Radioactive Sparrow – 1730s (1988)
No one can remember now why it seemed appropriate to open this album with a song from the previous one. But there it is, that’s how the story goes. Tiffany had been a duo outing by Bargefoot and Stews, and somehow the logic seems to have been that ‘At Dinner,’ along with three other selections were honoured with a promotion to the next full-band release proper. Whatever the thinking, there’s no excuse for gratuitously filling album time with recycled material, and yet, on the other hand, the four songs’ place in the narrative continuity of 1730s feels appropriate.
Aside from the recycled cuts, the album comprises a quartet session from Preswylfa (the core trio being joined by Heaving Stews’s brother) and the band’s first ever, supremely controversial appearance at Clwb Ifor Bach (anglophonically known as ‘The Welsh Club’) on Cardiff’s Womanby Street, a locale that would become increasingly important in the band’s mythology during the early 90s, eventually having a later (1994) album named after it (for which stayed tuned… obviously). The band was invited to play by the legendary Mark ‘Sweaty T’ Taylor whose cultural sway over alt-fashion and nightlife in 1980s Cardiff was preeminent. Among other things he had started the Square Club (above the now-long-gone Radcliffe’s) and the Mars Bar on Churchill Way (or was it Charles Street?). In the spring of 1988, the city’s most self-consciously alt-trendy cognoscenti were patronising his Saturday night club Terra at Clwb Ifor Bach. He was, it seems, a distant admirer of Radioactive Sparrow (his long-term/lifelong girlfriend/partner, Jane Powell, had performed with Gwilly Edmondez in his one-off 1986 Bigger Geddy Numbers show at Chapter); the band regarded his invitation to play Terra as an unquestionable honour.
Heaving Stews’s mood on 1730s was acerbically belligerent, something that is evident on several levels. Among the Cardiff alt-scene’s contrived attire at this time were various kinds of faux-‘ethnic’ hats along with other garment accessories, which clearly raised his ire: the opening number from the gig, the album’s title-track-by-lyric (if you can say that), was a scornful tirade against any kind of tokenistic trend following: ‘What Decade Are You Into Now?’ proposes the ‘powdered wigs and stockinged feet’ of the 1730s as de rigueur for the ultimate fashion counter-statement. His vitriol throughout the show was unrelenting: ‘The Testicle Head’ weaves attacks on contemporary trends in TV (‘right to reply/video-vote’) into a series of lyrics aimed directly at a specific member of the audience (for whom the song’s title was conjured) who was making a particular nuisance of himself, berating the group for not meeting some assumed aesthetic imperative – Tim ‘Creepy’ Coulson (so the band were reliably informed) [pictured below] and his absent identical twin had reputedly completed a recent stint as studio assistants to Andy Warhol in New York (he can be heard telling Heaving to ‘give us something new,’ as he announces ‘The Testicle Head).
Throughout the show Stews was sporting a new dance that involved hopping on one leg (‘a new dance craze!’ being the main refrain in ‘The Testicle Head’). The final concert selection here, ‘ Hoppers,’ is his rallying call urging the crowd to join in – a genius move in an already very tense atmosphere, with several of Sweaty T’s most devoted super-hip taking their leave, resulting in one of the surprisingly rare instances of Sparrow being unplugged: Taylor was disgusted by the lumpen philistinism of his regulars, but felt nonetheless compelled to limit the damage to the night’s rep by fading in Kraftwerk’s ‘Musique Non-Stop’ (at the wrong speed) while fading out the band, thus drawing the concert to a premature end.
1730s is almost Brooce Boyes’s last album and almost Tony Gage’s first. The Preswylfa session was the last to feature the trio of Bargefoot/Boyes/Stews that had been the band’s core since 1985. Interestingly, Stews displays an impatience with the other two and their tendency to slip back into the extreme adolescent self-indulgence of the pretend-band of 1980-81; this is perfectly illustrated by the failed ‘(Minit) Ballad’ in which Bargefoot mischievously tries to persuade Jon (Brooce) to sing a ballad about his ‘first love,’ seeking to mine a favourite trope of rock music for laughs; Stews can be heard attempting to sabotage this indulgence, eventually banging the floor tom aggressively enough to make them stop, with Bargefoot sighing despairingly, ‘Ugh… Steve…’ as if he’s spoiling their fun. The result, however, of Stews’s vigilance to the group’s avant-pop potential is the timeless classic ‘Now Now Now,’ which ensues.
Such fun and games were staple, of course, but none of the band had any inkling that a year thence Boyes would be long gone, and so would this incarnation of Radioactive Sparrow. 1730s is the last Radioactive Sparrow album not to feature Tony Gage, although his voice can be heard on this album by virtue of his being in the audience at the Clwb Ifor show. Since his attendance at the November gig at Chapter, and expressing his admiration for the group’s approach, Bargefoot had furnished him with a bespoke compilation of Sparrow favourites. Whenever Stews or Bargefoot had bumped into him in town he had reminded them to tell him when Sparrow were playing again – which wasn’t that often at the time since Boyes and Stews lived in Plymouth. On the night of the Terra gig, with an hour to go before they took the stage, they suddenly realised they hadn’t told him, whereupon they jumped in the van and headed out to Roath, where they knew Gage lived, but didn’t have his address. By an absurd coincidence worthy of the most implausible film script, they happened upon him coming round a corner riding his (presciently cool drop-handle – except actually this was still the 80s, so I guess they were still actually current issue?) bicycle back from work. They hurriedly informed him of the imminent performance, and he said he’d be there. Which he was. He did. He was there, he did come to the gig. And was pleasantly shocked by a spirited antagonism with the crowd that had been wholly absent (since the evening had been utterly congenial) from the Chapter show.
- At Dinner
- What Decade Are You Into Now?
- Spoken English
- Your Bum Again
- The Testicle Head
- (Minit) Ballad
- Now Now Now
- The Re-Emergence Of The Tupperware Party
- Lemon Drop Danglin’
- Second Coming
plus Owen Powell (keybs) and Ceri Davies (drums) on tracks 2, 5 & 10
and David Hughes on 3, 6, 7 & 11
NB – tracks 1, 4, 8 & 12 also appear on Tiffany (album 37)