Artist: Animals That Swim
Record: I Was the King, I Really Was The King
Label: Elemental Records
Sometimes it’s only too easy to see how the careers of some bands were doomed from day one – you only need to consider the name choice of Bjork’s first band “Cork the Bitches Arse” to realise that the fame game probably wasn’t high on their list of priorities. Then of course there’s the acts that employ manic time changes, literate lyrics and jarring dischords, then name themselves after a Dublin housing estate – so The Fatima Mansions were ultimately never going to be pick of the pops. The harder things are to “understand” in one sitting, the more there’s a reduced likelihood that a large audience awaits.
With Animals That Swim, it’s not so much their music (which always showed a love of classic, memorable choruses) or their choice of name that pointed towards obscurity, but their somewhat unorthodox approach to their work. Firstly, they had a “singing drummer” in Hank Starrs, which has never generally been an acceptable concept for most live audiences. Secondly, their original line up contained a New Yorker and a Kiwi, until they were deported (in the case of the New Yorker, forcibly and at the hands of immigration). Thirdly, they began their haphazard career by organising gigs where they would book poets and cabaret artists as well as bands, which was neither a credible nor orthodox thing to do on the London circuit at the time. Fourthly, and perhaps finally, they had a “thing” for peppering the brassy guitar pop they produced with awkward lyrics that almost mimicked modern prose poetry. In fact, one of their tracks “Sway With Me” is literally a Charles Bukowski poem twisted into song form, ignoring entirely the fact that Bukowski’s use of rhythm in poetry was never exactly pronounced.
What’s so astonishing, then, is that the whole bizarre cocktail worked. It may have meant that they were always just on the wrong side of commercial acceptability, but it did also mean that what they created was unique and genuinely beautiful. Their first album “Workshy” was a little rough round the edges, but had endless charm. The guitars rattled and jangled whilst Hank Starrs half-sang his pithy observations on modern urban life over the top, and perhaps most notably a trumpet periodically hollered out bold, flourishing poppy riffs behind him. “Roy” explored the idea of meeting Roy Orbison in a bar, and finding him sulking about his reduced status in the Encyclopaedia of Rock. “I could have been bigger than Elvis/ I sung like a bird/ wrote my own words”, he groans, “but missed my chance cos I’m too damn ugly”. The gorgeous “Silent Film” takes in the lives and activities of numerous people in a locality, with a chorus proudly proclaiming “This would best be seen from a great height/ or on silent film”. Then there’s the epic “King Beer”, a celebratory yet almost mournful piece of work about decaying relationships and drunkenness.
The real tour-de-force, however, came with the follow up album “I Was The King, I Really Was The King”. Housed in a sleeve showing a decrepit man in late middle age stripped to the waist and posing proudly, the artwork and title may or may not have been a comment on judging on surface values. Whatever, the first track off the bat, “Faded Glamour”, is the band’s finest moment. An exemplary and anthemic track celebrating small town England, it is in concept somewhere between Morrissey’s “Everyday is Like Sunday” and the Go Betweens “Streets Of Your Town”, except it’s far better than either of those tracks. Yes, really. Whereas both those singles sneered, savaged and sighed at the nowheresvilles of the world, and showed them to be beyond redemption or praise, the Animals That Swim track is about being held by the magnetic force of the history and the very aura of the places. “There’s been markets, garbage riots, maydays and meteors in the street” sings Hank, “But today it’s just a place where we meet”. The chorus soars in with a slightly sneering “This faded glamour is a stupid art school idea”, but by the time the song is halfway through the lyrics and melody shift irrepressibly upwards, and he instead begins celebrating the place. The melody builds and builds until it can take no more, then drops out with a whimper. It’s marvellous, drenched in an almost Celtic melancholy, and like most of the rest of the album, finds lyrical beauty in the unexpected, and things to celebrate in the most mundane and depressing of subject matters. Somewhere along the way, it also manages to be a superb pop song as well. ”East St O Neill” is another such track. Beginning with the slightly doom-laden lines “Someone gone shot dead round here/ People left flowers/ by the Ribena stains on the pavement”, the lyrics eventually take bizarre twists and turns as Hank Starrs tells us of how he stole the flowers, took them home in a wheelbarrow and pressed them all flat in a book. “On wet days the ghost sits in the kitchen leafing through it”, he tells us, “and he’s not grey or wraith-like/ but bright and solid like a new bike”. The very fact that the song ends with Hank Starrs complaining about his unwanted spectral flatmates habits (“plays the radio too loud/ and makes a damn mess of fag butts and tea leaves”) makes it one of the oddest but most ingenious lyrical twists ever – from death by gunshot to complaints about paranormal tidiness issues in under three minutes. On paper it sounds preposterous, but on record it’s a wonderful treat.
Then of course there are the London songs, which are busy, bold and brassy, celebrating the characters and places (“London Bridge”) and the thrift store East End (“Near The Moon”) with an optimism that’s almost unrealistic. When I was in Australia, these songs made me feel homesick. Now I’m back home, the strange thing is they still do. They seem to represent a London that only exists at the height of drunkenness, when night bus strangers actually talk to each other and reveal their grouches and tall tales. It’s a place that doesn’t exist all the time.
In terms of pop suss and melody, the album isn’t lacking either. “The Longest Road” contains a swish, almost eighties melody, complete with a one-note, rhythmic, car horn imitating trumpet parp. Keyboards whoosh and glide in a somnambulant manner around a travel weary lyrical theme.
So why did no sod buy the album then? Well, in keeping with their shambolic ways, the band lost one manager at this point then never seemed to quite get around to getting another. As a result, they were left to flounder through the music industry on their own drunken arses, trying to push the idea of pop songs with subtle and awkward lyrics on to a knees-up Britpop country (as it was then). And this brings us on to perhaps the most crucial point, that being they were never around at quite the right time. At the arse end of grunge they seemed fey, overly arty and ridiculous, and at the height of Britpop far too knowing and awkward (and not especially “pretty”, starry or presentable either). Jolly pop songs about rolling with it and businessmen in Country Houses were one thing, but similarly jolly pop songs about entrapment in scuffed up small towns and being shot dead and haunting someone’s kitchen were quite another. It’s not too shocking that the mainstream public cocked a snook at such behaviour.
Nonetheless, for a very dedicated minority of us Animals That Swim produced some wondrous songs, up there with the finest work of the period. And besides, I’d like to believe that if “Faded Glamour” became the new English national anthem, deep down it wouldn’t just be me that would think it a marvellous idea. Here’s your chance to decide for yourself.
East St O'Neill:
(This blog entry is a slightly different version of one which originally appeared on my Livejournal "If all the bloggers were killed, would anyone notice?" in 2005).
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