There’s a foreboding sense of romanticism that allows for struggling, dingy basement bands to forever play to handfuls of enthusiastic kids, scattered occasionally by a disinterested journo, dismissive A&R man or an incredulous scenester. There is also, it’s painful to say, a hell of a lot of awfully mediocre bands that seem to dredge up misplaced nostalgic feelings. We can all admit to loving bands in our relative youth because we knew them and they were fun and they played in tiny venues to JUST us. That’s why when a group enters your life and confounds your expectations the way Meet Me In St Louis did, yet remain sealed inside that dispiriting poetic vision of the struggle, the anniversary of the release of their debut album becomes an event worth celebrating.
If you’re at all in doubt as to just how passionately people felt about this band, perhaps it’s worth reminding you that Variations On Swing, produced by the incomparable Alex Newport, was partially fan-funded. This was before Patrick Wolf and Idlewild jumped on the bandwagon, of course. “Some people were really generous and gave between 50 and 100 quid!” guitarist Benny Llewelyn told me while editing VOS in the studio. The belief in what this band was capable of was extremely well-rewarded. Writing perhaps the most gushing review I can remember penning, I said at the time about the record: “Unassailable albums should become concerned about the safety of your lofty positions - Meet Me In St Louis have provided a debut of perfect post-hardcore abuse that can neither be fathomed nor faulted.”
From that initial squeal of feedback to the final dying Spirograph bleeps of the instrumental closer, the record is replete with snatches of severed textures, reverberations and savage clashes. The extraneous noises and melodic fragments that make up each track are more about impact and the serrated edges they create than any musical theory. That each song resolves into an indelible melodic line, a carved chord sequence or an unshakable lyric stops the whole undulating jigsaw becoming something entirely alien. Not to mention the ferocity and inclusive nature of their live act. This writer saw them but once at The Pleasure Unit in Bethnal Green, where Toby Hayes stepped from the stage, planting his mic-stand on the floor and joined the huddled crowd on the floor. Meanwhile his bandmates, Ben, Oli Knowles, Paul Phillips and Lewis Reynolds careened into each other, expertly shifting their topographical plateaus and viciously striking them asunder.
Video: Meet Me In St Louis: 'All We Need Is A Little Energon and A Lot Of Luck'
When Toby left to continue with his other band Shield Your Eyes and his solo outfit Shoes and Socks Off, the band was effectively over, despite attempts to find a replacement vocalist. The final tour was instrumental, showcasing the incredible musicianship of the band who had essentially learnt how to play their instruments together. In hindsight, it was a comparatively damp squib of a close – similar to the equally as important and underexposed Million Dead three years earlier – meaning their next projects are just as preciously shrouded in fandom and inescapably underground. Shield Your Eyes released their debut self-titled record in 2008. With Stef Ketteringham’s exceptionally original frenetic guitar style and Toby’s lancing bass lines and distinctive backing vocal, it was, and still is, an incredible record. Blitzing 70s blues/rock across a spectrum of post-hardcore noise, it turned out to be only another pit-stop for Toby. The band continue to exist without him, having released the final record with Toby involved, Shield ‘Em, this month. Toby is currently focusing on his solo project Shoes and Socks Off. He’s recorded two records, both containing the same songs; From The Muddy Banks of Melitzer is completely stripped bare with acoustic and voice while Hand-reared Surburban Piglet is a full band and electronic record. His third, To Where The Skyline Is Fortified With Windows And Doors, is due by the end of the year. Taking his distinctive, enveloping yet modern, scattershot imagery and setting it to looping, daredevil acoustic-led arrangements, this is pretty far from a folk-orientated side project. It’s unsurprising that the highly refined lexicon of rhythmic slaloming perfected by MMISL has worked its way silkily into Toby’s expressions. For those interested, the full-band arrangements this time will include members of visceral fun-core lads Blakfish and vital rage-kings Palehorse. Should be interesting.
Bassist Lewis has spent the past year in highly-charged pop band Colour, who have just played their last show and released their only album, a collection of 13 songs called Anthology. Though clearly far more punchy and immediate than MMISL, the technicality in JK Trood’s drums and some of the dime-denting time changes slipped in between the otherwise streamlined arrangements hint at similarly placed ambitions. More than anything though, they were really fun and are another band that will be sorely missed. The biggest news for MMISL fans though is that Paul, Oli and Lewis have joined former Bullet Union guitarist Jodie Cox in Tropics. It seems things are going to be completely revamped in the Tropics camp as the lack of tracks on the audio player on their myspace will account. With shows booked with Obits and This Town Needs Guns, they’re definitely worth keeping an eye on when they re-emerge.
So, just as it always leaves a bitter taste in the mouth that you missed MMISL’s last show – or never saw them live at all – there’s still an overwhelming positive aspect. Former members continue to make varied, exhilarating and passionate music in a variety of guises. So far everything has been of similar quality to the mighty source of elixir that was MMISL. We could also say that the British rock scene has been revitalised, if not necessarily influenced musically, by the flesh-stripping tornado of MMISL – the evidence is in Blakfish, The Tupolev Ghost, BATS, Penines, Brontide, Shapes, Rolo Tomassi, Easy Hips, Tubelord, Johnny Foreigner, Adebisi Shank, ad inifnitum.
Crucially, Meet Me In St Louis are one of the few UK bands I discuss and enthuse about seriously since their demise. Variations On Swing was such an incredibly realised record, that it’s genuinely difficult to see anyone coming close to sweeping it aside from its lofty perch. We’ve been here before I’m sure, and the most exciting thing about the UK music scene – for those really listening - is that this statement will probably turn out to be ill-judged come a year’s time. Still, reminiscing about a record seemingly so vital to our rock-orientated DNA, putting it on, getting lost in it, perhaps pulling a few shapes to the bone twisting time signatures, is all we’ve got for today. Tomorrow, we can get back to making sure we support the essential bands following in MMISL’s wake. It’s what they’d want.
Stay in your homes. Remember: history is paper. Personally I’m looking forward to reminiscing in the recovery position...
DiScuss: What effect did Variations On Swing have on you? Favourite song? What new bands have you been listening to of this particular ilk? What other debut albums should have their own annual holiday? Any anticipated debut albums which will rock face as much as Variations On Swing?