In April 1990 the sun was shining and Britain had just finished rioting in response to Thatcher’s hated Poll Tax. Meanwhile in Manchester, prisoners took to the roof of Strangeways to protest at the state of the Victorian prison they were housed in and local lads Inspiral Carpets released their classic debut into the world. Stuart Ralston reflects on one of his favourite records as it reaches its 30th birthday.
As the 80s ended and the 90s began, a new wave of bands and sounds seemingly emerged overnight in Manchester. It wasn’t as straightforward as that though. November 1989 saw a landmark edition of Top Of The Pops with both The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays making memorable appearances. This was viewed by many as the beginning of Madchester and vindication from pioneers of the city such as Tony Wilson who had long since championed the North and Manchester in particular. The Roses and Mondays had been making waves first locally then nationally, building momentum from the mid 80s onwards. Meanwhile Inspiral Carpets were seen in some quarters as new kids on the block.
Their story however is as equally interesting as their peers and began way back in October 1981. Tony Feeley, Glenn Chesworth, Tony Welsh and Graham Lambert first performed under that name in Feeley’s garage. The band proper got going in 1983 with Stephen Holt taking over from Graham on vocal duties and Dave Swift joining them on bass. By 1986, the band had begun gigging around Oldham and at one show (an outdoor event where the band played on the back of a truck), their drummer failed to show up. Fourteen year old Craig Gill found out and persuaded his Dad Douglas to drive his kit over to the festival car park and he got the gig. Soon after Clint Boon began helping them out and recording their demos at his studio in Guide Bridge Mill. It wasn’t long before he wheeled his Farfisa into the studio, taking their Velvet Underground and garage infused rock to another level.
With a steady line up, the band began gigging and recording regularly; their eleven track demo tape Dung 4 captures their early sound perfectly and indeed several songs from that demo later emerged on Life. This latest demo attracted much praise and the band began attracting bigger crowds and a strong local following.
Amongst those who were listening was Paula Greenwood who had started her own label, Playtime. The legendary Planecrash EP was recorded in April 1988 with Dave Fielding from The Chameleons producing. Only weeks later John Peel played the single on his Radio One show and Graham Lambert said that everything changed after that and they were invited down to Maida Vale to record the first of four sessions for his show.
By the end of that year a second EP, Trainsurfing, had been recorded but the distribution company Playtime used, Red Rhino, had gone bust thus leaving the band to form their own label, Cow Records and seek their own distribution deal. By the end of the year Dave Swift and Stephen Holt had decided to leave the band to pursue their studies and the start of 1989 saw them without a vocalist. Martyn Walsh joined the ranks in December 1988 on bass and Tony Wilson stepped in to offer his support to find a vocalist when the four piece – Lambert, Gill, Boon and Walsh – played an instrumental version of a new song, Directing Traffic, on his Granada show The Other Side of Midnight at the start of 1989.
Before long Tom Hingley joined, and the band immediately embarked on recording and touring, opening for James on their spring tour. Throughout Tom and Martyn’s first year, everything grew and grew. The tours got bigger and bigger, a stream of classic singles were recorded – Joe, Find Out Why and Move – and their Cow and Cool As Fuck T-shirts were huge sellers. On top of that, they found time to record a further two sessions for John Peel. In September, the band began recording sessions with Nick Garside at Out Of The Blue Studios in Ancoats for what would become the thirteen tracks that would make up Life. On top of that they signed a record deal with the UK’s biggest independent label Mute which allowed them to keep their own Cow imprint.
Inspiral Carpets first came to my attention when I saw them perform on BBC2’s alternative music show, Snub TV. Recorded live, we were treated to Commercial Rain and new chart bound single This Is How It Feels. I immediately went out and bought the single and a ticket for their Barrowland show a few weeks later. Life was released on 23rd April and I purchased my copy the next day as the band were signing copies at Rat Records in Glasgow.
Opening with the gentle, keyboard arpeggio, Real Thing soon bursts into life with a storming assault on Farfisa, bass and Craig Gill’s frantic, powerhouse drumming. Tom Hingley’s vocals are delivered in an almost sneering, Lydonesque way. At only three minutes, it’s a perfect punk opening, The Seeds meets Buzzcocks almost and Real Thing often featured as the opening song at their gigs. Martyn’s bass gets Song For A Family underway. Recorded initially for a Peel Session, Clint recently commented during a Twitter listening party that Song For A Family was about a working class family going about their business. “No matter how wealthy you are, we all have the same priorities, looking after family and keeping some wedge coming in” said Clint. It’s a classic Inspirals tune, dominated by the Engine Room – Craig and Martyn – with clever, subtle guitar licks from Graham and more flourishes from Clint.
The opening strains of This Is How It Feels are familiar to everyone, such was the success and continued popularity of the tune, even 30 years on. The haunting introduction features just Clint before Tom’s vocals kick in “husband don’t know what he’s done, kids don’t know what’s wrong with mum, she can’t say, they can’t see, putting it down to another bad day…” then Craig’s incredible Wall of Sound drums follow and turn a sad song into an anthem. Lyrically, it’s much like Song For A Family but musically, This Is How It Feels is in a league of its own. It propelled the band to stardom, Smash Hits, Top of The Pops appearances and lots of national press. This Is How It Feels peaked at number 14 on the charts and the band were now in the national conscience.
Directing Traffic picks up where This Is How It Feels left off. Another great band performance, driven along by Martyn Walsh’s outstanding bass lines. Much like Peter Hook and John Entwistle, Walsh often played lead bass; songs were carried on his bass lines. On Directing Traffic, the bass almost duets with Hingley’s vocals. Inspiral Carpets never had a conventional rhythm section. The Engine Room, as they are affectionally known were at the centre of the band. Craig and Martyn were pivotal to the band’s sound and this is exemplified on Directing Traffic, which tells the tale of a victim of club culture who has taken one too many trips. During the recent Life Twitter listening party, Clint called it a “fuckin’ tune.”
Besides Me opens with some great guitar work from Graham and is the fastest song on the album. It’s possibly the best example on the album of that classic 60s garage sound so admired by Clint. Graham described it as “us doing The Wedding Present doing New Order” - two bands greatly admired by the band. Many Happy Returns slows the pace down and brings side one of the LP to a close. Tom revealed in the Twitter listening party that the song took its name from an episode of The Prisoner.
Side two begins with the curious, experimental and free form Memories of You. It’s the oldest tune (if you can call it that) on the album, being based on Clint’s pre-Inspirals project (with Mani) - The Mill - and an old 1986 demo from the Inspirals, Thinking of You (from the Waiting For Ours and Songs of Shallow Intensity demo tapes).
She Comes In The Fall is the biggest and boldest anthem on the album. Again, dominated by The Engine Room. The military drum beat was Craig’s idea and it was always a highlight of their live shows. At the legendary G-Mex gig in July that year, he had a squad of majorettes join him on stage (and in the promo video). Whilst the album version was great, it took off live and Craig’s drum solos to round it off received rapturous receptions at every gig, especially on the most recent tours. She Comes In The Fall was a released as a single, backed with the excellent Commercial Rain, and was a bit hit in the summer and saw the band again perform of Top Of The Pops.
Monkey On My Back was another two minute garage pop tune, and originally featured in the debut Peel session two years before. As I was composing this, I was listening to some of our old live tapes and at a show from Manchester’s legendary venue The Boardwalk from March ’89, the buoyant fanatical home crowd can be heard shouting for lots of their favourites including this one. Sun Don’t Shine is an REM influenced tune and one of the oldest on the album, originally being recorded in 1987 and appearing on the seminal Dung 4 demo tape. It’s both the lightest and most poignant song on the album. Tom’s vocals are the highlight and one of his best.
Inside My Head was another Dung 4 demo the band revisited for Life and this is the definitive version. Their final single of 1989, Move, was included on the CD and tape version of the album but excluded from the vinyl (a running time of around 44 minutes produces optimum sound on vinyl). Move was the fourth and final single of 1989, when the band dominated the independent charts where they had a number of releases sat for most of the year. Move was inspired by the Mia Farrow film Rosemary’s Baby and upon release gave the band their first ever kids TV show appearance, guesting on the live Saturday morning Wide Away Club show hosted by Michaela Strachan and Tommy Boyd. Michaela surprised Clint by calling his mum up on the show to check he had clean pants on. Move could have been their first big chart hit, but not enough copies were pressed up and it sold out in many places.
For many, including me, the highlight of Life was Sackville which brought the album to a close. The darkest song in their repertoire, Sackville tells the harrowing tale of prostitutes working in the red-light district of Manchester, Sackville Street. It was also where the band had their office. “You seemed so strong, stronger than a man could ever be… but when a trick goes wrong there’s no one there to help her. There’s not a thing I can do about it. I guess I’ll just go home and write a song about it” sings an emotive Tom. Powerful, thought provoking stuff. Musically, Sackville is incredibly uplifting. Another great, powerful bass, dominant drums and Clint’s Farfisa taking the lead. Meanwhile Graham Lambert’s discrete guitar lines add to the atmospherics of the song. The song was influenced by cult Manchester bands Dub Sex and Yargo (if you are unfamiliar with either, please check them out).
Life debuted in the UK charts at number 2. It was an incredible achievement. They were only held off the top spot by a Carpenters compilation. Also in the chart that week was the Lou Reed / John Cale album Songs For Drella. It entered at number 22. With the Inspirals all being big Velvet Underground fans, they must have been in awe of their chart position. Given their modesty though, perhaps not. Their new deal with Mute allowed distribution worldwide with Japanese and American versions of Life featuring additional tunes such as Commercial Rain and Whiskey.
The Life tour saw the band visit all four corners of the UK, playing sell out shows wherever they went. I saw them for the first time at a packed, hot, sweaty Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow. There were over 2000 people there. By the time of the tour and the album release, the band had already been busy working on both a follow up EP (Island Head) and an album (The Beast Inside). Several of those songs were already fully formed and flourishing in the set. I’ll Keep It In Mind and Grip followed on in the tradition of the pop nuggets littered throughout Life, and Beast Inside and Further Away marked an impressive departure. Even in the week of release of the debut, the follow up was shaping up to be very exciting indeed. Inspiral Carpets never seemed to rest. They were incredibly industrious and any success they had was much deserved.
The tour ended in spectacular style, playing the Greater Manchester Exhibition Centre (G-Mex) to 8,000 fans (with many more outside without a ticket) on 21st July 1990 – the date 21790 providing the name for the video of the live show that was released in early 1991. The show was so revered that it is still talked about today. A month later, they headlined the prestigious Reading Festival. It was a proud moment for the band as family and friends including their hero John Peel joined them.
Whilst the Life tour of 1990 incorporated a majority of the songs in the set, it wasn’t until 2013 that the album would be played in full - this time with Stephen on vocals. A repackaged version of the album was released including the tracks from the Plane Crash and Trainsurfing EPs as well as the band's previously unreleased first Peel Session and a DVD of the G-Mex show.
The 2013 tour took the band around the country, playing some of their favourite venues including Manchester Ritz, a double header at Glasgow’s King Tuts, Koko in London and The Leadmill in Sheffield. It was another big success for the band and whilst album tours don’t usually float our boat, the Inspirals didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t a nostalgia fest as some of these types of tours seem to be. Instead, they doubled the length of the set, playing a selection of greatest hits, including the sparkling new single Fix Your Smile and classic cuts such as So Far once the thirteen songs from Life had been played in their entirety. We felt that these shows were some of the best the band had ever played. The tour showed that the Life material had stood the test of time.
Life was one of the biggest records to come out of Manchester and influential for many bands who would follow in the 1990s and beyond. Throughout their career, the band always produced top notch records, helped by the fact that all members – Clint, Craig, Dave, Graham, Martyn, Tom and Stephen – contributed to the song writing process. This was one of their strengths. They didn’t rely on just one song-writer but everyone brought something to the rehearsal room and studio. Life paved the way for the excellent string of albums that consistently followed – The Beast Inside, Revenge of the Goldfish and Devil Hopping. Inspiral Carpets have been pivotal in my life. Through them, their music and tours, I’ve met lots of good people and had many, many wonderful nights out, forming many memories and friendships. To Inspiral Carpets and Life, Happy Birthday.