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To understand Angelfish, one must first understand Shirley Manson, the sultry green-eyed waif who gives voice to the band's symphony of unrequited lust and fury.

As a child in Edinburgh, Scotland, Manson, the daughter of a semi-professional singer, dreamed of being many things when she grew up: a ballet dancer, an astronaut, a doctor, even a truck driver, safe and warm in the cocoon of her cab. The formative event of her youth took place when she was 10. A fatal epidemic struck a family of goldfish she was looking after. "They all got sick and died off one by one," she recounts. "I had one left. He wasn't getting any better and he wasn't getting any worse." To cut a long story short, Manson put the fish out of his misery.

This seemingly slight mercy killing has weighed heavily on her since, and may even account for the name of the stripped-down, four-piece rock and roll band she fronts. As cute as it sounds, an angelfish is actually a member of the shark family. Angelfish (Radioactive), the band's 10-song debut album, navigates much treacherous water: love never realized, wounds never healed. Over a torrent of menacing, minimal arrangements, Manson's heart-rending singing conjures up scenarios both real and far-fetched, from clumsy optimism to sheer loathing; from strung-out mothers to the asphyxiating lover depicted in "Suffocate Me":

Suffocate me with kisses, baby
Suffocate me with burning love
Suffocate me, put your chains around me
Suffocate me, I'm a thirsty dog

Throughout Angelfish the band "wears its early punk influences proudly," comments The Gavin Report, "while [oozing] with confidence and a strong sense of melody." Prime examples include "King Of The World," a pining lament for a needy lover; "Dogs In A Cage," which Manson says, "is about having a great shag;" and their masterful version of Holly Vincent's "You Can Love Her" (a song which Vincent never released). Credit Talking Heads/Tom Tom Clubbers Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz -- who produced the album in their idyllic Clubhouse Music Studios -- with the album's clarity of purpose and distinct sound. And credit the band, too.

Angelfish guitarist Martin Metcalfe, bassist Fin Wilson, and drummer Derek Kelly construct succinct soundscapes alternately jarring and tuneful. Single guitar notes speak volumes; rhythmic variation complements the music without hijacking it. They can bash your head or lull you into submission at will.

From Chuck Berry's guitar leads to Iggy Pop's anguished wailing, true rock and roll has always celebrated the individual straining against his or her limitations. Amidst the bloat of so-called progressive rock, the pre-punk early '70's saw a batch of songwriters emerge, intent on returning the music to its roots: three simple chords, and enough melody and attitude to render instrumental prowess irrelevant. Accomplishment is beside the point. Poetry is accidental. Angelfish are rightful heirs to this tradition.

"I had to sing in the end. It was all I could vaguely do," confesses Manson. "Circumstances drove me into the band. I'm not someone who desperately wants to be a mega-star." Like the great blues singers she admires -- Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, and Sophie Tucker among others -- Manson has a knack for turning life's spontaneous experiences into song.

Angelfish's "Mummy Can't Drive" was written after the band encountered an addled middle-aged woman in a pub. "She told us that the previous night she was on the the verge of passing out from drink and drugs. She was trying to drive her son home, and finally she pulled over, screaming, 'Mommy can't drive, darlin', you've gotta get out of the car.' The thing of it is, her kid's four years old! She was laughing hysterically about it. We stood there absolutely horrified."

Together for a little over a year, Angelfish took shape when the four members decided to have a go at becoming a proper band. Drinking buddies in the insular Scottish music scene, they'd jammed together from time to time, and the chemistry, musical and otherwise, just seemed to click.

"Musically, we are very similar in our tastes, but a lot of stuff I listen to the boys wouldn't go near," observes Manson, who has been tuning into classics such as Cliff Edwards, Noel Coward, and Hoagy Carmichael of late. Listening to a lot of Roy Orbison tapes and rediscovering old favorites such as The Velvet Underground and the Stooges while recording Angelfish, Manson and the others seem to have drunk hardily from the fount of rock 'n' roll inspiration.

One whirlwind year later, the band was opening for Dig and the Ramones at 1993's New Music Seminar, a show that prompted industry trade magazine The Network Forty to declare: "Best performance of the Seminar. Angelfish is our new favorite band." After repeated listening to Angelfish, any fan of twisted, taut rock 'n' roll is bound to agree.

Copyright © 1997 Radioactive Records, all rights reserved