Snakes And Lovers
And Graphical Discography
(Snakes and Lovers)
Imagine an album on which every track is a fully conceived and superbly executed pop gem, at once timeless and unique, with hooks to die for, gorgeous, chiming guitar breaks, compelling, literate, emotionally charged lyrics, and a passionate and driven vocalist who ties all these distinct elements together into a perfect package, without the slightest trace of gimmickry or trendiness. Now imagine that this record is released with virtually no record label support, is totally ignored by radio and the music press--even the "hip" music press--and subsequently stiffs in the racks, disappearing without a trace. Such is the tragic truth of Interview's self-titled second LP (titled Snakes and Lovers overseas), released in 1980.
The Bath band's 1979 debut, Big Oceans, was a lackluster effort, notable primarily for interesting fretless bass work and some intellectually appealing subject matter, as on "Hart Crane In Mexico," and "Academies To Anger." What an unexpected turn of events then, when the band re-emerged the following year with what is unquestionably one of the greatest rock albums ever. From the opening strains of "Adventurers," with its rhyming guitars sounding the album's arrival, the listener knows that something very special lies ahead. As vocalist Jeff Starrs mounts the chorus, "On a day like today/I can help you be/Tall, brave, and strong," those rousing guitars enter once again, and my God, you believe him.
There is simply no let up in quality on this record. The single "Hide and Seek," with its enchanting chorus and pseudo-"Mr. Sandman" backing vocals has "hit" written all over every note. The record did nothing. The list of sure-fire shouldabeens continues: "It's Over Now," ("How can I comfort you/When you don't want me to?"), the metaphorical "Crossing Borders," and the confusion of lost love of "To the People" all delivered with confidence and maturity, and an uncanny knack for pop hooks, are classic examples of what pop music can become in the right hands.
Elsewhere, we find the gentle piano and soft cushion of synthesized keyboards of "Union Man," utterly resigned in attitude, in which the failure of a workers' uprising is as predictable as the coming of the spring rain. Starrs, and co-writers Alan Brain and Peter Allerhand never glorify, as other, less mature outfits might (U2 come to mind). They merely observe. "The Conqueror" is a scathing attack against female domesticity: "'Let's go get married'/Is that all I hear you say?/There's a conqueror here I have to slay." On an album of masterpieces, this track may be the most masterful of all. The tempo has been slowed, giving Starrs time milk every note of all its energy, as he seethes with anger and inner turmoil.
By album's end, after eight overwhelming minutes of shame and personal wreckage in "Until I Hold Her," ("There's nothing that I can do until I hold her/And you must never tell her that I told you"), a musical equivalent of the destruction scene in Citizen Kane, the listener is exhausted, drained, but still hoping for more. Unfortunately, there is no more. INTERVIEW died as quietly as they arrived, and no one even showed up for the funeral.
Whose fault is it that Interview were never given a chance? Surely, their label, Virgin Records is the primary culprit, making no attempt whatsoever to market the band. The music press too is culpable. While it's expected that corporate beasts like Rolling Stone should ignore them, nary a word was written about the band in either Trouser Press or New York Rocker, the two finest music magazines of that era. (Okay, to be fair, "Hide and Seek" had a nice sentence written about it by Ken Barnes in NYR, and even the folks at Rolling Stone give the album a few words of (misdirected) praise in their otherwise laughable Record Guide.) Certainly, radio, both corporate and college, could have provided INTERVIEW with their most obvious and natural home. It didn't.
It's futile to wallow in such past blunders at this late date, unless, of course, some label decides to pick up the record for release on CD, in which case Interview might, just might, have the chance to finally be recognized for what they were.
SNAKES AND LOVERS lyrics:
One Way Ticket To Happytown
Thirty years is an awfully long time to wait between records. This is especially true when a band breaks up after issuing what is without question one of the greatest albums of all time. But this is just what the chosen few have had to endure after Bath's Interview went silent following their virtually unknown sophomore LP from 1980, Snakes and Lovers (self-titled in the states). Indeed, only those fans with a serious death wish might have attempted to hold their breath for a follow-up, for it never came...until now...sort of.
Alan Brain, one-third of Interview's core writing team (along with Jeff Starrs and Pete Allerhand), has finally found his way back into the recording studio, presenting us with a breezy, lived-in, and unerringly pleasant cache of songs that he characterizes as "intelligent pop for grown-ups"; not Adult Oriented Rock, mind you, but rather a record that, while making both plaintive and playful references to the sounds and feelings of his youth, nonetheless presents them from a decidedly mature, mild-mannered, and (it must be said) middle-aged vantage point.
Having moved to Vancouver from Bath several decades ago, Brain has had ample opportunity to explore the lower forty-eight in some detail. Clearly, he likes what he sees, as several songs herein sing the praises of America's remarkable natural beauty. "California" relates an easy drive down that state's Highway One that is more Curt Boettcher than Brian Wilson; the derivatively-titled "God Bless America" (an anti-war song) overtly references Interview's "The Conqueror" in its slow, swaying mood; "When The Mississippi Calls", though presented as a playful country stomp, nonetheless laments Katrina's awful wrath.
Always relegated to background vocal status to Interview lead-singer Jeff Starrs' dramatic and intense nasal rasp, herein we are finally treated to the sheer pleasantness of Brain's voice. Its easy-going nature may be as much a result of his life's passage into middle age as anything else, but still, it's not every 50-plusser who can readily break into a compelling falsetto, as Brain does on the haunting "I Still Love You So".
"Two Weeks Every Year" is a major highlight; a delightful reminiscence of childhood caravan holidays through the southern English countryside, filled with ice cream ("with a squirt of stuff"), fish and chips, playful pranks, and perhaps pop music's only mention of a cenotaph. Brain even dusts off his English accent for this one. Lovely.
Alan Brain may or may not look kindly upon this review's several references to Interview; only he knows how many lifetimes ago that was. But for old fans, the comparison is inevitable. One Way Ticket to Happytown is not Interview Part 2, but nor was it intended to be. Taken on solely its own terms though (and no doubt just as Brain intends), the record is just fine. Recommended.
Birmingham / New Hearts in Action
You Didn't Have to Lie to Me / That Kind of Boy
You Didn't Have to Lie to Me
Here Come the Cavalry
Feet Start Walking
Academies to Anger
Blow Wind from Alesund
St. Jean Wires
Hart Crane in Mexico
To the People / Hart Crane in Mexico
Snakes and Lovers
Hide and Seek
It's Over Now
To the People
Style on Seaview
I Hope it's Me
Unitl I Hold Her
Hope it's Me
Hide and Seek
It's Over Now
To the People
Style on Seaview
Until I Hold Her
Hide and Seek / Yes Man
Last Session. November 1980. Sound Conception. Bristol.
01 The Delicate Prey
02 It's An Order
03 Ghost Of Myself
04 Treading Water
05 Stay Where You Want
06 The Right Word
07 Redder Than Red
08 In The Upshot
09 Not Meant To Stop
10 Pages From Her
11 Mother Of Love
12 You Didn't Have to Lie To Me
13 That Kind Of Boy
First Session. December 4, 1977.
15 Hart Crane In Mexico
16 New Hearts In Action
18 Love Fallout
19 It Must Be Lightning
N.B. this interview was conducted over the internet during the fall of 1997. I've edited out all my questions, leaving only Jeff's words -d.s.
Around the middle/late 70's I was playing a regular date in a Bath coffee bar, doing an acoustic set with various friends (one included Billy Currie before Ultravox fame on violin & piano).
Alan & Pete came to see me one night and asked if I'd like to create a group with them. None of us were from Bath, but then Bath's renowned for being very hard to get out of! (By the way, we did know Andy Davis and James Warren (Korgis) but they were very serious and we didn't hang out with them!). Manny was stolen from a local heavy metal group and we finally settled for a non-musician on bass, showing him where to place his fingers!
We put together a set that included originals and soul stuff, like Mel & Tim's 'Backfield In Motion', James Brown, Doris Duke etc, to fill and started playing local bars. The originals came pretty quickly as both Pete & Alan were good guitarists and came at my poor acoustic dabblings from both sides. It was they that gave the 'pop' feel to the songs. I think, left alone, I would've come up with some much more inaccessible and darker material! It was great to be totally free with the lyrics, though. We soon had a following, ran off a demo and hit the London record companies, inviting them to a special gig we'd arranged in Bath. Virgin turned up and it was a good night with a good support group, Gardez Darkz, film (Owl Creek) and even Peter Gabriel turned up to sing 'Solisbury Hill' with us! (He lived nearby). Peter also gave us legal advice when Virgin asked us to sign and, because of his experience, and his own lawyer, it took us nearly a year to work out a contract with them, much to Mr. Branson's disgust! However, we went straight into the studio to record Big Oceans, Colin Thurston was assigned. Virgin left us pretty much to it.
Big Oceans was put down quickly in the traditional manner, bass & drums first, after which Pete, Alan and I set to work on the guitars and vocals. As it was the first time for us, a long stint in the studio tends to get you wound up and longing, after a while, to get out and breathe. After a few days, having got most of it right, we took a couple of days break, intending to return for the mix. Whilst out, Manny and Phil Crowther, the bassist, went in and mixed, with Colin Thurston which is why you'll notice the unusually high output volume on the...bass & drums!
Big Oceans was really a 'first' album, one on which we learned quite a few lessons, like the necessity of having a 'firm' producer, staying with the project through to the end, and having songs that should be complementary to the whole. We did try out a version of Shipyards with Peter Gabriel producing, down at his place in Bath - it ended up very...Peter Gabrielish and, although we loved working with him and the results, Virgin felt he'd stamped too much of himself onto the recording.
One time with Interview, after the first album, we played a date in a beer cellar in Wales. I was feeling good and was pretty full of myself, singing away up there on stage, maybe not 7th heaven but almost 6th, when I look down in front of the stage to see a young amazon-type punk with green hair, head supported by her arm resting on the stage, about 4 feet away, looking up at me with a bored expression and mouthing, very slowly and comprehensibly - "F..U..C..K....O..F..F". A wonderful lesson in humility!
In between albums we changed bass players, having found Alfie Agius who'd been working with Julian Cope and Teardrop Explodes. This time we decided, along with Virgin, to use Mick Glossop, who'd produced Zappa & Van Morrison, eclectic enough. The Virgin Manor Studios were discarded as the go-carts & pool tables proved to be more attractive than the idea of spending time recording so we settled for the Town House - no distractions!
Mick Glossop was great, very open, loads of ideas and encouraging experiments with arrangements. Pete Allerhand had also been playing around with keyboards, piano etc and Pete Wingfield, a superb English keyboard session man, came to help out.
We were still somewhat pressurized by Virgin, to stay in the 'FM' mode and come up some single material which, in my opinion, prevented us from really being adventurous with the album - songs like Hide & Seek and To The People, very poppy stuff, seemed to stop the flow of material like Adventurers, Union Men and Style on Seaview.
Singles are weird things - in one sense, it's a craft, an art as hard as short story writing is to the novel...but it's also directly linked to the commercial side...the idea is to create something that will sell. You can put all the ingredients into a 'putor but it won't necessarily make a single. I always felt trapped in that process, as if trying to feed that ol' putor! (I loved Motown, however, grew up with it and loved the way they could make singles, combining emotion, dance etc...). Because I couldn't stand that process I always tried to put an edge into the material - like 'Hide & Seek', about a guy who wonder's whether or not he's killed all his girlfriends! Pete Allerhand came up with all the guitar riffs..he really was an exceptionally gifted guitarist but was at his best working in a team and within a tight framework. It was also Pete who arranged the vocals parts being a 'Pet Sounds' freak! It was great for me to have to conform to the harmonies, a wonderful discipline. The album itself, with it's harmonies, arrangements, keyboards, etc was rather ambitious and maybe does suffer from a muffled sound. Probably Mick Glossop worked before more as engineer to Zappa and Van Morrison, I suspect, and had his work cut out, as producer in the strictest terms, with us novices but I don't think it got too out of hand!
It's weird to go back over the lyrics after such a time. You know, sometimes it seems they were written by someone else! I mean, I look back and say to myself, 'what the hell do you mean and where were you at?!'
Adventurers is an optimistic song which praises the ability of 'Gaia' to regenerate despite man's stupidity - 'when sullen eyes stare cross military seas and companies vie for her(Thatcher!) favour, and a lullaby means put the child to sleep and let the earth move in her labour. On and on..patience is her way...on and on ..this is what she'll (gaia) say: On a day like today etc.' If we listen to gaia she can help us become the 'hero', become some crazy saint running down some dark street on a mission, 'tall, brave and strong'.
The lyrics to 'I Hope It's Me' concern a period of my life, round '75, when I went over for the first time to France, to try and build a life there, up in the mountains around a place called St.Chinian. I took my daughter over, who was five at the time - my wife stayed in England whilst I got things together. I stayed 9 months during which time my wife had an affair with another guy, finally came over and things were so mixed up, the wild life-style so disorientating, that everything fell apart...The lyrics try to reflect the bitterness of not having given that life-style a chance - "You can get on the train from here, I'll scramble down the scree - one of us has to get there first and I hope to God that it's me tonight..." "Louis" (the songs' first word) for instance, was the old peasant guy that drove my wife & daughter back down, away to the station. There are some things that song writing allows you to exorcise!
Crossing Borders could be about a conscientious objector in a dialogue with his girlfriend - 'and your breaking your heart's orders, always crossing borders'. The subject matter is inspired from a Tim Buckley song - 'And I Know I would Recognise Your Face' in which he duets with a 'chanteuse', he plays the role of a conscientious objecter. Crossing Borders is about this:' you ask me where's the crime? I say it's in the Law'. It was also written because my ex-wife would always find some reason why we had to move on to another place, another life style! We did a version in the studio once with some singer called Holly doing duet...real country! It sounded great - Grand Ol' Oprey stuff!
Union Men is simply a song about syndicate people being gunned down somewhere, maybe South America, could be anywhere, and their families hiding in hallways 'whispering stop it, stop it, stop it.' Pete wrote the piano part and we added a sampling of rain at the end to make it even more sombre!
To the People: I have a job remembering the words of this one, meant as a single...I guess it's because I don't really like it, so I'll skip it - I find it hollow.
The Gift: Strange one this. I think it's about trying to 'cheer up' some friend or lover by magically creating a series of fantasies - 'Switch on the light!' The narrator conjures up miniture volcanoes, a ballerina dressed in white....'Don't be blue babe, John Wayne never apologised, so how about you?' and ' Now don't you say, this is not your place, I have made it work and there is so much more to do and anyway what's worse is seeing the look on your face, if the first of my people don't get you, on a golden day like this has been...' I like the lyrics and the way they're phrased here. Pete arranged the harmonies at the end trying to do a Brian Wilson *lol*.
The Conqueror: This one I like. The Conqueror is a symbol for all that motivates the HERO -'the engine's so sweet, burning up the fields in the valley and turning on his charms for the people that he meets.' Kinda Steinbeck style! How does the independant hero, full of energy, take being 'tied down in' marriage? 'There's a Conqueror here I have to slay'. I guess it's very much a man's song without wishing to be chauvinist!
'Style on Seaview'(one of my favourites, because it combines a kind of lullaby with violent imagery) is about a hypothetical adolescent vegetating in some coastal (US/UK?)town called Seaview, who wishes that something would happen to shake up the hollow life there. He wishes the people had style, "hunted Marlin, wrote for the press, wore strange clothes, or messed up your nation...but in Seaview, everybody's dressed." In the end he imagines the inhabitants transforming into zombies (Night of the Living Dead) who 'fed off the flesh of fugitives hiding..and in Seaview, I really think we can..." A story of everyday, latent psychosis!
Until I Hold Her: Your description of the 'Orson Wells' song is very true although it's probably closer to John Houston's 'Under The Volcano' film from the Malcolm Lowry novel. Our A&R man, Arnold Frollows passed me the book which I think is my favourite all time novel (with 'The Magic Mountain' by Thomas Mann). It takes place on the Day of the Dead, Mexico maybe...there's a sax player in the song, 'candles help keep out the dark' but 'I'm white and I'm shameful and I'm all tied up...and there's nothing that I can do until I hold her. And you must never tell her that I told you...' I love Pete's solo in the middle.
Soon after it's release we did support dates in the UK with the Pretenders and Peter Gabriel whilst Virgin closely watched the sales graphs in the US climb. At one point, it seemed inevitable that we should go over and promote but Virgin would always say 'wait and see if the graph keeps going up'! Of course, after a while, it went down and a tour was decided against...
Contractually, we were down for another album but now Virgin's interest was taken up with up-coming groups who'd more exposure, like Magazine...punk was at it's height and the flurry of Virgin signings at the end of the seventies had to pay off somewhere before they invested more money in Interview.
Our A&R man, Arnold Frollows, who still had alot of faith in us, got us in the studio to put down some ideas for a third album...during which time Virgin had cut off our money. There was not really enough time to make any coherence out of the material recorded and disillusion entered the Interview ranks. I was so cut-up by the business wrangles being more important than creating music that I decided to up & out...there was no more fun in what we were doing and...another band bit the dust!
By the way, Manny, the drummer, went on to do some stuff with Gabriel and the last I heard, he'd gone over to the states to do a tour with...Dolly Parton! I haven't heard from the others since...and, as I think I told you, I'm having a lot of fun here with my new group, Slack - guitar(me), bass & drums...and I don't think we'll be signing up to Virgin!
After the business hassles with Virgin, I was disgusted with playing music for many years, until arriving in France where I put together a little group called N-Joy, which was purely founded on a pleasure basis. The music was different, 'psycho-primitive'(!) with a couple of non-musicians. We played together for three years doing mainly 'hippy' concerts in the Pyrenees mountains!
Now, in Toulouse, I have another group, Slack, again, just for pleasure, with a great rhythm section and I'm once again having fun singing and playing guitar without business stresses.