As I mentioned the other day, I recently became reacquainted with my old vinyl collection. It’s not all that extensive, but it’s nice to see some old favourites again and listen to them on the turntable. Among my 12-inch singles was Kool Roc Bass by the Lo-Fidelity Allstars, and so I thought I’d talk about them today.
I have written in the past about how the Chemical Brothers’ track ‘Block Rocking Beats’ has a lot to answer for – single-handedly responsible as it is for opening my eyes to hip hop and non-guitar music. You can read my thoughts about that here. One of the acts I discovered while exploring that wormhole were the Allstars, a ragtag bunch of weirdoes based out of Brighton, and signed to Skint Records, one of the coolest indies at the time (this is before the Fatboy Slim money started pouring in). Here’s what I loved about the song: you could sort of dance to it, but it still had nasal, northern-accented vocals. I was still dipping my toes in this stuff, so full-on instrumental dance stuff was still rather intimidating. I also enjoyed that the band all went by dumb nicknames (The Wrekked Train, The Albino Priest, A One Man Crowd Named Gentilee, The Disco Bison, etc.) and didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously. After the debut single, they released ‘Disco Machine Gun’, which was quickly pulled from the shelves because it sampled ‘Cannonball’ without permission. For a little while, this was a hot commodity on eBay, but it looks pretty inexpensive now.
The following summer, they released their debut album ‘How To Operate With A Blown Mind’. At 68 minutes long, it was incredibly ambitious, and my young ears just LOVED it. I named my website after the opening track, ‘Warming Up The Brain Farm’, and it’s one hell of a track to honour. The Wrekked Train basically narrates a letter to God, while all manner of electronic noises gather momentum around him. He says nonsense like “Time speeds by in the form of a neon snake”. A rickety piano kicks in and he says something about “punk paste”, a recurring motif with these guys. Then a long “Allstars Taking Over…” and gospel choir, a sampled voice saying “Stick ‘em up motherfucker, we’ve come for what’s ours” and it all kicks off. To this day, I think the song would make for an incredible intro tape for a band to walk onstage to.
Elsewhere on the album, ‘Disco Machine Gun’ had become ‘Blisters On My Brain’, and continued to rock with the biggest of beats. ‘I Used To Fall In Love’ is built over a (different) rickety piano and squalls of feedback, and sounds like getting shot and staggering about til the paramedics get to you. ‘Nighttime Story’ closes the album on an effortlessly – and uncharacteristically - pretty note. And ‘Vision Incision’ was an unlikely choice for a single, but it effectively serves as the band’s mission statement over nine and a half minutes. I remember seeing them do it on Jo Whiley’s TV series and it was very beautiful. Again, it was something I taped and rewound too many times to count.
And then there’s ‘Battle Flag’, the one you may have heard of. I understand that it got some modest airplay and MTV time in the U.S. The song is a remix of a tune by Pigeonhed, a band that nobody has heard of outside of this song. The combination of rapping and dance beats seemed like it really was THE THING for a while, though right now I can only thing of this song and ‘Diesel Power’ by The Prodigy and Kool Keith as examples. How great is ‘Battle Flag’, though? As I’m sitting at my desk on a Thursday morning, it’s getting my shoulders shaking while I type, which is probably bad from an ergonomic perspective, but it’s awfully fun. The single followed ‘Vision Incision’ into the UK Top 40. Today, the album doesn’t hold up too well – there was something ephemeral about that big beat sound – but it’s nice to take a nostalgic trip back to.
My pal Tom Neumark and I went to see the band at the London Astoria a couple of months after the album came out. Even though we got lost and wound up in the adjacent room (The Astoria 2) for a moment, we made it to the show and man, oh, man, it was amazing. They opened with ‘…Brain Farm’, and for its entirety, Wrekked Train held aloft a giant orange firecracker, which burned out at the precise moment the drums kick in and the house lights go mental. I remember that Tom got clotheslined out of his shoes by a crowdsurfer. And I bought a crappy bootleg t-shirt afterwards. That’s all I remember.
A couple of months later, we had tickets to see the band again, this time at the much larger Shepherds Bush Empire. The Astoria gig had been so awesome, so of course, we went to see them again. The Regular Fries opened. They were terrific. The Allstars took the stage. No Wrekked Train. Maybe they’re just building suspense, and he’s going to make a dramatic entrance, we thought. Other band members starting singing his parts. Very odd. We went home very confused and disappointed. Without the internet being as it is now, we in the audience had no way of knowing that The Wrekked Train – the lead singer of the group – had walked out on the band THAT VERY DAY. His sneering delivery was certainly missed, and the night remains one of the most disappointing live music experiences of my life.
I stuck with them after their singer left, though, because I felt that I had to give them a chance. They put out a limited edition EP called ‘Ghostmutt’ which I appreciated more for the Simpsons-referencing title than for the music. Only ‘Just Enough’, which was laid back and dreamy, really stood out, and it suggested that the band may be moving toward a less swaggering direction. They also put out a mix album, ‘On the Floor at the Boutique’, but the best thing I can say about that album was that it introduced me to ‘Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy’, now one of my favourite songs.
Their second album, ‘Don’t Be Afraid Of Love’, came out in the summer of 2002, and it was very patchy compared to its predecessor. Only ‘Just Enough’ and ‘Somebody Needs You’, featuring a guest turn from Greg Dulli, really stick out. Songs like ‘What You Want’ and ‘Sleeping Faster’ sound like shabby retreads of the former sound, while ‘Lo Fi’s In Ibiza’ is a super generic club banger without any character at all. The album closes with a long, multi-sectional track called ‘Dark is Easy’, which is pretty okay, but I didn’t like the album much then, and I don’t care for it today.
After that, I pretty much gave up on the band. They released a 2-disc Best-Of set, and a new album, ‘Northern Stomp’ in 2009. I haven’t listened to it, but I did check out the latest collaboration with Greg Dulli – ‘Southside Lowdown’ – and it’s just as joyous as the previous album’s. It must say something about me that I think they work best with a charismatic vocalist at the helm.
Keep on keeping on.