Summer 2003. I’ve got a one day layover in London so of course I make a beeline for the Notting Hill Music & Video Exchange. That upstairs room of rarities we had come to think of as Heaven on previous record shopping excursions to the UK. Looking at the Sarah Records section, I notice a divider for él, a label I’ve never heard of before. Always intriguing, especially this one with its lower-case appellation. The first and only album there is the Always – Metroland 12”, with which I fall in love immediately. Its blue heart and dreamy children’s book artwork. A sleeve proclaiming mystery, a new world to enter, and I’m now standing on the threshold. I hold the record in my hands for quite a long time (and in my mind for longer). The exchange rate is almost two dollars to the pound. Can I spend almost $50 on something I’ve never heard before? All because it looks so good?
In a rare moment of, what for lack of a better word, most would term ‘sense’, I decide I should actually listen to this before forking out so much cash, not that the artwork itself isn’t worth it. I head downstairs and ask if the shop has any other releases by this new magical label I’ve discovered. And to my good fortune they do. A white sleeve with two young women on the front proclaiming the most intriguing name – Bad Dream Fancy Dress. At least that’s what I’ve finally deduced after a minute of confusion over the word ‘gas’ being inserted between ‘Bad’ and ‘Dream’. But checking the back cover offers up the title track ‘Choirboys Gas’. The blonde and redhead on the front, each with a scarf round their hair, seem to be materializing within windswept clouds, envoys from another world. A world, it seems, connected to the artwork I’ve just seen upstairs. The back cover with choirboys and rectangles of solid color also features such marvelous song titles as ‘Lemon Tart’ and ‘Curry Crazy’, proclaiming “produced and directed by the king of Luxembourg”. I’ve never heard this before either but there is no way I am leaving without it. £13 is worth the cover art alone, not to mention all the dreams conjured up of what it could possibly sound like. I won’t be able to listen to this until I return to America nearly three weeks later but that’s fine. The seeds are sown.
When I do place the 12” slab of vinyl on my turntable, I am instantly transported. The bouncy Motown of opening track ‘The Supremes’ is simply joyous. But nothing could prepare me for the candy-pop-ecstasy of ‘Lemon Tarts’. Its reggae feel, 50’s-esque vowel repetition (‘way-ay-ay’), and then that magnificent chorus of ‘if you want to win my heart, you better start with a little lemon tart’. Pop as the sugar rush of a new flirtation is perfectly captured here. The pre-chorus mentions ‘Spanish kissing’, a line that has always intrigued. Anyone know what that means?
After devouring Choirboys Gas, next up, with eyes still transfixed by its cover, I drop the needle on Always’ Metroland 12”. For a week after seeing it at the Notting Hill Exchange, my prudence would pay off. I found this gorgeous record for £2 at a shop in Edinburgh. Kevin Wright, the man behind Always, told Melody Maker in May 1988 “it’s my theory that Mike’s trying to take the triviality of pop to such an extreme that it actually means something.” He refers to Mike Alway, the man behind él. And I’ve always loved how Alway’s label had a band called Always on it. Be careful to note there is a difference of an ‘s’.
But there is nothing trivial about the four songs on Metroland, and it is far more post-punk than pop. There is something Joy Division-y about the vocals, while the blippy synths and single note guitar lines of ‘Park Row’ are reminiscent of New Order. ‘The Arcade’, with its jagged guitars and driving drums, is poised between the sound’s early 80s origins and resurgence in popularity twenty years later. ‘W.C. Fields’ is possibly the best of the bunch with its dreamy Cure-like guitars. When the EP was over, I went to my laptop and immediately ordered the Thames Valley Leather Club full-length. A record as curious and entertaining as its name implies.
There are few things better than having an entire new world to explore, and this would be multiplied tenfold by the mystery of él. Few of the bands actually existed. Mike Alway would provide perhaps a name or the barebones of an idea and then have his trusted team of artists go conjure the groups into being.
Mike once told me “The creative escapism of él came naturally in Thatcher’s Britain. And we gathered together some of the best writers in the English language to participate – Karl Blake, Bid, Momus, Vic Godard, and Jessica Griffin”. Knowing Jessica’s talent with lyrics, Alway would supply titles and she ‘took care of the rest.’ Which brings us to the wonderful Would-Be-Goods. Alway says that it’s a matter of debate whether their The Camera Loves Me or Choirboys Gas is the better record. Each is a pop treat. “I think of them both as genuine musical surrealism. Successful ventures into artifactuality.” When I read that last word in my email back in 2003 it brought a big smile to my face.
Reviewers got it too. Melody Maker called Choirboys Gas “glorious stuff, like watching two teenage waitresses with very sharp fingernails going berserk and savaging a smug executive diner. How can mere sensible pop music possibly compete?” and The Camera Loves Me “a delightful ingénue of a record, and one thing is certain: you won’t have heard anything like it”.
The fiction of it all was captivating. Child star Simon Fisher Turner would adopt the guise of The King Of Luxembourg and, in addition to helping manifest Alway’s fantasies, would also become one of the greatest cover artists of all-time. You know that conversation about cover songs that are better than the original? Turner’s name will be popping up there. Listen to his ‘The Prettiest Star’, ‘Lee Remick’, ‘A Portrait of Dorian Gray’, and ‘Valleri’. But of special note is the tune he co-wrote with Colin Lloyd-Tucker, ‘The Trial Of Dr. Fancy’. Stories like the one this song tells – based on an obscure 1964 teleplay about a doctor on trial for performing amputations to help tall patients deal with their ‘Cyclops syndrome’ – are hardly ever heard couched in such infectious pop, making it even more wonderful.
Philippe Auclair would also be a strong presence in the él camp as Louis Philippe. Turner would cover his ‘Baby’ on The King of Luxembourg’s Royal Bastard album. ‘Baby’ is the best 60s song not written in the 1960’s. My third él purchase on that very same trip was finding Louis Philippe’s Anthony Bay 7” at Mono in Glasgow. It looked too good not to buy. There seems to be a lot of doubling of names within the él world and soon I was to discover the delightful Anthony Adverse, for whom Philippe wrote the elegant The Red Shoes album. The boisterous ‘London My Town’, gossamer affectation of ‘Our Fairy Tale’, and affecting ‘Goodbye Again’ are all non-single highlights while the Dionysian stomp of bonus track ‘L.U.V.’ (The Shangri-La’s ‘Give Him A Great Big Kiss’ in Carnevale dress) is a must listen.
But, to add to the complex world Alway was dreaming up, not all the bands were manufactured. Gol Gappas were friends of Alway from the late-70’s Richmond scene. Their ‘West 14’ is one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard. And ‘St. Lucy’ is a jangle-pop gem. Rosemary’s Children too, of whom I know absolutely nothing about, offered up two great tunes in a British Paisley Underground vein with ‘Southern Fields’ and ‘Whatever Happened To Alice?’.
All this was done with the most enchanting artwork. Jane Solanas wrote in a 1998 NME, “Alway is that rare breed, a man who knows a record should always look good”. There is a story of Chris Roberts from Melody Maker losing the tape of the five 10” singles él was releasing that week. Confirming to Alway that he still had the sleeves, Alway suggested him reviewing the records based on what the artwork suggests they would sound like. “A splendid game”, Roberts called it. Indeed! The London Pavilion compilations look lovely and the él comps are a good starting place, particularly the two Bellissimo! singles collections, giving one a good sense of the strange beautiful inhabitants of this chimerical world.
There’s plenty I’m leaving out for you to discover yourselves. It’s hard to do justice to the jazz-tinged ode to sodomy of Shock Headed Peters’ ‘I, Bloodbrother Be’ (the very first song released on él). Momus’s autobiographical update of Jacques Brel’s ‘Jackie’ as ‘Nicky’ is fantastic. And then there’s the carefree Latin-rhythmed Marden Hill, who summed things up for Sounds with “I hate the word pretension but there is pretense there – for instance, in that we’re pretending to be a group”.
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