❉ Nina Bea takes a magical Carpets ride with one of Madchester’s finest exports.
“Listening to the 38-track latest release has been an act of great joy. I have been singing along to well-known favourites and sitting up straight to long-ago heard gems…”
Childhood turned into the teens for me just as the UK’s indie-dance scene of the late 1980s and early 90s stated emphatically that Manchester was THE place to be.
My new musical education involved inhaling anything and everything that looked northwards. I stared enraptured at Top of the Pops whenever it featured lanky men dressed in psychedelic shirts, bearing down on keyboards as their long hair flopped over their faces. In solidarity with the newly-labelled ‘Madchester’ and ‘Baggy’ scenes, I wore dungarees and floral shirts, yearned to be bought an acid house T-shirt, and read avidly of the Hacienda in Smash Hits magazine. I wanted in.
But pre-streaming, in the early days of CDs and scant pocket money, it was impossible to own everything you wanted. I relied on Radio 1’s Evening Session to help me pick out the keyboard signature sounds, dance-influenced beats and indie guitar/drum combinations that made each band unique. I owned one CD in 1992 – indie compilation album Precious – and the Inspiral Carpets’ Dragging Me Down was the first track on it, followed by The Charlatans’ Weirdo. Listening to these two tracks back to back over and over again, I fell in love with the way the Farfisa keyboard or Hammond organ complemented every stomping beat, urging you to dance. The Charlatans and Inspiral Carpets became the two bands most instrumental in the early evolution of my indie music sensibilities.
In the writing of this piece, listening to the 38-track latest release – Inspiral Carpets: The Complete Singles (1988-2015) – has been an act of great joy. I have been singing along to well-known favourites and sitting up straight to long-forgotten gems, finally thinking it’s time to put them properly in my music collection where they’ve always belonged.
As it’s a singles-led compilation, I suppose I can’t be too miffed to find that their theme to a short-lived Saturday morning kids’ TV show, The 8.15 from Manchester, wasn’t included. However, if you don’t know it, check it out below:
By the time of Dragging Me Down, the Inspiral Carpets had been in existence in one form or another for close to 10 years, having issued a demo, Cow, in 1987 and demo album, Dung 4, in 1989. Three songs from Dung 4, Keep the Circle Around, Joe and Butterfly, have made it onto this compilation (though Joe was re-recorded in 1995).
In these earlier tracks (remastered for 2023) the high energy, danceable driving rhythms are present and familiar, but there’s more of a punky garage feel. Clint Boon’s keyboard is definitely there on Keep the Circle Around, but blended deeper into the overall sound. The Farfisa comes fluttering up within Butterfly, tempered by a Fall/Joy Division-esque vocal from Stephen Holt and Graham Lambert on guitar.
Between 1983 and 1989, there was a moderate turnover of personnel in the band – including the replacement of Dave Swift on bass for Martyn Walsh and founding lead vocalist Holt for Tom Hingley. Hingley admitted in a 2013 interview with Penny Black that the band had done a lot of work prior to his joining, having released several EPs and enjoyed a top three place in John Peel’s festive 50.
However, it was Hingley who enjoyed the glory of the Inspirals’ most commercially fertile period from debut album Life in 1990 to 1994’s Devil Hopping.
Musically, is easy to hear why Hingley was a good replacement for Holt but equally why Holt came to be back in the band years later; while the two have very different vocal styles on particular tracks when you listen closely, they are both able to sing in each other’s way.
Around 1989’s frontman change it can be difficult to tell who was performing the lead vocal while the band wore their earlier Manchester indie influences on their sleeve (The Fall, et al) – plus backing vocals from Boon helped to bring consistency.
But it is Hingley whose vocal enabled the band to hit the heights on anthemic choruses from This is How it Feels onwards, with the torch song quality of Saturn 5 possibly being the most memorable. Hingley’s vocal prowess over that of Mark E Smith is more than evident when the pair duetted on I Want You in 1994. However, on stage Holt makes brilliant delivery of Hingley’s best work. Trying to capture who Hingley most sounds like, I hear fleeting touches of Julian Cope and Marc Almond. In Stephen Holt I note the influence of Ian Curtis and Morrissey.
As with any northern band worth their salt, weaved in amongst the life-affirming music are lyrics mined from a deep vein of social conscience and a sense of specific geography. Joe calls to mind the reality of poverty: “All that I possess is my existence, vagrant more or less/Children on the pave, mither bad, but help me through my day/BECAUSE I’M JOE, THE STREET LAMP IS MY HOME/FROM PLACE TO PLACE I LIKE TO ROAM.”
The big 1990 breakout hit, This is How it Feels, still stands up strong after 33 years. Aside from the soaring chorus and cinematic, plaintive lyrics, there are brilliant complexities in the composition, including the tambourine standing in for the high-hat cymbal, allowing the drums to pound an almost funereal beat.
The catchy bass-led rhythm of Weakness (which appeared on the US-issue of Life) gives way to a full-throttle chorus calling to mind Reward by The Teardrop Explodes, though this is unmistakably Inspirals territory, with Boon’s swirling keyboard softening guitar and drum edges, even though the lyrics still point to life’s challenges: “Phone rings in an empty house, there’s no one there/ Letter falls on a pile on the floor, everything’s been sold/Evening comes to a lonely street, this emptiness is yours YOU’RE THE WEAKNESS (WEAKNESS)”. It’s definitely one of my favourites.
It’s interesting, I think, to look at bands in their specific socio-economic context. Inspiral Carpets hailed in the main from Oldham, north-east Manchester. At the time of the band members’ youth, it was in the process of deindustrialisation, having been one of the most productive cotton mill towns in the world. The music coming out of this region in the 20th century was by turns angry, vital and uplifting.
Drummer Gill, incredibly knowledgeable in the industrial and cultural heritage of his hometown, became a specialist tour guide later on and saw connections between these seemingly disparate themes. During an interview he gave to Visit Manchester in 2013, he made the link from band to band, era to era, going some way to explaining how the city’s energy and vitality developed.
He said: “Years ago, that’s where it all started, in the old cotton mills… Manchester’s ‘natural’ history paved the way for musical heritage. A lot of the industrial buildings, the old cotton mills, made a nice natural environment for the music industry to flourish because a lot of these mills were turned into music venues, studios and nightclubs.”
Gill’s drums really caught my ears on so many tracks, notably the driving militaristic beat within the hook of She Comes in the Fall, a song I’d not heard for years but instantly loved once back in my consciousness. Earning equal place in my heart after many years’ absence is Bitches’ Brew, from the album I was most familiar with in my teenage years, Revenge of the Goldfish.
The combination of Lambert, Boon, Walsh, Gill and Hingley was solid until 1995, when they were dropped by their label after Devil Hopping failed to match the success of the previous album release. But they returned sporadically without officially splitting, doing well in their respective side projects.
Hingley had parted company with the band permanently by 2011, and Holt returned to the fold. He sang that year’s single release, You’re so good for me, a pleasing and angular piece of electro-pop with a side serving of Joy Division slashed across by Lambert’s guitar.
After You’re so good for me in 2011, singles popped up again in 2013 and 2014, with Fix your Smile and Let You Down. Walsh’s opening bass on Fix Your Smile has echoes of Peter Hook’s playing, while Let you Down – a swirling stomp with added poetry recital by north country counter-culture icon, John Cooper Clarke – is led by Boon’s signature brand of psychedelia, where the Doors meet Manchester.
Let you Down and You’re so Good for Me ended up on their first album in a decade (and Holt’s official first one with the band), 2014’s self-titled Inspiral Carpets, and by 2015, the band had edged their way back into the spotlight amid a huge revival of 1990s bands on the touring circuit. I was lucky enough to catch their electric set supporting Shed Seven at London’s Roundhouse in December 2015 and was looking forward to what might be coming next.
But a terrible personal blow was to come for the Inspirals in November 2016. Craig Gill took his own life at the age of 44, having been dealing with the debilitating effects of tinnitus for 20 years. He’d been a mainstay in the band for 30 years, having joined at just 14.*
That year, in memory of their beloved drummer, a group of fans attempted to get Saturn 5 to Number 1 for Christmas in Gill’s honour on digital downloads.
This year, the surviving band members finally feel able to gig again, although the experience is bound to be an emotional one. Their UK tour dates have been billed as a a chance to commemorate Craig’s life as well as “a celebration of the music we created, which has brought so much joy to people over the last 34 years”.
If you’re hoping to catch the Inspiral Carpets, you might need to act quickly – half the dates originally announced for March and April are sold out, including the homecoming date at Manchester Albert Hall on 1st April. However, another smattering of dates has been added throughout May, June and July, before the band heads over to Australia and New Zealand for August.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the 14 newly remixed tracks included on this compilation.
The group has been bold, exploring a range of dance genres that reflect their wider influences or interests, such as dub.
Dragging me Down suits a harder dance beat and I can imagine this version bringing a new generation to their feet on the dancefloor; ditto Caravan which is given a housey spin. I particularly enjoyed the techno-inflected remix of Changes by the band’s Martyn Walsh and Simon Lyon.
My least favourite of the new versions was the Robbery Mix of This is How It Feels, but I’m probably being biased and stuck in my ways over the idea of meddling with a song that was bordering on perfection in its original form. If it’s good enough for the song’s originators, it should be good enough for me!
INSPIRAL CARPETS – 2023 TOUR
Thurs 23 Northampton Roadmenders
Fri 24 Newcastle Boiler Shop
Sat 25 Oxford Academy
Sun 26 Brighton Concorde 2
Fri 31 Cambridge Junction
Sat 1 Manchester Albert Hall
Sun 2 Nottingham Rescue Rooms
Sat 8 Leeds O2 Academy
Thurs 13 Glasgow Galvanisers
Fri 14 Sheffield Leadmill
Sat 15 Shepherds Bush Empire
Fri 21 Coventry HMV Empire
Sat 22 Frome Cheese & Grain
Tickets on sale here: www.gigsandtours.com.
*If you need someone to talk to, Samaritans can be contacted free, 24-hours a day on 116 123.
❉ Inspiral Carpets: ‘The Complete Singles’ released on 17 March 2023 via Mute/BMG on double vinyl, and as a 3CD set with an exclusive remix bonus disc released via Mute/BMG on 17 March 2023. Order from Amazon*
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