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Dave Thompson, Fall, 1997
They have been described, with only a hint of post-Radiohead exaggeration, as the best band Britain has slung at America this decade. Oasis have sold better, Suede look better, and Blur...well, Blur are Blur, and quality really doesn't enter into that equation. But from the moment "Black Metallic" first swaggered out of an hitherto unknown left field, taking longer to play (seven minutes) than it did to write (around four, says creator Rob Dickinson), there were really only two bands in it. One was Catherine Wheel; the other was everybody else.
Four albums on (compilations notwithstanding), Catherine Wheel remain in a position of absolute power, even if they refuse to count chickens. The group's last album, the mega-mighty Happy Days, left a lot of listeners reeling; it was, reviews said, too harsh, too loud, too gritty. And listening back to it, Dickinson agrees. Sort of.
"The opening of Happy Days kind of wore people down a bit because it was an abrasive, churning, beginning, and I think it led people to get exhausted reasonably quickly; it certainly caused the record to be thought of in the wrong sense. People label it as our heavy record, our abrasive record."
So, what are they gonna do about it?
Adam and Eve, the East England band's latest, opens with what can only be described as a weird burst of oddness; closes with it as well, and amidships, has more twists and turns than a Yorkshireman's wallet. It was over twelve months ago that Dickinson acknowledged, "We're gonna take most of this year to make another record. We're putting aside as much time as we can to get this new record right." Indeed, "the beginning and the end of Adam and Eve were ideas I'd had since we started work on it; we had this idea that the record would be different to stuff we'd done in the past, in that it would be shorter..."
For a time, the band planned to keep the record to a mere 45 minutes, then advertise the fact with a sticker on the cover. "'Contains less than 45 minutes of music'," Dickinson chuckles. "Imagine how refreshing that would be!" Too many bands, after all, know that CDs will contain up to 80 minutes of music, and feel somehow compelled to fill every one of them. "But we're not talking about C90 cassettes," he continues. "It's not like you have to fast forward to the end of the tape when the music stops."
In the end, the album clocked in at around an hour, but Dickinson won't let go of his initial idea. "We wanted the record to be shorter. Well, a little bit shorter, and more of a listen. So I started to think it would be nice to contain the bit in the middle with two bookends which would keep it all in place. It was also a conscious decision to lure people into the record." Because as we all know, there is nothing like a weird burst of oddness to draw people through the door, and that's something else which Catherine Wheel are aware of.
"So I wrote something that had a warm, personal, alluring quality which would hopefully suck people in, then let them out at the end. I cannot remember the last time I listened to a contemporary rock record of any description from top to toe. It's not something you're encouraged to do today."
Because they're too long?
"And they're usually not very good."
Adam and Eve is good; one of the best new releases this year. But such accolades are nothing new to Catherine Wheel; people said it about their debut, repeated it for the sophomore set...Happy Days came and went, but Like Cats And Dogs, last year's b-sides collection, got even warmer applause than almost anything else. Which is also weird, because as the songs were recorded, in fits and starts and dribs and drabs, "we weren't worrying about them being part of an album or fitting in. Where this record is a genuine departure is that it has spontaneity and it has an unfiltered roar, an unrefined quality which emanates from the speed at which [the songs] were recorded.
"Sometimes we try and write a lot of songs in a very short time, because you can't [mess] around with them too much and you can't potentially spoil them, and sometimes you get a longer song because you can relax more, doodle more, and it does give you a more personal take on what we're doing at the time.
"Like Cats and Dogs was our idea, our manager and the band - the reason behind it was we have this vast backlog of songs which haven't been on albums, which have been b-sides or on EPs or album tracks which we never got round to using.
"We counted up 45 songs which haven't been on albums [a tally which will increase once the new singles start flying] and we kinda figured that the only people who'd heard these were people in the U.K. and Europe; it's all stuff which never got sold in America so we decided to put a record together of the best moments and that idea kind of gathered pace, it became obvious that we could do two things.
"We could throw them all on one record and just make this huge collection of songs, or we could try and make a record which sounded cohesive and together and sounded like something you'd want to play all the way through, rather than just access a couple of songs depending on your mood, stick with it and build on it and we felt we had enough meaningful stuff to do that, a record which represented a different side of the group to what people would expect.
"There's definitely less of a crash bang wallop side to the band which often doesn't get a look in. This was a perfect opportunity to highlight that side of the group." And it is that side which dominates Adam and Eve. That, and a healthy dose of tangled humor.
On Like Cats and Dogs, and for a few tours before that, Catherine Wheel covered Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," then had that band's traditional sleeve designer, Storm Thorgerson, come in to wrap a sleeve round the end result. This time around, it's the same group's "Welcome To The Machine" that gets the honors, although it's not the most apparent of parallels. "Here Comes the Fat Controller," after all, boasts a title which owes more to kiddies' TV hero Ivor the Engine than anything else. But it ends with a door slamming, the band playing on behind it, and a car driving away. Which isn't exactly the same as the Floyd's "Machine" closure, but it's close.
"Yeah, I suppose it is," Dickinson muses with the air of a man who knows exactly what the band has done, but doesn't want to admit it yet. "Actually, it was because the song was getting so grandiose, we had to slam the door on it: 'ah, shut up!' It's funny, though, because Bob Ezrin was around the studio when we were doing it, slamming the doors, and he was going 'you can't do that!' And we were going, 'yes we can. Watch.'"
Ezrin, of course, is the man who used to produce Alice Cooper, back in the days when the babies really were worth a billion, and school was out for a reason. A man who let Alice play with a dentist's drill. What would he care about a few slammed doors?
Dickinson shrugs. Besides, Ezrin's input was apparently more spiritual than hands-on; Adam and Eve is essentially a band production, with a few outside helpers drifting in and out of the sessions. Which meant that they could slam all the doors they wanted to. "We spent the next hour miking up doors and slamming them, then choosing which door to use."
Slamming doors, of course, is not something Catherine Wheel are likely to do outside of the confines of the studio. For five years now, this likable quartet has been teetering on the brink of a massive step-forward, swamping America in their dense, dark guitars; in the voice that sounds like it's about to shatter; in the belief that great rock'n'roll has nothing to do with hairy eyebrows and piercings through your eyeballs. And for five years, those in the know have been saying "any moment," knowing that not even America can remain impervious forever.
As the buzz surrounding Adam and Eve gets louder, so do the murmurings that this time they'll do it. And if they don't...well, there's always next time.