As a compilation of Fire Engines’ greatest moments hits the shops, Craig McLean talks over old times with Davey Henderson, whose work with Win was preceded by much more feverish riffing and picking.
‘Sweaty little spotty punks who couldnae play!’ shouts an eavesdropping lout at the next table. ‘Totally. That’s reality, that’s what we still are,‘ nods Davey Henderson. Our interview and the natty exposition therein of a dozen-year-gone, twenty-months-long warped pop phenomenon are redundant. Much like their music, it takes just one short burst of vim to sum up Fire Engines.
‘We started a band with no bar chords.’ Davey Henderson. voluble and leonine frontman of these once-ironic, now-iconic Edinburghers lays bare Fire Engines’ sinmple manifesto. From such simplicity, though, came endurance. Fire Engines ﬂared for less than two years, from April 1980 to December 1981 , but, even now, that whole rackety calendar finds itself noising up the soundscape. Creation, in their infinite wisdom, and in conjunction with the band and their old manager Bob Last, have compiled Fond, cataloguing practically the entire Fire Engines’ unchorded output. Wired, edgy, a crow’s-nest of skew-whiff ideas and tangled twangs, Fire Engines lit their own fuse with a slap-dash mixture of conceptuality and practicality.
‘We wanted to make this thin-stringed sound. Well, I couldn't play chords that well, and I couldn’t sing and play at the same time. So we thought we‘d just pick and riff. It was very pragmatic but there was a sort of ideology that we shouldn’t do chords because everybody else at the time was trying to pretend that they were the Velvet Underground and The Stooges, and all that sounds like there‘s bar chords involved.
‘It was just four guys vibing each other up and basically getting together and just making a racket
Ramshackle and for a laugh, the idea of making a record — far less a seminal record — was the last thing on these stringy artpunks minds. Supporting the likes of The Fall and U2 at Valentino’s nightclub was the closest the early Fire Engines got to the biz side of the music bizness. Even playing with the Postcard-domiciled Josef K failed to induce Fire Engines to ‘get sorted’.
‘They were a real band with a vision and a focus about what they were doing. We had no idea of what we wanted to do, apart from being this exciting noise. It was purely for ourselves. The fact
that other people actually liked it was bizarre.’
But other people did relish Fire Engines‘, er, atonal whiplash. Having met a guy in the bogs at Valentino's, they hooked up with a rich art student fan, released ‘Get Up And Use Me’, got Single Of
' The Week from Paul Morley in NME for their
troubles, ‘and everything just went stupid. We became superhip. It was ridiculous.’
Enter Bob Last. His Fast Product label had released singles by The Human League, Gang Of Four and The Mekons in the late 70s. In Fire Engines he saw the opportunity to put his ‘wallpaper music’ aesthetic into practice: music as an all-encompassing background colouring, a kind of intrusive ambience.
‘Bob thought, “I’ll get Fire Engines and stretch their songs. drop all the words, and get them to play for half an hour solidly, then chop it all up into what the songs were.’ So we went and recorded Lubricate Your Living Room.
‘We were open to anything that was new. I never even listened to it after we’d done it. It was like, So
what? We’ve done it, let’s move elsewhere.’
Following the largely instrumental, vaguely tedious, experimental left-turn of this mini-album, Last’s Pop Aural label gave the world ‘Candyskin’. Eerily, ‘Candyskin’ and three other Last-release records sat pretty in the recent NME Top 100 indie singles of all time.
‘All of these things were very much a product of the times,’ says Last now. ‘They weren’t just a
hollow exercise. Fire Engines in particular. That was just when there was all that excitement about ‘new music’ and it was becoming very horrible and bland and Flock OfSeagulls! Fire Engines were very much a reaction to that. It was just perfectly focused for a while. There was no extraneous worrying about any musical factors or anything else.‘
‘Candyskin’ is Fire Engines’ zenith and their nadir. ‘Everything that came after was super-contrived,’ admits Henderson, ‘becausc we thought we were songwriters. That’s when I thought I could make songs up and that would be a career. That mental jump is made: you make up songs that sell!’
Cue Davey Henderson and Russel Burn’s next move, Win: four years, two record deals, £750,000. Fire Engines, meanwhile, had spent a mere £4000 indulging their passion for transitory, fleeting innovation, forever in search of a new sound to jar themselves and jolt onlookers. Totally fittingly, they stopped when and how they should have.
‘Bob took me to the cafe in Habitat on New Year’s Eve in 1981 and he said, “I‘m not gonna put out any more records by you.”
Davey Henderson knew why, and he didn’t care.
‘Cos he thought we were shite.‘
Fond is on Creation Records.
ON FOLLOWING PAGES : BRILLIANT CORNER 0 TH' FAITH HEALERS O EARLY MUSIC
The List 31 July— 13 August 199229