Oh the Velvet Underground. What would we have done without them? They were probably the most influential band of the entire eighties when I began establishing my own record collection and sense of personal identity, certainly in terms of the British independent music sector, followed, but at a reasonable distance by The Byrds.
The two bands influence on scores of bands who raised their heads above the parapets during those lean years was immeasurable. The Beatles,Stones, Kinks and Who were nowhere by comparison. Whole ranks of pale skinned boys in black and shades clothed themselves either in the aloof, menacing, streetwise glamour of the former or the dreamy, jangling haze of the latter. Kurt Ralske of Ultra Vivid Scene was one of these boys and he gravitated to the Velvets, moving first to New York in an attempt to soak up some of their sleazy glory and then relocating a few years later to the UK to secure a record deal . Signing to 4AD in the middle of that decade, he proceeded to make three albums, not a note of which is imaginable without the massive blueprint established by the Velvets.
Ultra Vivid Scene's first, I think, is their best. Housed in beautiful, state of the art 4AD inner and outer sleeves which have all the glossy sheen of top drawer marketing. The music itself, drawing most obviously on Lou and co, but also on the Only Ones and the Jesus & Mary Chain and the massive sonic shake up of possibilities that Psychocandy had provided, is one sustained lysergic drone.
All fourteen tracks are smothered in the murmured, incoherent vocals of Ralske, (who was essentially a one man band surrounded by a rotating carousel of indie players). They all convey the vaguest sense of the dangerous thrill of decadent urban living, though you get the sense that a lot of this is imagined rather than actually lived. The band were much championed by the weekly British music paper Melody Maker at the time where a set of writers like Simon Reynolds and David Stubbs were pushing an agenda of music criticism forged on the ideas of the Post Structuralist writers that they'd devoured in their university days.The small bubble they projected through these reviews and interviews, failed to shift Joe Public's perspective to most of the bands they supported.
You get the sense that Ralske had made his way through the same reading list as Reynolds and Stubbs. There was a vague imagining at the time in the indie world and the weekly music papers that this kind of stuff was going to break through at any moment into the proper, grown up charts. Sensitive, long fringed indie boys in guitars and clad in polka dot shirts and leather jackets and trousers were lining up shyly on a mission to bring the Velvets to the masses. Creation Records artists, The Weather Prophets, Primal Scream, Felt and The House of Love were all in the kitchen mixing up the medicine from a similar set of ingredients, all the while nursing their own slightly misguided ambitions and dreams of stardom.
It wasn't to be. Ultimately most of the actual music, with the exception of a few tracks was essentially indistinct, aimed squarely at bedsits and student halls and certainly lacking the muscle, attitude and belief built to fight it out with Stock. Aitken and Waterman and Simply Red, who were ruling the real roost at that point in time. The bands, with the possible exception of the House of Love, who mustered a small wave of their own, had to content themselves with being stars in their own heads and universes, generally located in pubs and music venues in Camden. The Mercy Seat, Ultra Vivid Scene's one killer song and the best thing they ever did, gained a fair bit of attention and made some waves in the independent singles chart, but this was as far as the band ever got commercially.
Their debut is a perfectly amiable listen, fourteen well crafted and performed songs, and certainly an improvement on either the Weather Prophets or Primal Scream's debut albums released on WEA offshoot Elevation at a similar point in time, the failures of which dampened Alan McGee's initial hopes of a breakthrough for his first raft of bands to follow the Mary Chain's lead. He would have to wait for the Stone Rose's example, My Bloody Valentine raising the bar in terms of sheer sonic ambition, Ride's emergence and the Primal's reinvention with Screamadelica a couple of years down the line before bands on his roster began to make genuine inroads towards daytime radio play and record sales that did more than justify Creation's initial outlay on studio costs.
Ultra Vivid Scene ironically sound in many respects like a Creation band. They certainly have more in common with Primal Scream and the Weather Prophets than the Cocteau Twins and Pixies, musically at least. But Ralske was drawn to 4AD by their exquisite packaging. He had a small vision:
'(his) guitar drew from The Velvet Underground and Jesus & Mary Chain songbook: 'It was incredibly intelligent, but as simple as pop music,' he says,' I felt this incredible wash of noise which I can now describe as Brecht alerting the audience to the idea that all is not what it seems on the surface. It was like putting quotation marks around the music, which I found very exciting. I wanted to make music that seemed simple and direct but wore its intelligence on its sleeve.'
Bertolt Brecht! Vain imaginings. What was really lacking was genuinely distinctive songwriting and a willingness to truly connect. Only Mercy Seat really stands out from the pack and otherwise the record is a pleasant languid drawl, perfect for fans of the third Velvet's album and the quieter moments of Suicide, but unsuitable fare for wider appreciation. It's also worth remembering how few records both of these main inspirations sold during their active careers.
Great music is not all about selling records of course. But Ultra Vivid Scene is ultimately too polite and insufficiently versed in Dylan, R&B or Doo Wop that the Velvets drew on and which Lloyd Cole & the Commotions had also sourced in a similar experiment of bookshelf Rock and Roll with Rattlesnakes a few years earlier to greater commercial and critical effect. This is a perfectly passable record but not one that smashes its way out of the pack and demands that you turn it back over and listen again. Probably fondly remembered by a select few, you'll find a more favorable review of it here, It's ultimately one to put on every few months for a gentle, unchallenging listen before returning to the big hitters in your collection. The Velvet Underground for example!