There were a lot of wonderful things happening in the latter half of the 1980s so it would be wrong to suggest that Mike Alway’s él activity was the only fun in town, though its anti-r’n’r stance was viewed favourably here and the artwork was always impressive, with some fantastic liner notes. There were two él singles, though, that really did register at the time of their release. Ironically they were not ones that would now be viewed as typically él.
One was the Klaxon 5 single, ‘Never Underestimate the Ignorance of the Rich’, which has possibly the greatest title for a pop song ever, and came with a T.E. Lawrence quote on the sleeve about all men dreaming but not equally. It sounded very different to the first Klaxon 5 single, and was rather like Davy Henderson working with The June Brides.
The other was Marden Hill’s ‘Curtain’ which had a glorious 1960s film soundtrack feel, very Henry Mancini or Michel Legrand, complete with lovely wordless vocals, like The Swingle Singers who actually were around then recording with Paul Weller’s Style Council whose Confessions of a Pop Group LP, the first side at least, could be said to steal él’s limelight with its suggestions of Debussy, Beach Boys, and the MJQ.
It is fair to say that over the years there has been a dearth of information available about the Klaxon 5 and Marden Hill, and it was only recently, via an article in the style magazine Jocks & Nerds, that it even registered here that there was some overlap and a family connection between the two outfits, via the horn playing of Matt Lipsey.
The Mark Webster article on Marden Hill is particularly worth tracking down, and can be easily found online in the Spring 2015 issue of Jocks & Nerds. Until then, there seemed to be very little in the public domain about the band Marden Hill: there was a frivolous piece in the pop monthly Underground back in 1987, and somehow a small item unexpectedly seen in one of the Sunday tabloid magazines, but very little else.
Cadaquéz, the LP Marden Hill made for él, has over the years become a particular favourite here, and it is a fabulous adventure taking in the different aspects of the group’s sound. There are the tracks inspired by the soundtracks to old films, the work of John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Lalo Schifrin, and so on. There are the tracks that fit in with the idea of jazz noir, Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein, with twanging surf guitars like The Raybeats had been doing earlier in the decade, or Kai Winding and Mondo Cane. And then there were the jazzy ballads like ‘Oh Constance’ with cool crooning a little like Vic Godard with the swinging Subway Sect, while something like ‘Robe’ sounds like Vic and Sect really ripping it up at Club Left.
So strong is the lingering impression of the él artists being a figment of Mike Alway’s imagination that it came as something of a shock when a new Marden Hill single, ‘Come On’, appeared on Mo’Wax in 1993 just as that label was getting interesting. Reflecting the way musical appetites had changed, the jazzy Marden Hill sound now came with added breakbeats, and sounded very fine, not unlike what Red Snapper would do. With the benefit of hindsight it makes sense that the ‘Come On’ single had some production involvement from Ashley Beadle, and the track is a distant relation to the Ballistic Brothers’ own ‘Come On’, from the classic London Hooligan Soul LP.
Indeed, Marden Hill later recorded for Ashley’s Afro Art label, releasing the twisted balladry of ‘Sugarplums’ and ‘Bardot’ (with its irresistible Roger Whittaker whistling and cool crooning) as a single in 1996, with an LP and a few singles in between. Perhaps the best way to hear those now is via the compilation Hijacked which is basically the Blown Away LP with some additions, including the gorgeous torch song ‘Melt On’ with Andrea Oliver singing, which if it has a little of the Bristol blues about this can be forgiven because of Andrea’s connections back to Rip Rig & Panic and so on, with her brother Sean and soul mate Neneh Cherry having a lot to do with the rise of The Wild Bunch and Massive Attack. And on ‘Bombed On Heavy’ there are the unmistakable tones of Viv Stanshall on ‘Bombed On Heavy, a delightfully dubby jazz affair released shortly before his death.
Over the years the Marden Hill myth has grown, and in certain circles the work of its creative force Mark Daniels is revered, though he was known to be reclusive. So it was a surprise to see the Marden Hill feature in Jocks & Nerds. In this Mark Webster tells the story of half-brothers who grew up in a house (or mansion, if you like) called Marden Hill, near Hertford, which was once home to an artistic community that included Barry Daniels, Peter Blake and Robyn Denny. From this the Danad design company grew. And this house was the family home in which Mark Daniels and Matt Lipsey grew up in, albeit among a rather complicated tangle of relationships.
The story of Marden Hill the house and the people who grew up there in a bohemian environment before becoming part of Marden Hill the band is better by far than the sort of story Mike Alway would invent for his acts, which is a very él thing. Actually, in fairness, there were plenty of clues to the Marden Hill story within the sleevenotes of their records, but somehow one took it for granted that this was the work of a fevered imagination living out its pop fantasies. You see what happens when you start making up stories, and tell everyone that that’s what you’re doing.