Perfect Pop #3: Haircut One Hundred - Pelican West
It's hard, I know, to get past the name. It just invites derision. Even when I bought the album for a few quid in my teenage years, I felt a bit weird picking up something by Haircut One Hundred. I mean, really - what kind of name is that for a band?
Before the music, some context. In the mid 90s, I was pretty much disinterested in whatever was in the top 40, even though it was supposed to be some kind of golden age for rock, indie, whatever. Oasis were top of the heap, but their plodding dad-rock just reminded me of the grey surroundings of Northern England. Blur seemed interesting, but Damon Albarn was still making a complete idiot of himself by pretending to be some Cockney wideboy. I had discovered Joy Division and The Smiths, both of whom rocked my world, but I needed something to escape to. So, I looked back. ABC and Duran Duran offered a more glamourous counterpoint: I sure as hell didn't know any girls named Rio in Cumbria (and I'm positive she wouldn't have wanted to dance on the sand at St. Bees), but she certainly sounded the kind I'd like to meet.
Haircut One Hundred were part of that. I'd seen their video for Fantastic Day on VH-1: a group of good looking young men in the kind of jumpers your Nan would knit for you, but the image worked and the song was ace. Which leads me to the album Pelican West, another ridiculous title but a superb album that stands as a peak of the "New Pop" sound that followed on from the post-punk experiments of the late 70s. And unlike most of post-punk, this was music you could dance to. Sort of. Well, I was never much of a mover, but even I shuffled around my bedroom to this.
In the past, Edwyn Collins has stated Haircut One Hundred nicked a lot of their image ideas from Orange Juice, and indeed the group share similarities in sound, both having sharp, clipped rhythm guitars and funky bass that recall the genius Rogers/Edwards combo from Chic. However, what Haircut One Hundred had that ensured they scored a series of big hits and a hugely successful album through 1982 (while Collins' crew had a single top 40 hit and an album that sank without trace) was Nick Heyward.
Fresh faced and youthful, he easily appealed to the pop masses where Collins did not. Backing him were old schoolfriends Graham Jones and Les Nemes on guitar and bass. Nemes especially knew his way round a funk line, helped in no small part when they recruited Blair Cunningham on drums. From a family of drummers, he was skilled enough behind the kit that he would later play with The Pretenders and Paul McCartney. Rounding off the line-up were percussionist Mark Fox, sax player Phil Smith and producer Bob Sargeant, who had worked with the Beat on all their excellent early 80s albums.
Throughout, the band provide great backing to the, at times, odd songs: while the meaning behind songs titled Lemon Firebrigade, Milk Film and Kingsize (You're My Little Steam Whistle) may not merit in-depth investigation, it shows that Heyward wasn't prone to playing to his teen-pop image too much - a subject that would cause problems down the line. Mind, if I read one more time that Love Plus One was about the Falklands War (I assume Heyward said this while bored during one interview), I may well track down the writer and slap them across the chops with a wet flannel - the song hit the top 10 in March; the war started in April. I'm assuming Mr. Heyward wasn't a keen student of Anglo-Argentinean political relations, here.
The funk excursions of the first side pretty much give way to more pop tones in the second, starting with the aforementioned Fantastic Day - which may well have one of my favourite choruses from any song in my collection. It's matched by the sublime Snow Girl and Surprise Me Again, both of which have the "hit" quality of the singles pulled from the album.
After Pelican West was released, the band were the hot outfit of 1982. The album and Love Plus One both cracked the top 40 in the US and all seemed set for further success. A non-album track Nobody's Fool also went top 10 in September, but two months later Heyward had quit. Without him, the band attempted to continue with Mark Fox up front to no avail. Their one-time leader initially enjoyed a series of fair-sized hits before losing momentum as the mid 80s drifted along. Carrying on regardless, he enjoyed a decent US Modern Rock hit with Kite and even got an album out on Creation Records, with his positive creative notices usually not being met with interest by the public.
More recently, the band have reformed to perform Pelican West, with previous wounds seemingly healed, and I'm glad to hear it. I'd go if they rocked up in Manchester. This is an album that is both quaintly of it's time (you wouldn't get away with those cardies or saxes these days) but timeless (no synths or drum machines). I stand by what I thought when I was 16 - this is quite wonderful pop music.16 August, 2011 - 21:52 — D.C. Harrison