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20 Years On: Remembering The Sundays' Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
Iain Moffat , 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

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Listen to Reading, Writing & Arithmetic on Spotify

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.

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Uncle D
Feb 10, 2010 4:05pm


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Feb 10, 2010 5:39pm

I hadn't even heard of the Sundays before I read this. Now I have them on Spotify and will shortly be expending £3 (inc. p&p) for a copy from Amazon used. All of which means: thank you for this article.

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Feb 10, 2010 7:20pm

Lovely album, still good.

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Tim Russell
Feb 11, 2010 3:47am

A great article about a timeless album. But 1988 an "annus horribilis"? Get outta town! Surfer Rosa, Bummed, Let's Play Domination, Daydream Nation, Life's Too Good, Tender Prey, The Frenz Experiment, The House of Love, Isn't Anything...we've never had it so good!

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Feb 11, 2010 3:55am

In reply to Uncle D:

Your name is "Uncle D." Put down the stones.

This album can still shoot down most of the crap on the airwaves today.

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Adam Hartley
Feb 11, 2010 12:13pm

Thanks for this Iain. A superb piece. I've been listening to it again and again all morning. Thanks for the Spotify links at the start of articles, too - nice idea!

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Jim Daly
Feb 11, 2010 2:51pm

The second LP was a duffer for sure, but it did contain Goodbye (with a great cover of Wild Horses on the single) which was probably the best thing they ever did.

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Feb 12, 2010 7:01am

I'm sorry, that attempt at an article wasn't pretentious or "hip" enough. Perhaps you would consider a rewrite?

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Feb 12, 2010 7:04am

In reply to :

The drunk who just posted this silly comment is actually the egregiously pretentious, tragically hip one.

Sorry (really)

P.S. I actually love the album. I think my problem is that you reminded me of how long it has been since I heard that great record. I have it here somewhere.

Geez...what has happened to me?

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John Doran
Feb 12, 2010 10:29am

In reply to :

I slave at the coalface of pretnsion 14 hours a day and this is the thanks I get? Admittedly this article isn't really that pseud-y or needlessly abtruse but rest assured Iain is now being spanked hard with a Cantonese translation of 'A Short History Of Decay' by E.M. Cioran until he learns his lesson.

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Feb 12, 2010 6:03pm

The 20 long years that have gone by have not managed to put a single dent on this immaculate, immortal music.

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Feb 14, 2010 3:31pm

Everything I want to say about The Sundays was probably said here:

where I tried to convey what it felt like to buy that first import CD single a full year before the debut came out.

Only the Roses first album from that era still sounds as good all the way through.

I liked Blind at the time but it doesn't hold up now. Static and Silence is pretty weak except for Monochrome and Summertime.

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Apr 4, 2010 3:30am

Thank you for the retrospective Iain but as a diehard Sundays fan for 20 years I must correct you on the lyrical inaccuracies!

Corrected lyrics shown in caps below...

Hideous Towns: Never ONE to ROAM/I took the first bus home.

You're Not The Only One I Know: WHERE's THE harm in voicing your DOUBT?

Hideous Towns (again): FILL IT FULL OF flowers AND A bottle of OLD cologne.

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pisces x
May 28, 2010 12:52am

Listen to the Radio 1 session version of My Finest Hour if you haven't heard it, honestly it wipes the floor with the original.

It's not available legally like, but in 'all the usual places'
(taps nose).


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You're Not The Only One I Know
Oct 11, 2010 4:27am

Can anybody tell me "for sure" when did the track "You're Not The Only One I Know" started to get airplay on US College radio stations or US Modern Rock stations? "Here's Where The Story Ends" was first then "maybe" followed by "Can't Be Sure" then what's next?

email me at

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Dec 8, 2012 11:29pm

My favorite album from my favorite band, period. Though I for one really liked Blind, probably because I see a darker tone to Blind and I was in a low point when I first bought it. There really was something special about this band and I have not seen anyone like them since.

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Joe Malone
Jan 23, 2013 1:28am

Good article but I have to say that if you didn't get Blind then you really didn't get The Sundays. Blind is iny opinion their best album, not as instantly accessible as RW&A and maybe not containing the catchy tunes but Blind is an album that has beauty and real depth to last a lifetime. I've never stopped playing it since it was released and I never get bored of it. Dave Gavurin's guitar work was never better than on this album. Oh, and interestingly I think the best track they ever did was 'Life goes on', how did this never make the album? Probably the most missed band of all time but what a legacy.

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wild horses
Apr 30, 2013 8:02pm

I wonder if this is from where the girl band "the Saturdays" got the idea for their name.....

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Marty Hunt
Oct 25, 2013 9:25pm

For a minute there i thought Sundays fans were deaf not liking 'Blind' but then read on and saw the comments at the bottom.Blind is by far their best album.Its contains so much beauty and magic what with their best song 'Goodbye',I Feel,the amazing 'God made me','Love','Medicine'amongst many others and the fabulous 'Wild Horses' which appeared on both the Goodbye 12inch and the CD release.It still sounds as great today as back then.R.W&A was no doubt a great album but it doesnt quite match Blind.Stauc and Silence was a mixed affair and doesnt quite match their first two.Harriets angelic voice is only second to Elizabeth Frasers.If any member of The Sundays happens to read this please start playing again and come dowm to New Zealand!

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Apr 13, 2014 4:19pm

I bought this the moment I first heard it on the radio. Listening to it now as I stumbled upon this article. Thank you for keeping this moment, this band, and this experience alive. Nothing compares. And I had the privilege to see them in a small club in Los Angeles. I was in heaven. Her voice, backed by the steady 3 piece machine of a band was divine intervention :-)

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Oct 21, 2014 8:12am

This is lovely thanks so much x

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Dec 29, 2014 5:08am

my biggest regret of my adoration of The Sundays is having missed their concert in Wash DC the year before they called it "quits" all because I was ill-prepared for a school assignment due the next day. my wife of 10 years went to that concert, and i married her to give me that missing slice of my life. (SSSHHH, just don't tell her that!) O_o

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Aug 15, 2015 5:23am

In reply to Joe Malone:

Agreed. Blind is the best album of theirs and 'Life Goes On' possibly the best track.

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Mar 7, 2016 6:53pm

The Sundays beautifully captured a time and place. Listening to them again after such a long time was wonderful.

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May 1, 2016 3:39pm

In reply to Marty Hunt:

yes. Sundays. come to NZ. you'll enjoy yourselves. Love from Steven

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Jul 29, 2016 8:04am

I came to this site tonight Googeling for the Guitar structure of Hideous Town while listening to RW&A on Spotify. A album that so evocative, taking me back to a time and place. Still love this album and the others too. Certainly a thread in the fabric of my life. (along with a few others ie The Go Betweens)

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Sep 15, 2016 1:59pm

I somewhat recently decided that this was my favorite album, not by them, but by anyone. I don't have the words of the writer of this article. Only the emotion the album brings me. I find it so soothing, sonic, rhythmic and warm. It hits every place it's supposed to. Highs and lows. I've had this since 1990 and listen several times a week. Back when I have a 5 or 6 disc changer, this disc sat in #5 or 6 respectively, religiously and was never bumped. Now on my ohone and iPod it gets it's own playlist so I never have to search for it. Blind was good. And static is also amazing, and recorded phenomenally. But this album bumped dark side of the moon off my #1 spot. It's just special. And I'll tell you what. Though almost no one has ever heard of anything other than HWTSE, everyone I play this for ends up infected. I've left a myriad of past girlfriends all loving this band. I wonder if they still listen? ;)

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Jay Bee
Jan 4, 2017 2:05pm

My life would be a little more complete if The Sundays released a new album. I still remember being 17 and waking up to VH1 playing 'Here's Where The Story Ends' music video and being totally enchanted. I love all 3 albums, it's not a matter of which is better for me, it just depends on the mood I'm in at whatever points of life where I find myself returning to their wonderful music. RW&A has a youthful spark to it, whereas I'll listen to Blind when feeling more melancholy.

Static & Silence is a bit underrated in my opinion, it's the most mature of all their work and for whatever reason I'll go to it when I'm in a relationship. (Folk Song is so good it's almost to much to listen too at times) The Sundays rival Lush as my favorite group.

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