Much as I wish it weren’t so, the brilliant evocatively-named Pale Fountains are as Liverpooly as you can get, no matter how much they say they aren’t.
Their sharp Scouse wit, their love of music from a time gone by (they rave and foam about Burt Bacharach – “he’s a total genius” – in exactly the same tone of disbelieving reverence as Cope reserved for Scott Walker, their boyish enthusiasm as we group around the TV in Michael’s house to watch Coronation Street, their impressible confidence – oh yes, the PF’s are definitely a new Wah! or a young Teardrop about to explode!
Not in a musical sense of course, for these fountains are overflowing with a post-Postcard showering of pretty pop melodicism that all too often causes understandable but ultimately unjust accusations of tagging onto Orange Juice’s insubstantial coat tails, while in a previous interview they were naive enough to admit they wanted to be regarded as contemporaries of not only Weekend but Aztec Camera.
Too limiting, too narrow! Open up the horizons and break out. I mean, this horrendous sub-Postcard twee illustration that graces the cover of the Fountains’ utterly adorable debut single is all part of the dubious image they seem so intent on carving out for themselves, stupid twee Haircut 100-like boyish shorts and scout hats an’ all!
But for anyone able to see through this hideously-appropriate cuteness, the music has an engaging, gorgeously commercial worth and warmth.
It would be great if the Fountains could harness their natural enthusiasm and super-confidence into an onward looking assault on the charts away from the constructive confines of any “alternative scene” – I mean why say Weekend or Aztec Camera, worthy though they are?
Boy-genius singer/guitarist/writer Michael rubs his head in bewilderment as I gaze at his Family At War-severely cropped haircut. “I don’t know really, it’s just that I was asked in an interview if there were other groups like us in Liverpool, but…” (he turns to the others), “there’s no-one is there?
“There’s no-one else who plays this kind of stuff, just Aztec Camera who we’ve played with twice, and we’ve played with Weekend in London, so I just said them!”
But why do you think it is that bands like yourselves and the Aztecs come from typically tough areas (Liverpool and Glasgow) yet play a relatively gentle type of music?
“I think it’s because there are already so many groups playing the opposite, like their upbringing and punk influences come out in their music. When we played our first gig, these fellas asked us ‘Why don’t you play political songs?’, but there’s enough bands in Liverpool doing that already, whereas our individual influences are more sixties sort of things.”
So why did you go back to stuff like Burt Bacharach?
“We didn’t go back to it” starts Michael defensively, “we’d always liked that sort of thing.”
Quiet bassist Chris adds “like when I met you at that party…he was into Arthur Lee and Love, and he played me a load of old records he thought I’d like, and we were both really into that, so we just kept buying loads of those old records.”
But why Love and not The Clash?
“I don’t know….I just thought it would make a nice change” offers Michael weakly, seemingly caught out by the question. “See I knew this bloke who had loads of great albums…”
“….And if you went round to his house” continues Chris enthusiastically “he’d say ‘listen to this’ and he’d play thirty seconds of something, then he’d play another bit of something else, and you’d be assaulted by all sorts of brilliant music – and some names would stick out. And, just, Love was one of them.”
Nathan, percussionist extraordinaire who also looks after business matters, recalls “It’s funny, because when Andy Diagram played trumpet with us, we discovered that he really likes Love as well, so there’s a small group of people who all seemed to pick up on Love at the same time.
“For the Pale Fountains, Love was just the first influence and I suppose as musicians, you reproduce the music you hear. The special thing about Love is that they used a lot of arrangements and orchestral themes.”
It seems The Pale Fountains are – in their own gently self-mocking way – like the original Dexys, a gang of mates fired by an enthusiasm for old records and trying to recreate that same edge and atmosphere.
Michael: “Well, when Chris and I first met we couldn’t play our instruments and so when we formed the group, it really got on our nerves as we weren’t good enough musicians to play the music we wanted to play – it was just too hard!
“So we just had to practice and practice, and that’s why I think we progressed more than any other group in Liverpool…because their influences are contemporary artists like Joy Division – and you can’t get better than Joy Division, so they come a poor second! But because our influences are like Burt Bacharach” he concludes, “he’s like a genius and it’s really hard to write songs like him!”
Did you ever doubt you’d be ever able to play your instruments well enough to carry off that style of music?
“No – we always knew we’d be good enough!”
A week later this boast is put to the test albeit a grossly distorted unfair test at a half-empty Venue, where the level of interest barely rose above feigned indifference except for the sprightly encore of Walk On By.
For me, both sides of their superbly evocative, mellow single stood out, but the rest of the songs were squandered on a night when The Pale Fountains natural charm and melodicism dissipated into ineffectual whimsy.
Maybe this is a case for such pop bands pulling out of the gig circuit rat race. “We’re regarded as unorthodox in Liverpool because we don’t play much” Nathan tells me later.
“It’s not as though we’re trying to build up a mystique around us, it’s just that people never know if we’re playing next week or if we’ve split up! It’s just that we don’t need to do that kind of groundwork of playing concerts and getting better live – we’ve always felt at ease not doing that.”
Judging by the sheer effortless class of Something On My Mind and Just A Girl, the Pale Fountains should concentrate on making flowing commercial pop balladry on record and leave the slogging around small clubs to the more desperate, wallowing rock outfits.
Chris explains them doing cover versions is OK because they don’t seem out of place with their own songs.
“Like this girl came up to us at a gig and said she really like it but ‘You should do some of your own songs!’ – and there were only two cover versions!”
“You know” muses boy-wonder Michael pushing back his ludicrous scout hat like Baden-Powell meets Noel Coward, “If you really get a good publisher, our songs could be covered by some great artists…Shirley Bassey, Andy Williams – we could write songs especially for them!”
“But remember we’ve been around for a year” shouts Chris to me as I leave, “We don’t want people thinking we’re just a hype, that we’ve appeared from nowhere!”
Nathan smiles “We could release twelve singles in a year and every one would be a classic.”