20 Years On: Remembering The Sundays' Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
, February 10th, 2010 10:48
In the first of a new series on The Quietus, Iain Moffat looks at The Sundays' Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, originally released in 1990
The first great album of this decade is something that looks likely to be up for debate for some time yet - Acolyte? Contra? One of the many delights still ahead of us on the schedules? - but there was a time when things were rather more clear-cut; specifically, twenty years ago last month. Of course, to really appreciate the impact of the Sundays, it's instructive to look back ever so slightly earlier, to a time that, for a significant sector of the music press readership, was something of an annus horribilis some time before that phrase had really developed much cultural currency, namely 1988. This, you'll recall, was when the still-going journeyman phase of Johnny Marr's career really began in earnest, when the notion of things as post-Housemartins referred to their dissolution rather than their figurehead status, and when the indie charts were overrun by - wah! - house music and - double wah! - Kylie Minogue. Yes, we know, but it was a far more purist age. Anyway, imagine the collective sigh of relief when Camden started regularly playing host to a band who could actually be the Smiths and the Cocteaus IN THE SAME SONG. Come to think of it, that'd be quite the sight to behold even now...
Needless to say, the obligatory A&R bunfight ensued, followed by a solitary single that went on to top by a whisker the most top-end-classic-heavy (at least since punk) of John Peel's Festive 50s and then a for-the-time substantial hiatus that led to this being arguably the most salivatingly-anticipated album of its era. Little wonder it was so adored back then, but what's perhaps surprising is the potency it retains even stripped of all that context. This, it must be said, is down most of all to one salient point: nothing at all wrong with the rhythm section, of course (in fact, drummer Patch Hannan would go on to appear on one of the decade's most underrated albums, theaudience's splendid debut), but the Sundays' charm has survived chiefly because they were helmed by two thoroughly stellar talents.
Harriet Wheeler's voice is a genuine one-off, giddy and effortlessly gymnastic without ever losing sight of the humanistic warmth at its core - the crystalline prettiness she brings to 'You're Not The Only One I Know' lends it a gorgeous quality brilliantly at odds with the mundane minutiae of the lyrics, while her hurtling from punchy gurgles to stage-whispery confiding makes 'Skin & Bones' a terrifically arresting opening. Conversely, David Gavurin is one of the great overlooked guitarists of the entire canon; he might display shameless debts to more familiar figures at times (the aforementioned Marr on 'A Certain Someone', James Honeyman-Scott on 'I Kicked A Boy'), but there's a passion and a very real sense of release to his excursions in spangle'n'jangle that make for listening that's much more bewitching that any mere xeroxing could be.
What's also especially striking - and, given the title, wholly appropriate - is just how strong a reflection of student-age life this is, which, on reflection, is a rarer gift than might initially be assumed (consider, if you will, how much easier it is to rattle off lists of artists whose oeuvres correlate with adolescent experiences or properly grown-up concerns). At times, this can be remarkably specific - the excellent 'I Won' is perhaps the only song to ever build itself around flatshare politics - but it also captures the sensation of a life spent in preparation for a rather daunting sense of possibility. 'Hideous Towns' best expresses the intimidation this entails ("never went to Rome / I took the first bus home" etc), but it rears its head repeatedly, Wheeler at one point taking solace in the thought that "there's no harm in voicing your doubts" and, on 'Can't Be Sure', reflecting with perhaps an overly optimistic confidence that absolute conviction in what lies ahead is bound to emerge. Eventually.
On top of this, there's a fearless smartness in abundance here that it's all too frequently been reasonable to contend has been the great casualty of indie's exodus from the ghetto. The Sundays were never as prone to flourishes as, say, Wild Beasts, but there's a similar enthusiasm for language, punning on the militaristic aspect of the phrase "Salvation Army", opting for more poetic turns of phrase when lesser artists would have unthinkingly travelled a far more prosaic path ("it's that little souvenir of a terrible year that makes my eyes feel sore," for instance, is a lovely touch), and coming out with throwaway jewels and joltingly organic observations at regular intervals - it's difficult to think of anyone else, even back then, whose finest hour in 'My Finest Hour' would be simply "finding a pound in the underground", and even listening now lines like "fit the flowers in the bottle of fake cologne" leap out as inspired and uniquely evocative.
Admittedly, these are heights that would never be repeated; a second single apparently couldn't be plucked from this because the band had no more songs that they could've put on the B-side (an issue reminiscent, in a curious parallel, of a certain New York band, also on Rough Trade, who could be said to have kick-started the decade that followed), second album Blind didn't feature on anybody's best-of-'92 lists, and the marked improvements of Static & Silence (containing their Newman and Baddiel theme a full four years after the fact) got somewhat swallowed up as the indie implosion began gathering pace, and, while a formal split's never taken place, there's been no activity to speak of since. Moreover, this sets down a blueprint that would be followed with spectacularly diminishing returns by the Cranberries, which we're sure they'd rather not dwell on.
But its real influence is a more benign and lasting one: as the first key toilet-circuit-departing release in the wake of the Roses/Mondays Pops invasion, it kicked the door completely off its hinges, letting a thrilling glut of talents who would previously never have had a look-in on the Smash Hits (or, indeed, smash hits) side of things come haring through in the weeks and months that followed. And, while the NME's review at the time was right to observe that it seemed unlikely you'd ever hear Tina Turner referring to sheds in a song, the alternative would go on to make such a good fist of setting the agenda for the mainstream through the decade that, come '98, the most played song on British radio was a cover of that selfsame shed-mentioning 'Here's Where The Story Ends'. As a signpost for a bewilderingly terrific time, then, Reading, Writing And Arithmetic remains impeccable, while, as an album in its own right, it's still a seldom-bettered affair.