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Time To Forget Everything You Know About Lightning Seeds
Pete Paphides , April 29th, 2019 09:36

Thought the Lightning Seeds were just terrible songs about the England football team? Think again, says Pete Paphides, as he writes on the "heroically unabashed romantic idealism" of Ian Broudie. Photo by Neil Stewart

Because it was Top Of The Pops, I know the exact date I first heard one of Ian Broudie’s songs. Not only do I know the date, but I remember almost everything that happened in the ensuing half hour. It was the first TOTP of August 1989. And, as it happens, Paul McCartney was also on there, albeit via the video to one of his best singles of that decade, 'This One'. Paul was at number 30; 'Pure' by the Lightning Seeds was at number 32. Because The Lightning Seeds wasn’t actually a band at that point, the song was also represented by a video clip. We only got about 90 seconds or so, but that was enough to trigger an emergency of sorts. Everything I longed for in a pop song was abundant in those 90 seconds. The absolute absence of cynicism; the lack of machismo or anything else that flagged up a reverence for rock over pop; the heroically unabashed romantic idealism of the words, words that the singer didn’t seem able to get out fast enough. I was 20 and I wanted to believe in the total, unconditional, forever version of love that existed in songs like Darts’ 'Duke Of Earl' (I hadn’t heard Gene Chandler’s version at that point…) and Tracey Ullman's 'They Don’t Know' (…and I hadn’t heard Kirsty MacColl’s version of that one).” One day, the guy from the Lightning Seeds would write some songs about what happens when you can no longer keep believing in that dream, and when I heard them, I found myself so smitten that I ended up seeking him out and asking him if he would let me release them.

But back in 1989, that wasn’t the sort of information I was after. In the latter half of the 80s, as I shambled into young manhood, I was all about the romantic idealism abundant in the vanguard of indiepop bands such as Razorcuts and The Pastels, artists who eschewed the macho, often predatory vernacular of rock, preferring to take their leads from The Chiffons and Orange Juice. A band on the new Sarah label called The Field Mice had just put out a single called Sensitive. It sounded like an angry defence of this entire aesthetic: over a squall of plaintive guitars Bobby Wratten set out his stall, his vulnerability somehow further exposed by the brittle programmed beats which measured out the whole thing. I find it hard to think about Sensitive without thinking about Pure. The use of a drum machine on The Lightning Seeds song does similar work to that on The Field Mice, going about its business impassively – a sublime synergy of incongruents. And, like Sensitive, Pure also sounds like an anti-cynicism manifesto: “Lying smiling in the dark / Shooting stars around your heart / Dreams come bouncing in your head / Pure and simple every time/Now you're crying in your sleep / I wish you'd never learnt to weep / Don’t sell the dreams you should be keeping / Pure and simple everytime.”

It still sounds that way to me now. And that’s why I remember everything that happened in the ensuing half hour. Because once the programme finished, I called my friend Paul in order to see if he knew anything about the guy with the stripy t-shirt, NHS specs, anorak and shaggy fringe strumming and singing in that 90 second video clip. Paul was a post-punk and indie aficionado who I befriended at college a couple of years previously. He had the edge on me by a couple of years, which meant that he was old enough to buy the first records that came out on Postcard but still young enough to know that, contrary to the music press three-line whip, the militant feyness of Sarah Records was as important to an emerging generation of musicians as punk was to our older brothers and sisters. I didn’t know who The Lightning Seeds were, but Paul might.

“I was about to call you and ask you the same,” said Paul. “I’ve never heard of them.”

After five minutes in which we deviated onto the other pressing matters raised by that week’s edition of Top Of The Pops (1. Weren’t Wendy & Lisa amazing?; 2. Isn’t 'Wouldn’t Change A Thing' the best Kylie single to date?) all we managed to ascertain about The Lightning Seeds was that someone in the band must be a New Order fan, because that guitar solo was a clear nod to the chorus of 'Love Vigilantes' (as it happens, years later, when I finally met Ian Broudie, he informed me that we’d got that wrong – the inspiration for the solo was Brian Eno’s 'On Some Faraway Beach'). The next thing was to buy the record at the first opportunity. I had a summer job in a warehouse, so it was Saturday morning before I got to Easy Listening in Acocks Green and found their solitary seven-inch copy of the record in the new releases bin. There was no photograph on the sleeve, just the name of the band and the word 'Pure' rendered in painted yellow letters. But when I looked at the record and clocked the name on it, I suddenly had a few more pieces of the puzzle.

Thirty years ago, you gathered information by remembering credits and cross-referencing names on records. If so-and-so was in that band or worked with that singer or produced that lot, then you gradually built trust with them. If you followed post-punk and indie music throughout the 80s, you knew who Ian Broudie was, although you might not necessarily have picked him out in an identity parade. Unlike Jayne Casey, Holly Johnson, Budgie and Bill Drummond, Ian Broudie was the only guy from Big In Japan not make it onto the cover of a magazine in the ensuing few years. Ian Broudie was the mate of Echo & The Bunnymen enlisted to make 'The Back Of Love' sound like a hit and subsequently berated by Drummond, now managing the Bunnymen, for making it sound like a commercially suicidal firestorm of fuck-you urgency (Drummond revised his view after it charted); Ian Broudie was the other guy in Care, the arty synth-duo fronted by Paul Simpson of The Wild Swans, whose 1983 single 'Flaming Sword' was hailed by the music press as an instant masterpiece yet failed to chart. Ian Broudie was also the name we clocked on a string of releases featuring Michael Head, from the breathless pop melodrama of The Pale Fountains’ Jean’s 'Not Happening' to the stoned Scouse free-associations of Shack’s 'Emergency'. And Ian Broudie was also the guy who produced The Fall’s 'Hey! Luciani', Wah!’s 'Somesay' and 'Therese' by The Bodines – the latter, as vertiginously thrilling a pop landslide as anything else released on the Creation label that decade.

If the brilliance of 'Pure' was immediately apparent to us, even on the basis of a 90 second clip, there was something even more impressive about the fact that the bloke behind it had been biding his time for all these years before stepping up to the microphone. In my head, Ian Broudie was immediately cast as an indie Spot The Cat who had spent over a decade readying the spotlight for a string of post-punk Hong Kong Phooeys and now, finally, almost by accident, here he was showing us that actually he could construct a pop classic that outshone them all.

In fact, there was no “almost” about it. If Ian Broudie had his way, 'Pure' would have never been released. It was just one of a dozen songs he was recording for a pretend band he’d named after a misheard line in Prince’s 'Raspberry Beret' (“Thunder drowns out what the lightning sees”). “When I’d recorded it,” recalled Broudie, “I hated it. I felt like I’d failed, that it was really embarrassing. I felt like there were too many words and that I’d said too much. So I said to Cenzo [Townshend], the engineer, ‘Stop mixing it. I don’t want it on the album. I’m not even going to finish it.’ And he was like, ‘I’ll just put it down onto tape as it is.’ I reiterated that I didn’t want him to do that, but after I left the room, he did it anyway.” Townshend sent the songs that would form The Lightning Seeds’ Cloudcuckooland album to Dick Leahy head of Ghetto Recordings, who were putting the record out. “Dick came back to me and he was like, ‘'Pure'! What a track!’ I said, ‘That’s not even meant to be on there!’ – and he replied, ‘But what do you mean?! That’s the song!’ I told him that I hadn’t even finished mixing it, but he was insistent that had to be the single. Which is crazy, cos it’s the best thing I’ve done!”

Not only is it his greatest song, in a sense it’s all of his songs. In songwriting terms, it’s his big bang. Almost every other Ian Broudie song seems to somehow reside inside 'Pure'. “I think all my songs are about being scared of change to a degree, and 'Pure' is a song about saying, ‘This is great, right now. This second. Please don’t change. Please don’t sell the dreams you should be keeping pure. Wouldn’t it be great if it stayed like this?” (It’s odd that 'Pure' should have featured on that Top Of The Pops alongside a Paul McCartney song that was trying to say the same thing: “There never could be/ A better moment/ Than this one/ This one”). Once you realise that, you start to scan your inner playlist of other Lightning Seeds songs and you realise just how many of their best songs are attempts to stop the clock before anything awful happens. It’s in 'The Life Of Riley' (from Sense, 1993); it’s there on the magic hour intimacies of 'Perfect' (from Jollification, 1995); and it’s all over the transition from the euphoric “Put your foot down and drive” lines into the plaintive delivery of the words “Don’t ever change” on the 1995 hit 'Change'. Not only that, but it’s also what made Ian Broudie the ideal person to write a song about what it means to be a football fan in the lead up to a major tournament. 'Three Lions' is to football what 'Pure' is to life: a song which affirms the pursuit of a moment of ecstasy over the zillions of disappointments that lend meaning to the good times.

And if you asked yourself what might happen if you had attained a state of contentment like the one captured in 'Pure' only to see it unravel before you, you just need to follow Ian Broudie’s discography all the way to the 2004 record which set it all out in heartbreaking detail. To call Tales Told a confessional album is misleading because that suggests that the person who made it wanted you to hear it. And actually, that’s not quite how Ian Broudie’s first (and, to date, only) solo album Tales Told, materialised. He didn’t know he was making a record. After his marriage ended and the Lightning Seeds project appeared to have run its course, he was left pondering his options. An old friend Alan Wills from Deltasonic Records in Liverpool sent him some songs by a couple of new bands. One was The Coral and the other was The Zutons. Did he want to produce them? After the sessions, Broudie would return to his hotel room and, without a huge amount to do, he’d pick up his guitar and play. The songs seemed to come faster than he could stop and think about what exactly he was trying to say in them.

Years later, this would cause him a certain amount of amusement. Eight songs into the record, there’s a song called 'Lipstick' which, even without the backstory, sounds like a emotional inversion of 'Pure', even down to the drum machine. As with all of the songs surrounding it, Broudie’s voice is cracked and careworn, reporting from the very outcome that all those Lightning Seeds tried to defy. “So the story always ends in vain,” he sings on the pained, plaintive middle-eight, “Oh that love’s a mad thing/ And though some might say not to think that way/ I’d say that love was a bad thing.” As Broudie later put it when talking about the song, “If 'Pure' is one bookend, 'Lipstick' is the other. This is the moment where you say, ‘I’ve tried everything, and yet, here we are.”

The songs make it easy for you to imagine their protagonist returning to the streets of his earliest years. The two things that most married parents define themselves by are their marriage, their kids and their work. Listen to Tales Told and you don’t need to wonder how it must have felt to see all of those things come under threat. It’s a Liverpool record through and through. The informal involvement of members of The Coral on several of the sessions make it a kindred, bleary-eyed companion to the first Coral album. The other Mersey classic strongly evoked from the first few bars of the opening song is Michael Head & The Strands’ 1997 set The Magical World Of The Strands.

At this point, it’s as well to forget what you know about the Lightning Seeds. There’s no place here for the burnished alloy of powerchords and keyboard stabs that comes as standard with that group’s best-known songs. Instead, there’s just an exquisitely picked folk guitar chivvying along what appears to be a love song to a lover who is no longer there. “Who knows,” he sings at one point over the distant echo of a floor tom, “…tomorrow may/ Bring all we’ll desire/ Tomorrow brings the sun” – before a sharp ascent into a chorus that locates the precise equidistant point between hope and its opposite: “Kiss the world with fingers crossed.” It doesn’t sound anything like them, but in terms of the emotional space it inhabits, I’d probably place it between Diana Ross’s 'Remember Me' and The Kinks’ 'Days' on a C90 of reluctant break-up tunes. And then, presented with the challenge of making a compilation of autumnal Tuesday afternoon ruminations, I’d place the title track of Tales Told neatly between Saint Etienne’s 'Hobart Paving' and 'Spring Came, Rain Fell', from the eponymous melancholy masterpiece by Swedish indie-synth duo Club 8. You might not notice it the first time you hear it, but the song 'Tales Told' is actually the final part of a trilogy of sorts. For the first, you’d have to back to the Lightning Seeds’ Life Of Riley, written in anticipation of the birth of the son named in the song. On the 1995 album Jollification, there’s a song called 'Telling Tales', about a blissful winter’s day spent in Calderstones Park in Liverpool with Riley, now a toddler, wanting things to stay like that forever. But fast-forward to the final part and here’s our protagonist, tormented by the possibility that he might not be there for a sizeable part of his son’s upbringing: “Little one/ You’re the hope they can’t destroy/ Even when the strangers come/ I know you’ll always be your father’s boy”. Even if he makes it to the end of the song without shedding a tear, you may not.

These are songs written in a fresh vacuum. 'Song For No-One' is so called because suddenly there’s no-one nearby to whom its creator can play it. 'Whenever I Do' is a waltz in search of a partner, listing the comforts of companionship against a backdrop of loss. If the entire album were just Broudie and an acoustic guitar, the mellifluousness of the melodies and his hushed delivery would be enough to hold your interest. But the revolving door guest list of musicians who participated on an ad hoc basis confer a companionable energy on the album that radiates outwards. With lyrics by Terry Hall (who also wrote the words for 'Sense') 'Smoke Rings' is at one with the songs surrounding it, a strolling sighing air which quite simply exists to bear witness to the unvoiced regrets of its protagonist. As for the bittersweet beat shuffle of 'Got No Plans', you don’t need to look at the credits to detect the presence of The Coral here. The combination of the band and the shifting of emphasis from the first to second person means that Broudie is recast as the recipient of his own advices – a reminder that even sadness has a sweet spot, and Broudie’s ability to locate it on record after record is perhaps the finest of all his tricks.

The Coral’s James Skelly is also a presence on 'He Sails Tonight', which in its own unassuming way, might be the most startling song on Tales Told. The song reveals a slide show of feverish, flickering visions, seemingly the only thing standing between its protagonist and his own expiry. Over a convergence of backwards guitar and a gorgeous violin embellishment from Samy Bishai, Broudie sings, “When northern lights parade the air/ Like carousels at summer fairs/ Beware the stare of ghost house eyes/ Of wicked whispers in the night.” If pushed to guess who would write lines like this, your thoughts might turn to Scott Walker in the late 60s or perhaps Julian Cope towards the end of his time in The Teardrop Explodes. Certainly, you’d be guessing a while longer before alighting on the guy standing between Frank Skinner and David Baddiel in the video to 'Three Lions'. Towards the end of Tales Told, on a track called 'Something Street', Broudie sings, “Oh father/ It seems like a long way home/ Oh further/ Than I was meaning to go.” In that moment, you remember that you’re listening to someone who had never planned to step into the spotlight, let alone achieve a status that that a far less modest artist would be happy to call pop stardom.

Thirty years ago, when 'Pure' came out, I was also listening to a lot of records whose creators found themselves pondering their options at the halfway point of their life. Van Morrison’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher; Abba’s The Visitors; Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. Those records served to tighten my apprehension at what adulthood had in store, but also served to intensified my adoration of records that held on to the fairytale. Thirty years later, with far more to lose than I ever dreamed I’d have, I still feel that way about those records – and of course, that’s how I feel about Tales Told. There’s a fine art to writing simple songs about complicated emotions. Ian Broudie’s songs for no-one pulse with a simple truth that, actually, speaks to everyone.

Author’s disclosure: Tales Told was originally released by Deltasonic in 2004. Ten years after I first parlayed the idea to Ian Broudie, it will receive its first ever vinyl release on my new Needle Mythology imprint on 10 May