Pop art concepts come pretty easy to Davy Henderson. Ever since the singer and guitarist with his current combo The Sexual Objects formed Fire Engines in Edinburgh thirty-odd years ago on the back of seeing The Clash’s White Riot Tour featuring Buzzcocks, Subway Sect and The Slits supporting, Henderson has produced some of the most singularly maverick left-field music on the planet. This has seen the spiky no-fi adrenalin of Fire Engines morph into the arch euphoria of the Prince-inspired Win, whose debut single You’ve Got The Power sound-tracked an equally high-concept lager ad.
For most of the 1990s, Henderson fronted the three-guitar based The Nectarine No 9, who started out on Alan Horne’s briefly reignited Postcard Records of Scotland before releasing a succession of albums on the similarly inspired Creeping Bent label to mix sound collages with harmony-led Todd Rundgren-like rifftastic epics such as The Port of Mars.
Following a brief Fire Engines reunion to support long-time heroes the Magic Band and the Sun Ra Arkestra while also showing new kids on the block such as Franz Ferdinand – who Fire Engines also supported - how this art/rock thing was done, The Nectarine No 9 transformed into the looser, more stripped-down but pure guitar garage pop based Sexual Objects. With the SOBs debut album, the vinyl-only Cucumber, released next week on German micro-label Aktion und Spass, Henderson and co go west this weekend for a King Tut’s show to finish a week of dates in England.
“The idea was to be a singles band,” Henderson says in a drawl acquired somewhere between Clermiston and Andy Warhol’s Factory while taking time out in the afternoon quietude of an old-school capital bar. “You write two songs over a two month period, then put them out. The idea was to make elementary rock and roll riffs, really compacted and spliced together, so there was no real choice what you can play.”
This idea came from 1960s music history junkie Henderson’s reading of rock Svengali Andrew Loog Oldham’s biography.
“If I could get my DNA removed,” Henderson says, “I’d get my fascination for fifties and sixties modernism taken out and get a twenty-first century transplant. So putting the singles out helps get it out my system. . The single was so important in the 60s, and there’s a great thing in Loog Oldham’s book where Gene Pitney’s trying to teach Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones the concept of what makes a great pop song. I didn’t know Gene wrote He’s A Rebel for The Crystals, but he took six months to write that.”
Henderson’s minimalist approach to songwriting has even more iconic asntecedents.
“Isn’t Dave Davies’ guitar solo on All Day and All of the Night by the Kinks one of the most beautiful things in pop art history,” he says, “even though it must be about six or seven seconds long? I wanted to be economical like that, and try and get two songs out of the one idea. There’s no time to be abstract. Or that’s the theory.”
Beginning with Full Penetration/Midnight Boycow, which was “designed to blow Brian Matthew off his seat, baby,” a series of four seven-inch vinyl singles were released over a two-year period before being collected with a couple of extras on Cucumber.
The album’s release comes at the same time as the reissue of Win’s swan song second album, Freaky Trigger, while The Nectarine No.9’s second album, Saint Jack, has just been put out on the Creeping Bent associated download-only archive imprint, We Can Still Picnic. Listened to back to back, the three albums tell a remarkable musical story. Released in 1989, Freaky Trigger bears the glossy production values that were a hallmark of 1980s New Pop, overloading bubblegum monsters such as Love Units and What’s Love If You Can Kill For Chocolate with hyper-active synthesised grooves and female backing vocalists aplenty.
Six years later, the joie de vivre of Win has evolved into Saint Jack, a world-weary Beat noir full of strung-out guitars and bittersweet first-hand vignettes of experience and loss. Fifteen years and six Nectarine No 9 albums on, and with Cucumber a toe-tapping back to basics confection of glamtastic riffs and pop hooks aplenty, it sounds like Henderson has stumbled blinking into the light beyond what on Saint Jack now sounds like a very dark tunnel.
“It’s funny listening to the Win stuff,” he says, “because I see a lot of darkness there that’s not necessarily to do with the music. That was just a really horrible time. Its great making things up, but the music business stuff in the eighties when people were chucking money about, it was pretty shocking. It was all to do with selling and angles, and everyone’s eyes on the charts. There was nothing really authentic. Re-mixers must’ve made a fortune, but what a waste of time and money.”
Saint Jack was something else again. Henderson had been getting heavily into Highway sixty-one era Bob Dylan, and began writing semi auto-biographical lyrics. The most candid of these was Unloaded For You, a fragile confessional that eventually explodes into catharsis.
“I wrote that on my thirty-second birthday,” Henderson deadpans. “It was my gift to myself, and I couldn’t believe I’d written something so auto-biographical. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It’s really hard and really depressing, so I stopped doing it. But Saint Jack was an intentionally monochromatic and utilitarian record.”
Unlike Cucumber, which brims with short bursts of colour as part of a consciously dumb concept designed to come as much from the porch as the garage. The appearance of Cucumber ties in too with a resurgence of interest in the original Sound of Young Scotland. While this arguably began with the crossover of Franz Ferdinand, it opened the door for the likes of Bricolage and Wake The President to reconstitute a sound that could be described as ‘jangular.’ More importantly, perhaps, the back catalogues of Josef K and Orange Juice have been re-released by Domino Records, while Fire Engines small but gloriously formed canon was put out on American label, Acute Records.
America, as the Empire State Building image that graces Cucumber’s cover makes clear, is crucial to Henderson’s musical canon, from the influences of Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra and of course the Velvet Underground, right up to Television and the New York No wave scene Tom Verlaine’s band came out of. Henderson squared the circle recently when he discovered from another rock tome that Ricky Gardiner, who composed and played the guitar motif for Iggy Pop’s crossover single, The Passenger, as well as playing on David Bowie’s Low album, was actually from Edinburgh.
“How weird is that?” a still astonished Henderson exclaims, “The most memorable track on Lust For Life, which has that whole Trainspotting connection, and which all the guys who were into punk loved, is from Edinburgh.”
Beyond Cucumber, Henderson feels it may be time for a Sexual Objects album proper. Neither does he rule out the possibility of The Nectarine No 9 returning to the fray. Both band’s personnel, after all, are pretty much the same. It’s just the concepts that differ.
“There’s things percolating,” Henderson teases. “The next album’s gonna be called Cakes By Derek. There’s loads of ideas for a million groups I can be in, but The Sexual Objects, it’s like a politically correct Sex Pistols or something. A clean pistol.”
The Sexual Objects play King Tuts, Glasgow, with Flesh and Wake The President on Sunday November 14th. Cucumber is released on Aktion und Spass
The Herald, November 12th 2010