Monday, March 20, 2017

The Blue Orchids - two compilations, a decade apart

A View From the City
(Playtime Records)
Melody Maker, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

Blue Orchids were an anomaly. They were hallucinogen-fuelled at a time when drugs were extremely unfashionable (the early Eighties days of healthy New Pop, when Martin Fry, Adam Ant etc denounced intoxication as hippy decadence). Fall refugees Martin Bramah and Una Baines quickly propelled the wired garage sound of The Fall towards unabashedly psychedelic territory. Their sound lay somewhere on the continuum that connects the brain-fried minimalism of Question Mark and The Mysterians, The Seeds, Thirteen Floor Elevators, to Tom Verlaine, Meat Puppets, and Happy Mondays's early mantra-rock.

This long-overdue compilation gathers their singles and the outstanding songs from The Greatest Hit LP and "Agents Of Change" EP. Blue Orchids happened upon a sound - tumultuous drums, thick gluey bass rumbles, eerie swirlround keyboards and kiss-the-sky guitar - that was ramshackle but visionary. Lyrically, Bramah and Baines were nakedly mystical. "Sun Connection" celebrated the heroic torpor of dole culture, a life without rules (except "the law of dissipation"); it advocated opting out of the struggle up the "money mountain". "A Year With No Head" anticipated the "zen apathy", indolence-as-route-to-enlightenment, anti-stance of Happy Mondays' "Lazy-Itis" and Dinosaur Jr's "Bug": "threw my name in the bin/ate the fruit of surrender, surrender to no-one". "Release" proposed a life of passive fealty to the majesty of Mother Nature: "let's touch the flesh of the breeze/And feel release." 

Best of all remain the colossal, head-sundering tidal deluge of "Low Profile", and "Dumb Magician". The latter's lyrics say more about The Blue Orchids' than anything I can muster. "We move so fast today, nothing stands in our way/We're free to act, and forced to pay/See behind the scenes/The strings attached to all things/'This gets me that'/Try so hard to get your foot in the door/Get what you ask for and nothing more/The only way out is up, the only way out is up". The mystic blaze of keyboard and guitar escalates towards a heaven-ravishing climax, quite possibly the most transcendental music of the early Eighties. 

Blue Orchids were ahead of their time, out on a limb, timeless. Tune in, turn on, drop UP.

Uncut, 2002
by Simon Reynolds

One of the great lost groups of the post-punk era, The Blue Orchids were formed in 1979 by two refugees from the Fall, guitarist/singer Martin Bramagh and organist Una Baines.  Acid-doused and brazenly mystical, the Orchids’ hypno-swirl of discordant guitar and incense-and-belladonna keyboards couldn’t have been more at odds with the early Eighties. Misfits they certainly were, but The Blue Orchids were far from hopeless failures:  indeed their 1982 debut for Rough Trade The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) topped the independent charts.

Beyond the simple sheer thrill of their ramshackle neo-psychedelia, The Blue Orchids tapped into something:  currents of disaffection and withdrawal that would later surface, substantially transformed, as crusty  and rave. Without ever proselytizing, Bramah and Baines essentially proposed a quiet refusal of  the new “climb the money mountain” ambition culture of Thatcher/Reagan.  “Dumb Magician” is a devastating critique of  the dis-enchanted worldview that comes with pursuing wordly success: “try so hard to get your foot in the door/get what you ask for and nothing more…. The dumb magician/Sees behind the scenes/The strings attached to all things/’This gets me that’", before offering the defiant call-to-transcendence: "The only way out is UP”. “A Year With No Head” is either about 12 months wasted in a futile attempt to lead a conventional life, or 12 months spent wasted, as in being off yer tits (I’ve never quite figured it out). And “Low Profile” is their turn-on/tune-in/drop-out anthem (“no compromise in the name of truth/keep a low profile/serene inspiration”), the inexorable rumble of the rhythm driving a gold-dust-rush of sound as exhilirating as  Felt’s similarly-vainglory-themed “Primitive Painters.”

What’s essentially rehearsed on The Greatest Hit is the Nineties slacker ethos: defeatism as dissidence, a subsistence-level bohemia eked out beneath society’s radar and acknowledging no rules bar “the law of dissipation” (as they put it “Bad Education”). But The Blue Orchids don’t have that Gen X curse of irony. Bramah and Baines’s lyrics teem with pagan poetry and ache with  naked pantheist devotion: “get down on your knees/just touch the flesh of the breeze/and feel release”, “with hearts that burst when we salute heaven”,” “ate the fruit of surrender/surrender to no one”.  They even based a song around a Yeats poem, one of just two tracks from The Greatest Hit not included here.

“Visions of splendour, two left feet” goes “Sun Connection”, one of the group’s most awe-struck and awe-inspiring songs. The lyric perfectly captures the group’s uncanny merger of  sublime and clumsy. Blue Orchids started raw with the burst-levee roar of the singles “Disney Boys” b/w “The Flood” and “Work” b/w “The House That Faded Out” (the latter particularly stunning with its odd stabbing rhythm and jigsaw-like disjointed feel). The Greatest Hit is consummate, perfectly poised between primitivism and polish. Tracks from the EP Agents of Change--where the Orchids wore their inspirations on their sleeve-notes with the confession: “this extended player has been completed under extraneous influences working upon the psyche”--err slightly towards state-of-graceful mellow (the piano-rolling “Release” is enjoyably reminiscent of The Stranglers’s “Don’t Bring Harry”) but remain beatific beauties.

At once anachronistic and ahead of their time, The Blue Orchids flash back to the  keyboard-driven garage-punk of The Seeds and ? And the Mysterians, and flash forward to the acid-rock resurgence of Loop and Spacemen 3. There’s even a faint glimpse of a near-future Manchester: the drug-hazy “lazy-itis” of Happy Mondays.  Pulling together almost all of the group’s output, A Darker Bloom gives you a chance to discover a remarkable, if sadly compact, body of work. If only they’d released as many records as The Fall…. 

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