published: 16 /
Anthony Dhanendran examines 'Sharon Signs to Cherry Red', an eclectic new double CD retrospective which features indie label female artists from 1979 to 1985
This enjoyable compilation rounds up 45 ‘indie’ tracks made by women between the immediate aftermath of punk and the flowering of the C86 scene of the mid-late 1980s. It takes a thematic approach to tracklisting, so rather than beginning in the 1970s, we start with the song that gives the two CD set its name.
That’s a bit of a problem because ‘Sharon Signs to Cherry Red’ by the Kamikaze Pilots (1985) is such a high point that it’s hard for things to recover afterwards. The song, ostensibly a plaintive wail about teenage love, is actually at once both that and a rather fine skewering of the clichés of that genre of popular song.
Beginning with “I didn’t see you for two whole days/And I wished that I was dead/So I put my songs on a blank cassette/And sent them to Cherry Red” the spoken-word backgroud vocal line quickly reminds us that “even tortured angst-ridden adolescents have to wash their hair sometimes” and ends up with the protagonist’s mother telling her: “Darling, it’s Cherry Red Records on the phone. They want you to go to London and record some songs while you’re still feeling tortured and angst-ridden.”
By the time we arrive at the other end of the tracklisting, the Kamikaze Pilots have become the Kamikaze Sex Pilots and the closing song, ‘Sharon’s Been Deflowered and Defoliated’ (actually recorded at the same 1985 session as the title track) describes Sharon who “really likes a band called Tears For Fears/Nut she’s got nothing between her ears” and catalogues what we assume to be Sharon’s metaphorical mistreatment at the hands of the music industry after she signed to Cherry Red.
‘I Confess’, by Dorothy (back to 1980), which follows, is jaunty enough, but then we take a more arty turn with the following year’s Tracey Thorn-featuring Marine Girls’ ‘Hate the Girl’. Production values are extremely high – by and large these were full releases, although three weren’t released at the time and another three are new to this compilation, old scene bootlegs aside.
The double album also suffers from the wide range of music it covers. We take in satirical ‘pure indie’ (the title track), plainchant proto-rap (Scream and Dance’s ‘In Rhythm’), Blockheads-style jaunty pop (the superbly entertaining ‘Jam Jar Song’ by Ingrid), Supremes girl groups (‘If That’s What You Want’ by Mari Wilson with the Imaginations), noisy art-punk (the wonderfully discordant ‘A Splash of Red’ by Trixie’s Big Red Motorbike), Brechtian torch song (‘Tommy’s Blue Valentine’ by Pride of the Cross, featuring future Pogue Cait O’Riordan), sludgy rock (The Mockingbirds’ ‘Money’), straight disco drive music ('Be Thankful For What You’ve Got' by Sunset Gun), Bangles-crossed-with-proto-c86 jangle-pop (‘Little Miss Rainbow’ by the Candees) and even some fifties-revival jive dance (‘Teasin’ Cheatin’ Man’ by the Shillelagh Sisters).
None of those songs are bad – in fact they’re all really good, and exemplars of their genre – but together, they don’t fit enormously well and that chopping and changing between styles and decades makes it a little wearing on the listener’s ears.
There are some definite highlights in there, though, particularly Ingrid with a 1981 song written by Ian Dury and Chas Jankel (“The Wolsey is cool, see/But a Lancia is fancier… my sister owns a Bristol/It goes off like a pistol”),
On the second disc, back in 1985 Dawn Chorus and the Blue Tits (featuring Liz Kershaw, future Radio 1 DJ) intriguingly turn the Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ on its head, to see the lyrics from a teenage girl’s point of view; it’s a simple trick once you think of it, but no less smart for that. They don’t even have to do anything to the lyrics other than a smattering of pronoun swaps, but what you end up is having to think, as the listener, in an unusual manner, which is always a good effect of a compilation such as this.
The discordant ‘Debbie Harry’ by Family Fodder (1980) immediately wrenches the listener away from any complacency and into a grubby oi club, and then the glitzy ‘The Boy Hairdresser’ by Tracie (1983) wrenches us back to a provincial discotheque, although the glamour is offset by a spoken word section at right-angles to the rest of the song. ‘Normal’ by the Petticoats (1980) is a remarkable work of art by UK/German solo force of nature Stef Petticoat.
So by the end of things, where are we? The point the compilation effortlessly hammers home is something that ought to be a truism, but is something on which the inherent small-c conservatism of the music industry has always managed to keep a lid, that women don’t need men to either make or be an audience for their music.
Production quality is absolutely top-notch throughout, except where it’s obviously intentional to the indie or punk aesthetic or where the track is clearly a demo. Even then the quality of the songwriting shines out from almost every song here; while some of the people featured here went on to big things in music, there are plenty of rather sad what-ifs to be had too.
The presentation isn’t much to write home about – which you might say befits the DIY aesthetic – and we could have done with a bit more of an understanding in the liner notes of how the compilation came together and why the producers made the choices they did. On the other hand, each track gets its own sparkling capsule review which makes reading along with the music both entertaining and educational.
Nothing outstays its welcome – being true indie, almost everything is two or three minutes long, so even if you don’t like it, something quite different will be along any minute. But that’s also the problem – the sheer breadth of genres covered makes it a slog to get through this setlist in one or two sessions. That said, as a document of the time, it’s superb, and if you want to immerse yourself in the scene and understand what made it tick, you couldn’t do much better.