Strange World – ‘Space: The Anthology’ reviewed

❉ As the band gets the box-set treatment, Paul Holmes looks back at the Scouse indie-oddballs’ career.

It’s 1996, and the United Kingdom is celebrating what will quite probably be its final hurrah as the epicentre of pop culture. Cool Britannia is in full swing, with Britpop, Trainspotting and the Spice Girls making enormous waves all over the world. The Tory government, led by an increasingly disheartened John Major, is falling apart, and soon New Labour will come along and sweep up the nation into a fever pitch.

And something very weird is happening in our pop charts. Always an eclectic of popular music styles, there’s suddenly a resurgence in kooky, quirky music that had arguably taken a back seat since the summer of love had come to an end. And much like the mid-1960s, at the epicentre of this is a quartet from Liverpool, who are making strange music about losers and weirdos that’s shifting huge volumes.

Whilst they were never destined to have the chart longevity of that other fab four, Space nevertheless had a reasonable run of Top 40 success, before becoming victims of circumstance. Now, a new Anthology box-set is on the market courtesy of Edsel, collecting up most of the tracks released during their initial run, as well as the first products of their revival in the last decade.

Formed in 1993 by singer-guitarist Tommy Scott, singer and bassist Jamie Murphy, and drummer Andy Parle, the band’s debut 12” single, If It’s Real?, was a sharp number that owed a debt to The B-52’s and The Cramps, with its punky riff and almost yelled lead vocals.

Their debut album, Spiders, added a key element to the group’s sound in the shape of keyboardist Franny Griffiths. Influenced by dance music – particularly electronica – Griffiths heled the band fuse of disparate elements together, bringing in samples and synthesised filmic string arrangements to create a signature Space sound. In Scott and Murphy, the band had two alternating lead vocalists and principal songwriters, though it would be Scott’s songs that would be pushed to the forefront as singles.

And whilst their second and third singles stalled, the fourth was set to become an anthem worldwide. Recorded in tribute to Scott’s father, Female of the Species was an immediate hit, and helped push the album to sell a whopping 800,000 copies within two years.

Suddenly, the band were big news, with hit after hit under their belt. Me & You vs the World was a tale of two star-struck lovers who die in a bungled robbery;  Dark Clouds dreamt of a holiday far away from a terrible life, and Neighbourhood spoke of weird and wonderful individuals who would band together to fight the threat of demolition. Space’s world was a bizarre place, with songs about serial killers and psychopaths, but it was always welcoming, with an arch wink to its audience and an appreciation for, as Lydia Deetz once put it, the “strange and unusual”.

With Parle bowing out, Space recruited multi-instrumentalist Yorkie, and drummer Leon Caffrey to record their follow up. Tin Planet became another sizable hit, with its first two singles threatening the higher reaches of the charts. Avenging Angels and The Ballad of Tom Jones cemented the band’s place in the mainstream, and the latter brought them to the attention of its namesake. Jones had joined the same label as the band (Gut Records), and asked them to join him on his covers album Reload. More high-profile guest slots followed, and the band’s cover of We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place became the theme to a high profile car ad for good measure. By the summer of 1999, they’d well and truly joined the big league.

But by the time their third album came along, Space’s relationship with Gut Records was strained. The band had chosen musician Edwyn Collins to produce their third album, Love you More than Football, but the label didn’t like the results. Struggling to cope with the cost of promoting Tom Jones’ Reload record, the label’s promotion of Space’s first single in 18 months, Diary of a Wimp, was lacklustre and the track failed to crack the top 40. After an argument, the label shelved the band’s new record, and whilst bootleg copies have been circulating for years, the Anthology box-set is the first time the whole album (augmented with a couple of B-sides) has ever been released in its entirety.

Frustrated by the situation, Jamie Murphy quit. The remaining members pushed onwards, self-releasing the single Zombies in 2002, as well as a series of free downloads through their website (all of which make their commercial CD debut here, too). In 2004, they released a new album, Suburban Rock ‘N’ Roll, which was arguably their strongest set yet. But without a major label behind them, the album and its singles failed to find an audience, and Space called it a day the following year.

Following the sudden death of original drummer Andy Parle, the band decided to get back together for a one-off gig in their home town of Liverpool. Tommy Scott, Jamie Murphy and Franny Griffiths were joined by members of Tommy’s new band The Drellas – Phil Hartley, Allan Jones and Ryan Clarke – and it’s this line-up, minus Murphy, who went on to record the band’s fifth album – and first in a decade.

2014’s Attack of the Mutant 50ft Kebab was strongly influenced by the psychobilly tinged punk sound of The Drellas, and now Space were comfortable with the fact that they’d never really trouble the charts again, they produced a strong set of horror/sci-fi tinged numbers that would reignite their cult following. Clarke would bow out of the group shortly after the album’s initial tour wrapped up, leaving Scott, Griffiths, Hartley and Jones to keep the flame alive ever since.

And so we come to this Anthology box-set, which begins with 1993’s If It’s Real single, and runs to 2016’s single Strange World across six CDs. It’s a far from complete overview of the band’s oeuvre: with 14 b-sides from the Gut era missing. Also absent are 2014 b-side The Devil’s at the Party, and The Shit You Talk is Beautiful: a Gut era track which remained unreleased until various compilations were peddled out in the mid-00s without the band’s input.

There’s also no sign of the band’s title track to the 1998 Hollywood blockbuster (and box office bomb) Lost in Space, their duet with Tom Jones (Sunny Afternoon), or their contributions to Noel Coward and Bee Gees tribute albums from the same year. There’s also no sign of any of their remixes, which in many cases were produced by the band themselves, and reflect the more electronic side of their output.

And the band’s most recent work is also absent: 2016 single Blow Up Doll (and its’ vinyl-only B-sides), 2017 single Dangerous Day, and 2018 studio album Give Me Your Future could all have been on a seventh disc. In fact, the end result is that 36 studio recordings and dozens of remixes are missing, and frustratingly, all but the first two CDS in the box had plenty of space left over to include them and make this set truly definitive.

On the positive side, Love You More than Football finally gets an official release here and several tracks have never had commercial CD releases either. So while it could have been better, in the end, this box-set gives you five studio albums, plus 31 bonus recordings, for under £20.

And if you’ve only ever heard the handful of top ten hits from over two decades ago, you’re in for an absolute treat, with the lesser known later albums more than living up to the mega-selling 90s records. And if you were a massive fan 20 years ago, but haven’t checked in with them since, allow me to quote one of their more recent songs – listening to this box-set will be like “falling in love all over again”. Dive in.

❉ ‘Space: The Anthology’ is released 8 November 2019 from Edsel Records (EDSL0045), RRP £19.99. Click here to order from Demon Music Group.

❉ An occasional contributor to We Are Cult, Paul Holmes ran alternative comedy site The Velvet Onion for eight years, and has written for Arts Council England, Music News, various theatres and the rock band Queen. Follow him on Twitter: @didymusbrush

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