Yachts may well become your second favorite band from Liverpool.
Yachts seemed to have all it needed for new wave success: a distinct sound fueled by farfisa organ, rich harmonies, clever lyrics and a gift for soaring hooks. But they broke up after just two albums and a handful of singles. Somehow, in the reissue-happy digital era, the group’s 1979 debut (self-titled in the UK but called S.O.S in the States) only made it to CD in Japan, and the even better follow-up Without Radar was never reissued at all. Now that Cherry Red has gathered the band’s complete output on an affordably-priced three-CD set, Yachts may well become your second favorite band from Liverpool.
They emerged from Liverpool Art College, made up of seven students who had given themselves the unfortunate name Albert and the Cod Warriors. Still, that name opened for the Sex Pistols in Liverpool in 1977, albeit with a more clean-cut fashion sense and pop friendly approach than the notorious headliners. Renamed Yachts, they became a quintet, with lead vocalist J.J. Campbell and harmonies contributed by all his bandmates, including guitarist Martin J. Watson, keyboardist Henry Priestman, bassist Martin Dempsey and drummer Bob Bellis.
The debut album starts with a kind of maudlin hilarity that neatly sums up their infectious cheekiness. “Box 202” begins with an airline pilot announcing turbulence up ahead, as if a troubled memory that dogs the agitated Campbell, who launches into a sad tale indeed: he’s urged his girlfriend to take an early plane to come see him, but tragically, the plane crashes. Two years later, he uses a computer dating service in the hopes of finding someone to make him forget: “Is it all in vain?/ I’ll try all the same/ Stop this endless pain.” The sentiment is worthy of Ian Curtis filtered through Douglas Sirk, and the confident musicianship and catchy refrain makes it irresistible to perhaps everyone except radio programmers.
The hooks keep coming: the self-flagellating chorus of “cynical cynical cynical” in “Love You Love You,” the way they get you to hum along to such lyrical mouthfuls as “Tantamount to Bribery” and “Semaphore Love.” The first album ends with “Yachting Type,” the quintessential new wave single that time forgot, starting with an organ figure that sounds like a distress signal filtered through some kind of skinny-tie musical.
The track listings of the UK albums differ significantly from stateside releases. S.O.S, the US version of the debut, for instance, starts with “Yachting Type,” and ends with a live version of “Suffice to Say” that’s more spirited than the single version (which isn’t on the UK album). So it’s like getting to know these albums all over again.
“Consequences” launches Without Radar with more ambition, a farfisa fanfare and power chords supporting more literate lyrics: “I’ve been around the block/ I never learned the art of social graces/ Never thought about the consequences.” Priestman pulls off two keyboard solos in a single track that stand among the best of the synth-pop era—and the album has just started. “Now I’m Spoken For” is the even funnier (and catchier) sequel to “Box 202,” in which the girlfriend that he thought had perished in a fiery crash returns to find the singer with a new woman. Defensively, he pleads, “Don’t you understand my actions/ She could be a clone she’s so like you.” Again, the track listing here is wildly different from the US version, which builds to a crescendo with “Consequences,” the gorgeous chorus of “On the Bridge” and “Revelry.” The album ends on a playful note that will come as a complete surprise to anyone only familiar with the US edition: the strange “Spimosa” is a collage-like track that suggests a more melodic take on the closing passage in “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
But Yachts’ genius didn’t just lie in originals; the centerpiece of their sophomore album was a glorious cover of the 1967 song “There’s a Ghost in My House.” Originally recorded by R. Dean Taylor and later covered by the Fall, of all people, Yachts brilliantly casts its signature farfisa in the role of an eerie, theremin-like timbre that perfectly invokes the song’s haunted love, raised to the heavens by those celestial vocal harmonies—and grounded by a barrelhouse piano solo.
A third disc gathers the album cuts that were previously exclusive to the US releases, as well as singles, B-sides and live tracks. Suffice to Say closes on a garage-punk oddity in their catalog: “Do the Chud,” a 1977 split single credited to the Chuddy Nuddies. It’s a fitting close to a set that documents a band whose humor and pop craft never earned the press it deserved. Devotees of catchy new wave unfamiliar with Yachts will be happy to make their acquaintance; old fans will be thrilled to revisit them.