McGee was a Glasgow, Scotland transplant who uprooted in London with fellow Glasgowan Andrew Innes in the early '80s. They cut their teeth under the banner of a short-lived group called The Laughing Apple (who I'll address momentarily), but a little further into the decade Biff Bang Pow! came into being, in earnest by 1983, when their first single "Fifty Years of Fun" saw the light of day. A steady stream of releases throughout the Thatcher era saw the band emerging as one of the most prolific focal points in the Brit UK indie scene (of which in no small way they helped to kick off). Though a fairly well guarded secret outside the mainstream, in the lens of history they're regarded as the quintessence of the particular strain of guitar pop they specialized in, and in terms of specific songs, even the gold standard. Cherry Red has boxed and anthologized the entirety of the BBP cannon across the six disk A Better Life - Complete Creations 1981-1991, with expanded versions of all the albums and EPs, offering generous supplemental live and studio material, including that of McGee's precursor bands.
That conveniently leads into the sixth CD in this collection, which might as well be the first since it consists exclusively of material prior to the formation of Biff Bang Pow! The aforementioned Laughing Apple were a trio McGee formed shortly after arriving in London, who boasted a brief discography to say the least - one ep and a pair of singles, all of which are collected here. L/A were defiantly post-punk brandishing some definite Fall-isms, not to mention what sounds like a consumption of what early (and I mean early) Scritti Politti were responsible for. Apple were a tad abrasive, but wielded powerful hooks and charm, transforming "I'm Okay," "Participate!" and "Wouldn't You" into edgy delights that demand repeat listens. Some unreleased Apple demos are appended as well as a three song demo tape from Newspeak, McGee's even earlier DIY endeavor from when he was still based in Scotland. The Newspeak version of "Wouldn't You?" is a wonderful lo-fi incarnation, reminiscent of one of their most criminally overlooked contemporaries, The Freshies. The disk closes out with some interesting but non-essential dabblings accredited to McGee and Swell Maps/Television Personalities bassist Jowe Head.Pass The Paintbrush, Honey, leads things out with their fevered, cataclysmic second single "There Must Be a Better Life," brimming with chiming guitars, a propulsive back-beat and headstrong vocals, making for the same visceral introduction that perhaps only the Smiths could equal. It's accompanying seven tracks are a mixed, but usually enticing lot, with the psych-tinged "The Chocolate Elephant Man" and the manicured-noise of "A Day Out With Jeremy Chester" leaving superb impressions. The Laughing Apple's "Wouldn't You" proved to be so damn irrepressible it's reprised here in a new recording. Appended to Paintbrush, is the band's premier single, the urgent "Fifty Years of Fun." "In the Afternoon," better known as a tune done by Revolving Paint Dream, another band that involved McGee and Andrew Innes, makes an appearance here in an early, alternate guise, as do a few demos to round things out. Pass The Paintbrush, may not strike anyone as an un-toppable album (and it ain't) but it's still one of the most satisfying records BBP attached their name to.
A good one year late for the C86 indie movement they were keenly responsible for, McGee & Co's. second LP, The Girl Who Runs The Beat Hotel emerged in 1987. That's a full two years between releases, a veritable epoch in the '80s indie timetable. Of course, McGee was a growing and gathering label mogul, which I'm sure had a tad to do with the layover. The development on ...Beat Hotel is startling, especially in terms of BBP's production advancements. The song-for-song quality control evidenced on Paintbrush is retained if not improved here - and perhaps much of that record's revivalist-psych affectations. Tucked in amidst the band's overarching distortion/jangle splay are some acoustic forays, specifically ...Beat Hotel's title piece, a harbinger of sorts for what later BBP records would entail. By now, the lineup had increased to accommodate Christine Wanless (another of McGee's co-conspirators in Revolving Paint Dream). Contributing background vocals sporadically, but seizing the mic outright on "If I Die," Wanless puts a proverbial fresh coat of paint on things, to almost jarring effect. In addition to the ten-song album, the appendix of Beat Hotel is particularly generous, starting with six tracks for an abandoned record, Sixteen Velvet Friends, that was to slot between this album and Paintbrush. Half of these songs are heretofore unreleased and demonstrable of BPP's rawer, nascent approach, though not necessarily revelatory. Still, a huge find for established customers. Plenty more booty to be had as well including several above-average b-sides and unreleased alternate takes including a demo of the title track with Christine Wanless on lead vocals.
To say that Oblivion, the band's second album from 1987 is "the one where it all came together" would be a misstatement. The truth is Biff Bang Pow! always had "it," but up to this point hadn't quite channeled the "it" into something transcendent that might have appealed to folks beyond the hipsters and those with their noses buried deep in the latest issue of Melody Maker. Even if the album didn't boast the requisite sales numbers to escalate BBP to household name status, it served as an excellent distillation of what they had attempted to create up to that point - and the closest they would come to making a perfect record. Home to one of their most crucial signature songs, "She's Got Diamonds in Her Hair," and several others on the same album side that could vie for a similar spot, Oblivion wasn't merely a showcase of ten songs ranging from good to timeless, but a metaphorical fulcrum in their catalog, not only for it's middle placement in the BBP discography, rather it's seamless balance of grit and polish. Drop the needle anywhere and you're unlikely to find these songs skewing to any particular extreme, as they get by on the sheer viability of their own merits. And whether people took note or not, Oblivion functioned as a fairly accurate precursor to the soon-to-be world-dominating Brit-pop circuit. The A Better Life iteration of the album tacks on a handful of alternate takes, and get this, a full concert from September of '87 tracked in Dortmund, Germany featuring not only a healthy portion of the LP in question, but a bevy of classics.
Love is Forever followed in 1988. Easily Biff's most varied and adventurous platter, though not surprisingly, still relatively accessible. "Miss California Toothpaste" driving strangle and drumb could pass for a choice Oblivion b-side. Things take a turn for the Ameri-cousti-rana when the crew whips out a harmonica for "She Haunts" and "Searching For the Pavement," but a little further in they're up to their collective elbows in amp-shredding freakout-mode on the uber-ballsy "Electric Sugar Child," with "Ice Cream Machine" kicking up a fervent yet tidier plume of guitar-laden dust. The penultimate "Startripper" makes for a strummy, contemplative comedown, sans any melancholy notions. Hitched to this wagon is the 1990 mini-album, Songs For the Sad Eyed Girl, a transitional affair of sorts wherein McGee unplugs for seven cuts. It's not quite Darklands, nor are we treated to a Billy Bragg-esque, socio-political ax to grind, rather the man of the hour finds this particular guise a more suitable vehicle for his most plaintive and unencumbered songwriting yet.
Last but not least, the transition is fully realized on the almost entirely acoustic, go-it-alone outing, Me. I'm sure multiple music scribes before little old me have deemed this album tantamount to an Alan McGee solo record, so for better or worse I'll graft myself to the end of the line. Me is thoroughly lucid and exudes a discernible purity, albeit not consistently memorable. For die-hard BBP devotees only, but there are a couple of earworms worth an honorable mention: "I'm Burned" and "Lovers." One of the bonus selections, "Long Live Neil Young and All Who Sail in Him" is almost livelier than anything on Me proper, though I don't think anyone will be mistaking this LP for Harvest anytime soon.
A Better Life - Complete Creations 1981-1991 is outstandingly packaged, and naturally, contains hours of music that's been a best-kept secret for far too long. It's available direct from Cherry Red and Amazon as we speak.