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The Orchids \ Biography

Acclaimed Glasgow band The Orchids recorded for cult independent label Sarah Records. Formed in 1987, this prolific yet overlooked five-piece recorded a string of singles as well as three excellent albums, Lyceum (1989), Unholy Soul (1991) and Striving For the Lazy Perfection (1994). Often compared to similarly cerebral pop operators such as Felt, Aztec Camera and Primal Scream, the band split in 1995 at the height of their powers. Most of their records were produced by Ian Carmichael of One Dove.

The band reformed in 2004, and have since released two more albums: Good to be a Stranger (2007) and The Lost Star (2010).

Orchids biography by Alistair Fitchett

A fair amount has been written about Sarah records in the past, most of it amounts to further mythologizing of a 'scene' that has really been counter-productive. I mean, myths and legends are central to the joys of Pop, but they do tend to cloud issues and often obscure great music. So it has been with Sarah, with a predilection amongst media and fans alike for painting the whole label as a home for quintessentially sad and sensitive indiekids in anoraks, crying at sunsets and cringing behind their fringes. Such a reading has certainly been detrimental to many of the bands who actually recorded records for the label, not least of whom would be The Orchids.

The Orchids came into existence in 1985, the worst year for so many things, but particularly Pop, ever. After flirting as a six piece with keyboards and sax, they quickly became a quintet named Gentle Tuesday after the great Primal Scream song (remember this was pre-Creation Scream). The band decided to change their name, however, after Alan McGee looked at the demo tape handed to him one night at a Go-Betweens show at Rooftops and told them that 'Gentle Tuesday' was going to be the Scream's next Creation single. Of course it wasn't, and in fact the song didn't appear until after Bobby and his troupe had gone to the Warners-sponsored disaster that was Elevation, but nevertheless, not wanting to look like Scream hangers-on, the band became The Bridge. The Bridge played one show under that name as support to the Godlike McCarthy, again at Rooftops, before changing once more to become The Orchids. And incidentally, Rooftops really was the key Glasgow venue at this time for the new Pop revolution, as was the Kes club which occupied the rooms below.

Clearly having caught the name-changing bug, the band dallied with yet another switch, this time to Splendour. A phone call to Matt Haynes, who was helping to release a flexi shared with the Sea Urchins scuppered this plan. The story runs that the sleeves were already printed, although it's also a possibility that this was a ruse, Matt rightly preferring The Orchids to the somewhat pretentious Splendour. It didn't take long before the band agreed.

The first I heard of The Orchids was that flexidisc, released in June 1987. For the benefit of younger readers, the flexi was the medium of choice for fanzines back in the mid to late '80s. In many ways it was the covermount CD of its day, only with crap sound quality and the potential to pack maybe two or three tracks at most. Not that anyone at the time would have breathed the word 'flexi' in the same breath as 'CD'. These were times of technological Luddism, after all, when digital technology was seen as somehow criminal, whereas the analogue 'purity' of the flexi was held up as the last bastion of the Punk ethic. Or at least that's how it seemed at the time.

Finger-pointers would cast the blame for this backward ideology squarely at the foot of the Sha-La-La label and its core of fanzines Are You Scared To Get Happy, Baby Honey and Simply Thrilled. Other fanzines carried Sha-La-La releases in their time, of course (notably Wire editor Rob Young's great one-off It All Sounded The Same), but those three were the main contenders - or offenders, depending on your viewpoint. Really though most people misunderstood it, mistaking the media for the message. The message being that at the time CDs were still very much seen as a means of getting people to buy their record collections all over again, and flexis were clearly in diametric opposition to that, and so seemed a great way to get new music out. Plus they were cheap, and sounded so. As well, they were throwaway, a concept prevalent at the time as being intrinsic to great Pop, and who's to say that wasn't perfectly on the money? The irony being of course that often the more throwaway things seem, the more precious they become. In the climate of hyper-capitalism, greed and glossy pretension promoted by the Tory government of the time, such stances were seen to be Political, and if that seems vaguely laughable in hindsight or in the light of current context, then so be it. But when you were in your late teenage years at the time, it felt Important, and that's all that really counts.

The first Orchids release was on Sha-La-La, and was called 'From This Day'. The first copy I got came with Pete Williams' Searching For The Young Soul Rebels publication, and later I picked up a second copy through Rob Young's aforementioned 'zine, and then a third with one of those Turn! fanzines that appeared out of - was it Yeovil? Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, anyway. Or Somerset at least.

'From This Day' was sketchy and brittle, although pretty much everything sounded so on a flexi. It was accompanied on the disc by 'Summershine' by The Sea Urchins, and probably suffered as a result, The Sea Urchins being the more feted band at the time, resplendent in pointy boots, leather jackets, bowl cuts and sixties psych-jangle homage. By comparison, The Orchids sounded like they probably wore Doc Marten's shoes, grey cardigans, check shirts (button down collar, naturally) and perhaps a hand-made Postcard badge. But maybe I thought that just because they came from Glasgow and had previously been The Bridge, a name I always assumed was a reference to the glorious Orange Juice single of the same name. 'Bridge' was a great song, never better heard than on the live 'summer '84' version that cropped up on the b-side of the 12", and wasn't this the time when all the OJs records were 'Holden Caulfield International' releases? These details were Important.

Sha-La-La was never built to last. That was the whole point. So when Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd started Sarah Records in 1988 it was logical that two of the best groups from the Sha-La-La stable should get the first 'real' record releases. So it was that the Sea Urchins and The Orchids came to claim catalogue numbers Sarah 1 and 2 respectively. The Orchids single came in a horrid sleeve that offended my aesthetic sensibilities at the time. It does so still. It looked weedy and lightweight, and maybe that was the point, I don't know.

Also significant was the sheer genius in lines like 'I'm drinking Irn Bru and I'm thinking of you', 'It's hard to say thank you when you're smiling' and a song title like 'Give Me Some Peppermint Freedom'. Add a sound that was all gangling arms and legs, like walking home in the early evening with a pint too many in your head, and you had something to cherish for a week at the very least.

Notes on the sleeve gave thanks to Karen McDougall and Caesar, the latter of course being legendary in some circles as singer and songwriter in Factory band The Wake. What the thanks were for is not known, although later of course the two groups had close links since they shared group members. And don't forget The Wake's latter records were released by Sarah. Karen McDougall on the other hand I know little about, except that she was a mythical figure in the Glasgow scene at the time, and didn't she take the photo of Primal Scream that's on the cover of their Creation debut? There are people who know much more about this than I do, since at the time I was only a lost soul who rarely ventured out of his bedroom. Some things never change.

The second Orchids single, in November 1988, was the four track 'Underneath The Window, Underneath The Sink' 7". This was the first Orchids records to be recorded at the legendary Toad Hall, and the first to be produced by Ian Carmichael, unofficial sixth member of The Orchids. Carmichael of course later found some kind of fame with One Dove, although really The Orchids pretty much laid down the blueprint for much of their sound, and were given a thanks on the sleeve of that hit One Dove album. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The 'Underneath The Window' single was recorded and released in the midst of the UK's Poll Tax conflict, and came with a poster featuring a collage of anti-Poll Tax material adorned with the message 'The Orchids say don't pay the Poll Tax'. There was more on the record itself, with the blunt song 'Defy The Law' (never did revolt sound so sprightly and gorgeously weightless as this) and a blatant 'FUCK THE POLL TAX' etched in the run-off groove. And whilst maybe it's just my snobbery that prefers the initial print-sun sleeve of shades of blue over the starker blue and white later version, it was nevertheless another fairly horrid sleeve housing a fantastic record.

In 1989 the third single finally married a superb record with a great sleeve: just simple typography with blue and yellow inks mixed to give a main body of green with a blue strip at the edge. Simple and delicious, and very Factory. The songs were just as tasty, particularly 'What Will We Do Next'. Quite simply a Pop masterpiece, it had edgy guitars that melded riffs made in heaven with lines picked out that sounded like diamonds scratching your skin. It's a song that can't help but make me move, can't help but raise a grin to my lips, particularly when it ends on those fantastic upbeat/downbeat lines 'your suspicion and mistrust that turned my innocence to lust' and 'the world is crazy but so am I'. The flip side played at 33 rpm and housed a track called 'Yawn' that sounded just like the title suggested. It was a mighty track that languidly reached for the sun and effortlessly captured it in its translucent fingers.

Then there was the Lyceum 10" in August 1989, eight tracks of the simplest beauty. The sleeve was okay, too, with ten little square photographic details that still feel to me like a magical mystery tour around Glasgow. Certainly I was thrilled to recognise the little grinning head from the fossilised play-park at the edge of Kelvingrove Park; things I photographed myself one afternoon in 1983. Then there was the detail of the fountain in the same park, and the little saltire from the window box in front of the AA building in the square I used to walk through all the time as I wended my way up to the art school in Garnethill. Who the geezer in bunnet and shades was I have no idea, except that he looked related to Lou Reed. Poor bloke.

The songs on Lyceum were amongst the best by any group at that time, or anytime. Listening once more to songs like opener 'It's Only Obvious', with that fly-away magic moment when it goes 'who needs tomorrow, when all I need, all I needed was you.' or 'Caveman' with it's great Punk Rock rush that could be just awesome live, I remember that really The Orchids made the records that really mattered, really made the grade. For example, no-one else could ever capture that essence of lovelorn/torn ache as well as they did on the simply awesome 'The York Song', with its glorious interplay between piano and guitar and Hackett's shuffling, sand-kicked-in-late-night-beach-strolls voice going 'I remember nothing at all' and the cascades of 'no no never I've done that'. And what about the last three tracks on side two? From 'Hold On' (Hackett here sounds pleading, lost, and those lines '1,2,3' that he repeats are throwaway moments of forgotten loss, tossed off the cuff like only lovers are capable of), through 'Blue Light' (how can a song SHIVER so?) to the pared down but somehow lush closure of 'If You Can't Find Love' that opens with the ace 'I'm sad to say, I curse the day that I met you', these three songs are sometimes the only testament to the glory of Pop that I ever need.

Lyceum then was a minor triumph, but The Orchids were far from content. They continued to develop their sound, continued to seek out new possibilities, notably making more use of keyboards and effects. The first evidence was really on 'Yawn', and it was to this cut that the fabulous, yearning 'Something For The Longing' inevitably nodded. But where 'Yawn' reached for the sun, 'Something for the Longing' really took off for the stars. It opened with what sounded like Apocalypse Now helicopters at dawn, before a melody coasted in on guitars, bass and drums, crashing on the beach with the lines 'we can walk/talk for hours and hours'. Even the plain orange sleeve seemed somehow appropriate.

On the five track Penetration ep from February 1991 it seemed suddenly like The Orchids had stretched out. They sounded altogether more confident and assured. There was a great country feel to their sound too, notably on the terrific upbeat 'Bemused, Confused and Bedraggled' with those great lines 'this is my song; it ain't very hard and it ain't very long' and 'How Does That Feel'. Elsewhere, like on 'Pelican Blonde', they sounded taught and expansive all at once, with wonderful textures underpinning their magnificent trademark ache. Of course there were stupid purists who savaged Sarah (and by association The Orchids) for releasing the ep on 12" format. Wasn't Sarah meant to be the last great refuge for the 7" single? And wasn't the 7" format a Political Statement? Well, no, actually. The ideological stance was to not release the same songs on multiple formats, to not put previously unavailable tracks on compilation LPs. It was a simple thing, but what the hell. The Penetration sleeve was a great Orchids sleeve too, and again looked very Factory with the murky photograph of the graveyard angel on the front and the ring of cherubs on the back.

In fact after 1991 The Orchids became more an 'album' band, but with no tailing off in quality. Unholy Soul similarly sported cherubs courtesy of One Dove/Carmichael associate Ali Wells, and developed the Penetration sound further still. Augmented by additional keyboards and assorted electronica, Unholy Soul sounded fantastic when it was released (and toured) in May 1991. It does so still today. In fact the cusp of the '80s and the '90s was a time of great interfaces between styles, and as a result was a time for some of the finest Pop ever. The Orchids tapped into the electro/guitar Pop collision better and more naturally than most, and if their take on the whole game stayed fairly resolutely on the side of the guitar, then so much the better. Unholy Soul had some terrific moments. 'Peaches' had echoes of Screamadelica-era Primal Scream, with its classy beats and guest vocalist Pauline Hynds' blatantly soulful delivery alongside Hackett's more esoteric but no less emotion filled lines; 'Dirty Clothing' again had Hynds on backing vocals, and stands as a gloriously languid partner piece to the likes of 'Something For the Longing'; 'Bringing You the Love' had more of that sweet country inflection that surfaced on the Penetration ep, whilst album closer 'You Know I'm Fine' was as chilling and desolate an example of darkly beautiful folk music as you could possibly wish for.

Best of all though was the pairing of 'The Sadness of Sex (Part 1)' and 'Waiting For the Storm' that were as great as any other pieces electropop as you would find that or any year. 'The Sadness of Sex' was the third song to feature Pauline Hynds, and showed that The Orchids would surely have been capable of mixing it with the biggest guns, if only the myopic music press of the time had given them the chance. 'Waiting For the Storm' meanwhile was a masterpiece of subdued techno meets lonesome guitar troubadour that floated somewhere just beneath the clouds.

I swear that if Unholy Soul had been released on some other, hipper label, it would have garnered the fistful of glowing reviews it certainly deserved, and would have emerged as one of the albums of the year, regardless of the opposition. Which isn't the fault of anyone except the music industry, of course, and just goes to show how stupid, blind and deaf most music journalists are.

If Unholy Soul was the first evidence of The Orchids making inroads into merging what was then still termed 'dance' music with guitar Pop, then their swansong album Striving For the Lazy Perfection took it all further still. It's a great album, naturally enough, but it also presents the evidence of the divisions between the two genres and between the members; some wanting to move further down the route of electronics and dance beats, others wanting more guitars, and more traditional song structures. Thankfully, on songs like 'Obsession No 1', 'Welcome To My Curious Heart', 'Avignon', 'I've Got To Wake Up To Tell You My Dreams' and the cracking title track, The Orchids gave us the best of both worlds. However it wasn't a really a true 'band' album. By this time, original bassist James Moody was in the process of moving to Sweden, and on several tracks was replaced by Ronnie Borland. On several others drummer Chris Quinn was usurped by programmed beats, and whilst those tracks sound terrific in their own right, it still doesn't quite feel like The Orchids.

Whatever. Released in January 1994, Striving For the Lazy Perfection was still a fine swansong and rightly received glowing reviews in the music press. Pauline Hynds again provided vocal duties alongside James Hackett, and was again superb, before disappearing into the wilds of the Western Isles. However, an ugly van crash on an icy stretch of the A74 and a broken leg for Hackett meant that Striving. could not be promoted with the vigour it deserved.

Afterwards, the band simply drifted apart. There was a final Peel session, but that was pretty much it. The last live show would be at the Sarah Records farewell party, held in Bristol on 28 August 1995.

It remains to be seen if a reformed Orchids of 2005 can slip smoothly into the groove and give us more magical treasures. I suspect that it will all come naturally, and I for one am eager to hear the results. But regardless, The Orchids surely deserve more than most to be remembered for the wealth of treasures they delivered in the late '80s and early '90s; deserve to have those sounds preserved forevermore, so that they may serve as inspiration for new souls searching for that lazy perfection.