The pop-art, psych and mod of their debut album Bed. My take on their classic, including a new interview with bassist and songwriter Tara Milton!
To interview Tara after all these years of listening to the music has been brilliant – his insight on the music went beyond my expectations. We also talked about his recent solo album Serpentine Waltz and his plans for the future.
I also interviewed George Shilling, who mixed the album, and did some of the additional production (Marc Waterman was the producer). George has a great CV and has worked on many of my favourite albums – Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point (we also digressed into a great andecdote with George going shopping for lambrettas with Mani), Teenage Fanclub’s Songs from Northern Britain, Julian Cope’s Saint Julian (more on that one soon..). More about George’s work here on his website.
2020 still finds Tara in great form, passionate and proud of the music he produced with Five Thirty and what the whole package meant. We’re also nearly at 30 years since the album was released. I asked Tara about reflecting on the music after all this time:
“I never imagined that people would still be interested in ‘Bed’ or Five Thirty, some thirty years after the release of our first and last album. It’s a mild source of amusement to think that if people are still interested in Serpentine Waltz another 30 years down the road, that would make me an 82 year old, an octogenarian no less! But who’s to say what that magical ingredient is that allows a record to transcend it’s time frame and become a feature on the listeners musical landscape? ‘ Bed’ seems to have achieved this. Not too many weeks go by when I don’t receive some kind of correspondence from somewhere on the planet, eulogising this piece of work. Sorry to sound grandiose, I guess it’s like the inverse of Dorian Grays’ portrait really. While the whole world around us has become almost unrecognisable, friends passed on, relationships separated, dreams dissolved. All these elements are restored, for the duration of the record the listener is invited back to a place from which life has moved on. Once again they are fully vulnerable and invincible, once again they experience that ’Strange Kind of Urgency’”
Five Thirty’s output burned and blazed into a great piece of music and art. but it was caught between the decline of baggy and britpop, and not fitting with shoegaze, it never broke through. All the singles and album grazed the bottom ends of the charts, a fanbase was there but sometimes you never quite know why there isn’t that wider connection. Look at Shack’s Waterpistol, Nick Drake’s albums. Bob Stanley wrote about Five Thirty and World of Twist in this 2013 Guardian article ‘The perils of being ahead of your time’. They even had Alan McGee as their manager for a while.
I think a comparison with Blur is an interesting one – they were on a major label in 1991 and released an album that was well received but not mega successful and didn’t quite fit in. By 1992 it looked like it might all fall apart and they certainly weren’t seen as contenders, but suddenly something clicked for them and off they went towards britpop and the rest is history. Five Thirty certainly had the songs and talent to have produced something that would have burst right into that scene and evolved through the whole thing like Blur. They had the energy and passion, in our interview George Shilling noted that “Paul and Tara were very motivated, determined, and seemed to be on a bit of a mission”
There is also an epic rock and roll story about Aleister Crowley’s red door, more on that later.
Where to begin…
In 1990 I read a Sounds review of a debut EP, Abstain, by a band called Five Thirty. I was 19 in 1990 – I’ve read a lot over the years about how certain music will resonate and stay with you forever at that age. I was with Five Thirty for the whole journey. The music I heard on that EP was full of 3-piece mod and punk energy, harmonies and wah wahed guitar. There were four tracks – Abstain, You, Catcher in the Rye, Coming up for air. There was urgency to the band’s music – songs bursting to get out, lyrics bearing their soul, seeking a meaning in life. It also sent me to understand what lay behind the songs. Five Thirty led me to read JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and took me deeper into the story about the alienation that lay behind the lyrics.
I was in! after that I shot out to buy each release, (and made sure they were well positioned when I worked in HMV!), watching the sound of the band grow and build with each single, towards the release of the album, Bed, in 1991.
Five Thirty’s sound was tight – the swooping locked-in grooves of Tara’s bass playing, Paul’s hendrixy guitar and Phil’s mod like drumming. The harmonies are great as well, with Phil playing an important role here. I asked Tara about his bass playing and who his influences were – they span across a range of genres but clearly Motown was great a influence as he cites James Jamerson first (played on Marvin Gaye on What’s Going On), and Bob Babbit. He also cites Paul Macartney and you can certainly hear the influence of the paperback writer/rain/come together bass playing of Macca. He also mentions John Paul Jones, Bootsy Collins, Bruce Foxton, Kim Deal, Jacko Pastorius, Ronnie Lane.
The song writing partnership between Tara and guitarist Paul Milton clearly clicked, finding the words, melody and grooves.
The band had signed to major label, East/West, part of the Warner music group but the band insisted on creative control and it shows in the package they produced for each release – each single was released as a four track 12” with inserts and artwork I still have on my wall.
In our interview Tara talked with great passion about how they cared about the whole package:
“The artwork was often really special too, the inserts and designs. Look at Air Conditioned Nightmare for example, you’re getting a top work of art, TOP!, before you’ve even put the stylus on the vinyl.”
What makes Bed such a special album? For me, it’s the energy of how all those genres (psch, mod, funk) click together – the band were urgently trying to reach you with the songs. The songs flow perfectly in and out on the album and there is no space wasted on the slab of vinyl they wanted to fill. They had a pallet that was overflowing with songs at that point, with b-sides full of top tunes as well.
I asked George for his view of the album and he talked about how good it sounded relistening all these years on: “it’s got quite a variety of styles and arrangements in the songs – which I love, with a fair bit of experimentation and different sounds between the songs, but the underlying songs are all really well written and constructed.”
The album starts off with ‘Supernova’ – all swirly guitars, tight rhythm and story of a Syd Barrett type character – “you’re a supernova, it’s too bad that you’ve gone, you’re a supernova you can shine but can you carry on.” The song finishes with the bass and drums locking together into a great groove over backwards guitar. When we spoke about his reflections on the album nearly 30 years on, Supernova is one track Tara thinks could have been better. He explained how he bought the track into the studio on an acoustic.
“I remember we needed the lyrics for the last verse and Marc said, ‘you need to conclude the song somehow’, which gave me the idea to start the verse with the ‘now I’ve come to face conclusions’ line… I think it could have benefited from playing it live for a tour then recording. My vocal could’ve been better, less affected, even maybe Paul or Phil trying the vocal. Paul’s guitar was a great line, but maybe too heavy on the tremolo, Phil’s drums could have had more edge… It was the first song we recorded, so we were finding our feet in the studio, we did a basic drum and acoustic guitar with guide vocal, I then put the bass line down, which hadn’t been written…Anyway, if you actually listen to the bass line, I think it’s a classic kind of Motown bass line.”
In his interview with Mark Raison in Mod Culture Tara also talked about how much Alun McGee liked the single and had big hopes for it. And we also end up with Champagne Supernova on What’s the Story Morning Glory in a few years’ time (musical ley lines..).
The album then takes us through the energy, sergeant peppery riffs and harmonies of ‘Psycho-Cupid’ and then the sparky lyrics and slide guitar riffs of ‘Junk Male’. Tara recalls this track:
“‘Junk Male’ was very much a band collaboration. That actually came out of a jam Paul and Phi had in between takes on Supernova. Marc Warterman had the good sense to hit record. Wonderful spontaneity. I took the rough take home with Paul’s acoustic and Phil’s drums and came up with the words the melody and the bass. We then went back later and paul added a load of slide guitars and different effects. I was stuck for a line on the last verse…’Girl let’s run from the small town…? To which Paul suggested ‘shotgun’ And there you have it. I think Phil had the idea of adding bell chimes after the ‘behind the church we met today’ line.”
We’re then into the immense wah-wah hendrixy groove of ‘13th disciple’ – this track drew a lot of comparisons with the Stone Roses but the band had their own Sly and the Family Stone influences well before the Roses came on the scene and it deserves to live on its own, plus it has a booming psych chorus which Fools gold doesn’t have “I’m turning into someone else, I’m turning into my own self”. In our interview George Shilling said that he had spent some time relistening to the album before our interview and cited ‘13th discipline’ as his favourite track. At the time he’d just finished work on the Soup Dragon’s album Lovegod (and massive baggy single I’m Free) and he said that this track was the first one that he mixed, so this certainly did sprinkle so baggy vibes into the mix. He was then invited to mix the whole album.
Next up is ‘Strange kind of urgency’ – one of my favourite tracks – plenty of energy but the track builds and slows, with acoustic, alongside Tara’s bubbling bassline that is really high in the mix, plus a picked guitar motif at the end. The lyrics speak soul.
Then comes ‘You’, always a live favourite when I saw them – pounding wah wah, harmonies. In answer to my question about how closely Paul and Tara worked together as songwriters he talked about how they worked together:
“Paul and I both wrote alone, maybe Paul had a tendency to bring songs that were more completed in. But there was a lot of scope to get involved with the arrangements. ‘You’ for example, Paul brought in pretty much complete, but it sounded more like a shoe gazer with ethereal guitars and vocal harmonies. Phil and I then added very driving bass and drums and I overdubbed a dirty fuzzed up bass melody. Sounded a very different animal from Paul’s original demo, but of course, it was a strong composition from the go and fortunately the song didn’t get lost. All of the songs have their own little story and journey really.”
The feedback is then turned down for the pop art grooves of ‘Songs and Paintings’, a wry look at how much we expect from art and other people. ‘Womb with a view’ contains more great melody and spiky guitar from Paul and lyrics seeking shelter from the world. The song then finishes with a brass band – George talked to me about the “slightly surreal and bizarre brass band session for the end of Womb With A View. I think Paul’s uncle was in the brass band so we set them up and recorded them early one morning! It seemed a bit of a clash of cultures – the band were young and dangerous, and this was about 10 middle aged folks piling into the studio to play a ‘proper’ arrangement!”
The centre piece of album for me was always ‘Automatons’ and it was great to hear from Tara that this was also his favourite track on the album. It was the most experimental track, with looping drums and feedback, tunes and harmonies not to the fore but still woven in.
“Automatons naturally lent it’s self to that experimentation and Marc did a fantastic job on sampling and looping up the drums editing Pauls guitars. A lot of that technology was cutting edge stuff at the time, so he had a good head for that”.
“From it’s conception to it’s completion it was a really fun journey that involved all the band members, Marc Waterman’s recording and George Shilling giving all the elements cohesion in the final mix.”
George referred to Paul pushing the guitars in the mix “thing I remember was Paul urging me to be brave with the level of the guitars in the mix – he wanted them loud”.
After that the album takes us through the acoustic, reflective, ‘Wrapped up in blue’ and then finishes with the two Jam like numbers ‘Abstain’ – ‘left my heart on the pavement for pedestrians like you’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye’ from the first EP (these two tracks weren’t on the vinyl version of Bed I had, but were on the tape).
I saw Five Thirty live twice – once in Portsmouth and then in the tent at the Reading Festival in ‘91, when they blew the roof off a rammed gig and I thought they were hurtling upwards. I asked Tara about his best gigs with the band:
Some of the Marquee residence shows were good, not the first one. Brixton Fridge was good, Reading was crazy and places like Aldershot, Southampton, Leeds, where the kids went mental, the New Cross Venue also, that was one of the first times I thought, ‘This lot are going ballistic and I’m not having to think about anything, we were one man!’
Alongside all is the tragic story of the band’s artist friend, Chris, who committed suicide. This must have had a major impact on the band when they were nearing the end and Chris had been playing an important role in the band’s art. One of the last pieces of work was his artwork for the never finished EP. He also produced an unused cover for Bed (in the Mod Culture interview Tara mentions that it was submitted too late). He clearly was a major talent and so sad that someone so young was lost.
Out through the red door.
And now to the great rock and roll story to end it all. Legend had it that the band always took a red door with them on stage, which had belonged to Aleister Crowley. I can’t recall seeing it when I saw them live but memory not great after all this time…But you can clearly see them taking it on stage on this youtube clip below with Gary Crowley (6.33 in). Tara did confirm in his interview with Mod Culture that there was talk of the next EP after ‘You’ being called ‘Aleister Crowley’s door’, but it sadly never appeared. Tara also said in that interview that they had met up with Jimmy Miller and Tony Visconti, who were both up for producing. What might have been…
In the Mod Culture interview Tara also told the full story of the door!:
“The door came from this hippy that lived below me at Agar Grove in Camden. He and his friend had been demolishing Crowley’s old place in Gower Street. They left the door opposite my room and when he moved he left the door. It always had a kind of ominous presence, so I threw it into next door’s abandoned garden when I moved out and one day when we were driving past again I said “let’s get that door and put it on stage”. It ended up coming to America with us.”
And it brought you lots of bad luck!
Yeah, I did. But was it the door? Who knows. But it achieved what it was supposed to. We sent it down the Thames, we kind of made a funeral pyre out of it and drifted it down the Thames at Hampton Court.”
I did ask the inevitable question about whether the band might be interested in doing anything together to mark 30 years of Bed (which is scary for me as well…)
I just can’t believe it’s 30 years? I was 23 when we recorded it and I was actually paranoid that I was maybe too old? My head was in a pretty vulnerable place. I’ve reached out to Paul a few times in the past. It’s never got beyond that cause he hasn’t been up for it. I would be up for it, I feel like I’ve done my penance. But I doubt it will ever happen. Which is ok too, there’s something to be said with letting something rest in state.
In terms of Five Thirty I did asked Tara about other material left in the vault and there is still material there:
“There’s more stuff out there for sure. More demos for the would-be sophomore record ‘Another Fresh Corpse’ (working title). What a shame we never got to record that. There’s quality older material too, Young Believers, What We Call Dead, St Paul’s Bridge, Man In My Head, Walk In the Sun, Leaving All this Behind, Deborah, Organic Orange, just songs off the top of my head I know we recorded. I don’t have a vault unfortunately; my life has been too nomadic for that.
There is the prospect of some Five Thirty vinyl soon though! –
A record company has also approached us recently with the option of rereleasing the 1985 debut EP Catcher In the Rye, featuring Sean Twin and Steve Beatie to celebrate the 35th anniversary; which will be vinyl and may have a few other surprises, we’ll have to see…
Tara released a solo album, Serpertine Waltz, in 2018. I’m going to write a fuller piece about the album next week (and his subsequent band The Nubiles) as I want to do it full justice. I also asked Tara some questions about that as well and the live gig he played last year. The album got great reviews and massively deserves a wider audience. See this great track ‘Laying low in chicken town’ and video – still mixing music and art to great effect – a really cinematic tune.
Update – see my Serpentine Waltz review as well.
If you’ve never listened to Bed before (what have you missed!) it is on Spotify here and was reissued in 2013 by 3loop on CD only (though now sold out).