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The Distractions
Come Home & Black Velvet EPs Mick Middles , December 1st, 2010 07:06

A touch of soul in the black night of punk. A glimmer of light in the Factory dawn. Emerging into post-punk Manchester, the unlikely Distractions became the best dance in town, adding songs and a touch of the old to a disparate mess of a local scene. They became the perfect counter-balance to the introversion of Joy Division, the stubborn aloofness of The Fall. A most un-Mancunian ensemble. Then again... maybe not. It was Mark E Smith who first alerted me to the charms of this band. Although not one to overtly praise those he would find in his support spots, he warmed to the sexual frisson of their infectious simplicity. They reminded Smith of the finer edge of Merseybeat. There was, he said, a "touch of The Everly's" in there... "a bit of Orbison".

Catching them for the first time at Manchester's Band on the Wall in 1978, I couldn't believe my eyes. Mike Finney, as anti-cool, anti-star vocalist, blessed with a voice of dark honey, a cheeky dance stance and the looks of a geography master. Behind him, orchestrated by the band leader Steve Perrin, the Distractions bobbed away in precocious style. Adrian Wright's steely guitar. The shy – Tina Weymouth-style – bass stance of Pip Nicholls and the solid rhythm of sticksman Alec Sidebottom...who I had encountered before as a member of 60s Stockport psychedelics, The Purple Gang. This was home grown bunch that had been quietly emerging since 1975, I have been latterly informed. But best of all best of all they arrived at the Band on the Wall, fully armed with an album's worth of nuggets. Pure classic gold that had yet to be discovered. Within a year, they would emerge as the most promising band in Manchester. Initially emerging with the raw and modest You're are Not Going Out Dressed Like That EP on Tony Davidson's TJM Records, (Which included the bare bones of 'It Doesn't Bother Me', set to resurface in polished form as the band's first single for Island Records.

Before that, however, came the Martin Hannett produced classic, 'Time Goes By So Slow'. Even from the epicentre of the era of Joy Division, this song of the surreal state of heartbreak so perfectly illuminated post punk Manchester. Indeed, for thirty years I have not been able to walk past Alfred Waterhouse's stunning Manchester Town Hall without the lyric, "They put your statue up in Albert Square...and all the people walking by, just stare..." striking an evocative note in my head. A song as a tangible heart of a city and, frankly, quite unprecedented.

For a while, The Distractions usurped Buzzcocks as the best paid band in the city. Inevitably, however, cracks in the band camaraderie began to appear at the very moment they appeared set to crack the charts. Their Island album, Nobody's Perfect, immediately disappointed, not for the lack of great songs... but for an achingly clumsy hand of production. Not since Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers LAMF, had an album full of jewels appeared in such a muddied state. Worse, even than that, principle songwriter Steve Perrin decided that enough was enough, and left to for the aptly named Escape Committee.

Legend tells of an Island meeting where two bands were plucked from the roster... the decision resting on which to unceremoniously drop from the label. The other band, U2, was duly retained while Manchester's finest hurtled directly back to the shadows of obscurity. Even a comparatively eclectic rebirth, with Ex Ludus guitarist Arthur Kadmon – and an excellent Rough Trade EP – couldn't rescue the limping unit. Soon they fragmented, with drummer Bernard Van Den Berg, bassist AJ and co singer Debbie Shore filtering into position next to Finney and Kadmon. What transpired was a uneven unit prone to over-adventure and an unlikely taste for Latino rhythm. Well, it was the age of Kid Creole although the Manchester equivalent never quite gelled.

Finney was unbowed however and, with Van Den Berg, AJ and co singer Julie, (as Secret Seven) scored a short-lived record deal with, of all labels, Bronze, hardly a suitable home for an ironic pop ensemble who mixed strains of Velvet Underground with Dollar. The liaison lasted just one single 'Hold On to Love' and a bizarre flirtation with ZTT, (Mike and Julie provided vocals on an edit of Art of Noise's 'Close to the Edge').

Almost nothing has happened since the heady days of 1982... apart, that is, from a momentary reunion of a Finney and Perrin Distractions in 1995. This remains important because recordings from that fleeting time have resurfaced as part of the first of two Distractions EP's on Occultation Records. Indeed, 2010 sees the first Distractions releases of any kind since the early 80s. So long... and what is new?

Occultation, who have just issued the two Distractions EP's reviewed here, are also to release an album's worth of the band's pre-Island material and, beyond that, plans are afoot for a complete album of all new material. A difficult process, given that Steve Perrin currently lives as a teacher in we Zealand while Finney enjoys the less exotic climes of Holmfirth, Yorkshire. Nevertheless, the two would meet in the summer of 2010, to records at Liverpool's Parr Studios... just a momentary flash, with Perrin's guitar as precocious as ever, his gorgeous swelling melodies now complimented by a Finney voice that has gained a honey-tone during the barren years... and longingly unpretentious soul, simplistic lyrics that leave room to breathe. Perhaps it is that sense of space that has always proved so magnetic to writers. Charles Shaar Murray once proclaimed that "the Distractions are good for dreams." Paul Morley once called them "...the perfect pop band for the 80s" while David Quantick always regarded them as "his band."

Well I concur, despite the rather awkward fact that at least two members of this band ran off with a wife of mine... ahhhh... now there's true Distractions rub. For all their oikish cuteness, for all their wash of innocence...scratch the surface – in the old days at least – and there would lie a web of sexual intrigue that was rooted deeply within the Manchester early 80s scene. Innocence with a sting that refused to play by the rules.

Today, things are more relaxed. The first EP kicks of with 'Black Velvet', a track drawn from those lost mid-90s demos and the precise moment when the band finally discovered the depth of sound they had been searching for back in the Island days. 'Black Velvet' is simple lost love and, like 'Time Goes By So Slow', is arrives from a place of heightened perception. A man dreaming of a lost and fading love...wallowing perhaps but lifted by the rich Finney voice. This is the music of a lost band, in a sense, as drummer Van Den Berg has been lost to the mysteries of South Africa while bassist Nick Gartside is now firmly encamped in LA, surfacing as mixer and polisher of the 2010 version of the bnad. This truly international flavour has undoubtedly stretched the scope and is completed by the addition of a third songwriter in Nick Halliwell. Confused? Well, against the odds perhaps, The Distractions now sound more coherent than ever and these two EP's sit perfectly back to back... as a mini-album, perhaps.

The second track on Black Velvet, 'Still It Doesn't Ring' hails directly back to 1978 and yes, it is as obvious as the title suggests. A touch of Undertones – always a close cousin, in so many ways – and a fresh attack at an aged tune. A yearning pop blast... heartfelt although nothing... nothing in this ancient echo could prepare you for 'If You Were Mine', arguably Finney's greatest soulful moment... I do not know of technical perfection but, in terms of sheer howl and angst, this links deeply to the Otis Redding who always sat so central in Finney's record collection. Odd thing, I have to say, during the Secret Seven phase this was a voice that appeared to be weakening... not so now. Does Mike Finney own the great lost voice of modern music?

The second EP, Come Home furthers that outrageous claim. Here Perrin's song-writing has gained the depth of age. The downside is that this comes at the expense of that lovely old naiveté but. well, that's nothing if not a perfectly natural progression. 'Losty' is a pure pop gem, written by Perrin under the New Zealand sun. Again there are huge blocks of silence built into the production. If only 'Nobody's Perfect' had been gifted such treatment. The lyric will take you nowhere in particular – is a simple existential expression - but you can forgive that and ruminate on the fact that almost nobody is making pop music like this any more. At least in 'Nicole', a girl is ushered swiftly to the spotlight. Only in the glorious sprawl of Nick Halliwell's 'Oil Painting' are the realities of the band's advancing years appear to be approached. "You may not be an oil painting..." sings Finney which, I strongly suggest is not something anyone wishing to retain manhood status should ever say to a lady of any age and, frankly, all is not retrieved by Finney's level admission "...and neither am I." Nevertheless, and at the risk of encouraging the wrath of Steve Perrin, it is my personal favourite of the six songs on these two remarkable EP's.

For Mancunians of a certain age, witnessing the unlikely return of The Distractions will provide a touch of unexpected hope. The fact that, despite the band being scattered around the globe, they have appeared in better shape than even warped nostalgia might allow, is simply stunning.

The hope is that Occultation can succeed where Island failed. That is – to state the obvious – to link this to the audience that yearns for the touch, the warmth and, as we began, for the soul in the darkness of punk. The great lost band of Manchester are back.

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