❉ Stephen Porter pays tribute to the Shop Assistants frontwoman.
It’s not very often that a 1980s NME cover star passes away unheralded by even the tiniest corner of the internet. Alex Taylor was the quietly charismatic lead singer of two brilliant eighties indie bands – The Shop Assistants and The Motorcycle Boy.
Although Alex died in 2005, news of her passing only filtered into public consciousness this morning (Wednesday June 17th) via a circuitous route. At the end of last year Michael Kerr released Scarlet, the ‘shelved’ debut and only album of The Motorcycle Boy on his own Forgotten Astronaut label. Michael, now a nurse working in the Scottish town of Haddington, was the former guitarist with the group and had financed a limited five hundred CD run of the album after acquiring the dust-gathering master tapes from Chrysalis. Michael had hoped to find out the whereabouts of singer Alex (who had quietly disappeared from the music scene), but had not been successful up to the point of when Scarlet was released in November 2019.
Details are very sketchy at the moment, but Alex’s husband later contacted Michael to inform him that Alex had died in 2005, and for reasons unclear at the moment, the news has only just entered the public domain.
When Michael announced that he was releasing Scarlet, I was so excited and was transported back to 1987 for a brief moment, hoping that the band might reform for a couple of one-off gigs and that I’d be able to see Alex once more, and thus it was such a shock to discover that someone who meant so much to me (as a humble but enthusiastic music fan) had simply slipped away. Up until the release of Scarlet, there was very little TMB product available . I’ve loved and cherished my copy of their seven inch single Big Rock Candy Mountain for thirty three years and when I last visited Alex’s hometown of Edinburgh in October of last year, I was delighted to find a pristine 12” copy of the single in the brilliant and marvellously-titled Elvis Shakespeare book and record shop on the Leith Road. Although I play a lot of vinyl, I rarely play singles these days, but like all vinyl fans I just love looking at a 12” record cover.
Alex Taylor first found fame as the third (but not final) lead singer of the wonderful Shop Assistants. Formed in 1984, the band announced themselves to the world (well, to those of us who followed the indie charts) in 1986 with the fantastic single Safety Net (which New York ‘new music’ magazine Trouser Press described as “nothing short of brilliant”. Reminiscent of a feminised Jesus and Mary Chain, Safety Net’s rapid hi-hat drumming and ominous bass rumble introduce a fabulous wall of sound guitar explosion to accompany Alex’s beautiful, yearning vocals. It’s a tremendous song which serves as a useful introduction to the bittersweet themes of Alex Taylor’s words; here was a gifted lyricist who saw love and relationships as the most complex of exchanges, and a tremulous, delicate thread which can cut be cut and broken by betrayal, over-familiarity, a simple lack of care or even just plain old boredom.
The song reached number two in the indie charts and was number 8 in the John Peel Festive 50 (they were big Peel favourites) of 1986.
The inclusion of the dreamlike It’s Up to You on the NME’s legendary C86 cassette helped to establish the Shop Assistants as one of the archetypal ‘indie’ bands whose lineage is still (massively) in evidence today. Before C86, ‘indie’ was an amorphous term, covering a variety of styles, but mainly emphasising an unconventional, arty or less-obviously commercial sound. After C86, the term was applied to a fairly generic, ‘skinny white male’, non-bluesy, non-threatening guitar sound. There’s a lot of truth to this clichéd idea, but the Shop Assistants’ dreamy and often jangly sound forged a template for so many of the female-fronted bands of today and was such a tonic for we introverted indie fans who felt adrift in the horror seas of the pop-gone-wrong world found in the mainstream charts and the weekly awfulness of pretty much every edition of Top of the Pops of that year.
Have a closer look at the Safety Net video, and if you can convince me that Alex and her boys and girls couldn’t pass for 2020 indie kids, I’ll eat my skinny jeans.
1986 – the band’s greatest year – coincided with the release of their only album Will Anything Happen, released on the Blue Guitar label, which, in reality, was on offshoot of Chrysalis.
It’s a superb album. Opening songs I Don’t Want to be Friends With You and All Day Long examine the aftermath of a break up; a delicate female soul is being destroyed by the presence and complete lack of understanding of her former lover, and she withers and drifts into melancholia as her ex doesn’t (seem to) understand the woman’s agony as he blathers on and on about his new love:
All day long we walked about
And all day long you talked about her;
I can see I’ll never make you stay
If you don’t love me, enough to want to stay with me –
You’ve got nothing left
That I want anyway
There’s a real Smiths feeling about All Day Long, and indeed M*rriss*y himself said it was his favourite song of 1986.
Remember when his opinion mattered?
It’s not all angst on the album, but even the most hopeful of songs such as All of the Time, All That Ever Matters and Somewhere in China – though ostensibly concerning the comforts of a place to call home and a lover to love – seem to be anticipating the impossibility of love’s permanence.
The spectre of death or suicide haunts songs like Before I Wake, After Dark, What a Way to Die! and particularly the nihilistic Nature Lover, but Alex’s lovely vocals and David Keegan’s chiming guitars often deflect from the songs’ truer emotions, and give the listener a sense of thinking ‘Did I really just hear that?’
The brilliant Caledonian Road examines joblessness and homelessness and the bleak prospect of a lonely death:
Now you wake up cold on the banks of the river
Or you sleep in the trains till
They move you along;
You wake up dirty in the arms of a stranger
You wonder how long this life has to go on.
And with Seem to Be, it’s back to guilt and betrayal and lost love and the dissolution of the soul through a partner’s desire for love and sex with another:
And we’ve come a long way, but it’s all gone wrong,
And I hate to say but it won’t be long,
Only so many lies you can tell
And I only have one soul to sell.
In many ways, the Shop Assistants pull off the Abba trick of appearing deceptively lightweight and jaunty (on many of the songs on this album) whilst dealing in the mysteries of the dark night of the soul.
As I say, it’s a phenomenal album, and it would be Alex Taylor’s last with the band.
In 1987, she left the Shop Assistants and helped to form The Motorcycle Boy, a band which took its name from the enigmatic, philosophising biker in S.E. Hinton’s underrated 1967 novel Rumble Fish,and (I presume) after seeing Mickey Rourke’s nailed it performance of the character in Francis Ford Coppola’s unusual (but-certainly-didn’t nail it) 1985 film version.
TMB’s first single Big Rock Candy Mountain was released on Rough Trade and helped to earn the band (well, the photogenic Alex) an NME front cover (an initial, controversial cover featuring The Dead Kennedy’s Frankenchrist was pulled at the last minute) and it looked like the band would go on to at least the mid-level fame enjoyed by (vague) soundalikes and contemporaries The Primitives and The Darling Buds. The decision to accept the NME’s front cover seemed to cause consternation within the band, however, with half of the group believing that The Motorcycle Boy didn’t have enough material to warrant such a prestigious honour, and they were worried that the mere half page story linked to the front cover would look especially dodgy in the light of the more substantial output of their lesser-feted rivals
The band was signed to Chrysalis, but ‘a perfect storm’ (as Michael Kerr puts it) of in-band fighting, a lack of label support and management mistakes saw the chart failure of all of their subsequent singles (including the wonderful Hey Mama and Trying to Be Kind) and the ‘shelving’ of debut album Scarlet.
As said before, Scarlet finally arrived at the end of last year. The sound is bigger, more ‘accomplished’ and occasionally synth/sequencer enhanced. The band tried to distance themselves from the tweeness and typically ‘shambling’ C86 sound, and – had the album been released – they may have lost some of their more discerning anoraky indie followers (probably me included), but in 2020, Scarlet is a thing of great beauty and (again) would not sound dramatically out of place on 6 Music or any of today’s indie playlists.
The band veer a little too close to that Primitives/Darling Buds sound at times on tracks such as Baby Let Go of My Heart, The World Falls into Place and title track, but whilst this in no way a slight on either band, The Motorcycle Boy album is just… better – even if the beefed-up sound loses a little of the otherworldliness and indefinable magic of the Shop Assistants at their best.
Highlights of this lovely, timeless album include the dreamlike Under the Bridge, the just downright beautiful Up Here and the plaintive lament of Valentine. In all these songs, the improvement in Alex’s (already great) singing voice is particularly noticeable. Valentine also anticipates the emotional payoff on the band’s greatest song, the brilliant Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Scarlet’s lyrical concerns are very much continuations of the Shop Assistants’ Will Anything Happen, namely the floating and wayward dynamics of love, and how it is almost impossible to reconcile our own complex needs with the complex needs of others – certainly for any length of time. But across the entirety of the album, Alex’s narrator/persona has found pockets of contentment and freedom, and more importantly a measure of control and a pathway to destiny and redemption.
Big Rock Candy Mountain went to number two in the indie charts of 1987. At that time I was working almost exactly between Manchester and Liverpool and would take it in turns to travel to either city at the weekend and spend what little residual spare wages I had buying the vinyl highlights of my week’s listening to John Peel’s late night programmes. Amongst a slew of great singles that autumn by bands such as The Sugarcubes, The Mekons, The Woodentops and early versions of Primal Scream and The Soup Dragons, the one that really blew me away was Big Rock Candy Mountain.
The opening few seconds of the song suggest to the listener that they will be listening to some classic late eighties synthpop, but as the drums and guitars crash in we’re treated to the most joyous rush of sound – a sound which once again effects the Abba deflection by marrying the musically upbeat with an initially downbeat lyric, redolent of the suburban claustrophobia of Stevie Smith’s poetry:
Every day in this house seems the same,
I want to go where no-one knows my name;
I hope I never led you to believe
That the day would ever come when I would leave –
This is no way to say goodbye,
But I never was good at telling lies.
Unlike the narrator in the best of the Shop Assistants’ lyrics, the narrator in BRCM has made a conscious decision for positive change and is throwing away the shackles of a domestic relationship prison.
Alex’s voice is just wonderful on this song – otherworldly, fragile and sad, but also in this case knowing and strong and ready for change. Instead of ending a relationship (or having that relationship ended) and then wallowing in despair or loneliness, the narrator sees escape as a symbol for regeneration:
These four walls are closing in on me
Is this the way that life’s supposed to be?
Sitting in each day on my own
Just waiting for you to come home;
I never meant to cause you any pain,
But I never want to see this place again.
I remember seeing Chris Packham’s ‘punk’ documentary on BBC4 and how a certain track by Penetration – (Shout Above the Noise) – had affected him (possibly) far beyond the perceived merits that its creator Pauline Murray had ever envisaged.
I don’t know if I did the same by reading too much into Big Rock Rock Mountain. It’s beautiful and brilliant and melancholic and upbeat all at the same time, but was it better than a host of its contemporary, similar-sounding, similarly-themed songs?
The song seemed to be echoing many of the concerns of the feminist fiction I’d loved since my teens and my unhappiness at that time of my life seemed to be mirrored in the song’s call for a literal and spiritual escape. And in my sadness it wasn’t me who was the heroic escapee – perhaps I’d seen myself as the unseen/unknown lover in the song who hoped for the permanence of love and never saw the day ‘when I would leave’. It was all too depressing and too beautiful, and when the narrator sang the goodbye-with-great-affection lines:
And whatever you decide to do,
I hope the sun will always shine on you;
By the time you see things my way,
I’ll be halfway down the highway,
One day darling you might see
Your smile when you remember me
It was just too much.
It’s a rare blessing to see things from another’s point of view. To see yourself objectively. To see the happiness of others as more important than your own selfish concerns.
And in the chorus, the narrator (let’s face it, it’s Alex) expresses a vision of unfettered hope, telling us that she’s: Looking for a Big Rock Candy Mountain and Rolling down the hillside in the sun
Which brings to mind not Orwell’s fake vision of an imaginary heaven for fools, but Harry McClintock’s lovely 1928 song of the same title and its vision of a world of caring and beauty and infinite opportunities.
The Shop Assistants’ and The Motorcycle Boy’s recorded output is slight, but that which touches the heart stays there forever.
I only got to see Alex Taylor once, but sometimes that’s enough.
And that voice, those songs, and her heart-breaking insight into the human condition have stayed with me always.
❉ Stephen Porter is a performance poet and spoken word artist. He has written for Esquire and a host of other publications and will be performing at the Liverpool Sound City festival at the end of September.