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Radioactive Sparrow – 1730s (1988)

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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).
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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.

Tracklisting:

  1. At Dinner
  2. What Decade Are You Into Now?
  3. Spoken English
  4. Your Bum Again
  5. The Testicle Head
  6. (Minit) Ballad
  7. Now Now Now
  8. The Re-Emergence Of The Tupperware Party
  9. Lemon Drop Danglin’
  10. Hoppers
  11. Promiser
  12. Second Coming

Personnel:

Heaving Stews
Bill Bargefoot
Brooce Boyes
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)

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Written by Gustav Thomas

May 8, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Radioactive Sparrow – Skorpion Sundy Rising (1988)

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Skorpion Sundy Rising
was recorded before Twixt Brackla & Chicago, in February 1988. Initially not intended to be counted as a Radioactive Sparrow album, it ended up being issued as the C-90 b-side of the Stews and Bargefoot duo outing, Tiffany.

It’s a very self-contained and consistent album, the trio of Bargefoot, 100-Fingers and Jacobs largely keeping to the same instruments. Jacobs is primarily the drummer here, joisting a superbly naïf rhythm section, effectively, with 100-Fingers’s continued exploration of the Yamaha DX9. Above all it precipitates a retrospective craving for Preswylfa’s impossible freedoms, artists living together, essentially, under one roof, with the luxury of a back room that is devoted solely to making improvised pop music. … And, of course, sharing the living space with a corpulent-sociopath Celtic-languages scholar from Germany who would spend long evenings in defiantly flimsy underwear in front of the telly eating jumbo tubs of greek yoghurt and taramasalata – Anna was the inspiration, thus, for various songs (‘Hägar Brünes’ from album 34) and, here, ‘Anna (I Wish) Hagelstein’ (which features a rare vocal contribution from 100-Fingers).
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It’s worth mentioning here (in case the opportunity doesn’t arise later) that the final song, ‘Godfrey (I Know You Are An Artist)’ is (vaguely, briefly, for that lyric and the title) about the former painter Godfrey Meggitt who was an associate of the band for a few years. His place in the band’s mythology is quite important; he saw it as his mission from quite early on to correct what he saw as very talented musicians (Radioactive Sparrow) squandering their gift on obtusely sarcastic efforts when they could otherwise be persuaded to help change the world by making accessible pop with a positive message – like, say, Sean ‘Bono’ Hewson did/does, or REM. Their association came to a bitter end in 1991, following a visit to his studio by Bargefoot and Bernard Harrison (who was then in the band). Meggitt had gotten into one of his heated debates about ‘positive’ music with Bargefoot, and turned desperately to Harrison to support his position, asking, ‘what is the most important music to you?’ To which Harrison replied, slightly hesitant, as if considering the question for the first time, ‘… whatever happens to be in the top 10 at any given point in time.’ It was the last straw for Meggitt, who turned up at Bargefoot’s house early the next day, storming in and grabbing a guitar, shouting, while shaping as if to smash it against the wall, ‘you’re threatened by U2, aren’t you! You feel threatened by them!’ Bargefoot inevitably laughed at the absurdity of the scene, and after a wordless, puffing stand-off, Meggitt put down the guitar and walked out, thus ending his association with the group and any commitment to correct them. He is reputed to have since written a 1000+-page book that includes accounts of his tussles with Radioactive Sparrow, and now runs a sex farm (sex clinic?) in rural West Wales.

There’s something really stoner about Skorpion Sundy Rising that feels very contemporary in the post-millennial age. There was, though, no weed: instead, the vibe must probably be attributed to Miss 100-Fingers’s superb ritual of nipping out to make hot crumpets with honey as fuel for further creative stamina. By the by, in the photo of the back room at Preswylfa featured above, sitting on the smaller tom-tom on the left, is the legendary 1970s National Panasonic radio-cassette that Radioactive Sparrow used to record everything until the spring of 1989.

Tracklisting:

  1. Neighbours In Transit
  2. Lowly Dancer Regress
  3. Loadscape (I Feel Bont Faen)
  4. Dance Like She Bit Yer On The Balls
  5. Anna (I Wish) Hagelstein
  6. Godfrey (I Know You Are An Artist)

Personnel:
Bill Bargefoot
Emma 100-Fingers
Simon Jacobs

Recorded at Preswylfa, February 1988

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Written by Gustav Thomas

May 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm

Radioactive Sparrow – Tiffany (1988)

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Stews and Bargefoot were really excited about Twixt Brackla & Chicago because it heralded a whole new Kak sound, vibe and attitude, much more open and adventurous. Especially given that they’d pulled off a convincing statement without Boyes, they were now equipped with a new belief in their powers, and this was very much responsible for the lucidity and  focus of this offering. The fact that it’s a duo was due to Miss 100-Fingers having finished college and gone back to mid-Wales. One can only, thus, dream of the wonders that that trio might have blessed Preswylfa with in the summer of ’88.

The album starts really confidently with Bargefoot’s forthright acoustic chordal riff and Stews’s spluttering electric on ‘Collapse,’ which, like much of Tiffany was subject to Stews proposing a specific vibe and arrangement before pressing ‘record’; in this respect, the album reads partly as his manifesto for where the band ought to head henceforth (not yet knowing that Boyes would actually not be involved for much longer). It also has an intriguingly dialogical intimacy that serves, now, as a great insight into how they felt Kak ought to behave.
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Even though four of the tracks on Tiffany got reused as part of the next album, it’s actually the rest of the songs that turn out to be the strongest material. The duo were so pleased with the lyrical content that they made a songbook out of it in photocopied A4 format. How many copies of this were made is not now recalled, but there’s at least one still extant in Bargefoot’s personal archive.

It’s good stuff, a good album, a worthwhile listen. This is the embryo of the real, mature/later Sparrow, or better still the ovum ripe for impregnating by the seed of Tony Gage. While that might seem like a weird way of looking at it, it was actually exactly nine months between Gage’s first involvement with the band (see album 39) and Rockin’ On The Portoman, the album with which proper Sparrow truly emerges fully formed – that album even features the classic ‘Music For Baby’… Say no more. No, please… Say no more.

Tracklisting:

  1. Collapse
  2. All Heart
  3. Hoping For Resentment
  4. The Re-Emergence Of The Tupperware Party
  5. Past Uncalled For
  6. Folk Scene
  7. At Dinner
  8. Spinners In March
  9. Your Bum Again
  10. Antique Dealor
  11. Slimy Toad Gotta Go
  12. Second Coming

Personnel:

Heaving Stews
Bill Bargefoot

 

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Written by Gustav Thomas

May 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Radioactive Sparrow – Twixt Brackla & Chicago (1988)

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Radioactive Sparrow was always something beyond a band. That is to say, the words ‘band’ and ‘group’ denote delineation and definition; band comes from bind, group is related to crop. Sparrow were porous and resistant to the regulation of band membership. Perhaps because it started by accident and its perpetrators never really saw the need to tidy up the more wayward tendrils splaying its inception, Radioactive Sparrow was always much more a force to be accessed by those who’d found out how to … a hum of man residing in discarded utilities. The fact that there has been only one constant member from the very beginning, Bill Bargefoot, whose place of residence almost always also dictated the locale for sessions, doesn’t mean that he was in any way the driving force. Kak simply started where he lived, in 1980, and that has remained the first port of call each time a collective mythology required further elaboration. Indeed, other members would often have to be the catalyst to making an album come about, Bargefoot himself being more inclined to read books, go for walks and watch telly, alongside devoting time to becoming Gwilly Edmondez. But it never seemed too important if one member or other couldn’t be present – what seemed paramount was that the thing had to be pursued, and its historic conquest recorded.

All of which seeks to address why Brooce was not present for the recording of this album, even though the unfolding of subsequent history might imply that the end of his involvement, and his Long Goodbye, had already been set in motion. Whatever the reason, his absence here is pivotal, the balance of invention necessarily tipped towards Bargefoot and Stews who found themselves in the irresistible company of Miss 100-Fingers and Simon Jacobs whose contribution to Hägar Brünes (as well as theBollocks Bollocks Bollocks volumes) had already been significant.

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Simon Jacobs was a gem. Of all the characters that stopped by Radioactive Sparrow’s festering propagation of cacophonic pop over the years to lend a hand, he was one of the most subsequently hankered after. But like most such characters, he evaporated into the world of things without leaving a trace… Even today, with all that internet, searches reveal all the wrong Simon Jacobses (or Simon Chadwicks – he apparently went by both in the Spring of 1988). Like the best contributors to Sparrow’s plot, he was a completely untutored player who didn’t own an instrument himself, and who – like Stews and Cox – approached instrumental playing with a blending of visual imitation (from watching musicians on TV or live) and an inventive ear for what he was after, the journey into music being an adventure in expressive sound that gaily shrugged any reverence for established protocols. As such, he was one of the most relaxed and fluid performers ever to grace Kak’s inscription. This quality was already evident in his drumming, which he spent most of his Sparrow sessions doing; but it’s his guitar on Stews’s ‘Shit, Tit, Bum & Willies, Too’ which is almost the centerpiece to Twixt Brackla & Chicago, grooving and weaving languidly as it does in a lexicon of guessed Jazz-ness.

Jacobs was a gem, but Emma 100-Fingers is a legend, and her dozen albums (including the b-side ones) with Radioactive Sparrow remain lamentably few. She never officially left, and her reappearance (alongside partner Dave Blerroll) onBrownstar (album 80) emphatically showed that she’d lost none of her power… We await yet more from 100-Fingers. For most of Twixt Brackla & Chicago she contributes to a balanced quartet texture, but it’s on ‘Acne Of The Soul’ where her genius and invention are most discernible, dialoguing with Bargefoot’s slide guitar riff with achingly translucent glinting shards of high-pitched DX9 pads. Stews’s vocal completes a sense of naked interference that makes an exquisite frottage of goosebumps, rude fingers probing deep into the psyche of guilts.

Twixt Brackla & Chicago was the first day of the rest of Radioactive Sparrow’s life, essentially the first without Brooce, wandering in his absence into thrillingly fresh sound worlds and collective, dialogic space. It remains a key milestone for the band.

Tracklisting:

  1. A Simple Choice
  2. Williamstory
  3. Keep It Clean
  4. A Head Start For Necrophelia
  5. Shit, Tit, Bum & Willies, Too
  6. Acne Of The Soul
  7. Another 50s Store
  8. Moth Balls

Personnel:

Heaving Stews
Bill Bargefoot
Emma 100-Fingers
Simon Jacobs

Recorded at Preswylfa, March 1988

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Written by Gustav Thomas

May 8, 2012 at 6:22 am

Radioactive Sparrow – Bollocks Bollocks Bollocks Vols. 1-3 (1988)

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Once they had done Pantsful Of Cherries Vol. V, that series seemed complete. So when the time came again to consider out-take and off-cut material for subsidiary compilation, very little time or effort was expended in deciding to call the new series Bollocks Bollocks Bollocks (it was Brooce who suggested it). The full three-volume set wasn’t assembled, edited, sequenced and packaged until the summer of 1988, which is why, despite this being album 35, there’s material from sessions that made up albums 36 and 37.

The thirty-five tracks here come from sessions for You Keep A Rockin sessions, 3-Legging With The Birds, Hägar Brünes, Twixt Brackla & Chicago and Tiffany, as well as material from the Howard Gardens gig that provided two songs on Alright? Sparrow! Much of it is tiresome and makes for unrewarding listening. However, ‘Cabaret,’ on Volume 1, is better than many of the tracks on either … Rockin or Hägar…, there are one or two OK songs on Volume 2, while Volume 3 remains faithful to the retrospective truth that what was originally least wanted turns out to be the best – or at least most interesting – stuff. ‘Two Cups Of Coffee And A Blow Job Please’ is as close as early Sparrow ever get to non-idiomatic improv, with Stews superbly fraught vocal made desperate by sore delay, and the original version of ‘Antique Dealor’ is a festival of intersubjective ineptitude jousting with Miss 100-Finger’s ebullient synth grooves.

It’s a complete accident that the thirty-fifth album has thirty-five songs. Probably not for the hearted.

Tracklisting for Volume 1:

  1. The Lights Of The City
  2. Death In The Family (All Of It)
  3. Syllable
  4. Black Copter
  5. Elaine
  6. Oooh-Ah!
  7. Cabaret
  8. I Wish I Was
  9. Sell Us Your Mother

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Tracklisting for Volume 2:

  1. Farewell Chorus
  2. Wouldn’t You Like To See Me Dead
  3. Welsh Language Number
  4. Pain In The Head
  5. Concord
  6. The Man Who Had A Clit For A Nose
  7. Failed Attempt
  8. You Keep A Rockin (Dance With The Brown Pant Maid)
  9. S’Fuckin’ Sparrow Again
  10. TSW
  11. Moy Moy
  12. I Change My Tune
  13. Swarm Box
  14. Metronome
  15. Chapter Afterchat

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Tracklisting for Volume 3:

  1. Two Cups Of Coffee And A Blow Job Please
  2. Antique Dealor
  3. Domestic Shedding Colonial Dregs
  4. Parrots In Lieu
  5. Listermint
  6. Blue Sky Trickles Down Your Thigh
  7. Cornelius
  8. Barbed Wire Teens
  9. Eat The Keyboards With Your Cheeks
  10. Xmas Single 87
  11. 3-Legging After Thought

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Personnel for all three, one way or another:

Bill Bargefoot
Heaving Stews
Brooce Boyes
Emma 100-Fingers
Chris Hartford
Owen Powell
Simon Jacobs
Niklus

Written by Gustav Thomas

May 7, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Radioactive Sparrow – Hägar Brünes (1988)

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If Radioactive Sparrow are to be considered a truly great band in the eventual biblical account of rock & roll in the year 4,000 or something (when the great truths purged of marketing will finally be cast in the implausible bronze of unsound testament –  alongside Slayer, Beefheart, the Fall and Dog Faced Hermans), then it will be for the band that it became in 1989, when its core trio of Bill Bargefoot, Heaving Stews and Tony Gage became permanent. 1988, then, was the year of delicate shifts and looming transitions, Brooce Boyes’s Long Goodbye, and glimpses of a promised, cacophonic, cacotopian land.

It’s funny how, when you’re young, the tricked played by turning over the page with a different year number coupled with January’s harsh, frosty austerity can still give you a sense of new beginnings and clean slates. Following the ugly tangle that was You Keep A Rockin, Hägar Brünes breathed a renewed, though restrained, vigour that restored the joy of Kak to the recording process. Essentially it’s the Preswylfa sessions that define the album; in compiling it, Bargefoot and Boyes saw fit to fill it out with two songs from the late-’87 trio Hut session (with Owen Powell) that had yielded the previous album’s ‘Black Eye Blue.’  Although it is easy to see why: ‘Fishmonger’s Daughter’ and ‘Simon Says’ provide a satisfying (albeit bloated) reverb-drenched change in texture and scale from the baroque tussles of the Preswylfa material, sequenced as they were at the mid-point of each side of the original C-60 cassette.

The opening two tracks, ‘Don’t Shave Me Bald’ and ‘Eddie Asked Me To Stay,’ introduce a whole new working dialogue between Bargefoot and Boyes. At some point during the previous weeks, they had managed to once again procure the loan of the Mattel Synsonics drum machine from Ceri Davies. When last used in 1985, they had made very little use of its considerably open sequencing/programming facility, preferring instead to simply bash the rubbery grey pads as a surrogate kit. What they now discovered, to their unbridled delight, was that you could programme mistakes and awkward rhythmic stutters into a beat. ‘Don’t Shave Me Bald’ doesn’t overdo this, however, and its gawkishly stilted jut induces in the guitar vs. bass of Bargefoot/Boyes a fascinatingly gnarly contrapuntal duel, each egging the other on to increasingly disjointed dyads that recall nothing so much as coarse shapes and cruxes drawn in competingly antagonistic graphite and charcoal pursuing the same lines. Suddenly we have a cerebral Kak that goads the distinction between ludic wrongnesses and avant poeticism. The contrapuntal fantasy continues in ‘Eddie Asked Me To Stay,’ this time in pursuit of a hoppity pegasus in modal blues.

The most significant thing about Hägar Brünes, however, is the introduction of Emma 100-Fingers [above], a figure so important to Sparrow’s legend that it’s easy to forget that she was a full-time member for barely a year. From the very first sessions her joyful subversion of a technical facility on the keyboard acquired through years of childhood piano lessons breathed into the band a renewed spirit of playful invention that has remained with them ever since. It’s absurd how rarely one comes across the kind of unbridled, joyous musicality that is necessary for plunging into the instantaneous history-craft of Kak performance, but Emma 100-Fingers possessed this in spades, able to tap into a mellifluous fantasia cantabile that would leave the rest of the group looking positively wooden. This facility announces itself, bursting into the continuity on ‘Breakaway’ with an exuberant attack on the Yamaha DX-9 (which the band had borrowed from Owen Powell) where her left hand pounds out a stomping bass, while the right twists a standard blues lick into fluorescent warble.

Preswylfa sessions in early 1988 also feature Simon Jacobs on drums and guitar (he had no training or experience in either), one of those bizarre characters in Radioactive Sparrow’s story who appear and then disappear without the rest of the band knowing who the hell they were or where to ever find them again. His highly distinctive contribution will be discussed later when we come to Twixt Brackla & Chicago and Skorpion Sundy Rising.

Tracklisting:

  1. Don’t Shave Me Bald
  2. But Eddie Asked Me To Stay
  3. Face In Pocket
  4. Fishmonger’s Daughter
  5. New Know How
  6. Hägar Brünes
  7. Breakaway
  8. Simon Says
  9. Catch Up Boyes
  10. Get Valentine
  11. Recipe For Disaster

Personnel:

Bill Bargefoot
Brooce Boyes
Emma 100-Fingers
Simon Jacobs
plus Owen Powell on 4 & 8

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Written by Gustav Thomas

May 7, 2012 at 8:45 pm