These two Mancunians pursued a vision as dark as the Fall’s but one that indulged in a chemically addled, drugged evocation of music.
The Fall, under the irascible Mark E. Smith, (in)famously churned through everyone else who played along that singer-songwriter over the band’s 40-plus-year career. Among the earliest to have been pushed out (or who chose to jump), Martin Bramah and Una Baines left by the end of the ‘70s. Forming the Blue Orchids in 1979, these two Mancunians pursued a vision as dark as the Fall’s but one that indulged in a chemically addled drugged evocation of music at the start of that decade, laden with lysergic lethargy.
No wonder the Orchids opened for Nico a year later. Their archly titled debut LP The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) earned plaudits for its take on what, at today’s distance, resembles the feverish density of the Teardrop Explodes, with the standard guitar-bass-drums ensemble overwhelmed by keyboards—and self-consciously dramatically spoken or chanted vocals. While neither Bramah nor Baines matched Julian Cope for eccentric theatricality, they shared with their near-neighbor across the Pennines a love for a sound where the organ washed over the rock lineup, adding a woozy sensation.
A fine EP followed in 1982, Agents of Change, but the band then entered the seemingly inevitable fate shared by the Fall. Lots of personnel shifts, with collaborations between ex-members of the Fall too. Orchids’ ‘90s incarnation must have rankled at, or perhaps been tickled by, the Madchester trend capitalizing on their groovy, warbled, unsteady combination of wobbly vocals over that organ cranked up at “11.”
Compilations of the band revived interest; Bramah fronted various versions of the Orchids over the next two decades. From 2012 on, whomever they are now (the liner notes do not tell), they have issued both new albums and collections of older material. Given that they two years ago covered Atomic Rooster, the turn back to the proto-prog and hard rock of that era, as the Summer of Love faded and the post-‘60s lurch towards metal and acid took many from the blues into blacker territory, their 2019 release may have been presaged. For The Magical Record of the Blue Orchids covers that era’s ilk.
Nothing on this record jumps out as recognizably as, say, the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar,” which Blue Orchids made into a Velvet Underground-like dirge in 2004. As publicity material remains scant as to who did what originally, this review must repeat the few facts extant. Opening with the cocky attitude of the Growlers’ “Pavement and the Boot,” that great name lives up to the tune: it swaggers and swirls.
As the blurb teases: “Few casual aficionados of rock music will know more than a song or two from this set—the likes of the Penny Saints and the Aardvarks and their kin not exactly being household names.” Apparently, the seven acts from the ‘60s that are here covered did not last beyond a few singles. “I’m a Living Sickness” and “Painted Air” conjure up the malaise beneath the energy of the psychedelic high. “I’m Higher Than I’m Down” may counter that, and as with “Meditation,” “Optical Sound,” “Don’t Sell Your Mind” and “The Third Eye,” the sulky tone does not deviate much at all from the sullen mid-tempo Orchids approach. Those names too tell you what you will expect when listening to these tracks.
Unlike the Righteous Harmony Fist (the group has a knack for phrasing) album from last year, from which the Magical Record appears also to have emerged, the Blue Orchids downplay Bramah’s affectations. His voice wavers and cracks and it’s as much talking as “singing”; the musical backing on their albums fragments and halts more often. On this album of nearly all covers, consistency coats most of the songs in an organ-fueled miasma, which rarely dissipates from a po-faced, post-punk murk.
Two highlights, therefore, stand out. “Addicted to the Day” takes Smith’s jottings in Bramah’s notebook from 1977, and he adds music to his late bandmate’s lines of haunted wrecks and self-parody. Crystal Stilts, a Brooklyn-based outfit owing much to the Orchids, redid their “Low Profile” a while ago. So, the Orchids return the favor. Closing this brief set of 10 tracks, “Love Is a Wave” is drained of its upbeat, lilting organ riff. More measured, less frenetic, its melody survives, tender if, again, sad.