Ginger’s Secret History Of Rock’n’Roll (pt. 10)
The Wildhearts’ mainman on a lost gem from Soul Asylum. Check out Ginger’s past Secret History Of Rock’n'Roll entries.
Before he dated neurotic actresses and strapped an acoustic guitar around his chest Dave Pirner was the coolest motherfucker to wield a low-strung telecaster who isn’t called Keith Richards. And before the puke-inducing ‘Runaway Train’ Soul Asylum were arguably the best live band in America.
Hard to believe? Read on, dear reader, read on.
Inspired by Husker Du, The Replacements and a healthy dose of country music, Soul Asylum would drag themselves around Minneapolis for seven drunken years after forming in the early 80s until the recording of this, their shining moment is a history of spirited, if semi-shambolic recordings.
Releasing three albums on the indie Twin Tone label, the band would continue to find their studio legs, often stumbling on gold, but largely never able to capture the base fury of their live shows. 1984′s oddly titled ‘Say What You Will, Clarence… Karl Sold The Truck’ cobbled together from various sources came with suitably varied results, while ‘Made To Be Broken’ and ‘While You Were Out’ (both 1986) hinted heavily at the shape of things to come.
Signed to A&M in 1988 the band would release this classic album, and although they would release another album on A&M (‘And The Horse They Rode In On’) disappointing returns would see band being dropped from the label and picked up by Columbia where they would record the double platinum, and far inferior, ‘Grave Dancers Union’ before fading in apologetic style while attempting to recall what made them so fantastically essential.
Shame then that the world remains, by and large, blissfully unaware of ‘Hang Time’, an album that should be in the collection of any serious music lover.
Bursting into action with ‘Down On Up To Me’, the opening track sees the band in quasi Led Zeppelin territory with a huge, spluttering riff tumbling into harmony laden chorus, a style cannily ‘borrowed’ by many a band in years to come, including The Wildhearts, and one that still packs a weighty roundhouse to this day. Such is the confidence displayed in this opening track that it’s impossible to deny the bold presence and authenticity of a group absolutely on top of their game.
Almost supernaturally aware of themselves, the second track, ‘A Little Too Clean’, almost acts as a jaunty bridge between the killer opener and the hair-on-end brilliance of ‘Sometime To Return’. Although a live favourite with the ability to strip paint from the walls, the studio version admirably captures the break-neck beauty of this absolute thrill ride of a track (which contains one of the greatest rhyming couplets ever: ‘throw away your calendar and saddle up your salamander’).
With hooks fully implanted into the listener’s skin, it is with almost brazen moxy that they unleash their finest moment, the divine ‘Cartoon’, a song so perfect that it should awarded its own place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The twin vocal attack of Pirner and fellow guitar slinger Dan Murphy is simply shiver-inducing in this supreme slice of power pop guaranteed to make a fan of the most bone-headed of critic.
Go on, try to dislike this song! Told you, it’s not possible. Give in.
The mood is darkened for ‘Beggars And Choosers’ (let’s face it, after ‘Cartoon’ the mood would be darkened by The Archies ‘Sugar Sugar’) but the spirit fades not one bit as the boys lay into this slice of vicious pop like their livers depend upon it.
Side one (imagine it’s an album, even if you must buy it on CD, or worse still, download it) is neatly tailgated by the sumptuously gorgeous ‘Endless Farewell’, where Soul Asylum get to flex some sensitive muscle within the guitar onslaught, perfectly illustrating the point that this band bare scant relation to the outfit that would score a No.1 hit with the soggy acoustic-based mushy drone that is ‘Runaway Train’, even when tackling sensitive numbers such as this one.
Side two opens in classic style with the swooping intro of ‘Standing In The Doorway’, a track so awesome that the only thing more awesome is the potential to step over awesome songs in such a jungle of awesome songs, as this album is often in danger of doing. Taken away from its moorings ‘Standing In The Doorway’ would qualify as any normal band’s best tune. As would ‘Marionette’, with its Queen-like opening stabs and lilting melody. In fact, amid the ferocious guitars the main theme here is the consistency in the songwriting. These gems are no cobbled-together-in-rehearsal type affairs, oh no – more Simon And Garfunkel-got-into-the-medicine-cabinet-and-discovered-severe-volume.
‘Ode’ drags itself into the party laboured under the weight of its own lurching guitar riff, while ‘Jack Of All Trades’ pushes festivities into third gear and doles out the speed. And after such an intense combination salvo the album adopts the wise approach and settles into a lighthearted, bluegrass groove with ‘Twiddly Dee’ before launching into its closing statement with venomous glee. ‘Heavy Rotation’ sounds exactly as you’d imagine. Every element of the album is thrown into the pot for this final cheer: psychedelic vocals, thumping staccato riffs and sweet discord huddle together in a barbed wire nest, screeching out the end until finally taking flight on a mighty bed of noise.
And then it is over. A heavy meal that takes the consumer some time to digest afterwards, but one that feels so damn good going down that pause is not an option.
‘Hang Time’ represents a time in underground American music where the rules were still being written and albums, as a result, often revelled in a gloriously sprawling lack of coherence.
Where huge rock training sessions rubbed shoulders with blatant pop fancy without fear of audience alienation.
Where the industry hadn’t yet carved out neat sections of society and named them ‘markets’.
Where songwriter and band shared the same van.
Where guitars were still exciting.
Where style was still about personal expression.
Nostalgia can take the mind part of the journey but the rest of the trip needs a soundtrack, songs that last the test of time, fashion and hype.
‘Hang Time’ is such an album, and Soul Asylum were such a band.
You owe it to yourself to own this one.