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Anniversary

20 Years On: The Boo Radleys' Giant Steps Revisited
Charlie Frame , October 4th, 2013 06:23

Charlie Frame revisits the magpie indie psychedelic album that first blew his mind two decades ago

If you're reading this, then chances are you've had that moment in your life when a particular piece of music has converted you from being a casual music listener into a voracious music addict. It's the record which upon first listening seems to open up a whole realm of possibilities, the one that makes us sit up and think, "Wow, now THIS is what music can be!" For the dedicated music fan it's often these eureka moments that we find ourselves chasing again and again, desperately seeking a return to that initial musical fix as we implacably gobble up more and more new sounds. Sometimes we're granted another rare glimpse - more often we're not. And yet we're generally satiated by the day-to-day placebo of a "good" or "very good" (as opposed to "exceptional") record. Luckily the experience of having one's mind blown wide open by a piece of music is so rare that for many it never even happens, hence the difference between the well-adjusted everyman and the hopeless music junkie.

The Boo Radleys' Giant Steps was this writer's 'eureka' moment, and I dare say if it hadn't been for that fateful October evening in the mid 90s I probably wouldn't be sitting here writing about music today. Sliding the secondhand cassette from its purple and white art-deco sleeve, lying back in bed and hitting play, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come - the complete rearrangement of an impressionable teenage mind over the course of 64 minutes. Everything since has felt like thrill-seeking – a mad hunt to get back that feeling of pure catharsis. But every subsequent album that's since impressed itself upon these ears - the Beach Boys' Smile, Lee 'Scratch' Perry's Super Ape, Ornette Coleman's The Shape Of Jazz To Come, MBV's Loveless, Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, to name a few – always seems to link back to Giant Steps for me somehow.

It's clear from speaking to the album's creator, guitarist and songwriter Martin Carr - who was still in his early 20s at the time of recording - that this was a period which saw him undergo a remarkable transformational 'eureka' moment of his own. Keen to move away from the shoegaze trappings of his band's earlier releases, Giant Steps became a melting pot of newly-discovered sounds, encompassing elements of dub, noise rock, sixties psychedelia, jazz, ambient and dance to form the quintessential eclectic 90s album.

"We said we weren't going to do shoegaze anymore even before [previous LP] Everything's Alright Forever," explains Carr in a recent conversation, "But we got a producer in, and that album ended up having a much more shoegazey sound than we'd intended or wanted. That was why we decided we were going to produce ourselves after that - no more producers.

"It all started with 'Lazarus'," he continues, "all the bits that we were trying to do. I'd just got into dub music and we really liked the vibraphone on one of the Tim Buckley albums Happy Sad, and the guitar feedback on there and the Beach Boys harmonies - it all just worked… It was kind of just about not having to go to work any more, and being able to discover records and meeting people who were turning us on to those different records."

Giant Steps, for better or worse, is an album that's often seen as a sum of many parts, a young person's guide to a whole lexicon of musical touchstones. Even today Carr makes no bones about the various influences affecting Giant Steps, and our conversation is littered with references to the multitude of books and records that were being crammed into his head at the time. "When we were recording Everything's Alright Forever, Moose, the band, were in the next studio. We used to hang out with them and they played us Pet Sounds. I'd never heard Pet Sounds before - I thought the Beach Boys were a joke. I just thought they were quite naff - fat guys in stripy shirts doing surfing songs, it just meant nothing to me. But Pet Sounds was amazing... Then I got a copy of Surf's Up and that really did it for me. That was a big influence on Giant Steps - we were really into that album. That and Hit To Death In The Future Head by Flaming Lips, it was those two albums that really informed Giant Steps."

Indulgent but never self-indulgent (though some might call it deliberately over-ambitious), Giant Steps isn't so much the result of a bloated rock & roll band gone supernova as a group of wide-eyed music obsessives from a small town using the studio as their playground for a few weeks. The only flagrant expression of grandeur is in the title, a tribute to the John Coltrane album of the same name and the product of a fleeting obsession with jazz. "I bought a lot of jazz records, but I could never get through most of them," Martin admits. "It was the scope of them I liked, really. We didn't want to be nailed down to just guitars and drums and we really liked stuff that seemed to float around. A Love Supreme is the only one I really listen to now. It's beautiful. It's got quite a few hooks on it. I need something every now and again to repeat itself."

This dizzying array of influences would be considered a recipe for disaster by anyone's standards if the whole thing wasn't delivered in such a succinct, whirlwind fashion. The album flows as one breathtaking piece - a stoned, psychedelic mixtape, not so much genre-hopping as genre-mashing through its many rooms-within-rooms. Take, for example, the hazy Lennon-esque psychedelia of 'Butterfly McQueen', underpinned by a dub-inspired bassline and great blasts of jazz trumpet which eventually collapse under layers of soaring guitar feedback and into the driving motorik rhythms of 'Rodney King (Song for Lenny Bruce)'. It shouldn't work, but it happens to be one of the most exhilarating moments on the whole record.

Then there are the hidden treasures, the 'easter eggs' squirrelled away inside the album's many nooks and crannies: the reversed sample of Martin counting from 1 to 4 at the end of 'Spun Around'; 'Run My Runaway''s aural simulation of an airplane crash (with Sice singing on top of the vocal booth in an attempt to "get into role"); "Faaaye Dun-a-waaaay…"; the hidden giraffes on the front cover (see if can you spot them.) It's an album that is instantly appealing, yet still manages to reveal a bit more about itself on each listen.

That's not to say that Giant Steps isn't flawed. As a fan I'm at pains to agree it has its fair share of faults, even if I find them forgivably charming. Martin, on the other hand, remains eternally modest about his achievements: "I'm disappointed in all those records really and I could always see how they could have been a bit better. Giant Steps, I prefer to think about how it was before it was mixed. When we were recording it, it sounded so much warmer and it breathed a lot more… But we were there for the mixing, so I'm not really blaming anyone else. When you make a record, even if it's years and years later, you can't listen to it like it's by someone else. I always thought you'd be able to after a while, but the same things will bother you and the bits you wished you'd done differently will always be there."

One criticism levelled at Giant Steps is that it tries to take on too much without necessarily doing anything properly. Carr himself compares the album to The Clash's London Calling, citing (on the album's 10th anniversary tribute website) that the dub bits "sound like the people who made it hadn't heard an awful lot of dub music". Elsewhere, the brassy bursts heard on tracks like 'Butterfly McQueen' and 'I've Lost The Reason' are a shallow mimic of Miles Davis' explosive playing style. But to describe Giant Steps-era Boos as jacks of all trades, masters of none, would be missing the point. A track like 'Upon 9th & Fairchild' might not be an immaculate tribute to the playing styles of Sly and Robbie, but in juxtaposing dub reggae rhythms with chilling guitar feedback and a vocal so icy it sounds like it was sung from the inside of a freezer, the Boo Radleys unwittingly hit upon an exotic emotional chord that seems to signify the foreboding loneliness of living in a new city.

Martin has also expressed dissatisfaction with some of the single choices on Giant Steps, feeling that they misrepresented the band at the time - an ongoing frustration that would be felt even more come their next album, Wake Up! Indeed, the precious whimsy of indie janglers like 'Wish I Was Skinny' interrupt the flow of the album, grounding the listener back down to reality just as things are getting interesting. Elsewhere, it would have made more narrative sense to transition from 'Thinking Of Ways'' staggering journey home straight into the "cack-handed beery horror" (Carr's words) of 'Spun Around' without the unnecessary nostalgic detour of the single 'Barney & Me'.

Narrative sense aside, Martin maintains that Giant Steps was never intended as a concept album: "I wouldn't have even known what prog-rock was," he defends. "It was the first time I'd ever written straightforward lyrics. The first album [Ichabod & I], I really liked 'Kaddish' by Allen Ginsberg and Dylan's mid-60s stuff, so I was trying to do that but only I knew what it meant… It wasn't until 'Lazarus' that I'd started to feel comfortable in what I was writing. By Giant Steps I was writing about myself really, from school onwards. Everything up to that point I was trying to get it in there, but not consciously, I don't think."

While there might not be any extended multi-song suites about ogres or Tudor wives, there is a loose thread running through Giant Steps about young adulthood, about moving down from the suburban north to experience the vivid, hostile lights of the Big Smoke, about the reckless ups and downs of generally "overdoing it" when you're that age. This is no better encapsulated than in the memorable couplet from 'I've Lost The Reason' where Sice sings, "Baby's gone but there'll be more, I'm only 23 / My hair is thin, my size is large, what have I done to me?"

All said, history hasn't been too kind to the memory of Giant Steps. Despite reaching number one in both the NME Readers' Poll and Select magazine's albums of the year in 1993, it's since fallen by the wayside when it comes to those Biggest Best Most Canonical Albums lists that get wheeled out on a tediously regular basis. Once again, Martin Carr is ever the realist about why this might be. "It's usually the same records that appear in these things, and it was back then too. It was always What's Going On and Revolver. I think maybe 'Wake Up Boo!' made us completely uncool, and that's kind of come to overshadow it really".

In writing this piece, I've felt some of you pulling that familiar disbelieving wince people make when I get maudlin about the Boos. But for those of us who got caught up in the magic of Giant Steps all those years ago, the Boo Radleys will never be seen as that second-tier shoegazer band who sold their souls to breakfast radio hell. The album's tenth anniversary in 2003 saw a dedicated website featuring heartfelt tributes from fans and writers alike, as well as a plethora of insider information about the recording of the album from the Boo Radleys themselves. To those who love it, it was that decade's White Album - a kaleidoscopic hopscotch of styles new and old, an honest, confessional pop album, and a much more deserving successor of the Beatles' maverick experimentation than the much-touted straight-ahead rock & roll of their Creation labelmates, Oasis.

Giant Steps has just been reissued by Diverse Records, more details here

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