The Dying Of The Light: Gordon Moakes On Solar Race

Gordon Moakes pens a personal tribute to Eilidh Bradley and the rage of Solar Race

‘I wanted to compete with minds I never knew…’

I was planning to write about rage. About the kind of powerful, articulate, justified rage that seems to have drifted away from today’s guitar bands, but which was so central and intricately wound into the music of Solar Race. Instead as I sit down to write I’m incapacitated with a different kind of rage: the flat, bruised rage of sadness and loss, after learning of Eilidh Bradley’s death. Her scorching voice and guitar playing burned so fiercely at the heart of Solar Race and she is gone without my noticing. In fact she has been gone for a year already, all because I hadn’t Googled the band in a little while and I’d missed John Robb’s heartfelt tribute to her over at Louder Than War. My rage is not just about the passing of a great talent, a talent whose star was in the ascendant what feels like a lifetime ago now, but it is also about silence; about knowing that someone so noisy and pivotal to my youth can disappear into the mists of history so quietly, barely rippling the waters of the internet.

‘I kept hoping and praying for that resurrection inside of me…’

At least, it turns out, the internet does look backwards as well as forwards, or so I’m learning. We can piece together what wasn’t to be found two years ago as more people archive their data, search engines get more sophisticated, and social media seems to entangle and cross-reference us all further together in tags, search terms and preferences. The irony is that we’re being watched more and more, of course, but all because we continue to watch each other so nosily, happily submitting to the watching and the being watched. And so I have pieced together a bit more of what Eilidh (pronounced Ay-lee) meant to people, and what she was doing in life as the clock ticked further away from her time in the limelight. Still, it’s the rage I want to remember and articulate again when I talk about Solar Race, and it’s the rage at the missed moment of a great musician’s passing that powers me, the whisper of it that should have been a roar. I want to correct that.

‘You could be born, you could be made, what are you into?’

Solar Race broke briefly out of Salford in the mid-nineties in a squall of razor-guitars, brandishing a kind of caterwaul that the lazy would compare to Kat Bjelland or Courtney Love. In fact, Eilidh Bradley’s voice was something altogether different: more downbeat and resigned, distinctly Mancunian in tone and accent, and all the more withering and scorching for it. With the accompanying power of Andrew Holland’s always melodious bass playing (which was certainly in the lineage of Manchester’s greats – the Hooks, Mounfields and Hanleys) and the Amphetamine Reptile-style drumming of Carl Rogers, it would be wrong to say the timing wasn’t right. It was a good moment to be Solar Race, a fact backed up by the support of John Peel, by a deal with Silvertone (technically an indie, but with the megabucks of Jive Records funding it, not so you’d notice), in their successful wooing of the kids while opening for the likes of Bush and Hole. But it is fair to say there was an accident of geography at play. A Seattle-channelling, female-fronted three-piece from Manchester? That was the hand dealt against them, with Madchester still ringing in the fogged-up recent memories of the British music press. In London, or any city in America no doubt, it would have been pure manna to rock up with the kind of intelligence and bloody-throated zeal that Eilidh had in spades. But somewhere it seeped away, between the crumbling red-brick cracks, lost back into the post-Thatcherite landscape that gave birth to it.

‘The safe way to live and correct way to be…’

I’ve spent enough time playing in bands, since before I was a fully-fledged human, not to dwell on the ‘why’ of this so much anymore, especially across such a distance of time. In music, everything can be lined up perfectly except the one thing a band needs to springboard into a life less mortal: the ability to tolerate itself, to know itself, to put what they do above who they are. The trajectory of single to radio session to album to obscurity is the natural state of any band, the first tank of petrol they give you when you drive off the lot. It’s after the early victories that the big crunch decisions have to be made: futures considered, ambitions re-purposed. It’s a rare occurrence, but only a handful of bands will experience the precise moment they must stare what they’re doing in the face and adapt it: let go of it as theirs and give it over to the suits, to the T-shirts, to everyone else. Bands are people, and it’s people that don’t survive that kind of upheaval, not music.

‘It’s just a feeling, you can fake it’

And so for a time Solar Race’s rage was the truth, but it was a rage that could only live in a short burst before it burned out, tired and spent, unable to rally itself. If you’ve been 15, 25 and then 35 you know how those feelings, so strong they seem to be three-dimensional inside you, only seem thin and shallow and nothing-y when looked back at decades later. Rage is humanity confronted, but it is also humanity prevailing. Solar Race channelled all of this humanity; all the losing, the hating, the fragility, wanting to punch everything away from you but also seeing the futility in that, the need to hold close what you can’t destroy. Its truth was in the sweet notes, in the growl, the snapped little moments of melody; its rolling, pressing basslines, its urgent pursuit of rhythm. It lived a full, but truncated life, and we must hope that is true of Eilidh too.

‘I know where the pleasure ends: where the work begins’

What in 1997 felt like the end of a chapter, the cap on the bottle of the first phase of Solar Race that was their full-length Homespun – recorded by Steve Albini at Abbey Road – ultimately became their swan song, just when they seemed to be breaking through to some kind of revelation, into an elongated treatise on noise and the human condition. But at least its final two tracks were the strongest they ever wrote. To this day I still marvel at the tone and power of ‘Lee Speaks’, which snaps into dirty, disgusting life and doesn’t let up for a full six minutes. It’s clearly written from the twin perspectives of a brothel – the prostitute and the punter – and puts me in mind of Nick Broomfield’s first documentary Chicken Ranch, on which I always wondered if it was based. The tone of Eilidh’s lyric, like a prose piece, manages to personify both oppressor and oppressed in the same words – it’s sprawling, like a road running across the desert into oblivion, full of witnessed horrors and boredom; disinterested and hateful at the same time. I watched the band pelt through it just once, at Northampton Roadmenders that summer. I spotted a nervous hesitance in Eilidh’s eyes that night, although I may have imagined it. Still, it was a less than packed show, and I’m not sure if the band ever toured again.

‘Have a look at her, she plays it well – knows how to keep her mouth shut’

Filling in the blanks of the intervening years wasn’t something you could have even tried to do before Google, but I often thought of that distinctive snarl of Eilidh’s voice and how it scraped and scrabbled at the heart in much the same way her fingers scratched pith and venom from the fretboard. She was this greatly gifted musician who seemed to just disappear. At some point, I was eagle-eyed enough to spot her on ‘The Futurist’, the Shellac record that was given only to the 779 people whose names appear on its sleeve. By rights that record shouldn’t have made it to the internet, but of course it did, because in the end everything does, which is a hopeful thought right now. I wouldn’t speculate as to what the members of Solar Race went on to do or aspired to: I know now that Eilidh gave the only interview of any kind I’ve heard to Salford City Radio in 2011, and listening to it I’m struck by how, clearly aware of the band’s power, she also looks back on it as if it’s intangible and gone, a thing that at times maybe felt like it didn’t happen. It’s as though she didn’t have the desire, the compulsive rage to be onstage after a certain point: her music drifted from her as much as it did from the rest of us.

‘Everyone says fallen whore, well I listen to those voices too…’

So where is that rage now, who took it on from Eilidh Bradley and Kat Bjelland, from Oxbow’s Eugene Robinson and from Mr Albini himself? Who’s curating the rage I’ve been thinking to myself doesn’t seem to have the same volume anymore? And by volume, I mean its emotional blood-letting – that arching, intricate honesty and melodic power, as opposed to the all-out metal vocal harrowing which is well-represented on all sides. Well, of course it is still here. It’s in White Lung’s Myszka Way, in Youth Code’s Sara Taylor, in a hundred other pissed-off voices that you can probably list quicker than I. It is the rage inside of ourselves that diminishes, and I suspect that’s why Solar Race still seems so powerful and yet so distant to me, because I remember being 20 and listening to it and feeling it reverberate wholly through my ribcage right to the walls of my heart. Now I’m older, what I hear in it is the rage of my past.

And it’s just this quiet, heartbroken rage I have left now, knowing that Eilidh is gone and the world didn’t notice. That’s what’s left. If I could just put that into words.

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