The Loft: ‘Ghost Trains & Country Lanes’ (1984-2015)

Going up the hill and down the slope with early Creation signing the Loft.

A few years ago Cherry Red released a box set of the first ten singles on Creation Records, called Creation Artifact 45. The box includes records by The Pastels, Jasmine Minks, a couple of Alan McGee’s own bands and two bands linked to music journalists. The Legend! who recorded the label’s debut single, is journalist Everett True. The other band – The Loft – were much cannier about their music journalist links, but bassist Bill Prince wrote for Sounds, guitarist Andy Strickland wrote for Record Mirror and lead singer and songwriter Peter Astor would go on to write for the NME (their unpaid manager/ roadie Danny Kelly – who provides the sleeve notes here – was already an NME writer).

So much of early Indie Pop is the work of bands wearing their inspirations on their sleeves – sixties pop, jangly Byrdsian guitars, soul music, garage rock etc – but brought together through the medium of punk/ post-punk’s DIY ethic to form something wholly new. The reason why the Loft stand apart from their peers is because although they weren’t shy of their inspirations – Astor’s fascination with Richard Hell, whose Time is covered twice here, would lead to a book about Blank Generation for the 33 1/3 series – and obviously had the right music press connections, they hid them well. Their joyous jangle is combined with a fierce intelligence.

The Loft also don’t really sound like anything else on Creation Artifact. Much as Creation has become a knotty beast since its demise, tangled up with McGee’s later eccentric signings and the weird legacy of Oasis, those early years revealed a label with more self-belief than their peers. Sarah were romantically idealistic, Subway were self-deprecating and El this fantasy world of Mike Alway’s invention. Creation were, across these ten singles, the label that obviously wanted to do far, far more. And the Loft were vitally important in achieving this.

David Cavanagh’s classic history of the label, My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize, takes the title from the first line in Up The Hill And Down The Slope, the A side of their debut single. The title of this collection also comes from it and it is absolutely the Loft and Peter Astor’s abiding contribution to music history: one of the most glorious and ramshackle pop songs of all time, up there in that special category with Orange Juice’s Blueboy and The Chesterfields’ Completely and Utterly as songs that are the apex of Indie Pop.

It’s a wonderful loping song, with a sort of controlled swagger to it that sets it apart. Astor’s vocal has this wonderful way of skipping through the Subterranean Homesick Blues style outburst of words that feels like it’s gliding through this torrent of images. It also is very unlike the other vocals of indie pop bands of the time which tended towards fey, soulful, dispassionate or particularly the Edwyn Collins inspired croon which would become cemented in Morrissey’s delivery. Astor isn’t any of these. He’s absolutely himself. Similarly, there’s the chutzpah of that guitar solo! More correctly it’s almost an anti-guitar solo – Astor was apparently going for Thelonious Monk – but so totally assured of itself. It reminds you of similarly solo, of sorts, in Orange Juice’s Blueboy. Neither are about guitar histrionics but another expression of the song’s giddy joy.

What’s so great about this collection – and it is absolutely wonderful and far more comprehensive than its predecessors – is that it’s structured very carefully to go from the Loft then and the Loft now. They fell out for the usual reasons bands fall out (egos; McGee getting a bit over effusive with praise for Astor and thus driving a wedge between the bandmates), with Astor going on to form the equally wonderful Weather Prophets with drummer Dave Morgan, and Prince and Strickland forming beloved indie bands The Wishing Stones and The Caretaker Race respectively. But from the evidence of their 2015 reunion session and their 2005 single for Static Caravan, they’re still absolutely at the top of their form. By mixing the reunion material with the originals, it nicely frames a band reluctant to worry about legacy and instead keen to show that their new music is just a continuation.

Of the newer songs Ride is a nice development of the chord sequence of the Byrds’ 8 Miles High without ever seeming like a pastiche, and Beware sounds like an absolute classic on the very first listen. I also love how they confidently call a song Rickety Frame because so much of the appeal of indie pop to me is how the very best of the songs constantly sound like they might collapse at any moment but are held together by sheer self-belief and enthusiasm. Up The Hill seems to almost always end up with semi improvised lyrics – and according to Neil Taylor’s wonderful C86 & All That their last original performance was marked by Astor extemporising thinly veiled barbs at Prince and Strickland during this section – and on one performance here, Astor just seems to pass lyrics entirely. It’s a weird self-belief that, sod it, I don’t need to actually articulate the words here, you all understand exactly what I’m trying to say. It’s absolutely thrilling.

Much of disc two is dominated by an extraordinarily assured 1984 performance at McGee’s club night The Living Room (also the original name of the band themselves: they obviously just moved up a couple of floors to the Loft, as it were). A performance of their classic Your Door Shines Like Gold (which with Up The Hill and their other masterpiece Why Does The Rain appears most frequently on this collection, but in significantly different form to sound special each time) from this concert appears on Creation’s first album Alive In The Living Room where it shares room – and more than holds its own – with some of their peers from the Creation Artifact box but also with elder statesmen and inspirations including the Television Personalities and Alternative TV. It’s crudely recorded, and with more audience chatter than you would expect, but the band are extraordinarily focused and confident and it gives you some idea of how they must have been to see live at their early peak.

Astor has gone on to make some wonderful music since the demise of both The Loft and The Weather Prophets – I particularly recommend his albums as The Wisdom of Harry – but it’s lovely to hear him back with the Loft. Much of the please of indie pop is that it allowed the introverted to articulate themselves through fanzines or three-minute pop songs. Some of it can be so ramshackle that detractors have even called the genre Shambling. But there have always been bands in the genre who seem to have been more comfortable with a bit of swagger (without tipping over to the, in my mind, ridiculous leather trouser nonsense of Bobby Gillespie) mixed with their jangling guitars. And The Loft are kind of apex of that. It’s a thrilling sound, and one that still sounds wonderful. This collection is a love letter to these beautiful songs and testament to that, if we’re lucky, there might still be more to come.

The Loft: ‘Ghost Trains & Country Lanes – Studio, Stage And Sessions 1984-2005’ 2CD Digipak is released 23 April 2021 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.

Header image: Header image: Peter Astor © Creation Records. Image subject to copyright.

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