Then-current album: Chrome
Opening act: Slowdive
Back of ticket ad: Fox Photo, now and forever. If it was still the summer of 1993.
Maybe my comment about how variable the tickets look really should have applied to this one – I had to hold up close, tilt it and squint before I exactly realized what show it was. I almost half wonder if it always looked like that or if the ink in this batch was just utterly useless. Honestly I’m not exactly sure of the date.
Anyway, shoegazing! Starting to mutate, at least.
Not that Catherine Wheel were ever per se shoegaze, they certainly didn’t identify themselves as that – and then again, barely any band at the time that was tagged with the term did either. I’ve already talked about plenty of bands that came through that either then or even more so later were seen as the first wave, and to an extent that applied to Catherine Wheel…kinda. The trick was – and some of the more thoughtful reviewers captured this at the time, as did the band members themselves whenever they got the chance via interviews – that the group really drew on a lot of different things. Pink Floyd, Neil Young, the Chameleons, the Comsat Angels, Talk Talk (the latter especially due to the first album’s production by Tim Friese-Greene)…it was a much different set of reference points for the most part. Maybe the Kitchens of Distinction were one of the closer ones but they were another case of a band kinda lumped in with something that wasn’t quite them.
I had heard plenty about Catherine Wheel first via Melody Maker, once again, but to my surprise they actually ended up having a radio presence out here in California, helped by the fact that MARS-FM, having challenged KROQ’s dominance for a time, leapt all over “Black Metallic,” which got KROQ onto them as well and then from there it got more involved. I remembered picking up the debut album Ferment on import and thinking it would never get released over here and then lo and behold they actually became something of a breakout star. You can still talk about that song to any number of people and they’ll know it, it’s just one of those things that marked a time and place.
In this case that was also 1992 so a year later, the question was, what next and what now? As mentioned a couple of entries back I had run into their lead singer Rob Dickinson at the Cop Shoot Cop/God Machine show and he had seemed pretty jazzed up – and for good reason: turns out the band’s second album Chrome was even better. You’ll get some people disagreeing on that point but it was actually the album I kept coming back to time and again, much as I liked Ferment; if it felt a bit like a clone of Ferment in points, or an analog, then maybe I just liked Gil Norton’s approach more than Friese-Greene’s in the end, at least with these guys. However summed up it was definitely a big part of 1993 for me, along with Suede’s debut, Verve’s A Storm in Heaven…guitar overdrive, and then overdriven once more.
This was another show where I couldn’t really tell you anything about what led up to it, though – who I was with, what we did beforehand. I half assume it was Jen V. and I and maybe some others, it would make sense, due her connections via friend at Polygram, but I can’t be sure. I do know, though, that I was more than thrilled to learn that Slowdive would be opening. After the eternal jumping through hoops that finally resulted in their playing with Ride the previous year it was once again coming through as an opening act for UK compatriots this time, and if there’s one thing that hits me in typing this up it’s how quickly everything seemed to change. The Ride/Slowdive show of the previous year seemed like another triumphant step forward in something; this show almost felt like a sidestep, or a retrenching, like something else might be in the offing instead but nobody was quite sure yet what.
Alan McGee had decided to come out with Slowdive as well – or if not directly with them, to keep a bit of an eye on things, if only because he had come with another band as well, namely, once again, Ride, or at least Mark Gardener and Andy Bell. Sometime around this show, maybe a few days before or after, McGee, Bell and Gardener ended up on Rodney’s KROQ show and did a few live acoustic songs – I could swear they did a Sonic Youth cover of some sort, “Claustrophobia” I think? Maybe I just fever dreamed that, but they did definitely do their own song “Crown of Creation” which ended up getting released the following year.
None of which, admittedly, has much to do directly with the show in question. It was midsummer, I was once again lazy and just wanted to enjoy myself, and a friend told me that McGee was definitely lurking somewhere at one of the tables when Slowdive took the stage to open the set. I was standing at the center but some layers of people back from the stage, and actually had a good view of everyone. Whatever demi-gothed out look the band had initially had was already starting to mutate into a straightforward sixties revival mode – pretty sure Neil Halstead was already sporting Brian Jones style sunglasses or something close – but musically they were more focused on their own recent album Souvlaki, which was either just about out in the UK or would be out shortly thereafter. Small problem was, though, that it wasn’t out over in the US, and wouldn’t be for some months, no thanks to the SBK label clearly not knowing what the hell they were doing, as had been clearly the case for a while. So while Slowdive happily and sweetly chugged away through “Machine Gun” and “Alison” and also a few earlier songs and I drifted happily through it all, I was hampered by not having heard that new album as well as not being in a position to readily drop a lot of money on the import. At least it wasn’t the last time I caught them but I’ll get to that later – suffice to say this was the least of the three times I saw Slowdive, though maybe it was a great show I wasn’t fully able to enjoy as such.
No question about enjoying Catherine Wheel, though – right from the start I quickly understood why they had been coming back to the US for tour after tour in the previous year, and why the audience was pretty pumped up from the get-go. However soothing and sculpted their albums were, the band were also pretty damn aggressive live, and my overriding memory of the start was Rob Dickinson dressed in a white shirt of some sort getting everyone going with “Half Life,” a song from Chrome that starts sort of calmly, if still with heavy drumming, and that completely cuts loose halfway through into huge feedback and stomp. I was near the front and I was surprised to be there simply because the energy level was barely containable – the complete antithesis to the relaxed feeling throughout the Straitjacket Fits show in the same venue just a few days previous – and when that moment arrived in the performance of the song, it was all heads and arms and cheers and more in the audience for that, lights flashing and Brian Futter’s long curled hair whipping around frenetically under the stage lights as he played. Pure showmanship at least.
After that opening things get murkier for me – a strong show without question, I’m just not all that sure what they played, besides the obvious. So that would have meant “Black Metallic” – they couldn’t have not played it at that point – and a few other choices from Ferment but I have to assume it was mostly Chrome, and what I do remember does come from there. “Show Me Mary,” which ended up predicting the more overtly pop/punk/grunge of sorts Happy Days album two years down the road, definitely was performed; I always thought it was kinda their take on Husker Du, who they’d already covered on a single the previous year, so little surprise it went over well. They definitely did the big “Ursa Major Space Station,” stretched out ending and all, though if they did “Fripp” as well I can’t be sure.
No question that they had to have done “Crank” and “Pain,” my own two favorite songs from the album; if “Pain” really was “Black Metallic” part two to a large extent I also thought it was better, with its cut between melancholic, monstrous overload and solitary singing (and back) all that much more abrupt and moving. Meanwhile, “Crank” just made for a hell of a great lead single from the album and I was annoyed it wasn’t getting as much traction as “Black Metallic” had the previous year; the chorus on “Crank”’s a winner to this day and I more sense than fully remember Dickinson really laying into that one, along with everyone else.
Never did see Catherine Wheel again – but I like to think that was a hell of a high water mark.