A bedsit in Holloway, circa 1991. Dave Arnold, guitarist from Kentish four piece the Claim, has made the journey into London from his village bordering the Thames estuary to talk to me. He wants to ask me about something; I can’t imagine what. Once he has cuppa in hand, he springs it on me. ‘We’d like you to be our manager, Dan.’
‘Blimey,’ I probably said in reply, and then almost certainly began to um and ah. I’m not sure what’s prompted it, other than my loyal support, writing about the group and turning up to most if not all of their London shows; that and the thankless task of representing themselves, perhaps. They could not have asked a less Svengali-like figure. I was unemployed, depressed, prone to tension headaches, and introverted to the point that even making a phone call to a friend held a degree of challenge for me.
So like a eejit, I turned Dave and the group down. With responsibility for their success in my hands, perhaps I would have pushed myself, and more through dedication than guile, managed to forward their cause a little. Grown with the role. But at that stage of my life, I feared it would be too much for me, and that I would have to resign as soon as it got like that, or find myself sacked when they saw I wasn’t coping. And then there was my own dream – of writing, literary greatness even – which I believed at all costs I ought to be pursuing.
But I always felt honoured to have been asked, and if I had my time again, I like to think I would say yes, and worry about the worries and time for writing later. Say yes to everything, kids, that’s my advice. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Don’t be afraid of failure. And if you are thinking of being a writer, live some life before you sit down to write. That’s as important as finding the time to practice the art of it.
I still love the Claim’s music. It’s simple, yet surprisingly sophisticated. It’s heartfelt, yet lyrically speaks so often of doubt. It mixes the bloodlines of the Jam and English folk song long before Paul Weller thought to himself, and much less consciously than that might suggest. You should all buy a copy of the retrospective compilation, Black path. I can say that without declaring an interest, because not having become their manager, I’m not on a cut or anything.
Initially when it came to picking a 45 of theirs, I was going to go with ‘Birth of a teenager’ – which I could with a degree of right claim as my own because scratched between the run-off grooves of its delightfully funny spoken word B side ‘Mike the bike’ (featuring Vic Templar) is ‘FOR DAN PANTRY’ – but to be honest I much prefer this song, a kitchen sink fantasia and homage to the dubious joys of the day of rest. It shares the same bleak Goffin & King vision as the Monkees’ ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, only with an enhanced sense of melancholy which no doubt results from the dismal nature of enduring Sundays in Britain in the 1980s. Lyrically Dave Read ventures beyond the view from the kitchen sink to daydream Walter Mittyishly as to what he’d answer if he were interviewed by the Sunday supplement he is thumbing through, a conceit that’s doubly rich for being handled straight within the context of the song, but also telling in terms of the Claim’s own inability to grow an audience to and beyond the point where he might have expected to be interviewed on a regular basis. Instead, he is the captive big cat featured on Alistair’s cover, caged and prowling, dreaming of the Serengeti.
Melodically it’s perfect, so that if Dave Read had merely hummed his way through the song, you would still experience the same emotion of feeling ensnared within a suburban dream while real life happens elsewhere. It’s also beautifully played by the group, something fans came to expect of the Claim, having seen so often with our own eyes what a high-functioning, single-minded quartet they were.
Having chosen consciously or otherwise to operate somewhat outside of the times, the Claim never did garner the audience they deserved. Perhaps they might have, had they had been as hip to the sounds of now as Damon Albarn’s Blur were, but since the Claim possessed more insouciance than swagger, it wasn’t to be.
Let’s just pause right there, and linger over that word – esurient, meaning greedy or voracious. 17th century in origin, derived from the Latin esurire, and meaning to be hungry. What a beautiful word, and what a great name for a record label.
Esurient was run by Kevin Pearce, whose previous activities included the sharp, exceedingly literate fanzines Hungrybeat and The same sky. His view of pop music and any particular artist’s position in or outside its pantheon was, it is fair to say, uncompromising. To quote his own slogan, Kevin was ‘Esurient for change’. In my own fanzine of the time, writing about ‘Stumble’, I was unable to stop myself employing the phrase ‘the parturient Esurient’. Yes, for better or worse, we had both swallowed dictionaries in our youth.
I played this single so much – Oliver Jackson’s baritone booming out at all hours – that the Jamaican guy in the bedsit next door asked me if I was into opera.
Nearly every time Emily or label mates the Claim and the Hellfire Sermons played, I went along to see them. For the last Esurient event that I attended before leaving for a long sojourn in France, Kevin had managed to track down a copy of ‘Au revoir Daniel’ by Mireille Mathieu, and played it between the acts that night. It was that kind of gesture, that attention to detail which made Esurient special (and in those days to source a song wasn’t anything like as easy as typing in ‘Au revoir Daniel’ into YouTube either).
In 2008 I wrote in rather long-winded fashion about ‘Stumble’ and its B sides, ‘Boxing Day blues’ and ‘Rachel’. I quoted myself there from a 1998 piece on the Hellfire Sermons for Tangents: ‘‘Stumble’ is one of the best singles ever, and ‘Merry-go-round’, the greatest single never released.’ In 2003, 14 years after its release, Leonard Roberge of the Washington City Paper said that ‘Stumble’ was ‘Astral weeks in four minutes instead of 47’. The song has travelled and stayed with me and a few others through time. I have imagined putting together a compilation consisting of different takes of ‘Stumble’ – from the initial demo to the innumerable versions captured and recorded live, which ranged from acoustic with congas to ferocious four piece savagings. I’ve heard the song in my dreams. Dammit, I’ve even played it in my dreams; and in waking hours, I don’t play the guitar.
At this distance I can hear the odd flaw – occasionally straining for effect, Ollie shows himself to be the young, relatively inexperienced singer that he was, while the emotional psychodrama of the lyric leaves it somewhat ambiguous as to who is doing and who is being done to (is the wail of ‘Let me see you’ the plaint of the spurning or the spurned lover – a surprise ending or effectively reported speech?) but nevertheless, were I to be foolish enough to make such a shortlist, ‘Stumble’ would be right up there in the top five of this selection of 45 45s, and I still believe it deserves to be far better known than it is.
A piece about the Hellfire Sermons, which became the starting point of an article for Tangents, which itself was reworked as sleeve notes for Hymns: ancient and modern, the collection of singles and unreleased recordings issued by Bus Stop in 2002. It’s a great shame that the Hellfires never recorded an LP either for Esurient or Dishy – but at least Hymns helps fill that absence.
‘Not nailed down’ was the 1990 highpoint of their first phase as a fantastically melodic and incisive guitar pop group. And in ‘Covered in love’ you hear the precise moment at which singer Colin Pennington apparently comes unhinged, with the group following suit. It’s a thrilling record, crazed and dangerous but deliciously catchy. They even managed to pull off the same trick with their next single for Dishy, ‘Sarasine’, which was equally blood-curdling. In their guise as supreme melodists, they were another fab group from Liverpool to set alongside the Teardrop Explodes, Shack and the La’s. And as scary dramatists, they out-Pixied the Pixies.
- Hellfire Sermons – Not nailed down
- Hellfire Sermons – Covered in love
- Hellfire Sermons MySpace
- Hellfire Sermons website
28th September 2009. Set your faces to stunned and make a note of the date in your diaries, for that’s the day on which the Claim finally make it onto CD with the release of Black path: retrospective 1985-1992. Who’d have thought that in 2009 they would be releasing a record within eight days of the Clientele, whose Bonfires of the heath is out on 6th October; another astonishing preview track (‘Harvest time’) is available here. (I first hitched the two groups together for this 2001 piece for Tangents.)
To celebrate, here – courtesy of the Right Honorable Vic Templar – is a link to a YouTube outing of one of the previously unreleased songs on the retrospective, the not entirely typical ‘Between heaven and Woolworths’.
And here are the pages from Pantry For The World which celebrated the Claim’s Boomy Tella (‘the best LP of 1988’) and their subsequent singles for Esurient. The quote about the Claim live came from a letter written by one Richey Edwards, whose group had just made their London debut supporting the Claim.
Here also is one half of the Pantry For The World supplement, featuring a piece about the Claim by Kevin Pearce, who wrote about them with the appreciation and bias appropriate to the man who was releasing their records.
Black path tracklisting:
Picking up the bitter little pieces
Birth Of A Teenager
Mike The Bike (Featuring Vic Templar)
Being A Minor
Between Heaven And Woolworths (For Brian Patten)
Not So Simple Sharon Says
God, Cliffe And Me
Do You Still Feel?
Down By The Chimney
Wait And See
Seen And Done It All
That’s one half of Boomy Tella by my reckoning, and sadly means no room for the trombone-fuelled knees-up of ‘Beneath the reach’ or ‘All about hope’, on which the Claim were at their most exquisitely pastoral. Fingers crossed Boomy will before long get a release in its own right. Neither ‘This pencil…’ nor ‘Another yesterday’ feature – they can be downloaded here.
There is also at least one live date confirmed at the Royal Function Rooms in Rochester on Saturday 19th September with the possibility of a London appearance.
- The Claim (MySpace)
Well done to Vic who is trying hard to get some wind behind an unlikely Claim revival here and here. Vic was if I’m not mistaken the writer and narrator of ‘Mike the bike’, the B side of the group’s ‘Birth of a teenager’ single for Bob Stanley’s Caff label.
It will be a joyous day indeed when the Bus Stop compilation – originally scheduled for release in 2002! – finally sees the light of day. Meantime there is a Claim website streaming a few of their songs, and efforts have been made on YouTube which allow you the pleasure not just of ‘Sunday’, ‘Sporting life’ and ‘Birth of a teenager’, but also of seeing the Two Daves (Read and Arnold) performing ‘Picking up the bitter little pieces’ as recently as July last year.
Alistair has been posting live recordings of the triumvirate of groups who recorded for Kevin Pearce’s Esurient label, along with the handbills produced to advertise the shows. In the absence of the half-dozen long-players that collectively the trio should have gone on to make, these sets formed part of my staple listening for many years. Subsequently whenever I’ve dug them out of the Pantry vaults, they have had the power to remind me of what I believed then – that on their night each was the best band on the planet. The tapes may now have become a myriad of bits compacted into a file, but they have lost none of their wow and flutter. Though very different from each other, what all three groups had in common was the ambition of their song-writing and the attacking edge with which they performed; the same edge and attack that led to the creation of their record label. You knew in your heart that group and audience were the outermost of outcasts, hanging by a finger from the bottom rung of a ladder each were ambivalent about climbing, but these upstairs rooms above pubs – whether Horse and Groom or King and Queen – were the pitch for some of the most intense musical experiences of my life. So intense that that for sanity’s sake I had to take a break from attending the Esurient shows. Not being there was of course worse than the frustration I felt in the ineluctable sense when I watched them that these groups were never going to be allowed to rise above the level they had attained in finding someone who had enough belief in their greatness to stage their shows and put out their records.
They were joyful nights by and large but at its most intense, and when you are at your most susceptible to its intensity, there is as much pain as pleasure in music. That’s what I still hear when I listen to either of the live versions of Emily’s ‘Stumble’ that Alistair has made available to a world which, I suspect, will be about as interested as it was near on twenty years ago. But you’ll be pleased to hear I’m over it now. Honest.