THE FIRE ENGINES, Hungry Beat
by Simon Reynolds
Franz Ferdinand revere The Fire Engines so highly they persuaded the Scottish postpunk phantoms out of retirement in 2004 to play a surprise gig for 5000 Franz fans. Formed in 1980, the Engines blurred the line between disco and discord, coming over like a scrawny Scots version of James Brown (mal)nourished on potato chip sandwiches, deep-fried Mars Bars and other local delicacies. Frontman Davy Henderson didn't have much of a voice but gets by on exuberance. His rhythm guitar jostles with Murray Slade's even-more-rhythm guitar, sending sparks flying like the clash of light sabers. The odd charming ditty like "Candyskin" aside, songcraft wasn't this group's forte. So the best tracks on this compilation (the first time their work's been available on CD in America) are the near-instrumentals from Lubricate Your Living Room, their 1981 mini-album of ambient music for hyperactive people. 26 years later, the friction funk of "Get Up and Use Me" and “Sympathetic Anaesthetic” still provides a thrilling live-wire jolt to the nervous system
FIRE ENGINES, Codex Teenage Premonition
by Simon Reynolds
The obvious template for the jags and splinters of the Fire Engines sound is Captain Beefheart. But their most thrilling songs remind me even more of James Brown. Perhaps they never listened to him, but I’ll bet they were inspired by an idea of Brown’s music, as mediated by James Chance: funk as frenzy and possession. Just listen to “Get Up & Use Me” (either of the two versions on this compilation of unreleased material will do). From the subfunk bassline through the two guitars’ frictional mesh of screeching slide and itchy rhythm, to Davy Henderson’s parched yelp, it’s obvious that Fire Engines listened closely to No New York and Buy The Contortions. Even the title "Get Up and Use Me" constitutes homage in two parts, the first half echoing the pride and dignity of JB’s “Get Up, Get Into It and Get Involved,” the second nodding to JC’s masochistic self-abasement.
Fire Engines had a terrific way with song titles: “Hungry Beat”, “Meat Whiplash,” “New Things In Cartons.” But they weren’t exactly songsmiths. So Bob Last, founder of Edinburgh’s Pop:Aural label, cleverly reframed the group by persuading them to record Lubricate Your Living Room, an instrumental mini-LP of “background beat for action people”. Livewire Your Nervous System, more like: far from Eno’s aural tranquilizers, this was ambient as buzz music, a spiky cloud of sonic amphetamine designed to get you in the right mood--keen of nerve, ebullient, restless--before going out on the town.
Along with a pre-Pop: Aural session produced by the wonderfully named Wilf Smarties, Codex captures Fire Engines lubricating some big rooms in Edinburgh, with four songs from the group’s debut gig and six from another performance closer to the end of their brief lifespan. Both concerts feature their #1 tune, “Discord,” a shard-scattering groove that’s like The Fall’s “Fiery Jack” rooted in funk rather than rockabilly. The later show is prefaced by a snippet of Henderson vowing to do “two 15 minute sets” with a half-hour gap between. Playing fifteen minute gigs wasn’t a gimmick but the logical structural extension of the group’s commitment to compression: twice the energy into half the time. Like James Brown, Fire Engines had ants in their pants, but zero angst. Codex preserves their euphoria and NRG like a case of vintage Red Bull.
MICRO-INTERVIEW WITH DAVY HENDERSON
It’s pretty amazing that Fire Engines’ very first performance was documented.
Our bassist Graham [Main] had been keeping the tape under his bed for 25 years! That debut gig was the best thing we ever did. We should have split up afterwards, ‘cos we didn’t get any better, and I mean that! It sounds like an emergence, like something coming from a swamp. Most people know our Pop: Aural stuff, but this compilation is all about the whole year we existed before hooking up with Bob Last. We had a single on Codex, this label started by Angus Groovy. Another reason to release the session and the live stuff is that the songs were never recorded as they were written and performed, 2 ½ minute songs. Lubricate was like a remix project, except played live--the songs were extended, the vocals were left off.
Fire Engines influenced a bunch of scritchy-scratchy Eighties bands like June Brides and Membranes, then dipped off the radar a bit. It must be sweet getting all this love from such as Franz Ferdinand, covering “Get Up and Use Me.”
It all really started when we got asked to reform to play with the Magic Band. We wouldn’t have done it for anybody else. But if Don Van Vliet himself had been involved, we would have been too scared! Not long after, Franz invited us to play at a surprise gig for their fans. They gave away a free single to the audience, all 5000 of them, with their cover of “Get Up” on one side and us covering their “Jacqueline” on the other. But we’re not coming out of retirement--just a couple more gigs and that’s it!