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Souvlaki (sleeve notes)

New York, sometime in the early Nineties. A rough-voiced man in his mid twenties is phoning a hotel to reserve a room for himself and his new bride. You’d imagine the couple would want some privacy, but in fact the opposite appears to be the case. Out of nowhere, the guy asks the manager if he’d like to
"fuck my wife up the ass and I’ll take pictures." Learning that the manager is Greek, he becomes even more excited. "My wife loves that Greek shit. She’ll
suck your cock like Souvlaki."

Reading, England, also the early Nineties. Slowdive, a band famed for reducing their fans to floods of tears during live performances, are themselves weeping. With mirth. They’re listening to a tape of The Jerky Boys, a pair of New York pranksters who specialise in making joke calls to small businesses, and one particular skit involving a hotel manager has them in stitches. After countless reruns of the tape, the decision has been made. The band’s second album – and, it turns out, their artistic peak – will be named, somewhat implausibly, after a lamb kebab.

If there’s been a less appropriate title in the history of popular music, then it’s been long forgotten. But given the protracted and rather emotional gestation of the record, you can perhaps forgive the five piece for wanting a bit of light
relief. After writing and recording their debut album, "Just For A Day", in a mere six weeks, Slowdive threw themselves into touring. A successful UK tour in the
autumn of 1991 was followed by the group’s first visit to America, as support to the equally as floppy fringed Blur (then still in their post-Madchester baggy phase). It was a thrilling time for all concerned. Even though they trundled
between the East Coast dates in a cramped transit van that also carried their equipment, Slowdive were in high spirits. "It was definitely very exciting,"
remembers guitarist Christian Savill. "The year ended on a high."

A February tour of Europe in 1992 was less alluring. It was cold, wet and miserable and suddenly the band stopped feeling like a glamorous hobby and
more like a proper job. Doubts had also began to creep in. The notoriously demanding British music press, its attention already captured by the visceral howl of grunge, had been partly critical of "Just For A Day", and the band’s confidence had taken a knock. Savill remembers early songwriting and recording sessions as being tentative at best. Wary of how the new material might be perceived, the band recorded and rerecorded around 40 songs, but all to little avail. When Creation’s Alan McGee was presented with the material, he was distinctly unimpressed. "McGee called us in and said 'I see you’ve got no songs. They're all shit'," recalls guitarist and singer Rachel Goswell. "And so we had to scrap a load, which was great really actually because what came out was better. It was a shock at the time. It was like being summoned by our lord and master."

Over in America, Slowdive’s career was progressing in fits and starts. The group’s US label SBK had planned to release "Just For A Day" at the beginning
of the year and had kicked off with what in those days passed for a viral marketing campaign. Slowdive’s name was stencilled on pavements outside MTV and various radio stations in New York and even on the heads of fans at their debut Manhatten show. The process was then repeated across the country, with particularly disastrous results in one city. A statue commemorating
the end of slavery was due to be unveiled in a huge civic ceremony attended by local dignitaries, radio and TV. But when the statue finally saw the light of
day, the most striking feature was the word Slowdive stencilled on it in bold black letters. The authorities were understandably livid. To make matters
worse, a mix up at SBK pushed the release of the album back by three months. Slowdive had word of mouth interest, but nothing to sell.

Nevertheless, the band returned to the US in May to tour with Ride and the experience was once again an exciting one. Crowds were enthusiastic, the press supportive, and it started to feel like the band did have a future after all. Suitably inspired, Slowdive returned to the UK and wrote to former Roxy Music
keyboardist and ambient pioneer Brian Eno. Singer, guitarist and songwriter Neil Halstead was a big fan and Savill had a "special affinity" with Eno’s moonlanding album "Apollo", so they sent him a few CDs and asked if he’d be interested producing their next record. "He wrote back saying he already had them and that he really liked us and thought that we had a great future," Goswell told David Cavanagh of Volume magazine. "He didn’t want to produce, though. He wanted to collaborate."

Inevitably, collaborating with Brian Eno was not a run of the mill affair. "I worked with him for about a week," remembers Halstead. "The first thing that he did when he walked into the studio was to rip the clock off the wall and to put it by the mixing desk. He then said ‘Okay, you're going to play the guitar and I'm going to record it. I don't care what you are going to play, just play something, and then after an hour, we will work on something different’. He had a weird working method, but he was a fascinating bloke and was very funny and very clever."

Two songs from that session made it onto "Souvlaki": "Sing", which was credited to Slowdive/Brian Eno, and "Here She Comes", which featured "keyboards and treatments" by Eno. As for the rest of the tracks, a few appeared to be inspired by the break-up of Halstead and Goswell as a couple. Savill remembers Halstead suddenly taking off to a Welsh cottage in the summer of 1992, leaving him and bassist Nick Chaplin alone in a recording studio in Weston Super Mare. The pair busied themselves by recording a clutch of "joke songs", which unfortunately got back to the ears of a despairing Alan McGee. When Halstead
returned, he brought with him the stark and much more personal likes of

Slowly but surely, the band’s masterpiece was coming together. As their confidence grew, so did their willingness to experiment, even venturing into ambient dub with "Souvlaki Space Station", one of the album’s clear highlights. "’Souvlaki Space Station’ will always be one of my favourite songs," says Goswell. "It was a really fun thing to do in the studio. Just messing about with it really stoned listening to it loud and getting all the drum repeats and different things. It was a good experience." In fact, the more they experimented, the more they achieved. "Slowdive was to me and, certainly for Neil, about experimenting with guitars," nods Goswell. "He did some songs with 20 tracks of guitar."

Alas, the times (and the press) had moved on yet again. While "Just For A Day" unwittingly had to compete with grunge, "Souvlaki" was forced to face up to the emergence of Suede, then lauded as "The Best New Band In Britain", and the birth of what was to become Britpop. Frankly, they didn’t stand a chance. John Mulvey in the NME was relatively fair with the group. Noting that Slowdive were a wilful anachronism in 1993, he conceded that "Souvlaki" was "another exemplary product from spangly guitar heaven" with some genuinely adventurous moments, even if ultimately it was "pretty but unfulfilled". Dave Simpson in the Melody Maker, however, was merciless. "At its worst, this record is a soulless void, devoid of pain, anger, feeling or concern. ‘Sing’ aside, I would rather drown
choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again," he declared.

Back in America, SBK’s marketing department was up to its usual tricks. The band had been booked onto a US tour supporting Catherine Wheel in the summer of 1993 to promote the release of "Souvlaki", but arrived
to discover that, once again, the album had been pushed back. This time by eight months. Still, at least they got there at all. Savill remembers one
instance where an American tour was cancelled by SBK the evening before the band were due to fly out.

It would all be a faintly depressing tale were "Souvlaki" itself not such a magnificent record. Perfectly paced and almost luminescent with confidence, it steps up from the hypnotic impressionism of "Just For A Day" to a set of songs that feel luxurious yet otherworldly somehow, seductive yet infused with purpose. The vocals, once buried in the mix to disguise the often freeform lyrics, have been brought to the fore, Halstead’s supremely romantic lyrics mirroring the emotional fragility of the music.

Eno brings space and a sense of elasticity with his contributions – particularly the spectacular "Sing", which manages to pull off the rare feat of sounding celestial and deep underwater at the same time – but the real highlights are "Souvlaki Space Station" and "When The Sun Hits", the latter arguably Slowdive’s finest achievement. Certainly the moment when Halstead sighs "it matters where you are" and the glacial wash of the guitars enters from stage right, it’s hard not to catch your breath at just how tremendously ambitious and beautiful it all sounds. And as you continue to listen, minor real life irritations such as, say, poor reviews and record label incompetency fade out of view. Why worry about all of that when you’ve got all of this

A whole heap of earthbound troubles would confront Slowdive in the year or so following the release of "Souvlaki", but somehow you get the impression that they walked blissfully through them all – secure, perhaps, in the knowledge that their work was essentially done. If you’re looking for the soul of Slowdive, you’ll find it here on "Souvlaki", caught forever in glorious slow motion.


Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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