The Blue Orchids \ Biography
The Blue Orchids were formed in Manchester in 1979 around Martin Bramah (vocals and guitar) and Una Baines (keyboards), both of whom were 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 Clark, 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, as in the 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 Peel session in December. Phil Spector meets the Velvet Underground beneath the Blackpool illuminations. Sort of.
Soon afterwards Toyne quit and was replaced on bass by Goldstraw. The next Blue Orchids single is widely regarded as their definitive statement, coupling the strident Work with its haunting flipside, The House That Faded Out. Work is best described as cracked soul music, with Bramah more concerned over thepight 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 their profile was also boosted by a support slot on the first national tour by Echo and the Bunnymen in April.
An album now beckoned, and joined by new drummer Toby (previously with Ludus) the band entered an eight-track studio in Manchester called Relentless in the spring of 1981. After just two weeks they emerged with The Greatest Hit, produced by the band in collaboration with Tony Roberts and subtitled, with no little irony, Money Mountain. Released by Rough Trade in May, this ambitious album included nothing from the previous singles, and instead offered ten new classics including Sun Connection, A Year With No Head, No Looking Back, Low Profile and Bad Education, the latter covered by Aztec Camera on the flipside of their 1987 single Deep and Wide and Tall. The band also inspired another Aztec's song, Orchid Girl. Indeed it's no coincidence that in their first incarnation the band were often bracketed with the Postcard stable, despite never recording for the 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 in NME Mat Smith 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, W.B. 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 band and album is summarised well by 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 Nineties 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 the legendary Nico, the one-time Warhol superstar by then living in Manchester's Whalley Range 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 and a Dutch tour in the spring of 1982, described in more detail in a pair of warts and all biographies of Nico 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 repraise 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 cheaply recorded debut album, which found Bramah in better voice, and 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 Steve Hopkins. The session displayed a newfound maturity both in terms of sound and songcraft, and 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 summed up his approach to songwriting thus: "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."
However, Rough Trade's promised promotional push failed to materialise, so that Agents of Change sold less well than previous releases and proved to be their last recording for the label. This Despite a major show at the Lyceum in October with Comsat Angels and The Sound, and the EP's novel packaging with a free poster, all housed in a bespoke plastic carrier bag. By the end of the year the group 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 spent in limbo, and making music only in private, in late 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 the superb Sleepy Town with a reggaefied take on Thirst, and was supported by a string of live dates with an extended seven-piece band that never really gelled, and after playing a few dates in Austria and Germany, Bramah and Baines again parted company 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, on which Bramah guested. Bramah had meanwhile hooked up with another Fall emigre Karl Burns in 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 the Blue Orchids, and lacked 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 now be heard again on the 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 earlier dismissed the Blue Orchids as 'hopeless pepe' and 'a lot of fucking handicaps' in 1989 Martin Bramah rejoined the Fall to produce their outstanding album Extricate, released on Polydor, as well as the subsequent White Lightning EP. Bramah still saw the Fall as a great creative outlet, and Extricate marked 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 nearly rejoined the band yet again in 1998 for what became the Marshall Suite album, but for various reasons it 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, and featured a spoken dream sequence in the middle of what was an almost transcendental pop song. The new single was followed in 1992 by an excellent career retrospective on Playtime, A View From the City, although with only 1000 copies pressed the collection was not available in sufficient quantities to cement their place in history.
Without Gannon, the new band recorded a concept EP called Secret City, 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 band toured with the Inspiral Carpets, whose own sound in turn owed a considerable debt to the Orchids' early output in 1981/82. However this incarnation of the band was destined not to last, and sundered later in 1992 after Bramah relocated from Manchester to London.
Although no more Blue Orchids records emerged, this was by no means the end of the story. In London Bramah assembled a new band with Adrian White (drums), Stuart Kennedy (bass) and keyboard player Alistair 'Baz' Murphy, who had completed the Bunnymen tour with the band a decade earlier as stand-in for an unwell Una Baines. Over the course of several months in 1993 this line-up recorded nine superb Bramah songs for a planned second Blue Orchids album at EMC studios in Camden, a non-digital facility which rejoiced in old school valve technology. This polished set contains some of Bramah's best work in tracks such as Lover of Nothing, Weird World, Dream Boat and Blue Grey Boy, but sadly attracted little interest from labels at the time and so remained on the shelf. The original title Dark Matter was later dropped in favour of The Sleeper. Faced with indifference, the band eventually folded 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 confirms that Martin Bramah is a songwriter and guitarist of real genius. True, Blue 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.
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)