Spain – Phone machine

Of the many venues I grew to hate over twenty years of going to see live music in London, the Garage – upstairs or down – on the Highbury Corner end of the Holloway Road is only eclipsed in my memory for vileness by Kentish Town’s Bull & Gate.  Both were charmless, characterless, lowly points on the indie circuit, with poor lighting, limited seating and minimal circulation of air.  When full of smoke and bad skin, unbearable.  But there were points on the late ’80s spiral up to the Astoria and the Town & Country Club (now the Forum) which did treat you less like a perennially teenage mosher and more like a human being.  Acknowledging my North London bias, let me salute the venerable Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park, New Merlin’s Cave south of King’s Cross, Camden’s Black Horse and Falcon each under the residency of Heavenly Jeff Barrett, the Reverb acoustic evenings at the Market Tavern in Islington, and the ‘special nights of action’ at the Horse and Groom on Great Portland Street.

Still, the Highbury hellhole that was the Garage allowed the odd celestial moment, and none more so than the appearance there by Spain in 1995.  The icing on the cake?  They gave away this single as you came in the door.

Spain were Spanish only in limited senses – more siesta than fiesta.  A dream of Spain, or sketches of it.  Laconically cool.  I don’t recall them saying anything much between songs, although on another occasion at the same venue, singer Josh Haden (son of jazz legend Charlie and brother of Petra, herself notable for recording the whole of The Who sell out a cappella) went so far as to explain what certain songs were about, as in ‘this song’s about polygamy’ and ‘this song’s about having sex without condoms’.  But in 1995, they looked and sounded well and truly stoned.  Competition is fierce when it comes to deciding which drug has been responsible for the production of the worst music, and cannabis has always been a strong contender.  But that night Spain took stoned to new extremes and made of it something stretched out and beautiful, spacious like dub.  A cat laid out on a flat asphalt roof in the sun, occasionally raising a paw to swat away a fly.

Spain’s sequence of albums dealt diminishing returns.  As the songs on their later long-players approached a gentle mid-tempo, it was less easy to tell them apart from the rabble.  Nothing they did was finer or more extreme than their first, The blue moods of Spain, and this B side of the same era could easily have shared space with ‘Untitled #1’ , ‘Ray of light’ , and ‘I lied’ from that album, with their unhurried self-portraits of a messed-up romancer.  Drowsy tortoise-paced bass and shimmering cymbals set the mood for Josh to tell us about a message on his answer phone.  Come on over, said the girl, I’m waiting for you here in bed, the lights dimmed and the air hot.  Josh’s yearning is palpable even through his typically Mogadon vocal, but for all the sultry atmosphere he conjures, you have a presentiment of the frustration revealed in the second half of the song – he’s got the message too late, and very possibly too drunk (or stoned).  In cut the bittersweet and ringing notes of a truth-telling guitar to emphasise the disappointment.  If you were unfortunate enough to be wearing a shirt and tie,  you’d have to loosen your collar.  There aren’t enough songs about sexual frustration, and the mood of this one suits the subject just as well in its way as ‘(I can’t get no) Satisfaction’ does.

Invariably when I dig this B side I play it at 45 rpm, and have to wait until the singing begins before I am sure of my mistake.  It’s a 7 inch which plays at 33.  At 45, it shuffles along still slower than most, but Josh has turned into a kittenish female soul singer, suggestively altering the tenor of the lyric.

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