Has it really been 34 years since a gaggle of us American teens/twenty-somethings were transfixed by The Mighty Lemon Drops music video for "Inside Out?" For me anyway, it seems like it was merely yesterday, and even though I wasn't onto these leather-jacketed, Midlands UK denizens from the second their first album Happy Head dropped in 1986, I wouldn't haven't preferred any other introduction. Sounding not unlike the hypothetical mixed-blood orphans of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Julian Cope and early Echo and the Bunnymen, the Paul Marsh-helmed quartet were included on the now seminal C86 compilation tape of the class of 1986 Brit indie hopefuls, yet ultimately they weren't defined by or tethered to that scene.
Catching many a lucky break since their formation in 1985, MLD had the chops and songs to break out of England, and they did so quite handily with a legacy any band would be flabbergasted with. Inside Out is a new five disc box set that that surveys an in-depth assessment of virtually every scrap of material they laid down between 1985 and '90, with the centerpieces composed of remastered and expanded versions of their first three albums - Happy Head, World Without End, and Laughter.
There were a handful of significant short-form releases (singles, etc) that preceded Happy Head which I'll address later, but as for their debut album, the MLD made their presence and intentions known amidst a confident, pounding and urgent mesh of jangle and distortion. In addition to proving their post-punk bona-fides on the Stephen Street-produced Happy Head, whatever psychedelic affectations the quartet wielded were at their apex here, and would never be quite as prominent again. At heart they were a pop band, but a tense and vigorous one at that with driving bashers including "The Other Side of You," "Take Me Up," and the title cut all leaving a trail of sweet and sour lemon peelings in their gritty wake. I'd be remiss if I left out one of the band's signature pieces, "My Biggest Thrill," bearing a knockout chorus hook so effective that even the likes of Ian McCulloch could never dream of wrapping his pouty lips around it. Happy Head may not have leveled the same sonic impact as say, Psychcocandy, but it's just about the closest these lads would ever come to honing the perfect record. As for bonus content, this disk is rounded out by a bevy of contemporary b-sides and their debut EP, 1985's Like an Angel.
Shortly after it's release, Sire Records in the States quickly followed ...Head up with an eight-song mini album, Out of Hand in '87 with the emphasis being on early singles and live numbers. While there are no complaints to be had about this holdover record in of itself, the songs that composed it are fragmented as bonus tracks across no less than three different CDs in this set. Shame shame. Needless to say I wish they had retained Out of Hand's original running order, but that's just about the only quibble I can take with Inside Out.
In 1988 the Lemon Drops delivered their not-so-difficult second album. Indeed, World Without End didn't come close to 'breaking' them in the States but it did a hell of a lot to raise their profile. Happy Head may have cast the mold, but World... was palpably sharper, focused, and considerably tauter. The beauty is that none of these developments came at the expense of sacrificing their idealism. To reiterate, the album's key single, "Inside Out," is nothing short of a head turner, an embittered anthem of scorned love that drives it's point home not so much with indignant rage but seismic melody. Further in, "Hear Me Call" pitches the kind of angular sway that turns a merely good song into something phenomenal, and even when the going slides into something a tad routine, song-for-song World...unfurls yet another goldmine. We're treated to no less than nine bonus cuts here, including most of the studio material on the aforementioned Out of Hand, plus a clutch of newer b-sides with the decent "Head on the Block" and a respectable run through of the Stones "Paint it Black" leaving the deepest impressions.
What I'm about to posit might strike you as a strange (at the very least) analogy but here goes. Laughter was to the MLD, what the 'Black Album' was to Metallica - a solid 45° turn that altered the scope of Paul Marsh and Co's original penchant without squashing the band's overarching premise. Did the album's demonstrable radio-friendly tweaks irk early fans? I really have no idea, as I wasn't tuned into the politics at the time, but Laughter undoubtedly took some getting used to. The good: the Lemon Drops finally made a dent with the Yanks, thanks in part to relatively mainstream alt-rock radio embracing the likes of "Into the Heart of Love" and "Where Do We Go From Heaven." The bad? Horns simply don't suit the MLD. These boys were no Style Council, and in the case of the especially egregious "Written in Fiction" the trumpets are outright overpowering, not to mention gaudy. Perhaps so much so that a brass-less mix of the tune is featured as a bonus selection on the supplementary portion of Laughter. With that out of the way, the 'hits' were considerably more tolerable, as were a pair of visceral album cuts, "The Heartbreak Thing" and "Second Time Around." A lively, modernized cover of the Standells "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear" should have made the album proper, and not been relegated to a mere b-side.
With the trifecta of the bands first batch of LPs out of the way that leaves two more discs in this set. I suppose the band could have taken the obvious and easy way out and finish things off with the Lemon Drops fourth and fifth albums, Sound... and Ricochet, but instead they went all out and included two CDs worth of Happy Head and World Without End-era demos, radio sessions, and a pastiche of various live tracks. The first installment kicks off with their first demo tape, 1985's Some of My Best Friends Are Songs. Originally appearing on the now out-of-print Uptight early rarities collection, it's clear that the shadow of the Bunnymen loomed large over these eight nascent tunes, but while the Lemon Drops still had a lot of wood-shedding ahead of them they boasted a commendable foot in the door. Tackling the Velvets "There She Goes Again," made for a dandy punctuation mark at the end of this one. We're then treated to some vintage BBC sessions, a subsequent set of demos (wherein the band sounds doubly more confident) and an extract of selections from a 1986 performance at the London Astoria.
The last CD concludes with largely more of the same, with an especially plush and warm sounding Manchester radio session circa 1988, another quick shot of demos, including "Hear Me Call," and the even more enticing, post punk-tinctured "World Without End," an outtake that never carried over to the album of it's own namesake. From there, there's about an album's worth of live cuts snatched from no less than three different gigs. The whole shebang is topped off with an extended mix of their signature piece "Inside Out." Inside Out (referring to the box set as a whole) is an ideal place for fans intrigued with the Lemon Drops video and radio hits of yore to delve in further to hear what they've missed over the past thirty years or so. As for MLB completists who assume they already have everything, to a certain extent that's accurate, but the remastering is impeccably good, and who wouldn't want a catalog this potent conveniently gathered up in one tidy place?