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The Bolshoi
The Arkive Ben Graham , November 24th, 2015 22:16

Resplendent in spiky goth mullets and led by unpromisingly-named singer-guitarist Trevor Tanner, the Bolshoi burst out of Trowbridge, Wiltshire in 1984. Their debut single 'Sob Story' was an uncompromising slab of dark, tribal post-punk that owed as much to This Heat as Theatre Of Hate. But reverential B-side covers of Brel's 'Amsterdam' and Hendrix's 'Crosstown Traffic' gave notice that not only were the Bolshoi unwilling to kick over classic rock's statues and declare another year zero, but they had the vocal and instrumental chops to take on such material and very nearly make it their own.

If this unseemly early rush to embrace yesterday's icons and 'play proper' should have set alarm bells ringing then 1985's Giants EP initially allayed any such concerns. Tense and gothic, somewhere between the Psychedelic Furs and Bauhaus, it was dominated by Tanner's sardonic, half-spoken baritone and lyrical paranoia. Declaiming, keening and threatening, the impressively-cheekboned frontman came across as much a Shakespearian actor as a singer, his existential soliloquies finding a natural frame in a musical landscape that married spacious dub sensibilities to a motorik urgency and drive, his guitar alternately needling and chiming into the darkness. Admittedly such sounds were already somewhat dated by 1985, but taken out of context Giants sounds all the better for it, the nightmarish machine psychedelia of the title track for instance utterly unconcerned with the glossy commercial imperatives of its day.

'Happy Boy' was the obvious choice of single from the EP, a brooding outsider anthem somewhere between the Cure and the Skids, or even early U2. An If like fantasy of alienation and repressed aggression suddenly exploding in lethal, unexpected violence, the song's references to "going to university" and "a friend called Jimmy" also displayed Tanner's jarring knack for almost-mundane, real-world imagery rather than atmospheric abstractions. Tanner's writing conveyed the authentic angst of the lower middle-class grammar school boy, the loneliness of the English Literature A-level student, rather than the lofty distance of some goth-rock icon, putting the Bolshoi much closer to the actual concerns of their audience. This ability to craft convincing Middle England psychodramas was further displayed on B-side 'Holiday By The Sea,' anticipating the future aesthetic of Suede and sitting well alongside the contemporary work of the then still-obscure Pulp.

Perhaps the Bolshoi's finest kitchen sink melodrama however was their next single, 'Away'. A tale of smalltown lives, teenage pregnancy and casual cruelties disguised as a gothic rock anthem, 'Away' had all the style and swagger of a 'She Sells Sanctuary' or 'Wasteland', but far more substance, and pulled off every pout, sneer and pirouette with perfect class and disdain. It opened 1986's Friends album, by which time the Bolshoi had been joined by Leeds-born keyboard player Paul Clark and had graduated from Midlands-based indie label Situation Two to Beggar's Banquet. Friends was an altogether more accessible and commercial proposition than Giants, but this wasn't necessarily a bad thing; the social satire of 'Modern Man' could have come from the pen of fellow Wiltshire bard Andy Partridge, and 'Someone's Daughter' was also as much XTC as X-Mal Deutschland. 'Sunday Morning' anticipated the narcotic melancholy of the Cure's Disintegration LP by three years, but too many songs, like 'Romeo In Clover' sat on the faultline where poised gothic rock tipped over into the 'Big Music' bluster of Big Country or the Alarm, a Venn diagram of a danger zone marked out by fringed suede jackets and leather cowboy hats. The anti-dumbing down sentiments of 'Books On The Bonfire' sat uncomfortably alongside such pandering to conservative, mainstream tastes, though admittedly Big Country would never have closed an album with anything so wonderfully weird as 'Waspy'.

Thankfully the addition of five demo tracks from the album shows these songs in a mostly preferable, pre-gloss state, while this set also demonstrates that much of the Bolshoi's most interesting work surfaced on their B-sides: the brooding 'Razzle Dazzle', the enjoyably wayward 'Boss', 'MFP', a narrow-hipped funk workout satirising jobbing session musicians and pub cover bands, and 'A Funny Thing,' a mandolin-led, drum-less ballad of revenge that could have come from one of Peter Hammill's early solo albums. Also noteworthy are northerner Paul Clark's deadpan spoken vocals on oddball experiments like 'Strawberries And Cream', 'I'm Depressed (We All Die)' and the previously-unreleased 'Toys' Xmas Party'.

Lindy's Party, released in 1987, was even more commercial, but leant towards pop-funk and keyboard-driven moodiness rather than guitar histrionics, and in retrospect may be a better album for it. The pulsing 'Auntie Jean' came gliding in on sinister, glistening synths, while the irresistible single 'Please' rejoiced in a funky earworm of a chicken-dancing, mock-orchestral riff and ridiculous, catchy lyrics delivered with inappropriate ostentation: "Don't send me back to the cheap seats!" Equally daft, 'TV Man' may have tilted at some rather obvious windmills but it was great pop, especially the guitar solo tackling a medley of classic western, spy and detective themes on the fade. The album overall was closer to INXS than indie rock, but a heady air of sardonic paranoia reigned throughout and the marvellous 'Barrowlands' channelled Peter Hammill's 'Fogwalking' into one last classic of high gothic melodrama.   

Alas it was back to the cheap seats all-too soon for the Bolshoi, who split up after making 1989's unreleased Country Life LP. This finally sees daylight on the fourth disc of this box and is a mixed bag at best. If 'World in Action' seems to promises a more streamlined cyber-rock sound in the manner of Mark II Sisters of Mercy then hopes flag as the CD progresses, with song after song of beige, self-important wallpaper typical of all those expensive, middle-aged modern rock records by once-decent acts who'd run out of ideas, from U2 to the Psychedelic Furs to Tin Machine. The fifth disc is similarly inessential, mixing eight songs from a 1986 live show with eight outtakes; the latter all essentially dated, moody AOR that isn't half as profound as it thinks it is.

This 5-CD anthology collects everything the Bolshoi ever did, (bar a few alternate mixes) and is more than any but the most dedicated fan needs. Like many 80s bands they rapidly uncoiled from abrasive, experimental post-punk to glossy MOR, but the Bolshoi still deserve more recognition than they currently receive for their best work, which is at least half the material on this remastered box set. As Tanner sings on 'Away': "It was painful; it was worth it."