The Blue Orchids \ Biography
The Blue Orchids were formed in Manchester in 1979 around Martin Bramah (vocals and guitar) and Una Baines (keyboards), both founder members of The Fall. The pair were joined by guitarist Rick Goldstraw, bassist Steve Toyne and drummer Ian Rogers (aka Joe Kin). According to Goldstraw, the name was conjured by a friend of his, punk poet John Cooper Clarke, who had envisaged the Blessed Orchids as "a bunch of haemophiliacs raised by alsatian dogs on a council tip" and "the weediest gang in Salford." Somehow Blessed became Blue, after an old Hoagy Carmichael song, and thus was born a rare and fragile bloom.
In 1985 Bramah recalled: "I think if I'd never been in the Fall they'd still be one of my favourite groups. At first it bothered me that people mentioned me with the Fall all the time, but it doesn't bother me at all now. My contribution was quite substantial and I'm proud of what I did. I was very wary of sounding too much like them, travelling on their coat-tails. It was genuine, though; with the Orchids that was the music I wanted to play, going back to my influences - Velvets, Stooges, etc. Songs with strong melodic lines."
Rough Trade, who were still releasing Fall records at the time, snapped up the Orchids in the summer of 1980 and released their first double a-sided single in October. The Flood b/w Disney Boys was co-produced by Mayo Thompson of Pere Ubu fame and ably showcased the band's strengths, with Una's inspired, strung-out keyboards weaving around Martin's inventive, discordant guitar patterns. This primitive but sparkling wall of sound was quite unlike anything else released at the time, and as well as drawing favourable comparisons with Sixties psychedelia won the band their first John Peel session in December. Phil Spector meets the Velvet Underground beneath the Blackpool illuminations. Kind of.
Soon afterwards Toyne quit and was replaced on bass by Goldstraw. The next Blue Orchids single is widely regarded as their best, coupling strident song Work with a more haunting flipside, The House That Faded Out. Work is best described as cracked soul music, with Bramah more concerned over the plight of his soul than with finding a job. Released in February 1981, in the same week as W.O.R.K. by Bow Wow Wow, the single won plaudits far and wide, while the Orchids' profile also boosted by a support slot on the first national tour by Echo and the Bunnymen in April.
An album now beckoned. Joined by new drummer Toby (previously with Ludus), the band entered Manchester 8-track studio Relentless in the spring of 1981, and in just two weeks completed The Greatest Hit. Self-produced, and with no previous singles included, the album was released by Rough Trade in May, stand-out tracks including Sun Connection, A Year With No Head, No Looking Back, Low Profile and Bad Education. The latter song was later covered by Aztec Camera on the flipside of 1987 single Deep and Wide and Tall, while the band would also inspired another Aztec's song, Orchid Girl. Indeed it's no coincidence that the first incarnation of Blue Orchids were often bracketed with the Postcard stable, despite never recording for the cult Scottish label. Certainly the Orchids were fast becoming press darlings. Dave Hill of City Limits dubbed the album "post-punk neurodelia... nicely pitched to please the wasted frame of mind", while Mat Smith of NME praised "one of the best albums we're likely to hear all year. The music perfectly frames and complements the lyric - and this is an album with a message (lyric sheet enclosed). No heady rhetoric, but songs of romantic, melancholy yearning for Pure Feeling, Transcendental Oneness, etc. But this mysticism only tumbles into unintelligibility on the last number, WB Yeats' Mad as the Mist and Snow, set to a tune reminiscent of the folk source that inspired Stairway to Heaven... They are making music which is introspective yet exhilarating, sad but stirring."
The Greatest Hit topped the independent charts and went on to sell around 10,000 copies. The vibe around both the band and the album is captured well by writer Simon Reynolds: "Acid-doused and brazenly mystical, the Orchids' hypno-swirl of clangourous guitar and incense-and-belladonna keyboards could hardly have been more at odds with the early Eighties. Beyond the sheer thrill of their ramshackle trance-rock, the Blue Orchids tapped into something: currents of disaffection and withdrawal from Thatcher's entepise culture that would later surface, substantially transformed, as crusty and rave.... Essentially what's rehearsed on The Greatest Hit is the 90s slacker ethos: defeatism as dissidence, opting out and acknowledging no rules except 'the law of dissipation' (Bad Education). But the Blue Orchids don't have that Gen X curse of irony. Bramah and Baines' lyrics teem with pagan poetry and ache with naked pantheist devotion."
During this period the band was introduced to Nico, the legendary Velvet Underground and Warhol superstar who was by then living in the Whalley Range district of Manchester and struggling with a hard drug habit. For much of 1981 the Blue Orchids became both her backing band and support act on a succession of UK dates, as well as a Dutch tour in the spring of 1982. All are described in more detail in candid books by James Young and Richard Witts. These were heady (and somewhat druggy) days for the Orchids, whose minimal musical style was a perfect match for Nico's dark, introspective soundscapes. Sadly their intriguing collaboration never made it onto record, although there are several bootlegs in circulation.
In the wake of the Nico collaboration Martin felt it was time to reconsider the group's direction. Rick Goldstraw left, choosing to remain with Nico, and was replaced by Mark Hellyer. A second Peel session taped in May 1982 offered much improved versions of four songs from the hurriedly recorded debut album, which found Bramah in better voice, after which new material was written and recorded over the summer. In October a four track 12" EP was released by Rough Trade under the title Agents of Change, produced by the band with Invisible Girl Steve Hopkins. The session displayed a newfound maturity both in terms of sound and songcraft. The subtle influence of Nico was apparent in tracks such as Release and The Long Night Out, while the title track was pure, driving Blue Orchids at their best.
Discussing the EP in 1985, Bramah reflected on his approach to songwriting. "Trying to be honest about your situation, the way we fit into a technological society, the way the world has been fucked up by man. I've always been optimistic but things are so bad you can't just blame one thing... I like to write happy songs and also sad songs. I always liked Leonard Cohen, very emotional music. A lot of men think it's soft to show emotion. but it's actually very brave. Long Night Out was about drugs, and was a reflection of what was happening to people I knew."
The release of Agents of Change was supported with a major show at the Lyceum in October with Comsat Angels and The Sound, plus novel packaging with a free poster, all housed in a bespoke plastic carrier bag. Unfortunately the EP sold less well than previous releases and proved to be their last recording for Rough Trade. Indeed by the end of the year the group had decided to disband. Bramah in particular felt discouraged by his adventures in the industry, departures from the band, and the increasing demands the Blue Orchids made on his personal life.
After a two year period in limbo, making music only in private, towards the end of 1984 Bramah and Baines decided to break cover with a new version of the band. Joined by drummer Nick Marshall, in March 1985 the pair recorded a new single for the tiny Racket label, run as a worker's cooperative by Bramah's former Fall comrade Tony Friel. The record coupled Sleepy Town with a reggaefied take on Thirst, and would be supported by a string of live dates featuring an extended seven-piece band, although after shows in Austria and Germany Bramah and Baines parted company once again to pursue separate interests.
For Una Baines, these took the form of a new band, The Fates, who released one album (Furia) on Taboo in late 1985. Bramah guested, as well as hooked up with yet another Fall emigre, this time Karl Burns, for project called Thirst, who released a solitary EP on Rough Trade called Riding the Times. Produced by John Leckie, the four tracks offered a more rocky, Stooges-like sound than had the Blue Orchids, lacking their trademark keyboards, although The Unknown was written as an Orchids song. Despite positive reviews the single sold modestly on release in November 1987, but can be heard on Blue Orchids archive set From Severe to Serene. During this period Bramah also turned down an offer to sing in Inspiral Carpets, a vacancy subsequently filled by Tom Hingley.
Despite Mark E. Smith having once dismissed the Blue Orchids as 'hopeless people' and 'fucking handicaps', Martin Bramah would rejoin The Fall in 1989 to produce Extricate, an oustanding album released on Polydor, along with subsequent EP White Lightning. Bramah still saw The Fall as a great creative opportunity, and indeed Extricate proved a critical renaissance for the band, although after a year he and keyboard player Marcia Schofield were unceremoniously fired while in Australia towards the end of a world tour. Surprisingly, Bramah bore no grudge and almost rejoined the band yet again in 1998 for what became The Marshall Suite, but for various reasons this didn't quite happen.
From Australia, Bramah returned to the UK to gather up another bunch of Blue Orchids, including Martin Hennin, Richard Harrisson and guitarist Craig Gannon, previously with The Bluebells and The Smiths. The result was a 12" single on As Is which coupled Diamond Age with Moth, released in the autumn of 1991. Diamond Age offered a cascading waterfall of sound, featuring a spoken dream sequence in the middle of what was an almost transcendental pop song. The single was followed in 1992 by an excellent career retrospective, A View From the City, but with only 1000 copies pressed by the Playtime label the collection was not available in sufficient quantities to cement their place in history.
Without Gannon the new band Secret City, a concept EP which was pressed up by Authentic in 1992 but never properly released. The music betrayed more than a hint of the indie/dance crossover that had flowered as the Madchester phenomenon, and the group toured in company with Inspiral Carpets, whose own sound in turn owed a debt to the Orchids' early output in 1981/82. However this incarnation of the band was destined not to last, and folded later in 1992 after Bramah relocated from Manchester to London.
In London Bramah assembled a new band with Adrian White (drums), Stuart Kennedy (bass) and keys player Alistair 'Baz' Murphy, who had played with the band on the Bunnymen tour a decade earlier as stand-in for an unwell Una Baines. Over the course of several months in 1993 this line-up recorded nine excellent Bramah songs for a planned second Orchids album at EMC studios in Camden, a non-digital facility stocked with retro valve technology. Lover of Nothing, Weird World, Dream Boat and Blue Grey Boy rank as some of Bramah's best work, but sadly the tapes attracted little interest from labels at the time and remained on the shelf until 2003. The original title Dark Matter was later dropped in favour of The Sleeper. Faced with indifference, this incarnation of the band would eventually fold in 1995.
In 2002 a well-chosen compilation on Cherry Red titled A Darker Bloom served to remind the world that the Blue Orchids were an unsung yet major talent, while the belated release of The Sleeper in 2003 confirmed that Martin Bramah is a formidable guitarist and songwriter. True, during their 80s heyday the Orchids suffered more than their fair share of bad luck (having perhaps created a measure of it), and laboured too long in the shadow of mentors such as Nico and Mark Smith, but here is a band that followed its lights and muse, and made the world a more colourful place.
Update: In 2004 Bramah recorded a new album, Mystic Bud, released as Blue Orchids but sounding more like a solo project. His first solo album proper, The Battle of Twisted Heel, followed in 2008. The following year he formed Factory Star, initially with Stephen and Paul Hanley, releasing an album (Enter Castle Perilous) as well as several singles on the Occultation label, and playing dates both as Factory Star and Blue Orchids. A second Factory Star album, New Sacral, followed in 2012.
Sources: This history is based on Martin Bramah's own account which appears on the Blue Orchids website. The 1985 quotes are from an interview in issue 4 of The Hell With Poverty fanzine, autumn 1985. Another useful source was an MB interview by Odran Smith printed in Fall zine The Biggest Library Yet (issue 2) from November 1994. The derogatory Mark Smith quotes are from the famously unguarded interview in issue 8 of Allied Propaganda fanzine, from August/September 1983. Simon Reynolds is quoted from his review of A Darker Bloom, which appeared in Uncut magazine (2002).
"Some of the most visionary music of its era. Ramshackle but transcendent" (Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again)