It’s late 1990 and yours truly is in the sixth form in Northwich, Cheshire, the hometown of Tim Burgess. The Charlatans’ debut album, “Some Friendly”, had shot to number one a few weeks before, and on that occasion some fellow students had cajoled me into going along to their manager Steve Harrison’s record shop, Omega Music, in the town centre for a celebratory beverage. To be honest at that time I’d barely heard of the Charlatans, but the idea of a glass or two of champagne on my dinner hour was too good to turn down.
Until I started the sixth form, my musical taste was, looking back now, pretty crap to be honest. I’m sure we all liked bands/artists back then who we cringe about now, but really I’d just fallen in line with the well-worn treadmill of Smash Hits readers and Radio 1 listeners of my generation, and had a wall full of posters of Stock/Aitken/Waterman artistes and a record box mainly full of Erasure, late 80s Now albums and novelty singles. Spike Island was about 30 minutes’ walk from my mum and dad’s, but I didn’t even find out about the legendary Roses gig until months later. There hadn’t been any sort of music scene in my secondary school and the whole thing had completely passed me by.
So having partaken of The Charlatans’ celebratory bubbly, I felt the least I could do was give their album a listen. I asked one of the lads I’d gone along with to do me a copy – flagrantly disregarding the dire warnings about home taping killing music – and I really liked what I heard. I realise that many of you reading this will probably find it hard to believe that someone’s musical experience was so limited that the first Charlatans album felt groundbreaking, but there we are! I loved the drumbeats, the fantastic keyboard and the winsome vocals (although even now I’ve no idea what some of the lyrics are). This is the way forward, I thought – I’ve got to get hold of some more stuff like this.
“Hang on a minute”, I hear you say, “I thought this was about Inspiral Carpets?” Well I’ll move on a couple of months to February 1991, and the sixth form German class is off for a week in a youth hostel in Heidelberg. I took along a little cassette player and a few tapes, the Charlatans one and I can’t remember which others. I told a couple of lads I’d be taking my player and asked them to bring some tapes with them. One lad brought 2 tapes – The Stone Roses’ classic, and the Inspirals’ debut album “Life”. I’d already recently heard the Roses album and was a huge fan, but the Inspirals were completely new to me at this point – I’m not even sure if I’d heard the name before.
Anyway, the tape duly went on and for the first 30 seconds or so I remember thinking “what the hell’s this?” If you know the album, you’ll know I’m referring to the slightly pyschedelic synth/brass intro to “Real Thing”. Then…. BOOM… a crash of guitars, drums and keyboards – I’d genuinely never heard anything like it. The Charlatans had their Hammond – they utilised it extremely well but it was a well-known sound. However, the Inspirals’ Farfisa (I found this out years later) was something else altogether. I was hooked straight away and although there wasn’t, and isn’t, a poor track on it, I was particularly struck by “Song for a Family”, “This Is How It Feels”. “Directing Traffik” and “She Comes in the Fall”.
As soon as I got back from Germany, I went to our local library and borrowed a vinyl copy of “Life”. (Only 25 years later and this already sounds as anachronistic as having my way lit for sixpence by a street urchin). I taped a copy and played it constantly on the hour-long bus journey to and from college, learning every word, note and beat. Before long one of the lads said to me “you know they’ve done loads of other stuff don’t you?” Needless to say I had no idea, and before long he did me a tape containing loads of pre-Life and non-album tracks and B-sides such as “Joe”, “Find Out Why”, “Commercial Rain” and the “Island Head” EP. Some of these remain my all-time favourite songs to this day.
Having just discovered this amazing band, you can imagine my delight when their second album “The Beast Inside” was released just a few weeks later in April 1991. Somewhat darker lyrically and musically than its fast-paced garage-orientated predecessor, tracks such as “Born Yesterday”, “Grip”, “Mermaid” and the brooding 13-minute epic “Further Away” were right up there with anything I had heard so far.
By this time, I was picking up stuff by other bands who were being grouped together under the burgeoning Madchester umbrella – Happy Mondays, Northside, non-album Roses stuff, etc. But the Inspirals remained my first love, and in February 1992 myself and a mate went to see them at what was my first ever gig, at the Royal Court in Liverpool. To say I was excited was a massive understatement and I remember getting there well before the doors opened. The support bands that night were Airhead and The Frank & Walters – they were both superb and I went looking for their stuff as a result. But the Inspirals were absolutely magnificent – everything I’d hoped for and much more. They played pretty much everything I’d been wanting to hear, plus a few tasters from their forthcoming album “Revenge of the Goldfish”.
That album came along in late 1992, a couple of weeks after I started university, and a friend from home sent me a taped copy. Again this was played constantly for weeks and weeks, standout tracks including “Dragging Me Down”, “Here Comes the Flood” and “Bitches Brew”. Towards the end of my second year they released their 4th studio album, “Devil Hopping”. By now I was working weekends and didn’t have to rely on friends sending me cassettes, so I headed down to Our Price in Bangor and picked up the CD on release day.
Unlike nowadays, when you can hear most, if not all, of an album online long before its physical release, back then the first play of an album was a trip into the unknown. The opening track, “I Want You” (it’s the Mark E Smith-less version on the album) was nothing like anything of theirs I’d heard before – a frenetic, ballsy 3-minute thrash – although the remainder of the album generally landed in more familiar territory. The mighty “Saturn 5”, complete with video filmed at NASA, is in my view the apex of their singles releases – there are a few B-sides which eclipse it for me but this was certainly the most radio-friendly (even though the atypical “I Want You” managed to beat it by two places in the charts).
And, with that, they were gone. I guess inevitably they ended up on the familar path of a band who, despite steadily releasing material and having a sizeable hardcore following of devotees, had fallen from the popular radar. “Devil Hopping”, despite being an excellent album, presumably didn’t shift enough copies to satisfy the record label, Mute, who duly dropped them in 1995.
Fast forward to early 2003 now and my good friend Debbie casually asked whether I’d seen that the Inspirals were reforming for some gigs. This was something of a JFK moment for me – even now I remember exactly where I was when this exchange occurred. Well that was it – I dropped what I was doing and got straight onto the internet, and was delighted (not to mention relieved) to see there were still tickets available. I snapped one up for Sheffield (my local venue) and Manchester (where I could go with a mate who lived locally).
Considering that, until a few weeks previously, I never thought I’d see my all-time favourite band live again, these were emotional experiences for me. The gigs were triumphant – an absolutely storming greatest hits set played on both occasions. The tour also coincided with the release of the magnificent “Cool As/Rare As” box set, which brought together most of their early work, all the singles and most of the B-sides. Pleasingly they have continued to tour on and off ever since, with not even the well-publicised “did he jump or was he pushed?” departure of Tom Hingley and subsequent incoming of original singer Stephen Holt knocking them out of their stride.
Indeed, they seem to have gone from strength to strength since Holt’s return, releasing their first new material in 20-odd years, culminating in their eponymous 5th studio album in 2014. This is a simply sublime return to form, with several standout tracks, top of the file being “Spitfire” which sits comfortably in the pantheon of their very greatest work. I had the good fortune to see them headlining the Friday night of the Shiiine On festival at Butlins in Minehead last November – a simply magical performance and certainly in the top 5 of the dozens of gigs I’ve been to since they started the ball rolling for me back in 1992.
I’m not going to sit here and say that the Inspirals’ music “spoke” to me, or that they changed my life, or anything similarly soul-searching and profound. It’s more a case that they were simply the first band I really “got into”, hunting down all their releases and every snippet of reviews, press cuttings etc to line my university room walls. Over the years a number of bands have slipped in and out of my all-time top 5, but nobody has ever really been close to dislodging Inspiral Carpets from the number one spot. They say you always remember your first love. Well, the Inspirals are mine, and for me they are unforgettable.
My Inspiral Carpets Top 10 tracks (I could easily do a Top 50!)
1) “Lost in Space Again”
2) “St Kilda”
3) “Greek Wedding Song”
4) “Saturn 5”
6) “Keep the Circle Around” (Peel Session)
7) “Dragging Me Down”
8) “Theme from Cow”
10) “Commercial Rain”