1989(ish) to 1995: Working up to Workshy
Animals That Swim started with two brothers, a guitar and a drumkit. Hugh Barker and Hank Starrs (it's a real surname, just not his given one) started writing songs together in the late 1980s. Their style was literary, angular, sometimes plain weird, but informed by a sense of place and a certain poetic vision. Things started to come together properly when they recruited  bassist Del Crabtree. The trio played in small bars, Hank drumming with a bicycle wheel spinning above his head. Folk didn't get it. They started to get it a little more when Del swapped bass for trumpet and the band started to rein in their more bizarre tendencies. Hank and Hugh's brother Al came in on rhythm guitar and Dave Harris played bass for a while.

At last the band were getting places. A self-financed single in 1992, "King Beer", got positive press and sold out. A boozy, woozy waltz, it set out ATS' stall with a bit of self-deprecation (as the narrator's poetic vision is rebuffed and undercut with "didn't you get that from some old hippy song?") and an understatedly anthemic quality. A second single, "Roy", really produced a buzz, with "Single Of The Week" status from the inkies. Its odd tale of a chance meeting with Roy Orbison simultaneously paid tribute to one of the band's heroes and demonstrated the group's agreeably off-kilter musical outlook. The B-side, "Weary Mind" was apparently the group's attempt to write a Roy Orbison-style song and contained the great lyric "You know I'd dig you / from your grave / But I don't just want some weird shrine". You had to smile at lines like that.

Harris went back to New Zealand and Lenie Mets played bass for a while. Che Trading put out "50 Dresses" in the summer of 1993. Like "King Beer" before it, it was a slow waltz and a shaggy dog story of sorts. Like "Roy" it lamented underappreciated talent. And like both, the music press lapped it up. A 10" single on an obscure indie label was never going to be a hit, but for those in the know it was a gem. The four-song EP also included the raucous "Chapel Market", impressionistic "Holloway Aviator" and spiky "Oregon State Fair" (the latter notable for its put-down of jugglers - "oh god I hate them!").  Bouyed up by the critical acclaim, the group set about recording a debut LP. Lenie Mets went back to Mambo Taxi and Anthony Coote stepped in on bass.

The album was preceded by a single, again paying tribute to an artistic influence. "Madame Yevonde" proclaimed "let's have a riot of colour" , articulating the attitude of both the photographer and ATS themselves. They sounded like they were having fun, and wanted us all to join in. Hurrah! It was perhaps their most "mainstream" effort yet (and their first release on shiny CD after three vinyl-only efforts), but then again, how many mainstream bands sing about feminist photographers of the 1930s? Just them and... no, just them. B-sides were the acoustic "May" and another ode to defiant individuality "Me and Captain America" ("I never wanted to be anyone else / That's why everyone hates me!").

The album "Workshy" did not disappoint. With an effective mixture of slice-of-life ("Smooth Steps") and pure fantasy ("St Francis"), light ("Vic") and dark ("Susie's Friends"), "Workshy" showed the group's abilities to the full. The band's ability to make something wonderful out of the minutiae of everyday life was showcased on "Smooth Steps" (literally a song about some smooth steps) and "Silent Film", while one of the band's (well, probably Hank's actually) favourite tricks - a deliberate lyrical anticlimax that just leaves characters going about their daily business - was used to great effect in "How To Make A Chandelier" (narrator thinks of making a chandelier from broken glass, but buys some oranges instead - hardly the stuff of epics, is it?) and "Barney". A new, improved version of "King Beer" was included alongside old favourites "Roy" and "Madame Yevonde". The synth-and-trumpet instrumental interludes ("Action at Tesco's" and "Chip Paper Dreams") were strictly throwaway, but as they were only 23 seconds apiece it didn't matter. The album finished with a setting of Charles Bukowski's poem "Sway With Me", the sleeve featured Hank adorned with flowers in imitation of Madame Yevonde's goddesses, the lyrics were hand-written and illustrated with little drawings, and as usual the press loved it (one critic called Hank a "genius poet", an epithet he particularly enjoyed) and the public ignored it.

One of the most distinctive features of ATS' songs was that they were teeming with life. True-to-life characters were deftly sketched in a line or two: Susie and her friends, the bickering couple in "Silent Film" ("I don't want to hit you again, I already hurt my hand"), and especially the people  on a hospital trauma ward in "Pink Carnations". A re-recorded version of "Pink Carnations", arguably their most accomplished song to date, was released a few months after the LP. To my mind, the re-recorded, sanitised version is inferior to the original, but the band seem to prefer it, even putting it on their "Best Of". The single rose to the heights of number 199 in the charts, even though with five tracks (including two absolute classic ATS numbers which were really too good to be thrown away as B-sides, "New Boots" and "Harry Dean") it wasn't actually eligible. Another intriguing new track, "East St. O'Neill" turned up on a "Volume" compilation CD at around the same time, in a much more pared-down version than would eventually feature on their second LP. ATS spent the summer playing the festivals and then settled down to recording a follow-up.

It must have been around this time that I fell in love with Animals That Swim, after seeing them playing live at the Charlotte in Leicester. I remember that their entrance tape was a radio advertisement for tailored suits. I wish I could recall more about the actual set, though I do distinctly recall them playing "Vic", "Madame Yevonde", "Pink Carnations" and "A Good Xmas", with Del leaping off the stage to mingle with the audience (which I'm pretty sure numbered less than 20, and even in an intimate venue like the back-room of the Charlotte, that didn't really make for much mingling). For "Sway With Me", Hugh took the mike while Hank wandered off backstage. He returned afterwards to announce "You'll never guess whatI found back there... Narnia!". He probably did this gag at every venue, of course...

Although there was nearly two years between the first two albums, the timing of the singles narrowed the gap between releases to under a year. The first taster for he new LP was "The Greenhouse". It was another rambling story which began with a greenhouse full of marijuana and ended with half a dozen geordies consuming the entire wine store of a Sicilian village. Now that's different! In retrospect the song has come to be regarded as one of ATS's lesser efforts with the vaguely generic indie-funk backing not really playing to the band's strengths despite a typically spirited flourish of brass from the ever-dependable Del Crabtree. As it turned out, this single version had been slightly altered from the definitive version issued on the LP a few months later, one instance of the "F" word having been removed - obviously a neccessity for radio play, and oddly enough the shortening of one line actually sounded quite good, with the meter of the lyric now not quite matching the instrumental line beneath and giving a nicely quirky feel to it. One other edit was less explicable, as the word "marijuana" was cut. It seems you can call it hemp, pot, grass, weed... anything but marijuana! Allow me to also mention the fine "grassed him up" pun. It really has to be heard in context, mind.

Second single from the second album was "Faded Glamour", perhaps the definitive Animals That Swim song, a perfect three minutes of nostalgia, yearning and resignation, with the references to dressing up harking back to "Madame Yevonde" and some beautifully-observed detail ("the shop down at the end that sells unlabelled tin cans") tinged with a definite, but not overwhelming, sadness. I half-expect one of them to pipe up and say that I've got this all wrong, but seems to me that the major difference between Hank and Hugh's lyrics (apart from Hank not really doing choruses) is that Hank's tend to be basically optimistic, while Hugh's are basically resigned. (Another way you could look at it is magic realism as against plain realism.) This one was Hugh's, but it's got a good balance in it, I think. It certainly got a lot of good reviews and is unquestionably one of the band's career highs. Interestingly the b-sides, by accident or design, seemed very close thematically, "Summer Season" relocating to the seaside but situated very much in the same mood as the A-side (despite a jarring stop-start guitar arrangement), and "Get It Together", a rather ill-suited foray into glam rock, rescued by a great opening and some typically English, typically Animals That Swim throwaway lines ("we were pretending to be religious freaks"). It was a great package and augured well for the album.

To be continued...

Faded Glamour 2CD
I Was the King

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