Generally, I’m not a fan of comebacks. Sure, there are exceptions – Johnny Cash, the Go-Betweens, the Wild Swans, off the top of my head – but for every unexpectedly great later work, there are many which make you wish an artist or a group had let their oeuvre be. It tends to be the case that if you stop exercising that song-creating muscle, it’s hard to get it back into the shape it was in when you were working out regularly.
Increasingly though, people do pick up their instruments again, once nostalgia for the old days overcomes the sour memories of the internecine tensions of being in a band; or the thankless grind of forever trying to draw attention to the music is forgotten; or, more practically, because the kids have become independent beings, and time has opened up again.
The Claim – Davids Arnold and Read, Martin Bishop and Stuart Ellis – are in that exceptional bracket. 31 years after their last LP, and ten after the Black Path retrospective, here is (or are) The New Industrial Ballads. (It’s a not untypical title for the Claim, somewhat defiant, a little bit odd. But meaningful, since each of those words – ‘new’, ‘industrial’, and ‘ballad’ – could stand for something else. Art and work and love: three important ingredients in good and fruitful lives.) There’s been no apparent diminishment of their musical nous or chops, while David Read has obviously looked after his vocal chords, because they can still express what they used to be able to as effortlessly as ever.
After an instrumental prelude, the driving beat of Journey kicks in. Its musical rise and fall suggests that it’s the group’s intention to take the listener on a journey, too, through time and space and mood. It’s followed by Smoke & Screens, which starts off as an acoustic paean before electric guitars and strings stir up an emotional storm that’s comprised partly of remorse, and partly weariness. In these two songs you have the album’s lyrical concerns in a nutshell – proudly (but never overbearingly) political on the one hand, and on the other, charting the ups and downs of emotional fortune that tend to accumulate once there is more of life behind than ahead of you.
Like London buses, a third deeply affecting melody arrives alongside the kerb and takes you to The Haunted Pub, where David Read looks back down the years and simultaneously mourns and celebrates the memories such pubs evoke. Light Bending also has the pep and melodious zip of, say, God, Cliffe and Me or Waiting For Jesus from back in the day. Vocally, David Read sounds at turns sure-footed, reflective, vulnerable, as young as he was when the Claim were first making their way in the world, and yet never less than gracefully mature. Musically, the album is rich and beautifully recorded, with a just-so balance between detail and space; the group have clearly taken their time to get everything absolutely right. Is it a better album than Boomy Tella? In its greater variety and lived wisdom, definitely. If it wasn’t foolish to wish that things had turned out differently, I might say it’s a shame or even a crime that the intervening years haven’t given us another half dozen Claim albums of likely the same quality; another sixty odd melodies sung in that wonderful, lilting voice.
If these are The New Industrial Ballads, what were the old? That depends upon which side of the Atlantic you are. Over in America, they were the songs of struggle which emerged from the coal mines, textile mills and farms of the 19th century, kept alive in the 20th by the likes of Pete Seeger. On this side of the pond, we’re talking about the broadside ballads that came out of the Industrial Revolution – broadside as opposed to broadsheet, because the songs were printed solely on one side of paper and sold cheaply. The specific inspiration is Jennifer Reid‘s recent efforts to air the broadside balladry of Manchester and Lancashire, and it’s led to the Claim’s own adaption of an industrial ballad in the form of When the Morning Comes, sections of which recall the spoken word French on the Jam’s Scrape Away, and also remind me of Ultramarine’s Kingdom (featuring Robert Wyatt on vocals). In a similar act of historical reclamation, its lyrics were adapted from The Song of the Lower Classes by Ernest Jones, which Ultramarine discovered in the folk song archives of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House.
At least one of this new set of songs is an old industrial ballad of the Claim’s own devising: Hercules dates from demos recorded around 1991-92. Brought back to life after all these years, it’s the equal of Aaron Neville’s song of the same name (written by Allan Toussaint), which may or may not have suggested the title and the not dissimilar subject matter:
‘Looking from my window sill
From a tower block I see
Boarded-up shops, run-down housing
There’s your Big Society’
An absolute highlight of the album comes when the pacy Just Too Far abruptly judders to a halt and immediately segues into the down-tempo, mournful Mrs Jones. It’s hard not to see the latter as a companion piece to Boomy Tella’s Mrs Shepherd, and it’s a dose of the kind of Thames delta blues I never thought I’d have the pleasure of hearing again.
On 30 Years, old fellow traveller Vic Templar (aka Ian Greensmith) returns to narrate another story that makes the passing of time explicit. While lyrically the album as a whole does feel like a journey into the past, musically it all sounds too fresh to be regarded merely as a period piece. Eventually the journey arrives back at the beginning, and Estuary Blues and Greens – the scenery that was the backdrop to the Claim’s formative years, and is now an anchor in the present: ‘this place helps me find my feet’. You could add Estuary Blues and Greens to the Action’s legendary Rolled Gold recordings without there being any drop-off in quality or loss of that collection’s visionary, psychedelic mood – it’s that good. As is the song with which the Claim close the album, Under Canvas. It’s a personal ballad in the style of early John Martyn or Bert Jansch, and as touching as anything on Paul Weller’s most recent studio album, the wonderfully folky True Meanings. I’d love to hear more in this style, but then I’d be happy to hear more of the Claim’s music in any style they choose. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another three decades for it.
- The New Industrial Ballads by The Claim (A Turntable Friend)
Can it really be more than thirty years ago that The Claim’s Boomy Tella LP was released? Decades have flown by, but a record I’ve consistently listened to for (considerably) more than half my life now seems to exist outside of time passing. This is the beauty of a favourite recording – its magical moments are frozen, not in aspic or ice but in some living, breathing sense, whether the overriding feeling is upbeat or downhearted. The distinctive first few beats and bars of Not So Simple Sharon Said sound out, and those intervening decades drop away. I could be nineteen again, and tapping my foot to them at The Falcon in Camden, or smiling as John Peel plays the song for the first time on the radio. Every note remains familiar to me. It’s hard to step back and attempt to appraise it afresh, let alone objectively.
But this is what the reissue of Boomy Tella on A Turntable Friend Records is suggesting I should do. What David Arnold’s touchingly humble sleeve notes (‘This was nearly our great album’) tell me were ‘cheap rattling drums’ and ‘replica guitars’, still sound as thrillingly rich to these ears as they did when I first heard the LP in late 1987. And the remastering has put a little more boom into Boomy Tella, with Stuart’s sure-footed bass playing in particular coming through more clearly than I ever recall it doing on my old vinyl.
The songs are simple, yet surprisingly sophisticated. The singing is heartfelt, yet lyrically speaks so often of doubt. Uniquely, the music mixes the bloodlines of mod pop and English folk song, but much less consciously than that might suggest; while the Claim would have been entirely au fait with the Jam and the Style Council, I don’t imagine David Read had heard much if any folk music before recording Boomy Tella, and yet if you heard it a cappella, his unaffected singing voice might easily lead you to place him within the tradition of English folk song.
No matter what calibre of instruments the two Davids, Stuart and Martin were using, it’s all beautifully played, 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. Here’s how Kevin Pearce, who originally put out the LP on his Esurient label, described it not long after its release, in a piece for my fanzine of the time:
I love the way it’s finely balanced. The way it’s sinewy and substantial but understated and light on its feet. The way there’s something to get your teeth into but something you can’t quite put your finger on. The way it’s so English like Ray Davies, Vic Godard but altogether strange somehow. The way I keep coming back to it like a tongue always comes back to a loose tooth. Most of all I love the way Not So Simple Sharon Says starts as much as I love the way Waterloo Sunset starts.
Boomy Tella’s cover may have been deliberately artless, but that continues to conceal an artful, inventive approach to songwriting. Guitars are picked, strummed, and struck into modernist shades of red and blue, while bass and drums form a rhythmic backbone that is indeed foot-tapping in its simplicity. Over the top David Read weaves a lyrical sense of the absurdity of the everyday into those folkish melodies of his. On one level the group are mates having a laugh, incidentally producing consummate moments of pop music like Beneath the Reach. On another, they’re gifted poets telling it like it is, playing it how they feel it, and coming up with something of the emotional heft of Down By the Chimney.
The Claim achieved a marriage of unforced exuberance and subtlety that set them apart from the majority of both the independent music of the era and the Britpop that was to follow. Where might the Claim be now if they had had the time, space and money to plot a course through the ’90s and beyond? As with so much artistic endeavour, the what-ifs are legion.
Live, the Claim were both engaging and inspiring – and having seen them play again last weekend at the 100 Club, I can report that they still are. For me, no other group of the time and type combined serious musical intent and a sense of ease and enjoyment better than the Claim did at their best. Davids Read and Arnold would introduce what were obviously carefully composed and cherished songs with carefree good humour. Odd rhythms and jazz inflections, indeed odd touches all round, informed what would otherwise have been straight-ahead pop. Dave Arnold held his guitar high against his chest, and the unconventional playing style contributed to the choppiness of the sound. Thanks to the expressive range of Dave Read’s wonderful, lilting voice, the Claim could be both irrepressibly upbeat and as blue as Miles, though cheerfulness would keep on breaking through.
The Claim tried not to let their lack of acclaim get the better of them. They kept on keeping on, playing shows to a small but devoted following, putting out great singles, but eventually, inevitably, there came a period in the early 90s when it must have felt like the returns were ever-diminishing. And so they called it a day and got on with their lives, until the time was right to regroup and – as they say in football after a defeat – go again.
The freshly remastered Boomy Tella comes with a quartet of extra songs: a Jam-my demo of the later B side, Business Boy; an equally robust rendering of God, Cliffe and Me; a fabulously lively take of live favourite Fallen Hero; and an untitled northern soul stomper that I don’t recall ever hearing. It’s all great, and my appetite is well and truly whetted for the group’s new material, especially having heard a handful of the new songs live. It’s due to appear in album form come May. The title? The New Industrial Ballads. The expectation is that they will be at the very least on a par with the old industrial ballads of Boomy Tella.