"It's punk rock, son."
Formed in Northumberland in 1989, China Drum were a storming punk-pop trio in the tradition of Leatherface and Snuff. Early singles like 'Simple' and the 'Barrier' EP gained the support of John Peel and the music press, and they toured with the likes of Green Day and Ash. But it was live that China Drum really came into their own. Their gigs were frenzied, energetic and incredibly loud, and their covers of 'Wuthering Heights' (which was eventually released as a single, and became something of a signature tune for them), 'Fall At Your Feet', 'Nelly The Elephant' and the theme from 'Rupert The Bear' always sent the moshpit into overdrive. Debut album 'Goosefair' was a little more polished than many expected, but their formula of big riffs, big drums and big melodies remained intact. Follow up 'Self-Made Maniac' disappointed some fans, with their trademark off-kilter harmonies and melodies evident on only a few tracks. Third album 'Diskin' marked a big change of direction, incorporating electronic elements and a change of name to The Drum. Although they continued to be a thrilling live act, the album alienated fans and failed to win them any new ones, and they disbanded in 2000.
A reformation in 2013 saw them rebranded as a five-piece, and reverting to their original name.
Gigging prolifically through 1994/95, Scarfo caught the eye of Fierce Panda records, who released their debut single 'Skinny'. The band then went on to release several singles and their eponymous debut album through Deceptive. Second album 'Luxury Plane Crash' was a step up from their debut, with their angular riffs and Jamie Hince's distinctive vocal style winning them new fans and strong reviews, with 'Alkaline' proving to be arguably their most enduring track.
They continued their prolific touring, and seemed like they could have been on the verge of greater success, when drummer Al Saunders was hit and seriously injured by a car in London. The band broke up shortly thereafter, with Hince going on to release a solo album under the moniker Fiji, then forming The Kills in the 00's, before finding fame of a different sort as Kate Moss' husband.
Had they been American, and emerged a year or two earlier, there's no doubt Derby's Bivouac would have found significantly more success. Their heavy riffs and angsty lyrics had far more in common with the Seattle grunge scene than it did with the nascent Britpop scene that was beginning to emerge over here, and they were taken on tour by legendary American hardcore acts like The Jesus Lizard and Fugazi. Debut album 'Tuber' was a big, brooding album at times, but contained catchy, melodic songs like single 'Bell Foundry' and the acoustic 'Dead End Friend'. Much of the British music press were indifferent but the band signed to DGC for their second album 'Full Size Boy'. The better production afforded by a major label budget served their sound well, and resulted in one of the most underrated alternative rock albums of the era, with the brilliant single 'Monkey Sanctuary' perhaps being their best song.
Alas, as well as better production values, signing with a major like DGC also brought higher commercial expectations, and 'Full Sized Boy' failed to deliver, and the band were abruptly dropped from the label, leading to the inevitable split shortly after.
Like Bivouac, Cable also hailed from Derby, and also owed more to the American underground than to British music. John Peel was a champion of the band, playing their debut album 'Down-Lift The Up-Trodden' in its entirety on his show. Like Scarfo, the band suffered from vehicular misfortune when their tour bus was hit by a drunk-driver. Luckily, the band escaped serious injury, and second album 'When Animals Attack' was arguably their best work. They reached a much wider audience via the unlikely means of a Sprite advert when their track 'Freeze The Atlantic' was used in an ad campaign. The track was subsequently released as a single, backed with the B-side 'The (We Did The Music For The Sprite Ad) Blues', suggesting the means of exposure didn't quite sit right with them.
Album number three 'Sublingual' was again well-received, but a legal dispute around the same time led to their break-up just as the rave reviews were coming out.
Of all the bands listed here, Blameless are perhaps the one who were most suited for more mainstream success. Formed in Sheffield in 1993, Blameless were another band who had more in common with American bands than their British counterparts. Singer Jared Daley's vocal style was often likened to Eddie Vedder, and the band's sound compared to an R.E.M./Pearl Jam hybrid (the Pearl Jam comparisons always annoyed me, as they were one of the few American bands of the time I genuinely hated). Superb debut single 'Town Clowns' had several labels vying for their signature.
Their first, and only, album 'The Signs Are All There' was recorded at the legendary Fort Apache studios by Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, known for their work with The Lemonheads, Uncle Tupelo and Buffalo Tom. The album more than fulfilled their early promise, with tracks like 'Signs' and 'Don't Say You're Sorry' showing the kind of song writing dexterity that had served R.E.M so well. The signs were indeed all there, alas the record-buying public didn't agree, and the album was a commercial flop, despite favourable reviews, and despite the awful Bush, also British, but similarly American sounding, selling albums by the boatload around the same time.
Stand-alone single 'Breathe (A Little Deeper)' was a small hit, and was included on a rerelease of the album. The public remained unmoved, and the band called it a day.
*Since this article was written, Bivouac have reformed, and have a limited-edition single, 'Sweet Heart Deal' out on Reckless Yes records.
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