fact, Fire Engines themselves had a go at domesticating their sound just before they finished up. A few months after Lubricate Your Living Room, they released another single, "Candyskin", which seemed to strive audibly for a more accessible, slicker sound. The recording is noticeably cleaner. You can hear Henderson's voice and understand most of the words, and he is singing here, rather than talk-singing or screeching or garbling staccato phrases, as he did in earlier recordings. There are backing vocals, also in tune, which weave in and out of the mix. And, most surprisingly, the band has incorporated a string section into the song. Yet despite all these sweetening elements, the song is still fairly bracing, its whipsaw guitars still flailing away at alternate universe riffs, its drum and bass line still a robot's vision of James Brown funk. The backing cut "Meat Whiplash" shares the clarity, but not the strings, of "Candyskin", and it gives you a feeling for what the Fire Engines might have sounded like with a bit more money... but no pressure to cave in.
The last single, chronologically, unfortunately shows them grasping for success. This is "Big Gold Dream", which, despite a rollicking beat and viper-ish guitars, sinks under the weight of its synthetic embellishments. The keyboards sound like they come from another band -- the Fixx maybe? -- and put an uncomfortable gloss over the whole thing. The band seems to realize that it's moving in a dangerously commercial direction, in lyrics like "Two thousand beats / Two thousand hits / One chance baby." "Big Gold Dream" turned out to the band's swan song, reaching only a disappointing #15 on the UK indie charts before disappearing.
The disc is rounded out with alternative takes of "Get Up and Use Me", "Sympathetic Anaesthetic", "New Things in Cartons" and "Plastic Gift", which seem, for the most part, to hew pretty closely to the originals. There will, apparently, also be a 16-page color booklet with photos and an essay by Bob Last, though it wasn't included with promo copies.
Mainly, though, Hungry Beat compiles tracks that have been unavailable for years into one easily-accessible record. For devotees of Scottish post-punk, for those who have recently discovered bands like Josef K and Orange Juice through similar reissues, and even for people who have long been curious about the links between UK post-punk and funk-influenced US no-wave, Hungry Beat is a fascinating document.