Blue Aeroplanes - Swagger Deluxe

The only thing missing is a video showing Wotjek – he was their dancer. Pre-Bez he ‘interpreted' the songs by flailing his arms and jumping up and down. Or that's how I remember it.


(Why Aren't You Listening) Blue Aeroplanes – Swagger Deluxe




I remember watching the Blue Aeroplanes play a gig where, for the encore, they came out and began their take on Bad Moon Rising. As the song progressed so more and more guitarists appeared. By the end the stage comprised of a drummer, a singer, nine guitarists and a dancer. How could you not love such a band?




Well, I'm sure that the sales figures for the Blue Aeroplanes output show that most people managed not to love them with great ease. They began performing in 1983 but it was only when they supported REM that they came to a major label's attention. Bands that have been knocking around for years often make a rickets of it when the majors come-a-calling. Not so with the Blue Aeroplanes – 1990s Swagger showed them at the top of their game. They didn't change their sound – the folk/rock/beat mixture was still evident on Swagger although there was definitely something more muscular about the arrangements. Their music might include mandolins, accordions and hurdy-gurdys but the central focus was the guitars. There were generally four or five guitarists on a Blue Aeroplanes album and so you were always going to get value for money on the riffs front. But hold on – there was another focus, namely lead singer and songwriter Gerard Langley. In fact, singing is a bit of a misnomer, as Gerard didn't so much sing as speak. And the songs, whilst about the usual kinds of things (love etc.), were delivered in the way that a beat poet might. So those low sales figures might not have been so mysterious after all... Put it this way, the opening lines of the album go like this: "Pick a card, any card, wrong. Pick 19th century twin-set pearls in a new clasp, brass neck, collar me. Right, we need a suit, we press a suite, so collar me, collar me Siamese cat drapes." But don't run off just yet, not even when I tell you that a song on Swagger uses the poetry of Sylvia Plath for its lyrics.




The album kicks off with Jacket Hangs, the opening lines of which are above. It is the only song that the band never drop from their set and it certainly kicks the album off with a great rollicking riff. World View Blue begins with a gentle acoustic guitar and whilst the electronic guitars are largely in the background it also features a very catchy chorus. The Blue Aeroplanes could certainly do poppy when they wanted to. But they were never going to be pop stars because of Gerard. Whilst Gerard doesn't sing his speaking somehow holds the songs together and gives them something distinctive, something that the mere transcription of the words cannot convey. There could be a case for making him the bastard child of Mark E. Smith and Robyn Hitchcock (and if that doesn't boggle the mind then I don't know what will). The abstract nature of some of the lyrics actually allows him to talk of love in a way that few pop writers can – he might write obliquely but he can also capture loves most interior and fleeting moments. It is possible to let the words pass you by if you wish. They will never quite manage to act as an Eno-esque instrument – they are too awkwardly shaped for that – but they are never as intrusive as, say, Hitchcock in full flow. Gerard is certainly not to everyone's taste but it does make for a unique listening experience. When he is on form the lyrics remind me of the injunction made by the cubist Juan Gris: 'One must be inexact but precise.'




Weightless starts off with a melancholy guitar refrain and slowly builds until a huge wall of sound has been constructed. Eventually the song fades away and merges with the opening of ...And Stones. This song begins with a tight riff, skittering drums and then emerges into a thumping funky workout. Well, funky for the Blue Aeroplanes anyway (a dub version of the song was a big success in America, apparently). The guitars sound like Remain in Light era Talking Heads and it's certainly one of the highlights of the album. After the dense and rocking workout of ...And Stones comes the light and jaunty Love Come Round. Infectious rhythms, close harmonies and straightforward lyrics (for once) make this the Blue Aeroplanes at their most accessible. Next up is Your Ages, my favourite song on the album. Acoustic and electric guitars float along gently as Gerard describes a summer afternoon. This is a deceptive song: it is simple and lacking in any kind of instrumental pyrotechnics. It moves along slowly like the river Gerard describes sitting by. Perhaps it works so well because it captures the moment of being in love when everything - every sight and sound - is captured and takes on extra significance. Perhaps it just has a nice tune.




The Applicant is the one with the Sylvia Plath lyrics. It should be said that Gerard narrates it over a thumping beat and some noisy guitars. Other stand out tracks include Anti-Pretty which starts with a brief sax intro before galloping off into a rollicking pop song It also has a couple of false endings which is always a good thing (the best, surely, occurs in Elvis' American Trilogy). Careful Boy is written by Rodney Allen. Rodney's songs are generally more simple and gentle than the others. When he writes with Gerard and Angelo Bruschini this can temper some of the more outre Aeroplanes moments and gives the songs a poppy slant. On his own, however, the songs rarely stand up to the scrutiny that Gerard's do. The album's final tracks take a dark turn. Picture Framed is a brief and sombre track; Cat-Scan History is an acoustic dirge that probably lasts too long.




The reissue comes with a second CD of odds and sods – remixes, and b-sides from the same period. The only thing missing is a video showing Wotjek – he was their dancer. Pre-Bez he 'interpreted' the songs by flailing his arms and jumping up and down. Or that's how I remember it... After Swagger came a couple of other good albums – Beatsongs is worth it just for the track Cardboard Box and Friendloverplane 2 was a good compilation (though it is less essential now that half of the album is included on the bonus CD). Then, for reasons I don't know, they went steeply downhill. Sometimes bands have their moments (Pulp's Different Class, Mercury Rev's Deserters Songs) where years of decent work suddenly coalesce into an album of genius that you know will be unsurpassable. I've heard that the band is back together – they might even be gigging again. The romantic hopes; the realist hopes they don't.